Comparing Buddhism & Christianity: An Offense?

Over the years I have repeatedly seen many Western Buddhists offended when parts of their beliefs or practice have been compared to Christianity. I am not sure why but I have some thoughts:

  • Many Western Buddhists feel like a minority and are defensive from the beginning.
  • Buddhist feel their beliefs are rational and Christian beliefs are essentially irrational.
  • Many Western Buddhists left Christianity to become Buddhists and thus feel the comparison offensive.
  • Western Buddhists, like many Christians, don’t feel their faith is a religion like all the other silly religions.
  • Western Buddhists don’t believe people are condemned to hell and thus are deeply offended if they are compared to a religion which does.
  • Western Buddhists largely consider themselves politically liberal and consider Christians politically conservative and are offended at that level.
  • Though Western Buddhists and Christians feel themselves superior to each other,  Western Buddhists think their view is more scientific and not superstitious.

Well, I am sure there are lots of different reasons but I will stop to keep this post short and see what readers think.

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37 responses to “Comparing Buddhism & Christianity: An Offense?

  1. One additional possibility: Western Buddhists don’t like to be defined or labeled by others. Expressing outrage at someone else’s definition of Buddhism clears the stage for the Buddhist to talk about how she defines Buddhism.

  2. @ JS
    That seems complicated. First, why did you italicize “she”?

    Anyway, many Buddhists are very fond of the supposed inexplicability of their deep insight into reality. They think it is all beyond words and thus they can always retreat to paradox much like Christians retreat to faith. Often each like playing the game until they get uncomfortable and then run to their favorite sanctuary. But I don’t think that is what you meant.

    I agree that most people don’t like being labeled unless it is the label they choose. Buddhists may think their understanding of reality is so deep that it escapes labels. (that may be what you mean, but you see how it is linked to the first paragraph).

  3. Bart

    Nail, hammer. You connected them solidly with this simple post. Or, you pandered to my own preconceptions of western Buddhists.

    I’ve always felt that they were just basically atheists who can’t let go of the idea of their consciousness surviving death.

  4. @ Bart
    Thanx for dropping in. Yeah, the rebirth notion is pretty classic. David Chapman (a Buddhist) is doing a fun series that analyzes Modern Western Buddhism and talks about the Christianity’s influence in Western Buddhism, you might enjoy it.

  5. Your first paragraph is exactly what I meant. In my experience, it’s a pretty common reason that Western Buddhist react to any labeling or comparison to other thought systems — they feel that their own understanding is so deep and sophisticated that comparison to any other thought systems will only result in misunderstanding.

  6. There are three items regarding my own practice that I’ve personally had people compare with Christianity and the other monotheistic faiths.

    1. – The idea of faith as a part of practice. This is something that has been debated recently among many Buddhists I know as well. I was told that by even using the term “faith” I was giving authority to anyone who uses it to describe their relationship with Jesus. This irks me for the simple fact that I don’t feel that Christians have a trademark on the word ‘faith’, nor does faith have one solid, fixed meaning only relevant to Christians.

    2. – Karma and rebirth – I’m lumping these two together because they are often lumped together by atheists and others that are pointing out what they believe to be superstitious elements in Buddhism no different than the concept of soul or heaven in Christianity. This doesn’t particularly offend me. I’ve seen what amount to some fairly preposterous ideas about each of these concepts, and personally, I have my own view about how those systems work (more so with karma, with regard to rebirth, I’ve just put that on the shelf) and really couldn’t give a shit if people think of them as magical, or secular or what. Like you’ve alluded to before, it is quite difficult to point to any “one” Buddhism, and karma and rebirth are two of the concepts that complicate that very position.

    3. All religions are the same. – This one really does piss me off. I don’t care who (whom?) it comes from. Whether it be New Agers, Buddhists, Atheists, or what. All religions are *not* the same, nor do they all point to the same truth or are they all different slopes up the same mountain. There may be similar elements, that is for sure. But to equate my spiritual practice with that of a Christians, to me, is a complete falsehood, and disrespectful. It has nothing to do with comparing them in favorable or unfavorable light, but everything to do with completely mischaracterizing what it is I’m doing. I would never say that even Christians and Muslims are basically the same, I find that to be rather absurd frankly.

    I hate to speak for others, but I would add that I find many Western Buddhists do find their path to be more rational/scientific than Christianity, because within it is a system built to disregard faith at some point, and learn for yourself whether or not a particular tenet of the religion is true or not.

  7. @ Adam: “within it is a system built to disregard faith at some point, and learn for yourself whether or not a particular tenet of the religion is true or not.”

    I would see this ‘built in system’ as a feature of Western Buddhism (though it can be supported by Buddhist texts, of course). Its main source the Kalama Sutta has never been used (and abused) so much in the Asian Buddhist context as in the Western one. See here for example: The endless round of fake Buddha quotes.

  8. What I hear the most (in Hungary): Buddhism with wisdom, happiness, Nibbana etc. accessible to everyone, so no need for clergy, therefore no institutions, no hierarchy opposed to the soul and intellect crashing tyranny 🙂 and corruption of the Catholic Church that naturrally(!) come from the hierarchic structure.

  9. I agree that the Kalama Sutra is not a sutra expounding the role of (and the degree of) skepticism that many in the West feel it does. I think Thanissaro Bikkhu provides an excellent commentary on accesstoinsight on this.

    I know that Buddhadasa Bikkhu was one that held the Kalama suttra in high regard, and that it tends to be favored in the Thai tradition, at least within the last century, but that could very well have something to do with Westerners influence in the region as well.

    You can find similar language in many, many of the other texts and suttras though. The authors of the Pali cannon use phrases such as “when the monk discerns A, then B” rather extensively. Rather than, “monks, B is true”. Often we find the Buddha’s followers to go off into the forrest for a few years to test the teachings they have received. A very integral part of the Noble Eightfold path is discernment. Maybe not a system of checks and balances traditional science might provide, but it also isn’t a series of blind leaps of faith, or faith in something utterly untestable.

    Also, in Zen, within the very first pages in the record of Rinzai we have Rinzai publicly humiliating a suttra teacher that thought by studying the sutras (and appealing to authority over experience) one could gain direct insight into Buddha nature.

  10. @ Adam: You do not have to convince me about evidence 🙂 in the texts, what I only would like to say is that the importance of this ‘see for yourself’ approach is emphasised much more in Modern Buddhism/Buddhist Modernism (which Buddhadasa also belongs to) than earlier, in Asia, and this approach makes ground for seeing any ‘faith religions’ inferior.

  11. Re: ‘. . .it’s a pretty common reason that Western Buddhist[s]. . . feel that their own understanding is so deep and sophisticated that comparison to any other thought systems will only result in misunderstanding.’ I found that statement interesting. To me it implies that the person who dislikes the comparison is just scared of the possibility that *actually* their own understanding is pretty shallow and that might be exposed by comparsion (with anything). My own understanding is not ‘deep and sophisticated’ but that doesn’t scare me. It is what it is. Sure, it irritates me sometimes, but such is life.

    My own experience of Buddhism is that it is a tradition which builds upon incremental experiential understanding (it does not explicitly encourage chasing after something ‘deep and ineffable’). My own objections to a comparison between Buddhism and Christianity would be based upon detailed specifics – not on the notion of comparison in general. So, if for example someone said Emptiness in Buddhism *equals* God in Christianity (often said to me at multi-faith meetings by Christians, when I try and fail to explain a little about the concepts of Form and Emptiness) I would object. I’d object because my experience (such as it is) does not support that proposition. You could *compare* Emptiness and God although I’m not sure what you’d get out of such a comparison. I actually think a kind of ‘undergraduate-level’ failing of comparitive religion is that people say things *equate* rather than comparing two interesting-but-distinct things.

    Well, that’s my twopenneth anyway.

  12. @ Namgyal Dorje

    (1) I agree, some people are threatened far too easily. And I think many Buddhists are not threatened.

    (2) As we probably agree, there are many flavors of Buddhism — some very contradictory. For instance there may very well be some flavors of Buddhism who’s notion of Emptiness indeed is close to the Divine in some flavors of Christianity. David writes about this in some of his posts. Of course this may not be so for your flavor but there is no such thing as ONE homogenous Buddhism.

    (3) Comparison is done at PhD levels (not just undergraduate) with great benefits in everything from biology, linguistics, religion, politics, economic and much more. I am not saying “Equate” and I am not saying “Totally Distinct” — that dichotomy would be blatantly false. Insightful comparison is a huge part of what has caused progress in knowledge.

  13. @ Sabio – regarding your points on comparison – to be fair I concur. What I meant to imply was that people can easily tripped up by the notion of comparison. It’s the old ‘a dog has four legs, a cat has four legs, therefore a cat is a dog’ routine. You often hear it at Buddhist teachings actually, where someone will say for example ‘Oh, so is that like Yin and Yang?’ and my own teacher will say ‘I can’t answer that – I don’t know about Yin and Yang because that’s not within the system I practice.’ The emphasis is always to concentrate on what a thing *is* rather than what a thing *is like*. However, you’re quite right, comparison is a good thing – although it can get tricky (just ask Romeo – that whole ‘Summer’s Day’ thing got him in trouble in the end).

  14. @Namgyal – I have no idea how you got “scared” out of that.

    I was just talking about the sort of thing you describe in your anecdote.. In the anecdote, you believe that your understanding of the concepts of Form and Emptiness better than the person making the comparison. Indeed, you “try and fail” to explain even a “little” about these concepts. Further, you suspect that the other person simply couldn’t understand, since he hasn’t had the same experiences as you. So, you just object.

    Sabio’s original list highlighted a bunch of reasons that Buddhists consider their belief system to be unique versus Christians. But I’m highlighting that there is also a big aspect of personal uniqueness in Buddhism, and that’s a big reason for the objections that Buddhists make.

  15. I compare atheists to communists all the time, and usually get the same reaction. LOL

  16. Communists! What the …. oooops, got me! 😉

  17. @ JS Allen

    Re: “In the anecdote, you believe that your understanding of the concepts of Form and Emptiness better than the person making the comparison.”

    I don’t believe it, I’m utterly convinced of it. So was the person to whom I was talking and they said as much. They asked about what Buddhists believed in, we got onto Form and Emptiness, and they said ‘Wassat then?’ After our exchange they themselves said they ‘didn’t get it’ – which was fine – I apologised for my crummy explanation.

    Re: “Indeed, you “try and fail” to explain even a “little” about these concepts. Further, you suspect that the other person simply couldn’t understand, since he hasn’t had the same experiences as you. ”

    Nope – the person (a Minister who was round for dinner) didn’t understand. I’m certain he *could* understand give a bit more time and an explanation from someone more savvy and articulate than I. He was stuck with me though. The key thing in the exchange was that he needed not to turn Emptiness into God. To go into the specifics of the conversation, he wished to ascribe personality, a divine plan, character and personality (amongst other things) to Emptiness. He was specifically Monist and Eternalist in his description – explicit denials in Buddhist Vajrayana. That ain’t Emptiness (from the Vajrayana perspective).

    BTW the reason I worded that bit as I did is that I’m a Brit, and to me if I write ‘I explained Form and Emptiness to someone and they didn’t understand’ it could read (to my very English eyes) as ‘I’m Enlightened and they were a jerk’ (which is clearly not the case).

    “. . .So, you just object.. . ”

    Actually I poured him another glass of red wine, and we talked about how entertained we were to not understand one another. He was smiling at his own ‘failure’ to explain his experiential comprehension of God, and what it meant to be ‘in God’s presence’. Gotta be honest, what he was saying sounded great, but I didn’t understand it. Not understanding is just fine – on the part of both parties. I objected not to the comparison, but to equating one the thing with another. And I didn’t object because it was naughty, or intellectually offensive – it just didn’t work. It’s like chat up lines – I don’t object to them because they are cheesy, or sexist – it’s because in the act of uttering them the person undermines the very thing they’re trying to achieve. They’re non-functional. Or maybe that’s just me.

  18. it’s because in the act of uttering them the person undermines the very thing they’re trying to achieve.

    LOL, this is precisely how I feel, too!

    And I’m completely with you about the folly of equating emptiness with God. I blogged about almost this exact issue from my experience practicing Tibetan Buddhism. Back then, I was coming from atheism, so I was looking at “love” instead of “god”, but the realization is much the same. I realized, “Holy shit! This ‘love’ the bodhisattvas talk about is not what I call love!”

    Interestingly, the first comment to that post begins with “.., I am more convinced of how dangerous it is to try to equate any elements of such different worldviews.”, which I suppose is exactly what you’ve been saying in your comments here. Contrast, yes. Equate, no.

  19. @ Adam:

    (1) “Faith”
    Faith is a pejorative for Atheists. But I think it is very loaded. I give several definitions here. But I found common ground if I can get people to agree on the word “Trust” (trust-faith, rather than blind faith). And here I wrote about “Buddhist Faith” to aid Christians & anti-faith Buddhists.
    So depending on the sect of Buddhism (take some forms of Shin) the “faith” in Christianity is comparable.

    (2) Rebirth
    So you have no trouble agreeing with Rebirth/Hell comparison because you have seen them used similarly occasionally, right?
    I agree, when the comparison is made, sometimes it is best to agree with any particular sect or type of believer who may indeed use the concept the way the person comparing says. THEN, you can point out how you use it differently. It is important to recognize that there are many types of Buddhism and Christianity.

    (3) All Religions are the Same
    This nauseating, naive pablum is just a sign that dialogue with this person is going to take a lot of effort or perhaps we should just keep the relationship to play frisbee together.

  20. Here is a point-by-point rebuttal of everything in your post coming from a Buddhist.

    * Many Western Buddhists feel like a minority and are defensive from the beginning.”

    Not true. I know I am a minority, but it doesn’t affect the way I practice and how I converse with people of other religions and philosophies.

    * Buddhist feel their beliefs are rational and Christian beliefs are essentially irrational.

    Assuming all Buddhist believe one thing and all Christians another is something I don’t do. You may do that, but individuals have different beliefs and just because they align themselves with a specific group doesn’t mean they hold every belief that group propounds.

    * Many Western Buddhists left Christianity to become Buddhists and thus feel the comparison offensive.

    Not true for me. I was taken to church as a child, but was an atheist from the time I could make sense of what I believed (about 8 years old), an agnostic at age 16, and then a Buddhist after I had studied suttas and taken up a meditation practice for a year or so (aged 23).

    * Western Buddhists, like many Christians, don’t feel their faith is a religion like all the other silly religions.

    Buddhism is a practice. It has religious aspects as well as philosophical aspects, but to say it is just those things is to miss the point that Buddhism is the practice of the Eightfold Path.

    * Western Buddhists don’t believe people are condemned to hell and thus are deeply offended if they are compared to a religion which does.

    Condemned to hell? No. The concept of hell is more of a present reality. You’re already in hell because of defiled mental states (greed, hatred, and delusion) and you experience the result of pursuing those states in this life. We have different conceptions of hell with some similarities. Again, some Buddhists believe in literal hell (plane of woe) and you cannot say we all believe the same things.

    * Western Buddhists largely consider themselves politically liberal and consider Christians politically conservative and are offended at that level.

    What a stupid statement. It really is completely wrong. This is what happens when you try to put people in neatly labeled boxes and leave it at that. I call myself a Buddhist and have some conservative and liberal political sentiments. A lot of my Christian friends are very liberal with some conservative ideas. You’re generalizing people in a way that I and no other Buddhist, Christian, atheist, and human should ever do.

    * Though Western Buddhists and Christians feel themselves superior to each other, Western Buddhists think their view is more scientific and not superstitious.

    I audibly sighed when I read this point. I don’t consider myself superior to anyone. The Buddha talked of three types of conceit: I’m better, worse, or equal; all assumptions that one takes up with no real knowledge of the workings of the other person’s mind. To make those judgments is fundamentally not Buddhist. Some may do this, but again this is a generalization. Maybe you could benefit from the Buddhist practice of not seeing people through your own biased, judgmental views and actually talk to them to see what they believe. And not just a short conversation. Befriend them and talk to them at length. This is the only way you can even get close to knowing anything about them.

  21. @arahanto – You seem to be confused about what a “rebuttal” is. If President Obama says something like, “Many Americans are worried about how they will make ends meet”, I don’t “rebut” him by saying, “Obama is wrong! I am doing just fine!”

    It’s also pretty funny that you call someone “stupid”, “completely wrong”, “not Buddhist” — and then claim to not feel superior, while giving advice about how to be non-judgmental.

  22. @Sabio

    “So you have no trouble agreeing with Rebirth/Hell comparison because you have seen them used similarly occasionally, right?”

    I have no trouble with the comparisons of afterlife when used in proper context. Most Buddhists (even those in the geographic West) believe in some sort of survival of something afterlife. But this is also why I’m not offended by it. I don’t believe in reincarnation, so why would the comparison bother *me*? 🙂

    “perhaps we should just keep the relationship to play frisbee together.”

    hahahahaha – i really did laugh out loud at that.

  23. @ Adam: Indeed, we agree.

    @ JS Allen: Thanx. Well said.

    @Namgyal Dorje :
    I agree with your teacher’s response — without meaningful specifics, the request for comparison is not helpful. [JS Allen probably understood the Romeo allusion — I am a literary idiot!]

    That was a fun exchange between you and JS Allen. I did not see your comment on his post he linked you to.

  24. @ roni
    I like your point to Adam (who agreed). Good link. Thanks.
    You sound, in your next comment, that you agree much with David Chapman in your analysis of Western Buddhism. Am I correct?

  25. @ JS Allen

    From wiki: In reasoning and argument mapping, a counterargument, also known as a rebuttal, is an objection to an objection.

    My argument is that he is saying, “All western Buddhist believe exactly the same things,” and that he is wrong because I am one and know that isn’t true. I’m attacking a fundamental flaw in the initial reasoning of the poster that infers all Buddhists are the same and believe the same things, by using my personal beliefs as an example; a rebuttal if you will. I don’t believe what he says I believe, therefore his argument that, “Western Buddhists,” do anything is flawed from its inception. He over-simplifies and generalizes people and then attacks those generalizations. He even admits that his statements hinge on personal encounters with Buddhists. So, how is my personal statement any less valid? It’s simply one persons anecdote against another.

    Also, notice that I’m not calling, “someone,” stupid. I said the *statement* was, “stupid,” and, “completely wrong,” not the person. It’s not that hard to see from what I posted. People can say and do stupid things and I can call them out for it without attacking their person. Also when I say something is, “not Buddhist,” I’m not talking about a person either. I’m talking of course of Buddhist doctrine if you had read what I had posted you would see that. Specifically, this is what I’m referring to:

    “If one regards himself superior or equal or inferior by reason of the body that is impermanent, painful and subject to change, what else is it than not seeing reality? Or if one regards himself superior or equal or inferior by reason of feelings, perceptions, volitions or consciousness, what else is it than not seeing reality? If one does not regard himself superior or equal or inferior by reason of the body, the feelings, perceptions, volitions or consciousness what else is it than seeing reality?”
    — SN 22.49

  26. @arahanto – I was reacting to your multiple verbatim quotes where Sabio said “Many Western Buddhists”, and you replied “Not true” by way of personal anecdote. You can’t rebut Sabio’s multiple claims about “Many Western Buddhists” with a single anecdote.

    Sabio might be wrong, but to prove he’s wrong, you would have to prove that the number of Western Buddhists who believe as Sabio says do not number in amounts adding up to “many”.

    Since Sabio never actually said “All Western Buddhists”, anywhere, and since it would be unreasonable to assume “all” in the cases that were ambiguous, your rebuttal fails. I would recommend some other line of attack.

  27. @ JS Allen

    Ah, I see my error now. Thank you.

    He said, “Many Western Buddhist,” by way of personal anecdote and I should have said, “Not true for me,” (which looking back I did on one) to make it clear that I was also using personal anecdote. He may have a valid point, but I don’t know if personal anecdotes really show a trend in a given group. I tend to think they don’t. This is the point of my initial post. I have Christian friends and my family is Catholic with my uncle being a priest and we all love to talk about what the tradition I follow and theirs have in common. I really just want people to know that his statements are not true for all of us. I do feel there are things that are exclusive to Buddhism, but seeing the things that unite us creates concord that is invaluable and should not be scoffed at as the, “Western Buddhists,” he knows seem to.

  28. @arahanto:
    Yes, the whole post is talking about the Western Buddhists who *are* offended by any comparison to Christianity. I am glad you and many others are not offended and work well with these sorts of conversations.

  29. @ Sabio: Since reading The Making of Buddhist Modernism by David McMahan I tend to see Buddhist Modernism in these three frameworks (of romaticism, rationality & monotheism), so my view may be distorted — but yes, in Hungary many Buddhist groups define themselves as opposed to Christianity (with its hierarchy, dogmas, rituals etc.). Of course these groups have their own hierarchy, dogmas, rituals etc. — but this is not part of the ‘marketing’. 🙂

  30. Boz

    “taking offence” can be used as a rhetorical device used to protect favoured beliefs.

  31. koeia

    This is for anyone who has this experience. In the buddhist or taoist temple, a believer can ask the saints questions answerable by yes or no. A pair of wooden blocks in the shape of split lima beans are used to get the answers by dropping them on the floor. Does anyone have any input on this matter?

  32. @ roni
    “Marketing” — everything is economics, eh? 🙂

    @ Boz
    Indeed! good point

    @ koeia
    I’d be glad to address this in a post. I do have experience with this issue.

  33. @ Sabio: Yes, I can see religion in economic terms (exchange of goods, services, filling a ‘market gap’ etc.), but what I could not find a better word for is the self representation of a Buddhist group to the outside World (through their website, flyers etc.) and to its members (through Dharma talks, newsletters etc.).

  34. @ roni
    “propaganda”?

  35. @ Sabio: Sounds too harsh to me. Also has the element for me that ‘everyone knows what’s really going on but let the Big Dogs say their Big Words’. In the case of Buddhist Modernism it is not so. Nearly no one is aware of the fact that the Buddhism they get is already streamlined (sorry, sorry :)) to their Western way of thinking.

  36. @ roni,
    I am not trying to be ‘harsh’ — merely comical.
    I think everything is manipulations and propoganda — it is the nature of communication.
    I think we agree perhaps:
    — there is no such thing as “real buddhism”
    — everyone wants to think their buddism is the real thing
    — some people are more invested than others to spreading their truth
    — buddhism evolved just like other religions (twists, turns, social pressure …)

  37. @ Sabio: Probably my English is not good enough and/or I do not know you well enough to get the irony/sarcasm of your comments. (It’s not the fist time I fail to do so.)

    While I agree that the search for ‘real Buddhism’ is just another quest for the Holy Grail, I do think that you can get closer to texts (that represent a certain stage of the development of Buddhism in a certain culture) and get further away from them (through the long chain of translations, paraphrases, misquotes etc.).

    With the rest I agree.

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