Letter to a Buddhist
Hi Werner. Interesting thread for sure. Your discussion early on was quite well done, in reference to the problem of evil and all. I think it is the most interesting question of all me. One point I would add, as I have done in class to answer William Rowe and other atheists on this point, is that any discussion of child molestation murder (human acts under the free will category) and “acts of nature” like little Bambi’s dying in a forest fire, both require some measurement to be called “evil” Atheists have no standard other than nature itself or pure emotive or emotional reaction. Therefore for these acts to be truly “evil”, would require some transcendental component, which is denied by the atheists in their first line of argument. Anyways that is a fun one, but you are doing well there.
As far as your discussion with the Vajrayanist or Tibetan Buddhist, So much to say and so little time. There were several areas of controversy brought up and I will touch on a few. Just for the sake of clarification Zen is a different branch of Mahayana Buddhism, which even though there are perhaps thousands of individuated groups, all differ from the Theravada in that they deny the primitive Buddhist teachings (as seen by the Theravada) and believe that there are further revelations or “turns of the wheel” being revealed all the time, especially the Tibetans. Also in reference to all the similarities in quotes between “Buddha” and Jesus. The hard fact is that there are no extant copies of ANYTHING that the Buddha supposedly wrote that are earlier than roughly 1st century a.d. Most of the Mahayana documents and virtually all of the Tibetan revelations come hundreds of years after that. You see the same phenomena within Hindu texts as they take a direct turn after the first century a.d… Now whether there is a direct cause for this (Christian missionaries perhaps?) is an area for further study someday, and perhaps one I will get to play with. But for now, any relation to what was supposedly said by the Buddha was written down a minimum of 400 – 500 years after the fact, and again most of it even further removed than that. So that comparison/contrast is misguided at best. Even if you grant the basic Pali canon as true Buddhist comments, the points of discontinuity between the message of the Buddha and that of Jesus are not apples/oranges but rather apples/Volkswagens. There is virtually no comparison at all in their central thoughts. For example:
1) Buddha denied that there was anything existent eternally (the soul or jiva or atman – something that immediately separated him from the Hinduism that he was initially part of. Jesus, consistent with the Jewish tradition, taught that there is an immortal soul that lives past this physical life.
2) Buddha taught reincarnation as the result of karmic activity. Karma or action is not to be seen as “good” or “bad” in the way most Americans loosely use it, but rather is simply means action. Whatever is done, is karma. Judgment of this is part of the illusory nature of reality. The Hindus call this Maya – something affirmed by the Buddha many times. So to say that one can “balance” ones “bad” actions with “good” actions, as again routinely stated by new agey types in America, is to miss the Buddha’s real point, that all that we affirm as good and bad are merely illusory – the real or upper level understanding, as hinted at by your friend, is that we are all supposedly connected and all our distinctions are merely unenlightened encumbrances on our way to Nirvana. So real consistent Buddhist and Vedantist also on this point, point to the lack of any activity as the best course of all. By contrast to all this, Jesus clearly taught that the moral code was inviolate, that there really is good and evil and that to engage in evil activities is to invite the judgment of a holy God.
3) Buddha allegedly did not worry about the existence of a God such as seen in Christianity, but he clearly denies what was commonly believed in his day, the existence of an immortal consciousness or force – Brahman, often personalized in Hindu literature. But if you read virtually any Buddhist literature, especially Tibetan stuff, the stories virtually are filled with deities, sub-deities, gods, goddess, Bodhisattvas (usually described with what we would normally call divine attributes) and so on. In point of fact there are literally millions of these characters present in Buddhist literature. Only the Theravada, usually, are atheistic by definition, but that is not who you are dealing with. By contrast, Jesus affirmed that there is one God, the creator (something incomprehensible with the Buddhist systems) of all, who is holy and not to be identified with the created order in any essential way.
4) You rightly point out that the Buddhist teachings on enlightenment is a self-regulated path, but within the myriad of Buddhists groups there are just as numerous paths. Zen requires (generally) monastic discipline to do it “right”, but some Pure Land Buddhist believe you can just recite a name “Amidha” even only once and get a major lift up on the enlightenment path. Theravada pushes monastic discipline as well, but most Mahayanists expand this for lay people, another major distinction between the two paths. Tibetan paths usually require rejection of the world as it is, in favor of the essential monistic view already discussed above – we are all interconnected and one. There are many demons and gods who either help or hinder one on the vajrayana path, but the types of meditation often debated and used, are pretty much so completely antithetical to Christian thought in any possible way. The Tibetan Buddha’s have debated which version of this is better for enlightenment, but both require at least an incredible fixation on sex. The Tantric scripture start within Hinduism but were incorporated into Buddhism, and expanded in the Tibetan view. Two choices here – one as a male has sex with a woman to stimulate ones rejection of the world ethical codes, or one visualizes the copulative act in ones mind. In both cases men and woman are depersonalized and seen as principles. But in some of the literature you even get more power if one involves children in the process. Very sick stuff indeed. There is a lot more to this, but as you have already seen there is no possible comparison to Jesus’ thought on salvation. The very concept of Heaven and Enlightenment are radically distinct as well.
5) No way around this for your friend, but virtually all of the earliest Buddhist literature was filled with degrading statements about women. My Buddhism professor, herself a practicing Buddhist, had a hard time spinning for rich preppy liberal arts students at Denver University. The Buddha taught that woman need to incarnate as a man first so that they would not be hindered in the path. The Buddha encouraged literally thousands of men to leave their wives and family, (as he had done himself!) and the woman would often pursue him and beg him to be allowed into the Sangha (community of Buddhists followers) The Buddha said that if he allowed women to be enlightened, it would set the Dharma back 1,000 years! Oh well. He finally relented and establish female monasteries as well, but they were (and this is the case in the rare ones extant today!) but they were clearly at the low end of the food chain. It is scandalous how the rules established by the Buddha often starved the female monasteries literally out of existence. By contrast Jesus lifted up the women he dealt with, often scandalizing his public audience by his willingness to deal lovingly even with “fallen” women. Later Buddhist writings are more sympathetic to women, but suffer from the problem of being “discovered” (or as I would argue – invented) literally thousands of years after the Buddha died. As evil as many men have acted towards women in so called Christian cultures, would anyone seriously argue that women are treated better in Buddhist cultures? This brings up another serious point for your friend to think about…
6) The question now turns to what the “fruit” of Buddhism is. Now one can always point out the evils of Christianity. Its long list of institutionalized sins are inscribed in history forever. But any crusader, who killed a Muslim, or “Witch” or Jew or usually fellow Christian, was directly disobeying what Jesus said we are to do. You can blame us, but you cannot blame Jesus. But let us compare what goes on right now in Buddhist culture. Because of the Buddhist teachings on karma, reincarnation and Maya, a Thailand Buddhist father can justify taking his eight year old daughter and selling her to a whorehouse in Bangkok. After all, one should not fight against ones karma, perhaps she was a father who did this in a previous existence and this is merely the balancing of her karma. Or since the world is really just an illusion and the true reality is the interconnectedness of all life, then what we perceive is merely that, perception and has no real value in the “real” world. There is no real distinction between the farmer, the daughter, the pimp, and the pedophile, are all the same and ultimately all share the same existence both now and in the future – the vow of the Bodhisattva traditions is that all of life will achieve nirvana before they can. So ultimately all of our choices, good, evil or indifferent, are all the same, washed one in the monistic wash of interconnectedness. By contrast, Jesus affirms not only our distinctiveness, but our choices as well. The very notions of Heaven and Hell are significant because our moral choices are real ones, with real consequences. Christianity in one sense affirms the very real complaints against the institutionalized church. Because there is evil in this world and every person, Christian or not, is a sinner. This fact of evidence buttresses the need for the Cross. Only the Christian teaching of universal sin in the created world can make sense out of the very things that people complain about in reference to Christianity. In other words, the complainants against the Church have to borrow the Christian understanding of the world to criticize us. The Buddhist affirms the essential goodness of human beings, even while supposedly affirming neutrality on the point, by affirming our ability to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps as it were, and achieve our own enlightenment. But even after his enlightenment, the Buddha never returned to care of his wife and child, because his attachment to them was part of the PROBLEM! This example, often supported by another story of the Buddha’s preexistence where he actually gives his wife and kids who strangers who demand them, if why literally thousands of Hindu “householders” (men who were responsible to take care of their wives and children) deserted their families to join the monastery! No follower of the Buddha was allowed to work, so they (in many cases to this very day) have to beg for their food in neighboring villages. This is the “grace” of Buddhism. I as a monk allow you to give me food, thus giving you a ticket to heaven or another rung up the ladder of enlightenment. Sounds like our televangelists doesn’t it? So sad…
The supposedly enlightened Lama is on the record for numerous comments he has made attacking other versions of Tibetan Buddhism (there are four different major schools in Tibet), as well as critiquing other religions as well. None of this is seen much in the western press, as that might show a side of the Lama that people might not like in our enlightened pluralistic age where exclusivist is only supposedly seen in “bad” religions like orthodox Christianity. Oh well…
Just a few thoughts here. Let me know what you think and how else I can be of help.
—– Original Message —–
From: Werner Peters
Sent: Monday, August 05, 2002 10:26 AM
To: William Honsberger
Subject: RE: Buddhist conversation
He hasn’t told me yet which branch of Buddhist he is. He gave me this huge post making claims of similarity between Buddha and Christ. I have already pointed out contradictions in his logic, but logic doesn’t seem to count. And I am not sure where to go from there.
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From: William Honsberger [mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org
Sent: August 5, 2002 11:29 AM
Subject: Buddhist conversation
Hi Werner. My name is Bill Honsberger and I am a missionary who often talks to Buddhists. I also teach world religions and so am fairly conversant with most types of Buddhism. What kind of Buddhist are you talking to and where are they from?