Long before the Catholic church was on my radar, I harbored an interest in Buddhism, especially the Japanese Zen tradition. The idea of reincarnation seemed to be a logical answer to the question of what happens after death, and I liked the idea of using self-discipline to reach a higher state of consciousness.
As appealing as the idea of enlightenment was, I came to realize that the concept was problematic for several reasons. There did not seem to be many people in the modern era who could conclusively point to being an enlightened being. If the goal of Buddhism was to reach enlightenment via meditation, why so many “enlightened” Zen teachers in the West seemed to be enmeshed in financial and/or sex scandals:
I also found out that majority Buddhist countries such as Burma/Myanmar, Sri Lanka, and Thailand engage in religious nationalism that is every bit as odious as what one might find in among conservative Christians, complete with calls for ethnic and religious cleansing in some cases. Most troubling was Brian Daizen Victoria’s book, Zen at War, in which he described how Japan’s Buddhist establishment authorized war atrocities during World War II. These findings convinced me that “enlightenment,” assuming that such a state of existence was real, was not related to ethical behavior.
I was also attracted to Buddhism because it seemed to be atheistic or at least agnostic when it comes to the topic of the existence of god(s). This seemed to make Buddhism a better fit with the findings of modern science and psychology. However, when I investigated further, I realized that while there is indeed no Abrahamic-style creator god in Buddhism, it would be incorrect that say that there are no gods in Buddhism. Theravada Buddhism, the oldest and most conservative form of Buddhism, teaches that there are thirty-one planes of existence. This means that when humans are reincarnated, they could be born as any number of beings including devas (roughly analogous to an Olympian-type of deity), ghosts, asuras (demons), or non-human animals. The best place to be born is in the realm of humans, because devas are having so much fun being god that they don’t bother to study the dharma, and asuras and ghosts are so evil and miserable that they can’t study dharma either (non-human animals can’t study the dharma for obvious reasons). As an aside, I must mention that Theravada Buddhism also teaches that monks are the only people who have a decent shot at nirvana, and women can’t be ordained for the same spurious reasons that the Catholic church claims for not having women priests. So not only do you need to be reborn as a human to achieve nirvana, but you have to be born as a male human in a Theravada Buddhist society. For more information on the thirty-one planes of existence, see here:
Other branches of Buddhism also contain a robust dose of metaphysics and the supernatural. The Pure Land School sounds suspiciously Christian with its emphasis on praying to the Amitabha Buddha for rebirth in the exalted Pure Land:
Tibetan Buddhism has an extensive cosmology that is too detailed to do justice in a blog entry. For a critical view of Tibetan Buddhism and the institution of the Dalai Lama, please read “The Shadow of the Dalai Lama: Sexuality, Magic, and Politics in Tibetan Buddhism” which is available online in its entirety:
While the iconoclastic nature of Japanese Zen is admired in the West, I doubt that it was totally atheistic or agnostic prior to the Meiji Restoration. Japanese Buddhism in general is mixed with indigenous Shinto beliefs, so most Buddhists would have believed in the various kami (gods) that were believed to populate the natural world. Chinese Buddhism is much the same way, freely mixing aspects of popular Taoism and other aspects of Chinese folk religion in such a way that doesn’t resemble the highly intellectual form of spirituality that is often characteristic of so-called “Western Buddhism.”
I think that Western naivete about Eastern religions in general stems from the fact that they don’t have the same baggage that Christianity or Judaism have. Ignorance of Asian history causes Westerners to assume that Eastern religions are more peaceful than their Abrahamic counterparts, even though they are just as bloody, albeit in different ways. For example, DT Suzuki and Haruda Daiun Sogaku, two of the most important figures in popularizing Zen in the West, were guilty of using Zen to support the Japanese fascist/militarist machine during WWII. Tibet’s history is full of religiously inspired wars in the name of Buddhism. The more I read about “old Tibet” the more it seems to resemble the Papal States, with the Dalai Lama as a sort of Buddhist pope, something which very few Westerners seem to be picking up on. I think people like Richard Gere and Brad Pitt put the Dalai Lama up on a pedestal because they want “authentic spirituality” without the institutional baggage found in mainstream Christianity or Judaism, but Tibetan Buddhism has all of the patriarchy, medieval obscurantism, and militarism of old school Catholicism, just with Asians rather than Europeans.
In Buddhist countries like Thailand and Burma/Myanmar where young boys often become monks for short periods or even for life, these children are vulnerable to physical and sexual abuse by adult monks:
Another similarity I’ve noticed between Catholicism and Buddhism (particularly Zen and Tibetan) is the notion that if one is a saint/guru, then that gives that person license to behave like a jerk to “lesser” people. This is particularly noticeable with Chogyam Trungpa, but also with someone like Padre Pio, where the fact that he mouthed off at a woman who dared to wear pants in his confessional is a sign of his holiness, rather than his jerkiness.
Ironically, just as many Westerners find Buddhism to be more “modern” than the Christianity or Judaism they grew up with, many East Asians are finding Christianity to be more “modern” than their indigenous Buddhist or Taoist traditions. Christianity, particularly in its evangelical form, is especially strong in South Korea:
China also has a sizable Christian minority, although it is impossible to know exactly how many people this might be:
Westerners want to be Buddhist, and Asians want to be Christians; I guess the grass really is greener on the other side.