Buddhist-Christianity, Part Two: Compare, Contrast, Synthesis

Delivered at First Universalist Church of Orange, Mass, 3/6/16

This week we are going to go back to our school days and do some good ol’ comparing and contrasting. Last week I gave my personal testimony about Buddhism and Christianity being a part of my spiritual background and make-up. That is fine to say. But how exactly does it work? From a superficial look at the two religious traditions we know as Buddhism and Christianity, we see that they are rather different. Actually, they might be said to be polar opposites.

We only have to look at Christianity’s core, essential beliefs. In fact, we will look at the three big questions in religions altogether.

Who is God?

Who is the human?

What is salvation?

Fancy words for these things are “theology” – view of God; “anthropology” – view of the human; and “soteriology” – view of salvation

So how does Christianity see God? What about Buddhism?

Well, as you all probably know, God is fundamental to traditional Christianity. What’s more, for traditional Christianity, this God

-- is the creator,

-- is personal, a person, a being,

-- and is involved and active in history. In fact, God is responsible for history.

God is also all-powerful, all-knowing, all-present, all-benevolent (all-loving).

For traditional Buddhism, if we define God as creator, as a being, and as historically-based, then Buddhism does not hold to God. In fact, the Buddha is quoted as rejecting this view of God.

Buddhism does have an absolute, a core reality, an essential truth. It is this: that all things in the universe are interconnected in a profound way. This amounts to UU’s 7th principle. The interdependent web of all existence. That is akin to God in Buddhism. However, this God as the web of interdependence does not create from outside, is not a person, and is neutral when it comes to time and history.

Okay, so that is God according to Christianity and Buddhism.

What about the human? How does Christianity view the human? How does Buddhism view it?

Traditional Christianity sees human as fallen. Humankind were originally created as good. But we have inherited the first and original sin of Adam and Eve. So humans veer toward sin and separation from God. At its most extreme, this view says we are sinful in nature. We are born that way.


It is a little more complicated. Early Buddhism declared that originally humans were neutral, tabla rasa, an empty sheet. But karma happened, and happened across lifetimes. So that humans are weighed down by their karma, and veer toward bad habits.

Later Buddhism argued for a more positive view of things. In each of us, there is the Buddha. In the least, we have the potential for Buddhahood, for becoming awoke. In the most, we are innately Buddhas -- we just do not know it or have not lived on the basis that we are Buddhas enough.

So a very different view of who the human is, who we are.

Lastly we come to how humans are saved? How do we get back to Garden of Eden where and when things were right and good? How do we realize our Buddhahood, the Buddhahood waiting to happen?

Traditional Christianity says Christ, acceptance of Christ and his work on the cross and his rising victorious. Christ is the bridge back to Eden.

Traditional Buddhism says an insight into who we are and a practice to realize who we are – a practice of seeing things as they are, a practice of compassion, and a practice of meditation. These things lead to enlightenment.

So again, very different ways of seeing things. The two ways of seeing the most pivotal things – God, human nature, salvation – seem irreconciliable.

But they are not. First of all, fortunately, traditions change and morph and develop. I was careful to say traditional Christianity and traditional Buddhism because traditions don’t always stay the same. We see this in both Christianity and Buddhism. Christianity’s mystic tradition has always been there, but the focus on it has grown and developed. The Christian mystic tradition says God in Christ is to be experienced within us, as we remove the separation between us and God and grow into God. There are also modern views of God as not some superman upstairs but as the Ground of Being, as Being itself, as that which connects us and moves us along.

We see in these understandings some movement toward a Buddhist way of seeing things and some shared ground with Buddhism.

And there has also been movement on Buddhism’s part. There are Buddhist traditions, called the Pure Land Buddhist school, that claim that our day and age has lost its way so much that recovering our Buddha-nature, the goodness and enlightenment within us, is no longer possible. Self-power cannot do it. So there is a need for some kind of salvation given to us from Other Power. And in Pure Land Buddhism there is told the story of a Buddha, Amitabha Buddha, who though perfect and fully enlightened and due the paradise of Nirvana, humbles herself out of compassion, returns to the world of suffering to save all beings. A sincere and faithful recitation of the name of Amitabha Buddha gives way to being saved.

I think we see some similarities here to Christianity.

All that said, let us get to a synthesis. We’ve had our compare and contrast. Now comes the synthesis, the bringing together of what has been compared and contrasted. Here is my personal Buddhist-Christian synthesis.

God to me is Love. Not an example of perfect love. Not a loving being. Not love as an idea. God is Love, the living, breathing energy moving in the universe that unites things, connects thing, the tie that binds. God is the interdependent web that marks all of existence.

In the 6th and 7th centuries when Buddhism began planting itself in China, it came across the central Chinese notion of Tao. Tao is not a being, not creator in the usual sense, not willfully involved in and influencing history. Nonetheless, Tao is the essential reality that is moving in the universe, as the fluid and flowing foundation to all that is.

God to me is like Tao.

And like Tao, God is here, now, within us, outside us, everywhere and in everything. God as William Blake reminds us is found in a Grain of Sand, in a Wild Flower, in the palm of your hand, in an hour.

What about humans?

Our original nature is the Garden of Eden nature. We were created as God’s image, as one with God. In Buddhist terms, we each have Buddha-nature. But karma happened and happens. Karma is real. Wrong choices are real. Ignorance is real. Greed and hatred are real. Harmful habits are real. So we do not live out our Garden of Eden nature. We do not actualize our Buddha-nature. Our true nature is merely latent not actual. Buddhism would use the beautiful metaphor of clouds covering the moon. The moon is our latent Garden of Eden nature. The clouds is our karma, our sin, our ignorance covering over the moon.

Salvation? Enlightenment? Salvation means moving the clouds away so that the moon can shine bright and uncovered.

Salvation begins with seeing our true nature. It means seeing who we're created to be. It means seeing we are carriers of God’s image here and now. We are the connection to the beauty and completeness of Eden. We are Buddhas, all are Buddhas at heart. Seeing this is awaking’s first step, is salvation’s first step.

Then there must be cultivation. There must be a living in accordance with who we at heart are. That is why we worship. That is why we pray or meditate or do yoga. That is why we are present with those who are suffering and touch the mind of compassion.

Seeing who we are and living in accordance with who we are. Our Methodist friends would see this as the good old justification and sanctification process. We are made whole by seeing God’s grace in our mere existence as carriers of God’s image on earth. We are made whole by seeing we are each Buddhas in process. But becoming holy, living as God’s image, as Buddhas in the world, takes cultivation and practice.

Again, as we close, that is why we are here. Community, what Buddhism calls sangha, helps us actualize our innate wisdom, compassion, and mindfulness, especially amid tragedies like the one our town has just experienced. We are here to cultivate wisdom, compassion, and mindfulness in community. Studying scriptures and theology, meditating or even doing Tai Chi meditatively, serving people in the community – these things amount to moving the clouds away so that the moon of Eden can shine luminously and show truth. As a result we as individuals grow and so does the community.


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