We are the only known creatures who live with the knowledge that we shall one day die. Our anticipation of extinction, when we cease to exist, was difficult to contemplate and fueled a global resurgence of spirituality during a six hundred-year period known as the Axial Age (800-200 BC). Culminating around 500 BC, every religious teaching that arose sought to address the universal plight of humanity – the anxiety of suffering and the tragic finality of death. In our sorrow, we turn to other distractions seeking to transcend our suffering; art, intoxicating drugs, music, philosophy, sex and sports, but none is as fulfilling as contemplating the possibility of an after-life. For, once we taste life, we desire to exist forever.

Hinduism and Buddhism find solace in the possibility of liberation by disciplining the body and the mind through yoga and meditation. Judaism anticipates the divine promise of a good earthly life from Torah by the observance of a covenant, while Islam welcomes a postmortem resurrection by following the Five Pillars of the Quran’s Straight Path.

This book introduces Christians to the great wisdom philosophies of India: Hinduism and Buddhism. Learn of the histories, beliefs and practices of the Veda and the Vedanta, the epic philosophies of theRamayana and the Mahabharata, as well as Theravada, Mahayana, Vajrayana and Engaged Buddhism.

These philosophies explore the limits of human consciousness, which, along with emotions and memory, sustain personality. Our spiritual selves rely on the proper functioning of our brains. The religions of India have long understood the importance of mastering the mind to care for the body. What then are the salvific implications of these religious philosophies for the Christian faith in this Decade of the Brain? 

Why should Christians bother with what other people believe? Since all religions are mutually exclusive, to observe and practice one is to reject all others. However, we know our religious belief best when we consider other religions to affirm what we do not believe. For the Christian, understanding why others believe as they do helps us to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ with conviction and love.

 

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My interest in Buddhism dates back to my childhood, as I grew up in the multi-religious country of Malaysia. Various forms of Buddhism thrived alongside different levels of syncretism with other religions, including Christianity. It remains common even for non-Buddhists to honor the Buddha with gifts in the hope that good fortune might follow. For instance, there is nothing closer to the heart of an Asian mother than the perceived success of her child. Measurable success brings honor to the family. What surer hedge than to enlist the assistance of the gods. Thus in much of Asia, even non-Buddhists venerate the Buddha.

This pragmatic idealization of religion meant that synagogues, temples, churches, and mosques, could often be simultaneously credited with the economic well being of its worshippers. In popular or folk Buddhism, monetary gifts of gratitude are expected in return. Not unlike the financial indulgences of the medieval Church, Buddhism encouraged the vicarious social commitment to asceticism of lay people through their compassionate upkeep of monks and nuns. This worldview buttressed the survival of Buddhism even in Muslim nations. This then was my impression of Buddhism.

At seminary, I realized that to make sense of Buddhism, I ought to first understand the history and teachings of Hinduism – because Siddharta was a Hindu reformer. I needed to know what motivates anyone to practice Hinduism or Buddhism, and how are these beliefs differ from those of the Christian faith. This led me to embark on my studies of the world’s great religions.

I would like to register grateful thanks to my teachers who taught me to learn, respect and appreciate the wisdom of Hindu and Buddhist thought. These include the late Charles Ryerson and Samuel Moffett, Lamin Sanneh and the Indologist Richard Fox Young, of Princeton Seminary and Yale University. I wrote this book not as an expert in either Hinduism or Buddhism but as a theologian of science with deep interest in an honest self-reflection for Christians who care about the human race with all its complex concerns.