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Buddhism began in India about five hundred years before the birth of Christ. The people living at that time had become disillusioned with certain beliefs of Hinduism including the caste system, which had grown extremely complex. The number of outcasts (those who did not belong to any particular caste) was continuing to grow.
Moreover, the Hindu belief of an endless cycle of births, deaths and rebirths was viewed with dread. Consequently, the people turned to a variety of beliefs, including the worship of animals, to satisfy this spiritual vacuum. Many different sects of Hinduism arose, the most successful being that of Buddhism, which denies the authority of the vedas.
Buddhism, unlike Hinduism, can point to a specific founder. However, in Buddhism, like so many other religions, fanciful stories arose concerning events in the life of the founder, Siddhartha Gautama (fifth century B.C.).
The Buddha, or "enlightened one," was born about 560 B.C. in northeastern India. His family name was Gautama, his given name was Siddhartha. Siddhartha was the son of a rajah, or ruler. His mother died when he was just a week old and Siddhartha was cared for by his mother's sister, who was also the rajah's second wife. There was supposedly a prophecy
given at the time of his birth by a sage at his father's court.
The prophecy said that the child would be a great king if he stayed at home, but if he decided to leave home, he would become a savior for mankind. This bothered his father, for he wanted his son to succeed him as king. Therefore, to keep him at home, his father surrounded him with wealth and pleasures and kept all painful and ugly things out of his sight.
Siddhartha eventually married and had a son but was still confined to the palace and its pleasures. One day he informed his father that he wished to see the world. This excursion would forever change his life, for it was during this journey that he saw "the four passing sights."
Although his father ordered the streets to be cleansed and decorated and all elderly or infirmed people to stay inside, there were those who did not get the message. The first troubling sight Siddhartha saw was that of a decrepit old man. When Siddhartha asked what happened to this man, he was told that the man was old, as everyone someday would become.
Later, he met a sick man and was told that all people were liable to be sick and suffer pain like that individual.
He then saw a funeral procession with a corpse on its way to cremation, the followers weeping bitterly. When he asked what that meant, the prince was informed that it was the way of life, for sooner or later both prince and pauper would have to die.
The last sight was that of a monk begging for his food. The tranquil look on the beggar's face convinced Siddhartha that this type of life was for him. Immediately he left his family and the palace in search of enlightenment. The night he left his home to seek enlightenment became known as the Great Renunciation.
The former prince, now a beggar, spent his time wandering from place to place seeking wisdom. Unsatisfied by the truths taught in the Hindu scriptures, he became discouraged but continued on his quest. He tried asceticism but this gave him no peace. The fateful day in his life came while he was meditating beneath a fig tree.
Deep in meditation, he reached the highest degree of God-consciousness, known as nirvana. He supposedly stayed under the fig tree for seven days. After that, the fig tree was called the bodhi, or the bo tree, the tree of wisdom. The truths he learned he would now impart to the world, no longer as Siddhartha Gautama, but as the Buddha, the enlightened one.
When the Buddha emerged from his experience under the bo tree, he met with five monks who had been his companions. It was to these monks that the Buddha began his teaching ministry with the sermon at Benares. The sermon contained the following:
These two extremes, monks, are not to be practiced by one who has gone forth from the world. What are the two? That conjoined with the passions and luxury, which is low, vulgar, common, ignoble, and useless; and that conjoined with self-torture, which is painful, ignoble, and useless. Avoiding these two extremes the Blessed One has gained the enlightenment of the Middle Path, which produces insight and knowledge, and leads to calm, to higher knowledge, enlightenment, nirvana.
And what, monks, is the Middle Path . . . ? It is the noble Eightfold Path: namely, right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration.
After the sermon at Benares, the Buddha started to spread his teachings to the people of India. The Indian people, disillusioned with Hinduism, listened intently to this new doctrine. By the time of Buddha's death, at age 80, his teachings had become a strong force in India.
Some time after his death, the Buddha was deified by some of his followers, even though veneration of the Buddha is against the basic teachings of Buddha himself.
Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism
Early Buddhism was confined largely to India and is usually referred to as Theravada Buddhism. Later Buddhism, which became very popular outside India (notably in China and Japan), became known as Mahayana Buddhism:
A key concept in Buddhism is nirvana, the final goal for the Buddhists Donald K. Swearer gives insight into this important concept.
Nirvana has been a troublesome idea for the students of Buddhism. Just what is it? The term itself does not offer much help. Like not-self (anatta), nirvana is a negative term. Literally, it means the "blowing out" of the flame of desire, the negation of suffering (dukkha). This implies that nirvana is not to be thought of as a place but as a total reorientation or state of being realized as a consequence of the extinction of blinding and binding attachment.
There are five precepts taught by Buddhism that all Buddhists should follow:
1. Kill no living thing (including insects).
2. Do not steal.
3. Do not commit adultery.
4. Tell no lies.
5. Do not drink intoxicants or take drugs.
There are other precepts that apply only to monks and nuns. These include:
6. Eat moderately and only at the appointed time.
7. Avoid that which excites the senses.
8. Do not wear adornments (including perfume).
9. Do not sleep in luxurious beds.
10. Accept no silver or gold.
In Theravada Buddhism there are three groups of writings considered to be holy scriptures, known as "The Three Baskets" (Tripitaka). The Vinaya Pitaka (discipline basket) contains rules for the higher class of Buddhists; the Sutta Pitaka (teaching basket) contains the discourses of the Buddha; and the Abidhamma Pitaka (metaphysical basket) contains Buddhist theology. The total volume of these three groups of writings is about 11 times larger than the Bible.
In Mahayana Buddhism the scriptures are much more voluminous, as Clark B. Offner reveals:
"A Mahayanist is one who reads Mahayana scriptures" is the definition given by one ancient Buddhist scholar. In contrast to the comparatively limited scope of the Pali canon used by Theravada Buddhists, Mahayana scriptures have multiplied to the point where standard editions of the Chinese canon encompass over 5,000 volumes. While the oldest scriptures are based on Sanskrit and contain much that is parallel to the Pali canon, other scriptures which have no Sanskrit prototypes have been written in Nepalese, Tibetan and Chinese.
Since there are no clear limits to the Mahayana "canon," comparatively recent works by later innovators are often given de facto canonical status in the sects which adhere to their teachings. As there are such a number and such a variety of scriptures, most Mahayana sects have chosen certain favorite ones to which they refer exclusively. The fact is that some such selection is necessary, for this extreme bulk and breadth of the scriptures makes it impossible for believers to be acquainted with, let alone understand and practice, the often contradictory teachings found in them.
Nichiren Shoshu Buddhism
One form of Buddhism that has seen a revival of sorts in the past fifty years is a Japanese mystical sect known as Nichiren Shoshu. Its recent growth has been astounding, as chronicled by Walter Martin:
In 1960 Daisaku Ikeda was inaugurated president over 1.3 million members. Ikeda expanded NSB's evangelism in foreign countries, opening a branch in the United States in 1960. The quickly growing branch or the sect held its first convention in 1963 in Chicago, with representatives from ten chapters. By 1973, membership was more than 250,000. From 1960 to 1973, NSB in the United States increased three-hundred fold! Japanese growth was even faster. The number of practicing Japanese families grew from three thousand in 1951 to more than seven million in 1971.
The origins of Nichiren Shoshu go back to a Japanese reformer named Nichiren Daishonon, who lived in the 13th century A.D. He was convinced that the true faith was taught by Dengyo Daishi (named Saicho before his death) who had introduced Tendai Buddhism to Japan in the eighth century.
Nichiren went about preaching his newly discovered truth, condemning all others as false religions. This did not go over well with the authorities, making Nichiren the object of persecution. Nichiren was both arrested and exiled for his preaching, many times narrowly escaping with his life. At the time of his death in 1282 he had attracted many followers.
Central to Nichiren Shoshu belief is the "gohonzon." The gohonzon is a black wooden box containing the names of important people in the Lotus Sutra and is used as a private altar. The gohonzon supposedly contains universal forces that control the devotee's life. There is, they believe, a direct connection between events in a person's life and the treatment of the gohonzon.
The worship ritual practiced by Nichiren Shoshu members is called it gongyo." The practice consists of kneeling before the gohonzon, the recitation of passages from the Lotus Sutra, then the rubbing of rosary-type beads while chanting the daimoku - "nam-myoho-rengekyo. "
The chief object of worship in Nichiren Shoshu Buddhism is a shrine known as the Dai-gohonzon located at the base of Mount Fuji in Japan. Individual gohonzons are mystical representations of the Dai-gohonzon.
Nichiren Shoshu's recent accelerated growth (1970 figures by the Japanese Office of Cultural Affairs put membership at over 16 million) can be attributed directly to its missionary emphasis.
Zen is a branch of Mahayana Buddhism that has become widely known in the West.
The Chinese added to the many schools of Buddhism a new school, whose name reveals its history. Dhyana is the Indian word for meditation; it was changed in China to Chan and in Japan to Zen, which is now the best-known title of this sect.
Zen actually developed about a thousand years after the death of the Buddha. However, it contains Buddha's emphasis on meditation which led to his enlightenment. One statement attributed to the Buddha has become a frequent reference by Zen teachers: "Look within, you are the Buddha." One famous story tells about a man who desired to be a Zen master. He asked to be taught Zen. The Zen master did not speak but began to pour a cup of tea for his visitor, using a cup that was already filled. The extra tea overflowed and ran across the table to drip to the rice-mat covered floor. Still the Zen master kept pouring until the pot was empty. He finally spoke: "You are like this cup," he said. "You are full. How can I pour Zen into you? Empty yourself and come back."
Central to Zen practice is zazen. Zazen is the method of sitting in Zen meditation, which is done daily at specific times with occasional periods of intense meditation lasting one week. The goal is final enlightenment.
In Zen the sudden illumination or enlightenment is known as satori. Satori is an experience beyond analyzation and communication, bringing the practitioner into a state of maturity. The experience of satori comes abruptly and momentarily, but it can be repeated. It cannot be willed into existence.
Part of Zen's attraction is that one is not required to be responsible in evaluating anything in the world or even in his own thoughts. One loses his capacity to think logically and critically. While the Bible commands Christians to test all things (1 Thessalonians 5:21,22), Zen mocks critical analysis.
Buddhism and Christianity
There are radical differences between Buddhism and Christianity that make any attempt of reconciliation between these two faiths impossible. The Buddhistic worldview is basically monistic. That is, the existence of a personal creator and Lord is denied. The world operates by natural power and law, not divine command.
Buddhism denies the existence of a personal God.
Any concept of God was beyond man's grasp and since Buddhism was a practical approach to life, why not deal with practical things? India, where Buddhism was born, had so many Hindu gods that no one could number them. They were often made in the image of men, but Buddhism was made in the image of concepts about life and how life should be lived. If the truth were known, you often tell yourself, Buddhism has no God in the Hindu or Christian sense, nor does it have a savior or messiah. It has the Buddha. And he was the Enlightened One, the Shower-of-the-Way.
There are those who deify the Buddha but along with him they worship other gods. The Scriptures make it clear that not only does a personal God exist, but He is to be the only object of worship.
"You are My witness," declares the Lord, "And My servant whom I have chosen, in order that you may know and believe Me, and understand that I am He. Before Me there was no God formed, and there will be none after Me" (Isaiah 43:10, NASB).
Thus says the Lord, the King of Israel and His Redeemer, the Lord of hosts: "I am the first and I am the last, and there is no God besides Me" (Isaiah 44:6, NASB).
I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before Me (Exodus 20:2,3, NASB).
Then Jesus said to him, "Begone, Satan! For it is written 'You shall worship the Lord your God, and serve him only' " (Matthew 4:10, NASB).
Jesus therefore said to them again, "Truly, truly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep. All who came before Me are thieves and robbers; but the sheep did not hear them. I am the door; if anyone enters through Me, he shall be saved and shall go in and out, and find pasture" (John 10:7-9, NASB).
There is no such thing in Buddhism as sin against a supreme being. In Christianity sin is ultimately against God although sinful actions also affect man and his world. The Bible makes it clear:
Against thee, thee only, I have sinned, and done what is evil in thy sight (Psalm 51:4, NASB).
Therefore, man needs a savior to deliver him from his sins.
According to Buddhist belief, man is worthless, having only temporary existence. In Christianity man is of infinite worth, made in the image of God, and will exist eternally. Man's body is a hindrance to the Buddhist while to the Christian it is an instrument for glorifying God.
Then God said, "Let us make man in our image, according to our likeness; and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth" (Genesis 1:26, NASB).
Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own? (1 Corinthians 6:19, NASB).
Another problem with Buddhism is the many forms it takes. Consequently, there is a wide variety of belief in the different sects with much that is contradictory. John B. Noss makes an appropriate comment:
The rather odd fact is that there ultimately developed within Buddhism so many forms of religious organization, cultus and belief, such great changes even in the fundamentals of the faith, that one must say Buddhism as a whole is really like Hinduism, a family of religions rather than a single religion. 17/146
With these and other differences, it can be seen readily that any harmonization of Christianity and Buddhism simply is not possible.
See Who is Jesus?