The Relationship between Buddhism & Christianity

His Eminence the Third Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche,
Karma Lodrö Chökyi Senge


I would like to welcome and thank you for being here. I also wish to thank the organizers from the Karma Kagyu Trust for having enabled us to spend time together at the Kamalashila Institute.

There are many civilizations, cultures, and nations, which are founded upon a religious conviction. They appear to differ, yet they all aim to benefit their citizens and therefore have this wish in common. They are different, though, while their hopes are the same. It is therefore conclusive that only their means to establish well-being vary. Cultures are marked by their endeavors and accomplishments to guarantee peace within their borders, yet they were isolated in the past, making it almost impossible to know what their neighbors were doing or thought until recent times. It is so important to study other traditions and philosophies instead of persisting on own views, easy now that boundaries are falling and communicative means are quite advanced and accessible.

Universal peace in times of globalization has become an ever more sincere concern for many organizations, countries, and nations. If all communities would concentrate on slightest contributions together, it would be very good.

There is no culture or society that exists without a religious motivation and tradition, even though many scholars try to prove that religion is based upon faulty beliefs. Religion does not only deal with beliefs, as many insist, nor is it a historical cult that developed as time passed. Should religion be restricted to ideas and fundamental beliefs, then religious proponents would necessarily err when stressing differences they struggle to justify. I think it is very important to define religion and tradition since they do differ.

We know that Buddhism originated with Shakyamuni Buddha in India and spread to neighboring regions from there. It spread within the scope of the Eastern culture, but the philosophy of Buddhism has nothing to do with eastern cultures or long-standing traditions. Buddhism is not restricted to a culture or

tradition, rather it teaches and encourages us to investigate the very nature of being.

If we are honest with ourselves, we discover that we are naturally discontent. Whether we experience small problems or tremendous pain, we blame others for any discomfort we feel. We also think that the world holds the key for transitory joy that we claim to deserve and fight to win and defend. We automatically and continuously feel a conflict when we turn our attention outwards, even when we seek enlightenment. We are never satisfied because we believe profane causes and conditions are responsible for both suffering and joy. Since we aren't content and falsely assume worldly causes and conditions are the remedy, our mind focuses on distractions to satisfy personal needs. We think the world must change when confronted with challenges or disappointments.

In Buddhism, we are taught to turn our attention inwards. The Tibetan word for Buddhism denotes "to turn inwards." We look at the source of discontent by turning our attention on our consciousness. The moment we understand the causes for inadequacies of conditioned existence, called samsaraBodhicitta in Sanskrit, the sincere wish that all beings be free from suffering and its causes – the genuine intention to attain freedom oneself in order to reliably be able to help and benefit others. Most of you know that visualized deities are meditated in the Tibetan tradition of Buddhism. The imagined deities are a means to relate with one's own mind. We shouldn't think that we are dealing with truly existing outer entities during visualization practice. Visualized deities are a skillful means to turn our mind inwards. in Sanskrit, we can work with insufficiencies so that they diminish and eventually cease. Buddhism teaches various methods and means to recognize the mind. One method is generating the mind of enlightenment,

Lord Buddha taught that the apparent world need not be rejected, changed, or destroyed. He taught that it is possible to recognize the true nature of appearances by relying on our cognition. The deities meditated in Buddhism are not truly existing external entities. As it is, we focus our attention on objects of perception and distinguish between apprehending selves which cognize distinct objects. Since we differentiate between a subject and objects – a self and the world – we are not able to recognize and realize the true nature of appearances. Lord Buddha taught us how to purify our erroneous perceptions and cognition in order to gradually know and realize the true nature of all things. Buddhism does not teach us to believe in external entities but employs ordinary cognition to realize the state of suchness, also referred to as "meaningfulness." Furthermore, meditation practices are not restricted to a prevailing culture or tradition.

I think that religions convey a similar message, that they are all moved by the same goal. At conferences on this topic in America, I spoke with Christians and discovered a mutual ground, namely both Buddhists and Christians wish to help others. Brotherly love and care are a driving force in Christianity, too. Buddhism teaches us to generate the pure mind of awakening, the genuine intention to help all beings. Both Christianity and Buddhism stress the importance of practicing meditation in action. There is a difference, though, in that Buddhism teaches to first learn to control our mind before we reach out to others. Having understood and refined one's mind, the help one can then give the needy through body, speech, and mind is more effective. In Christianity, verbal and physical help are the main concern. Of course, they also study the mind - later.

This was my small contribution to understanding the slight difference in the religious approaches that intend bringing happiness and well-being to its followers. I think that if proponents of the many religious traditions do not make limitations by reiterating and defending self-righteous concerns but participate in a dialogue with other schools of thought, it would enhance world peace. If you have any questions, I will be very happy to discuss them with you.

Questions & Answers

Question: Where is the bridge to world peace in other religions, such as in Islam?

Rinpoche: It seems as though the Islamic religion has taken on another course altogether. Up until now, they have not participated in the dialogue taking place between religious leaders, so we have to wait and see.

Next question: Christianity is also a belief.

Rinpoche: I do not think belief is the basis of Christianity; it has turned into a belief, though.

Next question: What is the difference between helping others without having understood one's own mind through meditation and having done so? Is there a demarcation line?

Rinpoche: You need to differentiate between passing, transitory, and genuine help. Transitory help is anything one can do for others. Genuine help - as taught in Buddhism - is leading others to reliable means to eliminate suffering. Whatever help you can give others to diminish and eliminate their delusions concerning reality is the best.

Next question: What principles do the Buddhists in Ceylon follow?

Rinpoche: If you mix religion with culture, then religion isn't beneficial. I think religion and culture are different. If you can distinguish culture from religion, then religion is very beneficial. Religion can always integrate cultures and customs, whereas a culture needn't necessarily integrate a religion.

Next question: Redemption from original sin is very important in Christianity. Buddhism teaches the law of cause and effect. Does Buddhism speak of the fall and redemption?

Translator: It is very hard translating those terms into Tibetan, but I will try.

Rinpoche: Buddhism teaches that it is possible to refrain from negative actions of body, speech, and mind but doesn't speak of an original sin inherent to man. We learn that the accumulation and force of negative habits are stored in the mind as seeds that manifest when conditions prevail. Should a practitioner of the Buddhadharma purify and eventually eliminate negative mental patterns, then he or she has reached a state of liberation, which is freedom from bondage arising from the consequences of negative propensities and ways.

Buddhism doesn't teach that man is a being of sin. On the contrary, Lord Buddha taught that all beings without exception possess the pure potential to achieve Buddhahood, the Buddha nature. The Buddha nature is beyond being and non-being; it is ineffable and non-referential, yet it is. Buddha Shakyamuni taught that life and the apparent world are consciousness, i.e., mind. We are born and live our lives due to consciousness. But consciousness is not a concrete entity one could ever identify or locate. Buddhism teaches us to investigate consciousness to eventually find its nonexistent nature. When we have failed to find it anywhere, as an actual thing, then we will have discovered that the mind lacks inherent existence.

On the other hand, we perceive and conceive what appears, evidence for the fact that the mind incessantly manifests. Not recognizing that mind lacks inherent, independent existence, we mistakenly define the mind as "the self." Not recognizing the incessant manifestations of the mind, we mistakenly define apprehended objects as "others." Duality is born, which is a state that focuses on a truly existing self and on truly existing other things. Attachment and aversion arise as a result, and both engender further disturbing emotions that lead to painful reactions and results.

Our emotions determine our actions of greed, jealously, anger, miserliness, and pride. We lead our lives moved by self-interest, swayed by the emotions that determine what we are and do. If the root cause of ignorance about a self and other is overcome, freedom from duality is attained. Such a practitioner then experiences non-dividedly. He does not need to flee from any inadequacies of conditioned existence, which entail suffering; rather he has attained the reward - freedom from impure perception and cognition.

Next question: What is the difference between the Yellow and Red Hat Buddhists?

Rinpoche: There are many Lineages in Tibetan Buddhism. The masters of the past stressed specific aspects of Lord Buddha's teachings, according to their insight. They seem to be different, but this is only slightly the case.

Next question: How is a woman seen in Buddhism?

Rinpoche: The Buddha nature permeates each and every being without exception, so there is no difference between men and women. Clinging to differences is a conception.

Next question: Is Buddhism a world religion?

Rinpoche: I think the majority of people follow some form of religion. If people from religious traditions speak with each other and exchange knowledge and experiences, then understanding will increase. I don't mean to say that everyone needs to follow and practice one religion; rather we can learn to trust each other and live in harmony by sharing.

Next question: Rinpoche, are you speaking from your school or do you represent Buddhism in general?

Rinpoche: I think all schools of Buddhism are interested in a dialogue with representatives of other faiths. Scholars of Buddhism have expressed their interest. An actual dialogue or conference depends upon conditions, which aren't always favorable. I have experienced great interest, though.

Student: Can you clarify that statement? In Sri Lanka, the monks visit families, but you don't see them together on the streets.

Rinpoche: I think politics plays a big role in Sri Lanka. It is difficult for the inhabitants there to differentiate between religion and politics. It is not the case that monks dislike Hindus, but it is difficult to distinguish in that area. As all over the world, there are difficulties on account of politics.

Next question: We differentiate more in Christianity. My question is about the old contradiction between soul and theocracy. Soul means how can I change myself, theocracy means what can I do as a Christian to change the world. Why should they be separated? I think it is better to integrate them, otherwise we will experience animosity. It's like that here and in Sri Lanka. I was just there and saw the painful consequences.

Rinpoche: If religion and politics could be integrated to benefit beings, it would be very good. I see it is impossible, everywhere, and have noticed that where both are mixed together, politics dominates and there is little to no harmony. If it were beneficial, nothing would be wrong.

Student: That's still no explanation of what happens there.

Rinpoche: I can answer questions about Buddhism and not about politics. Lord Buddha never suggested harming others. On the contrary, he stressed the importance of never harming others. I have no information about the political situation in Ceylon. Buddha never taught that we should harm others. Justifying misbehavior in Sri Lanka has nothing to do with the Buddhadharma. There must be other reasons for the tension and violence there.

Next question: You said no theocracy was able to avoid a war. This is hard for me to believe. It sounds like we can't work together.

Rinpoche: History shows that civilizations led wars in order to convince others of their beliefs. From a Buddhist point of view, conflicts and wars are not seen in that perspective because religions are by nature good.

Next question: Does Buddhism have the same dogmas as Catholicism?

Rinpoche: Which dogmas?

Student: Catholicism has specific dogmas that must be accepted.

Rinpoche: Do you mean you need to believe certain dogmas in order to be a member?

Student: Is this necessary in Buddhism?

Rinpoche: In Buddhism, it is not considered beneficial to force someone to believe in something. Buddhism is a gradual path of logical reasoning. Buddhism is not a belief - it is not a weltanschauung. Buddhism teaches us to investigate reality. We study the nature of phenomena and experiences, as they are, to discover how wrong it would be to conclude that things inherently exist in and through themselves or do not exist at all; then we arrive at the middle way, which can never be a belief.

Student: What do you believe in then? Is there a god? In Christianity, we must believe in a god.

Rinpoche: Buddha Shakyamuni taught us how to see reality by studying and contemplating the instructions he imparted. In truth, phenomena are beyond such notions that they inherently exist or do not exist. Appearances do not present such beliefs, as being existents or nonexistents - extreme views. The relative and ultimate truths coexist. Appearances arise because of the fact that all things lack independent existence. We understand there is no opposition between the relative truth of appearances and the ultimate truth of reality - both presuppose each other. If that is the object of belief, then it is the object of belief. The relative truth of reality is that all things arise in dependence upon causes and conditions. All phenomena are a composition of parts and do not exist as independent entities. Buddhism does not teach us that we must believe that apparent phenomena appear or that the apparent reality of phenomena and experiences is wrong or false. You are free to investigate. Should you recognize through investigation that the relative reality of appearances is real, then you automatically have confidence.

Next question: We were taught that god created the world, that we came into the world to be good, and that is it. If you don't believe in god, then you can't believe god created the world. So who did?

Rinpoche: Nobody created it.

Student: Yes, but why does it exist?

Rinpoche: It only exists because it wasn't created by anybody. If somebody created the world, the creator must be a permanent and static entity. All compounds are impermanent; no compounded entity is permanent. Buddhism speaks about the two truths. The relative truth is about the world of our experiences, our cognitions, which can only be because of interdependent origination. Everything is impermanent.

Student: Yes, but things exist.

Rinpoche: Exactly, things exist because of interdependence. There is no error to the relative existents in and around us.

I never said that the relative world is wrong. We usually distinguish between the two truths and split them, which is a problem. We need to learn to integrate the two truths. We need to know that all existents within and without are an aggregation of many parts. Take a house: If you investigate carefully, nothing exists as "a house" other than your designation of it. Many components make up the definition "a house," which many people agree upon, not only for practical reasons. The term "house" is a mental designation of a specific phenomenon, a relative truth. A house relatively exists due to the coming together of many components in a specific way. Ultimately, a house does not exist of its own accord - it lacks inherent existence. There is no object you can ultimately point to as being an inherent, independent existent. We need to know that the relative and ultimate truths aren't contradictory but are indivisible, the fundamental view in Buddhism. You are imagining a creator when you claim that a creator made the world. Do you understand?

Student: Yes, but I've never left my home country and you've traveled around the world. Will I ever have the chance to see everything?

Rinpoche: Everything of what?

Student: Of what exists or does not exist.

Rinpoche: Oh yes, definitely. This doesn't mean you have to travel around the world. All you need to do is look at your mind.

Student: Do you mean that everything I can learn about life is at my disposal when turning my attention inwards?

Rinpoche: Yes.

Student: But, I came here to learn. You must know better.

Rinpoche: That's the problem.

Student: Therefore I said, you know better, I think.

Rinpoche: No. Just meditate and slowly you can improve yourself.

Student: What is the aim of meditation?

Rinpoche: To see what you said you want to see, everything.

Student: Okay, the more I meditate, the more I learn about reality?

Rinpoche: You need to meditate in order see the truth. Lord Buddha taught that everything is based upon cognition, is in truth a projection of the mind. This means that the nature of the mind is the indivisibility of the empty essence, the fact that nothing whatsoever possesses independent existence, and clarity, the fact that all things appear clearly. You can never find the mind upon investigation, because it is devoid of self-existence. Yet, mind clearly sees appearances. Anything that appears - whether it is suffering in samsara, "cyclic existence," or nirvana, "peace" - does so clearly. Every experience and appearance lacks inherent existence. You cannot realize the truth of reality by focusing your attention outwards. You have to work with your own mind. Once you have purified your mind of the habitual tendencies and trained your mind to be free, you have purified the world, the world of your experiences and cognitions. This is the reason why you need to meditate.

Question: The essence of Christianity is missing nowadays. Christ said in the Bible that man must be reborn in the geist, the "mind." We don't even know what the mind is. We aren't even taught where to look. I think Buddhism can teach us more than Christianity, the reason many Christians feel lost.

Rinpoche: Was that a question?

Student: No, I just wanted to share my feelings.

Question: I understood what you said. We believe the same in the Bahai religion. Can belief be strength or a force? If we believe, do things then change for us?

Rinpoche: Devotion and respect are important factors in Buddhism, too. But devotion isn't blind faith; rather it is based upon personal cognition that accords with valid reasoning. Devotion that arises from winning certainty of reality is very important in Buddhism and is a vital factor to establish world peace.

Thank you very much for being here.


May the life of the Glorious Lama remain steadfast and firm.

May peace and happiness fully arise for beings  as limitless (in number) as space (is vast in its extent).

Having accumulated merit and purified negativities, may I and all living beings without exception

swiftly establish the levels and grounds of Buddhahood. 

Presented at the Kamalashila Institute for Buddhist Studies in Cologne, Germany, 1987. Translated from Tibetan into German by Christoph Klonk, into English & edited by Gaby Hollmann, responsible for any mistakes.