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Desire & suffering—Buddhism vs. Christianity

     Buddha’s main teaching focused on escape from suffering. When he claimed to experience Nirvana, one of the resulting insights was a concept labeled: “The Four Noble Truths.” These succinctly state that life is inevitably going to include suffering, and the cause of suffering is desire. To overcome suffering, therefore, we must overcome desire. This is accomplished through the “The Noble Eightfold Path”:

“The Noble Eightfold Path”

(1) Right Knowledge (2) Right Thought

(3) Right Speech (4) Right Conduct

(5) Right Livelihood (6) Right Effort

(7) Right Mindfulness (8) Right Meditation.

Is this true? Is this a correct appraisal of the solution to man’s dilemma? This list seems very convincing, but the interpretation of the words would be much different within a Christian worldview. For instance, “right meditation” for a Buddhist means emptying your mind of all thoughts while Christian meditation involves filling your mind with thoughts about truth as you ponder the mysteries of God’s Word. Buddhism teaches that the origin of suffering is ignorance, so the solution is a spiritual awakening of insights that empower us to rise above the suffering. Knowledge is power. But once again, “knowledge” in Buddhism differs greatly from “knowledge” in Christianity.

The fact of human suffering is not an issue, but the origin, cause, and solution of human suffering are issues that demand our attention. First, we must come to grips with the fact that suffering is not always caused by desire. What about victims of disease, crime, natural disasters, betrayal, abuse, political or religious persecution, accidents, or demonic influence? Of course, those who embrace the Buddhist point of view might submit that the suffering resulting from such situations proceeds from the ‘desire’ to have a life free from complications, problems, disasters, and rejection from others. Those who unfortunately face such situations should react with passive detachment, thus rising above the suffering.

Of course, they must recognize the basic Buddhist concepts of anicca (impermanence—the doctrine that nothing has any permanent existence, including us) and anatta (“no soul”—the doctrine that human beings do not have a soul that can live forever in a heavenly sphere). Accepting these ideas grants a sense of resignation to the inevitable, a calm acceptance—“what will be will be.” I have often said that Buddhism is a very pessimistic religion; a Buddhist would counter that it is realistic.

There is a certain element of truth in this portion of Buddhist doctrine, because far too often, those caught in negative circumstances allow themselves to feel overwhelmed. Far too often, they are crushed and even paralyzed emotionally by their sorrow. Sometimes, non-attachment does allow a person to objectively and calmly view his or her situation, so that a rational answer can be reached. Or detachment can help a person realize that the pain is only temporary, so it can be endured. However, non-attachment can also produce non-involvement in situations that plead for action. So, achieving a place of non-suffering may not necessarily be the complete answer. A concise, biblical response to these two issues is as follows:

The correct view of “desire”—First, let it be said that legitimate desires are not wrong and should not be purged from our thinking. There is a difference between selfish desire, which ends in death, and godly desire, which ends in life. (See James 1:13–15.) The Bible states that God ‘desires’ his people to show mercy. During a time of intercession, the Lord Jesus prayed over his people saying, “Father, I desire that they also whom you have given me be with me where I am.” If it is not wrong for the Lord himself to have righteous desires, it is certainly not wrong for us to have righteous desires. The Scripture does reveal that God “casts away the desire of the wicked,” but it promises “the desire of the righteous will be granted.” (Proverbs 10:3, 24) The Most High even assures his covenant people, “Delight yourself also in the Lord, and he shall give you the desires of your heart.” (Psalm 37:4) Such righteous desires would logically include the meeting of natural and material needs as well as spiritual. However, if and when these things do not happen the way we desire, the Scripture cautions us “to be content.” (Philippians 4:11) Our highest desire is God himself and when other desires are not realized, we maintain rest in our relationship with him. Inordinate desire is synonymous with lust, a very destructive agent in the human makeup. But holy desire is a motivation that we all definitely need.

The correct view of suffering”—The goal for a Christian is not to fully escape all suffering, just certain kinds. There are numerous categories of suffering that we are encouraged to avoid, conquer, or rise above. These types of suffering are primarily the result of internal causes. These usually involve wrong thinking patterns that produce wrong behavior—sensuality, sinful cravings, negative emotions, inward temptations, guilt, resisting God’s will, and other negatives. We avoid, conquer, or rise above these sources of suffering two ways:

First, we maintain a commitment to do all things right. (Actually, Buddha’s Eightfold Path itemizes each area we need to deal with quite well—though the interpretation the “right” things would be quite different within a biblical world view.)

Second and most importantly, we draw from the grace, mercy, forgiveness, and strength promised by the personal and loving God we serve (something Buddha did not teach). Our God cleanses us. He forgives us. He empowers us. He fills us with his presence and goodness. As David said, our “help comes from the Lord who made heaven and earth.” (Psalm 121:2) This divine aid insures our winning all the more.

There are some causes of suffering that are primarily external and inevitably to be faced in life. These include trials, tribulations, outward sources of temptation, demonic attacks, and mistreatment by others. Even Jesus, the perfect Son of God, “suffered being tempted.” (Hebrews 2:18) So, if we also “suffer being tempted,” it is certainly not a sign of spiritual immaturity. However, in all these situations we are encouraged to react with positive attitudes like the following: a willingness to endure, a heart that rejoices, a spirit of trust in God, and faith in His Word. We overcome the negative with the positive. At times, the negative may still be there, but we rise above it.

Finally, there is a category of suffering that God actually urges his people to embrace. Jesus declared that a true disciple must take up his cross daily and follow him. A cross is a complete death to self for the sake of helping others. This involves, not passive detachment from a hurting world, but active involvement in sharing its burden and meeting its needs. Such sacrificial service is certainly not an easy road to travel. Sometimes, compassion’s grip can be quite painful, but it is necessary. Paul zealously laid hold to this challenge, explaining that one of his deepest desires was to know Christ “in the fellowship of his sufferings.” (Philippians 3:10) He also kindly forewarned true disciples that it is given to us “in the behalf of Christ, not only to believe in him, but also to suffer for his sake.” (Philippians 1:29) We can be certain, though, that release from all suffering will take place as soon as we are set free from these physical bodies. We will then consciously experience “unspeakable joy” in heavenly places. “Weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning.” (Psalm 30:5) Yes, this will be especially true when our souls are finally released into the eternal state.

The sufferings of Jesus—Some claim it is spiritually erroneous to emphasize this aspect of the existence of Jesus. Was it really necessary for Jesus to suffer? Was it really the core purpose of the incarnation of the Son of God? Maharishi Mahesh Yogi commented, “It’s a pity that Christ is talked of in terms of suffering…those who count upon the suffering, it is a wrong interpretation of the life of Christ and the message of Christ…How could suffering be associated with the One who has been all joy, all bliss, who claims all that? It’s only the misunderstanding of the life of Christ.”[1]

In a similar vein of thought, Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh respectfully offers, “The figure of the crucified Christ is a very painful image to me. It does not contain joy or peace, and this does not do justice to Jesus.”[2] Yet the apostle Peter explained, “Those things which God foretold by the mouth of all His prophets, that the Christ would suffer, He has thus fulfilled. Repent therefore and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out, so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord.” (Acts 3:18–19)

I believe that both Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and Thich Nhat Hanh were probably sincere in their assessment of the nature of Jesus’ death. I believe their words were probably motivated by sensitivity to the pain of another. However, my response is this: that the final focus of a Christian’s heart is not on the cross, but on the empty tomb. If it were not for the great victory of the latter, the great misery of the former would agreeably be too “painful” to gaze upon. Nevertheless, Jesus “endured the cross,” “for the joy that was set before him.” (Hebrews 12:2) Thankfully, his followers are blessed to also share in this joy even during this earthly sojourn.

Some interpret the sufferings of Jesus to be the result of unwise behavior on his part. Marcus Borg, editor of the book, Jesus and Buddha, The Parallel Sayings, suggests: “Jesus’ activity as a social prophet—as a voice of religious social protest—is the most likely reason that his public activity was so brief compared to the Buddha’s.” (Jesus’ public ministry probably lasted about three years, while Buddha’s lasted fifty years.) Borg continues, “Jesus’ early death was probably because of his social-political passion; if he had been simply a wisdom teacher and healer, I doubt that he would have been executed.”[3]

Jesus’ own testimony counters this argument. The Son of God often prophesied the certainty of, and reason for, his soon-to-come death on a cross. He assured, “The Son of man must suffer many things, and be rejected of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be slain, and be raised the third day.” Notice the word must. This was an unavoidable event. It had to happen. Jesus continued exhorting his disciples, “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me.” (Luke 9:22–23) So, Jesus knew in advance exactly what kind of death he would die. His early demise was not a terrible mistake or backlash from an unwise method of presenting his message. It was simply his destiny, the cup the Father gave him to drink. (See Matthew 26:39.) Jesus even claimed that no man took his life from him; he gave it up willingly. (See John 10:18.) Irrefutably, it was according to “the definite plan and foreknowledge of God”— for he was “the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world.” (Revelation 13:8). It was a necessary step in the plan for man’s redemption. (Acts 2:23, See Luke 24:13–32.)


[1] Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, Meditations of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, pp. 123-124; quoted in Josh McDowell and Don Stewart, Handbook of Today’s Religions (Nashville, Tennessee: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1983) p. 84.

[2] Kenneth L. Woodard, “The Other Jesus,” Newsweek Magazine (March 27, 2000) p. 60.

[3] Marcus Borg, ed., Jesus and Buddha, The Parallel Sayings (Berkeley, California: Seastone, 1997) Editor’s Preface, pp. xi-xii.

Leave a reply

  • Thank you for clarifying the suffering aspect of Christ. As a new Christian, I am grappling with this topic. It is not the length of the ministry that matters, but the impact it has on our world. Jesus’ short public ministry has such a profound impact on our world and effectively taught us how to have a relationship with God and be saved. Buddha’s 50 year public teaching never barely acknowledged God. I grew up as a buddhist so this was from personal experience.

    • Thank you very much for your comment. You are welcome to send your personal story of becoming of follower of Jesus to mikeshreve@thetruelight.net for review. It is possible that we could use it in our “STORIES” section. I am very glad that the website is a blessing to you. I believe Buddha was a sincere seeker, but unfortunately, greatly misled in his conclusions. If he had lived in the time of Jesus and heard Him preach, I believe he would probably have followed His teaching.

  • Thank you for clarifying the suffering aspect of Christ. As a new Christian, I am grappling with this topic. It is not the length of the ministry that matters, but the impact it has on our world. Jesus’ short public ministry has such a profound impact on our world and effectively taught us how to have a relationship with God and be saved. Buddha’s 50 year public teaching never barely acknowledged God. This has been my personal experience growing up as a buddhist.

    • If you grew up as a Buddhist and are now a follower of Jesus, you are welcome to submit your story to us for possible placement on the website under “Stories.”

  • Thanks , Great article. I think the comments of Tich Nhat Han and Maharishi are very telling. The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing. It makes no sense,- but for a Christian, to meditate on the suffering endured by Christ is to gain an ever new revelation and assurance of the depth of God’s love for us in what he did to save us. That Jesus was a man like us, that he sweated blood, and experienced sorrow to the point of death on our behalf in order to buy us forever – this is unspeakable and glorious joy; but to eastern teachers, you get the sense that it is irrelevant, problematic, almost embarassing – this is not how an enlightened one should behave. Paramahansa Yogananda I believe also admitted at the end of his life which was devoted to reconciling Yoga with Christianity, that there were some parts of the gospels that he struggled with. Not surprising.

    • Jonathan, since you were formerly a Buddhist, I value your comment all the more. I would love to have the exact source and complete citation of Yogananda’s admission statement if you can find it. I have often said that of all the gurus and swamis, Yogananda was the most masterful at blending eastern and biblical terminology in such a way that it was very convincing to those who have not been born again. I believe Yogananda was probably a good person at heart who loved God and loved truth (just as I did when I was a teacher of yoga) but he was unfortunately deceived. Edgar Cayce is another person who was conflicted between the Bible he once taught as a Sunday School teacher and the new “revelations” he was receiving.

Written by Mike Shreve