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Beyond Belief: a Buddhist Critique of Christianity

Chapter 8:
How to answer the Evangelists
Part 2

Nirvana is an impractical goal because it takes so long to attain and so few can do it

It is true that attaining Nirvana may take a long time but on the other hand rebirth gives us plenty of time. If one does not do it in this life one can continue striving in the next life. In fact, it will take as long as one wants. The Buddha says that if one really wants, one can attain Nirvana within seven days (Majjhima Nikaya Sutta No.10). If this is so, the Christian will ask, why haven't all Buddhists already attained Nirvana? For the simple reason that mundane phenomena still hold an attraction for them. As insight and understanding gradually make-that attraction fade one moves step by step, at one's own pace, towards Nirvana. As for the claim that only a few people can attain Nirvana, this is not correct. While in Christianity a person has one and only one chance of being saved, Buddhism's teachings on rebirth mean that a person has an infinite number of opportunities to attain Nirvana. This also implies that everyone will eventually be liberated. As the Buddhist text says:

This immortal state has been attained by many and can be still attained even today by anyone who makes an effort. But not by those who do not strive (Therigatha, verse 513).

In Christianity, history has a meaning and is moving towards a particular goal. Buddhism's cyclic view of existence means that history has no meaning and this makes Buddhists fatalistic and indifferent

It is true that according to Buddhism history is not moving towards any climax. But the person who is walking the Noble Eightfold Path certainly is. He or she is resolutely moving towards the peace and freedom of Nirvana.

Just as the river Ganges flows, slides, tends towards the east, so does one who cultivates and makes much of the Noble Eightfold Path flows, slides, tends towards Nirvana (Samyutta Nikaya, Great Chapter, Sutta No.67)

So it is not true to say that Buddhism's more realistic view of existence and of history necessarily leads to indifference. And what climax is history moving towards according to Christianity? The Apocalypse, where the vast majority of humanity and all the works of man will be consumed by brimstone and fire. Even the lucky few who are saved will have the gloomy prospect of an eternity in heaven knowing that at least some of their family and friends are, at the same time, being punished in hell. It would be difficult to imagine a more depressing future to look forward to than this.

The Buddha copied the idea of kamma and rebirth from Hinduism

Hinduism does teach a doctrine of kamma and also reincarnation. However, their versions of both these teachings are very different from the Buddhist versions. For example, Hinduism says we are determined by our kamma while Buddhism says it only conditions us. According to Hinduism an eternal soul (atman) passes from one life to the next while Buddhism denies that there is such a soul (anatman) saying rather that it is a constantly changing stream of mental energy which is reborn. These are just two of many differences between Hinduism and Buddhism on kamma and rebirth.

However, even if the Buddhist and Hindu teachings were identical this would not necessarily mean that the Buddha unthinkingly copied the ideas of others. It sometimes happens that two people, quite independently of each other, make exactly the same discovery. A good example of this is the discovery of evolution. In 1858, just before he published his famous book The Origin of the Species, Charles Darwin found that another man, Alfred Russell Wallace, had conceived the idea of evolution exactly as he had done. Darwin and Wallace had not copied each other's ideas; rather, by studying the same phenomena they had come to the same conclusion about them quite independently of each other. So even if Hindu ideas about kamma and rebirth were identical to those of Buddhism (which they are not) this would still not be proof of copying. The truth is that Hindu sages, through insights they developed in meditation, got vague ideas about kamma and rebirth, which the Buddha later expounded more fully and accurately.

Jesus forgives our sins, but Buddhism says you can never escape the consequences of your kamma

It is only partially true that Jesus forgives sins. According to Christianity, after people are created they will live forever - first for a few decades on earth and then for eternity in either heaven or hell. Jesus will forgive people's sins while they live in the world but for the rest of eternity he will refuse to do so, no matter how frequently or how pitifully the souls in hell may call upon his name. So Jesus' forgiveness is limited to a minute period of time in a person's existence after which he will withhold it. So most people will never escape from the consequences of their supposed sin.

Can Buddhists escape from their kamma? The doctrine of kamma teaches that every action (kamma) has an effect (vipaka). However this effect is not always equal to its cause. For example, if a person steals something this act will have a negative effect. If however after the theft the person feels remorse, returns the stolen article, and sincerely resolves to try to be more careful in the future, the negative effect of the theft may be mitigated. There would still be an effect although not as strong. But even if the thief does not mitigate the wrong which has been done with some good, he or she will be free from the deed after its effect comes to fruition. So according to Buddhism we can be free from our kamma while according to Christianity our sins will only be forgiven during an extremely limited period of time.

There are other ways in which the doctrine of kamma is better than the Christian ideas of forgiveness and punishment. In Buddhism while one may have to endure the negative effects of the evil one has done (which is only fair) this means that one will experience the positive effects of the good one has done as well. This is not so in Christianity. For example, a non-Christian may be honest, merciful, generous and kind, yet despite this at death this person will go to hell and not receive any reward for the good he or she has done. Furthermore, according to the doctrine of kamma the effects we experience, all things being equal, are in direct proportion to their cause. Again this is not so in Christianity - even if a person is exceptionally evil during this life, eternal hell is an utterly disproportionate punishment. How much more is this so if the person is virtuous but non-Christian? Indeed the eternity of hell, and the idea that all non-Christians are condemned to it, are teachings which cast very serious doubts on the concept of a just and loving God.

Christianity has spread to almost every country in the world and has more followers than any other religion, so it must be true

It is true that Christianity has spread widely but how has this happened? Until the 15th century Christianity was largely confined to Europe. After this, European armies spread throughout the world forcing their religion on the people they conquered. In most conquered countries (e.g. Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Taiwan and parts of India) laws were passed banning all non-Christian religions. By the late 19th century brute force was no longer used to enforce belief but, under the influence of the missionaries, colonial administrators tried to hinder non-Christian religions as much as possible. Today the spread of Christianity is supported by lavish financial assistance which missionaries get largely from the U.S.A. So Christianity has spread not because of its inherent superiority but because of violence in the past and wealth today.

Whether Christianity is the world's largest religion is a matter of definition. Can we consider the Mormons, the Moonies and the Jehovah's Witnesses to be Christians? Can we consider the numerous strange cults and sects which flourish in South America and Africa, and which account for many millions of people, to be Christian? Most Protestants don't even consider Catholics to be Christians! If we deny that all the heretical, heterodoxist, cultic and bizarre Christian groups are 'real' Christians, this would probably make Christianity one of the smallest religions in the world. This would also explain why the Bible says that only 144,000 people will be saved on Judgement Day (Rev 14:3-4).

However even if Christianity was the world's largest religion what would this prove ? In the recent past almost every one believed that the world was flat, and they were all wrong. Whether or not an idea is true has nothing to do with how many people believe it.

Of all the arguments that Christians use to try to convert people this is by far the most foolish. Firstly if what the Bible says about wealth is true (Matt 19:23-24) it would seem that the blessings which God has supposedly poured out on Europe and America are really a curse in disguise. Secondly if prosperity is really proof of God's favour it would seem that he really likes the Muslims because he has given them all the oil. Thirdly, some Christian countries like Honduras and the Philippines are extremely poor while Japan, predominantly a Buddhist country, is very rich. And finally, by making statements like this Christians are letting slip their real motive for worshipping God - desire for money. Buddhism for its part teaches that qualities like contentment, love, gentleness and inner peace are more precious than money.

Throughout the world including Asia, Christianity has been a force for progress while Buddhism has done little to improve society

In Christianity's long history there is much to be proud of and perhaps equally as much to be ashamed of. Take for example slavery, a terrible institution which almost all churches supported until the 19th century. After Paul converted the runaway slave Oresimus he convinced him that as a Christian he should go back to his master, but he never tried to convince the master to free his slave (Philemon I: 3-20). Christian slaves were asked to stay bound to their masters, and Christian slave owners were under no obligation to free their slaves. The Bible says that slaves should obey their masters even if they are treated with cruelty.

Slaves be submissive to your masters with all respect, not only the gentle but also the cruel. For one is approved if mindful of God, he endures pain while suffering unjustly. For what credit is it if when you do wrong and are beaten for it you take it patiently. But when you do right and suffer for it you take it patiently you have God's approval (1 Pet 2:18-20).

Bid slaves to be submissive to their masters and give satisfaction in every respect; they are not to be refractory, nor to pilfer, but to show entire and true fidelity so that in everything they may adorn the doctrine of God our saviour (Tit 2:9-10).

So according to Christianity a slave should look to his oppressor as if he was God, and should consider it better to be beaten for doing right than for doing wrong. Such teachings where of course eagerly welcomed by the slave-owners. Take science. The development of science in the West was retarded by church opposition (see A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom, 2 Vol, A.D.White, 1960). Christian opposition to dissection of corpses held back the development of medicine and anatomy for 300 years. The churches were against dissection because they believed that it would make bodily resurrection impossible. The church was opposed to the heliocentric view of the universe and even threatened to execute Galileo for saying that the earth moved around the sun. When Benjamin Franklin invented the lightning rod which prevented buildings from being damaged by lightning, Protestant churches were in an uproar. They believed that God would no longer be able to punish sinners by hurling thunder bolts. When chloroform was invented the churches refused to allow it to be used to alleviate the pain of childbirth. The Bible teaches and they believed that such pain was God's punishment on women for the sin of Eve (Gen 3:16).

Take intolerance of the Jews. Of all the bleak pages in the history of Christianity this is the bleakest and most disgraceful. For 2000 years Christians have harassed, hounded, humiliated and murdered the Jews because they refused to believe in Jesus. And in this respect Protestants have been no better than the Catholics. In 1986 a leading Protestant clergyman in the U.S.A. said "God does not listen when the Jews pray".

We could go on but this is enough. However since the 19th century it is true that many Christian churches have begun to eagerly adopt the outlook of the liberal secular tradition and make it their own. So now Christians are often in the forefront of movements for justice, democracy and equality. But there is little in the Bible that they can use to justify their actions. On the contrary, the Bible specifically says that all rulers, even the unjust, get their power from God and to oppose them is to oppose God.

Let every' person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore lie who resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgement (Rom 13:1-2, see also Jn 19:11, Tit 3:1, Pet 2:13, Prov 8:15-16, 16:10).

Despotic kings, cardinals and bishops quoted passages like these for centuries to justify their rule. Liberation theologians are very silent about such Bible passages today. Christian social philosophy doesn't come from the Bible, it conies from the Western secular tradition which the churches spent 400 years opposing. Now they try to pretend that these values originate from Jesus (see What the Bible Realty Says, ed. M. Smith and R. S. Hoffman, 1989).

Buddhism has always been less aggressive and less organized than Christianity. This has meant that its influence on society has been subtle, less noticeable and even perhaps less dynamic than it should have been. On the other hand it has also meant that the witch hunts against heretics, the persecution of non-believers, and the bloody religious wars which have marred Christian history have been rare or absent in Buddhism.

(1) Deep down Buddhists are really searching for God
(2) Buddhism is just a different expression of man's understanding of God
(3) Buddhists are Christians outside the church

Today one often hears liberal Christians make statements like these. Sadly, such statements are meaningless. One could simply reverse them and say "Deep down Christians are really searching for Nirvana", "The Christian God is just a personification of Nirvana", or "Christians are Buddhists outside the Sangha". Although such statements are often welcomed by Buddhists as indicating that liberal Christians are more tolerant than their fundamentalist brothers and sisters, this is actually not so. Such statements really show that Christians still wish to claim superiority for their own religion. They also show that the liberal Christian's supposed tolerance is dependent upon believing that Buddhism is just another form of Christianity. In short, it is based on a delusion. Liberal Christians will only be genuinely tolerant when they can admit that Buddhism is different from Christianity, very different, and be tolerant despite these differences.

Buddhism may be a noble philosophy but if you look at Buddhist countries you notice that so few people seem to practise it

Perhaps! But is it not exactly the same in Christian countries? What honest Christian could say that all Christians fully, sincerely and with deep understanding follow Jesus' teachings? Let us not judge a religion by those who fail to practise it.

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