and Outlines - World Religions - Buddhism: The View from the East
Buddhism: The View from the East
Date: 6/5/2003 2:37:17 PM
C.I.M. Outline #61
A. One notable characteristic of the counter cultural
movement in the late Sixties and early Seventies, was its
wholesale rejection of western values, and in particular,
the Christian religion. To fill the vacuum, many turned
to the religions of the East, one of which was Buddhism.
After the Vietnam War a large influx of Asian
immigrants brought with them the religion of Buddhism.
These two factors, coupled with current movies, Seven
Years in Tibet, and Kundun, which put Buddhism in a
good light, prompted this brief overview of one of the
world's five main organized religions. For a good
overview of this intellectual switch to Eastern
worldviews, see: Turning East by Harvey Cox, and The
East: No Exit by Os Guiness.
B. For its October 13, 1997 issue, Time magazine's feature
article was "America's Fascination with Buddhism."
According to Time, there are now currently 1200 books
in print on the subject of Buddhism, and the number of
English language Buddhist instruction centers has more
than doubled since 1988 (from 429 to more than 1063).
The thrust of the Time article is the Buddhist worldview
permeating our pop culture, a rare example of excellent
C. Why the sudden appeal of Eastern Mysticism?
"The west is very young, we're not very wise, and I think
we're hopeful that there is a place that is ancient and wise
and open and filled with light." Actor, Richard Gere.
The worldview of some of the Buddhist sects is very
similar to other new age occultic beliefs. The attraction
is for anything anti-western. Some have expressed their
desire to escape a father-god who holds them responsible.
Others like the serenity Buddhism gives them. Still
others like its stress on world peace and ecological
concern (It was not an accident that the recent Global
Warming conference was held in Kyoto, Japan, a world
center of Buddhism!). Aldous Huxley believed the
religion of Buddhism would be the best for the
environment. See his novel: Island.
II. The Background of Buddhism
A. The religion of Buddhism began in the Sixth Century
B.C. in India near the Tibetan border, the foothills of
the Himalaya mountains. Because of its appeal to the
common man (lower castes), as opposed to the
tyrannical hold of early Hinduism, the doctrines of
Buddhism spread rapidly over most nations in Asia.
B. The founder of the religion was Siddhartha Gautama
who was born in India of a royal family about 563 B.C.
He is often called "Buddha," but this is a title and
means "enlightened one." The earliest written
accounts of him were written down over 300 years
after his death. For this reason it is impossible to
discern legend from historical fact.
C. The Sacred Writings of Buddhism were first recorded
by the followers of the Buddha in 80 B.C. They were
written in the Pali language (the language of Nepal)
and are referred to as the "Pali Canon." They are
divided into three parts called "The Three Baskets,"
and they are approximately eleven times the size of the
D. General Characteristics of Buddhism
1. Its Outward Trappings: What comes to mind
when one thinks of Buddhism? Monks and
monasteries, colorful costumes, prayer wheels,
chanting, meditation, incense, relics,
reincarnation, lotus flowers, temples, pagodas,
and images of the Buddha.
2. Its Syncretism: Of all the religions of the
world, Buddhism is probably the most
syncretistic, that is, it is often combined with the
beliefs of other religions and cultures. For
example, Buddhism adopted (assimilated) many
of the animistic beliefs of the Tibetans after it
was first preached there. A similar phenomenon
occurred in China and Japan. It is now
happening in this country. American Buddhists
call their meeting places "churches," a term
borrowed from Christianity.
3. Its similarity to Hinduism: Buddhism emerged
from Hinduism and is now a distinct religion,
but it must be noted that there are many
similarities in their overall worldview. Where
they differ greatly is in their methods of
III. The Belief System of Buddhism (Worldview)
The Buddha taught that all suffering is caused by
personal desire. Hence if desire, i.e., the person
desiring, can be eliminated, the endless cycle of
rebirths (reincarnations) can be broken, and
enlightenment and nirvana can be achieved. Desire
leads to bad karma which will affect the next
incarnation. It is said that the Buddha himself suffered
550 reincarnations, but finally achieved enlightenment,
and devoted the rest of his life to teaching others how
to break the cycle. Buddha's method is referred to as
"the Middle Way." He realized it was not achieved by
indulgence, since he was born into a royal family; he
also discovered that it did not come by extreme
asceticism. His enlightenment reportedly came one
day after an extended period of meditation after which
he discovered the Four Noble Truths.
1. A Cyclical View of Time and History
One of the most important concepts in
understanding the basic Buddhist worldview is
to fully comprehend their view of time. This is
difficult for westerners who are influenced by
the Judeo-Christian view. Time for Westerners
is finite; there is a beginning and an end, and
for the Christian, history has a planned
culmination. Because of the Buddhist view of
history, their symbol is understandably a wheel.
It stands for their belief that history is cyclical,
i.e., it repeats itself because of bad karma.
2. A View of Knowledge Based on Experience
Probably one of the biggest stumbling blocks in
communicating with those of Eastern faiths is a
failure to comprehend their distaste for western
logic. Rationality, deductive logic, and even
language (the ability to communicate thoughts)
are based on the concept "A is not non-A," or
thesis and antithesis. For most Eastern
worldviews, logical contradiction is not a
problem. Knowledge is personal; experience is
3. A Monistic View of Reality
Reality for a Buddhist is single (monistic).
Westerners historically were dualists in that they
believed reality is of two sorts: material and
spiritual. For an Easterner, reality is only
spiritual, i.e., eternal spirit. The material world
is illusionary ("maya"). For the Easterner all is
one; the universe is eternal spirit and non-
personal. Diversity is an illusion. To have a
concept of myself as an individual is diversity,
an illusion that hinders the quest for nirvana.
There are no universals and no essence of things
except the impersonal universal spirit. There are
particulars, but they are illusions and constantly
changing (the doctrine of impermanence).
4. The Law of Karma: It is the law of cause and
effect, a doctrine that a person's actions in the
past govern his present life. Your actions in the
present will affect your future life. Bad karma
hinders your journey toward nirvana. Good
karma takes you nearer. It is this determinism of
the law of karma that produces the fatalism so
characteristic of Eastern philosophies.
5. Buddhist salvation (enlightenment) comes when
one experiences oneness with all things, where
self-consciousness gives way to cosmic
consciousness. This state is also called
"nirvana." It occurs when the cycle of endless
birth and death is finally broken. Salvation, as
in most Eastern religions and New Age fads, is a
matter of realizing what you already are, and
not becoming what you should be as in
Christianity. When a Buddhist realizes
enlightenment it is an experience that cannot be
expressed in words.
C. The Four Noble Truths
1. Suffering is the universal experience of all
beings in existence. Life is a succession of
2. The Cause of suffering is desire, desiring
possessions, or the desire for every kind of
enjoyment, and the desire to live forever. At the
root of this is the desire for a separate individual
3. The Cure for suffering is to eliminate desire.
Genuine peace, or nirvana, is only achieved
when all human passions have been
4. The Fourth Truth is the Eight-fold Path which is
the means or process to eliminate suffering. It is
meant to be a course of self-improvement (or
rather eliminating self!) that will ultimately lead
to the extinction of human desires resulting in
moral perfection. The Buddha believed that if
humans were to become detached from "the
wheel" of birth and death they must follow this
"Middle Way," rather than self-indulgence and
D. The Eight-fold Path
1. Right Views: one must have the right
philosophical viewpoint on such things as
suffering, the self, and its destiny.
2. Right Intent: having the right goals, altruism in
3. Right Speech: speech should be gentle, kind
and soothing to the ear.
4. Right Conduct: refers to moral living in the
sexual realm and in relation to others, respecting
their property, being charitable, etc.
5. Right Livelihood: being free from luxury,
making sure no living thing is harmed, and being
involved in activities which make one useful to
6. Right Endeavor: avoiding and overcoming evil.
7. Right Mindfulness: having the right attitude of
detachment to physical things and the body, and
to instead think of others and spiritual
8. Right Meditation: This is the primary method of
achieving the above state. In Christian
meditation one concentrates his thoughts on
God. It involves propositional thinking,
ascribing qualities to God. Eastern meditation is
almost the exact opposite. The goal is to
become detached from the self or mind that is
thinking. Remember, the fact that a person
views himself as an independent self is the
problem. Meditation then is usually a lengthy
mental exercise whereby the devotee is purified
of all distractions until he arrives at that trance-
like state where he views himself as being one
with the universe and not a transcendent self.
To get to this state, where one is no longer
conscious of self, is to achieve the highest form
of perfection and enlightenment, i.e.,
E. Classical Buddhism is without doubt one of the most
rigorous and radical forms of self-deliverance (works-
salvation) ever conceived. More modern forms tend to
offer shortcuts, e.g., Zen Buddhism.
IV. The Branches of Buddhism
A. Theravada Buddhism (also called "Hinayana" which
means "The Little Vehicle.")
Some refer to this form as classical Buddhism, or "the
hard, or austere way." It is believed to be the purest
form of the Buddha's teaching. It is popular in Sri
Lanka, Myanmar( Burma), Thailand, Cambodia, Laos,
and other southeast Asian countries (which is why it is
sometimes called "southern Buddhism."). This
legalistic form of Buddhism emphasizes meditation
and a rigorous observation of the Eight-Fold path. It
holds the Buddha in high regard but does not ascribe
deity to him.
B. Mahayana Buddhism ("The Great Vehicle.")
It is referred to as "the Great Vehicle" because the
movement is so diverse. There are literally dozens of
movements that come under the umbrella of Mahayana
Buddhism. It is the form found largely in China,
Japan and Korea. Contrary to the previous form, MB
does deify the Buddha. Prayers are directed to the
Buddha that everyone may become as fully enlightened
as he. A fully enlightened being who is reborn is
referred to as a "bodhisattva." This is a person who
has won the right to nirvana but chooses to be re-born
in this life in order to help others achieve
enlightenment. One of the more popular sects of MB
is Zen Buddhism which stresses a rapid attainment of
enlightenment, though it is atypical in that the deity of
Buddha is not stressed.
C. Vajayana Buddhism ("The Tantric Vehicle.")
Vajayana is often referred to as "Tibetan Buddhism" or
"Lamaism." This form of Buddhism is the most
syncretistic and occultic, as it incorporated the gods
and demons of the ancient Tibetans. Magic and
chanted mantras are employed to attain enlightenment.
Because of the level of involvement necessary to really
practice this form of Buddhism one needs to become a
monk and live in a monastery. Contrary to other forms
of Buddhism, VB tends to be more monolithic as it is
ruled by a succession of reincarnated Lamas ( (The
current Lama is a past winner of the Nobel Peace
Prize). Needless to say, this is the form of Buddhism
now being romanticized by Hollywood.
V. Some Observations
From a Western perspective Buddhism would seen to suffer
from some fatal contradictions:
A. The first one has to do with desire and attaining nirvana.
A state of desiring is said to be what keeps one from
attaining enlightenment. But should one desireenlightenment? Isn't wanting to save oneself selfish?
Later Buddhists have attempted to solve this paradox by
the concept of a " bodhisattva." As stated earlier, a
"bodhisattva" is one who has met all the requirements for
nirvana but choose instead to remain in the world to
direct other lost souls. His choice to stay back is ultimate
proof of his selflessness. But now we have another
paradox: If only a "bodhisattva" can enter nirvana
because only he is unselfish, then who can enter nirvana?
A "bodhisattva" cannot enter or he would not be a
B. Secondly, If nirvana is the ultimate experience, and if it is
only attained by the loss of the self, who is experiencing
nirvana? How can you have an experience without an
C. If the law of karma results in determinism, and the self is
an illusion, how can free choices be made to do what is
right to build up a store of good karma?
D. This one grows out of the previous, and it is a death blow
to any kind of true moral system. In a monistic system
where no infinite, personal, holy God exists, what can be
good or evil? By what authority can one act be declared
good and another evil? This is perhaps the major
philosophical problem of all Eastern philosophies and
religions. If good and evil are illusions then where does
the authority come from to follow the Eight-Fold path?
By contrast, the Christian does a compassionate act
because it is good in itself. A classical Buddhist does the
act to put up positive karma. But isn't this self-defeating
since this makes it a selfish act?
E. Readers should note a close resemblance between some
forms of Buddhism (particularly Zen) and the philosophy
of existentialism (see CIM Outline # 50). Heidegger and
other existentialists admit their debt to Buddhism. A
critique of the philosophy of existentialism may also
apply to similar points in Buddhism philosophy.
F Though Buddhism is an irrational worldview they must
resort to western methods to communicate their beliefs:
they write books and give lectures. However, using
language, writing books, etc. involves the use of
reasoning and logic. The most consistent Buddhist is the
one who refuses to speak. The Buddha himself when
confronted with a contradiction would only answer in
silence. Experience is what matters.
For Further Study:
Anderson, Sir Norman. The World's Religions. See Chapter 5.
Clark, David K. The Pantheism of Alan Watts.
Clements, R.D. God and the Gurus.
Cox, Harvey. Turning East: The Promise and Peril of the New Orientalism.
Gard, Richard A. ed. Buddhism.
Hackett, Stuart C. Oriental Philosophy.
Johnson, David L. Asian Religions.
Lochhaas, Philip H. How to Respond to... The Eastern Religions.
Needleham, Jacob. The New Religions: The Teachings of the East.
Needleham, Jacob, and Baker, George. Understanding the New Religions.
Robinson, Richard H. The Buddhist Religion: A Historical Introduction.
Yamamoto, J. Isamu. Beyond Buddhism.