Ep.40: World Religions Unraveled: Buddhism
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We often hear people use the term “karma.” The idea that good things happen when you do good, and bad things happen to you in response to your negative actions. Karma is very closely connected to Buddhism, but in the western world, we view karma (and Buddhism for that matter) with different lenses than those devoted to the religion in other parts of the world. Join host Andrew Marcus as he spends time with our ministry friend Steve Kim from Apologetics Canada as we unpack the history of Buddhism, their theology and how we as Christians can love them and point them to the truths found in Scripture.
Hey, this is Andrew Marcus from THE INDOUBT SHOW. We got a fantastic program for you today. We have Steve Kim. He is a good friend of ours in ministry. He’s from Apologetics Canada. And we’re going to be unpacking Buddhism today. What are the beliefs of Buddhism, the theology behind Buddhism, how it was started, the history, all that stuff. And we do this so that we could understand and be better at building bridges and loving those in our communities. And so we’re going to dive in. We hope you enjoy today’s program.
All right, we have Steve Kim all the way in Alberta. He is the Alberta Director of Apologetics Canada. How are you doing, man?
Doing great, doing great. It’s so good to be here, man.
Awesome. We are huge fans of Apologetics Canada here at INDOUBT, and so anytime we get a chance to talk to you or Andy, the whole crew, Wes, I mean, we just love all that you’re doing. And we’re always cheering you on. You guys are such a blessing. Maybe before we even dive in, let’s just go to just the core beliefs and even take us back to when it started, how it started, maybe some of the history. Let’s do a deep dive today on Buddhism.
Core beliefs of Buddhism, it might be helpful if we go to the origin story. So Buddhism as a religion we know it today really starts with the figure of Siddhartha Gautama, who was actually a prince in northern India. Now, scholars are a little divided on exactly when he lived. So it could be anywhere from mid 500s BC to some people think he lived about 400s BC.
But whatever the case may be, the story goes that before he was born, his father, the king, had received this prophecy that the child that he was about to have is either going to become a mighty king after him, or that he would become this amazing sage who will bring enlightenment to many people. Now, the father, the king, wanted his son to be a king after him. So what he does is he keeps his son within the confines of the palace and the king just showered him with all the pleasures that he could afford as a king for the son.
Siddhartha Gautama, he marries a woman, has a son. But then there is a day when he actually leaves the palace and he sees the so-called the four sights. Remember, this is a man who grew up without knowing anything about suffering whatsoever. And the four sights are the first one he saw is an old man, and of course old man, he’s ailing, his body doesn’t work like a young man’s body. And it was rather tragic to see for Siddhartha Gautama who grew up with all the pleasures in the palace. So that shakes him up a bit.
And then he goes on farther to see a man who is sick. This also troubles him. And then he goes on farther, he sees the third sight, which is a dead body. He sees a corpse for the first time, that greatly shakes him. And then the fourth sight, he encounters a monk. And he finds this peace about him that he really likes.
And so what ends up happening is Siddhartha Gautama actually decides to leave his wife and son and all the pleasures of his previous life in the palace and he becomes an aesthetic. And so he tries to find the answer to the question of suffering. Because the suffering that he saw in that encounter that I mentioned, he was so shaken up, that he wants to find answers.
So what he does is as an aesthetic, there’s self mortification that happens. He starves himself and he doesn’t drink or he eats very little at least, and basically flogs himself, all these things. And he just doesn’t find any answers there.
So he grew up in this extreme pleasure on the one hand, and he goes to the extreme other end, extreme end. He doesn’t find the answer there. And so what he does is he comes to the middle, and when he achieves enlightenment under the Bodhi tree, he finds the middle way.
And then this is where you get the four noble truths. Now for Buddhism this is the core doctrine. So Buddhism, if you follow this story that I just laid out before you, is really a response to suffering. Why is there suffering in the world and how do we deal with it? So the four noble truths starts with, well, let me put it to you this way, the four noble truths, it’s helpful, it’ll be easier to remember if you think of it as some kind of a medical treatment or diagnosis.
So the first one is the symptom. And the symptom is suffering. There’s suffering in the world. That is just a given. The second noble truth is the diagnosis. What is the cause of this suffering? And the Buddha taught that this is because of the … we call it desire sometimes or attachment. But probably the best translation of the word would be craving. We grasp onto things, we crave things and we hold onto things.
And then the third noble truth is the prognosis, cessation of suffering. This is what we call nirvana. So nirvana literally means to be extinguished and snuff out. And so when you cease to crave, you have basically removed the cause of the suffering. And so then the fourth noble truth is basically a prescription. So how do we achieve nirvana? And that’s where you follow the eightfold path. So you think you’re just about done with four noble truths, but there’s eight more.
But yeah, so the eightfold path, as you follow it, you’ll be able to free yourself from the wheel of reincarnation or Samsara as it is called. So the Buddhist view is like that. There is suffering where you are caught in this wheel of reincarnation, a lot like Hinduism, but actually their understanding of reincarnation is quite different too. But you’re caught in this trap of rebirth and redeath. And over and over again it goes on. And all the suffering in between the birth and the death as well. So the goal of Buddhism is to be liberated from that.
So to be liberated from all suffering?
Right. Suffering. And the trap that you’re in is the wheel of reincarnation. And so you want to escape from that.
And you say that with Buddhism and Hinduism, they have different views of reincarnation. So walk us through the Buddhist approach, what do you mean when you say that?
Yeah. So the wheel of reincarnation at the root of it is this doctrine of karma. Now, the Hindu understanding of karma is that you, depending on the karmic debt you have, you’re trying to pay off the karmic debt by doing good deeds. And depending on how well you do, either in this life or the next life, it’s going to come back to you basically. So if you have been a terrible person in this life, you might come back in the next life as an animal. And if you’ve been particularly bad, you might even come back as a plant or even a rock. But if you do a good job of paying down the karmic debt, then you can achieve in Hinduism what we call moksha, which is basically a nirvana equivalent sort of. And you’re liberated from this world.
Now what’s curious is that in Hinduism and Buddhism, the doctrine of the self, the view of the human self is very different. Hindus believe that you have a soul or you have an essence rather I should say. So in the wheel of reincarnation, it’s really you that comes back in different forms.
The Buddha actually rejected that. He taught that we have no soul, we have no self, that we are just a bundle of what Buddhists call the five aggregates, like the body, the sensations, the will, consciousness, all those things. So we’re just a bundle of constantly fluctuating aggregates. So there is none of those things are you and you actually don’t exist.
So it’s a really curious thing where in Buddhism, when there’s this wheel of reincarnation, I said you are trapped in it, that’s not entirely correct because when you come back, it’s not really you, because there is no you to come back. It’s just that the process of karma in Buddhism, which is just seen as this cause and effect kind of a thing. One event leads to the next, that leads to the next, that leads to the next.
So what you want to do is you want to cut that off, cut that chain of action and reaction off so that you can be then liberated from the wheel of reincarnation. Because that karma, that cause and effect is what’s keeping you in this cycle of reincarnation. And when you can cut that off, that process of action and reaction, then you’re liberated. And the way to get to that is through the eightfold path.
Now, the eightfold path can be divided up into three sections, wisdom, morality, and meditation. So the first two fall into the category of wisdom. The first thing that you want to do is you want to have the right view. You want to have the right view of the world. If you’re trapped in ignorance, then you’re not going to be able to free yourself from this.
So this is where I’ll use a couple of big words here. Buddhism is a gnostic soteriology, gnostic soteriology. Now what I mean by that is soteriology is the doctrine of salvation. Some Christians who are somewhat well versed in theology might have heard that term before. Soteriology means doctrine of salvation. But gnostic soteriology means … gnostic means knowledge, comes from the Greek word [foreign language 00:11:30]. And so Buddhism is ultimately a doctrine of salvation that is based on your knowledge.
So that’s why enlightenment is a huge deal. The word Buddha means enlightened one. And so in order for you to release yourself from this world, the bare minimum that you have to do is you need to have the right view of the world. You need to be able to see things as they are.
So for example, the fact that you actually don’t have a soul. Everything is a flux of action and reaction. So here’s a really key thing for Buddhism, is that nothing is permanent. Nothing is permanent. Everything is a flux of action and reaction and things are constantly changing. So when you crave and you grasp onto things as if they’re permanent, you will eventually lose it, and that causes suffering.
So I have family, and if, I mean, to use the Christian language, if I idolize my family, that’s going to hurt me in the end because I’m just not built to live that way. And Buddhists would say, even your sense of self, you think you have a soul and you have a self, you actually don’t. So you’re eventually going to die and you’re going to lose it. It’s going to slip through your fingers. So that’s why the craving, the grasp, that attachment is so bad because you hang on to things as if they’re permanent, but everything is impermanent, so you’re going to eventually lose it.
Then I wonder when you connect it with Christianity, there’s some similarities there where we are called not to idolize things or to grasp onto the things of this world because it’s true, nothing is permanent. We’re going to leave all this behind.
From a Christian perspective, there are some things that are permanent. I mean, in this life, things like wealth, things like families, these are impermanent.
Yeah, houses, cars, whatever.
The things that we chase after like fame and all those things. But we would also say that God is permanent, that our souls, because God has made it so, our souls are permanent. This relationship will also go on forever. I mean, like it or not, man, Andrew, you’re stuck with me for the rest of eternity.
Oh buddy, I love it.
And we’re going to be spending that together in God’s presence.
Do you think when we’re in glory together, we’ll have a full head of hair?
Oh, I don’t know. I sure hope so. I’d like to have my long, beautiful locks back. Yeah.
You’re right, when you talked about this at the very beginning, it’s like you want to study religion that’s very, very different. This is very different from Christianity. So I mean, as the Buddhist philosophy teaches this concept of karma and this circle of reincarnation, walk us through the contrast, like the biblical perspective of sin, redemption, afterlife. Just to show people who are listening, wow, this is very different. Let’s put them side by side.
So start with the view of God. Like I said earlier, they don’t believe in a transcendent personal creator. And the reason that they don’t need any concept of God in that sense is because they have karma. And karma is just action and reaction. This chain of cause and effect that goes on and on. And so they don’t need God to hold anything together so to speak. And so there’s that. They don’t really believe in a personal transcendent creator.
When it comes to humanity, they don’t think that you have a self. Whereas we think we have a soul, we have a self, we have an essence. But then when it comes to sin and evil, they are more concerned with suffering than the concept of sin. And so some Buddhists will straight up tell you that evil is an illusion. Everything is an illusion, including what we call evil. And so that can be a real tricky thing.
So they talk about it more in terms of wholesome and unwholesome acts that’s going to help you achieve nirvana or not. So something like murder would be unwholesome. Compassion and showing compassion and mercy that would be wholesome. So from an outsider’s perspective, they can be construed as very pragmatic that way.
And the fundamental problem with humanity is not sin, it’s ignorance. The ignorance is what’s keeping you in the cycle of reincarnation. And so the solution to that is not salvation from the outside, somebody paying your debt, but you actually have to be enlightened. You have to see the world for what it actually is so that you can navigate this life in a way that helps you attain nirvana. And so it’s very much a works-based thing.
And then the afterlife, of course like I said earlier, the end game for Buddhism is for you to cease to exist ultimately. Whether you cease to exist into nothingness or you blend into this sort of … One Buddhist monk described it this way. That we ourselves or the illusion of it, it’s more like a wave in the ocean, and when the wave comes up, it’s going to meld into the sea again.
So Mahāyāna Buddhists would probably look at it more like that, where you arise out of this dharma or whatever this impersonal force it may be, and then you go back into it and you lose your identity so to speak as you go back into.
So again, whereas in Christianity what we are looking for is the restoration of this world. We’re not looking for escaping from this world. What God is doing is he’s reversing all the death. And he pays for the penalty of sin. And all the sin and evil then get quarantined, paid for and quarantined. And this world will be restored where the dwelling place of God and the dwelling place of humanity will be united as one. So that we will be his people and he will be our God. And we will live in that re-unity forever and ever with God, in the presence of God and in the presence of one another. So Buddhism is very, very different that way.
How do we love and encourage and share the gospel, share the truth?
When it comes to talking to our friends and family or somebody that you bump into who believes in Buddhism. My word of advice to Christians is just go into the student mode. Don’t assume. Because like I said, this religion is so different. And the person who practices Buddhism might have some quirky ideas about it. It’s one thing to learn Buddhism from a textbook. It’s another thing to actually talk to the person.
Just as, just because somebody calls himself a Christian. When you actually talk to the guy, he might not believe anything like a Christian. Or he might have some very curious ideas about salvation or the nature of God or the nature of humanity, so on and so forth.
So be in the student mode, be curious, ask that person what he believes about the world, or she believes about the world. What’s your view of God? What’s your view of … explain to me karma and how that leads to the wheel of reincarnation. And what’s your view of humanity? Do we have souls?
And here’s another curious thing. This might be helpful for you. If you don’t actually have a soul, it actually causes a lot of problem for morality. Because morality is a quality of personhood. And more than that, it’s a quality that is established between persons. So for example, we have, in morality, we talk about moral duty. Well, a duty is something you owe. And you can only owe things to other persons. I don’t owe this microphone anything. The desk doesn’t owe you anything. But if I borrow a book from you, I owe it to you to return it to you. Now I have a duty. So duty is something that’s established between persons. You could say something similar about moral values.
So these things all fall apart when you don’t have personhood. Because in the end you’re nothing but blind processes fluctuating five aggregates. So that might be helpful to just keep in the back of your mind. But just be in the student mode and ask lots of questions about that person. Because Christians actually have a bad reputation of … they think they are know-it-alls. They think they have the truth and they don’t care about anyone else’s beliefs. Really if you want to be effective, you want to know what the other person believes, so you can build bridges.
Yeah, totally. And that’s why we’re actually even doing this series. It’s like, okay, well, instead of just going and slamming people with the truth, how can we learn about different religions that’ll help us engage with conversation to just talk in the natural. And let it be founded on relationship, not just, hey, we have the truth, you’re wrong. No, no. Well, tell me what you believe and let’s walk through it together. And I love that you say that, just be a student, be curious, ask questions. And that’s really important.
And there are bridges that you can build too. So for example, everybody suffers. And that’s one thing I can really sign off on is the doctrine of suffering. Now, I don’t know that all is suffering, but I certainly suffer, everybody suffers at some point, Buddhists suffer as well. And so suffering is real. And yet on the other hand, you can’t really validate it because suffering requires a subject that suffers. But again, we’re told that you actually don’t exist. So who is the one that’s really suffering? In the end, it’s nothing but an illusion.
So what I want to do is I want to validate my Buddhist friend’s suffering is this is real. This is not an illusion. You are hurting. And what happened to you is not fair. Anyway. Another question that might be helpful is something along these lines, a series of questions. When you’re suffering, what helps you the most? Do you find that it brings more healing to bear it on your own or to bear it together with someone else? And if someone offered to bear all that burden on your behalf so you can find healing, would you accept it?
I’m very much mindful of the suffering servant of Isaiah 53, that by his stripes were healed. Everybody suffers, including Buddhists. And Jesus has a real solution to the problem of suffering in the end.
See, what I’m trying to do is I want to leverage our experience of the world. So if a view is false, at some point it’s going to come into conflict with reality. There is this story told of Dallas Willard who was a very godly man, one time chair of the Philosophy Department at the University of Southern California. One night he’s giving this lecture talking about truth. And at the end, during Q&A, this young lady comes up to the microphone and rather arrogantly says, “Well, you’ve been talking about truth all night, but what is truth?” And Dallas Willard, as the story is told, in a very Dallas Willard way, paused for a minute and very slowly said, “Truth is reality. And reality is something you bump into when you’re wrong.” So, if a view is false, at some point you’re going to bump into it.
What I want to ask my Buddhist friend is, do you find anything beautiful in this world? Is there value to this world? Is there room for restoration in your worldview? Because Buddhism, strictly speaking, the goal is for you to escape this world because all is suffering.
But I believe that Buddhists, like anybody else, including Christians, will encounter beauty at some point. And I want to bring them back to that. Do you find anything beautiful in this world? Is this world something that’s valuable that deserves to be restored and not just be escaped from?
And a couple more things just quickly. Because Buddhism is very works-based, or at least grace plus works. This question applies to any works-based religion. When’s enough? When will you know have done enough?
Totally, totally. That’s the question I was wondering. It’s like how do they have the assurance?
Yeah. And a lot of them don’t have any assurance that it’s going to happen. They can only hope that at some point down the road in this wheel of reincarnation that you will get to that. And so along with that, I might ask some questions like, if there is a guaranteed salvation you can attain in this life and someone else has done all the work for you, would you be interested in learning more about it?
Because that’s what Christianity teaches is that, yes, there is real salvation that you can have in this life because there is only one life that you’re going to live. But this offer is there. You don’t need to do anything about it. Somebody has done all the work for you, and all you need to do is receive the gift of salvation.
So those might be some questions that you might want to raise with your Buddhist friends. But again, only after you’ve done a lot of learning from your friends.
Yes, student first. And then that opens the path to some good questions and opportunities. And I love that the more we study and become students, the more we understand what’s the best questions to ask and how to ask them and why to ask them. These are all really great ways to build bridges like you’re mentioning. I think that’s really fantastic.
This has been so good. I really appreciate your time. I really appreciate all this wisdom and just these practical steps.
Well, thank you so much for having me. It was such an honor to spend this time with you to talk about this. Thank you.
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