Does the Buddhist/Hindu philosophy of detachment lead to Christian compassion?
If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,” but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit? Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. – James 2:15-17
There are some people out there who claim that the Eastern mystic philosophy of detachment through intense meditation and unattachment to the material world leads to something akin to Christian agápē love. The 14th Dali Lama himself claims that “the essence of Mahayana Buddhism is compassion” (Barad, 2007). What does he mean by compassion? How does Buddhism define that term?
The current Dali Lama writes that the Tibetan word for compassion (nying je) “connotes love, affection, kindness, gentleness, generosity of spirit, and warm-heartedness” (Barad, 2007).
The Latin etymology of the word compassion is derived from compassio which is where we get the word companion from and means to be in company/fellowship with someone; and pati which means suffering (Barad, 2007). In other words, compassion means to suffer with someone. It very much embodies the concept of empathy, but no one in history has personally embodied the idea of compassion the way that Jesus of Nazareth did.
He is despised and rejected by men, a Man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. And we hid, as it were, our faces from Him; He was despised, and we did not esteem Him. Surely He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; Yet we esteemed Him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But He was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; The chastisement for our peace was upon Him, and by His stripes we are healed. – Isaiah 53:3-5
Not many of us would be willing to die for crimes we did not commit in order to save the kinds of people who not only rejected us personally, but who don’t really deserve a second chance, but that is the story of Jesus and that is the benchmark He set for the definition of love.
For when we were still without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly. For scarcely for a righteous man will one die; yet perhaps for a good man someone would even dare to die. But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. – Romans 5:6-8
Agápē love is not a feeling, nor does it necessitate affection the way that the Dali Lama defines compassion. Primarily biblical love is behaviour towards other people, despite how they make you feel. It is a commitment that no matter how people respond to us, we will not repay them with anything less than kindness.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven; for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet your brethren only, what do you do more than others? Do not even the tax collectors do so? Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect.” – Matthew 5:43-48
You don’t have to feel good about how someone has treated you in order to behave towards them in a way which benefits the other person and has zero benefit to you. Your response is to meet that kind of hostility with true compassion, not based on how you feel.
Finally, all of you be of one mind, having compassion for one another; love as brothers, be tenderhearted, be courteous; not returning evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary blessing, knowing that you were called to this, that you may inherit a blessing. For “He who would love life and see good days, let him refrain his tongue from evil, and his lips from speaking deceit. Let him turn away from evil and do good; Let him seek peace and pursue it. For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous, and His ears are open to their prayers; But the face of the Lord is against those who do evil.” – 1 Peter 3:8-12
There is a presupposition in Christianity that there is such a thing as evil and it runs contrary to doing what is right in the eyes of God. The state of a person’s heart is just the beginning, because from the heart comes a person’s deeds and by a person’s deeds we can see the state of their heart.
“For a good tree does not bear bad fruit, nor does a bad tree bear good fruit. For every tree is known by its own fruit. For men do not gather figs from thorns, nor do they gather grapes from a bramble bush. A good man out of the good treasure of his heart brings forth good; and an evil man out of the evil treasure of his heart brings forth evil. For out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks.” – Luke 6:43-45
Jesus did not preach neutrality. Jesus preached a clear delineation between right and wrong, good and evil, God and Satan. There is no such thing as detachment to the outcome in either what Jesus taught, or what Jesus did during His earthly ministry. When He speaks about fruit, He is literally speaking about behaviour and outcomes. It doesn’t matter how “altruistic” someone’s professed intentions are, if their fruit (the end result of their behaviour) is ultimately evil.
Not only did Jesus preach that deeds speak louder than words or feelings, but every time Jesus felt compassion for someone, it wasn’t just a feeling, it actually prompted Him into action.
And when Jesus went out He saw a great multitude; and He was moved with compassion for them, and healed their sick. – Matthew 14:14
In this passage above, Jesus had just received the news that His cousin, John the Baptist, had been beheaded and even though He sought time to grieve, when a crowd of people followed Him with all of their needs, He did not turn them away. Jesus healed all the sick people and then fed the crowd of 5000 or more. Jesus set aside His own needs and His own feelings to tend to the needs of others first.
The parable of the good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-37) shows what Jesus means by agápē love for your neighbour. Love has nothing to do with how religiously pious someone is, or how philosophically superior they think they are (as in the examples of the priest and Levite who ignored the stranded and battered man), it has everything to do with their actions towards another person.
By this we know love, because He laid down His life for us. And we also ought to lay down our lives for the brethren. But whoever has this world’s goods, and sees his brother in need, and shuts up his heart from him, how does the love of God abide in him? My little children, let us not love in word or in tongue, but in deed and in truth. – 1 John 3:16-18
The way that the Dali Llama teaches compassion reminds me of this quote from CS Lewis:
To paraphrase Jane Austen; it is a truth universally acknowledged, that people are difficult to love. The Christian mandate is not to find people either worthy of our care or pleasant to be around, but that we show them through our behaviour who God is and how He redeems humanity. That God can still love us in our most unlovable moments and show kindness when we least deserve it.
“But love your enemies, do good, and lend, hoping for nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High. For He is kind to the unthankful and evil. Therefore be merciful, just as your Father also is merciful.” – Luke 6:35-36
It’s a great concept until you have to apply it to that guy who cussed you out, or that girl who spread rumours about you, or your neglectful parents, or the housemate who stole from you, or the co-worker who took credit for all of your effort, or the partner who cheated on you…
The Bible doesn’t say that you need to keep hanging out with these people. It actually says the opposite (1 Corinthians 15:33), but it does mean that you need to forgive them and let go of resentment, because chances are God will extend mercy to those very people and offer the same redemption He gave to you (Matthew 6:15).
Does the Bible Teach Karma?
There are three main causes of suffering alluded to in the Bible: #1 inexplicable human suffering which comes from indirect external causes and the general sinful state of humanity; #2 suffering which is directly linked to the choices and behaviour of individual people and is either inflicted on others or has natural consequences for the perpetrator; and #3 suffering for the sake of following Jesus.
The concept of karma is more esoteric than simple cause-and-effect scenarios such as “if I punch someone in the face, they’re likely to punch me back” which could be easily anticipated and avoided. It attempts to deal with the problem of general suffering by relating it to chaos theory which supposes that you might do something very benign and ordinary, but it sets in motion a chain of events which create karmic debt and you cannot reasonably foresee the outcome or avoid it. Even just coming into contact with the wrong individual can entangle you in an unseen karmic web (HuffPost, 2013).
Karma teaches that whatever suffering another person is going through, they brought it upon themselves through their karmic debt, which they have to pay for sooner or later and we should leave them to it because of selfish self-preservation (Buddhist.org, 2013). The Bible does teach that people eventually reap what they sow, if they prioritise their own self-interests and reject God’s definition of love. However, the Bible often makes a point that suffering is not always due to anyone’s fault, and it does not mean that we should avoid helping people. This essentially squashes the notion that it teaches anything like karma, or that Jesus was some sort of Eastern mystic.
Now as Jesus passed by, He saw a man who was blind from birth. And His disciples asked Him, saying, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but that the works of God should be revealed in him…” – John 9:1-3
The book of Job is a prime example of how times of trouble come upon even the most righteous person and has nothing to do with what they deserve, or any consequence of their actions. Human suffering, far from being the curse of karmic debt, is the natural consequence of a corrupted world which has rejected God, and also an opportunity for God to reveal Himself to us. Suffering drives us to seek something outside of our own self-reliance and become open to new ideas, which is the concept of repentance. It has the ability to humble the proud, soften the stubborn, and solidify a person’s character when they rise above the temptation to seek retribution and instead choose love. Contrary to how Eastern philosophy views suffering, Jesus did not teach that it was an indication of God’s displeasure or lack of love towards that person, but an invitation to draw nearer to Him and lean on His strength and understanding rather than our own.
Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding; In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He shall direct your paths. Do not be wise in your own eyes; Fear the Lord and depart from evil. It will be health to your flesh, and strength to your bones. – Proverb 3:5-8
Buddhism and Hinduism both teach that karma has to be worked out individually and to intervene when someone is in distress would mean interfering with their karmic process or becoming ensnared in it (HuffPost, 2013). Eastern philosophy effectively leaves the man on the side of road to die, rather than risking becoming a victim of the messiness of another person’s life and suffering with them. Compassion, in their worldview, comes through detachment. Loving Humanity with a capital “H” is the lofty goal of the enlightened person, but actually caring about the exasperating and depraved individual is too gritty for them. Buddhism and Hinduism teach that you can catch bad karma from other people like the common cold and the best course of action is to save yourselves.
As the famous Rajneesh cult-leader, Osho, said “compassion is a golden chain” which forms attachments with other people and attachments keep you stuck in the cycle of Samsara, so you need to cut off all relationships to become truly enlightened. The God of the Bible does not agree with this sentiment, instead saying that He is trying to reach out to people, but all of their grandiose, performative religion gets in the way, and they are lost in their own definition of reality.
[The Lord says] “I have stretched out My hands all day long to a rebellious people, who walk in a way that is not good, according to their own thoughts; A people who provoke Me to anger continually to My face; Who sacrifice in gardens, and burn incense on altars of brick… Who say, ‘Keep to yourself, do not come near me, for I am holier than you!’ These are smoke in My nostrils, a fire that burns all the day.” – Isaiah 65:2-5
Some people are so “enlightened” that they have convinced themselves that not only do they not need God, but that there is no God and they’re in charge of their own final destination. In the meantime they’re so detached from other people that they cannot understand how their behaviour impacts those around them and they operate from a level of selfishness which transcends comprehension by anyone with an ounce of empathy.
This teaching from the Buddhist teacher Bodhidharma is all about moral relativism, where there is no such thing as right or wrong and the physical world does not affect the spiritual world. He claims that sex cannot defile you because you’re a pure being with no flaws and everything you do is already perfect and wonderful, and you just need to let go of those restrictive ideas about sex and be free to do whatever you like. I’m sure that’s the kind of thing rapists and child-molesters like to tell themselves, but it’s not what God and Jesus tell us in the Bible:
“But from the beginning of the creation, God ‘made them male and female.’ ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’; so then they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let not man separate.” – Mark 10:6-9
Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I then take the members of Christ and make them members of a harlot? Certainly not! Or do you not know that he who is joined to a harlot is one body with her? For “the two,” He says, “shall become one flesh.” But he who is joined to the Lord is one spirit with Him. Flee sexual immorality. Every sin that a man does is outside the body, but he who commits sexual immorality sins against his own body. Or do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and you are not your own? For you were bought at a price; therefore glorify God in your body and in your spirit, which are God’s. – 1 Corinthians 6:15-20
What Buddhism teaches about people being perfectly good regardless of how depraved and despicable they behave, is antithetical to the teachings of Jesus. They are diametrically opposed and cannot be made compatible. You cannot have Jesus and Buddhism simultaneously. You cannot serve two masters at the same time. The flesh wants to gratify itself in the moment and only consider the short-term implications of getting what it wants, having it now and anyone who gets in the way is deemed “unenlightened”. Your basic, human nature is an entitled, malevolent toddler who needs to be reined in by a parental figure.
I say then: Walk in the Spirit, and you shall not fulfill the lust of the flesh. For the flesh lusts against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; and these are contrary to one another, so that you do not do the things that you wish. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.
Now the works of the flesh are evident, which are: adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lewdness, idolatry, sorcery, hatred, contentions, jealousies, outbursts of wrath, selfish ambitions, dissensions, heresies, envy, murders, drunkenness, revelries, and the like; of which I tell you beforehand, just as I also told you in time past, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Against such there is no law. And those who are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit. – Galatians 5:16-25
Think about those troubled teens who are out all night getting wasted with their friends, sleeping with random STD-infected strangers, setting fire to cars, graffitiing buildings, smashing windows, stealing things, beating someone up because they looked at them the wrong way… are those kids listening to the advice of loving parents, or are they under the watchful eye of a parole officer? When the Apostle Paul wrote “if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law” what he’s talking about is the difference between listening to a parent and following the rules of the household, or getting sent to juvenile prison because you can’t be trusted to make good choices.
In Christianity, you get a new Father-figure who shows you how to be a decent person and how to be part of a functional family who care about your wellbeing.
Buddhism is like joining a gang where someone shows you how to sell drugs and shoot people.
God is all about moderation (neither legalism nor lawlessness), but moderation is not the same as neutrality. People claim that the “middle way” of Buddhism teaches moderation, which in some respects it does, but primarily is teaches apathy, ambivalence and moral relativism, which claims that there is no good or bad and you don’t have to stand for anything. God, on the other hand, is measured and tempered, but He is not devoid of principles or standards.
What Buddhism teaches is all about sexual and financial exploitation of lost people who have no loving or strict parental guide who can equip them with the understanding of how their behaviour is destructive to themselves and others. Instead, they put their faith in greedy pimps like Osho in the pursuit of hyper-inflating their own egos with the notion of “enlightenment” and getting taken for a ride in the process.
In an interview with 60 Minutes Australia, Osho admitted that he exploited people, called his former secretary a bitch, and said that she left because he wouldn’t have sex with her and she was jealous of all the bitches he had been having sex with. She, in turn, accused him of exploiting people’s emotions and human frailty to the tune of more than $200,000,000 and frittering most of it away on bling and cars. It was undeniable that he had diamond-encrusted Rolex watches and a collection of more than 90 Rolls Royce vehicles at the cult’s Oregon ranch, which begs the question; where was he going in the middle of nowhere, and why did he need to be so punctual?
For men will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, unloving, unforgiving, slanderers, without self-control, brutal, despisers of good, traitors, headstrong, haughty, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having a form of godliness but denying its power. And from such people turn away! For of this sort are those who creep into households and make captives of gullible women loaded down with sins, led away by various lusts, always learning and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth. – 2 Timothy 3:2-7
Buddhism is a cult of self-aggrandisement and self-congratulation, rather than a realisation that they need to change their ways, and that they’re ill-equipped to find the answer within themselves and no other human being has the answers either. Because Buddhism rejects the idea of a soul or a God or any kind or consequence for their behaviour (other than karma, which necessitates even more detachment) they can effectively make everything about themselves, including truth and wisdom.
Truth is what they say it is. Wisdom is whatever you believe it is. You can change it to suit your circumstances, you can use it to manipulate people, and nobody can hold you to account…
They claim to know what love and compassion are, but everything they preach is self-serving and hurts other people as well as degrading themselves. It sounds like the gospel of narcissism.
Compassion v’s Permissiveness
Karma is all about self-improvement and striving to liberate oneself from the confines of human frailty by either denying that anything about us is flawed in the first place, or becoming so detached from other people that we no longer care. This is known as enlightenment. Reincarnation is the hellish groundhog-day concept of repeating life over and over again until all the karmic baggage of your guilty conscience has been shed and you can tell yourself that you’re now better than everyone else, you’ve experienced all of the lessons you signed up for on your tour through life, and now you get to be at peace (Buddhist.org, 2013).
The Bible does not teach that we can become better people through our own effort, nor that we can atone for our sins in any way which would be acceptable to God, nor does it teach that we’re tourists passing through an exhibition. It very much teaches that what we do in life has real consequences and there is only one who can make restitution for us: Christ Jesus. Which He did by dying in our place so that we didn’t have to bear the repercussions for the things we have done. It also doesn’t teach that our past deeds cease to exist or that they didn’t matter. Instead it teaches that in spite of what we have done, God can redeem us, change us, and give us a new purpose in life.
For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He was seen by Cephas, then by the twelve. After that He was seen by over five hundred brethren at once, of whom the greater part remain to the present, but some have fallen asleep [died]. After that He was seen by James, then by all the apostles. Then last of all He was seen by me also, as by one born out of due time. For I am the least of the apostles, who am not worthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace toward me was not in vain; but I labored more abundantly than they all, yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me. Therefore, whether it was I or they, so we preach and so you believed. – 1 Corinthians 15:3-11
The Bible teaches that if we have encountered God and realised the magnitude of our wretchedness, then we will understand why other people do the things that they do and we will see shades of our former selves in the people around us who are still lost and still prone to the same wretchedness. That doesn’t make their behaviour acceptable. We’re not justifying their deeds, or our own, at all. We’re saying that God’s grace saves us from ourselves and transforms wretched people into increasingly less wretched people.
Rather than a process of “enlightenment”, we have a process of sanctification. We are washed clean of the past and no longer shackled to who we were, which affords us the opportunity to live differently from now on and not mess up this second chance at life. God’s redemption is so gracious and overwhelming that if someone like Osho (who had exploited tens of thousands of people over many years) had realised the truth before he died and turned to God for mercy and help, God would do it. We don’t know for sure if Osho made it to heaven or not because that is something he had to work out between himself and God, however, it is possible.
Not only did God redeem the apostle Paul (as he explained in the passage above) when he was in the middle of persecuting Christians and having them killed, but God redeemed people throughout the Old Testament as well, like King Manasseh. Manasseh was heavily into idolatry, witchcraft, mediumship and even child sacrifice, killing two of his own children. He defiled the temple in Jerusalem with Baal statues and burned children alive in the Valley of Hinnom.
And the Lord spoke to Manasseh and his people, but they would not listen. Therefore the Lord brought upon them the captains of the army of the king of Assyria, who took Manasseh with hooks, bound him with bronze fetters, and carried him off to Babylon. Now when he was in affliction, he implored the Lord his God, and humbled himself greatly before the God of his fathers, and prayed to Him; and He received his entreaty, heard his supplication, and brought him back to Jerusalem into his kingdom. Then Manasseh knew that the Lord was God. – 2 Chronicles 33:10-13
God did not overlook their evils and do nothing about it. His compassion is not permissive of evil.
God is kind, God redeems the irredeemable, God shows mercy and grace to those who are lost, God has compassion on us. But make no mistake, God does not leave evil deeds unanswered. There are consequences for sin and no amount of attempting to distance yourself from your conscience is going to change that.
Eventually, you will reckon with your Creator.
Christian compassion is wholistic in that it doesn’t just help people physically when they’re down and out, but it also confronts them about their spiritual, behavioural, and relational problems so those issues can be dealt with. Jesus is the light of the world and in His presence all our deeds are exposed, both good and bad. Our willingness to be humble enough to willingly expose ourselves to that scrutiny determines how God deals with the demands for justice and His preference for mercy.
Are we willing to change, or do we insist that we’re “buddha” and our “nature is basically pure” even though we have continually hurt others and hurt ourselves through the failure to meet God’s standards of love?
He wants to work with us, but we have to let go of the idea that we don’t need Him. We also need to reject the idea that the problem isn’t our behaviour, but that we got caught and are being held accountable for our behaviour.
“For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved. He who believes in Him is not condemned; but he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. And this is the condemnation, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For everyone practicing evil hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed…” – John 3:16-20
The most compassionate thing a Christian can do is to tell people to stop avoiding the light through vain philosophies like Buddhism. We all have to be exposed for our deeds sooner or later, better to humble ourselves before God and start the healing process now.
Unless otherwise noted, scripture taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Wild Country cult leaders – 60 Minutes Australia, 2019.
Barad. (2007). The Understanding and Experience of Compassion: Aquinas and the Dalai Lama. Buddhist-Christian Studies, 27(1), 11–29. https://doi.org/10.1353/bcs.2007.0002
Buddah, Compassion, Karma – Osho
What is Karma? – Buddhist Org, 2013.
Why Karma At Times Stings Us When We Help Another – HuffPost, 2013.