Is Buddhism the Way to Enlightenment?
BUDDHISM developed in Asia, and most adherents to it are still on that continent. But interest in Buddhist teachings has been increasing in other parts of the world in recent times. Many look to it as a way to “enlightenment.”
Buddhism is based upon the person and teachings of Siddhartha Gautama, who became known as “Buddha” (meaning “Enlightened One”). Siddhartha was born into a royal family in India in the sixth century B.C.E.
While still a young man Siddhartha became disturbed over the fact that sickness, suffering, old age and death are the common lot of everyone. He determined to abandon his royal surroundings and to become a wanderer in search of truth.
For six years Gautama practiced extreme self-denial. During this time he spoke with many teachers and philosophers but could not gain satisfying answers as to why life seemed to be so filled with unpleasantness. What would he do?
Gautama had grown up as a Hindu and was familiar with yoga, which includes exercises by mental concentration. He decided to search for the truth by means of meditation. To that end he sat down under a large fig tree called a bo tree. Here he claimed to have become enlightened, this making him a Buddha.
“Enlightenment” About What?
What was Buddha enlightened about that has attracted so many followers for centuries? To answer that question, let us consider some background information about the people of India in the sixth century B.C.E.
A scholar of Buddhist writings, Professor T. W. Rhys Davids, points out:
“The country was politically split up into little principalities, most of them governed by some petty despot, whose interests were not often the same as those of the community. . . . A convenient belief in the doctrine of the transmigration of souls satisfied the unfortunate that their woes were the natural result of their own deeds in a former birth, and, though unavoidable now, might be escaped in a future state of existence by present good conduct. [They were] hoping for a better fate in their next birth.”
Buddha himself was influenced by that belief in transmigration of souls after death. He developed a complicated philosophy based upon it. In general, Buddhists believe that rebirth can take place in five different states: (1) in hell (there are eight hot hells, eight cold hells and other minor hells); (2) as an animal; (3) as a “preta” (a ghost with a small mouth and big belly, tortured by hunger and thirst); (4) as a human; (5) as a god. Of course, certain groups may list these various “states” somewhat differently.
Thus Buddha believed that all things were constantly going through a cycle, changing from one state to another. He considered nothing permanent. Buddha expressed his view of life as follows:
“Birth is suffering; decay is suffering; death is suffering; sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, and despair are suffering; not to get what one desires is suffering.”
Buddha’s enlightenment had to do with how to escape from the endless cycle of rebirths. How would that be possible?
By recognizing the “Four Noble Truths,” which may be summarized as follows: (1) All living is painful; (2) Suffering is due to craving or desire; (3) When desire ceases there comes a release from suffering; (4) The way to release from suffering is to follow the Noble Eightfold Path consisting of four ethical precepts—right speech, effort, conduct and work—and four mental precepts—right views, hopes, attentiveness and contemplation.
So it is desire, in Buddha’s opinion, that links a person to the chain of rebirths. To escape from it one must extinguish all desire for things pleasing to the senses. All craving for life as we know it must be suppressed. Meditation was viewed as a means to that end.
The Way to Nirvana
The kind of meditation that he advocated involves concentrating all of one’s attention on a single object, a certain part of the body or perhaps on a phrase or riddle. In time, the mind empties of all other thoughts, feelings and imagination. Through such meditation some have even developed “superhuman qualities” or abilities, including levitation, ability to project an image of themselves to a distant place and mental telepathy. It is said that one meditating can get to a point in which he is indifferent to pain or pleasure and no longer desires life or any of the pleasures associated with it. At this point he is said to become free of the necessity of rebirth. He has reached Nirvana. What is that?
Professor of Sanskrit Walter E. Clark explains that Nirvana is a state which “cannot be reached or described by human knowledge and words.” It is “utterly different from all things in the knowable world.” Does that sound desirable to you? Would a state in which you are neither aware of life nor desire it help you to cope with the problems you face in life?
Does Buddhism Satisfy Man’s Spiritual Need?
Man has an inborn need to worship God. That is why he has always had some form of religion. Can Buddhism satisfy man’s spiritual need? Can it answer his questions about how the universe came about, how life came to be upon earth, why wickedness exists and whether it will ever end?
Concerning the origin of the universe, Buddha said: “The origin of phenomenal existence is inconceivable, and the beginnings of beings obstructed by ignorance and ensnared by craving is not to be discovered.” Buddhist writings say that the universe evolved from the dispersed matter of a previous universe that wore out. In time Buddhists expect that the present one will dissolve and that out of it will arise another.
Zen Buddhist expert Daisetz T. Suzuki emphasized:
“To us Orientals . . . there is no God, no creator, no beginning of things, no ‘Word,’ no ‘Logos,’ no ‘nothing.’ Westerners would then exclaim, ‘It is all nonsense! It is absolutely unthinkable!’ Orientals would say, ‘You are right. As long as there is at all a “thinking” you cannot escape getting into the dilemma or the bottomless abyss of absurdity.’” [Italics ours]
How do you feel about that? Do you wish to believe in something that is admittedly “nonsense” if a person uses his thinking ability? In your own experience have you found that thinking leads only to “dilemma or the bottomless abyss of absurdity”? Are you more successful in coping with the problems of life when you refrain from thinking? Is it really enlightenment to say there is no Creator and to believe in an unprovable theory of evolution? Such a philosophy could never satisfy your spiritual needs. In fact, it failed to do so even for followers of Buddha in ancient times.
Professor Albert S. Geden explains:
“The human craving for an ideal or idealized object of love and homage was too strong. . . . The desire was met, and found its satisfaction, in the deification [after his death] of [Buddha] himself; . . . With him were reintroduced the Hindu deities, or the more important and popular of them. But they were always subordinated in attributes and power to the Buddha. And thus a system in theory deistic became a practical polytheism.”
Toward the beginning of the Common Era images of Buddha made their appearance. The simple places of Buddhist devotion were changed into elaborate temples. Some of these temples also contain images of the Hindu gods Vishnu, Siva and Ganesha. Buddha’s refusal to enlighten his followers about God left a vacuum that was filled by his own deification and by adopting gods and practices of other religions.
What about guidance for everyday life? Buddhism does contain some moral precepts. There are, for example, the “five precepts” against killing, stealing, adultery, lying and drunkenness. But moral precepts alone are not sufficient. People need a reliable guide for making everyday decisions. Where do many Buddhists turn for such guidance? Professor L. A. Waddell observes:
“Divination is sought after by the majority of professing Buddhists in matters of almost everyday business, as well as in the great epochs of life—birth, marriage, and death—or in sickness. . . . The Burmese, who may be taken as a type of the [conservative] ‘Southern’ division of Buddhists, are lettered in the bonds of horoscopes and witch-doctors.”
Buddhists, like everyone else, have a need for spiritual guidance on matters. Because Buddha’s philosophy does not fill that need, they resort to divination.
What About Hope for the Future?
Does Buddhism offer any hope for the future? Buddhists divide an epoch of evolution and destruction of the universe into four “incalculable” periods. Buddha spoke of the length of one of these in this way: “Suppose a mountain of iron to be touched every hundred years by a muslin veil; the mountain will be destroyed before the Incalculable is at an end.” After four of these “incalculable” periods the whole cycle starts over again. So, according to Buddhist belief, evil and suffering have always existed and will continue forever as a part of recurring world cycles.
What about Nirvana as a hope? This, too, is questionable. Why so? Because Nirvana is supposed to signify that one has reached the end of one’s cycle of rebirths. Some Buddhist monks have even burned themselves to death to make sure they do not slip back into the rebirth cycle. But if a person is not to be reborn, what happens to him? Buddha considered this one of the “questions which tend not to edification.” He said:
“I have not elucidated that the saint exists after death; I have not elucidated that the saint does not exist after death; I have not elucidated that the saint both exists and does not exist after death; I have not elucidated that the saint neither exists nor does not exist after death.”
In other words, Buddha offered no enlightenment whatsoever as to the future hopes of even a Buddhist “saint,” not to mention the hopeless situation of most laymen who must experience innumerable rebirths.
Origin of Buddha’s Teachings
Buddha’s belief in rebirth and that a person’s deeds in one life affect him in his next life came from Hinduism. So did his ideas about meditation and Nirvana. Where did these Hindu beliefs get their start?
The Encyclopædia Britannica (1952 edition) observes: “The religion [of India] is not based on anything exclusively Indian but on old world-wide beliefs.” How did these “old world-wide beliefs” get to India? William H. McNeill explains in The Rise of the West:
“The existence of trade relations between Mesopotamia and the Indus Valley from [the third millennium B.C.E.] . . . suggests that the Sumerians may have played a role in the earliest stages of Indus civilization . . . Seaborne contact with Sumer may have provided ready-made models and ideas which the Indus peoples could adapt to the peculiarities of their local cultural tradition.”
Interestingly, the Holy Bible pinpoints Babel in Mesopotamia as the center from which civilization spread out after the confusion of man’s languages because of disobedience to God in the third millennium B.C.E.—Gen. 11:1-9.
Of course, the teaching of rebirth comes from belief in immortality of the soul. Interestingly the Bible sheds light on the origin of that teaching.
In the Bible the word “soul” refers to all breathing creatures, whether insects, birds, fish, animals or humans. The Bible shows that the soul is the entire creature, every fiber of its being, not something immaterial and separate from the body. Therefore, at his creation, the Bible says, “the first man Adam” was not given but “became a living soul.”—1 Cor. 15:45; Gen. 1:20-28; 2:7.
As related in Genesis, the oldest record about the origin of man, God commanded Adam not to eat the fruit of a certain tree. If he did so, God said, Adam would “positively die.” (Gen. 2:15-17) Did that mean that the human soul can die? Yes, as the prophet Ezekiel later explained: “The soul that is sinning it itself will die.” (Ezek. 18:4) According to the Bible, nothing spiritual survives the body at death.—See also Psalm 146:4; Ecclesiastes 9:5, 10.
However, an opposer of God, whom the Bible identifies as Satan the Devil, contradicted God and said: “You positively will not die.” (Gen. 3:1-5) But Adam did die. (Gen. 5:5) Thus the “living soul” died, and all human souls descended from him have also died till now.
In the case of those who practice the Buddhist type of meditation, it is especially easy for Satan and his demons to further the lie of survival after death that came from Babylon. By emptying their minds of all conscious thoughts, these individuals open themselves up to demon influence. Thus, at times, such individuals display supernatural mental and physical abilities. But do they really benefit themselves by laying themselves open to demon influence? (Note for yourself the principle stated at Matthew 12:43-45.)
No true enlightenment can come from a system that is built on a lie and that encourages the influence of wicked spirits. The Bible reveals that the true hope for the dead is not transmigration, but resurrection. Jesus Christ promised: “The hour is coming in which all those in the memorial tombs will hear his voice and come out.” (John 5:28, 29) Yes, billions of persons will live again as humans, but under righteous conditions, right on this earth. This is no empty promise. Jesus demonstrated its truthfulness by restoring to life at least three persons.—Luke 7:11-17; 8:40-56; John 11:1-40.
The Bible also tells the truth about the origin of the earth and man, how wickedness got its start and how God will put an end to all human oppression in this very generation. Would you not like to become better acquainted with this hope? Jehovah’s witnesses will be glad to help you to do so.