REFLECTIONS ON BUDDHISM and CHRISTIANITY Charles Day www.DesMoinesMeditation.

org* Years of practicing meditation and studying various religions, especially Buddhism, have resulted in a much greater understanding and appreciation of my root-religion, Christianity. Increasingly, the differences in religious ideologies, doctrines, rites, rituals, and practices, while respectable and inevitable, seem ultimately and utterly irrelevant. All religions share the same basic ethics, virtues, and values and advocate living in peace and harmony with each other, with all of creation, and within oneself. And all religions, according to their mystics, aspire to the same transcendent experience of unity, realization, enlightenment, union with God, and the awareness that everyone and everything is interconnected and interdependent. These essential commonalties clearly outweigh the doctrinal differences between religions, and it is from this perspective that I offer the following reflections on Christianity and Buddhism. Unless otherwise sited, my Christian reflections are based on the King James Version of the Bible, and my Buddhist reflections come from multiple sources, including The Heart of Buddha’s Teaching, Thich Nhat Hanh, 1998. Similarities between Christianity and Buddhism The instructions for Centering Prayer, a contemplative practice promoted by Catholic Father Thomas Keating and taught in many mainstream Protestant denominations, parallel those of basic Buddhist and Hindu breath and mantra meditation practices (Open Mind, Open Heart, Thomas Keating, 1986, 1992). Father Keating acknowledges its similarities with Eastern religions, as well as with early Christian monastic contemplative practices. Not surprisingly, many methods of Christian contemplation and prayer are similar to various Buddhist meditation practices.


Vietnamese Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh has authored two books entitled Living Buddha, Living Christ, 1995, and Going Home: Jesus and Buddha As Brothers, 1999. In his book, Mysticism for Modern Times, 2006, Willigis Jager, a German Benedictine monk, as well as a Buddhist scholar, provides an excellent overview of the parallels between the teachings of Christ and Buddha. He reinterprets a few of Jesus’ biblical teachings based upon the recently discovered Gnostic gospels, especially the Gospel of Thomas (The Gospel of Thomas, translated by Steven Davies, 2002). The period of silence that constitutes Quaker Meetings for Worship and the shorter periods of meditation now included in the services of many churches reflect shared recognition with Buddhism of the profound value of simply quieting and stilling the mind. Religions throughout history and in all cultures have been the repository for social, moral, and ethical values. And scriptures and clergy have long been relied upon to teach and promote these values. The Buddhist precepts of refraining from harming, stealing, lying, and sexual misbehavior are contained within the Ten Commandments. And just as peace and love are emphasized in Christianity, Buddhism teaches that all persons possess the four innate and divine virtues of lovingkindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity, and that these virtues can be not only intentionally cultivated in daily living but will spontaneously arise as a result of meditation and other spiritual practices. The Golden Rule exists in all religions. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” is paralleled in Buddhism by “Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find harmful.” And Jesus’ teaching of “Love thy neighbor as thyself” parallels Buddha’s emphasis on cultivating lovingkindness for oneself and for all beings. The importance of forgiveness in Christianity parallels the importance of compassion in Buddhism. Jesus’ statement on the cross, “Forgive them for they know not what they do,” is an extraordinarily exquisite reflection of the depth of compassion that Buddhism says arises naturally from an enlightened mind that recognizes that ignorance of our interconnectedness is the cause of all personal suffering and wanting to inflict it upon others.

Turning the other cheek, converting swords into plowshares, blessed are the peacemakers, the beatitudes, and references to Christ as the Prince of Peace are all Christian expressions paralleling Buddhist teachings regarding non-violence, non-harming, lovingkindness, compassion, and the Bodhisattva Vow to relieve the suffering of all beings. ” The Buddha himself summarized his teachings as “Do no harm.” The Dalai Lama expresses this in positive terms in saying, “My religion is kindness,” and in urging individuals of different religions to focus upon their shared values rather than their differences. “As you sow, so shall you reap” and “By your fruits shall you be known” are Christian expressions of the Buddhist concept of karma or the law of cause and effect as it applies to human actions. Negative actions lead to negative consequences and positive actions lead to positive consequences. Life and all creation are considered sacred and divine in both religions, though Christians tend to see God as separate from His creations, while Buddhism sees all of creation as the interconnected and impermanent manifestation of and inseparable from consciousness or God. The frequently misunderstood Buddhist concept of “no-self” and “no-soul” meant simply that something called a self or soul does not exist as an autonomous, independent, and enduring entity that is separate from everything else. Everything physical and mental, including the sense of a self, is interconnected, interdependent, and constantly changing, according to Buddhism. The quests for redemption and salvation in Christianity can be compared to the quest for liberation or enlightenment in Buddhism. Christian experiences of an epiphany or a transformation, of being “born again,” and the spiritual revelations that arise from near-death experiences are what Buddhists would call glimpses or experiences of enlightenment. Similarly, Christian mystical experiences of the Grace of God, oneness, unity, union with God, and the peace that surpasses understanding can be compared to Buddhist experiences of enlightenment or nirvana and the equanimity and bliss that accompany them.


In both traditions, such mystical experiences, whether called enlightenment or union with God, are generally initially fleeting, often unrecognized as such, and sometimes confusing and frightening. The fear referred to in Christianity as “the dark night of the soul” is the same fear that may accompany, in Buddhist terms, the dissolution of the sense of an enduring, independent self or ego that is separate from the rest of existence. Surrendering to God’s will is equivalent to transcending or dissolving this sense of self or ego in Buddhism. Spiritual growth is a gradual process for most people in both traditions. As spiritual growth occurs, the glimpses of enlightenment or experiences of union with God occur more often, last longer, and are experienced with greater clarity and equanimity. Sudden spiritual experiences that dramatically and forever transform one’s life can and do happen, but they are relatively rare and happen to relatively few people. Eckhart Tolle, a contemporary mystic, had a sudden and enduring enlightenment experience (Power of Now, 1999; A New Earth, 2005). Both traditions emphasize that mystical or transcendent experiences cannot be willed or intentionally produced. They are experienced as a result of the “grace of God” or, in Buddhist terms, simply “grace.” Yet, both religions agree that practices such as prayer, contemplation, various kinds of meditation, spiritual study, and mindful and ethical living are all practices that open one up to the possibility of experiencing transcendence more often and for longer periods. The nature of God, how and why creation began, the meaning and purpose of life, and what happens after death are considered, in the final analysis, to be mysteries in both Christianity and Buddhism. Buddha called these concerns or questions imponderables and cautioned against metaphysical speculation. Such speculation, he said, was ultimately a waste of time and energy because definitive answers can never be known by the ordinary, dualistic, conceptual mind or, for that matter, by what Buddhists call the transcendent, enlightened, non-dualistic, or “don’t know” mind. The Buddhist experiences of transcending thought and the ultimate realization of “don’t know” mind can be compared to the Christian experiences of “the cloud of forgetting” and “the cloud of unknowing,”

as described so eloquently in the fourteenth century classic Christian text, the The Cloud of Unknowing, edited by William Johnston, 1973. Differences between Christianity and Buddhism Christians tend to become much more attached than Buddhists to their doctrines, philosophy, and metaphysics, to their search for answers, and to the answers they come up with. Buddhism encourages enquiry, investigation, study, and the sharing of ideas but stresses that suffering can result from becoming too attached to them. “Don’t know mind” and transcending conceptual thought are emphasized in Buddhism (The Zen Teaching of Huang Po, translated by John Blofeld, 1958). Christianity has a tradition of witnessing and proselytizing, while Buddhism has always been a predominately non-proselytizing religion. Buddha repeatedly advised his followers to question his teachings, apply them in their own personal lives, use only what was beneficial, and discard the rest. Priests, ministers, and clergy are generally relied upon by laypersons far more in Christianity than in Buddhism to mediate and interpret the religion’s teachings. Buddhist monks, priests, and lay teachers give talks, sermons, and counsel practitioners but emphasize Buddha’s fundamental teaching that one must ultimately rely upon oneself for refuge, understanding, and peace, and not upon any external authority, scripture, or tradition. In Buddhism there is no deity or external God, as generally conceived of in Christianity. One’s self is the only refuge. When urged on his deathbed to name a successor, Buddha declined and instead admonished his disciples to: “Be a light unto yourself. Give yourself to no external authority. Hold fast to the truth. Look not for refuge to anyone besides yourselves.” Contemporary Buddhists interpret the biblical injunctions, “Be still and know that I am God” and “The kingdom of heaven is within” as expressions of this teaching about self-reliance. And several of Jesus’ sayings in the “The Gospel of Thomas,” a first or second century manuscript discovered in 1947, have been interpreted as suggesting that anyone is capable of salvation, self realization, and enlightenment, and that this may have been Jesus’ primary teaching .

Willigis Jager, previously referred to, interprets the biblical stories of Christ’s birth, baptism, crucifixion and resurrection as metaphors for our potential for being reborn or born-again into our innate divinity, into Christ-consciousness, into realization of our already enlightened Buddha-nature. There is no revealed scripture, like the Bible, in Buddhism. Rather, Buddha’s historical teachings, known as the Pali Canon and consisting of 87,000 lectures, are said to have been carefully memorized and passed down through several generations before being recorded verbatim in the Pali language 300 years after Buddha’s death. While sometimes referred to as scripture, these teachings are regarded, not as revelation, but as constituting a systematic philosophy and psychology of the mind that explains the causes of and how to end suffering. Whereas Christ is considered the son of God and the son of man, Buddha is regarded only as an enlightened man, not a messiah, prophet, or messenger of God, who attained enlightenment and insight into the suffering, impermanent, and selfless nature of reality through ethical and mindful living and practicing meditation and introspective contemplation. And in comparison to biblical teachings, Buddha’s teachings are considered guidelines, not commandments. Failure to comply with them is regarded as due to ignorance, misunderstanding, and inexperience, not sin. And the teachings are validated, as already indicated, by personally experiencing the benefits of following them, and not by religious authority, revealed scripture, consensual agreement, or outside approval. Christians believe that salvation can be attained, sins redeemed, and suffering overcome through faith in and surrender to Christ and God. Buddhism teaches that suffering can be overcome by letting go of attachments to selfish desires and aversions; by realizing that everything is interconnected; by transcending the dualistic and impermanent nature of mind and matter; and by realizing that the sense of self or ego is simply an organizing principal of the mind and not an independent, enduring, and controlling entity that is separate from everything else.


According to Buddhism, surrendering to the moment-to-moment experience of the unfolding mystery – which corresponds to surrendering to God – enables one to “see clearly what is.” Seeing clearly what is and accepting that “what is, is” includes being aware that our perceptions, feelings, and thoughts are filtered through and colored by past experiences and conditioning. Realizing that “what is, is” is to realize that it cannot be otherwise, that our experience of reality always has been and will always be whatever it is. There is only the reality of this moment’s experience. Past and the future exist only as concepts in the mind. It is worth repeating: “What is, is.” . Christians tend to identify with one’s self or ego as a separate entity that seeks to grow spiritually in relationship to a God outside of oneself in order to attain the experience of union with God, unity, oneness, Grace, or the peace that surpasses understanding. Buddhism, on the other hand, emphasizes the need to dissolve and transcend the fictional sense of a separate self or ego in order to experience enlightenment, union with God, and the interconnectedness of everything in creation. Both religions encourage individuals to become the best persons they can be and to help make the world the best it can be. Christians tend to accept frustration, anger, fear and other negative emotions as potentially useful in motivating such positive changes. Buddhism, on the other hand, teaches that experiencing and letting go of negative feelings, without judging them, will produce a clarity and compassion that leads to much more effective action, that positive change is facilitated when our natural virtues are not obscured by negative emotions. Compassion and wisdom are the inseparable components of enlightenment that continually reinforce each other, according to Buddhism. No differences between Christianity and Buddhism: Having pointed to the similarities and differences between Christianity and Buddhism, it needs to be emphasized these similarities and differences become utterly irrelevant and disappear when the mystical or transcendent level of spiritual development is experienced in either tradition. There are different paths to the mountaintop but the view from the top is the same for all.

Before realizing enlightenment or union with God, accepting and loving oneself and the world while striving to make both better are experienced as a social, moral, and spiritual challenge. After enlightenment, such acceptance occurs spontaneously and effortlessly without any sense of challenge or duty or expectations regarding the results of one’s actions. And this acceptance, whether viewed as the result of enlightenment or God’s grace, is accompanied by the peace that surpasses understanding. The similarities and differences between Christianity and Buddhism also become insignificant when they are recognized as purely conceptual in nature without any substantive reality. Such doctrinal and conceptual differences are ultimately unimportant, and any attachment to them needs to be let go of and transcended in order to experience God or enlightenment. The various spiritual paths, denominations, and traditions within Christianity and Buddhism are all potentially valid. They simply appeal to different individuals at different times, to the same individual at different times, and even to the same individual at the same time. Religious traditions are modified over time as a result of their changing historical, social, and cultural contexts, just as change characterizes an individual’s psychological and spiritual growth through life. The mystics of different religions agree that such change and diversity are simply the natural, dualistic manifestations of an unmanifest and unified whole, and that all spiritual paths ultimately lead to the same goal. The spokes of a wheel all meet at the center. All paths lead to the same mountaintop. Christian and Buddhist mystics describe their experiences of union with God or enlightenment similarly. There is no past, present, or future. There is only the eternal now. And there is no longer any illusion of an independent, controlling, or separate self. There is only the awareness of an interconnected whole, of unity or union, of oneness without an opposite. In this state of grace or enlightenment, there is only the experience of the present moment as it is manifested within and perceived by each of us. Everything is experienced as an expression of the will of God

or, in Buddhist terms, the unfolding mystery. And everything is perfect, not in the comparative or evaluative sense of being right or wrong, just or unjust, good or bad, but perfect because whatever happens is recognized as simply the natural result, expression, and culmination of all the causes and conditions that have led up to it. The moment can never be other than the way it is. What is, is. Differences and distinctions arise only in the dualistic manifestation of thought which itself has no substantive or enduring reality. Thinking is, of course, extremely important in the relative, dualistic, and manifest world. According to Buddha, “We are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts. With our thoughts we make the world. Speak or act with an impure mind, and trouble will follow you as the wheel follows the ox that draws the cart…. Speak or act with a pure mind, and happiness will follow you as your shadow, unshakable.” (The Dhammapada, a rendering by Thomas Byron, 1976.) From a psychologically point of view, it is obvious that what we think influences what we feel, say, and do, and how we experience the world and ourselves. Not so obvious is that from a metaphysical viewpoint the Buddha may also be suggesting that what we think or experience is, in fact, all there is. The experience of what is, is, and that’s it, that’s all of it, there is nothing more. Creation is nothing but the moment-to-moment consciously experienced manifestation of the imponderable mystery or God. “With our thoughts we make the world.” Perhaps this is what is meant by the passage from the Gospel of John: "In the beginning was the word and the word was with God and the word was God." In the experience of Buddhist enlightenment or Christian unity, “God” and “imponderable mystery” are apprehended as synonymous terms. Religious doctrines are understood as merely conceptual and, while symbolically and practically useful, they are ultimately futile and meaningless efforts to express the inexpressible. In the experience of enlightenment and union with God, the sense of one’s ego or self as separate from God or anything else dissolves into the inexplicable and inexpressible experience of a unity and oneness that has no opposite.

Albert Einstein said, “Buddhism has the characteristics of what would be expected in a cosmic religion for the future: It transcends a personal God, avoids dogmas and theology; it covers both the natural and the spiritual, and it is based on a religious sense aspiring from the experience of all things, natural and spiritual, as a meaningful unity.” From the greater perspective of Eastern wisdom, however, it is not likely that a single universal religion will ever be attained in this manifest creation of form and thought whose very nature is characterized by diversity and change. Let me close by sharing a story told by Ajahn Sumedo, an American monk who founded a Buddhist monastery in England. Ajahn is the Thai word for teacher. Sumedo’s teacher in the 1960’s and 70’s was Ajahn Chah, a revered Buddhist master in Thailand, now deceased, many of whose western disciples, including Jack Kornfield, have since become prominent Buddhist teachers throughout the western world. Sumedo relates a story about a fellow monk from Germany who was admired for his brilliant intellect and intense devotion to their teacher Ajahn Chah and to Buddha’s teachings. And so, when Sumedo encountered his German friend years later on a trip through Europe, he was quite shocked to find that he had forsaken Buddhism. His friend had disrobed as a monk and embraced Christian fundamentalism, and he professed the sincere belief that only those who were born again in Jesus would go to heaven. When Sumedo next saw his teacher Ajahn Chah, he eagerly told him what happened and asked him to explain what could possibly have gone wrong to make his formerly devoted disciple want to reject Buddhism and embrace Christian Fundamentalism. Ajahn Chah’s response was simple and immediate: “Maybe he’s right.” This is, I think, an exquisite reflection by a Buddhist Master of “don’t know” mind, of his complete calm and comfort in accepting whatever happens in life, in accepting that “what is, is” and of the enlightened capacity to acknowledge and transcend dualistic and judgmental thinking about different religions. Call it surrender, enlightenment, or trust in God. It’s the same experience.


Finally, I’d like to site a couple of other quotes, the first from the Hindu Upanishads in referring to enlightenment: “Eye cannot see It, tongue cannot utter It, mind cannot grasp It. There is no way to learn or to teach It. It is different than the known and beyond the unknown. In this all the ancient Masters agree.” Having said this, here’s a final quote from the Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, whose advice I should perhaps have taken before writing this essay: “About that which we cannot speak, we should remain silent” (Jager, p.13). *Charlie Day is a retired psychologist who teaches meditation and Buddhist philosophy. He can be contacted at (515) 255-8398,, or 1-5r11-11