A recent Catholic take on Buddhism

See my review of this wonderful film here.

My news feed had an interesting title in it a week or so back, “In case you were wondering about Buddhism.”

“Yes,” I thought, “I am wondering about Buddhism…” So I clicked through to see what it was all about and found that it was a link from a fellow Patheos bloger,  Mark Shea (Catholic and Enjoying It!). His introduction to the piece is short, simply calling it “a fine (and sympathetic) comparison and contrast between Buddhism and Catholic faith by Peter Kreeft.”

Unfortunately it doesn’t seem sympathetic to anyone familiar with Buddhism. And more distressing perhaps is that Kreeft is a philosophy professor – and so should know better. Yes, he works for a Catholic college and seems quite busy with a Catholic talking tour, but one would hope that academics, even when we disagree with other ways of seeing the world, would work a little to first understand the ‘other’, rather than rehashing old distortions and parochial simplifications.

Kreef begins with the all-too-common trope that the Buddha claimed to be a man, while Jesus ‘clearly’ claimed to be both ‘Son of Man’ and ‘Son of God.’ In fact, the Buddha denied both being a man and a god (and other things), telling his interlocutor to know him simply as awakened – buddhoti, (Doṇa Sutta AN.4.36). My understanding of this is that the Buddha was challenging Dona’s (and our) categorical preconceptions of the world: in our experience there are such-and-such types of being that we could encounter and the Buddha was urging us to see that what he -and his teaching- represented was something beyond our current typologies and limited experience.

Doug Smith covers much of the territory in this dispute with an excellent piece at the Secular Buddhism site.

Kreef continues: “Buddha said, “Look not to me, look to my dharma (doctrine)”; Christ said, “Come unto me.” Buddha said, “Be ye lamps unto yourselves”; Christ said, “I am the light of the world.”

In fact the Buddha said “He who sees me, sees the Dharma, he who sees the Dharma, sees me” (SN 22.87). His life and teachings form a mirror image of one another. And one should not get too hung up on him as a particular being, as he is simply one of many who have understood the true nature of things and overcome suffering.

Concerning God, Kreef writes that “Buddhism does not deny God. It is silent about God. It is agnostic, not atheistic.” This is a complex topic. As I wrote here:

“The Buddha didn’t endorse a creator God such as that found in general definitions of Western monotheism. However, in the Pali Canon there is found a complex pantheon of Brahmanic gods (and yakkhas) interacting with humans, including the [or 'and the'] Buddha. Furthermore, there are Western conceptions of God that do not include all of the connotations found in traditional definitions.”

Kreef goes on to caricature Buddhist compassion (karuna) in somewhat babbling words that could be taken right out of a 19th century colonialist missionary’s account:

For Buddhism, egotism (selfish desire) causes the illusion of an ego. For the West, secular as well as religious, a real ego is the cause and egotism is the effect. Agape is a different effect from the same cause: altruism from the ego instead of egotism from the ego. To the Buddhist, agape is impossible; there can be no ego without egotism, no self without selfishness, because the self is not a real cause that might conceivably change its effect. Rather, the self is the illusion—effect of selfishness. There’s nobody there to love or to hate.

How can this apparent nihilism, this philosophy of nothingness, feel liberating to Buddhists? The answer is found in Buddha himself: his personality and the events of his life, especially his “great enlightenment.”

Oh dear. Where to begin?

I won’t. You can read it all for yourself, if you wish. Again, it’s sad to see anyone, especially an academic, distorting any religion in this way. Of course this might just be part of the great Catholic conspiracy, as Dan Brown has made clear to us in his novels ;)

As a commenter at Mark Shea’s blog notes:

“There is no comparison to the relationship of the Christian to God, which is what Kreeft is getting at, because the Christian God is fundamentally different in kind than the Buddhist gods.” Kreeft merely asserts this, and he does so without precedent or proof. I know this is a fundamental tenet of your faith, but it isn’t very convincing to anyone who isn’t already a member of your faith. It is lazy evangelizing.


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  • Radio Pluton

    I think Knitter’s book is a much more serious take on Buddhist by a Catholic:

    • justinwhitaker

      Thanks for that, Radio Pluton. As much (or little) as I know of Knitter, I like his work a lot.

    • Agni Ashwin

      By a “Catholic Buddhist” or “Buddhist Catholic”, to be precise.

  • http://www.facebook.com/doctorwill Will Yaryan

    When I was becoming a Catholic 25 years ago, inspired by the writings of Thomas Merton, I remember one of the catechists (teachers) telling me: “Buddhism and Hinduism, they’re cults.” It wasn’t very long before I became a lapsed Catholic.

    • justinwhitaker

      Yep – experiences like that are not the kind that will keep (many) of the ‘faithful’ around…

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100001120721082 Bert Lee

        Sadly Justin, it depends on what kind of ‘faithful’ the church wants to stick around.

        • justinwhitaker

          Indeed – one might hope that they recall their universal calling and seek to reach all people, but they are, after all, mere mortals.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100001120721082 Bert Lee

    Getting bogged down in comparisons is the surest sign of dialectical agendas. The odds are pretty good that these two historic figures – buddha & jesus – are in fact composite figures shrouded in oral traditions & subsequent written apocrypha. The most salient point, in fact, to be gained by comparing these two liberation theologies is to see how the core canons were each later subverted by fundamentalist missions.

    In Saul of Tarsis we get a Pauliad supplanting the Christ-like life ( freed from superstitious ritual ) with the worship of Jesus (putting superstition back on its pedestal). In subsequent Sutras we see the Buddhist Tipitaka being eclipsed by a farrago of plantation, state & spiritual materialist agendas – so much so as to the point of Buddhalotry..

    But the Humanist & existential missions of either figure are not to be denied, Jesus representing a rebellion of the heart against spiritual materialism & obsequity, the other a rebellion of the mind against naive materialism & material votarism. The pursuit of either path observes similar practical features & outcomes in abiding either model – Jesus with his parables or Gautama with his prosaic commentaries. One evinces liberation & compassion by token of anecdote & panentheistic gnosis & noumena, the other via deconstruction-by-tetralemma.

    Either are in fact complementary, a realization that has caught on here in the West, much to the consternation of reactionary vanguards of Christian hegemony. Go figure, the laity instinctually seek a human heritage that includes walking off the plantation, and the lords of worship & faith are threatened by this prospect.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100001120721082 Bert Lee

      I commented on Shea’s blog:

      Keefe’s understanding of Buddhism is riven with well-known distortions of the core system, from Buddhalotry (Gautama instructed against it) & self-abnegation (another dualism). Some of is an artifact of Asian culture, others Western misunderstandings of how the core Buddhist canon is fully understood.

      To the extent that the historic Jesus does lead with heart, and Gautama with mind, there are indeed differences, but the systems are in fact more complementary than not (as the Zen Catholics can explain). Jesus’ intuitive rhetorical style and Gautama’s careful prosaics actually confront the same problem: The sad loss of compassion by our pursuit of a sense of self in society.

      Herein is where Keefe runs afoul of the shared liberation theologies and, in particular, an awakening:

      STOP competing for the front pews.

      LOOK for the commonality in all.

      BE in the present moment.

      It’s a unfortunate distortion of dharmic practice, by the way, to think that the objective of meditation is to aggressively quash the Ego in some ascetic pogrom against Self. This is mistaken and naive representation of Buddhism (and Zen in particular) out of misunderstanding of the Middle Way. It is simply the case that the hard work of meditation, of peeling away the artifacts of the self-involved mind, requires a balanced & strong ego. It’s careful work to open and then remain open to the greater realms of compassion, love, and joy.

      And it actually requires faith, a belief in one’s ability to abide the present moment.

      Perhaps this might help:


      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100001120721082 Bert Lee

        Well, that’s what I posted on Shea’s blog, but it can’t be found now (wanted to fix the grammar).

  • urownexperience

    There is no comparison of Buddhism and Christianity. Two different worlds. I tried Christianity for 35 years and it never worked for me. But that’s just me. I tend to question things and questioning is definitely a no-no in Christianity. Buddhism encourages questioning.

    • justinwhitaker

      Indeed this runs true for many I’ve known who have moved into Buddhism. To defend my Catholic (and other Christian) friends a bit, I do think there is room for questioning in Christianity. Just how you question and how far might lead you to the outer edges of the religion, and indeed even out, but I do think there are examples of great and deep questioners in Christianity (such as Merton, Paul Tillich, the Christians in the video linked above, and others). In any case, it’s good to hear that you found a ‘home’ in Buddhism and I hope you keep questioning!

      • http://elisafreschi.blogspot.com/ elisa freschi

        I wonder (genuinely, it is not a rhetorical move), whether questioning is not welcome in a particular religion or not rather in a particular institutionalised “church”. How could genuine believers not see themselves as seekers (and, hence, questioners)? Vice versa, an institution might see its main concern in keeping its position, rather than in promoting new directions.

        • justinwhitaker

          Great point, Elisa. I think it is at least partly fair to say that Buddhism came into the Western ‘conscience’ at a time when questioning was not particularly valued in Christianity (it was being hit on all sides from Marxists, Darwinians, and others); so the aspect of questioning in Buddhism was grasped on to – and Buddhists were all too happy to encourage this as it meant spreading their beliefs. Deep, deep down, all religion can be said to be about questioning and deep personal transformation – but also about preservation/conservatism – so these two opposing forces are left to play out in different ways at different times…

          • http://elisafreschi.blogspot.com/ elisa freschi

            Yes, I agree. And I also agree with the fact that historically, in the West, Buddhism has often been spreading among “questioners”, dissatisfied with institutionalised Christianity.

    • http://wonderwheels.blogspot.com/ Gregory Wonderwheel

      Jesus was a bodhisattva who achieved his great awakening on the cross. That is how I compare them. The cross that Jesus awoke upon is the same as the Bodhi tree that Siddhartha awoke under. Being “nailed to the cross” and “vowing not to move sitting under the Bodhi Tree until I awaken” represent the spiritual pilgrim arriving at the fixed axis mundi of the still point. The spiritual hero’s journey does not belong to him/herself, but is an archetype of the mind that finds its expression and manifestation in the concrete conditions of the particular culture. It is just that the Buddha had the deepest reflection and awakening in the context of the journey and was able to teach for 35 years after his awakening, but unfortunate that Jesus in the context of his journey within the culture of his time could teach only about three years after his initial awakening and could not teach any after his great awakening on the cross.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100001120721082 Bert Lee

    FWIW, and not to stir the pot, but it appears that comments at Shea’s blog are going missing, particularly mine & the one you quote (above).

    Just wondering: Is Patheos cool with its bloggers zapping comments that fall within the bounds of topic, civility and taste? I couldn’t honestly care less, but it was only a few short moments before I couldn’t revisit my own comment (to fix a grammatical error).

    • justinwhitaker

      Dear Birt – sorry to hear that your (and others’) comments are going missing. This *might* be due to the recent Patheos change-over to ‘disqus’, but it would be odd that only certain comments get removed. Other than that, it’s up to each blogger to keep/remove comments as he/she wishes; so you might want to check directly with Mr. Shea.

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100001120721082 Bert Lee

        It is of course the fellow’s bailiwick. But he shouldn’t expect us to return in further hopes of discussion if he (out of fear & prejudice) is to censor us outright.

        In my mind it’s an insecure faith that can’t handle multiple perspectives with humor and charity. I’m resisting saying anything else.

  • Thomas Armstrong

    I confess that I haven’t read beyond your post, Justin, but I don’t find much wrong with Kreeft — which perhaps means my understanding of Buddhism comes from a bushel of the tropes?

    First off, the Hindus did not and do not take their gods literally. It is true that in the villages, isolated from the main thrust of Buddhism, many Buddhists and Hindus come to a too-literal belief in things, making nonsense out of what’s profound. But all this only better makes Kreeft’s point. A Christian God is supposed to be taken literally.

    As for Buddha being a man. Of course he claimed to be a man, Justin — in the sense that he didn’t claim NOT to be one, which is Kreeft’s point.

    As for the ego thing, I think Kreeft is precisely correct. I come away from your post more worried about your Buddhism than Kreeft’s.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100001120721082 Bert Lee

      It’s an unfortunate distortion of dharmic practice to think that the objective of meditation is to aggressively quash the Ego in some ascetic pogrom against Self. This is mistaken and naive representation of the Middle Way.

      It is simply the case that the hard work of meditation, of peeling away the artifacts of the self-involved mind, requires a balanced & strong ego. It’s careful work to open and then remain open to the greater realms of compassion, love, and joy.

      And it actually requires faith, a belief in one’s ability to abide the present moment.

      • Thomas Armstrong

        Since only you, Bert Lee, are entertaining the idea of “aggressively quash the Ego in some ascetic pogrom against Self” you have only you to argue for or against it. [You are colorful, though. I grant you that.]

        • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100001120721082 Bert Lee

          I am pleased to know that what’s colorful does show through.

          Perhaps you didn’t notice, but Kreeft & Shea evinced that caricature of Buddhism’s relationship to self. You mentioned that you agreed with them. Hence my rejoinder.

          Granted I didn’t contextualize it, so it may seem to be of no concern to you, but it’s a common aspersion cast at Buddhism – one of self-abnegation & annihilism.

          It’s a thicket of views, and for those of us who’ve gone over this before, we already can anticipate the next talking point.

    • justinwhitaker

      Please read beyond my post, Tom :) I’m not sure about your take on ‘literalness’ in any of the traditions; I suppose I would need specific examples (and explanations for counterexamples). Read the Dona Sutta on the Buddha being a human; it seems to be what Kreeft is hinting at (he doesn’t cite *anything* though), but he has misquoted it – thus the need to ‘read beyond’ both of us.

      • Thomas Armstrong

        I have not done as you suggested. It just seems you choose to engage in a debate claiming your savior has more magic mojo than Kreeft’s. If Buddha was not a man then perhaps Buddhism is all about teaching unicorns how to meditate.

  • http://www.facebook.com/SJSworks Matthew Cohen

    Nothingness is the wrong interpretation of Emptiness. Emptiness is simply the lack of inherent existence, or basically all existence is conventional and interdependently arising. Nothingness does not follow from this at all, its an absurd conclusion. I don’t understand how a philosophy professor could misinterpret this so badly when Garfield, another philosopher, has made this so clear in The Fundamental Wisdom Of The Middle Way commentary. SMH

    • justinwhitaker

      Indeed, Matthew – and I would imagine this discussion (and the strong refutation ‘nihilism’) has been basically mainstream in studies of Buddhism for *at least* 50 years.

    • http://wonderwheels.blogspot.com/ Gregory Wonderwheel

      The Lankavatara Sutra lists seven kinds of use of the term “emptiness” from the most mundane and lowest to the most profound. The lowest is the “empty” that is indicated when something is missing or not there, that is, there is one thing and not another. This is the “nothingness” kind of emptiness which is the most mistaken kind of emptiness. The order of 1 to 6 represents the 6 kinds of emptiness used in Buddhist discussion from the simplest to the most profound, while the 7th is the worldly conventional use of “empty” and is not for Buddhist use in reference to the Buddha Dharma.

      Buddha said, “Mahamati, by an outline I articulate seven kinds of emptiness, designated as: (1) The emptiness of characteristics (lakshana), (2) the emptiness of the own-nature of nature (bhavasvabhava), (3) the emptiness of doing (pracarita), (4) the emptiness of non-doing (apracarita), (5) the emptiness of all things being free from verbal articulation (nirabhilapya), (6) the great emptiness (mahasunyata) of the noble innate-knowledge (aryajnana) of the primary meaning (paramartha), and (7) the emptiness of one and another (itaretara) which is the seventh.”

  • http://wonderwheels.blogspot.com/ Gregory Wonderwheel

    LOL! “Oh dear. Where to begin?” is the most pithy comment about that very confused and biased article. That “the Buddha was urging us to see that what he-and his teaching- represented was something beyond our current typologies and limited experience” is the reason that he never used his given family name to refer to himself and never said “I”, but basically invented a new label for message and personal voice that he was speaking with, and so he referred to himself as “Tathagata,” the “thus-come” or “thus-gone.”

    Buddha said, “Be ye lamps unto yourselves” is one version. I like this longer version of the Atta Dipa:

    You are the light.
    Dwell therein.
    You are the refuge.
    There is not another refuge.
    The Dharma is the light.
    The Dharma is the refuge.
    There is not another refuge.

    I seriously doubt that Christ said “I am the light of the world.” in the sense that he meant he was the only light and no one else was the light.

    Saying 24 of the Gospel of Thomas has a saying that is probably closer to what Jesus the Christ actually said:

    24 Become Light To All The World

    His disciples said this, “Show us the place where you are, because it is
    necessary for us to seek after it.”

    He said this to them, “Whoever has ears, let him hear. There is light existing
    within a person of light, and he becomes light to all of the world. If he does not become light he is a darkness.”

    I think Jesus was teaching this way about light-not egotistically-but the poor misguided disciples misunderstood him like “Blessed are the cheese makers” in the film Life of Brian.

    To see how Zen deals with the question of the relationship to the absolute there is the koan “Dongshan Was Not Well” which is case 94 of the Record of the Temple of Equanimity”:

    Dongshan was not well. A monk asked, “The Venerable is sick, yet is there one who is not sick?”

    Shan said, “There is.”

    The monk said, “Does the one who is not sick yet look after the Venerable or not?”

    Shan said, “There is the distinction that the old monk (I, Dongshan) looks after the other.”

    The monk said, “At the time the Venerable looks after the other, what is it like?”

    Shan said, “Normally, I do not see there is sickness.”
    Looking at this koan one can see the relationship to “the one who is not sick” also called “the other” as the Absolute which is analogous to God in Christianity. In Christianity the person is so very pleased that God looks after us. But in Zen the proper relationship is not that God looks after us but that we look after God, the one who is not sick. It is for us to take care of the Absolute, not for us to wait for the Absolute to take care of us. This “taking care” or “looking after” is the meaning and activity of the spiritual/religious life.

  • justinwhitaker

    Mumon at “Notes in Samsara” has a post on this as well, here: http://mumonno.blogspot.com/2013/05/christian-apologetics-and-need-to-turn.html

    And a commenter on fb adds: “Ed Sellner, by contrast, a professor of Catholic theology in America, is currently writing a book about Merton’s and Kerouac’s approaches. They both were strongly influenced by D.T. Suzuki. If it is half as good as his other works it should be well worth a read. Stay well clear of Kreeft.”

  • http://twitter.com/khawachen Karze

    Buddhism encourage personal responsibility while Catholicism depends blind faith on God the creator.

    My main problem with those believing in creation is: On one hand you accept god as perfect and who created this world. Yet we see so many imperfections in this world from abject poverty, diseases, disaster.

  • Pingback: More Buddhism in Congress? This time it could be via Republican Mark Sanford.()

  • justinwhitaker

    Exactly. I do enjoy discussions of the sort that bring people together in some way in mutual understanding, but Kreeft’s seems to be a rather unhelpful attempt at simple ‘one-upsmanship’ – Our guy is better than your guy…

  • Douglass Smith

    I meant to write up a few notes on this awhile back. While I agree the piece by Kreeft is wanting, I’m concerned there may be something of a background disconnect here between religious studies and religious philosophy or theology.

    Re. the son of man/son of God issue: IIRC Jesus’s apotheosis basically took place after his death. (I’ll have to revisit my Ehrman to be sure about this). If so, then it would be correct to criticize Kreeft based on interpretations of both historical persons: neither claimed to be a god or God. It would then also be correct to argue that while the later Christian tradition uniformly claimed Jesus as both man and God, the later Buddhist tradition was somewhat more variable, with certain parts of the tradition claiming him to be a superhuman figure, even a figure not unlike some nonstandard versions of the Christian God, and other parts of the tradition tending to see him in more human terms.

    Re. the comment:

    “There is no comparison to the relationship of the Christian to God, which is what Kreeft is getting at, because the Christian God is fundamentally different in kind than the Buddhist gods.” Kreeft merely asserts this, and he does so without precedent or proof. I know this is a fundamental tenet of your faith, but it isn’t very convincing to anyone who isn’t already a member of your faith. It is lazy evangelizing.————–

    On the standard theological definition, the Christian God *is* fundamentally different in kind from the Buddhist gods. The Christian God is everlasting, all powerful, all knowing, perfectly good, and the creator of all that will ever exist. That is not true of any of the Buddhist gods. This distinction makes a theological difference: it’s supposedly what grounds a believer’s relationship to the Christian God as one of justified worship.

    True, there is some wiggle room in later, apotheosized notions of the Buddha, but I don’t think these are comparable to the standard God of theology, especially given notions of śunyata that invariably accompany them.

    Re. the book by Knitter that brings together Christianity and Buddhism: I haven’t read the book so cannot comment on its contents, but prima facie to make the marriage work one must overlook several central aspects of either or both religions. On that topic, I’m wondering if you’ve seen Keith Yandell and Harold Netland’s book _Buddhism: A Christian Exploration and Appraisal_.


    One of their aims is to point out the deep differences between both religious approaches. Yandell illuminates how Christianity and Buddhism differ on fundamental philosophical issues; as a Christian he does not agree with the Buddhist take, and argues against it, as he does in another book of his on philosophy of religion.


    I recommend the books not because I have read them carefully (I’ve only skimmed them), but because I studied a bit under Yandell, and TA’d a couple of Philosophy of Religion courses with him that included Buddhism, so I am familiar with his approach. While obviously I didn’t agree with a lot of his criticisms, they are nevertheless worth consideration and study. (FWIW, the Buddhism book does get good blurbs from Paul Williams and Paul Griffiths on the back and interior).

    My biggest complaint about Yandell’s approach is that it is very much from 10,000 feet: he doesn’t do close textual study, so he leaves a lot up to the reader. IOW his are works of critical philosophy, not religious studies.

    The background point is that there is a difference between doing religious studies and religious philosophy or theology. In religious studies one views all religions as in some sense equally valid, and internal or external criticism on rational points is eschewed. In religious philosophy or theology, reasoned argument and criticism are part of the point.