Buddhism: Dispelling the Myths
…and finding answers.
It’s not what you think.
I am a Buddhist.
When someone in East Texas hears these words they immediately jump to conclusions, make assuptions, and generally think I’m nuts. At least, the Christian majority does. They cannot and will not ever understand my beliefs, why I have them, nor why they should not be so bent out of shape over what I have chosen to become.
Average “Christians” will refuse to read this article. Their assumptions and misconceptions tell them it’s a waste of time. Their religion tells them they may be corrupted. Their fear of loosing that which they hold dear, their faith, will move their hand quickly to the mouse and they’ll move on to more acceptible reading. I hope you are not so “average” that your assumptions and your attitudes keep you from reading. You might just learn something. It’s a totally harmless article, I promise.
MYTH ONE: Buddha is God / a god
Nothing could be further from the truth. To begin with, Siddhartha Gautama was a man who lived 2500 years ago in India. His biography is interesting. Read it sometime! He was a wonderful, kind man whose heart was broken when he looked upon suffering humanity. Much of the suffering he witnessed he did not share in because he was born and raised a prince. But the trappings of royalty did not fulfill him. He suffered as the peasants at the gates of his father’s castle suffered, if only in different ways.
He set out one day to find a solution to suffering. Six years later, after trying an assortment of religious options (primarily Hindu), he sat under a tree (traditionally a Bodhi tree) and declared that he would not get up until he discovered what he sought. He began meditating and for days sat quietly until he reached the depths of his own soul and found that which he sought. This he called Enlightenment and this he taught. Thus he became Buddha, an Enlightened Being.
The Online Entymology dictionary defines “buddha” thus:
1681, from Pali, lit. “awakened, enlightened,” pp. of budh “to awake, know, perceive,” related to Skt. bodhati “is awake, observes, understands.” Title given by his adherents to the man who taught this path, Siddhartha Gautama, also known to them as Sakyamuni “Sage of the Sakyas” (his family clan), who lived in northern India 5c. B.C.E. Buddhist, Buddhism first recorded 1801.
Through the centuries an assortment of Buddhists sects have arisen throughout Asia. Some have clung to the original teachings while others have added to them. In some sects a pantheon of “Buddhas” have become part of the religion and mythology of Buddhism. None, however, rise to the level of a deity in the Western sense of the word.
Some, like Amida, are “celestial” Buddhas who have reached enlightenment and who have chosen to make a path for individuals to follow to a place called the Pure Land. Amida, in the vernacular of Buddhism, is a bodhisattva. Bodhisattva’s are not worshiped, they are followed. Pure Land Buddhists are but one group.
I am not a Pure Land Buddhist. Neither do I follow another Bodhisattva. Even so, I recognize and respect the beliefs of those who do. They, as I, revere Gautama and his magnificent wisdom. We are united in our fellowship and belief that our practice will not only achieve its goal of moving us towards enlightenment but it will also bring more peace and harmony on the earth.
MYTH TWO: Buddhism is a Religion
Yes and no. Religion is a system of beliefs that explain life, the universe, and our place in it. As such Buddhism can be considered a religion. Buddha’s greatest teaching is not of a religious but of a philosophical nature, however. His focus was suffering humanity, not who or what “created the universe.” Buddha himself was indifferent at best to religion. He was rightly so because the religion he was familiar with, especially Hinduism, was repressive, complicated, and utterly unable to meet the needs of suffering people.
Basic or traditional Buddhism as taught by the sect called Theravada has within its beliefs an explanation of the nature of mankind beyond physical existence. Other sects greatly elaborate on Buddha’s original teaching. Buddha’s teaching is unique in many ways. As one who considers all Buddhist teaching as exceptionally useful I also tend to accept Theravada teachings as the most pure. Nevertheless I regard all teachings on the hereafter as beliefs based upon faith rather than fact. I, personally, withhold judgment on all religious points of view regarding the afterlife.
It is not necessary to accept the beliefs of Theravadans in the realm of life beyond earth to be a Buddhist who reveres Buddha as I. Within Buddhism one can find answers and direction available nowhere else. The reason is that while Buddha speculated on the nature of the universe he hit the nature of mankind dead-on. In his words lies a philosophy which will absolutely transform the follower. One can accept and embrace his philosophy no matter what their beliefs in God or their religion. Many Christians follow the teaching. Many psycologists wrap it up in generic form and hand it out as solutions to their patients. It works not because it is religious or “inspired,” it works because it is Truth.
MYTH THREE: Buddhists are idol worshipers
In America there are countless statues. We, like civilizations everywhere, put up busts and whole statues of dozens, hundreds, of individuals whom we respect and revere for their service to mankind. Washington D.C. has a plethora of statues. Consider the Lincoln Memorial, as temple-like as ever a place could be. Then there’s Mount Rushmore. Nobody in America worships those men and women carved in stone. They are there not to worship but to show respect for and reverence toward. They are not idols. Neither are the many statues of Buddha.
Just as the statue of Lincoln so reverently displayed in the memorial reminds us of the struggles and victories within our nation so too the statues of Buddha, from the massive structures in the East to the little one on my desk, are reminders of Buddha’s struggle over suffering. American statues of our founding fathers give us hope. So do statues of Buddha.
There are those who do worship statues of Buddha. There are also Christians who worship items rather than their Creator and/or Savior as well. Catholicism is filled with statues revered and worshiped. Even protestant Christians worship The Bible or treat likenesses of a cross as holy and inviolate. To treat those items in such a way is to make them idols. But just as Christianity teaches there is no value in worshiping chunks of rock or man made items so too does Buddhism teach a set of beliefs not centered upon a statue but upon relief of human suffering.
The above myths are the “big three” reasons Christianity rejects Buddhism wholesale. Even if these three are understood as myth rather than fact Christianity will still reject Buddhism. This is especially true of protestant Christianity and absolutely true of fundamentalism or evangelicalism. As a former evangelical I certainly understand. Christians are so programmed to view any religion or philosophy as pagan or false it’s difficult to even consider Buddhism is valid. Eastern “mysticism” is especially condemned. But in the case of Buddhism there should not be such a gap in understanding nor should there be such a prejudice against the teaching. Christians could learn much from the teachings of Buddha without ever risking their faith.
BELIEFS: The absolute bare-bones beliefs of Buddhism, that which can and will make much difference in the life of those who accept it, are merely philosophical principals devoid of any form of spirituality. They involve the Four Nobel Truths, which explain the nature of humanity:
- 1. Suffering exists
- 2. Suffering arises from attachment to desires
- 3. Suffering ceases when attachment to desire ceases
- 4. Freedom from suffering is possible by practicing the Eightfold Path
The Eight Fold Path is a moral standard devised as a means of overcoming our suffering. They involve simple precepts with profound consequences.
The website Buddha’s World (http://www.katinkahesselink.net/tibet/
) says the Eight Fold Path are divided into three categories: Wisdom, Morality and Meditation. These teachings alone serve as a foundation upon which any individual could stand and improve his or her life.
On Buddha’s World there’s a page called “Key Points of Buddhism.” Collectively these points further explain the nature and practice of Buddhism. In them is a clear and precise explanation of humanity. Visit the website and learn about these key points:
PRACTICE: There are many ways to “practice” Buddhism. Some devout Buddhists chant. Most meditate. Many study the teachings (sutras or suttas) of Buddhism and writings of Buddhists. There are many monastic practices too. Buddha himself outlined codes of ethics and methods of practice for monks and other followers, methods still practiced today.
The three major “schools” of Buddhism, Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana, have differing practices and rituals. Pure Land (Amida) Buddhism and Zen come from the Mahayana school. Zen and Pure Land arose in Japan and China. Various schools dominate in different parts of Asia. Tibetan Buddhism, a branch of Mahayana, has its own unique aspects. It is much more of a religion than Theravada or Zen. It’s the most well known since there is an organized structure with a leader who travels the world stage, the Dalai Lama. All schools have different practices.
In the west, especially the U.S., Buddhism is still a foreign import. Easterners who have come here from China, Viet Nam, Korea or elsewhere have brought their school of Buddhism. Many have established temples. There are a few missions and monastaries sprinkled around the country. Buddhist writers and commentators often recognize, however, that there are major distinctions between the practice of immigrants from the east and what they call “American” Buddhism.
Though I have not as yet visited a temple I understand that in many of them one can find a purity and beauty in authentic Buddhist practice but also a distinct lack of “Americanization” or even in some instances English observances. Buddhism is kind hearted and open, of course, but as with everything else, people tend to congregate with their own kind. Buddhist practice in the formal sense, then, is not at all common in the states.
It is unfortunate as well that Buddhism has been dissected and even mongrelized (If I may use the word) by the entertainment industry, eastern mystics in the U.S., and in New Age practice. In drawing from some aspects of Buddhism and not others New Agers have added to the skepticism and condemnation of Buddhism by American Christians.
MEDITATION: The practice of meditation, a healthy and inoccuous way of reaching our inner selves, has been put down as some sort of mystical activity or even a way to be consumed by evil. What those saying such things fail to mention is that meditation is not an exclusive practice of Buddhism and also that Buddhist meditation is much different from other forms in purpose and practice. I have meditated though my practice has faltered.
CONCLUSIONS: There is a dialog underway between Catholicism and Buddhism that has been very productive in dispelling myths. But since Catholicism is viewed with almost as much skepticism as Buddhism is by Evangelicals and openly condemned by Fundamentalists this dialog is not as useful as it should be. Anyone seeking to know more about the comparitive beliefs of Buddhism and Christianity would do well to research this dialog.
The fact is that in their teachings Buddha and Jesus differ very little. Though different in tone and focus, both of them taught identical standards of morality. If anything the Eight Fold Path establishes a more strict standard than Jesus’ teaching.
Though there are many differing beliefs within Buddhism to explain life beyond our existence there’s nothing in Buddhism that demands anyone accept them. Buddha did not claim divinity. Neither does Buddhism claim its teachings are inspired or anything more than the writings of wise individuals.
There are many valid reasons I am not a Christian. None of them have anything to do with my choice to become a Buddhist. I did not move from Christianity to Buddhism. I moved from Christianity to a void. I discovered Buddha’s teaching out of desperation and fear. As a parent and a human I could not live with the void in my heart once I concluded that Christiannity was not something I could accept.
In the beginnning I only adopted the basic teachings, described above. I did not call myself a Buddhist. I adopted them because in them I found logical solutions for my own problems and an explanation of what the problems of humanity are. I found them valid because they are so similar to moral teachings of Christianity.
I did not quit Christianity easily. It took many years and countless heartaches for me to admit to myself that what I believed all those years could not be true. It took even longer for me to shake loose from the preconceptions, the prejudices, the reluctance to turn loose of what might be called “residual” Christianity, those fringe beliefs and attitudes that frame a Christian’s point of view.
Though Buddhism has continued to be diverse and open, Christianity through the centuries has become much more centralized, focussed, and exclusive. Christianity defines the world, separates the “good” and “bad,” righteous and evil, and appoints itself the sole element of good or righteousness. Though I long ago turned away from the mainstream I remained hung up on that good/evil mindset for a lot longer.
For some time I claimed to be a “follower of Jesus and Buddha.” I shaped the statement in different ways. I rationalized that Jesus is, in the vernacular of Buddhism, a Boddhisatva. I believed I could remain loyal to the gospels and reject the rest of the book as myth. I believed I could just follow his teaching and reject the doctrines of Christianity. In the end I recognized that I was clinging to Jesus not as a “savior” but for respectability. At last I spoke the words: “I am not a Christian.”
But this is me. I am a cynic in most things. There are many religious practices and beliefs I do not accept, including many within Buddhism. I reserve judgement on beliefs that explain the afterlife. Though I entirely reject the extremely self-centered, exclusionary belief taught in the doctrine of “salvation,” I do not reject the possibility of heaven. (I do reject the notion of a hell. That’s for another article to discuss.) My Buddhism is a simple, philosophical practice wherein I strive to follow the Eight Fold Path. Other than that I study Buddhist literature to better understand myself, humanity, and my place within it. I long for a fellowship though have found none in this most Christian of communities where I live.
The greatest difference between Buddhism and Christianity is not the beliefs and doctrines. The greatest difference, especially in relation to protestantism, is exclusivity. Christians exclude anyone not supportive of their own particular denominational doctrine. Each differing Christian denomination claims it is the ONLY way. Buddhism, however, recognizes that there is no such thing as a single path. In his day Buddha taught that he had good ideas and he invited people to follow him. He was not alone in teaching and did not condemn other teachers whose paths were similar.
The second greatest difference between Buddhism and Christianity is in how they propagate. Christianity, and again with Evangelicals at the top, says, “this is the only way, come! Get right. Get Saved.” Christianity is focussed on “bringing in the sheeves.” Such is the assumption made by Christians that the charge of Jesus to go into the world and preach and teach meant to go out and drag as many people in as possible and get them converted. This practice degraded into such horrors as the Crusades and the slaughter of Native Americans by the Spanish.
There may be those who wave the banner of Buddha in a selfserving effort to dominate peoples but traditionally Buddhism has grown through the years by a much different method. There is not a hint of evangelical zeal in virtually all of Buddhism. Too often in history Christianity has rejected the humility of its Christ and become bully to the world. In the East Buddhism suffered at the hands of those who would dominate, including Christians on occasion. “Onward Christian Soldiers” is for some in the church a mantra. It is unheard of in Buddhist tradition.
The third and final greatest difference between Buddhism and Christianity, and the reason I follow it, is that in Buddha’s wisdom I find not merely an excuse to indulge nor a way of dispelling my fears of death but a way to live life. It’s like Buddha looked down t hrough the ages and saw me, lost and alone and suffering from a crushed and bleeding heart and wrote just for me. I know this is imaginary, of course, but the point is that even from the begining I saw how practical is Gautama’s teachings.
Everything in Christianity is dependent upon the spiritual element. One cannot function as a Christian without depending upon prayer, the Spirit, the hand of God, or whatever. One makes no move unless he or she “feels led.” Any time one makes a mistake it’s because they did not recognize the lead of the spirit and/or they were influenced by evil or the devil. Nowhere in my Christian practice (and I was once deeply involved as teacher, preacher and reacher) did I ever find such practical and obvious words as those spoken by Gautama. Never does anyone say, “this is it, put it to work, it will make a difference” in the hallowed halls of Christianity. The “lost” may be found in a spiritual sense but the lost remain perpetually lost when it comes to knowing how to live an ordinary life.
I love Buddha. I revere him as a great and wonderful teacher. I love the practical guidance he gave. I love Buddhism as the keeper and teacher of wisdom. I have joy only in the knowledge that I have found answers to all the questions I had before I arrived at Buddha’s doorstep. I have found my place.
Buddhism, however, has not yet and probably will not be the end of my suffering. This is a practical conclusion. Unless your perseverance is greater than mine it’s not likely your suffering will end if you practice Buddhism either. What it will do, what it can do, is fill in so many gaps and gaping holes in your understanding of the universe. What it will do if you begin to practice is to move you towards enlightenment by whatever speed you pursue it. What it absolutely will do if you and others begin to practice it is make our world a more wonderful, more peaceful, more caring place to live in.
Buddhism. Try it. You’ll like it!