This brief note highlights some differences that many authors tend to overlook when trying to compare Buddhism with the Abrahamic faiths (Judaism, Christianity and Islam). The views expressed are those of a lay Buddhist and the author does not claim to be a religious scholar. The subject of God is nothing new and is unlikely to disappear from our midst any time soon. However, the number of non-believers of God is on the rise especially in the Western countries. Buddhism started to take off in the West probably in the late 19th century after the “birth” of what some authors called the “Scientific Buddha” associated more with the science of the doctrine. Only time will tell whether this will eventually push the conventional “Asian Buddha” to backstage.
The origin of God, according to published literature, can be traced back to primitive cultures. God is basically a mental product created by the early primitive ignorant man as a means to overcome fear. The fear arose perhaps out of the evolutionary predator-prey survival instinct, coupled with the fear of natural disasters (floods, volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, droughts) as well as disease and death. The caveman, some thousands of years ago had attributed these calamities to supernatural beings or things called ghosts and spirits. Later on came the living God, Satan, spirits, devils and angels. These concepts were used by the primitive man to explain the unknown, for he had no knowledge of the complexities of nature and how nature worked. Ignorance led to superstition, and God eventually got lodged in man’s head. This was believed to be an almighty being with enormous constructive (and destructive) power. Even today there are billions of people worldwide who believe that all things in this universe and everything that happens in nature are God’s work. This is obviously a very simplistic approach to understanding the intricacies of nature, or even to address man’s everyday life problems.
Buddha observed that a mind trapped in ignorance was the main cause for man’s constant unhappiness. Ignorance here referred to lack of knowledge of the reality (things around us) plus delusion (unproven or false beliefs). Buddha’s doctrine aims precisely at removing the ignorance out of man’s mind and with it also the superstitious divine beings and ideas that dwell in it. What Buddhism seeks to achieve is an enlightened state of mind (brain) and body, which is reached only through reflection from within. The enlightened state is characterized by the absence of suffering – a state of happiness. But these two are not permanent situations when taken in the Buddhist context that all natural phenomena including thoughts are subject to change that is, impermanent. What happens is that man is caught in a cycle that alternates between suffering and happiness. An implication of this is that perfection never exists.
Achieving enlightenment is a process involving several steps. The process route is elaborated in Buddha’s four noble truths and the eight-fold path. This is essentially a pathway for conducting one’s life in harmony with the environment. This process proceeds hand in hand with compassion (different from love) and maitriya (also called loving kindness). Buddhist compassion is a universal concept which can be stated as: when man abuses the environment (nature) he abuses himself and when man respects the environment he respects himself. Maitriya is a special case of compassion when applied to living beings. They are closely linked to the Buddhist premise that in nature, all consequences must have causes.
Buddha never claimed that he was the guardian of truth or saviour of mankind. He only professed a message based on His life experience. It was intended to be read, analysed, understood and accepted, only if the conclusions appeal to one’s mind. Truth is hard to find, it cannot be found in books and it is certainly not a hand out.
Buddha found no reason to seek help from divine (the unknown) powers to make one’s own destiny. This makes one to reflect on the quote “the wise man will follow his own direction” (Euripides). Buddha believed that man had the necessary mental capability to observe, analyse and understand how nature works, considering that man himself is part of nature. The Buddhist message is really a teaching which deals with the human thought process and behaviour, perhaps similar to modern psychology. It gives the hope that the pupil (follower) can one day reach the status of the teacher.
Buddhism does not come under the category of religion. Also Buddhism has no similarity whatsoever with the Abrahamic religions: Buddhism and Christianity are poles apart. Buddhism seeks to achieve happiness in this life, while Christianity seeks heaven after death (which is impossible to verify). Buddhism has no God. Christianity has God the Creator and Saviour. Buddhism is inquiry minded and focuses on human reason. Christianity relies on faith (God). Christ is a divine figure whereas Buddha is human. Buddhism has a founder (Buddha) whereas none of the Abrahamic religions has a founder.