Buddhism is an ancient eastern religion which has found a popular niche in western culture. Some of Buddhism’s faces in the west include the growing interest in the martial arts, Zen gardening and home decorating techniques, and the mainstreaming of meditation techniques as a means to inner peace and stress reduction. Celebrities have embraced Buddhism as a religion and publicly extol its virtues of tolerance and personal development. As we look at this religion with worldwide adherents of one billion, we will consider its historical background, the major contours of the Buddhist worldview, and finally examine its doctrine in light of Christian belief.

Because there are no Buddhist writings until 200 years after their founder’s death, scholars are tentative in the details of how this religion began. What is generally known is that Buddhism started in 483 BC when its founder Siddhartha Gautama died. Siddhartha Gautama, herein known as Buddha, was a prince of the warrior caste in India. As a child and young man he lived an extremely sheltered life. However, while traveling in his early twenties he encountered an elderly, decrepit man and became deeply disturbed about the reality of suffering, aging, and death. It is the inner turmoil over these human issues and their subsequent resolution in Buddha’s life that we know today as Buddhism.

Early in his struggles Buddha came into contact with a devoted Hindu mendicant and was impressed that religion was the answer to his struggles. At this point he plunged into the study and practice of meditation but never found the inner peace he was seeking. After that, Buddha joined himself to a group of Hindu aesthetics that starved themselves, denied themselves sleep and never washed the body. While this produced no release from his turmoil, it did show Buddha the importance and value of physical health and so he sought after what he called a “middle way”–neither indulgence nor austerity– all the while continuing to develop his ability to meditate. At some point after this he had a series of dreams that he was going to be enlightened to a reality which transcends this present world of suffering and death. In joyous expectation, Buddha went out on a full moon and sat under a sacred Bo tree and meditated. He was elevated into a state of bliss and in this state he recalled being enlightened in three stages. Buddha remained at the sacred tree for seven weeks and never wanted to return home but he realized that he had discovered the key to happiness and this must be taught to others.

When Siddhartha Gautama had his spiritual awakening under the sacred Bo tree and became the Buddha, his enlightenment came in stages. The first night he saw his previous lives pass before him. On the second night, he saw with supernatural insight the cycle of reincarnation and the law that governs it. Finally on the third night it was revealed to him the Four Noble Truths: the knowledge of suffering, the truth of suffering, the source of suffering, and the removal of suffering.
Foundational to the belief system of Buddhism is reincarnation. This is the Hindu belief that persons live eternally in a cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. Reincarnation is regulated by a natural law (in the Buddhistic conception of nature) known as karma. Karma in western terms is the law that “..whatever a man sows, this he will also reap.” Good karma is sown through keeping the moral law of Buddhism, bad karma through sin and moral failure. In essence, this is a merit/demerit system which will be used to determine your status in a future life. If you have enough good karma stored up you may come back as a person of a higher position in society. If you have enough bad karma you might return as a despicable insect or animal. The great purpose behind reincarnation is the perfection of the human soul. Once perfection is reached, a person will attain nirvana- a state of complete peace and joy without pain. Once perfection is attained the endless cycle of reincarnation is broken forever. It is to this end that Buddhism offers itself as a means.

Buddha taught that all of life is dukkha -meaning it is saturated with pain. All people live only with the illusion that things will get better when what is really happening is they are looking forward to a lesser degree of pain. Since life is endless through reincarnation, then pain is endless as well. This serves as the impetus to escape from reincarnation and achieve nirvana.

What specific action is to be taken in the religion of Buddhism? Namely the destruction of ignorance. Ignorance works against us by producing desires. These desires cause us to believe the illogical idea that we have only one life to live and must grasp after temporal things. If we continue to desire this life we will continue to be needlessly reborn and continue to suffer. Another way ignorance hurts us is it begets the illusion that this life will be followed by a permanent and unchanging state of bliss or torment. All is transitory. Things are always changing. The goal of life is to escape into the state of nirvana. Nirvana is for the perfected, those who have learned to dispel ignorance, detach from pain, and destroy all desire.

So how is a person to break the bonds of ignorance which locks him into pain? By following the “Eightfold Pathway” taught by Buddha as a means of recovery from the pain and problems of life. 

The eight steps include:

  1. Belief that the Four Noble Truths are accurate and reliable.
  2. Total commitment of mind, body, and will to discipline and training to extricate oneself from the human dilemma.
  3. Careful and reflective watching of our words to others.
  4. Abstinence from intoxicants, good treatment of all living things.
  5. A vocation which does no harm to others.
  6. Close attention to one’s mood and thought life.
  7. An act of the will to use all of one’s energy in life.
  8. The practice and development of meditation.

As the Eightfold Pathway is walked upon, the ego is extinguished and enlightenment dispels the pain produced by ignorance. This leads to the attainment of nirvana. 

One final concept in the Buddhist worldview that needs to be understood is that there is no God or gods that direct the universe. All we see and know in our present cosmology is determined by evolution and natural laws. Things such as nirvana, reincarnation, and dukkha are not supernatural but part of the natural laws which govern the universe. This doesn’t mean there is no deity or spiritual world, but rather the world is simply outside the pale of the gods as far as this is concerned.
Christianity and Buddhism have few similarities and many differences. Like Buddhism, Christianity teaches a proactive pathway of living which entails self-denial of fleshly desire, morality, discipline, and justice. Christian doctrine certainly also affirms the basic idea that life is painful and that willful desire for vain things is the cause of much human sorrow. Both religions use different terms and have differing ends in mind, but these would suggest themselves as possible points of similarity.

Perhaps the greatest difference between Buddhism and Christianity is their starting points. Buddhism begins with a naturalistic universe filled with pain which perfects men through the cycle of reincarnation. Buddhism explains little of why anything or anyone exists or why ignorance caused all of life to be saturated with pain. It also gives no explanation for how laws like reincarnation and karma can dispense justice or determine perfection.

Christianity begins with a purposeful and all powerful God creating the cosmos and mankind for His glory and blessing. It begins with a perfect man, who through his desire to attain forbidden knowledge to exalt himself, brings a curse from God upon himself and all of creation known as sin.
Buddhism focuses on one aspect of life and offers a plan of escape. Christianity looks at the totality of life (which includes pain) and offers a rescue and restoration to man by his Creator so that he may start living life as he was originally intended.

Christian apologists Josh McDowell and Don Stewart offer four major contrasts between the faith of Buddha and of Christ. First, Buddhism teaches that the world operates under natural power and law with no personal god. Christianity teaches that the world operates under the direction of the Creator of the universe who has revealed Himself to man as Yahweh. Second, Buddhism teaches that Buddha is the enlightened one. He is to be revered and in practice is often worshipped as one of many gods. Christianity teaches that there is one God only and that worship is to be exclusive. Third, in Buddhism there is no such thing as sin against a supreme being, only an impersonal law of karma. Christianity teaches that all sin is an offense against our supreme Creator and God. And fourth, Buddhism teaches that man is a worthless cog in the universe and his body a hindrance to true enlightenment. Christianity teaches that man is of infinite worth to God and worthy of redemption body and soul. It further teaches that our bodies are a gift to be used to glorify God (1 Corinthians 6:19).

Finally, Buddhism teaches a cycle of reincarnation which produces perfected men through an endless cycle of birth, death and rebirth. The reincarnated person does not remain intact between lives, but his future states will be determined by his actions in this life. Christianity teaches that death came as a consequence of sin (Rom. 5:12) and that each man has one life which is followed by judgment unto reward or damnation by God (Heb. 9:27, Matt. 25:46).

The purpose of this discussion of Buddhism and Christianity has been to offer information on the basic doctrines of the former and how it compares to the latter. Argumentation about the primacy of one over the other is beyond the scope of this paper. But in closing, a thought seems to suggest itself. Both of these religions have morals and features that are worthy of respect. But Buddhism and Christianity present completely opposing conceptions of reality and make demands for allegiance that forces one to have to choose one over the other. So in the final analysis, when we consider the issue of different religions there is an even greater question at hand than ” what do they believe?”, it is “is what they believe true?”

Beaver, R. Pierce; Bergman, Jan; Langley, Myrtle S. ; Lane, Tony; Maxwell, Elsie A.; Metz, Wulf; Romarheim, Arild; Walls, Andrew; Withycombe, Robert; Wooton, R.W.F.; Eerdmans’ Handbook To The World’s Religions, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 1994.

Fry, George C. ; King, James R.; Swanger, Eugene R.; Wolf, Herbert C.; Great Asian Religions, Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1984.

McDowell, Josh; Stewart, Don; Handbook of Today’s Religions, San Bernardino: Here’s Life Publishing, 1983.