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Salvation, Buddhism, and Personal Authority

Updated on May 7, 2017

You are your own Savior

When it comes to “salvation,” the Buddhist sects tend to have differing views all together from Judeo-Christians. Theravada Buddhists, who are the more orthodox side of Buddhism, did not have a notion of a judgmental creator “God” who control individual’s fates. As Buddhism was rooted in Hinduism, they share the ideology that “God” does not dictate where one “goes” upon death, the Law of Karma does. Your actions during the course of this life will directly dictate what happens to you within your next life.

Buddhists consider the individual entirely and solely responsible for their own behavior, attitude, enlightenment and release from dukkha, or suffering. One need not consult any outside sources for Nirvana. The Judeo-Christians claim that personal responsibility for salvation is also the responsibility of the believer, however, this actual redemption is placed on another’s (Jesus’ and God’s) action, and not in the redemptive action within oneself. Not only does the method to acquire salvation differ between the religions, the nature of what “salvation” is, differs as well. Within the Mahayana Buddhists, the Pure Land Buddhists believe in the Amitabha Buddha, that can be called upon for salvation, but I will focus on the Theravada Buddhists, since they closely follow Siddhartha’s example.

The notion of “salvation” in Buddhism is entirely different from what Judeo-Christians call salvation. In the Judeo-Christian version of salvation, one must acknowledge Jesus as the Son of God, accept that he died for the sins of the world after being crucified, buried and rising again from the dead, ask for forgiveness, and then accept this forgiveness as a gift from God. Following this conversion, the believer is usually expected to be baptized and live a Christian life following the teachings of Jesus, however this is where some critics can find the loophole with the religious belief. The reward for doing this is that one’s eternal soul will go to heaven for the rest of eternity to live in paradise with God, Jesus, holy beings, family, friends and other religious and historical figures who were brought into heaven. The action of “accepting Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior” is all that is required for salvation, and this is one area where Buddhists differ from Judeo-Christians within their beliefs and some critics can claim a religious loophole. Since going through the conversion processes are supposed to be the only actions one must take to gain “salvation,” is one still going to heaven even if they do not follow expectations and live a godly life? This question brings the “Christmas and Easter” or “Sunday Only” Judeo-Christians to mind, when believers do not change their lifestyle or behavior too drastically and still enter Paradise. This also brings the “Deathbed Converts” to mind also. Technically, per the Judeo-Christian view, a murderer who converts on their deathbed will still enter heaven, regardless of the life they led.

The Buddhist emphasis and importance of living a genuinely good life in contrast to the “Judeo-Christian loophole” helps to define the Buddhist concept of “salvation.” Buddhists seek the salvation of Nirvana, not necessarily enlightenment. Nirvana is attained by living a life of following the Eight Fold Path. Since Buddhists are exposed to the First Noble Truth of Buddha’s teachings, they understand that every form of existence- consciousness itself- is inherently dukkha, or suffering. They seek to be liberated completely from existence within the cycle of rebirth. Nirvana is a state of “extinction” or of being extinguished. It is a release from the wheel of Karma. One of the downsides of this is, it is hard to intellectually comprehend sometimes. It is not a “get salvation quick” religion either. One must spend quite some time trying to understand the idea of Nirvana, whereas Heaven in the Judeo-Christian sense, is spelled out in the Bible. The Buddhist view of Judeo-Christian Heaven would be an embodiment of what a Buddhist would call tanha, or desire and craving, which is what one is trying to liberate oneself from. Buddhists are far more interested with the relationship one can develop within and alongside the factual nature of Ultimate Reality- that nothing is eternal or permanent, nor do we possess a “soul” in that sense. They understand that “This too shall pass,” and that by releasing their desire and attachments that they can attain a liberation, and achieve personal salvation. Even though it takes much time, practice, contemplation and effort, practicing the Middle Way has many redeeming qualities that you can try for yourself and see your own results. This is why it is one of the few religious philosophies that are compatible with the scientific method- this is not a spectator religion; everyone gets to play. Question everything, even the Buddha.

Some people are somewhat scared of what Buddhism really teaches. The emphasis and authority is placed on the individual. In our society, we have authority in every facet of our lives. We are not used to taking control of ourselves. Buddhism makes you the authority and master of your own fate. Understandably, this is a heavy psychological burden for some people. Often it is one that is completely shunned, seen as absolutely profane and the highest of taboos by our current capitalistic society that relies on people's submission to a higher authority. Judeo-Christianity teaches believers not to rely on one's own understanding- that one needs to seek God's wisdom. Buddhism is the exact opposite of this.

And as a further thought on my last comment, current society tends to treat people as teenagers. The "purgatory of authority," if you will. We are supposed to be responsible for ourselves, yet obey authority. I remember being a teenager and it was unbearably confusing. It was the "act like an adult, be treated like a child" expectation that manifested the schism that caused a lot of my problems- I'm sure I’m not the only one. This may be where a good amount of our current problems in society stem from. We are being told what to do, and then being burdened with the responsibility of the mistakes made. When we make mistakes of our own, we are reminded of what happens when we do things "our way." If we do things our way, and good things happen, we are labeled as dangerous and irresponsible and that we need to get back in line. It's quite interesting to say the least. This is also a repeatable experiment. Go against any "norm" in society and find out.


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