Buddhist-Christian Dialogue: A Point of View

By Arunasiri Dias, Lanka Web, Dec 3, 2008

Colombo, Sri Lanka -- Recently comparison of religions has gained publicity resulting in the conclusion that all religions are the same. This theory was propounded and repeated by our politicians and even religious dignitaries.

It may be even fashionable to say that all religions are one and the same. Yet, it can also lead to much misunderstanding and wrong interpretations as seen in the two part article of the Rev.Father which appeared on 15th & 18th October 2008 in The Island newspaper.

When scholars compare religions they group the Abrahamic religions Judaism , Christianity and Islam in one group while Hinduism and Buddhism are grouped separately. When the dividing line is theism as against atheism, Hinduism changes sides and Buddhism stands alone. There are other different aspects of Christianity and Buddhism. Christianity is a revelation and Jesus Christ was Divine. At the same time it is obscurant.

The Buddha was a human being and very much a historical figure. The birth place, place of Attaining Enlightenment, place of the first sermon and place of the Great Parinibbana are archeological sites in Nepal and India.The Buddha's teachings are based on self-realization after experimenting for six years. It is open and the Dhamma is "Ehi Passiko" - come and see, not come and believe.

The practise of comparing The Buddha's teachings with that of other teachers prevailed even during the Buddha's life time. Mahadukkakandha Sutta (Stems of Anguish, Majjhima Nikaya, Vol.1) deals with such an instance. According to this Sutta some monks who went for alms to Sravasti found they were too early and approached the park of the wanderers belonging to other Sects.

There the wanderers of other Sects who spoke to the monks and said that " They too laid down the full understanding of sense pleasures, full understanding of material shapes, and full understanding of feelings." They informed that there was no difference between the recluse Gothama and their views. The monks on retiring to the Vihare met The Buddha and reported the comparison by the wanderers of other sects. The Buddha explained to them why the teachings of other teachers were not the same as His teachings. Those days such comparisons were aimed at winning over the followers of The Buddha.

Religion is very sensitive terrain to enter. The privilege of religion is immense. To quote an example, on 21st February 2006, the US Supreme Court allowed a Church in New Mexico to use hallucinogenic drugs, the use of which is not allowed for others. Faithful members of the Centro Espirita Beneficiente Uniao do Vegetal believe that they can understand God only by drinking hoasca tea which contains Dimethyltryptamine: an illegal hallucinogenic drug.

The comparison of religion is not a desirable exercise unless for academic purposes because such efforts can lead to misinterpretations, misunderstandings and wrong use of terminology as found in the Reverend Father's article. For example take the sentence " Lord Buddha was married when he left the palace to seek refuge in the wilderness and to follow the great Teachers of this time in search of Victory over suffering."

To say that " Lord Buddha was married when he left the Palace……." Is an error bordering on insult. It was Prince Siddhartha who left the Palace. If the preposition "before" was used instead of "when", the error would not have been prominent. After leaving the palace, Prince Siddhartha became a wandering ascetic but did not seek refuge in the "wilderness". This error could well have been the unfamiliarity with the Texts.

The article states " Both speak of how we are to transcend the passing nature of this world of time and space and bodily nature using the higher powers of the mind and heart in the best use of freedom that leads to joy and contentment." Yet on reading the Sermon on The Mount one gets the impression that the will of the Heavenly Father is predominant and mind is not a factor. Heavenly Father is frequently mentioned and as regard the mind it is said " Set your mind on God's Kingdom and Justice before everything else…." Can it be concluded that the " higher powers" of the mind is a dominant factor as in the Teachings of The Buddha.

On the other hand, Arya Ashtaangika Magga embodied in the Dhammachakkappavattana Sutta has four components related to the mind. If one lists them they would be Right Thought (Samma Sankappa) . Right Understanding ( Sammaditti), Right Mindfulness ( Samma Sathi), and Right Concentration (Samma Samadhi)/ The best discourse on mindfulness is the Sathipattana Sutta; the foundations on which to be mindful are the meditator's own body, feelings, state of mind and the mental content.

Western scholars who have studied the mind aspects of Buddhism feel that the Teachings of The Buddha are incomparable. I quote Sam Harris, a sceptic who comments on consciousness. He extracts some lines from Padmasambhava on consciousness and remarks " even the contemporary literature on consciousness which spans philosophy, cognitive science, psychology and neuro-science cannot match the kind of precise phenomenological studies that can be found throughout the Buddha Canon."

Another point raised in the Reverend Father's article that needs clarification is the notion that Buddhism is " other worldly" for the article says " both doctrines are other worldly……." Buddhism is a teaching for the present; here and now. To say that Buddhism is other worldly, is to overlook the worldly aspect of Buddhism. One has to lead a successful lay life to gain a better life in the next. Many discourses of The Buddha are meant for the advancement of a spiritual lay life. The most popular discourses in this respect are the Maha Mangala Sutta and Sigalovada Sutta. There is no aspect in lay life on which The Buddha has not advised his followers.

The noble effects of The Buddha's Path could be felt in this world. One could be "Sothapanna" in this world, the first stage of emancipation. It is different for the Christians because they will meet the Heavenly Father only after death.

In this article under discussion there is an attempt to use Buddhist terminology to explain Christian concepts as " Jesus Christ is the only Magga." For a Buddhist Magga means, the path that has to be followed as a course of action for emancipation. The Buddha would not intervene one the Path is shown. He was only the guide and the individual is supreme. On the contrary the Bible says " Whoever then will acknowledge me before men, I will disown him before my Father in Heaven"( Mathew 10-11:32,33).

For a non-Christian it is difficult to understand the meaning when Jesus Christ is called the Magga. In the Alagaddupama Sutta, the layman and the disciples are advised to abandon The Dhamma once the objective is achieved as when one crosses the "stream of Samsara" the raft which helped to get across is not carried with him on his head.

Again, the article claims that "Jesus Christ is the only Aryasachcha." This needs explanation. Ariyasachcha, is the Noble Truth. Buddhists learno not one but four Aryasachchas.

Robert H.Thouless, M.A. PhD, ScD, the British Psychological Society, Fellow of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge University, is a distinguished Christian scholar. In his tract on Buddhism and Christianity, he points out the two religions can say the same but for two different reasons. \

For instance, when Christianity says "love your enemy and pity your persecutor " it is to become the children of their Heavenly Father. When a Buddhist repeats the same idea it is to free the mind of defilements, which is hatred. He points that the difference between the two is most marked "in the central position given in Christianity to the Heavenly Father and the absence of that motivating centre in Buddhist thought. "

Thouless, does not compare the first discourse of The Buddha to any religious teaching as the "Sermon on The Mount." On the contrary he says " if one reads the Discourse on the Foundation of the Kingdom of righteousness to discover what was the insight that Gotama gained while sitting in meditation under a tree we find that this insight is not different in its outline from that which has guided the development of Science." What is required is respect for other religion, not comparisons. As civilized society, we have a tradition to respect the dead without knowing who it is. Similarly, we must learn to respect other religions even if the teachings are unknown.