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For centuries, Buddhism has been the dominant religion of the
Eastern world. With the rise of the Asian population in the United
States, Buddhism has had a tremendous impact on this country as
well. Presently, there are an estimated 300 million Buddhists in
the world and 500 thousand in the United States.{1} It remains the
dominant religion in the state of Hawaii, and many prominent
Americans have accepted this religion, including the former
governor of California, Jerry Brown,{2} Tina Turner, Phil Jackson
(coach of the Los Angeles Lakers), Richard Gere, and Steven
Seagal. The Dalai Lama has become a prominent spiritual figure for
many throughout the world.

The Origin of Buddhism

Buddhism began as an offspring of Hinduism in the country of India.
The founder was Siddhartha Gautama. It is not easy to give an
accurate historical account of the life of Gautama since no
biography was recorded until five hundred years after his death.
Today, much of his life story is clouded in myths and legends which
arose after his death. Even the best historians of our day have
several different--and even contradictory--accounts of Gautama's

Siddhartha Gautama was born in approximately 560 B.C. in northern
India. His father, Suddhodana, was the ruler over a district near
the Himalayas which is today the country of Nepal. Suddhodana
sheltered his son from the outside world and confined him to the
palace where he surrounded Gautama with pleasures and wealth.

Despite his father's efforts, however, Gautama one day saw the
darker side of life on a trip he took outside the palace walls. He
saw four things that forever changed his life: an old man, a sick
man, a dead man, and an ascetic. Deeply distressed by the
suffering he saw, he decided to leave the luxury of palace life and
begin a quest to find the answer to the problem of pain and human

Gautama left his family and traveled the country seeking wisdom. He
studied the Hindu scriptures under Brahmin priests, but became
disillusioned with the teachings of Hinduism. He then devoted
himself to a life of extreme asceticism in the jungle. He soon
concluded, however, that asceticism did not lead to peace and self-realization
but merely weakened the mind and body.

Gautama eventually turned to a life of meditation. While deep in
meditation under a fig tree known as the Bohdi tree
(meaning, "tree of wisdom"), Gautama experienced the
highest degree of God-consciousness called nirvana. Gautama
then became known as Buddha, the "enlightened
one." He believed he had found the answers to the questions
of pain and suffering. His message now needed to be proclaimed to
the whole world.

As he began his teaching ministry, he gained a quick audience with
the people of India since many had become disillusioned with
Hinduism. By the time of his death at age 80, Buddhism had become
a major force in India.

Expansion and Development of Buddhism

Buddhism remained mostly in India for three centuries until King
Ashoka, who ruled India from 274-232 B.C., converted to Buddhism.
Ashoka sent missionaries throughout the world, and Buddhism spread
to all of Asia.

Even before its expansion, two distinct branches developed, a
conservative and a liberal school of thought. The conservative
school is labeled Theravada, and it became the dominant form of
Buddhism in Southeast Asia. Thus, it is also called Southern
Buddhism. Southern Buddhism has remained closer to the original
form of Buddhism. This school follows the Pali Canon of scripture,
which, although written centuries after Gautama’s death, contains
the most accurate recording of his teachings.

The liberal school is Mahayana Buddhism, which traveled to the
north into China, Japan, Korea, and Tibet, and is also called
Northern Buddhism. As it spread north, it adopted and incorporated
beliefs and practices from the local religions of the land. The
two branches of Buddhism are so different they appear to be two
different religions rather than two branches of the same tree.
Here are a few differences.

Theravada Buddhism sees Buddha as a man. Gautama never claimed to
be deity, but rather a "way shower." Mahayana Buddhism,
however, worships Buddha as a manifestation of the divine Buddha
essence. Since Gautama, many other manifestations or
bodhisattvas have appeared. An example is Tibetan Buddhism,
which worships the spiritual leader the Dalai Lama as a

Theravada adheres to the Pali Canon and Buddha’s earliest
teachings. Since Mahayana believes there have been many
manifestations, this branch incorporates many other texts written
by the bodhisattvas as part of their canon.

Theravada teaches that each person must attain salvation through
their own effort, and this requires one to relinquish earthly
desires and live a monastic life. Therefore, only those few who
have chosen this lifestyle will attain nirvana. Mahayana teaches
that salvation comes through the grace of the bodhisattvas and so
many may attain salvation.

Divine beings do not have a place in Theravada. The primary focus
is on the individual attaining enlightenment, and a divine being,
or speculations of such, only hinders the process. Therefore,
several sects of this branch are atheistic. Mahayana, on the other
hand, has many diverse views of God since this branch is inclusive,
and has adopted the beliefs and practices of various religions.
Many schools are pantheistic in their worldview while others are
animistic. Buddha is worshipped as a divine being. Some schools
pay homage to a particular bodhisattva sent to their people. Other
schools have a mixture of gods whom they worship. For example,
Japanese Buddhism blended with Shintoism and includes worship of
the Shinto gods with the teachings and worship of Buddha.

When speaking with a Buddhist, it is important to understand what
branch of Buddhism they are talking about. The two branches are
dramatically different. Even within Mahayana Buddhism, the sects
can be as different as Theravada is to Mahayana.

The Way of Salvation

The main question Gautama, the founder of Buddhism, sought to
answer was, "Why is there pain and suffering?" His
belief in reincarnation (the belief that after death one returns to
earthly life in a higher or lower form of life according to his
good or bad deeds) prompted a second question that also needed to
be answered: "How does one break this rebirth cycle?"
The basic teachings of Buddhism, therefore, focus on what Gautama
believed to be the answer to these questions. These basic tenets
are found in the Four Noble Truths and in the Eight-fold Path. Let
us begin with the Four Noble Truths.

The First Noble Truth is that there is pain and suffering in the
world. Gautama realized that pain and suffering are omnipresent in
all of nature and human life. To exist means to encounter
suffering. Birth is painful and so is death. Sickness and old age
are painful. Throughout life, all living things encounter

The Second Noble Truth relates to the cause of suffering. Gautama
believed the root cause of suffering is desire. It is the craving
for wealth, happiness, and other forms of selfish enjoyment which
cause suffering. These cravings can never be satisfied for they
are rooted in ignorance.

The Third Noble Truth is the end of all suffering. Suffering will
cease when a person can rid himself of all desires.

The Fourth Noble Truth is the extinguishing of all desire by
following the Eight-fold path. "The Eight-fold path is a
system of therapy designed to develop habits which will release
people from the restrictions caused by ignorance and

Here are the eight steps in following the Eight-fold path. The
first is the Right View. One must accept the Four Noble Truths.
Step two is the Right Resolve. One must renounce all desires and
any thoughts like lust, bitterness, and cruelty, and must harm no
living creature. Step three is the Right Speech. One must speak
only truth. There can be no lying, slander, or vain talk. Step four
is the Right Behavior. One must abstain from sexual immorality,
stealing, and all killing.

Step five is the Right Occupation. One must work in an occupation
that benefits others and harms no one. Step six is the Right
Effort. One must seek to eliminate any evil qualities within and
prevent any new ones from arising. One should seek to attain good
and moral qualities and develop those already possessed. Seek to
grow in maturity and perfection until universal love is attained.
Step seven is the Right Contemplation. One must be observant,
contemplative, and free of desire and sorrow. The eighth is the
Right Meditation. After freeing oneself of all desires and evil, a
person must concentrate his efforts in meditation so that he can
overcome any sensation of pleasure or pain and enter a state of
transcending consciousness and attain a state of perfection.
Buddhists believe that through self-effort one can attain the
eternal state of nirvana.

In Buddhism, one’s path to nirvana relies on the effort and
discipline of the individual. By contrast, Jesus taught our goal
is not a state of non-conscious being, but an eternal relationship
with God. There is nothing one can do to earn a right relationship
with God. Instead, we must receive His gift of grace, the
sacrificial death of His Son, Jesus Christ and this restores our
relationship with our creator.

Karma, Samsara, and Nirvana

Three important concepts in understanding Buddhism are
karma, samsara, and nirvana.

Karma refers to the law of cause and effect in a person's life,
reaping what one has sown. Buddhists believe that every person must
go through a process of birth and rebirth until he reaches the
state of nirvana in which he breaks this cycle. According
to the law of karma, "You are what you are and do what you do,
as a result of what you were and did in a previous incarnation,
which in turn was the inevitable outcome of what you were and did
in still earlier incarnations."{4} For a Buddhist, what one
will be in the next life depends on one's actions in this present
life. Unlike Hindus, Buddha believed that a person can break the
rebirth cycle no matter what class he is born into.

The second key concept is the law of samsara or
transmigration. This is one of the most perplexing and
difficult concepts in Buddhism to understand. The law of Samsara
holds that everything is in a birth and rebirth cycle. Buddha
taught that people do not have individual souls. The existence of
an individual self or ego is an illusion. There is no eternal
substance of a person, which goes through the rebirth cycle. What
is it then that goes through the cycle if not the individual soul?
What goes through the rebirth cycle is only a set of feelings,
impressions, present moments, and the karma that is passed on.
"In other words, as one process leads to another, ... so one's
human personality in one existence is the direct cause of the type
of individuality which appears in the next."{5} The new
individual in the next life will not be exactly the same person,
but there will be several similarities. Just how close in identity
they will be is not known.

The third key concept is nirvana. The term means "the
blowing out" of existence. Nirvana is very different from the
Christian concept of heaven. Nirvana is not a place like heaven,
but rather an eternal state of being. It is the state in which the
law of karma and the rebirth cycle come to an end. It is the end of
suffering; a state where there are no desires and the individual
consciousness comes to an end. Although to our Western minds this
may sound like annihilation, Buddhists would object to such a
notion. Gautama never gave an exact description of nirvana, but
his closest reply was this. "There is disciples, a condition,
where there is neither earth nor water, neither air nor light,
neither limitless space, nor limitless time, neither any kind of
being, neither ideation nor non-ideation, neither this world nor
that world. There is neither arising nor passing-away, nor dying,
neither cause nor effect, neither change nor standstill."{6}

In contrast to the idea of reincarnation, the Bible teaches in
Hebrews 9:27 that "…man is destined to die once and after that
to face judgment." A major diverging point between Buddhism
and Christianity is that the Bible refutes the idea of
reincarnation. The Bible also teaches that in the eternal state,
we are fully conscious and glorified individuals whose relationship
with God comes to its perfect maturity.

Jesus and Gautama

There is much I admire in the life and teachings of Gautama. Being
raised in the Japanese Buddhist culture, I appreciate the ethical
teachings, the arts, and architecture influenced by Buddhism. As
I studied the life and teachings of Gautama and of Jesus, I
discovered some dramatic differences.

First, Buddha did not claim to be divine. Theravada remains true
to his teaching that he was just a man. The idea that he was
divine was developed in Mahayana Buddhism 700 years after his
death. Furthermore, Northern Buddhism teaches that there have been
other manifestations of the Buddha or bodhisattvas and some believe
Jesus to be one as well. However, Jesus did not claim to be one of
many manifestations of God; He claimed to be the one and only Son
of God. This teaching was not the creation of his followers but a
principle He taught from the beginning of His ministry. In fact,
the salvation He preached was dependent on understanding His divine

Second, Buddha claimed to be a way shower. He showed the way to
nirvana, but it was up to each follower to find his or her own
path. Christ did not come to show the way; He claimed to be
the way. While Buddhism teaches that salvation comes through
Buddha’s teachings, Christ taught salvation is found in Him.
When Jesus said, "I am the way the truth and the life"
(John 14:6), He was saying He alone is the one who can give
eternal life, for He is the source of truth and life. Not only did
He make the way possible, He promises to forever be with and
empower all who follow Him to live the life that pleases God.

Third, Buddha taught that the way to eliminate suffering and attain
enlightenment was to eliminate all desire. Christ taught that one
should not eliminate all desire but that one must have the right
desire. He stated, "Blessed are they who hunger and thirst
for righteousness for they shall be satisfied." Christ taught
that we should desire to know Him above all other wants.

Fourth, Buddha performed no miracles in his lifetime. Christ
affirmed His claims to be divine through the miracles He performed.
He demonstrated authority over every realm of creation: the
spiritual realm, nature, sickness, and death. These miracles
confirmed the claims that He was more than a good teacher, but God

Finally, Buddha is buried in a grave in Kusinara at the foot of the
Himalaya Mountains. Christ, however, is alive. He alone conquered
sin and the grave. His death paid the price for sin, and His
resurrection makes it possible for all people to enter into a
personal and eternal relationship with God.

After a comparative study, I came to realize Buddha was a great
teacher who lived a noble life, but Christ is the unique revelation
of God who is to be worshipped as our eternal Lord and Savior.


1. Isamu Yamamoto, Buddhism, Taoism and Other Eastern Religions, (Grand
Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan Publishing, 1998), p. 23.

2. Walter Martin, Kingdom of the Cults (Minneapolis: Bethany House 1985),
p. 261.

3. Kenneth Boa, Cults, World Religions, and the Occult (Wheaton, Ill.:
Victor Books, (1977) p. 35

4. Davis Taylor and Clark Offner, The World's Religions, Norman Anderson,
ed. (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1975), p. 174.

5. John Noss, Man's Religions (New York: Macmillan Company, 1968), p. 182.

6. Taylor and Offner, The World's Religions, p. 177.

© 1994 Probe Ministries

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