VATICAN CITY (LifeSiteNews) — The Vatican has written to Buddhists to commemorate a pivotal holiday in the Buddhist tradition, praising its form of “compassion” despite scholars warning that Buddhism is firmly opposed to the tenets of Christianity.
On April 21, the Dicastery for Interreligious Dialogue issued a message to mark the Buddhist “feast of Varek,” which, as the Vatican body noted, “commemorates the major events in Buddha’s life.”
Entitled “Buddhists and Christians: Healing Wounded Humanity and the Earth through Karuna and Agape,” the message was signed by Cardinal Miguel Ángel Ayuso Guixot, the prefect of the Dicastery, and the Dicastery’s secretary.
Guixot’s message was for the upcoming occasion of Varek, a Buddhist holiday marking major events in the life of Buddha, including his birth, supposed “enlightenment,” and his death. “May this festival once more inspire you to continue your quest for insight into the nature of duhkha, the conditions that cause it, and how it can be overcome,” Guixot wrote.
The term “duhkha” refers to the Buddhist concept of suffering or pain, and is held up as a central theme in Buddhist beliefs. Buddhists see suffering as a fundamental aspect of life which must be borne, and also reject the concept of a soul. Catholics, however, understand suffering as a part of fallen human nature but also as a gift from God, which can then be united to His sufferings.
Listing certain sufferings in the world today, Guixot made no mention of sin but spoke of “poverty, discrimination, and violence; indifference towards the poor, enslavement resulting from models of development that fail to respect the human person and nature; hate motivated and fueled by religious and nationalistic extremism; and above all, a despairing attitude towards life expressed through various types of anxiety and addiction.”
Such a “keen awareness of this shared vulnerability calls for new forms of solidarity shaped by our respective religious traditions,” he argued. Guixot cited Vatican II’s document Nostra Aetate, stating that the various religious traditions contain the answer to the “unsolved riddles of the human condition which deeply stir the hearts of men.”
Drawing also from Pope Francis’ 2020 text Fratelli Tutti, the cardinal spoke of the potential of “our respective religious traditions to offer remedies capable of healing our grievous wounds, and those of our families, our nations, and our planet.”
The text drew heavily from Buddhist writings, employing language and themes found in Buddhist holy texts, as well as quotations from “the Buddha.” Guixot presented the Buddhist teaching on “koruna,” or a form of compassion:
Dear Buddhist friends, you offer healing when you embody karuna – compassion towards all beings, taught by the Buddha (Sutta Nipata 1.8, Sutta Nipata 2.4) or when you act selflessly as did the Bodhisattva, who renounced entering Nirvana and remained in the world to work for the alleviation of the suffering of all beings until their liberation.
Those who practice a Buddhist form of compassion, wrote Guixot, “offer an antidote to the global crises we have mentioned, offering comprehensive compassion in response to widespread and interconnected evils.”
The cardinal drew comparisons between the Buddhist understanding of compassion — which is based on a rejection of the soul and a rejection of a belief in God – and the Catholic “agape” form of love. “Similarly, for Christians,” he said, “there is no more effective remedy than the practice of agape (selfless love), the great legacy that Jesus left to his followers.”
Guixot quoted from Pope Francis’ 2014 Lenten message, describing charity as “sharing with the one we love in all things.” This form of “compassion,” said the cardinal, is reflected in Buddhism:
[T]he Buddha’s emphasis on training the heart is especially valuable as we move forward together in our efforts to bring healing: ‘Develop meditation on compassion; for when you develop meditation on compassion, any cruelty will be abandoned.’
His statement closed with a message for Buddhists to enjoy the “abundant blessings and the joy of contributing to the healing of the wounds of society and the earth, our common home.”
Compatibility between the two?
Guixot’s message did not mention the primacy of the Catholic Church, or the error of Buddhist ideologies. While he did refer to Jesus Christ, he did so only by equating Christ’s teachings with those of Buddhism.
In contrast, scholars have warned against Christian appropriation of Buddhist ideology. Thomistic theologian Dr. Peter Kwasniewski has noted how:
Classic Christian spirituality emphasizes mortification of the flesh in order to achieve self-mastery and illumination; in like manner, Buddhism seeks to bring the restless wheels of desire to a standstill in order to achieve enlightenment.
“The contrast between Buddhist ‘salvation’ and Christian salvation – entering fully into the plenitude of love, gaining one’s identity in communion with the other – could not be more striking,” wrote Kwasniewski.
He pointed to Pope John Paul II’s 1994 Crossing the Threshold of Hope, which highlighted key differences between Christianity and Buddhism, namely that “Buddhism is in large measure an ‘atheistic’ system.”
The Polish pope noted that Buddhism’s enlightenment involved a detachment which “is not union with God, but what is called nirvana, a state of perfect indifference with regard to the world.”
Indeed, while Cardinal Guixot favorably compared Buddhist “karuna” and Christian “agape,” others have strenuously rejected such an equivalency. Susan Brinkmann, who wrote about the influx of Buddhist thought into Catholic circles, noted how the two teachings were not similar.
“The Christian agape love is personal, individual and free-willed,” she said, while “the Buddhist teaches karuna, an impersonal feeling of compassion.”
The best way to understand what a stark difference this makes between the two faiths is found in the Buddhist story of the saint who gave his cloak to a beggar. The Christian gives his cloak to the beggar because of Christ’s love for the beggar. The Buddhist gives his cloak to the beggar because it’s the enlightened thing to do. In other words, the Buddhist’s concern is not for the welfare of the beggar, as is the Christian, but for the liberation of the giver from the burden of self.