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Buddhism: A Christian Exploration and Appraisal

Keith Yandell and Harold Netland.
Published by IVP Academic in 2009

Philosophers Keith Yandell and Harold Netland offer an excellent historical and apologetic study of the Buddhist tradition. Chapter 1 describes its origins in India under the title “Early Buddhism.” Chapters 2 and 3 chart changes and innovations as “The Dharma Goes East” to China, Tibet and Japan and as “The Dharma Goes West.” Chapters 4 and 5 choose a variety of Buddhist schools and doctrines to subject to rigorous intra-systematic and dialectial analysis for coherence and plausibility. The last chapter, “The Dharma or the Gospel,” compares Gautama and Jesus in the context of Theravada Buddhist and historic Christian verities.

“Early Buddhism” traces the rise of the Theravada tradition in the sixth and fifth centuries BC India. Gautama, called “Buddha” (enlightened one), took a radically different position regarding the nature of the soul compared to his contemporaries. Jains believed innumerable souls exist, Upanishadic Hindus believed One soul exists (Atman is identical with Brahman), but Gautama rejected both with his no-soul-at-all doctrine. This is the most distinctive teaching of the Buddhist tradition, the implications of which are later examined inchapters 4 and 5. The oral teachings of Gautama were written down by about 100 BC and consist of five distinctives: 1) The Buddha’s teachings are found authentically in a collection of texts called the Pali Canon. 2) The fundamental doctrines may be summarized as the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path. 3) No creator deity exists or is necessary to solve the problem of the human condition. 4) Individual progress on the path to nirvana is the result of one’s own efforts. 5) Gautama was strictly and only a human who claimed neither divine assistance nor qualities.

Chapter 2 identifies how Buddhist thought and practice diversified as its Mahayana doctrines spread to China, Tibet, and Japan after the first Christian century. Mahayana texts affirmed basic doctrines of Theravada but valorized the bodhisattva (mythical enlightenment being) as the true ideal, indeed rival of the Theravadin hero, the arahat. Gautama himself is reconceptualized as only one of innumerable Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. Contrasting with Gautama who is sub-divine though super-human, these godlike beings, when called upon by faith, grant earthly petitions and ultimately even nirvana. When the authors finish describing the radical differences between Mahayana’s Madhyamaka, Pure Land, Vajrayana and Zen expressions, the reader might well wonder what coherence there is to “Buddhism,”the principle rubric of the authors.

Chapter 3, “The Dharma Goes West,” traces the arrival of Buddhist thought and practice in the U.S. in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries through immigration and the publications of Japanese Zen Masters D. T. Suzuki and Maseo Abe. The appeal of Zen in America is due, in part, to how Suzuki and Abe essentialized the Buddhist tradition, claiming that the experience of satori (nirvana) was the heart not only of the Buddhist religion but all religions. Other Buddhists were critical of Suzuki’s interpretation of enlightenment which endorsed the “nonethical” behavior (to be distinguished from unethical) they feared would besmirch Zen and lead to irresponsible and socially harmful conclusions.

Chapter 4 critiques Buddhist truths of rebirth, karma, impermanence, no-self, dependent co-origination, enlightenment and nirvana, concluding that many basic metaphysical claims are incoherent or reductionistic. The authors defend their decision to focus on doctrine (rather than ethics, for example) for several reasons. First, the Buddhist claim to cure the “human disease” is credible if, and only if, the dharma is a true depiction of the nature of reality. Second, a correction is in order in the academic study of Buddhism. Religious studies departments of Western universities have, on the authors’ view, bypassed Buddhist doctrine, preferring rather to focus on the observable features of rites, ceremonies, architecture. Third, despite the modern trend to see Buddhism as tolerant, doctrinal analysis shows the tradition is no less exclusivisitic than others since each religion “regards its own perspective as uniquely true and superior to other alternatives” (107). Finally, the disclaimer that Buddhism’s teachings are merely pragmatic, like a raft abandoned after crossing the river, is incorrect since doctrine “does not cease to be true, when one’s aims have been realized”(117).

The authors contend that the no-soul doctrine is the lynchpin of the Buddhist system and that, when subjected to analysis, it reduces the soul to a mere succession of momentary states. When applied to the Buddha himself, the consequences are far-reaching and radical. It means there is no Buddha to act on behalf of the unenlightened, for “the Buddha makes no choices and has no emotions. If all conscious states are thoughts, choices, or emotions, then the Buddha has, or is in, or is composed of, no mental state whatever” (140).

Chapter 5 examines issues and positions such as those held by the Pudgalavadin, Madhyamaka and Abhidharmist schools. Three different interpretations of Madhyamakaare identified, which the authors treat extensively: nihilist (nothing exists), absolutist (something exists) and ineffabilist (a reality exists but one that cannot be named). While the irineffabilist critique has force, it does not quite connect with my understanding of Madhyamaka’s main thrust. The school sought to deal with the harmful implications of early Buddhist thought about the skhandas or “heaps.” Theravada seemed to imply that though the no-soul doctrine is unassailable, the five skhandas (dharmas) comprising the momentary states had an irreducible reality. The point of Nagarjuna, founder of Madhyamaka, was to attack the ontology of such putative entities indirectly, not by suggesting ineffability but by excluding all putative and potential points of attachment by means of the doctrine of emptiness (shunyata). Nagarjuna’s proposal was that all entities, mental, material, doctrinal and discursive, are without own-being and thus there was no place where one could stand, nothing to be grasped, nowhere to attach oneself — which when experienced, was enlightenment. His view was not that “there is a reality that is ineffable” (the authors’ summation of Madhyamaka) but that all claims to know an existent reality are foundation less since all things have “no-marks” and are therefore shunya (empty) (163).

Those interested in dialogue and the theology of religion will find chapter 6, “The Dharma or the Gospel?” of keen interest. While there may be “striking similarities” between some Buddhist and Christian thought, these are mostly of a formal and insubstantive nature. Contrasting Gautama and Jesus, the authors suggest in a preliminary way why “Christian theism is more plausible than Buddhism” (177). The following alternatives are explored in considerable detail:

1. Does God’s existence, affirmed by Jesus and denied by Gautama, favor one view over the other? Brief but good supports for God’s existence are laid alongside substantive Buddhist objections. But if God exists, the nod goes to Jesus.
2. Does the history of Jesus’ life, found in the New Testament (with all the questions about its reliability) have greater credibility than Gautama’s life whose teaching, though said to occur in history, renders history largely irrelevant? Does history count and if so how much does it count?
3. Is the Christian diagnosis of sin as the root problem more or less convincing than the Buddhist claim of ignorance as the basis of spiritual disease?
4. Are the claims of Jesus’ followers that he is deity and the claims of Gautama’s later (Mahayana) followers that he was the earthly manifestation of a cosmic principle (the Trikaya doctrine) equally the result of a long-term, multi-century evolution? Or does the undeniably long period (300-400 years) of gestation before the Trikaya doctrine emerges contrast starkly with evidence that acceptance of Jesus’ divinity appears within 100 years in “the earliest evidence we have of Christian belief and practice” (207)?
5. Whose acts can provide maximal happiness: the Buddha’s by his dharma or the personal life-death-resurrection of Jesus?

Overall, the authors say the book “provides an introduction to Buddhism and some of its central metaphysical claims” (xvii). While chapters 1 to 3 may be considered introductory, chapters 4 and 5 are heavy going, though rewarding to the reader who can follow the authors as they painstakingly deconstruct Buddhist thought. The blend of the historical, the critical, and the normative offers a utility for the book in a variety of venues from undergraduates to specialists to general audiences interested in Buddhist-Christian studies. For myself, I will be testing its suitability for my undergraduate religions classes.

The title Buddhism: A Christian Exploration and Appraisal suggests a promise that may be only half kept. The Christian appraisal is there. But the category “Buddhism” is overly broad and though the authors explain that their purpose is to focus on doctrine and not matters of practice, ethics, ritual and ceremony, the world of the lay Buddhists in “Buddhism” is sadly absent. One is tempted to ask, “Whose religion is ‘Buddhism’?” This leads to my final point.

From a methodological perspective, the term “Buddhism” is an unhappy choice for the title as the term has proven problematic in academic studies. Historian of religion Wilfred Cantwell Smith argued that there is no such thing as “Buddhism” to be found, only “Buddhisms.” The term does not communicate anything meaningful. The authors recognize this explicitly in one place when they say: “While there are clear similarities between Theravada and Mahayana Buddhist traditions, the differences between them are also unmistakable, and at times are so great that one wonders whether we are still dealing with the same religion” (34). But other nondescript categories include: “classical Buddhism” (116), “Indian Buddhism” (140), “traditional Buddhism” and “typical Buddhism” (150). Just as there is no homogeneity to “Buddhism,” so there is none in “classical,” “traditional,” or“typical” Buddhism. This aside, I am most grateful to these authors who have placed such a substantial study before us.

Cite this article
James F. Lewis, “Buddhism: A Christian Exploration and Appraisal”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 39:3 , 353-356

James F. Lewis

Bethel University (Indiana)
James F. Lewis, Religious Studies, Bethel University