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Can Catholics be Buddhist? New book compares Jesus and Buddha

Saying that Buddhism and Christianity lead to the same place,” says Dr. Anthony E. Clark, author of Catholicism and Buddhism: The Contrasting Lives and Teachings of Jesus and Buddha, “is like saying that two maps leading to different cities lead to the exact same city; this is nonsense.”

"Catholicism and Buddhism: The Contrasting Lives and Teachings of Jesus and Buddha" is a new book by Dr. Anthony E. Clark, pictured, right, lecturing at a Buddhist temple in China in January 2018.

Regular readers of Catholic World Report know Dr. Anthony E. Clark as the author of the “Clark on China” column, which draws upon both his many years of study and numerous visits to China. Dr. Clark is the Edward B. Lindaman Endowed Chair and Associate Professor of History at Whitworth University and the author of several books, including Heaven in Conflict: Franciscans and the Boxer Uprising in Shanxi (2015), China’s Saints: Catholic Martyrdom during the Qing (2011), and the editor of China’s Christianity: From Missionary to Indigenous Church (2017). He is also the host of the EWTN television series The Saints of China: Martyrs of the Middle Kingdom.

Dr. Clark’s most recent book is Catholicism and Buddhism: The Contrasting Lives and Teachings of Jesus and Buddha (Cascade Books, 2018), which reflects his many years of interaction and dialogue with Buddhists, both in China and North America. CWR recently spoke with him about the book. 

CWR: This is an era when religious syncretism and pluralism are very common, and you have written a book about Catholicism and Buddhism that focuses more on distinctions than similarities. Why did you write this book?

Dr. Anthony E. Clark: This book emerged mainly from several discussions I had with [CWR editor] Carl E. Olson, and much of what I discuss builds upon a 2005 article that he and I co-authored in This Rock (now Catholic Answers) magazine.

Many of the questions I confront were also drawn from exchanges I’ve had with bright students who have enrolled in my courses on the history of Buddhism. My students have frequently asked me: “Professor Clark, you speak so often about the merits of Buddhism, but you’re a Catholic. If you were asked to clearly provide distinctions that separate Christianity from Buddhism, what questions would you address and what differences would you highlight?”

So, this book is an attempt to answer how Christianity and Buddhism are not the same. My intention is not to be contentious, but rather to avoid intellectual evasion for the sake of harmony between Buddhists and Christians. I wrote this book to, with honest charity, untangle the contrasting lives and teachings of Jesus and the Buddha. Actually, when one reads most of the books about Buddhism written by Catholics, one is left wondering why she or he should still remain a Catholic.

My book sets out to help Catholics better understand why being Catholic is the only way to be fully integrated into the religion founded by God through Jesus Christ.

CWR: During the Parliament of World Religions in Chicago in 1893, a crowd of over seven thousand people stood for a two-minute standing ovation, when an Indian swami exclaimed: “As the different streams all mingle their water in the sea, so, O Lord, the different paths which men take … crooked or straight, all lead to Thee!” A New York Herald reporter wrote the following day that, “After hearing him we feel how foolish it is to send missionaries to this learned nation.” Is it safe to say that more and more people today agree that all religious traditions lead to the same goal?

Clark: That is a good example of what I perceive as one of the most dangerous attitudes of our era, which is a hatred for truth . . . a belief that, as the old Latin phrase asserts, “Veritas odium partit,” or “The truth breeds hatred.” This idea cannot be reconciled with Christianity, for it was Jesus himself who said that, “Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32).

Even some Catholics have argued that Buddhism’s “truth” is as valid as the truth revealed through the Catholic Church. From an authentic Catholic point of view this is entirely incorrect. Saying that Buddhism and Christianity lead to the same place is like saying that two maps leading to different cities lead to the exact same city; this is nonsense. The notion of “many paths to the same end” is more a Buddhist idea than a Christian one. In fact, such convenient parallels between Christ and the Buddha are misleading and often misrepresent the teachings of the Catholic Church, as well as the beliefs of Eastern Orthodox and many Protestants.

In fact, Jesus identified himself as the truth, and he says that, “No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). The Buddha made no such claim.

CWR: Your book pushes back against those who insist that “Jesus and Buddha are brothers” who teach a similar message. Can you briefly tell us why you think this is a problematic position for Christians to take?

Clark: I’ve always considered this an odd statement, but I hear it often. As much as one might like Jesus and the Buddha to not be in disagreement, who they were—and who they said they were—are not the same.

In fact, two contradictory assertions, according to the logic of the Catholic intellectual tradition, cannot both be true. In Buddhist sutras, the Buddha prefers to call himself Tathagata rather than use the pronouns “I” or “me,” which is because of the Buddhist doctrine of no-self. Nowhere does the Buddha identify himself as God, or divine. Jesus, on the other hand, is identified as God and as divine.

The Buddha, in a manner very unlike the Christian understanding of created reality, suggested that there are three marks of existence: 1) all compounded things are impermanent; 2) all compounded things are unsatisfactory; 3) and that all things are non-self. In other words, Buddhism believes that nothing is permanent or eternal. Christians believe that God never changes, and that truth is that which remains eternally the same. If what some people mean when they say that “Jesus and Buddha are brothers” is that they teach the same message, then they are certainly not siblings.

CWR: Did you write this book only for Catholics, or did you have a larger audience in mind?

Clark: I wrote this book from a Catholic point of view, but anyone interested in the differences between Buddhism and Christianity will gain important insight from reading this work. It is structured much like a traditional catechism, divided into questions and answers, and selected questions are intended to help clarify questions ranging from basic to complex. I think Buddhists should read it, and especially Christians should read it. Even though I have focused on the differences between Buddhism and Christianity from the Catholic view, any Christian will find much in the book that is helpful.

But Catholics will especially recognize some of the confusing practices they will encounter within their own community. I once visited a Catholic retreat house with a statue of Jesus in the chapel seated in the lotus position as if he were a mediating Buddha. And instead of the Stations of the Cross there were displayed Zen sayings. This book is for people who wonder if this chapel was authentically Catholic, or rather misrepresenting Catholic Christianity.

CWR: In your book you mention several other writers who compare Buddhism to Christianity, such as Dom Alfred Graham’s Zen Catholicism and Paul Knitter’s Without Buddha I Could Not Be a Christian.  How is your book different from other works on Buddhism and Christianity?

Clark: My book aims to explain the distinctions rather than similarities between Buddhism and Christianity, especially the differences between Catholic Christianity and Buddhism. These distinctions must also be made for the sake of Buddhists, who are often bewildered by Christians who claim to be “Christian Buddhists,” as well as for Christians, who are often confused by other Christians who insist that mixing these two religions is appropriate or fulfilling.

In addition, my book will serve to help Christians more effectively respond to others who see no problem with combining Christianity and Buddhism as if they are more-or-less equal paths to the same place. I’ve included abundant examples from Church teachings to provide effective sources for answering such claims.

CWR: In the end, do you think that Catholics, or even Christians in general, can also call themselves Buddhists?

Clark: No, I don’t. And this is why I spent several years condensing huge and complex questions into short answers that are supported by Sacred Scripture and Church teaching. I’m confident that much more can and should be said about these questions, and I hope that my book opens new and more truthful avenues of dialogue that seek to understand Jesus and Buddha according to who they said they were, rather than distort their sayings into what we wish they had said.

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  1. So Catholics have a city, Buddhists have a city, muslims have a city, Judaism have a city which all lead to the same country of God is this true or untrue?

  2. I just have a simple question, having a buddha as a decoration for non-religious practice can it be set such as an ornament in a Catholic home.

  3. It is crucial to be clear about the differences of both traditions; it dishonors both to relativize and reduce each to the other. Being clear of the philosophical and theological landscape of either is necessary to honor our tradition faithfully. Now then, as a practicing Catholic, I have derived immense benefits from practicing traditionally derived forms of meditation called Vipassana coming from the Burmese Theravadan tradition, where these meditation techniques are treated with the same pragmatism as we treat medical treatments or physical exercise. We practice the right physical exercises to achieve baseline health, at minimum, or to prepare the body for more vigorous activities, climbing a mountain or walking to Santiago de Compostela. Similarly, there are exercises that can bring discipline and greater health to the mind. Anyone prompted to focus the mind on following the breath for even five minutes will quickly find how untrained and chaotic the mind is. The techniques are developed to directly confront and let go of mental traumas, bad habits, and harmful attachments held by our own minds. There is nothing religious about this; it is a practical method to greater well-being. This growth in well-being will absolutely be in the service to our own prayer life and in our service to others.

    The innovation of Gautama was to take seriously the object of the mind itself and sketch out its characteristics and landscape through the method of direct observation. There is a reason why traditionally Buddhist forms of meditation have easily translated over to Western medicine for scrutiny and research to examine their potential health benefits which now have proven abundant. None of this requires belief in “nirvana” or “no-self” or “samsara” or any other Buddhist doctrines.

    I do not consider myself a Buddhist in anyway; I do not subscribe to its soteriology or its essential atheism or its metaphysics. But, it’s not necessary to believe in these things in order to utilize the highly practical meditation techniques derived by the Buddha to bring greater health and discipline to our own minds.

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