Buddhism and Christianity:
How Does Buddhist Teaching Compare to the Bible?
Buddhism compared to Christianity and the Christian gospel of Jesus Christ: What are Buddhist teachings of suffering, polytheism, idolatry, reincarnation, karma, and nirvana?
How does Buddhism compare to Christianity and the gospel of Jesus Christ? How does the Buddhist concept of gods compare to the God of the Bible? Should people use images (idolatry) in worship? What about Buddhist doctrine regarding reincarnation, karma, and nirvana? How does the teaching of Buddha about suffering compare to Christian doctrine? Should a Christian accept or oppose Buddhism?
The purpose of this lesson is to study the doctrines of Buddhism and compare them to the Bible.
The History of Buddhism
Buddhism is similar on a number of points to Hinduism. Buddhism began in India in about the 6th century B.C., and from there it spread throughout Asia. Today it is found mainly in Japan, China, and the Far East.
The system was begun by Gautama Buddha (the title "Buddha" means "one who is enlightened"). He was born about 563 B.C., and raised in a very wealthy family where he was protected from problems and suffering. Later he was exposed to suffering and became concerned with the cause of it. At age 29 he left his wife and son to seek a solution.
He tried and rejected both Hinduism and extreme self-deprival (asceticism). After 6 years of seeking, he arrived at the system that became Buddhism. He established an order of monks and one of nuns devoted to his plan of overcoming suffering, then he spent the rest of his life as a wandering religious teacher.
Major divisions of Buddhism
Buddhists have tried to adapt their religion to the views of people converted from other religions. The result was that people could believe almost anything and be Buddhist. The differences within Buddhism can be likened, not to the differences between Catholics and Protestants, but to those between Christians, Jews, and Moslems. These vast differences make it extremely difficult to characterize Buddhism in general. No matter how you attempt to describe Buddhism, many Buddhists will object because they believe some different variation of Buddhism. [WR 169]
We will examine two major branches of Buddhism:
* Theravada is the older, conservative wing which follows the original teachings of Gautama. These Buddhists are found mainly in Southern Asia - Thailand, Burma, etc.
* Mahayana is the newer, liberal wing of Buddhism. Those of this view refer to conservatives as the "little vehicle" and themselves as the "great vehicle" because they believe their views are more practical for most people. They are found mainly in central and northern Asia - Japan, China, Korea, etc.
Scriptures of Buddhism
* Conservative Buddhists (Theravada) have three groups of writings called "3 baskets" - the Tripitaka. It is written in the Pali language and is 11 times the size of the Bible.
It is supposed to contain the sermons and doctrines of Gautama, but it was written centuries after he died. Hence, it is not an eyewitness account of his life or teachings. There is no such eyewitness account. All we have are traditions. [WR-170f; EB-IV-325f]
* Liberal Buddhists (Mahayana) follow much more than the Tripitaka. Their Scriptures contain over 5000 volumes. Each sect emphasizes their favorite portions. Teachings of various parts of their Scriptures contradict one another. [WR-181]
We will attempt to describe some concepts often accepted in Buddhism, but please remember that there are vast variations within Buddhism. The material here presented is based on the Encyclopedia Britannica (articles on "Buddha" and "Mahayana"); also World Religions, edited by Norman Anderson, article by Bentley-Taylor and Offner.
(Note: Buddhism is similar on a number of points to Hinduism. As a result, this study often refers to our study on Hinduism. You can find that study online by referring to the links at the end of this study.)
Please consider the Buddhist teaching as compared to the Bible teaching regarding the following subjects:
A. Buddhist Teaching about God
The Conservative View [WR-177]
Gautama taught nothing about God. He refused even to deny or affirm God's existence. He definitely denied that he himself was divine.
Instead his teachings were designed to obtain relief from suffering by means of human effort alone. Original and conservative Buddhism involves neither faith nor worship, neither prayer nor praise nor forgiveness of sins.
In that sense, conservative Buddhism is not really a religion but a moral philosophy designed to overcome suffering.
The Liberal View
Liberal Buddhists may not emphasize the concept of deity, as such, yet they do homage to Gautama Buddha, other Buddhist teachers, ancestors, and various deities that are equivalent to Hindu deities. They use images in their devotions, bow before those images, make offerings to them, and pray and chant to them. Whereas early Buddhism denied that Buddha was omniscient, many Buddhists now attribute omniscience to Buddha and other teachers.
Such views amount to worship of many deities. A dictionary definition of "god" includes: "A being of supernatural powers or attributes, believed in and worshiped by a people... An image of a supernatural being: idol..." So the effect of Liberal Buddhism, regardless of terminology, is idolatry and polytheism.
(See WR-181f; EB-XIV-675; IV-326; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buddhism and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buddhist_devotion)
B. The Bible Teaching.
In contrast to conservative Buddhism, which teaches nothing about God's existence, the Bible says that the very existence of the universe demonstrates God's existence.
Psalm 19:1 - "The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament showeth his handiwork."
Romans 1:20 - Though God is invisible, His power and divinity can be seen through the things that are made.
Every effect must have an adequate cause. The only adequate explanation for the universe is that it was made by a Supreme Being, more wise and powerful than we are.
Furthermore, miracles, fulfilled prophecy, and the resurrection of Jesus all prove God exists. Such supernatural events cannot happen but by the power of one far greater than man.
(Note: For further discussion about the evidence for the Bible teaching about Jesus, see the links at the end of this lesson for our study lesson on Judaism.)
The purpose of religion is that man might have a right relationship with God.
Buddhism originally had nothing to do with God. Yet serving God and having a proper relationship with Him is the whole point of true religion.
Ecclesiastes 12:13 - The whole duty of man is to fear God and keep his commands.
Ephesians 1:7-9 - The will and purpose of God was to redeem man by the forgiveness of sins through the blood of Jesus.
The whole basis and origin of Buddhism was religion without God. But religion without God is like an ocean without water or a meal without food. It violates the whole meaning and purpose of religion.
There is only one supreme and true God.
In contrast to liberal Buddhism, which worships many beings, the Bible teaches there is one God, the God of the Bible.
Deuteronomy 6:4 - "The Lord our God is one Lord" (KJV).
Matthew 4:10 - "Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and Him ONLY shalt thou serve." We are not to worship many gods, nor any god other than Jehovah. [2 Corinthians 6:18; Colossians 1:19-22]
In particular, the use of images is forbidden.
Isaiah 42:8 - Jehovah refuses to allow anyone else to receive the glory which is due to Him. He refuses to allow His praise to go to graven images.
Furthermore, man cannot be divine and cannot become God.
Ezekiel 28:2,6-10 - God brings a curse on any man who claims to be God.
Conservative Buddhism contradicts the Bible evidence that God exists and that the purpose of religion is to please God. Liberal Buddhism contradicts the Bible teaching that there is one God, that graven images are forbidden, and that man is not divine.
(Note: For more information about the concept of multiple gods and the use of images in worship, see the links at the end of this lesson for the study on Hinduism.)
II. The Destiny of Man
A. Buddhist Teaching
Regarding the spirit of man, conservatives believe man has no spirit or inner part that lives after death. Only the consequences of past deeds (karma) lives from life to life. Liberals believe man's consciousness continues from life to life.
Many Buddhists believe that, when a man dies, he will return to live as another human on earth. The cycle of birth and rebirth continues indefinitely until one is "released."
Everything (good or bad) that happens to a man is the result of his conduct in previous lives. What happens in future lives is determined by his actions now.
Nothing is really a result of a person's environment, the acts of others, or the work of God. All is payment for what the person himself did in the past.
Conservative Buddhists believe that the ultimate goal of man is to be released from the cycle of rebirth and suffering. This is a state of rest without continuation of earthly desires. Whether or not this state is conscious is not defined. They deny annihilation, but they also deny existence as individuals distinct from others.
Liberal Buddhists do believe in a concept of conscious happiness.
[WR-174-176,181; EB-XIV-675; EB-IV-326]
B. The Bible Teaching
Man lives and dies (physically) only once.
Hebrews 9:27 - It is appointed to man once to die. [Ecclesiastes 12:7]
After death, comes resurrection, the reunion of our spirit with our own body.
James 2:26 - The body without the spirit is dead. Death is separation of the spirit from the body.
1 Corinthians 15:22,23 - All die as a result of Adam's sin; as a result of Jesus, all live again. Resurrection is the opposite of death, hence the spirit is reunited with the body.
We do not become another person, but are resurrected as ourselves. This happens at Jesus' second coming. It is not something that happens repeatedly before His return nor that happens for different people at different times.
Then comes judgment (Hebrews 9:27).
Man lives one life then dies. At Jesus' return, the spirit is reunited with the body and man is judged for that one life. There is no other life on earth and no other chance to please God after this life. We must obey in this life to have hope. [2 Corinthians 5:10]
Then we enter our eternal rewards.
Matthew 25:31-46 - The wicked go to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.
(Note: Again, there is more detail about these concepts in the online article about Hinduism.)
A. Buddhist Teaching
The Buddhist teaching regarding suffering is based on the "Four truths":
1. Suffering is an essential part of life. Troubles are basic and inherent to life.
2. The cause of suffering is human desire.
Man suffers because of his desire for personal enjoyment and possessions, but especially because of the desire to continue to exist as an individual, separate and distinct from others.
The highest destiny of man, according to many Buddhists, is to cease existence as a separate and distinct individual, and enter the state of Nirvana. The earthly life is an illusion, but due to ignorance man continues to desire to exist. This desire causes rebirth to other lives and since life involves suffering, we continue to suffer.
3. The solution to suffering is to eliminate earthly desires, especially the desire to exist as an individual.
When desires are renounced and destroyed, rebirth will cease.
4. The steps to defeat these desires are the "Eightfold Path" (see point IV below).
B. The Bible Teaching about Suffering
It is true that suffering is a part of life.
Job 14:1 - "Man, that is born of woman, is of few days, and full of trouble."
Job 5:7 - "But man is born unto trouble, as the sparks fly upward."
This basically agrees with the first "truth" of Buddhism.
Suffering exists as the consequences of man's sin or as a temptation to sin.
Genesis 3:16-19 - Suffering, pain of childbirth, the difficulty of work, and death (which is caused by sickness, accidents, etc.) all came into the world because man sinned. (This happened as a result of uncontrolled desire, so suffering is only indirectly the consequences of man's desires.) [cf. James 1:13-15; 1 John 2:15-17]
1 Peter 4:14-16 - Some suffering is the result of our evil doing, but instead we may suffer because others do some evil to us. So not all suffering is the result of our own sins. Sometimes we suffer because others sin.
* 1 Peter 2:19-22 - Jesus suffered, though he was guilty of no sin. We should suffer in the same way.
* God's people often are persecuted by wicked people (Hebrews 11:32-38; 2 Corinthians 11).
Job 1,2 - Some suffering is a temptation from the Devil, who is trying to get righteous people to commit sins.
Hence, suffering may or may not be the result or our own wrong desires.
Physical desires, of themselves, are neither good nor bad. It depends on how we seek to fulfill the desire.
Buddhism teaches us to eliminate all natural desires. The Bible says that every natural desire has a good and proper way to be fulfilled.
Example: Hebrews 13:4 - "Let marriage be held in honor by all." The natural desire for sexual fulfillment may be satisfied by proper means as ordained by God. Buddhism, on the other hand, teaches that to be saved one must overcome this desire and learn to live without marriage (see point IV). [1 Timothy 4:1-4]
The Bible, however, warns that human desires can be perverted and lead to sin:
Hebrews 13:4 - Fornicators and adulterers, God will judge.
Illustration: Lead is an element of nature, and it has good purposes. But if it is put in a gun and shot at someone's head, then we have perverted the purpose and harm results. It is the same with the body's natural desires.
The proper goal of man is, not to eliminate all desires from his life, but to know God's will and control the desires accordingly.
In particular, the desire to exist as an individual is not bad. It is an act of God's creation.
God Himself possesses distinct characteristics of personality - God loves, speaks, knows, wills, etc. [See again the article on Hinduism.]
Furthermore, man is an individual created in God's image.
Genesis 1:26-28 - Humans, male and female, exist as individuals on the earth because God so created them. He told them to multiply, thereby making more individuals.
Genesis 2:7 - God formed man and made him a living soul. Man's existence as a physical individual is not an illusion nor a misconception as a result of ignorance.
In fact, man will always exist in a state of conscious existence as a separate individual. In the resurrection we will have spirit bodies (1 Corinthians 15). In eternity, we will be conscious and distinct individuals (Luke 16:19-31).
The claim that it is bad to desire to be an individual blasphemes the work of God.
The way to overcome suffering is, not to strive to defeat it yourself, but to trust in God and serve Him.
By serving God properly we can endure suffering in this life.
Psalm 46:1 - "God is our refuge and strength. A very present help in trouble."
Psalm 34:19 - God delivers the righteous out of troubles. This does not mean He promises to get rid of all our troubles, but He helps us to endure and be faithful to Him in spite of troubles.
Philippians 4:13 - "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me."
If we remain faithful to God, we will receive an eternal reward in a place where there is no suffering of any kind.
Romans 8:16-18 - If we suffer with Christ we receive a reward far greater than the suffering. [James 1:12; 2 Corinthians 4:16f; Matthew 5:10ff]
Buddhism does not have a solution to suffering. Only the Bible provides a true solution.
IV. Achieving the Goal of Life
A. Buddhist Teaching
Conservative Buddhists follow the "Eightfold Path" [WR-172,174,179]
This is a way of life consisting of 8 steps in which one disciplines himself till all earthly desires are eliminated. The idea is to avoid two extremes: avoid indulging in luxury and pleasures, but also avoid self-torture or depriving oneself of necessities.
The eight steps are: right views, aspirations, speech, conduct, mode of livelihood, effort, awareness, and concentration. Great self-control is needed to develop these to necessary perfection.
Many lifetimes are required to realize perfection. One must pass through 4 stages in which 10 hindrances are overcome. Each stage may take many lives. Gautama took at least 550 lives to realize perfection.
Later stages require one to be a monk, abandoning family life. Buddhists who are not monks have not yet advanced to later stages, but must do so in some future lifetime to obtain salvation.
This process depends on human effort without divine aid (remember, conservative Buddhism has nothing to do with God).
Liberal Buddhists teach that there are many different methods to accomplish the purpose of life. [WR-182,185; EB-XIV-675]
The leading concept of realizing perfection among liberal Buddhists involve Bodhisattvas. These are people who earn perfection (as above), but postpone Nirvana in order to provide perfection for others. Other Buddhists, at lower stages of perfection, can obtain Nirvana by appealing to their favorite Bodishattva - honoring, praying, repeating his name. Thus his merit is transferred to them.
This is much easier than the conservative view, for not all must earn perfection. [WR-186f]
B. Bible teaching
Man cannot save himself without God.
Buddhism says all or some men must earn salvation. The Bible says God must provide the means of deliverance. No man can earn salvation.
Ephesians 2:8,9 - This passage is misused by some to teach that man does not need to do anything to be saved. But the real point is that salvation comes by faith in God, not by earning salvation (and so being able to boast).
Romans 6:23 - What our lives earn is death, the WAGES of sin. Once we earn that wage, there is nothing we can do to save ourselves without God's forgiveness. [Romans 11:6; 4:1-8; Titus 3:4,5]
Jesus is the Savior.
Liberal Buddhism says some men can save other men. The Bible says no man can save himself, nor can anyone else save him except Jesus.
1 Corinthians 1:11-13 - Some men were honoring preachers. Paul asked if the preachers died for anyone. Jesus is the one who died to save us from sin. [Hebrews 9:28]
Romans 3:23 - All men have sinned. How can another man who sinned die to pay the penalty for my sins? He deserves to die for his own sins. Jesus was the Divine Son of God who died for our sins though He was sinless (1 Peter 2:21-24).
Acts 4:12 - There is salvation in none other. There is no other name given among men in whom we must be saved.
God is no respecter of persons. Each individual is responsible to meet the conditions for forgiveness, and those conditions are the same for all people.
It is not true that some must be perfect to be saved but others can be saved on lesser conditions. All must be saved by accepting the same conditions.
Acts 10:34,35 - God is no respecter of persons; in every nation, he who fears God and works righteousness will be acceptable.
Acts 2:38,39 - God promised forgiveness to those who repent and are baptized, and this promise is for all. [Romans 2:6-11].
2 Corinthians 5:10 - Salvation is a matter of individual responsibility. Each person will be rewarded or condemned based on his own personal conduct. No one else can meet the conditions for you.
Salvation does require strict self-control.
1 Corinthians 9:25-27 - Like star athletes, we must exercise self-control, and bring our bodies into bondage in order to receive God's reward. [Acts 3:22,23; Romans 12:1,2]
The Bible teaches self-control. Do we practice it?
Buddhism worships either no god or else worships many beings. Many Buddhists believe that man must achieve the solution to his own problems over a period of many lives by human effort.
The gospel provides the only true way to worship the only true God. It provides a way for man to be forgiven by the death of the Son of God who paid the penalty for our sins. To receive the benefit, we must trust Jesus and obey Him in this life. Then we have the hope of eternal life.
To see the evidence that the Bible and the gospel of Jesus are the true revelation of religion, see our article on that subject on our Bible Instruction web site at www.gospelway.com/instruct/.
(C) Copyright 2003, David E. Pratte