Buddhism is not hugely prominent in the US. That being said, there are influences from Buddhism which are very strongly reflected in various sectors of American society. Additionally, it is quite widespread in certain parts of the world.
While there are, relatively speaking, not a huge number of Buddhist believers in America, there are some who are quite high profile. These high profile individuals provide a certain legitimacy to the belief system in the eyes of many Americans and furnishes a platform for its propagation which goes far beyond what might ordinarily exist based on the number of believers. And, indeed, there are more and more people in our country who are adopting Buddhism as their faith of choice.
Some of the very high profile people who have gone this route are well known actors and actresses such as Steven Seagal, Kenau Reeves, Richard Gere, Goldie Hawn, and Orlando Bloom. The list of adherents also includes future hall of fame pro basketball coach Phil Jackson and the famous entrepreneur (founder of Apple Computer company) Steve Jobs. Then there are world famous singers such as Jennifer Lopez, Tina Turner and Boy George. And we can’t forget film directors such as Oliver Stone and George Lucas who sometimes manage to insert elements of their faith into their films.
In order to more completely understand this religion, let’s begin by taking a look at its foundational beliefs. Let’s start this journey by looking at Buddhism’s history.
Buddhism began as a reformation movement within Hinduism. Its founder was Siddhartha Gautama (the Buddha), who was born about 560 B.C. Gautama was raised in a family that was part of the ruling caste of Hinduism. His father was a feudal lord. When Gautama was 16 or 19 (the exact age is a bit uncertain), he married and had a son.
Throughout his growing up years, he lived a life of luxury within the walls of his father’s palace and was protected from ever seeing the misery that existed out in the world. One day, however, he wanted to see what life was like beyond his compound so he ventured outside. What he observed became known as “The Four Passing Sights.” For the first time in his life he saw that great suffering exists in the world. He saw an old man, a person suffering from a disease, a dead man, and a shaven monk begging. Because of that experience he left his family, at age 29, renounced his wealth and went on a journey to try and discover the meaning of life.
As he tried to find new direction for his life, he first subjected himself to different Hindu masters. But in this process he didn’t find the satisfaction that he was looking for.
Following that, he explored a different path. He decided to become a complete recluse. For six years he practiced extreme self-denial and actually nearly died from his ascetic lifestyle.
Finally, after a period of deep meditation, he realized the futility of asceticism and developed the principle of the “Middle Path.” Based on this idea, he kept himself away from the extremes of both self-denial and self-gratification. Instead, he focused on deep meditation and through that achieved a state of “enlightenment.” Following his enlightenment, he began a teaching career.
For the next 45 years he built a large core of disciples and proclaimed his message throughout northern India. He finally died of food poisoning at around 80 years of age.
After Gautama’s death, the new religion spread all through Asia. As a result of its spread, a number of divergent beliefs crept into the religion. To try and bring unity, devotees from all over gathered together and held some councils to try and reconcile their differences. But rather than bring unity, there was a split into two major groups – Theravada or Hinayana (The Lesser Vehicle) and the Mahayana (The Greater Vehicle).
Theravada Buddhism (The Lesser Vehicle) is characterized by:
- Conservative tendencies,
- An emphasis on following the Buddhist scriptures,
- A concern for wisdom,
- Belief that each man is on his own, and salvation is reached by self-effort,
- A monastic system with an emphasis on the priests, and
Mahayana Buddhism (The Greater Vehicle) is characterized by:
- Liberal tendencies,
- An emphasis on meditation,
- Belief that a person can achieve salvation by placing one’s faith in Gautama,
- An openness that encourages laymen to practice the faith, and
- Polytheism and idolatry.
Buddhism claims to have evolved into different forms so that it can be relevant to every culture and to each new generation. As a result of this “flexibility,” there is, actually, very little “pure” Buddhism being practiced in the world today. Instead, what we primarily see is a mixture of Buddhism with Taoism and Confucianism, along with the practice of ancestor worship.
There are currently believed to be between 300 ~ 500 million Buddhists worldwide. For centuries, Buddhism has been the dominant religion of the Eastern world and still remains predominant in China, Japan, and Korea, as well as most of southeast Asia.
Basic Beliefs and Practices
Though there are a number of different branches of Buddhism, the four noble truths and the eightfold path are at the heart of its teachings no matter what direction it goes.
The Four Noble Truths
The Four Noble Truths are:
1. Life is full of pain and suffering (these include the body, the senses, thoughts, feelings, and consciousness).
2. Suffering is caused by desire for pleasure, existence and prosperity.
3. Suffering can be overcome by eliminating desire.
4. Elimination of desire is achieved by following the eightfold path.
The Eightfold Path
The Eightfold Path is a comprehensive, practical guide designed to lead a person to enlightenment which, in turn, leads to Nirvana. This path involves eight prescriptions which fall under three broad categories.
Issues of Wisdom
1. Right knowledge – To see and understand things as they really are.
2. Right aspirations (intentions) – Commitment to ethical and mental self-improvement.
Issues of Ethical Conduct
3. Right speech – Abstain from false and slanderous speech, harsh words and idle chatter.
4. Right conduct – Abstain from harming others, taking what is not yours, and sexual misconduct.
5. Right livelihood – Do not deal in weapons, in living beings, in meat production or intoxicants.
Issues of Mental Development
6. Right effort – Don’t allow yourself to enter unwholesome states, abandon unwholesome states you already have, don’t arouse unwholesome states that have not arisen in you, and maintain the wholesome states you already have.
7. Right mindfulness (self-analysis) – Contemplation of the body, feelings, states of mind and phenomena.
8. Right Concentration – Contemplation on wholesome thoughts and actions.
As Buddhism is a spin-off from Hinduism, it is not surprising that there are some common basic beliefs.
1. Nirvana – In Sanskrit, Nirvana literally means, “extinction or blowing out” and is the ultimate goal of spiritual practice in Buddhism. It is the complete end of the cycle of births and rebirths by the merging of an individual being with the cosmos. In this state, the person ceases to exist as an individual and the life force merges with the impersonal cosmos. Since there is no personal consciousness in this state, there is no desire and thus no more suffering.
2. Karma – Buddhism teaches that happiness or suffering in this life is the result of our deeds in past lives, or past actions in our present lives. The spiritual effect of bad deeds attaches to our lives and either generates or eliminates the suffering one experiences. Bad karma produces suffering while good karma prevents suffering. The effects of karma may be evident either in the short-term or the long-term. It is the Buddhist explanation for unexplained or unexpected suffering. According to the concept of karma, an individual has free will but carries the baggage of deeds done in previous lives.
3. Reincarnation – Reincarnation is the doctrine that all creatures (including animals) have a soul (life force) which reincarnates into a new physical life expression when physical life ends. The cycle of rebirths continues until an individual finally reaches enlightenment. When enlightenment is achieved, the next physical death of that person catapults the individual out of the cycles of reincarnation and into Nirvana where suffering does not exist.
The two major approaches of Buddhism have different basic understandings of the concept of God.
1. Theravada Buddhism teaches that there is no personal God. There is only an impersonal cosmos which encompasses all of reality.
2. Mahayana Buddhism asserts that there are many gods, one of which is Gautama. This form of the faith has an inclusive view of religion and allows individuals to combine their Buddhist beliefs with Taoism, Confucianism, or some other religious system. The basic structure of reality, though, is still understood as the impersonal cosmos with which humanity is seeking to merge.
Man is seen to be a manifestation of the impersonal cosmos who exists without individual self or self-worth. He is stuck in nearly endless cycles of rebirth because of wrong desires resulting from not following The Eightfold Path.
The means of acquiring salvation in Buddhism is to achieve Nirvana – to get out of the endless cycles of rebirth. Mankind’s basic problem is understood to be ignorance, not sin. Thus, the key to salvation is to gain knowledge of how to achieve enlightenment and eliminate all desire. In Theravada Buddhism, this is done by gaining wisdom. In Mahayana Buddhism, a person achieves Nirvana by placing one’s faith in Gautama and the many Bodhisattvas (those who are actively striving toward enlightenment). This is achieved by meditation and by repeating and calling on the names of the Bodhisattvas.
Faith Foundation – How does Buddhism answer the seven worldview questions?
1. What is the most fundamental reality? (Ultimate reality)
Buddhism recognizes the existence of a transcendent ultimate reality which encompasses the material world but extends beyond it. This reality is undefinable in human terms because it extends beyond the temporal arena that human beings are confined to. This reality is an impersonal and philosophical absolute that is seen to be the ultimate manifestation of oneness. Buddhists generally recognize the existence of supernatural or god-like beings, but they do not believe in an omnipotent personal creator God.
2. What is the nature of our material reality? (Material reality)
The world, as humanity experiences it, is understood to be an illusion. This it not to say that it doesn’t exist, only that its true nature is not as it appears. The illusion is that the material world appears to be personal while in actuality they maintain that it is impersonal.
The nature of material reality is also understood to be cyclical, having no start and no end. For Buddhists, the cycle is simply a part of the wheel of suffering to which humanity is attached through continual rebirths.
3. What is a human being? (Humanity)
A human being s simply an expression of the impersonal life force which is working its way to oneness with the cosmos. The core of the human condition is understood to be suffering, and the purpose of humanity is to work to escape this condition.
4. What happens to a person at death? (Death)
At death, each life reincarnates into some other form – human, divine or animal – depending upon one’s behavior in previous lives. The goal of Buddhism is to extinguish the flame of desire (attachment to the sense of self), so that rebirth does not occur and Nirvana is attained.
5. Why is it possible to know anything at all? (Knowledge)
As the ultimate expression of reality is impersonal, knowledge is an illusion. What we seem to know and experience is not an expression of ultimate reality – which is impersonal. Nothing exists as it appears.
6. How do we know what is right and wrong? (Morality)
In Buddhism, the cosmos is understood to be perfect at every moment. Good and evil are an illusion and there are no moral absolutes. There is, though, a process by which the cosmos operates. If individuals live life in opposition to that process, they accumulate bad karma which inhibits their quest for enlightenment. If they live in harmony with the process, they accumulate good karma which takes them closer to Nirvana.
7. What is the meaning of human history? (History)
In Buddhist thought, time is an illusion. The cosmos is understood to exist in eternity, so what individuals perceive as time is really just the cyclical movement of reality. In the realm of material reality, each existence continues through death and rebirth so long as the sense of self keeps an individual attached to this world. Even when a particular individual’s desires are finally quenched and Nirvana is achieved, the material world continues on its cyclical pattern. The cycle simply continues on without meaning, as meaning is a meaningless concept in an impersonal reality.
In Buddhism, the authority source is slightly different between the two major branches.
The basic authority for Theravada Buddhism is The Tripitaka (Three Baskets). This consists of the Vinaya (the law and rules of monastic Buddhism), the Sutra (the sermons and teachings of the Buddha), and the Adhidharma (philosophical interpretations of Buddha’s teachings).
In Mahayana Buddhism, the basic authority includes the Three Baskets mentioned above but adds numerous other writings.
Evidence for the Authority
Buddhism is ultimately established on the same foundation as Hinduism. To that end, the same problems associated with Hinduism also apply to Buddhism. Specifically, the teaching relies on simple faith in certain writings from respected historical individuals along with the personal experiences of the founder and followers. The main problem, though, is that the only evidence that these teachings are correct comes from the assertions of these individuals. There is no objective basis for their claims.
Evaluation of the Evidence
In evaluating the evidence for the validity of Buddhist teachings, believers struggle to give legitimate evidence as to why their belief is more valid than any other. Non-Buddhists have other kinds of experiences and teachings which literally contradict the teachings of Buddhism. Since there is no objective evidence to support the tenets of Buddhism, there is no way to arbitrate between their teachings and opposing viewpoints. A belief does not reflect reality simply because some individual or group asserts it as true.
There are other problems with Buddhism, as well. It makes a claim to be the truth about the nature of reality while at the same time asserting that the reality we experience in our material existence is an illusion. Buddhists are forced to live life as if material reality is the actual expression of objective reality while denying that it actually exists that way. Though they deny moral absolutes, the karmic process dictates morality by default. There is simply no way for them to get at how they know their belief is right. This kind of inconsistency leaves Buddhism with a huge credibility gap.
There are certainly things which are emphasized in Buddhist teachings which represent good and truth. Of particular note is the effort to alleviate suffering. But that emphasis is not exclusive to Buddhism. It is not necessary to adopt a belief system which does not represent ultimate truth in order to address the expressions in Buddhism which have some positive elements.
In virtually every belief system, suffering is generally not recognized as a good thing. The fact that Buddhism tries to address the issue of human suffering can be recognized as a good thing. But its approach is incomplete. First, Buddhism tries to address suffering by denying its ultimate existence. Their main approach to alleviating suffering is to eliminate desire, not to help the ones suffering. It also does not acknowledge the possibility of a positive outcome from suffering.
Our Christian faith puts an emphasis in both of these areas. When we see suffering, we are admonished to reach out and give a helping hand. At the same time, God has revealed that he can take any suffering and use it to accomplish an ultimate good.
Mainly, though, Buddhism simply has no way to give individuals a reason to believe it is true. It requires that one give blind trust based on what some historical figure has asserted. They must then work to back up their belief based simply on personal experience. This is not a very solid way of searching for the truth.
Buddhists are typically very good people with the best of intentions and great sincerity. But since personal goodness, good intentions and sincerity are not sufficient to bring a person to God, Christians must be very diligent in helping them see the truth in Jesus Christ.
© 2009 Freddy Davis