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What Differentiates Buddhism from Christianity
TEACHINGS AND ADVICE: Advice from A Virtuous Friend
By Lama Zopa Rinpoche
Rajesh, my physiotherapist in Nepal asked me if I had to be Christian, would I be Christian. In essence, this is my reply:
Christianity doesn’t have the four noble truths, which are:
1. True suffering
2. True cause of suffering
3. True cessation
4. True path
Concerning the first noble truth, true suffering, Christianity doesn’t explain true suffering well. It almost doesn’t mention true suffering or the suffering of suffering. It does not mention how samsaric rebirth is in the nature of suffering. It does not mention how samsaric death is in the nature of suffering. It does not mention the suffering of sickness and old age. Maybe it mentions the suffering of some poor or sick people, but it does not really mention the suffering of sicknesses. Then the main suffering in life, dissatisfaction, is also not mentioned; nor does it explain how the aggregates are in the nature of suffering. However, these are all explained in the lam-rim and sutra teachings of the Buddha.
For instance, the Buddha’s teachings contain extensive explanations of the five aggregates (form, feeling, cognition, mental formations, consciousness) in the samsaric realms: the desire, form and formless realms. Beings in the formless realm only have mind, no form, so they have only the mental aggregates and they are in the nature of suffering. We have gone through these three realms numberless times from beginningless rebirths, caused by karma and delusion. There are also teachings that explain the shortcomings of the aggregates.
There are three types of suffering:
1. Suffering of suffering
2. Suffering of change
3. Pervasive compounding suffering
The suffering of change refers to how temporary samsaric pleasures are in the nature of suffering and how they are temporary. This is what people in the world refer to as “happiness.” This is also only in the nature of suffering. However much samsaric pleasure we have, still we are never satisfied and we always want more. The suffering is wanting more but not being able to get more; also that it is not guaranteed to last. All of this is suffering. Then, of course we die, death can happen in the meantime, so we never achieve satisfaction.
It is very true what The Rolling Stones said in one of their songs, singing along with their guitars: “I tried and I tried and I tried, but I can’t get no satisfaction.” Actually, this is exactly the same as what the Buddha said, but this is The Rolling Stones’ own experience, and they have put it in a song. This is how samsaric pleasure is in the nature of suffering.
Regarding the suffering of change, there is an explanation in the Lam-rim Chen-mo by Lama Tsongkhapa where he says when we feel hot due to the sun and then go into cool water, initially, we feel pleasure. That pleasure comes from being out in the heat and then going into the cool. The suffering of heat stops being great and the suffering of cold starts from small. If we stay too long in the cold water, the suffering gets greater and greater and gradually becomes suffering of suffering. Initially, the mind labels that feeling pleasure.
Pleasure does not come from its own side; it is labeled by the mind. This is one example of how samsaric pleasure is only in the nature of suffering. Like this, all samsaric pleasures are only in the nature of suffering. This is how we can understand that samsaric pleasures are in the nature of suffering of change.
Then there is pervasive compounding suffering. Our aggregates are pervaded by suffering because they are under control of karma and delusion. If they were not under the control of karma and delusion, they would not be in the nature of suffering.
Why do our aggregates experience the sufferings of birth, sickness, old age, death, separating from desirable objects, meeting undesirable objects and not finding the things we desire? These sufferings are because of pervasive compounding suffering. If we press our flesh we experience pain, not bliss; also, when an ant or mosquito bites us we feel pain, not bliss.
Pervasive compounding suffering comes from ignorance, anger and attachment. The root of all suffering is ignorance, not knowing the “I,” that which is totally empty from its own side. There are also imprints from the past that arise.
When we meet beautiful, ugly or indifferent objects we generate attachment, anger and ignorance, and this leaves imprints (seeds) on our mind. These imprints are the cause of future samsaric rebirths, which are also in the nature of suffering. In this way it goes on and on, compounding future lives’ suffering and causing this life’s suffering as well. This is how our five aggregates are pervasive compounding suffering.
To be completely free forever, not only from the suffering of suffering but also the suffering of change and pervasive compounding suffering, we have to realize emptiness, and not just realize emptiness but also directly perceive emptiness. Only then can we directly cease the seed of delusion, which creates suffering. This is why in Buddhism it is very important to realize emptiness (shunyata in Sanskrit and tong-pa-nyid in Tibetan). This is so essential; without this, then no matter what other realizations of sutra and tantra we have, we still cannot be free of the suffering of samsara forever.
Christianity says that suffering came from God. If this is the case, then God becomes the root of the suffering and in order to be free forever from suffering, then wouldn’t it be better to eliminate God? Wouldn’t it be better that God didn’t exist? If you think like this then you may attempt to destroy God, make him nonexistent, but there is no way to destroy God as God cannot be destroyed, God is inherently existent.
My other big question is, if God created the world, then didn’t God also create suffering? Wouldn’t it have been better if God hadn’t created the world at all? Adam ate the apple and then suffering started. Didn’t God create the apple and also Adam? If God did not create the apple and Adam, then there would not be any suffering.
We can go through more analysis.
What is God? The ultimate nature of phenomena is emptiness. Emptiness is not God. The nature of phenomena, which are impermanent, is not God. The nature of phenomena is not God; phenomena are not God.
Does God have mind or not? Does God have compassion for sentient beings or not? If God has compassion for sentient beings, who are suffering, then God has mind. If God has mind, then God is a living being. Then where is God?
Regarding the second noble truth, the true cause of suffering, in Buddhism, suffering comes from the mind, not from God or Buddha. Suffering comes from the mind but not from renunciation, bodhichitta and right view; suffering does not come from wisdom. Wisdom knows Dharma and ultimate wisdom, which realizes emptiness. This wisdom can be developed to directly realize that all phenomena are empty.
Suffering comes from ignorance. What is ignorance? Not perceiving the “I” and the aggregates to be empty, as they are empty. Suffering comes from believing them to be truly existent. Suffering does not come from generating compassion for sentient beings; compassion helps to eliminate suffering.
ULTIMATE WISDOM causes us to be free from samsara, from continuously taking birth with defiled aggregates. COMPASSION for suffering sentient beings causes us to be free from liberation for ourselves alone, to not get caught in liberation for ourselves. With wisdom and compassion together, we are able to achieve enlightenment, which means ceasing the gross and subtle defilements and achieving full enlightenment.
The true cause of suffering is karma and delusion. In Buddhism, all suffering comes from our own mind. Therefore, the most important thing is to cease karma and delusion, including their seed. This is liberation, ultimate happiness, the total cessation of suffering and the cause of suffering, which is karma and delusion. This is nirvana, everlasting happiness, and in Buddhism we are able to achieve this.
What makes it possible to achieve liberation is explained by the fourth noble truth, the true path, which is the wisdom directly perceiving emptiness, directly ceasing the cause of suffering, the delusions. This is why it is so important to learn the Madhyamaka teachings, the teachings on emptiness only, which is the ultimate nature of phenomena. These teachings explain how things are empty in reality. Everything that appears to us is a hallucination. What we believe is real is actually wrong belief, not right belief. Right belief is that everything is empty, and while everything is empty, it exists in mere name, merely labeled by the mind. That is right belief. While everything exists in mere name, merely labeled by the mind, everything is totally empty from its own side; nothing exists from its own side, it is totally empty. That is why the phenomena that exist are unified in emptiness and dependent arising. That is the way they exist and that is how the “I” exists.
Besides realizing this, we also need full renunciation of samsara in order to achieve ultimate liberation.
Here is a quote from Panchen Losang Chökyi Gyaltsen, who was like the sun shining on this earth and wrote many sutra and tantra teachings and benefited the Buddha’s teachings and sentient beings like the sky:
The way of reflecting on the hundreds1 of shortcomings of samsara:
Even though many beings are frightened by suffering of suffering,
And wish to be free from it, even the animals want this.
His Holiness the Dalai Lama said:
Suffering that you know is suffering,
And having the wish to be free from this,
Even animals have this wish.
For example, if you threaten a dog with a stick the dog runs away because the dog knows you’re going to hit him and he will have pain. This is because the dog has experienced it in the past and suffered. The dog is frightened, thinking he will suffer, so he runs away. When a dog is hungry he runs to look for food because he knows the suffering of hunger and wishes to be free from that. This shows how even animals are frightened of the suffering of suffering.
Even the outer beings2 have renunciation
Of deluded happy feelings.
His Holiness the Dalai Lama says that there are enlightened happy feelings that buddhas have. Also eighth, ninth and tenth bhumi bodhisattva have happy feelings of liberation from samsara. Also arhats, who have achieved lower nirvana, have the happy feelings of liberation from samsara. So these are happy feelings that we should try to achieve.
Any other kind of delusional happy feeling comes from the root of suffering, ignorance. All those happy feelings that we experience numberless times with our aggregates are completely under the control of karma and delusion. The root of that delusion is ignorance.
The second suffering of samsara is the suffering of change. Even outer beings (mutekpa) recognize the suffering of change and the deluded happy feeling, which is actually suffering.
Outer beings who seek concentration, who meditate with firm contemplation, have renunciation and see desire realm, which includes some deva realms3, happiness as only in the nature of suffering. They are totally detached from the desire realm and try to achieve the form realm, thinking there is more happiness there. The desire realm has so many sufferings, it is short, rough and only suffering in nature. They achieve the happiness of the form realm through meditation. Later, through meditation, they see the form realm happiness as only suffering in nature and look for the formless realm. The formless realm has four stages: limitless sky, limitless consciousness, nothingness and the tip of samsara. They gradually achieve the first three stages but they are unable to renounce the fourth stage because there is no higher samsaric realm that they can compare it to. That is why even those who have achieved renunciation of the previous realms cannot be free from samsara. This is why Buddhists, inner beings, meditate on the sufferings of these realms, including those of the formless realm, which is also only in the nature of suffering.
Panchen Losang Chökyi Gyaltsen also said:
These aggregates, closely taken through
The nature of compoundedness,
Contain established suffering and the one yet to be.
If one meditates viewing them as
Barley, rice or pain, then sinking thought dissipates.4
The meaning of this quote is: the aggregates of closely taken (Tib: nyer-len) means karma and delusion. The main cause of the aggregates is karma and delusion. The aggregates are caused by impure causes, karma and delusion, so that is why the aggregates are in the nature of suffering.
These aggregates, with the seed of delusion, compound the suffering of this life and create the suffering of the future, and this is the basis of suffering. If this third suffering, pervasive compounding suffering, is recognized as suffering, then the wish to be free from it will arise.
His Holiness the Dalai Lama said that when the thought to be free from this suffering arises, then at that time the thought to be free from the suffering of change and the suffering of suffering arises. This comes by the way.
Liberation from the third suffering, pervasive compounding suffering, is called liberation, or nirvana. According to Buddhists, real liberation is forever, it is not temporary, and we attain everlasting happiness, forever; we are free from suffering forever, not temporarily. So even though non-Buddhists (mutekpa) and other religions talk about liberation, they do not have this level of liberation, as it is explained in Buddhism. Buddhist liberation is liberation from I-grasping through recognition of it as a delusion. While we are under the control of this we can’t achieve everlasting happiness. In Buddhism, liberation means victory over the enemy, delusion. That is the real liberation, freedom from the enemy, delusion. Otherwise, when we say liberation maybe we’re thinking of heaven or a pure land, but that is not liberation. Heaven can be samsaric, like the form and formless realms – they can be thought of as higher heavens compared to the desire realm. In Buddhism, freedom from suffering refers to freedom from pervasive compounding suffering. That is the real meaning of seeking liberation and that is why Buddhists have to meditate on suffering.5
Renunciation of samsara is not mentioned in Christianity. But without this renunciation there is no way to achieve liberation from samsara.
Just like us, all samsaric sentient beings are suffering. By thinking of this we generate compassion for all, and then from that we generate bodhichitta, the wish to free them from suffering and bring them to full enlightenment. In order to cause this, we have to become fully enlightened, to be fully qualified to bring all beings to full enlightenment. The special principal conscious, that which has the five similarities6 with the wish seeking to do all the work for others and to achieve enlightenment for that, that realization is called bodhichitta. This is missing in Christianity. Without bodhichitta we cannot achieve full enlightenment and cannot enlighten all sentient beings.
Christianity talks about compassion but it is mainly for poor people. There is no compassion for rich people. However, rich people also have many sufferings, particularly mental ones. Compassion is only mentioned for a few people, like poor and sick people, and there is no mention of compassion for animals, such as pigs, sheep, goats, fish and so forth. The Bible even says that goats, sheep, fish and so forth are given by God for people to eat, which is completely wrong.
Whether God has compassion or not is a big question. If God has compassion, then why doesn’t God have compassion for animals? Is it that God has compassion only for some people, for those who believe in him, but does not have compassion for those who don’t believe in him?
Buddha has compassion for everyone – those who criticize Buddha, give up Buddha and do not believe in Buddha – Buddha has compassion for all. Buddha has compassion for every single sentient being, not just those who like him. So in Buddhism there is compassion for all living beings.
Buddhism has three levels of teaching – Hinayana, Mahayana Sutra and Mahayana Vajrayana. There are three levels of teaching because sentient beings have different levels of mind: some lower, some middle and some higher.
By practicing Hinayana we can become free from samsara and reach nirvana but cannot attain full enlightenment.
By practicing the Mahayana Sutra path we can achieve full enlightenment, but it takes three countless great eons collecting the merits of virtue and the merits of wisdom. These are the causes of the dharmakaya (Buddha’s holy mind) and the rupakaya (Buddha’s holy body).
By practicing the Mahayana Vajrayana path we can achieve full enlightenment in one lifetime without taking three countless great eons collecting merits, which are the cause for the dharmakaya and rupakaya. This is because the Mahayana Vajrayana path has greater skillful means of collecting the merits that take three countless great eons to collect on the Mahayana Sutra path. Here we can collect these merits in one lifetime.
Specifically, the Mahayana Vajrayana path has four levels: kriya tantra, charya tantra, yoga tantra and maha-anuttara tantra. By practicing the maha-anuttara tantric path we can achieve full enlightenment in not just one life, but in one brief lifetime of degenerate times. Since this has the highest skillful means, we can achieve enlightenment most quickly because we can stop the gross mind and utilize the subtle mind, and through this achieve full enlightenment. This is the highest and quickest path.
This is how the Buddhist teachings relate according to the different levels of sentient beings’ minds.
What differentiates Buddhism from all other religions is that Buddhism has compassion for all living beings. No other religion has this compassion for all: people we like, people we don’t like and people who don’t like us, as well.
From the three principal aspects of the path to enlightenment7 we can realize all the paths of Buddhism. We can achieve not only temporary happiness but also the happiness of future lives and ultimate happiness: liberation from samsara and full enlightenment. We are so lucky that we have met these teachings.
Being a Buddhist doesn’t depend on being able to explain Buddhist philosophy or knowing the sutras and tantras by heart. Nor does it depend on being able to chant well or recite many mantras. Being able to do all this does not necessarily mean you are Buddhist.
Being a Buddhist is in the mind, the mind of refuge: firstly, having beneficial fear towards our own samsara. We don’t want to continue in samsara, particularly the animal, hungry ghost or hell realms. We want to be free from that. Then secondly, knowing that Buddha, Dharma and Sangha have the power and all the qualities to guide and liberate us from samsara.
Having complete trust in Buddha, Dharma and Sangha is the Hinayana way of taking refuge.
Mahayana refuge is firstly, having useful fear for ourselves to be free from samsara, and secondly, knowing that Buddha, Dharma and Sangha have the complete qualities to guide us and then on top of that generating compassion for all sentient beings, wishing them to be free from the suffering of samsara. With that in mind we go for refuge to Buddha, Dharma and Sangha.
If our mind does not have this and from the outside we are only reciting mantras, doing prostrations or even explaining texts by heart, like many scholars do, then that does not really mean that we are Buddhist. This is very important to understand.
Therefore, studying Buddhism is very important, and studying what is correct, so that we can clarify what is wrong. If we have intelligence, then we can study Buddhist philosophy extensively, including the four schools of Buddhism that existed in India when the Buddha was teaching. These four schools have four ways of thinking about the “I.” Of course, in reality there is no “I” that we can find; there is only the “I” that is merely labeled. That “I” creates the cause of samsara and the cause of enlightenment – freedom from samsara and the ability to achieve enlightenment.
Of course, there are many religions in the world, such as Christianity, Hinduism, Islam and so forth. These different religions are needed. It’s like having different clothes or different kinds of food in a restaurant; we need variety for different people. Christianity is needed for people who have the karma to devote themselves to Christianity and Hinduism is needed for those who have the karma to devote themselves to Hinduism and so forth. We must respect other religions, but that doesn’t mean we have to practice them. But we must have respect for them because many people in the world need Christianity and the other religions for their happiness. Therefore we must respect that. There are some Christians whose aim is not to convert other people to Christianity, but to take the suffering of others, like leprosy and so forth, onto themselves, wishing others to be free from these sufferings. There are some very sincere Christians.
Also, as a Buddhist, one can act as a Christian if there is a special purpose, or if there is special benefit to sentient beings.
Rinpoche gave the following advice to his physiotherapist at Kopan Monastery, Nepal. Scribe Ven. Holly Ansett, June to August 2011. Lightly edited by Nick Ribush.
You can read more advice from Lama Zopa Rinpoche on this topic at Lama Yeshe Wisdom Archive.
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When I talk of being detached, what I mean is to be simpler, more easy-going. Detachment doesn’t mean totally renouncing everything. It means that you loosen your grip and be more relaxed.
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