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Many Westerners’ impressions of Eastern spirituality have been shaped by gazing at puzzling statues of Buddha or by hearing George Harrison sing “My Sweet Lord” to Krishna. Those impressions can range from something unproductive to plain weird to strangely attractive and fashionable.
By “Eastern spirituality,” we basically mean Hinduism and Buddhism. However, both of these traditions are extremely diverse and hard to describe. Hinduism is a folk religion that developed in the Indian subcontinent long ago. Buddhism is an offshoot of Hinduism and has sprouted numerous branches in its twenty-five-hundred-year history.
“Enlightenment” is the shared goal of Hinduism and Buddhism. It is a sublime state of mind, a sort of ongoing peacefulness. Enlightenment comes from resolving the problem of uncontrolled human cravings: bodily, emotional, relational, or any other discontentment. Enlightenment also allegedly resolves a universal human ignorance of true reality, namely that the world we think of as real is in fact a delusion and an entrapment to be escaped. Meditation, asceticism, and intuition are the primary means of escape into enlightened bliss.
We can understand Eastern spirituality’s enlightenment more fully by examining Hinduism and Buddhism in turn. Hinduism has produced intricate philosophical speculations and epic accounts of all sorts of deities. But when we cut through all of that, Hinduism’s basic notion is that a person’s cravings and ignorance are overcome by merging oneself with ultimate reality— the metaphor of a drop of water going into the ocean. This merger enables one to escape from an otherwise endless cause-and-effect cycle of reincarnation. It is not hard to see how pop-culture notions of discovering one’s inner hero or looking within oneself to find ultimate truth resemble Hindu notions of merging one’s self with the Ultimate Self.
For its part, Buddhism has a different basis than Hinduism. Buddhism’s founder, the historical man Siddhartha Gautama, was a Hindu prince who allegedly came to enlightenment through a revolutionary realization. Unlike Hinduism’s self-Ultimate Self merger, the goal of Buddhism became the awareness that everything we assume exists ultimately is a vacuum or vapor, including our individual selves. Ultimately there is no self to merge with some all-encompassing reality. In the end, it’s all “nothingness.”
You might be asking yourself at this point, “Aren’t these notions of Hinduism and Buddhism sheer nonsense or even devilish?” I suggest that the situation is more nuanced than that. We cannot go into great detail here, but essentially there are three dynamics at work in the world’s religious traditions: satanic deception, sinful rejection of God, but also a kind of worship of “the unknown god” (Acts 17:22–28). God has implanted a sense of the divine in the mind of every person. Human religion and idolatry give evidence of this innate knowledge.
Because all people reflect God’s image and have a knowledge of Him, we who in Christ know God truly but incompletely can learn from all kinds of people. Thus, I want next to consider how some Eastern instincts might actually cast some fresh light on a couple of important matters. Doing so will also help us all the more fairly and accurately to consider points of fundamental difference between these traditions and biblical teaching.
Westerners have inherited Greek philosophical categories. We can thus unwittingly focus on God’s unchangeable being in a way influenced by Greek metaphysics. A classic example here is God’s revelation of Himself to Moses: “I am who I am” (Ex. 3:14). A common Western notion is that God is instructing Moses only about His eternal existence. However, another major point throughout this passage is to assure the Israelites, who are groaning under Egyptian slavery, that He has always been faithful and will continue to be faithful.
The relevant point for our discussion is that some Eastern instincts do not gravitate toward the same abstract notions of “existence in itself” that undergird much of Western thought. Instead, Eastern thought often moves in a more fluid world, if you will. Learning from these instincts does not mean that we embrace them ourselves. Instead, understanding them might help shake loose the Bible’s original intention from unconscious assumptions that we may bring to the text. For instance, used carefully, certain Eastern sensibilities can help keep us from seeing God as an unmoved Mover.
At the same time, there are notions of Eastern spirituality that fundamentally differ from God’s revelation. For starters, the Eastern goal of a solitary, peaceful enlightenment does not square with the biblical teaching that humanity’s purpose is to actively love and serve God and other people. Additionally, both Hindu and Buddhist enlightenment results from disengaging from the world, whereas the God of Scripture has given human beings the responsibility to engage and care for His creation.
The Hindu merger of oneself with ultimate reality obliterates the basic biblical distinction between God the Creator and all that He has made, including human beings. The Buddhist notion of “nothingness” and human beings’ alleged need to awaken to that reality fly in the face of the Bible’s clear teaching that God is the actual living Creator-Redeemer who has actually created an actual world. Finally, it is not through meditation and ascetic practices that one experiences ultimate bliss or enlightenment. Rather, God has acted decisively in the God-man Jesus of Nazareth to give people eternal life, which is knowing the only true God and Jesus Christ, whom He sent into the world (John 17:3). This gift of new life is received by faith and trust in the crucified and risen Son of God.