Buddhism—A Search for Enlightenment Without God
Thus, according to the 1989 Britannica
Book of the Year, Buddhism claims a worldwide
membership of some 300 million, with about 200,000 each in Western Europe and, North America, 500,000 in Latin America, and
300,000 in the Soviet Union. Most of Buddhism’s adherents, however, are still
found in Asian countries, such as
A Question of Reliable Source
“What is known of the Buddha’s life
is based mainly on the evidence of the canonical texts, the most extensive and
comprehensive of which are those written in Pali, a
language of ancient
Buddhist tradition holds that soon after the death of Gautama, a council of 500 monks was convened to decide what was the authentic teaching of the Master. Whether such a council actually did take place is a subject of much debate among Buddhist scholars and historians. The important point we should note, however, is that even Buddhist texts acknowledge that the authentic teaching decided upon was not committed to writing but memorized by the disciples. Actual writing of the sacred texts had to wait for a considerable time.
According to Sri Lankan chronicles of the fourth and sixth centuries C.E., the earliest of these Pali “canonical texts” were put in writing during the reign of King Vattagamani Abhaya in the first century B.C.E. Other accounts of the Buddha’s life did not appear in writing until perhaps the first or even the fifth century C.E., nearly a thousand years after his time.
Thus, observes the Abingdon Dictionary of Living Religions, “The ‘biographies’ are both late in origin and replete with legendary and mythical material, and the oldest canonical texts are the products of a long process of oral transmission that evidently included some revision and much addition.” One scholar even “contended that not a single word of the recorded teaching can be ascribed with unqualified certainty to Gautama himself.” Are such criticisms justified?
The Buddha’s Conception and Birth
Consider the following excerpts from Jataka, part of the Pali canon, and Buddha-charita, a second-century C.E. Sanskrit text on the life of the Buddha. First, the account of how the Buddha’s mother, Queen Maha-Maya, came to conceive him in a dream.
guardian angels came and lifted her up, together with her couch, and took her
away to the
When the queen told the dream to her husband, the king, he summoned 64 eminent Hindu priests, fed and clothed them, and asked for an interpretation. This was their answer:
“Be not anxious, great king! . . . You will have a son. And he, if he continue to live the household life, will become a universal monarch; but if he leave the household life and retire from the world, he will become a Buddha, and roll back the clouds of sin and folly of this world.”
Thereafter, 32 miracles were said to have occurred:
“All the ten thousand worlds suddenly quaked, quivered, and shook. . . . The fires went out in all the hells; . . . diseases ceased among men; . . . all musical instruments gave forth their notes without being played upon; . . . in the mighty ocean the water became sweet; . . . the whole ten thousand worlds became one mass of garlands of the utmost possible magnificence.”
Then came the unusual birth of the Buddha in a garden of sal trees called Lumbini Grove. When the queen wanted to take hold of a branch of the tallest sal tree in the grove, the tree obliged by bending down to within her reach. Holding on to the branch and standing, she gave birth.
“He issued from his mother’s womb like a preacher descending from his preaching-seat, or a man coming down a stair, stretching out both hands and both feet, unsmeared by any impurity from his mother’s womb. . .
“As soon as he is born, the [future Buddha] firmly plants both feet flat on the ground, takes seven strides to the north, with a white canopy carried above his head, and surveys each quarter of the world, exclaiming in peerless tones: In all the world I am chief, best and foremost; this is my last birth; I shall never be born again.”
There are also equally elaborate
stories regarding his childhood, his encounters with young female admirers, his
wanderings, and just about every event in his life. Not surprisingly, perhaps,
most scholars dismiss all these accounts as legends and myths. A
In spite of these myths, a
traditional account of the Buddha’s life is widely circulated. A modern text, A
Manual of Buddhism, published in
“On the full-moon day of May in the year 623 B.C. there was born in the district of Nepal an Indian Sakyan Prince, by name Siddhattha Gotama. King Suddhodana was his father, and Queen Maha Maya was his mother. She died a few days after the birth of the child and Maha Pajapati Gotami became his foster-mother.
“At the age of sixteen he married his cousin, the beautiful Princess Yasodhara.
“For nearly thirteen years after his happy marriage he led a luxurious life, blissfully ignorant of the vicissitudes of life outside the palace gates.
“With the march of time, truth gradually dawned upon him. In his 29th year, which witnessed the turning point of his career, his son Rahula was born. He regarded his offspring as an impediment, for he realized that all without exception were subject to birth, disease, and death. Comprehending thus the universality of sorrow, he decided to find out a panacea for this universal sickness of humanity.
“So renouncing his royal pleasures, he left home one night . . . cutting his hair, donned the simple garb of an ascetic, and wandered forth as a Seeker of Truth.”
Clearly these few biographical details are in stark contrast to the fantastic accounts found in the “canonical texts.” And except for the year of his birth, they are commonly accepted.
The Enlightenment—How It Happened
What was the aforementioned “turning point of his career”? It was when, for the first time in his life, he saw a sick man, an old man, and a dead man. This experience caused him to agonize over the meaning of life—Why were men born, only to suffer, grow old, and die? Then, it was said that he saw a holy man, one who had renounced the world in pursuit of truth. This impelled Gautama to give up his family, his possessions, and his princely name and spend the next six years seeking the answer from Hindu teachers and gurus, but without success. The accounts tell us that he pursued a course of meditation, fasting, Yoga, and extreme self-denial, yet he found no spiritual peace or enlightenment.
Eventually he came to realize that
his extreme course of self-denial was as useless as the life of self-indulgence
that he had led before. He now adopted what he called the
By this process, in Buddhist terminology, Gautama became the Buddha—the Awakened, or Enlightened, One. He had attained the ultimate goal, Nirvana, the state of perfect peace and enlightenment, freed from desire and suffering. He has also become known as Sakyamuni (sage of the Sakya tribe), and he often addressed himself as Tathagata (one who thus came [to teach]). Different Buddhist sects, however, hold different views on this subject. Some view him strictly as a human who found the path to enlightenment for himself and taught it to his followers. Others view him as the final one of a series of Buddhas to have come into the world to preach or revive the dharma (Pali, Dhamma), the teaching or way of the Buddha. Still others view him as a bodhisattva, one who had attained enlightenment but postponed entering Nirvana in order to help others in their pursuit of enlightenment. Whatever it is, this event, the Enlightenment, is of central importance to all schools of Buddhism.
The Enlightenment—What Is It?
Having attained enlightenment, and
after overcoming some initial hesitation, the Buddha set forth to teach his
newfound truth, his dharma, to others. His first and probably most important
sermon was given in the city of Benares, in a deer
park, to five bhikkus—disciples or monks. In it, he
taught that to be saved, one must avoid both the course of sensual indulgence
and that of asceticism and follow the
(1) All existence is suffering.
(2) Suffering arises from desire or craving.
(3) Cessation of desire means the end of suffering.
(4) Cessation of desire is achieved by following the Eightfold Path, controlling one’s conduct, thinking, and belief.
This sermon on the
It is not hard to see why this teaching was welcomed in the Indian society of the time. It condemned the greedy and corrupt religious practices promoted by the Hindu Brahmans, or priestly caste, on the one hand, and the austere asceticism of the Jains and other mystic cults on the other. It also did away with the sacrifices and rituals, the myriads of gods and goddesses, and the burdensome caste system that dominated and enslaved every aspect of the people’s life. In short, it promised liberation to everyone who was willing to follow the Buddha’s way.
Buddhism Spreading Its Influence
When the five bhikkus
accepted the Buddha’s teaching, they became the first sangha,
or order of monks. So the “Three Jewels” (Triratna)
of Buddhism were completed, namely, the Buddha, the dharma, and the sangha, which were supposed to help people get on the way
to enlightenment. Thus prepared, Gautama the Buddha
went preaching through the length and breadth of the
In the third century B.C.E.,
about 200 years after the Buddha’s death, appeared Buddhism’s greatest
champion, Emperor Asoka, who brought most of
While Buddhism was spreading its
influence in other lands, it was gradually declining back in
During the 20th century, Buddhism
underwent another change of face. Political upheaval in
In Europe and
Buddhism’s Diverse Ways
Although it is customary to speak of Buddhism as one religion, in reality it is divided into several schools of thought. Based on different interpretations of the nature of the Buddha and his teachings, each has its own doctrines, practices, and scriptures. These schools are further divided into numerous groups and sects, many of which are heavily influenced by local cultures and traditions.
The Theravada (Way of the Elders), or Hinayana (Lesser Vehicle), school of Buddhism flourishes in Sri Lanka, Myanmar (Burma), Thailand, Kampuchea (Cambodia), and Laos. Some consider this to be the conservative school. It emphasizes gaining wisdom and working out one’s own salvation by renouncing the world and living the life of a monk, devoting oneself to meditation and study in a monastery.
It is a common sight in some of these lands to see groups of young men with shaved heads, in saffron robes and bare feet, carrying their alms bowls to receive their daily provision from the lay believers whose role it is to support them. It is customary for men to spend at least some part of their life in a monastery. The ultimate goal of the monastic life is to become an arhat, that is, one who has reached spiritual perfection and liberation from the pain and suffering in the cycles of rebirth. The Buddha has shown the way; it is up to each one to follow it.
The Mahayana (Greater
Among the many Mahayana sects that
have developed in
Zen Buddhism (Ch’an school in
Finally, there is Tibetan Buddhism,
or Lamaism. This form of Buddhism is sometimes called Mantrayana (Mantra Vehicle) because of the prominent use of
mantras, a series of syllables with or without meaning, in long recitals.
Instead of emphasizing wisdom or compassion, this form of Buddhism emphasizes
the use of rituals, prayers, magic, and spiritism in
worship. Prayers are repeated thousands of times a day with the aid of prayer
beads and prayer wheels. The complicated rituals can be learned only under oral
instruction by lamas, or monastic leaders, among whom the best known are the
Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama. After the
death of a lama, a search is made for a child in whom the lama is said to have
been reincarnated to be the next spiritual leader. The term, however, is also
generally applied to all monks, who, by one estimate, at one time numbered
about one fifth of the entire population of
These principal divisions of
Buddhism are in turn subdivided into many groups, or sects. Some are devoted to
a particular leader, such as Nichiren in
The Three Baskets and Other Buddhist Scriptures
Teachings attributed to the Buddha were passed on by word of mouth and only began to be put down in writing centuries after he had passed off the scene. Thus, at best, they represent what his followers in later generations thought he said and did. This is further complicated by the fact that, by then, Buddhism had already splintered into many schools. Thus, different texts present quite different versions of Buddhism.
The earliest of the Buddhist texts were written in Pali, said to be related to the Buddha’s native tongue, in about the first century B.C.E. They are accepted by the Theravada school as the authentic texts. They consist of 31 books organized into three collections called Tipitaka (Sanskrit, Tripitaka), meaning “Three Baskets,” or “Three Collections.” The Vinaya Pitaka (Basket of Discipline) deals mainly with rules and regulations for monks and nuns. The Sutta Pitaka (Basket of Discourses) contains the sermons, parables, and proverbs delivered by the Buddha and his leading disciples. Finally, the Abhidhamma Pitaka (Basket of Ultimate Doctrine) consists of commentaries on Buddhist doctrines.
On the other hand, the writings of
the Mahayana school are mostly in Sanskrit, Chinese, and Tibetan, and they are
voluminous. The Chinese texts alone consist of over 5,000 volumes. They contain
many ideas that were not in the earlier writings, such as accounts of Buddhas as numerous as the sands of the
Needless to say, few people are able to comprehend these highly abstract treatises. As a result, these later developments have taken Buddhism far away from what the Buddha intended originally. According to the Vinaya Pitaka, the Buddha wanted his teachings to be understood not only by the educated class but by every sort of people. To this end, he insisted that his ideas be taught in the language of the common people, not the sacred dead language of Hinduism. Thus, to the Theravada Buddhists’ objection that these books were noncanonical, the Mahayana followers’ reply is that Gautama the Buddha first taught the simple and ignorant, but to the learned and wise he revealed the teachings written later in the Mahayana books.
The Cycle of Karma and Samsara
Although Buddhism freed the people from the shackles of Hinduism to a certain extent, its fundamental ideas are still a legacy of the Hindu teachings of Karma and samsara. Buddhism, as it was originally taught by the Buddha, differs from Hinduism in that it denies the existence of an immortal soul but speaks of the individual as “a combination of physical and mental forces or energies.” Nonetheless, its teachings are still centered on the ideas that all humanity is wandering from life to life through countless rebirths (samsara) and suffering the consequences of actions past and present (Karma). Even though its message of enlightenment and liberation from this cycle may appear attractive, some ask: How sound is the foundation? What proof is there that all sufferings are the result of one’s actions in a previous life? And, in fact, what evidence is there that there is any past life?
One explanation about the law of Karma says:
“Kamma [Pali equivalent of Karma] is a law in itself. But it does not follow that there should be a lawgiver. Ordinary laws of nature, like gravitation, need no lawgiver. The law of Kamma too demands no lawgiver. It operates in its own field without the intervention of an external, independent ruling agency.”—A Manual of Buddhism.
Is this sound reasoning? Do laws of nature really need no lawgiver? Rocket expert Dr. Wernher von Braun once stated: “The natural laws of the universe are so precise that we have no difficulty building a spaceship to fly to the moon and can time the flight with the precision of a fraction of a second. These laws must have been set by somebody.” The Bible also speaks about the law of cause and effect. It tells us, “God is not one to be mocked. For whatever a man is sowing, this he will also reap.” (Galatians 6:7) Instead of saying this law needs no lawgiver, it points out that “God is not one to be mocked,” indicating that this law was set in motion by its Maker, Jehovah.
In addition, the Bible tells us that “the wages sin pays is death,” and “he who has died has been acquitted from his sin.” Even courts of justice recognize that no one is to suffer double jeopardy for any crime. Why, then, should a person who has already paid for his sins by dying be reborn only to suffer anew the consequences of his past acts? Furthermore, without knowing what past acts one is being punished for, how can one repent and improve? Could this be considered justice? Is it consistent with mercy, which is said to be the Buddha’s most outstanding quality? In contrast, the Bible, after stating that “the wages sin pays is death,” goes on to say: “But the gift God gives is everlasting life by Christ Jesus our Lord.” Yes, it promises that God will do away with all corruption, sin, and death and will bring freedom and perfection for all mankind.—Romans 6:7, 23; 8:21; Isaiah 25:8.
As for rebirth, here is an explanation by the Buddhist scholar Dr. Walpola Rahula:
“A being is nothing but a combination of physical and mental forces or energies. What we call death is the total non-functioning of the physical body. Do all these forces and energies stop altogether with the non-functioning of the body? Buddhism says ‘No.’ Will, volition, desire, thirst to exist, to continue, to become more and more, is a tremendous force that moves whole lives, whole existences, that even moves the whole world. This is the greatest force, the greatest energy in the world. According to Buddhism, this force does not stop with the non-functioning of the body, which is death; but it continues manifesting itself in another form, producing re-existence which is called rebirth.”
At the moment of conception, a person inherits 50 percent of his genes from each parent. Therefore there is no way by which he can be 100 percent like someone in a previous existence. Indeed, the process of rebirth cannot be supported by any known principle of science. Frequently, those who believe in the doctrine of rebirth cite as proof the experience of people who claim to recollect faces, events, and places that they have not formerly known. Is this logical? To say that a person who can recount things in bygone times must have lived in that era, one would also have to say that a person who can foretell the future—and there are many who claim to do so—must have lived in the future. That, obviously, is not the case.
More than 400 years before the Buddha, the Bible spoke of a life-force. Describing what happens at a person’s death, it says: “Then the dust returns to the earth just as it happened to be and the spirit itself returns to the true God who gave it.” (Ecclesiastes 12:7) The word “spirit” is translated from the Hebrew word ru´ach, meaning the life-force that animates all living creatures, human and animal. (Ecclesiastes 3:18-22) However, the important difference is that ru´ach is an impersonal force; it does not have a will of its own or retain the personality or any of the characteristics of the deceased individual. It does not go from one person to another at death but “returns to the true God who gave it.” In other words, the person’s future life prospects—the hope of a resurrection—are entirely in God’s hands.—John 5:28, 29; Acts 17:31.
Nirvana—Attaining the Unattainable?
This brings us to the Buddha’s teaching on enlightenment and salvation. In Buddhist terms, the basic idea of salvation is liberation from the laws of Karma and samsara, as well as the attaining of Nirvana. And what is Nirvana? Buddhist texts say that it is impossible to describe or explain but can only be experienced. It is not a heaven where one goes after death but an attainment that is within the reach of all, here and now. The word itself is said to mean “blowing out, extinguishing.” Thus, some define Nirvana as cessation of all passion and desire; an existence free from all sensory feelings, such as pain, fear, want, love, or hate; a state of eternal peace, rest, and changelessness. Essentially, it is said to be the cessation of individual existence.
The Buddha taught that enlightenment and salvation—the perfection of Nirvana—come, not from any God or external force, but from within a person by his own effort in good deeds and right thoughts. This raises the question: Can something perfect come out of something imperfect? Does not our common experience tell us, as the Hebrew prophet Jeremiah did, that “to earthling man his way does not belong. It does not belong to man who is walking even to direct his step”? (Jeremiah 10:23) If no one is able to have total control of his actions even in simple day-to-day matters, is it logical to think that anyone can work out his eternal salvation all by himself?—Psalm 146:3, 4.
Just as a man mired in quicksand is not likely to free himself from it on his own, likewise all mankind is entrapped in sin and death, and no one is capable of extricating himself from this entanglement. (Romans 5:12) Yet, the Buddha taught that salvation depends solely on one’s own effort. His parting exhortation to his disciples was to “rely on yourselves and do not rely on external help; hold fast to the truth as a lamp; seek salvation alone in the truth; look not for assistance to anyone besides yourself.”
Enlightenment or Disillusionment?
What is the effect of such a doctrine? Does it inspire its believers to true faith and devotion? The book Living Buddhism reports that in some Buddhist countries, even “monks give little thought to the sublimities of their religion. The attainment of Nirvana is widely thought to be a hopelessly unrealistic ambition, and meditation is seldom practised. Apart from desultory study of the Tipitaka, they devote themselves to being a benevolent and harmonious influence in society.” Similarly, World Encyclopedia (Japanese), in commenting on the recent resurgence of interest in Buddhist teachings, observes: “The more the study of Buddhism becomes specialized, the more it departs from its original purpose—to guide the people. From this point of view, the recent trend in the rigorous study of Buddhism does not necessarily mean the revival of a living faith. Rather, it must be observed that when a religion becomes the object of complicated metaphysical scholarship, its real life as a faith is losing its power.”
The fundamental concept of Buddhism is that knowledge and understanding lead to enlightenment and salvation. But the complicated doctrines of the various schools of Buddhism have only produced the above-mentioned “hopelessly unrealistic” situation, beyond the grasp of most believers. For them, Buddhism has been reduced to doing good and following a few rituals and simple precepts. It does not come to grips with life’s perplexing questions, such as: Where do we come from? Why are we here? And what is the future for man and the earth?
Some sincere Buddhists have recognized the confusion and disillusionment that arise from the complicated doctrines and burdensome rituals of Buddhism as it is practiced today. The humanitarian efforts of Buddhist groups and associations in some countries may have brought relief from pain and suffering to many. But as a source of true enlightenment and liberation for all, has Buddhism lived up to its promise?
Enlightenment Without God?
Accounts of the life of the Buddha relate that on one occasion he and his disciples were in a forest. He picked up a handful of leaves and said to his disciples: “What I have taught you is comparable to the leaves in my hand, what I have not taught you is comparable to the amount of leaves in the forest.” The implication, of course, was that the Buddha had taught only a fraction of what he knew. However, there is one important omission—Gautama the Buddha had next to nothing to say about God; neither did he ever claim to be God. In fact, it is said that he told his disciples, “If there is a God, it is inconceivable that He would be concerned about my day-to-day affairs,” and “there are no gods who can or will help man.”
In this sense, Buddhism’s role in mankind’s search for the true God is minimal. The Encyclopedia of World Faiths observes that “early Buddhism appears to have taken no account of the question of God, and certainly did not teach or require belief in God.” In its emphasis on each person’s seeking salvation on his own, turning inward to his own mind or consciousness for enlightenment, Buddhism is really agnostic, if not atheistic. (See box, page 145.) In trying to throw off Hinduism’s shackles of superstition and its bewildering array of mythical gods, Buddhism has swung to the other extreme. It ignored the fundamental concept of a Supreme Being, by whose will everything exists and operates.—Acts 17:24, 25.
Because of this self-centered and independent way of thinking, the result is a veritable labyrinth of legends, traditions, complex doctrines, and interpretations generated by the many schools and sects over the centuries. What was meant to bring a simple solution to the complicated problems of life has resulted in a religious and philosophical system that is beyond the comprehension of most people. Instead, the average follower of Buddhism is simply preoccupied with worshiping idols and relics, gods and demons, spirits and ancestors, and performing many other rituals and practices that have little to do with what Gautama the Buddha taught. Clearly, seeking enlightenment without God does not work.
At about the same time that Gautama the Buddha was searching for the way to
enlightenment, in another part of the continent of
This is the transliteration of the Pali spelling of his name. From Sanskrit the transliteration is Siddhartha Gautama. His birth date, however, has been variously given as 560, 563, or 567 B.C.E. Most authorities accept the 560 date or at least put his birth in the sixth century B.C.E.
doctrines, such as anatta (no self), deny the
existence of an unchanging or eternal soul. However, most Buddhists today,
particularly those in the
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