47 – Buddhism and Christianity

I’m often asked whether or not Buddhism and Christianity are compatible. Can you be a Christian and a Buddhist? In this podcast episode, I will address some of the main differences between these two spiritual paths and I will highlight some of the key differences in the Buddhist path that allow it to be so compatible with other traditions.

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Transcription of the podcast episode:

Please excuse any typo’s, I use a transcription service to create a text version of the audio recording. If there are any issues with the transcription, please let me know.

Hello you are listening to the Secular Buddhism Podcast. This is episode number 47. I am your host Noah Rasheta. Today I’m talking about Buddhism and Christianity. In this podcast episode, I want to talk a bit about Buddhism and Christianity with regards to similarities and differences. When I teach workshops about Buddhism, it’s almost inevitable that someone will come up to me after and ask me about what the major differences or similarities are between these two traditions.

This is a question that really can’t be answered accurately in that setting or in that moment because there are a lot of things to address. So I’ve decided to address this question in this specific podcast episode. I hope this will to clarify a few things. This is a topic I’m excited to address because I, myself, live in a community that’s very Christian, and with a family dynamic where we have a mixed-faith marriage and a mix-faith family. So this is a dynamic that I think is important to understand, for anyone interested in following the Buddhist path, or the contemplative path, to understand how that works, in comparison with Christianity.

Before I jump into that I do want to clarify three important things, three notes or clarifications about this topic. The first one is, this not a presentation about which tradition is right, or which one is better, because remember the quote I share all the time by the Dalai Lama, “Do not try to use what you learn from Buddhism to be Buddhist, use it to be a better whatever you already are.” This is especially relevant in this podcast episode. We’re talking about paths, and in what ways are these paths similar or perhaps different, but we’re not saying which path is right, which one is better, which one will get you there faster. It doesn’t work that way and I’ll explain that as I address these things.

The second note is regarding apples and pears. In many ways, this topic is like a comparison of apples and pears. They’re both fruit, but they’re not the same thing. And to further complicate it, there’s not one single app. There’s not one single pear. For apples, you have Gala apples and Fiji, and Honeycrisp, and some are red, some are green. You’ve got Granny Smith apples, etc. it’s the same with pears. You’ve got the Anjou pear, the Bartlett pear, the Concorde pear, different kinds of pears.

And likewise, there’s not one Christianity, and there’s not one Buddhism. So I’m not too concerned with trying to address any specific doctrinal differences, or similarities, because you’re already gonna have that just in between the various forms of the same overarching topic. So just within Christianity, just like you have the Gala apple, the Fiji apple, the Honeycrisp apple, you’re gonna have these differences of Mormonism versus Catholicism, versus Protestant. You’re gonna have that already, and this happens on the Buddhism side as well, with the various forms or schools of Buddhism.

In a general, overall sense, I will address some of the differences that I think makes sense to be discussed. The third note here, that I’m not an authority on Buddhism or on Christianity. I certainly have a background with both, my background with Christianity as Mormonism, and Catholicism. I attended middle school and high school private Catholic schools where religion classes were mandatory. I attended Mass often, as it was required. Half of my family, one side of the family is Catholic. And the other side is a mix of a lot of things. But my family converted to Mormonism when I was young. I was about three years old.

I grew up attending the LDS church and attended what we call seminary, which is a four-year religious program. And then served a full-time two-year religious mission in Ecuador, preaching and sharing the Mormon message. After that, I attended weekly institute of religion courses in college for another three years, until I got married. On the Buddhist side, I started studying Buddhism on my own about seven years ago. One of the first encounters I had with Buddhism was [inaudible 00:04:49] series by Jay Garfield, called the Meaning of Life: Perspective From the World’s Great Intellectual Traditions.

It offered a wide exploration of what various spiritual, religious, and philosophical traditions, from both East and West, have contributed to that big question of, what is the meaning of life. The Buddhism answer to that question was turned around and said, “Well who wants to know?” And that really fascinated me. That was one of my first experiences with Buddhism. The answer wasn’t about the answer, it was about looking at the question. At that point, I was hooked, and started learning more about the specific tradition on my own. I devoured dozens of books in order to understand everything I could about Buddhism philosophy.

Eventually decided to take my studies a step further. I enrolled in a two-year Buddhist ministry program. Graduated from that earlier this year. With that, I feel I have a suitable understanding of the topic, and yet I do want to be very clear that I do not officially represent any specific tradition. My experience with these topics comes from years of practicing on both of these paths, while I feel that my understanding is experiential in nature, these are simply my opinions, and they may differ from what others will say about this topic.

I’m gonna focus mostly on explaining the Buddhism perspective, as that is the tradition that I currently teach and practice. Having said that, let’s just into this topic. You can say that an apple and a pear, while being very different, they’re still both the same thing, they’re a fruit. That’s about the similarity between Buddhism and Christianity that I see, is that they’re both a spiritual path. But as far as types of paths, as far as spiritual paths go, there are some differences.

The first one is thinking about this in terms of questions and answers. This is what I alluded to a second ago with my original encounter with Buddhism. One path focuses more on the answers. I think many spiritual paths focus more on the answers, while Buddhism is a path that focuses on the question. So that makes it so that these are not paths that are fundamentally opposed. When you have two paths that are focused on answers, then you have conflict, if the answers aren’t the same. If this path says, “The meaning of life is A,” and the other path says, “The meaning of life is B,” those are two answers. So the answers may be conflicting. And if they are, then you have to address that.

Buddhism doesn’t necessarily conflict with Christianity on this point, because Buddhism doesn’t have an answer for a lot of the existential questions. They’re irrelevant. So in my opinion, both traditions can work hand-in-hand when it comes to this, because of that very reason that one focuses more on the question, and the other one focuses more on the answer. Applying that in my own experience, in my own life, it hasn’t necessarily been a big issue with interacting with family members, in my immediate family, or members of the community, with regards to these two traditions, because my approach doesn’t necessarily threaten their answer. If they have an answer, I don’t have an answer that conflicts or counters it, that says, “Wait. No. This is the right answer.”

The Buddhist approach allows me to just be introspective and say with the question, “Is there a God?”

“Who wants to know?” That’s the part I’m concerned with. Who wants to know, and why do I even feel the need to know the answer to that question? That’s where I’ll stay. That’s where Buddhism typically hovers on that side of the question, and it doesn’t get to the other side where the answer is, where you’re gonna have conflict if the answers are different. Again, that’s in my experience. That leads us to the second way that these paths are kind of different, is the type of path.

A path, typically, the point of a path is to get from point A to point B, that’s why you’re on the path. Spiritual traditions are similar, typical spiritual journey is about getting from point A to point B. A, maybe you’re in the world and you’re trying to get to heaven, that’s point B. Arriving at heaven or paradise, or some place similar. You could say that the goal is to arrive at a specific place, and that’s why the path is there, the path is the tradition.

From the Buddhist perspective it’s also about getting from point A to point B. We refer to point A being a place of suffering, and point B, being a place where there is no suffering. We would say Samsara and Nirvana. Nirvana is that place where you want to go, where you no longer experience suffering.

However, these are not physical places, these are mental states. They exist in the here and now, therefore it makes it so that the path itself is the goal. Because if these are mental states, we realize that if we’re at point A, and we want to be at point B, what we have is this situation where we want life to be other than it is. I’m here, and I don’t want to be here, I want to be there, some experience suffering.

What we practice in Buddhism is this form of acceptance. You could say, radical acceptance, Tara Brach calls this radical acceptance. What if I was okay with being where I am? This is where I am, and I’m okay with that. I no longer feel this need to arrive at point B. This is one of the great Buddhism paradoxes, is that paradox [inaudible 00:10:52] the very moment of acceptance, I no longer want life to be other than it is. I accept that this is how it is, this is where I am. In that moment, I arrive at the very place that I wanted to be that originally, but I get there because I no longer want to get there. That’s the paradox of Buddhism.

With that, these paths, they’re not conflicting, because if the point on the Christian path is to get from point A to point B, and the point of the path on the Buddhist path is to learn to find joy and contentment with wherever you are on the path, then there’s no conflict.

Again, because the approach is just different. Again, that’s in my opinion, that’s been my experience with understanding these two traditions. So another overall topic in which they differ is that one tends to be an internal process, and the other tends to be an external process.

For example, Christianity is a theistic tradition. There is an external source, a deity, that’s at the helm of everything. From the Buddhist perspective, it’s a non-theistic tradition, because it’s internal, the force that we’re contending with is internal. It’s our own mind. The essence of what Buddhism teaches is that, instead of running away from suffering and from discomfort, we can learn to face it. We can look deeply into the nature of our own suffering, and begin to recognize its cause.

Suffering arises, any time we want life to be other than it is. The scale and the intensity may vary according to the situation, for example, the loss of a loved one, versus being stuck at a red light when you’re late for work. Those are very different situations, but at its core, we have a resistance to accepting that moment the way that it is. That’s what causes us to suffer.

The overall feeling in any circumstance where we experience suffering is gonna be similar. We experience discomfort with the reality that we’re faced with, and we suffer because that reality does not conform to the desired or expected reality that we’ve projected in our minds. So a proper recognition of the causes of our suffering will allow us to understand that there is indeed a path that allows us to transform our suffering. This process is introspective in nature, like I mentioned.

I can learn to look inward at my own mind, my ideas, my beliefs, my opinions, my concepts, that I hold about reality. And I’ll discover that I am the key to it all. This is another big difference with the two traditions. It’s not the there’s an external source, from the Buddhist perspective, there’s an internal source. It’s my own mind. It can be my best friend, but it can also be my worst enemy.

You’ve probably heard that parable of the two wolves that we all have inside of us. One represents things like kindness and bravery, and love. The other one represents negative things like hatred, and greed. The Buddhist spoke about suffering in a similar way. The idea is that the things that we feed will grow, while the things that we don’t feed will die.

We have the tendency to look for happiness, peace, contentment, as if these were the things outside ourselves. We think once I have this, or once I finally get that, or if I get the raise at work, if I can convince my spouse to be more like me, to think like me, or if my family finally accepts me. Whatever it is, whatever external circumstance it is that we’re trying to change, we experience suffering because we’re wanting life to be other than it is.

What if we could practice acceptance? What if we could accept the moment just as it is? Accept ourselves just as we are, and start to do away with the duality of who I am, and who I think I should be, or flipping this towards others. Imagine extending that to someone else, allowing someone to just be who they are, rather than who I think they should be, who we think they should be.

I want to clarify that acceptance in this sense is not the same thing as resignation. This is not resigning to the fact that, “Oh life is this way, and oh well. I can’t do anything about it.” No, what we’re accepting is that this is what is, and I realize there’s a lot I can do with that. The moment I realize this is what it is, I can learn to work with reality, instead of against it.

I can minimize the suffering that I, and others, experience on this journey, because I’m working with the reality the way that it is. That’s one of the differences again, of the two traditions. One focuses on an external source of goodness, there’s good an evil, viewed as embodied in these symbols of God on one side, and the devil on the other. But these are external.

From the Buddhist perspective it’s all internal. It’s like the analogy of the wolves, right? They’re both inside of you. That’s another difference. In one of his final teachings the Buddha said, “Be a light unto yourselves.” He taught that our greatest teacher, and a monk actually asked him. He said, “Buddha what if we meet you on the path?” And the Buddha replied, “Well don’t accept anyone you meet on the path towards liberation, even if you meet me.”

The essence of the spiritual journey from a Buddhist perspective is to realize that you are it. You are your greatest teacher. You are also your worst enemy. In fact in the Dhammapada, we read that whatever harm an enemy may do to an enemy, an Ill-directed mind inflicts on oneself a greater harm.”

This verse is saying that it’s our own mind that can do us worst harm for us than even an enemy, an external enemy. This is saying the internal enemy is far more dangerous than the external enemy. While one path may focus a bit more on the external approach, and the other one focuses on the internal approach, again I don’t see that as being an area where they necessarily conflict, because they’re just different approaches. It’s like apples and pears, or apples and oranges. They’re just entirely different approaches to the spiritual path.

I hope that you can find in yourselves, the ability to practice compassion and acceptance for who you are, for who others are, and for where you are, where others are on their individual paths. Rather than thinking, “Hey this path is working for me. You should also be on that path,” we should recognize that if the path is the goal, then there’s really no wrong place to be on that path. There’s no wrong path to be on either.

Wherever you go, there you are. You’re on the path. You can find that peace, joy, and contentment on your path, and I hope that we can learn to see the uniqueness of every step we take along the way, of whatever path it is that we’re on, whatever unique path.

Often times someone will say to me, “Well isn’t it fair to at least recognize that one path maybe better than the other, or more suitable to the other?” I would say, yes, the answer to that is yes, but it’s circumstantial. Think of a normal path, an actual path in the forest. There may be a paved path, and there may be a path that’s rocky and it’s pretty steep. Now, you could say, “Well is one path easier to walk than the other?” Maybe, yeah. Is one path easier to roller blade than the other? Sure.

I may be on the path that’s rocky and steep, and find that it’s working better for me because it’s gonna get me to my desired destination faster, but I’m wearing hiking boots, and I’ve got a pole, and I’ve got a backpack, and I’m ready for this off road trail. And you’re standing there next to me in flip-flops and you’re saying, “Hey is that the right path for me?” It may be a matter of saying, “No, with how you are right now, this is not the right path for you. Stay on that path. Stay on the pavement.”

I think it becomes really healthy for us when we start to look at these traditions, these paths within these traditions, and recognize that, that I’m on the path that seems to be working for me. How do I know that? I think it’s pretty easy. If you are on a path that brings you joy, and contentment, and peace, then you’re on a good path. There’s no need to change it.

Now, the moment you realize you’re not experiencing these things, you’re experiencing anguish, or discomfort, or it’s just not working for you, then why not just pause and say, “Well maybe this isn’t the right path for me. Maybe I should be on, maybe I should try another path, see if this is easier, better for me.”

That’s how I like to view that. These traditions can support each other, they can influence each other. It’s sad to me when I encounter people from either one of the traditions saying, “You can’t make these work together. They’re fundamentally opposed.” I get where that’s coming from, because on some levels it does seem like there are views that are incompatible with each other, but I don’t think that’s necessarily the case when you understand that you can’t compare them side-by-side in that way.

In the same way that, again, using the fruit analogy, it’s not really fair to compare an apple and an orange, it’s just not, because they’re not the same thing. That’s what we face with this, in my opinion. Now I mentioned before, many of us live in communities where we don’t necessarily share the same beliefs. I am in a mixed faith family, a mixed faith marriage. I know what it’s like firsthand, to be walking a path, while simultaneously making it work with someone else who’s walking on another path.

I know that it can work, because it’s working for us. I see it working for a lot of people who are on different paths. An important part of it is recognizing that all paths are valid. Now, i get that I can be on a path, someone else might be on another path, and that path does not validate my path. I get that. But it shouldn’t bother me to know that they don’t think I’m on the right path.

It’s like, “Okay, well then you don’t think I’m on the right path.” Why would that disrupt the peace and contentment and joy that I have on my own path? If I truly view my path as unique, and everyone’s path is unique, then it shouldn’t bother me that someone else is gonna look and say, “Hey you’re on the wrong path.” Because of course, they’re gonna think that. If they’re on a path that indicates that there’s only one path, then of course they’re going to think you’re on the wrong path. But why should that be problematic? Why should it be problematic for you, whatever path you’re on?

Now it may be problematic for them because by the very fact of thinking that they’re on the right on and you’re on the wrong one, they’re the ones experiencing suffering, because they think, “Oh no. This person I care for is on the wrong path.” But that’s them. You are on your path, and you can find that contentment and joy with knowing that this is the path that’s working for you, even if others don’t approve it, or understand, or validate it.

That’s a whole different topic I think, that I don’t really want to go into in this specific podcast episode, but it’s something worth looking at if you’re experiencing that thinking, “Why do I feel that I can’t be validated on my path, until someone else validates me?” That’s something worth looking at, because what you’ll find within introspection, again, this is looking at the question. It’s not about the answer, it’s looking at the question. Why do I need you to validate me, for me to feel comfortable on my path?

Look at that. Explore that in yourself, and you may find that that also becomes irrelevant. So again, these traditions can support each other. I think it’s perfectly acceptable to have someone who’s on one path, who uses elements of another path to benefit them on whatever path they’re on. Looking for the good that other paths have, using the ideas and concepts that others have, as tools to help us alleviate the suffering in ourselves and others on our own path, I think is a noble thing. That’s something that we can do when we start to view our own path as our own path.

It’s one thing to think I’m on the right path, but it’s another one to think that mine is the only right path. See, it can be right for me, and wrong for you. That’s very different than thinking if it’s right for me, then it must be also right for you. I think that can be very powerful to have that view of paths.

That’s all I have for this topic. I know that there’s so much that can be covered here. We could go into specific differences in doctrinal views of reality and the world, but I don’t think that that’s necessary. You can study all that on your own, read books about whatever path that you’re on, study it. Learn it. Be familiar with it. But you would invite you to explore it at a level where you ask yourself, “Is this path working for me?” Because if it is, don’t disrupt it. Just stay on that path.

That’s all I have, so if you enjoyed this podcast episode, please share it with others, write a review, give it a rating in iTunes. If you’d like to make a donation to support the work that I’m doing with this podcast, then please visit secularbuddhism.com. That’s all I have for now, but I do look forward to recording another podcast episode soon. Until next time.

About the Author
Noah Rasheta is a Buddhist teacher, lay minister, and author, as well as the host of the podcast Secular Buddhism. He teaches mindfulness and Buddhist philosophy online and in workshops all around the world. He works with others to make the world a better place as he studies, embodies, and teaches the fundamentals of Buddhist philosophy, integrating Buddhist teachings with modern science, humanism, and humor. He lives in Kamas, Utah, with his wife and three kids.