The Buddha and What He Taught
by J. Isamu Yamamoto
In recent years Asian immigration to North America has risen dramatically, and with
these people has come their Buddhist faith. At the same time many non-Asian
North Americans have adopted Buddhism as their religion. In order to present
the gospel effectively to both of these groups it is clear that Christians need to
have a fundamental understanding of Buddhism. Siddhartha Gautama lived over
twenty-five centuries ago, but as the Buddha his life and teachings still
inspire the faith of millions of people throughout Asia. The Buddha rejected
the religions of his day in India and taught a new approach to religion -- a life not of
luxury and pleasure nor of extreme asceticism, but the Middle Way. Even in the
West many find Buddhism appealing because its principles seem sensible
I must confess: I love peaches. The juicy texture, the sweet fragrance, the luscious
taste -- I love everything about peaches. I always have. As a youngster I grew up
in San Jose, California. During the fifties, San Jose was a small town nestled in the
Santa Clara Valley. At that time it was a valley full of fruit orchards. Today it is
known as "Silicon Valley," and most of the orchards are gone. Forty years ago I
could wander through orchards and enjoy cherries, apricots, and, of course,
One day I was with my dad, who worked in the orchards as a field hand. It was a
hot sunny afternoon, and I was famished. When I saw a tree laden with peaches, I
scurried over to it. There was one peach that was within my reach. I quickly
noticed the red blush on its orange skin, and I knew it was ripe for my enjoyment. I
touched it, and it felt soft and round in my hand. I wanted it.
Just as I was about to bite into it, my dad grabbed it out of my hand. He looked at
it closely, and then he broke it open. A slimy worm was crawling around the core.
OBSERVATIONS AT THE PARLIAMENT
At the 1993 Parliament of the World's Religions, held at the Palmer Hotel last
summer in Chicago, I recalled this early lesson about discernment. In fact, three
incidents occurred during the opening plenary session of the first day of this
convocation, which was the centennial celebration of the World's Parliament of
Religions held in Chicago in 1893, when many of the Eastern religions were first
established in North America.
Since I live in the western suburbs of Chicago, I gave myself an hour and a half to
drive into the city, park my car, obtain my press pass, and find a seat in the Grand
Ballroom where the plenary session would occur. It was not enough time,
however, for by the time I entered the Palmer Hotel, all seats in the ballroom were
taken. Initially I kicked myself for not allowing more time, but then I realized that
God had it planned for a crowd of people to jam me against the lower end of a
railing on a stairway going downward. As I looked over the railing, Parliament
staffers were coming up the opposite stairway, clearing the path for the procession
of dignitaries -- the religious leaders who represented the many world religious
traditions and who were to parade into the ballroom to commence the
Soon a high official of the Parliament directed one group after another into the
ballroom. What was amazing to me was not so much that I was an arm's length
away from these religious leaders, but the way in which this official commanded
the movements of these people. Here were the leaders in the Hindu, Buddhist,
Islamic, and Jewish faiths. There were also Sikhs, Zoroastrians, Jains, and even
Wiccan priestesses. In addition, Catholic priests and Protestant clerics participated
in this procession. But no matter who they were they all submitted to the
directions of that Parliament official, who ordered them about like a police officer
A moment of levity occurred during the middle of this proceeding when the
Parliament official cried out, "Where are the Protestants? Go get them!" He was
obviously irritated that they had not promptly presented themselves according to
his game plan. One of the spectators shouted, "They're upstairs having a drink."
Loud laughter then erupted just as the Protestants scurried in with meek smiles on
This was the first incident in which I said to myself, "These people are like lambs
led to the slaughter, but unlike lambs they have chosen to be compliant."
After the entire procession had finally entered the ballroom, I hurried to the
overflow room where televisions monitored the plenary session. One dignitary
after another blessed the conference, such as Swami Ghahanananda of the
Vivekananda Vedanta Society, Lady Olivia Robertson of the Fellowship of Isis, and
Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of the Roman Catholic church. They spoke of harmony
and peace, and how this Parliament was a gigantic step forward in achieving unity
among the different faiths.
As long as they spoke into the microphone, we could hear them well, but if they
didn't, we could only observe them on the television screens. Most of the speakers
used the microphone correctly, but one of the Native American speakers neglected
the microphone and we didn't hear anything he said. Strangely, however, as soon
as he concluded his presentation, the people in the overflow room cheered and
Here was someone who could have said anything, and the people in the room
would have demonstrated their highest approval. I was amazed at how easily
swayed were the people who attended this Parliament. This was the second
incident that reminded me of how alluring was that peach.
Toward the end of the plenary session, Rev. Gyomay Kubose of the Buddhist
Council of the Midwest offered his blessing to the conference. Kubose spoke
directly into the microphone, and his words were clear and easily understood. He
too urged people to promote world peace and universal brotherhood. He said we
must create harmony. He then read an ancient Buddhist poem, which said that
there is one source, one law, and that "all life is one."
How wonderful for Kubose and all the other speakers to encourage peace and
harmony among different peoples of different faiths! Their words sounded good.
They were certainly appealing. Indeed, they were enchanting. But were they really
saying what we thought we heard? Was what appeared on the surface of what
they were saying at the core of their beliefs as well? Can there really be harmony
among all the world religions?
Since I have been a Christian for over 25 years and have seriously studied
Buddhism for nearly 20 years, I believe there cannot be this harmony. Kubose's
words were a third indication to me that a very alluring, but also very corrupt
peach was being presented at the Parliament of the World's Religions.
In this article and the three that will follow, I would like to demonstrate how there
can be no harmony between the Buddhist doctrine and the Christian faith. I will also
reveal how we as Christians can show this difference to Buddhists who are
currently living in our society.
In the past 20 years the number of legal and illegal Asian immigrants into North
America has increased dramatically. In fact, estimates of the number of illegal
immigrants alone entering America each year range from 50,000 to 500,000. With
these people has come their Buddhist faith. Most Americans of Asian descent still
are professing Buddhists, which accounts for a sizable population. For example,
according to the 1990 U.S. Census, over 800,000 Americans point to Japan as
their nation of origin. At the same time thousands of non-Asian North Americans
have adopted Buddhism as their religion. Not surprisingly, there are now over one
thousand Buddhist temples, monasteries, and centers in the United States.
Of course, Buddhists belong to many religious traditions, and in many cases it
seems that there is little similarity between the various schools of Buddhism.
Nevertheless, all Buddhists point back to the Buddha as the founder of their religion
and accept certain fundamental principles that he taught. Therefore it is important
that we preface our examination of Buddhism in America with a look at the life and
teachings of this historical figure.
caste system: Social groups in India that rank in a hierarchic order and within
which there is a minimum of social mobility.
Pali Canon: The most complete and generally regarded as the earliest collection of
canonical literature in Buddhism.
Sanskrit: The sacred language of India, which the Indians consider "the language
of the gods"; means "perfected" and "cultured."
Theravada (Theravadin tradition): The oldest surviving Buddhist tradition, which
flourishes in parts of Southeast Asia and is known as "the doctrine of the elders."
Over three thousand years ago the Aryans (a powerful group of Indo-European-speaking people) spread in several directions throughout Europe, the Middle East,
and South Asia. After conquering the Indus valley, the Aryans instituted
Brahmanism (today it has developed into Hinduism) and the caste system in the
Indian culture, which enabled the invaders to maintain the purity of the Aryan race
and establish themselves as spiritual and social masters over the native Indians.
The Brahmin (or Brahman) priests further centralized their power over all the
castes and soon set up a religious monopoly for a privileged few.
In the sixth century B.C., a number of important religious traditions were formed.
One was Jainism, which was founded by Mahavira and has survived to this day.
Another was the birth of Buddhism, which was to rival Hinduism as a major world
religion. The founder of Buddhism was Siddhartha Gautama, revered by millions of
people throughout the world today.
The biography of Siddhartha Gautama was not written during his lifetime. The
earliest available accounts of his life were collected some three hundred years after
his death. Since then, both historical and legendary descriptions of his life have
been included in the Pali Canon and Sanskrit accounts. Historians have debated
where to draw the line between history and legend, but no one can know what are
the facts. What follows is an account of the Buddha which most Buddhists accept
but which almost certainly contains much myth. Nevertheless, whether the stories
about Siddhartha Gautama be true or myth, his life has been and still is an
inspiration and model for all Buddhists.
Siddhartha Gautama probably was born in 563 B.C. and died about eighty years
later. His father was King Suddhodana Gautama, a raja (or chieftain) of the
Sakya clan, a family of the Kshatriya (warrior-nobility) caste of ancient Bharata. His
father reigned over Kapilavastu, a small district on the Indian slope of the
Himalayas in a region that borders between India and Nepal.
At birth Gautama (his family name) received the name of Siddhartha, meaning "he
who has accomplished his objectives." He is also called Sakyamuni ("the wise sage
of the Sakya clan"), Bhagavat ("blessed with happiness"), Tathagata ("the one
who has gone thus"), Jina ("the victorious"), and, of course, the Buddha ("the
During Siddhartha's infancy, the sage Asita visited King Suddhodana's court and
prophesied that Siddhartha would become either a great ruler like his father if he
remained within his father's palace or a Buddha if he went forth into the world. King
Suddhodana believed that if his son observed human misery in the world,
Siddhartha would leave his home to seek for truth. Naturally, the king wanted his
son to ascend to his throne after his death. Therefore, he issued strict orders to his
subjects that the young prince was not to see any form of evil or suffering.
As Siddhartha grew to manhood, he manifested extraordinary intelligence and
strength. For example, at the age of sixteen Siddhartha won the hand of his
cousin, Yashodara, by performing twelve marvelous feats in the art of archery.
Siddhartha might have married other women, but if so, Yashodara was evidently
his principal wife.
Meanwhile, despite the diligence of his father to sequester him from the sight of evil
and suffering, Siddhartha decided to elude the royal attendants and drive his chariot
four times through the city. During his excursions outside his father's palace, he
observed an old man, a leper, a corpse, and an ascetic. He realized from his
observations that life was full of sorrows and that happiness was an illusion. Thus
Siddhartha became aware of human suffering.
On the same night in which Yashodara gave birth to their son Rahula, Siddhartha
left his family and kingdom to seek for truth. Siddhartha certainly anguished
over his decision to leave everything he loved, but now that his son, whose name
means "hindrance," was born and could continue the royal line, he felt free to begin
his spiritual quest. He took his faithful servant Channa and his devoted horse
Kanthaka as far as the forest, where he shaved off his hair and changed his robes.
He left them there and began a pilgrimage of inquiry and asceticism as a poor
For six or seven years, Gautama sought communion with the supreme cosmic
spirit, first through the teachings of two Brahmin hermits and then in the company
of five monks. He practiced the traditional methods of asceticism such as fasting.
Other physical austerities included sleeping on brambles to mortify the desires of
his body and abstaining from sitting by crouching on his heels to develop his
concentration. For long periods he ate nothing except a single grain of rice each
Despite all these efforts, Siddhartha did not succeed in attaining truth. Finally, in a
moment of profound insight he realized that his life as an ascetic was of no greater
value than his previous life as a prince. Self-torture was vain and fruitless; privation
was no better than pleasure. He understood then the importance of what he called
the Middle Way. Abandoning a life of extreme austerities, Siddhartha ate solid food.
This act angered his fellow monks, who thought Siddhartha had weakened and
succumbed to his physical needs. They promptly deserted him, thoroughly
disgusted with his seeming worldliness.
On the wide bank of Meranjana at Gaya (a major city in northeast India) near the
village of Urvela, Siddhartha sat at the foot of a fig tree (commemorated as the
Bodhi tree). There Mara, the evil one, tried to thwart Siddhartha from becoming
the Buddha, enticing him with worldly temptations during his meditations.
Siddhartha withstood all the challenges and experienced the revelation of liberating
awareness -- the way that provides escape from the cruel causality of samsara
(the cycle of rebirths). He discovered the Four Noble Truths, which became known
as Pativedhanana, the wisdom of Realization. Siddhartha henceforth was the
Buddha -- the Enlightened One.
After his enlightenment, the Buddha was faced with a crucial decision. He could
either renounce the world and withdraw with his knowledge as most monks did
who thought they had attained spiritual truth, or he could remain with people and
share the Four Noble Truths with those who also sought truth. Out of his
compassion for others, the Buddha chose the later. Thus the followers of the
Buddha believe that Buddhism is built not only on truth, but also on compassion --
both wisdom and compassion are equally important to the Buddhist faith.
In the Deer Park at "Isipatana" (near the Ganges River in northeast India) two
months after he had experienced enlightenment, the Bu