A Comparison of Christian Faith
and Buddhist Faith
by Paul Roberts
I would like to explain the difference between Christian faith and
This was a critical question for me (and is for many Westerners) when I
first came to Shin Buddhism: Earlier in my life (1976-85), I too had
embraced the Christian faith. So when I finally came to hear the Dharma
as taught by Master Shinran (Shin Buddhism, or Jodo Shinshu), the basic
idea of "needing to be saved" sounded eerily familiar, though the
context was radically different.
As I begin addressing this issue, it's interesting to note that when
Christian missionaries arrived in Japan, they found the population
entirely resistant to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. That's because
Shinran's teaching of the Dharma had come to dominate the Japanese
People in Japan who were karmically ready to hear a soteriological
message (a message based on the need for salvation) had their karmic
needs met in Shinran's teaching. Consequently they didn't need to hear
the teaching of the Apostle Paul - the great expounder of the Christian
doctrine of salvation by faith.
Indeed, Master Shinran has been called "the Martin Luther of Japan"
because of his insistence on salvation BY FAITH ALONE.
Now, I went through that introduction both for context, and also to
acknowledge the superficial structural similarities between the two
religious traditions. And at this point it's useful to say that indeed
are structural similarities among various religions, whether those
religions are co-located in space or time (like Buddhism and Hinduism)
or not (like Shin Buddhism and Christianity).
For example, Buddhism and Hinduism share a good deal of structure.
Shakyamuni Buddha grew up in northern India and His teaching includes
use of what we would call "yogas" - various methods of shifting
consciousness - which are part of Buddhist thought.
But of course, the Buddha's teaching also includes concepts and ideas
that are very different from Hinduism. Similarly, Shin Buddhism is
based on concepts that are radically different from Christian concepts
- which creates the differences in terms of the FAITH in each of them.
So, having briefly acknowledged some similarities let's talk a bit
about some of the main differences.
1. THE GODHEAD
At the very heart of Christianity is the figure of the Triune God - the
God of the Old and New Testaments. Shakyamuni Buddha, on the other
hand, steadfastly refused to answer questions about God. He said that
for us, such questions simply didn't address the issue that was always
uppermost in His mind: suffering and the end of suffering. He also said
that to discuss the concept of God would inevitably lead to quarreling.
2. FIRST CAUSES
Anyone with a smattering of Christian education knows that the God of
the Bible is considered the "first cause" of existence. And, from the
Christian perspective, the "first cause" of mankind's current darkness
can be located in the primal disobedience of Adam and Eve as told in
the Book of Genesis. Buddha Dharma, however, deliberately avoids a
discussion of first causes.
3. THE QUESTION OF ETERNAL DAMNATION
The Bible is clear that for those who reject Christ's call, eternal
damnation awaits. Whether we're talking about burning forever in a lake
of fire, or simply ending up in a state of existential alienation from
light and life - the picture is one of being shut out FOREVER.
Buddhism also has its vision of hell-realms - but Buddhism also asserts
that all sentient beings have Buddha-Nature (Skt. tathagatagharba), and all sentient
beings eventually have a full experience of that nature as Buddhas - no
matter how many ages it might take for that experience to manifest.
Speaking personally, for me one of the great sustaining joyful concepts
in the Dharma is the idea that eventually ALL become Buddhas. It
provides (for me) a great medicine against what would otherwise be a
sense of despair about the seeming intractability of darkness in the
4. THE QUESTION OF REBIRTH
Early on in Church history, there were those who believed in the idea
of rebirth. But as Church doctrine codified, this idea was discarded
as incorrect. In Buddhism, rebirth is a basic fact of the Dharma.
I'm not going to get into one of those endless discussions about
rebirth vs. reincarnation that Buddhists have been having for 2500
years. But clearly there is something that is intrinsic to each of us
that survives this current life we are living. Simply reading
Shakyamuni Buddha's description in the Larger Sutra of Amida Buddha about
many lives of the Bodhisattva Dharmakara, who finally becomes Amida
Buddha, makes that clear enough.
Speaking personally, once again - this Dharma is the most powerful and
wonderful medicine for me. Indeed, one of the things that precipitated
my leaving the Christian faith was the fact that most of my blood
family were European Jews who perished in the Holocaust. Because of
years of vile anti-Semitic behavior by Christians (of which the
Holocaust was the apotheosis) there was no way these poor people would
have ever responded to the Gospel message.
I just couldn't wrap my mind around the idea that an all knowing
Creator God would load the dice so that the six million Jewish victims
of the Holocaust would inevitably end up in any sort of hell, with no
way out - ever.
So the Dharma - with its LONG view of existence through many lifetimes
- and its promise of universal salvation made perfect at last through
the Primal Vow of Amida Buddha - has given me much comfort and hope
5. THE IDEA OF EVIL
When I came to Master Shinran's writings for the first time -
comparing Shinran to a lot of modernist writers from all schools of
Buddhism - the presence of the word EVIL was disconcerting. Here is one
place where Master Shinran and St. Paul sound like they're reading from
the same hymn book, so to speak.
But in fact they're NOT.
Master Shinran's idea of evil is firmly grounded in the Buddha's
just as St. Paul's is firmly grounded in the Bible account of Genesis.
For Shinran, the root of evil is our IGNORANCE. It is essentially an
ONTOLOGICAL issue - an issue of BEING. We tend to do evil because we
are being blinded to our Buddha-Nature by our countless delusions and
For Paul, the root of our evil is DISOBEDIENCE to God's will. It is
essentially a MORAL issue. We tend to do evil because the whole race is
infected with the moral disobedience of the primal human parents, Adam
6. THE MECHANISM OF SALVATION
In Christianity, the mechanism of salvation is the substitutionary
atonement of Jesus Christ, as explained most clearly by the Apostle
Paul. The innocent Lamb of God decides to bear the burden of the
punishment due me, a sinner who has violated God's moral law. My
guilt is imputed to him, and his righteousness is imputed to me.
In fact, in Christianity, the mechanism of atonement, sacrifice and
scapegoat occurs repeatedly as a theme foreshadowed in the Old
Testament. It is part and parcel of the reality of the broken
relationship between a totally just God and a totally defiled humanity.
In Shin Buddhism, on the other hand, the mechanism of salvation is in
the declaration of
the 48 Vows by Bodhisattva Dharmakara resulting in his ultimate
transformation to Amida Buddha and the creation of His Pure Land (Skt. sukhavati).
What both mechanisms have in common is the imputation of righteousness
and the removal of moral or karmic debt.
7. THE HISTORICAL FIGURES
This is a bit tricky to discuss, because the only historical documents
we have about Jesus are the Gospels, and those were not written down
until several decades after Jesus walked the Earth, according to many
scholars. Most of Jesus' direct followers were illiterate...and Jesus'
public ministry lasted only 3 years.
Therefore the accounts are questionable, because they could have
changed a lot over time by word of mouth.
The Buddha, on the other hand, was surrounded by a cadre of scholarly
monks, and had a public ministry for 45 years. Large chunks of His
teachings were committed to memory and passed down as such - and were
finally written down in pristine form as the Sutras. Therefore the
accounts are possibly a lot more reliable than those in the Gospels.
With that said, the Jesus of the Gospels was definitely a HOT figure -
while the Buddha of the Sutras was a COOL one. The best example I can
give is the one of Jesus fashioning a whip of cords and chasing the
moneychangers from the Temple. Another would be the time that Jesus
wept, as he contemplated the tomb of Lazarus.
It is impossible to conceive of the Buddha doing such a thing - because
as the Buddha, He had extinguished ALL His passions and lived in the
coolness of NIRVANA.
So - a fair and honest reading of the texts themselves gives me (at
least) a sense of two men who were very different in their levels of
realization. One (Shakyamuni) was a full Buddha - with the
characteristic of both
ultimate compassion AND ultimate dispassion.
The other (Christ) was a great spiritual teacher - with great
compassion, but also still great passion,
capable of being stirred to righteous anger and human grief. A true
Buddha is beyond both of
those strong and potentially disorienting
I'm sure that scholarly types could list many more differences between
Christian faith and Buddhist faith, but I'll stop here.