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 similar criteria. While such comment 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). While 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 powers 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 rise 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 argue 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. 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. Tiberuus 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. 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 with 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 pubic 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. 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 refer to three kinds of Sayings: (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 anded 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. If this is against oaths it seems not to be observed strictly.
- Observe the Sabbath day. The Sabbath is taken to be 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. 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 yout neighbour's wife.
- Do not covet that which belongs to your neighbour. Theft is prohibited by Commandment 8 so this refers to the psychological wrong-doing of 'coveting'.
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) 'Eye for an eye' rule which is not contained in the Commandments; and (6) 'Love thy neighbour as thyself which may be related to Commandment 9, again with the same restriction to 'neighbour'. Originally this restriction which appears in several ethical rules indicated that it applied only to fellow religionists, and did not apply generally.
There is a mention of some of these in Matthew and Luke but they are not dealt with in other gospels.
Specific Sayings of Jesus
These are Sayings made at various times and various places during Jesus' brief teaching career. 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 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 before and 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 ut in 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 pricture 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 autenticity of sayings given earlier is the appearance of 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 themselvles, 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 doin the good deeds !
- 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 poued 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 does not completey cut out the traditonal 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, finallly 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 Budding 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 promise of Jesus that the Kingdom will arive in the lifetime of his hearers is something that never happened. In fact after over two thousand years this has not happened and in fact will not happen as it is a false promise.
- 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 eschatalogical 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 he was afraid that such statements wouldf 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). 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. This 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 "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 ?
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. 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 was 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 (the Holy Roman Empire). The first serious set back to the Pope came in in 1517 when Martin Luther started the Reformation.
The Holy Inquisition
This is the name given to the system of persecution adopted by the Ctholic 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 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 thinking 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 the Holy land fell to the Ottoman Empire. The Ottomans conquered new areas for Islam in the Balkans but they too were finally 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 who 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 Portuguese conversions to Catholicism. In other Buddhist countries it was even less. But there was some revival of evangelism 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 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.
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.
- 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 devotees. Thus, for example, in an aircraft accident the few persons that survives are urged to thank God but what about the hundreds who have perished ? 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 replaced 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.
- 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 difference 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 disproven. 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 sense. 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, 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 teachings the Buddha could be validated through this oral tradition. 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 culture 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.
Ch. 9. Towards a Redefinition of Buddhism
What we have of the original doctrine 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. These were continued orally for about 300 years when divisions began to appear. The initial differences were about discipline but various doctrinal differences too began to appear.
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Ch. 10. Conclusion
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