When we examine Christianity, we find that, along with the other main world religions, morality forms an important substratum to its practice, with compassion particularly emphasized by both Christ and the Buddha. There are strong similarities seen in the lives of Jesus and the Buddha as well, from their miraculous conceptions to the radical transformations on the cross and under the Bodhi Tree. God the Father is more problematic from the Buddha’s viewpoint, as the former’s eternal individual existence contradicts the Buddhist revelations of no-self and the ultimate emptiness of all phenomena. In the teachings of the Christian mystics, however, as exemplified by Meister Eckhart, the image of God comes closer to the Buddhist conception of Nirvana, as we will see below.
The Islamic community (ummah) strongly resembles the Sangha established by the Buddha, with an emphasis on using community as a vehicle towards a deeper communion not only with others, but also with the Ultimate (God or Buddha; take your choice). Again, as with Christianity, the mainstream idea of Allah is not entirely in line with the Buddha’s descriptions of Nirvana, but probably as He is considered by Muslims beyond representation, there is slightly more convergence here. And, as with the Christian mystics, the Muslim Sufis often described their experiences in terms that are very close, if not exactly the same. (Think of the Sufi aim of fana and the Buddhist realization of nirodha (Nirvana), which both translate as ‘extinction’).
The Buddha made it clear that he didn’t think much of the Indian caste system, considering anyone enlightened as a true ‘brahmin.’ The Buddhist teaching that anyone, with the right effort and attitude, can awaken to their true reality is an egalitarian ideal that most duty-bound Hindus would surely have difficulties with. Another aspect of Hinduism that doesn’t agree with the Buddha’s tenets is its understanding of gods; for whilst they are eternal beings in Hinduism, their equivalents in Buddhism are long-lived but impermanent in nature. Even the commonly held concepts of karma and rebirth are not entirely in tune as it is a permanent separate self that reincarnates in Hindu believe, whereas the Buddha taught that no such permanent being exists. Despite these differences, the Hindu philosophy of Advaita Vedanta which teachings non-duality does come at least very close to the Buddha’s understanding that all things (and beings) are inextricably interdependent.
Buddha and Buddhism are not completely in agreement either, with all the major schools of Buddhism diverging from the original teachings of the Buddha. Buddha statues, used by every major sect of the religion were not only unknown during the Buddha’s lifetime, but for several centuries afterwards. As written previously, if such images along with other tools are used as skillful means to awaken to awaken the self-deluded mind, then this is at least in the spirit of the Buddha’s teachings, but the widespread supernaturalism and use of petitionary prayers are less easily reconciled with his Way. The Buddha established the Noble Eightfold Path (to enlightenment), and anything found in Buddhism that is not for that purpose is not truly of the Buddha’s Way. In contrast, anything that encourages spiritual awakening – whether from the Buddhist tradition or elsewhere – is compatible with the Buddha’s essential teachings on suffering and the ending of suffering, and brings us to the mystics, with whom we briefly flirted in the last reflection.
In the world’s mystical traditions, also known as the perennial wisdom, God is often seen as “not-God” (in the words of Meister Eckhart), and this brings the Buddha and religion together. For, mystical religion is about the letting go of the individual self and dying into a greater reality, which as we previously saw is variously known as God, Nirvana, Allah, Dao, Zen, Dao, Brahman, etc. And, in this aspect of mysticism we find the merging of Buddha and religion, where both are about living the enlightened life rather than believing in a particular set of dogmas. That this “not-God” is the same as our own “not-self” is readily at hand, if we are willing to look with an open mind and a loving heart. It is therefore most appropriate that we end this short exploration of Buddha and religion with an exercise that reveals their common Ground. If more people – of whatever faith or none – discover and live from this ‘Ground’ the world will be a much happier and fulfilling place. So, please take a few moments to do the following experiment, taking the time to reflect on what you actually experience in this present moment, and not what you believe or think you already know.
Picture God, Jesus, Buddha, Krishna, the Koran, Yin Yang, or some other holy image. (If you don’t want to do this, picture something else that you think is important, such as the Earth, a national flag, or a monarch.) Really look at this image, allowing your feelings towards it to rise to the surface of awareness, giving them time and space to flourish. (Such feelings might be love, devotion, admiration, appreciation, respect, etc.) Now, see where the image and related emotions are arising – on present evidence. What does this look like, and what feelings are associated with ‘it.’ Does it have a face like Jesus, script like the Koran, or colours like the Earth? Does it have any features at all, or is it a clear receptacle for both visual images and emotions to exist in? What are these words appearing in now, and the thoughts that sprout up in response to them? Is it a thought, a shape, a self, or a god? Or, is it a ‘not-thought,’ a ‘not-shape’, a ‘not-self’ and a ‘not-God’ that is an all-accepting and nonjudgmental space for the universe to manifest in? After finishing this reflection, try to maintain this attitude, seeing whatever is affront you and the lack anything whatever that is you: it’s a liberating experience!