Buddhism and Christianity – two different outlooks [Theory]

Christianity and Buddhism have two completely different outlooks. It is misleading to say that both religions have some kind of shared essential message.

  1. Buddhism proposes a morally ordered Universe. The actions (even mental actions) you commit always have consequences. Cause and effect applies in the moral sphere. If the effect of the action (good or bad) is not realised in this lifetime it will be experienced in a future one. The doctrine of reincarnation – with a moral law of cause and effect extending over multiple lifetimes – is central to Buddhism.
  2. Thus Buddhism has an answer for Job’s question about how a just God can permit those who do evil to be happy. People who commit evil in this life may appear to be happy but the fruit of their misdeeds simply hasn’t ripened yet.
  3. The Buddhist theory of Karma appears to say that all human situations are the effects of previous causes. If a bullet flies out of nowhere and kills you as you walk down the street this is not an accident. This is an effect of a specific cause. Some Western writers on Buddhism – of the kind whose main project is to turn Buddhism into some kind of Christianity – offer the following explanation of Karma: all your actions do have consequences. But not everything which happens to you is the result of previous actions. However this does not appear to be how Buddhists understand Karma. It appears that in Buddhism everything a person experiences is a result of some previous Karma. [1]
  4. The implications for this are clear. If you take someone suffering from (say) mental illness and who is homeless – someone in a very bad situation – Buddhism  says that that is a working out of Karma. The same applies to someone starving in a famine in Ethiopia.
  5. It follows from this that the Buddhist exercise of compassion in relation to our symbolic suffering person is very single-minded. The one thing to do to help this person is to teach them the Dhamma (Buddhism), so that they make ‘better choices’ and determine a better Karmic course for themself. Again; the Buddhist approach to human suffering – the Buddhist expression of compassion – appears to be to limited to (or focussed on) teaching people the Dhamma.
  6. The Christian meta model is different. There is no concept of reincarnation. A person does reap the fruits of their moral actions – in a posthumous judgement – but each lifetime is a one-off deal.
  7. The Christian model does allow therefore what Buddhism does not (and what the Christian diluters of Buddhism try to say it does) – the possibility of “misfortune” – that people can be in bad situations through no ‘fault’ of their own.  Furthermore; even if Christianity accepts fault – the homeless man is there because of bad choices he has made – the Christian exercise of compassion can still be focussed on helping him – materially. (A Christian might explain this on the basis that if the homeless person is assisted to a better material situation then he might be better positioned to make better moral choices). Christianity – lacking the strict doctrinal connection between every experience and a predictive action – has a ‘broader’ vision; which can encompass room for social change. (Ed. ‘broader’ here is not intended to mean ‘better’ or ‘truer’).

Christianity is more Aramaic.

Christianity has the principle that compassion can be exercised by helping those who are suffering at a material level. To do this is a virtue in Christianity. This help has a real benefit to those helped. It isn’t necessary to convert them or teach them Christian doctrine. Buddhism, because of its strict adherence to a moral law and a moral universe, its belief that everything that is experienced is a moral consequence, asserts that the only way to help those who are experiencing a bad situation is to help them get onto the Buddhist path.

Christianity is more humanistic in its worldview than Buddhism which is essentially a moral cosmology.

8. It follows that in Christianity there is a debate about how to help. Put very simplistically there are two ‘types’ of helping. One type is characterised (by the other) as ‘paternalistic’. The second type is concerned with social justice. (This may take a reformist or even revolutionary path). An expression of the former is to send food to Ethiopia. An expression of the second is to attempt to address the social (and economic and political) conditions which are thought to be causal in the situation of famine in Ethiopia. Some movements in Christianity thus find themselves aligned with purely secular movements for social justice.

9. So. Two different outlooks leading to two different responses to suffering. The above explains why we do not see Buddhist charities helping (to continue with our sample cases) the homeless and the hungry. But we do see Christians engaged in such activity.

10. Which outlook is true? Are Christians engaged in charitable or political work of the kinds described above operating in a state of delusion and ignorance – doing nothing but perpetuating ignorance, as Buddhism would appear to imply?

Should one engage politically with the world (or, at least, do charitable work), or not? This would appear to be quite a fundamental question.



1. I’ve read a number of Buddhist texts (e.g. the Dhammapada) and several texts by Buddhist scholars (as opposed to Western diluters).  It is in fact difficult to find a clear statement of Karma. The emphasis does appear to be on the idea that all actions have consequences but; my overall impression (based e.g. on an essay by a Soto Zen scholar and a talk with a Soto Zen teacher) is that the moral law of cause and effect is seen as absolute. Everything you perceive – the whole construction of your experience of the world – is the result of Karma. (This is how Hesse understood Buddhism – the bullet example is his).

Author: justinwyllie

EFL Teacher and Photographer