Eastern Mysticism and Christianity

I often see a certain bumper sticker as I drive around town. This bumper sticker has one word made up of different religious symbols from around the world, coexist. If the idea is that different religions should express their religious differences peacefully through respectful discourse and debate then I would agree with this message. But the message of this bumper sticker is different. It is expressing the belief that all religions are fundamentally the same. One of the things that religions attempt to do is answer certain questions. One of these questions has to do with the existence of evil and suffering in the world. An examination of this question will show that Christianity is fundamentally different from the mystical religions of the east.

                 The two religions that have the most followers of all the belief systems that can be classified as eastern mystical religions are Hinduism and Buddhism. There are some important terms that need to be defined in order to understand Hinduism. First, is the concept of Brahman, the unembodied impersonal reality that includes everything.  Atman is the self. Karma is the positive and negative effects of a person’s actions. Reincarnation is the idea that each person lives many lives.
Each person lives a series of lives. Each birth is determined by the karma that the person has built up in the life before. If a person has good karma she will move up in the order of reincarnation. Bad karma causes a reincarnation to a lower form of life. The lowest form of reincarnation is insects and similar animals. The highest order is the priestly class. The goal of life is to escape the cycle of reincarnation. The Upanishads teach that this is done by realizing that “Brahman is all and Brahman is Atman.”[i]  That is, a person must realize that a self is not an individual self, but a part of the one impersonal universal reality that is everything.

You realize that the “atman is Brahman” by meditating on the primordial sound, the Om. The Upanishads put it this way:

The syllable om is the bow, the atman is the arrow. It is said that the Brahman is the object of the bow and the arrow. Do not hesitate in trying to achieve your aim. Be as unmoving as the arrow and attain your target.

Realize the Brahman in whom can be found heaven, the earth, and the atmosphere. In him reside your senses and your heart. Forget everything else and attain the one and only Brahman. This is the way to salvation.[ii]

Through meditating on the Om the atman progresses through the process of reincarnation and realizes that everything is Brahman.

In Hinduism there is no difference between good and evil because all is Brahman.  Good and evil are illusions. Hinduism also includes a contradiction; one must deny that the self (atman) exists while affirming the existence of the universe (Brahman). But in the very act of denying their existence, a person proves that they exist. By claiming that good and evil are illusions and denying the existence of the self Hinduism is not able to address the human condition.

Gautama was a Hindu prince that lived 500 years before Christ. He was disturbed by the suffering that he saw outside the palace. Gautama left his crown, wife, and children to find the answer to the problem of human suffering. As a result of his meditation he rejected Hindu teachings and became the Buddha, the enlightened one.

Buddha accepted a view of reality that is similar to that of Hinduism. Buddha believed in one impersonal ultimate reality, but he called it the void. Buddha also believed in reincarnation. However, his doctrine of reincarnation was not that a person was reincarnated. The karmic debt is passed on from person to person.

While meditating Buddha discovered the Four Noble Truths: “suffering, the cause of suffering, the end of suffering, and the Noble Eightfold Path that takes you beyond suffering” (The Dhammapada 191). The Four Noble Truths are the core of Buddhist teaching. Suffering is real, caused by desire, and ends when people cease to have desires. The Buddha taught, “All human beings are subject to attachment and thirst for pleasure. Hankering after these, they are caught in the cycle of birth and death…Overcome this thirst and be free” (Dhammapada 341, 343). The way to overcome desire is to follow the Eightfold Path.

The Eightfold path is considered the greatest contribution of Buddhism. The Dhammapada states, “Of paths the Eightfold is the best” (Dhammapada 273) and “there is no other that leads to purification of the mind” (Dhammapada 274). This path includes right understanding, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right meditation.[iii]

The shortcoming of the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path is that there is no justice. There is no payment made by those who cause suffering. Detachment is one of the highest values of this system. However, there are some things that we should be attached to, like family, friends, and community. We should also desire peace, justice, and to know truth.

Christianity offers a different view of the world. First, the whole universe is created by a personal God. The first verse in the Bible is, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen. 1:1). People are created in the image of God (Gen. 1:27). People rebelled against God and allowed sin and evil to reign in the world (Gen. 3). Each person has sinned against God. Paul writes, “None is righteous, no, not one” (Rom. 3:10). An honest self evaluation will reveal that all people have lied, stolen, hated others, and disrespected God. There is a broken relationship between man and God. Paul describes the problem and the solution, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith” (Rom. 3:23-25). That is, the Father sent his Son to earth to take the form of a man and pay the penalty of the sins of humanity. If a person places her faith in the work of the Jesus then he will restore her relationship with God.

Hinduism, Buddhism, and Christianity give different descriptions of the nature of reality, the nature and cause of suffering, and what to do about suffering and evil in this world. Hinduism claims that suffering is the result of karma and people should realize that atman is Brahman. Buddhism claims that following the Four Noble Truths and The Eightfold Path will end suffering and evil. Christianity claims that the price of sin has been paid for by Jesus. If a person places their faith in the person and work of Jesus, then their relationship with God and with their fellow man will be restored. Not all of these answers can be true. I have seen a picture that would make a much better bumper sticker. It uses the symbols of the religions from around the world to spell the word contradict. Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No man comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).

[i] James W. Sire, The Universe Next Door, (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2008), 152.
[ii] Marry Pat Fisher, Lee W. Bailey, An Anthology of Living Religions, (London: Laurence King Publishing, 2008), 65.
[iii] Marry Pat Fisher, Lee W. Bailey, An Anthology of Living Religions, (London: Laurence King Publishing, 2008), 113.



One Comment:

  1. It’s not easy living in this world but that is no excuse for self made religion. Why would someone want to follow a religion? Why not have a relationship with God? If the people would just follow and accept the gift the creator of this world we would all be able to coexist.