This document is essentially a critique of Christianity from the perspective of Buddhism. Both are ancient traditions classified as religious, spiritual or philosophical. Buddhism preceded Christianity by several centuries and there was no encounter between them for several more centuries. To some extent this separation still continues with an incorrect view of Buddhism prevailing in Christian countries and most Buddhists ignorant of the history and doctrines of Christianity. It is hoped that this document will rectify some of these misunderstandings. Because the critique of Christianity is the main objective more will be said of that tradition than the Buddhist tradition. However in Buddhism while it has a strong rational and naturalistic content there is also a great deal of supernatural and metaphysical content even in its principal canons and documents. Where necessary these will be considered because no critique of a religious tradition is valid unless the criticising tradition is also considered using same or similar criteria. While comments are made where necessary in context Buddhism is specially considered in sections (chapters) 8 and 9 of this work.
Christians claim that when all its sects are included they are the most numerous of all religions in the world today. This may be questioned given that the two most populous countries in the world (China and India) are not Christian countries. The expansion of Christianity from being a persecuted Jewish sect in ancient Palestine during the first century of the Common Era (CE) into the most widespread religion in the twenty-first century is something that needs explanation. This is also attempted in this work (see section 7). The main objective is to explain the origins and nature of Christianity and no reference is made to other religions (except Buddhism where necessary).
Christianity and its main rival Islam are both offshoots of Judaism which claims to be the original mono-theistic religion. These three religions have been termed 'Abrahamic religions' after Abraham the original prophet of Judaism who is venerated in all three religions. Islam arose several centuries after Christianity and will not be considered in this essay. The second section of this essay deals with Judaism and Christianity.
Christianity first arose among Jews who were then settled in the region that was originally called Canaan, and has subsequently been known as Palestine. This area is now partly occupied by Israel and the rest by Arabs who first captured this area in their expansion out of Arabia during the Caliphate following the death of Muhammad. At the time of the rise of Christianity this area had come under the rule of Imperial Rome. The third section of this essay deals with the situation in Palestine at the time of the rise of Christianity.
Christianity is named after an itinerant Jewish teacher named Jesus who came to be called Jesus Christ. The version of the life and teaching of Jesus accepted by Christians is contained in accounts called Gospels by four early followers, but not contemporaries, of Jesus. They are considered in section 5 of this work. It now forms the bulk of the New Testament (NT) of the Christian Bible. In addition to the four Gospels the NT contains other documents notably letters from an early founder of the Christian church Saul of Tarsus known to Christians as the apostle Paul. The bulk of the Bible consists of Jewish scripture which are referred to as the Old Testament (OT). Because of the heavy dependence of Christianity on the OT it is often referred to as the Judeo-Christian religion.
Section 6 deals with the teaching ascribed to Jesus and Section 7 with the methods used to spread it throughout the world. Christianity is a strongly evangelical religion and it used methods both violent and peaceful, both ethical and unethical, to spread itself in the world. This is something it shares with Islam and the conflict between these two religions has led to a great deal of the religious violence in the world. Both these religions had used state power to spread their word.
After Christianity was recognized as the official religion of the Roman Empire by the Emperor Constantine Roman power was used to establish Christianity in most of Europe. Subsequently some European powers became colonial powers ruling various parts of Asia, Africa and America. Some of these became areas of settlement of European Christians who established the religion in these countries. In other places colonial power
was used to spread Christianity amongst non-Christian people in the colonised countries with varying degrees of success. This activity is considered in section 7 of this work. Section 8 considers Buddhism as the opposite of Christianity and is in a sense its antithesis. Section 9 considers Buddhism in terms of some of the criteria used to judge Christianity. Section 10 is a summary and a conclusion.
Ch. 2. Judaism and Christianity
Christianity arose out of the religion of the Jews (a term which denotes both a religion and an ethnicity). According to Jewish scriptures God (elohim
, actually a plural 'gods') first contacted Abraham, the tribal Jewish leader, saying that God would support him if he trusted God completely. To test him God asked that Abraham should sacrifice his son Isaac. Abraham prepared to do so but in the last moment God intervened and asked that a lamb be sacrificed instead. After some time the Assyrians who had conquered the land banished all the Jews to Egypt where they were enslaved by the Pharaoh. Much later when Moses was the leader God again appeared and asked Moses to lead the enslaved Jews to their Promised Land in Canaan (presently the territory around modern Israel). Moses asked the Pharaoh permission to do so and this was granted after God caused ten 'plagues' to devastate Egypt. But when Moses had set off in search of the Promised Land the Pharaoh changed his mind and sent an army to bring back the Jews. But God defeated this army in the incident of the parting of the Red sea. Eventually Moses and the Jews reached the promised land. Then God appeared again to Moses on the top of a mountain (still unidentified) in the form of a burning bush. He reaffirmed his 'Covenant' with the Jews, and gave them rules to follow including the Ten Commandments, which form the basis of Jewish and later Christian morality.
Jews flourished in their land, which was called Judea. Their greatest period was under the rule of David (1006-973 BCE) and Solomon (973 - 933 BCE). During this period Jerusalem was made the capital and the first temple to God (called Yahweh) was constructed there. Their religion Judaism was fully developed with its own priests and scribes (called Rabbi) and its various rites (including circumcision) and festivals including that of Passover which commemorated the flight from slavery in Egypt. But the period following that was unsettled with various groups contending for power. This lasted for several centuries until the invasion of the land by the Roman legions. During this period numerous prophesies sprung up one of which was to be very important in connection with the rise of Christianity. This was the belief in a future leader, called the Messiah, would arise in the lineage of David who would refresh the Covenant with God, unite the nation, and inaugurate a new age restoring the golden period of the rule of David.
During this period there emerged dissatisfaction with features of Judaism which did not appeal to some radical Jewish reformers. This would explain the need for a revised version of Judaism which later was to help the rise of Christianity. They included the following:
- Entry into Judaism. The normal method was by birth, sometimes in the maternal line. Conversion and proselytization was not generally encouraged. Reformers argued that the faith should be extended to non-Jews (sometimes called Gentiles) who desire to convert.
- Rites. Some argue that rites like circumcision were no longer necessary and should be done away with.
- Commercialisation. The sale of commercial artefacts like religion objects, animals for sacrifice, even money changers, reduced the holiness of the Temple and should be banned on Temple premises.
These and similar reforms demanded by by non-orthodox Jews explained why many Jews opted for the Christian faith when it later became available. They argued that if such reforms were not adopted Judaism will remain a small minority religion in the world. Even today it is estimated that there are less than 20 million Jews worldwide, over 90 percent of them living in modern Israel and North America.
Ch. 3. The Roman Occupation of Judea
Rome played an impotent part in the rise of Christianity, first as persecutors of the new religion and afterwards adopting it as the official religion of the Empire.
Roman intervention in Judea began in 63 BCE when the province of Syria was conquered and added to the Roman Empire. Jerusalem was sacked by Pompey; but Julius Caesar recognized the local ruler Antipas (Antipater) as the first Roman Procurator, but not as king. A brief history of Roman rule in this area is as follows.
In 6 CE Judea came under direct Roman administration. It did not include Galilee (where Jesus had his home) and some other areas. The capital was at Caesarea (Maritima) not Jerusalem. In 40 BCE the Roman Senate recognized Herod the Great as the 'King of the Jews'. He ruled until 4 BCE; his reign saw much construction including the port of Caesarea Maritima. After his death his kingdom was divided among three of his sons, who became 'tetrarchs'. Judea came under Herod Archelaus but he was replaced shortly by Herod Antipas who was also the tetrarch of Galilee. These two regions of Judea and Galilee were to be the scene for the rise of Christianity. Still, Jews living in the province maintained some form of independence and could judge offenders by their own laws, including capital offences, until about 28 CE. According to the Christian version when Jesus was born Augustus was the Emperor but when Jesus was about 10 Tiberius became Emperor and he remained Emperor for the rest of the life of Jesus. At this time while the Jewish king had some local powers he was clearly the vassal subjected to the Roman Emperor. Roman power was exercised by governors (called Prefects later Procurators). There were three of these during the reign of Tiberius: Valerius Gratus (15-25 CE), Pontius Pilate (26 - 36 CE) and Marcellus (36-37 CE). It was Pilate who presided during the ministry, trial and execution of Jesus. During this whole period Caiaphas was a High Priest of the Jewish Temple.
A brief history of Jewish-Roman relations after Tiberius is as follows. Tiberius was followed by Caligula (37-41). During his reign the first breach between Rome and the Jews occurred. But the Jewish Kingdom was restored by the next Emperor Claudius (41-54) with Herod Agrippa as King of the Jews. Judea continued to be a province of the Roman empire. In 44 CE following the death of Agrippa the powers of the Roman Governor were extended. Judea along with Galilee became a province of the Roman Empire. The Jews finally revolted against their Roman overlords leading to the Jewish wars and the dispersal of the Jews and the sacking of the Temple in 70 CE.
Ch. 4. The Historical Evidence for Christianity
Some scholars have argued that the story of Jesus advanced by Christians is a myth and there is no historical evidence that Jesus actually existed or was crucified. This is based mainly on the paucity of authentic evidence from non-Christian sources, or that such evidence as is claimed is not valid. Thus the two references by the contemporary historian Josephus are considered as Christian forgeries. What exists of these works are manuscript copies of copies and as such interpolations could have been inserted. Josephus as a strict Jew and would not have made such laudatory references to Jesus as given in his history.
The single reference in the work of the Roman general Tacitus is a late one when the Christian churches were established and he was reporting the claims of Christians not giving independent validity to these claims. The references in other "pagan" and Jewish works are even shorter. and do not constitute independent testimony
Jesus was a common Jewish name at the time and it is possible that some other Jesus would have agitated against the Roman occupation of the Jewish homeland and even claimed that he was the "king of the Jews". This would be treason and he would have been executed for it. It is said that when Jesus was crucified two other common criminals were also crucified on both sides of him.
The earliest Christian advocate Paul (Saul) would have taken the Jewish prophesy of a martyred Messiah as having actually taken place in the execution of a person called Jesus (even if he was not the Jesus of Nazareth). His letters do not give any information of the earthly career of the martyred Jesus. The title 'Christ' given to Jesus is simply the Greek and Latin word for 'Messiah'. Thus Jesus Christ simply means the Jesus the Messiah. In this essay the name 'Jesus' refers to is Jesus of Nazareth whether he existed in reality or was simply a myth.
The real dates relating to Jesus are so meagre that no connected biography of him can be constructed. We have a man who comes to the limelight as an adult in his thirties (if we exclude the birth narrative which is considered in the following section). Then after a brief teaching career of just about three years he was arrested, tried and executed. In this essay these dates are taken to correspond to the following approximate dates. Birth was in 4 BCE to the family of Joseph, a carpenter, and his wife Mary living in Nazareth in Galilee. His teaching career begins with his baptism by John the Baptist in 26 CE. His death was in 30 or 31 CE, His alleged post-death appearances as given in the resurrection story and the ascension story are considered as pure myths.
Ch. 5. The Gospel Evidence
The main Christian sources for the life and teaching of Jesus are the four Gospels attributed to Mark, Luke, Matthew and John. The first three are called Synoptics because they give details of the purported actual life of Jesus while the last is a theological account of his life similar to the letters of Paul. There were many more Gospels such as the Gospels of James, Bartholomew, Nicodemes, the Hebrew, the Ebonite, etc. In addition there were Coptic and Gnostic versions. But all these were rejected in a later Church Council (the Synod of Carthage) and the chosen four gospels were placed in the New Testament (NT). But these also contain many inconsistencies and contradictions.
Nothing is known of the writers of these Gospels other than their first names. The Gospels were written in Greek, not the native Aramaic of Jesus. From internal evidence the Gospels can be dated to have been written after 70 CE, possibly after 90 CE or even in the second century. The Gospel writers never knew Jesus personally and they have not given the sources from which they gleaned their information. Some scholars postulate a prior version, called Q (for Quelle) but this has never been found.
The Nativity Narrative
The story of the birth of Jesus is contained only in two Gospels (Matthew and Luke) and even between them there are divergences and contradictions and no further references after the first two chapters containing the narrative. The family of Jesus lived in Nazareth in Galilee so the birth in a stable in Bethlehem in Judea has to be explained. Luke says that it was to comply with a census ordered by the Roman Emperor but there is no historical record of such a census. Nor did the Roman census require that persons counted be counted at their place of birth. Scholars think that it was to comply with the prophesy that the Messiah would be in the lineage of David who was associated with Bethlehem and not with the small town of Nazareth. According to one account the child was taken to Egypt before returning to Nazareth which is not in the other account.
A more serious difficulty is the paternity of Jesus. It is claimed that Jesus was the "son" of God and not of his legal father Joseph. His mother Mary is said to have been a virgin and that she was conceived by the Holy Ghost or Spirit. No date of his birth is given and the current celebration of Christmas on December 25 has no basis in the Gospels; it was in fact a pagan celebration of the (Northern) winter solstice. Two different genealogies of Jesus are given in the Gospels but they are really of Joseph who, not being the father, they cannot be that of Jesus. Ultimately three divinities came to be recognized in Christianity: God the Father (Yahweh), God the Son (Jesus), and the Holy Ghost (now called Holy Spirit). Many verbal acrobatics are done to reconcile this with the strict monotheism of the Abrahamic religion. The other two Abrahamic religions strongly contest this claim. It is on the basis of these genealogies which purport to trace descent from Adam that the creation of the world was calculated to have taken place in 4004 BCE.
The Adult Career of Jesus.
After the story of his birth the Gospels say nothing specific about his life until his late twenties. This has led to much speculation including an alleged visit to India. But it is presumed that he lived in Nazareth as a pious Jew, practicing the family occupation of carpentry. He may have travelled widely including visits to the Temple in Jerusalem.
The first mention of the adult Jesus in the Gospels is his baptism by John the Baptist who was a somewhat unorthodox teacher of Judaism. Little is known of the actual views of John the Baptist, but they may have been not too different from those that Jesus was to proclaim later. John the Baptist may have been critical of the Roman conquest of Judea. In fact he was beheaded on the orders of Herod Antipas the King of Judea, a vassal of the Roman Emperor. Jesus too was critical of the occupation of Judea, even claiming for himself the title of 'King of the Jews'. For this he suffered a fate even worse than that of John the Baptist.
After his baptism some gospels say that the first public act of Jesus was the 'Cleansing of the Temple' (but the gospel of John places this incident at the end of his career). It was the custom at the Temple for traders to have tables at which they sold devotional articles or animals for sacrifice (following God's order Abraham to sacrifice an animal instead of his son). Jesus now appeared some say with a whip in hand and assaulted the traders demolishing their tables. Thus Jesus first appears as a man of violence, not the man of peace vaunted in the NT.
Jesus devoted most of his remaining short life preaching and performing miracles mainly in Galilee but also in Judea. His teaching dealt with God, his Father, the Kingdom of God, repentance, and love. His sayings will be considered in a later section but what would have attracted many to him was not what he said but the the miracles he is said to have performed.
A good part of the Gospel account is devoted to the miracles Jesus is said to have performed in the short period between his baptism by John the Baptist and his death on the cross. In fact during this period he seems to be best known as the 'Miracle Man' rather than the 'Son of God' or a giver of moral rules. There is no record of him as a miracle maker before this. These miracles included exorcisms, curing people of various illnesses including leprosy, walking on the water and so on. But he is also said to have brought several dead people to life. These are duly recorded in the Gospels but the writers of these Gospels do not claim to have witnessed them. They are most likely to be propaganda on their part.
After this Jesus spent his time wandering about Galilee and Judea teaching. These will be considered in a later section. But he did not present a new well structured doctrine. Most of his teaching consisted of sayings on things which he encountered in his wanderings. These are more appropriately called Sayings rather than Teachings.
The Last Days
These begin with the visit of Jesus to the Temple in Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover of 30/31 CE. One version claims that he came with a strong contingent of followers from Galilee. They were able to throw out the priests of the Temple and for a short time Jesus and his men were masters of the Temple. But they knew that there would be an immediate reaction from the Roman legions. So they moved to the Mount of Olives which was a gathering place for opponents to the occupation of Judea by the Romans. It was later that day that Jesus celebrated his Last Supper with his chief disciples.
Shortly after that he was arrested by the authorities. It is claimed that he was betrayed by his disciple Judas. But this was not necessary as he was by now a prominent person and a visitor to Jerusalem with no home there or place to hide. Then followed the trials, first by the Sanhedrin of the Jews who found him guilty of violating the sanctity of the Temple. Then by the Roman Procurator Pontius Pilate who questioned him if he was the 'king of the Jews' as he was alleged to have claimed. Had Jesus given a reasonable answer he could still have escaped but he gave an ambiguous answer not denying the accusation. Pilate sentenced him to death (even though the gospels claim that the Jews demanded it and Pilate gave in to their demand). He was flogged and crucified between two common criminals the same day. Amongst those who attended his public execution was his mother, whom Jesus addressed rather rudely calling her 'woman'. The seven statements Jesus is said to have made on the cross include the plaintive cry: "O Father, why have you forsaken me ?" (Matthew and Mark). But there was only silence from heaven !
After the Death of Jesus
The body of Jesus was taken to a grotto for burial and a stone rolled to cover the opening. It was then claimed that Jesus rose from the dead even though there were no witnesses to this miracle. After this 'resurrection' he is said to have ascended to heaven through the clouds but not before speaking to several persons and promising that he would soon return 'in glory' within the lifetime of his hearers.
These mythical happenings are a central part of the Christian religion.
The Epistles of Paul
We may conclude this section with a brief comment on the writings of Saul (Paul) which though placed after the four Gospels in the NT actually precede them having been composed around 50 CE. Saul had been a persecutor of the Christians who had been forming around Jesus, but on a journey to Damascus he is said to have encountered the long dead Jesus. This convinced him to become a Christian and he became a supporter of these early churches, in Corinth and other places. In his letters to these congregations he does not confirm any of the details later given in the canonical Gospels. He considered Jesus to have fulfilled the prophesy of the Messiah (Christ) entertained by some Jews. He thought that Jesus had all along been a divine being from the very inception. Saul who was a Roman citizen even formed a Church in Rome itself. But when some Roman Christians were accused of starting a fire in Rome he, amongst others, was arrested. He was beheaded like John the Baptist. It was around this time that Peter, another early Christian leader was also crucified in Rome.
Ch. 6. The Sayings of Jesus
The teaching career of Jesus barely lasted three years. This may be compared to 45 years of teaching by the Buddha and 22 years of teaching by Mohammad, the prophet of Islam. So it is not surprising that these sayings, as reported in the Gospels, are very banal and short and made in the context of incidents that would have happened during his peregrinations. What he said would have been familiar to Jews from their own scriptures. There is hardly anything in them that could be considered as something coming from a purported Son of God.
There has been some discussion on which of the sayings of Jesus reported in the gospels are original. Some of the tests proposed to find the original Sayings of Jesus include those which are (1) contrary to prevailing Jewish beliefs (the principle of contradiction); (2) contrary to views prevailing in the first century Church (the principle of discontinuity); (3) found in more than one early gospel (the principle of multiple assertion); (4) not contradicted by other teachings (the principle of conformity); and (5) explicitly religious rather than political (the principle of religiosity).
The Sayings which are considered in this section are of three kinds: (1) the Ten Commandments; (2) Specific Sayings made on the go; and (3) those sayings that have come to be called sermons. The constant theme of Jesus is to worship and pray to his Father, the Jewish God Yahweh. He even devised a prayer which is still repeated in Christian churches even though the name of the God is not mentioned in it. Most of Christian propagandists laud the alleged ethical teachings. But the basic moral rules of Christianity are the Ten Commandments handed by God to Moses and other moral maxims found in various places in Jewish scriptures.
The Decalogue (or Ten Commandments)
These form the moral basis of the three religions Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Though the numbering varies in following is a conventional statement of the Ten Commandments
- I am the Lord your God. The strict monotheism in Christianity is compromised by the admission of the Son and the Holy Ghost as coequals with the Father.
- Do not misuse of the name of God. Probably an injunction against swearing and oaths, Generally not observed strictly.
- Observe the Sabbath day. Nonoral work to be done on Saturday in Judaism, Sunday in Christianity, and Friday in Islam.
- Honour your parents. Elsewhere Jesus tells his followers to abandon their family and follow him !
- Do not kill. This really means not to murder as killing of animals is permitted,
- Do not commit adultery. The only sexual offence mentioned. See the comment on the stoning of the adulterous woman (below).
- Do not steal. No qualifications here.
- Do not give false testimony against your neighbour. This is not a blanket commandment against lying and other kinds of wrong speech.
- Do not covet your neighbour's wife. This refers to the psychological wrong-doing of 'coveting'.
- Do not covet that which belongs to your neighbour. Theft is prohibited by Commandment 7 so this too is a psychological crime.
Jesus nowhere lists all these commandments but states that he has not come to overturn the laws of Moses. In the Sermon on the Mount (considered later) he refers to several of these commandments. A longer discussion is contained in Matthew (Ch. 5 ) where six topics are developed: (1) Do not murder; (2) Do not commit adultery; (3) Do not divorce; (4) Keep any oath made in God's name; (5) The 'Eye for an eye' rule which is not contained in the Decalogue; and (6) Love thy neighbour as thyself. Why the "neighbour" is mentioned in this and similar ethical rules may indicate that such rules do not apply universally but perhaps only to a fellow religionists (Jews). There is a mention of some of these in Matthew and Luke but not in John.
Specific Sayings of Jesus
These are Sayings made at various times and various places during the brief teaching career of Jesus. There are many of them scattered throughout the gospels and a few are given below which are significant for an understanding of Jesus and the morality he preached.
- Christian 'Anarchism'. Here Jesus advocates surrender to violence or even encourages further violence. The version in Matthew decries the 'eye-for-an-eye' rule of orthodox Judaism but encourages (1) turning the other cheek when hit on one cheek; (2) giving the cloak also when one's tunic is snatched; (3) going two miles when forced to go one; and (4) yielding to beggars and burrowers. The version in Luke repeats some of these and encourages loving enemies and states the 'Golden Rule' (doing to others what one wishes to be be done to oneself). While these maxims appear to be compassionate what they do is to encourage further wrong-doing and if generally adopted will destroy orderliness in society, i.e. lead to anarchism.
- Kingdom of God. This is a constant theme in the sayings of Jesus. But he never defined it clearly. Once answering a query from the Pharisees Jesus said that "the Kingdom of God is within you" (Luke 17: 25). This view has been popularised by Tolstoy in a book written by him with the same title. But most Christians regard this as a throw-away remark and that the Kingdom of God is a real jurisdiction ruled by Jesus after his second coming. If it is a pure psychological state it could be likened to the Nirvana of Buddhism.
- The Incident of the Adulteress. Here Jesus encounters a mob getting ready to stone to death a woman accused of adultery. Jesus tells them that he who is "without sin" should cast the first stone. This shames the mob who disperse. Jesus himself has preached against adultery (as in the Decalogue), so Jesus should have explained what should be the punishment (if any) for adultery. He does not do so and if there was a single person who was not an adulterer (which was what he meant by 'without sin') that person could have cast the first stone and others would have followed him. Jesus missed making a definitive statement about adultery and its punishment if any.
- Denial of Omniscience. It is a Christian dogma that Jesus was "fully man and fully God" during his earthly mission, and fully God after. As such he would have all the powers of his Father (Yahweh). This would have included the power of omniscience. But in Mark to a question by the Pharisees in relation to the end of the world Jesus says "concerning that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father" (Mark (13:32). The phrase "nor the Son" had been struck out in some later copies of this gospel, but what it shows is that by his own admission Jesus was not fully God. So the Christian replacement of Yahweh by Jesus has no foundation in what Jesus had said. Either Jesus was mistaken or wrong and in either case was not fully God.
- Baptism by John the Baptist. This has been a problem to the gospellers to have the Son of God baptised by a mere junior preacher. Mark says that it was part of God's plan, Luke does not say who baptized Jesus. John flatly denies the whole story. This is another instance of inconsistencies in the stories of the four gospellers.
The Parables of Jesus
A prominent feature of Jesus' mode of teaching is 'speaking in parables'. While these parables do not add much to what was considered previously in this document Jesus used them to illustrate his principal message of the Kingdom of God to his mainly illiterate hearers. These parables are only found in the three Synoptic gospels, not in the last Gospel of John.
Nearly 40 parables have been counted. They merely serve to add bulk to what Jesus said as they do not provide any clarification to of his main massage. It is said that nearly a third of his sayings consist of parables. So some comment on these parables may be needed to get a fuller picture of what he preached. What is attempted here is to look at a few parables which appear in more than one gospel. About two-third of the parables appear only in one of the three synoptic gospels. One of criteria of authenticity of sayings given earlier is the appearance of a given passage in more than one gospel. Using this criterion we may comment briefly on the eight parables that appear in all three synoptic gospels. A summary of the parable is given in italics followed by a comment in normal text. These are:
- The Lamp under a Bushel. "A town on a hill cannot be hidden, nor a lamp covered by a bowl. Do your good deeds openly so that people may see them and glorify your Father in heaven." Sometimes good deeds are done for publicity and egotistical reasons. The objective of such people is to glorify themselves, not the Father in heaven ! The best good deeds are those done anonymously. Surely the Father will be able to find out the motive for doing the good deeds. Beside if someone does a good deed it is he who should be glorified. not the Father. !
- New Wine into Old Wineskins. "No one sews a patch on an old unshrunken garment as it could come off, nor pour wine into an old wineskin as it could leak. New wine is poured into a new wineskins. No further explanation is given and a later religious teacher Marcion took the old garment and old wineskin to represent traditional Judaism and their new versions to represent the teaching of Jesus. But neither Jesus nor the Christian Bible completely cuts out traditional Judaism. This shows the limitations of parables that are not explained fully and could be misinterpreted.
- Parable of the Strong Man. "How can anyone enter a strong man's house and carry off his possessions unless he first ties up the strong man?" This cryptic parable is explained variously in different gospels. In Luke and Matthew the succeeding verse says that whoever is not with Jesus is against him. Matthew also adds: "I tell you, every kind of sin and slander can be forgiven, but blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven." This kind of interpretation explains much of the intolerance in later Christianity.
- Parable of the Sower. "A farmer sows his seeds. Many that fall on inappropriate ground and die, but the few that fall on good ground yield much more than has been sown." This is taken to mean that those who follow the instruction of Jesus reach the Kingdom of God; others wither away and die. This is not obvious to one who hears the parable.
- Parable of the Mustard Seed. "The Kingdom of Heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds perch in its branches." Comparing the Kingdom to the smallest seed (said to epitomise faith) tends to diminish it, but what the person planting it to make it the largest tree is not explained.
- The Parable of the Tenants. "A man builds a vineyard complete with winepress and gives it to tenants to manage. Then when the harvest time comes the owner sends a man to collect his due share. But the tenants beat him up and kill him. Then the owner sends more people, finally his own son, all with the same result. What should he do next ? He could go himself and dismiss the tenants and put new tenants in charge." It is said that the owner in this parable is God himself and the tenants are the Jewish priests of the Sanhedrin. But whether the hearers understood this is not clear.
- The Parable of the Fig Tree. "When the fig tree and other trees are budding you know that summer is near. So when what is now happening happens the Kingdom of God is near. This generation will not pass away before that happens.". This is taken to mean that the Kingdom will
arrive in the lifetime of his hearers. This promise, often repated, neer happened and in fact will not happen as it is a false promise. At another place Jesus cursed a fig tree.
- The Parable of the Faithful Servant. "When the master returns (from a wedding feast) at whatever watch of the night the faithful servant is dressed and ready to greet him". This is the version in Luke. Other gospels speak of thieves entering the house if the servant is not careful. As with many parables several different eschatological inferences can be drawn.
The above examples show that parables can be misunderstood especially in religious discourse. That is why direct statement of his intention would have been preferable to the elliptical statement in parables. Perhaps Jesus was afraid that such statements would have enraged the authorities who would put an end to his career as a preacher.
The Sermons of Jesus
As mentioned earlier the sayings of Jesus are casual statements demanded by the circumstances when they were made. But later apologists have identified two "sermons" in them called the Sermon on the Mount and the Sermon on the Plain after the geographical locations where they were made.
The Sermon on the Mount
(actually on a mountainside) consists of a series of eight 'blessings' from God for those who (1) are 'poor in spirit', (2) mourn, (3) are meek, (4) hunger and thirst for righteousness, (5) are merciful, (6) are 'pure in heart', (7) are peacemakers, (8) are persecuted because of righteousness, and (9) suffer 'because of me (Jesus)' (Matthew). Most of those blessed are poor and downtrodden whereas in the history of Christinaity it is the rich and powerful who seem to be blessed. What these blessings mean have been interpreted in various ways by different theologians, but the hearers may have wondered what they mean in practice.
The Sermon on the Plain
is is a much shorter statement contained in Luke (6.20-26). The blessings are the same as in Matthew's Sermon on Mount, But but this time they are immediately followed by a set of "woes". These woes are stated as "woe to you" who: (1) are rich "because you are comfortable"; (2) are the well-fed quot;because you will hunger"; (3) laugh now because you will weep; and so on. These "woes" could be seen as punishments: the well-fed are punished with hunger, the comfortable will be subject to being uncomfortable, etc. But what is the wrong that has been done to deserve such punishment ? Just as the blessings go to the poor the woes go to the rich, again contrary what actually happens in the real world.
Ch. 7. The Propagation of Christianity
When Roman rule was established in the Jewish provinces the Jews were given much local autonomy with their own King and their religion and Temple. But when Jesus began preaching a version of Judaism with overtones of anti-Roman sentiment this attitude began to change. Jesus did not give a name to his teaching but because this followers identified him with the promised Messiah ('Christ' in Greek and Latin) it came to be called Christianity. Thus followers of Jesus, called Christians, came to be persecuted by the Roman authorities. Despite some being put to death the number of Christians and their churches gradually increased. But Christianity would not have grown greatly if it did not receive official recognition from the Roman Emperor.
This happened when Constantine became the Emperor (306-337). This may have happened because of political rather than religious reasons (Constantine himself was baptized only just before his death). But once it became the official religion of the Empire the Christians lost no time in spreading it throughout the vast Roman Empire, especially in Europe using the power of the state. The old Roman policy of relative religious toleration was replaced by a state sponsored suppression of all 'pagan' religions. Thus it was that local religious movements in the leading European countries under Roman control were gradually wiped out and the people brought under the control of the Christian church. The Papacy was established in Rome and the Popes became the head of the Catholic Church in the the Holy Roman Empire. The first serious set back to the Pope came only in 1517 when Martin Luther started the Reformation.
The Holy Inquisition
This is the name given to the system of persecution adopted by the Catholic church to punish people accused of heresy and other religious 'crimes'. It was begun by Pope Lucius III in 1184 and it lasted in various forms until the 19th century. This 900-year reign of terror is perhaps the most shameful episode in religious history. The victims were subjected to the most gruesome torture and finally burnt to death in public tied to a stake. The justification for this comes from Jesus himself and is given in John 15:6: "If a man abide not in me, he is cast forth as a branch, and is withered; and men gather them, and cast them into the fire, and they are burned."
The victims of the Inquisition were not only heretical Christians but also those who refused to subscribe to Christianity. In fact the Inquisition was first started to punish the Cathars, a peaceful religious group, who refused to adopt Christianity. It was then extended to many groups of people like the so-called witches and sorcerers, scientists who refused the primitive church views, or those who disagreed with dogmas like the one that stated that the bread-and-wine used in church rituals actually become the flesh-and-blood of Jesus. The victims were expected to confess, and if they did not torture was used to extract the confession. But confess or not the fate of the victim was the same.
The victim is imprisoned in total darkness and beaten regularly for long periods. Then he is subjected to the 'rack' (an instrument for stretching the victim lengthwise), screws applied to fingers and toes, vices applied to the bodily orifices and fully extended, they were subjected to the strappado
(hung from the ceiling with weights attached to the feet), or the 'Spanish chair' (chained to an iron chair and burning coals applied to the feet), and other tortures involving unimaginable pain. Finally the victim is taken to be burnt publicly tied to a stake often with the tongue pierced with an iron nail, the beard set on fire, and the flames below lit so that the victim is slowly burnt to death. The property of the victim was acquired by the Church. These tortures were devised and supervised by Popes, Cardinals, bishops, priests (the Christian elite). The ordinary Christians rejoiced at the spectacle but the responsibility has to be shared by all Christians then and now. Later on colonial Catholic powers declared the Inquisition in places like Latin America and Goa. In the former place indigenous children were taken in batches of 13 (to represent the number of Jesus' chief disciples), baptised and their heads bashed immediately saying that they were doing them a favour ! Adults who refused conversion were simply hung, 13 at a time. The Inquisition shows what finally became of the moral maxims of Jesus. The Protestant Reformation did not see the end to this Catholic barbaric system, and heretics to the new doctrines continued to be punished with torture and death.
When Islam was proclaimed in Arabia by Mohammad the Caliphs who succeeded him took the sword to spread their Faith outside Arabia as Muhammad had done within it. In the process they conquered the Christian Holy Land, ran through North Africa, and captured the Iberian peninsula. Their progress was finally stopped on the frontiers of France. In the centuries that followed the Muslims were pushed out of Spain and Portugal and Christianity re-established there. The Popes organized the Crusades to retake the Holy Land. These could be considered the first purely religious wars of Christianity. There was no conclusive victory and ultimately centuries later the Holy land fell to the Ottoman Empire. The Ottomans conquered new areas for Islam in the Balkans but they too were stopped at Vienna and pushed back leaving only a small bit of land in Europe. This continued until WWI when the British mandate was established in Palestine which lasted until WWII after which modern Israel was established as the first Jewish state since the sack of Jerusalem in 70 CE.
After the Reformation when many European countries threw off the hegemony of the Pope the way was open for wars between Catholic and Protestant countries. These were partly religious and partly political and sometimes lasted a hundred years !
Colonialism and Conversion
The next phase of Christian expansion took place under the aegis of colonial rule by Catholic and Protestant powers. We have already mentioned how Spain and Portugal used Inquisitorial methods to spread Christianity in areas they controlled. Other major colonial powers like Holland, France (more secular than Catholic), and Britain did not use their power to spread their religion as aggressively as the Catholic powers. It was only Britain that agreed formally to protect Buddhism as they did in the Kandyan Convention of 1815 in Sri Lanka. As a result Christian proselytising was more muted and on independence in 1948 in Sri Lanka less than 10 percent of the population were Christian, most of them the result of earlier Portuguese conversions to Catholicism. In other Buddhist countries it was even less. But there was some revival of evangelical activity after Independence by non-government Christian groups using bribery to covert poor people. This was more true of Sri Lanka than other Buddhist countries in South-East Asia.
Ch. 8. Buddhism as the Antithesis of Christianity
Having outlined the rise, doctrines and spread of Christianity this section examines the fundamental differences between Buddhism and Christianity. These are presented as a series of oppositions. Although there are many such antitheses that can be identified some of the principal ones are as follows.
- God vs No God. God is central to Abrahamic religions (even though Christianity had three flavours of God – Father, Son and Ghost). Asian spirituality avoided this idea, except perhaps Hinduism which recognized a godhead in various incarnations like Vishnu, Shiva and the like. Buddhism explicitly rejected this notion. There are supernatural entities called devas, usually translated as 'gods', but they were quite different from the Christian God. They have no power over humans, are impermanent, nor are they givers of morality.
- Soul vs No Soul. Christians believe that God creates souls, initially with a human body but when that dies the soul exists eternally either in heaven (Kingdom of God) or hell. There is no escape from this eternity. In his very second discourse the Buddha enunciated the anatta (no-soul) doctrine. The human being consists of 5 entities (body, feeling, perception, action and consciousness) all of which are impermanent dissolving at death. (Although popular Buddhism admits of re-birth there is no entity that survives death to be reborn, see next section).
- Permanence vs Impermanence. A fundamental characteristic of the Buddhist world-view is impermanence: "All compounded things are impermanent (sabbe sankārā aniccā)". The Christian search (and promise) is eternal life. This is the destiny of the God-created soul, to spend an eternity in heaven (Kingdom of God) or in hell. Unlike Judaism and Islam the Christianity sees the Kingdom as being established on earth after the second coming of Jesus. This implies that the earth itself is eternal. Like Buddhism the modern scientific view of the cosmos is that nothing in it is permanent. Thus the earth too will come to an end from some cosmic cataclysm or other.
- Prayer and Thanks-giving vs Meditation. Prayer is the usual method by which the Christian devotee affirms his devotion to his God, usually Jesus. He is urged to thank his God for anything good that comes his way, whether prayed for or not. But curiously the God is not blamed when misfortune comes one's way. This anomaly has not sunk into the Christian devotee. Thus, for example, in an aircraft accident the few persons that survive are urged to thank God but what about the hundreds who perish ? Are they not the victims of the same God who has "saved" the few who survived ? Buddhism does away with this kind or humbug. It is replaces prayer by meditation (bhāvanā) on subjects advocated by the Buddha for those who put their refuge in him. But irrespective of belief right meditation can be of benefit to anyone, while prayers are invariably futile.
- Creation vs Causation. To the Christian the world and all in it are due to creation by God from nothing (ex nihilio). To the contrary the Buddha attributed all things either to the operation of natural laws or the activity of other beings including humans themselves. This is contained in the Buddhist doctrine of conditioned origination, (paṭicca samuppāda). This is not the place to go into this profound doctrine except to say that at no stage does it allow for creation by a God or any other being. In this sense it is similar to the modern scientific view which is based on the doctrine of evolution by natural selection as originally expounded by Darwin. However there are differences between the Buddhist and the scientific views because their objectives are different. Buddhism seeks to explain human suffering, while the scientific view seeks to explain the biological world. There is no fundamental conflict between these two views as they seek to explain different things.
- Faith vs Investigation. Christianity is a system of faith, of blind faith. Its fundamental beliefs in God and creation cannot be proven. There is no empirical evidence that a God exists. It is a myth that cannot be proven or for that matter disproved. But it is not real. Buddhists do not believe on things on the basis of faith alone. In the Kālāma sutta, when asked what one should believe the Buddha ruled out belief on the basis of blind faith. He went into great detail to explain the grounds on which things should not be believed. These views are stated in several other discourses of the Buddha as well. On the positive side he gave the grounds for rational belief after analysis (vicāra) and investigation (vīmaṃsā). This is not the place to develop this subject. The Buddhist notion of saddhā is sometimes translated as 'faith' but it means 'rational confidence'.
- Myth vs History. We have seen that there is no historical basis for the emergence of Christianity. The story is entirely based on views expressed in the gospels written long after the purported life of Jesus written by authors who had not met or heard Jesus. The application of such criteria are not applicable in the case of the Buddha. He lived centuries before Jesus in an age and place with no historical tradition. There was no Josephus to record contemporary happenings. Even though writing was known in the age of the Buddha there was no means by which books could be compiled as there was no suitable writing material. Birch bark and palm leaf ('Ola') material for writing had not yet been discovered. Stone inscriptions are not suitable for large books. In place of books large treatises were committed to memory by the followers of the various teachers. This was true of the Vedas. the Upanishads, the discourses of the Buddha and other teachers like Mahāvīra. In such a milieu the life and teachings the Buddha could be validated through oral tradition, Buddhist
and non-Buddhist. This can be done so they can be considered historical in that sense.
- Intolerance vs Tolerance. As we have shown (Chapter 7) that Christianity was spread by state power, by inquisitorial methods, by religious war and by colonial conquest. The spread of Buddhism provides the contrast. The Buddha's instruction to the monks was to proclaim the message peacefully by teaching in the local language. They were able to convert most of India by this method. Even the most prominent Buddhist ruler in ancient India, the Emperor Asoka, was careful to allow all religions to flourish in his Empire. He sent missionaries to many countries to preach the Dhamma peacefully. In the West, which did not have a tradition of tolerance such methods would not succeed and did not succeed. It was only in Sri Lanka that the missionary of Asoka, the monk Mahinda, was able to convert the King peacefully and most of his subjects followed suit. This country has been the one country with the longest presence of Buddhism.
These eight antitheses between Buddhism and Christianity is sufficient to show that Buddhism is the polar opposite of Christianity. That is why there has been no synthesis between these two systems, nor can there be. Some writers have seen parallels but these are not on core issues.
Ch. 9. Towards a Re-definition of Buddhism
What we have of the original teaching of the Buddha is what has been remembered by his immediate followers. Shortly after his death these were compiled into two sections, the Vinaya dealing with monastic discipline, and the Sutra dealing with the doctrines. About 300 years later a third section called the Abhidhamma (higher Dhamma) was added as a systematisation of the doctrine contained in the Sutra. All these could be called Early Buddhism (or the Old Wisdom School). Its modern representation is Theravāda
current in Sri Lanka and south-east Asia. Its authoritative texts are contained in the Pali Canon.
Today Buddhism as practiced in many countries has acquired traits not found in early Buddhism. Some of these like worship of statues and relics, the reliance on chanting (like the paritta
), the transference of merit to devas
('gods') and deceased relatives, the performance of Buddha pūja
(offering of food to a Buddha statue), and so on, can be seen as popular concessions to Buddhism seen as a religion. But there have been more serious developments too leading to the rise of various schools and sects based on differences either in monastic discipline or in doctrine. These led to the rise of a new tradition in Buddhism which has been called the Mahāyāna
(or New Wisdom School). While this development originated in India it flourished from the beginning of the Common Era outside India in China, Japan, Tibet and some other countries.
When we speak of a need for a "re-definition" of Buddhism in this essay it does not mean the removal of these popular practices or the new schools. They are well established and those who prefer them may continue to do so. What is in question is the conformity of Theravāda, Mahāyāna and any other interpretation of Buddhism with modern scientific developments. There are many who are in agreement with the non-theistic nature of Buddhism but find it hard to accept its super natural and metaphysical aspects. So it is essential to show that Buddhism can be re-defined to exclude such unscientific elements.
Both Buddhism and Christianity arose in the pre-scientific age and burrowed some mythical views current at the time, but with a difference. In Christianity they became a core element of the system. It is not possible to remove unscientific ideas like God
and Soul from Christianity without destroying its essence. In Buddhism they were not made into essential parts of its message. In it the supernatural elements retained from the milieu in which it originated can be removed without destroying its essential message. It is this that is meant by a re-definition of Buddhism, and will be considered in this section. In this regard the following topics will be considered in this section:$
Most religions have entertained a view of the Universe and the the place of the earth as the habitat of humans within it. Christianity has held to the view of an earth-centred Universe as the special creation of God. It has had a long struggle with scientists who had advanced an alternative view of the Universe in which the earth is part of the solar system and is not the centre of the Universe. Such scientists have been considered heretics and punished in the Inquisition. In addition to this Christianity affirms the existence of Heaven (or 'Kingdom of God') and Hell. In fact the destiny of all of God's human creations is to spend an eternity after death in either of these two destinations. Once a person has been assigned to them there is no escape from it.
Buddhism asserts the following planes of existence into which beings will be reborn:
- The Sensuous Heavens (Four Great Kings heaven, Tāvatimsa, Yāma, Tusita, and two
- The Fine Material Heavens (Brahma realm and three others depending on the stage of attainment of the four Jhānas of beings born in them.)
- The Immaterial Heavens (for beings with higher meditative attainments).
- The Earthly Realm (for humans, animals and ghostly beings).
- The Hellish Realms (Many kinds hell with various kinds of torture).
The scientific position is that in the universe there is no evidence of either heaven or hell. So far no 'exoplanet' has been found where human-like beings could have evolved. It must be remembered that the beings in religious heavens and hells are similar to humans, only experiencing pleasure or torture. Christians claim that Jesus after his resurrection ascended to heaven through the clouds. But we know that if we go beyond the clouds we will soon experience empty space not heaven. In Buddhism it has been said that Devadatta was dragged into hell with the earth opening up. But we know that beneath the crust of the earth there is simply molten lava. It is time these myths are abandoned. There is no place in the universe for these extra-terrestrial planes posited by religions, including Buddhism. So a re-definition of Buddhism must accept this fact.
The Constituents of Materiality
This subject is of no concern to Christianity. Buddhism holds that all human material form (rūpa
) is composed of four great elements (mahābhūta
): earth, water, heat and air (paṭāvi, āpo, thejo, vāpo
). The scientific position is that all matter is made of the elements listed in the Periodic Table, usually as different molecules made up of multiple elements held together by atomic bonds.. This is also true of the three elements of Earth, Water and Air in the Buddhist scheme. In fact most substances can take the physical form of a solid, liquid or gas depending on the physical forces it is subjected to. Heat in the Buddhist scheme is scientifically not an independent element but a physical characteristic that substances can acquire when subjected to appropriate physical forces.
Buddhism regards the human being as composed of nāma-rūpa
("name-and-form"). The Mahābhūta
is only used to explain the physical form (rūpa
). For this the replacement of the Mahābhūta
by their scientific components would be an improvement, not making much of a difference. So this particular re-definition is of minor significance.
The Location of the Mind
This too is not a matter of concern to Christianity. But in Buddhism the mind (manas
) and consciousness (citta, viññāṇa
) are concepts of fundamental importance. In Buddhism certain characteristics like seeing, hearing, and so on are associated with specific organs like the eye and the ear. But no organ is specifically associated with consciousness. In the re-definition of Buddhism this deficiency has to be repaired. In science the organ most associated with mental processes is the brain,
In the pre-scientific world the role of the brain was not properly understood. In Buddhism the brain (mattaluṅga
) was considered one of the 32 bodily impurities. But scientifically it is central to the functioning of the body. Even sight is generated in the visual cortex of the brain, not in the eye (as Buddhism affirms), which merely transfers the visual data to the brain via the optic nerve. Buddhism at least did not make the error of other religions like Christianity and Hinduism that the heart is the organ of emotions and the mind. Buddhism leaves the physical seat of consciousness and emotions undefined. In the Abhidhamma there is a place given to the heart (hadayavattu
), but the Abhidhamma is a latter addition to the Dhamma. $
The Rebirth Hypothesis.
This is the most important and at the same time the most difficult element in any re-definition of Buddhism to make it conformable with science. What the hypothesis states is that any being who is not liberated is destined to be reborn over and over again in one or other of the planes of existence recognized by Buddhism. This cycle of births is called saṃsāra
. This hypothesis also involves two other key doctrines of Buddhism which either support it or are supported by it. These are the doctrines of Karma-and-Effect (kammaphala
) and Dependent Origination (paṭicca samuppāda
). This is what makes re-birth the most difficult doctrine to re-define. Eliminating the rebirth hypothesis could be called the the Final Re-definition of
Buddhism . This will be the final subsection of this section ('Chapter').
The Final Re-definition of Buddhism
This sub-section deals with way in which the Rebirth Hypothesis of Buddhism has been treated by Buddhists. It first deals with various ways in which this has been dealt with previously. Then the author gives a possible way in which this topic could be dealt with within a scientific approach to Buddhism. There are two issues here. One is whether the hypothesis of a vast sequence of rebirths until Nirvana is accepted as a genuine part of the Dhamma. The second is how the karmic information is carried from one birth to the succeeding one. On these the following views can be identified:
- Unqualified acceptance. The majority of Buddhists have accepted rebirth as
a fact without any qualifications. They do so because they think that it is a doctrine preached by the Buddha and referred to in many suttas in the Pali canon. But in the famous Kālāma sutta Buddha says that something should not be believed simply because it is in a sacred text (piṭaka sampadāya) or because the teacher is holy (sattā no garu). Something should be believed only if it found to be true after investigation.
- Rebirth not a genuine doctrine of the Buddha. This is the opposite of the previous view. This states that rebirth is not a doctrine of the Buddha but has been incorporated into the Dhamma in various contexts during the long period that the Dhamma was handed down in an oral tradition. This view is strongly articulated by J. S. Jennings in his The Vedāntic Buddhism of the Buddha. His main arguments are: (1) There is no mention of re-birth in the First Discourse where the Buddha laid out his discovery; (2) It is not in the instruction given by the Buddha to the monks when he told them what to preach; (3) It is not in any discourse the Buddha gave to the many whom he converted; (4) It is not in the summary of his doctrine which he repeatedly preached in his last journey from Rajagaha to Kusinara where he died; (5) It contradicts the Anatta doctrine which he proclaimed in his second sermon.
The classic rebirth hypothesis was not known to the original Vedas. It was a contribution to Indian thought by the Upanishad thinkers. Subsequent teachers, including the Buddha may have adopted it.
- Proof of Rebirth. There is no credible proof that rebirth actually takes place. There are persons who claim that they are the reincarnation of a person who had died previously, and is able to give details of that person that he would not directly have known. This is often adduced as a proof of rebirth. According to Buddhism only Arhats have to the power to recall past lives, and persons making this claim are not Arhats, and are usually small children. Thus some other reason may be at work.
- Consciousness as the rebirth carrier. One of major problems with the rebirth theory is the identity of what carries karmic information from one birth to another. In Hinduism it is the soul (atta) but Buddhism denies such a soul. Some argue that it is the consciousness that carries this information. In the Buddha's time a bhikkhu named Sati advanced this view and was severely criticised by the Buddha for this. The Buddhist position is that on death all the components including consciousness disappear, so that there is nothing that can be carried to a succeeding births.
- The Gandhabba as the rebirth carrier It is sometimes claimed that even if the physical conditions for a conception are present no conception will take place unless an entity called a Gandabba is present as the carrier of rebirth information. Sometimes it is called sambhavesi (being to be born). It is similar to the bardo in Tibetan Buddhism. But whatever the name this is open to the same objections are the previous view.
- The Dependent Origination view. In the classic formula of Dependent Origination (paṭiccca samuppāda) 12 links are given covering three lifetimes (past, present, and future) with two rebirth transitions. (As this cycle repeats there is a further such transition in each repetition). Thus links 1 and 2 give karma formations in the past life causing birth (consciousness and nāma-rūpa) in the present life. But how this transition takes place is not explained, There is another rebirth jump between the present and the future life (links 10 and 11) again with no explanation how the transition takes place. However there is also a shorter version of this theory dealing with only lifetime. This does not involve the rebirth problem and internal transitions can be rationalised.,
- The Abhidhamma approach. The Abhidhamma takes the story of death-and-rebirth a step further than in the suttas. It argues that at the moment of death the dying person experiences the following three thought processes: (1) a recollection of a kamma he had done (good or bad) that will be most influential for the coming rebirth; (2) the instrument associated with that kamma; (3) a sign of the place where the next birth will occur. It is then that the rebirth consciousness (cutipaṭissandhibhavaṅga) arises and soon the person dies to be reborn according to the premonitions in his death consciousness. This seems to assume that it is a grave karma (garukamma) that has a decisive influence on the rebirth, not the aggregate of karma. It is on this belief that in Sri Lanka when person lies on his death bed the most meritorious things he had done are recited by his relatives in his hearing!
Two questions can be raised to this Abhidhamma view of the death-and-rebirth process: (1) How does the Abhidhammist know what goes on in the mind of the dying person? The dying person is not in a position to relate it to any one and there is no authority of the Buddha for it (i.e. if we disregard the story that the Buddha preached the Abhidhamma to his long dead mother in the Tusita heaven). (2) More importantly how is the karmic and rebirth information actually passed on ? The dying person may be in one continent and the baby who is his successor in another continent several thousand miles away. This is the fundamental dilemma of all rebirth theory.
It will be seen that all the above approaches to the rebirth theory (except the second view given) fail on the ground that there is no mechanism to transfer the karmic record of the deceased person to the new infant that is his saṃsāric
successor. There is if fact no way that this can be done.
But something of the karmic hypothesis can be salvaged if we interpret it not as a strict "rebirth" (punaruppatthi
) but as a re-becoming (punabbhava
). This is in fact the term that is used in the original Sutra texts. Re-becoming does not require a physical death for the karmic result (vipāka
) can occur in the same lifetime (diṭṭhadhamma vedanīya kamma
). In one sutta the Buddha is asked to give an instance of karmic result. The Buddha answered by giving the case of a murderer who is seized by the King and executed. This was the result of his karma receiving its consequence in the same lifetime. I propose to call the re-defined theory the punnabbhava
(re-becoming) theory as as against the old rebirth theory.
If the results of karma are to appear in one's own lifetime then the most appropriate time would be in old age or towards the close of life. It is well known that individuals spend the last days of their lives in widely different circumstances. Some die relatively healthy and peacefully having lived a normal life span. Others die in great privation and and agony often prematurely. It may be that these are the consequences of karma done in this very life, not something due to karma done in a past life. As we have seen according to the Abhidhamma it is not the totality of karma that is effective but only the gravest of karma (garukamma
). The various acts of karma done by a person are not equal, some are minor, others more serious. It may that in receiving the consequences of karma the serious karma override the lesser karma, If this is true for the rebirth theory then it could also apply to the re-becoming theory.
A final question remains for the re-becoming theory: What happens to the ordinary person upon physical death? To answer this we have to see how the rebirth theory deals with it. There the ordinary person continues with his saṃsāric
journey. But the fate of the liberated person, who has already reached Nirvana (nibbāṇa
) while alive upon Enlightenment is an unresolved (avyākata
) matter. So too the fate of the individual in the re-becoming theory will also remain unresolved. Buddhism does not deal with such unresolved questions. So according to the re-becoming theory the liberated person has no Kamma to experience and after death is in the unresolved state. The unliberated will sufffer the consequences of the karma done in his life time and after death is also in an unresolved state.
Ch. 10. Conclusion
This article is part of a project by the Author to examine all the main religions in the world from the perspective of Buddhism. Already articles have been written and placed on the Internet on (1) Islam (Buddhism and the Critique of Islam
and Some Aspect of Islam
), and (2) Hinduism (Hinduism in a Buddhist Perspective
). (These articles can be seen by clicking on the links given.) This article adds Christianity (with some comments on Judaism) to the above. Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity and Islam today account for 4 billion of the 7 billion people in the world. The rest either subscribe to minor religions or do not profess a religion at all.
Some comments of the four religions involved may be in order. Hinduism is the only tradition that is not associated with a single teacher. It originated as the Vedas which were the traditional beliefs and practices of the original 'Aryan' invaders to India (about 1500 BCE). It was radically changed by the writers of the Upanishads (called the Vedanta). After that came Buddhism and Jainism. Still later Hinduism emerged, based on the Bhagavad-Gīta
, but still in the ancient Vedic tradition. Christianity and Islam came from a different (Semitic) tradition (later called Judaism), ascribed originally to the Prophet Abraham. These three religions have been called Abrahamic religions. This article deals with Christianity which is traditionally attributed to a Jew named Jesus who introduced some changes to his Hebrew religion but not radically departing from it. It is now commonly designated as Judeo-Christianity.
While a great deal has been written on these major religions much of it has not been critical enough. The followers of the various religions have uncritically accepted the claims of their religion as inerrant truth. In the Abrahamic tradition criticism of religion has been made into a punishable offence, sometimes with death. Blasphemy is still considered a punishable. The Indian tradition has been more tolerant (with few exceptions). Buddhism has been the earliest to condemn blasphemy-type censorship. Once when the monks complained to the Buddha that others were critical of him, his doctrine and the Sangha he advised them thus: "If others should speak against me or the Dhamma or the Sangha you should not on that account either bear malice or suffer heart-bearing or feel ill-will. If you do so would you then be able to judge how far that speech of theirs is well said or ill. (Dīgha Nikāya
)." This advice applies to criticism of any religious proposition. It is in that sprit that the various religions in the world have been considered by me. Always what is important is whether what is professed is correct or not, not any other consideration.
One of the tests that has been applied when testing the correctness of a religious claim is whether they are conformable to what science has discovered. Science has given us a great deal of information on the universe, the earth and the evolution of living beings on it. Religions also makes claims on these subjects. Where they contradict the scientific finding new evidence should be produced in support or the claim abandoned. Thus if a claim is made that an extra-terrestrial heaven or hell exists, and science does the find any, evidence should be produced to support the claim. Science is the appropriate tool to test the truth of many (but not of all) religious claims.
This test has been applied to to Buddhism also as shown in the previous chapter. There it was shown that no evidence has been produced to show that humans have a saṃsāric
trajectory that includes not only re-birth in the human plane and also heaven, hell, animal and ghostly realms.
This article contains no references, footnotes, bibliography and other requirements of scholarly work. It should in fact be considered as an extended abstract of the argument. It is hoped that in due course an expanded version containing all scholarly requirements will be issued.