Christianity And Buddhism ComparedThis print version free essay Christianity And Buddhism Compared.
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Buddhist and Christian Prayer: A Comparison in Practice and Purpose
HUMA 2800 = SOSC 2600
Dr. Stephen Ford
March 7, 2005
At first glance the traditions of Christianity and Buddhism appear very different from each other. One centers around a God that was at one time physically manifest on earth in the human form of his â€œsonâ€ Jesus Christ, the other primarily worships a historical figure that gained divine status through enlightenment. This assessment is broad at best, especially in the case of Buddhism where the Theravada and Mahayana traditions differ significantly. Christianity also has division within itself, the most prominent being between the Roman Catholic and Protestant systems. There are however, despite obvious differences, some very interesting similarities between Buddhism and Christianity, especially regarding prayer and worship, which fall into the â€œritual dimensionâ€ of Ninian Smartâ€™s analytical model (Smart). The purpose of this paper is to argue that Buddhism, particularly the Mahayana and Pure Land forms, and Christianity particularly Roman Catholicism are extremely similar regarding the practice and purpose of prayer. The Encyclopedia Britannica defines prayer as follows; â€œact of communication by humans with the sacred or holy â€“ God, gods, transcendent realm, or supernatural. Found in all religions at all times, prayer may be a corporate or personal act utilizing various forms or techniquesâ€ (Prayer, Britannica). This definition is the one that was kept in mind in the composition of this paper as it allows for a wide range of practices to be interpreted as prayer. For instance the Buddhist practice of meditation fits the above definition. This paper will explore the practice of performing prayer and worship as well as the purpose of it in the traditions in question.
In the examination of prayer and worship in Christian and Buddhist traditions there are some startling parallels. For instance, both traditions make use of beads during the performance of prayer. Pure Land Buddhism uses a string of beads that are fingered while invoking the name of the celestial Amitabha, or Amida Buddha. A ritual that is very close to the Roman Catholic practice of counting prayers and praying with a rosary. Pure Land Buddhism thus displays a strong resemblance to devotional Christianity, with a God-figure (Omitofo), a mediator (Guanyin), and a prayerful devotion resembling the rosary (Amore and Ching 273). The mediator for Chinese Pure Land prayer is Guanyin, a feminized version of the boddhisatva Avalokitesvara. Guanyin is very similar to the virgin Mary of Roman Catholicism, and as such is sometimes called the â€œvirgin Mary of east Asiaâ€ (Amore and Ching 247) as the bodhisattva she acts as the assistant to the celestial Buddha; Amitabha (Omitofo in Chinese) who is seen as the giver of grace and salvation much the same as God is seen as the giver of grace and salvation and Mary as the mediator or assistant in Roman Catholicism (Amore and Ching 273). These observations display a definite similarity in prayer techniques between the traditions in question. Both traditions make use of beads as a means for counting the prayers recited, also the fact that the prayers are directed to the female assistants of the supreme deities could mean that the followers thought a female mediator to be more compassionate to the needs of the worshipper.
Christian prayer is often characterized by recitation of scripture or an original prayer by a devotee. Buddhist prayer is characterized, with a few exceptions, by meditation. Both traditions for the most part have distinct positions for the performance of these rituals. The typical Christian prayer position is to be kneeling with hands clasped in front of the body, and head and eyes closed or downcast. The Lotus position is the traditional stance used for Buddhist meditation. One sits with legs and hands crossed, hands on the lap on the feet on the thighs, with erect posture and downcast or partially closed eyes. (Amore and Ching 223) Thus both religions although different have a definite bodily arrangement for the practice of prayer.
Even though the majority of prayer in Buddhism is in the form of meditation the Pure Land School does offer a spoken homage that resembles shorter Christian prayers. In practice they are very similar chanted or said, in the case of Pure Land the â€œHomage to Amitabha Buddhaâ€ was originally said ten times as prescribed by the Meditation sutra, it was later changed to three repetitions and then to one repetition. This homage was used by the laity as an easier path to rebirth in the Pure Land and was meant to be said at the very least just before death (Bhogal). This Buddhist practice parallels the last rites that are performed in the Catholic devotion they are both used in order to â€œcleanseâ€ the person before their â€œrebirthâ€ in the Pure Land or Heaven respectively. The Christian tradition has many short prayers, one of which is extremely similar to Buddhist repetitive and meditative prayers known as mantras (FORD), namely the Jesus Prayer used by a Byzantine sect of Christianity called the Hesychasts. They repeated the short one sentence prayer over and over with each breath as an almost meditative practice (Oxtoby 237). Pure Land Buddhism concentrates on the devotional repetition of prayers. (FORD) having said that the best-known Buddhist mantra is from the Vajrayana tradition the expression, â€œOm mani padme humâ€ or in English, â€œO the Jewel in the Lotusâ€, it is used in a mantra based mystical practice invoking magic (Amore and Ching 254).
Prayer in Mahayana Buddhism and Catholic Christianity is sometimes not directed towards the supreme deity. In the Mahayana tradition there is a belief that numerous boddhisatvas can respond to prayers of petition from worshippers, Mahayana followers can request blessings from boddhisatvas such as Maitreya, Avalokitesvara, and Manjusri. This practice comparable to the veneration of saints that is one of the hallmarks of Roman Catholic devotion (Amore and Ching 246). Another similarity regarding the ritual dimension of Buddhist and Christian belief is the preservation and veneration of relics. In both traditions physical relics were supposedly preserved from historical figures such as Sakyamuni, Jesus, St. Peter, Virgin Mary, as well as other important devotees. Buddhist relics are set in places where they can be worshipped, known as stupas in India and pagodas in east Asia (Amore and Ching 239-240), like wise in the Catholic tradition relics are usually housed in churches or monasteries. In the two traditions relics are prayed to and worshipped, as well their resting places are often important pilgrimage sights (Amore and Ching 288-289, Oxtoby 257-258). These are examples of more parallel characteristics shared in the practice of prayer in Buddhism and Christianity.
The purpose of prayer is a question that brings us into the emotional and experiential dimensions of Ninian Smartâ€™s analytical model (SMART). Prayer is an act of communication with the divine and as such is inherently experiential, it is also emotional because very often involves strong feeling and sensitive subjects especially in prayers of petition. In Buddhism the purpose of meditation is to enhance powers of concentration and gain insight into truths about oneself and reality (Bhogal). The purpose then of meditation as prayer is to find answers and enlightenment. Prayer in the Catholic faith is often for the purpose of help or petition, but it can also be for answers or advice on future occurrences, or in other words enlightenment (OXTOBY 218). Therefore purpose of prayer in Buddhism and Christianity is similar in that it is either for enlightenment about hidden truths or for assistance in earthly problems.
In conclusion, upon further examination it appears that Buddhist prayer, particularly in the Pure Land and Mahayana traditions does hare many characteristics with Christian prayer, specifically Roman Catholic worship. The respective traditions make use of counting beads in prayer, they both use relics from important religious figures as focal points for worship. The afore mentioned traditions have specific bodily arrangements for the carrying out of prayer rituals, and perhaps most importantly the goals or purpose for prayer in the belief systems in question are undeniably similar. The conclusion that prayer is similar in purpose and practice in these traditions, does not however speak about the distinctiveness in ideologies and doctrines and should not be thought of as poof of such, therefore it should be accepted as a face value interpretation of rituals and practices in these systems.
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Amore, Roy C. and Julia Ching. â€œThe Buddhist Tradition.â€ World Religion: Eastern Traditions. Ed. Willard G. Oxtoby. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 2002. 198-315.
Bhogal, Balbinder Singh. â€œMahayana Buddhism.â€ Lecture Series for Introduction to Religion Class at York University. Toronto. 1 Feb. 2005.
Ford, Stephen. â€œReview of Buddhism.â€ Tutorial workshop for Introduction to Religion Class at York University. Toronto. 21 Feb. 2005.
Oxtoby, Willard G. â€œThe Christian Tradition.â€ World Religion: Western Traditions. Ed. Willard G. Oxtoby. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 2002. 200-339.
â€œPrayer.â€ Encyclopedia Britannica. 2005. Encyclopedia Britannica Online. York University Libraries. 1 Mar. 2005. .
Smart, Ninian. Analytical Model Adapted from Religious Experiences of Mankind. 1969. New York, Charles Scribnerâ€™s Sons, 1996.