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Budhist Doctrine Of Selflessness And The Soul(self)-idea

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Posted by Glenn on June 8, 2004 08:03:22 UTC

Buddhism leaves out the idea of the soul or self as what exists after death and is reborn. However, since they use the concept of the 'root', based on karma, not much is really missing.

Your average American doesn't even understand the differences between Lutheranism and Catholicism, so expecting him to comprehend the Eastern religions of Hinduism and Buddhism may be asking too much of his ability or knowledge. To him, there is little, if any, difference between the two. Although Buddhism and Hinduism have much in common and at first glance may even look identical, they are not the same. Despite their many similarities, there are two defining characteristics of Buddhism, which distinguish it from Hinduism. Although the Buddha, himself, never addressed these issues, Buddhism as a religion refutes the ideas of eternal self (Atman) and eternity in nature (Brahman); this refutation distinguishes it from Hinduism.

The major aspects of Hinduism are maya, karma and dharma. The concepts also play major roles in Buddhism. Maya is the belief that everything, which one sees in this world is illusion, a product of the individual's own failed interpretation and self-delusion. It is one of the foundations of the Hindu faith. Hinayana Buddhists also believe in maya. It cannot be said, however, that Buddhist doctrine (as a whole) either supports or denies maya.

The Buddhist belief that all beings perceive differently can be used to argue both for and against the concept. That no one perceives a given thing in the same way could be said to mean that is has no objective reality, only a subjective one existing solely in the mind of the perceiver. But it could also be said that because all things perceive that object differently implies it cannot be an illusion. It could be argued that if an object was illusory, it would be so for all and it would not take on a different form for different viewers. The fact that a Buddhist could conceivably remove from himself all delusion (in the obtainment of Nirvana), yet still perceive an object, would also indicate that the object is not illusory. Buddhism, unlike Hinduism, is unclear on the nature of maya. Although all Hindus believe in it, not all Buddhists do.

The two religions share the law of karma. Karma is the belief in a "law of consequences." According to this doctrine, the actions, which one performs will redound upon the performer either as blessings for good deeds or curses for evil deeds. These consequences could take the course of several lifetimes to be enacted, depending upon the act performed. The Bhagavad-Gita tells Hindus:

Death is certain for anyone born,

and birth is certain for the dead;

since the cycle is inevitable

you have no cause to grieve.

(II, 27)

Buddhists are of similar mind: "The results of acts done in the previous life are transmitted to that consciousness which brings about re-existence…and this transmission takes place ceaselessly and uninterruptedly…like water flowing in a stream" (Bhattacharyya, 135). Both passages discuss and quite clearly reveal the ever-revolving circumstances of life and death. This "revolution" is to reward and punish a person for his actions. Although both passages imply that one may never break free from the constraints of the cycle, both religions seek to do just that. Hindus wish for unity with Brahman and Buddhists seek Nirvana. Karma exists for both religions and it has significant impact upon the beliefs of the adherents.

Lastly, there is dharma. Dharma is loosely translated as "obligation." It is the duty of the individual. To both the Hindu and the Buddhist, dharma is a very real concept. Hindus must live by their caste-it is their dharma. They must do their caste duty above all else, which explains why Arjuna must fight in the war against his kinsmen in the Bhagavad-Gita-it is his obligation. To act through knowledge is also the dharma of all Hindus. "Be intent on action/not on the fruits of action," says Krishna in the Gita (II, 47). One should not act because one can gain by so doing, but rather because action, in itself, is necessary. Butt o act properly requires the relinquishment of desire and the submission to reason. In the Gita, Krishna explains submission to Arjuna:

when suffering does not disturb his mind,

when his craving for pleasure has vanished,

when attraction, fear, and anger are gone,

he is called a sage whose thought is sure.

(II, 56)

And he later describes how a man is to use this for proper action:

The wise say a man is learned

when his plans lack constructs of desire,

when his actions are burned

by the fire of knowledge

(IV, 19)

These passages from the Bhagavad-Gita define the path of action in Hinduism and Buddhist thought echoes them: "One does not will to act in a disciplined manner because an external standard is being enforced. Instead, one wills to act because his actions are in conformity with his own inward state that has been cultured by awareness derived from right knowledge" (Holt, 67). This rationalism is the guiding factor in action-one should examine a situation and act in a manner according with his dharma. That is the key to making the world a "good" place.

In many ways Hinduism and Buddhism are similar, but there are differences. In an attempt to truly make the world a "better" place, the Buddhists have beliefs, which reach beyond and even contradict those of Hinduism. Buddhists make no distinctions among race, sex, color, or caste. Buddhism preaches equal love for all people based upon the "delicate thread of life [that] joins all objects and beings in the universe" (Ikeda, 29). This sympathy for all people was among the first distinctions between Hinduism and Buddhism: "The Buddha was an embodiment of supreme compassion…The Vedas or the Upanishads lacked that intellect and that heart" (Joshi, 55). It would be impossible for Buddhists to be segregationist while following the teachings of the Buddha, for he was beyond all such deficiencies.

The reason for the Buddha's denial of caste, etc. is his rejection of the notion of "self." To the Buddha, there was no self, only existence as a part of a whole. The Buddha taught that the concept of "I" was the source of every single ill in society and showed others this truth. However, this teaching contradicts the Hindu belief in Atman, the eternal soul. Also, he taught that the world was constantly in flux, thus nothing was eternal. This concept not only refutes Atman, but it also refutes Brahman, eternity in nature. There can be no Atman for the Buddhists, because "In the Buddhist view, liberation consists in realizing the unreality of the self and in eradication every trace of individuality" (Joshi, 10). The Bhagavad-Gita, however, tells us that there is a self:

It is not born

it does not die

having been,

it will never not be;

unborn, enduring,

constant, and primordial,

it is not killed

when the body is killed

(II, 20)

Additionally, the Gita claims the self is something to be maintained:

Knowing the self beyond understanding

sustain the self with the self.

(III, 47)

These are conflicting views. To one, the self is the key to inner understanding and acceptance of one's place in the world (dharma), to the other, self is an illusion, which brings out the worst in people.

Another difference, which has been proposed, is the acceptance of god. Hindus have many gods, including Brahman, but Buddhists refute their existence. The Buddha never preached that there was no god, here merely demonstrated the futility of searching for one. He gave the Hindus an analogy of a man who loved a woman, but did not know which woman. When they said that the man was a fool he asked them, "Are you not the same? You say that this God your father or grandfather never saw, and now you are quarreling upon a thing which neither you nor your ancestors ever knew and you are trying to cut each other's throats about it" (Joshi, 78-from Complete Works, III). Buddha is not denying that god may exist, only that one should concentrate upon that which one does know or can know. The fact that Buddha did not claim there was a god was used to deny the existence of god by later Buddhists. They also had support from the view of the ever-changing world; they claimed that no god could exist because he would cease to be a god. Later cosmologies developed within Buddhism allow for the existence of gods and devils, but those creatures are merely souls reborn and serving out their karma before dying and becoming some other life form.

Swami Vivekananda sums up these differences: "I belong to the Hindu religion. That is not the Buddhist's creed…I cannot understand his doctrine…he denied that there was any soul in man…Now, we Hindus all believe that there is something permanent in man…we call Atman…And that there is something permanent in nature and that we call Brahman" (Joshi, 88). Here it is clear that a Buddhist's creed is not the same thing as Hinduism. The Swami also gave different definition to the nature of Buddha, a nature that cannot be according to Buddhists. He said, "The Lord Buddha is my ishta-My God. He preached no theory about Godhead-He was Himself God. I fully believe it" (Joshi, 89). Through this, a Hindu can incorporate aspects of Buddhism into his own religious framework. While the two share many of the same ideas and visions, however, they are different and represent different ideals. One is an ideal of perfect self, one of perfect self-less-ness. These are opposing ends, even if their approaches are similar.

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