This is the edited text of a talk given on Sunday 26 March 2000 to members of the Indonesian Buddhist Association at the premises of the Buddhist Council of New South Wales, Eastlakes, Sydney, Australia.
In other gatherings where the focus has been on how much the world's major religions have in common, I have spoken about the many similarities and areas of agreement between Buddhism and other world religions. These common threads are very important, and should be frequently called to mind. Religious belief and practice should never be the basis for intolerance, discrimination, or social discord. But it is also important to remember that there are many ways in which Buddhism is different from other world religions, and it is on these differences that I wish to focus today. My hope is that this will help us all to be more aware of what it really means to be a Buddhist, and that our increased understanding of our own beliefs and practices will help us in our interactions with other members of our community whose beliefs and practices are different.
Belief in God as a supreme being or creator of the world
The first and most obvious way in which Buddhism differs from theistic religions such as Christianity and Islam is in relation to belief in a supreme being. The Buddha rejected the concept of an omniscient and omnipotent creator god as both unthinkable and unnecessary. Buddhists do not deny the existence of various gods or deities, which we call devas. However these beings, although living in heavenly abodes with many refined pleasures, and possessed of powers beyond those of human beings, are not eternal gods. They are still subject to passing away and to rebirth according to their kamma. Buddhists do not attach any particular importance to devas, and we do not believe that they can help us to attain liberation, as that can only be done through our own efforts.
Buddhists do not believe that the world was created by a god, or that the world necessarily had a beginning at all. Buddhism teaches that there are innumerable worlds that come into existence, decline and break up over immeasurable periods of time, and that this has been happening countless numbers of times and without beginning.
Buddhists do not believe there will be a sudden or apocalyptic end to the world, brought about by the intervention of divine forces. The world will wind down and break up eventually, but this is to be expected in accordance with the natural laws of the universe.
Furthermore, the Buddha cautioned us about not wasting our time in speculations about the nature of the universe. To the Buddha, the world is nothing but samsara, a cycle of repeated birth and death for those still trapped in samsara. This is mirrored in the repeated arising and decay of worlds, but the interdependence of all things makes it pointless to single out any one point or event as the beginning or end. The important thing for us who are living in samsara is to work towards our liberation from suffering.
Revelation through a holy book
It follows from the above that Buddhists do not believe in revelation, where the wishes and commands of a supreme being are communicated to the world through sacred writings or a holy book, often through the inspiration of a prophet.
The Buddha is not considered to be a prophet, as he did not claim to be inspired by a supreme being. He made it clear that what he taught he had discovered for himself, and that it was possible for others to follow the path and discover the same truths for themselves.
Buddhists accept that the texts that contain the Buddha's teachings were written down by his disciples, who were human beings and therefore capable of error. The Buddha's words were recorded after his passing away, first by memory and recitation, and only later in writing. Buddhists are not expected to believe something just because it is written in a Buddhist text. They are encouraged to put the teachings into practice in their daily lives, from which they can validate them by their own direct experience.
Buddhists do not accept the existence of an essential self or soul that continues as an entity after death. We believe that there is nothing in this world or any other world that is eternal or unchanging. The individual person is comprised of a constantly changing pattern of matter and energy. However we do not subscribe to a strictly materialist or humanist view that our existence ends at death. Our past actions condition our present, which in turn conditions our future, even beyond death. Our kamma therefore conditions whether or not we are reborn, which of the realms of existence we will be reborn into, and what kind of existence we will have. As in the case of speculations about the nature of the universe, the Buddha regarded speculation about the soul as a useless distraction from the urgent task of working towards our liberation.
Buddhists do not believe that our actions are judged by a supreme being as being either sinful or meritorious according to whether they are consistent with the wishes and demands of the supreme being. We believe that all our intentional actions (kamma) have consequences (vipaka), but the law of kamma is an impersonal natural law that operates without reference to a lawgiver. At a practical level, this means that Buddhists agree with other world religions that we are responsible for the consequences of our actions, and that such consequences will be experienced whether in this life or the next.
Forgiveness, redemption and salvation
Buddhists do not seek forgiveness for their actions from a supreme being. We will inevitably bear the consequences of our actions, and we cannot be absolved from those consequences by any external agent such as a supreme being. We do not believe that another individual, human or divine, can redeem us, ie can atone for our wrongdoings by an act of sacrifice and suffering. Only by changing our own present behaviour can we influence the consequences we will experience in the future.
Heaven and Hell
Buddhists do not believe in an eternal heaven or hell. We believe that after death rebirth can take place in any of a number of different existences, including a heavenly realm and a hellish realm, but existence in these realms is temporary, just as it is in this world.
A belief in rebirth has been found in other religions and philosophies. But the Buddhist belief in rebirth is different in significant ways from the belief in reincarnation or transmigration. A belief in transmigration requires the belief in a soul that is reborn as another being, but Buddhism has rejected the existence of an eternal soul. Reincarnation requires us to believe that an individual's personality, memories and other attributes can be carried forward after death and be reborn, but Buddhism teaches that all the constituents of our existence become dissolved at death and that only our clinging to life and our kamma connect us from one life to the next.
Venerable K. Sri Dhammananda, What Buddhists Believe, Buddhist Missionary Society, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, 4th edition, 1987.
Venerable S. Dhammika, All About Buddhism, Buddha Dhamma Mandala Society, Singapore, 1990.
John Snelling, The Buddhist Handbook, Rider, London, 1987.
Last Updated on Saturday, 13 September 2008 11:54