A Christian College Student Asks About Buddhism

At times I receive e-mail asking me to explain some point of the Buddha's teachings. Below are a series of questions from Hagen Glatzle that might be of interest.

What is the most important thing to do to prepare for life a better life after death?

Is there life after death?!? I don't know. Look at it this way: either this is it or we do arrive someplace after death. If this is all there is, I better live a "full" life. If I'm going to arrive someplace afterwards, all the religions agree that the quality of that life will be dependent on how "upright" I lead my life here. So if I lead a full, upright life, I've covered both bases - and the question of life after death has no bearing on my behavior - making it rather unimportant - just idle speculation about something I can't determine right now. [This is a modified form of "Pascal's Wager" that I came to long before studying Buddhism or hearing of "Pascal's Wager".]

Generally, yes I agree, there is something to this I have not thought of before. However, if the teachings of Jesus Christ are correct, a perfect life after death, whatever it looks like, cannot be obtained by the uprightness of a person alone.

The Buddha would say that uprightness alone will not free you from "The Round" of rebirths - you must come to a deep understanding of the fact that you are not a separate self - you must make a breakthru in consciousness. In other words, it requires wisdom as well as uprightness to achieve the highest goal.

In other words a perfect life after death cannot be obtained through the intrinsic powers of personality alone. The extrinsic righteoussing (see the book of Romans Chapter 3 20ff) of a person by God is necessary which in turn really enables and enhances the "upright" living (empowered by God).

I see Romans 3:20ff as discussing the fact that just following the law is not enough. You need a deeper wisdom than that. With this deeper wisdom, your behavior will still be in accord with the law, but not because you "have" to behave that way, but because behaving honorably towards all beings is an expression of your love for them ("Love your neighbor as yourself").

This is profound insight into the teachings of Christ however, my observation about the teachings of Christ remains; If Christ’s teachings are correct this ‘deeper insight’ (as you called it) cannot be obtained through the intrinsic powers of personality alone. Being righteoussed by an extrinsic power namely Christ (the purpose of his presence on this earth, life, death and resurrection) is necessary. I believe this to be the key message of the apostle Paul’s letter to Rome.

And this is one of the major differences between Christianity and Buddhism. Christianity says that it is thru Christ that one comes to this "deeper insight"; Buddhism says it is thru the power of "seeing things as they are" - which means seeing them without the usual filters of personality.

It seems most important in preparation for life in heaven after death that one seeks after the above mentioned extrinsic power in preparation of life after death.

Actually there are several assumptions you make in the above. One of course, is assuming that this part of the teachings of Jesus - as they have come down to us - accurately reflect the heart of his message. I see that most teachings that come down from any ancient master have been corrupted by the very institution that brings us the precious teachings. So I'm inclined to dig deeper and try to figure out just what the ancient master was really saying. Personally I think the heart of Jesus's message is all about love: "Love God, Love your neighbor." Everything that is supposed to be a teaching of Jesus's should be carefully examined in this light.

A second assumption is the whole life after death thing. The Buddha definitely felt that any form of Eternalism was a mistaken view; he also felt any form of Nihilism was equally mistaken. His teachings point to a different way of seeing altogether - one that does not focus on individual existence. He wants his followers to see the emptiness of all "things". From this ultimate point of view, there aren't really any separate "things"; there do appear to be, and we must operate as though they do have separate existence, but at the deepest level of reality, there are only particles coming together and falling apart. As one of my teachers said, "You should view yourself as a verb rather than a noun." Actually there aren't really any nouns anywhere in any ultimate sense, it's just that some verbs act/change slower than others.

So from this viewpoint, discussing life-after-death is like try to figure out where the fire goes when it goes out - north, south, east, west, up, down? It's simply a wrong question.

Don't worry if this seems really weird and hard to understand. The Buddha's teaching on "anatta" - the emptiness of all things - is one of the most difficult teachings to understand. It usually takes several years of study and practice for some someone to begin to get a handle on it.

What must or can be done in order for a person to overcome or transcend that which seems to drive us humans to do bad stuff? Is it possible to get rid of this drive?

Certainly - but it's hard work to become fully enlightened.

Really? Wow! How many people do you know who have attained this goal?

Lao Tzu, The Buddha, Jesus, a number of their immediate followers. Later came people like Nargarjuna, Padma Sambhava, St. Francis. A number of other "great sages" from the past.

More recently there is Amachi, Ramana Maharshi, Ramesh Balsekar, several other India sages from the 20th century. There are several 20th century Tibetan lamas who were said to have been enlightened - they have mostly passed away. I have heard also of some of the 20th century Thai and Burmese forest monks that were supposedly enlightened.

And I also met a wonderful man in India who lived next to a crossroads near the top of a steep hill. He gave water to passersby. But on top of a hill in India, there is no running water.... He was truly a deep soul!

I have heard it said about a few others that they are/were enlightened, including several people I have met. But indeed it is rare. I have heard people estimate how many enlightened beings there are in the world at this time; the estimates range from "a dozen" to "around 1000". I have no idea.

And what implication does death have before one reaches this enlightenment?

The journey towards enlightenment brings many rewards. That's enough for me. But the Buddha says the your karmic resultants will come to fruition even after you die - this is called rebirth. Better to make progress in the most useful direction so that all that remains after you die is momentum headed in the right direction. And since there really aren't any separate individuals....

What are your thoughts about other religions? Can all religions be understood as equally valid? if so how? if not how?

What exactly do you mean by a religion? Christianity is certainly no a single thing. There are very tight and narrow versions that require a fixed set of beliefs. This is quite different from other branches that are much more open. And then of course there is the actual message of Jesus - which no current branch of Christianity seems to be really following.

The exact same thing can be said of Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, etc. Basically, I doubt there is much in ANY religion that is valid per se. What is valid are practices that help one to understand what I mentioned above - keeping an open mind while learning the true nature of things and helping where possible. Religions seem to be the keepers of these practices, but just as the library itself is not the knowledge in the books, a religion is not spirituality.

I agree that religion is not spirituality! You make a good point! What do you mean with 'true nature of things'?

Basically that the "thingness" of things is a convenient fiction. The Buddha said we should realize that all phenomena have 3 characteristics: they are impermanent; that if they are clung to, they bring unsatisfactoriness or even suffering; and that all things are "coreless" - the insubstantial nature I mentioned above. Nonetheless there are beings in the conventional sense (rather than in the aforementioned absolute sense) and we should treat these beings with love (same message as Jesus).

Is truth not very much open to interpretation?

Very much so. When this same question was put to the Buddha, he responded that we should follow those teachings that lead to love/generosity/wisdom and reject those that lead to greed, hatred or delusion. See the Kalama Sutta for full details.

What is the Buddhist epistemological definition of true nature?

The 3 characteristics of all phenomena are that they are impermanent, ultimately unsatisfactory, and empty of inherent existence.

To see this, think of your nice, new, red Corvette. You know that it is impermanent - but you don't want to think about that. It is ultimately unsatisfactory because it's going to wear out and wind up in a junk yard some day - and you don't want to think about that either. These two are easy to see (even though we don't really want to look at them). #3 is the hard one, but consider this:

If you take the wheels off the Corvette, is it still a Corvette? What if you remove the steering wheel? The seats? The engine? The body? Unscrewed every nut and bold? Exactly when would it stop being a Corvette and become just a pile of parts? The truth is that the "Corvetteness" is something we give that pile of parts when they are connected in a specific way. But it always is nothing but a pile of parts - it has no real inherent existence. Nonetheless when the pile of parts are connected in a specific way, those parts will transport you to the video store and back.

We are no different from that Corvette - except most of us have a deeper awareness than most Corvettes - but we too are still a pile of parts.

Wow! If I understand you correctly I think this is where Christianity and Buddhism differ most drastically. According to the teachings of Christ a human being is so much more than a pile of parts. We are made in the image of God himself. Not "empty of inherent existence” because we have immortal souls. Now I understand better why in Buddhism existence or life after death is not that big of an issue as in Christianity.

You are exactly right about this being the major difference between these two teachings.

Let me sum up my thoughts according to my understanding that this present short life is not an end in itself but a preparation for the eternity which comes after death:

You are right in both cases present performance is most important for whatever comes after death. However the component of Christ within Christianity is essential for good present performance. Extrinsic help!! In Buddhism good present performance must all come from elements intrinsic to personality.

Intrinsic, yes - but personality must been seen as just an illusion. So not really intrinsic to personality; just intrinsic in the nature of all things, oneself included.

According to Christian interpretation of the Apostle Paul this is problematic because ultimately humanity is depraved (ultimately and in essence not able to prevent oneself from actually doing wrong).

and this is exactly where St. Paul and the Buddha part company.

Ultimately no Christian can claim this for him/herself in this present life however, through the component of Christ he/she can claim this for life after death. Also the component of Christ along with discipline enables the Christian to live a 'good life'. This is why life after death is more important to Christianity than to Buddhism. With this Christianity incorporates a big component of hope of a better life (this is very meaningful to me). However, because the present life is important for life after death Christians including myself can and must learn from Buddhism when it comes to living the best life possible, or a "full upright life" as you put it above. Sorry for focusing so much on life after death :) But it is important to me.

Yes, the difference is definitely one of focus on life-after-death for Christianity; on life-here-and-now for Buddhism. If someone is looking for security about life-after-death, Buddhism is definitely the wrong religion for them.

Thanks, Leigh, this communication has helped me to understand both Buddhism and Christianity somewhat better.

Ditto for both for me too!

Back to Essays
Back to Leigh's Home Page Site Map                   Site Search 

Permalink http://leighb.com/budxtn.htm [] Hosted by
Leigh Brasington / / Revised 09 Mar 14