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Exclusivity in Buddhism and Christianity Written by Ed Farrell, April 4, 1998
Western scholars have often considered Buddhism an atheistic religion because it does not declare that there is a God in any sense that would satisfy a theist. The religion began with an ethical premise. As the story goes, Siddhartha, the historical Buddha, was appalled by the spectacle of suffering in the world and sought a means, through meditation, to end it. His "middle way" of salvation is in reference to the extremes of religious asceticism and libertinism then current in his native India. The doctrine that developed from his teachings asserted that our suffering is a result of our physical and emotional attachments in the world of phenomena (termed samsara). Since asceticism was not necessary and libertinism resulted in further attachment, he counseled to live in moderation according to basic need but to always cultivate detachment.

The metaphysics of Buddhism assert that eternal quiescence or non-attachment (Nirvana) is the ultimate reality and all human and spiritual striving is a feature of samsara, which perpetuates itself in endless cycles of death and reincarnation. Only by becoming "enlightened" to the conditions of samsara may the aspirant escape the cycles of birth and death. In the "little vehicle" (Hiniyana) Buddhism of Southeast Asia, personal enlightenment is the goal of each aspirant. In the "greater vehicle" (Mahayana) Buddhism of China, Tibet, and Central Asia the aspirant who achieves Nirvana is enjoined to voluntarily re-enter Samsara to assist in the enlightenment of others.

Buddhism, like Christianity, is a proselytizing religion although some variants are more so than others. It has an extensive and elaborate dogma. Mahayana Buddhism includes eschatological, apocalyptic, and prophetic elements; it also has a great scholastic tradition, including a thoroughly non-Aristotelian system of logic and inference as worked-out as any in the west. Buddhism also has its "protestant" and radical elements: Ch'an/Zen, Amitaba, Pure Land, and others.

The question of exclusivity has social and metaphysical aspects. Buddhism has a reputation of peaceful social coexistence with non-Buddhist custom and ritual, although in its native India it was never a religion of the masses. In the metaphysical aspect, samsara and nirvana are absolutes of the same order as sin and God. The initiate would sooner or later have to acknowledge any manifestation of attachment as something that must be shed to attain enlightenment, and this certainly includes attachment to local gods. Is this exclusive? Only of samsara, which is to say: highly. However, although it could be very strict with initiates and monks, I don't think Buddhism is very pushy about this exclusivity among laity. Particularly in the older schools of gradual enlightenment, they consider that it may take up to thousands or more incarnations for a soul reach a place where it desires to take the path of enlightenment. So they take the long view.

Christianity also has its social and metaphysical aspects to exclusion. Because Christianity tends to be the native religion of most westerners, it is particularly difficult for us to separate the social from the metaphysical and the two are often confused, as much by believers as non-believers. The western churches (Roman Catholic and protestant) have in particular been instruments of this confusion by aligning themselves with (or attempting to control) civil authority in such a way that canons of the church become civil law. Conversely, secular authority, through alliance with the church and self-serving interpretation of scripture, has often managed invest its political (and relative) aims with an aura of the absolute. It has also served to give the notion of sin a social emphasis that tends to obscure its metaphysic. But historical Christianity has often been exclusive in its social aspect in a way that is actually a perversion of its metaphysical doctrine. Even had this not been the case, I think it is pretty clear that the metaphysics of Christianity and Buddhism are radically different. You simply can't believe in them both, so in this sense it really doesn't matter if Buddhism explicitly require the believer to reject Christianity.


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