A Buddhist on a Christian on Buddhism
by Egil Lothe, President of Buddhist Federation of Norway, Mongolia Web, July 28, 2008
Oslo, Norway -- I have lately drawn attention to viewpoints of Thomas Terry about a connection between Buddhism and the prevalence of corruption in Mongolian society.
His allegations on this point do not appear to be an accidental slip of the tongue. On the contrary they seem to be very much part of a general approach of praising the superiority of Christianity through ridiculing and belittling other religions. In the Mongolian context the main target of his denunciations is Buddhism, the traditional religion of the country.
As President of Eagle TV Thomas Terry has been given a unique opportunity to promote his religious viewpoints in Mongolian society. His views on Buddhism are regularly published on his blog which figures prominently on the homepage of Eagle TV. As an evangelical Christian Thomas Terry also represents a religious movement which is being aggressively promoted in Mongolia. His viewpoints are assumedly also taken seriously by his Christian Mongolian followers and may even have some influence on the Mongolian public due to the lack of religious knowledge in Mongolia today. They therefore deserve to be seriously scrutinized.
Thomas Terry certainly doesn’t make a secret of his attitude to Buddhism:
Certainly I'm no fan of Buddhism. The teachings of Buddhism cannot hold a candle to the life of Jesus Christ. As I've written previously, Christianity is superior to Buddhism ethically, historically, and factually.
As we see from the following statement, neither does he hesitate to attack head on the founders of other religions as morally debased individuals:
Consider some of the most respected figures in religious or political history. Moses is revered by the Jews as their lawgiver. Yet Moses was a murderer. Mohammad is honored by 1.6 billion Muslims worldwide as a prophet. Yet Mohammad was a pedophile, having sex with a child bride when she was just nine years of age. Buddha is revered by more than 300 million Buddhists. Yet Buddhism’s founder abandoned his family without warning to search for enlightenment.
Since he starts out as a crusader attacking Buddhism as inferior one would assume that Thomas Terry had done some serious studies of Buddhism, giving him the knowledge on which to base his allegations about the defects of this religion. Apparently this is not the case. In his statements in his blog he refers to two books comparing various religions with Christianity.
These books have little scholarly value being basically expositions by American evangelical Christians trying to prove the superiority of their own faith. Still this does not hold him back from passing a number of deeply derogatory judgments on Buddhism. I will look at a few of them. As there is limited space for a thorough discussion I will mainly point to passages from the Buddhist scriptures and traditional expositions of the doctrine stating the Buddhist position on the points raised by Thomas Terry.
At first it should be realized that for Buddhists the Buddha is the Supreme Being born into this world for our sake, as expressed by these words about his birth:
The Bodhisatta, the foremost jewel, unequaled,
has been born in Lumbini town in the Sakyan land
for the good and happiness of the human world.
The perspective suggested by Thomas Terry’s statement above about a Buddha abandoning his family is therefore completely unacceptable to Buddhists. The monk Piyadassi Thera gives the traditional view about the Buddha’s leaving his wife in the royal palace:
… He (the Buddha) was overcome by a powerful urge to seek and win the Deathless, to strive for deliverance from old age, illness, misery, and death not only for himself but for all beings (including his wife and child) that suffer. It was his deep compassion that led him to the quest ending in enlightenment, in Buddhahood. It was compassion that now moved his heart towards the great renunciation and opened for him the doors of the golden cage of his home life. It was compassion that made his determination unshakeable even by the last parting glance at his beloved wife asleep with the baby in her arms.
According to tradition the Buddha returned to his palace after his enlightenment with his wife and son later joining his order as his disciples. In Buddhism love includes ones near ones but is not limited to them, as expressed by the following verse praising the Buddha:
You were kind without being asked,
you were loving without reason,
you were a friend to the stranger
and a kinsman to those without kin.
Thomas Terry’s harsh remarks about the Buddha therefore go far beyond an objective assessment of the founder of Buddhism being more a character assassination which for that reason is highly repugnant to Buddhists.
The Goal of Buddhism
This is a point were Thomas Terry is not too clear. He talks about “the ultimate eradication of the individual”, that “Buddha came that people might rid themselves of personal existence”, that “Buddhism promises only an arduous, lengthy road toward personal non-existence in a nebulous nirvana”. No wonder that he thinks that “Buddhism is a philosophy where the living hope for an eternal death.” His basic interest, however, does not seem to understand Buddhism, but rather to attempt to make Buddhism appear as unattractive as possible to his audience. The question, however, is whether what he says has anything to do with the teachings of Buddhism.
First of all Buddhism never speaks about the highest state as death. On the contrary the achievement of nirvana is often described as the final victory over death as the following scriptural passages about the Buddha declares:
Then I considered thus: Suppose that, being myself subject to birth, aging, sickness and death, to sorrow and defilement, I seek the unaging, unailing, deathless, sorrowless and undefiled state, the supreme security from bondage, Nirvana
"Homage to you, … who have won
the hard victory, defeating the army of Death,
(…)." Thus they pay homage, the devas,
to one who has reached the heart's goal,
for they see in him no means
that would bring him under Death's sway.
The question is then, what about the Buddhist teaching about the human person? What about the teaching about human beings not having an unchanging self nature, that Mr. Terry remarks might refer to? To this question the answer is that the descriptions of Buddhist schools of thought regarding human nature are very sophisticated, analysing the fact of change as well as continuity of human beings. The important thing to remember, however, is the emphasis on the fact (as Buddhism sees it) that we survive our physical death and continue our existence in a new form. As human life as well as other forms of existence only lasts for a limited time this phenomenon of repeated existence has happened innumerable times in the past and will be repeated again until we reach the supreme state of eternal perfection beyond birth and death which Buddhists refers to as nirvana. However, this state cannot, by its very nature, be described through ordinary reasoning. One becomes, like the Buddha: "Deep, boundless, hard to fathom, like the ocean."
The perspective of Buddhism is very broad: happiness in this life, happiness in lives to come, and the supreme happiness of ultimate liberation. However, the point which Thomas Terry doesn’t seem to understand is that absolute reality, which Christians refer to as “God” or “heaven”, while other designations are used by Buddhists, is a topic that is particularly ill suited for diatribes against other religions. It is sad to see a person arguing for the superiority of his religion by issuing claims about another religion that are plainly untrue.
Ethics of Buddhism
Ethics is an area where Thomas Terry has a lot to say:
The whole idea of suffering, desire, and detachment in Buddhism has had an effect on Buddhist societies that most Buddhists themselves do not recognize. Buddhism not only fears suffering, but actually contributes to suffering. By emphasizing detachment and the elimination of desire, Buddhism puts an unnatural barrier on relationships that stifles the fullest possible expressions of mercy and sacrificial love. Certainly there is love in Buddhism, but not the kind of love that we see in the demonstration of Christ on the cross. That is Buddhism's greatest tragedy. The fullest possible expression of love cannot be experienced without suffering and sacrifice. Buddhism fails to understand this, and thus is a system that has an outward expression of love that is void of a truly impassioned heart.
Here again we see a rather muddled statement mixing allegations about the state of affairs in Buddhist societies (“unnatural barriers on relationship that stifles the fullest possible expressions of mercy and sacrificial love”) with theories about the causes for such a situation (“emphasizing detachment and the elimination of desire”). Again, the question is whether this description has anything to do with reality.
As we all know, people, whatever their religious label, tend to ignore the ideals of their religions and do in fact often behave contrary to them. The general behavior of people in a society is therefore not a reliable source of knowledge about the ethics of a particular religion. Thomas Terry’s claim that Buddhism “contributes to suffering”, in the way he suggests, is therefore highly problematic. I think for instance that suggesting that Mongolians are “stifled” in regard to “expressions of mercy” compared to say, Russians or that Thais lack “sacrificial love” compared to, say Americans are highly risky statements that those thus characterized, with good reasons, would find very insulting.
At this point I think is time to clear up some misunderstandings about Buddhism. Contrary to what some falsely claim, Buddhism does not go against what we may call “the pursuit of happiness”. Quite the contrary. Neither does it advice against seeking worldly happiness. What it does advice against is seeking worldly happiness at the expense of others. However, it also points out that there is a happiness higher that that dependent on worldly gains. The shift in focus involved in pursuing this higher happiness generally happen gradually as the individual matures in his understanding of life. There is thus nothing in Buddhism inhibiting the full expression of human emotions in relation to others.
Then there is the claim that Buddhism fails to understand that “love cannot be experienced without suffering and sacrifice”. Again this is a false claim. Love as understood by Buddhism always implies a willingness of self sacrifice, as expressed by the following verse from the Buddhist scriptures:
Even as a mother protects with her life
Her child, her only child,
So with a boundless heart
Should one cherish all living beings.
The willingness to sacrifice ourselves for the benefit of others have to be cultivated little by little so we get to the state where we may actually do so when needed:
Our Guide instructs us to begin
By giving food or other little charities,
That later, step by step, the habit once acquired,
We may be able to donate our very flesh.
Sadly, Thomas Terry goes on with claims that are as false as those already put forward:
In religious practices like Buddhism, self-denial is practiced as part of achieving enlightenment. In other words, a person denies self in order to gain something for himself. …. The model from the Bible is radically different, and far nobler. We deny ourselves in order to benefit other people and God’s kingdom.
I will not comment here upon his description about the teaching of the Bible. I have included it, though, as it is so typical of his rather childish rhetoric of praising his religion by belittling others. But again he is falsely accusing Buddhism. One of the earliest passages from the Buddhist scriptures recounts how the Buddha told his first sixty monk disciples, who had achieved enlightenment, and thus had nothing more to gain for themselves, to go out in the world to help others achieve the same goal as they had achieved:
Go forth, monks, for the good of the many, for the happiness of the many, out of compassion for the world, for the good, benefit, and happiness of gods and men.
This principle has been upheld as fundamental in all traditions of Buddhism. A text often referred to by His Holiness the Dalai Lama is the Bodhicaryavatara which includes the following verse:
As long as space remains,
As long as sentient beings remain,
Until then, may I too remain
And dispel the miseries of the world.15
A brief study of the Buddhist scriptures should make it abundantly clear that the allegation of Thomas Terry that a Buddhist only “denies self in order to gain something for himself” is utterly false and a grave misrepresentation of Buddhism.
Reasons given for the superiority of Christianity
At this point it may be worth taking a closer look at some of the reasons put forward by Thomas Terry for the superiority of Christianity. One reason emphasised by him in relation to self-denial is the concept of obedience to God. Here16 he mentions Genesis 22: 1-13 where “God” says to Abraham:
Take your son, your only son—yes, Isaac, whom you love so much—and go to the land of Moriah. Go and sacrifice him as a burnt offering on one of the mountains, which I will show you. …
When they arrived at the place where God had told him to go, Abraham built an altar and arranged the wood on it. Then he tied his son, Isaac, and laid him on the altar on top of the wood. And Abraham picked up the knife to kill his son as a sacrifice.
As the story goes “God” having tested Abraham’s obedience gave him a goat to kill instead. I think it is not only Buddhists that are horrified rather than impressed by this example of blind obedience going as far as being willing to kill one’s own son as an offering to an imagined “God”!. Unfortunately the Bible not only includes praiseworthy injunctions to love ones neighbour and so on but also some highly problematic stories such as 1 Samuel 15, 1-3 where “God” actually orders the Jews to carry out wholesale genocide as revenge on a neighbouring tribe :
Now listen to this message from the Lord! This is what the Lord of Heaven’s Armies has declared: I have decided to settle accounts with the nation of Amalek for opposing Israel when they came from Egypt. Now go and completely destroy the entire Amalekite nation—men, women, children, babies, cattle, sheep, goats, camels, and donkeys.
How can a religion sink so abysmally low? I must confess that the answer eludes me. To a Buddhist these biblical passages should at least serve to remind us about the value of Buddhism where stories, such as those just referred to, would be totally unimaginable. They also suggest the need for critical examinations of all claims to represent absolute truth whether from Thomas Terry or any other religious fundamentalist. Or, as the Buddha says in the scriptures:
Come, Kalamas. Do not go upon what has been acquired by repeated hearing, nor upon tradition, nor upon rumour, nor upon scripture, nor upon surmise, nor upon axiom, nor upon specious reasoning, nor upon bias toward a notion pondered over, nor upon another's seeming ability, nor upon the consideration 'The monk is our teacher.'
When you yourselves know: 'These things are bad, blameable, censured by the wise; undertaken and observed, these things lead to harm and ill,' abandon them... When you yourselves know: 'These things are good, blameless, praised by the wise; undertaken and observed, these things lead to benefit and happiness,' enter on and abide in them.
However, Thomas Terry is right about one thing: “Glorifying God is unimportant and irrelevant to Buddhist”. He doesn’t stop with just saying that, though. Here he “lets the cat out of the bag”:
But biblically, to the extent that God is ignored or opposed, people must correspondingly suffer. … in ignoring God, Buddhists believe they can escape suffering, but this will only perpetuate it forever. … The very means to escape suffering (true faith in the biblical Christ) is rejected in favour of a self-salvation, which can only result in eternal suffering. (My emphasis)
The idea that everyone, however good they may be as human beings, but rejecting “true faith in the biblical Christ” should be punished by “God” with “eternal suffering” in the hereafter is an appalling idea to say the least. However, the horrible callousness of this idea doesn’t seem to bother Thomas Terry as he shouts out these terrible treats to Mongolian Buddhist from the “God” he believes in. I think it is difficult to see this as anything else than religious hate speech!
Thomas Terry bases his statements on passages from the Bible, such as Matthew 25:46 which says:
And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous will go into eternal life.21
Thomas Terry also refers to Revelation 20:10-15 which says:
Then the devil, who had deceived them, was thrown into the fiery lake of burning sulfur, joining the beast and the false prophet. There they will be tormented day and night forever and ever. … And anyone whose name was not found recorded in the Book of Life was thrown into the lake of fire.22
On this background Thomas Terry’s talk about a “God who expresses love for His creation” begins to sound rather hollow. What kind of love is there when those rejecting “true faith in the biblical Christ” are punished with “eternal suffering” as described above? How much is the hope to “exist forever with a loving God” worth to say a Mongolian Christian if the same “loving God” throws his Buddhist mother into “the lake of fire” to be “tormented day and night forever and ever” merely because she rejects “true faith in the biblical Christ”?. One is reminded by the contrast with Buddhism here:
For the happiness which, though sublime,
Cannot be shared with others,
Pains rather than pleases
Those like you, O Righteous One.23
The problem with Thomas Terry’s evangelical Christianity should be obvious to any discerning person: it is a message which condemns to “eternal suffering” in the hereafter everyone who doesn’t accept its particular offer of salvation. It is therefore a message of fear, intimidation, and intolerance. It is therefore a message that creates divisions and conflicts between human beings. It is therefore a message that teaches its followers to despise other religions. It is therefore a message that Mongolia really doesn’t need. To Buddhists such a message is a false and harmful delusion. As a European Buddhist I am pleased that my Christian friends in my own country have, by and large, thrown away the bigotry of religious fundamentalism. I therefore hope that my Mongolian friends will succeed in preventing their beautiful country from becoming a dumping ground for such destructive beliefs.