James A. Beverley is professor of Christian
thought and ethics at Tyndale Seminary in
Toronto. Find more of these columns at www.
When I ask students what religion they would follow if they were not Christians,
Buddhism is the top choice. Only
about one in a hundred Canadians
are Buddhists, but its popularity is all
out of proportion with the numbers.
Justin Trudeau, prime minister
of Canada, and his wife Sophie
even extended best wishes from
their family in May to honour Vesak,
the global festival of the birth,
enlightenment and passing of
Gautama Buddha, the Jesus-type
figure who started Buddhism about
2,500 years ago.
At least five factors explain current interest: the enormous influence of His Holiness the Dalai Lama,
the initial simplicity of central Buddhist ideas (the Four Noble Truths
and the Eightfold Path, for example),
the emphasis on peace and compassion, the goal of attaining release
from suffering, and last but not least,
the enduring attraction of Gautama.
Buddhists of all types base everything around the life and teachings
of the first Buddhist, whether it’s
the 300 monks at the Mahayana
monastery in Little Sands, P.E.I.,
the Buddhists at Montreal’s famous
Zen Center (Albert Low, the famous
director, passed away last January),
the Gelugpa Tibetan Buddhists at
the Three Jewels in Vancouver
(motto: “Go Deep, Get Happy”), or
the Theravada Buddhists at the
Phrakeo Temple in Cambridge, Ont.
Coast to coast (there are three
Buddhist groups in St. John’s, N.L.,
Gampo Abbey in Cape Breton and
many groups in the Halifax area),
south to north (there is a Soto Zen
group in Iqaluit, Nun.), Gautama
Buddha takes centre stage.
Without getting into the supernatural details, the basic story of
Gautama is this: (a) he is born into
royalty in Nepal and sheltered
from pain, death and evil, (b) he
renounces his privileged life and
goes in search of truth, (c) he
adopts a Hindu ascetic life and then
abandons it, (d) he finds enlightenment under the Bodhi Tree, (e) he
teaches the Buddhist message for
decades, and (f) he attains Nirvana.
This narrative is richly told in
movies (Little Buddha by Bernardo
Bertolucci), documentaries (The
Buddha, narrated by Richard Gere,
the famous actor who is a disciple
of the Dalai Lama), and in countless
books (I recommend John Strong’s
The Buddha) and works of art.
In spite of the enduring popularity of Gautama and Buddhism (the
United Church’s Emmanuel College
in Toronto just added Cuilan Liu, a
famous Buddhist expert, to its
faculty), students will find at least
four major problems.
First, there’s trouble knowing
what is reliable about his biography.
John Strong, a writer sympathetic
to the Buddha, notes, “Historically
speaking, we know very little about
the life of Gautama.” The same
point is made by Donald Lopez in
The Story of Buddhism. Scholars are
not even sure what century Gautama was born in. The uncertainty
arises because of major differences
in what various Buddhist schools
teach about him, and because the
earliest writings about him come
from centuries after he died.
Second, supernatural reports
about the Buddha defy acceptance.
I am not arguing this because of
skepticism about miracles in principle. Rather the stories are unbelievably extravagant. Consider: (a) the
Buddha lived 547 previous lives and
met over 500,000 other Buddha
figures, (b) in his earthly life Gautama was born out of the side of his
mother, (c) his miracle in Sravasti
led to 200 million people adopting
Buddhism, (d) when his horse died,
it became a god on another planet,
and (e) when Gautama died, his
mother came down from heaven to
visit him, and he sat up in his coffin
to tell her not to mourn.
Third, the core teaching there’s
no such thing as the self is so depressing that Buddhism is sometimes accused of being nihilistic.
It’s also disheartening that the
Buddha offered enlightenment
rooted in your own efforts. This
explains why Buddhists go to enormous lengths to try to reach salvation. For example, Tendai monks
in Japan sometimes attempt a
solitary walk around Mount Hiei,
a journey of 35 km, but they vow to
do it one thousand times or commit suicide.
Finally, despite the Buddha’s
serenity and compassion, his teachings are hugely misleading because
of his denial of God. In Buddhism
there’s no Creator, and of course no
Jesus as the Son of God and sole
Saviour and Lord.
So don’t fall for the popular view
that “all religions believe in God.”
Not Buddhism. /FT
Despite the Buddha’s serenity and compas-
sion, his teachings are hugely misleading
because of his denial of God.
JAMES A. BEVERLEY
Buddhism: a popular mistake
Should we be concerned about such a nice religion?
BUDDHIS TS IN