Beyond Belief: a Buddhist Critique of Christianity

Chapter 4:
God or Buddha - Who is the Highest?
Part 1

While Christians look to God as their lord and creator, Buddhists look to the Buddha as their model and ideal. Although Christians have never seen God, they claim to know him by communicating with him through prayer and through feeling his presence. They also claim that they can know God's will by reading his words which they maintain are contained in the Bible.

As Buddhists neither pray to nor acknowledge God, the only way they can get an idea of what he is like is by reading the Bible. However when Buddhists look at what the Bible says about God they are often shocked. They find that God as he is portrayed in the Bible to be profoundly different from how they hear Christians describe him.

While Buddhists reject the Christian concept of God because it seems to be illogical and unsubstantiated, they also reject it because it seems so much lower than their own ideal, the Buddha. We will now examine what the Bible says about God, compare it to what the Tipitaka (the Buddhist sacred scriptures) say about the Buddha, and thereby demonstrate the moral superiority of the latter.

Physical Appearance

What does God look like? The Bible says that God created man in his own image (Gen 1:26) so from this we can assume God looks something like a human being. The Bible tells us that God has hands (Ex 15:12), arms (Deut 11:2), fingers (Ps 8:3) and a face (Deut 13:17). He does not like people seeing his face but he doesn t mind if they see his back.

< And I will take away my hands and you will see my back parts but my face You shall not see (Ex 33:23).

However, although God seems to have a human body he does at the same time look not unlike the demons and fierce guardians one often sees in Indian and Chinese temples. For example, he has flames coming out of his body.

A fire issues from his presence and burns his enemies on every side (Ps 97:3).

Our God comes and shall not keep silent, before him a fire bums and around him fierce storms rage (Ps 50:3).

Now the people complained about their hardships in the hearing of the Lord, and when he heard them his anger was aroused. Then fire from the Lord burned among them and consumed some of the outskirts of the camp (Num11:1).

When God is angry, which seems to he quite often, smoke and fire come out of his body.

The earth trembled and quaked, and the foundations of the mountains shook, they trembled because he was angry. Smoke rose from his nostrils; consuming fire came from his mouth, burning coals blazed out of it (Ps 18:7-8).

When the prophet Ezekiel saw God and his attendant angels, he described them as looking like this.

On the fifth of the month - it was the fifth year of the exile of King Jehoiachin the word of the Lord came to Ezekiel the priest, the son of Buzi, by the Kebar River in the land of the Babylonians. There the hand of the Lord was upon him. I looked, and I saw a windstorm coming out of the north - an immense cloud with flashing lightning and surrounded by brilliant light. The centre of the fire looked like glowing metal, and in the fire was what looked like four living creatures in appearance their form was that of a man, but each of them had four faces and four wings. Their legs were straight; their feet were like those of a calf and gleamed like burnished bronze. Under their wings on their four sides they had the hands of a man. All four of them had faces and wings, and their wings touched one another. Bach one went straight ahead; they did not turn as they moved. Their faces looked like this: Each of the four had the face of a man, and on the right side each had the face of a lion, and on the left the face of an ox; each also had the face of an eagle. Such were their faces. Their wings were spread out upward; each had two wings, one touching the wing of another creature on either side, and two wings covering its body. Each one went straight ahead. Wherever the spirit would go, they would go, without turning as they went. The appearance of the living creatures was like burning coals of fire or like torches. Fire moved back and forth among the creatures; it was bright, and lightning flashed out of it. The creatures sped back and forth like flashes of lightning. As I looked at the living creatures, I saw a wheel on the ground beside each creature with its four faces. This was the appearance and structure of the wheels: They sparkled like chrysolite, and all four looked alike. Each appeared to be made like a wheel intersecting a wheel (Ezek 1:4-21).

Christians often look at the many-armed and fierce-faced gods in Hindu and Taoist temples and claim that they are devils rather than gods - but as the Bible make clear the Christian God is very similar in appearance to these. Furthermore, just as Hindu and Taoist gods carry various weapons so too does the Christian God.

In that day the Lord will punish with his sword, his fierce, great and powerful sword (Is 27:1).

The sun and moon stood still in the heavens at the glint of your flying arrows, at the lightning of your flashing spear. In wrath you strode through the earth and in your anger you threshed the nations (Haba 3:11-12).

The Lord thundered from heaven, the voice of the Most High resounded. He shot his arrows and scattered the enemies (Ps 18:13-14).

But God will shoot them with arrows, suddenly they will be struck down (Ps 64:7).

Then the Lord will appear over them, his arrows will flash like lightning. The sovereign Lord will sound the trumpet (Zech 9:14).

Another interesting way in which God's appearance resembles that of non-Christian idols is in how he travels. The Bible tells us that God gets from one place to another either by sitting on a cloud (Is 19:1) or riding on the back of an angel (Ps 18:10). It is obvious from these quotes that God has a savage and frightening appearance; a conclusion verified again by the Bible where people are described as being utterly terrified by God's appearance.

Serve the Lord with fear and trembling, kiss his feet or else he will get angry and you will perish in the way, for his wrath is quickly kindled (Ps 2:11).

Therefore I am terrified at his presence. When I think of him I am in dread of him, God has made my heart faint. The Almighty has terrified me (Job 23:15).

Jesus frequently says that we should fear God (eg Lk l2:4-5). The Bible also very correctly says that where there is fear there cannot be love (I Jn 4:18) and so if God creates fear in people it is difficult to know how he can genuinely be loved at the same time.

What did the Buddha look like? Being human, the Buddha had a human body like any ordinary person. However the Tipitaka (the Buddhist sacred books) frequently speak of his great personal beauty.

He is handsome, good-looking, pleasant to see, of most beautiful complexion, his form and countenance is like Brahma's, his appearance is beautiful (Digha Nikaya, Sutta No.4).

He is handsome, inspiring faith, with calm senses and mind tranquil, composed and controlled, like a perfectly tamed elephant (Anguttara Nikaya, Sutta No.36).

Whenever people saw the Buddha, his calm appearance filled them with peace and his gentle smile reassured them. As we have seen, God's voice is loud and frightening like thunder (Ps 68:33). while the Buddha's voice was gentle and soothing.

When in a monastery he is teaching the Dhamma, he does not exalt or disparage the assembly. On the contrary, he delights, uplifts, inspires and gladdens them with talk on Dhamma. The sound of the good Gotama's voice has eight characteristics; it is distinct and intelligible, sweet and audible, fluent and clear, deep and resonant (Majjihima Nikaya, Sutta No.19).

God carries weapons because he has to kill his enemies and because he controls people with violence and threats. The Buddha, on the other hand, showed enmity to no one and was able to control people by reasoning with them. Addressing the Buddha, King Pasenadi once said:

I am a king, able to execute those deserving execution, fine those deserving to be fined, or exile those deserving exile. But when I am sitting on a court case people sometimes interrupt even me. I can't even get a chance to say: "Don't interrupt me! Wait until I have finished speaking." But when the Lord is teaching Dhamma there is not even the sound of coughing coming from the assembly. Once, as I sat listening to the Lord teach Dhamma a certain disciple coughed and one of his fellows tapped him on die knee and said, "Silence, sir, make no noise. Our Lord is teaching Dhamma", and I thought to myself, indeed it is wonderful, marvellous how well trained these disciples are without stick or sword (Majjhima Nikaya, Sutta No.89).

We can just imagine how God would react if one were foolish enough to interrupt him while he was speaking. We can see from what has been said above that the Buddha's physical appearance reflected his deep inner calm and compassion. People were always inspired by the aura of peace that surrounded him.

Mental Make-up

We have seen that Buddhists do not believe in God because to them the idea is illogical and contrary to the facts. Buddhists also reject the Christian God because, if the Bible is correct, God appears to be so imperfect. All of the negative emotions which most cultured people find unacceptable are to be found in God. Let us examine how the Bible describes God's mind.

The emotion which is associated with God more than any other is jealousy. He even admits that he is jealous.

For the Lord is a devouring fire, a jealous God (Deut 4:24).

Nothing makes God more jealous than people worshipping other gods, and he tells us we must even kill our own children if they do this.

If your brother, the son of your mother, or your son, daughter, the wife of your bosom or the friend of your own soul, entices you secretly, saying, "let us go and serve other gods" which neither you nor your fathers have known, some of the gods of the people that are around you whether near or far, from one end of the earth to the other, you shall not yield to him or listen to him, nor shall your eye pity him, nor shall you spare him, nor shall you conceal him, but you shall kill him. Your hand shall be the first against him to kill him and after that the others can strike him (Deut 13:6).

The Bible tells us that God frequently loses his temper.

See, the day of the Lord is coming - a cruel day, with wrath and fierce anger, to make the land desolate and destroy the sinners within it (Is 13:9).

God is angry every day (Ps 7:11).

The Lord will cause men to hear his majestic voice and will make them see his arm coming down with raging anger and consuming fire (Is 30:30).

His anger will burn against you and he will destroy you from the face of the land (eut 6:15]).

God tells us to love but he is described as hating and being filled with abhorrence.

You hate all those who do wrong. You destroy those who tell lies; bloodthirsty and deceitful men the Lord abhors (Ps 5:5-6).

He is further described as hating many other things as well as people (see Deut 16:22, Mala 2:16, Lev 26:30). God has a particularly deep hatred for other religions which probably explains why Christianity has always been such an intolerant religion. He is often described as feeling special hatred for those who will not worship him.

Your New Moon festivals and your appointed feasts my soul hates (Is 1:14).

The Buddha had compassion for those who were cruel, he forgave those who did wrong, and he had respect for those of other religions. We would expect God being capable of jealousy and hate, to be vengeful, and not surprisingly the Bible often mentions God's vengefulness.

Behold, your God will come with vengeance (Is 35:4).

The Lord is avenging and wrathful, the Lord takes vengeance on his adversaries and holds wrath for his enemies (Nahum 1:2).

For we know him who said, "It is mine to avenge; I will repay", and again, The Lord will judge his people". It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God (Heb 10:30-31). (See also Rom 1:8, 2:5-6, 12:19).

What would be the use of worshipping a God who is full of the very mental defilements which we ourselves are striving to overcome?

During the forty years after his enlightenment, the Buddha urged people to give up anger, jealousy and intolerance and never once in all that time did he fail to act in perfect accordance with what he taught to others.

The Lord acts as he speaks and speaks as he acts. We find no teacher other than the Lord who is so consistent as this whether we survey the past or the present (Digha Nikaya, Sutta No.19).

In the whole of the Tipitaka, there is not a single example of the Buddha expressing anger, hatred, jealousy, etc. because, being perfect, he was freed from such negative emotions.

Attitude to War

The Bible tells us that there is a time for hate and a time for war (Ex 3:8) and it is widely recognized today that those great evils depend upon each other. As we have seen, God is quite capable of hatred and, not surprisingly is therefore often involved in war.

The Lord is a man of war (Ex 15:3).

The Lord your God is in your midst, a warrior who gives victory (Zeph 3:17).

The Lord goes forth like a mighty man, like a man of war he stirs up his fury, he cries out, he shouts aloud, he shows himself mighty against the enemy (Is 42:13).

When I sharpen my flashing sword and my hand grasps it in judgment, I will take vengeance on my adversaries and repay those who hate me. I will make my arrows drunk with blood while my sword devours flesh: the blood of the slain and the captives, the heads of the enemy leaders (Deut 32:41-42).

For centuries Christians have been inspired by these Bible passages, which encourage and even glorify war, to use violence to spread their religion. Even today there is a distinctly militaristic flavour about Christianity. The Salvation Army with its motto "Blood and Fire"; the hymns that speak about "Onward Christian soldiers marching as to war"; the saying "Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition", etc. The Bible contains dozens of examples of God helping his devotees to capture cities, slaughter civilian populations and defeat armies (for example Num 21:1-3, Num 31:1-12, Deut 2:32-34, Deut 3:3-7, Josh 11:6-11, etc.). Concerning captives in war God says:

And you shall destroy all the peoples that the Lord your God gives over to you, your eye shall not pity them (Deut 7:16).

When the Lord your God gives them over to you and you defeat them you must utterly destroy them and show no mercy to them (Deut 7:2).

Even Christians are often shocked when they read passages like these. Buddhists simply feel that such passages justify their rejection of God and their faith in the Buddha.

What was the Buddha's attitude to war? There is no example of the Buddha ever praising war, encouraging war, or going to war himself. On the contrary, he urged all to live in peace and harmony and is described in this way:

He is a reconciler of those who are in conflict and an encourager of those who are already united, rejoicing in peace, loving peace, delighting in peace, he is one who speaks in praise of peace (Digha Nikaya, Sutta No.1).

He set an example by being a man of peace.

Abandoning killing, the monk Gotama lives refraining from killing, he is without stick or sword, he lives with care, compassion and sympathy for others (Digha Nikaya, Sutta No.1).

The Buddha was not content with merely speaking in favour of peace or with being peaceful himself. He actively promoted peace by trying to stop war. When his relatives were about to go to war over the waters of the Rohini River, the Buddha did not take sides, urge them on, give them advice on tactics, or tell them to show no mercy to their adversaries, as God would have done. Instead he stood between the two factions and said, "What is more valuable, blood or water?" The soldier replied, "Blood is more valuable, sir." Then the Buddha said, "Then is it not unbecoming to spill blood for water?" Both sides dropped their weapons and peace was restored (Dhammapada Atthakata Book l5,l). The Buddha had put aside hatred and filled his mind with love and compassion, so approving of war was impossible for him.

Idea of Justice

Justice is the quality of being fair, and a person who is just acts fairly and in accordance with what is right. However ideas about what is fair and right differ from time to time and from person to person. Christians claim that God is just, so by examining his actions we will be able to know God's concept of justice.

God tells us that anybody who disobeys him will be punished "seven times over" (Lev 26:18), that is, one sin will be punished seven times. God obviously considers this to be fair and just. He also tells us that he will punish the innocent children, grandchildren, and even great-grandchildren of those who sin.

I the Lord am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sins of the fathers to the third or fourth generation of those who hate me (Deut 5:9).

This is known as collective punishment; punishing a whole family or group for the crime committed by one of its members. Collective punishment is condemned today as unfair and unjust but God apparently considers it quite just.

God tells us that even minor offences should be punished by death. For example, those who work on Sunday should be stoned to death. Once a man was found collecting firewood on Sunday and God said to Moses and the people who caught the man:

"The man must die. The whole assembly must stone him outside the camp." So the assembly took him outside the camp and stoned him to death as the Lord commanded Moses (Num 15:32-36).

God's idea of justice does not seem to embrace the idea that the punishment should fit the crime. We are told that all who do not love God will suffer eternal punishment in hell. There are many kind, honest and generous people who do not believe in God and they will all go to hell. Is this fair and just? God apparently thinks so.

Was the Buddha just? The Buddha had attained the freedom of enlightenment and he taught others how they too could attain this freedom. Unlike God, he was not primarily a lawgiver, a judge, or one who metes out punishment. He was a teacher. In all his dealings with people he was fair, mild and merciful and he urged his followers to act in like manner. If someone did wrong, he said that one should not rush to punish him.

When you are living together in harmony, a fellow monk might commit an offence, a transgression. But you should not rush to condemn him, the issue must be carefully examined first (Majjhima Nikaya, Sutta No.103).

In addition, when a person is being examined one should remain uninfluenced by bias or partiality and should look at both sides of the case.

Not by passing hasty judgments does one become just' a wise man is one who investigates both sides. He who does not judge others arbitrarily, but passes judgment impartially and in accordance with the facts, that person is a guardian of the law and is rightly called just (Dhammapada 256-257).

As for punishment, the Buddha would have considered stoning someone to death or any other form of capital punishment to be cruel. He himself was always ready to forgive. Once a man called Nigrodha abused the Buddha and later realised his mistake and confessed to the Buddha. Full of compassion and forgiveness the Buddha said:

Indeed, Nigrodha, transgression overcame you when through ignorance, blindness and evil you spoke to me like that. But since you acknowledge your transgression and make amends as is right, I accept your confession (Digha Nikaya, Sutta No.25).

The Buddha forgave all whether they accepted his teachings or not, and even I Nigrodha had refused to apologise the Buddha would not have threatened to punish him. To the Buddha the proper response to faults was not the threat to punish but education and forgiveness. As he says:

By three things the wise man can be known. What three? He sees his faults as they are. When he sees them he corrects them and when another confesses a fault the wise man forgives it as he should (Anguttara Nikaya, Book of Threes, Sutta No.10).

Go to Beyond Belief: God or the Buddha - who is the Highest? Part 2.
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