Worldviews-Buddhism

by Matt Lefebvre

If you are wondering what a worldview is, you might want to read the introduction to this series before reading this article.

What do Buddhists believe?

Siddhartha Gautama (Buddha)

Buddhism was founded by Siddhartha Gautama, who came to be known as Buddha (the enlightened one), in the 6th century BC.  With regard to the beliefs of Buddhism, Win Corduan makes a similar observation to the one he made in reference to Hinduism.  “The designation Buddhist without further qualification conveys virtually no insight into what a person believes or practices.” (Neighboring Faiths, p.220).  There are various schools of Buddhism and many of the teachings seem to be irreconcilable with each other, but Corduan does offer two basic points of agreement.  “First, there is a fundamental negative attitude toward life…The second point of common orientation is that Buddha, no matter how conceived, provides a solution to the frustrations of life.” (Neighboring Faiths, p.245-246).  That being said, it is really the teaching, and not specifically the person, of Buddha that forms the foundation of Buddhism, so it could have been taught by someone else.  In any case, Buddhism began in India, though it is mostly outside of India today.  While in India, it stayed mostly consistent, but around the time it went outside India through Buddhist missionaries, there was a major split between those who were called Mahayana Buddhists, who believed that enlightenment is accessible to everyone, and those who came to be called Theravada Buddhists, who believed that enlightenment was accessible only to a committed few.  Differences include: the view of Buddha as merely a man (Theravada) or a manifestation of the Absolute (Mahayana); the aspiration to be an arahat, one concerned with his own enlightenment (Theravada) or a bodhisattva, one who has attained enlightenment, but refuses to enter nirvana (nothingness) in order to guide others (Mahayana); the view that there has only been one Buddha (Theravada) or that there have been many manifestations of the Buddha essence (Mahayana).  The well-known figure of Buddhism, the Dalai Lama, is actually not a part of either of these branches, but a third branch known as Vajrayana Buddhism, the predominant religion of Tibet.  This branch emphasizes occult techniques for the development of spiritual power.  There is also Zen Buddhism, with emphasis on meditation and other schools as well, being somewhat classified under Mahayana Buddhism, partially because of the emphasis on enlightenment being available to everyone.  In addition to what might be called “official” Buddhism is the folk versions, which are very different, being more animistic (based on Dean Halverson, The Compact Guide To World Religions, p.54-57).  However, we will focus on the shared beliefs.

  1. Origin-As L.T. Jeyachandran points out, Buddhism does not originally refer to a personal deity or deities and can be regarded as atheistic.  While Theravada Buddhism has some similarities with pantheistic Hinduism, dealing with impersonal forces, Mahayana Buddhism shares certain features with polytheistic Hinduism, recognizing the need for saviours and petitionary prayers (Who Made God?, p.179).  However, the question of where we came from would be considered a wrong-headed question by Buddha, because in his mind, we were never here in the first place (Dean Halverson, The Compact Guide To World Religions, p.59).  If God exists at all, He is irrelevant and not personal, so Buddha is at best agnostic.  Since the aspiration is nothingness in nirvana, it is a waste of time to think about where we came from.  Mahayana Buddhism would add that there is an undifferentiated Buddha essence.
  2. Meaning-Humanity is impermanent, a collection of five aggregates, or a composition: body, consciousness, volition, perception, and emotions (Dean Halverson, The Compact Guide To World Religions, p.60-61). It is not so important why we are here, for our purpose is in any case to escape.  Of course, in Mahayana Buddhism, there is the provision of the bodhisattvas who find purpose in helping others, but only so they too can attain nirvana.  The essential teachings of Buddha can be shown through the Four Noble Truths: 1. Life is basically suffering 2. The origin of that suffering lies in craving or grasping 3. The end of suffering is possible through the ending of craving 4. The way to end the craving and to escape continual rebirth is through following the Noble Eightfold Path (Ankerberg and Burroughs, How is Christianity Different From Other Religions?, p.32, Dean Halverson, The Compact Guide To World Religions, p.58).  This Noble Eightfold Path involves the practice of right view, right resolve, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration.  The idea is that humankind has been bound for ages through ignorance of these noble truths (L.T. Jeyachandran, Beyond Opinion, p.89-90).
  3. Morality-Right speech, right action, and right livelihood are exemplified in commands to refrain from the taking of life (all forms), stealing, sexual immorality, lying, and the taking of intoxicants (Dean Halverson, The Compact Guide To World Religions, p.59, Winfried Corduan, Neighboring Faiths, p.225).  These are five of ten precepts monks of Theravada Buddhism vow to follow, while the lay people only need to keep these five.  In addition, the laity is to support the monks, hoping that they might merit a better reincarnation (Winfried Corduan, Neighboring Faiths, p.226).  “In Mahayana, benevolent compassion becomes the ultimate motivating force for all aspects of the religion.”  Even the concept of the void is replaced with absolute compassion (Winfried Corduan, Neighboring Faiths, p.228).
  4. Destiny-The goal of enlightenment for Buddha was to escape suffering.  To enter nirvana, nothingness, was better than to remain in this world.  In Theravada Buddhism, this enlightenment is only available to monks.  The hope of lay people is thus to support and care for the monks and temples in order to get a better reincarnation.  In Mahayana Buddhism, anyone can enter nirvana, but it may even be the choice of some who become bodhisattvas to come back to guide others to nirvana.  With regard to reincarnation, whereas Hindus believe that the identity of the individual soul is preserved in reincarnations and that regaining oneness is returning to the ultimate reality, Buddhism would generally say that there is no guarantee of the identity continuing after death, because the soul breaks into the five essences and then reassembles in the new cycle (L.T. Jeyachandran, Who Made God?, p.181).  Thus the hope of Buddhism is nothingness and loss of identity to escape suffering, because you cannot suffer if you do not exist, so the thinking goes.

How coherent is the Buddhist worldview?

  1. Logical consistency-While I can somewhat understand the concept in Hinduism of the world being an illusion keeping us from the ultimate reality (though I explained that there are still problems with this), I do not see the logical consistency of there not being any person in the first place, and this illusory person trying to attain nothingness.  In addition, I find the pessimism of Buddhism concerning life being suffering as logically inconsistent.  As L.T. Jeyachandran has stated, “Philosophically, one cannot define a negative entity such as suffering or evil except as the absence of corresponding, positive entities, namely pleasure and good.  If everything were suffering, we would not know it to be suffering!” (Beyond Opinion, p.92-93).  Furthermore, the proposed way to escape this illusion seems even inconsistent within its own parameters, for the intention to get rid of all desires is itself a desire!  Along with Hinduism, many Buddhists assert that there are many paths to God, but I have a few issues with this kind of thinking.  First, in the same way as Hinduism, the fact that there are so many schools of Buddhism indirectly suggests that there is some understanding that one school is superior to another, or else, why would these factions arise?  Second, although Buddha took beliefs in reincarnation, karma, and ultimate (non)reality from his Hindu roots, his elimination of the caste system for his followers and rejection of the Vedas as authoritative is what made Buddhism break from Hinduism (Winfried Corduan, Neighboring Faiths, p.224).  So the very beginning of the religion was a denial of another religion’s central teachings.  Third, Buddha saw God’s existence as irrelevant, but if God exists and wants relationship with humans, rejection of His offer of relationship is of incredible importance.  Dean Halverson gives an illuminating illustration of the human predicament with God.  “Assume that you are responsible for having broken a relationship with a friend because of a wrong that you committed against him or her.  How many ways are there to restore that relationship?” (The Compact Guide To World Religions, p.62).  The answer is only to confess guilt and ask for forgiveness.  If God exists and we do not acknowledge Him, it is not inconsequential.
  2. Factuality-On the other hand, if God does not exist, which is basically the position of Theravada Buddhism, there is no explanation for the existence of the universe, illusion or not, for even illusions have some source that is not illusory, but actual.  The arguments mentioned noted in favour of Christianity also apply here for the beginning of the universe, due to a First Cause.  In fact, the act of thinking about whether the world is actual or existent is existential proof of existence of the self.  As Ravi Zacharias has recorded, “…I cannot deny my existence without affirming it at the same time.  I recall the classic interaction between a student and his professor. ‘How do I know I exist?’ demanded the student in a philosophy lecture.  ‘And whom shall I say is asking?’ came the reply.” (Can Man Live Without God, p.124).
  3. Viability-In commanding non-violence toward all life, not just humans, there is no way to eat food, for even plants are living things (Dean Halverson, The Compact Guide To World Religions, p.31).  This is sometimes manifested in not eating for long periods of time, to which I would say that God created this world good and humans are to have dominion over it and enjoy the creativity of God.  It is also unrealistic to think of not stepping on insects incidentally when walking through a field.  Moreover, there is practically no distinction made between the value of humans and other forms of life.  With regard to the identity of a person not being guaranteed after death, this creates a lot of insecurity among Buddhists (L.T. Jeyachandran, Who Made God?, p.181-182).  There is no way to know if a person has entered nirvana, because not only is there no person, but there is no continuity of identity, so if you achieved nirvana, you would never know, as indeed, Buddha would be no different.  Furthermore, in such a pessimistic outlook, Buddhism neglects the positive aspects of life (L.T. Jeyachandran, Beyond Opinion, p.93), branding everything as suffering, trying to escape instead of helping people to escape suffering.  What is missing is the realization that suffering, though prevalent in the world, is not just a brute fact, but due to the sinfulness of humans.  With the possible exception of natural disasters, much suffering is caused by humans themselves, oppressing others or not appreciating the importance of compassion.  A Buddhist may have the means to help someone in suffering to get out, but it goes against the principle of denying desires.  Mahayana seems to recognize the importance of compassion to a certain extent and this just shows a certain level of dissatisfaction with a worldview of nihilism.  Another issue with Buddhism that is also pessimistic is the apparently limited ability of people to attain enlightenment.  I am not sure how Buddhists or Hindus understand the rapid growth of people on the earth.  Perhaps animals are reincarnated as humans and then animals become extinct.  I am open to explanations on this point, but the fact seems to remain that relatively few have potentially reached nirvana, which is especially the case in Theravada Buddhism.  Whatever the case may be, for the lay person there really does not seem to be a lot of hope for this life, even if someone finds the prospect of nothingness attractive.

Buddhism has a lot of positive things to say in the area of ethics, to the point of some people considering it simply an ethical system rather than a religion.  It also rightly recognizes that desires can be a cause of suffering.  However, I would not say that desire causes all suffering, nor that all life is suffering, and while it does have positive moral qualities, the view of God, the world, and mankind leads to some negative effects in actions toward those whom I believe to be made in the image of God, and thus endowed with intrinsic value as special in God’s eyes.

For more on Christianity, click here.

Based on this Christian perspective I have also evaluated three other worldviews:

Islam, Hinduism, Atheism

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Comments
  1. mompati balebetse says:

    wow!!!! i learned alot

  2. John says:

    I share your view that Buddhism is logically inconsistent, but there’s some terms and concepts very poorly expressed/translated:

    Nirvana = Nothingness. Nirvana is not possible to define, but is related to the term Shunyata. Shunyata is better translated as something like the Quantum vacuum. It’s a state of infinite potential, a “pregnant” void. Christianity has the same term as Nihil. Nihil being the first act of creation by God (read about the Jewish concept of TzimTzum).

    Suffering = Dukkha. It’s better translated as insatisfaction. It leads to a mirage desire, a never ending desire impossible to be satisfied.

    Reincarnation = Rebirth is better because reincarnation is related to migration of souls.

    The intention to get rid of all desires is itself a desire! = The desire to attain Nirvana is a desire that can be fullfiled and disappears when reached. It’s not a desire that produces insatisfaction.

    In commanding non-violence toward all life, not just humans, there is no way to eat food, for even plants are living things. = This rule apllies only to senscient animals. And only monks are forbidden to kill animals. Laymen are supposed to be very respectful to animals and consider an act of extreme condition to kill animal for food. There’s a Suttra where the eating of animals is compared to a couple and a baby lost in the desert and they need to eat the baby to survive. Buddhism views the meat consumption as a sad reality but practically unavoidable.

    Buddhism is a very interesting system of thought. Buddha said Buddhism is a boat to cross a river and that means you need to abandon it when you reach the other side. This imply a further journey without Buddhism. I as a Catholic Christian see this as a kind of preambulum fidei. Buddhism can lead to the most near reality to God. The river to cross was the time until Christ was born. As Judaism is required to understand Christianity I think Buddhism is a very powerful pre-christian tool too. There’s a lot in Buddhism that can be used to improve a Christian understanding of reality.

    • Hello, John. I appreciate your perspectives and clarifications. As far as the translation is concerned, I am not familiar with the original language, so I am totally reliant on the sources cited for translations of words and concepts. Thus, I cannot comment on your clarifications. I can say that I especially appreciated your description of non-violence, so thank you for sharing your insight into that.

      I agree with you that Buddhism is an interesting system of thought, but I must disagree that it is on the level of Judaism in terms of better understanding Christianity. Perhaps you did not mean that Buddhism is just as valuable as Judaism in that respect, but I would even take exception to Buddhism being a very powerful pre-Christian tool. Of course, because we believe that God is the Creator of every human, I do not think it is surprising that even human systems of thought would have wisdom and truth. If people happen to have a non-Christian worldview, I think it is permissible to show connections between their worldview and Christianity, based on general revelation, and show how the Christian God even goes beyond their original worldview to answer the deepest questions. I even think that in engaging with the challenges of other worldviews, we sharpen our own understanding of the Christian worldview. That being said, I would not recommend looking to improve understanding of Christian reality by looking outside Christian tradition, of which the Old Testament is an integral part. I think Buddhist thought would bring unnecessary confusion, whereas Judaism helps us to understand God’s specific revelation in history, which was always intended to bring His people to understanding the reality of Christ. So, while Buddhism does have some connection with reality through general revelation, as do many religions and philosophies, I believe we need to look to specific revelation for our Christian foundation.

      Matt

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