WORLD RELIGIONS 101
When Buddha Meets Jesus
May 11, 2003
Around 525 BC, a little boy was born near India. This boy’s name was Siddhartha Gautama. He was born to very powerful and affluent parents. At his birth some people predicted that this young boy would either become a prince or an ascetic monk. As he grew up, his parents sheltered him from what they perceived to be pain and suffering in the outside world, so young Siddhartha stayed within the walls of this palace. As a young man he married, and one day he broke out of the confines of the palace and saw what he described as four very distressing sights. Now imagine, this guy has been sheltered his entire life from any form of pain and suffering.
The first stressful sight he saw was a sick man. It puzzled him: Why was this man sick? The second stressful sight he saw was an old man. Why did this man look this way? Why did he walk this way? Why was his skin wrinkling? The third stressful sight he saw was a dying man. And the fourth stressful sight he saw was a monk, known in the Hindu religion as a sannyassin—a beggar monk.
He went back within the confines of his palace, his wife became pregnant, and on the day she brought forth their child, he left and became that fourth stressful sign—an ascetic monk. He left the palace, trying to understand the riddle—the problem of pain and suffering—and trying to make sense of the ultimate meaning of life.
After begging and roaming the streets with nothing for many years, he was one day meditating under a boda tree. After an extended time of meditation, he got up, took a shower, put on normal clothes, and said, “My name is no longer Siddhartha Gautama; my name is The Buddha.”
Tonight we begin a brand new series called, When Buddha Meets Jesus. In this series we are looking at some of the different religions that we encounter in our world. Tonight we will look at Buddhism. Next week we will look at Islam; I’ll be talking to a guy from Iran who used to be a Muslim but has converted to the Christian faith. I will interview him about the Islamic beliefs and his story. In the third message we will look at the oldest religion in the world, which is Hinduism. And then finally, we will look at Mormonism, which is kind of an Americana spin-off of the Christian faith.
Now, let me say right off the bat that what we are doing in this series is an introduction to the religions of the world. It will be impossible for me to exhaust the teachings and doctrines of any particular faith anymore than I could exhaust the doctrines of the Christian faith in a 35-minute message—that is impossible. However, I do believe that in our time together we can look at the essential core teachings and the core beliefs of these various religious faiths. One thing I think will be clear to you is that all religions are not the same.
I like what Ravi Zacharias said: “Anyone who claims that all religions are the same betrays not only an ignorance of all religions but also a caricatured view of even the best-known ones. Every religion is at its core exclusive.”
So many times people want to criticize you, if you are a Christian, by saying, “Well, you Christians think your way is the only way.” You can’t escape exclusivity when you are talking about religious or philosophic views. You simply can’t escape it. You will see throughout this series that the religions of the world—Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, Mormonism—though they may have some similar teachings, their basic core beliefs are radically different. The big take away I hope you’ll get from this series, as we look at a sampling of the various world religions, is that you will learn to discern the religious perspective of anyone you meet. That is my goal—that you will be able to encounter anyone, whether you talk to them on an airplane or on the street or if it is someone in your family, someone you work with, or if you fly to a remote country on the other side of the world, if you can understand some of the things we will talk about in the upcoming messages, you will be able to understand their perspective. Everyone is religious—religion being described as, having a worldview.
Now you may be wondering, “How in the world are we going to accomplish that?” This is how you are going to learn to discern the religious perspective or philosophic point of view of the various people you encounter; you are going to learn by what I call, getting a grip on the big four questions. You need to learn how to ask the big, write it out: F-O-U-R questions. You are going to be hearing these questions over and over and over again in this series.
Someone once said that repetition is the mother of all skill. I don’t know about you, but my brain is pretty dense and pretty slow; so for my brain to get something I have to pound it in over and over and over and over and over again. But I think once you learn this, it is going to be beneficial. It has really helped me out. It’s like one of those eureka experiences.
The first question that you need to learn to ask is, “What is Ultimate Reality?” In parenthesis you might want to put: “A God question.” This first question is one of the themes of The Matrix movies. If you can remember some of the dialogue of the first movie that was released in 1999, Morpheus—the Messianic or John the Baptist type of character—and Neo—the One, played by Keanu Reeves—discussed many times: “What is real?” Neo is going along in his life, just like we are, and he enters into this different reality behind the reality, and he starts asking all these questions, “Is this a dream, or is this reality?” When you start asking this question, “What is ultimate reality,” you are really asking, “What is the stuff behind the stuff?”
Now, before your brain explodes, relax. Someone may say, there is nothing behind the stuff; the only things that are really real are the things that we can touch, the things that we can taste, the things that we can hear. That is all that is really real. Nothing is really out there. That is one answer. Another answer to this question may be: gods. “There is a multiplicity of warring gods. That is the answer behind all the stuff that we see.” Someone may say that ultimate reality is Brahman—this one universal spirit, which we will look at in a few weeks. And of course, the Christian answer, and the correct answer, is: Ultimate reality is God Himself.
The second big question we all need to ask is, “How do you know?” If you say there is an ultimate reality—there is something or someone behind the things we can see, touch, and feel—then how do you know this? How do you know what you know? There are many ways of knowing. We can know things rationally, through reason. Have you ever heard the saying, “Well, that makes sense?” I can figure things out, learn things with my mind with reasoning and processing. You can also learn things empirically. That is what science is supposed to be about—doing different experiments and tests to verify things and having proofs and proving them time and time again. You can learn things empirically by what you see, taste, touch, smell, feel, and hear. You can also learn things pragmatically. Maybe you say, “I’m not into all that philosophical mumbo jumbo; give me what works.” That is the philosophy known as pragmatism, that is, a way of learning. If it works, then it is true, it is real. And the Christian way of knowing is primarily revelation. We know because God has spoken; He has revealed Himself through His Word, the Scripture, and through The Word, Jesus Christ.
The third question we will ask is, “What happens at death? What happens when you die? Some may say that when you die you get a second chance, a third chance, a fourth chance…you are reincarnated. Others say that when you die nothing happens; you are just worm food. You help feed the grass and flowers in some cemetery somewhere. Others say you dissolve into the oneness of this universe that we live in, and you become one with this force that we cannot see but is all around us. Others say, “Who cares what happens when you die; I am living for the moment. You only go around once in life. Matter is all there is, so go for all the gusto you can.” What happens at death is the third big question.
The fourth big question, is: “How should you live?” In light of these truths and these realities, how should you live? This deals with ethics. Some would say, “Obey the Ten Commandments.” Others would say, “Follow the eight-fold path.” Others would say, “You need to adhere to the Five Pillars of Islam.” Still others would say, You need to escape the cycle of samsara by having good karma.” So, how should you live your life?
When you are able to ask these four questions to a person and dialogue with them, you will be able to understand the governing force in their life (or governing forces). What you will discover many times is that people will not live consistently with these big four questions; there will be a contradiction between their view of reality and their view of knowledge and between their view of knowledge and their view of ethics (how they should live their lives).
Before we can talk about Buddhism tonight, we first have to seek the answers. How does Christianity answer the big four questions? And let me say this right off the bat: Christianity is the only standard. It is not like life is some big enchilada that some people want to put green sauce on and some want to put red sauce on and some want to put guacamole on top. It is not as if you can just pick your religion and pick whatever works for you. Some may say, “That is what is true for you; basically, religions are just all trying to do the same thing; you’ve got your view and I’ve got mine.” It doesn’t work that way. Christianity presents itself to us as a comprehensive worldview, a meta-narrative, a grand story for everyone, for every culture, for every background, for every time period that has ever existed. Christianity is the whole enchilada.
I am not trying to be deceptive here and say that I come from a neutral point of view and that I am just trying to look at these different faiths rationally. No, I believe that God has clearly revealed Himself to us in His Word, He has clearly revealed Himself to us in Christ and that He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. This doesn’t mean that there is not truth outside of the Christian faith. It doesn’t mean that some of the principles and things taught by Buddha and Mohammed don’t contain bits of the truth. But Christianity is the ultimate standard by which we judge that which is right and that which is wrong.
Romans Chapter 1, verse 16 and following: “I am not ashamed of the gospel [the good news], because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile. For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: ‘The righteous will live by faith.’ The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it known to them.” The gospel that we teach and preach is for every person, from every religious background because everyone knows the one, true God. But they take this knowledge of the one true God, and they stuff it and suppress it. Really, on one level, what we are looking at when we look at different religious and philosophical perspectives that are against the Christian faith, is how various people through the centuries have taken the truth of what they know is right and have twisted it and turned it to their own end.
Once again, Christianity is the standard by which we judge all other truth claims. And Christianity is the only religion, the only worldview that can make sense out of our experience and make sense out of the way we live life. So here are the answers to the big four questions according to the Christian faith.
What is Ultimate Reality? John Chapter 1, verse 1 says, “In the beginning was [the Logos] the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Ultimate reality for the Christian faith is the ontological trinity. The word ontology is about the study of being; so the very essence of who God is—God is the sovereign, happy, holy, triune God; He is one in essence and three in persons. When we are talking about the ontological trinity, we are talking about the pre-existent Christ. In the beginning was Jesus Christ (the Word), and Jesus Christ was God, and He was with God. Now this does not mean we are polytheists—that we worship three gods. No, we worship one God in three persons. God is a unity and a plurality and a diversity of persons. That is who He is; that is the God we worship. That is ultimate reality, and He defines everything else.
Second question: How do you know? John Chapter 1, verse 14 talks to us about that. It says, “The Word [that is the pre-incarnate Christ] became flesh and made His dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” I love that. I pray that for myself, that when I teach, “God, make me like Jesus, full of grace and full of truth.” How do we know? We know through Jesus Christ. He is the starting point of our knowledge and all knowledge. Colossians chapter 2 tells us this. How else do we know? II Timothy chapter 3, verse 16 says, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.” We not only know through God revealing Himself in Jesus Christ, we also know through God revealing Himself in the Living Word, the Bible, the Holy Scripture.
Does this mean that we as Christians don’t know things rationally—through reason and logic? Of course we do. Of course we learn through reason. Does this mean we can learn things empirically? Of course we can learn things empirically—by what we can see, hear, touch, and experiment. But, ultimately, our basis for our knowledge is revelational in character. A transcendent God, a God who stands, in one sense, beyond our experience, has spoken to us through His Son, through His Word, so that we may know Him.
Now, the knowledge that we have is a true knowledge. It is not exhaustive. A Christian is not someone who can say, “Well, I have all the answers.” No one can say this because God has not revealed to any one person all the answers. But we can know some very real things about who God is and how to relate to Him. This is the second question that we look at: How do we know?
The third question is: “What happens at death?” Hebrews chapter 9, verse 27: “Just as man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment….” When you die in this life, you will face the judgment of God, and you will either spend an eternity in hell separated from God or in heaven worshiping God. Now, that right there tells us a lot. When you ask the question, “What happens at death?” it tells you where a person is coming from. It tells us a lot about where we are coming from as Christians. That is the problem with mankind—we are separated from a holy God. The solution to spending an eternity in heaven, and the solution to meaninglessness right now and a purposeless existence, is to place our faith in Jesus Christ. And when we do that, God tells us we are forgiven, we are cleansed, and we are adopted into God’s very family. And He lays out His plan, His will, His guidelines, for our very lives.
Fourth question: How should you live? Galatians chapter 5, verse 16 says: “So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature.” We are to live in the power of the Holy Spirit. How do we get into the Christian faith in the first place? Is it because you are smarter or you are more moral than your pagan neighbor? No. Is it because you are smarter than your friend who happens to practice Buddhism, Hinduism, or Islam? No. You got into the Christian faith, Ephesians chapter 2 tells us, because when we were dead and clueless—we didn’t know God from Godzilla on one level—He opened our eyes up, He awakened us, He gave us life, He gave us a relationship with Him, He gave us this worldview and this new perspective. How did that happen? By God’s Spirit coming in and opening our eyes and filling us.
How do we live the Christian life? The Christian life is not, “Try harder, try harder! Pull yourself up from your bootstraps! You can do it, really!” Though we do try hard and strain, the Christian life is one of power in the Holy Spirit. Outside of God, I am nothing. Without God in Christ, I can do nothing. Through Christ and His Spirit I can do all things. So we are to live a life of freedom, living in the power of the Holy Spirit, and working that out. That is how we are to live our lives and the Holy Spirit will continue that process of conforming us to the image of Jesus Christ and simultaneously pointing us back to the cross and outside of ourselves to the righteousness of Jesus Christ, which gives us our continual hope and acceptance before God. I wish I had time to unpack that more tonight, but we have to go and see what happened to Buddha under the boda tree centuries ago, in around 560 BC.
What happened to Buddha?
How would Buddha answer the Big Four Questions? What is Ultimate Reality? Here’s the problem when you study Buddhism and you look at Buddhist teachings. Buddha was not really concerned about ultimate reality. Buddha was coming out of a Hindu tradition, and he was kind of reacting to Hinduism. And he did not believe in Brahman. He did not believe in a soul or a spirit world. So in many ways, many people look at Buddhism as an atheistic philosophy. He was much more concerned only about existence in the here and now. Here is what Buddha said to a fellow monk named Ananda shortly before his death. He said, “You must be your own lamps; you must be your own refuges. Take refuge in nothing outside of yourselves. Hold firm to the truth as a lamp and a refuge. And do not look for refuge in anything besides yourselves. A monk must become his own lamp and refuge by continually looking on his body, feelings, perceptions, moods, and ideas in such a manner that he conquers the cravings and depressions of ordinary men and is always strenuous, self-possessed, and collected in mind.”
So when you X out God and when you X out a universal spirit, what you are left with are competing ultimate realities. What is really real in Buddhism? One answer could be matter—matter being all the things we can touch and feel; matter being the universe and cosmos. That is all that is there, right? That could be one answer.
Another answer could be suffering. Remember Buddha was primarily trying to deal with the issue of suffering in this life. So suffering, in one sense, could be ultimate reality—what is really real. Nirvana (not the singing group) could also be an answer. Nirvana, in a sense, is the goal of the Buddhist; it is described as a candle blowing out. It is when you can look into a mirror and no longer see a face or a person staring back at you. It is the extinction, if you will, of the self.
Second question: How do you know? How does the Buddhist say you know? He would say that it is primarily through meditation—meditating on the four noble truths. When he was under the boda tree, he was meditating there. When he said he received the enlightenment, he said he received four noble truths—he came to these conclusions:
The Four Noble Truths: Number one, Life is suffering. The second noble truth is, Suffering is caused by desire. Number three, Suffering can be overcome by eliminating desire or eliminating cravings. Now, how do you do that? Noble Truth Number Four, You do that by following what he called the Eight-Fold Path to Enlightenment. The problem is, he said, that all of life is suffering. This is what he said to some of his monks: “Now this, monks, is the noble truth of pain, duka: Birth is painful, old age is painful, sickness is painful, death is painful, sorrow, lamentations, dejection, and despair are painful. Contact with unpleasant things is painful. Not getting what one wishes is painful. In short, the fine components of existence are painful. Now this, monks, is the noble truth of the cause of pain: The craving which tends to rebirth, combined with pleasure and lust, finding pleasure here and there, and namely the craving for passion, the craving for existence, the craving for non-existence. Now this, monks, is the noble truth to the secession of pain: The secession without a remainder of craving—the abandonment, the forsaking, and the release of non-attachment. ” That is the goal of the eight–fold path.
We have these desires for pleasure, for happiness, yet we have all these painful experiences in our life. How do you get rid of this desire that we have? If you get rid of that then you eliminate suffering by simply squelching or killing or eliminating your desire. You do that (as we will discover in the fourth question) by following the eight-fold path.
Now, question Number three: What happens at death? There are two options, from Buddha’s perspective. He says you are either reincarnated or nirvana—your candle blows out. Now, the problem I see between Buddha’s view of ultimate reality and his view of what happens at death is that there is a blatant contradiction. See, if you take out the soul and the spirit…Hindus believe in the transmigration of the soul—that the soul is reincarnated into other forms, other people, or other animals. If Buddha takes that out of the picture, then my questions to him would be, “What is reincarnated?” Once you die and become worm food, what gets reincarnated? Their answers may be, “Well, your desires get reincarnated; your psychological energy is reincarnated.” That is problematic within their view. So what happens at death? You are either reincarnated or nirvana—your candle blows out.
Number four: How should you live? Again, Buddha’s answer is to follow the eight-fold path. What is the eight-fold path? Number One: Right view – that is, to understand the four noble truths. Right thought—that is, to have good motives. Right Speech—that is to tell the truth. Right action—that is never to kill anything; do not commit adultery; do not drink. I guess a Baptist got hold of Buddha a long time ago. Number five: Right living – which means you must have an honorable profession. A Buddhist couldn’t be a butcher; killing pigs and animals like that is against their religious beliefs. Number six: Right effort. Number seven: Right thinking—that is, to be self-aware. Number eight: Right meditation – and that is achieved through raja-yoga techniques. What is interesting is that Buddha went against the caste system in Hinduism that ranked people. Yet in the eight-fold path, laypeople, like you and me, if we went against the Buddhist tradition could only fulfill five of the eight things in the eight-fold path. Six, seven, and eight are really reserved for monks alone. Even though he came and was critiquing a hierarchy, he ended up re-creating the same thing he was critiquing.
That is a thumbnail sketch of Buddhism. Now, let me tell you briefly why I like Buddha but why I can’t follow him. I like Buddha because Buddha was really serious about addressing the problem of pain and suffering. I would not say all of life is suffering, but a good chunk of life is suffering. I like the fact that his philosophy, his view, was all about how you deal with that reality. In my opinion, that is a very important philosophic question; it is a very pragmatic, very practical, question as well.
The reason I can’t follow Buddha is, his solution is inadequate; his solution falls short of the standard that God has revealed to us. What is his solution? It is a “desire reduction” program. To achieve Nirvana you have to eliminate suffering. I agree with what Dr. Peter Kreeft said, a philosopher at Boston College. He says this, “I can’t help viewing Nirvana as spiritual euthanasia—killing the patient, the self, the eye, the ego, to cure the disease of egotism and selfishness. Buddhism eliminates the eye that hates and suffers. But that is also the eye that loves.” He says it is kind of like killing the patient to cure the disease.
Jesus is not anti-desire. God is not anti-desire. The desires that we have—the desire for happiness, the desire for love, the desire for sex, for security—these desires are not in themselves negative or sinful or bad. Our desires go awry when we attach our desires to wrong things. I love the story about Jesus with the woman at the well. I call this story: “Jesus with the whore in John 4.” See, you will never forget where that is now. For those of you who have problems with me using that word, it is mentioned time and time again in the only correct translation of the Bible, the King James Version (Ben is being tongue-in-cheek here). In John chapter 4, Jesus Christ encounters a lady who has been looking or thirsting for love her entire life. She’s been looking to find acceptance and meaning in a variety of relationships with different men. While they are getting a drink at the well, Jesus doesn’t tell her that all desire is wrong, saying, “Your desire for acceptance, your desire for love is wrong.” He tells her basically, “You’ve been drinking out of the wrong well. You’ve been trying to find life and meaning out of this well that is the wrong well. I am going to give you some water today that is living water, and this living water is going to quench the thirst of your heart.” He didn’t say, “I am going to give you this mystical drink, and you are going to learn how to deny and kill all desire.” He said, “I am going to come into your life, and I am going to transform your desires.”
You see, the truth is, we don’t need an eight-fold path. We don’t need more rules and regulations and a self-improvement program. We need radical renovation and restoration. The gospel is not, “Try hard, do better, obey this book, and the boogey man won’t get you. Do good things, be nice, don’t drink, don’t cuss, don’t go with girls who do; don’t do these things. Do go to church. Do this; don’t do that…then God will love you.” That is not the gospel!
The gospel is not, “Look for the love. Look for that special thing inside of you.” That is not the gospel. The gospel is not what happened under a tree in 560 BC; the gospel is what happened on a tree in 33 AD when God became a man in Jesus Christ, and Jesus Christ died on the cross. He actually did something about our pain and suffering. He actually entered into our pain and suffering and took all our guilt on Him. He who knew no sin became sin for you and for me. He was buried, put into a tomb, and on the third day He came out of that tomb. And if we place our faith in Him, God says we are forgiven, we are cleansed, we have new life. We become a son or a daughter of the living God.
And all this happened outside of us. It is objective reality, and we can know the embrace of the Father. We can know that God accepts us. We can know eternal life, not because of what we do but because of what Jesus did. And He comes, and He places His Spirit inside of our lives and teaches us His ways and teaches us how to live. And when we are suffering and we are hurting and when we are confused, God through His Spirit is not only in us, but He is also with us, comforting us. Jesus did not come to squelch and kill desire, He came to give us a life—an abundant life. That is the God who has revealed Himself to us and anyone, anyone, it doesn’t matter where you are from, it doesn’t matter what you’ve done, how religious you think you are, how irreligious you think you are, if you come to Him, He can forgive you, He can cleanse you. He can give you this righteousness that is not your own. He can make you a son and daughter of God. He can change you. He can give you the acceptance you’ve been longing for.
[Ben leads in a closing prayer.]