Friday, October 8, 2010

Buddha & Religion: Conclusion

From the beginning of this journey through the world’s major religions from the Buddha’s perspective differences between them were recognized. Religions are institutional aspects of societies that become fossilized and dogmatized, often obscuring if not burying the original spiritual insights that gave them impetus. A look at many of the sayings of both Jesus and Muhammad reveal as much, and the rigid caste system of Hinduism seems to have taken the teachings of karma and rebirth to an oppressive extreme. Nevertheless, from the reflections on these pages, it has hopefully become clear that there are important parallels between the teachings of the Buddha and religion. Let’s briefly review what we have found and then see where this leaves us – if anywhere!

When we examine Christianity, we find that, along with the other main world religions, morality forms an important substratum to its practice, with compassion particularly emphasized by both Christ and the Buddha. There are strong similarities seen in the lives of Jesus and the Buddha as well, from their miraculous conceptions to the radical transformations on the cross and under the Bodhi Tree. God the Father is more problematic from the Buddha’s viewpoint, as the former’s eternal individual existence contradicts the Buddhist revelations of no-self and the ultimate emptiness of all phenomena. In the teachings of the Christian mystics, however, as exemplified by Meister Eckhart, the image of God comes closer to the Buddhist conception of Nirvana, as we will see below.

The Islamic community (ummah) strongly resembles the Sangha established by the Buddha, with an emphasis on using community as a vehicle towards a deeper communion not only with others, but also with the Ultimate (God or Buddha; take your choice). Again, as with Christianity, the mainstream idea of Allah is not entirely in line with the Buddha’s descriptions of Nirvana, but probably as He is considered by Muslims beyond representation, there is slightly more convergence here. And, as with the Christian mystics, the Muslim Sufis often described their experiences in terms that are very close, if not exactly the same. (Think of the Sufi aim of fana and the Buddhist realization of nirodha (Nirvana), which both translate as ‘extinction’).

The Buddha made it clear that he didn’t think much of the Indian caste system, considering anyone enlightened as a true ‘brahmin.’ The Buddhist teaching that anyone, with the right effort and attitude, can awaken to their true reality is an egalitarian ideal that most duty-bound Hindus would surely have difficulties with. Another aspect of Hinduism that doesn’t agree with the Buddha’s tenets is its understanding of gods; for whilst they are eternal beings in Hinduism, their equivalents in Buddhism are long-lived but impermanent in nature. Even the commonly held concepts of karma and rebirth are not entirely in tune as it is a permanent separate self that reincarnates in Hindu believe, whereas the Buddha taught that no such permanent being exists. Despite these differences, the Hindu philosophy of Advaita Vedanta which teachings non-duality does come at least very close to the Buddha’s understanding that all things (and beings) are inextricably interdependent.

Buddha and Buddhism are not completely in agreement either, with all the major schools of Buddhism diverging from the original teachings of the Buddha. Buddha statues, used by every major sect of the religion were not only unknown during the Buddha’s lifetime, but for several centuries afterwards. As written previously, if such images along with other tools are used as skillful means to awaken to awaken the self-deluded mind, then this is at least in the spirit of the Buddha’s teachings, but the widespread supernaturalism and use of petitionary prayers are less easily reconciled with his Way. The Buddha established the Noble Eightfold Path (to enlightenment), and anything found in Buddhism that is not for that purpose is not truly of the Buddha’s Way. In contrast, anything that encourages spiritual awakening – whether from the Buddhist tradition or elsewhere – is compatible with the Buddha’s essential teachings on suffering and the ending of suffering, and brings us to the mystics, with whom we briefly flirted in the last reflection.

In the world’s mystical traditions, also known as the perennial wisdom, God is often seen as “not-God” (in the words of Meister Eckhart), and this brings the Buddha and religion together. For, mystical religion is about the letting go of the individual self and dying into a greater reality, which as we previously saw is variously known as God, Nirvana, Allah, Dao, Zen, Dao, Brahman, etc. And, in this aspect of mysticism we find the merging of Buddha and religion, where both are about living the enlightened life rather than believing in a particular set of dogmas. That this “not-God” is the same as our own “not-self” is readily at hand, if we are willing to look with an open mind and a loving heart. It is therefore most appropriate that we end this short exploration of Buddha and religion with an exercise that reveals their common Ground. If more people – of whatever faith or none – discover and live from this ‘Ground’ the world will be a much happier and fulfilling place. So, please take a few moments to do the following experiment, taking the time to reflect on what you actually experience in this present moment, and not what you believe or think you already know.

Picture God, Jesus, Buddha, Krishna, the Koran, Yin Yang, or some other holy image. (If you don’t want to do this, picture something else that you think is important, such as the Earth, a national flag, or a monarch.) Really look at this image, allowing your feelings towards it to rise to the surface of awareness, giving them time and space to flourish. (Such feelings might be love, devotion, admiration, appreciation, respect, etc.) Now, see where the image and related emotions are arising – on present evidence. What does this look like, and what feelings are associated with ‘it.’ Does it have a face like Jesus, script like the Koran, or colours like the Earth? Does it have any features at all, or is it a clear receptacle for both visual images and emotions to exist in? What are these words appearing in now, and the thoughts that sprout up in response to them? Is it a thought, a shape, a self, or a god? Or, is it a ‘not-thought,’ a ‘not-shape’, a ‘not-self’ and a ‘not-God’ that is an all-accepting and nonjudgmental space for the universe to manifest in? After finishing this reflection, try to maintain this attitude, seeing whatever is affront you and the lack anything whatever that is you: it’s a liberating experience!


Mahesh said...


Love reading your posts. There is one aspect that I find a tad inaccurate though, those are your views of Hinduism as compared, or should I say opposed?, to Buddhism.

The corrupted form of Hinduism present during Buddha's time is no reflection of Hinduism's worth, just as the corruption of Buddhist practices should not be seen as the failure of the Buddha's teachings.

Adi Shankara's Bhaja Govindam was said to have been composed when he observed a brahmin chanting mantras without realizing their true import and suggested the guy chant the Lord's name and focus on realization(Samadhi, Nirvana etc) instead of perfection in grammar etc. This is one instance where the proponent of the Hindu way of thought is clear about what works and what does not.

Manu's chaturvarna, basis of the caste system, was corrupted and wrongly interpreted to be hereditary. Swabhava determines caste. I could be the son of a shudra but if Sri Krishna grants me his vision and constant grace, then am automatically a Brahmin, a knower of Brahman..and Kings would bow before me.

There is too much to say and a comment is perhaps not an appropriate place. But as a hindu, who has bothered to go beyond what the popular opinion and prevailing culture defines it to be, I find your views on this topic inaccurate. Happy to discuss via email if you wish.

G said...

Thank you for your comments, Manesh.
You are correct that the 'Buddha & Religion' series has not focused heavily on the Advaita Vedanta version of Hinduism that you seem to adhere to. It is mentioned, however, as is Adi Shankara, who is quoted in the 'Buddha & Mysticism' post. Also, some of the good aspects of Hinduism are found in this series, including it's attitude to animals, and its wonderful use of art.
As to Buddhism, it has it's criticisms in the series, for when compared to the essential teachings of the Buddha, there is often an unskillful attitude found in institutionalized forms of this religion, as there is in all religions.
Your view of the caste system seems admiral, Manesh, but it is not the mainstream understanding of it found in the Indian subcontinent. And, as there is limited space and time available to write these posts, perhaps you can appreciate that every minority view of each religion featured here cannot be represented.
Having written this, it is great that you have taken the time to comment and share with us your understanding of Hinduism - this series on 'Buddha & Religion' is richer for your words, Manesh. Feel free to email to me if you wish, but it might benefit more people if you continue to post comments, as your words will be accessible to a much wider audience.

Anonymous said...

correction G,

The Islamic Sangha is not the 'sunnah',it's called the 'ummah'.

'Sunnah' is more of the prophet's examplirary conduct

G said...

Thank you for that important piece of info, Anon.
I will correct the mistakes in the post(s) as soon as the opportunity arises.

Anonymous said...


G said...

Anon: Thank you!

Anonymous said...

The Islamic community (sunnah) strongly resembles the Sangha established by the Buddha

This is all well and good except Buddhists are not killed for leaving the Sangha. Other than that, there's no difference at all. Nope.