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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 and compassionate.

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, peaches.

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.


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 proceedings.

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 directing traffic.

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 their faces.

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 clapped enthusiastically.

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.[1] 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[2] probably was born in 563 B.C. and died about eighty years later.[3] 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 Enlightened One").

During Siddhartha's infancy, the sage Asita[4] 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.[5] 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.[6] 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.[7] 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 beggar monk.[8]

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 day.

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,[9] 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