Buddhism is an Eastern religious system that differs from Western religious systems in many significant ways. Founded in India in the sixth century BCE by Siddartha Gautama, it has since spread over much of the world. Since many Buddhists do not recognize a Supreme Being, many people think that Buddhism is not a religion at all. This is an erroneous assumption.
It must be remembered that mysticism is at the heart of all religious systems, including Buddhism. Mystical insights, it is claimed, can only be attained by direct, divine intervention, or else by inward contemplation; logic and reason are not part of the process. If one attains mystical insight by divine intervention (which the Buddhists call Jhana), it is likely to result in a closed system of thought, meaning a system that claims to possess all the necessary knowledge for proper conduct of life. These systems naturally tend to be dogmatic, for who would have the temerity to question the divine? Religions of this type are referred to as 'revealed religions,' and they are characteristic of the West. Christianity, Islam, and Judaism are all 'revealed religions.'
By contrast, if the 'revelation' is arrived at by reflective contemplation alone, whereby one does not actually 'hear' the divine but instead perceives it intuitively, an open system is more likely to develop. Eastern religious thought tends to favor this over the first type of insight.
Nonetheless, mysticism, whether employed by Buddhists, Christians, or any one else, is by its nature anti-reason. Reason, if not overtly attacked, as in Christianity, is demoted to a lower level, as in Buddhism and Hinduism. To the mystic, emotions are valid cognitive tools, which represent a realm of 'higher' reality than that attained by 'mere' reason. At the root of all mystical thought is the concept that consciousness is an axiomatic, irreducible primary; consciousness is superior to physical existence, and many religionists argue that consciousness in fact 'created' existence itself. Therefore, argues the mystic, the highest level of consciousness is that which is perceived through mysticism.
The obvious problem with mysticism is that not all mystics arrive at the same truth. More often than not, they contradict one another. The history of warfare has largely been the history of the conflicts of opposing belief systems, with mysticism as the foundational cause.
Gautama, to his credit, was able within the context of his time to obviate a strictly mystical outlook and recognize the essential role of sensory validation in acquiring knowledge. Buddhist knowledge (Jnana) must be conjoined with seeing (Pasya), for without some kind of sensory validation, one cannot hope to understands the world around us. Thus Buddhism, unlike Western religions, has no need to attack sensory validation or blindly attack reason.
This is a recurring theme in Buddha's teachings. The first item in his "Eightfold Path", called 'right seeing,' emphasizes sensory validation, and it is the foundation for all his subsequent teachings.
However, this 'seeing' also has a mystical component to it. Sensory evidence is important, but intuition is of paramount importance in 'right seeing.' We see this in how the Buddhists interpret knowledge.
Buddhism teaches that there are two distinct types of knowledge (vidyas): "Lower" knowledge, or knowledge acquired through the intellect and "higher" knowledge, or that acquired through intuition. This is a special, insightful kind of seeing that the Mahayana Buddhists call prajna; it claims to penetrate into the very nature of existence. Through prajna, the Buddhist hopes to attain insight into reality that would not be obtainable by reason. With mystical components such as this built into the system, Buddhism is no longer a strictly philosophical system of thought. Prajna alone proves that Buddhism, like all religions, places mysticism above reason.
Prajna is central to Buddhist thought since it is through prajna/intuition that one arrives at anatman, or non-ego. This is the goal of the Buddhist, to lose one's ego and thus unite with "ultimate reality."
At the heart of all religious systems is an anti-life outlook. This is manifested in various ways. For Buddhists, the focus is on suffering (dukha). The Buddhist seeks to avoid suffering by focusing on mystical methods of alleviation. Thus Buddhism starts off with a problem created by itself and then offers a solution to the alleged problem. This is true of other religions as well, as when Christianity assumes everyone to be a 'sinner' and then offers a way to have those sins forgiven. The methodology is the same: Both religions create a psychological dependence that tends to keep the believer mired down in the system.
The goal of Buddhists is to attain enlightenment. By so doing, they experience a total change of personality. The Vinaya has a passage which indicates the dogmatic nature of any form of mystically-acquired "knowledge:" "I have conquered and I know all, I am enlightened quite by myself and have none as teacher.
A further stanza illustrates the kind of arrogant grandiosity that one usually associates with closed religious systems: "I am the one who is really worth, I am the most supreme teacher. I am the one who is fully enlightened."
Arrogance such as this is of course a central characteristic of any religion as viewed by outsiders. Thus there is a divisive element in Buddhist thought as there is an any other religion.
Even so, Buddhism, as an open system, is more flexible than Western religions and is consequently much less harmful psychologically. Another reason is that in Western religions, the ego exists and must be destroyed, whereas in Buddhism, it doesn't exist at all. Christianity's emphasis on the crucifixion illustrates this point; with Christianity, the ego must be destroyed in order to attain salvation whereas in Buddhism, salvation is attained by eliminating Samsara (the endless cycle of re-births) and entering a different realm of existence.
Christianity emphasizes crucifixion (the supreme manifestation of suffering) as a way of attaining moral perfection. By contrast, Buddhism holds that there is no self to perfect. Without a self, there is no need for a crucifixion, and the sickening symbolism of a man suffering torment on a cross is not present. Without this awful symbolism, asceticism loses its perverse and sadistic nature, and the element of rear is no longer a motivational factor leading to denial. Denial is a functional and psychological imperative in Western religions, and when one is free of it, he or she is less likely to be hostile to contradictory views. Thus Buddhism is fundamentally more receptive to growth.
However, the mystical component of Buddhism gives it a fundamentally flawed view of reality. "A is A," the Law of Identity (first formulated by Aristotle), which says that everything is as it is and can be nothing other, is foreign to Buddhism. Eastern philosophical systems stress the integration of opposites (the yin and yang), in hope of bridging the gulf between existence and non-existence, and of all other opposites, whether conceptualizations or concretes (physical "things"). However, this is irrational. Existence is all there is, and non-existence is not another kind of 'something;" it is nothing. It is existence, and not consciousness, that is the starting point of knowledge. Religions, by assuming consciousness as the primary, start off with an irrational, contradictory premise: Consciousness presupposes the existence of an entity, and consciousness, properly understood, is a property of that entity.
By placing consciousness rather than existence as the primary fact from which we derive all our knowledge, Buddhism, like all the other religions, is fundamentally irrational.
1) Understanding Mysticism edited by Richard Woods, O.P. Published by Image Books, 1980.
2) Buddhism: Its Essence and Development by Edward Conze. Published by Harper Torchbooks, 1959.
3) Buddhism: Its Essence and Development by Edward Conze. Published by Harper Torchbooks, 1959.
4) Philosophy: Who Needs It by Ayn Rand. Published by the Penguin Group, 1984.