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Malaysian Ex-Buddhist on the Western Fascination with Buddhism

Of all religions, Buddhism claims the 4th largest number of adherents worldwide. This religion, oftentimes described as a “way of life,” is also gaining some level of traction amongst people of the West who have thrown off the sweet yoke of Christ. Since a serious question deserves a serious reply, let us first consider some of the basic tenets of Buddhism.

One of the central views of Buddhism is their consideration of the changeability and imperfections of our world, which is full of suffering and should ideally be escaped through a process of liberation. This process of liberation or illumination terminates in a state called “Nirvana,” which is basically the belief that one who attains to this state would effectively dissolve into nothingness. Buddhists believe that each person undergoes an endless cycle of life and death called “saṃsāra” unless they escape this endless cycle by Nirvana.

Why Buddhism appears so attractive to some is largely imputable to its flexibility, as the belief-system does not include a clear list of beliefs to adhere to, nor do they have a centralized teaching authority to teach them definitively and condemn errors. This resonates well with the prideful desire of fallen human nature to dislike being told what to do.

Additionally, Buddhism does not necessarily include a belief in a supreme being, although the worship of deities is permissible. It is very much possible to be an agnostic and adhere to Buddhism at the same time. It is no wonder why this religious system is often esteemed by people of a liberal worldview. Buddhism is amiable to the modern liberal because it does not impose moral obligations which binds one in conscience. It is a rather convenient religious worldview that is easily adaptable to one’s own fancies.

While I was living in Australia briefly, one of my housemates, a non-religious person, told me how he enjoyed listening to Tibetan chant by Buddhist monks in his room. I told him that I loved chant too, except that it was Christian chant. He gave me a blank stare, as if he had never known that there was such a thing as Western chant. This event confirmed my suspicion that most Westerners who have an attraction to aspects of Eastern religions such as chant, meditation, and asceticism are mostly unaware that these elements can also be found in Christianity.

As most of our readers would know, our Catholic tradition carries a rich repertoire of chant, both Western (Gregorian) and Eastern (e.g. Byzantine). Ascetical practices such as fasting, penance, and intensive prayer are the bread and butter of the Church’s many saints. Also, the Church has always held monasticism in great esteem, and contemplative orders such as the Benedictines, the Carmelites, and the Carthusians bear witness to the importance of withdrawing from the world and contemplating God, which all peoples are all called to practice to some degree even if one is not a cloistered monk. There is no need to seek out a Buddhist monk to teach what is already contained in the Church’s tradition. The fact that many are ignorant of the Church’s tradition is owed to the effects of the Protestant reformation and the modernization of most Catholic parishes today, both of which erode the sacred tradition of the Church. Starved of the Church’s tradition, many seek to quench their longings through Eastern religions.

While Buddhists claim to have a realistic worldview for recognizing that many earthly pleasures are merely fleeting and unnecessary, they fall short of providing the true solution to the misery of this world. While a devout Buddhist may be more enlightened than a hedonist who merely seeks to maximize one’s earthly pleasures in this life, the Buddhist worldview is fundamentally incomplete by failing to take proper account of goodness. Buddhism overemphasizes the imperfections of earthly life and ends up branding the world in an overly pessimistic light, thus departing from reality and closing itself off into a cold indifferentist view of the goal of human existence. To the Buddhist, the final end of human life is to escape this world of suffering by fading into nothingness through Nirvana. Whereas for the Christian, the final goal is not only to be freed from suffering, but ultimately to be united to Goodness itself – that is God, for eternity. Nor can the Christian goal be criticized as unrealistic, for to believe in a God is in accord with human reason.

St. Thomas Aquinas famously explained in his second way of demonstrating the existence of God that we observe a chain of cause and effect in the world around us, and it is observable that each cause is in itself, an effect of an earlier cause. This could either mean that this chain of efficient causes stretches back in time to infinity or that a first cause exists that is in itself uncaused. Because it is more reasonable to admit the existence of a first cause than to postulate an infinite regression of causes, Aquinas argues that this first cause is God, for only God is uncaused and has no beginning.

An analogy that may help us imagine this would be to think about the links of a chain which connects a chandelier to a ceiling. Each link of a chain is held up by another link, but these series of links do not stretch on to infinity, otherwise the chandelier would not be able to be hung from the ceiling. There needs to be a hook which is itself drilled into the ceiling for the chandelier to be hung successfully. Likewise in creation, it is perfectly in accord with reason to postulate the existence of an uncaused cause, also known as a first principle, in order to explain the existence of all things around us.

On the other side of the coin, Buddhists generally believe that the cycle of rebirth and death stretches on to infinity, and that even their deities (if they believe in any) are subject to this cycle of endless rebirth. It is much more logical to admit the existence of a first principle than to believe in infinite regression. We mustn’t forget, of course, that Aquinas’ second way is just one way of demonstrating the existence of a first principle, and that there are several other ways to demonstrate this, thus lending greater credence to the admission of a first principle.

Although the world is imperfect due to the effects of sin after the Fall, we must not lose sight that creation is intrinsically good, for Holy Writ tells us: “God saw all the things that he had made, and they were very good” (Genesis 1:31). To the Buddhists, they view human desire as an imperfection that enslaves us to our own whims. They identify desire itself—that is, wanting anything—as one of the main roots of human suffering, and they seek to eliminate it entirely by practicing self-control, with hopes of attaining to Nirvana if they persevere in their ascetical practices. This is contrasted with the Christian view that human desire is fundamentally good, although it can be distorted by sin. Christians can never condemn human desire as an evil in itself, for desire is rooted in human emotions which were given by God. To call desire evil would be to implicitly blaspheme the goodness of God.

In his book, the “Confessions”, St. Augustine considered the nature of human desire at great length. Augustine viewed this topic through the philosophical framework of the Neoplatonists, and he basically understood that there are three basic kinds of things that human persons desire: physical pleasure, truth/power, and honour/justice. These desires are rightfully ordered towards goodness, but because of sin, these desires can be distorted and turned into a cause for more sin and suffering. The desire for physical pleasure, initially intended to bring about a person to more joy, can be turned into a cause for sorrow by turning the person into a restless slave to his own carnal desires of intemperance by gluttony, lust, and physical comforts. The desire for truth & power, initially intended for the attainment of true knowledge and legitimate rightful possessions, can be distorted by leading a person into the darkness of error and greed instead. The desire for honour and justice, if distorted, enslaves a person by making a person vain, prideful, and vengeful.

In the words of Augustine himself, “every inordinate affection should bring its own punishment.” With this understanding of the nature of human desire, it is evident that the Christian view is far more realistic and balanced. While the Buddhist seeks to eliminate desire entirely, the Christian seeks to order desire towards its original purpose given by God. To the Christian, it’s a question of whether one’s desires are ordered or disordered, instead of falling into the excess of the Buddhists who view desire as evil and that the ideal is to be free from experiencing any desire at all.

This consideration of human desire brings up a final point, that of love. Love is the most intense of all human emotions, and while anyone who has ever experienced romantic love can attest to how strong this desire is, true love transcends all human emotions. It is true love that empowers good spouses to love each another in times of sickness, poverty, or misfortune, even if the sensible emotion of love can no longer be felt. Likewise, it is true love which empowers good parents to love their children even in the greatest hardships. True love is far more profound than just a fling of teenage puppy love. True love is self-sacrificial, and its model par excellence is found in the Sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the Cross. The Sacrifice of Christ upon the Cross is placed before us each time the Holy Mass is celebrated, where this sacrifice is mystically renewed in an unbloody manner by the power of the Holy Spirit. Strengthened by Christ’s heroic example and nourished by the infinite graces that flows from His sacrifice, a multitude of saints bore witness to Christ and His Church despite facing the worst persecutions, contradictions, and inconveniences. It is unmistakable that the Sacrifice of Christ was upon the minds of the many martyrs of the Church as they were horrendously tortured and executed. Love is the raison d’être of Christianity, and Scripture teaches us very firmly: “let us love one another, for charity is of God. And everyone that loveth, is born of God, and knoweth God. He that loveth not, knoweth not God: for God is charity” (1 John 4: 7-8). The word “charity” is derived from the Latin “caritas” and is often taken in Catholic colloquial discussion to mean true, self-sacrificial love.

The Buddhist, however, falls short of considering the nobility and excellence of true love. Buddhism views love as yet another pesky emotion that they would ideally seek to discard. Buddhist spirituality is centered upon the importance of detachment from earthly things, for Buddhists view that being attached to any one thing would cause suffering when one’s hopes are frustrated. This view certainly has some truth to it, and the Christian view parallels this view to an extent. However Christians do not center their spirituality upon detachment as an end in itself. The Christian practices detachment from earthly things so as to order one’s sinful self towards attachment to higher and proper goods.

I once heard a Byzantine Catholic bishop say that when we practice fasting, we do not fast because we see food as bad. Instead, we fast because even though we acknowledge food to be good, we acknowledge that God is infinitely better than food. By practicing detachment, the Christian seeks to quiet down his carnal desires so as to subject the passions of the soul towards the intellect, for we are called to live as we should and not live as we feel. By governing oneself by reason, the Christian is called to know and love God, obeying His commandments and doing His will, ultimately striving to be united with Him in eternal beatitude in heaven. This is far more wholesome than the Buddhist goal of Nirvana, which is basically an annihilation of self. For the Christian, true love must be practiced even when the sensible feeling of love is absent. At least for me, it is unfathomable how one could view true love as an imperfection to be discarded, for it is not dependent upon fleeting human emotions, but is rather governed by right reason.

The fundamental difference between Christianity and Buddhism is therefore, while the Buddhist views human desire as an evil, the Christian views human desire as a God-given passion that should draw us to God if ordered rightly. Both rightly note that human desire is insatiable by the things of this world. But while the Buddhist sees the solution as to purge oneself of one’s insatiable desires, the Christian should recognize that the insatiability of human desire points to the fact that we are made for the infinite. A desire that tends towards infinity can only be satiated by what is infinite. Only God is infinite, and therefore only God can truly satisfy the deepest longings of men. It is for this reason that St. Augustine so famously wrote that “Our hearts are restless until they rest in God.”[1]  Likewise, the Angelic Doctor, St. Thomas Aquinas, wrote:

It is vain to seek happiness in that which is below us, since happiness is above us. Now what is above us is God. Therefore, the happiness of man is to cling to God. For each thing is perfect if it clings to its own proper good. Now the proper good of man is God.[2]

The 20th century Carmelite saint of Chile, St. Teresa of the Andes, wrote:

Illumined by grace from on high, I understood that the world was too small for my immortal soul; and that only with the Infinite could my desires be satisfied, because the world and all that is in it are limited, whereas, by belonging to God, my soul would never tire of loving and contemplating Him, because in Him the horizons are infinite. How I’d love to show you the lovely infinite horizon beyond creation that I experience and contemplate… He reveals and makes Himself known to souls that really seek to know and love Him. Everything on earth… seems to shrink, to lose value before the Divinity which, like an infinite Sun, continues to shine upon my miserable soul with its rays. Yes. I have a heaven in my soul, because God is there, and God is heaven.[3]

As a former Buddhist myself, I extend a warm and welcome invitation to all Buddhists reading this article to take the Catholic faith into serious consideration. I converted as a young, eight-year old boy thanks to my mother and also thanks to the many good Christians around me. While I was rather young to understand the exact differences between Buddhism and Catholicism in an intellectual way, and although my mother was slightly concerned that I was not old enough to make an informed decision, I remember making a free and firm decision to be received into the Church. Despite going through moments of doubt during my early adolescence, I do not at all regret that decision I made over 15 years ago as a young boy. One of the significant events that I remember during the year of my conversion was the death of Pope John Paul II. I remember my mother showing me the newspaper coverage on the pope’s death, and although I did not know what a pope even was, I recall being touched by his death. Despite writing volumes of works, one of his most famous quotes is also one of the simplest messages that I would like to highlight for the benefit of all non-Catholics who are hesitant about the Catholic faith: “Do not be afraid to welcome Christ and accept his power… Do not be afraid. Open wide the doors for Christ.”

Let us therefore love God, because He first loved us (1 John 4:19).

[1] C.f. The Confessions of St. Augustine

[2] C.f. Commentary on Psalm 32

[3] C.f. Letter to her father

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