If Buddhism Isn’t a Religion, Can Catholics Practice It?

PC writes: “Over the weekend I had a conversation with a few people (felt like a firing squad really) where they were saying it is perfectly fine for a Catholic to also be a Buddhist. Their argument was that Buddhism is not a religion but a philosophy for interior peace and nothing is contradictory to what Jesus said and did (to me Galatians 5:22-23 debunks this issue as God sends the Holy Spirit that gives us everything; therefore, Jesus is truly the “all in all”). The lengthy part of the argument was to say that Buddhism gives the peace that Christianity does not. Of course I argued the opposite to all of this but did not make a dent. Do you know of any good resources that I can look at?”

PC, regardless of whether or not you “put a dent” into your friends’ belief that Catholics can practice Buddhism, you were right! Their argument reflects a fundamental – but very common – misunderstanding about both Buddhism and Christianity. Perhaps they should take the advice of the Dalai Lama who has frequently stated that the central doctrines of Buddhism and Christianity are not compatible and that one cannot be “a Buddhist Christian or a Christian Buddhist.”

That said, don’t be too hard on your friends because they have fallen for popular opinion (rather than fact) about Buddhism which posits that because there is no god in Buddhism, that it’s non-dogmatic and has nothing to do with religion. If one is studying only the surface of Buddhism, this may appear to be true, but a deeper study reveals the flaw in that assumption.

Buddhism began sometime between 400 or 500 BC with a man named Siddhartha Gautama who was the son of a king in India. He left his privileged life at the age of thirty to become an ascetic to travel and ponder the human condition – especially the reality of suffering. One day, while meditating beneath a bodhi tree, he became enlightened – thus becoming Buddha (which means “enlightened one”) and afterward began to teach his dharma (doctrine) of the Four Noble Truths.

These four truths are: 1) life is suffering, 2) the cause of suffering is desire, 3) to be free from suffering we must detach from desire, and 4) the “eight-fold path” is the way to alleviate desire. The eight-fold path includes having right views, intentions, speech, actions, livelihood, effort, mindfulness and concentration. The final goal of Buddhism is not merely to eradicate desire, but to be free of suffering.

The eight-fold path, with its “right action” and “right intention” might sound like a moral equivalent to Christian teaching, but they’re not. These practices are all aimed at one thing – enlightenment of Self. Unlike Christian love, they are not intended to make the world a better and more loving place.

For that matter, the Buddhist idea of love, known as karuna, is not about the personal, individual and free-willed agape love of the Christian, but is an impersonal, universal feeling of compassion.

As Dr. Peter Kreeft mentions in this article, “Karuna and agape lead the disciple to do similar, strikingly selfless deeds – but in a strikingly different spirit.”

Dr. Kreeft uses the Buddhist story of a “saint” who, like St. Martin of Tours, gave his cloak to a beggar. “But the Buddhist’s explanation was not ‘because I love you’ or ‘because Christ loves you’ but rather: ‘This is the enlightened thing to do. For if you were freezing and had two gloves on one hand and none on the other hand, would it not be the enlightened thing to do to give one of the gloves to the bare hand?’”

In other words, Buddhism may have some ethical teachings that appear to agree with Christianity, but when one understands the fundamental beliefs that undergird these ethical teachings it becomes quite clear that they are not even remotely similar.

It’s also important to note other substantial differences between Buddhist and Christian belief. For example, Buddhists do not believe in the existence of the soul. They believe people who think they have a soul are rooted in ignorance and that we become truly enlightened only after we come to the realization that there is no such thing as a soul. Christians not only believe in the existence of the soul, but that the soul can achieve eternal life through Jesus Christ.

Buddhists believe in a reincarnation of sorts, but not of the soul. This reincarnation involves some element of one’s former identity. Christians believe man lives only once and is awarded his final destination by the particular judgement.

Buddhists believe suffering is something to be escaped from. Christians believe suffering brings us closer to God and unites us with our Suffering Lord.

Buddhists are not concerned with the existence of God but instead seek after “non-self” (anatman). Christianity focuses on holiness, worship of God and restoring the relationship between God and man through Jesus Christ.

Buddhism denies existential reality and believes nothing, not even the self, can be proven to exist. Christians believe that truth, and its Author, can be known rationally.

Buddhist meditation strives to “wake” one from their delusions and to enter into altered states of consciousness. Christian prayer seeks to enter into a dialogue with God;

Buddha’s final words to his disciples were “Make of yourself a light. Rely upon yourself; do not rely upon anyone else. Make my teachings your light. Rely upon them; do not depend upon any other teaching.” In other words, if someone is truly practicing Buddhism, they could not also be following Jesus Christ.

As PC’s experience confirms, Buddhism (and other Eastern religious traditions) are made to appear innocuous by those who are attempting to sell these new trends to a Christian audience in the West; however, St. John Paul II saw this coming and warned us about becoming involved in them.

” . . .(I)t is not inappropriate to caution those Christians who enthusiastically welcome certain ideas originating in the religious traditions of the Far East – for example, techniques and methods of meditation and ascetical practice. . . In some quarters, these have become fashionable and are accepted rather uncritically.” (On the Threshold of Hope)

For additional reading on this subject, see Catholicism and Buddhism by Anthony Clark and Carl Olson upon which this blog was based.

My book, entitled, A Catholic Guide to Mindfulness, offers further details about the differences between Christianity and Buddhism and why these two philosophies are fundamentally opposed.

The Church document, A Letter to the Bishops on Some Aspects of Christian Meditation is a fantastic source of information about the mystical differences between Christianity and Eastern Religions.

Many sections of the Pontifical document, Jesus Christ, the Bearer of the Water of Life, also deal with the differences between various Eastern religions and Christianity.

J. Isamu Yamamoto wrote Buddhism and Christianity: The Buddha and What He Taught and Buddhist and Christian Beliefs for the Christian Research Center.

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