Today, I’ll be discussing Eastern Religions, the group including Hinduism, Buddhism, and “Chinese Traditional”. I group these by their geographic and practical similarities, as a group they have more adherents than Islam. Smaller Eastern Religions, like Sikhism and Jainism, will be in next week’s article.
All of these religions are most commonly practiced in Asia, thus my term “Eastern”. I’ll start in India, the Westernmost point of Asia, with Hinduism.
Hinduism may be the oldest, and newest, of religions. There is no specific date of origin or founder, but it’s roots date back to a thousand years prior to Christianity. It also has adapted, bringing the various beliefs of several groups under the umbrella of “Hindu”. While these are not seen as distinct denominations, there are many ways in which to be a Hindu.
Westerners often have trouble comprehending Hinduism, it is a collection of beliefs rather than a formal (in the Western sense) religion. It can be difficult to ascertain if Hinduism is monotheistic or polytheistic, and there is a great deal to learn in the attempt to understand that “starting point”. Much like Christianity’s trinity, the multiple Gods within Hinduism can be seen as aspects of a single God, or as expressed in certain faiths, “God is everywhere and everything”. It is a favorite Hindu saying that “The Truth is One, but different sages call it by different names.”. Some might even consider that pantheism, although many Hindus see a clear definition between the universe itself and the God that created the universe. Hinduism does not see a definition between mankind and the universe, which many Western religions, though not stated directly, seem to.
Buddhism is based on the teachings of Siddhārtha Gautama, or “Buddha”, who lived in the fifth century B.C. Like Hinduism, Buddhism is essentially a way of life rather than a “formal” religion. Buddhism also has various branches, and many denominations within those branches. It is also a complementary religion, in that one may be a Buddhist and a member of another religion, as in Japan, where many followers of Shinto are Buddhists. Some of the more commonly known denominations of Buddhists include Zen, Tibetan Buddhism, and Shingon.
While Buddhism is synonymous with peace and pacifism in most minds, it is important to remember that most Samurai were Zen Buddhists. The argument for their acts was often that killing a man about to commit a dreadful crime was an act of compassion. The recent attacks in Sri Lanka are justified as a response to Halal butchering, which many people find inhumane. In the attacks by Buddhists in Myanmar, Buddhism is faced with the challenge of a charismatic monk, U Wirathu, who proudly calls himself “The Buddhist Bin Laden“. I suspect this is a response to the destruction of the Bamiyan cliff statues by the Taliban, perhaps every religion needs an occasional reminder that violence begets violence.
It could be said that in world religions, there are two themes, Suffering and Love. The first of the four noble truths of Buddhism is “Life is suffering”. While this sets the stage, the remaining noble truths are recognizing the source and overcoming suffering. Buddha is not a God but a teacher, an enlightened spirit, and Buddhism is a truly pantheistic religion, or if you wish a non-theistic religion, in that the point is the individual’s betterment, as the “soul” cycles through lives on various planes of existence, eventually reaching a state of enlightenment.
Buddhism teaches balance, moderation is all things. All aspects of the universe exist within the individual, peace is found by balancing those aspects. Frtjof Capra leaned heavily on Buddhism in his book “The Tao of Physics“, in which he explained quantum physics using ideas from Buddhism, Taoism, and Hinduism.
Traditional Chinese Religions is where this can be seen as getting more difficult, or crystal clear (there’s that Buddhist duality). There is a great deal of overlap in the beliefs of Eastern religions, and the point of this entire series is the overlap of every religion. There is not a linear path of evolution in these religions, it is more like a tree, with each of us a leaf, tracing our beliefs back to the trunk. Each branch gives way to more branches.
Shenism is polytheistic, and incorporates aspects of Hinduism and Buddhism. Confucianism follows the teachings of Chinese philosopher Confucius, and focuses on corporeal life rather than an afterlife. Confucianism is a system of beliefs, attempting to live life in balance, peacefully coexisting with others. It is like Buddhism without a continuation of spirit. Taoism is based on the teachings of Chinese philosopher Laozi in the text Tao te Ching. It is another naturalistic religion, teaching balance. One of the more interesting aspects of Taoism is “Action through inaction”, the basis for many martial arts. Taoism sees the human as a microcosm of the universe, so that by understanding one’s self, one can better understand the universe.
While it should (I hope) be obvious that these religions are similar and overlap in beliefs, there are of course essential differences. While the existence and number of recognized Gods may seem an obvious difference, some denominations worship those Gods and some simply respect or pay homage to their Gods. This indicates a difference in the meaning of the term “God” from one group to the next. Whether it is complementary harmony with the universe, or oneness with the universe, they all seek balance, and simplicity.
I’m trying to not get off track with the method in which I am presenting this series, slowly discussing different groups of beliefs. Because I am presenting this slowly, comments on various chapters may tend to get ahead of the subject, but I promise I will tie it all together in either chapter five, or six if I need the extra time. As I said when I started, this is a BIG subject, and five or six chapters can never give an entire story of a universal human experience. See you next Sunday, when I address the horribly mistitled group “non-religious” and “others” .