The Sociological Advantageous Nature of Buddhism
Buddhism introduced some fundamental differences from many of the worlds modern religions at its inception. A relatively young religion, starting around 460 B.C.E., Buddhists now number about 500 million, the majority of which reside in Southeast Asia, China, and Japan, the rest spread throughout the world. Buddhism holds some major differences from most of the world's religions, but for purposes of brevity I will compare it with Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism. It is my intent to show that the most fundamental principles of the world's major religions that I shall deal with in this essay are ideologically antithetical to Buddhism, and that Buddhism's difference is an advantage for the religion, it's followers, and society as a whole.
Brief History of Buddhism
Siddharta Gautama was born in 563 B.C.E. to a luxurious upbringing. Sheltered at his father's insistence from external horrors, Siddharta married at age 16 a neighboring princess and had one son. Having thus far been kept ignorant of suffering in the world, around his twenties Siddharta journeyed from the palace, the order of his father's to clean the streets from the old, sick and dead had been neglected this once. Siddharta came across what is now known as The Four Passing Sights. Siddharta saw an old man, weak and leaning on a staff. He saw a sickly body racked with disease. Finally he saw a corpse on the street. On another day, Siddharta cam across a monk with a shaved head, heaving been exposed to death, aging, disease, and a path that renounces the world, he despaired finding fulfillment on a physical level. Six years later, after nearly dying from fasting, it is said that he came to rest at the base of a tree which came to be known as the enlightenment tree, or Bo tree for short. There, Siddharta discovered what came to be known as The Four Noble Truths. First, that life was dukkha, or suffering. Second, that desire, or tanha causes this suffereing as he noted "Tis thy self by which we suffer". Third, that if suffering has a cause, then it logically has a cure, and that cure lies in the overcoming of tanha, or craving. The Fourth Noble Truth is the methodology by which one may overcome tanha and likewise dukkha. The method has become known as The Eightfold Path. Siddharta later became known as Buddha, which literally means "enlightened one"
There are a few basic elements that exist in almost every major
world religion, the exception being Buddhism. They comprise the primary foundations
of which many of these religions are built around. Authority plays a vital role
in most of the worlds religions. The authority of any particle religion provides
answers, guidance in times of apprehension, and support in times of need. It
follows naturally that those who devote extra time and attention to the working
of their religion may field questions better then those who are not. But like
any position of influence, religious leaders can use their positions to further
their own goals, selfish or otherwise. Buddhism is a religion devoid of authority.
As Buddha stated "Do not accept what you hear by report, do not accept
tradition, do not accept a statement because it is found in our books, nor because
it is in accord with your belief, nor because it is the saying of your teacher....Be
ye lamps unto yourselves." The importance of this statement is apparent
when one compares it to other major world religions. In Christianity, all of
the primary elements and beliefs are based on a book, the Holy Bible. The scriptures
are the authority, subjected to interpretation. Numerous people are always at
odds as to whether this book is to be taken literally or figuratively, thus
basing conflict on an authoritative influence. The Islamic people also base
their authority in a scripture, although it is less subjective, never translated
from its original language. In Hinduism, the Vedas continue to be spoken of
as the final authority. Ritual is also an important aspect of mainstream religions.
Rituals form social functions, bringing groups together in peaceful celebrations.
Rituals give definitive procedures for attaining a goal in a religion. But rituals
are dictated by authoritative figures, and are subjected to human fallacies.
Some rituals include the discrimination of a race or a sex, some dictate mortal
enemies, while some prescribe harmful procedures to resolve problems. In Buddhism
there are no prescribed rituals. Buddha thought that observance of rites and
prayers to the gods is hopeless, and that one should focus attention on the
here and now. Buddhism denied both the efficacy of Vedic ritual and the validity
of the caste system. Rituals play an important role in most of the worlds religions,
from the Catholic Mass to the Islamic five times a day "Holy Du'a".
The Hindu rituals cover almost all aspects of a person's daily life.
Most people have basic questions that they would like answers to. Why are we here? Where are who going? What is our purpose? Eventually, answers to these questions always work their way into conventional religions. The problem arises when one tries to decide which explanation is the right one. On matters that are testable, science has taken most of that role over, but by their very nature questions that science can not answer are completely subjected to the whim of the answerer, usually an authoritative figure. Buddhism intentionally avoids matters of speculation and issues of philosophy. On such questions, Buddha maintained a silence, for, as he put it "opinions tend not to edification". Buddhism teaches we have no way to find answers to these questions, so make of them what you will. In Christianity and Islam, the Holy Books teach an idea of why we are here, and how we got here. Hinduism believes that we are here to experience life and we continue to be reborn until we have experienced all there is to experience in Life. Buddhism Is also devoid of tradition. Siddharta encouraged his listeners not to follow any traditions dictated to them "Do not go by what is handed down, nor by the authority of traditional teachings." he said "When you know of yourselves 'these teachings are good or not good' only then accept or reject them"
The role that tradition plays in other major world religions is the opposite, the traditions are not of choice, they are dictated by the authorities. From the Christian tradition of Baptism to the Tantric tradition in Hinduism. Always, ignoring traditions will have negative effects on one's standing in their religion, and sometimes will have negative effects on one's health.
The concepts of God's sovereignty and grace are an important aspect in many religions. It encourages a dependence upon God, which helps to develop an emotional attachment to God. Grace is often required for salvation and achieving grace is often a combination of rituals and traditions. In Buddhism each individual must tread the path himself. Buddhism is a religion of self-effort, of taking responsibility for ones own actions. There is no grace from God in Buddhism, in fact, there is no God at all in Buddhism. One must, as Buddha said "Work out your own salvation with diligence." Buddha further encourages self effort suggesting that "Those who rely upon themselves only, not looking to assistance by anyone besides themselves, it is they who reach the topmost height." In Hinduism, one can not succeed without first attaining god's grace, and one can not attain god's grace without devotion. Christianity is filled with heavy allusions to God's grace, ever pervasive in everyday life as is Islam. Most importantly in distinguishing Buddhism from other world religions, Buddha taught a religion absent of the supernatural. Religions usually have magic and miracles and mystery, with people looking for shortcuts, easy answers, and simple solutions. Buddha teaches that this only diverts attention from the hard practical task of self-advances. "By this yee shall know that a man is not my disciple - that he tries to work a miracle". This is the complete antithesis of Christianity and Islam, which teach absolute infallible truth in their holy books, and the should any evidence arise which contradict these holy books, the evidence itself must be faulty. Hinduism follows suit with strict traditions passed through time as highly adaptable memes, never wavering in power. Buddhism teaches an empirical approach to knowledge. "Do not go by reasoning, nor by inferring, nor by argument. A True disciple must know for himself" Buddha teaches that one must come to knowledge by one's own free will, with an appeal to direct personnel validation.
Freedom From Suffering
Buddhism focuses on freedom from human suffering without resorting to supernatural or authoritative mechanisms. It is merely a suggested means to achieving a life without suffering, more of a methodology then an ideology. It is the only major world religion focusing on the people of the religion and not a god of the religion. This grounds peoples actions to the here and now, worrying about this life and some other alleged life. This ultimate goal of Buddhism is far different from those of Christianity and Islam. The focus is on the personnel attachment with god, and the acceptance of god with a reward. Hinduism acknowledges human pursuits but works them around the institution of God. Buddhism has since separated into a few different sects, the northern and the southern Buddhists being the primary classifications. Northern Buddhists have primarily adopted a blend of Hinduism and Buddhism, while southern Buddhists stay closest to the original teachings of Buddha.
The Sociological Advantageous Nature of Buddhism
The primary advantage of Buddhism, both for the individual and for society is its differences from major world religions. Its lack of authority allows followers to make their own decisions without worry of repercussions and encourages growth of the religion, as the onset of regulations hinders any form of creativity. Buddhism's absence of ritual likewise allows a greater freedom for expression, necessarily encouraging personnel growth for the follower. Being devoid of speculations encourages explorative discoveries of the individual, creating a very adaptable belief system that will keep up with rapid social evolution. As followers are not clinging to long held abstract notions. Spontaneity and creativity are advanced from a lack of tradition, as individuals take it upon themselves to form their own traditions, never hindering another individual rights. As profound as it is important is Buddhism's lack of supernatural influences. Too often common world religions appeal to supernaturally divined beliefs and inspiration. Even more tragic is when these beliefs form in the minds of the authoritative elite, inflicting their beliefs negatively on others. Buddhism teaches a rational and logical approach to life, an acceptance of ones self, never relying on others, supernatural or not, for help. Buddhism encourages people to take responsibility for their own actions, which will maximize benefits among both the individuals and the society to the greatest extent over other world religions. Many of which will teach intolerance and dogma instead of rationality and reason.
As with any religion, there are as many forms of Buddhism as there are people who have called themselves Buddhists. For never has every individual shared completely identical belief systems. Instead, concepts of mass religions are formed when one takes Gaussian averages among the followers as a whole and assigns these as the tenets of that religion. In Christianity and Islam, the tenets are heavily influenced from authoritative scriptures, very rigid and resistant to new ideas. In Hinduism, these are influenced as much by traditions and rituals as by divined writings. In Buddhism, each and every individual is by definition not influenced by these sources, and is encouraged to seek out answers of their own free will, something that is fundamentally important as it encourages some basic human natures instead of constricting them.
Huston Smith, The Illustrated World Religions (1994)
Richard Gombrich, Theravada Buddhism (1988)
R. H. Robinson, The Buddhist Religion (3d ed. 1982)
Buddhist Scriptures (1959)
Robert Lester, Theravada Buddhism in Southeast Asia (1973)