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Krishna, Buddha and Christ: The same or different? (Part 5)

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The Holy Spirit as a dove in the Annunciation ...

The Holy Spirit as a dove in the Annunciation by Rubens, 1628 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5

A Final Word on Violence

In Christian mysticism, peaceful living and spiritual growth go hand in hand. As the believer increases in perfection and becomes closer to God the soul usually experiences an overall increase in heavenly graces.

The ideal Christian washes not just the outside but the inside of the proverbial cup to receive the pure waters of the Holy Spirit (Matthew 23:26). In this metaphor the cup represents the self, the soul, and the person who ultimately is bound for heaven.

So Christian mysticism never justifies violence but rather, gentleness and humility.

One might object to this claim by citing Joan of Arc, her inner voices apparently coming from God and urging her to lead the French army into battle. But it was the Catholic Church which eventually canonized St. Joan. The New Testament Gospels, themselves, never condone violence.

God or no God?

As noted earlier, religion can get complicated. Whenever one forwards a given assertion, an exception usually arises. On the issue of violence, we might point out the notion of the Just War and, for the matter, the bellicose Old Testament which Catholics embrace as originating in God. Having said that, the New Testament and Buddhist ideals about non-violence clearly differ in the sense that Buddhists do not believe in an ultimate, omnipotent, omniscient and eternal God, while Christians obviously do.

To repeat, Buddhists do not believe in God. Instead, Buddhists normally contextualize the idea of God saying “God” is just another cultural idea to surpass on the road to Nirvana, a journey involving the belief in reincarnation.

In Christianity, however, an unselfish love of one’s enemies arises from inviting the living presence of God to dwell in one’s heart. Happiness isn’t just inside, as so many non-Christians (and even some Christian pop singers) say. Rather, happiness is having a good relationship with God, who ultimately exists beyond the self but also immanent.

Unlike Buddhism, Christian salvation cannot entirely rely on one’s own contemplative efforts because God, and not oneself, is seen as the source of all goodness and being. Some see this ultimate dependence on God as a weakness but from a Christian perspective it’s just the way things are. One can only go so far through one’s own initiative. And that, for many Christians, is a significant limitation for Buddhists and for any New Age thinker who thinks they can reach the highest high through their own efforts.

To complicate things, Buddhism does speak of compassionate and intervening bodhisattvas who dispense graces to seekers along the way. But these exalted beings are not regarded as God. A monotheistic God is never present in Buddhism and at some point even bodhisattvas must be surpassed to enter into the nothingness/fullness of Nirvana, a place where the apparently illusory idea of individuality also vanishes.

Granted, some Christian mystics do talk about losing the self in a boundless ocean of God’s love, but God never disappears from the picture. And it’s doubtful that Christian mystics are advocating a complete loss of individuality. Instead, their metaphors seem more like happy fish in a boundless, beautiful ocean instead of the more Asian notion of drops of water dissolving in the sea.

Heaven and Hell

The Buddhist perception of heaven and hell is related to a discussion about violence and non-violence. Hell isn’t eternal for Buddhists. It’s more like a stopover in a lousy hotel room where one eventually checks out. Likewise with heaven. Heaven is described as a sort of ‘spiritual health spa’ enjoyed between lifetimes. So the reincarnating soul eventually departs from heaven to become fully enlightened. In fact, in Buddhism one encounters numerous heavens and hells before attaining full enlightenment.

Upon attaining enlightenment, Buddhists say the soul realizes it, itself, doesn’t exist. And at this point, even the idea of past lives becomes illusory. After all, how can you have a past life if you never existed?

These are interesting philosophical ideas but a Christian hoping to reach everlasting heaven might wonder if the Buddhist heavens could be astral realms and not heaven as understood within Christianity.

Since Buddhist hells are not eternal, they perhaps would be closer to the Catholic notion of purgatory because for Christians hell is eternal. Nor is the Christian hell a mere way-station or, for that matter, trendy or humorous Hollywood fantasy as portrayed in movies and video games. “See you in hell!“¹

For the vast majority of Christians, hell is just hell, forever and ever. And when it comes to the opposite, namely paradise, the Christian understanding of grace as a living presence that guides believers to everlasting heaven is relativized and absent in Buddhism. True, different Buddhist schools speak of emptiness, fullness and enlightenment. And they mention transitional grace and temporary heavens and hells. But Buddhist do not believe in everlasting heaven and hell as articulated within Christianity. So it stands to reason that the graces that Buddhists speak of are not the same thing that Christians talk about.

Conclusion

This brief comparison indicates that the scriptures and beliefs emerging from Krishna, Buddha and Christ have points of similarity but are not equivalent. As we’ve seen, the Mahabharata speaks of peace but in the Gita Krishna emphasizes holy warfare. By way of contrast, Christ, as part of the Holy Trinity is said to be co-equal with God and the Holy Spirit and, rather than engage in violence, is willing to sacrifice himself on a cross. While non-Christians may see this as misguided and some Buddhists (like D. T. Suzuki) say it’s “distasteful,” for Christians it is the ultimate point. This world is not it, and fighting and killing for material gain is not the way to get to eternal happiness.

We’ve also seen in the above that the Buddha doesn’t believe in God, and Buddhists say that the Buddhist nirvana surpasses the Christian understanding of heaven and hell.

The Hindu Krishna and the Buddha each speak of many lifetimes and associated opportunities for salvation through reincarnation, whereas the Christ of the Gospels entreats disciples to get it right the first time because (presumably) there is no such thing as reincarnation.

To overlook these and other differences may be well-intentioned but it’s also imprecise. And it’s doubtful that a fuzzy, misinformed belief in religious homogeneity will contribute to meaningful dialogue and genuine interfaith harmony. Promising commonalities can be discerned among today’s faith groups, but it will take clear and honest thinking for humanity to walk peacefully into the 21st century and beyond.

¹ http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/SeeYouInHell

© Michael Clark

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5


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3 thoughts on “Krishna, Buddha and Christ: The same or different? (Part 5)

  1. correct me if I’m wrong – but Michael Clark speaks here from the point of view of the modern “science” (is it science or rather section of knowledge?) called “comparative religion’. in other words – not as a practicionary of any 3 compared by him faithes.

    alright, as I see on his blog – I guess he is a Christian.

    I would agree with the 1st sentence of the Conclusion.

    in the conclusion he mentioned it himself that “Buddha doesn’t believe in God”. it is true – there is practically no any concept of God (or Paramatma / Bhagavan in sanskrit). I would add – as neither there any concept of soul (atma or jiva in sanskrit).

    so, strictly speaking, Buddhism technically is not a religion – similarly to Thaoism and as I recall Thaoism. at most it is a philosophy with purpose of improvement.
    (I don’t want to go too much into details)

    therefore I think these 3 can’t be properly compared as religions. may be only as “organised religions” (large institutions with certain structures and hierarchy mostly viewed as encompassing their congregation and to some extent expanding that congregation) – which is more like material term rather than spiritual.

    as for comparison betwenn other 2. as I recall, according to Vedic tradition, religion with Krishna in the center (as a supreme God/ Bhagavan among many demigods / devas) has specific term “sanatana-dharma” whish means “eternal religion” (or some translate it even as “eternal inheritant quality/ activity of the spitit soul”). while other other religions are considered as “upa-dharma” or “temporary path” (also – lesser ?), both in the sense that such religions are relatively brief in time (well, say – if compared with the life time of a planet, what to say – universe) as well as in the sense that eternal soul follows such path only briefly or temprorarily on its too long jorney through the samsara circle. also, “upa-dharma” religions tend to provide quite a limited spiritual knowledge.

    however the concept of God, soul and their relations is present, which I guess makes them more similar than with Buddhism. although Christianity has much less explanation about personal aspect of God.

    anyway, I think it is quite a nice article.
    (BTW Michael – the central them of Gita is usually misunderstood – it is not the “holy warfare” but love, devotion and surrendering to God and his will – which is more or less the same as Christ’s teachings are about – as in “let it be your will, not mine …” )

    Like

  2. oops, I repeated Thaoism twice – 2nd one should have been Conficianism

    Like

  3. Pingback: CAN THERE BE A REINCARNATION OF BUDDHA? « Pukirahe's Blog

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