I’ve got a Facebook friend who’s battling cancer right now. She’s a real fighter, and her tenacity is an inspiration to me.
I’ve watched her emotional journey online. From time to time, she posts inspirational memes, and I’ve noticed many of them are expressions attributed to or claiming to be inspired by Buddhism.
While I have no criticism toward my friend or her struggle, I do wish she’d choose another remedy for her spiritual battle. Because while her prescription is well-intended, I’m afraid it has no power to bring her true, lasting relief.
I’ve noticed that Buddhism seems to be the default religion for many these days. It’s the trendy thing to be, especially when you want to be “spiritual but not religious”. And it’s especially funny when they attribute things to being Buddhist that are in direct conflict with what the religion actually teaches.
So when my friends say “Buddhism”, I’m reminded of the immortal words of Inigo Montoya from The Princess Bride:
“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
The purpose of this article is not to be hateful toward anyone or their religious beliefs. I believe it’s the right of everyone to practice whatever faith they like. However, I do believe some belief systems are less valid than others. And if I care about my friends, I would be remiss not to point out that with Buddhism, the product inside is quite different that what the packaging advertises.
Who was “Buddha”?
To begin with Guatama Buddha, who lived about 500 years before Christ, never claimed to be divine or have omniscience (to know all). He lived and died like any other man, though his followers did later try to ascribe miracles to him. This was convenient since, unlike Jesus’ miracles which happened contemporaneous enough to when the Gospels, his miraculous claims came hundreds of years after their recipients were dead.
In other words, reports of Jesus’ miracles could have been refuted when recorded in the Gospels and discredited. The claims of Buddha’s followers were too long after his death to possibly be verified. In other words, they were merely legend, not history. Interestingly enough, the only people who tried to discredit Jesus’ miracles were the Jewish priests who fought him. All others accepted them as common knowledge.
You may say, “So what? I don’t care if Buddha did miracles or said he was God. I just like his teachings.”
But to base your very life on the teachings of a man, just any man, is akin to taking financial advice from the guy panhandling at the interstate off-ramp. Sure, he seems happy enough and the money is rolling in, but wouldn’t it be better if he could prove he’s somehow worth your trust?
Jesus’ miracles and rising from the dead were his ID card as God in the flesh. Interestingly, his disciples who were the main ones who could have disproved their validity were martyred for refusing to deny those miracles. They would rather be killed than say Jesus wasn’t God. But Buddha made no such claims, and his followers gave no such proof.
What did he teach?
Buddha’s “Eight Fold Path” is the core of his philosophy. Interestingly enough, I rarely hear my Buddhist friends quoting them. And I believe there’s a good reason for that – they don’t know them.
Among other things, the Eight Fold Path teaches that sensual desire is the cause of evil. Therefore, the goal is to remove all desire from your life. You need to stop wanting things, and when you look at the materialism of our age, that sounds good.
However, it’s not greed or the ruthless pursuit of wealth that Christianity would point to that’s evil, but the basic desire for anything more in this life that’s the culprit in Buddhism. Consequently, any desire to better one’s circumstances or hope for progress is a foe to be snuffed out in the very heart of the Buddhist.
Buddha teaches that any possession beyond “only what is necessary to sustain life” is to be renounced. For example, having one’s own home is a big no-no. A truly spiritual person should beg for their food, have no possessions or home, and avoid all sensual thoughts. This is in stark contrast to Christianity, which teaches that there is no evil in things themselves, only in giving them too much importance in our lives.
One part of the Eight Fold Path followers usually do embrace is “mindfulness”. That’s what most of us call “living in the moment”: not torturing yourself about what you don’t yet have and being satisfied with life. That’s fine, but it’s certainly not a thought that’s unique to Buddhism and isn’t guaranteed as a stand-alone virtue.
Without renouncing possessions and desire, you never get to the place of “mindfulness”.
The tough thing about Buddha’s teachings is that we’re not completely sure what they were. There are huge discrepancies between his biographers, and the earliest copies of his writings are from 400 years after his death. That allows much time for embellishment and editing. Not a really firm foundation on which to base your eternity, is it?
In contrast, most of the Gospels were recorded within 50 years of Jesus’ earthly ministry. And there are more early manuscripts of the New Testament than for any other book of antiquity, period.
The fine print
The reason I believe many people embrace a form of Buddhism is that it doesn’t seem to demand much. Unlike Christianity which constantly reminds us to care for others as “our brother’s keeper”, Buddhism is basically about minding your own business. That sounds reasonable until you remember it’s not really a virtue to sit back and watch the world go to hell around you.
That sounds reasonable… until you remember it’s not a virtue to sit back and watch the world go to hell around you.
I’m sad to say I see a certain selfishness that’s at the heart of the Buddhist outlook. Suffering is seen as the tool that causes us to move up to higher levels as we are reincarnated. Without human suffering, you cannot eventually reach the state of Nirvana.
Therefore, if you’re a Buddhist and see a homeless man on the side of the road, you actually should do nothing to try and help him. His circumstance is part of his path of suffering, and to alleviate it would cause him to not progress upward to being a better person next time he is reincarnated.
No, Buddhism is never about saving the world, but only about saving yourself. You can meditate and focus on finding peace in your own life, and feel absolutely no responsibility to help the rest of the world. In fact, you can rationalize not lifting a finger.
For a Christian, to look on another’s suffering and do nothing would be sin. For a Buddhist, it is enlightenment.
The big payoff
And so what is the carrot at the end of the stick in Buddhism? What do you get from life after life of suffering and self-denial? You get Nirvana. And what is Nirvana?
Nothingness. Yep, that’s it.
In fact, at the end of your endless number of lifetimes, your reward is that you no longer exist. In Nirvana, your very personality, the heart of your being, completely disappears. In Buddhist teaching, the example is used of a drop of water dissolving into the ocean.
So also you will dissolve into the universe. There will be no more suffering, no more desire, no more nothing. And there will be no more you.
I don’t know about you, but there are a few things about me I actually like. And Christianity, while it teaches there are sins I need to overcome along the way, actually says that God loves who I am at heart and finds me to be quite precious. So precious in fact that He Himself would come to earth to pay for my sins through Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross.
Some friends like Buddhism because it has no talk of hell or damnation. But what could be more hellish than being damned to an endless repetition of lives filled with suffering. Unless the person denies his desires, he’s trapped with no hope of escape. What’s so compassionate or enlightened about that?
In Buddhism, the self is evil and something to be ultimately destroyed. In Christianity, the self is imperfect and something to be eventually redeemed and transformed.
Big brother or loving father
The difference I see between Buddhism and Christianity is the contrast between the love of a brother and a father.
Today’s faux-Buddhism is like a mischievous older brother, who snickers when you get into trouble and won’t help you out of it. We like the company of older brothers, because they don’t shame us when we cuss and they don’t judge us when we tell them our sexual exploits. No judgment, no shame, no guilt.
That’s what many of my friends don’t like in Christianity: all the rules. They don’t want a moral code making them feel guilty about personal sins. So today’s popular Buddhism is more libertarian, they think. You don’t need to be holy or feel the need to help others, just “do no harm”.
But Christianity is more like the love of a good father. That father will be disappointed in you when you fail morally. He’ll have expectations of you that challenge you at times. Yes, he’ll accept you as you are, but always push you to become better and improve. The same sins a brother would roll his eyes at, your father will point out and discipline.
In the end, while we want to settle for the friendship of our brother, it’s the love of the father that we need. And it’s only that perfect love that will heal us when life has brought pain and discouragement.
I pray my cancer-fighting friend stops looking into the nothingness of Buddhism for her hope and embraces the life-changing power of a Father who truly loves her. Because when your fight is ultimately against the grave itself, I’d much rather have the Man who walked out of His own grave in my corner than the man who is still occupying his.