Christian & Buddhist Mysticism: What Are The Differences?

Hi,

I was reading through this article recently: https://www.americamagazine.org/content/all-things/mysticism-and-meditation-buddhist-and-christian

It explores the differences and similarities between mysticism in Buddhism and Christianity.

I’m curious what the main differences are and where they are located. Here are the possibilities as I see them:

  1. One thesis is that differences are purely linguistical, but the mystical experiences are virtually the same in both Buddhism and Christianity - so the Beatific Vision would probably be equivalent to Nirvana/Enlightenment in Buddhism. I tend not to favor this version, though at one point I did.

  2. Another possibility is that the experiences are different, hence the linguistic differences. Namely Buddhists do not actually encounter God in their mystical experiences, even when they achieve Nirvana. I tend to prefer this explanation. But if so, this brings up a conundrum… Obviously many of the monks who achieve Nirvana develop “good fruits”, such as compassion. So I can’t agree that the experience they have in Nirvana is demonic. But if it’s not of a demonic origin, and it’s not an encounter with God, then what is it? How does their experience fit in our Christian framework?

Would love to hear your thoughts, or if you have other relevant reading material that you can recommend :slight_smile:

I think we have to be clear in saying: the two religions are founded on two different theologies and concepts of reality, one of which is correct and the other is not. Buddhism is irreconcilable with Christianity on many points:

  1. One faith believes in the Holy Trinity, the second Person of Whom became incarnate as a fully divine Man, while the other faith does not believe in this Man, and views belief in any deity as nonessential.

  2. One faith believes in anatman, the principle that “there is no unchanging, permanent self, soul or essence in phenomena”, while the other believes in the immortality of the individual soul.

So, the two religions aren’t equal paths to the same endpoint. And that being the case, the differences between them can’t be “purely linguistic”. The Beatific Vision (or the eastern Theosis) is very different from Nirvana.

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The differences are really vast. I don’t have time to get into it in a lot of depth. When you read the original Eastern writings you can see that self emptying is a key theme. The Christian empties himself of the “old self” but ONLY so that he can be filled with Jesus and Him crucified. In fact, being transformed into CHRIST is the crux of Christianity. It’s goal is not self emptying towards enlightenment but sin-emptying towards Christlikeness. Both routes involved suffering because the human experience always includes suffering. Virtue always requires self denial. But the goals are hugely different and I’d even say opposite.

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Up to that pint I agree with you. Buddhism ends up saying that true realty cannot be talked about and humanity is part of that. It seems to me to be impersonal. But that its interpretation of some experience. Christianity also has an experience that is beyond words and concepts but is interpreted differently, as a personal experience. Which one is right is impossible to say. Our faith tells us that ours is right. But that is faith.

So the main differences are what are we trying to do? Experience pure being, enlightenment or encounter God? they other side of the is our interpretation. How do we understand that experience?

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Yes, suffering is another thing. Buddhism, the entire point is to eliminate suffering by eliminating attachment and understanding reality for what it is. Christianity embraces suffering as a share in the transformative work of Christ.

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Every religion and spirituality is attempting to access something beyond words. I’d even say every form of art is trying to do that. This doesn’t make the spiritual realities the same, though. God is not the only spirit. Not only can the avenues to attain spiritual experiences be different… the spirits themselves can be different. We want union with the Trinity & not any other spiritual presence (including one accessed through emptying).

They don’t try to access any spirit and “emptiness” is very misunderstood.
In the depth of it all we cannot compare the two religions. We know they have different languages for different motives and interpretations. The rest we cannot talk about.

Okay, then I think we agree on this. As I said in my OP about the second explanation (which is yours):

How would you go about answering these questions?

Well, I know many Muslims, atheists, even secularists who have cultivated virtues like kindness and consideration, but of course that doesn’t mean I endorse their religion (or lack thereof).

Also, AFAIK it’s impossible ever to confirm that someone has reached Nirvana/become enlightened, because there’s no objective standard to measure their attainment by. We haven’t established if Nirvana is a real thing (and I’d question whether it is).

I was referencing the verse from the Bible… “ye shall know them by their fruits”

Sure, but why not take them at their word? Why would we cast doubt on what they’re claiming to have experienced?

Because Nirvana as a state can’t exist according to Christian theology - whatever they’re experiencing can’t be “Nirvana” as they define it, i.e. the “realization of non-self and emptiness through the liberation from repeated rebirth.”

Re: “You shall know them by their fruits” - what I was getting at is, it’s possible for non-Christians to do good deeds (“fruits”). But all truth is God’s truth - if their religion teaches something true, it still came from our God and they discovered it perhaps through intuition or reasoning. Socrates got many things right about virtue despite living 400 years before Christ. But I definitely don’t believe the Buddhists are as serene as they’re made out to be - I’ve seen interviews with the Dalai Lama and he can get very testy around Chinese issues. There are also monks in Southeast Asia who are literally persecuting the Rohingya refugees.

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The path to enlightenment is to find inner stillness and to empty oneself of thought to become one with everything. Then apparently enlightenment can be found.

You think so? What if Nirvana is simply contemplation of the created Beauty of the image of God within man? If so, then Nirvana could be a state of bliss, etc. but it would still lack contact with God. As for perceiving the world as an eternal mass of co-dependently arising phenomena, no-self, etc. that could be simply because they cannot access God’s creative energies which do the arising of the phenomena… they are just stuck in the realm of phenomena. As such, they do not see God, so it really looks to them like reality has no foundation. Of course we know that the world is contingent, and hence impermanent, as they say, but we also know that there is a God who wills the world to exist each and every moment.

As for rebirth, the way they define it, it’s not actually the rebirth of the same person/soul. So it’s in no way conflicting with Christianity. What they mean is that the 5 skhandas (5 elements that make up a being) get reincarnated. They are form, sensation, perception, mental formations, and awareness -> they become part of other newly arising beings.Technically the reincarnated being is not “you” in any meaningful, Christian sense. Much like saying that the atoms that make up your body all change over time - so you got reincarnated. Obviously doesn’t conflict with our understanding of the human person, which is how we ground identity.

Ok this makes more sense, I agree. However, I don’t think the Dalai Lama is the best example, since the Lama is, ultimately, a political leader. I’m an Eastern Orthodox, and I see you are too, and I’d say that if we’re looking for wisdom, we can often find it better by looking at a practicing monk than the patriarch of our respective churches wouldn’t you think so?

In addition, I agree that the West typically has a distorted vision of Buddhism. They are not as airy fairy as they are made out to be, it is quite a manly religion in many parts of Asia.

Catechism of the Catholic Church

843 The Catholic Church recognizes in other religions that search, among shadows and images, for the God who is unknown yet near since he gives life and breath and all things and wants all men to be saved. Thus, the Church considers all goodness and truth found in these religions as "a preparation for the Gospel and given by him who enlightens all men that they may at length have life."332

332 Lumen gentium 16; cf. Nostra aetate 2; Evangelii nuntiandi 53.

However, Buddhism does not accept the idea of a Creator (ex nihilo).

Centering prayer gets very close to Buddhism is the sense of silencing all thought to look inwards to ourselves for prayer, whereas Christmas prayer is to look outwards to God

God is also indwelling. In fact St John of the Cross goes so far as to say “the center of the soul is God.”

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Well said. Thank you. I would further emphasize that, in Catholicism, we are called to attach and to surrender ourselves to the will of Christ. Whereas, in Buddhism, attachment is seen as the source of all human sufferings. Attaching to Christ is a source of human suffering??? No, absolutely not!!!

Also, In Buddhism, there is nothing permanent. Whereas, in Catholicism, God is and the human souls are.

But there is a difference in praying contemplatively to see what God is telling you as compared to meditating on your own thoughts

I am afraid you are taking a quote out of context, the context being the Catholic faith. Buddhism insists there is no real truth - which of course denies God. Because there is no real truth, no God, Buddhism also denies an ultimate right and wrong, which leaves Buddhism with no explanation for evil.

Tenne in Buddism is the knowledge that all is unreal - every person, action, rock, all unreal. Yet, confusingly, Buddhism claims karma is real. Karma is the reason Buddhism reject what we think of as compassion. Since karma has decided the man in rags starving to death is due his life of misery, Buddhism rejects Christian belief in compassion, and in stepping in to save the man from his fate. Buddhism insists the man’s fate is his earned karma, from which he should not be saved.

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