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From Buddhism To Christianity


Photograph by Hwa-Young Chung —

Photograph by Hwa-Young Chung —

I was greatly privileged to have Ellis Potter speak to my philosophy class a couple of weeks ago. Ellis used to be a Buddhist monk. Now he's a Christian pastor in Switzerland. Ellis has a kindness, eloquence, and authority about him that bespeaks decades of experience dialoging with diverse people about life's biggest questions. You can just feel it in his voice. And he shows immense respect for people whose beliefs differ from his, even as he explains why he disagrees with them. I really admire that. Ellis spoke about his new book, 3 Theories of Everything. It's a fascinating comparison of three major worldviews that offer starkly different answers to deeply human questions, such as: What is reality? What is the meaning of life? Why do we suffer?

According to Ellis, each of the three worldviews believes in an "original perfection" (ultimate reality), that something is wrong with the world (why we suffer), and each proposes a solution (the meaning of life).


The first worldview discussed in the book is monism. This is the belief that there is ultimately only one thing that exists — be it matter, energy, consciousness, God, or what have you — and that everything we experience (including ourselves) are merely a part of this one thing. "All is one" or "All is unity" is the slogan of monism. Many people have held to this belief throughout history, including Parmenides, Spinoza, and most Buddhists and Hindus.

According to monism, we suffer because we are under the illusion that there is diversity and relationships in the world, when in fact there are none (you can't have diversity and relationships when there is only one thing that exists). This delusion keeps us longing for things we can never attain. Even our individual identity is part of the illusion. You and I don't really exist as individuals, according to monism; we are merely parts of "the One," like drops of water in an infinite ocean. But, given monism, diversity, relationships, and individual identity aren't only illusory, they're ultimately evil, because they are the cause of our suffering. Monism's solution to this suffering is the same as with any nightmare — to wake up and realize it's all a dream. Once we fully understand all is unity, and we deny diversity, relationships, and even our individual self, we have achieved "enlightenment." We are saved.


The second worldview Ellis discusses is dualism. According to this belief, ultimate reality is made up of two equal and opposite forces — good and evil, pleasure and pain, push and pull, matter and void, physical and spiritual, all of the above. This is the worldview behind the popular Yin and Yang symbol. It is also the basis of much Chinese philosophy, ancient Greek philosophy (a la Plato), Gnosticism, and some non-biblical forms of Christianity. Dualism says we suffer because of an imbalance in these forces. Thus, the solution is obvious — achieve balance and harmony. But notice this does not necessarily mean an eradication of all evil from the world; it simply means having the right amount of it. If dualism is true, then evil is equally a part of ultimate reality as good is, so eradicating it completely would upset the balance.


Lastly, Ellis discusses the view of trinitarianism, which is unique to Christianity. According to this view, the "original perfection" is one thing (God) that contains three distinct persons (Father, Son, Holy Spirit). So, ultimate reality is both intrinsically unified (one God) and diverse (three persons). In our experience, we find that everything in the physical universe seems to be interconnected, unified, and yet full of diverse, autonomous entities. Given trinitarianism, it makes sense that we find both unity and diversity in the world, because it's a reflection of the Creator.

Also, according to trinitarianism, each person in the Godhead lovingly pours himself into the other two, and is likewise filled by the pouring out of the other two. In short, each person of the trinity is "other-centered." So, within ultimate reality (God), there is real relationship, and perfect love. Thus, contrary to monism, trinitarianism does not see diversity and relationships as evil or illusory; rather they are part of ultimate reality. The reason we suffer is because we have become self-centered. This harms all our relationships, not only with other people, but with our environment as well. The solution, according to trinitarianism, is for the ultimate reality (God) to lovingly pour himself into his creation, to make us other-centered again, and to restore the interconnected harmony (the shalom) of the universe. This is exactly what Christianity proposes God has done (and is doing) through Jesus.

Obviously, as a Christian pastor, Ellis now favors trinitarianism. But he came to believe in Christ not through an unthinking bias; rather through a lot of hard and honest thinking, and by asking difficult questions of his previous faith, Zen Buddhism. Ultimately, he felt that Buddhism, as poetic and elegant a worldview as it may seem, can not provide answers that fit human experience or give us hope. I agree with him. Ellis says a lot more in the book (and he says it more eloquently than I have here). And his discussion touches on many other fascinating topics, such as free will and determinism. He even does some Buddhist mantras. It's a book you could easily read over the weekend, or on a lazy afternoon. I highly recommend it! The questions it poses will both challenge you and change you.


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