A few people have made erroneous claims about the beliefs of Theravada Buddhists (and Buddhists in general) so I thought I’d do a basic run-down to clarify a few ambiguous areas and misconceptions. It’s not complete by any stretch of the imagination and I hope you will forgive any errors of expression. Let’s leave the politics out of this discussion – we could start another thread for that. This is about root beliefs and misconceptions.
“No gods; no supernature, only thought and reasoning”
- Theravada Buddhism is atheist
- Theravada Buddhism is the earliest/closest to the original teachings.
- The Dalai Lama has nothing to do with Theravada.
- Theravada Buddhism is not to be confused with the much later and better known Tibetan and Zen Buddhism (Mahayana Buddhism). Many people do not consider Tibetan in particular to be ‘pure Buddhism’ because it merged with local shamanistic traditions (which had supernatural elements). Theravada Buddhism (and original Buddhism) does not promote belief in the supernatural.
- The Buddha (Prince Siddharta) was not a god or deity. Siddharta made no claims of divinity. He only ever claimed to be a person like you or me and tried to deal with reality as it can be experienced by humans. Buddha simply means ‘awakened one’. Anyone can become ‘awakened’. It is not a ‘supernatural state’, just a way of perceiving the world and is in principle achievable by anyone.
-Buddhism is not Hinduism. Buddha rejected Hinduism, its caste system, its gods etc.
Gods and the supernatural:
- Buddhists are atheists; they do not believe in god, especially a creator god. You may have seen multi-armed, multi-eyed so-called gods in Eastern images – these are meant to be taken as metaphors for psychological mind-states. They are not meant to taken literally, ie, existing in the real world. Taking mythical beings literally is a mono-theistic thing to do.
Similarly, you may hear references to ‘ghosts’ and ‘hell realms’ in Buddhism. Again, these are not meant to be taken literally. They are to be thought of as ‘states of mind’ and not existing in the external/real world. It's not too far removed from saying 'jealousy is a green-eyed monster'. You don't really mean that such a monster exists.
- Buddhists do not believe in god(s) because they do not exist by Buddhist definition. The early Buddhist definition of what exists is defined as "that which can be known. If it cannot be known, then it does not exist.”
- Theravada does not promote supernatural beliefs. In fact, Buddha strongly believed in reason and actively opposed faith. Indeed, he said:
“Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it. Do not believe in anything simply because it is spoken and rumored by many. Do not believe in anything simply because it is found written in your religious books. Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders. Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations. But after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it.”
-- Rational thought was integral from the start. Buddha even said that people who believe in god(s) only do so because they are afraid. He considered belief in god(s) to be primitive.
-- Buddhists, like the Buddha, believed that the universe was created by natural forces as a result of cause and effect.
-- Buddha did not even think that Buddhism was the only way. He thought of it as a non-exclusive tool to help people understand the nature of reality. He even said it was ultimately disposable.
Buddhists do not claim that their way of doing things is exclusively right and are aware that politically and socially, like any group of humans, they make errors. The aim is to learn from mistakes and move on and not endorse outmoded ways of doing things or hold desperately on to disprovable or unhelpful concepts.
Concepts you may have heard of:
- Rebirth (NOT Reincarnation). Many people wrongly think that this means a kind of soul or ‘essence’ moving from one body to another. This is a typical misconception. Buddhists do not believe this, nor have they ever. Put very simply, rebirth is to be thought of as ‘your actions have consequences that go beyond you’.
- Karma. In continuation of the above, karma is to be thought of a cause and effect system. It is not some kind of ‘cosmic supernatural punishment/reward system’ ie, if you did something wrong, something bad will eventually happen to you to equal things out. Again, this is a typical misconception. Simply put, Buddhists believe that bad causes have bad effects and good causes have good effects.
These concepts are not scientific claims; they are philosophical claims. A common explanation for the cause and effect of karma and rebirth is the kinetic energy that is passed from one moving billiard ball to another when it is hit.
Unlike monotheistic traditions, Buddhism believes in science and changing the nature of Buddhism if science demands it. Even the Dalai Lama said (he was paraphrasing Buddhist texts):
‘if science finds something that Buddhism thought true to be incorrect, then Buddhism must change.’
He also said:
“to defy the authority of empirical evidence is to disqualify oneself as someone worthy of critical engagement in a dialogue.”
- Is science superior to Buddhism and therefore Buddhism can now be rejected?
No, not really. Science cannot replace Buddhist philosophy any more than it can replace Hegelian philosophy, existentialism, structuralism, epicureanism or any other philosophical 'ism'. Science does not impact philosophy in this way. Science and Buddhism work on very different planes but they do often agree with each other.
So, in summary, Buddhism is not a religion like Christianity or Islam. It makes no supernatural claims. It believes in reason and self–reflection and if any aspects are proven by science to be logically faulty, they can easily be rejected. In fact, Buddhism promotes progress. Rejection of non-scientific claims and 'blind faith' is 'built-in'.
Many, including Dawkins, don’t even consider it a religion, though that is a contentious issue.
The core philosophy of how to deal successfully with life, death and our place in the world, has nothing to do with science (though science will certainly inform Buddhism and help it find new ways of understanding the world).
Science deals with what, why and how emotions/thoughts/feelings are – the neurological and psychological. But science does not deal in the same way with how we may overcome negative thought processes or how to perceive the world, nor does it deal with the philosophy of ethics/morality.
Thank you for these clarifications. I've been meaning for a long time to study both Buddhism and Taoism in more depth, but have sometimes been scared away by the fact that these philosophies are frequently lumped in with western religions.