Buddhism and Christianity
by G.K. Chesterton
Illustrated London News, March 2, 1929
A distinguished military gentleman recently wrote to the newspaper to announce that a Chinese Buddhist is shortly to visit England, with the firm intention of finally abolishing war. He – I mean the military gentleman – explained that Buddhism is a word that means Enlightenment, and that only Enlightenment can abolish War. This seems in itself a simple process of reason and reform. But I should not be moved to criticise anything so excellent in intention, if the writer had not dragged in the dreary old trick of comparing the enlightened condition of Buddhists with the benighted condition of Christians. It is true that, like most men in this modern confusion of mind, he needlessly muddles himself by using the same word in two senses and on both sides, and setting Christianity against itself. Buddhism is Christianity, and Buddhism is better than Christianity, and Christianity will never be itself until it is enlightened enough to become something different. But this mere logomachy does not alter the essentials of the opinion, which most of us have seen in one form or another for a great many years past. The key of the situation is that the military critic says that “Christians have failed” to abolish War; and that this is due to the lamentable fact that Christians are not enlightened; or, in other words, to the curious fact that Christians are not Buddhists.
Now, to begin with, a normal European need hardly have any narrow contempt for Asiatics in order to feel mildly resentful and even rebellious under this sort of thing. If the Chinese gentleman is coming with an infallible talisman to stop all fighting in England, might it not be suggested to him that he should stay where he is, and stop all
fighting in China? Fighting has never been a habit strictly confined to Christians; nor have wars been entirely unknown outside Christendom. It may be that certain hermits or holy men, both eastern and western, have individually abandoned war. But we are not talking about abandoning war, but about abolishing war. In what sense have Christians failed, in which Buddhists have not equally failed? In what respect is Buddhism, which has looked on at all the Asiatic fighting for four thousand years, any more successful than Christianity, that has barely looked on for two thousand? I do not think the thing is any real discredit either to Buddhism or Christianity, for anybody who is really “enlightened” about history and human nature. But if we are to be told about ten times a week by every newspaper and noisy talker that Christianity has failed to do anything because it has failed to stop fighting, what are we to say of the chances of the Chinese gentleman of stopping it in Europe with a new religion, when he could not stop it in Asia with an old one? At a guess, I should say that a Christian appeal for peace would often have been much nearer to practical politics than the metaphysical enlightenment of the Buddhist. Without putting very much money on the chances of either, I should say there would have been something rather more remotely resembling a chance for a Franciscan saint influencing the policy of Richard Coeur de Lion than of a Buddhist monk (with his mind full of Nirvana) stopping the march of Genghis Khan. But that is a minor guess, and does not matter. The obvious point is that, if Christianity is to be called a failure because it has not abolished war, Buddhism can hardly be a certain and solid guarantee that we shall abolish war. The truth is, of course, that all such talk of abolishing this and that, among the recurrent misunderstandings and temptations of mankind, shows an essential ignorance of the very nature of mankind. It does not allow for the hundred inconsistencies, dilemmas, desperate remedies, and divided allegiances of men. A man may be in every way a good man and a true believer, and yet be in a false position. Indeed, the military gentleman who wrote the letter about Buddhism and War need not look far for such an example. By his own standards, he is himself inconsistent in being a Christian soldier; and even more inconsistent since he seems to be a Buddhist soldier.
I have taken this one text from the daily paper before me because we all know that the religion of our fathers is being perpetually pelted with such texts. And even apart from any loyalty to my faith, I have enough loyalty to my fathers, and to the general record and reputation of English and European men to feel that it is time that such taunts should be treated as they deserve. It is no disgrace to Christianity, it is no disgrace to any great religion, that its counsels of perfection have not made every single person perfect. If after centuries a disparity is still found between its ideal and its followers, it only means that the religion still maintains the ideal, and the followers still need it. But it is not a thing at which a philosopher in his five wits has any reason to be surprised. As a matter of fact, it would be much more reasonable to use this taunt against the irreligious who use it than against the religious against whom it is used. It is the very people who use it most, the secularists and humanitarians who really do go in for promising millenniums of peace and plenty It is the novelists and essayists of the sceptical school who announce at intervals the War That Will End War, or the World State that will impose universal peace. Christianity never promised that it would impose universal peace. It had a great deal too much respect for personal liberty. The sceptical theorist is allowed to throw off Utopia after Utopia, and is never reproached when they are contradicted by the facts, or contradicted by each other. The unfortunate believer is alone always made responsible, and held to account for breaking a promise that he never made.
Undoubtedly, this sort of sneer would be quite as unjust to Buddhism as to Christianity. The ideal of Buddha might still be the best for men, even if millions of men continued to prefer what is lower than the best. As to whether the ideal of Buddha is the best for men, that is a much larger question which cannot be at all suitably developed here. Indeed, there is a great deal of difference of opinion about what the ideal of Buddha really was, especially among Buddhists. That also is a taunt vulgarly thrown against the followers of Christ, which might just as well be thrown against the followers of Buddha. The mysterious Chinese gentleman may impose on all the nations of the earth the same definition of peace, and still have a more delicate task, when he has to impose on all the Theosophists the same definition of Theosophy. But some at least of the disciples of the great Gautama interpret his ideal, so far as I can understand them, as one of absolute liberation from all desire or effort or anything that human beings commonly call hope. In that sense, the philosophy would only mean the abandonment of arms because it would mean the abandonment of almost everything. It would not discourage war any more than it would discourage work. It would not discourage work any more than it would discourage pleasure. It would certainly tell the warrior that disappointment awaited him when he became the conqueror, and that his war was not worth winning. But it would also presumably tell the lover that his love was not worth winning; and that the rose would wither like the laurel. It would presumably tell the poet that his poem was not worth writing; which may (in certain cases needless to name) be indeed the case. But it can hardly be called an inspiring philosophy for the production of good poems any more than bad. It may be that these persons are wrong about what is threatened by Buddhism. It may also be that the other persons are wrong about what was promised by Christianity. But I hope we have heard the last of the muddled discontent of worldly people, who curse the Church for not saving the world that did not want to be saved, and are ready to call in any other theory against it – even the wild theory by which the world would be destroyed.