Buddhism refers to a variety of traditions — Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana — whose source point was in Northern India 2,500 years ago. Buddhism, like Christianity, comes from the name of its founder, Buddha, or “awakened one,” as Siddhartha Gautama was called. A primary difference between the two religions is that the Buddha remained silent on the question of God, whose existence, he felt, could not be proved. So, he chose to focus his energies on what no one could deny: the presence of suffering.
This led to the Four Noble Truths: 1) All life is suffering. 2) The cause of suffering is desire. 3) To reduce your suffering, decrease your desire. 4) Use the Eightfold Path to end suffering.
By recognizing these Four Noble Truths and following the Eightfold Path (right views, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration), a Buddhist seeks to experience Enlightenment and obtain Nirvana, a state of liberation from karmic rebirth.
Buddhism has no one scripture, like the Bible, but rather a multiplicity of sutras or strands that guide its followers. The Buddha’s teachings, called the Dharma, were first compiled into a collection called the Pali Canon, but there are also later additional texts important to the various Buddhist subgroups. However, the Buddha did not consider written teachings as important as experiential knowledge and encouraged his followers to put his teachings to the test in their own experience.
Among Buddhist practices, meditation is at the top of the list. This is not surprising, as the Buddha attained his own enlightenment while meditating. It is sometimes said that among the various forms of meditation in the religions of the world, there are basically two underlying approaches: “self-power” and “other power.” In the self-power forms, one relies on one’s own power of concentration and awareness in order to break through the ego to a larger identity. In other power forms one relies on the power of God, or the guru, or simply on complete surrender. The self-power forms are usually associated with Buddhism where devotion to God is perceived more as a crutch. (The zen teacher will tell you to “slay the Buddha” if you see his image in meditation). The other-power forms are generally associated with Christianity, where the notion of enabling grace as God’s free gift is central.
Buddhism has its own version of saints. They are called bodhisattvas — beings who have attained Enlightenment but who choose to remain on earth to help other people and end their suffering.
Christians, accustomed to gathering regularly in a community called church, can also find a strong appreciation among Buddhists for a community of support among practitioners called Sangha.
— Fr. Thomas Ryan, CSP, is the director for the Paulist Office for Ecumenical and Interfaith Affairs and a frequent contributor to the Busted Halo Question Box.