Buddhism – Idolatrous and Superstitious?

Prejudice and ignorance is everywhere. I am certainly guilty of it in some form or other. Just read the following on Buddhism.

Definitions of Buddhism have always varied, along with how Buddhists understand life’s meaning. For some, Buddhism is a religion; others regard it as a sect or school of philosophy. But from its view of life and all its practices, it is ultimately clear that the doctrine of Buddhism is idolatrous and superstitious. Since Buddhism is an atheist religion that lacks any belief in God, it also rejects the existence of angels, the eternal afterlife, Hell, and the Day of Judgment.

To a Buddhist who has read and tried to learn the teachings, that particular quote is erroneous.

I can understand why anyone of a particular faith, when reading Buddhist literature will come to a conclusion that Buddhism is atheist. Using material from various sites and books, let me try to explain Buddhism in my eyes to you. I am copying text from other places but since this this not a an academic paper I will not be using formal notation and citation but have included the links at the end.

Buddhism is non-theistic. The Buddha taught that believing in gods was not useful for those seeking to realize enlightenment. One might say that in Buddhism, the big question is not whether gods exist, but what is the nature of existence? And what is the self?

The Buddha also plainly said that he was not a god, but “awakened.” It is this aspect that some people who believe in a monetheistic religion have trouble with as if Buddha is not God, why do people prostate themselves before his idol and make offerings?

No gods, no beliefs, yet Buddhism encourages devotion. How can that be?
The Buddha taught that the biggest barrier to realization is the notion that “I” am a permanent, integral, autonomous entity. It is by seeing through the delusion of ego that realization blooms. Devotion is a upaya for breaking the bonds of ego.

For this reason, the Buddha taught his disciples to cultivate devotional and reverential habits of mind. Thus, devotion is not a “corruption” of Buddhism, but an expression of it.

Of course, devotion requires an object. To what is the Buddhist devoted? This is a question that may be clarified and re-clarified and answered in different ways at different times as one’s understanding of the teachings deepens.
If Buddha was not a god, why bow to Buddha-figures? One might bow just to show gratitude for the Buddha’s life and practice. But the Buddha figure also represents enlightenment itself and the unconditioned nature of all things.

Most religions are defined by their beliefs. But in Buddhism, merely believing in doctrines is beside the point. The Buddha said that we should not accept doctrines just because we read them in scripture or are taught them by priests.

Instead of teaching doctrines to be memorized and believed, the Buddha taught how we can realize truth for ourselves. The focus of Buddhism is on practice rather than belief. In spite of its emphasis on free inquiry, Buddhism is not whatever you want it to be. It might best be understood as a discipline, and an exacting discipline at that. And although Buddhist teachings should not be accepted on blind faith, understanding what the Buddha taught is an important part of that discipline.

There are two things most people think they know about Buddhism — that Buddhists believe in reincarnation, and that all Buddhists are vegetarian. These two statements are not true, however. Buddhist teachings on rebirth are considerably different from what most people call “reincarnation.” And although vegetarianism is encouraged, in many sects it is considered a personal choice, not a requirement.

Four Noble Truths
Buddhist teachings centered on the Four Noble Truths. The truths are:
1. The truth of suffering (dukkha)
2. The truth of the cause of suffering (samudaya)
3. The truth of the end of suffering (nirhodha)
4. The truth of the path that frees us from suffering (magga)

About 2,000 years ago Buddhism divided into two major schools, called Theravada and Mahayana. For centuries, Theravada has been the dominant form of Buddhism in Sri Lanka, Thailand, Cambodia, Burma (Myanmar) and Laos. Mahayana is dominant in China, Japan, Taiwan, Tibet, Nepal, Mongolia, Korea and Vietnam. In recent years, Mahayana also has gained many followers in India. Mahayana is further divided into many sub-schools, such as Pure Land and Zen.

I won’t say I am a good Buddhist like a Christian would say he/she tries to be a good Christian. What I do is to try and remember that wisdom and compassion are the two eyes of Buddhism. “Wisdom,” particularly in Mahayana Buddhism, refers to realization of anatman or shunyata. There are two words translated as “compassion” — metta and karuna. Metta (Pali) is a benevolence toward all beings, without discrimination, that is free of selfish attachment. Karuna refers to active sympathy and gentle affection, a willingness to bear the pain of others, and possibly pity. Metta, karuna, mudita (sympathetic joy) and upeksha (limitless equanimity) are considered four divine states or immeasurable virtues that Buddhists are to cultivate in themselves.

Those who have perfected these virtues will respond to all circumstances correctly. For the rest of us, there are Precepts.
The various schools of Buddhism have different precepts. However, these five are acknowledged by all schools.
1. Not killing
2. Not stealing
3. Not misusing sex
4. Not lying
5. Not abusing intoxicants

It is said that enlightened beings perfectly follow the Precepts even if they’ve never heard of them.
Most schools of Buddhism regard the Precepts as guidelines, not commandments. Mahayana Buddhism in particular emphasizes the Middle Way, meaning Buddhists should sincerely apply the Precepts to their lives but avoid fanatical perfectionism.

The last line does it for me here, avoiding fanatical perfectionism. I believe in the moderate middle path. I came to Buddhism in JC while reading up on various religions.

I do not actively ‘evangelize’ to anyone nor do I have such ambitions. Just a post to clarify some erroneous views as I think many people mistake traditional Chinese Taoists beliefs for Buddhist practices. Some other often made mistakes are like the concept of reincarnation.

“Reincarnation” normally is understood to be the transmigration of a soul to another body after death. There is no such teaching in Buddhism. One of the most fundamental doctrines of Buddhism is anatta, or anatman — no soul or no self. There is no permanent essence of an individual self that survives death. The teachers tell us that “me” is a series of thought-moments. Each thought-moment conditions the next thought-moment. In the same way, the last thought-moment of one life conditions the first thought-moment of another life, which is the continuation of a series. “The person who dies here and is reborn elsewhere is neither the same person, nor another,” Walpola Rahula wrote.

This is not easy to understand, and cannot be fully understood with intellect alone. For this reason, many schools of Buddhism emphasize a meditation practice that enables intimate realization of the illusion of self.

The force that propels this continuity is karma. Karma is another Asian concept that Westerners (and, for that matter, a lot of Easterners) often misunderstand. Karma is not fate, but simple action and reaction, cause and effect. For a more complete explanation, please see the links below.

Very simply, Buddhism teaches that karma means “volitional action.” Any thought, word or deed conditioned by desire, hate, passion and illusion create karma. When the effects of karma reach across lifetimes, karma brings about rebirth.
It’s said that the only way to understand Buddhism is to practice it. Through practice, one perceives its transformative power. A Buddhism that remains in the realm of concepts and ideas is not Buddhism. The robes, ritual and other trappings of religion are not a corruption of Buddhism, as some imagine, but expressions of it.

There’s a Zen story in which a professor visited a Japanese master to inquire about Zen. The master served tea. When the visitor’s cup was full, the master kept pouring. Tea spilled out of the cup and over the table.

“The cup is full!” said the professor. “No more will go in!”

“Like this cup,” said the master, “You are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”

If you want to understand Buddhism, empty your cup.

More about rituals here.

Buddha – Worldwide Buddhist Information and Education Network

Wikipedia on Buddhism

About Buddhism on the Religious Tolerance sitethe

6 Responses

  1. […] Buddhism – Idolatrous and Superstitious? « NingK This entry is filed under Buddhism. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS […]

  2. I have a serious question that may be related to this thread:


    And I would love to hear replies….

  3. As a fellow undertaker of Buddhist practices (same boat re: “good Buddhist”) – I must say, well written! I certainly have no intent to proselytize, but I usually do not scrimp on correcting people when they conflate Buddhism with cultural practices.

  4. Although I like the tone of the message of Buddhism, I must point out that there is not a shred of evidence that there is reincarnation nor karma.

    It is simply another religion which is in conflict with other religions all claiming that they know the “truth”, while in reality, they are all simply fairy tales that make you (us) feel good.

    For me, reality is enough. All there is is enough. I don’t feel the need to get behind fictional stories to feel good, since reality makes me feel great already.


  5. Maybe my post was too long and wordy so you did not read it carefully. I have explained that Buddhism is not belief in reincarnation and karma. Karma, is volitive action, the meaning is probably not as accurate in translation therefore leading to misunderstanding. Anyway, my post was me trying to explain to a friend some fallacies he had as he mixed up Chinese traditions, Taoist beliefs and practices. Buddhism for me, has always been a life philosophy and a daily practice. About feeling good, the first thing I learnt as a Buddhist made me sad. I recognized that there will always be suffering in this world and I accept that everything that happens is a consequence of my actions. there will be no ‘fairy tale’ ending with God helping me.
    Actually as a young student in a Catholic school, I always thought that God is a concept built out of necessity in our minds. It seemed convenient and to be honest, lazy. I realised that when things get bad, we will want to believe in an omniscient and omnipresent being, especially if he can bail you out. I am expecting a surge of religious fervour especially in these times. I do wonder if my disbelief is another form of prejudice the way some people are prejudiced towards Buddhism.
    However, I have to say this in reply. If you are truly happy with your reality, why this need to question, without listening, without retrospection, other people’s belief system. As I see it, you have already decided on your own system of belief and is just justifying your own logic. If your mind is closed, why then ask questions? Maybe I just sound miffed and offended, but I just wondered for a while about the futility of answering this comment. I presumed, from your comments that you probably am not looking for intelligent discourse but to feel good rebutting what you think is untrue or unprovable.
    I have my reality too, I think that life is short and transient and it should be spent on meaningful things.

  6. Does your site have a contact page? I’m having problems locating it but, I’d like to
    send you an email. I’ve got some ideas for your blog you might be interested in hearing. Either way, great blog and I look forward to seeing it develop over time.

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