Buddhism, The Four Noble Truths, & Christianity

Written By Victor Stanley Jr.

Introduction

Buddhism is a religion birth out of Hinduism in India; it was founded in the 5th century B.C. by Siddhartha Gautama, more commonly known as Buddha, and subsequently spread throughout the East Asian continent. In the latter half of the twentieth century it began to spread rapidly in the United States. It is a difficult religion to understand because it is very syncretistic, and as a result lacks objective concrete doctrines to analyze, understand, and refute. This fact, combined with the many forms of Buddhism that exist, means that there is no formula or strict method for engaging and evangelizing a Buddhist.

However, if one understands the core tenets from which many of the philosophical ideas arise, he can then be more prepared when encountering a Buddhist. These core tenets found in the teachings of Buddha are mainly concerned with the “ramifications of the Four Noble Truths, and the Eightfold Path.”[1] It is from these two intertwined sets of teachings that the basis for the Buddhists views on life, death, and morality are drawn as well as the inspiration for their rituals and practices.

Worldview & Practices

The Four Noble Truths provide the framework for Buddhism’s teachings, and it is from these that the rest of their worldview and practices flow. “The Buddhist worldview is… of a world dis-eased, a world entrapped in craving, where dukkha reigns supreme because people have not seen the dharma, the truth about existence.”[2] To understand the Four Noble Truths one must first understand dukkha and dharma. The Buddha taught that one must see things as they really are in order to overcome unpleasantness, imperfection, and frustration; these three things are together referred to as dukkha, which means pain or suffering.[3] Dharma simply means “the teaching, and the way things are,”[4] and it is through adherence to the dharma that one reaches enlightenment and achieves nirvana. Thus the Four Noble Truths are an essential part of the dharma that guide one to the means of destroying dukkha in order to free oneself from the vicious cycle of life.

The first Noble Truth deals with the reality of suffering, and can be summed up in the phrase, ‘existence is pain,’ or ‘all is suffering.’[5] This has to do with the belief that life is a continuous cycle of births and deaths known as samsara, and because of this one will suffer until she can escape this cycle, this salvation being called moksha; Tibetan Buddhists illustrate the cycle of rebirth with the Wheel of Life.[6] This first Noble Truth immediately generates two questions: What is the cause of this suffering and vicious cycle, and how does one eliminate this suffering? The next two Noble Truths answer these two questions.

The second Noble Truth is concerned with the cause of suffering. The Buddha taught that the cause of suffering is craving, that is desire, and that this craving is due to ignorance.[7] The path to ending suffering is greatly concerned with removing these desires from oneself in order to eliminate suffering. The Tibetan Buddhists Wheel of Life has three animals in the center that “symbolize three faults that the Buddha believed people must overcome. These faults are hatred, ignorance or delusion, and greed—all of which involve craving. Hatred involves the craving to destroy. Ignorance and greed bring about craving unnecessary things.”[8] These cravings and desires are said to hinder a person from letting go of what one perceives to be reality, but is actually a delusion. The Buddha taught that people have created their own mental prisons and become trapped in them, but that they can find freedom by changing the way they view the world.[9]

The third Noble Truth reveals the fact that suffering must be brought to an end. If one can destroy suffering, that is dukkha, then she will have freed herself from the cravings and metal imprisonment keeping her bound to this life. It is at this point that one enters into nirvana; nirvana is realized through the extinction of cravings, and is thus a state of bliss free of dukkha.

To reach nirvana a person must follow a certain way, a certain path, and this path is the Noble Eightfold Path. The fourth of the Noble Truths is the truth of the Eightfold Path, which is the means to remove suffering. The Eightfold Path is as so: right view, right resolve or intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration or meditation.

Dr. Walter Martin’s book, Kingdom of the Cults, gives further insight into some of the tenets of the Eightfold Path: right view has to do with having a right view of the Four Noble Truths; right intention is to renounce sensual pleasure, to bear no malice, and to do no harm; right actions are love, joy and abstinence from immorality; right effort requires avoiding an evil state of mind, and producing a good state of mind through the practice of morality, meditation, and wisdom; and right mindfulness is to be alert with regard to sensations and ideas.[10] The Eightfold Path is a way of life that if strictly adhered to will lead one to moksha and ultimately nirvana.

From the Four Noble Truths one can ascertain the Buddhist view of life, death, and morality. Life is a continuous cycle of suffering through rebirths linked to one’s karma—that is the good and bad deeds one does—that can only be escaped from by following the Noble Eightfold Path. Death is when “the body ceases, but the ever-flowing continuum, of consciousness and its mental accompaniments continues and ‘spins’, as it were another body in accordance with one’s good or bad deeds.”[11]

Morality is simply the avoidance of evil, but in evil in the sense of anything that causes suffering, rather than an adherence to objective laws. A code of ethics is observed for the purpose of increasing one’s good karma in order to gain a more favorable rebirth, and in the end to draw closer to achieving nirvana.

These are the ideas and beliefs one will face when encountering a Buddhist. Having a basic knowledge and comprehension of these beliefs will provide the foundation for engaging a Buddhist with gospel in a respectful and loving way.

Engagement

While the Buddhist worldview may seem drastically different from the Christian worldview, there are several points of commonality between the two. The issue of suffering links these common points. Suffering and its alleviation is the central focus of Buddhism, and it attempts to provide the answer to the question of why people suffer, and how they can end their suffering. Christianity gives an answer to these questions, and it is the discussion that arises from these questions and answers that lends itself to engaging a Buddhist with the gospel.

The first Noble Truth states that “there is an incompleteness and unsatisfactoriness at the heart of existence.”[12] The Christian worldview agrees with this notion, and this is best seen in the book of Ecclesiastes. It is in this book of the Bible that King Solomon speaks extensively about the vain pursuits of man, and how in the end there is no fulfillment or satisfaction found in them. Both worldviews recognize that mankind is longing for something beyond this life, and that in this life there is much suffering. This agreement on the presence and oppression of suffering provides a good starting point for sharing the gospel with a Buddhist.

The second Noble Truth identifies the cause of suffering as craving. These cravings manifest in hatred and greed, and are a result of ignorance. Beyond that these cravings, or thirsts, drive human selfishness and bad deeds. Again, on a surface level, the Christian worldview shares some of this idea; man’s ignorance of God results in his indulgence in lusts of the flesh, violence, greed, and hatred.[13] For both worldviews man suffers because of his selfish desires, for the Christian this is due to a rejection of God, but for the Buddhist it stems from an ignorance of ‘the way things really are.’

The ending of suffering, or rather that suffering will end, is what the third Noble truth is concerned with, and here it finds more common ground with Christianity. Buddhism teaches that if these cravings and focus on self are destroyed suffering will cease. Christianity believes that if one will die to herself and her flesh, suffering will come to and end, in one sense, immediately. Because the ultimate goal of Buddhism is to escape samsara through the cessation of suffering, and achieve nirvana, it is very beneficial to show a Buddhist that Christianity reveals a means to destroy suffering.

The Noble Eightfold Path, which is the Fourth Noble Truth, has much in common with Christian living. The eight tenets of the Eightfold Path have much to do with morality and ethics, and because of this, most Buddhists greatly respect the teachings of Jesus, even to the point of calling him a Buddha; Buddha means awakened one, or one who has achieved enlightenment. A Buddhist would find much to agree with in Jesus Sermon on the Mount,[14] and this mutual appreciation for the ethics and moralism taught by Jesus provide a doorway into a deeper discussion on the implications and assertions presents in Jesus teachings.

It must be stressed that only on the surface do the Four Noble Truths and some of Christianity’s views find agreement. However, even a shallow digging into either group’s teachings reveals vast and fundamental differences and disagreements. The least of these is the fact that Buddhism is essentially atheistic, while Christianity is monotheistic.

Analysis

While on the surface Buddhists and Christians can find common ground within their views on suffering, the two world views are deeply opposed. For Buddhists the reality of suffering, the cause of suffering, the desire to end and be liberated from suffering, and the path to achieve this liberation are tied to man and his ignorance. For the Christian the first three are man’s doing, but the fourth is God’s doing.

The First Noble Truth asserts that life is suffering due to samsara, and that suffering will not end until one escapes samsara. While the Christian agrees that life is full of pain and suffering, he does not believe in a continuous cycle of rebirths that keep one trapped in a state of suffering. The Christian acknowledges the dissatisfaction with life pointed out in the First Noble truth, but she does not attribute this incompleteness to suffering, but rather its cause is the lack of a relationship with God. The Buddhist sees suffering rooted in a failure to view things as they actually are, and that this can only be done by eliminating one’s personal delusions.

The second Noble Truth is where the two worldviews completely diverge. Where Buddhism points to mankind’s desires as the cause of pain and suffering, Christianity points to man’s sin and rejection of God as the cause. The Buddha taught that the “cause [of suffering] abides within the mind, and identified it as ‘craving’: self-centered desire for sensual pleasure and life itself.”[15] The Buddha posited that these cravings are again a result of man’s delusions or ignorance, and because of this man ushers in suffering by his own actions. While the Christian worldview follows this same train of thought to an extent, her starting point is different. Romans 1 shows that man’s rejection of God ushers in wicked desires, which in turn produce suffering:

And since they [mankind] did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless.”[16]

So the biblical worldview asserts that man turns from God, and it is this act that brings about all manner of wickedness and suffering, that fuels man’s ignorance and delusions. It is not a failure to let go of one’s cravings that produces suffering, instead it is the failure to acknowledge God that causes men to suffer. For the Buddhist the starting point is man’s delusions, for the Christian it is man’s sin.

From the cause of suffering, the Buddhist teachings move to the need for an end of suffering. Specifically the Buddha taught that if craving were destroyed suffering would cease. This belief sharply contradicts the Christian worldview because it makes man the source of his own salvation. The Bible teaches—and indeed the gospel hinges on the fact—that man cannot save himself, that he needs a savior to step in and liberate him. Furthermore the third Noble Truth proclaims that to achieve salvation, referred to as moksha, one simply needs to detach herself from her cravings and desires, and learn to see things as the truly are.

While the biblical worldview agrees that fleshy and worldly desires need to be put to rest, it does not believe that man can achieve this in and of himself. Beyond that, the biblical worldview also requires more than a mental victory over physical desires, it demands a personal relationship with the one true God through Christ Jesus who is God himself. It is through this relationship that a person, in whom the Holy Spirit dwells, then has the capability to put to rest all manner of evil within herself.

Finally, the Noble Eightfold Path is believed to provide the guidance for escaping samsara through moksha, and achieving nirvana. The issue here is that the Eightfold path is very much an adherence to a code of ethics that promises liberation. By holding to this strict morality, and through meditation, one will eventually remove all cravings from her mind and achieve nirvana. Christians would call this, and it can be loosely defined as, works based salvation. It must be noted that salvation in Buddhism is not the same as salvation in Christianity.

In Buddhism salvation is being set free from suffering, and reaching a state of enlightenment and bliss called nirvana. In Christianity salvation is granted to all those who place their trust in Jesus Christ as Lord; a person is set free from the condemnation unto eternal death—that is separation from God—as a result of sin, and is instead given eternal life being justified by God through the imputed righteous of Christ to the Christian. So, this means that living a life as a great moral person gains an individual nothing in the eyes of God, rather they must be adopted into the family of God, and made into a new creature.[17] This new creation then has the desire, and is compelled by their new nature, to live according to the law of God.

The morality of Buddhism is meaningless apart from God, because it is morality for the sake of itself not bound to any objective truth. Worse yet is that this morality is self-serving in that it is for the purpose of earning good karma in order to have a more favorable rebirth, and move closer to moksha and nirvana. The Buddhist does moral good in order to attain liberation, the Christian does moral good because he has been liberated.

Critique & Recommendations

There are two caveats one must keep in mind when engaging a Buddhist with the gospel: they will willingly accept Jesus, and they will accept your truth as valid. However, this acceptance is not necessarily belief in the gospel, but rather tolerance toward an alternate worldview. Buddhists believe that Jesus was a great moral teacher, and that he himself reached nirvana and is a Buddha, that is an awakened one.

Any Christian engaging with a Buddhist will have to point out that Jesus made explicit claims of exclusivity about himself being God and being the only means of salvation.[18] The Buddhist worldview also views truth as subjective, and thus each person can have their own personal truth, and all these truths must be tolerated. Again, the Christian must show that biblical truth contradicts the teachings of Buddha, and vice versa.

The implications of the one render the other false, and thus demands that one set of beliefs is accepted and the other rejected. Christians must be careful to not assume that a Buddhists quick acceptance of Jesus and his teachings means she has been converted. You must push and prod a little to see if see if this person is placing his belief in Christ exclusively, or just adding him to the many other philosophies she holds.

Conclusion

Buddhism is a vast religion with many different schools of thought, and many unexplained or undefined beliefs. It is very syncretistic, and because of this it is hard to know what exact flavor of Buddhism one might encounter when engaging in religious discussion. The Four Noble Truths however, remain a common thread through the majority of the sects of Buddhism, and provide a good starting point. In those core tenets of Buddhism the Christian can find common ground to begin on, but find strategic points of disagreement that can be used to demonstrate the difference between Christianity and Buddhism. It is in those commonalities that one finds a shared hopelessness faced by all humanity, namely the problem of evil and suffering, but it is in the differences that Christianity offers an answer that is consistent and coherent. Humility is the greatest tool one can use when engaging people of other faiths, it is through the utilization of this tool that one can have a positive regard for others, respect their views, build rapport with them, relate to their lives and belief systems, and ultimately reach out and engage them with the gospel of Christ.


[1] Walter Martin, “Buddhism: Classical, Zen, and Nichiren Shoshu,” in The Kingdom of the Cults, rev. ed. ed. Ravi Zacharias (Grand Rapids: Bethany House, 2003), 301.

[2] Chris Partridge and Tim Dowley, eds., “Buddhism,” in Introduction to World Religions, 2nd ed. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2013), 216.

[3] Partridge and Dowley, “Buddhism,” in Introduction to World Religions, 203.

[4] Partridge and Dowley, “Buddhism,” in Introduction to World Religions, 202.

[5] Wing-Tsit Chan, “Buddhahood,” An Encyclopedia of Religion, ed. Vergilius Ferm (New York: Philosophical Library, 1945): 95, quoted in Walter Martin, The Kingdom of the Cults, rev. ed. ed. Ravi Zacharias (Grand Rapids: Bethany House, 2003), 302.

[6] “Wheel of Life,” in Dk Eyewitness Books: Buddhism (London: Dorling Kindersley Publishing, 2003).

[7] Wing-Tsit Chan, “Buddhahood,” quoted in, The Kingdom of the Cults, 302.

[8] “The Middle Way,” in Dk Eyewitness Books: Buddhism (London: Dorling Kindersley Publishing, 2003).

[9] Partridge and Dowley, “Buddhism,” in Introduction to World Religions, 216.

[10] Wing-Tsit Chan, “Buddhahood,” quoted in, The Kingdom of the Cults, 302.

[11] Partridge and Dowley, “Buddhism,” in Introduction to World Religions, 203-204.

[12] Partridge and Dowley, “Buddhism,” in Introduction to World Religions, 216.

[13] Romans 1 (ESV)

[14] Matt. 5:1-7:29

[15] Partridge and Dowley, “Buddhism,” in Introduction to World Religions, 216.

[16] Romans 1:28–31.

[17] 2 Corinthians 5:17–19

[18] John 14:6


Bibliography

Dk Eyewitness Books: Buddhism. London: Dorling Kindersley Publishing, 2003.

Henry, Matthew. Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible: Complete and Unabridged in One Volume. Peabody: Hendrickson, 1994.

Martin, Walter, “Buddhism: Classical, Zen, and Nichiren Shoshu.” In The Kingdom of the Cults. Rev. ed. Edited by Ravi Zacharias. Grand Rapids: Bethany House, 2003.

Merriam-Webster, Inc. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster, Inc., 2003.

Partridge, Chris and Tim Dowley, eds. “Buddhism.” In Introduction to World Religions. 2nd ed. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2013.

The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001.

Wing-Tsit Chan, “Buddhahood.” In An Encyclopedia of Religion, ed. Vergilius Ferm (New York: Philosophical Library, 1945): 95. Quoted in Walter Martin, The Kingdom of the Cults. Rev. ed. Edited by Ravi Zacharias. Grand Rapids: Bethany House, 2003.

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