If there is group of people that might be described as “seekers,” then Buddhists must be high on the list. Buddhism, as a system, requires its adherent to be devoted to exploring a set of principles that will earn him or her an enlightened state that they hope will lead to the end of suffering—a noble and worthwhile goal. Those who explore the Buddhist path are taught concepts such as: The Middle Way, Samsara, The Four Noble Truths, and others.
Yet on a practical, day-to-day level, many Buddhists inwardly struggle. They feel spiritually empty, as if the practices they engage in provide some temporary satisfaction or guidance, but when over, the emptiness or futility remains. While they pursue the path they are taught the Buddha has lain out, they secretly wonder about the reality of the Buddha’s teachings. Being taught that they will experience many rebirths until finally reaching their objective, they cannot help but wonder, “Will this truly end my suffering? How can I know that what I am doing really works?”
I want to explore together some key ideas in Buddhism. I attempt to compare Buddhist principles to the teachings of the Bible and Jesus Christ in hopes of helping the Buddhist seeker, discover a different kind of enlightenment—one that can be fully experienced and realized in this life, right now, without the need for what may seem like a tumultuous cycle of rebirth.
The World Around Us
What is the nature of reality? How can we tell that what we experience is primarily an experience that comes from our own perceptions or is a part of true existence? If our reality is defined by our perceptions, how can we know when our perceptions give us accurate information about the world around us or even our own existence? If our perceptions of reality are problematic, then how do we address the even more important issues involving eternity?
To its credit, Buddhism tries to address the questions of reality and perception. Many Buddhists have found meaning and solace in Buddhist teachings (or debate) about the nature of the world around us. At first a person who is unfamiliar with Buddhist concepts may struggle. In fact, many Buddhists themselves struggle with these ideas. Whole schools of competing Buddhist thought have arisen to address the nature of reality.
For our purposes together, let us address the core of Buddhist ideas about the world around us:
The evidence of reality presented to us by our senses is faulty. Human perception of the world is mistaken,(1)
“Everything is part of an ultimate, impersonal ground of existence which is neither good nor evil,”(2)
Good, evil, truth, and falsehood are mistaken perceptions (or conventions), which have no absolute meaning.
These ideas about reality are foundational to Buddhism’s attempt to address humanity’s ultimate problems. Let’s address these issues together and also discover how Jesus Christ addressed these issues in His teaching. First, let’s apply some common sense—and science—to the Buddhist teachings about reality and perception.
Sense & Senses
As I type these words I see them on my computer screen. By doing this I am making the assumption that you who are reading it are also seeing the same words that I typed. In fact I’m also assuming you have access to a computer, the Internet, can input a website address, find this page, and read this article. You are doing the same thing that thousands of people have done before you, and will after you. All of us share a common set of perceptions that allows us to have a certain degree of unity in our experience of writing and reading—or any other experience. Let’s call this our unity of perception.
Sight is an important part of our perceptive abilities. What we see can be pleasurable or frightening. It can foster longing or fear. What we see is also an important part of our learning process and contributes heavily to the assumptions we make together. And—together—is the point I’d like to make. If you sit in a group with a printed version and all read together from the page, you will all read the same thing. Your perception about what words are written, are the same. It is this unity of perception that encourages us that what we are reading really exists, and that by implication, it has a writer who also exists. The same may be said of the world. We have a unity of perception about the world around us. We do not all experience different realities generated by our minds like hallucinations—”self generated sensory experiences.”(3) Nor are our perceptions, illusions. “Cognitive illusions come about because the brain is full of prejudices: habits of thought, knee-jerk emotional reactions and automatic orders of perception.(4)
“Ah, but wait,” you might say. “Isn’t that part of what Buddhism refers to, cognitive prejudices, etc.?” In some ways, yes. But the idea that our perceptions create an illusion of what the nature of the world is like, must disregard the unity of perception that we all share. This leaves us with one of two choices: Humanity’s unity of perception is itself, illusionary, or our unity of perception provides evidence that our experiences and the world around us are real. Which is the case?
Saying that our perception of the shared unity of perception is illusionary is the same as saying our illusion is illusionary—i.e. our we do not experience illusion. It is self-defeating and leaves us only with our second option. Our perceptions are real. In fact, our perceptions are not only real, but our brains naturally anticipate the reality around us allowing us to experience it according to reality. Our brains know that what our senses deliver to it is real. “An act of perception is a lot more than capturing an act of incoming stimulus. It requires a form of expectation, of knowing what is about to confront us, and preparing for it. Without expectations, or constructs through which we perceive our world, our surroundings would be…confusion. Each experience would truly be a new one, rapidly overwhelming us.”(5) Where do those “constructs” come from? From the previous real-world experiences we have had!
This does not mean that we do not sometimes have faulty perceptions about the world around us, or our nature. In fact, the very thrust of the argument presented here is that Buddhism is a perceptive filter that presents an illusion about the nature of existence.
The Nature of Existence
If our perceptions about the world around us are faulty, and there is another truth underneath what we perceive, then, our perceptions about how to live in the world are also colored by our misperceptions. Could this be true? Let’s turn again to our unity of perception.
Everyone has some kind of concept of right and wrong, good and evil. We all share common perceptions, that there are certain things that are good, and certain things that are evil. Personal preference and culture permit varying degrees in our agreement over what is right and wrong. But the fact stands that there still remains the concept of good and evil, right and wrong.
According to Buddhist thought the issue of what is right and wrong is nothing more than a convention without absolute authority or substance. This teaching, in point of fact, leaves the adherent with the idea that what is good and evil cannot be ultimately defined since good and evil are illusionary. Let’s present it this way:
Is a belief in absolute good and evil, a right belief or a wrong belief?
If you are under the Buddhist way of thinking that last sentence is a trap in both its construct and its implication. For the Buddhist the question is unanswerable without causing a new set of philosophical problems. If you declare it a “wrong belief,” you are left with a moral dilemma. Under Buddhism, wrong beliefs or perceptions lead to suffering. If this wrong belief leads to suffering, then is not the belief itself evil (morally wrong and not just factually wrong)? Could it not be argued that Siddhartha perceptually recognized the existence of evil when he saw the sick man, poor man, beggar, and the corpse? He lamented the suffering of humanity because he recognized the evil of what he saw.
These arguments would seem to indicate the existence of evil, which would be a right belief, meaning that there is something more significantly wrong with humanity than perceptions, ignorance, and suffering.(6)
There is More Wrong with Us Than Our Ignorance
Buddhism has gotten something right about our existence. We do have a problem with perception. But according to Jesus Christ, our problem is not ignorance about the human condition. Our problem is denial.
Earlier I wrote about our “cognitive prejudices” that color our perceptions of the world around us, and our own nature. The earlier quote would seem to support the ideas of Buddhism, that our perceptions are a problem. If in fact we interpret everything around us through perceptual filters like greed, envy, jealousy, selfishness and so on, then we should ask the question: Where do these come from?
Jesus taught that such things come from within the human heart.
“The good man brings out of his good treasure what is good; and the evil man brings out of his evil treasure what is evil.”(7)
But who is an evil man? What constitutes a person who is evil?
During a conversation with a devoutly religious man, Jesus made a surprising statement. While asking about how to attain eternal life, a man called out to Jesus, calling him, “Good teacher.” Jesus responded: “‘No one is good except God alone. You know the commandments, do not commit adultery, do not murder, do not steal, do not bear false witness, honor your father and mother.’
‘And he said, “All these things I have kept from my youth.”
‘When Jesus heard this, He said to him, “One thing you still lack; sell all that you possess and distribute it to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.’”(8)
Jesus had two criteria for evil. First, a person who is evil is a person who obeys evil. He or she is a person who engages in morally wrong thoughts, feelings, and actions. The commandments Jesus referred to were Laws given to Israel by God. Engaging in these behaviors, like all behaviors, starts from the heart or mind, and ends with the actual doing of the evil. A person who obeys evil is evil.
Second, Jesus provided a criteria for evil that was highly personal and surprising to the man who heard it.
“…and come, follow Me.”
Jesus regarded the person who willfully rejected him as evil. Why would He do this? Why did Jesus’ criteria for right and wrong have to be so relational?
Unlike Buddhism, which presents everything as an “impersonal ground of existence, which is neither good nor evil,” Jesus Christ presented himself as the ultimate standard of personal existence that is, inherently, good. He recognized that in order for man to deal with suffering, he had to deal with his relationships. Notice the commandments that Jesus mentioned. All are committed in relationship with, or to, another person. In fact, all evil is committed within the context of relationship. The same is true about good. There can be no good and no evil without relationship.
Under Buddhism the adherent attempts to either remove himself from the world through monasticism, or minimize his attachments. In other words, the devout Buddhist must minimize relationships. Yet doing so will not mitigate evil, because love is only expressed in relationships and only love can conqueror evil. Suffering is therefore, not the real problem for Buddhism, denial is.
Because Buddhism is a philosophy of the impersonal, it is only natural that it would deny concepts of good and evil beyond their use as mere conventions. Yet Jesus Christ defined good and evil only in terms of relationship—relationship to others and relationship to Himself. In Buddhism one does not have a relationship with the reality around him since his reality is considered to be an illusion of mistaken perceptions. In comparison, the Bible teaches us that we have not only a relationship with the world around us, but also the people in it, and the God who created it.
Our perceptions are real, and given to us by God so that we might “seek him with all our heart.”(9) If God has enabled us to seek Him, then surely He has given us the perceptive ability to recognize His reality.
Dalai Lama XIV, The Dalai Lama at Harvard, page 36.
M. Tsering, Jesus in a New Age, Dalai Lama World, page 153.
Rita Carter & Professor Christoper Frith, Mapping the Mind, page 127.
Ibid, page 131.
John J. Ratey, M.D., A User’s Guide to the Brain: Perception, Attention, and the Four Theaters of the Brain, page 56.
What if you argue that the belief itself is not right or wrong? Doing so would imply the nonexistence of the belief, and perhaps even the question. For an argument against such a point, read two paragraphs above. If in doubt, read it with a friend using unity of perception.