As the great cultures and traditions of the world have broken through the barriers that separate nations, awareness of the way people live and worship in other places has grown exponentially. In the West, formerly exotic spiritual traditions from the East have now become familiar territory to those interested in religions and metaphysical studies, and perhaps none of these imports has had a greater impact than Buddhism.
Even though awareness of this ancient Asian spiritual practice has grown, however, most people still only have a general idea of what Buddhism is all about. Meditation, reincarnation, karma, Nirvana, the Dalai Lama – these are just some of the terms and concepts that people most closely associate with Buddhism. But despite what people know, there is still much that is not known, even among those who have taken steps to educate themselves about the precepts of this tradition.
What follows, then, are ten things about Buddhism that you may not have known, or may not have understood completely if your educational process in this great religion has just begun.
1. Buddhism is the World’s 4th Largest Religion
While interest in Buddhism has grown in the West, there is a sense among many that it is a fading spiritual tradition in the East, desperately clinging to life in a few beleaguered outposts like Tibet. But rumors of Buddhism’s decline have been greatly exaggerated, as there are still 360 million adherents around the world, primarily in China, Japan, and Southeast Asia.
2. Buddhism May Not Be a Religion at All
Buddhism certainly has a spiritual and metaphysical dimension. But if religion is to be defined by its belief in gods, and its assignment of those gods to the pinnacle of existence, then Buddhism’s status as a religion could be disputed. “Gods” may exist for certain Buddhist sects, but only as contingent beings grounded in a larger, non-theistic transcendent reality. Of course religion is an amorphous category, open to interpretation with respect to its ultimate meaning. But while no one would dispute that Islam, Hinduism, Judaism or Christianity are religions, with Buddhism the question remains open, and that is the essential difference.
3. The Roots of Buddhism are Found in Hinduism
Much like Martin Luther began Protestantism as an alternative to Catholicism, Siddhartha Gautama (the Buddha) started Buddhism because of his dissatisfaction with Hinduism. It was only over time that the connection between the two spiritual traditions became so remote that Buddhism’s beginning as an offshoot of Hinduism was forgotten. While Protestantism and Catholicism are still recognized as differing versions of Christianity, the roots of Buddhism in Hinduism have become much more obscured.
4. Teachers are Here to Teach, not Lead
Given the amount of international recognition that has been showered upon the Dalai Lama, it is hardly surprising that most tend to see Buddhism as a spiritual practice that relies heavily on the leadership of monks and other holy men. But in Buddhism, even the most exalted teachers should not be looked upon as gurus, but rather only as guides who can show practitioners how to get where they want to go. The Buddha himself emphasized how important it was to always question authority, and to listen to your own inner voice when trying to separate the light from the darkness.
5. Buddhism and Quantum Physics in Synchronicity
There is an enormous amount of literature now available written by those who have found intriguing parallels between Buddhism and quantum physics. These efforts have been controversial, and defenders of scientific materialism in particular have reacted with scorn and outrage at the attempts to mix spirituality and religion. However, the Buddhist view of the world and the picture of reality given to us by modern physics do not appear to be at all hostile to each other, and this is why creative thinkers continue to make the comparison. Science and religion are often seen as worlds apart but from the perspective of Buddhism they seem to complement each other quite nicely.
6. Karma is Not What People Think it Is
Most people think of karma as relating to good and bad deeds that carry over into the next life, with rewards and punishments destined to follow based on past behavior. But this view of karma is extremely simplified. Karma is really more about cause and effect; it means that everything you do has consequences, and that those consequences must ultimately be dealt with in a constructive way before you can move on. Ignorance, attachment, and anger are the sources of all conflict, and only when you overcome their effects can you expect karma to stop following you wherever you go. Only then will you have the ability to make every moment something unique and free. Karma comes from the errors in your thinking – our concepts of good and bad are not really relevant.
7. Reincarnation Has No Ultimate Purpose
Most people think reincarnation means that your soul keeps coming back into the material world over and over again so that you can learn lessons. However, what Buddhism actually says is that you have no soul, and it is only, in essence, your mistaken belief that you do that keeps you coming back for more. The nature of reality is not cyclical, it is the nature of our thinking that is cyclical, and we get caught in circular patterns only because we don’t know any better. We are not sent back to learn lessons; rather, it is only when we learn lessons that we will stop sending ourselves back.
8. Buddhism Loves Numbers
It is more than a little ironic that a spiritual practice that teaches people how to look beyond the illusion that leads us to project our psychological concepts onto the world would categorize everything so obsessively with numbered lists. Perhaps this is because it makes things easier to remember or maybe it just shows that illusion is hard for everyone to overcome. But anyone contemplating a commitment to Buddhism had better be prepared to learn the Eightfold Path, the Five Precepts, the Six Perfections, the Six Realms of Existence, the Five Powers, the Four Noble Truths, etc., etc.
9. The Importance of Loving-Kindness
Loving-kindness is the desire to see others happy, fulfilled, and successful in all of their endeavors. Loving-kindness is a universal feeling of goodwill that transcends but includes compassion, empathy, love, caring, forgiveness, tolerance, and all of the other concepts of good feeling with which we are already familiar. The fact that it takes two words in our language joined by a hyphen to capture this concept reveals its unfamiliarity to our culture.
10. Life is NOT Suffering
Well, it is suffering – but only because of our ignorance, attachment, and anger, which inevitably make us live in a way that is unsatisfying and difficult. Life isn’t anything other than what we make of it, and all of the practices, concepts, insights, and recommendations of Buddhism are designed to help us lift the veil of illusion that keeps us suffering when we really don’t have to.
For those who want to learn more about Buddhist spiritual beliefs and practices, here are some links to highly useful and informative websites: