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Buddhism in its Encounter With Christianity in the Modern World - Johannes Aagaard

There are radical differences between Christianity and Buddhism. But the two religions ought to establish a symbiotic relationship and a common fight against the false and Occult religions of our time.

For a long time it was customary to speak about "The Buddhist world", "The Moslem world", "The Christian World" etc. Each religion had its own region. That is no longer possible. The various religions have gone beyond their geographic areas and have become global.

This is a new situation. For centuries the religions have been isolated from one another and have developed a mutual image-making which is not realistic, neither when the images are like caricatures nor when they are idealizing.
Buddhism in a Theosophical Garment

Buddhism presented itself to the world at large in our modern times at the World’s Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893 (1).

Three personalities made their way from the Parliament into the whole world on a veritable world-mission expressing the spirituality of their specific movement:

Anagarika Dharmapala on behalf of Neo-Buddhism, Vivekananda Saraswati on behalf of Neo-Hinduism and Annie Besant on behalf of The Theosophical Movement.

The close relationship between Anagarika Dharmapala and Theosophy, first and foremost because of Colonel Olcott, is well-known and as important as the influence from the leading Buddhist apologetic Migettuvatte Gunananda(2) from Ceylon. Anagarika Dharmapala therefore was not only "the mouthpiece of Col. Olcott’s and Mr. Leadbeater’s ideas"(3), but he gradually developed the ideas of his own which became decisive for the Buddhist renewal and gradually made the theosophical ideas a foreign element within Neo-Buddhism.

The first stage of the renaissance of Buddhism, however, owes a lot to the theosophical movement. The Theosophical attempt to synthesize East and West and therefore to go close to what one could call Buddhist-Christian syncretism is registered in the titles of that period such as the Gospel of Buddha by Paul Carus in 1894 and first of all Henry S. Olcott’s The Buddhist Catechism which came in large numbers and many editions. Since that time many Buddhist Bibles have been edited too. Of greater importance, however, was the internal change in Buddhism which took place in Theosophical interpretation. The Theosophists, most profiled by Annie Besant, combined reincarnation with the idea of evolution as it was understood by the school of Darwinists to which Annie Besant belonged. In this way evolution and incarnation became two parts of the same evolutionary process from the amoeba to divinity.

The distinct denial of Buddhism as to the existence of God and as to the reality of the soul was in this process brushed aside and Buddhism was made a means to the end of universalizing all religion under the guidance of the Theosophical hierarchy. Buddhism and Christianity deserve to be upheld as true and unfalsified spiritualities, both trying to answer the deepest needs of mankind, even if they do not perform that ministry in the same way and with the same means and for the same goals
Buddhism in the New Age

New Age has become an umbrella-concept under which all sorts of Theosophical and Anthroposophical religious movements are seen as one and the same religious quest and search.

One of the first and most illuminating books from New Age side is "The Aquarian Conspiracy" in which the networking and the spirituality of NewAge is described positively and clearly. Buddhism, of course, is not just another New Age movement. But via the Theosophical transformation of Buddhism important elements of this modernized Buddhism have entered into the world view of "new-agers" all over the world. We cannot enter into this vast field, but I would like to present a poem which gives a glimpse of the beautiful, but also simplistic, religious attitude of New Age.
Buddha and Jesus

Cat Stevens, who is probably for the time being a Moslem, sings about Jesus and Buddha in his album "Buddha and the Chocolate Box" (LPS 9274, 1973) in a way which is characteristic of New Age religiosity.

They used to call him Jesus
Long time ago
They’re still calling him Jesus
Don’t you know
They crossed the wood
and hanged him
a long time ago
They still misunderstand
him those who don’t know
and in the evening his
love will lead the blind
in every secret corner
there in your mind
They called him Gautama Buddha
he turned the world in order
Don’t you know
he used to sit knowing
oh long time ago
where you and me were going
and in the evening his
love will lead the blind.

What is seen as the common feature of Jesus and Buddha is that "in the evening his love will lead the blind." Love unites them, that love "which is the guide for the blind." In a very deep sense this is true, but as the only perspective it could mean a simplification.
Bona Fide Religions

In the present encounter between world religions it has become the need of the day somehow to be able to distinguish between bona fide religions and non-bona fide religions. There are religions in good faith and there are other religions which are not in good faith.

In this distinction we do not speak about good religions and bad religions; that would be a distinction between fides bona and fides non bona, and that is another but also important distinction, for even if you are in good faith, your faith may not be for the good at all.

The distinction between bona fide religion and non-bona fide religion has become urgent since a large number of new religions have come forward pretending to be religious of nature but in fact being everything but religious.

Let us take the relation between religion and economy. All religions have to develop the necessary means to uphold their religious activities. The finances are there for the religious purposes, no problem in that.

In a number of new so-called religions things are turned upside down. They run religious activities in order to serve their financial purposes and other non-religious purposes. Such pseudo-religions appeal for protection under religious laws, but in fact this is counterfeit. They exploit religious liberty in order to serve their own purposes of a purely secular nature.

The bona fide religions will have to stand up against such counterfeits, for if they do not turn against them, the exploitation, which is perpetrated by these pseudo-religions, will also harm the reputation of religion as such.

The many thousand new religious organizations, which are now expanding and proliferating all over the world, constitute a very serious problem for Buddhism and Christianity. And I would like to propose a joint study between Buddhists and Christians in order to contribute to the clarification of the fundamental difference between bona fide religions and non-bona fide religions.

In this way Buddhism and Christianity could give a very important contribution to clarifying what religion is all about and what it is not.

"The many thousand new religious organizations, which are now expanding and proliferating all over the world, constitute a very serious problem for Buddhism and Christianity. And I would like to propose a joint study between Buddhists and Christians in order to contribute to the clarification of the fundamental difference between bona fide religions and non-bona fide religions. Buddhism and Christianity could in this way give a very important contribution to clarifying what religion is all about and what it is not".
Religions with a Mission

Buddhism and Christianity have as their background two ethnic religions, Hinduism and Judaism, and the fact of their transcending these ethnic limitations is not just a minor fact but is characteristic for both. The Buddha and the Christ both sent their adherents into the world in order to share the dharma and the gospel respectively with all mankind.

This universal outreach has nothing to do with expansionism or propaganda or proselytism. In both cases this outreach expresses a deep compassion for human kind.

Mission as outreach stands for both solidarity and sharing against all forms of religious apartheid.

The Buddha expressed this concern with the following words: "Go ye forth for the good of the many, the welfare of the many, in compassion for the world. Proclaim the doctrine, glorious in the beginning, glorious in the middle, glorious in the end. Preach ye a life of holiness, perfect and pure" (5).

Christ’s similar command sounds like this:

"Go and make disciples in all nations, baptizing them into the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Teach them to follow all the commandment I have given you, and be sure of this - that I am with you always, even to the end of the world" (Matthew 28, the last verses).
Religions with a Genuine History

There is a distinct and specific characteristic in both Buddhism and Christianity concerning the attitude to relics. From their beginning, both expressed a deep understanding for the relevance of relies. The ashes of Lord Buddha were after his death distributed and venerated in a number of stupas, and the Christians were deeply concerned about the relics from Christ and his apostles and all the martyrs.

This expresses in both cases the fact that they are historical religions with a historical founding master who de facto operated within time, space and causality. Siddharta and Jesus were factual human beings from birth to death. Their factual words are still vibrating in our human lives, and their lives are still remembered in various remnants and memorials from their time and place, commemorated and actualized.

This fact is often overlooked and underestimated, for in both cases the importance of the Buddha and the Christ seems to overshadow the meaningfulness of the historical Siddharta and Jesus. But that need not be so. In both cases the lasting validity of the very different messages is maintained in the unity of the historical and the universal, the factual and the symbolic.
The Message and the Master

The expression "the medium is the message" has become a famous expression of the fact that in any communication there is not just a message to be communicated but also a medium which is inevitably part of the communicated message.

The Buddha was not simply a voice. He was also a decisive part of that which was said by the voice. Therefore, the refuge is taken to Tri-ratna (the Three Jewels): The Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha. Buddha himself is the first jewel, and nobody comes to the Dharma and the Sangha without the Buddha. Christ was also part of his message. Christian faith is realized as belief in the gospel-message, but Christ is the operative factor. He is "the way" in which he manifests that message. Nobody comes to the Father "bypassing Christ".

This exclusivity is part of the inclusivity of both religions. To contrast this exclusive relationship of the "origo" (root) to the reaching out to mankind of the "telos" (goal) is a fatal mistake.

The Buddha and the Christ are the basis of the originality and the universality of both messages. As the master so the disciples. As the roots so the mission.

Neither the Buddha nor Christ can be made one out of many similar masters. They are not one of a series! They are unique each in their own way. For they are also unique in relation to one another. They are originals, not copies! Both of them are the radix (the root) by which the radicality of their tradition is upheld for all, not for "members only".
Causality and Freedom

The causality of Karma is a major concern in most Buddhist traditions. In the search for Nirvana all Karma has to be dissolved or burnt up. That is what the monastic people are trying to do. But in "ordinary" people a search for "promotion" on the ladder of Karma, a very specific karmic causality, is operative.

In the "Commonly used Buddhist terminology in Chinese and English" (editor Yang Lin, no year) the karmic causality is seen like this:

The poor come from the mean and greedy
Those of high rank come from worshippers
Those who are dumb come from slanderers
The blind and the deaf come from unbelievers
The long-lived come from the merciful
The deficient in faculties come from the precept-breakers
The complete in faculties come from the precept-keepers.

This karmic causality is a consequence of the combination of Karma and Samsara. When the samsaric circle of life and death is determined from Karma, then such a list is the logical outcome.

Of course, this causality is not accepted in the Christian tradition. In Christianity grace/gratia plays the role which Karma plays in Buddhism. Gratia is the free gift of God, communicated in the personal universe by God, "three in one". Such an idea is probably not acceptable/understandable by Buddhists, for it presupposes that God as the creator is the basis of all life.
The "Telos" of Buddhism and Christianity

Can there be any doubt that "the telos" (the goal) of Buddhism is Nirvana ? And that the "telos" of Christianity is "the Kingdom of God"?

For both religions there is a secondary goal, called Paradise. It is not fully clarified how the first and the second goal relate, but I venture a simple - a maybe too simple - interpretation:

In Thailand a leading monk from the Achaan Cha-movement informed me that there are in Buddhism two goals and two roads. The first goal is Nirvana and the road is meditation. The second goal is Paradise and the road is collecting good merits. The real difference, however, according to him was the single state. Married people could only hope for Paradise, not Nirvana.

"That at any rate seems to be an important difference between Christianity and Buddhism. Is Love the real opposite of evil? Or is Love itself the first evil which hinders liberation?"

In Christianity the Kingdom of God is the centre of everything. "Your Kingdom come, your will be done..." is prayed daily by all Christians in the Lord’s prayer. The Kingdom is already victorious over the powers of corruption and evil, but these powers are still life-destroying realities. The power of God is first of all that of love. Love is seen as the opposite of evil, always attempting to defeat it.

During a conversation with Yang Wei-Lin, the editor of the book "The Commonly used Buddhist terminology in Chinese and English", I pointed to the passage in which love is seen as no. 1 out of "Nine bonds tie on living beings who cannot get rid of the afflictions of birth and death". I proposed that in that context love could not mean love in the pure and genuine sense. But that was denied. Yang Wei-Lin explicitly maintained that exactly love to one’s parents and one’s children and to one’s consort was the most binding tie on living beings making it impossible to get rid of the afflictions of birth and death.

That at any rate seems to be an important difference between Christianity and Buddhism. Is Love the real opposite of evil? Or is Love itself the first evil which hinders liberation?
Some Play It Cool - Others Like It Hot

"Coolness to the mind" is an expression which is often used in Buddhist meditation. The great Thai master Buddhadasa develops the meaning of this term in the following words: "Therefore, let us live a life of extinguishing, a life of dousing the flames and quenching the heat - a life of coolness. If you are burning, you are dying. A person, who is hot inside, is like a denizen in hell, an animal, a hungry ghost or an asura. Such a person is always dying. His attachment to "I" is not yet extinct. His ego has not yet been overcome. It boils and bubbles inside him with the heat of fire. It must be overcome so that he may simmer down and cool off (6).

Of course, behind this imagery is found the words of Lord Buddha about the burning house and the symbols of the Bhava-Cakra. There is no hell that is"’cool", Buddhadasa says, and consequently Nirvana is of the nature of coolness as is the right meditation whereby the coolness of mind is achieved.

In Christianity, which is also derived from an area with a hot climate, the imagery is different. In the last sutra of the Bible, the Apocalypse/Revelation (3:15) in a letter to the congregation in Laodicea, it is stated: "I know you well, you are neither hot nor cold. I wish you were one or the other. But since you are merely lukewarm, I will spit you out of my mouth". And the congregation in Pome is admonished by the apostle St. Paul "not to be lukewarm in its work but to serve the Lord enthusiastically"


This difference in terms is probably not unimportant, for no doubt there is a difference between the two religions when it comes to attachment. The Christian faith confirms attachment as part of the Christian love-story with God and the neighbour, while attachment for Buddhists necessarily is part of the problem.
The Lost Son, a Buddhist and a Christian Understanding

Both religions have as a central part of their teaching a parable of "the lost son". When at the School of Dialectics in Dharmasala India, I had to open the mutual dialogical exchangef chose to read both parables for the Buddhist and Christian participants.

Since these parables are well-known, I shall only refer to them. The Buddhist one is found in the Lotus Sutra chapter 4 and the Christian one In Luke chapter 15:11-32.

I asked the participants if they could accept the following interpretations which they confirmed:

In the Buddhist parable the father is Lord Buddha who tells his servants to invite the miserable son, who happened to pass his palace,-into the house as a mean servant who then gradually was given the chance to rehabilitate himself. And when he finally had proven himself competent, he was made the major servant of the house. Only then the prudent father called together his family and friends and made the secret known to them: "Little by little must the minds of men be trained for higher truths". The father as Lord Buddha is the ideal of the reasonable and wise father who with a cool mind promotes the son higher and higher.

In the Christian parable the father is God who in fact acts like a mother, always waiting for the return of the son, and when he appears, God runs towards him and embraces him in all his misery and dirt. He brings him back immediately and celebrates his homecoming. In this parable God is seen as the direct and spontaneous love, hot love, the irrational love of a mother.
Suffering, the Real Differentium

The basic attitude of Buddhism to suffering is well-known. The four noble truths about suffering are also the four truths about the world. Suffering is there, it has to be understood, it has to be dealt with and the right means to do away with suffering have to be prescribed.

The Buddha himself awakened from the nightmare of suffering, and his Dharma first of all points to the truths about the right relationship to suffering, manifested in the community of those who have left suffering behind, the Sangha of monks.

This is probably the differentium par excellence in relation to Christianity. Christ never left suffering behind and never taught his disciples to do so. He rather opted for suffering, and therefore the cross became not only one expression but the expression of the Christian life. He told his disciples to take their cross and follow him.

Christian faith is consequently focusing on human suffering, also concerning the central celebration of the Christian community, the eucharistic sacrifice. In this sacrifice Christ’s suffering for mankind is united with the sacrifice of mankind, a mystery which is expressed so well in the 8th chapter of St. Paul’s letter to the Romans which is the text from the Christian teaching which is the most relevant in relation to the Buddhist dharma on suffering.

I therefore would like to refer in some length to this chapter. St. Paul writes as follows: "We know that the whole universe/creation has been groaning in travail together until now, and not only the creation but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies, for in this hope we are saved. Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness, for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit intercedes for us with a groaning which cannot be expressed in words."

What is specific for a Christian cosmology and soteriology is this personal approach. "Person" means an acting subject. The Christian teaching on the Ultimate Reality is based on the conviction that the code to that Ultimate Reality is the personal approach. Ultimately life is personal, not a-personal. The Chrisitian code for that is The Trinity as the acting subject of the Ultimate Reality.

The Ultimate Reality reaches us in three dimensions, but all three are personal realities as the love of a father, as the obedience of a son and as the compassion of the spirit, the Holy Spirit who is of the nature of the mother. Christianity reaches this conclusion from the observation that personal knowledge is far beyond any other knowledge. Knowing is many-dimensional. Christianity focuses on God as three dimensional, but personal regarding the nature of that trinity.

In Christian teaching this is expressed by confessing Christians’ status as that of children. St. John states it like this: "Beloved, we are Gods children now. It does not yet appear what we shall be" (John’s 1. Ietter 3:2).

This open-endedness is clearly connected with the expectation of the coming Christ, the Messiah of the future, a point in which the Buddhist expectation of the Maitreya (the "coming Buddha") may well be seen as an important analogous intuition. But back to the major point where the differentium may be understood - that of personal knowledge. Personal understanding is radically different from scientific understanding. Your knowledge of your father or mother is one thing as to scientific knowledge, quite another thing as to personal knowledge. We all know that. The Christian approach simply: Life as a whole can be approached as a matter of personal knowledge, and if that is not so, then life is not possible. Then the suffering of life is not part of life, but part of death.

In fact, the Christian proposition is that suffering is a necessary part of life, that suffering is life-affirming! This is so personally because human love will never come into existence without suffering. We come to know the mystery of life in sharing the suffering of living beings.

The presence of the risen Christ as confessed by the Christian churches is therefore closely connected with the suffering multitudes. Christ as the suffering servant is always present with the suffering masses of people. If the disciples want to be with their master, they must be with the suffering world, and only then the Holy Spirit as the personal experience of ultimate reality will relate to the church and teach them how to relate ultimately i.e. in prayer.

Prayer, therefore, is the deepest form of personal relationship in Christianity. Prayer is a personal communication with the Ultimate Reality which is "decoded" as "the Who" of life.

This interpretation - and an interpretation it is - takes us to the heart of all Christian mysticism in all Christian churches of whatever confession.
Buddhism and Christianity are Bound Together

The more I have understood of Buddhism by reading and dialoguing, by listening and by seeing, the more it becomes obvious to me that Buddhism and Christianity are so radically different that they can never get away from one another!

People often seem to believe that similarity is the basis for community, for union. But we all know - from personal knowledge - that this is absolutely wrong. Real community, real union, is only possible when dissimilarity is found, but dissimilarity in a symbiotic relationship. Real marriage presupposes two radically different persons, different bodily and mentally. Only because of the radical polarity between woman and man, can new life ever come into being.

It may well be in a similar way when it comes to religions. We human beings do not understand much. We are all very short-sighted. We cannot honestly see how Buddhism and Christianity can meet and go together, because from Lord Buddha’s and Christ’s human days and until this day these two approaches to Ultimate Reality have been and are radically different.

"The more I have understood of Buddhism by reading and dialoguing, by listening and by seeing, the more it becomes obvious to me that Buddhism and Christianity are so radically different that they can never get away from one another".

But exactly this recognition may well be the key to the question, because the co-existence, indeed pro-existence, may find its basis exactly in the radically different contents of Buddhism and Christianity in symbiosis.

As bona fide religions the two traditions will have to find out how to relate to one another in full respect for the fundamental differences and in a similar recognition of the obvious similarities as to the way in which the two traditions manifest their mission in the world. This could well be the most important step to be taken just now. To recognize the need for a mutual relationship in order to promote the mission to a world, which is harassed by evil forces and by false religions which threaten to compromise true religion as such.



1. John Henry Barrow: "The World's Parliament of Religions 1-11", Chicago 1893

2. Maha Sthavira Sangharakshit: "Flame in Darkness. The Life and Sayings of Anagarika Dharmapala", Pune, 1980

3. Idem, p.52

4. Marilyn Fergusson, 1980

5. Quoted from G.P. Malasekara: "2500 years of Buddhism", WFB 1982, p.2

6. "No Religion", p.4