Paul Williams & Intellectual Consistency

Does Paul Williams’ conversion to Roman Catholicism discredit him as a scholar of Buddhism? His book on the origins of Mahayana is still one of the most widely read on the subject.

Yet when he says things like there is no room for grace in Buddhism, that it’s all about self-effort, and that there is no loving being who cares about you in Buddhism, it’s clear that he’s ignoring the Pure Land school of Buddhism, and he should know better.

If someone confronts Williams about omitting Pure Land Buddhism, his response is that Amitabha is a myth, so it doesn’t matter anyway.

I don’t want to deny the historical personhood of Jesus. At the same time, it’s worth noting that the more supernatural elements of the life of Jesus were borrowed from pagan mythology, including the resurrection.

Since the Gospels were written decades after the death of Jesus by anonymous authors, I don’t see how they are more historically reliable than the Pure Land sutras:

In assessing the historicity of the Pure Land sutras, we should remember that ancient India was an oral culture, and important religious texts like the Rigveda were faithfully passed down for hundreds of years before taking a written form.

Also, if the Buddha is the perfectly enlightened one, then we can trust his word that Amitabha ensures Buddhahood for those who call on his name.

This need not mean that every word of the sutras is 100% literally true, only that the Buddha knows what’s best for our enlightenment. If he said doing headstands guaranteed my future Buddhahood, I would do headstands too.

Also, it’s a bad argument to say that we should believe in God because that explains why there’s something rather than nothing. He’s not able to answer why there is God rather than no God, that the universe needs an outside cause but God doesn’t.

His assertion that Buddhism is ultimately a selfish religion, concerned only about one’s own future enlightenment, ignores metta and the Bodhisattva ideal, that the real purpose of attaining enlightenment is to lead all other beings to enlightenment.

Shinran taught that, when we are reborn in the Pure Land and become Buddhas, we will immediately return to this world to help those still suffering in samsara.

There are many different schools and sects of Buddhism, but it might be better for a Buddhist to practice Pure Land teachings than converting to Roman Catholicism based on bad arguments against Buddhism.


A few years ago I was approached by the Australian Vietnamese community to write something in response to William’s stories. It seems his ideas were being used by evangelists to convert the Vietnamese community. I wrote a somewhat detailed critique of some of his interpretations.

I didn’t address the Pure Land issue, but many of the things were of that sort: he was making criticisms of Buddhism that were from a very narrow perspective, and showed, to me, that he had never really understood it.

That article is on my blog, and it includes some responses by Williams himself.

I think it’s good for religions to make meaningful critiques of each other: it helps us learn and grow. But they need to be grounded in the reality of the religion as practised and lived by its followers.


Paul Williams seems to have an excellent understanding of Buddhism from an academic and intellectual perspective. But his arguments for favoring Christianity over Buddhism seem to all be based on emotion, rather than logic and evidence.

For someone who strongly feels a need for an emotional practice of religion, there’s plenty of Buddhist devotional practices to choose from, both in Mahayana and Theravada. If there were no Mahayana temples where I live, I’d be content with Theravada devotional practice:

Mahayana Buddhism: The Doctrinal Foundations is, to this day, one of the best overviews of Mahayana doctrine and history available in the English language. I’d appreciate it if I could find something superior.

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Paul Williams’ own words on his conversion are worth reading imo

∆ This is only an article from an interview; Mr Williams has thought enough on the topic to also write and publish a book The Unexpected Way. (I have not read it, nor is it rising to the top of my To Read list; although he seems articulate, thoughtful, educated… his quandries are not mine.

Ajahn Sujato’s blog on this

Contentment and Hope: or, Why Paul Williams is Wrong About Buddhism | Sujato’s Blog is very worth reading imo.

If someone confronts Williams about omitting Pure Land Buddhism, his response is that Amitabha is a myth, so it doesn’t matter anyway.

Is that conjecture, or is this paraphrasing something Mr Williams published or stated publicly? I suspect this is conjecture; it might be an accurate prediction, but if this is a logical extrapolation of his work, perhaps his scholarship no longer serves your interests; in that case, perhaps people might have suggestions for alternatives… ?

But surely a human being has the right to personal beliefs; there’s no point in criticizing a conversion.

I’ve been reading through Paul Williams book. My biggest problem with Paul Williams isn’t that he misrepresents Buddhism. In fact, I started reading the book looking to find misrepresentations, and honestly I couldn’t find many. He understands, correctly, that Buddhism teaches the self is impermanent, and hence there is no room for room in Buddhism for the idea that one’s self — complete with its earthly identity — can go to heaven forever. In fact, that understanding is at the crux of his leaving Buddhism, by his own admission. He WANTS to go to heaven forever with his identity intact, being reunited with the rest of his family.

Nor do I have a problem with Williams dismissing Pureland Buddhism on the basis of lack of historicity. In fact, I agree with him that Jesus is a more historical figure than Amitabha.

My biggest problem with his work is that he misunderstands Catholicism (and Christianity more generally)! For example, he dismisses the idea that there can be any room in Catholicism/Christianity for non-dual mystical experiences. When confronted with the parallels between John of the Cross and non-duality, he writes, “If St John of the Cross enjoyed such experiences they had nothing to do with the goal of Christianity” (55).

Umm, ok…John of the Cross considered a saint, and not just any old saint, but a Doctor of the Church (this is about as high of an honor a Saint can get in the RCC, other than being a martyr or a biblical character). Paul Williams, on the other hand, is pretty much a nobody within the hierarchy of the Church. What exactly makes Paul Williams’ perspective more authoritative than John of the Cross’?

Also, his understanding of the Catholic view of marriage is downright bizarre. He thinks his marriage bond to his wife will last after death, forever. This is rooted in wishful thinking, not actual Catholic teaching. Jesus himself said there is no marriage in the Resurrection (Matthew 22:30), and this is the position the RCC takes (see here).

Worse, based on this misconception, he believes that his non-Catholic wife will be saved (pp 87-88). Huh? He’s basically just making this stuff up as he goes along.


Countless Buddhists throughout history have wanted to meet their loved ones in the Pure Land, including Honen and Shinran.

Is there more evidence for the virgin birth and the physical resurrection of Christ than there is for Amitabha’s attainment of Buddhahood? How does one have more evidence than the other?

While Jesus almost certainly existed as a historical person, the central claims of the Christian faith are historically unproven:

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It’s not surprising that people in choosing a religion - rather than just a philosophy or theory of life - will ultimately go with whatever is most deeply satisfying. I think many people who were raised in some Christian contexts are likely to find Buddhism lonely and cold, in contrast to a teaching that says that the most fundamental principle of the universe is something that knows them and loves them. Here is a famous passage from Coleridge:

O Wedding-Guest! this soul hath been
Alone on a wide wide sea:
So lonely 'twas, that God himself
Scarce seemèd there to be.

O sweeter than the marriage-feast,
'Tis sweeter far to me,
To walk together to the kirk
With a goodly company!—

To walk together to the kirk,
And all together pray,
While each to his great Father bends,
Old men, and babes, and loving friends
And youths and maidens gay!

Farewell, farewell! but this I tell
To thee, thou Wedding-Guest!
He prayeth well, who loveth well
Both man and bird and beast.

He prayeth best, who loveth best
All things both great and small;
For the dear God who loveth us,
He made and loveth all.


Beliefs need not evidence

Sounds like he was a Christian all along. There are Christian scholars studying Buddhism for many reasons.

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I am sorry if it appears that I am against Christianity as a religion or Paul Williams’ decision to leave Buddhism for Catholicism. If Catholicism is what provides meaning and happiness to his life, that’s fine with me.

I just think that he maybe could make better arguments for why someone should be Catholic instead of Buddhist, rather than giving a false impression of what Buddhism teaches.

This is why I practice Pure Land Buddhism, because Amida Buddha loves and cares about us, according to the teaching.

If he is spreading the idea that marriage can be eternal, and that marriage (or anything) can save a non believer, he is giving a false impression of Catholicism. However perhaps he will become a Mormon in time… As both those beliefs would be orthodox there.

i am one of those who find Pureland to be just another rendition of “pie in the sky by and by” or wish fulfillment theology. It isn’t what I understand as Buddha’s original teachings. But if it gives you direction and comfort, good for you.


A problem is that they form of Buddhism is not confirmed by anything in the earliest texts.

Just to clarify, for @Kensho or anyone else, I’m not trying to criticize Pureland Buddhism (or promote Christianity). I’m trying to explain why someone looking for a more devotional religion might be drawn to Christianity over Pureland Buddhism, particularly someone who is interested in being grounded in history.

I don’t believe we can know with certainty, one way or another, whether the Pali suttas are more historical or authentic than the Mahayana sutras.

Both the Pali suttas and the Mahayana sutras have literary embellishments and aren’t meant to be interpreted 100% literally.

Both the Pali suttas and the Mahayana sutras were written down hundreds of years after the events described. The Mahayana sutras, however, are attested by older manuscripts, as far as I know.

How are the central claims of the Christian faith, such as the virgin birth and the resurrection, more supported by historical evidence than Dharmakara’s attainment of Buddhahood?

I am not against the Christian faith as a religion. Let’s just please not pretend that the central claims of the New Testament are historically proven.

You cannot “prove” the resurrection or an attainment of Buddhahood. But even Erhman agrees that Jesus actually existed (he even wrote a book about this). I think that’s Paul William’s point — at least Jesus is a data point a historian can study, while Amitabha is beyond the realm of historical study entirely. Williams would rather put his faith in a figure that he is confident actually had a historical existence.

Once again, not trying to criticize Pureland Buddhism, just trying to explain the logic of where Paul Williams is coming from on this particular point. I have no desire to discuss this topic of “historical Jesus vs. historical amitabha further” further in this thread.

much metta

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Here is Paul Williams explaining his transition from Buddhism to Catholicism:

In this video, he claims that the physical resurrection of Christ is a historically attested event.

I just read an article where Williams explains why he became a Catholic. He actually devotes almost all the space in the article to explaining what Buddhism is, as he understands it, and what he doesn’t like about Buddhism. He doesn’t say a whole lot about the historical dimension of Christianity, other than one unconvincing offhand remark at the end. It seems to me that the Christian creator God is playing a greater role in his thought than anything to do with Jesus, and. what is most important for him is that he would like to live eternally in some perfectly fulfilled, blessed state, and Christianity holds out some hope of that.

Rather than converting to a different religion entirely, he could have found that in Pure Land Buddhism.

Pure Land teachings have given hope to millions for a perfectly fulfilled, blessed afterlife. Many have also claimed to have visions or deathbed experiences of the Pure Land.

I’m OK with his decision, but he does make some false or misleading claims regarding Buddhism in describing his journey of faith.