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Buddhism's challenge to Christian churches


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 to the point of deep realisation, it is possible to work fruitfully across the two traditions.

For the layperson, though, there is a point beyond which it seems impossible to go. Buddhism in its various forms seems to be a religion for the specialist, and the mental discipline and time required to make progress are daunting for most of us. 

There are also cultural issues. While at least some Western women have become revered teachers, the ordinary female practitioner faces entrenched sexism from imported Asian gurus. Of course, Christianity is sexist, too, but in its more liberal forms at least, it offers women more opportunities to become involved. 

Christianity has the great virtue that Christians will take anyone — even me — or you. There is nothing special about us, and if we can will ourselves into faith, its blessings are equally available to all of us.

Buddhism asks more, but also less, of its followers: more, because there is so much to be learned; less because there is so little self-critique involved. I have met Dharma gymnasts, who can recite the words of the latest guru, some of them can even recite thousands of mantras into the night — but they fall into the difficulty that entraps so many of us — the confusing of form with substance.

Christianity is a warm religion, where Buddhism is cool, cerebral. Christianity is a religion of narrative, of prophecy, of human failing and human glory. The Bible is a book of stories about humanity’s relationship with God (or the other way around if you are more orthodox in your views). While there is much accessible, and very helpful, dharma writing, the Buddhist sutras are impenetrable discourses on the absolute. There is also the undeniable beauty of Christian liturgy, music and art to consider. 

Yet Christianity, particularly in its more orthodox forms, seems to be fading in Australia. For many, the historic failure of the churches to acknowledge responsibility for the damage caused by their pedophilia amongst there personnel, has confirmed an aversion to organised religion.

For others, the rituals of church, of ‘signing on the dotted line’, seem to preclude sensible questioning, let alone doubt. The mainstream churches have interpreted this reluctance to mean they must work even harder to attract newcomers into the fold. Perhaps, rather than redoubling its outreach, Christianity might acknowledge that it is still a work in progress. 

Each person, as the best teachers acknowledge, follows his or her own spiritual path. My Dad’s death took me towards Buddhism, my Mum’s back to Christianity. I hope that the spiritual gifts of both traditions will help me prepare me for my own, whenever that may be. 

Jenny StewartJenny Stewart is a writer and former academic living in Canberra.



Topic tags: Jenny Stewart, religion, Christianity, Buddhism, comparative religion, sexual abuse



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Existing comments

There is a meeting point in Meditation. There has been much enriching dialogue between Father Laurence Freeman and the Dalai Lama.

Ma Wi | 24 October 2014  

respected sir/mem.i differentiate the world most four religion . Christianity : Jesus christ said ,i m the son of god.2. prophet Mohamed said i m the messenger og the god.3.so called hindu god krishna said , i m the god.at last 4. buddha said ,i m the path shower to u . now the only n only buddha dhamma can lead u to truth

sunehara singh bauddh | 24 October 2014  

Good piece, nice to see someone going beyond the superficialities in a limited space. Unless we accept reincarnation, it is hard to see Buddhism as other than elitist. Yet it isn't apparent that Westerners in general are embracing reincarnation as a part of the more general interest in Buddhist practices. A lot of Western engagement with Buddhism is coloured by an aversion to Christianity that suggests people may be projecting onto Buddhism their personal religious ideals. Take, for example, the cognitive dissonance that accompanies the discovery that Buddhism does in fact have a strict moral code with perspectives of sexual conduct and misconduct that are quite consistent with traditional Christian teaching.

Zac | 24 October 2014  

Jesus Christ...Neither is there salvation in any other,.... Meaning not corporeal healing, but spiritual and eternal salvation; the Syriac version renders it, neither is there "redemption in any other": Christ is the only Saviour and Redeemer, who was promised and prophesied of as such; who has saved and redeemed his people from the law, sin, and Satan; nor is salvation to be sought and hoped for from any other; not in a man's self, nor in any other creature, angels or men; not in and by his own works, and legal righteousness; not by obedience to the law of Moses, moral or ceremonial; nor by the light of nature, much less by an observance of the traditions of the elders. Source: Net

Annoying Orange | 24 October 2014  

isnt enlightenment a desire itself? If so, how can one ever reach it? If Karma is the absolute law, what made it so? And why are the wrong doers are reborn in another life of punishment with no knowledge of their past deeds? I read an article that asked these questions and it made me wonder as well.

Duy La | 24 October 2014  

Constantinian Christianity has always had the disadvantage of giving service to the imperator rather than the people. This pope seems to have his head screwed on the right way as he is attempting to go to the original message of mercy and compassion rather than watching out for the wealth and the power of the clerics.

Bilal | 24 October 2014  

Buddhists take refuge in The highest Power, Buddha. There is none higher. For heaven you can merely have affection for the Tathagatha and Nirvana is eternal life which is why Lord Buddha is called "Amatassa Datta" or giver of the deathless. Buddhism begins with a proof of the 4 Noble Truths algorithm which is recursive and leads to fractal regeneration. Real God comes with proof. All the others are fraud. All 12 of his own chosen disciples abandoned Jesus.

Saddha | 25 October 2014  

A good nuanced article. I could never ""will" myself into Christian faith so explored Theravada Buddhism for years. I found "faith" of a different type necessary to continue & now in my latter years find hope in gatherings like Sunday Assembly that essays to take the best from all traditions & eschew the logical inconsistencies. Just value & celebrate life in all it's complexity with fellow humans

Mark | 27 October 2014  

Interesting comparison. I see Buddhism more as a philosophy than a religion. They both have important goals: love and compassion. Each is in both.

Dee | 27 October 2014  

I have a view that people want a moral leader - Buddhism offers that. The divinity of Christ is a step too far for many people and too bigger claim on ones allegiance. The committment Christ requires will only ever attract the few. Buddhism is a safe alternative for those just wanting a self refining spirituality rather than transforming relationship with God.

Judy | 27 October 2014  

Romans 1:4 - says all.

Bernstein | 27 October 2014  

Found this to the point, having just read The Naked Buddha by the Venerable Adrienne Howley.,an Australian ordained by the Dalai Lama in1993. She has sailed round the world in a 36ft gaff-rigger, survived cancer and has written a biography of Dorothea Mackellar...a good read - and picked up at the local op shop!

Louise Campbell | 27 October 2014  

There is almost a theological seminar in each paragraph of Jenny Stewart's essay. Religion is a slippery word of uncertain etymology. Does it as Cicero thought derive from re-legere (to read/ponder over and over) or from re-ligere (to bind one's self back to some supreme being or beings)? I plumb for the latter. If Buddhism is to be considered a religion of sorts it would be of the former i.e. going deeper into one's own consciousness. Buddha (b586 BCE) for me is a philosopher, not unlike the Greek Anaxagoras (b500 BCE). Both looked at the universe as a whole and saw the impermanence of everything and at the same time the interdependence of everything. Anaxagoras held that there was a force producing 'stuff' that introduced order into the universe and it fell to man to cooperate with the development of things. Buddha on the other hand sought a way out from an unsatisfactory world. Anaxagoras is now hardly a household name but he was in a way the Father of Civic Responsibility. The Buddha on the other hand is universally known and his sermons on self-examination and hope for an ineffable ultimate state - Nirvana, a comfort for many..

Uncle Pat | 27 October 2014  

An enlightening article. Western Christianity (as against Eastern Christianity) has, in many ways, become overly cerebral: the legacy of Augustine; the Scholastic Tradition; the Reformers and Counter-Reformers is sometimes like the concrete "shoes" the Mafia were supposed to fit their victims with before tossing them overboard. There is, of course, the genuine Western Christian mystic tradition as exemplified by St Benedict and his Order and the likes of St John of the Cross and St Theresa of Avila. This, I would suggest, is as contemplative or meditative as anything in Buddhism. Indeed, there have been ongoing monastic dialogues (which have very much included women monastics from the Christian side) between the two Faiths for a number of years. Thomas Merton and Thich Nhat Hanh did enter into a correspondence dialogue I believe. Neither "gave up" being what they were. I think intelligent reflective Westerners of Christian descent need to rediscover their own "secret" heritage. The Pope said as much when he appealed to the Carmelites who he dubbed "experts in prayer" so they could "teach us how to pray".

Edward Fido | 27 October 2014  

Thankyou Jenny Stewart for this very helpful treatment of Christianity and Buddhism side by side. I have often wondered how Jesus would have responded to Buddhist teaching. As a lifelong (8 decades) Catholic aware of the bumps in the road over decades for Christianity I have found the book "Buddhism Without Beliefs" by Stephen Batchelor absolutely revelatory. The basic practice of Mindfulness deals helpfully in recognition of the relation of oneself to the world revealed to us in ever more detail and with increased clarity through discovery. So many beliefs held taught to members of other faiths than Buddhism get in the way of an authentic relation to the world we live in and its other inhabitants, human and all the rest. It seems to me that reincarnation is an "optional extra" for the Buddhist, seeming to have a parallel in the belief in an afterlife so firmly held by the Christian.. Mindfulness helps me to accept that I am but "dust" and that such dust in a sense has an "everlasting life" as it may contribute to the substance of other life forms in the future.

Mike Foale | 27 October 2014  

I share your concern about the decline of Christianity in Australia. I have attempted a response from a different perspective in my book "God, Ethics and the Secular Society". If you are interested I can point you to a copy.

John Gunson | 27 October 2014  

I was an Asian Buddhist when I was 18; studied the dharma and practiced Tibetan Buddhism. While there are many good things in Buddhism, I found Catholic Christianity liberating. I no longer need to work hard to be good to gain heaven or nirvana. But God loves me first and from this love I extend it to others. And that is the most liberating thing I found in Christ. And I think this is what is most appealing to many Asians' attraction to Christianity. Bur Buddhism reminds us to do inner work rather than focus on externalism as many Catholics do. Bring back mysticism and inner spirituality to Catholicism rather than rules and regulations and you will see revival.

sebastian | 27 October 2014  

Zac, looking at the cartoon of Jesus and Buddha chatting under the tree, do you really thing they are talking about "sexual conduct"?

AURELIUS | 27 October 2014  

I strongly suggest Paul Knitter's book: 'Without Buddha, I Could Not be a Christian.' I think it's time for some re-evangelisation of those who call themselves followers of Jesus in terms of His discourse on prayer in Matthew 6. Jesus was a teacher of contemplative prayer but much less of the ritual and activity which characterises much of today's organised Christianity (vide Karl Rahner's prediction at the time of Vatican II). I've learnt through the teaching and practices of the World Community for Christian Meditation that the silent, personal experience of God's presence is at the heart of Christian faith and of its longest traditions, including ritual prayer. And not just for monks or nuns in cloisters, but for everyone. It's the antidote we need today for our frantic, dualistic lives. This is the basis of the great friendship between the WCCM and the Dali Lama. There are great Christian teachers of this abroad today but this understanding of being a follower of Jesus doesn't get through the formal structures and formulas we identify as Christianity. When will we ever hear a homily on contemplation like the one the Lord gave to Martha and Mary? We need both these models, but mostly we need to choose the 'better part'.

JO'D | 27 October 2014  

Just lost my comment before I could put my personal id in - but I'm going to say it again, anyway. Buddhists indeed don't have a god. Perhaps, though, they might say that if there is a 'god' it is impossible for a mere human to say anything about him. I'd agree. However, I think that God is able to say something about himself. When he speaks, his Word is a human person, whom we can apprehend and love. This love for human flesh is what differentiates us from Buddhism, which seems to inhabit an intellectual space rather that a bodily one. For me, it's all about the Incarnation.

Joan Seymour | 27 October 2014  

When Pope Benedict XVI resigned, he proposed to study God's Mountain. This is a common analogy for seeking to find God. Earlier he had predicted that the Church would become smaller in numbers, but more spiritual. All God's Children are gathered around the base of Mountain of God, and despite many distractions, deep down they yearn to find Him. Each must find their own Religion, or Path, up the Mountain. There have been many thousands of Religions. They are products of Human Minds and represent Paths that people have found helpful in the past, and which still help many, because they are tailored to the degree of culture and development of their followers. When the Buddhists say 'God is no- thing', they mean He is not a material thing, as a part of the Universe but a Transcendent Being. An analogy is often suggested as like the music that comes from a Stradivarius violin. Someone who is tone deaf may claim that all that is there is vibrating wood and catgut, but in the hands of an expert the music can uplift and enrich the spirit. Those who have attuned to God have brought wonderful blessings on the world.

Robert Liddy | 27 October 2014  

Roy C Amore, a Canadian United Church minister, in his book "Two Masters, One Message" makes the fascinating suggestion that Jesus would have been aware of the teachings of the Buddha. Roy Amore suggests that it is quite possible that Buddhist missionaries accompanied the trading caravans that came through the region that Jesus lived in. To support this thesis Amore points out the strong similarities between the teachings of Jesus and Buddhist texts.

Peter Hanley | 28 October 2014  

I am grateful to Peter Hanley for his post on Roy C Amore who is a respected authority in his field. My own thought is that Buddhism, via the Silk Road, has had a marked effect on Orthodoxy. Orthodoxy has adapted this - a bit like an oyster - in terms of quietness and stillness and not attempting to obtain a confected emotional experience in something like the Jesus Prayer. l

Edward Fido | 28 October 2014  

I was raised Catholic, and hence experienced cognitive dissonance as I struggled between my hopes for eternal bliss and a Universe that requires no Creator as an explicatory principle. I nevertheless recognise the universality of ethical principles for living in this world, principles that are set out in both Christianity and in Buddhism; indeed, similar principles are to be found in other faith systems.

David Arthur | 28 October 2014  

I would be interested in hearing what experts in logotherapy have to say about the appeal Buddhism has to westerners who have what Zac referred to "an aversion to Christianity's moral code on sexuality". I think there is a deep point here that is being missed that can't just be interpreted in the usual superficial pro-left/right manner.

AURELIUS | 28 October 2014  

Most interesting to read and very apt at this time Jenny. I am setting up a Multifaith avenue for us to inter-dialogue and share from the heart the way in which we hear source. Blessings on your own journey. Pax Et Bonum

Br Cledwyn | 28 October 2014  

Aurelius, I'm not quite sure what you're getting at. Nevertheless, you might enjoy a more extended look at the same issue: http://www.mercatornet.com/articles/view/compassionate_or_confusing_the_dalai_lama_on_same_sex_marriage I suspect that many (but not all) Westerners are attracted to East and South Asian religions because they promise spiritual fulfillment allegedly without the baggage of our Christian heritage, in particular the moral teachings. That is not to say that the moral teachings are the heart of any religion. But it is at least intriguing when (some) Western devotees of Buddhism discover in their chosen religion the same kinds of moral teachings they had abandoned in Christianity. On a lighter note: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kstH-8jwa80

Zac | 28 October 2014  

A fundamental dimension of Christinaity not appraised in Jenny's article is one of communion. Christianity is a communion which extends beyond spiritualism.

Andrew | 30 October 2014  

Frankly I share not the angst and angoisse of the article and yes I have sat at the feet of Fr Alois Pieris SJ sent by his superiors to live Buddhism as far as possible without becoming Buddhist Myself far removed from heady inter-religious mental gymnastic have in stroke/cancer recovery brought a whole Buddhist Sri Lankan family into the Roman Catholic Church and have Nepalese and other Buddhists nibbling at RC faith- It only required my asking the Buddhists [I have in more mobile days engaged Islamic youth on Sacrament of Confession at Lakemba Mosque, till politely asked to leave by ''a heavy' not enamored at intense dialogue on confession with Islamic youth. As a young seminarian I honed my skills debating Stalinists at Sydney Domain. There is still a place for apologetics sans super irenicism!

Father John George | 30 October 2014  

Can recommend a book 'Benedict's Dharma' - a look at the Rule of Benedict by 3 practitioners of the Buddhist way - very refreshing. I think if one 'prefers Christ above all' as the rule commends then one can not be ego-centred hence can approach others with openness. Spiritual experiences are not limited to Christians - and as humans we need to respect each others definitions. In my view it's about being fully human.

hilary | 31 October 2014  

I wish I had seen this earlier, and find the article and comments fascinating. I was a Jesuit for 20 years and now a Buddhist for 28 years. Robert Aitken Roshi one of my Zen teachers said he would fail an examination in Buddhism. What I find much more satisfying in Zen is the practice of meditation and the relationship with the teacher. Much of the discussion here sounds dogmatic, yet it seems to me that it is when there is no dogma that is who you are, a person on the way. Buddhism certainly has its codes of conduct and its teaching, but I think that most practitioners of any code cherry pick what they want from the tradition. I think that one of the reasons for the decline in Christian adherence is the lack of focus on a spiritual tradition, genuinely spiritual not just ritual or dogma. It was there with the mystics who never seem to get much of a mention in the main stream. I think that both Buddhism and Christianity offer some fire insurance for the next life which is basically a mystery. Let's keep the dialogue going-no barriers eh?

Michael D. Breen | 12 November 2014  

After my husband died and suddenly alone with 2 very small children, a friend started me meditating and reading books on Buddhism, Bhagavad Gita etc. It was a perfect time to explore and made me realise how important Jesus is for me. Though never leaving, I came back to Christianity and the Bible with fresh eyes and a whole new appreciation, surprised that I had never seen it quite this way before. I will always have great affection and gratitude for Buddhism. Thank you Jenny Stewart and all the comments. Eureka St, one of your best contributions.

Jane | 12 November 2014  

Your thoughtful discussion made me think of my friendships with people from SE Asia who are Buddhists by birth, deeply faithful and have the traditions woven into their everyday thinking. They pray too but have no hard and fast doctrine and are not so interested in enlightenment as in achieving kharma in this life. They have tight me through the way they live about forgiveness, to not think too much so as to harbour resentment or anger. Our dialogue is simply talking about our work together and what I can do materially to give assistance but it has subtly influenced me to be more aware of how passing judgement is rooted in our culture, a improper borrowing from Christianity. Reflection on Buddhism and vice versa I believe will enrich both faith traditions.

Eric Snowball | 08 December 2014  

The thing that stands out for me is that in Australia we seem to have declared all out war on Christianity, but deep unquestioning respect for all other religions. It greatly distresses me because Christianity is our cultural heritage and at the core of our social systems.

Anne | 06 January 2015  

Hello Jenny. Liked your article. I came from a christian family but was aware of reincarnstion past asian lives. Saw Sakyamumi Buddha age 3-4. Was naturally vegetarian as a child. Head injury led to learning difficulties that were solved by not thinking as a westerner. Moved to Manchester 1998 with 2nd partner s lady into healing,alternative therapy,astrology and white magic. Divide my time busking my own arrangements of Kipling's poems,looking after her and writing sci-fi. I find christianity in Manchester too hard line having been buddhist most of my life as it makes no dogmatic demands and is a way of action. Enjoyed reading article. Many thanks. Alan.

Alan.R.Dent BA(Hons) | 23 April 2015  

Dear Jenny your article was very interesting. My parents were christians but I was spiritually precocious. I saw Sakyamuni Buddha aged 3 and my RE was mostly extracurricular. Recited the Salutation, Refuges and Precepts age 10. Head injury & epilepsy blighted my life until I met my second partner who changed my life. A high priestess, believing in Karma and Reincarnation I am a musician, , Tarot consultant and writer with an idea for a second degree on "belief, science and society" and welcome any constructive ideas. Many thanks. Alan.

Alan.R.Dent | 29 May 2015  

I found Buddhism 10 years ago. Reading a lot, Bob Thurman, Steve Bachelor. I call Christianity Buddhism 2.0! Arthur Little has a great book on the two

Rick Miller | 11 January 2018  

Interesting article with a number of helpful comments. A few bones to pick? "Christianity is 'warm' while Buddhism is 'cold and cerebral'" Nah, not really. Christianity of course, with its talk of hellfire and damnation can be "warm" in a very "cold" way, if you get my drift. Buddhism's compassion and taking refuge in the Sangha (buddhist community) can bring great warmth. So, will disagree with those points. "Buddhism is sexist and (liberal) Christianity has more opportunities for women." Nah - there are sexist Buddhist teachers and sexist Christian teachers. But there are also Buddhist sanghas (e.g. Plum Village) where women play an equal role. The Bible says for women to keep silent in the churches. As you note, it takes a "liberal" view to get past that culturally bound sexism.

Robert S. | 23 February 2019  

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