Someone on the My Buddhist Life Facebook page suggested I write something on what Buddhists can learn from other spiritual traditions. I thought that was a great idea, so here goes!
The first point is ‘Buddhists’ is a very big group of people. There are an estimated 500 million Buddhists in the world. They all know different stuff. So what they can learn from other spiritual traditions depends on who they are right now.
I’m therefore going to limit this to ‘some Buddhists in the west’. And what I’ve noticed among this group is the tendency to disregard other religions out of hand. I think that’s a mistake.
It’s understandable maybe. We’re just people after all. We find this ‘Buddhism’ stuff and it clicks for us. For me personally, finding Buddhism was finding something (after many years of searching without knowing I was searching or what I was searching for) that made sense of my experience and confirmed that, even though I thought quite differently from everyone around me, I wasn’t some crazy dysfunctional freak after all.
Plus, young men get quite enthusiastic and identified with badges. Football, music, Buddhism, Nike. You identify strongly with something and dismiss everything else. It takes time to see other perpectives.
The God thing
Plus, there’s the whole ‘God’ thing. This is usually a big blocker for western Buddhists.
Some of us have grown up in Christian households or gone to Christian schools and rejected it because for us it meant authoritarian, harsh, oppressive, cold, maybe even abusive behaviours or people.
Some of us have never been religious and can’t relate to the whole God thing at all. Apart from anything else, it’s just not very hip. It doesn’t go with my outfit.
I am one of the latter, and for many years the concept of a god seemed preposterous to me.
I’ve mellowed quite a lot on this as I’ve got older, and now I have no difficulty with it at all. How it’s applied can be problematic (see latest news report on gun-crazed nutter who killed a bunch of strangers because of God). But feeling devotional to a god, and allowing a bigger mystical power to inform your life seems perfectly fine to me.
We didn’t talk about God much though, so you’ll have to read the post if you want his take on it.
Why God is relevant to Buddhists
Western Buddhists tend to have quite an individualistic psychological take on Buddhist practice. This is a result of our cultural bias towards the rational mind and individualism. It doesn’t have much to do with Buddhism.
It’s fine as far as it goes, but if you subscribe to the central Buddhist theory of not-self (anatta), you have to consider the possibility that this individual mind you’re working to purify and make wise is not all there is to it. Your practice is limited.
Buddhism has always had gods as part of its cosmological view. And devotional worship has been a part of Buddhist practice since the very early days too.
To take the psychological tools of Buddhism in isolation and call that ‘Buddhism’ is to miss out on the non-rational aspects of the tradition. And when life gets too big for you (e.g. you’re faced with your own death or the death of a loved one), you may find the psychological stuff on its own isn’t enough. You need something beyond yourself when your ‘self’ is falling apart.
Now I’m not saying you have to believe in God. And I’m certainly not suggesting that a Christian-type creator God is floating around being omnipresent and answering prayers. I’m not saying you can go to heaven for all eternity if you’re good. I’m not saying you can hand over your personal responsibility to some great being you’ve never seen.
What I am saying is there’s some merit in looking beyond yourself, being humble when faced with the majesty of the universe, admitting you don’t know what the hell is going on and acknowledging that being all rational about life is just as irrational as not being.
How you make sense of that is up to you. Whether you call it your subconscious, your unconscious, or the gods is up to you. But acknowledging the very limited control you have over your own life, and opening your heart up to all the other energies/powers/gods/deeper aspects of your psyche in whatever way works seems to me something that other religions are often better at than we are.
The rise of the Mahayana
I have a little theory. I think that Mahayana Buddhism developed because of humans’ need to worship something bigger.
Mahayana Buddhism is much more devotional than early Buddhism. It kicked in within 500 years of the death of the historical Buddha and swept across India and then out into the rest of Asia with a ferocity that suggests to me they had a pretty good sales pitch, or met some intrinsic need in practitioners.
Cults devoted to all kinds of mystical beings (bodhisattvas that were never part of early Buddhism and did not exist historically) sprang up, and eventually this form of Buddhism became entirely orthodox. Why?
Now the Buddhist take on huge beings in the sky with the power to grant wishes is fundamentally different from that of theistic faiths. There’s too much to go into here but if you like you can read it all as working with the mind in a skilful way, using techniques that appeal to all aspects of the psyche.
We’re not necessarily talking about ‘person worshipping god-like super-being that inherently exists separately from person’. Buddhism doesn’t see things like that.
But in the west we tend to downplay that stuff. And we largely do that because it makes us feel uncomfortable, due to us having grown up in a Christian culture, and possibly a Christian family. That’s about us, not about Buddhism. And spending some time around people from other faiths can help us to get a feel for that devotional side of things.