Buddhism is one of the most popular religions in the world, with estimates of the number of its practitioners running upwards of 500 million people worldwide. The largest population of Buddhists is in China, where nearly 1 in 5 people is a practicing Buddhist of some sort. Some would argue that Buddhism is not so much a religion, as a spiritual philosophy. Unlike Western religions such as Christianity and Judaism, and unlike Islam, Buddhism is what is known as a ‘non-theistic’ religion or spiritual practice. That is to say, Buddhists do not believe in the existence of a spiritual or transcendent being.
In certain respects, it is even weaker in its claims than is deism, a form of religion apparently practiced by Albert Einstein. Deism differs from theism by not recognizing what is sometimes called a ‘personal God’—that is, a God with human-like attributes, such as the God recognized by most Christians; so Einstein might have believed that there is ‘something’ higher, but might have acknowledged that it is not a spiritual being as much as something like energy, or even order. (It also differs from atheism, which is the rejection of all notions of God; and pantheism, which holds that God is in all things.) The difference between a non-theistic philosophy such as Buddhism and deism is that the former, unlike the latter, does not recognize any sort of higher power at all.
Buddhists teachings are attributed to Gautama Buddha, who is more colloquially known s Buddha. This person is believed to have lived in Lumbini (which would now be called Nepal), around 500 BCE. Historians tend to be reticent about making factual claims concerning Buddha’s life, though there does seem to be general agreement that someone fitting his rough description did live at the indicated time. The Buddha taught the importance of harmony, of right thinking and right living, and the importance of balance in all things.
This paper will focus upon one important part of Buddhist teachings—called the ‘Four Noble Truths’—and then explain why one might prefer Buddhism to alternative religions such as Christianity. The Four Noble truths are: (1) the truth of dukkha (anxiety and suffering); the truth of the origin of dukkha; (3) the truth of the cessation of dukkha; and (4) the truth of the path leading to the cessation of dukkha. As the first ‘truth’ indicates, dukkha is a generalized sort of suffering, which can take many forms: pain, unease, anxiety, hopelessness. This notion is commonly claimed to have three principal modes: (A) the suffering of physically growing old and dying; and of mental illness; (B) the stress involved in inhabiting a constantly changing world; and (C) an almost intellectual dissatisfaction with all things, due to their transient natures. Buddhist teachings are largely a matter of explaining how to overcome—or, better, learn to live with—this kind of all-pervading suffering.
Why might one prefer this kind of religion, or spiritual philosophy, to (what is to us) the more familiar religion of Christianity? The remainder of the paper will highlight three reasons why one might do this.
First, it is less important to the alleged teachings of Buddha that Buddha’s life actually was as believers take it to have been; or even that he lived at all. Buddhism, one might say, is founded upon ideas rather than apparent historical facts (such as the resurrection of Christ). This is a strength because the ideas can be evaluated on their own merits, and one need not believe historical absurdities (the resurrection, the virgin birth, the flood, etc.) in order to find value in them. In short, Buddhism requires less gullibility than other religions. As indicated just above, it would arguably make relatively little difference to Buddhists and Buddhist teachings if we discovered conclusive proof that Buddha himself had never lived. The same can certainly not be said for Christianity, to take only the most obvious contrasting example.
Second, Buddhism is primarily a moral and spiritual set of teachings, and the teachings do not enjoin one to convert others, much less to start wars in their name. Buddhism is a peaceful religion, and in this it contrasts quite starkly with Christianity and Islam, for example. Few if any wars have ever been fought in the name of Buddhism. No act of terror has ever been committed in the name of Buddhism, which is something that neither Islam nor Christianity can say for themselves.
Finally, Buddhism is a religion, or spiritual philosophy, which has a certain simplicity. One does not need any particular implements in order to practice it: no prayer beads, prayer rugs, or hair-shirts. One need not attend a church, a temple, or a mosque. One need not even be around other people at all in order to practice Buddhism.
In summary, Buddhism is a more realistic religion or spiritual practice than are its competitors. It is a peaceful set of teachings, which seeks to promote harmony rather than to enslave others through crusade and conversion. And it is a simple, potentially solitary kind of spirituality. Notice, finally, that Buddhism has only been compared here to the most popular and well-known sorts of religious teachings. Contrasting Buddhism with Scientology, with Satanism, with Wiccanism, Mormonism, Christian Science teachings, and so forth, would presumably render an even more favorable verdict in favor of the Buddha.
These are some of the most important reasons that many feel Buddhism to be superior to orthodox, alternative religious doctrines.