Buddha, science and Jesus
Carl Wieland talks to Pastor Steve Cioccolanti
Steve Cioccolanti, B.A., M.Ed., is Founder and Director of the globally focused organization Discover Ministries, as well as a pastor of a local church in Melbourne, Australia, where he currently resides with his family. He is author of the book From Buddha to Jesus: An Insider’s View of Buddhism and Christianity.
Science is a core issue in persuading atheists to see the credibility of Genesis and the logic of the Gospel. But it is also an important element in overcoming the hurdle of unbelief among Buddhists, as I found out in talking to author Steve Cioccolanti. His book From Buddha to Jesus has been gaining great traction in bringing Buddhists and those interested in Eastern philosophy to explore biblical faith.
Born in Thailand to an Australian father and a Thai mother, Steve says, “I come from a family of atheists, Buddhists, Catholics, Methodists and Muslims, and I was given the ‘freedom’ to try all and choose any. For several years, I wore both a white Buddha and a silver cross on my neck, as a sign of my ‘open mind’. It was also a way of ‘hedging my bets’ about eternity (in case one was right after all). I believed, as all my Buddhist family and friends do, that ‘all religions are the same’. This mentality is similar to the postmodern thinking that’s rife in the West today. I understand it because I literally lived that out.”
After living in Thailand for the first 10 years of his life, Steve spent the next 10 years in Australia, America, France and Canada, where, he says, “Not one person told me the Gospel. In 1995, when back in Thailand, several ex-Buddhists tried to tell me about Jesus. I was skeptical. Finally, a Singaporean man prayed with me to become a Christian. He had been a Buddhist monk but gave up after he went deep into meditation and had demonic experiences.”
A great enthusiast for the ministry of CMI, Steve found that the scientific evidences for creation solved his own doubts about which of the different faiths represented the truth. He was the top student of both biology and chemistry in his advanced (university level) classes. “Both my professors wanted me to go into science. But God had other plans for me,” says Steve, now an ordained pastor. “I now combine my knowledge of science and other religions to present Christianity in a simple and logical way that directly answers the most common questions people ask.”
From Buddha to Jesus has been attacked by a few vocal Western converts to Buddhism. Yet it is now the second-best-selling Christian book ever in Thailand, a 95% Buddhist country. “That”, he says, “is what’s making the Western critics irate; I present Buddhism the way it’s lived, the way local Asians (who often agree with the book’s message) practise it, not the way it’s presented by Hollywood or Western classes. I know how it’s presented in Western academia because I took university classes in Canada on Buddhism and Eastern philosophy.”
For nearly 20 years, Steve and his ministry team have trained some 40,000 Christians in around 40 countries in what he calls ‘postmodern evangelism’ and how to compassionately reach those who believe ‘all religions are the same’. He says: “We then demonstrate the power of the Gospel in evangelistic outreaches. We have never yet had a meeting where Buddhists were present and some did not want to give their lives to Jesus, thank the Lord!”
He has also been involved in training mission teams working in Buddhist countries like Thailand and Myanmar on how to be culturally sensitive.
Why is Buddhism growing?
I asked Steve why so many modern, educated people are embracing Buddhism—what is its appeal? He replied: “The ‘new Buddhism’ as it is being offered in modernized countries like Australia, Singapore and Japan presents itself as a ‘scientific’ religion. One monk tells his audience that it is ‘the most practical and rational religion’ which will appeal to people with ‘scientific knowledge’.”
Christians who understand the scientific evidence for creation have the advantage of being able to address this claim, says Steve, and help bring the Gospel to people who are very open to spirituality. “Because Western converts to Buddhism have often been to a traditional church and have chosen to reject Christianity, they (unlike traditional Buddhists) want to discredit the Bible, promote evolution, and present Buddhism as a more scientific religion.”
Steve says, “I demonstrate that Christianity and Buddhism are more alike than most people think, in ways most people don’t think. Definitely neither religion supports evolution. Buddha did not subscribe to any concept of macro-evolution as we know it. And neither does true science support evolution. Most of our apologetic teachings emphasize biblical creation and the scientific evidences for it, as highlighted so well on creation.com.”
The ‘new Buddhist’ tends to borrow many of the concepts of Christianity because biblical truth presented in a rational way is extremely appealing, says Steve. “One master of a Buddhist sect in Japan has published many bestselling books there and liberally quotes from the Bible without giving God any credit. For instance, he lifts the words of Jesus and applies them to his own religion, such as ‘Love is the greatest commandment’ and ‘Give and it shall be given unto you.’ Christ’s words simply ring true in people’s hearts, even though they may not know the origin of these sayings.”
Buddha vs love
But actually, says Steve, such quotes misrepresent Buddhism. “In Buddhism, love is a totally foreign concept, whereas it is central to the Christian story of creation and redemption. God is love (1 John 4:16–19), and He is not willing to let humanity go even though we sinned against Him. (John 3:16)
“But according to Buddha, love is one of the nine fetters which hinder enlightenment. Love produces desire and attachment which lead to karma which leads to suffering. That’s why, traditionally, a person who aims to attain enlightenment must renounce his family, not have sexual relations, and develop a detached attitude towards affection. Buddha affirmed it by leaving his young wife and newborn child at the age of 29, to go in search of truth. In Buddhism, love is the enemy. In Christianity, Love is a Person named Jesus, our ultimate friend, guide and Saviour.”
Although it’s important to counter the ‘scientific’ claims of the new Buddhism, Steve points out that the approach depends on whom you are talking to. Traditional Eastern people are not as likely to respond to the Western style of argument. “Western society tends to be merit-based, so the person whose presentation has the most merit wins the business deal or religious debate. The East tends to be more relationship-based. So it’s especially important to demonstrate respect to persons, even if we disagree with their ideas. It’s also biblical to try to understand why a person believes what they believe, and try to tap into it. This is what Paul did in Acts 17 (teaching about the ‘unknown god’ to the Athenians) and 1 Corinthians 9 (the ‘to the Jew, be as a Jew… to the Gentiles, be as a Gentile’ principle).”
Steve thinks it’s important not to attack or criticize people who don’t yet know the truths of the Gospel, but to try to see something good in their beliefs and use it as a bridge to the full truth in Christ. From Buddha to Jesus highlights, for instance, how the traditional Buddhist moral rules are similar to and in some cases even more stringent than the Old Testament law (i.e. impossible to keep). Consequently, people in Buddhist countries often live under a huge burden of fear. Many even fear the judgment of hell after death— all openings for the Gospel, yet most of this is not widely taught.
Is Buddhism scientific?
There are some reasons why educated people might think Buddhism is a scientific religion, says Steve:
“Buddha was an empiricist. He claimed no revelation. He observed and reasoned. For instance, as a young man he observed an old man, sick man, dead man, and Brahman priest and came to the conclusion that life is a cycle of suffering. This was the first of his ‘four noble truths’. Observation told him suffering was the result of people’s desires; this is the second ‘noble truth’.1
“One of the scientific ideas in Buddhism is ‘cause and effect’: you sin, you suffer. This observation is congruent with the Old and New Testament revelation of sin and its consequences, though of course not all suffering is the result of specific sin. A major difference is that the Bible doesn’t relate our present suffering to a sin in a past life as Buddhism and Hinduism do (see box for more on the concept of reincarnation). We can use the Buddhist awareness of humanity’s problem to bridge to the New Testament solution. There is Someone who has no ‘karma’2 who suffered for our karma.”
Buddhism = evolution?
“To some Western converts”, says Steve, “Buddhism is synonymous with evolution. These ‘new Buddhists’ were mostly evolutionists to begin with, so they believe in a purposeless universe and a meaningless life that arose by random chance. Because we are moral beings created in the image of God, this leads to great dissatisfaction and emptiness. So evolutionists often search for a philosophy to fill that spiritual gap.”
In trying to make Buddhism fit into their idea of evolution, Steve says, “They consider reincarnation, one of the main tenets of Buddhism, to be ‘scientific’ because it sounds like evolution. But reincarnation has nothing to do with any progression of life from lower to higher forms. In Buddhism, one may be reincarnated first as an angel, then a man, then an animal, then a ghost, then back to human again.”
Pastor Steve says, “We need to be prepared to engage these belief systems, not so much to win a theological debate, but to open up people’s hearts and minds to the credibility of the Bible, which claims we fell into sin as per Genesis, can be redeemed by the Christ of the Gospels, and will one day meet a moral God in fulfilment of the Book of Revelation. It is not only a moral but a rational choice to trust in the Only One who never had any karma, Jesus Christ—for He alone can help us out of our sufferings.”
Dealing with reincarnation ideas
A Gallup poll says that 20% of Americans now believe in reincarnation.3
One way to get people to rethink reincarnation is to take it to its logical conclusion. To a Buddhist friend, I may ask, “Can you help me understand reincarnation?” Most are quite happy to do so. “According to Buddhism, if I kill a chicken, what do I come back as in my next life?” “A chicken!” is the universal response from Buddhists. “And if I kill a pig, what do I come back as in my next life?” As a pig, of course, as every Buddhist knows. “My question is this: if I want to come back in my next life as a rich man, who do I have to kill?” “O, no”, the Buddhist will gasp, “to come back as a rich man in your next life you have to do a lot of good and make merit!”
The question is neither flippant nor attacking Buddhists, but it leaves them thinking about the irrationality of this concept. Following their own logic all the way, to come back as a rich man, one would have to first kill a rich man.
That is not as farfetched as one might think, because there are Buddhist stories that uplift criminals as the heroes. Why? Because the criminals help their victims ‘make merit’ by being generous to the thief or forgiving to the offender! Stripped of God, morality is turned on its head and almost any action can be justified. Many Buddhist men who commit adultery feel they have made a lot of merit in their past lives because they have not been caught by their wives.
Objective morality can only come from a Moral Creator who established a sense of justice.
References and notes
- The remaining ‘noble truths’ are explained in Steve’s book. NB featuring an author’s book does not necessarily imply endorsement of all content. Return to text.
- Used here as meaning sin, to highlight the way in which a Buddhist can have the Gospel become clear by seeing the connection between the concepts. The word is from Sanskrit meaning ‘doing’ and has differing emphases in the various Indian-derived religions, including Buddhism, where it refers to that which drives the cycle of desire leading to actions which generate suffering, from which in Buddhist thought the only escape is attaining Nirvana i.e. oblivion. See also creation.com/buddhism. Return to text.
- See Reincarnation vs Creation. Return to text.