Why I am not a Buddhist

11 06 2012

The Skeptical Buddhist

I am not a Buddhist because I can’t accept the notion of reincarnation, a central tenet of their worldview. Note that I didn’t say a central tenet of their faith, because on the whole, Buddhism isn’t a faith-based belief system. It isn’t a religion in the Western sense of the word. There is no deity, no dogma, no revealed truths that must be taken on faith. It was founded on observation and empiricism.

Buddhist philosophy has never been at odds with science the way Western Theism has. It has never been put on the defensive for its worldview by discoveries made in the laboratory or the field. Quite the opposite. Monks sit smiling as fMRI scans lend evidence that their theory of mind is solidly grounded in experimentally verifiable fact.

As for reincarnation, it’s a working theory that Buddhists are quite convinced of. However, in a conversation with Carl Sagan, the Dalai Lama admitted that, should science one day prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that reincarnation does not happen, he would be forced to discard it. “But,” His Holiness added with a puckish grin, “You are going to have a very hard time disproving that one!”

Reincarnation is not a deal-breaker. It isn’t central to their belief system the way accepting Jesus Christ as your personal savior is in Christianity, or professing that Allah is God and Mohammed is His Prophet is in Islam. Buddhists could, one day, sigh heavily and acknowledge that okay, maybe reincarnation is just a nice metaphor, not a literal truth, and everything else about their way of thinking would hold together quite solidly and coherently. It would still be a philosophy of mind and living, founded by the Buddha, inspired by great teachers who were exceptionally enlightened. Maybe a bodhisattva is not the literal rebirth of a soul, but someone whose exceptional intelligence and spiritual qualities make them identical for all practical purposes. Dharma and karma would have to be recast as metaphor, but would still work extremely well as a way of saying that your actions have consequences.

I can’t think of any meaningful way that Christianity could continue to call itself that if it abandoned the idea of a Savior who died for our sins, who was the manifestation on earth of God the Father, creator of Heaven and Earth. Toss out the mystical supernaturalism and you just have a secular philosophy based on the teachings of a really wise human being. No miracles, no water into wine, no revealed truths, no tests of faith. There are some progressive branches of Christianity that essentially have done just that, but they are so far removed from the belief systems of their Fundamentalist brethren that it make absolutely no sense to me to identify their faith with the same name.

As an atheist who feels the best way to understand the world is by the use of our intellectual faculties and the scientific method, there is no possible way I could ever embrace Theism in any form. Which is not to say that there aren’t elements to some versions of Theism that I accept, such as forgiveness, pacifism, and service to others, particularly the poor. These are elements Theism has in common with most wisdom traditions. Like Buddhism.

I’ll allow this much, though: the notion of the survival of some personal essence after death — a soul if you will — that is reborn according to how its previous life’s experiences shaped it, is less preposterous to me than the idea of a personal God as most Theists envision Him. Dharma is a lot more plausible to me than Original Sin and the Crucifixion.

Perhaps, in my next life, I will be a Buddhist.

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4 responses

11 06 2012
Tee R

Nice read! I enjoyed it.
Based on your closing statement you seem to follow the idealism of Secular Humanism?

11 06 2012
Tameson

FWIW a Bodhisattva isn’t simply a reincarnated soul – it’s one who’s achieved enlightenment and has refused entry into nirvana, not necessarily by being reincarnated, but also by not dying to begin with. A Bodhisattva is above all else a teacher. Many Buddhists believe that Jesus himself was a Bodhisattva, though no self respecting Baptist would ever entertain the idea.

Also I’d like to point you in the direction of a couple of Atheist Buddhists. They are Sam Harris and Stephen Batchelor. Both are well seasoned authors. I’m sure you can get a hold of some of their writing. Not all branches of Buddhism believe in reincarnation on a strictly spiritual level. No one will deny that when a person dies their body goes on to decay and feed the bacteria which feed the soil which will in turn will feed the plants and the animals they feed on, and so the circle goes. It’s one way to interpret reincarnation. Little pieces of you in something else at a later point in time.

Karma is not a spiritual game of Chutes and Ladders where if you are bad in this life you’ll have to return as a bug. It’s more of a lesson in “you reap what you sow”. If you go around being pissy, no one’s going to like you and you’ll get treated like the crap you are, but if you pay it forward and treat everyone as you would want to be treated, most people will remember that and treat you the same. Of course you’ll always bump into pissy people from time to time, but the key point of Buddhism is to be compassionate about those people and love them anyway, and maybe they’ll turn around eventually.

16 06 2012
maturing beyond sinfulness « power of language blog: partnering with reality by JR Fibonacci

[…] Why I am not a Buddhist (justinegraykin.wordpress.com) […]

16 07 2012
Krishna, Buddha and Christ: The same or different? (Part 5) « Earthpages.org

[…] Why I am not a Buddhist (justinegraykin.wordpress.com) […]

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