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Buddhism at a Glance

Buddhism originated in the 6th century B.C.E. in India, spread south to Sri Lanka, Southeast Asia, Java, and Sumatra, and north to the Himalayan region, China, Korea, Japan, and Tibet. Beginning in the 19th century, Buddhist teachings were carried to Europe and the Americas as well as parts of Africa and Australia. Unlike most of the world's other great traditions, Buddhism is not based on any conception of a Supreme Being or Godhead. Rather than depending on God's help to deliver us from evil and suffering (which is one view of theistic, or God-based, religions) Buddhism teaches reliance on human effort to relieve suffering. The Buddha is considered to be a historical figure, a human being who achieved great enlightenment, but not divine.

Although the Buddha taught no reliance on a Supreme Being, he nonetheless accepted much of the existing worldview of ancient India, with its panoply of gods and demons. In Buddhist artwork and scriptures, the Buddha is sometimes portrayed as preaching to or interacting with various deities. And many Buddhists venerate the historical Buddha almost like a god, while revering other earthly and celestial beings who have reached enlightenment in a manner similar to the way Westerners or Hindus worship God. How are we to understand this apparent contradiction?

Perhaps we can begin by noting that modern Buddhists practice their faith in different ways, as do Jews and Christians. For example, a fundamentalist Southern Baptist, who believes in the literal truth of every word of the Bible, and a Unitarian Universalist, who takes the scripture as largely metaphorical, are both Christians. For many Asian Buddhists, elements of the supernatural surround and suffuse their religion, partly the result of Buddhism's having for so many centuries existed alongside the folk religions of India and China, which are resplendent with gods and goddesses, demons and ghosts and all manner of supernatural happenings. Other Buddhists, particularly Western converts to Zen, choose to follow teachers who stress the nontheistic core of Buddhism, with its reliance on personal effort to achieve self-realization. Still others interpret the teachings regarding celestial beings, demons, paradises and hells, especially as taught by Tibetan Buddhists, as metaphors for various psychological and spiritual states, images that help them in their practice but that they do not need to take literally.

The Buddha also seemed to accept the prevailing Hindu beliefs in reincarnation and karma found in the Upanishads, although he altered the concepts as he incorporated them into his own philosophy. And so he didn't essentially question the Hindu vision of samsara, the Wheel of Existences with its continuous cycle of rebirth over thousands of lifetimes. In fact, according to some scholars, the Buddha held a view of the gods similar to that of the Greeks, feeling that the gods suffered from the same frailties and failings as humanity, and that their state was actually inferior to that of humans because only in a human lifetime can one achieve enlightenment.

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Memories of perfect harmony  — Free Malaysia Today
We respected one another's values and beliefs, so much so that I filled my chest with teachings of Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, Atheism and so on, in addition to the compulsory Islamic classes for all Muslim girls.

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