Can You be a Christian and Buddhist?

Buddha statue wearing a cross main

Buddhism and Christianity both have a range of gratly debated doctrines.  Buddhism is a religion based on Buddha’s teaching on how to live a happy life and obtain enlightenment.  Christianity arises from the teachings of Jesus. What those teachings entail varies, depending on one’s interpretation of the bible.  Can you be a Buddhist and a Christian?  It depends on how you fill in the blanks!

“Christ” in Christmas

I passed a sign recently counseling me to “Keep Christ In Christmas.”  

This is a familiar debate in recent years that has become somewhat silly.  But, for the sake of this article, let us take it a bit seriously.  

“Christ” is not the last name of Jesus.  It is a type of title.  It means “anointed one.”  When Peter and others recognized Jesus as “Christ,” with special divine authority (let’s put aside exact details), it was a special moment of religious insight.  

What Is Christianity Anyway?

You can’t determine if it’s possible to be both Christian and Buddhist without figuring out what it means to be a Christian. And, this insight starts us toward understanding Christianity.  

Bertrand Russell, a famous British philosopher and skeptic, wrote an essay on why he was not a Christian.  He began by setting forth the bare minimum required to be a Christian:

The first is one of a dogmatic nature—namely, that you must believe in God and immortality.
[Then,] I think you must have at the very lowest the belief that Christ was, if not divine, at least the best and wisest of men. If you are not going to believe that much about Christ, I do not think you have any right to call yourself a Christian.

One dictionary definition of Christianity is: “the religion derived from Jesus Christ, based on the Bible as sacred scripture, and professed by Eastern, Roman Catholic, and Protestant bodies.”   Just what all those “bodies profess” takes us all over the place.   

No Official Definition!

There is not some “official” definition of what it means to be a Christian. There are lots of Christian sects (Catholicism, Methodism, Baptists, and so on) with various official doctrines.  And, you will find a lot of debate among believers in each individual sect.  

Belief in God? 

Just what it means to be a “Christian” is at its heart a personal choice.  Mr. Russell was right to consider belief in God one of the basic criteria of the average Christian.  But, if Jesus is honored as one of the “wisest of men,” is it truly required to believe in God to be a Christian? 

I was raised as a Catholic but along with another contributor have a lot of respect for Unitarian-Universalism. The religion grew out of Protestant Christianity and many would consider it a Christian sect.  But, you do not have to believe in God to be a member.   

Mission of Jesus 

It is true that the average Christian is likely to have basic beliefs about Jesus not just being a wise man, but that he committed miracles and rose from the dead to save humanity.  

Gnostic Christians, however, even there, had a different understanding of the purpose of the ministry of Jesus.  This is seen in such works as the Gospel of Thomas.  Gnostics sometimes opposed the idea that Jesus died on the cross and rose from the dead.  They focused on Jesus spreading true knowledge (“gnosis”) of our existence.   

Others honor Jesus as a wise man who did good works.  For instance, Thomas Jefferson crafted a “Jefferson Bible” from the gospels, removing anything he felt was irrational such as the miraculous conception of Jesus, miracles, and his resurrection from the dead.  

Social Issues Associated with Christianity 

“Christians” sometimes have a reputation as conservative, including when opposition to same-sex marriage is defended as based on “Christian faith”  (the quotes are not meant to be derogatory).  But, Christians have a range of beliefs on such social questions.  

Okay … so What About Buddhism?

Siddhartha Gautama was a prince who lived sometime around 600 BCE in the area now bordering the countries of India and Nepal.  Siddhartha was concerned about the suffering in the world.  

In time, he was “enlightened” (“Buddha” means the “enlightened one”) regarding the proper way to obtain a happy life.  Buddhism is a religion based on Buddha’s teaching on how to live a happy life and obtain true happiness.  This includes such concepts as karma and nonviolence.  

Buddhism, like Christianity, has no “one” official set of beliefs.  For instance, Dalai Lama is the leading monk in Tibetan Buddhism. Other Buddhists might respect him without believing in the existence of a lama (special spiritual leader) who continuously is reborn to help humanity.  

Many people who practice Buddhism also believe in many gods. So, we included it here in a discussion of polytheistic religions.  Nonetheless, it is not a necessary part of the religion itself.  

In fact, the U.S. Supreme Court once included  Buddhism among “religions in this country which do not teach what would generally be considered a belief in the existence of God.”  

And, Buddhists also believe in a range of doctrines.  Concepts such as reincarnation, the cycle of life and existence, and proper mediation techniques are accepted and not accepted in various degrees.  Many who practice Buddhism will not even know many of the intricate details.   

Can You Be A Christian and Buddhist?  

The Answer is Definitely “No”

Both religions have a lot of conflicting beliefs and doctrines.  A person who becomes a Buddhist, Christian, or Buddhist-Christian has to settle on the right ones.  This is not just a matter of reason.  It is going to be partially a matter of faith and what is the right path for you.  

Check out this argument, for instance, that answers “no.”  The author provides biblical verses that “prove” what Christianity entails, and compares it to a particular view of Buddhism.  But, others will disagree that Buddha is “the” savior, for instance, above and beyond others.  

Over the years, the beliefs of both Buddhism and Christianity influenced each other. Elaine Pagels, for instance, argued in her book on the gnostic gospels that Buddhism influenced the gnostics.  In Asian countries, Christianity over the centuries often lived comfortably with Buddhism and other Asian-based faiths, with believers finding a lot of common ground.  

Buddhism does provide openness for polytheism.  Is Christianity, however, quite as monotheistic as some think?  Catholicism, for instance, speaks of the “three persons” in one “Godhead” (Jesus, God, Holy Spirit).  This is blasphemy to some Christians and to Jews and Muslims. 

Christianity (in the mind of many) is focused on the belief in the resurrection of Jesus as the ultimate moment of the redemption of the world from sin. 

This as a philosophical matter does clash with various Buddhist beliefs.  But, some Christians do not believe in resurrection, especially as something that literally happened as a historical fact.  

The same might be true with the concept of a “final judgment” (in which the Bible argues Jesus has a special role).  This clashes with Buddhism’s belief in an eternal cycle of life. Nonetheless, many Christians do not believe in a final judgment or the concept of “hell.”  

I Mean the Answer is Definitely “Yes”

Buddhism and Christianity have many similarities.  A basic agreement is a path necessary for a good life.  The “eightfold path” of Buddhism will get a lot of nods from the typical Christian.  Christians speak of “living in Christ,” but their actions in so doing overlap a lot with Buddism.  

Buddhism is also concerned about enlightenment. Christians again agree.  People who become Christian often speak of the transformation it has in their lives.  

In fact, can we not say in a way that Jesus very well might have been a “lama,” who brought enlightenment in his time and beyond?  

Buddhism has a lot of complicated beliefs about reincarnation, the state of being, and so on as well.  It is unclear how fundamental each belief is to be a Buddhist.  Some Buddhists only accept some, if any, of many such beliefs.  The same applies to Christianity, even if the doctrines are technically required to be a member of a particular sect.  Surely so with Catholicism.  

Final Thoughts 

The answer to the question “can you be a Christian and a Buddhist” is one of those things that are up to the reader.  I have my own ideas, but they are my own.  There is no single right answer in my view.  But, maybe that conclusion itself is misguided, based on wrong premises!

Keep Christ in Christmas?  Mix in some Buddha?  Maybe.  What that means is a lot harder.

Teach and Thrive

A Bronx, NY veteran high school social studies teacher who has learned most of what she has learned through trial and error and error and error.... and wants to save others that pain.