Digital Dharma

The Middle Path, One Day At A Time

Messing With Other Folks Heads Isn’t Nice

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One of the reasons I incline toward Buddhist philosophy is the non-aggressive attitude toward other world views. I was brought up Catholic in the deep south, and learned early the tactics of apologetics, the branch of theology that is concerned with the defense of Christian doctrines. (My mom was the priest’s housekeeper.) At age 13 I was debating, via articles in the local paper, with Evangelical ministers about matters of faith and morals. I learned a lot, including how aggressive other Christians could be when it came to trying to alter my belief system.

Then I discovered girls, and my religious ambitions — priesthood and all — vanished in a blinding burst of testosterone.

Over the years of searching (as we all must, to one degree or another) for a philosophical hat that fit, I found that dogmatic religious thinking fits me poorly indeed, simply because it involves too many compromises with my reality. I emphasize my reality because no two people have the same reality, and your mileage will certainly vary. That notwithstanding, as I learned more about belief systems and how they support us in our progress through life, I came to believe that one of the cruelest and most immoral things a person can do is set out with the purpose of destroying someone else’s faith. 

Our belief systems’ attitudes toward the supernatural and the hereafter are such basic parts of us, whether religious, non-religious, agnostic or atheist, that we quite literally cannot function outside their frames of reference. To attempt to change someone’s mind — to risk of injuring their faith — without being certain that whatever substitute one is offering will suffice, is to spiritually kick one leg out from under them without providing other support. (I purposely did not write “offering” other support, because that is the whole point: what we offer may not fit.) I have come to believe that we must each find the point of view that fits us, although I fully realize that this position flies in the face of the core beliefs of Evangelical believers, as it does my own (long lost) Catholic heritage.  My position on this has solidified even more since I realized that I am actually agnostic (I don’t know, and neither do you).

I have gradually reached the conviction, after half a century, that absent obvious harm to me or others, what you believe is quite literally none of my business. My position is, in its way, just as militant as those of the True Believers who seem unfulfilled unless they are “saving” someone’s soul. Until I finally approached Buddhism with an open mind some years ago, after decades of dilly-dallying around down a number of odd spiritual paths, I had not realized that there were actually organized groups who took the same position. (I have since discovered others, but not — in my opinion — nearly enough of them.)

Buddhists do not proselytize. They do not fight religious wars. In 2,600 years, not one war has been fought in the name of Buddhism. (The insurrections in Indonesia are about freedom and economics, not philosophy per se, although they are labeled Muslim v. Buddhist for the sake of convenience.) Buddhists do not go around arguing with people about religion. If you are interested, we will talk about our beliefs. If you hang around long enough, and look and act sincere, eventually someone will agree to be your teacher. Whatever happens after that is entirely up to you, and no one pushes you into it. Add the fact that Buddhism deals only peripherally, if at all, with religious ideas, and you have the ideal outfit for folks like me who have adopted a non-aggression pact with the world of the supernatural and its believers.

Some mistaken ideas about Buddhism:

Buddhists worship Buddha

Not true. Not even close. Siddhartha Gautama, referred to as “the” Buddha, was an ordinary man who lived in northern India (now Nepal) about 600 years before the Christian Era. He was of the Shakyamuni royal line, and is sometimes referred to as Shakyamuni Buddha. Legends about his virgin birth and the other myths that tended to arise around great men in those days are just that, and all educated Buddhists know it. All Gautama did differently from other men was figure out a realistic way of looking at life that made its trials and tribulations of less concern, and that is all pure Buddhist philosophy teaches.

“Buddha,” by the way, simply means “enlightened one,” one who sees things as they are, and anyone can become a buddha; in fact, that is the whole point. The word is usually capitalized when referring to Siddartha, both as a sign of respect and to differentiate him from the many buddhas who preceded and succeeded him.

Over the 2,500-odd years since Siddhartha’s death his philosophy has been grafted onto a number of religious systems, and a great deal of commotion has been made about the finer points of his teachings. The basic concepts, however, remain the same. Buddhists honor Siddhartha as a great man, but do not worship him, any more than Americans worship Thomas Jefferson.

Buddhism is a religion

Not exactly. See above. There is no reason, from the Buddhist perspective, why you cannot be Buddhist and Baptist, Jew, Muslim, Hindu, or whatever. The disagreement usually comes from the other side. (No shaman likes losing even a little bit of power.) The famous Catholic mystic Thomas Merton was a close friend of the Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hahn. One of the most respected Buddhist teachers in the U.S., Bernard Glassman Roshi, is a practicing Jew, and there are so many others like him that a term, Jew-Bu, has been coined to identify them.

Buddhists do not believe in Jesus (Mohammad, The Great Spirit…whomever)

Different Buddhists believe different things about various philosophical figures and their teachings. (Some — not many — even believe the Buddha was a god.) Many Buddhists do not recognize the divinity or divine guidance, as the case may be, of such figures as Jesus of Nazareth and the Prophet, but they are honored as buddhas — men of great spiritual development, enlightened ones — just as Gautama is.

The fact is, a lot of what you may think you know about Buddhists is probably wrong. I highly recommend a little book called Buddhism Plain and Simple, by Steve Hagen, for those who would like to learn more.

But I don’t insist.

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Author: Bill

Stumbling down the Middle Path, one day at a time.

One thought on “Messing With Other Folks Heads Isn’t Nice

  1. Interesting…I never knew there was a religion of ANY kind that didn’t insist you “save people”. I definitley want to look into this….thank you!

    I think it’s simply that Buddhism is based on logic. If you don’t “get it” you can’t practice it, and you have to understand it to get it, not take it on faith.

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