Buddhism is different. So different in fact, that people often wonder what it is. Is it a religion? Or is it a philosophy? Or a science? And if it is a religion, why does it seem to be different from most other religions?
Above all else, Buddhism is . . . a story. And this is not so different from other religions in the sense that all religions are stories. They are stories designed to teach us about where we came from, where we are going, and how to live.
Buddhism tells the story of Siddhartha Gautama, a wealthy prince, who after living a sheltered life of decadence and luxury, discovers the poverty and suffering outside of his palace walls. So he renounces all the pleasures of his life and turns to a life of poverty and asceticism. But after years of semi-starvation and sleeping on beds of nails, he realizes that this immersion into suffering is only another distraction from the impermanence of life, just like his life of luxury and pleasure.
The Buddha (or “awakened one” as he came to be called) finds enlightenment in “the middle path,” not denying himself pleasure or pain but becoming attuned to the experiences of life and to the connectedness between himself and all living things. Upon finding this pathway to enlightenment, the Buddha began teaching others, by telling them his story. And so began Buddhism.
But Buddhism is different from other religions in several ways:
- Buddhism is more about life and less about the afterlife. It is less about how we got here, and where we go when we die, and more about how we live while we are here. Buddhism was born from the roots of Vedic Brahamanism where they believed in cycles of reincarnation that explain what happens to our souls before we are born and after we die. Questions of soul and afterlife are important, but the Buddha was focused on understanding how we can release ourselves from human suffering in the course of our lives.
- Buddhism is more about rituals and less about deities. In Buddhism, the rituals and practice of life is more important than the gods you worship, or how you worship them.
- Buddhism is more about truths and less about commandments. The Buddha discovered the four noble truths and the eight-fold path to enlightenment. Unlike commandments and other religious doctrines, these are not rules that must be obeyed to avoid some kind of punishment in the afterlife. They are observations about the way life works and the steps towards living a better one.
- Buddhism is more about getting closer to humanity and less about getting closer to God. While many religions teach about God and how to establish a relationship with our Creator, Buddhism is about feeling our own humanity. In other religions, grace comes from divinity, in Buddhism grace comes from within. Grace comes from the compassion that one feels by recognizing that we are all connected.
- Buddhism and science accommodate each other rather than contradict each other. Psychology research on mindfulness, meditation, compassion, psychological flexibility, curiosity, and acceptance and commitment theory all seem to support the teachings of Buddhism. And the Dalai Lama has said that if science uncovers new findings that challenge the teachings of Buddhism, then Buddhists will need to adapt their beliefs to accommodate what science discovers.
It is not my intention to disparage other religions or to hold up Buddhism as the one, true religion. But I do think other religions could learn from the Buddhist approach to science. As scientific research continues to grow on morality, compassion and spirituality, we are moving into a new era where science and religion could begin to support each other rather than be at odds. I like to imagine a future where you don’t have to choose between being religious and being scientific. One day, we will find enlightenment on the middle path.