Thursday, September 2, 2010

Buddha & Religion: Buddhism

The Buddha's response to 'Buddhism'?

As the fourth most followed religion in the world, with an estimated 350 million followers or more, Buddhism is one of the major religions in the world today, and has been for much of its two-and-a-half thousand year history. As those years have passed, it has changed and adapted to new cultures and psychologies, producing a wide variety of forms. And yet, at the heart of all these sects, the essential message of the Buddha is retained: life is full of suffering, and there is a way out of that suffering – the Way of the Buddha.

This is not to say that there are not big differences between many of the diverse kinds of Buddhism, however; there is the somewhat austere and conservative approach of Theravada Buddhism, the radical and unorthodox methods of Zen Buddhism, the multifarious and Hindu-influenced forms of Tibetan Buddhism, the devotional and almost theistic Pure Land Buddhism, and the militant yet liberating Nichiren Buddhism, to name but a few. Outwardly, these different denominations appear more like different religions rather than various versions of the same one. This is not so surprising when we remember that the societies and times that they arose and developed from also differ greatly, and as hinted at above, it is the teachings of the Buddha that are really important, not the particulars of the sect from through they are conveyed. We will look at these teachings a little later, but first let’s examine the outer layers of the Buddhist onion.

When we inspect specific practices from individual sects, Buddhism can seem pretty confusing. Chinese Buddhists make much use of music, with some beautifully melodic hymns in their repertoire. Whereas in Theravada Buddhism, a cappella chanting is used in their religious services, basing this practice on teachings attributed to the Buddha. Pure Land Buddhists pay obeisance to a number of statues in their temples, including Avalokiteshvara, Tara, and the Buddha, in Nichiren Buddhism the primary object of worship is a symbol representing the Lotus Sutra, and whilst Pure Land Buddhists chant the name of Amitabha Buddha, Japanese Zen Buddhists meditate upon the moment or illogical riddles.

All these apparent contradictions lead some scholars to classify the major sects as different Buddhisms as opposed to forms of one religion called Buddhism. Furthermore, there are seemingly irreconcilable doctrines to be found in these sects; in Theravada Buddhism, the Buddha is believed to have been a man who realized Nirvana, or enlightenment, and when he finally passed away, ceased to exist. In Mahayana Buddhism (which includes most of the other modern Buddhist movements) the Buddha is more like a god, still existing in some heavenly realm ready to come to the aid of a follower when petitioned. Likewise, the spiritual ideal in Theravada Buddhism is the Arahant, someone who realizes full enlightenment in this lifetime and then ceases to exist like the Buddha; in Mahayana Buddhism, the Arahant is superseded by the Bodhisattva who though spiritually awakened, puts off full enlightenment so as to help others to do the same.

A Traditional response to these and the thousands of other differences found between the Buddhist sects is to consider them as ‘skillful means’ to enlightenment. In other words, the various sects, practices and teachings exist to accommodate the many different kinds of human beings that live in the world. According to this viewpoint, whilst outwardly they may appear to contradict one another, the final destination (enlightenment) is the same; it is only the particular route taken that differs. This interpretation of the myriad of forms that Buddhism takes is quite popular among many modern Buddhists, especially western ones, and it has even been taught by popular Buddhist teachers who themselves adhere to one particular sect. Another cause for conciliatory language between such teachers is some of the similarities found in their denominations, as explored below.

Generally speaking, most forms of Buddhism share many common characteristics such as the use of Buddha statues and other religious imagery, ceremonies and rituals, the practice of chanting and prayer, and the presence of a priestly class, often in the from of minks and nuns. With the exception of monks and nuns, according to the earliest known scriptures (the Tripitaka or Pali Canon), the Buddha actually dissuaded his followers from using images, rituals, and prayer, and made little or no reference to ceremonies and chanting. As far as we can tell, these practices arose long after his passing away, and while he was alive, the Buddha encouraged his disciples to walk the Noble Eightfold Path, involving aspects such as basic morality, meditation and mindfulness. So, whilst a cause for Buddhists to see similarities amongst the different versions of Buddhism found in the world today, such activities are not really part of the Buddha’s actual teaching.

This emphasis of the Buddha on his Way as the Path to end suffering, rather than as a religion as such raises an important question when looking at the Buddhist religion today: is it what he really intended for his followers? The same could be asked of Christ and Christianity of course, and I know many Christians who hold the view that whilst religion is manmade, the real point of Christian practice is salvation in Jesus Christ, which is God-made. With the substation of Buddha for Christ, and enlightenment for salvation – plus the elimination of God from the equation altogether – this statement could be made regarding Buddhism. It can be argued, and some Pali Canon purists do, that the Buddha did not teach Buddhism or any other ism for that matter, but that he pointed out the Way to Nirvana.

So, who is correct? Are Theravada Buddhists or the Pali Canon enthusiasts on the right track, or are the Pure Landers headed for eventual enlightenment in Amitabha’s heavenly paradise? Perhaps none of these groups are correct, and it is the tantric Tibetan Buddhists that are on the true path; but, then again, surely all those hours spent meditating have not been wasted by the world’s Zennists? In truth, it is by looking at the spirit of the Buddha’s teachings, whether in the Pali, Chinese, or Tibetan scriptures, that we might divulge as to who is right and who is wrong. And, if we discern the common themes that run through these voluminous works, we find that wisdom, compassion, meditation, mindfulness and above all enlightenment lie at the common heart of all these variations on the Buddha’s Path.

Furthermore, by walking this Path we can taste liberation, which is the ultimate test as to whether we are walking the Buddha’s Way or not. True enough, it is easy to get caught up in rituals and doctrines and the like, and when this is done, we fall into the traps of sectarianism and religiosity, and this is a million miles from the intention of the Buddha, which was to establish the Way out of suffering. Therefore, if awareness is applied to our practice, then whether we call what we practice Theravada Buddhism, Pali Buddhism, Zen Buddhism, Pure Land Buddhism, Tibetan Buddhism, or no Buddhism at all, it will be in line with what the Buddha intended for us: the Way to end suffering.


khunbaobao said...

I appreciated your thoughts on this today. Thank you.

G said...

And I appreciate your comment, Khun Baobao. Khawp khun Khrap.

Adam said...

"Furthermore, by walking this Path we can taste liberation, which is the ultimate test as to whether we are walking the Buddha’s Way or not."

I think that this is the most important point here. Whether or not any of the suttas are the exact words of the Buddha are of little consequence. What matters is if they point in the direction of liberation.

80,000 dharma doors right?

G said...

84,000 Dharma Doors is the traditional number, Adam, but in these times of economic downturn, I guess even Dharma Doors can become scarcer! (Only kidding.)

You make an important observation regarding the exact words of the Buddha, Adam. Wherever we find inspiration to walk the Path is good, whether we view such inspiration as the words of the Buddha, 'Buddhism', or whatever isn't really the point. 'This' is.

Adam said...

you're right. where the heck did I get 80,000...? I know I must have read that somewhere....

G said...

We can read almost anything somewhere, Adam, especially in these days of the Web. Only yesterday, I read that America is the 'Land of the Free' - surely that's a typo!! (Free of what? Suffering? Self-delusion? Unwholesome roots? Ah, hang on a minute, I think I know: free of friends!!!) Only kidding all you lovely Americans out there...

isis de la noche said...

There is a saying in the Christian doctrine: "by the fruits you shall know them".

I can say about Chistianism, that there is almost nothing left from the message of the Christ in the rituals or practices that the Catholic Church stablishes in its doctrine.

There are more and more non spiritual persons that claim to be 'christians' and I think that the same thing happens with other religions..

Only what is real prevails.. And it's so evident that, with the time, the simplicity of the truth has been lost and only remains the empty forms that don't lead us to the enlightment or spiritual awakening; on the contrary: they keep us away from the real truth.

When Jesus said that we are made as God's image, he was talking about the soul, the real being, the divine part within the human being. But I think that these words were missunderstood and that's why we pray to a 'superman- like' god, that was made as our image...

I'm against all doctrines that show the emptiness that remains from the original truth, spoken by the prophets that originated them. I understand that the rituals are important when they help us to remember what we shouldn't forget... But the truth is that is the attitude of the believer that makes the ritual to be a real one. And it's easy to see wether it works or not: by the fruits of the tree. There is no mistake when we get to know a person by the acts instead or the words.

There is a light in a spiritual person's eyes that speaks by itself. There is no need of words when that happens and it doesn't matter the religion that the person practices.

One thing is sure: Buddha asd Jesus and Mohamed would be so dissapointed if they come back to see what people do on their behalf... All kind of aberrations are performed in 'God's name'. The word of the prophets has been distorted in order to justify what has no justification.

The hope that remains is that the truth also lives in the souls that could understand it when they first saw it... and keep themselves faithful to their path...


G said...

Thanks for the comments, Isis. You put forth many thought-provoking ideas. One that sparked an immediate response was the following:

"There is a light in a spiritual person's eyes that speaks by itself. There is no need of words when that happens and it doesn't matter the religion that the person practices."

Moreover, Isis, that Light can be seen first person, as it were, for if we turn our attention around 180 degrees from the world to what's right here, we see that Light as our very being.

Chana said...

As Buddhism spreads like a small wildfire in America, this is a very timely post on your blog space. No religious ritual or institution is going to bring us release of suffering. That can only happen from within the person. As Bankei keeps "preaching" we are all perfectly enlightened right now. Not a flaw exists in us. It is just that we keep making crap up that gets in the way. :) ( i dont think he says crap). :) So no matter what form of Buddhism, or for that matter any path. I hope that you realize that you are complete right now, with no flaws or anything to work on. The task is staying in this now of life....the only "time" we will ever have....don't waste it...more Bankei. :)


G said...

Is the making up of all this "crap" a flaw, Chana? Perhaps we need to experience the apparent unenlightened mind to appreciate the Uncreated "Mind." On the other hand, right now even the "crap" can be seen to be good, even this throbbing pain from cervical spondylosis!

Chana said...

I do not think you or who ever has cervical spondylosis has a flaw, i am sorry that this person has it. My younger brother has suffered with it for almost 30 years. Physical suffering brings with it much mental distress, that can not be avoided. Life is truly Dukkha, and almost everyday. Soon i will be 58 years old/young. The body is not the same as it was 20-30 years ago. Old Age.....nothing you can do about it....then comes death, the ultimate "enemy" of which no human being has any idea of what happens after that. Again...Dukkha, and there is very little we can do about it. ( like when life feels like it is out of joint. )
I was referring to the understanding and practice that comes from believing in a religion, that is beneficial for those who accept the religions ways and rituals. But, there is a different way of viewing the universe that is not religious, of which I think the Buddha, Christ, Merton, Bankei, Hung Po, Alan Watts, and many many more people have come to realize. It seems you have this realization too. It goes beyond religious ritual and the need for fellow worshippers. Once this "knowing the mind and its' nakedness" is realized, we know that we create our own reality. Suffering is a part of this reality, i do not know how anyone could think otherwise. Self-pity does not occur in animals, but it can ruin a persons life. Indeed, there is no one i have met who has blissfully walked through intense suffering. Please pardon me if anyone thought that is what my previous post was getting at.
Flaws in our lives are real, i can live with mine. I do not try to get rid of them. As I continue down the path, some of them fall away. Others do not.
I have noticed in Bankei's response to people who are truly suffering there is great compassion, but there is also a very firm rebuke not to make more of it than necessary, and use it for an excuse for anger and retribution on the world. Of course he is not religious. :)


G said...

Bodies are flawed. They are subject to aging and death, not to mention suffering. Furthermore, they are imperfect and weak, which are synonyms for the word 'flaw.' Seeing things as they are is a crucial step along the Buddha's Path.

This spondylosis is a painful reminder of these facts, as well as a way to transcend them. For, it is through contemplating suffering that we can understand and let go of it. Accepting this body as a flawed thing helps to see beyond it to the awareness of the Buddha shining amidst the painful sensations. Nevertheless, feelings of compassion arise for your brother, Chana - I know how he feels - literally!