Once again, after four years, I have given myself the daunting task of commenting on my brief reading in the literature of Buddhism. I can’t entirely agree with what I’ve read in the last few days, and yet such sources provide the basis of virtuous living for multitudes, including some who have been among my best friends. I don’t entirely understand Buddhism (a gross understatement), and yet I find inspiration in some of its practices and views. I’ve read several passages, and yet I’ve only scratched the surface of Buddhist scripture, and I must even confess my ignorance on what schools of Buddhism (if any) revere the particular selections I’ve read. So I hesitate because I don’t want either to defend or offend, either to ignore or to misrepresent. I just looked over my previous blog post on Buddhism, and it puts one more impediment in my way: I know I can’t treat the subject as well today as I did then. Perhaps the Siddharta Gautama would tell me to escape the illusion of this dilemma by not writing at all. But once again, I find I foolishly persist.
It has become common to hear people talk about “spirituality” rather than “religion.” I sometimes hear or read someone to have said that he or she is spiritual but not religious. The cultural shift comes, I think, with growth of the thought that all religions are essentially the same, or at least that what they all have in common is what’s really important. I suppose that if one looks at the world’s major religions and sees that they all encourage humility and benefiting others by good acts, they start to look more alike. And where the Buddhist writings I just read exhort me to humility and selfless acts, I find a point of contact, familiar ground, even inspiration.
But religions also make claims about the nature of reality, especially about the reality that we will experience after death, and these claims generally conflict with one another. (And the claim that the person disappears after death so that there is no experience to be had conflicts with the claims of most religions.) I’ve just read that the thought that "some particular form of existence will prove to be the cessation of misery" is an illusion. Do I want the cessation of misery? Yes. But I also want to experience that cessation, which I can only do if I exist. My Lord tells me He’s preparing a place for me where I can live forever with Him in happiness and glory. So if the Buddhist is right, then I’m wrong. Buddhism and Christianity are most definitely not the same, and if I want to be spiritual by following one of these paths, I must be “religious” if “religious” means that I am devoted to or belong to one religion rather than another.
So I wanted to establish this clear difference before admitting that I found a surprising connection between the truth claims of Christianity and of Buddhism in the doctrine of karma. The passages I read made it very clear that, in the Buddhist view, what is reborn after a conscious being dies is not the same being and not the same consciousness. I got no sense from what I read that a person could, with the right form of meditation, remember past lives. But the life of one being causes, at its death, certain aspects of a life yet to be born. The forest fire, I read, is not the same as the flame on my torch, but it may cause the forest fire; and so it is with life. What is passed from one life to another is not consciousness or identity but karma: the tendency to right or wrong action and the merit or guilt that calls for reward or punishment. Now doesn’t the Christian believe that, while he is not Adam, he has inherited both Adam’s tendency to sin and his guilt? I was actually astounded at how right these Buddhist passages on karma sounded to me when I read them as explanations of original sin.