I have heard it said numerous times, by friends and authors, that Buddhism should be considered as separate from the major world religions, as it is more of a way of life or philosophy than it is a religion.
Having perused some of the secondary Buddhist literature and attended some of the Buddhist groups here in Vancouver, B.C., I can testify to the fact that there is a contingent of modern day theorists and practitioners that seem to approach Buddhism as if it were only a set of meditation practices or a simple set of moral principles. Indeed, Buddhism has an extensive range of teachings on the philosophy and practice of meditation and does inculcate many practical philosophical and moral teachings, many of which can be found in the Dhammapada.
But there is also a mystical aspect of the Buddhist canon—timeless teachings that, when compared to the equally timeless claims and teachings of the other major world religions, compel the reader of just mind to include Buddhism within that lineage of major world religions.
I’d like to briefly touch upon three of these seemingly eternal, mystic principles, and these are as follows: Infallible knowledge of the universe; the existence of God, and the existence of an afterlife.
Infallible Knowledge of the Universe
The Buddha has been credited with the following claim:
From time to time a Tathagata is born into the world, a fully Enlightened One, blessed and worthy, abounding in wisdom and goodness, happy, with knowledge of the world, unsurpassed as a guide to erring mortals, a teacher of gods and men, a Blessed Buddha. He, by himself, thoroughly understands, and sees, as it were, face to face this universe. (Momen, 1995)
To summarize the words above, the Buddha has claimed to be “a fully Enlightened One” who possesses knowledge of the world and the universe that is “unsurpassed” by “gods and men”. It is claimed that it is “[the Buddha], by himself, [who] thoroughly understands, and sees” this world and this universe.
The Gospel of Buddha, the renowned and highly acclaimed translation of Buddhist texts by Paul Carus (1915), inculcates the Buddha’s claim of being the Enlightened One, and of being the revealer of the Dharma, the truth, the sacred law, and the religion (XII, V6-7).
This claim of the Buddha—that of being a source of a perfect and transcendent knowledge for humanity—is one that is shared by Jesus, Muhammad, Bahá’u’lláh, and all the other Founders of the world’s major religions.
The Buddha has said, “I am the Lord’s own son, born of his mouth…[exalted by] an Absolute” (Rosen, 2010, p. 228).
The Buddha repeatedly claimed to be a “teacher of gods and men” (Momen, 1995). We know that the Buddha’s life and times were steeped in the Hindu religion, which clearly teaches that there is one God above all men, above all other gods—one God above all beings—one God of the universe (Parrinder, 1996, p. 57). Logically, if there is one God above all other gods, and the Buddha is the teacher of gods and men, it follows that the Buddha must have been an Emissary of the one true God.
Perhaps Harold Rosen (2010, p. 222) explains it best when he writes the following:
It is true that Buddha considered theological speculation to be unedifying, and taught that the character of unconditioned nirvana could not be delineated without misrepresenting it. However, there are many indications that Buddha affirmed an impersonal, transcendent reality beyond the gods—an Unconditioned Absolute out of which the conditioned universe continually arises.
The Existence of an Afterlife
The Buddhist canon makes reference to realms beyond this physical existence, realms beyond physical death. For example, Momen (1995) credits the Buddha with saying, “The messengers of death are waiting. You are going to travel far away. Have you any provision for the journey?” and, “the wise man rejoices in giving, and thereby becomes happy in the realms above.”
Like Christ, Buddha has taught that “by faith you shall be free and go beyond the realm of death.” Although the Buddha did not encourage the individual to formulate images of him or herself in heaven, He did speak of the importance of virtue and faith in attaining to the “bliss of a life immortal” (Carus, 1915), a life beyond earthly rebirth. Rosen (2010, p. 222) explains, “…much of [the Buddha’s] description of nirvana can be viewed as affirming the divine realm…” and “much of what [the Buddha] affirmed about Himself implies a realm from which He drew His powers and wisdom, and toward which He directed humanity.”
The Buddha claimed to have knowledge of the universe that transcended the knowledge of gods and men—religious and/or scientific knowledge, for example—Buddha was an Emissary beyond the “lesser gods” and men. He spoke of the existence of an Unconditioned Absolute—the Source of His knowledge, which shares similar characteristics to the concept of an impersonal (that is, non-corporeal) God. Finally, the Buddha alluded to the existence of a life to follow earthly, physical existence.
In my opinion, these are three concepts that highlight the mystical nature of Buddhism, and firmly establish its place among the world’s major religions.
============================ References ============================
Carus, P. (1915). The Gospel of Buddha. Chicago and La Salle: Open Court.
Momen, M. (1995). Buddhism and the Baha’i’ Faith. Oxford: George Ronald.
Parrinder, G. (1996). The Bhagavad Gita: A verse translation. Oxford: Oneworld.
Rosen, H. (2010). Founders of faith: The parallel lives of God’s Messengers. Wilmette, Illinois: Baha’i’ Publishing.