Doctrine matters. Many times doctrine is looked down upon these days. Teaching and rational thought are traded in for feeling, fuzzy interpretations, and noncommittal statements. But doctrine matters. It divides the wheat from the chaff and sets boundaries between worldviews. Many throw away the doctrine of the Gospels for a newer, softer Jesus. People want the Buddhist Jesus, who speaks in koans and mystically contemplates the unknown while letting all paths lead to God. This is the Jesus John Hanson argues for in “Was Jesus a Buddhist?” He claimed history and doctrine proved his theory1. Yet in Parts 1, 2 and 3 we saw that the first part of this claim fell flat. Archeologically speaking the Jews of the time were an exclusive society not coalescing to anything non Jewish. We saw the Gospels were historically reliable to the accounts they gave. This is significant when we realize that the Gospels, in summary statements, claim to know exactly where Jesus grew up – Nazareth not India. From these Mr. Hanson’s arguments begin to come apart. If Jesus was in Nazareth, in the heart of the exclusive Jewish community, He couldn’t have heard of Buddhism.
Yet, Mr. Hanson thinks Jesus taught the same doctrine. This claim is not, new other Buddhist have made the same claim, some have gone as far as saying Jesus and Buddha were twin brothers, doctrinally speaking. But this is something quite untrue. It is here we must remember two laws of logic. The first is the law of non-contradiction – A and non-A cannot both be true at the same time in the same way. A woman cannot be both pregnant and not pregnant. This gives rise to the second, the law of no middle ground – it is either A or B there is no C. If the Buddha claims one dogma and Jesus teaches a contradictory one, then they cannot be teaching the same system. The divide is most seen in their understanding of the self and God. We will look at the understanding of self here and the understanding of God in our last article.
The divide in doctrine of Jesus and the Buddha are clearly seen in their respective doctrines of the self. The specific dogma we are looking at is whether people have permanent selves or not. Are you a different person today as compared to yesterday? Have you fundamentally in the core of your soul changed from this morning till now? The Buddha would say yes to both. This is the doctrine of impermanence in Buddhism. You cannot step in the same river twice. So, also, says Buddha, the human self is constantly changing. You are not the same person you were five minutes ago. There is no centralized self. This is demonstrated in their scriptures stating, “all karmically constituted things are impermanent; they are not fixed, not comforting, and are characterized by constant change,”2 Karmically constituted things would be people, animals, basically what is in this world. Nothing is fixed. There is no self, no personality, no continuity. This is furthered by another of their scriptures, which states, “nothing was ever destroyed, is destroyed, or will ever be destroyed. Such is the meaning of ‘impermanence.’…That which has no intrinsic substance does not burn, and what does not burn is not extinguished.”3 There is no consistent, intrinsic substance that gives man identity. It changes from one time to the next. There is no consistent “I”. Today’s “I” is tomorrow’s “they”. This is the doctrine of anatman – no self. It is an illusion in Buddhism to think you have a continuous identity. A person is a constant flux of change, there is no “I” or “mine”. It is constant flux. To try to hold on to a solid personality is the reason of pain in Buddhism4 It is to escape this illusion/maya which leads to Nirvana. To realize it’s all impermanent is to break free of the illusion. This is diametrically opposed to what Jesus taught.
Jesus did not teach impermanence. Jesus taught the contrary. Jesus sees a continuous unchanging soul of a man. He demonstrates this when He states:
“If anyone desires to come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it. For what profit is it to a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul? For the Son of Man will come in glory of His Father with His angels, and then He will reward each according to his own work,” (Matthew 16:24-27).
If Jesus taught the constant change and flux of the individual and identity as the Buddha did this passage is meaningless. An understanding of an identity is foundational here. There must first be a self to deny, to refuse. Jesus, speaking to the cost of discipleship, tells his disciples that they must crucify their desires. They will have to willfully turn away from themselves to Jesus in order to follow Him. If the identity is in flux it makes no sense to deny the desires. Which desires? Identity is always changing, so in a short timespan they’ll change. But Jesus speaks to a daily denial of desires to follow Him. The word for “lose” carries the meaning of forfeiture – not change. In Jesus’ mind it is not the ever changing nature of identity which causes loss, but the willful forfeiture of a person’s life/soul. In order to forfeit a soul/identity, it must exist. The opposite of this fate are rewards which He will hand out. Rewards are pointless if anatman is true – there would be no one to reward. Yet Jesus clearly states there are rewards. The identity, then, is permanent. These rewards are determined from the course of life. The self, in some way, must remain fixed throughout life in order to be judged by life’s whole course. The thought is someone will either give their life over to Jesus and inherit reward or give it over to the world and forfeit everything. It is not through escaping the illusion of self that saves, but the surrender of the permanent self to Jesus that saves.
Jesus and Buddha do not agree on the permanence of the soul. Jesus spoke of a stable identity which will be forfeit at the end of time if a person does not turn to Him. The Buddha looked to impermanence and said the idea of a unified self ought to be escaped. Here they butt heads. Jesus did not state there was no soul, but declared it will be forfeit in judgment unless one turn and repent. Fundamentally, the two differ. There is either a soul that can be forfeited in judgment or no soul whatsoever. It cannot be both it is either A or non-A. This happens again with their views of God.Ω
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- Hanson, James M. “Was Jesus a Buddhist?” Buddhist-Christian Studies (University of Hawai’i Press), no. 25 (2005): 75-89 ↩
- Strong, John S. The Experience of Buddhism: Sources and Interpretations, Second Edition. Wadsworth Thomson Learning, 2002. 91 ↩
- Thurman, Robert A. F., trans. The Holy Teaching of Vimalakirti, University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2001. 29 ↩
- Strong, John S. The Experience of Buddhism: Sources and Interpretations, Second Edition. Wadsworth Thomson Learning, 2002. 33 ↩