The Problem With Buddhism – 2

In this post I will argue that Buddhism has a theistic element and that it is no different than the theistic religions of the world (in a functional sense).

Most Buddhists LOVE to talk about how their religion is devoid of metaphysical contrivances. Theistic “explanations” are rejected. In some sense this is a strange development since Buddhism borrowed many of its ideas from some of the major theistic religions of the region during its birth, nearly 2500 years ago. Hinduism is in some sense the parent religion of Buddhism. Siddhartha was born into a Hindu belief system and it is not surprising that he “borrowed” ideas such as reincarnation, samsara and karma from the prevalent belief system (the status quo was taken as a given). He took the status quo for granted and built his teachings around them. Fundamentally therefore, when one considers the “core” of Buddhist teachings it is no different than Hinduism. However it would be naive to claim that Buddhism can somehow be simplified and reduced to Hindu teachings, there are major differences between the two systems. In Hinduism the actions of the Gods play a central role in our day to day lives, the Hindu narratives confirm this assertion. In Buddhism the Gods are merely in the background – a series of beings no different than any other life forms living in a plane of existence divorced from ours. Gods are subjected to the same samsaric rules etc. So Siddhartha does away with the pantheon of Gods, at least in terms of their importance with regard to our lives and re-introduces rebirth, samsara and karma as the driving forces behind how the universe works. All living creatures are subject to these rules. Karma is recast as a sort of “moral cause and effect” and samsara and rebirth is linked to the idea of “suffering” from which the self must be emancipated by following the eight fold path to nirvana. There is no room for God in Buddhist teachings.

From a functional/operational standpoint how is the idea of rebirth, samsara and karma any different than a omnipotent entity governing over us? Buddhism does not invoke God but merely gets around it by invoking 3 principles and mechanisms by which the universe is governed. Karma is a form of moral cause and effect, samsara is an inevitable cycle of death and rebirth and rebirth leads to suffering. These ideas have displaced the concept of the divine (which was present in Hinduism) but serve the same operational purpose. The “universe” tallies ones karma by essentially having an elaborate bookkeeping system (who keeps the books?) and allocates roles for all the creatures based on their “karmic points”, new lives are allocated based on these points, the quality of ones life is determined by these points (who arbitrates these decisions?). Thus these central ideas are nothing but operational definitions of some system/entity otherwise referred to as “God(s)” in other religions. Buddha has stripped Hinduism of its unnecessary bells and whistles, taken its theistic core, wrapped a new set of bells and whistles, craftily repackaged it as “novel” and “true” and preached it to the unfortunate masses.

Furthermore the supernatural nature of these 3 elements cannot be denied. The existence of karmic cause and effect cannot be proven, rebirth cannot be proven and samsara merely depends on these supernatural ideas. These concepts have all the characteristics of the supernatural and yet Buddhists continue to deny this fact. The ideas were borrowed from a supernatural belief system and continue to retain their dimensions despite being integrated from Hinduism (with a divine “imperative”) into Buddhism (divine imperative plays no role).

I hope that you are convinced that the core of Buddhism assumes a functional existence of a theistic “entity”. This claim is not explicit but is tacitly implied when one invokes the bookkeeping and arbitration required for the samsaric system to function.

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36 Responses to The Problem With Buddhism – 2

  1. අමා says:

    Interesting…But I do not agree to this statement:
    “From a functional/operational standpoint how is the idea of rebirth, samsara and karma any different than a omnipotent entity governing over us?”
    It is different because, in Buddhist teachings, only YOU are responsible for what happens to you. There is no space to think ‘It is God’s will’. Hence, I feel that Buddhists can feel empowered in a sense that there is no supernatural all powerful all seeing being, who decides what is best for us. Karma is not really a supernatural ‘being’ is it? Karma is rather part of you – it is what YOU do, and what YOU think – sort of like Gravity. It’s just a natural law and that cannot hear, or empathize unlike God.

    • PravNJ says:

      My issue here is with the claim “Buddhism is a philosophy etc” whereby the Buddhist takes the high ground (deprecating all other faiths in the process), there is an obvious disconnect between this claim and the actual fact i.e Buddhism does have a supernatural element to it and karma, samsara and rebirth are taken to be true by some kind of faith based process.

      The gravity argument. Lets leave aside the fact that the existence of gravity can be demonstrated and that it is nothing like say karma. Well again you are invoking “faith” when you say “well it is sort of like gravity”. It is this denial of the role that faith plays in Buddhism by the Buddhists themselves that bothers me. Faith and supernatural elements and even a functional theistic element (as I argue here) is present in Buddhism and its just silly to deny it simply because one wishes to seem “above the fray” and above the “ignorant” followers of the theistic religions. A few days ago I had the privilege of attending a sermon by a notable top tier Buddhist monk. The gist of his sermon:

      ** People who do not “believe” in Buddhism are heathens (mithyaa drushtikha)
      ** How does one identify a heathen? well they believe in gods and divine plans etc
      ** Preach to them and try to show them the light
      etc

      What is interesting is that after going on about these things he then turned his attention towards bodhi pooja, lauding the supposed benefits of watering a tree and praying to it. I couldn’t help but wonder who the real heathen was? the monk who advocates a pagan practice of worshiping a tree or the Christian/Islamic/Jewish guy who believes in a space fairy? you see my problem? from where I stand there is no difference. All adults that take religion seriously are heathens and Buddhists are in denial :)

  2. අමා says:

    I do find your posts intellectually engaging as a practicing Buddhist. IMHO if we can strip away the ‘magical’ elements of mainstream or ‘pop’ Buddhism, it’s all about self-reliance and self-awareness and seeing the world as it is…I do not claim to be an expert, but this is what works for me.
    Besides, the fact that Buddha denied the existence of a God gives Buddhists the right to have this kind of conversations without ‘sinning’ ; that is, daring to question the ‘faith’ without fear of being ‘punished’. You don’t need proof of rebirth to understand the truth in Buddhism; For me, whether or not I will be rebirth is actually irrelevant, Letting go and trying to live in THIS moment is what I am interested in.

    • PravNJ says:

      I agree that Buddhism doesn’t really have anything against “blasphemy” then why do these monks make such a huge fuss when one presents a dissenting view. Pop Buddhism may have something to do with it as you point out.

      “rebirth is actually irrelevant..”
      Well if I had to stake my short time here on earth on a belief system I’d like to have some kind of assurance that I’m not in fact wasting my precious time when I go to a temple and chant. A little assurance would be nice. The teachings of Buddha are completely based on this assertion that we are somehow reborn. How can you not be bothered? what if it is a complete lie? what if it IS true? I for one am very very curious and I would be extremely bothered by these kinds of loose ends.

      • අමා says:

        Ah I get your point I think. You mean, since a lot of the concepts refer to rebirth, and rebirth cannot be scientifically proven, Buddhism also depend on Faith, hence cannot be considered a philosophy?

        It depends on each person I guess. For some people, being a Buddhist is about doing Bodhi pooja and chanting in a temple. Although I myself do not find this interesting, I do know that for some people, it is sort of therapeutic and even mind cleansing.
        But, my point is, you don’t HAVE to do any of those rituals…At least to my knowledge Buddha never really told so. What the monks may advocate is another matter. They of course may have their own agenda, consciously or unconsciously.

        IMHO for some, its a religion, for some its a philosophy. Where do you draw the line?
        And… Do you need to ‘prove’ a philosophy? Doesn’t that only apply for science? For that matter even in science some things are not proven (, to quote Dr Brennan, is Psychology an exact science? :D)

        ‘The teachings of Buddha are completely based on this assertion that we are somehow reborn.’
        I disagree. I mean, the core concept of Buddhism is not about collecting merit to enjoy in the next life. As far I know the core of Buddhism is contained in the Four Noble Truths, which can be tested by anyone. In fact the Buddha asked people not to take his word for it and try out and test his preachings for themselves (Ehi Passiko). You do follow the path and then wait for good things to happen to you in next life – if you follow the path, you can reap the results immediately.
        Here I am not talking about doing good deeds an accumulating good karma. I refer to being mindful which results in contentment.

      • අමා says:

        Sorry – a typo
        *You don’t follow the path and then wait for good things to happen to you in next life…

      • lefroy says:

        Psychology is not a science at all. Physics is. Biology is, albeit an inferior one. Psychology is not. Read Karl Popper.

      • JohnAD says:

        I dont think the consequences would be overly great If it is a complete lie, the world would still have its arbitrary injustices and cruelties, i would still be a chimp subject to old age sickness and death – destined to lose all my friends and family at the end of my life. I cant see how i would suddenly become less harmful to others as irrational beliefs are only one cause among very many for people doing harm. The main reason seems to be that others get in the way of we want, so we respond with aggression. I dont see any difference between religious people and athiests in this area, or between chimps and people for that matter.

        What you seems to be saying in your posts is that religious people desire the comfort of irrational beliefs because they cant face life as it actually is. Craving escape they opt for the irrational, being challenged they respond with aggression. Unless you are saying all this just to appear clever in front of the world, i am assuming that you think they would be better off if they let go of that and faced reality. I have now lived long enough to have seen enough people die to know that athiests dont die any better than religious people. They dont live any better either.

  3. R says:

    Probably you need to read up on ‘anatma’

  4. lefroy says:

    Good article. In simple language, Buddha basically says, “OK, here’s how it is. I’m going to teach you how the world works. I’m going to teach you how to end suffering. I don’t give a damn if you don’t believe me. But I tell you this. If you don’t believe me, you’ll burn in hell. You can of course question me and my religion. I’m not going to punish you for that. But if you don’t believe me, you’re going to burn in hell. There’s no God, don’t worry. But there’s Karma. So if you don’t believe me, you’ll burn in hell. Of course I don’t care if you don’t believe me. I didn’t invent the universe. I didn’t create you. I’m enlightened and once I’m dead, I couldn’t care less about you. But If you don’t believe me, you’ll burn in hell. YOU WILL BURN IN HELL.”

    The punishment for apostasy in Islam is death. They say, don’t question Allah, because if you do, we’ll murder you. Buddhists say, we don’t care if you don’t believe Buddha. But you’ll BURN IN HELL.

  5. අමා says:

    @lefroy lol. Where exactly does it say that? Burn in hell?? I suggest you do little more research on karma

    • lefroy says:

      @ama
      Are you telling me there’s no hell according to Buddhism? There are 4 of them. Kill, steal, have sex, lie, or get drunk, you’ll go to hell. (in fact if you have too much sex you’ll be born as a woman, according to Buddhism. Being a woman is not a good thing, according to Buddhism.)

      • R says:

        not exactly

      • PravNJ says:

        It is implicit that women are inferior. Buddha chose to be a man when he was born as Siddhartha

      • අමා says:

        @PravNJ
        When what you want to do is to retreat from society and lead a – say forest monastic life, being a woman is certainly an inconvenience. This is from a biological and social point of view. Perhaps this is why prince Sidhdhartha opted to be a man. I can see his logic certainly :) Does not mean women are not capable of attaining nibbana – and in the end isnt that what matters?
        Going by the teachings, I do not think an ‘inferiority’ was originally meant at all – that is, leaving aside the Brahmin influences that could have encapsulated the original teachings.
        Cheers!

      • lefroy says:

        It’s not implicit. It’s explicit. No matter how old a female monk (Bhikkuni) is, she is supposed to worship a man who became a Upasampada Bhikku just few minutes ago.

        And yes, you become a woman when you engage in wrongful sexual activities. I don’t know who decides what’s wrongful and what’s rightful sexual activities. Maybe Mervyn Silva. It was in one of Rerukane Chandravimala Thero’s books. He was a genius.

    • lefroy says:

      They are called “Sathara Apaaya” in Sinhala. Basically the idea is, if you commit terrible sins, like killing someone, you’ll go to one of those hells. Don’t tell me you don’t know this. Buddhism, like pretty much all other religions, believe there’s a place called hell. Bad Karma can get you there.

      • අමා says:

        of course lefroy. It is not the concept of hell that I questioned (although I do not agree on your definition of how one goes there). I was merely asking where it says that, just the fact that you are not a Buddhist is enough for you to ‘burn in hell’.

        Also,
        ‘There are 4 of them. Kill, steal, have sex, lie, or get drunk, you’ll go to hell. (in fact if you have too much sex you’ll be born as a woman,’
        There aren’t hard and fast rules on these such as ‘You kill someone and you go to hell’. I do not mean to offend you, but have you studied proper Buddhism at all? It just seems like you have heard all these from some one misinformed.

      • අමා says:

        oh and ‘have sex and you go to hell?’
        Uhm…where in Buddhism does it say having sex is a sin? Prince Sidhartha sure had some, as is evident by his son Rahula :D
        Again, misinformation.

      • lefroy says:

        @Ama
        “Mithyaa Drushtiya” is a sin Ama according to Buddhism as it is understood and practiced by present day Buddhists. If someone has misinformed me, it is those Buddhist monks who say so. Don’t tell me what those monks say are false because there’s no way that what the other monks say are the original teachings of Buddha. Buddhism is simply too old for that.

        There are in fact hard and fast rules in Buddhism such as “if you kill your mother, not only you’ll go to hell (which is a place that physically exist) but also burn in it eternally.” It is an “Aananthareeya paapakarma” and there’s no escape from that.

      • lefroy says:

        @Ama
        “oh and ‘have sex and you go to hell?’
        Uhm…where in Buddhism does it say having sex is a sin? Prince Sidhartha sure had some, as is evident by his son Rahula
        Again, misinformation.”

        Didn’t you see that I’d written within brackets “(in fact if you have too much sex you’ll be born as a woman, according to Buddhism. Being a woman is not a good thing, according to Buddhism.)?”
        Late Rerukane Chandravimala Thero was one of the most erudite monks there was in the recent past. It was he who said so. Have too much sex (engage in wrongful sexual activities) you go to hell.

      • lefroy says:

        @Ama
        “oh and ‘have sex and you go to hell?’
        Uhm…where in Buddhism does it say having sex is a sin? Prince Sidhartha sure had some, as is evident by his son Rahula
        Again, misinformation.”

        Didn’t you see that I’d written within brackets “(in fact if you have too much sex you’ll be born as a woman, according to Buddhism. Being a woman is not a good thing, according to Buddhism.)?”
        Late Rerukane Chandravimala Thero was one of the most erudite monks there was in the recent past. It was he who said so. Have too much sex (engage in wrongful sexual activities) you become a woman

      • lefroy says:

        *(engage in wrongful sexual activities) you become a woman.

      • අමා says:

        @lefroy
        “Mithyaa Drushtiya” is categorized as a ‘sin’ because, being unable to recognize a healthy mindful way of life can eventually lead you to commit immoral actions. But just because you are a ‘Mithya drushtika’ person it does not follow that you WILL burn in hell :D Which is what you claimed in your comment above.

        ‘There are in fact hard and fast rules in Buddhism such as “if you kill your mother, not only you’ll go to hell (which is a place that physically exist) but also burn in it eternally.” It is an “Aananthareeya paapakarma” and there’s no escape from that.’
        Of course there is no escape from Ananthariya papa kamma. No escape in the sense that you will go to hell. But not for ‘eternity’ as you claim. Once your bad kamma expires, the stay in hell also expires and you would be born some where else.
        When I said there are no hard and fast rules, I referred to your claim :
        “There are 4 of them. Kill, steal, have sex, lie, or get drunk, you’ll go to hell. (in fact if you have too much sex you’ll be born as a woman, according to Buddhism. ”
        BTW this last one where you get to be a woman for having getting laid a lot is hilarious! :D Sorry, but its funny to think that you think such concepts are Buddhist!

        Again. Misinformation mate. Since you do not seem have studied Buddhism properly, I don’t see any point in taking this discussion with you further :) Perhaps do some research first?

      • lefroy says:

        @Ama
        About “Mithyaa Drushitiya” please refer my reply to PravNJ.

        About Ananthariya Paapa Karma. If you don’t know that the punishment for an Ananthariya Paapa Karma is burning in hell for eternity, you know nothing about Buddhism. That kind sin does not have a expiration date. Otherwise why on earth they’re called Ananthariya Paapa Karma? Obviously you have never gone to a Daham Paasala.

        About becoming women. Yes, that’s the punishment for getting laid too much. Forgive me, but I’d rather take Rerukane Chandravimala Thero’s word for it rather than yours.

      • lefroy says:

        @Ama
        Here are the five Ananthariya Paapa Karma. (Yes there are only 5)
        1. Mave mereema
        2. Piyaa mereema
        3. Rahathun mereema
        4. Budun ge le selaveema
        5. Sanga bhedhaya

        Commit any one of them, you’re f**ked forever.

        Believe me I spent my entire childhood reading those nonsense and the nonsense in the Bible.

    • PravNJ says:

      Well not “burn in hell” but rather “be trapped in this endless samsaric cycle of suffering”, which these days, given the situation of the world is tantamount to spending time in hell :P

      But yeah your facts are iffy mate

      • lefroy says:

        I don’t think so. Buddhism isn’t a philosophy. It is a living breathing religion (how many philosophies do you know that convert people from other religions to it?). There’s no way that present day Buddhism is exactly what Gautama Buddha taught. All we have is texts written centuries after Buddha, and the word of Buddhist monks. In fact some of the stuff are said to be “Deva Bhaashitha”, meaning that they weren’t preached by Buddha, but by gods. Many Buddhists believe that “Mithyaa Drushitiya” is a sin.

        If you don’t believe me, read about how people said about Martin Wickremasinghe when he wrote “Bava Tharanaya.”

  6. The way of the Dodo says:

    lol! i see the thread got lefroyed.

    In any case, it’s difficult to cohesively critique Buddhism because you can never figure out when the buddhism ends and the appendages begin. On another note I think it is very possible to read buddhism as a dialectic, in this light it becomes a brilliant criticism of epistemology beating kant to the punch by more than a millennia

    • lefroy says:

      “brilliant criticism of epistemology?” What’s so brilliant about it, apart from maybe the ‘ek visi ek sith’?

      • The way of the Dodo says:

        it’s brilliant in it’s critique of duality & metaphysics

    • PravNJ says:

      Hmm yes I see your point :) I also saw a bit of Hume as well but I couldn’t put my finger on it. Perhaps we could focus on this rather interesting aspect of Buddhism

  7. Prageeth says:

    This is a very good critique of Buddhism. Most of the issues are the same that I raised (and sometimes still do).

    Buddhism has gone through so much of change over the centuries, enduring input from so many different sources. Overtime what was supposed to be a path of practice had become a religion of rituals and all. The whole point of Buddhism was investigation of the consciousness and how we relate to the world around us (in an aim to overcome suffering which is present in our life).

    I think the methods put forward by the Buddha for doing that are solid. It’s been recommended world over as therapy for various mental and even physical problems.

    The primary question to ask here is if our minds are a product of our body, or does it exist separately, interacting with our body such that we live in this illusion that we are our bodies?

    As you said, chemicals have huge effects on the brain. Electronic stimulation of the brain has known to produce hallucinogenic effects. All this leads us to believe that we are nothing more than “software” created by our physical bodies.

    However, the mind can overcome the body. Any serious practitioner of meditation can relate to this. The mind can overcome pain, depression and sometimes even apparent sensory disabilities. Is this all purely brain function? Or is there something more at work, something which is non-physical?

    I think instead of jumping into conclusions, we must further investigate consciousness. That would answer a lot of questions and even change the way we live.

    Though I call my self a Buddhist, Buddhism for me is merely a finger pointing to the moon. It’s a set of teachings that I find absolutely valuable in understanding your true nature, and shouldn’t be discarded as mere “ancient superstition”.

    (suggestion for future topic on religurd: Why on earth do you have to fill in a “religion” box on government forms in Sri Lanka? Supposing I keep changing my religion as per my fundamental right? Supposing I follow Norse Paganism?)

    • The way of the Dodo says:

      The tick bow thing is annoying especially considering my status as an ordained minister of the church of the FSM

  8. Ramindu Deshapriya says:

    Buddhism was largely based on Jainism not Hinduism. Sidhdharta’s teachers were Jain monks, therefore the core philosophy is that of Jainism.
    However, Buddhism has undergone many changes after Buddha passed away. For example, the number of Buddha re-incarnations (which was not defined before) went from 7 to 16 to 21(which is apparently the number of re-incarnations that the Jain prophet has had). Furthermore, as discussed repeatedly in the comments, I believe that most of the theological aspects of Buddhism such as chanting etc were introduced merely to compete with the other religions out there. Simple survival instinct, I guess. You don’t see millions of people actively following schools of philosophy.

  9. Trev says:

    Buddhism, like every other religion, requires you to BELIEVE in something, rather than have evidence. Experiential data is not scientific data. We know that we can’t always believe everything we see or hear, especially in altered states. People on drugs see all kinds of things. Are their experiences real? Furthermore, no one can even prove that the Buddha existed. There is no historical proof. This also applies to Christianity. So, why should we believe in some old texts that claim to have the words of the Buddha? Overall, the message of Buddhism is one of peace. I do like this part of it, but that doesn’t mean the entire belief system is valid or true. I agree with the author of this article about the concept of rebirth and karma, in that these ideas are just alternative ways of invoking some divine spiritual force that governs the universe. The universe is governed by natural laws that say nothing about the nature of consciousness, other than that the brain produces consciousness. Why have a brain if consciousness is a separate entity? Doesn’t make any sense.

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