Misconceptions About Buddhism
Ignorance Is Not Bliss
This is not an article specifically about the Buddha or about Buddhism. It is also not about Buddhist apologetics. I always avoid discussing religion especially on this site because my conclusion is that the other person will never listen with an open mind when this person is already fixated on his or her belief. This article is about the common misconceptions about Buddhism. Okay, let’s clear the air on 12 common misconceptions about Buddhism.
12 Common Misconceptions About Buddhism
1.Buddhism is a religion.
This depends on your interpretation of the word “religion”. The most common interpretation is that religion involves the belief of the existence of a supreme god. Then Buddhism is not a religion. The second more liberal interpretation of “religion” is “a specific fundamental set of beliefs and practices generally agreed upon by a number of persons or sects”. This second interpretation will place Buddhism as a “religion”. Buddhism is more than a philosophy for “philosophy” means “the rational investigation of the truths and principles of being, knowledge, or conduct”. Buddhism is more than mere investigation. It is investigation and realization. The more appropriate term to describe Buddhism is "Humanism".
2.Buddhism is all about rituals and superstitions.
Totally incorrect, although what the ordinary people see are rightly so, full of rituals and superstitions. Why is that so? This is all about the people who practise Buddhism with an erroneous view because of influence from their cultural beliefs. Buddhism is a very liberal religion and its teachings are all about universal truths. The people who first adopted Buddhism into their lives did not have to change their traditional and cultural values and beliefs. They just conveniently incorporated Buddhist teachings into their systems of beliefs. This led to the introductions of various rites and rituals of the various cultures and traditions of the different peoples who accepted Buddhist teachings. The most glaring practices of such mixtures of Buddhism with traditions and cultures are the Tibetan and Chinese versions of “Buddhist” rites and rituals. These rites and rituals are not Buddhism. They are the traditional and cultural practices of the different societies which embrace Buddhism into their belief systems. The pristine teachings of Buddhism, surprisingly, remain intact in these different Buddhist societies. The pristine teachings of Buddhism emphasize on self-cultivation, mind-development, and understanding of the real nature of existence, in order to experience inner peace and liberation.
3.Buddhism is about charms, amulets and black magic.
Far from it. Buddhism downgrades the power of charms, amulets and black magic. Buddhism is about self-realization and experiencing inner peace, by self-cultivation. Charms, amulets and black magic have no place in Buddhism. These occult paraphernalia are very rampant especially in the Thai society. But these are not Buddhism. I shall term these occult practices of charms, amulets and black magic as “Thaism”.
4.Buddha images have magic power.
Genuine Buddha images do not have magic powers. However, since they represent the highest virtues of the Buddha, they are regarded as holy images. The Buddha images are symbolic embodiment of peace, purity and enlightenment. It is believed that holy images do attract positive powers, while negative and evil forces avoid coming near them. Buddhists kneel and bow to Buddha images not because of their supernatural powers but simply as reverence to a great teacher. Similarly, offerings to the Buddha images are simply symbolic representations of some Buddhist concepts. For examples, candles represent knowledge and enlightenment, flowers represent impermanence, and incense and water represent purity.
5.Buddha is not a God, so you cannot find salvation.
“Buddha is not a God”, correct. “So you cannot find salvation”, wrong. Buddha is like a discoverer. He discovered the secrets to a system of life where people can gain inner peace and happiness. He shared these secrets to all the peoples who want to know and practice. These “secrets” are here for us to follow. We don’t need the Buddha himself to come teach us. Just like Faraday and many others, were regarded as the main discoverers of electricity, we don’t need them today to harvest the benefits of electricity. We just need to use their “secrets” they discovered.
6.Buddhists do not pray.
Now this is the direct contrast criticizing Buddhism as ritualistic. Even amongst the Buddhist community, the consensus is that Buddhists do not pray. We need to define what this word “pray” means. To most, especially the Christians, “pray” means “a form of petition addressed to God or Jesus”. With this interpretation, then Buddhists do not pray. However, if we interpret “pray” as a form of supplications to a higher spiritual power, or even a personal aspiration made inside one’s mind, then Buddhists do pray. Buddhists believe that there are higher invisible powers existing in this universe, who may help humans in worldly affairs. These invisible powers are quite similar to the Christian concept of angels. The Buddhists call them “devas”. These devas may be regarded as “gods” in the English language. These “gods” are just higher beings who may have some “spiritual” or “supernatural” powers to help us. However, there are still Buddhists who do not pray to these angels, but simply made personal aspirations inside their mind; a form of self-motivation. Another aspect of Buddhist prayer is the chanting of the discourses of the Buddha, called the “suttas”. The chanting of suttas is to recite the teachings of the Buddha and at the same time, it is believed that the good angels or devas will also come to listen and rejoice, and to protect those around.
7.Buddhists believe in reincarnation.
Here we need to discuss two very similar terms, “reincarnation” and “rebirth”. “Reincarnation” and “rebirth” are two subtly different concepts. “Reincarnation” implies a permanent unchanging entity, meaning Mr X will always be born again as Mr X. “Rebirth” assumes a continuation of “existence” but not necessarily the same entity or Mr X. Rebirth portrays the passing of one “personality” to another “personality”. It is neither exactly the same entity nor totally a different entity. Imagine a lighted candle. Blow the candlelight off, then relight the candle. The light before and the light after are not exactly the same, but they are a continuation of two events supported by the same source, the candle. Or put it in another way; reincarnation implies a “permanent soul”, while rebirth assumes a “re-linking personality”. Buddhists believe in rebirth. In a way, reincarnation is a form of rebirth, but rebirth is more than reincarnation. By the way, the Tibetans believe in reincarnation, especially for their monks or lamas.
8.Buddhism is about suffering.
No, no. Buddhism points to the truth that there is much suffering in this world. Do you deny this truth? On the other spectrum, there is also much happiness, but all worldly conditions are not permanent. Because of this existence of suffering, Buddhists are forewarned to be mindful of their lives. No matter who you are or what you believe, suffering lurks at every corner awaiting to strike when you least expect. And when one suffers, one is to realize that it is the price one pays for existing in this world.
9.Buddhist monks beg for food.
This is perhaps the most misunderstood practice of Buddhism. It is a tradition since the Buddha’s time, more than 2500 years ago for mendicants to go round searching for food. They had nothing with them, only the clothing and a few essential things like a bowl for food. It was the Indian tradition that householders would part with some of their food for the mendicants should the householders see them searching for food. It was a tradition where a monk would stand quietly in front of the householder’s door, and the householder would give some food to him. Today, this tradition is still practised throughout the Buddhist communities, who are too happy to provide food for the monks. In the present scenario, a Buddhist monk will stand quietly on one spot holding the almsbowl upright, signifying that he is accepting food from the devotees. In Buddhist society like Thailand, you will see devotees waiting along the roadside in the morning awaiting monks to pass by, to offer food to them by placing food into the almsbowls. That is why the monk’s bowl is called “almsbowl” because he is not begging for food.
10.All Buddhists are vegetarians.
Not all Buddhists are vegetarians. Chinese Mahayana monks and nuns are vegetarians. The rest of the Buddhist population has free choice in their diets. The main contention for a non-meat diet is not to commit killing. Being meat-eaters do not necessarily means committing killing. Most of the time, the animals are already dead before we eat their meat. We did not kill them ourselves. Given that eating meat in a way encourages the killing of animals, so it is actually more wholesome to be a vegetarian and healthier too.
11.Buddhists only meditate.
Far from it. Meditation forms a very important part in the cultivation of the mind. Those Buddhists who really practise the teachings of the Buddha will allot some time for meditation, as it is this mind training that one can truly discern the true nature of existence and be liberated to experience inner peace. However, Buddhists are ordinary human beings too. We live our days just as you will live yours.
12.The Dalai Lama is the Buddhist version of the Pope.
This is a misconception. The Dalai Lama is only the highest ranking lama of one of the Tibetan Buddhist sects. The Dalai Lama has no authority over the rest of the Buddhist population.
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If You Are Interested To Know More About Buddhism
As I wrote earlier, I don’t usually write about Buddhism on this site. Religion is a serious and sensitive subject to many. Unfortunately, there are people out there with little minds who have not the faculty to discuss religion with civility. Just a little unintentional spark may engulf into a hellfire! However, should you be interested to know more about Buddhism I shall be happy to answer your questions.
Hope you find this article helpful to clear any misconception that you may have about Buddhism.
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