Do Buddhism and Christianity have common ground in ethics?

by Luke Wayne
7/13/17

Buddhism and Christianity are starkly different religions that offer almost wholly opposite views of the world. They differ on pretty much every essential doctrine. Some will argue, however, that behind all of this, both religions hold to very similar ethics. They are very close, we are told, in their ideas of what is right and wrong, and this is common ground on which to build a dialogue and perhaps even work toward a shared goal of human goodness. Not only is this flawed because neither Buddhism nor Christianity hold mere "human goodness" as their ultimate goal, but the problem in this reasoning actually goes much deeper. The truth is that, behind any superficial appearance of similarity, the Buddhist and the Christian have radically opposed ideas about morality.

On a shallow, surface level examination, it is certainly true that Buddha prohibited certain behaviors during his life in India that Moses and the prophets had prohibited long before him during their lives in Israel. The Buddhist, along with the Jew and the Christian, will say words like "do not murder," "do not steal," "do not commit adultery," and "do not be disobedient to your parents." Selfishness, pride, and covetous desires are spoken against in both traditions. There is, in certain areas, a common ethical vocabulary between the Buddhist and the Christian. Behind the mere words, however, are two wildly different sets of ideas.

The Nature of Morality

Buddhism teaches that there is no morality and that good and evil are a false duality that one must transcend. Thus, in Buddhism, theft and adultery are merely unwise and inadvisable, whereas in Christianity they are objectively evil. Such a difference is highly significant and should not be overlooked. Buddhist scholar Walpola Rahula, in rejecting the idea of objective right and wrong as a dangerous notion, explains:

"The idea of moral justice arises out of the conception of a supreme being, a God, who sits in judgment, who is law-giver and who decides what is right and wrong."1

The Japanese Buddhist Masao Abe likewise stated:

"There is no Buddhist equivalent to the Christian notion of justice,"2

Thus, the Christian and Buddhist mean fundamentally different things when they make ethical statements.

The Nature of the Moral Act

The essence of a moral action is also markedly different in Buddhism than it is in Christianity, so much so that a moral action in a Christian sense is considered a foolish perpetuation of suffering in Buddhism, even if the acts outwardly appear similar. For example, Buddhism teaches that there is no such thing as a personal self and no real distinction between one object and another. The illusion of personal existence and individual identity is, in fact, the source of all suffering. This teaching is at the very core of all Buddhism. So, when a Christian refuses to commit violence against his neighbor because he considers his neighbor to be an individual person made in the image of God to whom a special dignity is afforded over other created things, Buddhism would say that the Christian is not actually acting wisely. When the Christian seeks to love his neighbor as himself, he must of necessity recognize that he is one person and his neighbor is another. You cannot love your neighbor as yourself if there is no neighbor and there is no self. To consciously make someone else a priority above yourself requires you to cultivate personal humility while cultivating love, honor, and devotion to other persons. All of this, in Buddhism, is the foolish perpetuation of suffering. If Buddhism were true, the Christian would not actually be doing good. He would be doing great harm. The Christian would be multiplying suffering in the world that would extend on into future lifetimes. Christian restraint and charity are harmful on the Buddhist scheme because they are necessarily built on the idea of personal selves, which is the single greatest problem in the Buddhist conception of the world. The corollary, then, must also be true. The Buddhist cannot obey the moral obligations of the Christian. He cannot love his neighbor as himself, at least not as the Christian means those words. The Buddhist cannot love the LORD his God. He is not even permitted to believe in the LORD his God. God is an eternal, unchanging personal being. The very existence of God is a refutation of Buddhism. Nothing can be personal, and nothing can be unchanging. Thus, all Christian moral action is wholly un-Buddhist.

Conclusion

In spite of any appearance of similarity, there is a vast chasm between Buddhist and Christian ethics. The subject of ethics is, indeed, an important ground for Buddhists and Christians to meet on in dialogue, but it is because of the wide contrast between the two rather than any kinship. The consistent Buddhist cannot truly affirm that any Christian moral act is good, and indeed must see it as harmful. The consistent Christian must affirm that any Buddhist moral action is tainted by sin, devoid of faith, and ultimately unpleasing to God. Without faith in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Buddhist is, at best, offering up filthy rags. This is, indeed, an important reason for Christians and Buddhists to engage with one another, not because of similarities, but rather because of irreconcilable differences. And it is exactly here that the gospel can be explained and clarified.

  • 1. Walpola Rahula, "What the Buddha Taught: Revised and Expanded Edition with Texts from Suttas and Dhammapada" (Grove Press, 2007) Kindle Edition, Chapter 3
  • 2. Keith Yandell and Harold Netland, "Buddhism: A Christian Exploration and Appraisal" (IVP Academic, 2009) 193