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Sexual temptation... and the Buddha

Since October, I've been taking a regular class in early Buddhism at the local culture centre here in Nagoya. I should say that "taking" doesn't mean "teaching"! I've been attending as a class member, partly in the hope that they might let me teach a class on Early Christianity (or equivalent) next year. My application is in...

The class is really interesting to me, not least because the twenty or so people who turn up each time seem to take it really seriously. Over two-thirds of Japanese people identify as Buddhists in some shape or form, but as you will know if you have asked the "average" Japanese about Buddhism, they typically know very little about it, and have even less inclination to "practise" it in any serious way. That's why I was a bit surprised to see the high level of interest among the members of my class.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the class for me is to compare what we learn about Buddha and the early Buddhists with what we know about Christ and the early Christians. On the surface, there are many apparent similarities -- both groups formed close-knit communities and spent their time learning the teachings of their master and seeking to put them into practice, with a supernatural end in view. However, the more you scratch (and begin to dig) below the surface, the more the profound differences become apparent.

Yesterday's class was (in part, at least) about how the early Buddhists dealt with sexual temptation. Of course, this isn't only an issue for Buddhists. In this sense, the common ground shared with Christians is clear, on the surface. Followers of the Buddha, like followers of Jesus Christ (and unlike most people, perhaps), recognise that sexual temptation is a problem. They want to avoid it, and when it strikes, they want to fight against it. They have a sexual ethic and high standards, which they believe to be worth pursuing despite the struggles involved. In that sense, we're all (Buddhist and Christians alike) in the same boat.

The similarities don't stop there. When it got down to the nitty-gritty of what to do about sexual temptation, the early Buddhist prescription (as revealed in the early Buddhist texts we're reading in the class) was three-fold:

  1. Avoidance (in other words, don't run into the way of temptation, if you can possibly help it);

  2. Alleviation (in other words, don't add fuel to the fire once it starts to burn);

  3. Abhorrence (in other words, convince yourself that you actually hate what your desires tell you to love).

What's interesting is that in many ways, this three-fold approach is similar to what Christians are counselled to do in Scripture. Temptations will certainly come. We will be "seized" or "overtaken" (1 Cor. 10:13) from time to time. But we're instructed to avoid temptation by fleeing from sexual immorality (1 Cor. 6:18). We're to be careful to alleviate the problem by not fanning into flame temptations that do come our way: Prov. 6:27 uses the image of a man who foolishly scoops fire into his lap: as the verse says, how can he escape "without his clothes being burned?" And we've to abhor what God abhors, even to the minutest detail (Jude 23). We must recognise our misplaced affections and call them out for the evil that they are. We must not give sexual temptation a corner.

Well, isn't this just what the early Buddhists did, and perhaps what some Buddhists today try to do as well? What's the difference? Much in every way!

First, Buddhism lacks a true doctrine of creation. The Buddhist practice of abhorrence is to convince yourself that what looks good is really bad. The early Buddhist men trained themselves to think of the body of a beautiful woman as a cesspool of filthy fluids, reeking of putrid odours. They did the same with all other objects of attraction which might threaten to capture their hearts, such as the beauty of nature.

This is not so much because they believed that beautiful things weren't really beautiful. It was more of a technique to try to stop their hearts inclining towards beautiful things that might distract them from following the Buddha's teaching. But in practice it tended towards total world-denial.

What about Christians? It's true that believers in Jesus are told: "Do not love the world or anything in the world" (1 John 2:15). But it's clear in context that this doesn't mean that we must call good things bad, or beautiful things ugly. To the extent that God's creation is good, Christians should recognise that goodness, and praise the Creator. Physical beauty is a good gift of God. So is sex. These things should not be abhorred: rather, their Giver should be glorified.

Second, Buddhism lacks a true doctrine of sin. What does this mean in practice? An early Buddhist was trained to abhor the body of the woman he illicitly desired. A Christian, on the other hand, should abhor illicit desire because it is a perversion of God's good gift of sex. As such, it's a sin against a good Creator. Buddhism, lacking a concept of a loving, personal God, has no such category. The baby (sex, or a woman's body in this case) is thrown out with the bathwater (perverted sexual desire).

Christians know that the sinful desires which, in biblical language, "wage war against our souls" (1 Peter 2:11) may be prompted by outside stimuli -- even at times by the sinful behaviour of others -- but the desires themselves are mine, and it is these towards which I must direct my hatred. I must own them and I am responsible for them before God. That's not to say that Christians shouldn't also abhor sin outside ourselves. For example, I should hate pornography, not just because it is a source of temptation to me personally, but because it is a structural evil that oppresses and abuses people for the sake of others' pleasure and financial gain. But I need to recognise that temptation to sin is a problem because God hates sin, in whatever form it is found.

Third, Buddhism lacks a true doctrine of salvation. For the Buddhist, "salvation" is about detachment from this world (with its passions and suffering), with the ultimate goal of freedom from the endless cycle of reincarnation by means of enlightenment. It is, finally, a ceasing to exist. The Buddhist has no hope of a renewed creaturely and bodily existence in fellowship with a personal God.

The lack, in Buddhism, of a Saviour who has battled temptation and conquered for us, as opposed to one who has merely left us an example to follow, is paralleled by the lack of any power from outside ourselves, given so that we might fight the battle. Just as there is no gift of the Son of God, so there is no gift of the Spirit of God. There's therefore no assurance in Buddhism of victory in the end: indeed, there cannot be. What becomes of a sexual sinner is ultimately down to themselves.

In contrast, Christians know both an all-conquering Redeemer, and the power of his indwelling Spirit to equip us to fight in a battle we're not strong enough to win by ourselves. Wooed by the love of our Saviour, we are also able to know in Christ what Scottish preacher Thomas Chalmers called "the power of an expulsive affection" to drive out sinful desires (including sexual temptations) from our hearts. In Christ, we are made new.

In the last analysis, then, Buddhism lacks a true doctrine of God. The Buddha may look down (in statue form, at least) with eyes full of "compassion" (慈悲). But there is nothing he can do for sinners - no loving hand he can extend, no powerful Spirit he can pour out, no mighty salvation he can share. In contrast, Jesus Christ, God our Saviour, welcomes all sexual sinners, with the true compassion of God who has suffered and died as man, for us. His precious blood is sufficient to cover all sins. His Holy Spirit is powerful to drive out fear as well as evil, and to shed abroad God's love in our hearts. He will not leave us as we are. But he will receive us just as we are, if we come in faith.

Jesus, Thou art all compassion;

Pure, unbounded love Thou art;

Visit us with Thy salvation,

Enter every trembling heart.

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