Buddhism has enjoyed a presence in American culture sends Chinese laborers came to San Francisco in the 1820s bringing with them their customs, new foods, and a new religion.  By 1975, it is estimated “there were 400 ‘joss houses’ in California – usually incense-soaked, top-story dens, crowded with ancestral relics, little lacquered Buddhas, and dusty sutra scrolls.”  Several prominent westerners had been captivated by Oriental wisdom and were busy incorporating these new philosophies into American culture.  Henry David Thoreau for example, "fell in love with the Lotus Sutra” which is a third century Buddhist text.  He subsequently translated and published much of these works popularizing a new religion and culture throughout the counterculture in America..  Buddhist gradually became incorporated into mainstream America for more than 100 years, but it was not until the 1960s that Buddhism gained a true foothold in this country.  Buddhist authors D.T. Suzuki and Alan Watts (a former Episcopalian priest) made Zen (a form of Buddhism) a household name in America.  Zen Buddhism also has many different schools and interpretations further complicating the study of this fascinating approach to life.  There many books that spanned 30 years "opened the door for westerners to become Buddhists, not just study its message."

Another major wave of Asian immigrants hit American shores in 1978.  These new immigrants came from war-torn Southeast Asia countries such as Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Burma.  Within only a few years, more than one million Buddhists had relocated to the United States taking with them their cultures and religion.  Hundreds of small temples sprang up across the country from coast to coast drawing membership from many ethnic groups – even African-American.  Eventually, two types of Buddhist groups emerged; ethnic Asian Buddhists and ethnic American Buddhists.

Asian Buddhists were bound together not only by their religious beliefs, but also by their shared culture and ethnic background.  American Buddhists on the other hand were drawn to the philosophical aspects of Buddhism that they largely divorced from the more ethnic elements of the religion.  Buddhism, once a religion confined mainly to Southeast Asia, is now a popular faith in the West.  American converts to Buddhism number in the hundreds of thousands and included many notable celebrities, a loan these: Joan Baez, Tina Turner, Richard Gere, Larry Hageman, and Harrison Ford.  In 1993 there were approximately 1000 Buddhist temples, monasteries, and centers of Buddhist learning throughout the United States.  Some of the centers are multimillion dollar "learning complexes."  These large repositories of Buddhist teachings promote Buddhism on an unprecedented scale.  However, most temples, especially the Asian once, are very austere and often located in private homes in residential areas were in small industrial parks, and are supported on a marginal level by members and community fund-raising efforts such as bingo games.

There are literally hundreds of different forms of Buddhism, and all of them may be traced back to the essential teachings of a man named Suddhartha Gautama – the Buddha.  The Buddha is a Sanskrit title meaning "enlightened."  It can be applied to other enlightened teachers, but it "is particularly applied to Gautama, the founder of Buddhism."  It is with Gautama that any study of Buddhism must begin.

The Enlightened One

Buddhist scholars agree that a historically accurate picture of the Buddhist life is impossible to reconstruct.  The first narratives about hand were not written until approximately 400 years after his death, and devotees greatly embellished the accounts of his life, actions, and words.  Take for example the following story of the Buddha's birth:

The child comes forth from his mother while she is standing up and holding onto a branch of the sacred tree.  He is completely free of any after birth and is immediately able to walk and talk.  He takes seven steps in each of the cardinal directions and proclaims himself ruler of the universe."

Despite exaggerations of this kind about the Buddha, a rough outline of his life can be made.  However, we must continuously keep in mind that beyond archeological evidence proving his store coexistence, there is furry little known about the circumstances of his life.  What we do know is that the India into which he was born had been shaped religiously by Brahmanism, and agent religion established their more than 3000 years ago by the Aryan conquerors of the indigenous peoples of the Indian subcontinent.  The Aryans were "a powerful group of Indo-European speaking people" the united them under an umbrella of religious philosophy that became Hinduism.  These invading conquerors of the Indus Valley forced their vanquished flows to adapt Brahmanism which later developed into part of Hinduism for two reasons: first, to maintain Aryan ethnic purity and, secondly, to subjugation to the native Indians both spiritually and socially.  Brahmanism was able to accomplish these goals because of its caste system which is a rigid set of rules that divided all persons into the following social and religious classes:

  • Brahmins (Aryan priests);
  • Kshatriyas (warrior-priests);
  • Vaishyas (the middle class)
  • Sudras (servants, not allowed to recite or listen to the Vedas (Hindu scripture), and
  • Outcasts (the illegitimate, criminals, and those in unclean jobs).

Gautama was born into this culture in about 563 B.C..  His father apparently reigned over a small district on the Indian slope of the Himalayas in a region that now Warders between India in Nepal, in northeastern India.  Shortly after Gautama’s birth, a hermit named Asita allegedly had envisioned love "the rejoicing of the gods at the birth of the man supreme, who was born for the welfare and bliss of all the world."  Asita subsequently traveled to Buddhist fatherss royal court where he was shown in the child.  The hermit allegedly prophecy to the following:

This prince, if he remains in the palace, when grown up, will become a great King, and subjugate the whole world.  But if he forsakes the court life to embrace a religious life, he will become a Buddha, the savior of the world.

King Suddhodana, believing that contact with human misery would prompt the boy to leave home in search of spiritual truth, immediately ordered his service to forever shield the prince from all contact with evil and suffering.  It is said that in order to distract him from the cares of the world, the King gave his son many possessions including three palaces and 40,000 dancing girls.

Legend than has its that's when the Buddha reached the age of sixteen, five hundred women were sent to him as prospective brides.  Eventually he chose as his bride his cousin Yasodhara.  According to one account, he won her hand by performing "twelve marvelous feats in the art of archery."

Buddhist life was unfolding as his father had planned until the young prince, how to be their curiosity or discontent, eluded his royal attendants and ventured out into the outside world.  Over a series of several days he visited a nearby park where he made some disturbing observations.  The prince first saw an old man, bent over by advanced age.  On the next day he saw a deceased person, possibly someone with leprosy.  During his third visit, the prince viewed a corpse.  When he took another visit on day four, he met a monk who practiced self-denial.  The boy was never quite the same after his visits to the park.  He concluded that life is nothing but an experience plagued by sorrow.  Why is there so much suffering and life?  How can man escape what seems to be an inescapable round of torment?  Is there no end to pain and suffering?  To answer these and other questions, he left home and began a spiritual quest for truth.  Some say that he departed on every night that his wife gave birth to their son, Rahula (“hindrance”).

For about six years, the young prince wondered about as a poor beggar studying meditation and philosophy.  His pilgrimage eventually led him to two yogis or spiritual teachers.  He attempted to follow their path of spirituality by eating nothing but seeds and grass, eventually reducing his diet to only a single grain of rice each day.  In one experiment, "he ate only dung."

Then he met and joined the Company of five months with mean he practiced various methods of asceticism.  She lay on thorns, or rough textured clothes, and refused to sit, choosing instead to always crouch on his heels.  See "gave up cleansing his body until the dirt was so thick that would fall from his body of its own weight."  He would hold his breath "until it felt as though someone were forcing a heated soared through his goal."  He even "slept in a yard where rotting human corpses were laid out to be eaten by vultures and scavengers."

He had hoped to attain an understanding of life through self-denial but failed.  He did however, gained a realization that neither asceticism nor extravagant living which he had experienced earlier in the royal court, brought "truth" an ear.  There existed a better path, the Middle Way.  A good illustration of this path can be seen in a strained musical instrument: "if the strings are strung too losely, they will not play.  On the other hand, if they are strung too tightly, they will break."

When the Buddha demonstrated this realization by eating a normal meal in front of his fellow monks, they deserted him.  He then headed for Gaya (a major city on the northeast coast of India).  There, beneath a full name in May, the spread a mat under a fig tree on the banks of the Meranjana River and assumed the “lotus” position (sitting in a modified cross laid position).  He vowed to remain there in that position until he understood life's mysteries.  It was his 36th birthday.

While sitting in his mind "like a hummingbird poised in midair," the Buddha began meditating.  Within several hours he allegedly saw an "infinite secession of deaths and births and ever flowing stream of life."  In other words, he had envisioned that supported the doctrine of reincarnation, a foundational teaching of the Brahmin religion in which he had been raised.

Thus, with mind concentrated, purified, cleansed, I diverted my mind to the passing away and rebirth of beings.  With defined, purified, superhuman envisioned I saw beings passing away and being reborn, low and high, of good and bid color, and happy were miserable existence is, according to their karma (in other words, according to that universal law by which every act of good or evil will be rewarded were punished either in this life or in some later incarnation).

The Buddha continued meditating until he reached complete enlightenment: "I realized that rebirth had been destroyed, the holy life has been lived, the job has been done, there is nothing after this."  Along with his vision came an internal perception of how to obtain liberation from samsara, where the cycle of rebirths.  The young prince had lost his ignorance about the nature of this world and came to understand everything.  He had become the "awakened one," the "enlightened one"-the Buddha.

According to Buddhist Scriptures, he remained under that tree in the state of bliss for seven weeks, after which he then faced his first dilemma: should he share what he had learned with others or keep his knowledge to himself?  This may seem like an odd predicament to the Western mind, but in the eastern world, especially in Buddhist day, it was, for monks who had obtained wisdom to retreat from society with their knowledge.  Blue to chose to remain in the public arena and apart what he had learned to the rest of humanity.

Two months later and nearly 100 miles from where he had achieved enlightenment, the Buddha gave his first sermon.  Near the holy city of Benares (modern Veranasi) at Isipantana in the Deer Park, and he presented an address called the "Wheel Of The Divine."  This sermon contained the Four Noble Truths which would serve as the foundational teachings of Buddhism.

Buddhism Basics

All of Buddhist teachings collectively called the dharma, deal with one basic goal; how to escape samsara.  The samsara is the cycle of rebirths that is more commonly known as reincarnation.  Freedom from samsara leads to Nirvana, which is commonly thought of as state of complete deliverance from pain and suffering, a state of bliss-the eastern equivalent of heaven.

The dharma's entire purpose was to teach Buddhist's how to grass along the path toward Nirvana.  This journey is a progressive one that can be achieved only by following the Four Noble Truths, also called the wisdom of realization.  These truths in our brand,

  • the universality of suffering
  • the origin of suffering
  • the overcoming of suffering
  • the way leading to the suppression of suffering.

The First Noble Truth 

Life is full of sorrow and pain, and to believe that life is possible without pain and suffering is to believe an illusion.  The first noble truth, or dukkha, is that every dimension and part of life is saturated with pain.  According to the Buddha, most people do not accept this truth, but rather try to alleviate this pain by deluding themselves that life is full of happiness.  However, our happiness is only an illusion because iti s continuously overwhelmed by pain and suffering.

The anguish associated with the First Noble Truth is further magnified when one considers the endless cycle of reincarnation associated with Buddhist philosophy.  Being born again and again into a life full of pain and suffering is truly an unbearable future.  The Buddha however, thought that the first step toward being released from this cycle of rebirths was to recognize that life is but one long experience of suffering and pain, and that all happiness is only an illusion.

The Second Noble Truth

The Second Noble Truth, tanha, teaches that all unhappiness in this world is due to “false desires of the senses that have been deceived into clinging to the impermanent world.”  This is the center of the Buddhist doctrine; that “the cause of suffering is desire, craving due to ignorance.”

Tanha is closely related to the Buddha’s idea that all things in life are meaningless and insignificant because they are temporary, and upon a reincarnation all of our reality will be different.  Ignorance of this truth (avidya) is a major obstacle that must be overcome if one is to gain freedom from continuous reincarnations.  The first and second noble truths interact as follows:

  • Everything in life is a temporal, fleeting, and passing thing.  Nothing lasts forever; possessions, institutions, nations, languages, ideas, and feelings come and go like the wind.
  • All things are subject to time and are in the process of passing away.  The Buddha interpreted this to mean that nothing has any real and lasting importance.
  • According to the Buddha, everything in life is ultimately unreal because it is fleeting.  But we ignorantly attribute reality to such things.   By doing so, we give them a degree of ongoing significance and permanence which they do not have and by doing so, attach ourselves to our possessions which in turn causes suffering.

In Buddhist thinking, we are like people watching a movie who become emotionally involved in the plot of that movie.  The movie is not real, and yet we invest emotion and time in understanding and interacting with that unreality.  Such a relationship to unreality is caused not only by our unfortunate attribution of reality to our experiences, but also by affording these relationships an importance they do not have.  The Buddha taught that the “self” is nothing but a temporary creation that suffers until nirvana is finally reached. 

Furthermore, the “self” is merely a false image comprised of energy, memories, thoughts, hopes, and fears and that believing that we are anything more than this false image is the underlying cause of all greed, anger, hatred, alienation, and aversion, as well as the destructive social tendencies that arise from these behaviors.

The Third Noble Truth

Nirodha is the Third Noble Truth, which teaches that the way out of suffering lies in the ability to disengage oneself completely from the false desires of the temporary and unimportant self.  We must learn to give up all the mental, emotional, and physical cravings because these cravings are merely the expression of a person’s delusion that the “self” is a permanent entity.  Abandonment of our earthly desires helps us recognize that the “self” is but a brief arrangement of impersonal elements and helps us to not invest time and energy into vain attempts to satisfy and cultivate the self.  Continued rejection of all desires nullifies their effects upon our life and allows us to rid ourselves of the delusion that our self has any real long-term importance.  This understanding, along with good deeds in life, leads to the complete end of suffering – nirvana.

The Buddha’s teachings can be illustrated in the story of a Buddhist monk named Sangamaji who also had left his wife and family in search for truth as a homeless wanderer.  His wife approached him while he was meditating beneath a tree, and placed his child before him.  She asked her husband to nourish her and their child.  Sangamaji remained silent until finally the woman took their child from before him and left.  The Buddha, after observing the incident, reportedly commented, “He feels no pleasure when she comes, no sorrow when she goes; a true Brahman released from passion.”

The Fourth Noble Truth

The Fourth Noble Truth represents the Buddhist’s life ethic that is based upon realization of the first three truths, which provides practical steps that will lead the aspirant along life’s journey toward nirvana.  The Buddha taught that this sacred path has eight branches that comprise different aspects of the proper lifestyle and should be adopted by anybody attempting to be delivered from suffering.  This is called the Noble Eightfold Path (marga):

  1. Right Views (understanding); belief that the four noble truths are correct and accurage.
  2. Right Aspirations; A “total commitment of body, mind, and will to the training and discipline required to extricate oneself from the human predicament.”  One must resolve to maintain thoughts “free from lust, ill will, cruelty, or untruthfulness.” And “renounce the selfish and sensual pleasures.”
  3. Right Speech (communication); One’s words “must be not only charitable but also free from egocentricity.”  Therefore, you must refrain from “gossiping, lying, tattling … harsh language, vain talk, or reveling” and speak “kindly, open, and truthful.”
  4. Right Conduct (action); A “beneficient behavior extended universally to all-living things coupled with an abstinence from alcohol and drugs, for a person must have complete control over his mind to accomplish the difficult task of redemption.”  One should abstain “from killing, stealing, and sexual misconduct” and practice actions that are “peaceful, honest, and pure.”
  5. Right Livelihood (vocation); A “proper means of support … in which  a person does not inflict pain on other people or creatures.”  A butcher, soldier, fisherman, or exterminator would not fit this path.
  6. Right Effort (endeavor): A willingness to reach “deep inside oneself to draw upon all the energy a person possesses.”  Showing such effort involves “self-training and self-control, self-discipline.”  The disciple “puts forth will, he makes effort, he stirs up energy, he grips and forces his mind.”
  7. Right mindfulness (mind control); Involves paying “close attention to one’s mood, emotions, and feelings,” because “all we are is the result of what we have thought.”  Right mindfulness also means examining “every state of feeling in body or mind.”
  8. Right concentration (deep meditation); A special practice of meditation in which “thought itself … [is] annihilated and the mind rests.”  This trance-like state of consciousness is induced through practicing intense concentration on a single object.  It progresses through four stages, the end result being “rapture of utter purity of mindfulness … wherein neither ease if felt or any ill.”

The ultimate purpose of this path is to be able to eliminate all selfish and false desires, the key to obtaining nirvana.  Those who reach complete “purity of thought and life” become an arahat, or somebody who is “freed form the necessity of rebirth, ready for the peace of nirvana.”  Nirvana can only be achieved by those who rid themselves of all desire;

This is to know nirvana, to have achieved detachment and thereby liberations.  Herein is “Nothingness” experienced, awareness that true Reality is empty of grasping, separative selfhood.  The religious life has been lived, the way out of the human dilemma [reincarnation] has been found and followed, form this point onward human life on earth is presumed to be lived in a new dimension of Reality.”

Those who reach nirvana are freed forever from all the anxieties, fears, and desires that plague others, for they have denounced and separated themselves from all worldly desires and emotions.  They therefore will not be affected (at least to the same degree) by the evil and sorrow that infects the world for they have separated themselves from the world.  They are also freed “from the eternal round of decay, suffering, and death.”  They will never again be reborn.  It is a state of mind marked in this life by a “sense of liberation, inward peace and strength, insight into truth, the joy of complete oneness with reality, and love toward all creatures in the universe.” 

After death, there is total annihilation.  This is the goal toward which Buddhists move; not toward an afterlife with the Creator, but rather toward an annihilation which ends the ageless cycle of being constantly reborn into pain and suffering.  This concept of nirvana is slightly different from the one embraced by the Hindu.  For the Hindu, nirvana is reached when an individual soul is united with the Universal Soul.  This might be considered the comparable to a raindrop (an individual soul) being united with an ocean (Universal Soul).  The Buddha, on the other hand, believed that nirvana is reached when, like a candle flame being blown out, a soul’s elements, along with all individual identity, are extinguished.

Karma is another idea that is shared between Hindus and Buddhists – but in a slightly different fashion.  According to the Hindu concept of karma, one’s actions in this life determine the kind of life into which the self or “soul” is reborn.  Thus, there is a kind of celestial justice at work, whereby evildoers are reborn as some lowly creature while a great person in this life might be reborn into even better circumstances.  According to the Buddhist concept of karma, however, one’s “self” is not reborn in the next life; rather, what is reborn is nothing but rearranged karmic matter that was once a particular individual.  The person, or the original self, that once lived no longer exists.  Eventually, through successive rearrangements of karma, even those elements that comprised the various persons will be extinguished forever – this is the Buddhist idea of nirvana.

Unfortunately for most Buddhists, becoming a Buddhist monk is the only way to reach nirvana from this present life.  A person must “abandon ordinary social living and join the monastic community, which Buddha established for those sincere int heir quest for liberation.”  A person can only reach nirvana by leaving behind family, friends, and occupation, and joining a sangha (an alms-dependent order of Buddhist monks).  One might note therefore, that a Buddhist who is trying to achieve nirvana and separation from the wheel of incessant reincarnation is supported entirely by the voluntary donations of less righteous individuals. This does not mean that the average individual cannot follow the Buddha’s teaching – but they will not be able to achieve nirvana in this lifetime.  Nor will they benefit form “the higher fruits of the dharma (such as inner tranquility).  Rather, the best an ordinary Buddhist can hope for is to be reborn as an individual who will become a monk and achieve nirvana in their lifetime.  Furthermore, a woman will never reach nirvana from this life; she must be reborn as a man who becomes a monk.

Buddhist Branches

There are many different branches of Buddhism, each one interprets the Buddha’s teachings a little differently and holds a number of distinctive views.  Various Buddhist sects sometimes rely on their own holy writings which are not recognized as authoritative by other Buddhists.  The three major sects within Buddhism are: Theravada (“more monastic and conservative”), Mahayana (“more liberal and lay-oriented”), and Vajrayana, or Tibetan (“the most esoteric”).

Theravada versus Mahayana

The members of Buddha’s original sangha (or monastery) sought to organize their master’s teachings into a system of doctrines upon which they might agree.  They successfully did this and then began to share their beliefs with others.  Differences in understanding as to what the Buddha said or meant inevitably arose because in accordance with the Indian tradition or oral preservation none of his words were written down in his lifetime.  Such writings were not written down and compiled until about four hundred years after the Buddha’s lifetime.  A severe fragmentation of Buddhism ensued due to differences in interpretation and understanding over the dharma or doctrine of Buddhism, and the first major rift occurred from about 200 B.C. or about 200 A.D., which led to the formation of two traditions still in existence today – Theravada and Mahayana.

The Theravada school teaches strict interpretation of the Buddha’s teachings and is often termed the “fundamentalist branch” of Buddhism.  Mahayana Buddhism includes individuals and schools who subscribe to teachings that are “modifications and amplifications of themes already present in the Teravadin heritage.”  When this division took place, the newer more liberal form of Buddhism called their belief system Mahayana, which means the “greater vehicle” of salvation, or the “expansive way.”  They then disdainfully labeled the original form of Buddhism the Hinayana or the “lesser vehicle’ of salvation or the “exclusive way.” 

Theravada - Lesser Way

Mahayana - Greater Way

Buddha – Although he was a superior man of great intelligence and exceptional talent, he was nonetheless only a human being and is not to be worshipped.

Buddha – He was a sacred manifestation of the Absolute, or Brahman.  His body and physical actions were merely an illusion and he is to be worshipped as a god.

Deliverance – Escaping the cycle of rebirth is dependent upon entrance into a monastery.  Only there, through great effort and over most of one’s lifetime can disengagement from the world and its false desires be obtained.  Eventually, perhaps through several lifetimes, nirvana will be obtained.

Deliverance – Escaping the cycle of rebirth can only be obtained through great self-effort, but such effort is not mandatory, nor is joining a monastery.  According to some sects, one may pray to the Buddha for deliverance, and his compassion and grace can save everyone, even evil doers.

Ideal – One’s life goal is simply to reach nirvana and exit this life.  Become enlightened without regard for others is the accepted vehicle.

Ideal – The most important goal is to help others reach nirvana.  One who is enlightened (a Buddha) will postpone his own “salvation” in order to assist others in theirs.

Countries - Sri Lanka, Thailand, Laos, Kampuchea. Countries - Nepal, China, Tibet, Japan, Vietnam, Korea.

Buddhists in both traditions look to the Buddha as their primary sourse of inspiration and truth.  But Mahayanists, unlike Theravadins, recognize numerous other Buddhas and bodhisttvas (those who help others toward enlightenment and nirvana).  These personalities are said to be manifestations of the Absolute and along with the Buddha, are regularly prayed to for assistance – and some are even worshipped as gods.

The Theravada and Mahayana scriptures are different also.  The Theravada tradition looks to the Pali Canon (written about 80 B.C.) which was written in the Pali language.  The Pali Canon is divided into a number of suttas – is called the Tripitaka or “three baskets.”  It is about eleven times as large as the Bible and arranged in three main divisions: 1). The Sutta Pitaka (disrouces of Siddhartha); 2) the Vinaya Pitaka (precepts and rules for the Sangha); and 3) the Abidhamma Pitaka (esoteric and philosophical interpretations of the dharma.

The Mahayana tradition accepts as authoritative an extensive list of textx called sutras which were composed primarily between 600 and 100B.C.  The Chinese canon alone encompasses about 5,000 volumes.  Unlike the Theravadin suttas which are about 20 pages each, the Mahayana sutras are very long.  They cannot be found in original form in only one language, but instead are written in Chinese, Tibetan, and Sanskrit.  Also, there is no clear limit to the Mahayana canon, recent writings are constantly being added to the Mahayana scriptures.  This has forced most sects to choose favorite texts for their common use:

The fact is that some such selection is necessary, for this extreme bulk of and breadth of the scriptures make it impossible for believers to be acquainted with, let along understand and practice, the often contradictory teachings found in them.

Followers of Mahayana also take a different view of Scriptures than do followers of Theravada.  The latter ascribe value to the Pali Canon because of its literal message.  Mahayana Buddhists, however, attribute value to their holy writings not only because of the message contained therein, but also because they believe that the texts themselves possess magical powers which may be drawn upon for protection and material success.

Another difference exists between Mahayana and Theravada traditions when it comes to nirvana.  To Theravadins, escape from samsara – or the continued cycle of rebirth – is nirvana.  It is a state marked by complete deliverance from all suffering and sorrow.  However, in the Mahayana tradition, the whole purpose of becoming a bodhisattva is not to escape life, but to remain in life in order to help others reach enlightenment.  Thus, the Mahayana may forsake escape from samsara in order to help others, and believe nirvana means a “true state of spiritual perfection” rather than escape from rebirth.

Thus the perfect Bodhisattva becomes aware that just by being a Bodhisattva he is already in nirvana … For him nirvana and Samsara are not two different realms … Paradoxically put … to renounce nirvana for ourself, in love for others, is to find oneself in nirvana, in its real meaning.

Despite their many differences, Theravada and Mahayana Buddhists share many beliefs in common: 1) reincarnation, 2) karma; 3) the world is constantly changing and is impermanent, 4) the world’s changing nature brings suffering 5) liberation from suffering is possible; 6: deliverance from rebirth and suffering takes place through a change in consciousness; 7) a liberating change in consciousness can be obtained only through following the teaching of the Buddha and/or reliance upon the Buddha’s love and mercy.

Tibetan Buddhism – the Vajrayana

Tibetan Buddhism, Tantric Buddhism, and Lamaism is called the “diamond way” which means by implication the precious, changeless, pure and clean way.  It developed during the fifth and sixth centuries A.D. as Buddhism spread through northern India, Nepal and finally Tibet.

At that time, the predominant form of religion in Tibet was the Bon religion which was a “mixture of shamanism [a form of witchcraft], magic, and primitive nature worship.”  Vajrayaan was born when these practices along with magical formulae designed to obtained magical powers, were incorporated into Buddhism.  Included in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition are a number of advanced meditative techniques: yoga, special hand gestures (mudras), spells, and chants.  The Tantras are a serious of sixth century scriptures associated with the worship of Shakti, Mother of the Universe.  They are made available only to initiates of various Tantric religions (Tibetan Buddhism is only one of the many Tantric belief systems).  The word “tantra” basically means “loom” and refers more specifically to the threads of a loom.  This expresses the foundational teaching of Tantraism – that all things are interwoven into one ultimate reality.  Tantraism is also based on a variety of sex rituals that involve “breathing exercises, meditation, and the prolonged sexual contact known as maithuna.”

The sexual philosophy within Tantric Buddhism is linked to a number of ideals.  There is the belief that erotic love is a profound experience that “opens the mind to a sense of awe and wonder akin to religious experience.”  Also present is the idea that during sexual intercourse there is a transcending of boundaries between participants leading to an experience of oneness with each other.  There exists the notion that the bets way to escape blinding passion – in this case sexual lust – is to “go into the act that is desired rather than to retreat from it.”  According to Walt Anderson, author of Open Secrets: A Western Guide to Tibetan Buddhism, the Tantric Buddhist ideal is to yield: “Go ahead and do it, whatever it is, if you think you must and it doesn’t harm somebody else.  But pay attention; be fully aware of what goes on in your mind and body, of how it really feels.”

Buddhism and Christianity

Buddhism agrees with Christianity in several areas.  First, most Buddhists are taught to live according to several precepts that are in harmony with Christian Scriptures such as refraining from stealing, not committing adultery, and not lying.  Buddhists believe in absolute morality, and do not believe sin can be justified according to the circumstances.  Second, Buddhists believe that life is temporal and that nothing that exists in this life has any eternality.  All things are limited, finite, and unable to sustain their own existence.  Indeed, to the Buddhist, so fleeting is our life here that to attach any importance to it is to manifest one’s ignorance of reality.  This sentiment is reflected in the words of Solomon,

“Vanity of vanities … all is vanity … I have seen all the works that are done under the sun; and, behold, all is venity and vexation of spirit … I gave my heart to know wisdom, and to know madness and folly: I perceived that his also is vexation of spirit … then I looked at all the works that my hands had wrought … and behold all was vanity and vexation of spirit, and there was no profit under the sun.”  (Ecclesiastes 1:2, 14, 17: 2:11).

Third, Buddhists teach that all people are subject to suffering – indeed, the issue of mankind’s suffering originally led the Buddha to his conclusions regarding life.  The Bible again supports this belief.  Pain, affliction, and human misery are spoken of often in the Scripture (genesis 3:16-19; Job 2:13; Hebrews 11:36-39).  Scripture teaches that while suffering is never a pleasant experience, it can be used to our benefit. Honorable character traits such as patience, humility, compassion, strength, faith, and repentance are all encouraged under the stress of suffering and adversity (Psalm 119:67, 71; Lamentations 3:19-20; 2 Corinthians 1:4, 12:7; 1 Peter 1:7; 5:10). 

However, there are probably more differences between Buddhism and Christianity than similarities.  Buddhists find no redeeming value whatsoever in suffering; rather, suffering is only something to escape.  One does not grow through the experience of suffering; rather, it is something to avoid if possible – but unfortunately, it is not possible.  Additionally, Buddhism does not intermittently intrude into human life; life is suffering:,

“Old age is suffering, illness is suffering, death is suffering, being in contact with that which one dislikes is suffering, being separated from that which one likes is suffering, failure to realize one’s desire is suffering.”

Christians, on the other hand, view a redemptive purpose in suffering whether it be through injury, illness, disappointment, or whatever cause.  To the Christian, suffering is allowed by God (not caused by God) and used by Him to shape and refine us for His eternal purposes.  The lessons that we learn through out suffering accumulate for us an eternal weight of glory (2 Cor. 4:17).  We are told to understand that there is good that can come out of trials and tribulations (James 1:2) even though this good is frequently unable to be understood at the time of our suffering..

The most decisive difference between Buddhism and Christianity involves the mode of deliverance from suffering and sin of this impermanent world.  According to the Buddha, everybody must escape reincarnation through accumulation of good karma via good works, plus mental disengagement from the false desires of the world.  Self-effort is the key to obtaining this good karma and eventually nirvana – a state most often described as bliss marked by the annihilation of the karmic elements that once comprised a temporary personality.  To the Buddhist, there is not even a “self” to enjoy the deliverance that will supposedly be gained through these efforts.

The concept of reincarnation is clearly rebuffed by the Bible that indicates that we only have one lifetime, after which comes the judgment of our souls (Hebrew 9:27).  Scripture further points out that those who have come to faith in Christ- and only those – will be in God’s presence immediately after death and not reincarnated (Philippians 1:21-25; 2 Cor. 5:8).  Alternatively, those who have not known Christ will go to a place of punishment (Job 21;30-34; Matthew 26:41; 2 Peter 2:9).  Ultimately however, both believer and unbeliever will be resurrected bodily from the grave while each person’s soul is reunited with their body in a glorified state (1 Cor. 15:51-52, 1 Thess. 4:14-18).  Those who are followers of Christ will be judged worthy to dwell with God throughout all eternity based upon Christ’s suffering and sacrifice on the cross as atonement for their sins (Hebrews 2:9).  Through faith in Christ, we receive the gift of God – eternal life in His presence (John 3:16, Romans 6:23, Rev. 22:5).  Alternatively, unbelievers who have rejected God and the sacrifice of Christ either directly (through rejection of the gospel), or indirectly (through rejection of the light of truth given to them through revelation of God in nature), will be told to depart from the presence of God (Matthew 7:12, Rev. 20:10-14).  The concept of a positive or negative judgment is foreign to the Buddhist because they do not believe in a personal God.  The Buddha rejected subservience to a God and, although he did not deny the presence of many equal gods, he felt that the worship of any such beings simply put another obstruction on the path to nirvana.

To the Buddha, gods were inhabitants of the cosmos who were impermanent just like all other living things.  The gods too must eventually escape the cycle of rebirths.  According to the Bible, however, there is only one personal, infinite, all-powerful God who is infinite and eternal, unchanging and transcendent (Psalm  90:2; Isaiah 43:10; Malachi 3::7; Mark 12:29; James 1:17).  Furthermore, Scriptures indicate that God is a being to whom we are accountable, unlike the impermanent gods of Buddhism.

Sharing the Gospel with Buddhists

Asian Buddhists often link their cultural, ethnic, and family loyalties to their religious beliefs making acceptance of Christianity particularly difficult.  Abandoning Buddhism is particularly difficult for those who come to America because of the intolerable living conditions in their homelands.  Buddhist teachings provide the worldview framework through which they can understand and make sense of the calamities which have befallen themselves and their families and loved ones.  Buddhist philosophy dictates how they think about their personal identity in relationship to the rest of the world and may be the only remaining tangible remainder of their native environment.

Furthermore, many Buddhist immigrants to America have difficulty with the language and culture of their new land, and have difficulty understanding the gospel message when communicated to them by a native Ame5rican who only speaks English.  Many Asian Buddhists have little experience with western culture, Christian concepts (such as sin, atonement, repentance, resurrection, sanctification, etc.), Christian practices, Christian ethics, and the Bible.  Western Christians often believe they are communicating one message when in fact another message is being understood.  Tissa Weerasingha, a Christian scholar in Sri Lanka, illustrates. 

If a Buddhist were to be asked, “Do you want to be born again?,” he might likely reply, “Please no! I do NOT want to be born again.  I want to reach nirvana.”  The Buddhist quest is for deliverance from the cycle of rebirths.  If a Buddhist confuses “new birth” with “rebirth,” the Christian message will be completely lost.

Generally, American Christians can more effectively communicate the gospel by defining terms carefully, avoiding “Christian” vocabulary, and focusing on personal righteous living, complete forgiveness, and God’s compassion.   Reaching out to American Buddhists can present and even more difficult challenge because Westerners tend to be “far more interested in what they can experience mystically then what they can understand theologically." Furthermore, American Buddhists tend not to follow all of Buddhism but rather tend to pick and choose pieces of the religion that seemed to be particularly appealing to them.  Indeed, many of them seem to have little idea as to the real meaning behind the words they may chant.   Nevertheless, simply the idea of being a Buddhist is exhilarating, especially for those who have become disillusioned with cultural Christianity. There is a kind of rebellion resident in the words "I am a Buddhist.”

In order to evangelize Asian Buddhists and their American counterparts effectively, a Christian must be able to answer some basic Buddhist questions effectively. Some of these questions include: What is the difference between Buddha and Christ?  How is Jesus different from a bodhisattva?  Why is Christianity superior to Buddhism?  It has been correctly pointed out that if a Christian "can only point to the strengths of Christianity while dismissing Buddhism as mere superstition, the Buddhist will reject you as to subjective and refused to talk to you."

First, a Christian must discover how deeply involved in Buddhism the prospective convert is. Some Buddhists have little understanding of their religion, while others may be quite familiar with the basic doctrines of their faith.  Second, a good interpersonal relationship with the Buddhist must be established, as is the case with any prospective convert to Christianity.  The next step involves evangelism and they be accomplished not only by pointing out the philosophical errors and shortcomings of Buddhism but also in explaining the superiority of Christianity.  One method is to explain the Buddhists concept of his or her ultimate destination – nirvana.

The final stage of existence presents innumerable problems for Buddhists who cannot even agree upon what the nature of that state is.  Many believe it to be extinction; others suggest it is indescribable in nature; some hold that it actually occurs in this life as one is liberated from all cares while others say it occurs in this life and is akin to the idea of Utopia or even to the Christian concept of heaven. 

Subscribing to a religious system that gives no tangible idea of one's future destiny is like going into an airport and simply asking for a ticket.  When asked for destination, the same person responds by saying, "I don't know just give me a ticket.  When I get there all know where it is."  Eventually the person will get somewhere, but where?  No one in his or her own right mind would do such thing when it comes to get into a destination in this life; how much more important should it to be to understand our destination in the next?  A description of the Christian concept of eternal life can be shared with less preconceived rejection on the part of the Buddhist listener.

Another way to evangelize Buddhists is to sharing with them the Messianic prophecies fulfilled in the life of Jesus Christ; his life, death, and resurrection.  The Bible is not merely a collection of wise sayings by an ancient teacher, or even spiritually transforming concepts.  The Bible contains history that is fully capable of being verified historically.  But even more importantly, the Old Testament contains hundreds of prophecies concerning the identity of the Messiah; the sheer number of these prophecies would make it virtually impossible for them to have occurred accidentally in someone's life.  Some of these prophecies include Jesus’ virgin birth (Isa. 7:14), birth in Bethlehem (Mica 5:2), sacrificial death (Isa. 53: 5), crucifixion (Psalm22:14-18), and bodily resurrection (Psalm 16:10)

One might also point out to Buddhists that their faith is built on a man about whom we know very little historically.  In fact, there is a great deal of evidence that suggests many of the writings about him are legends that sprang up over the course of many centuries. It is significant that four hundred years passed before anything was written about him. Christianity, however, is built upon the claims and actions of prehistorically verifiable person whose followers began to write accounts of his life within the lifetimes of his contemporaries and eyewitnesses.  This means that the New Testament, which is authoritative to Christians, is much more reliable then the Scriptures concerning Buddha.

A series of probing questions may also be helpful to reveal the more philosophical problems inherent to Buddhism. Nirvana again serves as a good starting point.  Reaching nirvana is the ultimate goal for the Buddhist, and can only be reached by removing desires for oneself. This poses an obvious problem: How can nirvana ever be reached when wanting to obtain nirvana is itself a desire that must be abandoned?  It seems that wanting nirvana will always prevent someone from ever reaching its.

An essential complement of successful evangelism of Asian Buddhists it is recognizing the continuing legitimacy of cultural, historical, ethnic, and familial factors that are not contrary to Christian faith.  For example, respect for one’s ancestors, honor of elders, loyalty to family, etc., are personal and social values that are important to the Christian as well.  The Asian Buddhist can be assured that abandoning Buddhism does not necessitate abandoning one's Asian heritage.  Additionally, bringing Asian Buddhists in contact with Asian Christians can insure them that even if they are rejected by some Asians for leaving Buddhism for Christianity, Asian Christians will remain faithful.

The most effective precursor to evangelism of Buddhists is prayer. The Bible tells us that we do not struggle against flesh and blood, but against spiritual forces of darkness that blind men's minds. This holds especially true when speaking to Tibetan Buddhist, who, through their involvement with occult practices, might be  vulnerable to demonic influences as well.  In the eighth century, a Tibetan Buddhist master allegedly prophesied, "when the horses go on wheels, when the iron bird flies, my people shall scatter all over the world in my teachings show, to the land of the red face."

Buddhist teachings have spread throughout America and continue to do so in this technologically advanced age. But a seemingly fulfilled prophecy by an ancient Buddhist does not mean we should embrace Buddhism.  Scriptures says that if someone makes a prophecy that comes to pass, their doctrines must still be rejected if their teachings lead people away from the true God (Deuteronomy 13:1-5).  The doctrines of Buddhism, like those found in all other world religions, promotes beliefs that guide people into a Christ-less eternity. Christians must share the grace and peace of Jesus Christ lovingly and generally: "uniqueness instructing those that oppose themselves; if God peradventure shall give them repentance to the acknowledging of truth; and that they may recover themselves out of the snare of the devil, who are taken captive by hand at his will."  (2 Timothy 2:25-26).