Are Buddhism and Christianity Compatible?
I began exploring Buddhism during my years as an atheist because I was filled with anxiety over pretty much everything and read that some guy with a pot-belly apparently figured out how to get rid of all that. I also liked Buddhism because it didn’t come with any religious or metaphysical commitments–at least the version I was attracted to, didn’t. I get there are many variations of Buddhism that believe a lot of different things, even Zen. But the Buddhism I studied didn’t make any such claims. It was just a practice.
(Note: Something like The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching would be a close-enough approximation to what I was taught.)
So I studied under a teacher of Zen, and we focused on the fundamentals. We’d talk for thirty minutes about the practice and then he’d watch me meditate. If you’ve never had somebody watch you mediate it’s an experience, alright. Because at first you’re like OK is this guy just going to watch me sit or what’s going on here? And yeah, that’s pretty much what they do. But eventually you get over it and come to find that having somebody watch you meditate is helpful in the sense it holds you accountable and if you’re having trouble you can be like, hey. I still study with this teacher today, though not as often as I used to. We do more of periodic check-ins, at this point.
Anyway, here’s what I learned through my years of studying Zen, even if I never went so far as to call myself a Buddhist.
And when I say Zen, I mean the specific practice of mindfulness, not the school of Mahayana. I wanted only the bare bones of what The Buddha himself taught. That was all. And when you study The Buddha you come to see that he never claimed to be a god and never had much of anything to say about the stuff reality was made of–he never talked about God or a soul or anything like that. The Buddha only taught one thing: Suffering and the way out. This I liked. It seemed practical without being woo-woo.
And practical it was. Meditation transformed me. It alleviated my anxiety and did much to improve my focus and attention to detail. The practice of mindfulness has become an indispensable part of who I am and something I work very hard to maintain. I would recommend it to everyone.
But before we stage any comparison between Buddhism and Christianity we have to settle on what kind of Buddhism and what kind of Christianity we’re talking about. Not all Buddhists believe the same things. Not all Christians believe the same things. So to make this discussion possible (as well as productive), I’m going to narrow the scope. My background, as hinted, is a sort of stripped-down Zen: Suffering and the way out; that’s it. And my current religion is Catholicism. So these are the two I should like to compare, because these are the two that I know about. Everything else–other denominations or schools or sects–are simply off the table.
So obviously I’m not a religious pluralist–we can start with that, I suppose. And to those unfamiliar with the term, a religious pluralist can take a number of forms. The first is anyone who says all religions are saying the same thing, just sometimes they might say it in different ways. This is popular belief among younger generations who are spiritual in nature (as we so often tend to be) but don’t feel compelled to commit to any particular religion, because then they’d be like their parents, God forbid. This form of pluralism is appealing because it allows one to be “spiritual but not religious.” The only problem is that it’s wrong. Because even the most minor investigation into the world’s religions will cause you to quickly discover how they’re most definitely not saying the same thing. Different religions say different things, often very different things.
For example: Some schools of Buddhism claim if you are not a good person then you could expect to come back as a corn snake. That itself is incompatible with other schools of Buddhism that say reincarnation is not one of The Buddhas teachings, and certainly it is incompatible with Christianity which believes in life after death (or existence at a higher pitch–ie. heaven), rather than a return to this in life in another form. No Christian that I know thinks anybody is coming back as a corn snake. But then again there are about 30,000 Christian denominations, so I cannot be certain of this. That’s why I’ve restricted my scope.
Truth is exclusive. So to the extent that religions make claims and to the extent these claims are conflicting then we can say not all religions are true, because not all religions are saying the same thing. It’s possible however that some religions are more true than others and that one religion is true or at least true-est. But just because one religion gets everything (or almost everything) right doesn’t mean all other religions get everything (or almost everything) wrong. This is the idea of being an inclusivistic religion, and that’s Catholicism. We’ll come back to this.
But there is yet another form of religious pluralism we need to discuss, which states all religious are equally valid, because all religions are equally false. This form of religious pluralism is at least not logically inconsistent and could lead to one believing in God or not. For example, the pluralist could say all religions are false but each point to some fundamental, transcendent ground–call it The Ultimate, if you want; Cosmic Corn Flake also works–and that you ought to choose whatever religion you feel best helps you to be a spiritual person. (The Perennial Philosophy by Huxley is one such book on this, and a pretty good one.) The flip side is someone could say all religions are false and there is no God, which would be an atheistic pluralist. That used to be me.
I’m sure you’ve heard the cliche’d argument, “You reject Zeus and all these other gods so why don’t you reject the God of Christianity?” But this logic is invalid for a number of reasons. First, belief in a Transcendent Other (God) is a properly basic belief, like the belief that our senses are reliable and that the world outside our head is actually a thing. So it’s better to refine a properly basic belief than to reject it, since these beliefs help us to make sense of what’s going on. For example, it’s better to improve our understanding of the outside world than it is to deny the outside world exists and that we’re all just hooked up to the Matrix or whatever, which some philosophers actually believe. Well, the same with God. It’s better to become more sophisticated in our understanding of who or what God is than to go the other way and say God doesn’t exist. It’s like physics. Quantum physics is pretty complicated when compared to Newtonian atomism but just because we no longer accept Newtonian atomism doesn’t mean we deny the reality of physics–no, we’ve simply come to a better understanding of it, even if that understanding is more complex. Well, the God of Christianity is certainly more complex than Zeus (as anybody who’s studied the topic of divine simplicity will attest), but all that means is we now have a more sophisticated understanding of God, which is a good thing.
Further, and not to pick too much on Zeus, but he doesn’t meet any of the philosophical criteria needed to be ultimate explanation of things: Timeless, immaterial, immutable, etc, etc. Zeus has arms and legs and we should expect to find him on Mt Olympus, but we don’t. The God of The Philosophers does not have arms and legs because he isn’t material and he isn’t in (or of) the universe, so we shouldn’t expect to find him in the universe and so he isn’t provable by science. I only bring this up because you so commonly hear village atheists like Ricky Gervais and Richard Dawkins make this objection and people think it sounds good but it’s really just a very silly thing to say.
But back to the topic at hand: Are Buddhism and Christianity compatible? My short answer is yes, but. My long answer is there are a many useful practices in Buddhism that are perfectly compatible with Christianity (as I know it) but that if you’re looking for truth Buddhism (at least the fundamentals of Buddhism) is not enough. Buddhism helped me deal with existence, but only Christianity helped me to figure it out.
(Note: Because The Buddha thought metaphysical speculation was unnecessary to spiritual liberation, he never engaged in it.)
So to the extent that Buddhism offers a method to alleviate suffering I see no inherent conflict between that and the tenets of Christianity/Catholicism. But we should also take a moment to see what Catholicism says, just to be sure.
Catholicism says this. God exists, and He is the creator of all things. To narrow it further Catholicism says God revealed himself in the person of Jesus Christ who was crucified under Pontious Pilate, died, was buried, and on the third day rose from the dead. Now there’s claim! Because people don’t typically rise from the dead, do they? We know this, and certainly people back then knew this. That’s why it was such a big deal.
But think about the consequences if this is true; think of what it means if Jesus truly resurrected. The consequences are as follows: If Jesus rose from the dead, then atheism is false and so is every other religion on earth. The whole event is seriously offensive, which is why I like it. Now of course just stating the consequences does nothing to show the event occurred. I’m only pointing out the significance of the event itself. As to whether or not the event actually happened, that you must evaluate yourself. I can only say that after years of atheism, a serious investigation into the matter lead me to believe that it did, and that I had been wrong and stupid for ignoring it. (For the honest seeker, I would start with the historical work of NT Wright.)
People sometimes think Christianity is about being a nice person. But that’s not what Christianity is about. Yes, there are tenets within Christianity about being nice and why that’s important, but Christianity is about a person. Buddhism, on the other hand, is not about a person. It’s about a method. This distinction couldn’t be more important.
A quick example:
I was talking to a friend at a restaurant the other week who brought up the topic of religion and wanted to know what difference it made if Jesus rose from the dead or not. Her claim was that it made no difference at all and that she could still be a perfectly happy and sincere person regardless of what some guy from 2000+ years ago said or did. I told her that her view was a bit simplistic in the sense that no straight-thinking person of belief says that a person can’t be happy or sincere if they don’t believe in the resurrection, or any religion, for that matter. That isn’t what Christianity is about.
I told her what I just said, that the resurrection is the most significant event in human history, so to not take it seriously into consideration one way or another is sad, because the difference the resurrection is supposed to make has nothing to with someone being a happy or sincere person but having eternal salvation. So, just a little bit of a difference, I would say.
Of course Christianity has a lot of other stuff once you get deeper into it, but the fundamental distinction is that where Buddhism is about what to do, Christianity is about who to follow. Christianity makes truth claims. Buddhism shows a way out of suffering.
Therefore I see no reason why a person couldn’t practice the meditation habits found in something like “stripped-down Zen” and still be a Christian or a Catholic. At least I hope that’s the case, because that’s the one I find myself in. And as I’ve stated before, I think my background in Buddhism has enhanced my practice as a Christian, and perhaps in some ways even made my conversion possible. Being mindful helps one to pray and get more out of Church, which is why I use daily mass as an opportunity to practice mindfulness: Because it’s so ritualistic mass is perfect for this; it’s not a form of entertainment and it’s not supposed to be.
I also said earlier that Catholicism is inclusivistic, so let me explain what I meant by that. The church obviously claims to be correct in what it teaches but there is also much to learn from other religions and philosophies, as well, says the church. So to the extent that none of the other religions clash with the tenets of Christian-Catholicism, there’s no reason you can’t extract those truths or practices to enhance your spiritual practice. In this sense, Buddhism is compatible with Catholicism, because Buddhism in its barest form makes no assertions about God. It’s just a way.