Buddhism is Different: Finding Enlightenment on the Middle Path.

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Meditation by h.koppdelaney

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:

    1. 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.
    2. 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.
    3. 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.
    4. 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.
    5. 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.


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About Jeremy McCarthy

Jeremy McCarthy is the Director of Global Spa Operations and Development at Starwood Hotels and Resorts. He is a regular contributing author for several spa industry books and magazines, and hosts a blog at psychologyofwellbeing.com. He holds a master degree in Applied Positive Psychology from University of Pennsylvania and is applying positive psychology to the customer experience in spas and hospitality. He teaches a course in Positive Leadership for Spas and Hospitality for the UC Irvine Spa and Hospitality Management program.


12 Responses to “Buddhism is Different: Finding Enlightenment on the Middle Path.”

  1. Everything has a 'story.' I like how you introduce Buddhism as that, a story….I really like that. It is all the things you mention, but it has a story, and everyone loves a good story 🙂

    Just posted to "Featured Today" on the Elephant Spirituality Homepage.

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    Lost & Found in India
    Editor, Elephant Spirituality
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  2. Tanya Lee Markul says:

    Just posted to "Featured Today" on the Elephant Yoga homepage.

    Posting to Elephant Yoga on Facebook and Twitter.

    Tanya Lee Markul, Yoga Editor
    Like Elephant Yoga on Facebook
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  3. BenRiggs says:

    Hello Jeremy,

    I liked your article but I think we can use it as gateway into a greater discussion. I think that, in a general way, you approach Buddhism from an idealistic point of view. I do not mean idealistic in the negative or "your too lofty" sense; Rather, I mean to say that you look at it from a very practical point of view.

    But in my mind this begs a couple of questions:

    (a) Is your assessment true when Buddhism is held to the same standards that other religions are held to? It seems to me that you are comparing idealistic Buddhism to perverted monotheism. Here is what I mean:
    1) Buddhism is more about life and less about the afterlife– In Asia, where most Buddhists are, Karma and reincarnation is an indispensable part of the Buddhist world view. You reject karma and reincarnation, you reject Buddhism.
    2) Buddhism is more about rituals and less about deities– Please take into consideration Tibet, perhaps the most popular example of Buddhism in the west. There is nothing on the religious smorgasbord that is more ritually lavish but it is also overflowing with deities, which are essential forms (not secondary) to their system of practice.
    3) Buddhism is more about truths and less about commandments– Once the first point is made (karma/ reincarnation), suggestions are transformed into commandments. Instead of taking the 5 precepts or the 10 non-virtuous actions as a framework with which to struggle in our own personal practice, the fear of a lower rebirth transforms these principles into cultural commandments that are used to govern the morality of a society. Plus, there are also 10!
    4) Buddhism is more about getting closer to humanity and less about getting closer to God– While there may be little to no emphasis on God, one could hardly deny the similarities between a Christian fundamentalist striving for validation from a cosmic father figure and the sense of neediness and dependency that is often characteristic of the teacher student relationship.
    5) Buddhism and science accommodate each other rather than contradict each other– I also enjoy the similarities that Buddhism and science, particularly physics, share, but I think we are also guilty of cherry picking. There are plenty of things that are cultural superstition and/or scientific claims from ancient India that are found in the sutras that contradict the science of today.

    (b) can we look at the other faiths with the benefit of the doubt as well, and garnish from them equal insight and inspiration?

    I do not intend to suggest that Buddhism is just as bad as all the other religions, but I do hope to encourage a more inquisitive assessment of the other wisdom traditions.

    1) Buddhism is more about life and less about the afterlife– "The kingdom of heaven is at hand" is one of the most quoted sayings of Jesus. It is a reminder that the kingdom is right here, right now. There are sects within Christianity that have tried to transform the tradition into a "mass evacuation plan", but it is clear that the message is one of completely embracing our true life, right here, right now.
    2) Buddhism is more about rituals and less about deities— The Christian is called to fully embody his/her potential, their "Kingship" (being sons of God, they heirs of the kingdom) just as the Buddha actualized the fullness of the human condition. Just as the Tibetans use archetypal images to expedite this process, so do the Christians: John 14:12– "Truly, truly, I say to you, he who believes in Me–the works that I do–he will do also; and greater works than these he will do; because I go to the Father." "The Father" is the primordial archetype (much like Samantabhadra) that personifies the fullness of the human condition. This symbol is just that, a symbol. It is a finger pointing at the mystery from which "our" life emerges.
    3) Buddhism is more about truths and less about commandments– Contemplative Christianity and Judaism place emphasis not on the morality of commandment but the fact that our nature is in accord with these commandments. To Love God is fully embrace the whole of creation, including your Self, upholding and expressing the intrinsic dignity and integrity of our natural perfection.
    4) Buddhism is more about getting closer to humanity and less about getting closer to God– Just as I said in 2, The Christian is called to fully embody his/her potential, their "Kingship" (being sons of God, they heirs of the kingdom) just as the Buddha actualized the fullness of the human condition. When you realize that in the beginning was God and everything poured forth from God, there is no-thing to separate humanity from the image of God. This was Jesus' message– "I and the Father are one". It is also underlying the Hindu mythology.
    5) Buddhism and science accommodate each other rather than contradict each other– There is plenty of common ground for science and Christianity to share, as Carl Jung was well aware. It is the science of 2,000 B.C. that disagrees with modern science, not religion, as Joseph Campbell was quick to remind us.

    I am about to post this article on the main page and try to get some discussion going around these points. Once again, thank you for your writing. ~ Ben Riggs

  4. sharonfloyd says:

    Thank you for this article, Jeremy. In my own experience, I appreciate the story of the Buddha, but I tend to think of what I have learned from Buddhism as tools. I have never gotten a complete toolkit for peace and happiness that I can use right now from other religions. That fact has made the definition of Buddhism less and less important to me while the practice has become all the more profound and sacred.

  5. Karthik says:

    Why compare? Why measure? Why do the very thing these various paths advise us against? Science and some aspects of religion may be reconcilable. But ultimately, religion as I understand it, is about transcending comparison and measurement. And, Science may never get its head wrapped around that. Yes, this is a position too. The middle path is not a path.

    "No path exists through the air"
    "A position is something a Tathagata has done away with" – Buddha

    • Tabitha says:

      I utterly agree, as I was raised Christian, and now have opted out of any form of formal religion but am at the most spiritual, happy and at peace place in my being as a result of that. I know what I believe, and I know what is right I see no need to argue that one religion is more about this, or more about that….Its irrelevant, what matters, is what you believe and what you know.

  6. Eric says:

    my best friend is a phd in neuroscience, we have amazing 'mindwalks' ~ he the biologist, me the buddhist, where we travel on a journey together, gently challenging and deconstructing beliefs and find that 3 hours later we meet in the same place 🙂

  7. Ben, thank you for your comments which I think are fair and insightful. I agree with you, I am comparing an idealized version of buddhism to the "institutionalized" (to borrow the phrase from Ozz) versions of other religions. In fact, I think the teachings of Jesus Christ in their original idealized form would not have differed much from the way I described buddhism above (your point about the Kingdom at hand is a perfect example). I think Ozz is right about institutionalization and perhaps the difference in Buddhism is it seems to accept secularization in a way that other religions don't.

    Karthik, your comment is beautiful . . . why compare? Personally, I like to do scientific analysis, to compare, to inquire, to understand. But I also realize that sometimes the answer comes from letting go of asking questions.

  8. Loka Mitra Bhikkhu says:

    Subject: About "Buddhists will need to adapt their beliefs to accommodate what science discovers".

    Dear Sir,

    I am from Thailand. Directly I like come our main point. The His Holiness Dalai Lama is one of Buddhist Sects Leader.
    If he say some thing, It would be acceptable for others sometimes. Buddhism no need to adapt to others. It is beyound to others to understand what is in Tripitaka or holy Buddhist Book. You should read it for your understand than compare with it. About Universe You can read the Buddha's first Sermon The Dhammacakkapavattana Sutra. Mentioned that many universe are there. But Still Scientist can't find out it too. Last time, I heard that they got only 13. I hope you will read Buddhist Holy Books than you compare with it better. Thanks

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