What I Learnt About Buddhism
A recycled post from my former blog - written in Battambang, Cambodia
I want to talk about Buddhism. These really are no more than the dwellings of a novice, but I’m going to attempt to write about what I’ve noticed of Buddhism after living for some months in Thailand and Cambodia - two predominately Buddhist countries.
I was surprised to hear a Christian explain that Buddhism is very similar to Christianity; that the teachings of Buddha and the teachings of Jesus are alike. In both religions there is recognition that this world of ours holds suffering and sin. For Christians, freedom from sin and suffering comes through Jesus Christ and the salvation He made available, offering hope within and beyond this life. For Buddhists, freedom from sin and suffering comes from postponing and lessening one’s karma (or accumulated guilt) by merit-making and avoiding sin. Buddha believed that all of our actions as humans lead to a sinful lifestyle and that this accumulated karma is the reason for suffering. He concluded that a series of rules could be followed, almost as an act of dehumanising oneself and avoiding adding to the world’s suffering.
I had quite a Western understanding of Buddhism before this stint of travels. Karma I understood alongside the phrase ‘what goes around comes around.’ The karma that I had heard about on TV was quite a glossy one, a vague notion that the good or bad you do will come back to influence you - nothing too offensive. However, Buddhism says that death occurs when one’s karma accumulates and catches up with you and, because of that, with karma there is no way out. Karma is closely related to revenge and vengeance as you cannot escape any action that you do in this life; it will dictate and influence your next reincarnated life. And so, Buddhists generally live a very peace-filled life in the hope of avoiding adding to their karma. To lessen the penalty of your karma on your next life there is a system of ‘merit making’ that lists rules and things to do to make the most merit for yourself. The highest way that a girl can make merit for herself is by providing for her family financially until the age of 25. The type of work the girl does to attain this merit (even if it brings shame to her or her family) is outshone by the value of her making merit. The highest way for a son to make merit is to serve as a Buddhist monk at any point in his life for three months. He can choose to serve longer than three months to earn himself extra merit, or he can even make merit for his mother by serving as a monk.
Once upon a time, persuaded by the consensus around me that Christians were to do good, I spent a lot of my life viewing God as a god who required actions off me. He required me to serve Him somewhat as proof that I was following Him. (Spoiler alert: I’d got God wrong.) I’ve noticed that Buddhists also live under this pressure to do. For them, there is no freedom from working against the penalty of their own sin. Eventually, their karma will catch up with them, they will die and (according to Buddhism) they will be reincarnated to a life dictated by the decisions made in their previous ones, be it selfish or selfless. It saddened me to hear of masses of people living burdened by their own guilt whilst accepting that there is no real way out. Even children grow understanding their own responsibility to make merit for themselves and for their family.
Learning about Buddhism has made me feel more grateful for Jesus, though I seriously doubt this was Buddha's intent. You see, I am free. I am free from this. I am free from fearing the penalty of my shortcomings; I am free from anticipating that my sin will lead me to death. I am free from doing works to persuade God that I’m worthy of His time. In sending Jesus Christ to roam a small portion of the Middle East, God has made a way for me to be completely free from condemnation now. Jesus died as a guiltless man under the burden of my sin so that I/we/you can be freed from expecting consequences for our sin and freed from expecting life to end in death. We’ve got access to an exit-pass from feeling like we’re a product of our own decisions. No longer do I live under the illusion that I can persuade God to love me or to forgive me or to accept me; I know that I am a sinner saved by grace and that's nothing to do with what I've done. Mindful of Buddhism, I feel a completely liberating lack of burden to add to what God has done. He did it all, gave it all, and made a way for me to be free from the consequences of my own guilt. I am free!