A Christian-Buddhist Dialogue on Suffering

A Christian-Buddhist Dialogue on Suffering

There are a variety of responses to the COVID-19 pandemic within the Christian tradition. Some believers take the view that God is using these difficult circumstances to speak to Christians and non-Christians alike. As C.S. Lewis wrote, “God whispers to us in our happiness, speaks to us in our disappointment, and shouts to us in our pain.” Others, however, remind us that pandemics, epidemics, and plagues are not new but have been with us through the ages. 

The fact remains that much has changed, with limits for many of us on activities like watching large sporting events, attending music gigs, shopping, travel, and visiting friends. Our duty as individual Christians and churches is to model faith over fear and to find ways of sharing hope despite the physical distancing and other measures we have adopted to curtail the spread of the virus. On a Zoom meeting I attended, the main speaker mischievously suggested that God closed the doors of our churches to let the Christians out so they could engage with non-church attenders and try to answer their many questions – yet another view!

Suffering and consequences (karma – moral cause and effect) are two possible lenses through which a Buddhist may view COVID-19 and its devastating effects. Buddhists will think about suffering as an essential feature of life. Suffering (dukkha) is dissatisfaction with various aspects of our lives, including health, work, or relationships. We cannot always avoid difficult people and unpleasant situations. Change in relationships, health, and other circumstances often leaves us hurt or frustrated. In addition, we increase our sufferings by holding onto the past, reacting against our experiences, or blaming others. By recognizing that change is part of life and by not clinging onto things such as reputation, power, youth, and good health, we considerably reduce our sufferings.

A close friend of mine – a Buddhist – wrote to me. He is trying to bring about improvements in the Asian university where he is a senior lecturer. Unfortunately, he is experiencing stress (dukkha) as some of his colleagues have pushed back against many of his suggestions. His wife’s response has been to take him to several well-known Buddhist temples in the hope that some of the chanting and sermons may “soothe” him. I can well imagine a monk at one of these temples telling my friend to practice meditation and follow the Buddhist precepts in a more rigorous manner – two crucial practices in the Buddhist faith to help a person deal with suffering and stress.

Some Buddhists may also find their minds turning to karma. Could it be that it is their karma to catch the virus and possibly die? But what is karmaKarma is derived from a root meaning “action” – intended or volitional action. As mentioned, moral cause and effect. Good karma produces good outcomes and bad karma produces bad outcomes. There is no God in Buddhist understanding, so karmic outcomes should not be seen as a deity rewarding or punishing human behavior. Karma is best viewed as reproduction as the effect is in keeping with the cause. If you plant a potato, you will reap a potato – not a turnip! There may be a considerable time lapse between the effect of a particular cause or the outcome of a particular input. The “result” may be in a person’s lifetime or in a subsequent life as Buddhists believe in reincarnation. From a Buddhist perspective, a person’s karma generated in this life (and previous lives) determines the realm into which we are reborn, e.g., animal, angel, ghost, giant, god, or human. 

Some Buddhists may believe that those who died as a consequence of the virus – or those who are suffering – could well have reaped or be reaping the effects of previous unskillful (immoral/unwise) actions in a previous life/lives. Indeed, karma helps some Buddhists understand why good people in comfortable situations suddenly face very difficult, even devastating, circumstances. As well as doing good in previous lives, these good people have also done something significantly wrong in their previous lives. We know what we have done in our current life, but (from a Buddhist perspective) we do not know what we have done in our previous lives. This leads to uncertainty and unpredictability for Buddhists who have a strong belief in karma. I remember the husband of a diligent PhD student who told me that his wife did not expect a successful outcome to her research because of negative karmic actions that she may have carried out in previous lives. 

Here are two possible Christian responses to the Buddhist understanding of karma. First, we may try to critique the Buddhist understanding of karma. Let’s say that in a previous life I deliberately caused people to suffer, and as a consequence, my unskillful actions caused me to be reborn as an animal. As an animal, however, I do not have the capacity to work out the connection between my cruel deeds and lowly status as an animal. Even if I suffer failure and major suffering in this present life, how can I learn from my wrong choices which brought about these effects if I do not know what they were? It may be that this disconnect between previous lives, this current life, and future existences is the reason why some Buddhists are not motivated to do good and not restrained from doing bad. 

Second, rather than challenging the Buddhist understanding of karma, we may use it to explain the death and resurrection of Jesus.  Christians have long used the ideas of karma and the transfer of merit to explain the death of Christ to Buddhists. I have used it to good effect on many occasions with Buddhists and indeed non-Buddhists. I have begun by saying I think of the unskillful deeds I have knowingly carried out and the bad merit that has accrued, and thus what I one day will suffer either in this or future lives. I then consider the life of Jesus and the skillful deeds he carried out through teaching, healing, and other good deeds. Imagine the vast amount of merit that Jesus generated! According to the Christian Scriptures, Jesus did no unskillful action, so there is no negative karmic fruit for him to reap.

There are also several different understandings within Buddhism of the extent to which we may earn merit for others or draw on the merit of an enlightened being. It is beyond the scope of this article to discuss the various understandings of the transfer of merit (punnadanna). We begin by taking the Asian cultural concept of two people or parties not dealing directly with each other but negotiating through a person who is acceptable by both people or parties. Jesus is both divine and human and so understands our limitations and vulnerabilities. As such, he functions as a “go-between” or a middleman between God and us.

When Jesus died on the cross of his own free will, the fruit of the bad karmic acts sown by humanity was reaped. Jesus suffered the negative results of all our unskillful actions. We carried out the actions, yet he suffered the consequences of these actions. When we believe that Jesus reaped our bad karmic fruit and the law of moral cause and effect (karma) has been satisfied, then all the good deeds that Jesus carried out are credited to us. Until we acknowledge that we have done wrong and that Christ functioned both as our substitute and hero to liberate us, we remain connected to our negative karmic actions and their consequences. By using this “redemptive analogy,” we are inviting a Buddhist to pass over to a new way of understanding life. It is a shift from self-dependence to trusting Jesus to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves.

Some Buddhists, particularly in the Theravada tradition, will not accept that karma can be transferred in this manner. Yet even for them, I have found this analogy to be a good conversation starter. On hearing the account of the crucifixion of Jesus, some Buddhists may think that this painful and shameful death was brought about by some heinous crime committed by Jesus. I try to point out that in Luke’s telling of this story we find an astonishing demonstration of three key qualities that are respected by Buddhists. These are: metta (loving-kindness), karuna (compassion), and upekkha (even-handedness). Here, in the context of unimaginable pain and public humiliation, Luke 23:34 (NIV) recounts that Jesus spoke to God and said, “Father, forgive them [those who played some part in the death of Christ], for they do not know what they are doing.” This is a remarkable insight into the enlightened mind of Jesus – Son of God and friend of sinners. 

THREE BOOK RECOMMENDATIONS ON BUDDHISM: 

A very accessible and extremely helpful overview of Buddhism and its main schools: 
Cush, Denise, and Brian E. Close. A Student’s Approach to World Religions: Buddhism. London: Hodder & Stoughton Educational, 1994.

A first-class introduction to Buddhism, with more detail than Cush’s book:
Harvey, Peter. An Introduction to Buddhism: Teachings, History and Practices. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013.

This book suggests a number of ways in which Christians may sensitively engage with Buddhists for example, chapter six discusses karma as a redemptive analogy:
Mackenzie, Rory. God, Self and Salvation in a Buddhist Context. Gloucester, (90 Sandylleaze, Gloucester, GL@ OPX, UK): Wide Margin Books, 2017.

For Reflection and Discussion

  1. What are some ways you have explained the COVID pandemic to non-church attenders?
  2. How does Jesus function as a middleman between God and us?
  3. What are some practical steps you can take to dialogue with peoples of other faiths?