An excerpt from my 2011 book, Global Readings: A Sri Lankan Commentary on Paul’s Letter to the Galatians (Eugene, Ore.: Wipf & Stock).
Paul’s diagnosis of the human problem has an important point of contact with the Buddha’s assessment of the same. Both locate the essential source of suffering and distress in the “passions of the flesh,” to use Paul’s language, or the “desires” or “cravings,” to use the Buddha’s. According to the Buddha, “the entangling and embroiling craving” is the thing most to be eliminated (Dhammapada 180) and “desire is the bane of humankind” (Dhammapada 359). Paul is more specific about the class of “desires” or “cravings” that lead to suffering among humankind in the present and in the future, speaking more narrowly about “the desires that spring from the ‘flesh’,” which, when acted upon, produce the vices listed as “works of the flesh” in Gal 5:19-21. The Buddha would have read Paul’s list with approval, identifying as “fetters” to be renounced or uprooted many of the same inner-personal and inter-personal manifestations of self-centered desire, including anger, pride, jealousy, selfishness, deceit, hatred, lust, and hypocrisy (Dhammapada 221, 262-263, 407): “Just as a storm throws down a weak tree, so does Mara overpower those who live for the pursuit of pleasures, who are uncontrolled in their senses, immoderate in eating, indolent, and dissipated” (Dhammapada 7).
The Buddha nourished both the commitment and the discipline required to destroy the “cankers,” so that the individual “whose senses are subdued like horses well trained by a charioteer” might become “pure as a deep pool free from mud” (Dhammapada 93-95), a person characterized by patience, freedom from anger, and self-control, which are the marks of the true “holy person” (Dhammapada 399-400). Paul also identifies “cankers,” calling for ethical purification by cultivating the fruit of the Spirit while checking the works of the flesh (Gal 5:13-25). The person who is fully formed in the Spirit would manifest many of the characteristics prized in the Buddha’s vision of the arahat.
One of the most significant differences between Paul’s vision and the Buddha’s, and hence between Christianity and other religions, is that Paul proclaims that God provides us with the Holy Spirit to enable us to perform God’s will. Christianity presents the Holy Spirit as a means by which to be free from cycle of sin and from the power of desire (as well as anger and delusion) so as to love fully and in a truly other-centered way. Other religions leave us at the mercy of our own effort and power, teaching that God will accept us in proportion to how we overcome sin or evil. The cross of Jesus Christ presents a “stumbling block” to Buddhism in regard to its rejection of self-reliance and relying on the power and guidance of God’s Spirit instead. In this, however, Paul’s doctrine of crucifying one’s self along with its desires in union with Christ’s crucifixion is in a way more faithful to the Buddhist doctrine of anatta. Buddhists rely on their own efforts for deliverance from the wheel of samsara while, ostensibly, there is no “self” on which to rely. Christians understand a “self” to exist, but deny that it is sufficiently stable or powerful to effect deliverance from the power of desire, anger, and delusion.
While compassionate love for others is a central focus of both Christian and Buddhist ethics, as it is, indeed, an essential teaching of most every religion, there are some noticeable differences in the conceptualization of the ideals of agapē and metta. Both are other-centered ideals, but the Buddha cautioned against allowing compassion to turn into endearment and connection: “From endearment springs grief, from endearment springs fear. For him who is wholly free from endearment, there is no grief, whence then fear?” (Dhammapada 212). Metta is quite different from Christian love in that Christians can risk love and endearment because hope in the resurrection answers grief and fear, and takes away the sting (the dukkha) inherent in and brought by death. Metta remains detached, “universal” compassion expressed now towards this individual, now towards that. Agapē is very much an “attached” compassion and love felt toward the “particular” human being toward whom one shows compassion.
Agapē is the focal point of the Spirit-led ethic, and Paul depends upon the power of the Spirit to nurture this love. Following the Spirit, the Christians will be transformed into a community of mutual investment, care, and support, rather than one characterized by mutual hostility and detraction (Gal 5:15), where members are poised against one another in pride, envy, and provocation (Gal 5:26). It leads to the quality of relationships between people that leads outsiders – even those who are hostile to the presence of Christianity in their midst – “Look how they love each other, … and how they are prepared to die one for the other” (Tertullian, Apology 39.7).