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Buddha the Hindu and Jesus the Jew

This question and yesterday’s are very similar, even down to some of the wording, but there is enough difference between them that I thought it would be good to address them separately.

Question:

I’ve been following your podcast, daily mails and website for a while now and I was reading about the Jehovah Witness question – I then had a look at the answers and generally it set me off wondering. There seemed to be much talk about belief and it sounded a little bit like: “my belief is better than your belief” – but surely this is not the point of Buddhism? It’s about the path, the journey (as the old hippies would say) not the goal – isn’t that the major difference between most religions and Buddhism? Most seem to have some kind of “rewards system” be good, meek, steadfast… and you’ll go to heaven whereas in Buddhism the aim is about the here and now, it’s about seeing reality clearly and unencumbered by our filters. I know there at things about nirvana, a release from the wheel, a better re-incarnation, but these are remnants of the Hindu influence in Buddhism – I don’t think the Buddha actually taught any of that?

Answer:

I covered the answer to the first half of your question in yesterday’s post, so I am going to skip over that part today and focus on the last part of yor question.

I don’t know if you can just throw out everything that came from Hinduism just because Buddha didn’t specifically teach it. It was always there in the background of his mind, even if he didn’t overtly support it. I know there were some parts with which he disagreed, but we can’t really know today what parts he silently supported.

It’s essentially the same as the situation with Christians and Jews; Jesus was a Jew, and he taught in the synagogue. He had some radical ideas, yes, but it was still basically Judaism. Only later did people start looking at his teachings as a whole different thing. As time passed, what Jesus was said to have taught grew further and further away from basic Judaism. Even today there is a lot of debate about which parts of the Jewish Bible (Old Testament) are to be kept by Christians or thrown out. There seems to be a lot of picking and choosing going on, all with only very shaky scriptural support.

I suspect it’s the same with Buddhism; As time passes, people are “steering” Buddhism further and further away from Hinduism. I’m not saying this is a good or bad thing, as religions change and adapt all the time. I personally “steer” or adapt Buddhism into a more Westernized framework every day with every article I write. Obviously, I don’t see that as wrong. Returning to your point, we cannot really know Buddha’s thoughts pertaining to Hinduism. There are some writings that say he disagreed with some of the Hindu practices, but there’s no way to know who wrote them or when. We pretty much have to take the words reported to us today as Buddha’s words, whether or not he actually said them.

But that doesn’t really matter. I don’t care what Buddha said or didn’t say, and neither should you. One thing that he said (or was claimed to have said) was:

Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it. Do not believe in anything simply because it is spoken and rumored by many. Do not believe in anything simply because it is found written in your religious books. Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders. Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations. But after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it.

Did he really say that? I don’t know, I wasn’t there. But it sounds true. It seems honest. It’s certainly reasonable. I’ll keep it.

6 comments to Buddha the Hindu and Jesus the Jew

  • Ron

    I may have read it here or in a book recently, but this stuck with me: Neither Jesus nor Buddha set out to form a new religion. In their own ways, they were looking to reform the religious tradition that they were raised in.

    Another interesting point, though maybe not as relevant, was that Jesus’ message was somewhat political. He came out of a poor, repressed society and was trying to change things.

    FINALLY, and the basis behind a lot of my faith questioning lately is that much of the religious writing that has reached us today is (likely) far removed from what actually (likely) really happened. There’s a good article in the Atlantic this month that discusses how many of Paul’s letters to the small Christian communities were what amounted to marketing letters. He was trying to sell the idea of Christianity, and tweaked the message to his uses.

  • Ron;

    I could go on and on all day about Paul. Yes, his letters were, in fact, LETTERS. They were written with specific groups and problems in mind. One town had problem X, so he wrote to them about THEIR need to solve that problem. Each letter was tailored to the target group, and played to their strengths and weaknesses (I once did a paper on Paul’s use of rhetoric in Galatians). They were never intended to be read and obeyed by strangers two thousand years later. There are a few inconsistencies and contradictions in the letters, and this is the reason.

    That being said, there is a lot of good information in the letters, and they do have their place in the Bible. The thing is that people should realize that they were not written as long-term instructions that apply to everyone, but rather should be looked at at useful historical documents explaining what the “church” was like in those days.

  • Timothy Hilgenberg

    Further to Brian’s note – the bit about not believing anything because… is actually from the Kesamutti Sutta or better know as Kalama Sutta – That’s one of the things I really treasure about this approach, this path.

  • Leaving aside the point that the religion the Buddha was most concerned with critiquing was Vedic Brahmanism rather than Hinduism (which is a later, externally-imposed label), it seems that the Buddha had no quarrel with the major religious concerns of his day, which were samsara, moksha, and karma (the problem of suffering, the goal of freedom from suffering, and what you do to get from one to the other). The Buddha thought within that framework and had his own particular take on those three terms, which had many different interpretations in those days. In fact the distinction between one religion and another came down to having a different definition of one or more of those terms.

    But aside from that, he took issue with virtually ever aspect of Brahminism. He rejected the idea of caste. He rejected the idea that the gods could be controlled by ritual. He disagreed with animal sacrifice. He disagreed with the idea of ritual purity. He disagreed with the entire fabric of Brahminism, argued against its key tenets and practices, and often parodied its beliefs. So it doesn’t make much sense to say, as some do, that the Buddha was a reformer of Brahminism. He was more of a demolition expert.

    It’s hard in fact to see how the Buddha could have distanced himself more sharply from his Brahminical contemporaries. The only real overlap was the shared vocabulary they had for talking about suffering, freedom from suffering, and how you get from one to the other.

    Anyway, whatever the book was that Ron refers to (the one that says “Neither Jesus nor Buddha set out to form a new religion. In their own ways, they were looking to reform the religious tradition that they were raised in”) I’d profoundly disagree, at least as far as the part about the Buddha goes. He wasn’t a “reformer,” but a radical religious innovator.

  • Mat

    While the path is important, I feel we shouldn’t forget the main aim of the Buddhas teachings. From the suttas (the most reliable accounts we have of what was actually said) many times he said “I teach one thing and one thing only: suffering and the end of suffering”. The end of suffering is nibbana/nirvana and he also said quite categorically that the other practices available at the time (those he had mastered with other teachers – essentially Jhanic meditation practices rooted in Hinduism) didn’t lead to the end of suffering – and so he really is saying, my belief if better than yours (although as already mentioned he didn’t ask people to believe – but to find out for themselves). For some this flies in the face of the liberal ‘all paths are the same/lead to the same place’ phillosophy but the Buddha clearly said that this wasn’t the case.

    I think for us as practitioners on the path, the challenge is for us to reflect our understanding of the teachings in our daily lives, yet also not lose sight of the ultimate goal – otherwise we are settling for something far less than the Buddha taught was possible. As I would see it we are settling for some measure of happiness and comfort in our lives rather than full and complete liberation.

  • Good article, by the way, Brian. I’m impressed by the skill with which you address a wide variety of questions.