Three weeks ago I started this series, “God and Buddhism.” If you have a moment please see the posts of the last two weeks for a general orientation on the series. (The archive of past posts is on the lower right hand corner of the home page.)
To be clear the first point of this series is to establish, in general, by the declarations of leading Buddhist teachers, that Buddhism is an atheist culture. The second point is to establish that within core Buddhist texts, and in the comments of leading teachers, there are many comments that contradict the view that Buddhism is an atheist culture.
None of this is to imply that atheists should become believers in God, or that Buddhists should become Christians. My first goal is to ask people to think carefully about what they do believe and to be honest about any contradictions in the culture they identify with. A second goal is to help people realize there is a balance to be struck between following some aspects of an ancient culture that are uniquely valuable, and rejecting those teachings of an ancient culture that never were right in the first place. This is a lesson that is just as important for Buddhists as it is for Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus and everyone else.
For more of an indication that Buddhism is an atheist culture please see this comment from best-selling author Bhante Gunaratana. He is the senior Theravada Buddhist monk for North America.
“Fetters (to) overcome to reach the first stage of enlightenment.”
*belief in the existence of a permanent self or soul”
Eight Mindful Steps to Happiness Wisdom Publications Somerville, MA 2001Bhante Gunaratana Page 152.
What I ask any Buddhists to consider, especially western Buddhists, is this: do you really believe there is no soul? Are you fully aware that in the view of your teachers you need to let go of any belief in a permanent soul to achieve enlightenment? If the answer to both questions is yes then you have your beliefs. But if these questions cause you to pause and step back to think more carefully about what you are hearing and what you actually believe then that is OK too.
In my opinion, with regards to their teaching there is no such thing as a soul, Buddhism suffers from the same degree of serious contradiction in the core teachings of their tradition as do other faiths.
Let me illustrate: also from Bhante Gunaratana, on the same page as the above quote we read: “A difficult child hood or other bad experiences do not cause the fetters. They come down to you from many lifetimes.” Ibid Page 152
Irrespective of the serious damage this irresponsible comment may cause, this comment clearly suggests, as do many others, that karma does indeed survive the death of the body. Most Buddhist teachings teach that important dynamics of one lifetime carry-forward to the next lifetime. These carry-forwards are decisive causal impacts on the well-being, or the suffering, in one’s future lifetimes.
But, if karma carries forward from one lifetime to another, what is it that survives from one life time to another as the mechanism of karma or as the fetters?
If this is not a permanent self or soul then what is it?
No doubt the doctrinal savants of Buddhism have some nuanced way they seek to explain away this seeming contradiction. The hairsplitters of all traditions are well practiced at coming up with some arcane way of explaining away gross contradictions as a way of glossing over important contradictions. These answers are confusing enough and usually sound profound enough that many, many people accept that somehow there is no contradiction after all and stop asking questions, at least out loud.
But is there any real role, or need for such hairsplitting and web-spinning in the 3rd millennium?
Wouldn’t it be better of religions could just admit, “We got a lot of things right and a lot of other things wrong?” Would that really be so terrible/?
Notice how closely the Buddhist doctrine that karma carries-forward to future lifetimes parallels the doctrine of reward and punishment in Christian and Muslim cultures.
In Christian and Muslim belief, if you are good in this life, you are rewarded after death with heaven. If you are bad in this life you, are punished after death in hell.
In Buddhist beliefs if you are good in this lifetime you are rewarded either with a favorable rebirth, or if you are really good, there are no more rebirths. If you are bad in this life you are punished with great suffering in your next lifetimes.
So let’s see: in Buddhism something carries-forward from one life time to future life times. In Buddhism the good are rewarded and the bad suffer.
Who is it that created this process of karma and rewards and punishments?
Is this very orderly and highly intricate system and apparatus just a random feature of a random universe?
Or, do the Buddhists actually believe in something like a soul, and in something like divine justice, created by something like God? Isn’t it really that they believe in all these things but just call these realities something else?
What do you think?
Please send in your comments or stories. All constructive comments will be responded to and posted.
More next week.
will at meditation practice dot com ( spelled out to limit spam)