Buddhadasa on Christianity
This paper is my response to the book Christianity and Buddhism. This book is a compilation of three lectures given by the Venerable Bhikkhu Buddhadasa Indapanno at the Fifth Series Sinclair Thompson Memorial Lectures, in 1967 at Chiang Mai, Thailand. In his lectures Buddhadasa offers comparative views on Christianity and Buddhism and suggests that both the religions have commonalities to offer to human beings for the attainment of nibbana or salvation. Throughout these lectures he tries to share his understanding about Christianity from the Buddhist perspective. In the following paragraphs I describe some important conceptions Buddhadasa suggested in the lecture and finally I will suggest my opinion about the book.
Buddhadasa proposes three basic concepts throughout his lecture. One of them is the concept of the God. Another is the scriptures, and the third is the religious concept of the paths of emancipation.
At the beginning of the first lecture he says that the founders of the both traditions had similar mission in life. Both the founders –Siddhartah Gotama and Jesus —were born to make imperfect things perfect. Both of them attained salvation or nirvana through practice and helped their followers to attain highest spiritual goals through good deeds. As the teaching of the Buddha is accepted as the way to Nirvana through the Law of Karma, he tends to find the similar events in the Bible and tries to glorify them at the expense of other. “Even the short message as contained in the few pages of the Sermon on the Mount in the book of Matthew” as he says, “is far more than enough and complete for practice to attain emancipation” (29). He suggests that one can ignore the rest of the Bible.
In this regard, he sees Jesus as a teacher, the way Buddhists see the Buddha as a teacher. His attitude towards Jesus could be acceptable to the Buddhist community or from the Buddhist perspective, but the Christians consider Christ as God and the Way to God or salvation.. In this sense, his ideas about Jesus are not compatible with the Christian view of the Christ. Moreover, he tends to examine religious faith from an utilitarian perspective as well. Of course, salvation is the ultimate concern for the Christian, but the way through the cross prescribed by the age old tradition can not be made questionable in order to make it comparable to a different religious tradition.
Buddhadasa reinforces the Buddhist idea of the nonexistence of the God throughout his lecture. “God is neither a person, nor mind, nor a spirit” (63), he says, “ but the Law of Karma” (32).At the same time, he suggests people that should not interpret religious terms like God, Dhamma, Karma etc according to the literal language of common people. Such literal interpretations misinterpret the basic idea that subsequently becomes the chief source of misunderstanding and conflict.
At another instance,Buddhadasa thinks that materialism is the chief enemy of the religion. At this point, it is essential to note that he calls for mutual broad-mindedness and goodwill to all religions (?) in order to fight against materialism to “destroy its [materialism’s] very roots leaving no chance for further growth in the future”(16).
Hence Buddhadasa contradicts orthodox and popular Christian notion and purpose of both “religion” and “God”. Superficially it seems that his ideas about the God were meant for peaceful social relationship and communal harmony, but the latent motive turns out to be a denunciation of the other notions or attitudes. He fails to understand that materialism as an ideology, too, acts as a religion in our contemporary world. The motive of any particular religion should not be to destroy the others. It is against the basic teaching of the Buddha itself. Buddhism teaches about the impermanence of the world, that what grows decays. Whatever happens happens according to the Law of Karma. There is no need of any external agency to intervene into the impermanence of worldly affairs. A Buddhist practitioner should not have to resort to such attack on another faith system. Moreover, such statements do contradict his previous statements in favor of accepting religious pluralism as well.
Buddhadasa is against the bulky scriptures of both traditions. He thinks that these scriptures are full of unimportant events and descriptions that have nothing to do with the salvation or nirvana. Rather they cause individuals get lost in the jungle of unimportant and unnecessary ideas. An individual can attain his or her ultimate concern through practice—the way Buddha and Jesus attained their goals. Many sages after Buddha and Jesus also attained enlightenment without scriptures. Both the Tripitaka and the Bible contain an abundance of unnecessary discourses and discussions which could be real obstacles for the individual seeking to attain enlightenment. Moreover, Buddhadasa is of opinion that piles of the scriptures distract and confuse prospective practitioners from exploring the way to salvation or nirvana. “The more we study the scriptures”, he says, “the less we know the essence of religion” (11). He further says that trying to understand religion through scriptures is like “climbing a tree starting from the top”. All one needs to do for one’s salvation or nirvana is just practice. He maintains that “the essence of religion can only be reached by genuine practice alone” (11).
Secondly, Buddhadasa says that religious scriptures are full of two kinds of language: the language of the common man and the “language of Dhamma” or the inner language. Scriptures describe conventional teaching or events with common language, but the core teaching or events are written in the “Dhammic language”. Generally people understand the common language, but it is difficult for them to understand the “language of Dhamma”. This misunderstanding creates a distortion of the intended message. He further says that “It is due to the ignorance of the language of Dhamma that one abandons one’s own religion and embraces another” (6).
According to Buddhadasa, the ignorance of the Dhammic language is one of the chief causes of conflict. He further suggest that in every community there should be a human being (apostle or “a man of God who preaches the truth”) who can interpret religious scriptures according to the meaning of the language of Dhamma. Such true interpretations would help resolve the misunderstanding. Furthermore, such learned persons can also help the community members to attain their respective spiritual goals with better efficiency. He suggests that the apostle should not preach outdated scriptural literatures that cause confusion in the people. Rather he/she should guide the people according to their nature and understanding so that their spiritual goals could be attained easily.
Buddhadasa’s opinions about the scriptures seem efficient and objective. However, he fails to acknowledge the power of other descriptive events and rituals in the scriptures. In my view, these descriptive verses of the scriptures help create a background conducive to the effective practice. Moreover, such description, if understood analogically, would give a different meaning which can positively change the attitude of the individuals. Ignoring the treasured myths and stories contained in the scriptures would be costly affairs in future. Due to the change in perspective and perception, the traditional stories and myths or rituals are less explored and understood by our current human society, but they too carry meaning and knowledge which will be useful, if utilized creatively. As for example, the myths and rituals of the indigenous Mayas and Incas were understood as unimportant bogus by the colonizers in the American continent, therefore they were destroyed purposely. But when social issues got more complex and complicated beyond the understanding of the scientific human mind, then efforts were made to recollect the lost myths and rituals to address the social issues.
Until recent years, our medical science used to prescribe certain drugs for the treatment of a certain disease. But now our attitude to the disease has been changed to a great extent. Medical professionals do not only prescribe drugs, but also suggests some basic hygiene conditions, yoga or certain exercise, diet patters, environments, and other physical and psychological conditions as necessary requirements for the healing process. In this context, the descriptive events and myths contained in the religious scriptures can provide necessary environment for necessary practice. They can be a forceful element to transform our attitude from mechanistic approach to wholistic approach. But sadly, Buddhadasa did not recognize the conditioning functions of the descriptive events in the scriptures.
His approach to the types of language in the scriptures is practical. The same word or a verse in religious scripture will have multiple meanings in multiple perspectives. Of course, these verses contain two meanings—superficial meaning and deep meaning. If such scriptures are understood out of the context and intention, then it would offer common meaning, which would be radically different than the meaning derived from the context and intention of the scripture. It is like shifting paradigm. This idea of multiple meaning of the scriptures is logical, rational and scientific, therefore, can be used to enrich the religious understanding.
About Paths to Emancipation
Buddhadasa suggests three paths to emancipation: the path of “pannadhika” with the wisdom-factor predominating; the path of “saddhadhika” with the saddha-factor (confidence, trust) predominating and the path of “viriyadhika” with the willpower-factor predominating. These paths are dominant in the Buddhist, Christian and Muslim religious traditions respectively. One may choose any one of these paths depending on one’s personality and nature for the attainment of his/her the spiritual goal. Buddhadasa claims that “each religion does have all the principles of truth (Dhamma) which man requires, such as trust (faith), will-power (energy) wisdom, loving-kindness (metta), generosity, selflessness, egolessness, etc”(13). But the emphasis is different in each religion. At this point Buddhadasa distinguishes the nature of the religions and suggests that all the religions of the world have the same fundamental purpose and origin; they differ only in terms of their manifestations. An individual is free to choose any particular religion in its truest sense according to his or her personal nature. This categorization of religions as paths of emancipation is close to the Hindus or Brahministic idea of tri marga. Hinduism suggests tri-marga (three paths)—janna marga( the path of knowledge); bhakti marga ( the path of devotion) and karma marga ( the path of work)—to attain moksa( salvation or emancipation).
This is an over-simplification of the paths to emancipation. Many Christians will not accept Christianity as a mere faith dominating religion. And many Muslims will not accept this religion as a will-power dominating religion. In fact, each religion claims to offer the complete world view to its believers. Therefore limiting the transcendent quality of religion with abstract words would not be appreciated in these respective religions. Moreover, besides Christianity and Muslims, there are various other religions in the world, and probably some more religions will evolve in future. Buddhadasa does not offer any specific criteria to classify these numerous religious traditions under the three dominating factors.
In conclusion, Buddhadasa expresses his understanding of Christianity from a Buddhist perspective in this lecture series. In doing so, he compares and contrasts the components of these two religious traditions in a generalized way with his limited understanding of Christianity. However, he points towards the way where a mutual acceptance and appreciation of each others’ traditions can provide a base for effective interfaith dialogue. Through these dialogues, these two religious communities can not only enrich each other, but also can contribute meaningfully to the peaceful social relationship in our contemporary world. From this perspective, Christianity and Buddhism is a useful asset to anyone interested in interfaith dialogue and peacebuilding in our world full of religious diversities.
 Bhikkhu Buddhadasa Indapanno, Christianity and Buddhism, Sinclair Thompson Memorial Lecture, Fifth Series, Chiang Mai, Thailand 1967.
 Kuhn, Thomas (1970), The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, University of Chicago Press.