Friday, June 11, 2010

Buddha & Religion: Introduction

 A map featuring the world's biggest religions (click to enlarge)

Human beings have always tried to make sense of the universe in which we live, just as we have developed moral systems to organize societies. Individuals have also had intuitions and other experiences that have required explanations. Above all, we have endeavored to avoid suffering and cultivate happiness. All these (and other) aspects of human existence have been part of something called religion. Religion, often ridiculed in some parts of the modern world, has dominated almost every aspect of every culture on this planet for thousands of years. In fact, even in modern ‘secular’ societies such as the U.S. and the U.K. religion still exerts a powerful influence on both millions of individuals as well as on governments. Furthermore, in countries that were or still are (at least technically) communist and atheist, such as Russia and China, religion has made an amazing resurgence in recent decades.
Religions change, of course. As the Buddha taught, all conditioned things change; they are processes forever in flux. This is equally applicable to religion, for, if we were to travel back to ancient times, the faiths of those times would seem quite alien to us, not only in the early, ‘prototype’ versions of what became Judaism and Hinduism amongst others, but also in those religions that not only altered over the coming centuries, but actually died out as newer religions such Christianity and Islam came onto the scene. The Greek and Roman gods are long gone, as are the ancient religions found across Europe, including the Norse, Celtic, Germanic, and Russian creeds. It is not only in the West that religions die out and are replaced with alternatives, as can be seen when studying the long dead Aztec, Arabian, and Pacific faiths.
As to the religions that exist today, these too are not static phenomena; they are constantly changing and adapting to the needs of their followers, often altered by reformists who wish to lead the followers of their faiths in particular directions. Martin Luther and the subsequent Protestant revolution in the history of Christianity is an example of this, as is the development of many Mahayana schools of Buddhism in India and the Far East. Nevertheless, despite – or more probably, because of – these continual changes in religion, it remains in its varied forms an extremely important aspect of most people’s lives in the early part of the Twenty-First Century. Here’s a current ‘Top Ten’ of religions and their number of adherents:
·        Christianity – 2 billion
·        Islam – 1.3 billion
·        Hinduism – 900 million
·        Chinese Indigenous Religion – 400 million
·        Buddhism – 360 million
·        Sikhism – 23 million
·        Judaism – 14 million
·        Mormonism – 12 million
·        Falun Gong – 10 million
·        Baha’i Faith – 7 million
There are some interesting facts to be read from this list, albeit with one important reservation: these are nominal figures that in some cases are little more than educated guesses, as the exact numbers that follow particular religions is difficult to calculate. Nevertheless, if we take the numbers above as somewhat accurate, there are some fascinating facts to be drawn from them. Firstly, these ten religions account for nearly five-sixths of the world’s population, with the top three amounting to over two-thirds of humanity. All this is incredible, considering the millions of atheists in the world and the thousands of religions that didn’t make the Top Ten, such as Cao Dai, Jainism, primal religions, Rastafarianism, Scientology, Shinto, Soka Gakkai, Tenrikyo, Transcendental Meditation, Voodoo, Wicca, and Zoroastrianism.
Secondly, it can be understood that monotheism – the belief in a single almighty god – is the central religious creed of most of the world’s populace, as with Christians, Muslims, Sikhs, Jews, and Baha’i followers. Polytheism, the belief in more than one god is a central characteristic of only one of the Ten – Hinduism. Buddhism also includes the traditional belief in the existence of deities, but it is arguably not essential to its teachings. Chinese Indigenous Religion is a fusion of Confucianism, Daoism, and ancestral worship, and also includes the belief in more than one deity. So, gods are a matter of faith for the majority of the world’s population; something that atheists, agnostics, and modern Buddhists would do well to bear in mind.
Whilst seven of the Top Ten can be classed as old religions thousands of years old in some cases, Mormonism, Falun Gong, and the Baha’i Faith are all new religions that have arisen in the last few centuries. On the subsidiary list above another six religions are recent developments. Also, within the long-established religions there are modern movements that are in a process of constant updating (and in some cases ‘backdating’). This new growth in religious reformation and movements belies the claim by some modernists that religion is an antiquated activity that is on the wane; far from it. As mentioned above, those that belittle or dismiss religious faith are on dangerous ground as the numbers are clearly not on their side. Watch out Richard Dawkins and friends!
Within the confines of this blog (and the confines of my life!), this series will focus on the top five religions on the list featured earlier. Despite only numbering five – unless we subdivide the various Chinese faiths – these religions each number in the hundreds of thousands or even the billions, and together account for roughly five-sixths of the world’s population. Again, atheists should not be ignorant to this fact, as it is often said that religion is a dying force in the modern, technologically advanced world. Even if these figures include many nominal members of religious traditions, the remaining active adherents of these five enormous movements still add up to well over half of all humanity. Either way, Richard Dawkins and his faithless friends such as Sam Harris are far from witnessing the end of faith that they apparently so desperately desire.  Perhaps the wisdom of working with these religions rather than against them will surface during this series of articles, and maybe a few atheists and modernist Buddhists will be inspired to interact with religionists in more positive ways in the future. We can but hope!
A little note on Buddhism as a religion is required here. Many modern Buddhists do not consider Buddhism to be a religion, as for them it does not demand the belief in a god or gods (despite the traditional Buddhist belief in deities mentioned earlier). It can be argued that Buddhism inherited the belief in gods, demons, heavens and hells from Hinduism, and that the Buddha and his early disciples used these beliefs to illustrate Buddhist teachings like those on suffering, impermanence, selflessness, and enlightenment. For others, including the vast majority of the world’s Buddhists that live in Asia, Buddhism is a religion. A previous Buddha Space post features this debate, and can be read here: Is Buddhism a Relgion? Irrespective of whether we consider Buddhism a religion or not, as the title of this series of articles suggests, it is not the purpose here to compare and contrast Buddhism with other religions. Instead, it is from the viewpoint of the Buddha that religions, including religious forms of Buddhism, are to be examined.
So, whether we take Buddhism to be a religion or not, it is still useful to contemplate some of the world’s major religions from the viewpoint of the Buddha, for perhaps such an undertaking will not only highlight the differences between Buddha and religious faith, but also bring to our attention areas where mutual interests can be explored. This exploration will be conducted in a contemplative manner rather than a doctrinal one. There are two advantages to taking this approach; Buddhism has many different doctrines, due to there being many sects, and obviously if the viewpoint of one sect is taken up, all the other sects are not involved; also, the heart of Buddhist practice is a contemplative one, based on mindfulness and meditation, and therefore to consider religion from a meditative position is to simultaneously cultivate wisdom. Taking up the standpoint of the Buddha, then, will enable us to explore not only religions such as Islam and Christianity from the enlightened perspective, but also allow for a nonsectarian examination of Buddhism itself. That’s the theory, anyhow!
Where to start, then? Well, looking back at the Top Ten list, it makes sense to start at the top, especially as most English-speaking Buddhists reading this blog will be more familiar with Christianity than the other five faiths to be featured. There are some fundamental differences between the Buddha’s worldview and that of the world’s most popular faith, such as the respective doctrines of salvation in Christianity and enlightenment in Buddhism. Perhaps surprisingly for some, there some striking similarities also, that we will explore, such as the role of morality in the lives of both Christians and Buddhists. In the next article in this series on Buddha & Religion, then, we will begin by taking a look at the life and teachings of Jesus Christ and the major branches of the religion that grew out of his ministry: Christianity.


Gabriel said...

A bunch of us decided to infuse a public place with the energy of peace, so we walked into a downtown Washington, DC bookstore and this is what happened. Hope you like it!

val said...

It is written Satan has deceived the whole world until the heel of time when a woman shall bruise him by exposing his lies. Check out the bruising of Satan at
Please read all of the posts to see the whole picture

G said...

Gabriel - great video; crazy and wonderful! (I recommend a look at this to all my readers, even if it's just to see the variety of responses of the bookstore customers from a anthropological point of view.)

Val, thank you for your link, although it seems more of an advert that a direct response to the article on 'Buddha Space.' In the interests of free speech, I'll leave your comment on here. (For other reader's information, the link goes to the blog 'The Good Tale' which appears to be a Christian 'End Times' project.)

the poet's apprentice said...

You’ve lost me ‘G’...? A great posting for Visakha Day – the celebration date of the Buddha’s Enlightenment (Birth and Parinibbana)... This Enlightenment simply being the end of Suffering. How did the Buddha do this? He realised the Four Noble Truths; Suffering; Cause of Suffering; End of Suffering and the Way to end Suffering.

Followed by posting ‘Awakened Consciousness’... ? The Buddha didn’t teach that he had realised ‘Awakened Consciousness’ under the Bo Tree but that he had attained the total peace of Nibbana, the cessation of consciousness... Throughout the suttas all consciousness is taught as being within the sangsara, albeit at the highest levels extremely refined, awake and blissful – it is still impermanent, not self and therefore dukkha... The Buddha’s teachers had only experienced these states and thought they were the highest – they had not discovered Nibbana...

In the Buddha’s time, over two and a half thousand years ago in that part of the world (which today is called India) civilisation had reached a particularly high evolutionary level. There were many mendicants and ascetics who had left the worldly life in search of Truth. Throughout the suttas, there are accounts of the Buddha being challenged by leaders of other religious sects and he always remained calm, unshakeable and was able to point out their wrong views that hindered Enlightenment . You so rightly praise and celebrate the Buddha’s teaching as the highest - why wander off to explore other ‘religions’? (of which most haven’t even got as far as keeping the First Precept...)

The Buddha held a few leaves in his hand, saying that the things he knew by direct knowledge was as vast as the number of leaves in the forest but he doesn’t express opinions on it because it wasn’t concerned with the Dhamma, right conduct, detachment, purification from desire, nor tranquilisation of heart, nor real knowledge, nor insight, nor to Nibbana. He told only of the few things that bring benefit and advancement to the holy life...

If we make any progress at all along the Buddhist path it is because we stick to the Buddha’s teaching; do good, stop doing bad and purify the mind. We learn to label correctly the obstacles to Enlightenment (the hindrances, defilements, latent tendencies, fetters, asavas...). Thus using a precious, brief human life to attain the goal of total peace and happiness and avoid being sidetracked.

May all beings find happiness.

G said...

Well, if we're going to stick 'religiously' to the Pali Canon to define the Buddha's teachings, which appears to be your approach, Apprentice, we won't be led astray by what Ajahn Sumedho has done with his reflections on 'awakened consciousness'. If you're lost, you have my warmest wishes!

Living in this world, it can do us great benefit to reflect on the various expressions of the human search for truth. And, as Ajahn Sumedho has pointed out time and time again, the teachings in the Pali Canon ascribed to the Buddha are for our reflection and wise use, not for clinging to as as set of dogmas to declare superior to all else. If we are sure about where we are along the Way, wisely reflecting on the world's religions isn't going to do any harm at all - quite the reverse. It will assist us in cultivating wisdom. To dismiss the world's religions as being inferior to Buddhism seems somewhat arrogant, really. A point well worth long and careful reflection...

To be honest, Apprentice, I let go of clinging to a particular sect of Buddhism long ago. Theravada is no more or less valid than any other of the major forms of the Buddhist Path. The Middle Way can be found at the heart of all of these, even if it isn't always explicitly expressed. Ditto the Pali Canon and other Buddhist scriptures and writings. If the truth is there, it's there, no matter what particular doctrines it is dressed in. But, it is understandable that if you are lost, clinging to one set view - whatever that may be - can be more psychologically comforting, of course. And safe.

Be well,

Ron said...

To dismiss the world's religions as being inferior to Buddhism seems somewhat arrogant, really. A point well worth long and careful reflection...

Thank you for these beautiful words that build bridges rather than fences.


G said...

Thanks for your wise words, Ron.