Religion 101

As I discussed in my previous blog entry, if Hinduism seemed unfamiliar and strange to many of the students in my community college classes who are new to the study of Eastern religions, then Buddhism often seems even stranger, and perhaps in some ways even more challenging. It may even stretch, for some students and other newcomers to Buddhism, the very limits of what they regard as “a religion.”

On the one hand, there are some characteristics shared in common by both Hinduism and Buddhism which may therefore by now (after studying Hinduism) seem less strange or unfamiliar. For instance, like Hinduism, Buddhism also esteems not just one single holy book, but an entire vast library of sacred texts — several such libraries, in fact (the Pali Canon for Theravada Buddhism, the Chinese Canon for Mahayana Buddhism, the Tibetan Canon for Tibetan [Vajrayana] Buddhism).

Also like Hinduism, Buddhism affirms the view that humans (and other sentient beings) live not just one lifetime upon this earth but many lifetimes, caught in an endlessly recurring (and karma-driven) cycle of birth, death, and rebirth — until such time as they are at last able to break free of it altogether, permanently transcending this “wheel of rebirth” (samsara) once and for all, by attaining the radically transcendental state of nirvana (the Buddhist functional equivalent of the Hindu moksha, “release”).

After having first become acquainted with Hinduism, much of this should sound familiar — so far. However, as students or other newcomers to Buddhism continue to investigate its doctrines more deeply, some pretty striking and fundamental differences begin to appear.

For one thing, unlike Hinduism, there is simply no God in Buddhism — neither a personal monotheistic Creator God (like Vishnu or Shiva, or for that matter like the God of the Bible), nor even a nonpersonal monistic Absolute (such as the Hindu Brahman). Generally speaking, no such Deity per se (no such substantive Supreme Being of whatever sort) plays a role in the Buddhist religion, making Buddhism distinctively different not only from the more familiar Western monotheisms, but even also from Hindu-style theism (or monism).

Many students are initially surprised to learn that the Buddha is not thought of by Buddhists in quite the same way as God is though of by monotheists (whether Jewish, Christian, Muslim, or Hindu). Some, having grown up with the idea that religion is, by definition, all about God, begin to wonder whether Buddhism itself really even qualifies as a “religion.”

On the other hand, most Buddhists themselves would probably regard their Buddhism as most definitely their own “religion.” After all, Buddhism may not have a God, but it does have plenty of myths, rituals, scriptures, priests, monks, temples, monasteries, “denominations,” and of course all sorts of specific metaphysical beliefs and spiritual practices — all of which directly contribute to a comprehensive frame of reference which addresses, for Buddhists, questions about ultimate meaning, significance, purpose, and value, and which for this reason would seem difficult to regard as anything other than inherently and genuinely religious in character.

(As bestselling comparative religion scholar Karen Armstrong has remarked, the notion that Buddhism does not really qualify as “a religion” simply because it lacks a belief in a monotheistic God is “a very chauvinistic Western view, if I may say so. You’re saying this is what we regard as religion, and anything that doesn’t measure up to that isn’t. I think a Buddhist or a Confucian would be very offended to hear that he or she was not practicing a religion.” Armstrong further suggests that “Western people think the supernatural is the essence of religion, but that’s rather like the idea of an external god. That’s a minority view worldwide. I really get so distressed on behalf of Buddhists and Confucians and Hindus to have a few Western philosophers loftily dismissing their religion as not religious because it doesn’t conform to Western norms. It seems the height of parochialism.”)

For another thing, not only does the Buddhist religion not believe in the existence or reality of God per se (an essential ingredient in the minds of many folks, rightly or wrongly, for anything which calls itself a “religion”); Buddhism also does not believe in the existence of the soul — another feature commonly deemed to be an essential ingredient of religion. After all, much of contemporary popular Western religion seems to be heavily focused upon “saving souls”; is Buddhism suggesting that there is actually no such thing as a soul, per se, and hence simply nothing there to be “saved” in the first place?

How does a religion function, many newcomers to the study of Buddhism wonder, which has no use for a Creator God, and which lacks a belief in an eternal soul? (And, many also wonder: if Buddhists say there’s really no such thing as a soul, then just exactly what reincarnates?)

(To be continued, in Part Three.)





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