Why Do We Exist? Opposite Answers from Buddhism and Christianity

This article is adapted from

Buddhism or Christianity : Which is Better for the World? 
By Daniel McCoy (Houston, TX: Moral Apologetics Press, 2023).

 

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Why do humans exist? What is our ultimate purpose? A person will arrive at wildly different answers depending on whether they’ve been spending more time under the cross of Christ or under the “Bodhi Tree” (the “tree of awakening” under which the Buddha found enlightenment). On the one hand, there is Christianity’s robust sense of purposefulness, as humans were created by God for a purpose — eternal life in union with God. On the other hand, there is Buddhism’s view that life is fundamentally impermanent and ultimately without purpose. Both religions have defenders who claim their view to be not only true but also inspiring.

As one of the world’s “missionary” religions, Buddhism deserves attention because it has been making effective cultural inroads in the Western world. Buddhism’s emerging cultural influence in the West can be seen in university curricula, bestselling spiritual books, health and wellness practices, and interfaith efforts to bridge what are seen as the most influential religions of the Western and Eastern world: Christianity and Buddhism.

BUDDHISM AND PURPOSELESSNESS

At first glance, it would appear that the Buddhist position is clearly less inspiring than the Christian view. Rather than depicting human life as the crowning architecture of a creative God, Buddhism, as noted, depicts human life as impermanent, unworthy of attachment, and without inherent purpose.

In the Jaws of a Demon

Buddhists famously illustrate the tangle of samsara (the endless merry-go-round of rebirths) with a chart called the bhavacakra.1 This depiction, known as the “wheel of existence,” maps the Buddhist worldview with a series of concentric circles. Holding the entire wheel in its mouth is a demon (sometimes Mara, the tempter and adversary, and other times, Yama, the king of death). The wheel’s outermost ring typically consists of the twelve links of dependent co-arising (the Buddhist view of how the world comes to be, in which everything exists because it is dependent upon everything else that exists). Further inward are the six realms one might be reborn into — from hell to heaven and all in-between. The innermost circle has a bird, a snake, and a pig all chasing each other. These represent the “three poisons” of greed, ignorance, and aversion.2 These three are the “propelling forces of the cycle of existence.”3 Thus, we exist not because of divine purpose but from a co-dependent series of unfortunate events.

On the face of it, seeing life as impermanent and purposeless leads to suffering. This is because seeing life as purposeless logically makes other types of suffering unbearable. How can a person bear suffering with perseverance when there is no point, no purpose in sight on the other end — except to escape into the extinguishing of nirvana,4 as in the case of Buddhism? Positively stated, Holocaust survivor and psychiatrist Victor Frankl explained, “Suffering ceases to be suffering in some way at the moment it finds a meaning, such as the meaning of a sacrifice.”5 An illustration would be the clear difference between a man losing his eyesight through an accident as opposed to losing his eyesight through rescuing someone from a burning building.

Yet Buddhism provides two fascinating answers as to why accepting life’s ultimate purposelessness is actually beautiful and liberating — it starts with recognizing the devastation that comes from being disappointed.


Why Purposelessness Is Good: The Devastation of Disappointment


Before he was the Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama was a prince who grew up in privilege and luxury. As he grew older, he became curious what life was like outside the palace. On a chariot ride through the city, Gautama saw a sick person, an old person, a dead person, and a monk. These images of sickness, old age, and death stuck in his mind: was he, too, subject to old age, illness, and death? He was. The solution to this newfound predicament presented itself in the tranquil monk. Where thoughts of sickness, old age, and death could have filled him with despair, Gautama realized that there was hope in renunciation from the world and its comforts. It is only those who have “intoxication with youth…health…life” who would be “horrified, humiliated, and disgusted” to lose them.6

All Is Stress. Gautama’s spiritual journey of renunciation led him to conclude that we suffer because we desire things that are impermanent — things such as youth, health, and life. Gautama discovered that literally all of life is impermanent. It was in Gautama’s first sermon after becoming enlightened (i.e., becoming the “Buddha”) that he unveiled the Four Noble Truths:

1) All is stress.

2) Craving produces stress.

3) Stress is overcome by eliminating craving.

4) Craving is eliminated by the eightfold path.7

The first noble truth encapsulates the universal predicament. By saying that “all is stress,” Gautama was teaching that everything ultimately leads to disappointment. Stuff rots. Accolades fade. People you love die. Your life will eventually come to an end. Thus, if people want to do away with suffering, they will accept that the stuff of life is impermanent and without ultimate purpose. That resignation, Gautama taught the monks who followed him, is the first step to overcoming suffering.

Why Purposelessness Is Good: Emancipation through Emptiness

Over time, numerous branches of Buddhism developed, many of them almost unrecognizable compared to the monk-centered spirituality Gautama taught. A major school of Buddhism called “Mahayana” (the “great vehicle”) distinguished itself from what it called “Hinayana” (the monk-centered “little vehicle”) by making its goal to help regular people, not just monks (in fact, all sentient beings), move toward nirvana.

Merging Samsara and Nirvana. Within Mahayana Buddhism, we are given a second reason that seeing life as purposeless leads away from suffering. Rather than keeping nirvana as a future-tense reality, it became common within Mahayana Buddhism to sever the distinction between samsara (round of rebirth) and nirvana (“becoming extinguished”).8 Nagarjuna, whose philosophy heavily influenced Mahayana Buddhism, explained, “There is nothing whatsoever differentiating samsara from nirvana. The limit of nirvana is the limit of samsara. Between the two there is not the slightest bit of difference.”9 With both samsara and nirvana being fundamentally empty of intrinsic existence, one can experience nirvana in the here and now by seeing through everything’s fundamental emptiness and letting loose of it. To recognize emptiness is to experience nirvana now.

For many Buddhists, therefore, seeing life’s fundamental impermanence and purposelessness is blissful. Seeing “the glass as half-empty” is a common idiom for pessimists. Yet the idiom does not hold for the Buddhists who see everything as empty and count themselves optimistic. Buddhist emptiness (sunyata) has been called a “state of freedom from impediments and limitations,” a “state of spontaneous receptivity.”10 Experiencing emptiness means “the present is lived fully, free from anxiety, selfish desire, and ignorance” with “nothing gained or lost, for one is awakened to everything just as it is.”11 Recognizing that life comes to us empty and without inherent purpose means not only “freedom from attachment” but also “freedom for creativity,” like that of an artist.12 Buddhist awareness of the immediate “thusness” of all existence — the way things are — is a “nirvanic joy” akin to the “divine glory blazing out in the renewed creation.”13

CHRISTIANITY AND PURPOSEFULNESS

According to Christianity, why do humans exist? Humans exist first and foremost because God created us. And why did He create humans? According to Genesis 1:26–28, the purposes for which God created humans were to bear God’s “image” and “likeness,” to “rule over” and “subdue” what God created, and to “be fruitful and increase in number.”14

Restoring Humanity’s Purpose

The apostle Paul’s letter to the Romans explores how, although humans have fallen short of the glory we were intended to display (Rom. 3:23), God is in the process of restoring us to our intended purpose. He does this through remaking us into the likeness of Jesus, the divine Son of God who added to Himself a human nature and lived among us, being and showing us what it meant to be a true human. It was Jesus’s sacrificial death on the cross that brought about “justification and life” (Rom. 5:18) for us, being united with Him in His death and resurrection (Rom. 6:5), whereas our physical ancestors had previously brought us a reign of death (Rom. 5:17).

Now that disciples of Jesus are being restored to Christlikeness and union with God in Christ, all of creation has reason to be hopeful that it too will experience restoration. This restoration of humans to their intended glory is described as “the glory that will be revealed in us” (Rom. 8:18) and “the freedom and glory of the children of God” (Rom. 8:21). It is because of this restoration of humanity that there is hope that “the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay” (Rom. 8:21).

A Restored Humanity for a New Creation

In Revelation 22 (the final chapter of the Bible), we are given a picture of restored humans that echoes the intended purpose of humans in Genesis 1 (the first chapter of the Bible). Just as humans were told to rule over the creation described in Genesis, so restored humans will rule over the new creation described in Revelation: “On each side of the river stood the tree of life….No longer will there be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him….And they will reign for ever and ever” (Rev. 22:2–5).

TWO VERSIONS OF EDEN

Another way to describe Christian and Buddhist views when it comes to ultimate purpose is by asking what, according to each, does “Eden” entail? At what point are humans experiencing the fulfillment of their flourishing?

Buddhist Eden

The closest we get to a Buddhist Eden is from versions of Buddhism that teach the non-distinction between samsara and nirvana. To them, a Buddhist Eden can be described as a “grand life-affirmation” through spontaneous “play” and “just sitting.”15 It enjoys the now, becoming “wholly acceptant of whatever is.”16 If so, then, it is worth asking, as Stephen Phillips does, “Does sunyata [emptiness] affirm all desires and goals equally, the murderer’s and extortioner’s as well as the Zen seeker’s?….Are we to ‘just sit’ while people in Africa, or anywhere, starve?”17 The Buddhist might respond that being blissfully aware of life’s “thusness” leads to less personal inward suffering than having angst over the troubles in the world. But what does “wholly acceptant of whatever is” mean for suffering people out there?18

Christian Eden

The Christian Eden is not first and foremost an inward experience of meditative bliss, but a restored reality already in the works: “And he who was seated on the throne said, ‘Behold, I am making all things new’” (Rev. 21:5). Here, the revelator speaks of a “final renewing at the End” already begun by a God who “continually makes things new here and now.”19 God is not depicted as indiscriminately savoring reality as it is but as continually restoring creation to His original intention, with an emphasis on restoring humans to their intended glory (Rom. 8:18).

So, what is the difference between a Buddhist and a Christian Eden? A major difference is the word change. Christianity mobilizes the Christian to action in combatting suffering, not primarily as a means toward internal bliss (although that can follow here and now and will certainly follow in the resurrection) but as a means of participating in God’s plan to restore a fallen but loved creation to eternal union with God in Christ.

Buddhism teaches tranquil, even blissful, purposelessness, while Christianity teaches ultimate purpose. Buddhists reason that acceptance of purposelessness is existentially preferable to getting continually disappointed by the popping of inflated desires. Christianity offers ultimate purpose grounded in a trustworthy God. An acceptance of the world’s “thusness” may bring one inward bliss, but Christianity’s recognition of the world’s “oughtness” brings restoration, as Christians trust and follow a God at work making all things new.

Daniel J. McCoy, PhD, is Editorial Director of RENEW.org. He is the general editor of The Popular Handbook of World Religions (Harvest House, 2021) and co-author of The Atheist’s Fatal Flaw (Baker Books, 2014).

NOTES

 The bhavacakra is most well-known in its Tibetan forms, but it is not limited to Tibetan Buddhism.
Robert E. Buswell and Donald S. Lopez, The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2014), 112.
Richard H. Robinson and Willard L. Johnson, The Buddhist Religion: A Historical Introduction (Encino, CA: Dickenson Publishing Company, 1977), 36.
In Sanskrit, nirvana means an “extinguishing.” Whatever nirvana is, no self remains to do any experiencing.
Victor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning: An Introduction to Logotherapy, trans. Ilse Lasch (Boston: Beacon Press, 1969), 115.
Stories narrating Gautama’s path from prince to renunciant come from “Indian History Sourcebook: Sources on the Buddha’s Life and Death,” Fordham University, 1998, https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/india/buddha-life.asp; and the “Sukhamala Sutta: Refinement AN 3.38,” translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu, Access to Insight, 1997, https://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/an/an03/an03.038.than.html.
See the “Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta: Setting the Wheel of Dhamma in Motion (SN 56:11),” trans. Thanissaro Bhikkhu, Access to Insight, 1993, https://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn56/sn56.011.than.html.
Christopher A. Brown, “Can Buddhism Save? Finding Resonance in Incommensurability,” Cross Currents 49:2 (1999): 173.
Paul Williams, Mahayana Buddhism: The Doctrinal Foundations, 2nd ed. (London: Routledge, 2009), 76.
Harry Oldmeadow, Touchstones of the Spirit: Essays on Religion, Tradition and Modernity (Bloomington, IN: World Wisdom, 2012), 78.
Thomas E. Reynolds, “Toward the Other: Christianity and Buddhism on Desire,” Journal of Ecumenical Studies 39 (2002): 333.
Jay McDaniel, “Zen Buddhism and Prophetic Christianity,” Encounter 45:4 (1984): 310.
Joseph S. O’Leary, “Emptiness and Dogma,” Buddhist-Christian Studies 22 (2002): 173.
All Bible quotations are from the NIV.
Stephen H. Phillips, “Nishitani’s Buddhist Response to ‘Nihilism,’” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 55:1 (1987): 97.
John B. Cobb, “Masao Abe,” Buddhist-Christian Studies 28 (2008): 119.
Stephen H. Phillips, “Nishitani’s Buddhist Response to ‘Nihilism,’” 94–95.
There have been Buddhist efforts to make for a better world through emphasizing the interconnectedness of all things. For more on this “Engaged Buddhism” and its difficulty grounding itself in Buddhist metaphysics, see Daniel J. McCoy, Buddhism or Christianity: Which Is Better for the World? (Houston: Moral Apologetics Press, 2022).
Leon Morris, Revelation: An Introduction and Commentary (Nottingham: InterVarsity Press, 1987), 234.


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