Buddhism is coming to America. Actually, if popular culture is any indication, it is already here. Not one, but two major films deal with the history 20th century Buddhism: Seven Years in Tibet and Kundun. The television show Dharma and Greg often alludes to Buddhist themes. Tibetan monks are even used to sell computers on television.
We have Buddhist entertainers (Tina Turner, Courtney Love), musicians (Philip Glass), filmmakers (Oliver Stone) and actors (Richard Gere, Steven Seagal). We even have a Buddhist basketball coach. Phil Jackson, who has authored a book called Sacred Hoops, applies Zen principles to the running of the Chicago Bulls.
There are currently more than a thousand books about Buddhism in print in the United States. More than a thousand teaching centers dot our landscape. And more than 100,000 native-born Americans call themselves Buddhists. For all these reasons, this seems like a good time to open a window on the world of Buddhism.
Buddhism, which is an offshoot of Hinduism, was founded in India by Siddhartha Gautama (c. 566-496 B.C.) some five hundred years before Christ. The story of its beginnings goes something like this: Siddhartha’s father tried to shield him from the sorrows of life, but as a young man he saw four sights which convinced him of the reality of suffering: a diseased man, an old man, a dead man and a wandering teacher.
Siddhartha abandoned his family and went on a quest to find spiritual enlightenment. He eventually found it under a tree at Bodh Gaya and became “the Buddha,” meaning the Enlightened One. He went on to found monasteries for his followers, and Buddhism eventually spread to Tibet, China, Japan and the rest of southeast Asia.
Buddhism is a religion without a god, for Buddhists do not believe in God. Instead, they believe in the essential oneness of all things. Their teaching centers around four basic principles, or “noble truths:”
1. Life is full of suffering.
2. Suffering is caused by selfish desire.
3. Suffering can be ended and the soul can enter nirvana if desire can be conquered. Until a soul attains nirvana, it is continuously reincarnated as one living creature or another.
4. There is an eightfold path to becoming enlightened and conquering desire. It consists of right views, intentions, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness and concentration.
Why would Buddhism appeal to Americans? Like every false religion, it is based on human effort. This fits in well with our self-help culture. It is also a religion without a hell. Reincarnation always offers another chance to those who fail.
In these pluralist times, another part of its appeal may be that it does not force people to leave another faith behind. Some people describe themselves as “Buddhist Catholics,” or “Zen Muslims.” If this seems like a contradiction, it should be pointed out that the religion encourages its followers to abandon logic. People simply start meditating and add Buddhist beliefs on top of what they already believe.
The appeal of Buddhism may also have something to do with its attitude toward suffering. By and large, we Americans try to avoid as much suffering as we can. We accumulate as many things and enjoy as many pleasures as possible in a desperate attempt to distract ourselves from life’s troubles.
The problem is that it is hard to stay distracted from pain. So Buddhism offers a different path to avoiding suffering, a spiritual path, not a material one. Instead of getting more and more things, Buddhism teaches people to have smaller and smaller desires, until finally desire disappears altogether. As the Dalai Lama says in Kundun, “My enemies will be nothing. My friends will be nothing. All will be nothing.”
Like most false religions, Buddhism contains some truth. “All existence involves suffering.” True, isn’t it? The experience of every human being confirms it.
Or what about the relationship between suffering and desire? Buddha says desire is the cause of suffering. The Bible agrees, provided the desire is sinful. The apostle James says each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death (Jas. 1:14-15).
Should we then eliminate all desire? The Buddhist ideal would be a joyless, foodless, sexless existence, devoid of beauty or pleasure. Christianity says something very different. It teaches that our desires are created by God. Food, recreation, art, sex and various other human activities have divine approval, provided they are carried out according to God’s instructions. Desire is one of God’s gifts, even if we sometimes pervert it. It is such a part of who we are that we could not eliminate it, even if we wanted to.
If we should not eliminate desire, should we not at least try to eliminate suffering? This is a strong impulse in contemporary society. It explains why people advocate euthanasia, which, incidentally, is high on the Buddhist agenda.
The Bible does not tell us to avoid suffering. One reason for this is that God’s Son Jesus Christ did not try to avoid suffering. He willingly endured all the trials of life and all the pains of crucifixion. He went right through a hell of suffering in order to conquer it and defeat it.
The life of every Christian follows the same pattern: through suffering into glory. We cannot avoid suffering, nor should we. Instead, we persevere through the suffering in order to enter into communion with God. We share in his [Christ’s] sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory. I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us (Rom. 8:17-18).
What will that glory will be like? It will not be like Buddha’s nirvana, the complete absence of desire. Instead, God’s heaven will be a place where every pure and holy desire will be fully and completely satisfied.
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