Walking around the ship I’d say the average sailor barely knows the difference between Southern Baptists and Orthodox Jews. Any conversation in the wardroom with these guys expecting them to comment (or listen to my commenting) on or about Hinduism and/or Buddhism philosophy is so far off kilter that I might as well ask them to explain the moons ancient effect on gravity and its effect on photosynthesis in prehistoric Australia. To these guys, the difference, if any, is the color of the robes, or the popularity of whichever one Richard Gere is cheering for these days. Admittedly, me too, before too long ago. They may look the same at first glance to the Anglo-centric world. We are raised to see two things; us and them, ours and theirs, what is American and what isn’t American. To some people it isn’t worth a second glance if it isn’t American. This is a sad commentary on where we got ourselves, but even in the “world travelers” of the US Navy I see it everyday. Despite this freshman view of the world, we are coming around. We will eventually see things as they are, could be, or should be, and take off the red, white, blue colored glasses. These lenses are important to mention in a class on religion or philosophy. So much of what we fight for and against is tinted one way or other by the glasses of our society. As Americans, if we are to talk about Eastern philosophies and sound like we know what we’re saying we need to understand them as individual practices. With this understanding in hand, we can better understand not only our neighbors, but hopefully their neighbors, and ourselves.
Both Buddhism and Hinduism are more philosophical than religious. They both have an all-encompassing philosophy governing life actions from start to (temporary) end. It is a bit of a stretch to compare the Hindu Dharma and the Buddhist Dhamma, but one can at least say that the two are the governing ideas for each philosophy toward existence. Dharma is the Hindu’s sense of obligation to self and society. Dhamma does not imply social obligation, but maintains a construct of “right conduct” for living one’s life. More on that later.
The major rift between the two could be seen from our point of view as the Hindu concept encourages their social structure (caste system) and therefore contributes to suffering, while the Buddhist’s “right living” concentrates on releasing people from suffering. This, again, is from our perspective; the practicing Hindu’s in India for example are unlikely to feel that their belief system is the root of their suffering.
Buddhism as a religion disputes the idea of eternal self (Atman) and eternity in nature (Brahman); this refutation distinguishes it from Hinduism. That is, the “untouchables” of Hindu society cannot through any amount of effort on their part advance their caste. In Buddhism Nirvana is available to all. They have a bit less pessimistic view on incarnation and ending the cycle of suffering.
Hinduism swims happily along with maya, karma, and dharma. These are also players in Buddhism. Maya is what those “Matrix” writers were working with; everything one sees in this world is illusion. Real maya explains what we see as a yield of our own failed interpretation and self-delusion, not evil computers. This is one of the foundations of the Hindu faith. Hinayana Buddhists also believe in maya. However, the Buddhist doctrine (as a whole) does either support or deny maya. My Mother, touting her Ph.D. in psychology said once, “Philosophy is as variable as the tides, but less predictable.” She’s right, but I read the variance more positively.
Here’s the confusing part. The Buddhist concept that all beings (notice I didn’t just say humans) perceive differently can be used to argue both for and against maya. If no one perceives anything in the same way, there is no objective reality, only a subjective one. And this one exists solely in the mind of the perceiver. Of course if this is the case, can that object, viewed differently by all, be an illusion? If it was an illusion like the Hindu maya concept claims it is, wouldn’t it be the same illusion for all? Nirvana is attainable by stripping the world of delusion and still being able to perceive the world unhindered by it. An illusionary world would disappear once one was cleared of delusion and Nirvana therefore, would be hard to obtain in the nothingness to follow. Not all Buddhist believe in maya, Hindus do.
They do share Karma as the belief in a "law of consequences." According to this canon, the actions performed will redound as blessings or curses. 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.
For the Buddhist the results of things done in our previous life are transmitted by way of a presently unreadable consciousness which brings about the cycle of incarnation and suffering until we own it, understand it, and free ourselves of it. Both karmic ideals clearly reveal the revolving status of life and death. You are rewarded and punished for your actions. Both philosophies seek to break the cycle of incarnation; Hindus wish for unity with Brahman and Buddhists seek Nirvana. Karma has significant impact upon both beliefs.
Last, there is dharma. To a Hindu and a Buddhist, dharma or dhamma is very real. Hindus must live by their caste, it is their dharma. Hindus must not try to free themselves from their caste and obligation to society as a whole. This precept is rather convienent for the ruling class, and so not for the untouchables, but it does give everyone a sense of purpose. I don’t agree with the caste system, or any system of political, industrial, or commercial suppression of the individual, but one has to appreciate the skill it took to create a system that keeps the poor man down by his own “will,” if you can call it that. In the lecture we also learned that dharma instructs its followers to act in a way that gives full knowledge and appreciation to The Ultimate. This too is incredibly crafty of the founders. If a man is to make soup, he will make the best soup ever as each bowl is a form of worship. If he cleans stables, they will be the cleanest. He gains a concept of self-worth and religious rightness while being the lowliest servant, and the upper class don’t have to worry about revolt.
A Buddhist will act in a non-rebellious way too. However, his constrictions are his choice to live by the Eight-Fold Path and The Four Noble Truths, not a specifically defined set of political restrictions. Buddhists don’t talk about distinctions of sex, race, or caste. Buddhism teaches balanced love for all beings. Among the first differences between Hinduism and Buddhism was this love for all. The Buddha was beyond defining people by physical or social attributes, therefore it would be impossible for true Buddhists to be segregationist.
The rejection of the notion of “self” and belief only as the existence as part of the “whole” is another way to negate the caste doctrine. The concept of “self” is the source of every single ill in society, the Buddha said. This is opposite of the Hindu belief in Atman, the eternal soul. Buddha also said that the world is not eternal, it is in constant motions or flux. That not only refutes Atman, but it also Brahman, the Hindu concept of eternity in nature. For Buddhists there can be no Atman because Nirvana depends on realizing the delusion of the “self” concept and the elimination of it.
This conflict of “self” can be over-stated. To Hindus the understanding of the one’s self and your place in society, your roles, etc, are the key to peace (dharma). To Buddhists, one should deny the self, and escape its shackles.
I am not so foolish to think that tenting out here with limited text and an untold number of idiots to converse with that I have covered all the difference. And there is zero doubt in my mind that my life’s present condition has not curbed my understanding (read: tolerance) for world religions and their teachings. We have six year-old boys running around knifing each other on the playground over religious arguments. Back home CNN is reporting that some politicians are comparing President Bush to Hitler. That’s a bit of a stretch I think, just ask any Jew. However, one thing that seems to have confirmed itself in this, my second paper, is that we as Americans have a long way to go before we can continue to do the type of stomping around and temper tantrum throwing that we do over battles that are not ours to wage.
This paper was about more than my poo-pooing the caste system of Hinduism and pouring maple syrup blessings on the teachings of Buddhism. It was about understanding how religion can form and support political practices. It is about how a systematic teaching of convenient ideas for the rich can systematically strangle (unknowningly) the efforts of the have-nots to reach for the stars. The politics of our own country and the religious politics of others seems to create not a glass-ceiling but an holy one.
I hope to be home (Guam) for my next paper since there is little hope of unblemished resources on that subject from here.
Brickle, Bruce, and Stan Jantz. Guide to Cults, Religions, & Spiritual Beliefs. Eugene: Harvest
House Publishers, 2002.
CliffNotes. Mythology. New York: Wiley Publishing, 1976.
Noss, David S., and John B. Noss. A History of the World’s Religions. 8th ed. New York:
Macmillan Publishing Company, 1990.