Written by Victor Stanley Jr.
In March 2015 I along with several students from my class visited the Dharmapala Kadampa Buddhist Center in Roanoke, Virginia. While there we sat through a meditation service led by one of the student teachers at the Center. This service was very informative with regard to the worldview held by Buddhists. The Center we visited happened to follow in the tradition of Kadampa Buddhism, which is a subset of Mahayana Buddhism, which in turn is the largest sect of Buddhism in the world. Certain forms of Buddhism popular in America, such as Tibetan and Zen, belong to the Mahayana tradition; it is likely that most Buddhists one encounters in the U.S. practice this tradition.
Before visiting this Buddhist Center I knew none of this, but thankfully by God’s providence I ended up visiting a Center that practices the form of Buddhism I am most likely to encounter throughout my life.
The first thing I observed, and the thing that had the longest lasting impression on me, was how kind the people at the Center were, and the hospitality they showed. They were very open to answering our questions, and sharing about their beliefs and practices, including letting us participate in the meditation. Several particular things caught my attention: 1) They had numerous statues that represented various gods despite them insisting that they worship no gods, 2) They put a huge emphasis on how precious human life is despite believing that nothing possesses inherent goodness or evil, 3) They accept everything as having the potential to be true, even if it means embracing contradictions, and 4) They accept all religions as being valid even though many of those religions within themselves claim exclusivity.
These things were ascertained by observing the décor, through conversation, and by reading some of the quotes and writings they had posted on the walls of the Center.
Upon sitting down with them to go through a meditation session we were given a small pamphlet titled Prayers for Meditation, which had the words to several prayers that the teacher and other adherents recited. These prayers where recited while sitting on pillows on the floor, and in a monotone yet rhythmic voice. Certain lines or sections were repeated numerous times, with the option of repeating them a hundred or more times. Throughout the meditation, which took about 30 to 45 minutes, everyone was instructed to empty their minds of everything, and to focus on their inner self, particularly their true inner self. On a side note, my classmates and I discovered that during the entire meditation session we were all quietly praying to God, that is the God of the Bible.
At the conclusion of the meditation session we conversed with several of the student teachers asking them questions about the prayers, the tenets of Buddhism, and the application of their worldview; we also did this to a lesser extent before the meditation. What was interesting about these conversations was the fact that the Buddhists rarely gave straight or concrete answers to our questions, and even when they did they would hedge them by saying something to the effect of, “But that is just what I believe, you have to discover your own truth.” This made it very difficult to get a grasp on what they truly believed about anything.
The Buddhist religion—although they would more accurately define it as a way of life—is accepting of all religions and philosophies, and thus allows for a noncommittal relationship with its own beliefs and ideologies; there is no objective truth, only subjectivity. Overall it was a great educational experience that allowed us to directly engage people of another religion within their own comfort zone, which fostered more informative and candid conversations.
The four main observations I made provided much insight into the Buddhist worldview, and these insights were confirmed upon further discussing the issue of worldview with the Buddhists at the Center. When these specific observations are put to the test they not only reveal inconsistencies, but oddly enough they also bear a resemblance to many practices in modern Christianity, especially in the West.
First off, they had statues that represented various gods despite them insisting that they worship no gods. They explained that the various “deities” were simply physical representations of different aspects of Brahman. Brahman is the supreme reality of which everyone and everything is a part; it is their closest concept of a god. These physical symbols are intended to help the Buddhist during meditation to better visualize whatever aspect of the supreme reality they represent. On the contrary, in Christianity the character and nature of God are experienced through a personal relationship with him, and the Bible strictly forbids any physical image or representation of him.
However, Christianity has a long tradition, albeit an erroneous one, of making images of God and Saints in the form of statues, paintings, icons, and symbols. For Protestants most of this was thrown out as a result of the Reformation, yet many of us still wear crosses on jewelry, or rosaries, W.W.J.D bracelets were once very popular, crucifixes, picture of Jesus, and numerous other symbols and such that are meant to represent God or at least some aspect of his nature. Buddhists could see these things as functioning no different than their deities and symbols.
Second, they put a huge emphasis on how precious human life is despite believing that nothing possesses inherent goodness or evil. Because Buddhists believe in Samsara, which is a continuous cycle of reincarnation and/or transmigration, they regard as precious the opportunity to live a human life. This is much different than the life itself being precious or holding any value. For Buddhists the opportunity to escape Samsara and achieve Nirvana comes only when one is human, versus being reincarnated as a mouse or bird. This means that a person has no inherent value, but rather it is the opportunity of being a human that has value. Along with this then is the belief that people are neither good nor bad, thus they have no worth, and they lack a moral designation. This idea of course seems easily refuted by quickly pointing out evil people such as Hitler or a rapist, and then pointing out the compassion and hurt we feel towards the victims of these people. Shockingly the response I was given when I offered up these examples was that neither of these people were evil, they were simply living based off of their delusions, and thus they did evil, but they themselves were not evil.
To add to my bewilderment, I was also informed that the compassion and hurt I would have toward the victim is also a result of my own delusion. This is very much in line with the Buddhist worldview since the goal is to alleviate all displeasure, suffering, and pain, which is hard to do when you have emotional attachments to family and friends. However, I was assured that through much meditation and discipline I could possibly achieve that level of detachment. Christianity teaches that we are made in the image of God, the imago dei, which is the basis for our inherent worth. It also teaches that those who are in Christ will find an end to all suffering, pain, and sadness. Those two biblical truths compel the Christian to love others as Jesus commanded.
Third, they accept everything as having the potential to be true, even if it means embracing contradictions. Interestingly enough this concept runs rampant in America’s postmodern society. Buddhists are very tolerant, at least on the surface, to other ideas, philosophies, and religions. Their tolerance of other religions is the fourth observation I made; specifically they accept all religions as being valid even though many of those religions within themselves claim exclusivity. This tolerance and passivity fuels their subjectivism, and removes the potential for any absolutes; it also makes it very difficult to challenge them to examine their beliefs. Any argument, challenge, or refutation presented to a Buddhists is, by them, accepted as true even if only for you, even when I asked them about Jesus they replied by saying that Jesus was a Buddha meaning that he was an enlightened person.
As a result of this subjectivity it takes much patience to engage a Buddhist with the gospel. Unfortunately Christianity in the West has increasingly adopted this sort of subjectivity, which has resulted in much compromise on doctrine, and in turn American Christianity has become very syncretic. Syncretism in Christianity waters down the gospel, and takes away from its exclusive claim as being the only way to God.
I believe that from the four observations I made two of them can be used two bridge the gap between the two worldviews. These would be the issue of inherent value, and the issue of subjectivism. When engaging a Buddhist if the conversation is steered in the direction of discussing why human life is precious according to the Bible I believe common ground can be found. Along with that, if a Buddhist is pushed on some of the contradictions they hold to, and challenged to deal honestly with the impossibility of truth lacking absoluteness, I think they can begin to be persuaded to at least commit to concrete beliefs regarding Buddhism.
The key with the first issue is to really question Buddhists on what they truly mean when they say human life is precious. As I stated, they believe that the opportunity to have a human life is precious, while the person actually lacks any inherent value. I would suggest to the Buddhist that their assertion that the opportunity to live as a human is valuable carries with it the idea that there is something inherently valuable about human beings. If this is not true, then what gives human life any more value over that of any other creatures? Their response to this would be that it is only as a human that one has the opportunity to escape Samsara and achieve Nirvana. However, I would still insist that the fact that the supreme reality dictates that only as a human can one achieve Nirvana means that people themselves have value versus value simply being found in the opportunity. This would then lead me to suggest that if the supreme reality has bestowed value upon human life, that it may not be impersonal, but instead personal. I would follow this train of thought to the existence of a god, and eventually Christ being that personal God.
With the issue of subjectivity the task would be to get a Buddhist to honestly deal with the pitfalls of accepting everything as truth. The very simple argument is: if everything is true, or has the potential to be true, and my truth says your truth is a lie, which one is true? I believe that when challenged on what they believe, and when they are presented with things that violate those beliefs they will quickly solidify what it is they actually believe. In short, when confronted with ideas and philosophies that they cannot accept the Buddhist will commit to and objective system of beliefs centered on the teachings of Buddhism. Once they have committed to a set of truths it then becomes easier to deal with the validity of those truths, and to question the source of those truths. The Christian can also present the truths she believes in, and give an explanation and defense for why those truths are valid, absolute, and exclusive.
Visiting the Buddhist Center was a very enlightening and challenging experience. I learned that many times simply asking someone if they believe in Jesus is not going to provide an accurate idea of what they truly believe. All of the folks at the Buddhist Center said that they believed in Jesus, that he was divine, and that he was a great teacher. I learned that first I must understand, at least on a basic level, what a person believes and how it affects their worldview, and from there I can engage in an informed and respectful conversation with them. I went to the Buddhist Center with a set of prepared arguments and refutations to throw at the people I would meet there, but upon meeting them my arrogance was extinguished, and I was humbled by their kindness. This experience has further instilled in me the biblical truth that while those who are not in Christ are enemies of God, they are also souls to be won; I too used to be an enemy of God, but it was an outpouring of love and hard truth that led me to Christ, not arrogant assaults.