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Buddhism's challenge to Christian churches

  • 27 October 2014

On the face of it, it would be impossible to find two religions more different than Buddhism and Christianity. 

Christians believe that there is a God, whereas Buddhism has no god. The Buddha pointed the way, whereas Jesus said that he was the way. Christianity promises believers eternal life. Buddhism’s highest state, the state of enlightenment, is freedom from being reborn.

On the other hand, there are compelling similarities. The spirit of compassion, bodhicitta in Sanskrit, is as central to Buddhism as that of love is to Christianity. 

While their objectives may be different, there are prayers in both traditions. Christianity has its saints, who exemplify faith. Tibetan Buddhism has saintlike figures, Bodhisattvas, whose example selflessly illuminates the way, the dharma. 

But it is at the personal level that these questions take on practical significance. For those seeking to deepen their spiritual practice, it seems reasonable to ask, in what ways can the two traditions be brought together? Is it possible to be a Buddhist Christian, or a Christian Buddhist?

It seems easier to think about this problem from the Buddhist perspective rather than the Christian one. Buddhism is not an exclusive religion. It is possible, according to the Dalai Lama, to practise Buddhist principles while still being a Christian. 

Some Christians would agree with this. But even they would not suggest that Buddhists consider practising Christian principles while remaining Buddhist. It seems that Christianity wants all of you. 

And this, I think, is precisely the difficulty for many Australians who are interested in pursuing the life of the spirit, but find it difficult to believe in God, or at least, the way God is presented to us through standard forms of Christianity. 

Buddhism does not tell you that you have to believe in anything. It is a technology of the mind, as much as it is a religion. And as I and many thousands of Australians have found, learning even basic practices can be a liberating experience. 

But beyond the initial liberation, there are difficulties. While there is immense variation among the various schools of Buddhist thought, there is a core of correctness within each one. And there is work to be done. The point of the practice is to control one’s mind, an arduous, indeed endless, discipline. 

It is here, I think that western adherents often come to grief. If you really know what you are doing, like the Catholic priest Ruben Habito who studied and practiced Zen