Understanding Buddhism

Understanding Buddhism

Understanding Buddhism

Understanding Buddhism

Synopsis

Today, Buddhism is often presented as a religion without dogmas and commandments, without God, and without any need to believe, tolerating all and everything, as no religion at all, but as a way of life most suitable to the needs of post-modern Westerners. But is this an accurate image? In this book, Buddhism is introduced as a genuine religion, gentle and powerful, being as demanding as it is consoling. Buddhism is certainly not a theistic faith, but neither is it a form of atheism or materialism. Rather it is a challenge to both: a rich source of metaphysical, ethical, and spiritual insight that has shaped and nourished countless generations of followers all over Asia and that is now taking firm roots in the West. As with all titles in the Understanding Faiths series, Understanding Buddhism is directed at serious inquirers or students of comparative religion who are seeking a sympathetic, scholarly, and reliable introduction.

Excerpt

'Understanding Faith', 'Understanding Buddhism' – is this really possible? And if so, how? What would it mean to understand Buddhism? Would I have to be (or become) a Buddhist? And which kind of 'Buddhism' are we talking about? Are there not far too many different forms of Buddhism? Is it not an extremely diversified religion, quite different in Thailand or Sri Lanka from what we see in Japan or Korea or Tibet – not to mention Europe or America? Is not this diversity simply too extensive to be 'understood'? Is not Buddhism very different today from its beginnings circa 2500 years ago? How much would we need to know about the history of this multifarious religion so as to be able to say that we have gained some understanding of it?

Such questions are quite justified and it is important to face them right at the start to drive home the point that neither we (nor even the most learned experts perhaps) can ever reach anything like an all-encompassing understanding of Buddhism. Moreover, we should be aware that Buddhism (and analogously any religion) is made up of two fundamental components. Firstly, there are the Buddhists: the real concrete people who lived and live under the influence and with the inspiration of the second component: the Buddhist tradition. It was Wilfred Cantwell Smith (1916–2000) who emphasized that what we usually call 'a religion' consists essentially of these two basic elements, the cumulative tradition and the personal faith of those who live within this particular tradition (see Smith, 1978). The tradition encompasses scriptures, doctrines, beliefs, philosophies, rules, precepts, institutions, buildings, rituals, songs and prayers, customs, artwork, etc. – everything that can be observed and investigated as a historical object. Faith, however, is what the tradition means to individual persons, or better: what life means to them as seen in the light of that tradition. It is through personal, existential faith that people relate themselves to what they perceive as reality and to what they accept as ultimate, transcendent reality. Faith and tradition are interdependent. Faith expresses itself within a given religious tradition, and therefore the tradition is in constant change and transformation with each new generation which takes it up and every new environment which it enters. Without faith the tradition would die. Conversely, tradition also shapes and nourishes faith. Without the inspiration of a living tradition faith would be cut off from its major resources: the media in which the experiences of generations have been preserved and condensed, and which thus can serve as channels for bringing others in contact with that same ultimate reality in relation to which those previous generations lived.

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