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Beyond Belief

A.L. De Silva




As part of their efforts to promote their faith, evangelical Christians often ask Buddhists questions intended to confuse or discourage them. We will look at some of these questions and comments and give effective Buddhist responses.

You do not believe in God so you cannot explain how the world began ...

-- It is true that Christianity has an explanation about how everything began. But is this explanation correct? Let us examine it. The Bible says that God created everything in six days and on the seventh day he rested. This quaint story is nothing more than a myth and is no more true than the Hindu myth that the gods created everything by churning a sea of milk, or the classical belief that the universe hatched out of a cosmic egg.

Some parts of the creation myth are plainly absurd. For example it is said that on the first day God created light and darkness but on the fourth day he created the sun (Gen 1:15-16). How can there be day and night without the sun? The creation myth also contradicts modern science which has proven how the universe began and how life evolved. There are no departments of astronomy or biology in any of the world's universities which teach the creation myth for the simple reason that it is not based on fact. So while it is true that Christianity has an explanation for how everything began (as do most religions) that explanation is just a myth.

Then what does Buddhism sat about how everything began? Buddhism says little on this subject and for a very good reason. The aim of Buddhism is to develop wisdom and compassion and thereby attain Nirvana. Knowing how the universe began can contribute nothing to this task.

Once a man demanded that the Buddha tell him how the universe began. The Buddha said to him "You are like a man who has been shot with a poison arrow and who, when the doctor comes to remove it, says 'Wait! Before the arrow is removed I want to know the name of the man who shot it, what clan he comes from, which village he was born in. I want to know what type of wood his bow is made from, what feathers are on the end of the arrow, how long the arrows are, etc etc etc.' That man would die before all these questions could be answered. My job is to help you to remove the arrow of suffering from yourself" (Majjhima Nikaya Sutta No. 63).

Buddhism concentrates on helping us solve the practical problems of living - it does not encourage useless speculation. And if a Buddhist did wish to know how and when the universe began he would ask a scientist.

Buddhism is impractical because it says you cannot even kill an ant ...

-- Before we defend Buddhism against the charge of being impractical, let us see if Christianity is practical. According to Jesus if someone slaps us on the cheek we should turn the other cheek and let them slap us there also (Matt 5;25). If we discover that someone has stolen our pants we should go out and give the thief our shirt too (Matt 5:40). If we ourselves cannot resist stealing we should cut off our hands (Matt 5:30). We could call all these teachings impractical although Christians would probably prefer to call them challenging. And of course they would be right. To turn the other cheek when someone assaults us is not easy. It requires that we control our anger and doing this helps to develop patience, humility, non-retaliation and love. If we are never challenged we will never grow.

The Buddha asked us to have respect for all life, even for humble creatures. As with turning the other cheek, this is not always easy. Like some people, creatures such as ants can be an irritating inconvenience. When we take the precept not to kill and try to practice it we are challenged to develop patience, humility, love, etc. So in asking us to respect all life, Buddhism is no more impractical than Christianity.

The Buddha is dead so he cannot help you ...

-- Buddhists sometimes have difficulty responding effectively when Christians say this to them. However if we know Dhamma well it will be quite easy to refute this claim because, like most Christian claims about Buddhism, it is based upon misunderstandings.

Firstly, the Buddha is not dead. He has attained Nirvana, a state of utter peace and freedom. The other name the Buddha gives Nirvana is the Deathless State (Amita) because after one attains it one is no longer subject to birth or death. Of course Nirvana is not the naive 'eternal life' described in the Bible, where the body is resurrected and where angels sing. In fact it is so subtle it is not easy to describe. However it is not non-existence, as the Buddha makes very clear (Majjhima Nikaya Sutta No.72; Sutta Nipata, verse 1076).

It is equally untrue to say that the Buddha cannot help us. During his forty year career, the Buddha explained in great detail and with masterly clarity everything we need to attain Nirvana. All we need to do is to follow his instructions. His words are as helpful and as valid today as when he first spoke them. Of course the Buddha doesn't help us in the same way as Christians claim Jesus helps them, and for a very good reason. If a student knew that during the exams he could ask the teacher for the answers to the exam questions, he would never study and consequently would never learn. If an athlete knew that by merely asking for it the judge would give him the prize, he would never bother to train and develop his body. Simply giving people everything they ask for does not necessarily help them. In fact, it guarantees that they will remain weak, dependent and lazy.

The Buddha pointed us to Nirvana and told us what provisions we would need for the journey. As we proceed, we will learn from our experiences and our mistakes, developing strength, maturity and wisdom as we do. Consequently when we finish our journey we will be completely different persons from when we started. Because of the Buddha's skilful help we will be fully enlightened.

This statement that Christians make is not only wrong, but it also implies two things: that, in contrast to the Buddha, Jesus is alive and that he can and will help us. Let us look at these two assumptions. Christians claim that Jesus is alive but what evidence is there of this? They will say that the Bible proves that Jesus rose from the dead. Unfortunately statements written by a few people thousands of years ago don't prove anything. A statement in the Mahabharata (one of the Hindu holy books) says that a saint had a chariot which could fly. But does this prove that the ancient Indians invented the aeroplane? Of course it does not. The ancient Egyptian scriptures say that the god Khnum created everything out of clay which he shaped on a potters wheel. Does this prove that everything which exists is just mud? Of course it does not. A passage in the Old Testament says that a man named Balaam had a donkey which could talk. Is that conclusive proof that animals can speak? Of course it is not.

We cannot uncritically accept claims made in the Bible any more than we can uncritically accept claims made in other sacred books. When we examine Bible claims about Jesus' supposed resurrection, we find very good reasons why we should not believe them (see page ). In fact, the Bible actually proves that Jesus is not alive. Just before he was crucified Jesus told his disciples that he would return before the last of them had died (Matt 10:23, Matt 16:28, Lk 21:32). That was 2000 years ago. Jesus has still not returned. Why? Obviously because he is dead.

The second assumption is that Jesus always responds when you pray to him. It is very easy to prove that this is not true. Christians die from sickness, suffer from misfortunes, have emotional problems, give in to temptations etc just as non-Christians do and despite the fact that they pray to Jesus for help. I have a friend who had been a devout Christian for many years. Gradually he began to doubt and he asked his pastor for help. The pastor instructed him to pray and even got members of the church to also pray for him. Yet despite all these prayers to Jesus for strength and guidance my friend's doubts increased and he eventually left the church. Later he became a Buddhist. If Jesus is really alive and ready to help why do Christians have just as many problems as non-Christians do? Why didn't Jesus answer my friend's prayers and help him to remain a Christian? Obviously because he is dead and cannot help.

In answer to this objection Christians will say that there are people who can testify that their prayers have been answered. If this is true, it is also true that there are Muslims, Taoists, Sikhs, Hindus, Shintos and devotees of Kuan Yin who can say the same thing.

Unlike Christianity, Buddhism is so pessimistic ...

-- According to Webster's Dictionary, pessimism is "the belief that evil in life outweighs the good". It is interesting that Christians accuse Buddhism of being pessimistic because the idea that evil is more pervasive than good is one of the central doctrines of Christianity. Two of their favorite Bible quotes are "All have sinned, all have fallen short of God's glory" (Rom 3:10) and "Surely there is not a righteous man on earth who does good and never sins (Ecc 7:20). The doctrine of Original Sin teaches that all human beings are sinners, incapable of freeing themselves of sin, and that the evil in us is stronger than the good (Rom 7:14-24). Christians will say that while this is true, we can be free from sin if we accept Jesus. This may be so but it is still the case that Christians feel they need Jesus because their view of human nature is so utterly pessimistic.

Buddhism on the other hand has a very different, not to say more realistic, view of human nature. While fully recognizing mankind's potential for evil, Buddhism teaches that we can conquer evil and develop good through our own efforts.

Abandon evil! One can abandon evil! If it were impossible to abandon evil, I would not ask you to do so. But as it can be done, therefore I say, "Abandon evil!"

Cultivate the good! One can cultivate what is good! If it were impossible to cultivate the good I would not ask you to do so. But as it can be done, therefore I say, "Cultivate the good!" (Anguttara Nikaya, Book of Ones).

Whether one agrees with this belief or not, one could certainly not say that it is pessimistic.

Jesus teaches us to love but Buddhism encourages us to be cold and detached ...

-- This is not true. The Buddha says that we should develop a warm caring love towards all human beings.

Just as a mother would protect her only child even at the risk of her own life, even so one should cultivate unconditional love to all beings (Sutta Nipata, verse 150)

In every sense love is as important in Buddhism as it is in Christianity and is emphasized just as much. There is however something which somewhat spoils Christians' practice of love. Their loud insistence that only they love, that the quality of their love is superior to that of others, and their constant disparagement of and scoffing at others' efforts to practise love makes them appear thoroughly invidious. So petty and jealous are some Christians that they cannot even praise or appreciate a quality as beautiful as love, unless it has 'Made by Jesus' written on it.

You claim that when we die we are reborn, but there is no proof of this ...

-- Before responding to this let us examine both the Christian and Buddhist after-life theories. According to Christianity, God creates a new soul that becomes a human being which lives its life and then dies. After death the soul will go to eternal heaven if it believed in Jesus, or to eternal hell if it did not.

According to Buddhism, it is impossible to fathom the ultimate beginning of existence. Each being lives its life, dies and then is reborn into a new existence. This process of dying and being reborn is a natural one and can go on forever unless the being attains Nirvana. When a being does attain Nirvana their understanding, and consequently their behaviour, alters and this changes the process which causes rebirth. So instead of being reborn into a new existence the being attains Nirvana. Nirvana is not existence (to exist means to respond to stimuli, to grow and decay, to move in time and space, to experience oneself as a separate etc.) and it is not non-existence in that it is not annihilation. In other words each being's existence is beginningless and endless unless Nirvana is attained and until that time existence has no other purpose than to exist.

There is little evidence for either of these two theories. However, there are several logical and moral problems with the Christian theory which are absent from the Buddhist theory and which make the latter more acceptable. Christianity sees existence as having a beginning but no end whereas Buddhism sees it as cyclic. Nature offers no examples of processes which have a beginning but no end. Rather, all the natural processes we can observe are cyclic. The seasons go and return again next year. Rain falls, flows to the sea, evaporates, and forms clouds which again fall as rain. The body is made up of the elements we ingest as food; when we die the body breaks down and releases its elements into the soil, where they are absorbed by plants and animals which we again eat to build the body. The planets circle the sun and even the galaxy containing our solar system slowly revolves. The Buddhist theory of rebirth is in harmony with the cyclic processes we see throughout nature whereas the Christian theory is not.

Christians claim that God created us for a purpose - so we can believe in him, obey him and be saved. If this is so it is very difficult to explain why, each year, millions of foetuses naturally abort, and millions of babies are born dead or die within the first two years of their lives. Further, millions of people are born and live their whole lives with severe mental retardation, unable to think even the most simple thoughts. How do all these people fit into God's supposed plan? What purpose can God have in creating a new life and then letting it die even before it is born or soon after its birth? And what happens to all these beings? Do they go to heaven or hell? If God really created us with a plan in mind, that plan is certainly not very obvious. Also, as the majority of the world's people are non-Christian and as not even all Christians will be saved, this means that a good percentage of all the souls that God creates will go to hell. God's plan to save everyone seems to have gone terribly wrong. So although we can't prove either the Christian or the Buddhist afterlife theory, the Buddhist doctrine is more appealing and acceptable.

If we are really reborn, how do you explain the increase in the world's population?

-- When beings die they are reborn but they are not necessarily reborn as the same type of being. For example, a human could be reborn as a human, as an animal, or perhaps as a heaven being, according to its kamma. The fact that there is a dramatic increase in the world's human population indicates that more animals are being reborn as humans (there has been a corresponding drop in the number of animals due to extinctions etc.) and more humans are being reborn as humans. Why is this so? Just why more animals are being reborn as humans is difficult to say. But why more humans are being reborn as humans is undoubtedly due to an increasingly widespread knowledge of the Buddha's teachings. Even where the Dhamma is not widely known its capacity to be a subtle influence for good is powerful. All this can account for the increase in the human population.

Nirvana is an impractical goal because it takes so long to attain and so few can do it ...

-- It is true that attaining Nirvana may take a long time but on the other hand rebirth gives us plenty of time. If one does not do it in this life one can continue striving in the next life. In fact, it will take as long as one wants. The Buddha says that if one really wants, one can attain Nirvana within seven days (Majjhima Nikaya Sutta No.10). If this is so, the Christian will ask, why haven't all Buddhists already attained Nirvana? For the simple reason that mundane phenomena still hold an attraction for them. As insight and understanding gradually make that attraction fade one moves step by step, at one's own pace, towards Nirvana. As for the claim that only a few people can attain Nirvana, this is not correct. While in Christianity one has one and only one chance of being saved, Buddhism's teachings on rebirth mean that a person has an infinite number of opportunities to attain Nirvana. This also implies that everyone will eventually be liberated. As the Buddhist text says

This immortal state has been attained by many and can be still attained even today by anyone who makes an effort. But not by those who do not strive (Therigatha, verse 513).

In Christianity, history has a meaning and is moving towards a particular goal. Buddhism's cyclic view of existence means that history has no meaning and this makes Buddhists fatalistic and indifferent ...

-- It is true that according to Buddhism history is not moving towards any climax. But the person who is walking the Noble Eightfold Path certainly is. He or she is resolutely moving towards the peace and freedom of Nirvana.

Just as the river Ganges flows, slides, tends towards the east, so too one who cultivates and makes much of the Noble Eightfold Path flows, slides, tends towards Nirvana (Samyutta Nikaya, Great Chapter, Sutta No.67)

So it is not true to say that Buddhism's more realistic view of existence and of history necessarily leads to indifference. And what climax is history moving towards according to Christianity? The Apocalypse, where the vast majority of humanity and all the works of man will be consumed by brimstone and fire. Even the lucky few who are saved will have the gloomy prospect of an eternity in heaven knowing that at least some of their family and friends are, at the same time, being punished in hell. It would be difficult to imagine a more depressing future to look forward to than this.

The Buddha copied the idea of kamma and rebirth from Hinduism ...

-- Hinduism does teach a doctrine of kamma and also reincarnation. However, their versions of both these teachings are very different from the Buddhist versions. For example, Hinduism says we are determined by our kamma while Buddhism says it only conditions us. According to Hinduism, an eternal soul (atman) passes from one life to the next while Buddhism denies that there is such a soul (anatman) saying rather that it is a constantly changing stream of mental energy that is reborn. These are just two of many differences between Hinduism and Buddhism on kamma and rebirth.

However, even if the Buddhist and Hindu teachings were identical this would not necessarily mean that the Buddha unthinkingly copied the ideas of others. It sometimes happens that two people, quite independently of each other, make exactly the same discovery. A good example of this is the discovery of evolution. In 1858, just before he published his famous book The Origin of the Species, Charles Darwin found that another man, Alfred Russell Wallace, had conceived the idea of evolution exactly as he had done. Darwin and Wallace had not copied each other's ideas; rather, by studying the same phenomena they had come to the same conclusion about them quite independently of each other. So even if Hindu ideas about kamma and rebirth were identical to those of Buddhism (which they are not) this would still not be proof of copying. The truth is that Hindu sages, through insights they developed in meditation, got vague ideas about kamma and rebirth, which the Buddha later expounded more fully and accurately.

Jesus forgives our sins, but Buddhism says you can never escape the consequences of your kamma ...

-- It is only partially true that Jesus forgives sins. According to Christianity, after people are created they will live forever - first for a few decades on earth and then for eternity in either heaven or hell. Jesus will forgive people's sins while they live in the world but for the rest of eternity he will refuse to do so, no matter how frequently or how pitifully the souls in hell may call upon his name. So Jesus' forgiveness is limited to a minute period of time in a person's existence after which he will withhold it. So most people will never escape from the consequences of their supposed sin.

Can Buddhists escape from their kamma? The doctrine of kamma teaches that every action (kamma) has an effect (vipaka). However this effect is not always equal to its cause. For example, if a person steals something this act will have a negative effect. If however after the theft the person feels remorse, returns the stolen article, and sincerely resolves to try to be more careful in the future, the negative effect of the theft may be mitigated. There would still be an effect although not as strong. But even if the thief does not mitigate the wrong which has been done with some good, he or she will be free from the deed after its effect comes to fruition. So according to Buddhism we can be free from our kamma while according to Christianity our sins will only be forgiven during an extremely limited period of time.

There are other ways in which the doctrine of kamma is better than the Christian ideas of forgiveness and punishment. In Buddhism while one may have to endure the negative effects of the evil one has done (which is only fair) this means that one will experience the positive effects of the good one has done as well. This is not so in Christianity. For example, a non-Christian may be honest, merciful, generous and kind yet despite this at death this person will go to hell and not receive any reward for the good he or she has done. Furthermore, according to the doctrine of kamma the effects we experience, all things being equal, are in direct proportion to their cause. Again this is not so in Christianity - even if a person is exceptionally evil during this life, eternal hell is an utterly disproportionate punishment. How much more is this so if the person is virtuous but non-Christian? Indeed the eternity of hell, and the idea that all non-Christians are condemned to it, are teachings that cast very serious doubts on the concept of a just and loving God.

Christianity has spread to almost every country in the world and has more followers than any other religion, so it must be true ...

-- It is true that Christianity has spread widely but how has this happened? Until the 15th century Christianity was largely confined to Europe. After this, European armies spread throughout the world forcing their religion on the people they conquered. In most conquered countries (e.g. Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Taiwan and parts of India) laws were passed banning all non-Christian religions. By the late 19th century brute force was no longer used to enforce belief but, under the influence of the missionaries, colonial administrators tried to hinder non-Christian religions as much as possible. Today the spread of Christianity is supported by lavish financial assistance which missionaries get largely from the U.S.A. So Christianity has spread not because of its inherent superiority but because of violence in the past and wealth today.

Whether Christianity is the world's largest religion is a matter of definition. Can we consider the Mormons, the Moonies and the Jehovah's Witnesses to be Christians? Can we consider the numerous strange cults and sects that flourish in South America and Africa, and which account for many millions of people, to be Christian? Most Protestants don't even consider Catholics to be Christians! If we deny that all the heretical, heterodoxist, cultic and bizarre Christian groups are 'real' Christians, this would probably make Christianity one of the smallest religions in the world. This would also explain why the Bible says that only 144,000 people will be saved on Judgement Day (Rev 14:3-4).

God blesses those who believe in him. That is why Christian countries are so rich and Buddhist countries are so poor ...

-- Of all the arguments that Christians use to try to convert people this is by far the most foolish. Firstly if what the Bible says about wealth is true (Matt 19:23-24) it would seem that the blessings which God has supposedly poured out on Europe and America are really a curse in disguise. Secondly if prosperity is really proof of God's favour it would seem that he really likes the Muslims because he has given them all the oil. Thirdly, some Christian countries such as Honduras and the Philippines are extremely poor while Japan, predominantly a Buddhist country, is very rich. And finally, by making statements like this, Christians are letting slip their real motive for worshipping God - desire for money. Buddhism for its part teaches that qualities like contentment, love, gentleness and inner peace are more precious than money.

Throughout the world including Asia, Christianity has been a force for progress while Buddhism has done little to improve society ...

-- In Christianity's long history there is much to be proud of and perhaps equally as much to be ashamed of. Take for example slavery, a terrible institution that almost all churches supported until the 19th century. After Paul converted the runaway slave Oresimus he convinced him that as a Christian he should go back to his master (Philemon 1:3-20). He asked the master to be kind to Oresimus but he did not ask him to free the slave. The Bible says that slaves should obey their masters even if they are treated with cruelty.

Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, singlemindedly, as if serving Christ (Eph 6:5)

Slaves, give entire obedience to your earthly masters, not merely with an outward show of service, to curry favour with men, but with singlemindedness, out of reverence for the Lord (Col. 3:22)

Bid slaves to be submissive to their masters and give satisfaction in every respect; they are not to be refractory, nor to pilfer, but to show entire and true fidelity so that in everything they may adorn the doctrine of God our saviour (Tit 2:9-10)

The reason why slave owners in Africa, U.S.A. and Brazil encouraged their slaves to become Christians was because it made them passive and obedient. In England the campaign to abolish slavery in the 18th century was strongly opposed by the churches as they opposed similar campaigns in Mexico, Brazil and the southern U.S.A. (for details read the section on 'Slavery' in The Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, 1989).

Take science. The development of science in the West was retarded by church opposition (see A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom, 2 Vol., A.D.White, 1960). Christian opposition to dissection of corpses held back the development of medicine and anatomy for 300 years. The churches were against dissection because they believed that it would make bodily resurrection impossible. The church was opposed to the heliocentric view of the universe and even threatened to execute Galileo for saying that the earth moved around the sun. When Benjamin Franklin invented the lightning rod that prevented buildings from being damaged by lightning, Protestant churches were in an uproar. They believed that God would no longer be able to punish sinners by hurling thunder bolts. When chloroform was invented, the churches refused to allow it to be used to alleviate the pain of childbirth. The Bible teaches and they believed that such pain was God's punishment on women for the sin of Eve (Gen 3:16).

Take intolerance of the Jews. Of all the bleak pages in the history of Christianity this is the bleakest and most disgraceful. For 2000 years Christians have harassed, hounded, humiliated and murdered the Jews because they refused to believe in Jesus. In this respect Protestants have been no better than the Catholics. In 1986 a leading Protestant clergyman in the U.S.A. said "God does not listen when the Jews pray".

We could go on but this is enough. However since the 19th century it is true that many Christian churches have begun to eagerly adopt the outlook of the liberal secular tradition and make it their own. So now Christians are often in the forefront of movements for justice, democracy and equality but there is little in the Bible that they can use to justify their actions. On the contrary, the Bible specifically says that all rulers, even the unjust, get their power from God and to oppose them is to oppose God.

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore he who resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment (Rom 13:1-2, see also Jn 19:11, Tit 3:1, Pet 2:13, Prov 8:15-16)

Despotic kings, cardinals and bishops quoted passages like these for centuries to justify their rule. Liberation theologies are very silent about such Bible passages today. Christian social philosophy doesn't come from the Bible. It comes from the Western secular tradition that the churches spent 400 years opposing. Now they try to pretend that these values originate from Jesus (see What the Bible Really Says, ed. M. Smith and R.S.Hoffman, 1989).

Buddhism has always been less aggressive and less organized than Christianity. This has meant that its influence on society has been subtle, less noticeable and even perhaps less dynamic than it should have been. On the other hand it has also meant that the witch-hunts against heretics, the persecution of non-believers, and the bloody religious wars that have marred Christian history, have been rare or absent in Buddhism.

(1) Deep down Buddhists are really searching for God.
(2) Buddhism is just a different expression of man's understanding of God
(3) Buddhists are Christians outside the church ...

-- Today one often hears liberal Christians make statements like these. Sadly, such statements are meaningless. One could simply reverse them and say "Deep down Christians are really searching for Nirvana", "The Christian God is just a personification of Nirvana", or "Christians are Buddhists outside the Sangha". Although such statements are often welcomed by Buddhists as indicating that liberal Christians are more tolerant than their fundamentalist brothers and sisters, this is actually not so. Such statements really show that Christians still wish to claim superiority for their own religion. They also show that the liberal Christian's supposed tolerance is dependent upon believing that Buddhism is just another form of Christianity. In short, it is based on a delusion. Liberal Christians will only be genuinely tolerant when they can admit that Buddhism is different from Christianity, very different, and be tolerant despite these differences.

Buddhism may be a noble philosophy but if you look at Buddhist countries you notice that so few people seem to practise it ...

-- Perhaps! But is it not exactly the same in Christian countries? What honest Christian could say that all Christians fully, sincerely and with deep understanding follow Jesus' teachings? Let us not judge a religion by those who fail to practise it.

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