Catholicism and Buddhism | Anthony E. Clark
and Carl E. Olson | IgnatiusInsight.com
Catholicism and Buddhism | Anthony E. Clark
and Carl E. Olson
Near the end of his life the Trappist monk and author Thomas Merton said
that he wanted "to become as good a Buddhist as I can." A contemporary
priest, Robert E. Kennedy, S.J., Roshi (Zen master), holds Zen retreats
at Morning Star Zendo in Jersey City. He states on his
web site: "I ask students to trust themselves and to develop
their own self-reliance through the practice of Zen." Meanwhile,
the St. Francis Chapel at Santa Clara University hosts the weekly practice
of "Mindfulness and Zen Meditation." Similarly, there are a growing
number of Buddhist retreats and workshops being held in Catholic monasteries
Today there is a proliferation of resources and retreats dedicated to
combining Zen Buddhism and Catholicism, suggesting that the Catholic Church
has finally "awakened" from its "outdated" and "exclusivist"
ecclesiology. While Buddhism has not been in the news recently as much
as Islam, its influence and attraction has steadily increased in the West.
Is Catholicism really "parallel" to Buddhism? Can Catholic doctrine
be reconciled with Buddhist beliefs and practices?
The Coming of Buddhism
Buddhism is the fourth largest religion in the world, with about 370 million
adherents, or about 6% of the world's population. Although less than 1%
of Americans identify themselves as Buddhist, interest in this ancient
belief system is growing. Sections on Buddhism in major bookstores usually
dwarf those dedicated to Islam or Hinduism and there has been a steady
stream of articles and books about (and by) the Dalai Lama in recent years.
Some stores even display the Dalai Lamas works beside those of Pope John
Paul II, hinting at the "similarities" of the Buddhist and Catholic
The influence of Buddhist thought in some Catholic circles has been evident
since the 1960s. In the wake of the Second Vatican Council's call for
respectful dialogue with other religions, many Catholics, including many
priests and religious, dove headlong into studying Buddhism. Much was
made (and still is) of the many "common characteristics" of
Catholicism and Buddhism, especially in the realm of ethics. External
similarities, including monks, meditation, and prayer beads, seemed to
indicate a newly discovered closeness between the followers of Christ
and Buddha. While some helpful interreligious dialogue and study was accomplished,
some Catholics mistakenly concluded that Buddhism was just as "true" as
Christianity, and that any criticism of Buddhism was "arrogant"
This attitude still exists, of course, as do attempts to combine the two
faiths. It's not uncommon for Catholic retreat centers to offer a steady
diet of classes and lectures about Zen Buddhism, Christ and Buddha, and
even "Zen Catholicism." Their bookstores feature titles such as Zen
Spirit, Christian Spirit, Jesus and Buddha: The Parallel Sayings,
and Going Home: Jesus and Buddha As Brothers. Comparisons are often
made between Christian mysticism and Buddhist mysticism, at times suggesting
that the two are essentially identical in character and intent.
The Attraction of Buddhism
In Crossing the Threshold of Hope, the Holy Father notes that the
Dalai Lama has worked to bring "Buddhism to people of the Christian West,
stirring up interest both in Buddhist spirituality and in its methods
of praying." He points out that, "Today we are seeing a certain diffusion
of Buddhism in the West." So what makes this diffusion possible and so
Buddhism is attractive for numerous reasons. Among them is the desire
for spiritual vitality in the midst of the emptiness of secular life,
the promise of inner peace, and the need for an explicit moral code. In
his classic study, Buddhism: Its Essence and Development, Edward
Conze writes, "To a person who is thoroughly disillusioned with the contemporary
world, and with himself, Buddhism may offer many points of attraction,
in the transcending sublimity of the fairy land of its subtle thoughts,
in the splendor of its works of art, in the magnificence of its hold over
vast populations, and in the determined heroism and quiet refinement of
those who are steeped into it."
Another key appeal of Buddhism is its non-dogmatic and seemingly open-minded
character. For those who reject the dogmatic and objective claims of Christianity,
or who believe that Christianity should avoid an "exclusive" or absolute
approach to truth, Buddhism offers an easier alternative. In addition,
some Christians find solace in believing that their faith in Christ and
Buddhism are compatible.
As the Dalai Lama stated in a Beliefnet.com interview, "According to different
religious traditions, there are different methods. For example, a Christian
practitioner may meditate on God's grace, God's infinite love. This is
a very powerful concept in order to achieve peace of mind. A Buddhist
practitioner may be thinking about relative nature and also Buddha-nature.
This is also very useful." In other words, Christianity and Buddhism are
two ways to the same end; Jesus and Buddha are two enlightened teachers
who help man to that end. Or, as one reader on a Christian discussion
forum states, "Buddha was just a philosopher who urged men to be selfless.
Jesus was just a philosopher who urged men to be selfless. Love is just
another word for selfless." Such easy parallels between Christ and Buddha
are, in the end, are misleading and distort the teachings of the Church.
The Basics of Buddhism
Since Buddhism appears less concerned with dogma or doctrine than right
living, is it compatible with Catholic doctrine? A glance at Buddhist
basics will help answer this question.
Buddha (c. 563-c. 483 B.C), born Siddhartha Gautama, was the son of a
king in India. Around the age of thirty he left his privileged life in
court to became an ascetic, and spent several years traveling and meditating
on the human condition, considering especially the reality of suffering.
One day, meditating beneath a bodhi tree, he became enlightened (Buddha
= "enlightened one"), and afterward began to each his dharma, or
doctrine, of the Four Noble Truths.
The Four Noble Truths are that (1) life is suffering, (2) the cause of
suffering is desire, (3) to be free from suffering we must detach from
desire, and (4) the "eight-fold path" is the way to alleviate desire.
The eight-fold path includes having right views, intentions, speech, actions,
livelihood, effort, mindfulness, and concentration. The final goal of
Buddhism is not merely to eradicate desire, but to be free of suffering.
Buddha also taught the "three characteristics of being": that all things
are transitory, there is no "self" or personality, and this world brings
only pain and suffering. To accept the existence of anything involves
giving birth to its opposite (i.e., love and hate, joy and fear, etc.),
which results in a duality of "good" and "bad." Nirvana, literally,
"putting out a fire," is the extinction of self and the escape from
the cycle of reincarnation. A Buddhist might allow one to believe in an
afterlife, but such an allowance is called upaya, an expedient
means to a real end. That is, upaya allows belief to exist as a
means to an end; all religious belief, including Buddhism itself, is merely
a construction. According to Buddhist upaya, Christianity is allowable
as long as it is viewed as a stage of spiritual progression, leading eventually
to the extinction of self nirvana. In the two major forms
of Buddhism, Hinayana and Mahayana, the latter teaches that
man is already "extinguished," he just needs to realize it.
It is sometimes said that Buddhism is atheistic. Yet Buddhism is not interested
in the question of God, so it is more accurate to describe it as agnostic.
Buddhism "works" whether or not there is a God. A Buddhist allows others
to believe in a God or gods, but such beliefs are merely convenient means
to the final end, which has nothing to do with a God or gods. "God is
neither affirmed nor denied by Buddhism," wrote Merton in Mystics and
Zen Masters, "insofar as Buddhists consider such affirmations and
denials to be dualistic, therefore irrelevant to the main purpose of Buddhism,
which is emancipation from all forms of dualistic thought."
Important Distinctions and Deep Divides
Despite many external similarities, Buddhist meditation and contemplation
is quite different from orthodox Christianity. Buddhist meditation strives
to "wake" one from his existential delusions. "Therefore, despite
similar aspects, there is a fundamental difference" between Christian
and Buddhist mysticism, wrote John Paul II. The Holy Father continued:
"Christian mysticism . . . is not born of a purely negative 'enlightenment.'
It is not born of an awareness of the evil which exists in man's attachment
to the world through the senses, the intellect, and the spirit. Instead,
Christian mysticism is born of the Revelation of the living God."
Catholics believe that the Church is the Body and
Bride of Christ, the seed of the Kingdom of God, and the conduit of God's
grace and mercy in the world. Buddhists believe that Church, or Sangha,
is in the end, upaya, nothing more than the expedient means to
ultimate extinction. Rather than the Beatific Vision, Buddhist teaching
holds that non-existence is the only hope for escaping the pains of life.
The Catholic Church teaches that while suffering is not part of God's
perfect plan, it does bring us closer to Christ and unite us more intimately
with our Suffering Lord. Buddhism teaches that suffering must be escaped
from; indeed, this is a central concern of Buddhism. Christianity is focused
on worshipping God, on holiness, and the restoration of right relationships
between God and man through the Person and work of Jesus. The Buddhist,
however, is not concerned with whether or not God exists, nor does he
offer worship. Instead, he seeks after non-self (anatman).
Catholicism believes that truth, and the Author of Truth, can be known
rationally (to a significant, yet limited, extent) and through divine
revelation. In contrast, Buddhism denies existential reality; nothing,
including the "self," can be proven to exist.
Dialogue and Danger
Romano Guardini, in his classic work The Lord, stated that Buddha
would be the greatest challenge to Christ in the modern age. In an age
of terrorism, such a statement may appear to be an exaggerated concern,
but Buddhism offers Christianity serious and subtle challenges. Because
it appears to be peaceful, non-judgmental, and inclusive, its appeal will
undoubtedly continue to grow. Because it offers a spirituality that is
supposedly free of doctrine and authority, it will attract hungry souls
looking for fulfillment and meaning. "For this reason," the Holy Father
states, "it is not inappropriate to caution those Christians who enthusiastically
welcome certain ideas originating in the religious traditions of the Far
East for example, techniques and methods of meditation and ascetical
practice." As he correctly observes, "In some quarters these have become
fashionable, and are accepted rather uncritically."
Nostra Aetate, Vatican II's Declaration on the Relationship of the Church
to Non-Christian Religions, states that "Buddhism, in its various forms,
realizes the radical insufficiency of this changeable world; it teaches
a way by which men, in a devout and confident spirit, may be able either
to acquire the state of perfect liberation, or attain, by their own efforts
or through higher help, supreme illumination." It continues to note that,
"The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions"
and believes that other religions, in certain ways, "often reflect a ray
of that Truth which enlightens all men."
But, the document insists, the Church "proclaims, and ever must proclaim
Christ 'the way, the truth, and the life' (John 14:6), in whom men may
find the fullness of religious life, in whom God has reconciled all things
to Himself" (par 2). While the Council affirms that Buddhism may contain
a "ray of Truth," it does not endorse appropriation of Buddhist
beliefs into Christian practice. Rather, the Council insists that non-Catholic
religions can be fulfilled only through the truths held exclusively by
In Buddhas final words to his disciples under the sala trees, he
said, "Make of yourself a light. Rely upon yourself; do not rely
upon anyone else. Make my teachings your light. Rely upon them; do not
depend upon any other teaching." When the Fourth Evangelist described
John the Baptist, he said, "He was not himself the light, but was to bear
witness to the light" (John, 1:8). He continued by proclaiming that
Christ "is the true light that enlightens every man who comes into
the world" (John, 1:9). Christ, the "true light," did not
teach His followers to extinguish their fires, such as is meaning of nirvana,
but to illuminate the world with His love, and to reflect the light
of His truth.
Christ and Buddha compared
In his Fundamentals
of the Faith, Peter Kreeft writes that "there have only been two
people in history who so astonished people that they asked not 'Who are
you?' but 'What are you? A man or a god' They were Jesus and Buddha."
He then contrasts the striking differences between the two men: "Buddha's
clear answer to this question was: 'I am a man, not a god'; Christ's clear
answer was: 'I am both son of Man and Son of God.' Buddha said, 'Look
not to me, look to my dharma [doctrine]': Christ said, 'Come unto
me.' Buddha said, 'Be ye lamps unto yourselves'; Christ said, 'I am the
light of the world.'"
It is presently common to find Christ brought down to the level of "philosopher"
or "great teacher," just as Buddha is sometimes elevated to a state of
divinity. Yet there remain profound differences between the two.
- Christ claimed to be the one and only true God who came to suffer,
die, and rise again, establishing a unique and everlasting covenant with
man. Buddha is believed to be one of many thatãgata
(thus-come-one). The historic Buddha is just one of several thatãgata
who come in various ages to teach man that life is an illusion and to
strip away human desires and attachments.
- Christ taught that He is "the Way, the Truth, and the Life." Buddha
teaches that every person must find their own path to enlightenment, or
nirvana, the extinction of self.
- Christ preached the reality of sin, the nature of God the Father,
and the need for repentance and salvation. Buddha preached the
untenable nature of existence and the means to escape suffering.
- Christ taught that God is completely Other, but also taught that
God wishes to share His divine life, given through the Son by the power
of the Holy Spirit. Buddha taught individuality must perish and
that everything is One.
- Christ established a Church, with a structure of authority, based
on His words and Person. Buddha left a teaching in which each person
must find his own path.
- Christ rose from the dead, once and for all, and is returning as
King of Kings. He claimed divinity by saying, "Truly, truly, I say to
you, before Abraham was born, I am." (John, 8:58). For Buddhists, Buddha
is a model, regardless of whether or not he was a historical person. Buddha
suggests that, "There is no 'I'; there is no 'self'." At his death, when
he experienced pari-nirvana, or "final extinction," he stated that
the question of the afterlife was, "not conducive to edification." What's
important is that man escapes desire by being extinguished.
This article appeared in a slightly different form in the May/June 2005 issue of
This Rock magazine.
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Anthony E. Clark, Ph.D. is is an Assistant Professor of East Asian history at
and his research centers on the history of Western missionaries in China, especially during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. He did his doctoral studies
at the University of Oregon, where he studied Chinese history, philosophy, and religion.
He is an author of several academic and popular works, including books and articles on Chinese historiography, cultural interaction between
China and the West, and his primary interest, which is the history of Sino-Western religious and cultural re-presentation during China's
late imperial to early modern era. He has also been researching the
history of Catholic martyrs in China and has recently finished writing a book on that subject. Dr. Clark has presented papers at numerous academic conferences and has
also been a guest on "EWTN Live." and "Catholic Answers Live" to talk about Catholicism in China. He is also a contributing editor
for This Rock magazine.
Carl E. Olson is the editor of IgnatiusInsight.com. He is the co-author of
Da Vinci Hoax: Exposing the Errors in The Da Vinci Code and author
Catholics Be "Left Behind"? He resides in a top secret
location in the Northwest somewhere between Portland, Oregon and Sacramento,
California. Visit his personal web site at www.carl-olson.com.
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