First, I am unapologetically a follower of Jesus Christ. He is God, the Son of God, the Lord and Savior, and he is uniquely those things. I believe and follow Jesus. I do not believe and follow The Buddha (a man), Confucius (a man), Mohammed (a man), etc.
Second, while I do not mean to disparage The Buddha in what follows, you will see by his own story and teaching the VAST difference between his way and the Way of Christ. When it comes to flourishing and happiness, The Buddha and Jesus are as different as night and day.
Third, while most of these posts are pretty practical, every now and then I like to do some theology. This one involves a little world religions for those who are interested. And this post is a little longer.
Fourth, in the circles in which I run, I have very few conversations about Buddhism. People are simply not interested. Many years ago, when I was working in southeast Asia, I did a great deal of study on Hinduism and Islam, and less on Buddhism and a few other religions. I did read many primary texts of Buddhism and several major treatments about it. I am not an expert, but I have read more than enough substantial studies to provide the following assessment.
I am sure you’ve heard the story of how Prince Siddhartha Gautama became The Buddha. The prince was raised in a wealthy and fully protected palace compound. He never saw sickness, old age, or death. He was 100% sheltered from these conditions of life. As the story goes, one day he was able to go out and see the world. He encountered a man with disease, then an old man, and finally, a corpse. Sickness, old age, and death. These were the realities of life – suffering and death. Aghast, Siddhartha went looking for the answers to these problems of life. He withdrew from the world and went into the forest. He practiced extreme asceticism (rigorous abstinence from things necessary for life). When he found the answers to these problems, he was The Enlightened One (which is the literal meaning of The Buddha).
CAUTION: Read the next paragraph only if you want a super brief (and simplistic) answer to a very complex philosophy.
The essence of Buddhist enlightenment is that all suffering is illusion. It is not real. Life itself is not real. Meditation is for the purpose of transcending the illusion of reality and having your soul or the energy of your essence merge with the universal soul or energy. Not only is suffering an illusion, your independent existence, or rather your perception of your experience of existing, is also an illusion. You meditate so you may find detachment from all the illusions of reality. Then you will be at peace.
Could anything be further from the way of Christ?
Forget about the themes of enlightenment, illusion, transcendence, and detachment for a moment. I will come back to them. Siddhartha found a sick man, an old man, and a dead man. In disgust, fear, anger, and disbelief he withdrew from those experiences.
What would Jesus do? What DID Jesus do? Jesus saw sickness, old age, and death. Instead of withdrawing, Jesus drew near in incarnation so he could participate in the human experience.
– When Jesus saw sick people, he did not withdraw from them. He embraced and healed them.
– When Jesus saw aging people, he treated them with dignity and respect, inviting them to participate in the Kingdom of God.
– When Jesus saw dead people (and I am sure he saw many of them in his 30 years of life), he hurt for them. And a few times, he raised them from the dead (Lazarus being the most noteworthy).
Jesus did not withdraw to a forest to learn that it is all illusion. Jesus did not preach the pursuit of detachment and meditation to rise above the illusions of life. Jesus entered the real physical world that was originally good, but was damaged by sin. Jesus pursued and embraced the pain of a fallen world. To do this for the sake of others was his great joy. To suffer for those who suffered and give his life for those who needed life – that is the Way of Jesus. And Jesus tells his followers to go out into the same world to be with those who suffer and to help them.
Those who are sick, suffering, and dying do not need a detached monk telling them their experiences are not real. They need a Savior, Friend, and Healer.
Jesus does not preach detachment as the way to happiness. Jesus preaches right attachment as the way to happiness.
Jesus preaches reordered love to the right things, in the right time, to the right degree. He wants you to be reattached to the things that matter most. God the Father in Heaven and his kingdom purposes matter most of all. We are invited to join in all that God is doing and be co-laborers with him. As we are rightly attached to God himself, to his great purposes, and to the people/world he loves, then we will find true enlightenment. We will find even more – we will find true joy and happiness.
In John 20:21, Jesus says, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” Isn’t that beautiful? We find peace as we are about the work of the Savior! His peace is our happiness.
P.S. Here are two more paragraphs for those who were hardy enough to read this far. Popular Buddhism that is taught and practiced in the “west” (like North America) is far, far removed from the philosophical and complicated “real” Buddhism. I’ll use a little analogy to explain this. Just like westerners have taken Chinese food and completely reinvented it so that it no longer even remotely resembles Chinese food, we have done the same thing to Buddhism. What we call Buddhism is far, far removed from real Buddhism.
I am friends with a number of people who are missionaries among Buddhists. Even in most Buddhist countries, most Buddhists are really animists. They practice a folk form of religion that includes ancestor worship, magic, devotion to local gods, hiring of shamans to perform magic for them, and so on. Why? Because Buddhism is an unlivable philosophy. So, we just re-invent it and call it Buddhism. By the time we are done with our re-invention, it is just like the folk religions of the east–a little pop psychology, some relaxation techniques to become still and quiet (useful by the way), a few quasi-religious ideas to sound spiritual–and we are “happy.” Aren’t we?