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Discussion 7 to Meditation 376
Buddhism explained

by Loren Taylor

© 2005 Loren Taylor

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I am an African-American, and a follower of Buddhism for about the last 8 to 10 years. While I cannot claim to speak as an authority, I have spent much time thinking about how Buddhism is perceived in Western societies. In that vein, I'd like to offer some thoughts that came to mind after reading Meditation 376 (Phil Van Bergen -3 July 2005), and the comments that followed.

I believe Buddhism is greatly misunderstood in the West, perhaps because our languages require that ideas be expressed in specific terms. Buddhism originated in the East, and Eastern languages have nuances of meaning extremely difficult to translate into Roman languages. Eastern alphabets also have characters that contain meanings within themselves, so that even individual words are open to multiple interpretations.

Because Western thought and culture is dominated by a Christian mind-set, Westerns evaluate Buddhism mostly in relation to Christianity. I believe that this constant comparison blocks many from gaining more than just a superficial understanding of the Buddhist religion. And yes, Buddhism IS a religion, because much of the belief system is based on faith. The theory of re-birth, for example, cannot be proven scientifically. Like most Buddhist theories, it is based on observation, and pre-supposes that human existence is similar to other phenomenon in nature.
(Having said that, I too will be guilty of making occasional comparisons between Buddhism and Christianity, in order to address some points made in Meditation 376.)

There are many forms of Buddhism. While all share similar philosophical foundations, exact interpretation vary considerably. When explaining this religion to a (Western) non-Buddhist, most "spokesmen" will rarely draw attention to how his particular form of Buddhism differs from others, focusing instead on origins and fundamental beliefs. Some forms of Buddhism (mostly older) have deities, and concepts of heaven very similar to Christianity. Others (like Zen) are so esoteric as to seem completely non-religious. That all these different interpretations can claim the same source is one reason Buddhism is regarded more as a philosophy than a religion.

Here are a number of other possible reasons for the misunderstanding of Buddhism in the West:

No Creator figure

In Meditation 376, the author placed great emphasis on the fact that Buddhist theology has no Creator figure. That a religion can develop without a Supreme Deity is a concept that most Westerners cannot comprehend. When I started practicing Buddhism, my father (who is anti-religious) would often ask me: "If you don't believe in a god, what are you praying to?".

Most Buddhist thought states that the universe has always existed in one form or another, and always will. The idea of "creation" is a chiefly (but not exclusively) Western concept. It could be said that creationist theologies fit very neatly with cultures based on accumulation and exploiting natural environments, the very model of society bequeathed to us from the Greek & Roman empires.

Because Buddhism lacks a Creator doesn't mean that it has no supernatural aspects. For example, it speaks of "unseen forces" that adherents are asked to identify with, without any offer of proof other than explanations and extrapolations.

Less Dogmatic

In Meditation 376, Mr. Van Bergen contends (rightly, I believe) that Buddhism seems less dogmatic than many other religions. This appeals greatly to Westerners looking for a spiritual foundation without the punitive aspects of Christianity. It can also cause confusion in a Western mind accustomed to religion that seeks to impose itself as an arbitrator for human affairs. Instead of a Supreme Being, Buddhism offers two primary devices for believers to find a moral compass:

--The Law of Cause and Effect:

In Western terms, this can be explained by the adages: "What goes around, comes around", and "You reap what you sow". In simple terms, this theory states that every action creates an Effect, one that is registered within the universe, and this Effect will manifest itself in the future as the Cause for another action. Since the universe is said to be without beginning or end, this process of Cause and Effect will continue endlessly for eternity. Buddhism also contains a concept to explain the human component of this phenomenon: Karma. It can be thought of as the storehouse of individual actions (Causes), and the medium by which these actions manifest themselves in the future (Effects).

Unlike theologies that requires a deity to pass judgment, the Law of Cause and Effect is a benign force, akin to force of gravity. When we push a glass from the table, most of us don't suppose there is any Being that "decides" whether or not that glass will fall and break---it just does. God may have created gravity, but He doesn't need to regulate it on a constant basis. Likewise with Cause and Effect---actions create reactions, no need for a referee. Therefore, Buddhism states that each individual is responsible for his own actions, and it is this process of Cause and Effect, not a Judgment Giver, that determines each individuals' fate.

--Absolute Proof:

The other major distinction between Buddhism and many other religions is that while faith is required, blind faith is discouraged. Many interpretations of Buddhism state that whatever a believer is told or taught, they must have exact proof that it holds true for them. The burden of this "proof" is entirely personal, and can range from experience, to information that is received and contemplated. Without this "absolute" proof, any Buddhist (or other) philosophy is considered meaningless. Thus, Buddhists are encouraged to openly question, and different interpretations are a natural occurrence. This willingness for continuous re-examination is probably what Buddhism has most in common with agnostic philosophy.

So, as a practicing Buddhist, I have sufficient examples, for me, to tell me that the theories probably hold true. Regular application of these theories in my daily life have gradually re-enforced my belief system. The Law of Cause and Effect means that I don't have to be dogmatic, even with myself, as I assume full responsibility for the results of my actions---whether or not I always act in the "correct" manner.

Science and Philosophy converge:

Interestingly, the British physicist Stephen Hawking has developed a new theory that provides a scientific foundation for the Buddhist concept of time without beginning or end. Hawkins was one of the physicists responsible for the "big bang" theory. However well this theory explained many phenomenon scientists were observing, there were a number of anomalies that couldn't be accounted for.

In his book, "A Brief History of Time", Hawking describes the thinking behind the development and refinement of the big bang theory, and why he eventually abandoned it. Among them: If the universe "started with a bang", there had to be an actual moment when that bang occurred---a beginning. Then what about the moment(s) BEFORE this beginning? Could we even talk about such a thing: a "time" before time began?

All attempts to solve this dilemma ended in an "eventuality"---a mathematical anomaly where matter occupies an infinitely small space. Elegant in theory, but impossible in reality. Hawkins himself said that all that was left was metaphysics; the existence of some Creative Force that started the whole process. However grand its design, the big bang theory couldn't get around God.

But even God couldn't get around the questions raised by the big bang. If God created the universe, who or what created God? Did God always exist? If God has "always" existed, what about that nagging question of a "time" before time began? This void that supposedly existed before the universe was created---was that also God's creation? And on and on.

Hawking's solution was to propose a new theory: the idea that the universe exists in a four-dimensional space. Time moves not in a straight line, but in a circle where beginning and end meet. The closest graphic representation would be a sort-of four-dimensional "sphere"; there is an illustration in the Hawkins' book, but he admits that it's difficult to represent this image in three (or two) dimensions.

There are already some observations to support this theory. Astronomers have discovered a background radiation in universe that is the same distance and intensity whatever direction one searches for it. Since modern relativity-based physics considers space and time as one entity (called guess what? space-time), AND we know the Earth is NOT the center of the (physical) universe, this background radiation would suggest that space-time has a finite limit, but somehow continues infinitely. A contradiction? Not really---as mentioned before, time without beginning or end is one of the foundations of Buddhist philosophy.


One point that I think is overlooked in many discussions of this nature is that most theologies and philosophies carry a cultural bias. The process of filtering new ideas thru the prism of cultural bias is a common one. Albert Einstein, who was a Christian, spent much of his life trying (unsuccessfully) to modify his Theory of Relativity to fit his spiritual beliefs. He is credited with the saying: "God does not play dice" when presented with evidence that relativity was proving that the physical universe contains no absolutes (later formulated in Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle). Buddhism has no less cultural bias than other religions or philosophies. As stated earlier, Buddhism was created in the East, and contains many aspects that are second-nature to an Eastern mind-set that Westerners find hard to accept. While lacking many constraints found in Western-based religions, Buddhism still requires a certain level of faith that cannot be concretely backed up by science.

I would say that over time, most philosophies (and sciences) regarding the nature of human existence will continue to converge. More and more people seek understanding that transcend the limits of their cultural influence---this will lead to thinkers willing to focus on the similarity between philosophies (and religions), instead of debating the differences.