Buddhism and Christianity: a brief convergence

G.K. Chesterton once teased his contemporary proponents of comparative religion as arguing that:

Christianity and Buddhism are very much alike, especially Buddhism.

He was right in that enthusiasm for a “common truth” in all religion seems almost by definition to resolve comfortably in the domain of a Buddhist-inspired mysticism. Modern advocates of a universal religion still tend to fall into the trap of equating Christ with the Buddha, and then cutting out the bits that don’t fit.

But Chesterton was not especially well informed about Buddhism, and I suspect that those who want to Buddhify Christ may be thinking a little too narrow in their approach to the problem.

That’s not what this post is about, however, and lest I get sidetracked let’s keep things simple.

After some years of consideration and study, it seems fairly straightforward that what is described in Buddhism as Sunyata or ’emptiness’ corresponds to the apophatic or “negative theology” aspect of God as something that defies the grasp of our intellect.

Buddhism may therefore be viewed from a Christian perspective as a conceptually negative attempt to enter into a profound mystical relationship with God, both understood and experienced as the hidden foundation of all reality.

From a Buddhist point of view, orthodox Christianity is a little harder to grasp. Okay, it’s actually a lot harder to grasp without conceding some points that don’t seem to lie in the usual ambit of Buddhist metaphysics.

But if all form arises from emptiness, and we understand (thanks to negative theology) that by ‘God’ Christians refer to this emptiness, then wouldn’t we have to allow that ‘creation’, or the coming into being and sustenance of all things, must be the same as the arising of forms out of emptiness?

The stumbling block of an anthropomorphised view of God as some kind of Zeus-like deity sitting above the clouds and contemplating how to interfere in our lives is not the view held by orthodox Christianity.

The real stumbling block is that orthodox Christians believe Jesus Christ to have been an incarnation (coming into form) of God (emptiness), as a true expression of the emptiness, in a way that differs from the Buddha, where the Buddha is understood to be an ordinary human who realised emptiness.

You can see why there is such a temptation to reduce Christ to the level of a Buddha, or to say that Christ’s claims of divinity were misunderstood by his followers, or that they are somehow the ‘equivalent’ of the Buddha’s enlightened state.

Yet at the same time, some Buddhist sects have gone in the opposite direction, elevating and even divinising the Buddha until he represents not just an awakened or enlightened human, but enlightenment and emptiness itself.

Some people are offended by Christian exceptionalism. That’s understandable, but Buddhism can also be exceptionalist in its own way – viewing other religions as inferior paths that do not contain the complete truth – it’s just that reincarnation allows Buddhism a much more relaxed attitude on a number of issues.

Since I’m angling for a Buddhist perspective on Christianity, let’s look at it from the more pragmatic perspective of the individual path to enlightenment. When Christians hold up the crucifix they are venerating the image of the highest possible being (God) that was reduced to the lowest and most miserable human condition – unjust suffering and death at the hands of others.  They venerate this image in the understanding that the dead God-human did not remain in death, but came back to life, and in so doing revealed the truth about life, death, God, and humanity.

Is it any wonder that his followers subsequently lost their fear of death, changed their lives, and gained a new understanding of their relationship with God?

Each religion makes sense in its own context. We can also find points of contact between the different religions. But when we do this we are stepping outside the original frame of either religion. To try to make them all fit together is inevitably a different activity. To see them as saying the same thing is ultimately a solitary experience.

I guess the real question is whether it is otherwise for anyone else?

5 thoughts on “Buddhism and Christianity: a brief convergence

  1. Yes, and Christianity is unlike any other religion, especially Christianity.

    A synthesis between orthodox Christianity and Buddhism seems unlikely. But that’s understandable given the difference between orthodox and … (heterodox?) ‘mainstream’ Christianity.

    I also don’t think you can extricate religion from culture, in that the differences between someone raised Christian and someone raised Buddhist will usually go beyond religion. To you, the idea of God as a manifestation of emptiness, and the redemptive mechanism of Christ makes sense. Perhaps intense study and implicit assumptions from your environment have made you more receptive to these ideas. To me, raised somewhat Buddhist, it just doesn’t make sense. What’s so great about a god who pretends to be a man who then turns out to be a god?

    At this point, the Pentecostal teaching – my other ‘somewhat’ – kick in, and the Kierkegaard we appropriate tells me that the less sense it makes, the greater the virtue of developing faith in it.

    But back to your piece. I interpret your final question as, “Why do people try to mash-up religions? It’s such particular work and the end result is often: ‘separate religions are separate’.”

    Perhaps it’s not such an isolating exercise. Perhaps people seeking a connection to one another are using comparisons of religion as a starting point for discussion. That is, a concise study of religious overlap is not the end goal, but a hastily constructed means to make conversation (and also show how learned or well-travelled one is.)

    A true convergence of Buddhism and Christianity may be out of reach, but that’s okay, because that’s not what people really want when they talk about it.

    • The more particular we are, the more solitary we become. I’ll use ‘solitary’ instead of ‘isolated’ here so it doesn’t sound so forlorn.
      Or to go one step further than “separate religions are separate”, we could just say different people are different, and their different perspectives of different religions are just further differentiations that we paper over by pretending that groups of people in the “same” religion are therefore less different at least in that regard.
      That leaves us kinda existentially alone, even to the point of not really knowing what other people are interested in or why. Maybe we should even say: without knowing if we are truly alone?

    • I look at it in the context of the two levels of truth. On the one hand, we are not separate. On the other hand, the majority of people I interact with have no idea what I’m talking about.

  2. Yes I agree with that. We can all appreciate what we call the relative level. But when Buddhists try to point out a truth on the ultimate level most people are totally lost.

    This is also one very good reason why Buddhism in not a “re”-“legion” other religions are trying to come together (legion) again (re) to paraphrase lightly. In Buddhism we were never apart and will always be together.

    Thank you

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