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Are You Your Buddhist Brother's Keeper?

Updated on June 18, 2009

Everyone knows that Adam and Eve had two sons (at first):  Cain and Abel.  Everyone also knows that Cain killed Abel out of jealousy.  (Okay, maybe we're playing it free and loose with the terms "everybody" but you get the point.)

The Old Testament seems to imply that Cain should be his brother Abel's keeper (or maybe God just wants him to not kill Abel).

Then the Lord said to Cain, "Where is your brother Abel?"
"I don't know," he replied. "Am I my brother's keeper?"
Then He said, "What have you done? Your brother's blood cries out to Me from the ground!

(Genesis 4:9-10)

Actually, with another reading it's clear that God pretty much ignores that question. Regardless, it is a popular question in the Christian community; the answer or interpretation of an answer can explain pretty much any ethical decision a Christian makes.

So what can we learn from applying this question to Buddhist teachings? Obviously Cain and Abel are irrelevant here, but the question remains as potent as ever. I would argue that Buddhism -- and most world religions -- says that yes, you are your brother's keeper. The more relevant question then becomes: Who is your brother?

"Brother?"

For a Buddhist, every atom of absolutely every thing in the universe is his brother thanks to samsara. Everything is causally related, which means that each action has a corresponding consequence.

Moreover, we are all reincarnated countless times as different combinations of each other's matter, essence, etc. This means that an action you perform today could ripple through to affect something or someone eons in the future. Every being, then, is everyone else's keeper.

Other Religions

Many of the other major religions -- here I am thinking mostly of Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, and Sikhism and their respective subdivisions -- seem to agree that you are your brother's keeper, but "brother" can have much less broad implications than in the Buddhist sense. For some sects, a brother can be as strictly defined as someone who shares exactly the same beliefs and practices as you do. Even so, you are that brother's keeper as a member of that religion.

This lowest common denominator (that all practices require "keeping" of at least your fellow practitioners) is almost certainly due to the fact that religions want to self-perpetuate. To turn it around, how could a religion advocate that you abandon (or even wrong) your fellow believer? That would make creating community and a feeling of unity quite difficult, and that religion might quite easily die out.

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The Difference?

So then the differences in how far to extend brotherhood stem from the cosmogonies of the respective religions. To take just Christianity and Buddhism as an example...

Christianity says (more or less; of course, summing up an entire religion with all of its subdivisions is impossible) that humans are unique. God created us last and in his own image, and then He incarnated His own son in our form to save us from our sins. We therefore have a special purpose on this earth, and one of our duties includes preserving the human life around us. Otherwise, we are allowing the destruction of God's precious and special creation, especially since each person only has one life to live.

Buddhism, on the other hand, sees no omnipotent creator who has predetermined humans to be greater than other life forms. While it acknowledges that humans have a special position in the world (thanks to intelligence, compassion, etc) that allows only them to achieve enlightenment, the idea of reincarnation takes the boundaries of "brother" and extends them infinitely. We are not reincarnated as our actual "selves" countless times; rather, our beings become combined with all others and are then created into new beings from the combination.

So no one comes back the same way twice, and that intense camaraderie (after all, your neighbor could have been part of you in your last incarnation as a god or dog, whatever the case may be) means that absolutely every piece of matter is your brother and should be treated accordingly. Even without karma or some imposed ethical "rule" or "consequences," this will remain true.

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    • helenathegreat profile image
      Author

      helenathegreat 8 years ago from Manhattan

      Hi blaze_xeno!  This is actually not "The Buddha" (born Siddharta Gautama, and sometimes known as Shakyamuni Buddha); it looks like a buddha from the Chinese tradition.  Since a buddha is just anyone who has reached enlightenment, though, I would assume he is smiling because he completely understands the entire universe.  That's certainly something to grin about!  :)

    • profile image

      blaze_xeno 8 years ago

      nice budha but i dont know why they smile

    • helenathegreat profile image
      Author

      helenathegreat 9 years ago from Manhattan

      Thanks for the comment, RGraf! Buddhism -- as with any religion -- is a vast, complex topic. Hopefully by reading some of my hubs people can begin to see a glimpse of what Buddhism is all about.

    • RGraf profile image

      Rebecca Graf 9 years ago from Wisconsin

      Very interesting. I'll be honest, I'm not that familiar wtih Buddhism. Thanks for the education lesson.

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