A Thumbnail Sketch of Buddhism for Christians - page 1

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From the Summer 2015 issue of Knowing & Doing:  

A Thumbnail Sketch of Buddhism for Christians

by Gerald R. McDermott, Ph.D.
Jordan-Trexler Professor of Religion, Roanoke College


uddhism is popular among college students and educated skeptics today. I think there are a number of reasons for this. One is that the Buddha’s search for truth and his willingness to forsake the world strike chords in young seekers who recognize the emptiness of materialism. It is also attractive to those who have been turned off to Christianity, for one reason or another, and want some sort of spiritual alternative.

Facts on the Ground

  Let’s start with numbers and places. How many Buddhists are there, and where do they live?
  Today there are about 400 million Buddhists, or 6 percent of the world’s population. Estimates of the number of Buddhists in the United States range from 1.5 to 2 million. Of those 75 to 80 percent are Asian.
  Those who follow Theravada, which is the school of Buddhism closest to the teachings of Gotama Buddha, the founder, are located primarily in Southeast Asia: Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Cambodia, and Thailand. The Mahayana school, which may have started later in China and became more popular, is prevalent in China and East Asia (Japan and Korea). Zen Buddhism was started in Japan and has spread west, while Tibetan Buddhism is of course centered in that mountainous land bordering China but has become popular around the world because of the Dalai Lama’s attractive persona and teaching.

The Story of the Buddha

  Siddhartha Gotama Buddha (ca. 448–368 BC) grew up in the lap of luxury.
  He was the son of a king in the mountain fastnesses of what is now Nepal. Not unnaturally, he was indulged by his father. But Gotama’s environment went far beyond what we would imagine. Apparently in an attempt to keep his son fast bound to himself, Gotama’s father made sure the boy never saw suffering and deprivation, old age, disease, and death. It’s hard to imagine how Gotama could never have seen or known of death, but so the story goes.
  At some point in Gotama’s twenties, reality broke through. On the first of several chariot rides, Gotama saw an old man. “Oh no!” he exclaimed. “Do you mean I will someday suffer like that?!”
  Then on a second chariot ride, he saw a sick person obviously distressed by pain. This opened his eyes to the pervasiveness of suffering in the world. Gotama was sorely distressed.
  A third chariot ride brought the sight of a corpse in a funeral procession. This too alarmed Gotama. “What? We don’t live forever?!” The young man sunk into despair. Life seemed hopeless.
  But then another sight some time later brought him hope. This time he saw a figure on the horizon walking in a saffron robe. It was probably a Hindu sannyasi, a holy man practicing asceticism and meditation in the quest of moksha (liberation from the cycle of reincarnation).
  “Who is that?” he asked his driver.
  “Oh, he’s seeking the way beyond life and death,” he was told—meaning that this Hindu seeker was trying to reach the state where he would not be reborn into another life in this world, but be joined with Brahma, the impersonal Absolute. But for Gotama, this meant there might be a way to avoid the suffering of life and death.

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