Fugitives from Fundamentalism

The Musings of Adult Missionary Kids (MKs) & Former Born-Again Believers

Some thoughts on Buddhism

Posted by Paulo on August 21, 2009

BuddhaWhen I was 18 and left the mission field and came to the US for college, no longer a Christian but with a vague belief in God and a possible afterlife, I acquired access to a large number of books at the university library. At the time, having endured and escaped the Christian world, I was not searching for religion but for knowledge about religion. I had read Kerouac’s On the Road back in high school and later when I read The Dharma Bums I became curious about Buddhism. Like most people in the West, I didn’t know much about eastern religions. All I knew was that Buddhism was an eastern religion embraced by some intellectuals and hipsters in the West and that all fundamentalist Christians considered it “dangerous” (because it opened your mind to demons, you know). So I read about it.

Two things about Buddhism that stood out to me made it very different from other religions. First is the idea that ultimately all things are an illusion. Christianity also holds the idea that this world is not the ultimate reality and that one day we will be in the real eternal realm after we die, but Buddhism takes this further and states that even the afterlife, gods, even your self, is an illusion. A transitory perception caused by your mind, which is nothing but a part of a swirling world of atoms interacting. So ultimately things don’t have any real, permanent existence. It’s all transitory and part of the show. From a scientific perspective, this is more accurate than the reality that Christianity teaches. It was an idea that I could relate to.

Second, instead of focusing on sin as the cause of our suffering, Buddhism goes straight to the problem of suffering itself. In Buddhism, suffering is caused by craving (desire). When we crave something, we suffer. When we see something desirable, we crave it, and by not having it, we suffer. When we’re in pain, we crave for relief and suffer. So at the root of suffering itself is craving. By ceasing the craving, we cease the suffering. What you have to do is get rid of so much craving. They do this by training their mind to be aware of these cravings and to have control over them (with techniques like meditation and stuff). So the Buddhist is not concerned with following God and avoiding sin (no such thing in Buddhism), but rather, at reducing suffering. This to me sounded like a much more practical approach to life. In Christianity, often it seemed to me like suffering was something that God put on earth as a curse for us to endure because of Adam and Eve’s original sin. We just had to be good lil’ Christians and endure it the best we could, which seemed just plain absurd.

There are many types of Buddhism, but most of them have these fundamental points in common. According to what I’ve read, Buddha himself did not believe in an immortal soul. The soul too would one day cease to exist. He taught that with effort, one could achieve enlightenment and nirvana in this lifetime.

These days I no longer believe in God or the afterlife (it’s possible, but where’s the evidence?) and I am not a Buddhist, but there is much about this religion that reflects my own thoughts and helped me come to the conclusion of ideas I had all along.

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25 Responses to “Some thoughts on Buddhism”

  1. JN said

    I think many aspects of Christianity and Buddhism are compatible. Even the idea that craving is the root of suffering can be paralleled to the story (or myth, if you want) of Adam and Eve. Whereas most Christians think that it’s the actual act of eating a fruit that caused suffering, it was more likely their hunger for knowledge that created their sin. Without this kind of knowledge there really isn’t such a thing as sin or right and wrong (sin being defined here as knowing what’s right, but doing what’s wrong). A male rabbit can decapitate its young with no guilt, since it’s just doing what male rabbits do and cannot escape it.

    • Paulo said

      Yes, JN, I agree that in the traditions there are many similar precepts in the moralities they preach.

      The real difference there would be that without God there is no sin, only actions and consequences. In Christianity, God is the dictator of absolute morality. The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, from which Adam and Eve were forbidden to eat from, is a symbol that only God can determine right from wrong, and that we as humans have no right to figure out morality for ourselves. Christians must follow God and keep his commandments. In Buddhism, there is no God and no concept of Christian sin. In Buddhism, it’s not about avoiding sin and following the will of God. It’s all about actions and consequences. Buddhism focuses on being aware of our actions and the effects they create.

      • JN said

        I guess it largely depends on interpretation. I think it’s a little unfair to compare an idealized form of Buddhism with a diminutive form of Christianity. God can hardly be called a dictator of absolute morality if he is (in fact or theory) the ultimate reality. ‘Dictator’ implies that he has assumed power and is reigning like a tyrant. If the Christian God exists, it is impossible for him to be a dictator or a tyrant since without him there would be nothing else. Whether you believe that or not is irrelevant. For the sake of argument, I think you’ve got to try to be fair to both sides.

        What’s being said isn’t all that different once you get past the definitions and other linguistic mumbo jumbo. When you boil it down, Christianity is all about cause and effect, or actions and consequences, too. Although some Buddhists might not use the word sin, they realize that some actions have negative consequences. While the particulars may very, the structure is fairly similar. Both are meant to help people live a moral and right life.

        What I was originally getting at in my first post is that despite Buddhism being demonized in many circles, like ICA, some things fairly compatible and not as different as they may seem. Whatever the case, Buddhism is not the big evil religion ICA folks painted it out to be.

  2. Paulo said

    Yeah, it all depends on your interpretation. I don’t know your interpretation of Christianity, but these fundamental concepts of Christianity I am talking about hold true for most of Christianity. I believe I am being fair to both sides when I refer to fundamental points of both religions and how they differ. And when I refer to God as a dictator, it is in the sense that he dictates right from wrong, being the source of absolute morality. (Yeah, the Stalinesque allusion was intentional.)

    You’d be surprised, but despite the similarities in moral teachings, many Christians (a lot more than just the ICA lot) look at Buddhism with disapproval. Main reason of course, Buddhism doesn’t help you put faith in Christ.

  3. “What you have to do is get rid of so much craving. They do this by training their mind to be aware of these cravings and to have control over them (with techniques like meditation and stuff). So the Buddhist is not concerned with following God and avoiding sin (no such thing in Buddhism), but rather, at reducing suffering.”

    This brings to mind addiction therapy. Much of my counseling of clients suffering from addiction is focused on assisting them with reduction of cravings, especially the intensity of their cravings. Developing the self-discipline to live without the substance they crave is a crucial component in the recovery process. Reduction of cravings for the substance reduces their suffering. Clients work on acquiring a coping skill inventory, based on their personal preferences, typically including the use of relaxation techniques (and forms of meditation). For my clients, the pain killers (opiates) they are addicted to actually end up increasing the suffering they were attempting to alleviate. Opiate addiction never goes away. You don’t recover from it completely, ever. So the best one can do is develop the self-control to diminish the cravings.

    Buddhism makes a lot of practical sense in application, particularly with learning self-discipline and having responsibility for the effects of our actions, without all the sin “mumbo jumbo”. Cause and effect in Christianity doesn’t amount to a hill of beans–God has already told you how to behave, so you don’t own that responsibility.

    • Paulo said

      “God has already told you how to behave, so you don’t own that responsibility.”

      Well said.

    • JN said

      You would make a very staunch Calvinist.

      • Christians, even Calvinists, don’t develop their own morality. They don’t have the responsibility of deciding what’s right or wrong, and thus, have no responsibility for the consequences. Although, sure, the Christian belief system supports the human ability to make a choice whether to do what’s right or wrong, good or evil, as predetermined by the Almighty God, and laid out in His Word. Still, theoretically God has to lift his all-powerful, all-knowing hand temporarily to allow any Christian, including you, to make that choice before He puts it down on you again. Let’s not forget he created you exactly the way you are and knows everything about you, Calvinist or not.

  4. Paulo said

    Just a bit of a rant…

    Going along the lines with what Charity said, it’s a Christian’s responsibility to obey God, not to decide what one’s personal morality should be. It’s fair to say that a Christian may try to seek what is “right” in all moral issues in one’s life, but that isn’t the same as trying to decide what morality should be. Christians determine the moral value of an action not so much based upon its consequences, but rather, by whether it conforms to their absolute moral code. (All abortion is murder. Period. Therefore, no stem cell research.) Just look at how Christians despise moral relativism.

    Christians determine moral values based upon biblical principles, and sometimes they take actions that conform to biblical principles regardless of their consequences. That’s why if Abraham kills his son because he says God told him to do it, it’s not murder.

    • JN said

      Yeah, we’re kind of straying from the original intent of my posts…but I guess that’s bound to happen around here. Honestly, I didn’t really follow Charity’s logic.

      “It’s fair to say that a Christian may try to seek what is ‘right’ in all moral issues in one’s life, but that isn’t the same as trying to decide what morality should be.”

      Yeah, I think that’s pretty fair in a broad, over-arching kind of way. Some things are bound to change with time, but I guess the ultimate morality would still be the same (although Christians differ in their opinions of what is absolute and what isn’t).

      Christians determine the moral value of an action not so much based upon its consequences, but rather, by whether it conforms to their absolute moral code.”

      I think this is largely true in practice, to a fault in many cases. Personally, I think Christians need to take a more holistic approach to life. Sometimes they focus so hard on the details that they miss the big picture.

      Christianity has made its name as a religion of absolutes, but there are probably far fewer absolutes than what people claim. Many of the things in the Bible are just guidelines, sometimes even ones that are limited to a certain point in time. Paul’s warning against alcohol is not the 11th commandment and neither is his instruction for a woman’s role in church. Anyway…that’s a whole new topic, and I really don’t have time for it.

      • Paulo said

        “Some things are bound to change with time, but I guess the ultimate morality would still be the same (although Christians differ in their opinions of what is absolute and what isn’t).”

        You see, now that is the problem. If there is an absolute morality, then why do so many Christians differ in their opinions? Who is right?

        “I think this is largely true in practice, to a fault in many cases. Personally, I think Christians need to take a more holistic approach to life. Sometimes they focus so hard on the details that they miss the big picture.”

        Yeah, I think you’re right. If I remember correctly, Jesus summed up the big picture in 2 commandments:

        … And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength: this is the first commandment. And the second is like, namely this, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. There is none other commandment greater than these.

        Mark 12:30-31

        PS: Notice how the verse still works if you replace “the Lord thy God” with “thyself.”

  5. … And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength: this is the first commandment. And the second is like, namely this, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. There is none other commandment greater than these.

    Mark 12:30-31

    PS: Notice how the verse still works if you replace “the Lord thy God” with “thyself.”

    I was thinking the same thing.

  6. The Chaplain said

    I think most of this conversation depends on how you define terms, especially “free will.”

  7. Some more of my opinions and thoughts:

    In a sense, all of life really is just an illusion. Scientifically speaking, we are, everything is, a bunch of atoms. Someday, we will die, and our appearances will dissipate. Life is a stage for these appearances. I like this bit about Karma from wikipedia:

    In Buddhism, Karma specifically refers to those actions (of body, speech, and mind) that spring from mental intent and which bring about a consequence (or fruit, Sanskrit: phala) or result. Every time a person acts there is some quality of intention at the base of the mind and it is that quality rather than the outward appearance of the action that determines its effect.

    What is the quality of the will behind our actions? It seems like it’s important to know who you are truly. Your character. Everything we put out into the world is a mask of that character. Some days, I almost can’t bear falseness. People hide behind words. Behind appearances. Do I get angry about this? Yes! People want to appear a certain way. There’s not much difference between you and I. We follow our wills, and are driven by instinct. But, like I said, we will someday die, you will die, and the appearances will be gone.

    I’ve been reading about Buddhism off and on for many years. Tidbits here and there from authors like Alan Watts. Somewhere I read something like this:

    It changes your experience of living when you start to envision yourself as everyone around you and realize you are no different from the homeless bum on the street (or a dictator–IMO). You are him and he is you.

    I don’t agree with this in a literal sense, that I am you, but I think we are more alike than different as humans. And, though I can’t read a mind, I can connect with the experience of being human. I can see how I could be you. Even if I’m not 100% real, just as you are not, as the humanist or Christian or Buddhist is not, for me, it’s important to experiment with myself and my thoughts to get closer to this kind of realness. Here’s to being me! We are all players putting on a show, but I think some people are more real than others.

    • Paulo said

      2 things I like about Buddhism:

      – Its emphasis on empathy. This would be roughly defined as the ability to put yourself in other people’s shoes. Empathy in Buddhism is the basis for its preaching of compassion towards other living beings.

      – Its emphasis on reason. Buddhism does not require you to take things on faith. It encourages you to think things through for yourself and not just blindly believe in established doctrines.

      Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it. Do not believe in anything simply because it is spoken and rumored by many. Do not believe in anything simply because it is found written in your religious books. Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders. Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations. But after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it.

      – The Buddha

      • The Chaplain said

        I like this quote a lot. It sounds like a summary of the critical-thinking process.

      • Paulo said

        500 years BC, ma man. 500 years.

      • The Chaplain said

        It deserves to be on the quotes page (hint, hint).

      • JN said

        Paulo, what are some good examples of Buddhist empathy? I’ve never really thought of Buddhists as particularly empathic.

      • Paulo said

        One of the principles of Buddhism is compassion towards all living beings. There’s a ton of examples of how Buddhism stresses empathy as a method of developing compassion, here are just a few examples from The Dhammapada : Section X : Violence

        129. All tremble at violence; all fear death. Putting oneself in the place of another, one should not kill nor cause another to kill.

        130. All tremble at violence; life is dear to all. Putting oneself in the place of another, one should not kill nor cause another to kill.

        133. Speak not harshly to anyone, for those thus spoken to might retort. Indeed, angry speech hurts, and retaliation may overtake you.

        The Dhammapada is part of the Pali Canon, the Theravada Buddhist canon of scriptures, probably the most well-known segment. Buddhists today preach non-violence, their basis being compassion for all living beings. Dalai Lama comes to mind. For more info on Buddhist ethics and practices, see The Five Precepts.

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