30.7.11

Buddhism Compared with Christianity

I had a long conversation with a friend where I finally came to understand Buddhism as a complete and meaningful philosophy and find it stunningly beautiful. So even though I know very little about Buddhism, I wanted to post something about it and how it first made sense to me. (I think I took so long to understand it because there are just a lot of really bad explanations out there). Also I grew up reading some Christian apologists that did not give it a fair treatment, which may have contributed to the delay. Here are the striking points that came out of our conversation:


1: Possible proofs used for Buddhism and Christianity are similar.
Christians will look at the prophecies in the Bible (just to give an example, but other proofs use similar logic) and make some argument about how this means the Bible is likely be divinely inspired: There was no one previously who was able to predict the future (at least interesting events in the future) so someone who is able to predict the future shows that that person has access to either some controlling or knowledgeable power of the universe that is not of themselves. Since we associate this kind of idea with God the two are easily conflated (and probably for good reason). The majority of us seem to be looking for some kind of external purpose or guidance so it seems reasonable to take that desire and search for something that satisfies it externally. When this is found it is not easily dismissed as a coincidence. Just like when we eat food we do not think that we just happen to enjoy eating food, but that there is an external reason for that desire to have a purpose: namely to prevent starvation, which comes from our evolutionary development. So what is interesting is that one of the things that makes these arguments convincing is the preconceived idea or desire of, or for, an external purpose or guidance. But it is far from being the only thing. There is a narrative in the Bible and God builds up a relationship with the people of Israel and with many of the other characters. So it is also through our view of relationships and trust that we evaluate these arguments.

Similarly, a Buddhist might look at the psychological aspects of Buddhism and conclude that since these ideas of selflessness and acceptance are so helpful and so hard to come by at the time of Buddha, that Buddha must have had contact with some sort of greater power to get this knowledge. Since the more we practice selflessness and acceptance the better we get at it, we can extrapolate and say that it may be possible to attain control over our attitude and reach a state called enlightenment. As for whether there is some sort of narrative in Buddhism, I am not as familiar enough to talk much about the similarities or dissimilarities here. Although, you may be able to draw a parallel between the life of Buddha and how he related to his own emotions and the rest of the world and how he eventually learned to deal with them. There may be more to this than I know.


2: If Buddhism is correct, then all religions are different ways of looking at the same thing (with varying degrees of accuracy).
So with Buddhism, it is essentially your attitude that is most important. No matter what external truth there is, you can eventually create reality in your own head. Two people can look at a field and perceive totally different things depending on their attitudes. Someone in a bad mood can perceive all the unpleasant things, the gravestones and rotting wood, while the other person in a good mood only sees the beauty of the flowers and trees.

Some may protest at this analogy, do the two people really have total control over what they perceive about the field? No, but only because they are not enlightened. This isn't an accurate example though because it seems to imply that Buddhism means changing your perception of reality to be pleasant all the time. It doesn't. A truly enlightened person will not desire to have pleasant things and will not run from suffering. Nevertheless, the point is that if everyone has the ability to control their attitude (at some point) then (at some point) reality will not be important.

Christianity does have some minor similarities in the way it views worry:
“Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble." (Matthew 6:34) Telling someone not to worry implies that they have control over that part of their attitude.


3: Although the psychological ideas in Buddhism are therapeutic, Buddhism takes the opposite and, some may say, more counterintuitive route than the majority of philosophies.
With Buddhism, what is ultimately important is in your head, not in reality (for your experience at least), unlike in most people's intuitive ideas about what is important.
The idea is that your brain and the rest of reality are one whole which creates your experiences and consciousness. So the idea of influencing your experience can begin by influencing your attitude which is the only part we have direct control over. Just like the famous Buddhist text says:

Where would I find enough leather

To cover the entire surface of the earth?

But with leather soles beneath my feet,

It’s as if the whole world has been covered.

Engaging in Bodhisattva Conduct, V, 13
For some philosophies this may depend on a refutation of the idea of self. If we had a self or a spirit, then there would be no guarantee that it would be completely malleable unlike the material world. If there is no self, it is the interaction of the attitude and reality which create what we mistake for ourselves in which there is nothing that we can't change and influence eventually. There are similar arguments in today's philosophy concerning the idea of consciousness not being dependent on your brain alone: http://www.wnyc.org/shows/lopate/2009/mar/25/i-am-therefore-i-think/ There are some ideas in Christianity that are similar except the change comes from the outside. For instance the idea of internal spiritual rebirth is considered necessary for the ultimate importance: loving God (and hence goodness, look up divine command theory) and the second ultimate importance: salvation. (note these are just my own interpretations of Christianity) I do think Christianity differs from Buddhism in that it doesn't look at reality as being totally unimportant for the ultimate human experience. Christianity has a hell and heaven, and Buddhism (or some forms of it) have several. But the purposes of those hells and heavens are different. In Buddhism it is just part of the cycle, you are repaid for good karma or bad karma and there is no importance or meaning placed on staying in any particular part of the cycle. Instead reaching enlightenment and escaping the cycle is the goal (sort of, but you cannot really desire that either). With Christianity heaven and hell are places where justice is served.


4: One issue with Buddhism I have to think more about.
The most convincing argument for Buddhism that I have seen so far is that it is psychologically very therapeutic and that it would be very difficult to come to these conclusions about psychology before psychological studies.

Now the problem I have with this is that not only does Buddhism have you think of these things in this way for psychological purposes but it asserts that they are true, the denial of self, the assertion of your ability to control your attitude perfectly etc ... The thing is that psychology is notoriously tricky. We have a multitude of thinking traps where believing the wrong thing is actually beneficial. For instance, with the planning fallacy it is beneficial to believe that you have less time to do a task than you actually do. Another problem is that different ways of thinking about things in psychology may be more or less helpful for different types of people.

On the other hand there may be reason to think that these same things apply to science or any other discipline since we always work within the confines of our psychology. For instance, in science it may be beneficial for the understanding and modeling of quantum mechanics to have an interpretation of quantum mechanics that is easier to understand, but is actually much further from the truth, since science does not really deal with truth, just whether a model works well, and quantum mechanics is mathematics not any pithy analogies we can come up with for how it works. This goes even more so for history because it is a less testable discipline.

One question you have to answer before comparing the evidence for Buddhism and Christianity is: Is there less bias in our knowledge of history (the main place where most Christians draw their evidence from) than there is difference between the therapeutic methods of psychology and the actual truth? If this question cannot be solved through philosophy (in my mind that means being elucidated enough so that common sense pulls us easily one way or the other) then you just have to go with whichever answer is more intuitive.


Closing thoughts:
I am probably going to have to write another post correcting all the errors about Buddhism I made in this one. I will put a link to that at the end when I do. I have gotten basically all of my information from talking to a Buddhist (who himself has said that he is bad at explaining things about religion and expressing himself) But this is the first time I have understood Buddhism as a complete and beautiful philosophy and I felt like I needed to post something because I am kind of excited.

4 comments:

Philip said...

Chesterton said that the essential difference between Jesus and Buddha is that Jesus said "Seek first the kingdom, and all these things will be added to you," while Buddha said, "Seek first the kingdom and you will need none of these things."

Dwielz Camauf Descartes said...

Excellent way of viewing it. I just updated one thing in my post about there being a narrative with Christianity as well "There is a narrative in the Bible and God builds up a relationship with people of Isreal and with many of the other characters. So it is also through our view of relationships and trust that we evaluate these arguments." (talking about arguments for the truth of Christianity) But there also may be some kind of narrative in Buddhism, but maybe just not in as personal a sense (at least in terms of the interaction between God and man compared to Buddha and the universe)

Crystal said...

As much as I want to summon the energy to respond with intelligence to your points, I just don’t happen to believe that the question of which is right- Buddhism or Christianity- is a question that is truth-apt. Which set of philosophies aligns more with my own beliefs? Buddhism. But both have parts that just feel flat out wrong and misled to me. I’d be interested to read what you’d have to say if you threw Taoism into your mix.

Dwielz Camauf Descartes said...

I'll have to do taoism next. Maybe that would help me understand why you think Buddhism and Christianity are not truth-apt. I mean, I could understand if you were saying it is harder to come to truth about them, but to say they aren't truth-apt at all is rather confusing to me.