In critiquing any subject, it is essential to know what one is criticising. That is, one must not attack straw men: one must critique a subject for what it is, rather than what one imagines it to be. Most fundamentalist criticisms of Buddhism usually fall into this fallacy of misidentification. The misidentification is frequently fueled by ignorance and by preconceived biases learned from particular demoninational statements and creeds. In this article I would like to refute some commonly-held misidentifications and misconceptions by which many biblical literalists attempt to condemn Buddhism.
1. True religion is based on revelation. Buddhism has no revelation and is therefore a false religion.
My first response begins with an objection to the notion of divine revelation. One’s personal revelation(s) may be invaluable to oneself, but of little use and meaning to others (unless of course revelation can somehow be a shared experience). The issue centers around the question, How can one test another’s private revelation? How do we decide between a true, valid revelation and the rantings of a hallucinating, delusional person? How can we tell a real revelation from an outright, manipulative lie? How do we know that God has revealed truth to one person, while another person is making an equally sincere claim to divine inspiration?
Moreover, in Buddhism’s favor, the Buddha taught that the experience of religious truth is open to all, not merely to selected “favorite children” of a particular deity. The experience of truth in Buddhism is not the result of accepting anyone’s revelation nor is it a consequence of belief in a set of doctrines based on a revelation. Instead, Buddhism claims that spiritual truth is based on the seeker’s own experiences, which are gained through a variety of contemplative/meditative methods. Faith is not a requirement in Buddhism. Rather, Buddhism invites the seeker to “try this”: complete the spiritual injunction, perform the meditative experiment, and share the conclusions with others who have also adequately performed these steps. Since faith is not a spiritual requirement for Buddhism, Buddhism does not depend on anyone’s belief-claims, or on anyone’s puported revelations, or on any divinely-inspired texts.
Therefore, the objection that Buddhism is a false system because it does not depend on revelation is really something of a back-handed compliment: “belief-in” has been supplanted with direct experience and hands-on testing.
2. True religion claims the reality of an Absolute and offers a means of connecting with that Absolute. Buddhism claims no Absolute and therefore is not a true religion.
This objection is simply false, and a misidentification of what Buddhism really claims. There is Buddhist Absolute, namely, the Dharma. Buddha conceived of the Dharma as a universal law, the understanding of which is the highest spiritual goal. Under this law are subsumed all other Buddhist truth claims. Moreover, especially in Mahayana Buddhism, the Absolute goes by many names and descriptions, such as the Buddha Nature, Sunyata, the Plenum-Void, the Buddha Mind, the Dharmakaya, etc.
Buddhism claims that correct action and meditation lead to direct experience of the Ultimate within oneself. Further, Buddhism claims that correct understanding and practice actually result in the observable and experiencable embodiment of the Absolute in people and therefore in the world. Like the Christian Kingdom of God, the Buddhist Absolute is “here, but more than here”, it is “within us”, and the arhats, Boddhisattvas, and Buddhas “incarnate” the Ultimate in a way not dissimilar from the way that Christianity claims that Jesus embodied God and the Spirit. Therefore the claim that Buddhism has no Absolute, and no means of reaching the Absolute, is false.
3. The Buddha was a sinful human being who left his wife and family for the sake of his own spiritual benefit, and later, his missionary career.
My main objection here is that Christianity – even fundamentalist Christianity – claims that experience of God or the Spirit is “the pearl of great price” for which many sacrifices are called for and many social expectations are overturned. Did Buddha leave his family? So did Jesus, who also said that his followers must “hate” their families, and who expanded the definition of family to include anyone who obeys God (“Who are my mother and my brothers? Those who obey God,” Jesus said… in the presence of his mother and his brothers). Did Buddha recommend celibacy? So did Jesus, who said that the highest service to God’s Kingdom is to make a eunuch of oneself. Saint Paul in an important sense echoes this sentiment when he damns marriage with the faint praise: “It is better to marry than to burn [with lust].”
Fundamentalistists who condemn Buddhist celibacy and monasticism do so without reference to their own Christian tradition’s counsels along the same lines. Here a fatal lack of self-inquiry, if not hypocrisy, raises its ugly head.
4. True religion must claim universality. However, Buddhism does not claim that it is for all people. Therefore, Buddhism is a false religion.
It is true that the Buddha limited his own experience of the Dharma to his own teaching and meditative practices, yet he never denied that the Dharma is available to all. After all, the Dharma is an absolute and would not be likely to be limited to a single human being or religious order or contemplative practice. What Buddha claimed was that the spiritual injunctions worked for him – and for his followers who successfully performed them. The experimental nature of Buddha’s injunctions can be summarized, as previously mentioned, “Try this. If ‘this’ doesn’t work, then try something else, and test your own experience against what I am teaching.”
The injunction’s experimental nature therefore makes the Buddha’s attitude relativistic toward method, but not toward the absolute Dharma underlying his – and all authentic teachers’ – methods. Therefore the objection that Buddhism’s claims are not universal is a partial truth at best, because while the methodology may be relativistic, the truth-claim is universal, just as the Dharma is universal.
5. Buddhism claims that the universe is eternal, and is therefore an atheistic system.
Atheism is the denial of God’s existence or reality, not simply the denial of a Creator-deity.
Theism is the affirmation of God’s existence or reality, not limited to statements about a Creator-deity: that depends on the religious system invoked.
Along with many “new” atheists, fundamentalists’ view of God is narrowly focused on God as a Creator. If God as a Creator is refuted or denied (they think), then God generally defined is also denied. This limited “God must be a Creator or God is unreal” view makes colorful, if grotesque, bedfellows of fundamentalists and atheists.
The problem is that “God” has many more definitions and functions than “His” narrow fundamentalistic, “biblical” consignment to the role of Creator. Granted, if God as a Creator is refuted or denied, then obviously, “God” is deleted. That is, God’s definition as a Creator is deleted. God’s other definitions and functions, however, remain untouched. Therefore, to claim that the universe is eternal, is probably to deny the existence of a Creator. But it is not to deny the existence of God.
Moreover, it should be noted that several of the interpretations and meanings applied in Buddhism to Nirvana, the state of Bodhi, Buddha Nature and Buddha Mind, etc., are actually functionally equivalent to several important (“non-Creatorist”) God-definitions in Western faith and mysticism.
That fundamentalist critics of Buddhism seem mostly unaware of these two major God-issues speaks volumes about the bias and ignorance with which they approach the subject.
6. Buddhism is negative and fatalistic because the Buddha claimed that life is suffering.
This objection is simply a result of laziness. The briefest exposure to Buddhism exhibits the fact that the Buddha said, “I teach suffering, and the end of suffering.” Fundamentalist critics’ inability or unwillingness to read the rest of the sentence beyond the comma is as baffling as it is intellectually suspect.
7. Buddhist prayer is illogical because it attempts to change fatalistic karma.
Fundamentalists may see Buddhists standing or kneeling with their malas in hand, chanting and/or reciting verses, and they come to the conclusion that Buddhists pray. This is mostly a false conclusion. Only a relatively little-educate minority of Buddhists pray to Buddha, or his manifold manifestations, as to a g0d. There is no Creator in Buddhism, so even this petitionary, supplicative form of prayer is usually a request for merit, not for miracles. It approximates the type of prayer that devotees in some Catholic countries direct to their saints.
Instead of prayer,, Buddhists practice meditation, some of which takes the outward appearance of Western, theistic prayer. But instead of attempting to engage the will of a sky-father-Creator, Buddhist meditators seek to focus their mind; to cultivate peacefulness, compassion, and calm; to better understand the teachings; and to accumulate merit, which is said to impact their karmic “debt”. Common sense dictates that a dept that can be modified, influenced, worked off or shortened cannot at the same time be termed absolute and defined fatalistically or deterministically. Therefore the claim that a belief in karma is necessarily fatalistic is false when objectively observed in its actual Buddhistic philosophy, interpretation, and practice.
8. Buddhism is a religion of despair and negativity because its highest goal is Nirvana, the extinction of the self in nothingness.
The Buddha did not describe Bodhi as a zombie-like state of living death. On the contrary, he invoked it as a living, calm, alert, witnessing kind of consciousness, a kind of still center of perception at the “hub” of the bodily/egoic/samsaric “wheel”. The Buddha taught a life centered in this non-egoic awareness.
Moreover, Jesus himself taught the death of self and described the path to godliness as a daily taking up of one’s cross. He also said that to find oneself, one must lose oneself. And, to cite New Testament scholar Marcus Borg, Jesus taught a life centered in this spiritual mode of dying-to-self – for the purpose of rooting oneself in Spirit rather than in culture (or in any other “samsaric” set of values).
So again in this case we can observe that fundamentalist objections to Buddhism are based on a combination of ignorance and a definite, sometimes glaring, lack of self-questioning.
Finally, Jesus said that we are to remove the log from our own eye before we dare to remove the speck from another’s eye. Fundamentalist condemners of Buddhism would do well to follow their Lord’s injunction.