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Buddhism and Catholicism: a Fundamental Difference?

Buddhism and Catholicism: a Fundamental Difference? June 11, 2010

This week, Nathan at Dangerous Harvests pointed me to an interesting post by an old friend, Tom Armstrong at his Sacramento Homeless Blog.

To borrow heavily from Nathan’s post (see the original for more from the Buddho-blogosphere):

Tom Armstrong has a fascinating post examining the languaging on homelessness in a newsletter for a branch of Loaves and Fishes in Sacramento. The newsletter opens with a quote from Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield, and then goes on to make a decidedly Christian statement about homeless people: 


They may look like humble clay as they trudge along 12th Street towards Loaves & Fishes but the stress of shared homelessness cracks open their humanity and gives us glimpses of the spark of divinity within them.


Tom goes on to comment, “Catholics, like other Christians, see people as essentially sinful. The Buddhist view is the opposite: People are essentially noble and good.” 


Check out the whole article for more; it’s worth looking at partly because I think some convert Buddhists, who were immersed in Christian traditions before becoming Buddhists, really struggle to flip over the narrative that people are “sinful by nature.”

The ‘sinful by nature’ language is definitely a turn-off for many converts in the West to Buddhism. And like Nathan (in his comment on Tom’s blog), I too missed the subtle spin given to the original story by L&F.;

But here’s the basic idea: In Jack Kornfield’s story, the clay/muck statue which was so-so symbolized us in our daily lives. The golden Buddha within it represents us at our fullest potential, our awakened nature. 

On the other hand:

In the Catholic L&F; version via Tom’s post, the clay/muck statue represented ‘certain of our clients… but the stress of shared homelessness cracks open their humanity and gives us glimpses of the spark of divinity within them.’  

It’s subtle, but the twist seems to be that while Kornfield was suggesting we see the inner Awakened Nature hidden within each of us, the L&F; message is that we might see beyond our human nature to our ‘spark of divinity.’



Awakened Nature… Spark of Divinity


Are they the same? Are they different? Are they both the same and different? Are they neither the same nor different? (basic Buddhist logical categorization)


I think it’s number 3: both the same and different. Why?


Awakened Nature in Buddhism and the Spark of Divinity in Christianity are the same because both demand that we look beyond our narrow (egocentric) visions of ourselves. Both push us instead toward a unifying aspect of ‘us’ – the ‘us’ that is awake, just like everyone else, and the ‘us’ that is a part of and one with God, just like everyone else. 


Each thus provide for an alleviation of suffering in one who is trapped in selfish and superficial clinging/aversion.  Each too points to a wisdom that is beyond our ignorant (sinful?) knowledge of things as they are.



Awakened Nature is different from the Spark of Divinity for many reasons, context and historical traditions among them. But in particular is the drive in (mainstream) Catholicism and Christianity toward ‘other power’ – that is surrendering yourself to another force in the Universe for salvation. This does occur in Buddhism as well, and has historically been very popular in China after the 6th century and Japan some centuries later. However, most Buddhist traditions subscribe to some form of ‘self power’ – the notion that we and we alone are responsible for our eventual awakening. So the idea of a ‘divinity’ within us that is found under stress is naive at best, escapist and delusional at worst.

Ultimately Though…



Just how you understand all of this should be a matter of your own practice, be it Christian or Buddhist. One of my dear Catholic friends once told me that in Christianity, humanity is fundamentally sinful, but even more fundamentally pure. I think he might have gotten that from Tony De Mello (book links below), himself influence by Hinduism and Buddhism. And my own knowledge of Catholicism is that it is very diverse; many Catholics have far more in common with H.H. the Dalai Lama than they do with H.H. the Pope.


And, as mentioned, many Buddhists would perhaps agree in some sense with the L&F; spin on Kornfield’s story; that our ‘humanity’ is but clay encasing our divine/Buddha nature. Humanity in early Buddhism is the most favorable realm of the ‘sense-realm’ to be born into (better than gods, animals, etc); but it is not the BEST rebirth = so called ‘once returners’ will be born in the ‘form realm’ of purity before rebirth, and those who awaken under the Buddha will not be reborn at all. So we should not get too caught up in our humanity and all its foibles. 



A LOT of Buddhism and Catholicism aims to make us see the foibles of our ‘human condition’ (be-it sinful or ignorant) and to work toward its alleviation.  The vehicles are certainly different, true. And at times even contradictory, yes. But even different schools of Buddhism, or different teachings within schools might be seen as contradictory. 


In Contradictions is the Light…


But when we find these contradictions, they might just be a call to look deeper. One of my teachers expressed the notion of ‘views’ very well with a figure of a pyramid or triangle. We get stuck to ‘views’ on one edge or the other, but it’s only in the middle (when we let go) that we can move upward toward Truth. And guess what – when people on the ‘other side’ do the same, we both end up at the same place. 


Of course that doesn’t mean that our views must all be let go of. Sometimes (oftentimes) we need them to function in life and to work toward positive change in the world. And it’s not to say that all views have some inherent dignity or truth. Like ‘flat-earthers’ or Sarah Palin about pretty much everything; some things simply don’t relate to reality on any level.



When it comes to the ‘fundamental’ meaning of Catholic wisdom or most Buddhism, I simply cannot say I know. That is for you to seek for yourself.


Be diligent in your path. Be Wise. But don’t be narrow.


BOOKS by De Mello:



Seek God Everywhere: Reflections on the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius
Awareness: The Perils and Opportunities of Reality

The Way to Love (Image Pocket Classics)
The Song of the Bird

Wellsprings: A Book of Spiritual Exercises
Awakening: Conversations with the Masters


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