In Long Discourses 23 Buddha’s disciple Kumara-Kassapa had a conversation with the atheist Prince Payasi about whether there is any sort of life after death, and whether “the Thirty-Three Gods” exist. The Prince raised eight arguments in favor of atheism, and Kumara-Kassapa knocked each one down. Yes, that is right, Buddha’s disciple argued against atheism and in favor of theism (specifically, polytheism). The Buddha’s disciple characterized the Prince’s opinion as “evil” (his word) and insisted that (a) deities exist, and (b) there is another world on the other side of the grave.
One clear point from this Discourse is that theism (Hindu polytheism more specifically) and the afterlife are quite compatible with Buddhism. I wonder, what about Christianity?
I have never heard or read of the Buddha being faced with the question of Christianity, but I think we can get there. In Long Discourses 9, beginning at verse 32, the Buddha had a conversation with an ascetic named Potthapada about ultimate meanings and how to achieve a happy life, and whether there is life after death. The Buddha related to Potthapada that he had met certain ascetic monks and priests who taught and believed that the after-life is a place of complete happiness. Buddha was less than enthusiastic about what they said.
Then I said: “Do you, friends, living in the world, know and see it as an entirely happy place?” and they replied: “No.” I said: “Have you ever experienced a single night or day, or half a night or day, that was entirely happy?” and they replied: “No.” I said: “Do you know a path or a practice whereby an entirely happy world might be brought about?” and they replied: “No.” I said: “Have you heard the voices of deities who have been reborn in an entirely happy world, saying: ‘The attainment of an entirely happy world has been well and rightly gained, and we, gentlemen, have been reborn in such a realm’?” and they replied: “No.” What do you think, Potthapada? Such being the case, does not the talk of those ascetics and Brahmins turn out to be stupid?”
The Buddha’s point throughout that sutta (chapter) is that one is “stupid” (his word) to teach something about which there is no experiential knowledge. None of the Brahmins (that is, priests of India) had ever gone to heaven and come back to tell people about it, or how to get there, nor had any god actually told them about heaven. How then could they possibly be guides for anyone else? This issue came up again in sutta 13 in a conversation with the Brahmin Vasettha.
“But, Vasettha, is there then a single of these Brahmins learned in the Three Vedas who has seen Brahma [the chief god] face to face?” “No, Reverend Gautama [the Buddha].”
“Then has the ancestor seven generations back of the teacher of one of them seen Brahma face to face?” “No, Reverend Gautama.”
(Long Discourses 13:12-13) The Buddha then asked about the sages who wrote the Three Vedas. They had not seen Brahma either–nor had their teachers, nor their teachers’ teachers, nor anyone in their lineage. The Buddha then led Vasettha to understand for himself that because no one in the entire lineage of priests had any personal experiential knowledge of Brahma, that what they were teaching was necessarily “ill-founded” and “[could] not possibly be right.”
Consider now in contrast what is written in the Gospel of Saint John, chapter 1, verse 14. God Himself, in the flesh, walked on Earth with people, and with Saint John even. He was called Jesus. People saw him. They spoke with him. They touched him. They ate with him. Saint John saw him, spoke with him, touched him, ate with him, traveled with him, lived with him. “And the Word [God] became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory.” All four gospels actually testify of actual people who actually saw, heard, touched, ate with, and shared lodgings with God. In 1 John 1:1 the Apostle repeats his personal experience: “We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands.”
When Christians speak of God, they speak from a lineage that knows. They speak from a lineage that did actually hear the voice from heaven. They speak from a lineage that satisfied the test that Buddha put to those ascetics and priests in Long Discourses 9 and 13.
That should matter. That should mean something.