Is Peter Kreeft (and most Catholics) wrong about Buddhism?

I read an article that critiqued Peter Kreeft’s comparison of Jesus and Buddha

One paragraph states this.

Kreef begins with the all-too-common trope that the Buddha claimed to be a man, while Jesus ‘clearly’ claimed to be both ‘Son of Man’ and ‘Son of God.’ In fact, the Buddha denied both being a man and a god (and other things), telling his interlocutor to know him simply as awakened – buddhoti, (Doṇa Sutta AN.4.36). My understanding of this is that the Buddha was challenging Dona’s (and our) categorical preconceptions of the world: in our experience there are such-and-such types of being that we could encounter and the Buddha was urging us to see that what he -and his teaching- represented was something beyond our current typologies and limited experience.

Another paragraph states:

*Kreef continues: “Buddha said, “Look not to me, look to my dharma (doctrine)”; Christ said, “Come unto me.” Buddha said, “Be ye lamps unto yourselves”; Christ said, “I am the light of the world.”

In fact the Buddha said “He who sees me, sees the Dharma, he who sees the Dharma, sees me” (SN 22.87). His life and teachings form a mirror image of one another. And one should not get too hung up on him as a particular being, as he is simply one of many who have understood the true nature of things and overcome suffering.*

And then a poster makes a statement in regards to Kreeft’s claim that Buddhism teaches a nothingness doctrine:

Nothingness is the wrong interpretation of Emptiness. Emptiness is simply the lack of inherent existence, or basically all existence is conventional and interdependently arising. Nothingness does not follow from this at all, its an absurd conclusion. I don’t understand how a philosophy professor could misinterpret this so badly when Garfield, another philosopher, has made this so clear in The Fundamental Wisdom Of The Middle Way commentary. SMH

My question is, is Peter Kreeft wrong about Buddhism along with most other Catholic apologists?

Here is the original piece by Kreeft, btw.

[quote=From the article]Nothingness is the wrong interpretation of Emptiness. Emptiness is simply the lack of inherent existence, or basically all existence is conventional and interdependently arising. Nothingness does not follow from this at all, its an absurd conclusion. I don’t understand how a philosophy professor could misinterpret this so badly when Garfield, another philosopher, has made this so clear in The Fundamental Wisdom Of The Middle Way commentary. SMH

Well, the dictionary tells us that when something is empty, it contains nothing. It seems that the commenter is assuming a postmodern philosophy.

And what credentials does this Garfield have? What reasons does the commenter give for following him? It seems, rather, that Kreeft is taking doctrine of nothingness to its philosophical conclusion.

I do not think the word “wrong” can be used in either the sense of morally wrong or factual incorrect. One is at liberty to paraphrase. His statements are close enough to what was said as to represent at least one legitimate way of paraphrasing a long statement. The nuance between nothingness and emptiness escapes me. However, I am sure as a Doctor of Philosophy, Peter Kreeft is used to empty arguments over a failure to define terms.

The substance of Dr. Kreeft’s comparison remains the same. Comparing Jesus to Buddha misses who Jesus is. He did not bring a word or teaching he is The Word, God made flesh. He did not come to teach us how to live an empty life, but to live a full life.

This is very confusing. I don’t know what is being said. Often unclear thinking is perceived as profound by abundance of fancy words. Peter Kreeft on the other hand is coherent. I’d go with his understanding.

The word used in Buddhism is not “empty”, which is an English word. Buddhist scriptures are in many languages, and the most common word in this context is shunya. That is not a word found in any English dictionary.

In this case “shunya” means that things are not what they seem to be:

As stars, a fault of vision, as a lamp,
A mock show, dew drops, or a bubble,
A dream, a lightning flash, or a cloud,
So should one view what is conditioned.

– Diamond sutra 32

None of those things listed are nothing, but they can be fleeting, evanescent and not what they appear to be. All things are empty of permanent substance, and to assume such a permanent substance is an error.

Emptiness is not an easy concept to grasp:

If their view of emptiness shunyata] is wrong,
those of little intelligence will be hurt.
Like handling a snake in the wrong way,
or casting a spell in the wrong way.

– Nagarjuna Mulamadhyamakakarika 24:11


Is Peter Kreeft (and most Catholics) wrong about Buddhism?

I’m not really sure why you put “most Catholics” in there. I’m sure Dr. Kreeft has some fans out, even some die-hard fans, but “most Catholics”? :shrug:

I’ll leave it to others to say whether he’s wrong about Buddhism – not really my area. :slight_smile:

My understanding of eastern philosophy is that we have no real being of our own. There is only one who is real. We are extensions of that one, we are not individuals in the way we commonly think. We are not real “selfs.” In a way, it’s pantheism. The only thing that truly exists is God, so basically everything you see is just a part of him. I think Buddhism speaks of emptying yourself of individuality, of self, and in doing so what remains is the only thing that is Real (god, such that it is in eastern philosophy). Which is different than nothingness.

This is different from western philosophy. While God is infinite and may sustain our existence, we are not parts of God or extensions of him. Creation may be limited images of God (in that God is pure and infinite existence, and we are limited existence), but we are individuals and selfs in our own right, distinct from him, and real on our own, culpable for own our actions and morality, with our own minds and wills.

Yes, of course, since it isn’t an English word. The Norwegian word ‘pølse’ isn’t found in english either. That doesn’t change the fact that it means ‘sausage.’

A quick search online tells me that shunya or shunyata (শূন্যতা) carries the meaning of void, emptiness, or vacuum. I still do not see the meaningful difference between that and nothingness.

What I know about Buddhism could be poured into a shotglass, with room left over for what I know about, say, Jainism. However, the paragraph quoted above looks to me very much like “You say to-may-to, I say to-mah-to.”

This still shows Dr. Kreeft as correct. The Catholic/Orthodox faith is not that the soul is fleeting, but full of life if open to God’s Grace.

Does a mirage look like it has water in it? Is the mirage actually empty of water?

Being empty does not mean that something is nothing; a mirage is not nothing. A mirage appears to be water, while nothing would not appear to be like water.


That is an analogy, and one a little scrutiny of the words dispel. A mirage, by definition, is not a lake, but an image of a lake. This image is full of the light in the form of photons, so it does have existence and is not empty of what defines it.

Besides, this does nothing but define the clear distinction between Buddha and Jesus. Buddha offers the idea of life as a mirage; Jesus offers life as the lake filled to overflowing with the living water that quenches all thirst. In fact, he goes further and, in this analogy, teaches that he himself is that lake, that living water.

The Buddha warns you that a lot of reality is actually different from what you think it is, like a mirage. By thinking of things in one way, when they are actually different, you lay yourself open to suffering.

Buddhism teaches techniques to help you to see reality more clearly, and not as you imagine it to be. It is very easy to fool ourselves into thinking that things are one way, when really they are not that way at all.

Chasing the water in a mirage can only lead to suffering.


Most of the critiques look pretty solid to the general effect that Kreeft is here superficial about Buddhism.

That doesn’t completely negate his point though it makes it very difficult to accept if one is Buddhist.

I haven’t read anything else by Kreeft so I can’t say whether the rest of his writing is effective.

Most Catholics can’t be wrong about Buddhism because most Catholics don’t know anything about Buddhism! Of those that do, their views on it will all be different.

Oh that’s definitely the line of the day for this thread! :smiley:

The vast majority of attempts to do “amateur comparative religion” on the internet makes my head hurt. This is especially true in terms of taking one of the Abrahamic faiths and contrasting it something from India.

Because you in the West really really really_ need to learn the terminology being used - and the major debates between schools in order to put a proper context on what Buddhism is and what its arguments are responding to.

Case in Point: Your Ancestors living in the 18th and 19th century went about with the notion that Buddhism = Nihilism …Even Though Nihilism was a specific position Siddartha Gautama actually argued against.

It wasn’t till the 20th century when scholars in the West started to actually engage with the Pali Canon that the Lightbulb finally went on in their heads - as in “Ohhh…THAT’s What he meant!”

Ben Sinner my advice to you if you want a good grasp of this situation.

1.) How good is your Thomism? That is the general Church approved philosophy correct? Focus on Aristotle’s understanding of Ontology.

2.) Run through the rest of Western civilization’s philosophical tradition regarding Ontology and Substances. Might not hurt to have an understanding/comprehension of modern physics -> but i’m a scientist so i’m obviously biased toward people learning a little more in that respect. :stuck_out_tongue:

Ok done right?


3.) I want you to look up the Nyaya-Vaiseshika school of Hindu thought.

You need to understand their Epistemology, Ontology, and understanding of how substances work.

Because this is the school that philosophical Buddhism isreacting to.

You’d do well then to understand the differences of how Nyaya-Vaisheshika claims something to exist and how the Aristotlean-Thomistic tradition might handle the same questions in a different manner.

4.) Now take a look at Buddhism - at least the Theravada/Pali Canon version…

I offer a caveat though.

Notice i just said Theravada/Pali Canon - this completely ignores the incredibly rich tradition of the Mahayana schools (think Chinese/Japanese/Tibetan buddhism).

Notice also i said schools - because while certain features of the Mahayana are shared by all…there are very distinct interpretations of the Buddha’s teachings within each school.

And trust me, it isn’t as simple as “Faith vs. Works” or the controversies you have with the Protestants regarding things like Sola Scriptura.

You can see such wonderful sights like

Nagarjuna’s Madhyamika philosophy vs. Vasubhandu’s Yogachara

Then the Madhyamika-Prasangika interpretation vs. the Madhyamika-Svantrika

and then the Yogachara-Madhyamika-Svantrika synthesis.

And that’s just the Indo-Tibetan pedigree of thought.

We haven’t even touched on how the folks in Japan and China ended up internalizing Buddhism…and using Daoist concepts to translate Buddhist terms (which leads to…other terminological issues… How’s your Chinese by the way? :wink: )

The Short of It: The Rabbit Hole is Huge Ben Sinner.

I’m Indian and it took my nearly a decade to figure out how all of these Classical Indian schools of thought actually work.

Because, surprise surprise, what they say about each other doesn’t always match up to what the other school actually professes.

An Illustrative Example: If i asked a believer in Islam how many Gods Catholics have, they’ll say 3.

Now we both know that’s not what you guys believe - it kind of is in the ballpark though. The statement is trying to reference your belief in a Trinity…but still misses the substantial point behind it.

That’s pretty much what’s happening here.

Well said. I am FB friends with one Buddhist (a fellow low brass player) and a Buddhist sympathizer (a comparative religions teacher), and based on some of what they said, I looked up the Wikipedia article on Buddhism. That by itself in humongous.

I know what you mean.

Although to be honest I don’t mind it as much when it’s about Buddhism or other religions I care little for, rather than Catholicism/Christianity. :slight_smile:

Wrong way to look at it Peter… i’m serious.

You want your tradition to be respected right? You’d probably like it if the other person who’s decided to offer the comparison/critique actually took the time to sit and read through the primary texts which make up the worldview which you espouse to be true right? And perhaps also on top of that, take a moment to understand the…shall we say lived experience of practicing in that religion correct?

And even if you disagree with each other - at the very minimum you are disagreeing about things of substantive importance rather than disingenious cheeky strawman position.

Because the alternative to the above scenario is some random cut/paste job from Wikipedia followed by the so-called “deep thoughts” of the Critic who is essentially producing a Pseudo version of -(insert Religion/Political Position/Philosophy of Choice)- to attack. Which of course is followed by some catcalls from the Peanut Gallery (is that the correct usage of the term btw? Peanut Gallery…always wondered what the origin of that phrase was) saying the Approved “Go Team” phrase.

Now didn’t some important guy in your tradition start off a sentance that kind of went something to the effect of "Do Unto Others As You Would Have Them Do Unto You. :wink:

And you know what Peter - there are some pretty good minds on CAF who choose the High Road.

MelzterBoy is One…but he might have an unfair advantage since comparative religion is his job function. :stuck_out_tongue:

Cavardossi is another in my opinion. Reading any of his posts, you can tell he’s though really hard about his Orthodoxy and how it relates to the world around him.

Contarini /Edwin Tate. His Logic and Exposition on his faith, the amount of care and consideration he takes into trying not to misrepresent another’s position whilst still demonstrating his own understanding of his Tradition and showing how he arrived at such conclusions…

I may not agree with any of it.

But he still earns my respect for putting in the effort.


Google is our friend.


i have read that there is little, or nothing, available from the actual time frame in which the buddha lived. most of what is known of him was first documented hundred of years after he lived.

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