Last Friday, an old Buddhist friend, Simon, made a presentation to our Buddhist organization through Skype. It led to a big debate afterwards about the nature of Buddhism.
Simon considers Buddhism a faith and a religion. I don’t. In fact, based on my own research in the last three decades, the last thing Buddha wanted is to establish another religion. He himself saw the corruption of Brahmanism and the trappings of institutional religion during his time. He wanted to get out of that ancient system which was based on beliefs and the worship of tradition and authority. Professor Huston Smith called Buddha a “rebel saint.” That is most appropriate. I have a chance to develop many friendships with Indian people in recent years. Many of them see Buddha as a major reformers, not unlike Martin Luther. Such an understanding of Buddha has historical accuracy.
I am sure that many people would object to the notion that Buddhism is not a religion. In order to have a fruitful discussion, we have to first establish a common understanding of what a religion is. To me, a religion has the following characteristics:
1. It has certain symbols of authority, such as holy books, traditions and priesthood.
2. It has certain dogma that members must conform to and disagreement is not allowed.
3. It puts the emphasis on beliefs, not insights or the personal verification of certain claims.
If we read the Kalama Sutta carefully, we will see that Buddha did distinguish his teaching from that of an organized religion. He discouraged appeal to authority. He did not establish any dogma or creed — he referred to his own teaching as a “raft” — a raft is for crossing over to the other shore; it is not for holding onto. He also encouraged his disciples to personally verify the teachings, even his own words. Walpola Rahula remarked in his book, What the Buddha Taught, the level of free thinking Buddha allowed among his students. This is truly unprecedented. In addition, to the best of my knowledge, no later spiritual teacher/guru allowed the same, perhaps except Jiddu Krishnamurti. This is the uniqueness of Buddhism.
The allowance of independent thought is what draws many intellectuals, modernists and freethinkers to Buddhism, including myself. I consider it the “crown jewel” of Buddhism. To deny Buddhism of this unique characteristic is to deprive Buddhism its most precious legacy. Buddhism is not a religion in this sense — it allows independent thinking and disagreements. It is for this reason that I consider this point non-negotiable.
Buddhism is a very vast system, with many many different schools. Certainly, there are certain schools which emphasize faith over insight. The most obvious example is the Pure Land School. In the past two years, I have done quite a bit of research into the history of Buddhism. I discovered that the essence of Buddhism has changed, even distorted, for two main reasons. First, as Buddhism traveled West, passing through Persia, Turkey, reaching Greece via the Silk Road, the Buddhists encountered the theists (God worshipers), they had to compete in the religious marketplace. In the beginning, Buddha forbid the making of Buddha images. Over time, however, Buddhists gradually made pictures and sculptures of Buddha. Thus, Buddha was made into a god and world savior with supernatural powers. As we can see from the earliest Buddha images, they do take the form and style of Greek statues, thus embodying Greek influence. Master Yinshun mentioned the theory that the Maitreya Buddha was fashioned after the Iranian Sun God. This theory has wide acceptance in the academic circle. In any case, it is obvious that the transformation of the human Buddha into a god or cosmic savior is a big deviation from Buddha’s original spirit which stresses self-reliance and frowns on seeking salvation from an external source.
In the meantime, back in India, Buddhism was also transformed through its interaction with Brahmanism. Today, many Hindus recognize Buddha as an avatar of Vishnu. In other words, Buddha is not rejected by the Vedic tradition where he came from. Rather, he is absorbed back into the Vedic tradition, as a manifestation of the god Vishnu. The question I want to raise with my faith-centered Buddhist friends is this — if you can accept the savior Maitreya as an alternative manifestation of Buddha, then can you also accept Buddha as an avatar of Vishnu? Why? Or, why not? For me, to have Buddha’s teaching grounded in history, scholarship and reason is very important. Not betraying the founding spirit of Buddha is also crucial.
Certainly, we have religious freedom. I accept that everybody is different. It does not make sense to compel others to believe one way or another. All I am saying here is that neither the Maitreya Buddha nor the Buddha as the god Vishnu has any historical basis or justification. Simon is certainly free to believe whatever he wants to believe. But it is my sincere understanding that once he regards Buddha as an object of faith, he is already deviating from the historical Buddha.
Our Buddhist organization has distinguished itself from many other Buddhist organizations through its emphasis on reason and what we understand as original Buddhism. Again, everyone has to make a personal choice as to what s/he wants to believe. But what is historical Buddhism and what is not is something we can find out through scholarly research. I don’t recommend a lax attitude of whateverism. What has historical basis and what does not is a matter of utmost importance to me. I personally would like to stick to the original teachings of the Buddha and the Pali Canon, due to the sound historical basis of these sources.
It is true that the vast majority of Asian Buddhists favor the faith route and not the insight route. In Chinese Buddhism, I would say that up to 90% of Buddhists belong to the Pure Land School. Buddha himself declared that his teaching is against the current. It may very well be that authentic Buddhism can only be grasped by a small minority of people. It is not productive for us to denounce Pure Land or Tibetan Buddhism as perversions of Buddha’s teaching. Suffice to say that not every sect or school is equal. Some sects have a strong historical basis while others don’t. I would much prefer a Buddhism which is distinctively different from the monotheistic religions. Otherwise, Buddhism which treats Buddha as a world savior is almost the same as Christianity.
For me, a Buddhism which emphasizes reason, self-reliance and alignment with science is the Buddhism of the future. I will continue to practice and teach Buddhism with this orientation.