Gregory L. Jackson, Ph.D.
Hinduism is so identified with India so much that few people outside of India call themselves Hindu, even if they adopt the basic tenets of the religion. More likely the person will identify with Transcendental Meditation or Yoga, but not with Hinduism itself. For that reason Buddhism is especially interesting since it can be called the essence of Hinduism - without the attributes of a particular race or even a particular set of gods.
Buddhism has many unique characteristics, even though it really sprang from India and from Hinduism. First of all, Buddhism is identified with a person who lived in history. Some would even say that the figure of Buddha is so often portrayed and venerated that Buddha is in essence a god. However, that is also the genius of Buddhism. The adherents say that their religion is harmonious with all other religions, so we find many combinations of Buddhist-Hindu, Buddhist-Shinto, and even claims of Zen Christianity. Therefore, Buddhism can be non-theistic, with no recognition of a god, and also syncretistic, a religion combined with other religions.
Buddha’s life is very much the essence of the religion. When he was born to a ruler, it is said, someone prophesied that the baby would either be a worldly ruler or a spiritual ruler. The parents did not want to raise a spiritual guru, so they surrounded him with every luxury and pleasure. They also prevented him from seeing anything unpleasant, such as death, sickness, and poverty. Not surprisingly, the sheltered and pampered prince was stricken when he saw the tragedies of life with his own eyes for the first time. His recognition of suffering became the core of Buddhism as it developed later.
Buddha did not become a religious leader overnight. He left his wife and child, all his worldly possessions and future power, and traveled to find himself. He naturally came under the spell of Hindu gurus, spiritual masters known for their extremes. Buddha tried their excesses and finally came to realize that there was a middle way. He then converted his trainers into his disciples. His natural gifts for leadership and his desire to create disciples combined to create a remarkable impact on the Eastern world and eventually on ours as well.
Buddha took the Hindu concepts of meditation and self-discipline to a new level, avoiding the extremes of starvation and self-punishment. Buddha’s middle way and his ability in transcending culture both helped him appeal to all types of people in many cultures. He also offered an obviously practical solution to the problems caused by self-centeredness. Since he lived the ultimate life of sheltered self-centeredness, it is interesting to see how he came to reject or deny the self.
Buddha’s basic truths are that suffering is unavoidable, that we cause our own suffering, and that we can remove the pain by self-discipline. The final truth is that the eight-fold path will remove suffering. This catechism is so simple and clear that anyone can remember and teach it. No other Eastern religion can be summarized so simply.
Those who read the tenets of Buddhism for the first time are often struck by how self-centered they are. Buddhism is the ultimate religion of self, so no one should be surprised that Hollywood figures are so attracted to this non-theistic religion. Those who are pampered and flattered all day doubtless feel confused about why they suffer so much inner turmoil when everything is done for them, when everyone bows and scrapes. Buddhism is a non-threatening discipline for them, one that accepts all gods as well as godlessness.
Buddhism is also attractive because one of the two best known religious figures in the world is the leader of the religion. Most classes agree that they can only name two religious figures – the pope and the Dalai Lama. The Dalai Lama has been a prominent and respected media figure for 50 years, respected for his leadership of a people persecuted by the Chinese. Movies have been made about him and his people.
Buddhism is also appealing to people because of its emphasis upon inner peace and world peace. Many people look to Buddhism as exemplifying both. They also feel comfortable in maintaining their original religion while embracing the Enlightened One.
1. List some famous people who are identified with Buddhism. Why do you think this is happening?
2. Which aspect of Buddhism do you find most appealing, and why? How are your views of Buddhism changing after reading more about the religion?