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.
Buddha & Religion: Mysticism
“In every age there exist fervent mystics. God does not deprive this world of them, for they are its sustainers.”
(Al-Ghazzali, d. 1108-1111)
Mysticism is found in all the great world religions. In Christianity there has been a strong mystical thread that begins in the Bible and runs up to this very day, from Christ’s “The Kingdom of God is within you” to Thomas Merton’s exploration of Zen and Roman Catholicism. In this article, the main source of quotations is from such mystics as the amazing medieval Dominican priest Meister Eckhart who said, “The eye with which I see God is the same eye with which He sees me.” In Islam there is the mystical tradition known as Sufism, the most famous of its exponents being the poet Jalaluddin Rumi, who also features below. Hinduism also features a long history of mysticism, with the guru Shankara being one of its main mystical exponents. Buddhism could be said to be, in essence, a mystical tradition, rather than a religion that contains mystical movements, with the Buddha himself being a mystic in the purest sense of the term.
This brings us to an important point to make clear at the outset, which is that one person’s mysticism is another person’s heresy. There are many different definitions of mysticism, including magical practices, way out philosophies involving aliens and the like, not to mention those that involve claims regarding the reincarnation of Cleopatra or Napoleon. We are not concerned with such wild and wacky beliefs here, but in a much narrower description of mysticism known as the perennial philosophy or perennial wisdom. In this sense, mysticism indicates the dying of the illusion of selfhood into the greater reality of God, Nirvana, Dao, or a number of other concepts representing the deathless and indefinable part of us that is often also called the Void.
As mentioned, it is the death of the individual self or ego into the indescribable that characterizes the perennial wisdom, and it is here that we shall begin our brief exploration of this kind of mysticism. In the New Testament, Paul says, “I am crucified with Christ; it is not my life that I now live, but the life which Christ lives through me.” Paul is telling us that he has surrendered his ego to the greater reality of Christ, or God manifest in the world. This statement may trouble many Buddhists who are doctrinally allergic to the word ‘God,’ but we need to be bigger than our dogmas if we’re to penetrate the real meaning of the mystics quoted in this article.
God, as the mystic understands the term does not correspond at all to the commonly held beliefs involving some egotistic anthropomorphic deity gazing down on humanity from on high. For the mystic, God is something much less cartoonish, and much more subtle and immediate. In mysticism, God is that which transcends all individualism, including the individualism of a deity; God is not a separate being to us, but rather the very ‘being-ness’ that lies at the heart of everyone. As Meister Eckhart declares below, we should understand God as “not-God.” This “not-God” is much easier to relate to the Buddhist conception of Nirvana, or the Chinese idea of the Dao, and this is why the writings of such luminaries as Eckhart, Rumi, and Shankara appear more often than any other in the following paragraphs. They seem to have experienced God in the same way as Buddhists experience Nirvana. This can be seen if we put aside our conceptual clinging and read between the lines. There is great inspiration to be gained if we do so.
Returning to the statement of Paul’s that Christ lives through him, it can be seen that it is in the giving up of identifying with being the individual ego or self that such an experience is gained. Buddhists, of course, are well-exposed to the notion that it is this very self that needs to be transcended if we are to experience our true nature. This is awakening to the way things are (the Dharma), and mystics of all the main traditions have recognized that the ego is blocking our view of God or Buddha:
“Whatever form (feeling, perception, mental formation, and consciousness) there is, past, present, future, internal or external, gross or subtle, inferior or superior, whether far or near, all form (feeling, perception, mental formation, and consciousness) should, by means of right wisdom, be seen as it really is, thus: ‘This is not mine, I am not this, this is not my self.’" (Anattalakkhana Sutta, B.C.)
“Nothing burns in hell but the self.” (Theologia Germanica, c.1350)
“If you have not seen the devil, look at your own self.” (Jalaluddin Rumi, 1207-1273)
“Your own self is your own Cain that murders your own Abel. For every action and motion of self has the spirit of Anti-Christ and murders the divine life within you.” (William Law, 1686-1761)
The way to let go of the self and see the deathless beyond it is called prayer in most of the mystical traditions. This does not mean the commonly-held understanding of prayer, however, as a petition to some divine power intent on gaining something, but rather a series of practices or attitudes akin to Buddhist meditation. In this form of prayer, the mystic simply wishes, as Christ taught his followers to pray, that God’s will be done (rather than the individual’s own), and this corresponds with the Sufi Muslim’s intent to surrender completely to Allah, as in the whirling Dervishes graceful dance. This acquiescence is essential to the mystical merging into the divine, and is found in the Biblical injunction, “Be still, and know that I am God,” as well as in the following statements:
“Prayer makes the soul one with God.” (Julian of Norwich, c.1342-1420)
“The kernel of worship is melting away the self, and the rest of worship is merely the husk.” (Borhan al-Din Mohaqqeq, 13th century)
“The most powerful prayer, one well nigh omnipotent, and the worthiest work of all is the outcome of a quiet mind. The quieter it is the more powerful, the worthier, the deeper, the more telling and more perfect the prayer is. To the quiet mind all things are possible.” (Meister Eckhart, 1260-1327)
“Who is it that repeats the Buddha’s name? We should try to find out where this ‘who’ comes from and what it looks like.” (Xu Yun, 1840-1959)
So, as the Christian mystic Julian of Norwich points out, true prayer breaks down the egoistic barriers between the soul and God, rather than merely the former asking the latter for some favour or another. Again, Buddhists should elevate themselves above their conceptions of the words ‘soul’ and ‘God’ and see them in terms of mundane mind and Buddha Mind respectively. This is the “melting away of the self” that the Muslim Birhan al-Din refers to, which is facilitated by the absolutely quiet mind of Eckhart. Achieving this serene mental state usually requires a lot of discipline and skillful use of meditative tools such as the use of mantra that the Zen Buddhist Master Xu Yun mentions. For the mystic, such practices as mantra recitation, meditation, and the like are all aimed at quieting the mind to the point that it can see itself clearly. When this happens, the Unity that lies beneath the disparate elements of the self is revealed, and it is to this that the following words are commenting upon:
“You should love God as not-God, not-Spirit, not-Person, not-Image, but as He is, a sheer, pure absolute One, sundered from all duality, and in whom we eternally sink from nothingness to nothingness.” (Meister Eckhart)
“Behold but One in all things; it is the second that leads you astray.” (Kabir, b.1400)
“Though One, Brahman is the cause of the many. There is no other cause.” (Shankara, 789-820)
“One in all, all in One – if only this realized, no more worry about not being perfect.” (Seng-ts’an (d.606)
The nothingness that Eckhart describes is an essential part of the awakening of the mystic, for it is in the realization that the separate self is a delusion that the true interconnected oneness of life is revealed. This is called Brahman by the Hindu saint Shankara, but this label should no more be clung to than any other word used to describe the indescribable. Seng-ts’an, being a typical Zen Master does not even try to name the nameless, but instead highlights a practical result of seeing the unity behind the apparent diversity: that we will “no more worry about not being perfect.” For, in truth, there is no distinct self to be perfect or imperfect; there is just the way things are, the Dharma, the essence of which is that which the mystics variously call God, Zen, Allah, Buddha, Dao, Nirvana, and Brahman etc. This essence is also described as being deathless, for it is only separate things and beings that can perish, whereas the No-thing that lies behind all ephemeral phenomena is eternal:
“He who knows the soundless, odourless, tasteless, intangible, formless, deathless, supernatural, undecaying, uncreated, endless, unchangeable Reality, springs out of the jaws of death.” (Katha Upanishad B.C.)
“Past and future veil God from our sight;
Burn up both of them with fire.
How long will you be partitioned by these segments, like a reed?
So long as a reed is partitioned, it is not privy to secrets,
Nor is it vocal in response to lip and breathing.” (Jalaluddin Rumi)
“Time is what keeps the light from reaching us. There is no greater obstacle to God than time. And not only time but temporalities, not only temporal things but temporal affections; not only temporal affections but the very taint and smell of time.” (Meister Eckhart)
“Watchfulness is the path to the deathless, and heedlessness the path to death.
The watchful do not die, but the heedless are already like the dead.” (Dhammapada, B.C.)
All the great mystics speak of transcending not only the sense of being a separate self, but also of going beyond time, as do the quotations above. For, in the purest experience of this present moment, we discover eternity and deathlessness. It is aging phenomena that die, whereas that which is ageless and without a limited individual form cannot expire. The mystical process, whatever tradition or methods it uses, is ultimately aimed at breaking through the prison of mortality into the freedom of what both the Buddha and the Japanese Zen Master Bankei called the Unborn. Living as the Unborn we are no longer tied to the false ego and its eventual fate, but are liberated from all suffering as the very awareness that is the heart of every being in this universe.
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.
Buddha & Religion: Hinduism
The religion we call “Hinduism” is known to most Hindus as Sanatana Dharma (“the Eternal Law”), and traditionally governs every aspect of their lives. It is the third most widely followed faith in the world with roughly a billion believers, not only found in the Indian subcontinent, but also across the world with sizeable communities in countries such as Indonesia, Malaysia, South Africa, the UAE, the UK, and the US. Unlike Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism, Hinduism is not traced back to a single founder; and, unlike Christianity and Islam, it does have one god, but thousands.
Among the myriad deities found in Hinduism, are Shiva, Vishnu, Brahma, Krishna, Rama, Hanuman, Parvati, Sarasvati, Lakshmi, and Kali. The ‘big three’ are Brahma the Creator, Vishnu the Preserver, and Shiva the Destroyer. Brahma is the least popular of the three, whilst Shiva is very popular with ascetics and philosophers, and Vishnu (often in the form of Krishna) probably has more devotees than any other Hindu god. Rama is also an avatar (incarnation’) of Vishnu, while Ganesha is Shiva’s and sports an elephant’s head; Hanuman is a monkey-god. Unlike Christianity and Islam, Hinduism has female gods such as Parvati (consort of Shiva), Lakshmi (Vishnu’s missus), Saraswati (goddess of art and knowledge), and Kali (associated with sacrifice and death).
In the Pali Canon, the Buddha’s attitude towards gods is not atheist as many modern Buddhists would no doubt prefer, but rather he sees them as subject to suffering and death like all other living beings, only over a much longer time scale. Brahma – or a rough equivalent of him called Brahma Sahampati - makes regular appearances in the Canon, including at the Buddha’s enlightenment and death. He is one of many Brahma-titled gods in early Buddhism, along with other deities, demons, angels and ghosts also mentioned. None of these gods are exactly the same as their Hindu counterparts, however, and are neither eternal nor the origin of the universe, according to the Buddha.
The word dharma, which denotes ‘cosmic law’ or ‘ultimate truth’ in Buddhism, also means the former in Hindu parlance. It also has another meaning not found in Buddhism, which is ‘duty’. Hinduism teaches that we all have moral, social, and religious duties to perform, including worshiping the gods – or at least one or some of them; there are so many deities in Hinduism that it would surely be impossible to regularly worship them all. Encapsulated in the scripture called the laws of Manu, such duties dominate most devout Hindus’ lives, and have given rise to the caste system, with rules that dictate who a person can marry, what food they can eat, and the type of work they do, as well as other activities.
The Buddha’s view of castes seems to have been negative on the whole, seeing them as causing unnecessary suffering and divisions between people. Indeed, in the Dhammapada, he states that the true Brahmin (a member of one of the highest castes in Hinduism, the priests) is in fact anyone who achieves enlightenment, and that it doesn’t matter which caste that person was born into. Most predominately Buddhist societies have reflected the Buddha’s viewpoint and not inherited the Hindu caste system – Sri Lanka being the primary exception. The Buddha does teach us that we have duties of a sort, however, but that they are more general ones like being compassionate and friendly, rather than dictating specific social groupings.
Hindus employ various kinds of art to stimulate devotion to its gods. This includes statues of them and carvings, the latter of which adorn not only the inside of temples, but are also found on their exteriors. Gods and goddesses are often represented in colourful paintings as well, which are found in peoples’ homes and workplaces, as well as in temples. Theatre and dance are used to not only entertain but also educate Hindus in their religion. The Mahabharata and Ramayana scriptures are often used in the theatrical shows, sometimes put on by special religious acting troupes that live in temples. Similar setups involve highly-trained dancers that have a variety of intricate dance routines, with events from the life of the popular god Krishna being a common theme. Another art form used by Hindus is music, which includes both vocal and instrumental genres, typically involving hypnotic qualities that can induce meditative and devotional states of mind in both performers and their audience.
Although in early Buddhism, according to the Pali Canon, the Buddha discouraged his followers from such activities as acting and music, reflected in the modern world by the rather plain and unaccompanied chanting found in countries such as Burma and Thailand, later traditions have utilized incorporated music into their chanting, seeing this as skillful use of the medium to encourage attention and devotion in Buddhists. Art has long been used by Buddhists to illustrate the life and teachings of the Buddha and other great teachers, and statues are used in all Buddhist traditions across Asia. It would seem that if done in a spirit of mindfulness, such endeavours can be considered as complementary to other Buddhist practices; and in using various art forms in this way, the Buddha Way has much in common with Hinduism.
When the animal features of the deities Ganesha and Hanuman are considered – the former with an elephant’s head, the latter in the form of a monkey – it is not surprising that Hindus often have a close and compassionate relationship with animals. Indeed, all the important Hindu gods have animal mounts that they are frequently portrayed with, almost as if the animals are extensions of the gods’ own selves. This also reflects the closeness and affinity with animals that exists within the Hindu tradition, as does the vegetarianism which can be encountered across the Indian subcontinent. Vegetarianism is also found amongst some Buddhist traditions, most notably in China, and the Buddha viewed animals with the utmost respect and compassion, something reflected in the behavior of many Buddhists to this day. In this, Hinduism and the Buddha are seen to have much in common again.
Turning to some of the central doctrines of Hinduism and Buddha’s teachings, we again find similarities. Hindus believe in karma and reincarnation whilst the Buddha often taught about karma and rebirth. Essentially, Hinduism describes the human being as having three layers of being: the physical body, the jiva (soul), and the Atman, or (True) Self. The physical body is created in the womb, grows and ages, and then dies. The soul is believed to survive death And can be reborn in a variety of forms, such as an angel, demon, ghost, hell-dweller, animal or human, dependent upon the karma (actions) that it has done. The soul changes over its countless reincarnations. The Atman, on the other hand, travels from life to life unchanged, and is considered to be the imminent form of the transcendent impersonal God, Brahman. (Brahman is not to be confused with Brahma, the creator god.)
The Buddha also taught that we are subject to karma and rebirth, but with one major difference: anatta (not-self). All that we take ourselves to be, the body, mind, soul, and Atman do not comprise a self; they merely appear to. It is not a soul that is reborn, but certain aspects of the mind, and at heart we are empty of any permanent being or Being (Atman). That which we truly are, according to the Buddha, cannot be conceptualized or analytically dissected, for “it” is not a thing, and lies out of reach of the mind, which appears in “it” rather than the other way around. So, while karma and reincarnation/rebirth are common themes in the teaching of the Buddha and Hinduism, they are not identical. It is worth noting here that much of Buddhist teachings are derived from ancient Hindu ones, but because of the Buddha’s denial of an eternal self (soul) or Self (God), his understanding and that of Hindu theology can be seen to be different at heart.
Both Hinduism and the Buddha agree that liberation from karma and rebirth are the ultimate goal that all wise people will aim for. In Hinduism, this is known as Moksha, and in Buddhism it is called Nirvana. Basically, Moksha is the complete recognition that Atman and Brahman are one; it is the mystical union between devotee and God found in much mysticism around the world. The Buddha taught that even this idea should be let go of, however, and that Nirvana is the complete recognition that there is no Atman or Brahman. Some forms of Hinduism teach that the ultimate goal is not the liberation described above, however, but that it is living in a heavenly paradise such as that presided over by Krishna. Again, even heavens and hells in Buddhism are considered impermanent, existing for eons before dying away and being replaced by other similar phenomena.
Of the three dominant religions in the world today, Hinduism is the one that is most similar to the teachings and practices taught by the Buddha. It contains ideas and practices that closely resemble those found in the Way of the Buddha such as karma and meditation, whereas the other two major religions, Christianity and Islam, differ greatly from Buddhism in much of their doctrines and religious practices. Historically, Hinduism and Buddhism have been rivals in the Indian subcontinent, and this continues today in some parts of that highly diverse region, most notably in recent years in Sri Lanka. The similarities described above reveal much that both Hindus and Buddhists can build on if they wish to create more harmonious relationships in the future. Let us hope that they do.
Buddha & Religion: Islam
Islam is an important global force in today’s world. Of the estimated six billion people on this planet, approximately one and a half billion are Muslims. The far mass of these people are peace-loving as are most of us, and despite the world media’s love of portraying the small minority of violent Muslims as the norm. These so-called Islamists are aggressive to non-Muslims and their fellow Muslims alike, and despite some claims – by their enemies as well as by themselves – that they constitute true Islam, the truth is that they represent Islam at large no more than gun-wielding communists represent the majority of the world’s atheists. Therefore, in this article Islamists will not be the focus, but rather the centuries-old and worldwide mainstream forms of Islam that will interest us here.
Islam is a monotheistic faith that began in Arabia in the seventh century and quickly spread across North Africa and the Middle East. Today, it is found across Asia and has sizeable populations in both North America and Europe. It is centered on the teachings in its holy book he Koran (or Quran) which is believed to contain the actual words of Allah (God), as revealed to the religion’s founder, the Prophet Muhammad. As it is so important to Islam, it would be a good place to start in a comparison of the Buddha and Islam. Resembling some fundamentalist Christians’ view of the Bible, most Muslims consider the Koran to be the perfect word of God, and therefore everything in it is true and to be followed to the letter. This dependence upon the word as an infallible source of inspiration is something that stands in contrast to the insight of the Buddha, which reveals the truth of this moment as it is, prior to language. Scripture, and other Buddhist teachings, exist to assist on our awakening, not to demand our unflinching belief.
In the Koran, it is made clear that God is one, that is to say He is beyond association with any image or form, including Jesus. (Jesus is considered a prophet in the Koran, but neither the Son of God nor God Himself.) Therefore, Islam is a monotheistic religion that teaches the only unforgivable sin that we can commit is to identify anything with Allah, which means Christians that belief Christ to be God are in deep trouble! From the Buddha’s perspective, this belief in a single divine being that is all-powerful creator of the universe is simply a form of wrong view that takes us away from the truth of this moment and into the realms of fantasy. Traditionally, moreover, gods are recognized in Buddhism but are neither eternal nor omnipotent, so the Koran’s description of God is in direct contradiction to the understanding of the way things are according to the Buddha.
In the name of Allah, the Merciful, the Compassionate. All praise belongs to Allah, the Lord of the Worlds, the All-Merciful, the All-Compassionate, the Master of the Day of Judgment. It is You we serve and to You we pray for support. Guide us on the right path, the path of those that You have blessed, not that of those with whom You are angry, nor of those who go astray.”
(Koran, Sura 1.1-7)
Allah is not only creator but destroyer, not only the Compassionate bit also the Judge, and therefore there is as much fear of God as there is love for Him within Islam. Muslims believe that it is through God’s help that they can overcome life’s obstacles, and that if He chooses so, all their efforts will be in vain. It is up to every Muslim to follow the path of Islam, paying daily homage to Allah and living a righteous life, the reward for which will be eternity in paradise after one dies. This Muslim path is similar in some ways to the Buddhist Path, in that it includes a strong moral foundation to it, encouraging honesty and respectful behavior to others amongst other qualities. The emphasis on belief in Allah within Islam makes it very different to the Buddhist ideal of enlightenment, in which belief is irrelevant with the arising of the wisdom of the Buddha.
Part of the Muslim path to salvation is to perform the rituals of Islam and study the Koran. Like Buddhism, the Koran teaches that we are each responsible for our actions and thoughts, and that it is up to us to worship Allah or not. In this, there is a parallel in the Buddha’s teaching that we are all responsible for our own karma. The big difference is that like other theistic religions, Islam states that it is the Person of God that judges our actions as good or evil, whereas the Buddha taught that karma and its results are a natural process independent of any god or gods.
The ummah, or Islamic community is a crucial element in Islam, and in this it has similarities to the Sangha in Buddhism. Muslims are renowned for looking out for each other, and this communal spirit has its roots in the Koran, which teaches that the purpose of the Muslim community is to create a just and holy society. In the Koran, there are rules pertaining to marriage, inheritance and various other aspects of law which form the basis for Islamic law (sharia). The Buddha also taught that Buddhists should behave with wisdom and compassion towards each other. Here, there are parallels with Islam’s attitude to Muslim society, but an important difference is that Buddhists are encouraged to treat all beings with kindness, not just other Buddhists or even only humans.
After the Koran, the next most important source of Islamic teachings come from the Prophet Muhammad, who’s life and teachings (hadith) are also used by Muslims to guide them through life. He is seen as the perfect human, a devout God-fearing man who lived with complete devotion to the will of Allah. He was brave and led his followers in battle against their enemies, spreading Islam across Arabia, both in battle and in peace. Although discouraged from worshipping Muhammad, he is nevertheless as a role model for all Muslims, just as the Buddha is seen as a role model for all Buddhists.
“The most excellent jihad is that for the conquest of self.”
This has strong parallels with the following verse from the Buddhist Dhammapada:
“Though one may conquer a million men in battle,
Yet he is noblest victor who conquers himself.”
In Islam, it is the utter surrender of self to Allah that is the ideal that every Muslim should aim for, and it is the act of worship that he or she will achieve such abandonment. But worship is seen as merely rituals in a mosque, for it is in everyday acts that Muslims can also submit to Allah’s will, by obeying Islamic law and being generous to their fellow believers. There are similarities here with the Buddha’s teachings, in that Buddhists are encouraged to be selfless, putting the interests of others before themselves. Surrender for the Buddhist, however, is neither to God nor the Buddha, but to the way things are (the Dharma), which centre on the realization that there is in truth no substantial separate self in the first place. There is a movement within Islam called Sufism which has produced exclamations that seem to go beyond the usual Islamic ideas of surrender, however:
If I worship You
From fear of Hell,
Then burn me in Hell.
If I worship you
From hope of Paradise,
Bar me from its gates.
But if I worship You for Yourself alone
Then grace me forever the splendour of Your Face.”
(Rabiah, 8th Century Sufi)
This Face of Allah may be seen as the very Original Face of Buddha, as described in Zen Buddhism, and then we are in the realm beyond words and concepts (and beliefs) where the Buddha and Islam may truly meet, if not merge. This ‘Face’ could well be described as No-Face, or the space in which all things appear. It is not your face nor my face, but the Face of all, and certainly not the particular features of any Tom, Dick or Harriet. Another equivalence in the above verse by the Sufi mystic Rabiah is that the idea that we do something not out of hope for reward, but that we do it for its own value, whether that be worshipping Allah or chanting praise of the Buddha.
What we see when we compare the Buddha with Islam are many differences but also many similarities. If we focus solely on those things that are unalike, then they may seem to be worlds apart and grounds for dialogue and coexistence may appear fragile to say the least. But, if we also bring to light the aspects of Islam that compliment the Buddha and his teachings, then we have reason to believe that Muslims and Buddhists can live harmoniously together in this world, as they have done in the past across Asia. Of course, there have been times of strife, as when Islam first conquered India, or recently in Southern Thailand where an atmosphere of mistrust has descended into brutal conflict. But, if we focus on the teachings of Muhammad and Sufi mystics such as Rabiah, then we nay find the way to allow the Buddha and Islam to coexist in peace, something that both have been famous for promoting.
Buddha & Religion: Christianity
One third of the world’s population is Christian, which makes it an important force to be understood, albeit somewhat superficially in the limited context of this article. The basic belief in Christianity is, of course, centered on the Person of Jesus Christ. As part of the Holy Trinity, He is considered God by Christians, along the Father and the rather ethereal Holy Spirit, or Ghost. As humans, we have veered from the will of God, and therefore are full of sins that propel us towards eternal damnation in Hell. Unless we turn to Jesus, that is, and to use a Buddhist term, take refuge in Him.
As God the Son, Jesus can forgive us our sins and raise us to a state of redemption that saves us from eternal punishment after death. Instead, those that He saves will be resurrected on the Day of Judgment - just has He was three days after being crucified - and either elevated to Heaven to live with God forever as one of the Elect, or live for Eternity on a perfected New Earth that God will construct for the purpose. Moreover, all this is made possible by the Passion of Christ on the cross, when he sacrificed His own (mortal) life for the sake of sinners, taking on their sin and purifying them in preparation for their salvation. As can be seen from this, the role of Jesus as Savior is central to the Christian religion, and therefore it is worth spending time on Jesus if we wish to understand Christianity a little better.
Jesus says, “I am the Truth, the Way, and the Life.” (John 14.6) By this, He emphasizes that it is only through Him that humans can be saved from their sins. By Truth, is meant the Truth of God, by Way is meant the way to God, and by Life is meant eternal existence in the afterlife. Reflecting on this from the Buddhist perspective, there are clear doctrinal differences between Christianity and Buddhism, such as the centrality of the Holy Trinity (God, that is) which goes against the Buddhist understanding of gods as either impermanent heavenly beings, or as psychological archetypes. Looking beyond literal and dogmatic interpretations of these basic Christian beliefs, can we find areas of convergence between the persons of the Buddha and Jesus Christ?
Jesus was born of a virgin, Mary, impregnated by the Holy Spirit, and the Buddha is said to have walked and talked immediately upon birth, both miraculous events preceded in dreams had by the mothers of both, predicting the extraordinary nature of their offspring. The life and teachings of Jesus are looked upon as a template for all Christians to take inspiration from. Similarly, the Buddha’s life and teachings are also used by Buddhists as objects of reflection and inspiration. Both men were peaceful in their dealings with others, and yet delivered uncompromising messages that challenged their listeners to go beyond their usual limitations and reach higher states of consciousness. In the case of the Buddha, this exalted state of mind was called enlightenment (bodhi) and indicated a penetration of the mysteries of existence, as well as the happiness of liberation from suffering. For those following Jesus, it is salvation that is the ultimate aim of this life, as indicated above. Salvation and enlightenment are worth spending a little more time on here, as they are so important to Christians and Buddhists respectively.
Jesus is savior whereas the Buddha is doctor. By doctor, we point to the Buddha’s role in pointing out the illness (suffering or dukkha), the cause (desire or tanha), the cure (nirodha or the end of desire and suffering), and the treatment (the Path or magga). This role of (enlightening) physician is arguably the main one of the historical Buddha, but there are other Buddhas with different attributes. The main one that comes to mind when reflecting on the role of savior is that of Amitabha Buddha. Followers of this Buddha are essentially devotees rather than students, as with the historical Buddha, and therefore have religious life based on faith and salvation rather than study and enlightenment. Not that the followers of Amitabha are said to not achieve enlightenment, but that this is usually realized after being reborn in Amitabha’s heaven, rather like many Christians who believe they will be resurrected after death into Heaven.
Returning to this idea of sin as being central to Christian theology, it is worthwhile considering this doctrine in relation to the Buddhist experience. In Genesis, the first book of the Bible, God creates the first two humans in the form one man and one woman, called Adam and Eve respectively. They lived in a kind of primeval paradise until their innocent enjoyment of life was ruined when they bit from an apple from the forbidden Tree of Knowledge. This was the Original Sin that was the cause for all subsequent sinfulness and suffering. The nearest thing to sin that we find in Buddhism is avijja, or ignorance, which lies at the heart of the unenlightened state that most beings find themselves in. And, just as salvation is the answer to the problem of sin, so enlightenment is the answer to the problem of ignorance for Buddhists.
Morality plays an important part in the Buddhist life just as does in the Christian one, something that is often glossed over by some modern Buddhists who wish their own libertine tendencies unhindered by challenging teachings such as the Five Precepts (which are not to kill, not to steal, not to commit sexual misconduct, not to lie, and not to take intoxicants). Just as the Ten Commandments influence Christians to behave in certain virtuous ways, so too Buddhists are encouraged to live a good life as an integral part of the Path to enlightenment. Being evil and believing in Jesus Christ are contradictory in their very nature, for Christianity teaches that to really believe in the Son of God and then receive His grace via the Holy Spirit is to live a new life, exemplified in the words of Paul: “I am crucified with Christ; the life I now live is not my life, but the life which Christ lives through me.” As with Buddhists being saved by Amitabha, Christians saved by Jesus are not free to do whatever they want, despite some occasionally hedonistic and unorthodox interpretations to the contrary within both traditions.
There is a fundamental difference between this life in which “Christ lives through me” and the Buddhist experience of enlightenment, which is, in essence, the perspective of the Buddha. Whilst the devout Christian remains essentially separate to Christ, no matter how devoted she or he may be, the awakened Buddhist is in complete union with the Buddha, for the realization of the two is identical: emptiness lies at the heart of all, and to live from the direct experience of this inner void is to be the very embodiment of bodhi (enlightenment). For the Christian, God remains God and devotee remains devotee, for neither is commonly perceived to be empty at heart. (For some Christian mystics such as Meister Eckhart, this is not necessarily the case, but they form a tiny minority of Christendom both historically and in the modern world, and have often been considered heretics. See a glimpse of their view of God and its relationship to the Buddha’s perspective below.)
Paul never claimed to be Christ; instead, he wrote that he had surrendered to the will of God in the form of Christ. All that he subsequently did in the name of God was done under the influence of his Savior, but not as that divine Person. When I gaze back and see the emptiness that is my True Nature, I am witnessing the very same empty clarity that the Buddha did, and am therefore identified with the awakened one. This is because there isn’t more than one emptiness; my emptiness is yours, and yours is the Buddha’s. In Christianity, however, the essence of Christ, God that is, is conceived as a particular being different and therefore separate to the Christian’s individual essence (the ‘soul’). From this perspective, there can be no complete union between God and man (or woman, for that matter). This is a crucial difference between the Christian ideal of the devout Christian and the Buddhist ideal of the enlightened one.
Going back to the subject of Christian mysticism and the Buddha, there are similarities to be found here, and such mystics as St. John of the Cross, Julian of Norwich and Meister Eckhart. Possibly with the notable exception of the latter, even such luminaries as these still retain the taste of dualism, with a subtle divide between God and devotee. Meister Eckhart is an interesting expression of Christian mysticism, however, when he says, “The eye by which I see God is the same eye by which God sees me.” For, while it may appear that separation remains with his reference to God and I, the two can be viewed as the Eckhartian equivalents of the Buddhist understanding of emptiness and form, but dressed in theistic language. And, as previously mentioned in the article Linji's True Eye, Eckhart describes the Godhead as ‘pure nothingness’ (ein bloss niht). Eckhart was forced by the Roman Catholic Church to recant some of his more unorthodox statements, revealing the gap between the viewpoint of the Buddha, based on enlightenment, and the mainstream Christian conception of God.
Christianity and the Buddha have much that divides them; the former’s dogmas involving the Trinity in contrast to the latter’s view of gods as impermanent beings; the Christian ultimate objective of eternal individual existence and the Buddhist goal of enlightenment; and, the ultimate separation of God and soul, as opposed with the Buddha’s vision of the interdependence and unity of existence. As for those aspects of Christianity that parallel the Buddha’s teachings, we can look at the centrality of the life and person of Jesus Christ and those of the Buddha; the importance of morality in both the Christian tradition and the precepts taught by the Buddha; and, finally, the emphasis put upon compassion and kindness by both Jesus and the Buddha. With the latter in mind, both Christians and Buddhists can endeavor to work together to make this world a better place to live. May all beings be happy!