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Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Buddha Nature vs. Original Sin: No Contest

I have always struggled with the idea of Original Sin - the idea that because of Adam and Eve's disobedience in the Garden of Eden that led to their being cast out of Paradise human beings throughout history are born guilty. It is the one of the traditional reasons for Baptism, which is believed to "wash away the stain of Original Sin." It led to such absurd and traumatic ideas that infants who died before being Baptized were destined for a place called "limbo," where they apparently spent eternity dancing under an ever-lowered pole. There have been several explanations offered to counter the whole babies bound for hell business, including one I found particularly amusing while completing my undergraduate work at Wisconsin Lutheran College - the idea that it is rejecting Baptism that is damning. Their theory went that since a baby doesn't have the power to accept or reject Baptism it isn't punished if it dies before being Baptized. That sounds good, as far as it goes, but they also are big believers in Original Sin. Apparently, they, the "stain of Original Sin" must only be detectable when a soul is passed under a black light and the policy in heaven is not to pass babies under the black light? Or maybe the stain doesn't appear until the person rejects Baptism, like some sort of time-released ink?

At the time of the Protestant Reformation the resulting Protestant Churches other than the Anglican, Lutheran, and the later-developing Methodists became part of what is known as the "Reformed" tradition. They apparently didn't feel that Original Sin was depressing enough by itself and so developed an uplifting little concept called the total depravity of man [sic]. This doctrine essentially held that the Fall resulted in there being nothing good or redeemable about human beings, that we were essentially worms waiting for God's grace to save us despite ourselves. To these cheery folks there was no such thing as spiritual growth or development, very little understanding of Sanctification, and no concept of the Deification of Humanity. They could have more accurately called their tradition "You're Screwed."

Can we admit that there are some ideas in every spiritual and religious tradition that were doubtless very helpful at one point in history but aren't helpful any longer? Can we admit that while God doesn't change, our understanding of God certainly does change? When I was a child I remember being told that thunderstorms were caused by God bowling in heaven. Given that a young child doesn't have the ability to understand scientific explanations for thunder I drew comfort from that explanation. As an adult such an explanation  wouldn't be helpful at all precisely because I am able, at least to a degree, to understand a scientific understanding of thunder. Humanity's scientific understanding has evolved over time and fairly exploded over the past sixty years. The Bible explains thunder and lightening as well as other weather related and geological events as punishment from God. Contemporary scientific understanding renders such ideas little more than quaint vestiges of a pre-scientific era.

Are we born with stains not related to diapers? Of course not. The concept of Original Sin is not biblical, and Eastern Christianity never endorsed it. It would be little but a benign item in the history of Christian thought were it not for the enormous self-esteem issues in western culture. Religions that continue to teach what I like to call "original brokenness" are in truth agents of suffering and death that feel a need to justify ancient doctrines at the expense of compassion and love. Christians holding such position are in fact completely denying the Incarnation of Jesus, which says that God became human and in doing so once and for all showed that the created order is filled with God. How in the world can a person on the one hand believe in Jesus and on the other continue to prattle on about Original Sin? It's a direct contradiction! Perhaps they feel they lack an alternative.

Back in the 1980s Matthew Fox wrote a book called Original Blessing. Matthew Fox has many gifts, but economy of words is not one of them so I will tell you his premise was that people are born not with guilt but with blessing. Predictably, his book irritated the Roman Catholic Church because it is difficult to control people who are not guilt ridden. While the idea took off in some circles, in my opinion it never really caught on the way it might have - perhaps because of Fox's verbosity. Fortunately for us, Buddhism has had the answer all along.

The answer is Buddha Nature, which says that all of us and born with a Buddha inside. That Buddha gets covered with detritus because of the adventures of life, but it is nonetheless there. Through spiritual practice we clear away the obscurations which hide our Buddha Nature and allow it to shine through. It was there inside us all along, we just couldn't see it. Of course, this is a simplified and condensed explanation appropriate for our context here but hardly the whole story.

When talking to Christian groups I often tell them they have God Nature rather than Buddha Nature, especially if they aren't Interspiritual. I tell them that no creation story from any tradition that has a creation story beings with God creating a parts warehouse, but rather God creates from Godself. That means humans are made up of God parts, so to speak, an inherent God Nature that cannot be removed and is affirmed in the Incarnation. It's actually a quite biblical concept - but one that doesn't become apparent unless one has been exposed to the idea of Buddha Nature. When we sin we obscure our God Nature further, but we can never destroy it. Through spiritual practice, especially silent prayer, we see through our accumulated debris and experience the God within us and everyone else. Through this we experience the Buddhist notion of Interconnectedness, or what Christians call the Body of Christ.

If our goal is to speak to contemporary people, the majority of whom have been raised outside religion and spiritual practice, we are going to have to find ways to discuss our wholeness rather than our temporary brokenness, to support healing rather than kick people when they are down, and use language and examples that connect to every day life. Of all the traditions, I believe Buddhism offers the best tradition of continually finding ways to retell the story for a new generation - and example we all need to learn from. Because it's perfectly possible to be a Buddhist and a member of another tradition, those of us who seek to articulate a contemporary, progressive spirituality as followers of Jesus have a lot to learn from Buddhism!


  1. First of all I agree with you. I’d just like to note here that “Original Sin” is not the same thing as the fall. That we live in a fallen world I equate with the First Noble Truth that life is suffering. I personally tend to think of the fall as the way we become covered with detritus.


    Is infant baptism a Biblical practice? Is infant baptism in agreement with Scripture?

    Acts 2:38 Peter said to them, "Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. (NASB)

    Infants cannot repent because they do not understand the meaning of repentance nor do they comprehend water baptism. Infants have no sins that need to be forgiven. Infants are not sinners. Infants do not need to repent nor do they need to be baptized.

    Only comprehending adults are guilty of sin.

    James 1:14-15 But each one is tempted when he is carried away and entice by his own lust. 15 Then when lust has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and when sin is accomplished, it brings forth death.(NASB)

    Infant cannot be tempted to sin. Infants are not enticed by their own lusts. Infants do not get drunk and commit fornication. Infant to not commit armed robbery. Infants do not murder. Infants are not sinners.

    1 John 3:4 Everyone who practices sin also practices lawlessness; and sin is lawlessness.(NASB)

    Infants do not practice sin. Infants do not break God's laws. Infants are not sinners.

    Acts 22:16 Now why do you delay? Get up and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on His, name!(NASB)

    Infants are not capable of getting up and being baptized, they cannot even understand the command. Infants cannot call on the name of the Lord.

    Acts 8:34-38.....36.....What prevents me from being baptized?" 37 [And Philip said , "If you believe with all your heat, you may." And he answered and said , "I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God."]....

    Infant cannot believe nor can they confess Jesus as the Christ the Son of God. Infants cannot meet the requirements for water baptism. Infant are prevented from being baptized.

    Acts 31:30-34 and after he brought them out, he said, "Sirs, what must I do to be saved?" 31 They said, "Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household." 33...and immediately he was baptized, he and all his household......34 having believed in God with his whole household.(NASB)

    The jailer had to believe and be baptized to be saved. The jailer did not believe for his household. The jailer was not baptized for his household. Everyone in his household believed before they were baptized. Infants cannot believe, there were no unbelieving infants baptized. Believing always precedes water baptism.

    Mark 16:16 He who has believed and has been baptized shall be saved; but he who has disbelieved shall be condemned.(NASB)

    The jailer and his household were saved just as Jesus said in Mark 16:16, they believed and were baptized. Infant cannot believe nor can they consent to be baptized. Infant are not lost, only sinners are lost.

    John 8:24 'Therefore I said to you that you will die in your sins; for unless you believe that I am He, you will die in your sins."(NASB)

    If you take the position that infants are guilty of sin; then you have to believe that if infants die before they believe that Jesus is the Christ, and the Son of God that infants will die in their sins.

    Infants are not sinners.
    Infants do not qualify for baptism.
    Infants are not lost.
    Infants who die without baptism will not go to hell.
    Infants who die without believing in Jesus will not go to hell.
    Infants who are aborted will not go to hell.

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    1. Dear me, Steve, I did get you all energized! That being said, let me say that I understand your argument completely. I just don't agree with it at all. That being said, if it works for you then I absolutely encourage you to believe the way you do. I also encourage you to respect the beliefs of others who see things differently. Far too much violence has occurred in our world because people were so sure they were right they were willing to kill others who believed differently.

      God Bless!