Buddhism: A Christian Exploration and Appraisal

Keith Yandell, Harold Netland IVP Academic, Downers Grove, IL May 22, 2009
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Yandell and Netland clearly address a deficiency in the available literature on Buddhism from a Christian perspective. The book informs in an interesting manner, and it also challenges one to think at deeper levels about one’s own faith even as one thinks about what Buddhism advocates and why. One cannot help but walk away from this book with a better-informed view of Buddhism as well as a greater understanding of its complexities, oddities, differences, and apparent contradictions. The major difference between Eastern and Western ways of thinking is that the former is somehow more at ease with looser, less tied-down thinking, while the latter strives for more internal coherence and consistency. This is not to say that Buddhists are frivolous, inconsistent thinkers. Not at all. Nonetheless they have some heavy metaphysical issues to overcome, as the authors tactfully explain. The authors exercise an inter-faith sensitivity in tone and word choice. They exhibit a humble and generous spirit while dealing with the issues as objectively as possible.

Most of the book explains Buddhism—its major emphases at first, followed by the development and geographical movements of Buddhism, followed by descriptions and definitions of Buddhist doctrine. The last several chapters of the book offer more explicit analyses of Buddhism from a Christian perspective, although this is also sprinkled throughout the work.

Buddhism is more than twenty-five hundred years old and its founder, Siddartha Gautama, the Buddha, was born sometime between 624 B.C. and 446 B.C. (p. 10). Most Western scholars accept 563–483 B.C. as the years of Buddha’s life (ibid.). Facts point to his being born in what is now the borderland of India and Nepal into the ksatriya (warrior) caste. After living a disciplined and ascetic life, he experienced the Enlightenment or Awakening, which became the content of his teaching. These rather spare facts have been more elaborately developed and expanded over time.

At the heart of the Buddha’s teachings are four “noble truths.” First, life is full of suffering and pain. Second, the cause of this suffering is desire or craving for anything. Third, this disease is curable when desires (tanha) cease, and then suffering (dukkha) ceases. Fourth, this cessation is fully realized through following the eightfold “noble path”: right views, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration (pp. 16–17).

Central to Buddhism is a concern for reality. What is real? What is true? Opposing the answers to these questions is human ignorance and deception—or simply put, lack of enlightenment. Greatly exacerbating this tension is the endless cycle of deaths and rebirths with various penalties and rewards based on previous lives. Karma, one’s deeds, determines the quality of each successive existence. “One’s present existence is determined by the cumulative effects of past actions and dispositions, and one’s future states are determined by present and (past) actions and dispositions” (p. 4). Samsara is the journey through these states of existence.

Nirvana is an overriding goal of this journey of successive lives, potentially a way out. But nirvana is not heaven or paradise. It is not a place, nor is it annihilation or extinction. It is blissful and peaceful and is the cessation of craving, desire, and thirst. Thus dukkha, suffering, comes to an end. Nirvana can also be described as detachment.

Confounding the nature of Buddhist ideals is that Buddha himself taught the impermanence of all things including the self. That is, there is no essential self, at least not in the sense that most people think of it. Things are always changing; so the soul is always changing. At best, it is a stream, a passing sequence of moments, which are unrelated to each other, that make up the self. The soul or self is “really no more than an ever-changing combination of psychophysical forces which, according to Buddhism, can be divided into the ‘Five Aggregates’—Matter, Sensations, Perceptions, Mental Formations and the Consciousness” (p. 20).

This tension between striving for something, such as enlightenment or awakening, against the nature of what is real, which seems to be nothing, makes Buddhism seem meaningless. All types of Buddhism—Manayana, Theravada, Zen, Tibetan, and others—seem to be variations on this theme. So, for example, the emptiness of all things is a salient idea in Mahayana Buddhism. To be fair, some of these expressions of Buddhism are concerned with such inconsistencies, if not outright contradictions, and others less so, as the authors point out. Some embrace the equivalent of nihilism, while others seek a measure of internal coherence. However, wherever any particular expression falls along the continuum between nihilism and meaningful existence, it faces the problem of unknowable and indefinable knowledge (epistemology) and reality (metaphysics). This problem issues from within the systems and tends to undermine them. Thus they become self-canceling, propositionally speaking. “There is a genuine risk that a tradition that makes a sharp distinction between appearance and reality, that says how things appear is radically different from how they are, and adds that we make up how things appear to us, falls into a certain conceptual pit” (p. 129). This Achilles’ heel, this seminal kernel of thought, arises over and over as the authors discuss different Buddhist schools of thought.

Yandell and Netland conclude the book with a final chapter that more overtly compares and contrasts Christianity and Buddhism. They clearly describe Buddhism’s atheism, that any god or god(s) are in fact antithetical to Buddhist underpinnings. In what sense, then, can Buddhism be considered a religion? The authors also address the necessity of Jesus as a historical person to the Christian faith versus Buddhism’s rejection of Him.

This book is not intended for a general audience. Some familiarity with philosophy, theology, and Eastern religions is ideal for even getting an initial grasp of the book’s contents. It would have been helpful for the authors to have included a brief glossary for readers to refer to while going through the book. So many unfamiliar names and terms are thrown at the reader that it is easy to be overwhelmed with trying to recall definitions as well as distinguish persons, terms, and groups. It would have been helpful also if the authors had included tables, graphs, schematics, illustrations, and diagrams that introduce or synthesize concepts in an orderly way.

This book is fascinating and well written. Readers are left with no doubt about the authors’ command of the subject matter. They are to be commended for achieving a balance of tact and critique as well as avoiding unfair reductionism. They do not set up straw men in order to illustrate the irrefutable strength of Christianity. While it is clear that the authors write from a Christian position, they recognize strengths and weaknesses of each belief system while adroitly arguing for the significant differences between them. They strengthen the Christian reader’s understanding of Buddhism as well as his or her confidence in Christ.

—Linden D. McLaughlin

July 1, 2011
 

Biblotheca Sacra

This review appeared in the Jul-Sep 2011 vol. 168 no. 3 issue of Biblotheca Sacra, DTS’s quarterly academic journal.

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