Thikse monastery. This statue of the Maitreya ...
Thikse monastery. This statue of the Maitreya Buddha is about 30 ft tall! (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Buddhism is a world religion founded by Siddhartha Gotama (c. 563-483 BCE), who later became the Buddha. Some claim it is not a religion but a way or path, as if to suggest that Buddhism doesn’t involve belief and human opinion but sheer truth. However, when challenged with this claim, believers often fall back on traditional ways of looking at and talking about ultimate reality, which seems to point to a belief system based on or, at least, strongly influenced by human concepts and theories.

Indeed, Buddhism takes several different forms, usually called schools or branches. Most forms of Buddhism agree that attaining enlightenment involves becoming aware of and discarding flawed beliefs about

  • having and individual self
  • the existence of God

This, alone, should put to rest any claims by well-meaning but misinformed people who maintain that “all religions are the same.” To say that we do not really exist as individuals and, moreover, that God does not exist is misguided from the perspective of several world religions.

Like most other religions, Buddhism split off into many branches. Offshoots in China, Korea, Japan and the West have built up a complex system of deities, masters, Lamas, rules and procedures, many of which are reverentially given legitimacy and even supremacy over other schools.

In one branch of Hinduism, the Buddha is regarded as an incarnation of a master demon, sent to deceive the masses. This is probably because the Buddha story threatened the established Hindu social and religious order. But most traditional Hindus regard the Buddha as the 9th avatar who incarnates just after Krishna and before Kalki, the one who is yet to come.

Buddha statues in a temple on Jejudo, South Korea
Buddha statues in a temple on Jejudo, South Korea (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Buddhist scriptures were written 300-600 years after the death of Buddha.† Assuming the scriptures reflect his actual words, Buddha pessimistically said this worldly life is like a “burning bush.” This apparently lead him to proclaim the Four Noble Truths about human suffering and the Eightfold Path, which apparently are his instructions on how to escape suffering.

Around 200 CE Buddhism split into two main factions: The Mahayana and the Hinayana. The Mahayana school spread into China and Japan, each culture putting its own, unique stamp on the original teachings.

Scholarly, academic, popular and non-devotional versions of Buddhism seem to appeal to logically-minded intellectuals, even though the attainment of nirvana is beyond both logic and form. Nirvana is, according to early scriptures, “Joy.” The following parable illustrates two main Buddhist ideals, those of the arhat and bodhisattva: The arhat uses a walking stick to climb up a mountain. But on reaching the top, the stick is no longer needed. At this point, the arhat throws the stick away and enjoys the wonderful view—that is, the arhat enters nirvana. The bodhisattva, however, picks up the stick and goes back down the mountain to help others to climb up for the first time.

Yuzen, a buddhist monk from the Sōtō Zen sect ...
Yuzen, a buddhist monk from the Sōtō Zen sect begging at Oigawa, Kyoto. Begging is part of the training of some Buddhist sects. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The arhat ideal belongs to Hinayana Buddhism (“small vehicle”). The bodhisattva ideal relates to Mahayana Buddhism (“great vehicle”). While the arhat enjoys enlightenment and abandons all worldly techniques used to attain it, the bodhisattva delays entry to nirvana, retains his worldly techniques and returns to society to lead others to a supposedly higher level of ego-less awareness.

Plato advocates a structurally similar approach to the bodhisattva ideal in the cave analogy of the Republic. For Plato the beholder of the eternal Forms must return to the “cave” (i.e. the mundane world) to guide others to the truth, which for Plato is Beauty.

Buddha’s ethical message about interpersonal relations is similar to Christ’s Sermon on the Mount. But Buddha’s teaching differs in that Christ tells us to love one another and to love God. And for Christ to love God is the single most important commandment of all time. Buddha does tell us to love each another, but he he also claims that ultimately you, the other and God do not exist. The only true reality is nirvana, a kind of interdependent whole with no absolute Creator. That is, no God.

Some say this is no different from the Catholic ideal of mystical union with God. Others believe it differs because the Catholic mystical saint beholds and basks in the glory of God but never claims to attain equal status or permanent identity (on non-identity) with God. And down here on Earth, to the Christian who inwardly and outwardly perceives the Holy Spirit guiding him or her through life, to be spiritual is to believe – and have reason to believe – in God.

Awakening of Faith in the Mahayana
Awakening of Faith in the Mahayana (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Another difference between Buddhism and Christianity, in general, is found in the Buddhist idea that heavens and hells are mere stepping stones on a path of many reincarnations leading toward Nirvana. For Christians, heaven and hell are respectively blissful or horrendous eternal endpoints reached after a single lifetime. Catholic Christians do believe in purgatory but in Christian Fundamentalist approaches to the Bible, at death one either goes to eternal heaven or hell.

Viewed in this light, the Catholic belief in purgatory is arguably a very loose parallel to the Buddhist notion of reincarnation. This is because Catholics believe that the impure soul in purgatory receives another chance to enter into heaven. But again, Buddhists see their many heavens as mere stops along the way to Nirvana instead of the soul’s final destination. And Christians, for the most part, do not believe that the soul re-enters a physical body on earth to learn (or unlearn) more.

Christianity is often criticized for being based on scriptures written 45 to possibly 140 years after the death of Jesus. But for some odd reason few of these critics seem equally concerned that Buddhist scriptures were not written until some 300-600 years after the death of Gotama.

Related Posts » Anatman, Buddha, Ch’an Buddhism, Dhammapada, Diamond Sutra, Eightfold Path, Four Noble Truths, Heart Sutra, Zen


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