prelude – a brief survey of the major religions
In east Asia, we find Confucianism, Taoism and the import from India of Buddhism. Confucianism appears to be a social philosophy which instructs its adherents in how best to make a harmonious and well ordered society. But, it does not really address such ideas as the soul, existence of God, or man’s destiny, if any, after his earthly sojourn is over.
Taoism is a naturalistic philosophy which helps people to live more balanced lives in greater harmony with nature. It also does not really address the above ideas of the soul, God, and an afterlife. In this sense, both Taoism and Confucianism, products of ancient Chinese thinking, are non-theistic and are perhaps more accurately described as philosophies rather than religions. Taoism, over the centuries, incorporated many pagan practices including magic, but these often sprung from the local superstitions of the common people. Today, the Chinese go out to their cemeteries a few times each year to “feed the hungry ghosts”. And, you see that they have 8 Immortals which fill the role of pagan or polytheistic gods. Yet, there are no definitive and specific ideas or teachings as to an afterlife and an existence of an individual spiritual monad (soul). Where you find these in Chinese culture, it is due to the influence of Buddhism.
In India, there developed what we call Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism in the centuries before the Christian era. As there are few Jains to be found in India today, and that religion has largely died out, we will bypass any discussion of it. Hinduism, derived from the ancient texts or scriptures known as the Vedas, has many gods/goddesses and many rituals and practices. But, when one goes deeper into study of it, a very profound philosophy is found, perhaps a wiser philosophy than the Greek philosophy that helped shape early Christianity. In this religious system, a person does have a soul, which continues on after bodily death. A person can alter their destiny through various practices such as karma yoga (righteous actions), bhakti yoga (loving devotional service to the Lord), or jnana yoga (the path of knowledge). Reincarnation is necessary to allow the individual soul (atman) sufficient time to progress spiritually. Modern Hindu thinkers and writers (in English) include Radhakrishnan (1888-1975), Sri Aurobindo (1872-1950), and Srila Prabuphada (1896-1977).
The caste system in India became corrupted over the centuries as the Brahmins, the highest caste, desired to keep their privileged positions in their families and made one’s position in the caste system hereditary and fixed. Originally, the four fold division of society was based on qualification, and not on birth.
Buddhism was in a sense a revolt against the corruption of the Brahmin system in the sixth century B.C. Buddhism is often thought of as atheistic, but it does not address the existence of God per se one way or the other. It is perhaps better described as a non-theistic religion. The individual can alter his future destiny by accepting the four noble truths and living by the eight fold path (instructions for proper living). Nirvana, the goal of the Buddhist, may be thought of as the absence of pain and suffering rather than simply a Void (akin to non-existence). There are 2 major divisions within Buddhism. Hinayana (lesser vehicle) also known as Theravada Buddhism is a more strict form (with a greater emphasis on meditation) that today is found in Sri Lanka, Thailand, Burma and to a lesser extent in Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. Mahayana Buddhism (greater vehicle) is found in China, Korea, and Japan. In some forms of Mahayana Buddhism, one sees the devotion to a personal god like Buddha figure (as in the Pure Land Sect with its devotion to the Amida Buddha.) Such devotees chant to this Buddha for personal deliverance at time of death. In Tibet, Lamaistic Buddhism, centered on monasteries, has largely been wiped out (as has Tibetan culture) by the brutal communist Chinese occupation which began in late 1950.
When Buddhism spread to China, it was influenced by the native Taoist thought and that led to Chan Buddhism. When visiting monks from Japan returned home with this variant of Buddhist thought, it became known as Zen Buddhism. Zen teaches that spontaneous enlightenment, or satori, can be attained by certain practices designed to overcome the internal logical thinking leaving the practitioner open to interpretation free or direct, in-the-moment experience of life. D.T. Suzuki and Alan Watts (1915-1973) are both sources for works on Zen Buddhism for Westerners.
As to the 3 Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam), these all 3 trace their origins back to an individual known as Abraham. We note here that contrary to the thinking and pronouncements of some recent and contemporary Christian religious leaders, there is little common ground to be found for the Christians with Jews and Muslims. This is in no small part due to the bifurcated set of ethics found in both Talmudic or Rabbinic Judaism and in Islam. Jews are prohibited from doing harm to fellow Jews, but they are not forbidden in the Talmud from doing wrong to non-Jews or “goyim”. The same is true for Muslims vis-a-vis non-Muslims or “infidel”, and history gives many examples of the harm Muslims have done when they encountered non-Muslim peoples (including the wanton destruction of Hindu temples throughout northern India in the Middle Ages). Muslims are not bound by promises made to infidel. The Christian Crusaders found this out quite painfully when Muslims violated agreed upon truces to slaughter Christian soldiers tending to their wounded on the battlefield. We can go further here and say that Judaism and Islam are anti-Christ in their rejection of Christ and His teachings.
Eschatological Christians and Christian Zionists will defend Jews here and the role that they are to play in the “end-times”. In that sense, of playing an important role in the end of the world, such Christians find an unlikely ally in Voltaire, who opined in the late 18th century that the Jews were an evil, scheming race who might one day be the ruin of mankind.
A major dichotomy within Christendom today is between those who believe that both faith and proper conduct (including good works) are needed for personal salvation, and those who believe that faith alone is sufficient for personal salvation. The only other item of note here is that in the US there are currently an estimated 30,000 plus denominations of Christianity. Even when allowing for many hair splitting differences among the many denominations, it is truly mind boggling that the teachings of Jesus could be sliced and diced into so many permutations. Such confusion!
Enough. Let’s move on.
Does enlightenment (that is seeing things as they truly are from a spiritual level of consciousness) mean one is truly liberated (from the shackles of karma, and the round of birth-death-rebirth)? Or, is enlightenment a necessary precondition for the further spiritual progress towards eventual or ultimate liberation? (Perhaps, in a similar way, this idea among Protestant Christians of being “born again” requires a shift in consciousness so as to live, actually live in practice day after day an authentic Christian life. A true Christian must cooperate with grace, as God is not going to do all the work for him or her.)
But, bear in mind that we must not allow ourselves to fall prey to idle philosophical speculation, or to making our religious commitment merely a continuing mental exercise. It is crucially important to make the effort on the spiritual path now in your own individual life. Do not waste your life, but work to make progress, even with small steps along the spiritual path.
Our feature image (below) was taken several years ago in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco.
Now, to worldly concerns. This is an old link to a thought provoking post. Thought written in July, the fear persists that this virus will be another Black Death.
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