Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Christianity versus Buddhism

I was raised Christian and I've always been fascinated by its ability to drive people mad. I've also been fascinated by Eastern religious traditions since I learned that they existed. I've been practicing Buddhism for just under a year now and through deeper study and practice, I've noticed some differences that haven't been pointed out to me directly. I'm sharing them here for those who may be interested.

This will be succinct because I'm getting ready to go wash my hair and that's going to take a while, so no time to waste. This is simplistic. There are way more differences. But hopefully, this will help to show an element of the fundamental difference in processing of the Christian vs. the Buddhist experience.
Religious systems help people collectively process impermanence and ultimately, our mortality. We're all gonna die. And our lack of knowing the details about that leaves us searching for answers. So religions, when practiced collectively, provide us comfort through faith as we march closer and closer to the grave.
The Christian Story
In Christianity, developed out of the Hebrew tradition, death is fundamentally bad. It is the punishment for sin, or wrongdoing. As a result, death is something that must be prevented. According to the apostles, through Jesus Christ, a man who lived from around 30 CE until 63 CE who demonstrated endless compassion, Christians are able to find eternal life and avoid death. Then, they can find the kingdom of heaven, which is popularly recognized as a place in the sky where the body is renewed and lasts forever in eternal bliss.
The Christian person believes that if she devotes her life to Christ (which means accepts Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior), she will reap the eternal reward of everlasting life. Her path is personal and her salvation is uniquely hers. Furthermore, those who are not Christians or who do not devote their lives to Christ represent the ultimate fear that Christians have: eternal damnation. Out of this dichotomy arises judgment which helps (and I frame it this way intentionally) the Christian to evaluate good from bad and refrain from the path of the unrighteous. If a Christian does wrong, she must repent, but forgiveness is also promised as a result of Jesus's ultimate selfless life sacrifice for the sins of the world.
As a Western tradition, Christianity functions hierarchically, placing a king or Godhead at the top and various members of society at successive rungs on the ladder of righteousness. Christianity was historically used to keep women and slaves (or employees, depending on the master's disposition) in line and keep masters and husbands from abusing their servants or each other. The Christian tradition is easily transferable to Western society. It is the model of having a king that rules all things and delivers rewards and punishments to people who either obey or disobey his commands.

The Buddhist Story
In Buddhism, developed out of India, suffering (as opposed to death) is considered bad and should be avoided. impermanence and interdependence are accepted as fundamental parts of the sentient being's experience. A sentient being is recognized as a being that has transient life. Some Buddhists believe in a soul. Some don't. It depends on the school. Since impermanence is recognized as a part of the sentient experience, there is no expectation that the human (or any other being) will last forever in its form. Interdependence implies that though beings are wrapped in individual packages, enlightenment (also known as Nirvana or deliverance from suffering (among other things)) is only achieved all at once among all of us. So no one is enlightened unless everyone is enlightened. This creates a system of accountability for others beyond ministry because if I'm not enlightened, you won't be enlightened. There is a dichotomy of good and bad based in the 8fold path and 4 noble truths (google them). The more good stuff you do, the better a person you become and the less karmic crap you have to deal with, but ultimately, it's in everyone's interest to do the best they can.
The Buddhist person believes that it's better to do good than bad. Enlightenment does not happen in a place outside of the life that we live now, so suffering is predominately the result of attachments to greed, anger, and stupidity. At any moment, the Buddhist could simply do good and not reap the karmic consequences of bad, living in Nirvana and helping others to also find Nirvana (or as close as is possible until everyone reaches Nirvana together). The people who have reached this enlightenment are called Buddhas. There are over 180 different Buddhas in the history of Buddhism, so people choose which Buddha, or role model, they follow based on their personality type. Death is real, but in the paradigm of impermanence, death is just something else that happens. Essentially, a person could exist forever in suffering if they don't achieve enlightenment during their life (or lives...some Buddhists believe in reincarnation. Some don't), but why do that because it would just prolong the suffering.
As an Eastern tradition, Buddhism functions linearly, relying on each member of society to play his or her role towards the ultimate realization of Nirvana. Since there is no real hierarchy, there is no competition to get to "the top." A person of a lower class or caste may be dealing with previous life karma, so this creates a climate of acceptance of certain social dispositions. This also makes Buddhism more appealing to higher caste/class members of society: if you're doing socially well, it's the result of your good karmic practices, eliminating guilt for benefiting in a world full of suffering. However, due to the nature of interdependence, the Buddhist is not off the hook from helping others to achieve Nirvana.
In summation, Christians believe that this life is it. People make mad dashes to Christ to keep from going to hell before the buzzer. Buddhists believe that we're all in this together and that it all ends, but also all begins again and again. So there's no pressure to do anything in particular.
Hope this helps.

PS. This is not an invitation to tell me that I didn't talk about African traditions. It really doesn't matter what you believe. Just get on with it and be happy.

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