For those who have become disillusioned with traditional Christianity, Judaism, or Islam, the religions that originated in Asia can be very appealing. The Buddhist and Hindu traditions contain so many variations, there is pretty much one to fit almost any inclination in belief. Want rigorous ritual to achieve mystical insight? Tibetan (aka Vajrayana) Buddhism would be the ticket. Prefer a simple, ecstatic approach to liberation from the cycle of rebirth? Join the dancers dedicated to Lord Krishna.
But for those who put a higher value on truth than personal comfort or taste, all of the Eastern spiritual paths raise more questions than they answer (not the least of which is why their theories about here and the hereafter contradict each other). These are not issues that are easy to recognize by members of each tradition, since they tend to talk among themselves and are often not informed enough to answer questions from outsiders (I base this conclusion on having discussed these with scholars and ordinary believers around the world).
I am going to cite the Complete Idiot’s and Dummies guides to highlight the issues for a couple of reasons (besides being readily available). One is because the most sophisticated sources tend to obscure the problems of the theology with a cloud of excessive and irrelevant intellectual detail. Second, these introductory books are written by recognized authorities and carefully edited, with around 400 pages of clear explanations for non-experts (the humor can be flippant, but also be revealing). Wikipedia also generally has more or less objective summaries of the spectrum of belief in each tradition.
The first problem with Buddhism is that we do not have reliable sources on either his life or teachings. A less than ringing endorsement about this comes from religious historian Karen Armstrong in Buddha: “It is obviously difficult to write a biography that meets modern criteria because we have very little information that can be considered historically sound…but we can be reasonably confident that Siddhatta Gotama did indeed exist and that his disciples preserved the memory of his life and teachings as well as they could.”
Let us assume that the highlights of his life are accurately remembered. Siddhartha (or Siddhatta) was a prince of the Hindu warrior caste in what is now Nepal. He was born in 563 BC and became disturbed after encountering suffering outside of his comfortable world for the first time when he was 29.
He renounced his privileged life to go on the road to find the truth about the nature and purpose of life. After achieving enlightenment under the Bodhi tree at 35, disciples gathered around him and preserved his teachings until his death in 483 (I have been to the site where he first explained his ideas at Sarnath, India, and discussed his philosophy with the staff).
But even in his lifetime, the meaning of his teachings was vigorously debated among followers. The Buddha often refused to be drawn into metaphysical speculation, preferring to focus on practical application of his ideas, leaving many philosophical questions unanswered.
Buddhists do agree that he taught that all suffering comes from attachment to the things of this world. Spiritual living can lead to detachment from such desires, extinguishing the impulse that would otherwise lead to reincarnation (achieving this state of “nirvana” thus ends the individual’s rebirth).
Meditation is used to calm the mind and care is taken to cultivate right thoughts and take right actions.
Three months after the Buddha’s death, the First Council convened to recall his teachings. According to this oral tradition, it divided them into three “baskets”: the first was a collection of discourses about practices to lead an enlightened life; one was for the 225 rules to guide monks; the last was the Buddha’s analysis of the nature of mental and physical reality.
A Multitude of Buddhisms
The oldest account of the Buddha’s life and teachings, known as the Pali Canon, was written B.C. 88-29, and the oldest extant type of Buddhism, Theraveda, bases its conservative philosophy on this.
But Pali is not the language the Buddha spoke, so this raises questions about the accuracy of the transition from oral transmission. Also, Theraveda is only one of the 18 earliest Buddhist traditions (as Wiki notes, serious schisms appeared B.C. 450-250).
Today, there are about 124 million Theravedans, concentrated in Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Myanmar, and Sri Lanka. Yet despite its antiquity, Theraveda is the minority path of Buddhists today.
There are about 500 million adherents of the Mahayana tradition (differences in estimates of the number of Buddhists in each path are due to trying to measure primary loyalty, given the Asian tendency to mix a variety of religious beliefs and practices).
Mahayana’s original scriptures were written B.C. 100-100 A.D., but many of its sects developed their distinct philosophies many centuries later in the areas where they are concentrated today, in China, Taiwan, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam.
Although Mahayana is quite diverse, Tibetan Buddhism is sufficiently distinct to qualify as the third major version. It was formed when Mahayana spread from India to Tibet in the 8th century, combining there with the native Bon animism and developing its own unique mystical philosophy. It has about 20 million believers.
One might wonder how the numerous and often contradictory Mahayana traditions could claim to be closer to the truth than Theraveda, since their own scriptural sources originated many centuries later (the essence of the Pali Canon is believed to go back to the councils after the Buddha’s death). There are two answers Mahayana proponents provide.
One is to claim that the Buddha secretly provided the full truth to only a few disciples who were ready to receive what the masses could not accept at the time. This is believed to have been passed down secretly by oral tradition until it was written down (although it is not clear why a large group of people would be more prepared for the full truth 400-500 years later).
Also, the even later Mahayana traditions are said to have been revealed direct from Buddhas and bodhisattvas in the heavens (bodhisattvas are those who delayed their ascension to Buddhahood to help others on earth and continue to intervene). Mahayana did not even influence Buddhism in India until 400-500 A.D.
Whatever one thinks of those claims, the wide appeal of Mahayana is obviously rooted in its fundamental difference with Theraveda. Theraveda sticks to an interpretation of the Pali scriptures that makes liberation from rebirth most likely for monks (with the average Buddhist gaining good karma by supporting them).
But Mahayana, known as the Great Vehicle, offers a way for the masses to attain this with simple rituals, like repeating a mantra (along with right living and thinking).
But if you accept Mahayana as the true path Buddha intended, you come up against the huge differences between the many groups in that tradition. Some of the most prominent:
*Nichiren Shoshu of Japan promises liberation to those who chant its “namu myoho renge kyo” mantra, which is popular with Westerners (though the appeal has been complicated by a recent split between the priests and the laity, the latter starting the Soka Gakkai movement). The founder of Nichieren, incidentally, declared other forms of Buddhism to be inspired by demons.
*Chinese Pure Land claims to have been revealed by Amitabha, known as the Buddha of Infinite Light, a transcendental being who was once a bodhisattva and created a mystical realm where all people and things would eventually dwell who have complete faith in Amitabha. He is essentially the Buddhist version of a Jesus who can save anyone who is willing to accept him as the savior. Closely associated is Avalokiteshvara (or Kuan-yin), another bodhisattva, who is an intermediary for mortals who pray to Amitabha, similar to the way Catholics view the Virgin Mary.
*A variation on Pure Land, Jodo Shinshu has more followers in Japan than any other Buddhist denomination. It claims that all beings are already enlightened and there is nothing anyone needs to do except express gratitude to Amitabha.
*Zen was taken from India to China, but now thrives primarily in Japan and the West. It claims a “special transmission” from the Buddha to Mahakashyapa. It emphasizes using intensive meditation to realize that there is no difference between the individual and the rest of the world, the “non-dual experience.”
Tibetan Buddhism also has many variations, with practitioners following a teacher to learn how to use complex rituals to attain enlightenment, including chanting, music, meditating on diagrams (mandalas), tantric sex, and visualization of a deity, with whom one is to identify.
Just as liberal Christians dismiss the differences between radically different denominations (such as Calvinists and Jehovah’s Witnesses), Buddhist intellectuals make light of Buddhism’s variations. Yet the truth cannot be simply a matter of picking whatever fits one’s preferences, since the teachings contradict each other. Most adherents just accept the particular strand of belief and practice they grow up with (you will not find many Nichiren devotees in Tibet).
If the Buddha brought enlightenment to humanity, why so much confusion among his followers?
In or out of Buddhism, to assert that there is a greater amount of truth in one system compared with others is often frowned on (except by evangelical Christians, who warn those who do not accept Jesus as their savior that they will go to hell). Yet not seriously debating the differences does not help people move towards the truth.
Adding to Buddhism’s insulation from serious criticism is its respectability among intellectuals across the spectrum of religion and philosophy. The apparent lack of dogmatism, the variety of belief systems to choose from, and the focus on practical benevolence are appealing.
Even atheists like it because the Buddha never said there was either an afterlife or a God, even though many Buddhists treat him like one, pray to bodhisattvas, and believe in supernatural realms.
But I believe Buddhist philosophy, regardless of the school, has some significant weaknesses in its interrelated issues of the nature of the soul, reincarnation, the ability of humans to achieve enlightenment, and the cause of suffering.
The No Self
The respected American philosopher Ken Wilbur articulates the tradition’s radical view of the self and what actually reincarnates in “Death, Rebirth, and Meditation” (in What Survives? edited by Gary Doore):
"It is very difficult to support the idea of reincarnation by appealing to ‘evidence’ in the form of alleged past-life memories, because in most cases these can be shown to be only a revival of subconscious memory trace from this life. It is the soul, not the mind, that transmigrates. Specific memories, ideas, knowledge, and so on belong to the mind and do not transmigrate. Perhaps a few memories can sneak through every so often, but these would be the exception (only Buddhas or their incarnations as tulkus, it is said, can remember past lives).
Buddhism’s idea is that the individual soul has only a temporary existence. There is an illusion of separateness from the Absolute that dissolves when the Absolute is directly experienced. In the 'highest Tantra teaching,' there exists at the very center of the heart chakra, in each individual, an 'indestructible' drop that transmigrates, the mind of enlightenment or one’s spiritual essence."
So the individual is just a temporary collection of karma that somehow holds together during transmigration and contains the programming dictating what will happen in the next life.
In Buddhism for Dummies, written by Jonathan Landaw (former translator for the Dalai Lama) and Stephan Bodian, the radical notion of the “no self” that is somehow responsible for its fate is emphasized, if not clarified:
"On many occasions, Buddha said that your mind creates, shapes, and experiences everything that happens to you, without a single exception. This is the small mind, the analytical, conceptual mind that tends to identify itself as a limited, separate ego or self. According to Zen, big mind or Buddha Mind pervades the whole universe. Everything you experience is nothing other than this Mind.
When the illusion of a separate self dissolves, only nirvana remains. There’s no longer any tendency to protect a separate me, because it’s clearly seen that such a me has never existed, except as a collection of passing thoughts and feelings."
This interpretation of Buddhism shares a philosophical “unqualified monism” with Advaita Vedanta, the most radical branch of Hinduism, which says that there is nothing in the universe but the Absolute.
But if the Absolute is an ideal and undivided state, why is it having this schizoid dream of separateness? If we are not really individual spirits, why should we be exhorted to make an effort to overcome this illusion?
The evidence for spirits in Chapter Three suggests that something more than “magnetized karma” does survive.
But some Buddhists would argue that everything is an illusion anyway. They also like to say “the truth is beyond logic,” which is very useful when one is backed into a philosophical corner. This stance received support from the Buddha, who avoided taking clear positions on metaphysical issues (“the truth is neither this nor that,” he would say, which explains nothing).
Buddhists who are challenged about the credibility of the No Self will often move the goal posts by arguing that the statement that there is no individual self was just the Buddha’s effort to keep people from becoming too attached to their ego.
But how does it accomplish that better than simply admonishing people not to become attached to temporary things? At best, it is confusing, which is why the average Buddhist ignores the idea in practice. After all, the Buddha exhorted them to think and do right and what would be the point if the separate self were truly an illusion?
The Illusive Illusion
Dummies attempts to dispel the “misconception that Buddhists think that everything is an illusion”:
"Buddhist texts compare the world of appearances to an insubstantial dream, mirage, or illusion. Some people mistakenly interpret this metaphor to mean that nothing actually exists, that things are just a figment of your imagination, and that what you do really doesn’t matter because nothing makes sense anyway.
Things aren’t illusions: they’re like illusions. They appear to exist in one way but, in fact, exist in another way. In the same way, reality may appear to be a collection of solid, separate, material objects. In fact, however, it is a constantly changing flow, in which everything is interrelated and nothing is as separate or independent as it appears to be."
So, the big revelation is that material things are made up of energy? If there is no difference between Buddhism’s No Self doctrine and our awareness that we change, why should this even be discussed?
In case anyone is thinking the No Self just sounds like common sense, Dummies explains that because there is nothing we would call a self that reincarnates: “There is no one who dies and no one who is reborn!”
Some assert that the individual has a kind of reality as a part of the Absolute, like a wave is part of the ocean. But then who is causing the wind to create the wave and why? Either you believe all things are truly one (even if the one is suffering from a delusion of separateness) or you believe in a qualified dualism, that things are connected, but not exactly the same thing.
I think the fundamental argument that a changing self cannot be a “real” self is flawed. Buddhists are fond of noting that you are not exactly the same person at 60 that you were at 10. Yet even though your body completely changes all its cells every seven years, the one you have now has the same DNA as when it was born. The same personality can recall memories from childhood, even though many have accrued since then.
The sun also constantly changes, but we do not say that this means there is no continuity between the sun four billion years ago and today.
Nirvana and Suffering
Buddhism defines nirvana as the elimination of desire, which causes attachment that leads to suffering. Some have pointed out that the original term, “dukkha,” has a broader meaning than suffering, including having anxiety and being frustrated.
But how does attachment address suffering caused by earthquakes or malaria or war? Having a good attitude, if that is what not being attached means, is a plus, but it does not go far in explaining why seemingly innocent people suffer from disasters.
According to the great Mahayana teacher Vasubandhu, who established the influential Yogacara school of thought in 4th century Pakistan, the only thing that exists are mental constructs. Our perceptions are entirely projections of our minds, and karmic suffering is merely due to imagined guilt.
Does this mean that the six million Jews killed in the Holocaust were imagining it? Or that Hitler was an agent of their karma?
Did all of the 200 million worldwide who died from the Black Death in the 14th century fantasize this, or did they need to suffer in the same gruesome way at the same time, even the children?
Some Mahayana philosophers would go further, asserting that everyone is already enlightened. This would mean there is no difference between the Holocaust and nirvana, except spiritual awareness. Or that Tibet before the Chinese invasion and now is the same; if Buddhists there feel oppressed, they simply need to wake up, not resist.
Furthermore, if Buddhism were a realistic path to spiritual liberation, why do so few Buddhists (never mind the rest of humanity throughout history) claim to be close to achieving nirvana? After all, through all these thousands of years of incarnations, one would expect to see some very positive results, if rebirth led to self-improvement.
And lest anyone think that Buddhist leaders in the real world have a spotless record of humanitarianism, it is worth knowing that from medieval Burma to Imperial Japan and today in Sri Lanka and Myanmar, practitioners of the faith have had no problem reconciling their faith with military violence.