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Buddhism; a non-theistic religion

March 23, 2007

Title: Buddhism; a non-theistic religion (translated from German: Buddhismus und Gottesidee)
Author: Helmuth von Glasenapp
Publisher: George Allen & Unwin, 1970

I was not particularly looking for this book when I went to the library, I hoped to be able to borrow a book about Mūlamadhyamakakārikā (Fundamental Verses on the Middle Way) by Nāgārjuna before it was closing time. However, once inside I habitually also read other titles as well and in the end borrowed this book, too.

Once someone mentioned about Buddhism as a non-theistic religion, the links he gave to different wikipedia pages did not quench my thirst for a deeper understanding, so I hoped this book would give me some new insight in this matter.

First the author argued that he did not agree with the definition of religion by Wilhem Schmidt in his book Origin and Growth of Religion, which portrayed it as ‘the knowlegde and feeling of dependence on supramundane personal powers with whom one enters into a mutual relationship.’ He prefers to link the definition of religion with the concept of holiness, that answers the intrinsic human need to venerate (Goethe). In Nathan Söderblom’s words, ‘the holy is the great concept in the religious realm…. Genuine religion may do without concrete formulation of the divine, but every genuine religion differentiates between the holy and the profane. Attaching exaggerated importance to the divine frequently resulted in excluding from the realm of religion primitive forms.’ Though Buddhism has no place for a personal God, it shares with all other religions the idea of the holiness of certain concepts, rites, places, and persons. Some schools do venerate Gautama Buddha, however not as creator of the world, but as guide to liberation.

The most significant difference between Buddhism and Western religions is the fact that in Buddhism there is no place for a personal ruler or creator of the world, since there is dharma (Nature Law) that takes care of everything. Instead of a personal God that rewards and punishes us, Buddhists believe that every life event has its cause, everything exists due to something else, every single one of us, including gods (devas) obeys or is under influence of dharma.

To me it seems that the concept of dharma solved the problem of theodicy nicely. Instead of pondering (in vain) why such a good God allows evil things in this world, Buddhists take it as their own responsibility when both good and bad things happen. They abstain from doing evil not because the holy scriptures forbide it nor because they are afraid of punishment from heaven, but because they understand that dharma is such that everyone has to bow for it. My teacher makes an allegory with a mango tree: If you plant a mango tree of course you will get (sweet) mangos. If you plant bitter gourd then you get bitter fruit even if you pray to gods (devas) everyday that you may get sweet mangoes.

The author concluded that Buddhism is based on the same assumption, feeling and hopes as the theistic religions. The fundamental difference is that the latter combine in the god idea great number of mutually exclusive concepts (attributes), whereas in Buddhism the different elements of a religious world concept appear attributed to various factors.

The multiplicity and variety of the beliefs of mankind may all be explained as attempts to express the ineffable. Their manifold forms may be variously regarded and classified, just as the same stars were variously interpreted by ancient cultures, and were grouped into different heavenly constellations.

One Comment leave one →
  1. April 17, 2007 03:06

    Nice blog!

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