buddha, christ, and crystals bathed in moonlight

Posted on July 16, 2010


Reflecting on my reactions to eliron‘s post it got me thinking about how buddhism is misunderstood generally in popular culture. It always struck me how, if you go to so called ‘head shops’, or hippy shops, you will always find statues of the Buddha along with pipes to smoke weed, tie-dye, incense and other psychedelic ‘material culture’. You won’t find crucifixes or statues of the Virgin Mary, or Stars of David, or copies of the Quran. Maybe the odd Hindu ‘aum’.

Why? The Buddha did not teach us to be laissez-faire, not taking intoxicants is one of his basic ‘rules’, so to speak. In the process of coming West, Buddhism appears to have been chucked in the melange of general ‘Eastern Mysticism’ and the Buddha has had the dubious accolade of being some kind of hippy icon foisted upon him. I’m not religiously offended to see Buddha statues in such places, it just makes me raise an eyebrow as really what he stood for and what his teaching points to is something not connected with drug-taking free-love culture, whatever manifestation it may have taken on most recently.

There are others who try and draw strong parallels between Christ and the Buddha as well. This is a nice idea and I have to say that personally, I find the figure of Christ intriguing and appealing. I don’t know everything about him but I remember seeing a Passion Play a few years ago back home and it was interesting to watch. I also spent an afternoon with some friendly and dedicated young Christians at a barbecue and hearing them talk about their faith in Christ and how it worked in their lives was both interesting and inspiring.

Having said that, from what I know of Christ, again he and the Buddha taught very different things. I’ve heard Christians say that Christ made claims like no other, perhaps that is the case. Equally I would say the Buddha made claims and gave teachings like no other, but certainly he was saying something very different to Christ. I get mixed feelings about it really. It warms the cockles of my ‘bring humanity together’ heart to hear favourable comparisons drawn between these two figures, however I think it probably does them both a disservice at the same time, trivialising and probably glossing over some of the key elements of their respective teachings. After all, Christ was the son of the creator of the Universe, whereas the Buddha was something like a prince – a worldly status at any rate. While both men attained a ‘divinity’, they were two very different divinities.

Anyway, then there is the negative views of Buddhism, something that I noticed Christopher Hitchens made an almost throwaway reference to in his book ‘God Is Not Great’ and that other people have latched onto and have used to formulate more wide-ranging criticisms. These criticisms all seem to be based on the misunderstanding that the Buddha taught that reality doesn’t exist, or that the self doesn’t exist, or that suffering doesn’t exist, or that the aim of Buddhism is to destroy the self, or that when we meditate we must empty our minds. None of this is true at all and I find it odd that people have these conceptions. I think there must be a real disconnect between the actual practice of Buddhism and how it is taught in educational institutions.

The hardcore reductive materialist, atheist, naturalist approach which seeks to discredit monotheism probably feels it has to take a quick pop at ‘Eastern Mysticism’ as well, just to cover all the bases, but without really knowing what it is crticising.

I’ll admit it’s easy to get worked up about such misunderstandings, although once you calm down and take a breather you realise in a lot of ways it’s best left alone – not that I’ve been great at that myself(!).

I should ask myself: Can I let go of the need to be right?

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