Catholic Perspective on Buddhism
Updated: Feb 4, 2022
By Luke Lancaster
Buddhism is a massive religion with around a half-billion members. Buddhism gets its name from the founder: Gautama Buddha. The word “Buddha” is not a personal name, but rather a title meaning “enlightened”. There have been many people who have reached the title of “Buddha” in the course of history. His real name was Siddhartha Gautama. Buddha’s history is questioned by scholars, but here is how the traditional story goes.
History of Buddha
Siddhartha Gautama was born in the 6th century BC just north of India (present-day Nepal). His father was the leader of the region, or at least a wealthy aristocrat. His son Siddhartha was protected from anything that was uncomfortable, such as suffering, disease, old age, and death. In his luxury, Siddhartha married a princess, but the wealthy lifestyle and pleasures of life did not satisfy him. He soon recognized that he would grow old, maybe suffer disease, and die one day. This prompted him to desire enlightenment (an end to the cycle of reincarnation), so he left his family and all worldly ties to practice extreme asceticism, yoga, and meditation. This did not lead him to enlightenment, so he attempted to find it by sitting underneath a bodhi tree. While there, the devil-king of death, rebirth, and desire named Mara approached. Mara wanted Siddhartha to stay in the cycle of reincarnation. Mara and his daughters, Tanha (thirst), Arati (discontent) and Raga (greed or lust), accomplished this for the rest of humanity through temptation, so temptations came to Siddhartha. The temptations were unsuccessful, as Siddharth conquered the devil and his daughters, leading him to be called Buddha. The cycle of reincarnation stopped for Buddha, and all desires ceased, leading him into enlightenment. Life after death for the enlightened is like the blowing out of a flame – the individual’s distinct identity ceases.
Buddha gave various teachings so that the rest of the world could attain enlightenment. He taught that constant pleasure or hedonism and extreme asceticism were both bad paths to be on. For he had experienced both extremes himself. Instead, people needed to follow the “middle way.” This middle way would allow one to avoid the issues outlined in his four noble truths: suffering (dukkha), the origin of suffering (tanha), the cessation of suffering (eliminating tanha), and the roadmap.
4 Noble Truths
These four truths are central to Buddhism today. They outline the fact that life involves constantly uncomfortable experiences called “dukkha.” The cause of these sufferings in life are from people’s craving – called tanha. For example, if I received a day’s wage for a day full of work, I would be happy. But if another person received two-day’s wages for the same amount of work that I did, I would not be happy. I would be craving for more, and this is called “tanha.” For Buddhism, the logical/best way to eliminate the suffering (dukkha) of life is to eliminate the craving (tanha) of life altogether. Instead of craving, man should focus his energies on Nirvana - aka - eliminating fleshly desires and the cycle of reincarnation. This freedom from tanha, and thus dukkha, will occur through an eightfold path: right view, right intentions, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration/meditation. Following this eightfold path leads one down the middle way towards Nirvana.
Types of Buddhists
Having outlined the emphases of Buddhism, we now turn to the various strands or denominations of the religion. The leaders of these strands are called “llamas,” which is why a major leader today is called the “Dali Llama.” The first group is Theravada Buddhism. This group is individual-focused, meaning that they emphasize people personally attaining Nirvana. The group is unconcerned with the question of God’s existence, so they can be labeled agnostic. The second group is Mahayana Buddhism, which is a split-off from Theravada Buddhism and is currently the largest expression of the religion. The emphasis for this group is not so individual-focused, but rather attempts to aid other people in their journey towards Nirvana. They believe that Buddha is the Hindu god Krishna in bodily form and emphasize to others the need to take on Buddha’s nature. The third group is Vajrayana Buddhism, which split from Mahayana Buddhism, and is all about hastening the journey towards the end goal - Nirvana. Instead of reaching it over the course of multiple reincarnated lives, they attempt to reach Nirvana quicker.
Buddhism has various apparent agreements with Catholicism. The Buddha recognized that the world does not fulfill us - hedonism does not help. That is a Catholic concept as well. Buddha’s emphasis on the middle way sounds similar to Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas’ thought that virtue lies in between two extremes. For example, one should not eat too much or too little, but in the virtuous middle. Buddha’s need to avoid craving/tanha also sounds similar to the Judeo-Christian idea of avoiding the desire to covet. Buddhists believe in reincarnation, but they are at least agreeing with Catholicism in the existence of life after death, unlike materialists. Their ascetical monastic life is like Christian monks and nuns as well, yet with very different end goals.
Buddha’s concept of reincarnation is similar to Hinduism’s idea of karma and is rejected by Catholicism. Scripture says in Hebrews 9:27 that men only die once, so Catholics cannot hold to reincarnation. Not only that, but the concept of reincarnation after death into a plant or animal or zygote is just not a logical position. As Tertullian said, if infants and animals are simply older people who have been reincarnated, then should they not act like mature adults? The fact that babies and donkeys cannot speak clearly and accurately, as they should have learned from a previous life, disproves reincarnation. St. Irenaeus gave a different argument against reincarnation: people would have memories of their previous lives if they had been reincarnated, but they do not, so they therefore did not have previous lives. Finally, St. Ambrose argued that the nature of the souls of animals and plants are too different from humans for there to be reincarnation of lives amongst them all. Reincarnation implies that the nature of plant, animal, and human life-forms are equal enough to be moved amongst each other. Ambrose believes that this is not the case, for, to give an example, humans can reason, whereas plants and animals cannot. Humans can also only reproduce within the same species; reproduction with plants or animals is impossible. Therefore, reincarnation is impossible.
The Buddhist need to eliminate tanha/craving because it causes dukkha/suffering makes all desire appear to be evil. This is false according to Catholicism. Some desires are good, provided that they are properly ordered. The desire for food itself is good, for the nature of food is good. It just needs to be ordered towards moderation - and not towards gluttony. The desire for sexual relations is good, for the nature of sexual relations is good. This desire, however, needs to be others-centered - focused on lovingly offering a gift of self. It needs to be chaste, it needs to view the person as a subject, and it needs to be properly ordered towards one's spouse. The desire can be selfishly warped and disordered into the pitfalls of lust (turning the person into an object) and fornication (lying with your body). Desire properly ordered is not evil.
Buddhism’s end goal to life, central problem of life, and cure to the problem of life are all false. The end goal to life for them is Nirvana, meaning the end of all desires and the snuffing out of one’s individual identity. However, from human experience, we desire something deeper than just nothingness. We desire God, and cry out in the words of St. Augustine, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you” (Confessions, 1.1.1). We desire resting in God, and that is the central goal to life. Buddhism’s central belief that the problem to life is craving (tanha) and suffering (dukkha) also misses the point that Jesus gave. Jesus said that sin is the great problem of life; that we are slaves to sin (John 8:34, cf. Rom. 6:6). We become addicted to bad habits which we are unable to break on our own power. The central cure to life is not ending desire and following the eightfold path, but rather the person of Jesus. He is the one who can free us from our bondage to sin (Hebrews 2:14-15). He is the one who will infuse us with His Spirit to live out His life (Rom. 5:5).
"World Religions" by Joe Heschmeyer
"Comparing Christianity & Buddhism" by Peter Kreeft: https://peterkreeft.com/topics-more/religions_buddhism.htm