The Table Podcast

Respectfully Engaging Buddhism

In this episode, Drs. Darrell L. Bock and Harold A. Netland discuss respectfully engaging world religions, focusing on Buddhism.

Respectfully Engaging World Religions
  1. Respectfully Engaging Atheism
  2. Respectfully Engaging Sikhism
  3. Respectfully Engaging Shintoism
  4. Respectfully Engaging Animism
  5. Respectfully Engaging Judaism
  6. Respectfully Engaging Hinduism
  7. Respectfully Engaging the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
  8. Respectfully Engaging Islam
  9. Respectfully Engaging Jainism
  10. Respectfully Engaging Buddhism
Timecodes
00:15
Netland’s background in understanding Buddhism
03:10
What is Buddhism?
07:00
The origin of Buddhism
08:20
Ancient and modern Buddhism
10:30
The four noble truths
16:25
Understanding Buddhism as a Westerner
22:25
The doctrine of rebirth
23:30
The eightfold path
28:20
What is Karma in relation to Buddhism?
31:00
The spectrum of beliefs in Buddhism
36:00
What attracts people to Buddhism?
37:30
What does Buddhist temple life look like?
39:30
How should Christians interact with Buddhists?
Transcript
Darrell Bock
Welcome to The Table, where we discuss issues of God and culture. I’m Darrell Bock, executive director of cultural engagement at the Hendricks Center at Dallas Theological Seminary. And this is part of our series on world religion. And our topic is Buddhism. And our distinguished guest is Harold Netland, who is coming to us live from technology and Skype from Deerfield, Illinois, where he professor of philosophy and religion and intercultural studies at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. We could almost race on our titles next to one another to see who has the longest one.
But anyway, Harold, it’s great to see you. And we really appreciate you taking the time to be with us today.
Harold Netland
Thank you, Darrell. It’s good to be with you.
Darrell Bock
Yes. Now, we’re going to talk about Buddhism, which is the fourth-largest religion in the world after Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism. Somewhere between I think 400 million and 500 million adherence. So it’s a major religion whose roots are in Asia but now has become a global religion.
And before we begin, I just want people to understand your background. Because you’ve ended up in the classroom at Trinity, but you haven’t been in Illinois all your life.
Harold Netland
No, I haven’t. I was actually born in Japan. My parents were missionaries to Japan. And so through age 18 most of my life was in Japan. And then I went back as an adult for about ten years with my wife. So much of my life has been lived in that country. Japan is Buddhist. It’s a certain kind of Buddhism we can talk about in due course. But because of my upbringing in Japan, I was aware of and interested in Buddhism from an early age.
In graduate school I did my doctoral study at Claremont in California. And among the professors I studied with was a Japanese Zen Buddhist, Abe Masao. And so from that perspective I was able to get a little bit more of the academic scholarly dimension into it. And then over the years I’ve just been fascinated by Buddhism as a religion in Asia and then more recently as it has come to North America and to Europe as well.
Darrell Bock
Now, what’s interesting about Buddhism – and I’m just using it for comparative purposes – because initially what we want to do is talk about the nature of this faith – is that it’s not a doctrinal faith in the way we think about Christianity or even Judaism, or even Islam to that extent. It’s more a way of life and a philosophy of life. Would that be a fair contrast to make about what Buddhism is?
Harold Netland
Buddhist themselves will often say it’s a philosophy; it’s not a religion. And that gets you into discussions about what’s the difference between religion and a philosophy. But it clearly has a particular way of understanding reality, our knowledge. And you also have to distinguish with Buddhism between the Buddhism of the scholar, the, those who study the text, who meditate and follow the high tradition, and then the folk Buddhists; the laity. And oftentimes there is quite a difference between the two.
But yes, among the elite, the scholars, the academics, they resist calling it a religion; it’s a way of life, it’s a philosophy.
Darrell Bock
And as was the case when we were discussing Shintoism, the difference between the history and the development of it and then the actual practice of what’s happening on the ground, you’re dealing with more of a spectrum and a variety of things with a certain orientation than you are everyone who is a Buddhist kind of belongs in the same bucket. Is that fair?
Harold Netland
That’s right. Buddhism emerges in India. And we are actually not even certain on the dates of Gautama the Buddha. He was a historical figure, but depending upon whether you’re Chinese, Japanese, or European American, there is a full century difference in the dates that are given. But it emerges in India and then spreads south and east throughout South Asia up into China, Tibet, Korea, Japan. And then in the 19th century it comes to Hawaii, North America, and Europe. There is enormous variety.
And you also have to factor into that what we call Buddhist modernism. So Buddhism in the 19th and 20th centuries in its encounter with the west, with Christianity, with modernization really becomes something of a different religion than it had been in the previous centuries.
Darrell Bock
My sense is in the reading that I’ve done is that it’s a very adaptable approach to life. And so it almost morphs in relationship to what it comes alongside of. And so that is part of what’s producing your variety.
Harold Netland
That’s right. You mentioned earlier it’s not heavily doctrinal. There are some clear doctrinal pillars, but you can reduce those to the Four Noble Truths, the Noble Eightfold Path, a few key concepts about no self-impermanence. And then it has really adapted to the local conditions. So when it goes up into China, it embraces local Chinese religious traditions. And in China the Buddhist tradition, along with Daoism produces what we call Zen. And so Zen is a very different East Asian adaptation of what had been earlier Indian Buddhism. It embraces the local cultures, the local traditions. Unlike Christianity where we’ve tended to have a sharp conflict with the local religions traditions, Buddhism has tended to embrace them and then adapt accordingly.
Darrell Bock
Let’s talk a little bit about the roots. You said there’s about a century’s difference in terms of where it comes from and that it did emerge out of India, Northern India. The official dates that I have for Gautama is 563 to 483. But there are people who think he may have lived actually a century later than that. And so we are talking about in the period really at the – if I can make a comparison – almost at the time when the end of the old testament is being written. And so if you want a chronological comparison, that’s where we’re at in terms of the origins of this faith.
Harold Netland
That’s right. That’s right. And modern historians of early Buddhism are actually fairly skeptical about the roots. Because the first written texts we have on Buddhism are from about the mid first century B.C. in the southern island of Sri Lanka. And these don’t contain so much the teachings or the life of the Buddha; they are monastic rules, how to live in a monastery. And then the teachings and the lives of the Buddha company a century or more after that. So there’s quite a gap between the dates of Gautama and the first written texts that we have.
Darrell Bock
Since you’ve mentioned monasteries, before we get into what the approach to life is, maybe we ought to talk a little bit about that. There is a feel in reading about Buddhism, particularly the early history and the way it’s structured, that there’s almost a withdrawal element associated with it in terms of how the most pious Buddhists live. Is that a correct impression of what’s going on, particularly in the relationship to the monasteries, et cetera? I know what little travel I’ve done in Asia, when I’ve been to Thailand for example and I see what looked to be like schools or monasteries – I’m not even sure what they are – it does have this kind of withdrawn community feel to it.
Harold Netland
Yes, you’re right. Near as we can tell, the early Buddhist communities did tend to withdraw. The goal in Buddhism is to break the causal chain that is driving suffering. And you do this by attaining a certain understanding of the nature of reality through the enlightenment experience. And early on the idea was the best way to do that is in a secluded, monastic community where each person is doing this for himself or herself, but you do this in a structured, communal environment.
Now as you get into the modern era, then this changes. With modernization of course not everybody can take off to the monastic communities. In Thailand for example the ideal is still for every male to spend some time in a monastic community. And this is meritorious. You build up merit for yourself and for the family as you do this. But not everybody is expected to stay there. You’ll spend a year, a couple of years and then go back to school or go back into business.
Darrell Bock
So it’s like military service for a country.
Harold Netland
In a way. You could think of it that way, yeah.
Darrell Bock
Let’s talk about just the whole approach. My understanding, as you’ve said, is to break the cycle of suffering. And my sense is probably the best way to deal with this is to deal with the noble truths; that our world is a place of suffering – that’s kind of truth number one. And it’s our desire that brings a battle out of suffering. So the goal is to get control of this desire. And that leads you into living in some form of conditioned existence. And you alluded to enlightenment earlier. We’re not talking about a period of history like we do in the west.
Harold Netland
That’s right.
Darrell Bock
We’re talking about a way of understanding and a way of almost the way you approach life and the way you see it.
Harold Netland
Yes. I find it helpful to think in these terms. And actually the early Indian religions – Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism – they all use the medical analogy. There is a problem in our world. Something is not right. And you have to get the diagnosis correct before you can offer an effective prescription. So what’s the diagnosis? What’s the problem? And all three of those religions began with the idea of multiple rebirths. We’ve had many, many, many previous lives. We will have many, many future lives. This is not a good thing. Inherent in existence is suffering. And so the desire is not simply to have a better life next time, but to break that entire cycle that drives death and rebirth. And according to the four noble truths, the problem is Taṇhā, or what it’s often translated, desire or craving or thirst. It’s not desiring the wrong things. This would be St. Augustine in the Christian tradition. You know, our desires need to be ordered in line with God. It’s desire itself, desire for anything. Desire for existence, desire for nonexistence. So you’ve got to eliminate desire. And you do that by following the noble eightfold path. This would be classical Theravada Southeast Asian Buddhism.
Darrell Bock
Okay. And the interesting thing here is there is an embrace – I don’t know if embrace is the right word – of the idea of impermanence; that things are not permanent. It almost strikes me – and again, when it comes to Buddhism, I’m a novice. But it strikes me as almost being the opposite of the way westerners are taught to think. Whereas we like to think of order and control and those kinds of categories, this is almost a letting go and a recognition of the fact that there are things beyond your control. And then another interesting feature is the lack of speculation that exists here. This is not a theism. You don’t talk about a creator god, those kinds of things. You are simply looking at the reality that is around you and trying to come to grips with the absolute lack of control that you have and what’s going on. The only thing you can control is how you can control what you can’t control. That’s a shot at it anyway.
Harold Netland
You’re well on your way, Darrell. You’ve hit on really the key metaphysical teaching of Buddhism. And for someone raised in European American traditions, especially in philosophy where you think in terms of substance, this is the repudiation of that. Everything that exists is continually coming into being and passing out of being simultaneously. So just continual flux. Nothing has substantial, enduring existence. And a corollary of that according to Buddhism is there is no self. So we think in terms of a soul or a self that endures over 30, 40, 50, 60 years. Buddhism, there is no enduring self. And this is what really separated Buddhism from Hinduism, where they also believed in rebirth but you had a soul, an Ātman, which was passed on to the next life. And according to Buddhism, at least the philosophy, what drives our desire is this mistaken idea that there is something permanent, there is something you can hold on to. And we keep trying to reach out for that. And you’ve got to eliminate that way of thinking. It’s very counterintuitive.
Darrell Bock
Yeah. And it strikes me that it produces interesting challenges for someone coming out of a Christian background to even communicate. I like to say when I’m in scripture and I ask the question where do you start with the Christian faith for someone who doesn’t know anything about the bible? And if Acts 17 is your indicator, then you’re dealing with a creator god with whom people have a relationship. Well, that can’t be the starting point in relationship to a Buddhist because they don’t have those categories. And so what struck me in interacting with this is a different starting point. I’m going to come back to that. But I think it’s important to stress how different a religion Buddhism is from what at least people in the west are used to.
Harold Netland
Absolutely. Classical Buddhism into the 19th century was unequivocal; there is no creator god. There could not be a creator god. If everything is impermanent and coming in and passing out of existence, the idea of an eternal creator god just doesn’t fit there. And so the more modern notion is well, Buddhism isn’t really atheistic, it’s just agnostic. And this is a modern way of thinking. Classical Buddhism is very clear; there is no god.
Darrell Bock
And the interesting thing is there is a fascinating story that I read that is a Buddhist story about a man being shot with an arrow, a poisoned arrow. And they’re trying to figure out how to treat him. And there are a series of questions. Well, I don’t want to do anything until I know this and until I know that and until I know this. And by the time you answer all your speculative questions, the man will have died.
Harold Netland
Exactly.
Darrell Bock
And so the point of the whole story is don’t go there. You just need to deal with the reality that is around you as opposed to trying to figure it out all unwound.
Harold Netland
Yes. This again is Southeast Asia Theravada Buddhism in particular. But don’t get hung up on speculative, fruitless questions. You want to solve the problem of suffering; here’s the way you do it.
Darrell Bock
Yeah. So it’s a metaphysical orientation to life devoid of god. There is a moral orientation. There is a desire to be compassionate in the way you interact with people and that kind of thing and be disciplined in your life. I think those are the features that stand out to me as I read portrayals of what it is a Buddhist is committed to.
Harold Netland
Yes. There is a very strong moral component. And how do you get to the place where you are able to have enlightenment and then break the cycle? Part of that is cultivating a very, very strong moral set of dispositions and qualities. The irony is once you have enlightenment, you realize ultimately there are no distinctions between good and evil, right and wrong. But in the process of getting to that point, developing moral virtues is very, very important. And compassion or Karuṇā is one of the cardinal virtues. All sentient beings are suffering. And so you cultivate a sense of compassion for the suffering that is all around us.
Darrell Bock
Again, it’s so counterintuitive. On the one hand you’ve got this moral base, but in the end you say the difference between good and evil in one sense doesn’t exist. To a westerner, that goes, “What?”
Harold Netland
Yes.
Darrell Bock
So I think understanding how different this whole approach is actually an important part of understanding what’s going on.
Harold Netland
Yes, that’s right. One of the most interesting seminars I had in Graduate school was on the problem of suffering and evil. It was co-taught by the Japanese Buddhist I mentioned, Abe, and John Hick, a very, very liberal protestant. And they would take turns going back and forth. And to his credit, Abe was very, very faithful to the Buddhist tradition. Alternately, there is no difference between good and evil. And of course the doctoral folk in the room are just aghast. Well, surely you will condemn Hitler. And Abe’s response was I can say that what he did was foolish, I don’t like it, it had very bad consequences, but I cannot call it evil. And most people in the doctoral seminar there were just mindless. They just couldn’t believe he was saying this. But he was being very faithful to the classical Buddhist tradition.
Darrell Bock
Now, we’re running down on time on the first segment, so this will probably spill over. But you’ve mentioned several times that we’re talking about a particular kind of Buddhism. And I’ll take a shot at pronouncing it – Theravada – but I’m sure I’ve got that wrong.
Harold Netland
You got it right.
Darrell Bock
Okay. And so that’s a more monastic kind of classical Buddhism I understand. But there are other sects as well that come in. And Mahayana Buddhism, briefly describe that.
Harold Netland
Yeah, very briefly, Theravada Buddhism is much more conservative. Only a few attain enlightenment. For the masses, your hope is to come back in a better position in the next life. There was a ground swell around the time of Christ, first century before and after Christ, towards a different way of approaching liberation and enlightenment. And the Mahayana developed. It’s the larger vehicle. It enables liberation or enlightenment for the masses. It’s much more speculative in terms of metaphysics. And some forms of Mahayana Buddhism begin to treat the Buddha as a kind of godlike figure. So we can talk about more of that if you wish. But it really is quite different in some ways.
Darrell Bock
Okay. Yeah, we’re running down on – let me mention one other thing. Because you’ve mentioned coming back to life. And there really are different levels that are viewed here. You can come back in the animal world, there is a ghost level, there is a human level, there is an enlightened level. So this recycling, this rebirth, the terminology used means something very different than Christianity, is part of where the hope of people or at least an aspect of hope of people that motivates the Buddhist to live as they do.
And my understanding is Buddhist prefer talking about rebirth rather than reincarnation.
Harold Netland
That’s right.
Darrell Bock
You can be reborn into different kinds of hell. There’s an animal world, there’s a form of ghost, there is the human level, and then there is the divine-ish – I’m going to say it that way – level, which I take it is this level of enlightenment in which you’ve loosened your grasp on desire. And that’s in ascending order. So we’ve got that.
And we haven’t talked about the eightfold path, which I have outlined here as right view, right resolve, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration or right meditation, same category.

So you can see there is this orientation to life that’s driving the way a Buddhist looks at the world by these kinds of categories.

Harold Netland
Yes. And each of those terms that you used of course is then fleshed out in great detail. But they fall basically into several categories. One would be correctly understanding the nature of reality. And this is a deeply philosophical endeavor, but it’s also deeply experiential. So it’s not just learning more information, it’s having a certain kind of experiential understanding of the nature of reality.
Then you have the cultivation of the moral virtues. And that’s important to put you in the right position for correct understanding. And then you have actions, intentionality, which would be related to the moral virtues. So yes, it’s a very comprehensive set of qualities that you try to develop.
Darrell Bock
And it strikes me that – and I don’t want to move quite yet into what makes the attraction, but it does strike me as being in a strange, odd way, even though it says there is no self, almost a self-awareness part of this that is the attraction of it. Because it’s trying to make sense of what’s happening all around you.
Harold Netland
Yes. It is a turn inward if you want to think of it in those terms. You clear the mind of distractions and misleading delusory thoughts, and you turn inward to try to penetrate what is actually the true nature of reality. And then paradoxically, when you do that, you do realize the interconnectedness of everything, the impermanence of everything, and there is a kind of liberating break of the causal chain; enlightenment, nirvana. And then you won’t come back again in another life form.
Darrell Bock
Let me drop another aspect of juts the approach to life and then we’ll go back to the various kinds of Buddhism. The kinds of things we talked about it being moral in its orientation. So there are certain things you’re supposed to abstain from. You are supposed to abstain from harming any human. You are supposed to abstain from taking what has not been given. You are supposed to abstain from sexual misconduct. You are supposed to abstain from false speech, and you are supposed to abstain from anything that clouds the mind – so alcohol and drugs are diminished as a part of your world through that kind of approach.
So there is this discipline – I don’t know how else to describe it – that comes with trying to free yourself from this chain of desire.
Harold Netland
It’s a very rigorous discipline. And again, those would be the ideals. If you look at Asia today, certainly Asia in the modern era – 19th, 20th centuries – clearly many Asian Buddhists don’t strictly adhere to that.
Darrell Bock
Right.
Harold Netland
So there are ways of accommodating and so on. But classically, yes, it’s a very strict adherence. Let me push it even further. You are not supposed to kill any living thing. Not just other humans, but ideally you don’t kill any living thing. And so in the premodern era, this meant you are a vegetarian. Plants are okay, but no living animal. Abortion was condemned right from the beginning. Not because they believed the soul was created by god; they don’t believe there is a soul and there is no god to create. But killing of any living thing brings negative karma. And so killing the unborn was forbidden because of the negative karma that would attach to that.
Darrell Bock
Okay. So you’ve mentioned negative karma. Karma is just a word for I guess deeds. And there’s good karma and bad karma.
Harold Netland
Yeah. The cause and effect, the laws of cause and effect. Any action bears some karmic effect, positive or negative. And part of what you want to do in situating yourself for a better birth next time around is to reduce the negative karma and increase what is positive.
So this leads to kind of a merit-making within Southeast Asian Buddhism. You can build up merit giving food to monks who come around and beg, for example. This is one way of building up positive karma or merit.
Darrell Bock
Another thougth just struck me as we put kind of this almost contradictory picture of the pursuit of morality and an understanding of the rigor of traditional Buddhism against the idea that in the end there is no good and evil. And that is, you know, anyone who knows anything about Asia knows how some of the practices related to sexuality and gender, et cetera, are almost without bounds. And so in a world view like that, you can understand how that might happen.
Harold Netland
Yeah. I’ll mention that Japanese professor again. I appreciated him so much because he was so honest. And he was a deeply committed Buddhist. And as a deeply committed Buddhist, he was also committed to human rights and the struggle for justice. But he was very honest. He said it’s very hard to have a platform for human dignity and human rights strictly on Buddhist principles. And then he would say we need to learn from you Christians on this.
But there is a paradox here, especially today. Buddhism in the west, many western converts to Buddhism are deeply committed to human rights, to social justice. But many of them also will be very candid and say you know what, it is really hard to justify this strictly on Buddhist principles.
Darrell Bock
We may come back to that down the road. Let me quickly run through some of these sects. Because one of the things we’re trying to communicate here is how varied Buddhism.
Harold Netland
Yes.
Darrell Bock
And it’s adapting to the various environments that it’s in and the various forms that it has. You shouldn’t be thinking about Buddhism as a box; it’s more like this huge spectrum that has this approach to life at its core. And yet there are things pushing against that core all the time. And because it can morph, it does that.
Harold Netland
Yes.
Darrell Bock
And so we’ve talked about Mahayana and we’ve talked about Theravada. There’s also what’s called Tantra Buddhism, which relates to ritual magic and pushes us – maybe this is a bad description – but pushes us in the kind of direction you might see in forms of animism and that kind of thing.
Harold Netland
Yes, yah. And Tantrism is broader than just Buddhism. It was part of the North Indian milieu. And so you find it in Hindu traditions as well. But it is a very magical approach. Occult powers are acknowledged and you try to manipulate the occult powers. It builds upon folk religions practices. And in some forms of tantrism there’s also use of sexuality, the sexual acts as a way of trying to suppress or control impulses and desires. That became part of or absorbed in certain forms of Tibetan Buddhism, the Buddhism that went up into Tibet.
Darrell Bock
Which is called – now this I have no chance of getting right – Vajrayana?
Harold Netland
You got it right.
Darrell Bock
Oh, wow.
Harold Netland
Yes, yeah.
Darrell Bock
And this is where the idea of mantras come in, the utterances of power that come in. Which sound to me almost like spells if you were to think about an equivalent in the west. That kind of thing.
Harold Netland
They will often use the word magic, but they use magic in a different way than we use it in, you know, magic shows. But the idea is there are special powers and forces that you can – these are not strictly speaking divine powers, god’s acting, but they are part of the universe, part of reality, that you can manipulate and learn about. And so what we would call miracles. And I know at least one Buddhist scholar who looks at the resurrection of Jesus and says oh, no big thing. I mean, that’s just magic in our Buddhist understand. Well, I don’t think it is. But it would be what appeared to us to be supernatural acts and activities that they would say are forces and powers that you can tap into and learn how to manipulate.
Darrell Bock
And again we’ve got this contrast between what we’re used to in the west, which is we would personalize these forces and give them a personality. And we’ve talked about spirit beings and that kind of thing. But you’re really dealing with, what, impersonal forces, unseen forces, would that be the way to think about it in a Buddhist mindset? How would they view these? Or would they?
Harold Netland
In high religion they would be impersonal forces that you can learn how to manipulate and so on. Among the masses, the folk religion, they are personalized. And we talked a little bit about the differences in Buddhism. Mayahana Buddhism as it moves into Tibet, China, Korea, Japan and so on, the local deities become absorbed.
Darrell Bock
And the ancestor worship I take it would also be a part of this as well? Would that get absorbed in as well, the role of ancestors?
Harold Netland
I’m sorry, I didn’t hear the first part.
Darrell Bock
The role of ancestors, would this also become a part of it?
Harold Netland
Yes, yes.
Darrell Bock
Because that’s big in Asia.
Harold Netland
Yes, indeed. That’s right. That’s right. When Buddhism got into China, it realized immediately there was a problem. The monks are celibate. China is a heavily family-oriented society. And you are suspicious of celibate males. And so one way that Buddhism adapted to the local ethos was to become very family-friendly and began to perform funeral rights and rituals. And so it elaborated on the ancestors as Buddhas or bodhisattvas and incorporated them within the pantheon.
Darrell Bock
Well, this has been fascinating. We actually could probably do the whole podcast just on the nature of Buddhism. But I do want to transition.
We’ve already suggested a little bit what makes for adherence. And that is the way in which it does attempt to give an explanation for what’s going on all around you.
Harold Netland
Yes.
Darrell Bock
And a way of wrestling with engagement of what is oftentimes a bewildering world.
Harold Netland
Yes. It is in some ways a very cold explanation. But the teaching on karma and rebirth is a very logical explanation for the suffering and the inequity we see in the world. Why is one child born severely deformed, another child is perfectly healthy? Why is one person wealthy and has a long, rich, full life; other people suffer all the way through their lives.
Karma has a very efficient, logical explanation for that. It’s a very cold explanation. But if you are looking for an efficient explanation, it works.
Darrell Bock
And by cold I think what you mean is it’s impersonal and detached.
Harold Netland
It is impersonal and detached. Exactly.
Darrell Bock
And so what it does is it allows someone to make sense out of the chaos around them and as such it’s an attraction – I guess the next question I have is normally when you think of religion, you think of rites of worship or things like that. There are Buddhist temples. So what is happening when someone adheres to this belief, what’s happening in the temples? What’s going on there?
Harold Netland
Very good question. Here you have the tension I think between the philosophy, what the scholars teach, what the literature, the sutras portray, and then how the masses of ordinary Buddhists actually live and respond. And on the scholarly level, again, with most Buddhism there is no god. I believe as a Christian, Romans 1 and other passages, God has created us with this awareness of the transcendence and our accountability to a creator. And I think you see this manifest in the folk Buddhist response.
So although they are told there is no god and prayer strictly speaking makes no sense, on a popular level many Buddhists will pray to one of many buddhas. And different buddhas in different traditions. And nations will be kind of treated in a quasi-theistic manner. Pure Land Buddhism is the largest form of Buddhism in Japan. And the scholars will be emphatic; Amitābha Buddha is not a god. On the popular level in the temples, I am convinced many of them actually are treating Amitābha Buddha as a kind of deity. And they will come and they will pray and ask for Amitābha’s help and this, that, and the other thing.
Darrell Bock
So if you are engaging with a Buddhist – and now I am transitioning kind of out of adherence to how Christianity speak into all of this. I suspect that there really is some general listening that has to start off with. Kind of get the person located as to how they view their Buddhist faith, what they see themselves as doing if they participate in temple and those kinds of things. It may take a while to get located with where that person is coming from in terms of the way they view their Buddhism.
Harold Netland
Yes. Traditional Asian Buddhist, it takes a long time. You start a bible study, Genesis 1 or pick a New Testament text. In the beginning God…
You have to stop right there and talk. What do you mean by God? Who is God? And the Japanese pastors are very, very good. Very, patient. They just keep coming back to this. Until you really appreciate the idea of a creator god, none of the rest of this is going to make sense.
Darrell Bock
Right, yeah. Go ahead.
Harold Netland
I was just going to say there are very different religions, but there are natural points of contact and resonance. And Buddhism in Asia has become very closely-aligned with the arts. So it’s a very aesthetic religion. The temples have beautiful gardens. Calligraphy, Chinese and Japanese, has Buddhist origins. A tea ceremony, poetry. Much of the literature picks up on allusions to the transitory nature of life and so on. Much of this is really beautiful. And I have found certainly Japanese have an appreciation for the book of Ecclesiastes that many Americans don’t. We don’t know what to do with this book. They like it. The language is something they resonate with. And of course in Ecclesiastes at pivotal points you have God. Remember your creator. And so that puts it in a totally different light. But there are points of contact and resonance there.
Darrell Bock
And it also strikes me as – there are two themes that I think are particularly connectable, if I can say it that way. The whole teaching about suffering is something that the scripture recognizes. We would call it a fallen world.
Harold Netland
Yes.
Darrell Bock
And so there is that to mention. And then the whole movement towards care and compassion for people around you. Which, interestingly enough introduces the possibility of talking about who people are as made in the image of God, which gives them value. But in the context of Buddhism it’s hard to know how they would talk about anthropology.
Harold Netland
Yes, that’s right. That’s right. You have actions but no self that performs the actions. You have suffering but no self, soul, that suffers and so on. I think compassion and suffering are two areas in particular where we can identify and resonate. There is much in the words attributed to Gautama about suffering that I find very, very moving. He was a very astute observer of human nature and the human condition. The big difference is what is the cause of suffering and how do we overcome suffering. And there if you go back to the diagnosis analogy again, scripture has a very different diagnosis of suffering than does Buddhism. And if you look at Jesus and how He approaches suffering, it’s very different from the path that Gautama the buddha called –
Darrell Bock
In fact, it strikes me as this is another area of huge contrast. Because in Christianity there is a recognition of our responsibility within suffering. Whereas my sense is in Buddhism a person – this may be an oversimplification – they’re almost a victim. I mean, they do have these desires, but it surrounds them and almost overwhelms them. And the issue is getting out of the overwhelmingness of what is surrounding you.
Harold Netland
Yes. Historians and scholars have rightly noted that there is a kind of passivity that seems to come along with Buddhism. Now, modern Buddhism is working hard to challenge that and combat that in social justice and human rights. But there is a kind of passivity and acceptance of – they would call it karma. In other contexts you would call it fate. And it’s in the Japanese language, the idioms that are used. There’s almost an acquiescence; well, what can you do, this is the way it is.
Darrell Bock
Well, this has been an incredibly fascinating introduction to Buddhism. And I find it’s almost so opposite that it’s intriguing the many ways in, if I can say it that way.
Harold Netland
Yes.
Darrell Bock
And so I could see a very interesting conversation taking place between people who are Buddhist and Christians on certain themes in which there could be both connections and yet the angle at which that issue has been tackled is so distinct that for people who are curious on both ends there would be an interesting conversation to be had.
Harold Netland
Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. And it’s not a short conversation. You have to listen to the other, define terms, enter someone else’s world even as a Buddhist has to do that listening to a Christian.
Darrell Bock
Yes. Well, Harold. I really appreciate you taking the time to walk us through this territory. It’s vast and as I said, there are many, many Buddhists in the world. The only thing that’s probably a little odd is that most people who live in the west have not had much encounter with Asian society, et cetera. So it’s a completely new world for a lot of people. And you’ve really helped us to understand that world.
Harold Netland
Well, thank you, Darrell. It’s been a lot of fun.
Darrell Bock
And we thank you for being a part of The Table and hope you will join us again soon.
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Darrell L. Bock
Dr. Bock is senior research professor of New Testament and executive director for cultural engagement at Dallas Theological Seminary. He has authored or edited more than forty books, including Jesus according to Scripture: Restoring the Portrait from the Gospels, Jesus in Context: Background Readings for Gospel Study, Studying the Historical Jesus: A Guide to Sources and Methods, Jesus the Messiah: Tracing the Promises, Expectations, and Coming of Israel’s King, Who Is Jesus?: Linking the Historical Jesus with the Christ of Faith, and Key Events in the Life of the Historical Jesus: A Collaborative Exploration of Context and Coherence.
Harold Netland
Harold A. Netland is a Professor of Philosophy of Religion and Intercultural Studies at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. Prior to coming to Trinity, Dr. Netland was a missionary educator for nine years in Japan with the Evangelical Free Church of America. Dr. Netland was involved in ministries among university students, assisting in church planting, and teaching at Tokyo Christian University. Dr. Netland’s areas of expertise include religious pluralism, epistemology of religion, apologetics, and missions in East Asia. He and his wife, Ruth, live in Vernon Hills, IL.
Ministry
Dec 4, 2018
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Ministering to People Considering Abortion In this episode, Dr. Darrell L. Bock and Ronald Warren discuss ministering to people considering abortion, focusing on Warren’s work with Care Net.
Arts & Media
Nov 20, 2018
Melissa TravisMelissa TravisMikel Del RosarioMikel Del Rosario
Explaining the Christian Worldview to Children In this episode, Mikel Del Rosario and Melissa Cain Travis discuss explaining the Christian worldview to children, focusing on her apologetics work and the Young Defenders Series...