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Is Buddhism A Lonely Path?

Question:

For those of us who come from a spiritual tradition, where there is a concept of a “personal God,” divas, saints, etc., Buddhism can seem very cold and lonely. It’s just our mind and this thing called “karma,” no beginning; no end. Austere, to say the least.

Sometimes, when life is not going well, it’s “comforting” to think that there is a spiritual presence somewhere–a “higher power, if you will, to whom we can turn, to unburden our hearts or to ask for “help,” whatever that means.

I’m sure to some Buddhist practitioners, this seems a shortcoming on the part of those of use who “can’t cut it” as Buddhists. We still want the “warm and fuzzies” of a personal God. Well, why not?

Is there a valid expression of this personal higher power in traditional Buddhism, without resorting to folk religion and superstition?

Answer:

I know what you mean; this was originally one of my own issues back when I first started looking into Buddhism. There was even a period of nearly a year when I gave up Buddhism and went back to Christianity, and this was probably the biggest reason at the time. When you are used to “walking with God” and knowing that “you’ll never walk alone” and similar ideas, it’s hard to give that up and take complete responsibility for yourself.After all, you’re just one person, how can that compare to having God on your side?

All I can say is that after time, it gets easier. In my own case, I found that meditation helped quite a lot. In a way, becoming one with everything does indeed offset not having a personal god; you are the god in one sense. In another sense, you’re nothing at all. With enough meditation, your outlook on many things will change. Still, that’s probably not the perfect solution for everyone.

I’m very interested to hear what our readers have to say about this, especially those who converted into Buddhism rather than being born into it. Did you have issues of this nature, and if so, how did you deal with them? Post your comment below or send me an email.

31 comments to Is Buddhism A Lonely Path?

  • mirthquake80

    I converted to Buddhism from an evangelical Christian background. I continue to self-identify as “agnostic” when it comes to belief in “God” or a “higher power”. Since we are encouraged to test Buddhist precepts against our own experience, I do not think that Buddhism and belief in a higher power have to be mutually exclusive. In my opinion, Buddhism offers a philosophy and outlook on life that can be reconciled with many belief systems. It is up to the individual to actively seek their own truth. For myself, Buddhism offers enough warmth and connection to the universe without the addition of a defined higher power.

  • Larry

    I am a practicing Christian *and* a practicing Buddhist, and since I’m not bothered by a lack of alignment between the two regarding the existence (or not) of a supreme being, creator, etc. perhaps I’m not paying close enough attention. 🙂 My personal approach is to not get too caught up in the dogma (christian or buddhist), but to react to and incorporate into my life the things that make sense to me. For instance, given my own severely limited intellect I have a hard time answering the question “why is there something instead of nothing” without invoking a creator – and I know that could very well be wrong but right now that’s what I ‘believe’. And of course my ‘conditioning’ as a youngster growing up was to more or less assume that there is a God who was responsible for all that. On the other hand, the Buddhist ‘world view’ (as opposed to a Buddhist cosmology, which I suppose does not exist, but does exist in Christianity) is far more resonant with me than much (but not all) of the Christian world view.

    So from my perspective, Buddhism and the idea of a ‘higher power’ or a ‘God’ are not mutually exclusive, because I tend to take from both perspectives what resonates with me and leave the rest behind.

  • David

    One of the reasons I like being a Buddhist is that there is no god. What we do is down to us and we carry the responsibility without being able to blame a distant god. I could never settle with one god being both good and bad, or at least seaming to be. If I do good things its my will and equally if I do bad things its my will and I am not doing the bidding of some unseen force or at the behest of an earthly representative of that god. As a professional I don’t avoid responsibility in my work life why should I do so in my wider life? A bit off the point maybe but I hope you get my gist.

    Namaste

  • Jerry

    Sometimes when meditating I can feel a connectedness with all living beings. I think this is consistent with the Buddhist concept of anatta or not-self. I don’t know if that counts as a “higher power”, but I think it’s some expression of our need to go beyond our own ego-based existence.

  • David

    This question came at just the right time. I am currently dealing with this very problem. I go through this about once a year it seems. I feel pulled back to the religion I chose out of college and I never understand exactly why. This question made it a bit more clear. I feal lonley sometimes as I practice Buddhism. I think that brings back the desire to pray the Rosary and go to church. But I remind myself that feelings according to the Buddha are like a bubble; hollow, insubstantial and void. They come and go and cannot be clung to…therefore, I renew my practice and meditate more. The feelings are impermanent and non-self.

  • Your comments are right on the mark. I had been an Evangelical Christian for many years and converted to Buddhism and really struggled with the agnostic viewpoint of Buddhism in general. Then I found a wonderful book by Jim Pym called “You Don’t Have To Sit On The Floor” – which does a wonderful job of bridging the gap for those of us with a “Personal God” mindset.

    Here’s the link to Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/dp/1569753040/?tag=askdrarca-20

    Reading that book lead me to discover Shin Buddhism (also known as Pure Land) and the wonderful works of Taitetsu Unno and Dr. Alfred Bloom.

    I heartily recommend Dr. Arthur Bloom’s book “The Promise of Boundless Compassion” – that reveals a wonderful view of Amida Buddha as mysterious, mythical source of compassion and salvation.

    Here’s a link to a review of this wonderful book:

    http://www.shindharmanet.com/books/boundless.htm

    My experience is that Shin Buddhism offers an effortless path to compassionate living and salvation. Where God is not a judge to be feared but the unknowable source of infinite compassion – personified in the mythical Amida Buddha.

    Hope this is helpful to anyone who struggles with the apparent “Aloneness” of “traditional” Buddhism.

  • Pam

    I concur with the first two commenters. My movement away from God was gradual. I was born a Presbyterian. Converted by my choice to Reform Judaism when I married at 23. Became a Zen Buddhist at 46.

    Buddhism is a sane way of living that doesn’t exclude belief in another religion’s God. I’m responsible for me, and for being connected to all the other creatures on this planet. I can be loving, accountable, law-abiding and all the other moral qualities typically associated with theistic religions. For those of us who formerly become Buddhists, the teachings are enough. I don’t need a supernatural God or higher power to be perfectly happy and productive.

  • Greg

    I was listening to a Shin Priest yesterday (mp3) and had my little ah-ha moment that fits in with the question of loneliness. He was saying to a person in the “audience” that she couldn’t have happened without the big bang and likewise the big bang couldn’t have happened without her. His turn of phrase was much more eloquent than mine. I felt very comforted by that. And for a brief moment I did feel completely connected with all the universes and all inhabitants. I need to work on my meditation practice to reenforce that sense of things. Being able to look into the eyes of another sentient being and see yourself is decidedly un-lonely. I think as your questioner engages in his or her practice the sense of loneliness will open up into something else.

  • The older I get the more Buddhist I get. I now meditate frequently, some days I meditate throughout the day on top of whatever else I’m doing. I’m a pretty hard-core atheist and consider my practice to be “Reform Buddhism.”

    I can see the attractiveness of trying to have a God to give comfort in hard times. When I’m upset or unhappy I meditate, especially doing ton-len practice.

    But for the most part when I am in pain I seek comfort from my husband, family and friends. Unlike gods, my family and friends actually exist and can put their arms around me. That is far more comforting than talking to someone I know isn’t going to answer.

  • Jeffrey Smith

    Now, was born to one of those families(Baptist) who talk the word of the latest edition of the Bible, but turn to actual practice of(what section true to depends on what desire they hold at the time) only when it does suit them.
    Myself; need more than just promise of. Mean, someone says, “If you jump, you’ll fly,” I fail to trust, no matter how nice a dream. As I grew, questions were asked. Each answer was made up of more and more syllables that just dances around the issue; and so, for most of my youth, was companion with Solitude.
    All that above is just to paint a touch of how alone I had felt; with promise of deity, always had felt without. When Budda again graced my troubled path, did help remind, Tranquility comes from within.

  • LaToya S

    I am one of those who has converted from Christianity to Buddhism. I’ve experienced the opposite. I have never been sold on the “personal God” idea, which made me a pretty lousy Christian and a lot of the reason why I converted. My Buddhist practice has actually brought me closer to God. Through meditation I have learned how to appreciate God in everything, including myself. In that aspect I have never felt alone in the practice and it has helped in dealing with extremely difficult situations.

  • zacch

    How is the want of “comforting”, “warm and fuzzies”, and “personal god”, different than any other want? If observed, what arises around these wants?
    Christianity and Buddhism aren’t mutually exclusive. There are many, many fully engaged Christians that practice Buddhism. A quick search of Amazon will bring up a huge number of books on the subject claiming Buddhism deepened their experience of Christianity. As a Buddhist who says I can’t turn to a higher power, unburden my heart, or ask for help?
    Buddhist or not, why would I put a lot of thought if someone might think I “can’t cut it”?
    The ego creates many obstacles. Meditation allows the opportunity to observe.
    To answer the question directly, I was reared in private Christian schools through college and studied to be a minister, but I never experienced Buddhism to be cold and lonely.

  • Baihu

    The issue of lonliness seems to be strongest among those of us who have left christianity – especially the evangelical variety. After being raised with the notion that if you don’t go to church you are somehow inferior or bad, it’s hard to incorporate the notion that individual spiritual practice is equally valid as group practice. I believe we are part of the whole-ness of everything, we are connected to all that is…how can that be lonely? For me, any sense of loneliness in Buddhist practice is a vestige of that old christian group indoctrination. Whether I point to the moon alone, or stand with a group of others pointing to the sky…the moon itself remains unchanged. Social interaction and external comforting is part of the religious experience, but can be found outside of religion too. Spirituality lets us find connectivity and comfort within, no matter what the external circumstances. I would rather walk alone on a path that is deeply true to me, than be part of a group that offers superficial socializing, cold comfort and empty dogma as was my experience with christianity. Thank you for such an interesting conversation! Amitaba.

  • Mia

    Being raised a Catholic, I always had doubts about “taking away the sins of the world” and how suffering is glorified by the culture I grew up with. But 3 things that drew me into Buddhism are: the value of taking responsibility for one’s own actions rather than blaming God or the Devil, the space given to discern for oneself the Buddha’s teachings, and the view of Death and Rebirth. I feared getting shunned by family and friends, yet I chose to follow this path – the Solitude I have found gets mistaken by them as Loneliness; and Detachment as Indifference. Yet I find that the low times are part of weaning myself from fitting into the expectations and norms of others. It has been more frustrating rather than comforting to try to make God fit into a “human” mold. Being in touch with that indescribable Oneness surpasses this. So, it is not as lonely as I had previously feared.

  • gs

    While I was raised a Catholic, I always had a very “evidence”-oriented mind, and I decided that none of the Christian canon made any sense to me by the time I took high-school biology. It took me several years after that, until I was 22, to make a point of seeking a spiritual path, and Buddhism was a perfect fit, in part because a theistic point of view was not necessary.

    To this day (I am now in my 30s), I have a bit of a disconnect with my still-Catholic (though not terribly devout Catholic) family. They continue to celebrate various Catholic traditions, and I am even a godfather for one of my siblings’ children. I would say they neither denounce nor support my Buddhist practice, they mostly just don’t understand it. It is challenging for some of them to fully accept, and I have to be respectful, because we generally have a good family dynamic overall. They know I strive to be a good, positive human being.
    Furthermore, as a “convert”, I feel I take spirituality more seriously as part of my life than my family takes the Catholicism they grew up with.

    Tangentially, while I understand the notion of Buddhist philosophy not needing to be mutually-exclusive with Christianity (or other theistic religions), I think it is somewhat of a delusion in itself to accept both paths, largely in part to the dogma. While it may appear that Buddhism is tolerant of other religions (and I don’t even necessarily believe that), it’s clear that Judeo-Christian religions certainly do NOT accept the existence of other religions as viable paths towards their goals: it’s their way or the highway. That said, I totally understand why there is often desire to hold on to both and give them both legitimacy, but it appears to be cognitively dissonant.

  • Patty Hensley

    I observed a variety of emotions when I read the different responses to the question. I was excited to read the question but dissapointed that there wasn’t just ONE answer! Ha, I often times return to the need of things to be black and what. What resonated with me was the post about Infinite Compassion. I take comfort in the belief there is something bigger than my ego and personality. At some moments I feel at peace and so grateful to be crisply alive, at other moments I take comfort in the idea that I am so very small…

  • Lee

    Do you think the preachers who interpret their emotions as God talking to them are any more content with life than one who sits and connects with the one and the many simutaneously. Cut through the delusion and we are not alone at all. My biggest problem letting go of Christianity has been the concept “if I do good I will get good.” Prosperity christianity somehow wormed it’s way into my mind.

  • Abe Simpson

    Wow, I have been following (and commenting) for a few months and have yet to see such a response. I am very gratefull for everybody’s participation, it has been informative.

    I was raised Southern Baptist by a family that went to the liquor store through the back door. I found a lot of unChrist-like people masquerading as Christians and a lot of manipulative people spouting dogma to their ends.

    I always found the discussion of the existance of a god to be academic. The existence could be neither proven nor disproven. This makes be agnostic, I guess.

    For me Buddhism is not a religion, it is a practice, a way of living life. I feel more connected to the oustide because I look deper into the inside. Scientists have what is called investigator bias. The harder one looks, the more effect they have on the outcome. The problem is that one looks at things through a conditioned mind. By looking inward at my conditioned mind, I am able to see through this conditioning and am better able to the see truth of the outside.

    This makes me feel closer to the rest of the universe.

  • Sabbeloka

    I had a look at your interesting discussion as I was curious as to why I as a Buddhist practitioner would ever be lonely. I was raised an Anglican and all the idea of a God did was to condition me to feel guilty and to help me acquire a dose of self-loathing. This self-loathing is very common to western practitioners and the first thing we have to deal with. Christianity, all religions, divide the world in half, Buddhist practice helps one heal and move into wholeness. As a Buddhist I have community around the world so am never lonely. I began Dharma practice in 1967 so Christianity is as remote to my experience as any other religion. I tend to agree that religion is the opiate of the masses and fear-based belief in a God somewhat superstitious, and primitive. But, on the other hand, at the heart of any religion or philosophy if it is sincerely practiced is wisdom and compassion.

  • Steve

    Hello!
    What an interesting topic!I have been studying Buddhism for several years now and i do not feel that the Buddhist perspective really does fully answer the question of is there a God or not.Some Buddhist writers seem to be saying that there is no GOD,while others seem to leave open the possibility that there is.I seem to recall reading somewhere that the BUDDHA was asked this question and he refused to speculate on it.For me personally i believe that there is a GOD but HE,SHE,IT is not like the writers of the bible describe HIM,i believe that they were writing from there limited perspective.I believe that GOD meets us at the level of where we are and works with us there.To me heaven and hell are not really end points.I believe somewhat in the Hindu concept of GOD.Long ago since there really is only GOD(GOD is all that there is)HE,SHE decided to play a game with Himself.He decided to hide from himself and take on roles he became you,me ,a rock,a planet and assumed these roles,He has many interesting experiences along the way.He gets to be a good guy(a good person ex:GHANDI,and he gets to be a bad guy ex: Hitler) but one day in the far off future GOD will awaken from HIS dream and realise who HE is. this is ENLIGHTENMENT———Namaste

  • steve

    Hello!
    I would also like to add that GOD gets to experience being a HINDU,MUSLIM,BUDDHIST ,JEW…ect..

  • There have been a lot of great and thoughtful responses to this topic, so it must really resonate with the experiences of many people. While I am not a Buddhist (not anything else that can be signified in a label), Buddhism has contributed much to my philosophy. When I was growing up in a Roman Catholic household, with Roman Catholic education, the god concept produced more of a longing for a ‘higher power’ rather than a sense of the presence of one. On the rare occasions when my prayers were ‘answered’ and I got what I wanted, it never seemed to be the result of supernatural intervention, so much as the luck of the draw. When my prayers went unanswered, I just assumed I was undeserving of divine providence.

    Now, I have a self-created, yet no less experiential, sense of 6.3 billions of human spiritual presences, as well as trillions of other spirits. We live in a World teeming with life, from the bottom of the ocean to the top of the mountains. I cannot imagine ever feeling lonely in this beautiful place, where I love Everyone, and Everyone loves me. This is the context of my life; this is how I live. I am consistently and continually moved by how generously everyone I meet expresses their absolute love for me.

  • I was also brought up Catholic. I discovered Buddhism and one of its attractions was that the word “God” was seldom used. That was 35 years ago. Now, i seem to believe in a type of supreme being or entity, not “God” in the sense of the typical meaning for most Christians. And, I don’t seem to feel a conflict with my primary path of Buddhism. In a sense for me, “God” (closer to Brahman) is an ocean on which Buddhism rides.
    I belonged to a Tibetan group in Santa Fe. I was going back to Ohio (my original home) and I knew it would be difficult to find a Buddhist center or group there. I had a private meeting with a highly respected Tibetan Lama visiting from New York State. I asked him if I could return to Christianity and still be a Buddhist. Without equivocation, he said there would be no problem. One can practice Christianity fully — and still remain a Buddhist. Only if one consciously renounces one’s Three Refuge Vows would one cease being a Buddhist. Presently, I am following the Shin Buddhist path, and my devotional center is Amida Buddha. For my devotional purposes, I consider Amida as a spiritual being, and interact with him in a personal way. I do not look upon Amida as a symbol, nor an archetype. IMO, Amida is beyond our comprehension. Interfacing with him in a personal way — for me — brings me closer than any other approach to the heart of Wisdom and Compassion — Amitabha Buddhaya.

  • My short 2-cents… Let us not overlook the idea that the existence of a god or God is not the exclusive right of Christianity, Islam, or Judaism. God or a god could very well exist outside of what these religions claim to know. As David pointed out, he doesn’t believe in the existence of a micro-managing God, a la Christianity. But that doesn’t mean that a god does not exist. It just means that *their* version may not.

    In summary, the existence of God cannot and should not be determined by the acts/proclamations of religious humans. They’ve given him a bad rep.

    I personally found an indelible belief if a god by reading theoretical physics books. It was more rational of a decision than psychological, and fits into my Buddhist view much smoother than being entwined with christian apologetics.

  • Subjectivity9

    What I think we are talking about here [when speaking of loneliness for God] is more “God without separation,” and/or “God with separation.”

    Is no loneliness a feeling of being separate? Yet Buddhism holds out the possibility that there is ‘no separation,’ and asks you to look closely, within and without, in order to see the truth of this reality.

    In a way the I/Thou relationship still holds forth the idea of separation, a rift that cannot actually be healed simply by holding on tightly to anything.

    This lack of wholeness leaves us feeling dependent and ultimately unsatisfied. We all intuitively wish to be whole. So we keep trying to be better, to improve, to be enough. But it is never quite right, never quite finished. We, just as we are, are never quite enough.

    Buddhism will never tear anything, which you think you need, out of your hands and/or out of your heart. It simply asks you to look more closely at what really is.

    In growing organically through the vigilant viewing of what presents itself before you, you will find that many of those things that are no longer necessary to you will simply fall away just as the leaves fall from the trees when it is autumn. We need not rush. We need not force anything.

    Peace and Love,
    Subjectivity9/Leslie

  • Jami

    Interesting response(s). Walking with God is, for some, a solitary struggle too.

  • Pammi

    Everyone is right on the mark I think. I was born into the Methodist Church, but, never fully resonated with it. At 20 yrs. old, I stumbled into my first teachings on Buddhism by purchasing a copy of Shunryu Suzuki Roshi’s “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind “. It was pure poetry to me. It felt like “me”. So, now, at 42 yrs. of age, I can honestly say Buddhism is different for each of us. I tend to see the connection between all things in the universe as a higher power. But, it is a power that leaves the responsibility up to me. I call it the “All That Is”, I guess. And, it is lonely at times. I live in a place where Christianity is everywhere. And, while that is fine with me, I go through a period about once a year or so where I would do anything to simply be able to talk to someone in my vacinity that “gets me”. The communication gap for my husband and I is sometimes very large. He is Christian, and some of the views and vocabulary I use can completely be the opposite for him.

    But, I will say this. I would have it no other way. While we may have different views on some things, as long as we are all working together for the greater benefit of all beings, and as long as you remember that one singular point, the lonliness is short-lived. Because we are all joined together, what we do with each second does matter.

  • With the right mind one realizes one is never alone. Genuine “aloneness” is quite impossible in an interconnected and interdependent nature, most certainly when speaking of the Earth and its ecosystem. Only a very select few have actually approached the edges of that ecosystem and with much expense and effort. If one ever feels “alone”, the simplest and most likely reason for it is one has forgotten how inescapably connected one is to everything else. The cure to loneliness or isolation is a simple shift of viewpoint. One can do that regardless of one’s formal religion and quite without one if one so chooses.

    One need not BE a christian or muslim or jew, one need not be a buddhist – one need only be a human being. That’s the first and most essential “religion”.

  • Alexander "Dr Q" Quiros

    As a clinical psychologist I am struck by the parallels between feeling alone when one accepts the idea of there being no god and when, as children, we realize that our parents are not superhuman. Most children grow up thinking that their parents are godlike. They are all-powerful, all-knowing, and sometimes omnipresent (they are everywhere). Many of us may not remember the time or day, but sooner or later, we learn that our parents are not gods, but rather imperfect humans. This realization burst the bubble of our delusion in much the same way as accepting that there is no god. The initial emotions are usually a mixture of fear and wonderment, but as time passes most come to realize that they still have parents who despite not being gods still make an effort to care and protect you. As time passes, most come to realize that they still have the love and compassion that the image of god represented.

  • T O

    I am a Tibetan Buddhist and a big big part of the practice is turning to and cultivating a profound
    spiritual relationship with Buddha/Buddhas or enlightened beings.

    Everything else revolves around this as far as I am concerend, this is the life force of the practice.
    I couldn’t imagine practicing dharma without this.

    Through relying on Buddha sincerely we can develop powerful concentration and attain liberation and enlighenment
    from cyclic (miserable) re-birth, thats the way I see it.

    P,S I would love some online Buddhist freinds.

    many kind regards T

  • Elle

    I stumbled on this site and I feel your pain. My father and his family were Buddhists although I was not raised Buddhist. I dabbled in new age, occult, Buddhism, and was pretty much an atheist after childhood. And you are right it is very lonely. That is because whether you choose to believe it or not, the truth is there is a God. Remember–

    -love is real
    -God is love
    -God is real

    May the God of the universe reveal Himself to you and fill your heart with the joy and peace that a lifetime of meditation could never achieve.

    Shalom

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