Sin is a much misunderstood word. Even the experts can miss the mark. The other day I was reading a comparison of Christianity and Buddhism in which the author opinioned that Christianity is more concerned with sin whereas Buddhism is more concerned with suffering. This, however, is a category confusion. A more helpful way of putting it would be to say both Christianity and Buddhism are concerned with suffering, but Christianity sees suffering as the effect of sin whereas Buddhism see suffering as the effect of karma. Of course, this begs the question, what’s the difference between sin and karma?
In exploring this question I find it helpful to first notice what isn’t different. What isn’t different is the concern with ego. Both sin and karma speak of our ego-centric nature, of our tendancy to have an inflated sense of our own importance and the urgency of our own desires. The difference between sin and karma is more subtle than that and more related to worldview. Specifically, our different understandings of self, time and ultimate reality.
Simply put, Christianity understands reality in personal terms and Buddhism understands reality in more impersonal terms. This is reflected in the language. Christians give God a personal name and speak of God in relational terms. Buddhists don’t. Oh, sure, Buddhists have gods of a sort, but these are more equivalent to the angels, demons and saints of the Christian pantheon than what Christians mean by God. They have no ultimacy. Let’s not get confused by this. We’re speaking of ultimate things here.
This different understanding of “what is”, that is, what is behind everything, leads to differences in the way Buddhism and Christianity see the problems of this world. Sin has a more organic, relational flavour to it. Karma has a more mechanical, deterministic flavour to it. Karma is more about ignorance, Sin is more about betrayal. To some extent this explains why love trumps wisdom in Christianity, unlike Buddhism where love didn’t become so important till the emergence of Mahayana. It also explains why, in the Old Testament, idolatry is poetically equated to infidelity. Sin is a far more emotive, personal concept than karma.
This also explains why Buddhism, though it has many hells, doesn’t sound as harsh to modern ears. The operation of karma is spoken of so dispassionately in comparrison to the operation of sin. It’s like physics. No talk of judgement, just talk of blind, pityless, action and consequence. People act selfishly, they suffer accordingly, they sow what they reap. It’s simple. But is it? Viewed organically instead of mechanically, poetically instead of prosaically, in terms of personal relationships instead of impersonal forces, the metaphors shift from the physics lab to the law courts. If ultimate reality is personal and relational, is the oppression and injustice we find in this world something that ultimate reality should be dispassionate about?
What will be
Speaking of hells, the big difference with hells is not that one religion has them and the other doesn’t, but how time is viewed. In the Buddhist worldview, time is symmetrical, history is circular. What will be has already happened. What has happened before will be again. Hell is therefore just a pit stop on an endless merry-go-round. In the Christian worldview, time asymmetric, history has a direction. What will be has never been seen before. We can hope for something other, something that has never been seen before. We have a dream. At first glance the Christian idea of judgement sounds so much more scary, since it’s so much more final, but the flip side is this: Jesus offered hope for world transformation, whereas Buddha saw no hope.
Who are we?
Who is this self that suffers? Here again Buddhism and Christianity differ. In seeing self as illusory, Buddhism sees suffering as equally illusory. Ignorance is more of a problem than the suffering itself. Christianity offers a different view. Suffering is real. This self that suffers is real. What is needed is not self denial so much as self reorientation. Oh, sure, we have our illusions about ourselves, but there is something real behind it all. What’s the problem is our self focus. What we need is self realignment, self reorientation, away from ourselves. This difference is more subtle than some have portrayed it when comparing Buddhism and Christianity but I think it’s the real difference. Buddhism says, detachment is the key, this is wisdom. Christianity says, attachment is the key, this is love. But, attachment to God and that which God loves requires detachment from the world, the self and fear of suffering. We must let go of self to find our true self, and let go of our self-serving gods to find the true world-serving God. To let go of sin, this turns the world upside down.