Jesus and Buddha on Happiness

Greatly disturbed by the suffering he saw in the world, 29-year-old Prince Guatama Siddhartha (563-483 BC), who was later called the Buddha (enlightened one), left his wife and young child and set out on a search for the meaning of life.

What struck him was the impermanence of the world—nothing lasted. In spite of this, people were attached to impermanent things. They desired to hold on to life, health, possessions, and each other. But life, health, possessions and people pass away. This, he reasoned, was the cause of human suffering. Therefore, he concluded that if he could kill desire his suffering would cease and he would be happy.

But the Buddha did desire something: lasting happiness. Ironically, it was this great desire that fueled his philosophy of killing desire.

There is a vacuous absence of God in the Buddha’s pursuit of desire-less joy. He didn’t say much about God’s existence. To him, God was irrelevant to human happiness. Rather, happiness was being free from desire-induced suffering and reincarnation. It was the blissful end of individual existence—the sweet annihilation that is Nirvana.

How different are Jesus’ answers from the Buddha’s. When a rich young man, not so different from the rich young Guatama, sought out Jesus’ direction for eternal happiness, Jesus replied,

You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me. (Mark 10:21).

Note that Jesus did instruct the man to become detached from his possessions, but he did not mean a Buddhist detachment. The Buddha taught that nothing lasts, so be attached to nothing. Jesus taught that One Thing lasts, so at all cost, be attached to that!

The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. (Matthew 13:45)

Jesus knows that our desire for happiness is designed by God and so is our desire for permanence. They are not evil. Here is what is evil:

Be appalled, O heavens, at this; be shocked, be utterly desolate, declares the Lord, for my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that can hold no water. (Jeremiah 2:12-13)

We are designed to be satisfied with the one eternal, permanent God. Evil is when we believe that God will not satisfy us and therefore pursue happiness in transient things. That’s the essence of sin.

Jesus and the Buddha agree that pursuing happiness in transient things is futile, but they direct us to opposite solutions. The Buddha says satisfaction is treasuring nothing. Jesus says it is treasuring God. In treasuring God we end up receiving all things. In treasuring no thing we end up with, well, nothing.

Which, of course, is why we are not Desiring Nothing Ministries.

Jon Bloom (@Bloom_Jon) is the author of Not by Sight: A Fresh Look at Old Stories of Walking by Faith and serves as the President of Desiring God, which he and John Piper launched together in 1994. He lives in the Twin Cities with his wife, Pam, their five children, and one naughty dog.