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Catholicism and Buddhism: Incompatibilities in Love

by John Michael Keba


In reponse to a written article on the incompatibilites between Buddhism and Catholicism, reader John Michael Keba offers his thoughts on the critical difference between the two faiths: the understanding of the nature of love. Mr. Keba is a cradle Catholic who returned to the Church after a lengthy absence, during which he was an adherent to Theravadan Buddhism.

Publisher & Date, September 21, 2006

Catholic Culture is deserved thanks for its recent piece, “Catholicism and Buddhism: Compatible Beliefs?” It is disconcerting how many Catholics seem to think the answer to that question is “yes.” Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that it is profoundly disturbing to see Catholic religious promulgating this notion through books and the media, to the detriment of the Faith. But I would argue that the necessarily cursory nature of the piece missed a vital point of incompatibility.

Before I address this point, a word about my personal background is in order. Unfortunately I must admit to some personal past involvement with this largely “atheistic system”, as Pope John Paul II quite correctly put it.

In fact, it was after a long period of Randian (Ayn, that is) atheism that I came to Theravadan Buddhism. This might seem an odd jump, given Rand’s contempt for religions in general, and eastern ones in particular: but the arguments employed in her religious polemic were in all cases derived from a mixture of supine and affected ignorance.

I likewise employed these ignorant arguments during my long apostasy from the Faith. When Archbishop Fulton Sheen stated "There are not a hundred people in the world who hate the Catholic Church, but there are thousands who hate what they mistakenly believe the Catholic Church to be," he was describing me.

I decided that I was an atheist when I was in high school. This was partly due to simple adolescent rebellion, but also very much because what Flannery O’Connor wrote in the early 60’s was as true in the late 70’s as it is today: “If you live today, you breathe in nihilism.” And it took an act of O’Connor-style grace to start me on the road home. But it was a long, winding one that passed through other religious territory, including Theravada.

I started writing this letter to bring out some points of incompatibility I thought were lacking in “Catholicism and Buddhism: Compatible Beliefs?” A thousand words in to it, I realized I was just rehashing the reasons I abandoned Buddhist practice. And who cares about that? So, I will satisfy myself with bringing to light the salient disjunction between the two belief systems. And while there are other Buddhist “denominations” than Theravada, I would argue that all to some extent are influenced by their Theravadan provenance.

A Critical Distinction: The Concept of Love

Before he was Pope Benedict XVI, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger wrote in What It Means To Be A Christian, “Being Christian means having love.” In Crossing the Threshold of Hope we see that Pope John Paul II made note of the distinguishing role love plays in any comparison between Christianity and Buddhism. Do Buddhists not love? For those committed to Enlightenment, the answer must be an emphatic “no, they do not – not in the Christian sense of agape.”

The Buddhist Publication Society’s 1975 translation of the great 5th century explication of the Tipitaka, Visuddhimagga: The Path of Purification, has a Pali-English glossary of some 1000 epistemological and technical terms appended to it. Faith (saddha), truth (sacca), greed (lobha), cruelty (vihimsa), hate (dosa) and grief (domanassa) are there; the Pali word for “love” is not. Similarly, a word search for “love” in the Buddhist Dictionary: Manual of Buddhist Terms and Doctrines (also by the BPS) will also fail to yield a specific term. The concept of agape is not only alien to Buddhist doctrine; its very existence in a Buddhist adept is anathema.

In the second discourse of the Buddha after Enlightenment, the Anattalakkhana-sutta, the Three Signata, or Characteristics of Existence, are explained in relation to each other. These characteristics are Impermanence (anicca), Unsatisfactoriness (dukkha), and Egolessness (anatta): Upon these three assertions about the nature of existence rest all Buddhist thought. Thus, at the very beginning, in the shade of the Bo Tree, Buddhist tradition asserts this dialog took place:

“Is the body permanent or impermanent?” “Impermanent, Lord.” “But is that which is impermanent sorrowful (dukkha) or happy?” “Sorrowful, Lord.” “But is it fit to consider that which is impermanent, sorrowful, of a nature to change, as ‘This is mine, this I am, this is myself’?” “It is not, Lord.”
And similar dialog is adduced against feelings, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness in favor of the Egolessness doctrine. One can see immediately in this simple excerpt the genesis of this assertion made by Ven. Pategama Gnanarama, Ph.D., of the Principal Buddhist and Pali of Singapore, in his Essentials of Buddhism:
“The fact of Impermanence proves the facts of Unsatisfactoriness and Non-Substantiality and the fact of Unsatisfactoriness on the other hand establishes the validity of Impermanence and the theory of Non-Substantiality. The theory of Non-Substantiality or Egolessness verifies the reality of Impermanence and Unsatisfactoriness. Hence the three basic concepts of Buddhist doctrine, Impermanence, Unsatisfactoriness and Non-Substantiality have been proved on the mutual support of each individual characteristic. As stated in a different context that which is transient is unsatisfactory (yad aniccaü taü dukkhaü) and that which is unsatisfactory is no-self (yaü dukkhaü tadanattà). The theory as a whole exhausts the world-view of Buddhism.” [My emphasis]
Classical Buddhism is emphatic about non-substantiality, or anatta:
‘not-self’, non-ego, egolessness, impersonality is the last of the three characteristics of existence. The anatt? doctrine teaches that neither within the bodily or mental phenomena of existence, nor outside of them, can be found anything that in the ultimate sense could be regarded as a self-existing real ego-entity, soul, or any other abiding substance. This is the central doctrine of Buddhism, without understanding of which a real knowledge of Buddhism is altogether impossible. It is the only really specific Buddhist doctrine, with which the entire Structure of Buddhist teaching stands or falls.1
Similarly, it insists with regard to the existence of any given individual, or puggala:
‘individual’, ‘person’, as well as the synonyms: personality, individuality, being (satta), self (atta), etc., in short all terms designating a personal entity, hence also: I, you, he, man, god, etc., all these, according to Buddhism are mere names for certain combinations of material and mental processes, and apart from them they have no real existence. 2 [My emphasis]
One simply cannot love, in the Christian sense, what is not there. And the lack of a technical Pali term demonstrates clearly that “love” is not a point of Buddhist discourse.

Committed to a relentless detachment from all things (kaya-viveka: bodily detachment, citta-viveka: mental detachment, updhis-viveka: detachment from the substrata of existence), Buddhist seek through meditation to cultivate within themselves the Four Divine Abodes: compassion (karuna), sympathetic-joy (mudita), equanimity (upekkha) and lovingkindness (metta). Metta is not agape. On metta, the great Buddhist teacher Buddhaghosa wrote:

“When a bhikkhu takes up a mediation subject, he should first develop lovingkindness toward the Community of Bhikkhus within the boundary, limiting it at first in this way: ‘May they be happy and free from affliction.’ Then he should develop it towards all deities within the boundary. Then towards all the principal people in the village that is his alms resort; then to all human beings there and to all living beings dependent on the human beings. With lovingkindness towards the Community of Bhikkhus he produces kindliness in his co-residents; then they are easy for him to live with. With lovingkindness towards the deities within the boundary he is protected by kindly deities with lawful protection. With lovingkindness towards the principal people in the village that is his alms resort his requisites are protected by well-disposed principal people with lawful protection. With lovingkindness towards all human beings there he goes about without incurring their dislike since they trust him. With lovingkindness toward all living things he can wander unhindered everywhere.” 3
Admitting that the development of metta in others is envisioned as a secondary effect, it is still secondary; not quite the same as the Good Samaritan’s love, is it?

But is it fair to link Mahayana and Tibetan Buddhism to Theravada? Doesn’t the Bodhisattva ideal supercede that of the Arahant?

The influence of the Tipitaka can no more be excised from later Buddhist thought than the Old Testament from the New. But more importantly, more empirically, Buddhism’s historic lack of social engagement is a critical fact to which even Buddhists admit. They simply will not admit that it is a logical consequence of their underlying beliefs.

“As the Father has loved me, I also have loved you. Abide in my love.” (Jn. 15:9)

“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. (Jn. 15:12)

These words of Christ, rendered in Greek, are êgapêsen, êgapêsa, agapêi, agapate: all from agapaô, which is “to treat with affection,” “to caress,” “to love.” Christian love is not simply an internal state, cultivated for our own soteriological benefit. It is a passion. Indeed, according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church it is the “most fundamental passion… aroused by the attraction of the good.” Agape apprehends and caresses the unique unity of soul and body our Faith insists is a real person from conception to natural death. Far from being impermanent, agape suffers willing and has an abiding presence.

“Catholicism and Buddhism: Compatible Beliefs?” ended by stating that “In truth, from its individual practices to its ultimate goal, Buddhism possesses nothing of value that is not already possessed and perfected by Catholicism.” And this is true. I would add that, in cultures where utilitarian “bioethics” assault the dignity of the human person by redefining ad hoc what a person is, in the name of “necessary allocation of medical resources,” a belief system that maintains that the very notion of personhood is delusional is not just incompatible with Catholicism, it is ethically incommensurable.


1. Nyantiloka Thera, “anatta,” Buddhist Dictionary: Manual of Buddhist Terms and Doctrines, Kandy, Sri Lanka: Buddhist Publication Society, 1980.

2. Ibid., “puggala” entry

3. Buddhaghosa, Visuddhimagga: The Path of Purification (Kandy, Sri Lanka: Buddhist Publication Society, 1975), p. 98-99.

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