Buddhism is a major world religion with a complex history and philosophy.
It's founder, Siddhartha Gautama, lived from about 566 to about 480 B.C. The son of an Indian warrior-king, Gautama led a life of luxury in his early years, enjoying the privileges of his caste. But eventually he tired of the affluence and ease, and set out what some might call a "vision quest." After encountering an old man, an ill man, a corpse and an ascetic, Gautama became convinced that suffering lay at the heart of all existence, stemming principally from the human ego's attachment to the transitory things of this world. He renounced his princely title and became a monk, freeing himself of possessions in the hope of comprehending the truth, and finding a path toward enlightenment and liberation. The culmination of his search came while meditating beneath a tree, where he experienced a breakthrough in understanding. Following this epiphany, Gautama came to be known as the Buddha, meaning the "Enlightened One." He spent the remainder of his life journeying about India, teaching others what he had come to believe.
Basic Beliefs and Practices
The basic doctrines of early Buddhism, which remain common among Buddhists today, include the “four noble truths:” existence is suffering (dukhka); suffering has a cause, namely craving and attachment (trishna); there is a cessation of suffering, which is nirvana; and there is a path to the cessation of suffering, the “eightfold path” of right views, right resolve, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration.
Meditation and observance of moral precepts are the foundation of Buddhist practice. The five basic moral precepts, undertaken by members of monastic orders and the laity, are to refrain from taking life, stealing, acting unchastely, speaking falsely, and drinking intoxicants.
The Relationship between Buddhism and Christianity
Note that in this brief description of Buddhism, the word "God" does not appear. Thus when thinking about the relationship between Buddhism and Christianity or other theistic religions, there tend to be two paths of inquiry. Taking Buddhism at face value as a system of ethical precepts, a philosophy of life, and a set of meditative practices, many Christians and Jews have found it quite possible to affirm major aspects of Buddhism without abandoning their own faith. For these folks, Buddhism can be seen as supplementing and enriching their own theistic faith and practice.
For example, Robert Kennedy is a Jesuit priest and theologian, but also a Buddhist master and leader of a Zendo or meditation center in New York City. In one of his books, Zen Gifts to Christians, Kennedy reports that many people who are interested in nurturing their spirituality have found a way forward through the study and practice of Buddhism. This is not because they wish to become Buddhists, necessarily, but because they seek a more rewarding contemplative life. Readers of this article may be interested in visiting the Morning Star Zendo website to learn more.
A very different take on the relationship between Buddhism and Christianity involves emphasizing the points of difference. For example, Christians tend to emphasize that the soul (and possibly even the body) survive death through the miracle of resurrection. From a Buddhist perspective this might seem to be a form of eternal imprisonment within the limitations of one's ego. Also, Christians tend to believe that Jesus was and is absolutely unique as the divine Son of God, whereas Buddhists, while venerating the Buddha, do not worship him as God. On the other hand, Christians tend to see Buddhism, with its renunciation of the ego, and its emphasis upon the illusory nature of worldly reality as offering an escape from, rather than a solution to the evils of the world. On the other hand, there is plenty of escapism in some forms of Christian piety while many Buddhists have an impressive track record of social activism and engagement in the struggle for human justice, the Dalai Lama being a leading example. Thus there are rich opportunities for conversations between Buddhists and Christians with much to be learned on both sides.
Buddhism as defined by widely respected reference works:
The teaching of Buddha that life is permeated with suffering caused by desire, that suffering ceases when desire ceases, and that enlightenment obtained through right conduct, wisdom, and meditation releases one from desire, suffering, and rebirth.
The religion represented by the many groups, especially numerous in Asia, that profess varying forms of this doctrine and that venerate Buddha.
Buddhism is the religion and philosophy founded in India c.525 B.C. by Siddhartha Gautama, called the Buddha. There are over 300 million Buddhists worldwide. One of the great world religions, it is divided into two main schools: the Theravada or Hinayana in Sri Lanka and SE Asia, and the Mahayana in China, Mongolia, Korea, and Japan. A third school, the Vajrayana, has a long tradition in Tibet and Japan. Buddhism has largely disappeared from its country of origin, India, except for the presence there of many refugees from the Tibet region of China and a small number of converts from the lower castes of Hinduism.
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The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and author of Faith, Science and the Future, published in 1994 by CrossCurrents Press. He is also the author of God and Science (John Knox / Westminster, 1986) which he is now rewriting to incorporate more recent developments in the conversation taking place between scientists and theologians. He has also written widely for such publications as The New York Times, The Nation, Commonweal, The Christian Century and others.