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Doing Life Together

Doing Life Together

Part 3: Christianity and Buddhism: The Difference in Narratives Makes a Difference

I began this series with an introduction to The Christian Practice of Mindfulness. in Part 2, I discussed why Christians are attracted to Buddhism. Part 3 is an explanation of the differences of the narratives, which makes a difference. Part 4 is an ending summary and call to the church.

While similarities between Buddhism and Christianity can be found in terms of their morals and ethics, there are striking differences in the underlying narratives. The atonement narrative of Christianity asserts God as transcendent creator who brought harmony to his created world. When humans sinned, alienation from God resulted and a redemptive sacrifice was necessary to lead the restoration between God and his creation. The biblical narrative of creation, fall and redemption is as Richard Payne notes, “…a description of the past, present and future and a way of interpreting life and history and the individual.” [1] It also, as cultural psychologist Suzanne Kirshner points out, informed western development of modern psychoanlysis in terms of its conceptualization of growth and the self. Secular psychology changed “alienation from God” to “alienation from the true self.”[2] And while therapists like Jung and Rogers discussed the false self, the Buddhist notion of self is radically different. There is no self apart from moment to moment arising and ceasing. Self or ego is an illusion.

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In Buddhism, there is no transcendent creator who created the world. There is no Garden of Eden or fall of humanity in need of a personal Savior who can save and atone for sin. The world simply exists with no beginning and no ending. Life as we know it is full of an endless cycle of suffering which is caused by attachments to and cravings for worldly pleasure. The self is nothing more than a delusion and is the cause of unhappiness. Suffering ends when cravings cease and all delusions are eliminated. When this is experienced, enlightenment is reached. Buddha, the enlightened one, shows us the path to this awakening.

The contrast between Buddhism and Christianity are many:

  • Buddhism teaches many lives through reincarnation; Christianity teaches resurrection and one life that will continue in eternity.
  • Buddhism teaches there is no self; Christianity espouses a true self that is reborn through conversion. God is a person and a self.
  • In Buddhism, one develops compassion and loving kindness in order to be liberated; In Christianity, charity and love are the results of being in relationship with the liberator.
  • Buddhists sit with suffering and have the goal of eliminating it; Christians desire to be transformed by suffering and see it as inescapable in a fallen world.
  • Buddhists want to extinguish passion and desire; Christians promotes a life of passion in total surrender to God that fulfill the desires of the heart.
  • Buddhists construct reality in the moment; Scripture admonishes us to attend to the present, to not worry about what tomorrow will bring and to be anxious about nothing but to also look toward a restored future in which good will triumph evil.
  • Buddhism promotes self-effort; Christianity promotes total reliance on God.
  • Buddhists believe Budda works to guide and teach; Christians believe in Jesus and the work of the Holy Spirit.
  • Buddhists believe the purpose of life is to end suffering; Christians believe the purpose of life is to love the Lord our God with all our heart, mind and strength.
  • In Buddhism, truth is constructed or developed over time and is the middle of two extremes known as the Middle Way. In Christianity, truth is absolute and found in Christ.

In sum, Buddhism provides a way for people to engage in spirituality without having to contend with a personal God. Fate is believed to be in one’s control and growth comes through self-effort. From a Christian perspective, Buddhism commits the original sin—to go one’s own way apart from God.

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[1] Individualtion and Awakening: Romantic narrative and the psychological interpretation of Buddhism by Richard Payne pp. 31-51 from Buddhism and Psychotherapy Across Cultures: Essays on Therories and Practices by Mark Unno, Editor (2006). Wisdom Publishing Co

[2] Kirschner, S. The religious and romantic orgins of modern pscyholanalaysis. (1996) Cambridge University Press.

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