Living half a millennium from each other, coming from such different backgrounds, and being moulded by very disparate cultural and religious influences, it is hardly surprising that Jesus and the Buddha arrived at dramatically different conclusions about reality. The Buddha was once asked whether “all teachers proclaim the same doctrine, practise the same morality, have the same aspiration and pursue the same goal?” He replied: “No they do not…The world is made up of many and varied elements. This being the case beings adhere to one or another of these and whatever they adhere to they become strongly attached to, and then assert, ‘This alone is true and all else is false!’ Consequently all teachers do not proclaim the same doctrine, practise the same or morality, have the same aspirations or pursue the same goal?”1
So is it true as an increasing number of commentators claim that Jesus and the Buddha would have nodded in agreement if they had heard about the other’s teachings? Given Jesus’s absolutist claims and his belief that the only alternative to salvation was damnation, it is unlikely that he or the first Christians would have approved of the Buddha and his Dhamma. What would the Buddha have thought about Jesus and his Gospel? Ānanda articulated the Buddha’s attitude when he said that some religions and philosophies are outright false (abrahmacariyavāsā), and others are unsatisfactory or incomplete while containing important truths. Amongst the first are those that teach materialism, moral relativism, determinism, or that salvation or liberation is inevitable. Amongst the second are those that teach some form of afterlife, sound moral values, free will, personal responsibility, and the notion that salvation or liberation is not inevitable but conditional on the individual’s behaviour. 2 The Gospel contains most of the elements in this second group and thus it seems quite likely the Buddha would have considered it to be an imperfect vision of reality but with important truths and laudable ethics nonetheless. One aspect of the Gospel he would have agreed with would have been Jesus’ claim that if you “love your neighbour as yourself” you would be saved, that is, go to heaven, or what the Buddha called the Brahmā world. The Buddha may well have also seen a similarity between his own and Jesus’ simple itinerate lifestyle and found it praiseworthy. He would have been less impressed by Jesus’ frequent angry outbursts and threats of damnation.
If Buddhism and Christianity have little in common when it comes to most of the fundamental issues, the findings of this study, what does this mean for respectful interaction between them? If respect for other religions hinges on convincing oneself that they are just a slightly different version of one’s own then it is not really acceptance; it is just a reassuring confirmation of what one has always believed. However, is it not possible for people to disagree about even questions of great moment and still be friendly, accepting and respectful towards each other? It is, and it does sometimes happen. I personally know of a Sri Lankan Buddhist expatriate community in Canada that was invited by the local pastor to use his church for their meetings until they were able to get a place of their own. A Buddhist monk in the US told me that two door-to-door missionaries arrived at his house-temple just as he was shovelling snow from the driveway and they stopped to give him a hand. Later he invited them inside and they had a friendly discussion of their respective beliefs over cups of coffee. I know of another case when during a riot in Sri Lanka a mob came to loot a church and a Buddhist monk appeared and reproached the crowd for their behaviour so that they were shamed into dispersing. Actions like these do more for mutual respect and understanding than a hundred dialogue sessions and inter-religious conferences.
Discussing doctrinal commonalities certainly has a role in strengthening mutual understanding. As the Buddha said: “Those things about which there is no agreement, let us put aside. Those things about which there is agreement, let the wise bring up, discuss and examine.”3 However, comparing notes on doctrines can only go so far before repetition starts to set in. Perhaps more important than straining to find similarities between Buddhist and Christian ideas is being or endeavouring to be a particular type of Buddhist or a particular type of Christian.
Some believers are committed to the goal of converting those of other faiths, whether by robust or more subtle means, come what may. Proselytising is not just an unspoken way of saying “I cannot accept your beliefs”, it is a demonstration of it as well. No matter how friendly inter-religious meetings may be, those whose fellow-religionists are a target of conversion efforts must feel at least some reticence about and suspicion of such events. For a few it may cause resentment or worse. Other believers, whose faith is just as strong, understand that there will always be those with different beliefs and come to accept that this is just the way things are and probably always will be. The advantages of this attitude are many, not the least being that the believer can focus more attention on removing the beam from his or her own eyes or from their faith community’s eye, rather than directing it into evangelism More importantly, it can make genuine mutual respect and friendship possible, which is we are told is goal of inter-religious dialogue.
In the Introduction it was pointed out how many books there are claiming that Buddhism and Christianity are in general agreement on fundamental issues. However, outnumbering these by many hundreds are books by Christians advocating evangelising those of other faiths, including Buddhists. Ones with titles such as Disciplined Warriors: Growing Healthy Churches That Are Equipped for Spiritual Warfare and Spiritual Warfare and Missions: The Battle for God’s Glory among the Nations make no effort to hide their agenda or how it is to be implemented. But even publications by mainline and liberal theologians and church leaders endorse this same goal, albeit using more tactful titles and recommending more sensitive methods. The last chapter in the recent publication How to Bring Your Family to Christ is called Never Give Up in which it details numerous strategies and situations that can be used to try to convert the members of one’s family. The people who are on the receiving end of this kind of ‘never give up’ attitude often find it bad-mannered, intrusive, inappropriate and annoying.
The World Council of Churches (WCC) which represents nearly 350 churches in 150 countries has a special Commission on World Mission and Evangelism which meets every 18 months to report on and discuss strategies and projects to convert non-Christians. It has recently called for “a more humble approach to missions” and recommended that evangelism be done “with gentleness and respect.” This is perhaps an overdue innovation but a welcomed one nonetheless. Recently the WCC, the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, and the World Evangelical Alliance jointly issued a set of 12 principles recommending how missionaries should relate to the people they are trying to convert. One of these principles urged missionaries to “acknowledge and appreciate what is true and good” in other faiths and “to listen” to the people they are evangelizing. Again these are admirable principles but they are also only a different approach to the same long-standing agenda, to replace all other religions with Christianity. If missionaries actually did listen to the people they were trying to convert they might hear them saying that they are content with their own religion and do not wish to be evangelized.
All this highlights a quandary. One the one hand some Christians are telling Buddhist that their religion is a just slightly different version of what Jesus taught and that actually we are all “friends in conversation”. On the other hand, many Christian churches, almost certainly the majority, are spending vast amounts of time, resources and ingenuity on trying to replace Buddhism with Christianity. What are Buddhists to think of these mixed messages?
Tensions between religions often have longstanding and complex causes; economic, political, historical and ethnic, but there can be no doubt that evangelism is a significant contributing factor as well. Those who say that they are committed to inter-religious understanding and cooperation need to honestly acknowledge this and consider what they can do about it. Churches and religious NGOs are limited in the impact they can have on the more complex causes of tensions between faiths but there is one cause they could effectively stop – evangelism.
This is not to say that Christian NGOs should stop the enormous amount of good they do in the world. Far from it. But perhaps they should revisit the Parable of the Good Samaritan and note that the Samaritan never considered that his act of compassion might be an opportunity to convert the man he helped. He helped only because he saw a fellow human being in need. Again, rather than discussing abstruse religious doctrines with Buddhists perhaps Christians could invite them to become full partners in their charitable and development efforts. Actually working together with others to solve practical problems builds bridges far better than just talking with them.
The distinguished Anglican theologian John Macquarrie has written: “In 1964 I published an article entitled ‘Christianity and Other Faiths’ … [and] I continue to hold the views I expressed then … I believe that, however difficult it may be, we should hold to our own traditions and yet respect and even learn from the traditions of others. I drew the conclusion that there should be an end to proselytizing but that equally there should be no syncretism…”4 To hold to and be true to one’s own faith, to openly and humbly learn from other faiths, to respect other faiths by not trying to replace them with one’s own – this sounds to me like a formula for enriching all faiths and creating lasting harmony between them.
1. Condensed D.II,282.
2. M.I, 521.
3. D.I, 164
4. Mediators Between Human and Divine, From Moses to Muhammad, 1999, p.2.