How to Explain Buddhism to a Christian

by Sarah Badger
According to Buddhist tradition, Siddhartha Gotama reached enlightenment at age 35.

According to Buddhist tradition, Siddhartha Gotama reached enlightenment at age 35.

Buddhism is one of the world's major religions with about 300 million practitioners worldwide. It began in India in about 500 B.C.E. when Siddhartha Gotama, also called "the Buddha," is said to have reached enlightenment. Because Buddhism is not concerned with the worship of deities and does not closely resemble Western religions in belief or practice, Christians may have difficulty understanding the religion. Help Christians understand Buddhist tenets by explaining them simply and using familiar terms.

Explaining the Buddha

Explain that Buddhists do not believe that Buddha is, or was, a god. Unlike Christianity, which is based on the belief in an all-powerful creator, Buddhism is not primarily concerned with the existence of deities.

Tell them that Siddhartha Gotama was born into royalty in Nepal in 563 B.C.E. before abandoning his wealth when he saw suffering, poverty and death for the first time at age 29. Explain that Siddhartha experimented with different philosophies before he was "awakened" or "enlightened" age age 35.

Tell them that the Buddha, or the "Enlightened One," did not become a god or prophet when he reached enlightenment. Rather, he spent the rest of his life teaching the path to enlightenment -- also called the Dharma or "truth." Buddhists regard the Buddha as an important teacher.

Explaining Enlightenment

Compare the Buddhist principle of enlightenment to the Christian ideal of salvation. Unlike Christianity, which says that people will be saved through a correct belief and faith in God, Buddhism teaches that you reach enlightenment through a process of meditation, learning and understanding.

Tell the Christian that Buddhists do not believe in a heaven the way that Christians do. Instead, Buddhists believe that when you reach enlightenment, also called Nirvana, you experience complete bliss.

Explain that instead of dying and going to an afterlife, Buddhists believe that you are subject to a constant cycle of rebirth until you reach enlightenment and Nirvana. Characterized as an extinguishing of desire, greed and dissatisfaction, Nirvana frees you from the cycle of rebirth and suffering.

Buddhist Tenets

Talk about the Four Noble Truths: that life is suffering, that suffering is caused by desire, that suffering can be overcome and, finally, that following the Noble Eightfold Path leads to the end of suffering.

Describe the Noble Eightfold Path. Tell the Christian that the path includes direction for becoming a moral person, developing compassion for others and becoming fully aware of your thoughts and actions.

Explain the Five Precepts of Buddhism and tell the Christian that they function as a moral code, similar to the Ten Commandments. According to BuddhaNet.com, the five precepts are "not to take the life of anything living, not to take anything not freely given, to abstain from sexual misconduct and sensual overindulgence, to refrain from untrue speech and to avoid intoxication."

Give your Christian friend a few resources for helping them learn more about Buddhism like Thubten Chodron's "Buddhism for Beginners" or "Buddhism for Dummies" by Jonathan Landaw and Stephan Bodian.

About the Author

Sarah Badger is a certified pilates and group fitness instructor, writer and dance teacher. Her work has appeared in "Dance Spirit" magazine and several literary journals. Badger earned her bachelor's degree in English and religious studies from Marymount Manhattan College, and currently owns a dance and fitness studio in upstate New York.

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