Westerners who are otherwise indifferent or even hostile to religion, particularly
Christianity, sometimes say that they are well disposed towards Buddhism
because it is more "rational" than other religions. But in recent
years such opinions have been heard rather less frequently, owing to
the growth in popularity of Tibetan Buddhism.
Since the Chinese annexation of Tibet and the consequent emigration of most
prominent Tibetan religious figures, including the Dalai Lama, our
knowledge of Tibetan religion has emerged from the misty realm of
legend and mystery into the light of day. Numerous books on
Tibetan religious practices have appeared and Tibetan monasteries
have been established in several Western countries.
Buddhism in many people's understanding is now synonymous with
Tibetan Buddhism, which is characterized by esoteric beliefs, elaborate
rituals, and complex meditation practices; it also assigns a central
role to rebirth. As a result, the popular idea of Buddhism is rather
different now from what it was a few decades ago, and secularists are
probably more likely today to dismiss Buddhism automatically as
something that doesn't interest them.
More than one kind of Buddhism
But Tibetan Buddhism is not the only kind. Today there are two main
forms of Buddhism, Mahayana and Theravada. (There were others in the
past but they no longer exist.) Mahayana Buddhism, which is the category
that Tibetan Buddhism belongs to, is indeed elaborate and complex in
comparison with Theravada Buddhism, which is relatively austere and
As a rough analogy, Mahayana could be compared with Roman
Catholicism or perhaps Orthodox (Eastern) Christianity, Theravada
with Presbyterianism (appropriately, because "Theravada" means
"Teaching of the Elders", which is also what "Presbyterianism"
means). (To complicate matters still further, Zen is classified as
Mahayana, yet it is comparatively austere and has a degree of
resemblance to Theravada.)
Mahayana Buddhism contains elements derived from Tantrism, an occult
Indian mystical system that is associated with methods of inducing
altered states of consciousness, including esoteric sexual practices;
hence much of its fascination for certain Westerners. The following
comments apply mainly to Theravada Buddhism.
The role of belief in Buddhism
One of the ways in which Buddhism differs from religions such as
Christianity is that it is not much concerned with questions of belief.
You don't become a Buddhist in the way that you become a born-again
Christian, by undergoing an emotional conversion. Rather, you look at
the ideas of Buddhism and, if you find they appeal to you, you may
decide to incorporate them into your life. And you may practise Buddhist
meditation without necessarily calling yourself a Buddhist.
From the Buddhist point of view it is a mistake to become
preoccupied with matters of belief; these are just opinions and not of
ultimate importance. And labels don't matter either. If you make a big
fuss about identifying yourself as a Buddhist you've probably
misunderstood what Buddhism actually is!
Beliefs are seen as attitudes of mind, and therefore neither to be
fought against nor adhered to. This has important consequences. It
means, for example, that there is no need for Buddhists to get into a
quandary about science. Unlike Biblical literalists, Buddhists have no
problem with Darwinian evolution. It's hard to think of any scientific
discovery or theory that would threaten essential Buddhism.
God in Buddhism
Buddhism has often been called an atheistic religion, but this is
misleading. The true Buddhist position is more that of standing aside
from questions about God. The Judaeo-Christian religions postulate a God
who creates the world, but for Buddhists the world is simply there. It
has the properties it has, and that is all we can say about it.
Gods do figure in Buddhist tradition, being inherited from Hinduism, but
they are not creators; they are part of the cosmos, subject to death
like other beings. And it is unnecessary to be concerned with them; as a
monk once remarked to Richard Gombrich, "Gods are nothing to do with
It is thus perfectly possible to be an atheistic Buddhist, whereas it is
difficult to be an atheistic Christian (although some modern theologians
seem to have managed it). But given the Buddhist attitude to dependence
on beliefs, agnosticism might be the better option for the Buddhist.
For Christians, the problem of reconciling God's omnipotence with his
benevolence is notoriously difficult. For Buddhists there is no such
problem; the world is simply what it is and we don't have to explain or
justify the existence of suffering within it.
The soul in Buddhism
The question of the soul is a difficult one for most religions today,
since it appears to entail some form of mind–body dualism, which is
hard to maintain in the face of our modern awareness of the critical
importance of the brain as the basis of mind and personality. But a
materialist understanding of the mind doesn't pose any real difficulty
In fact, one of the central
teachings of the Buddha was that there is no persisting Self. Of course,
on the practical level we all do have a personality, which persists,
with changes, throughout our lives; but the Buddha decisively rejected
the view that there is some over-arching Self or Spirit beyond this.
Buddhism and Western philosophy
As has often been remarked, the Buddha's teaching about the self is
remarkably similar to the view of David Hume. Arthur Schopenhauer's
philosophy resembles Buddhism to a considerable extent, as he
recognised, although he seems to have arrived at his views before he
heard about Buddhism. Among modern philosophers, Derek Parfit and Galen
Strawson have noted the relevance of Buddhism to their ideas. The
psychologist Susan Blackmore, likewise, finds her view of the mind to
have much in common with Buddhism; she has practised Zen meditation for
Rebirth in Buddhism
This is probably the Buddhist idea that most often troubles Western
intellectuals who feel some attraction to Buddhism. In fact, it's quite a
difficult question for Buddhists themselves, because, as noted above, it's a
fundamental notion in Buddhism that there is no persisting Self—no
detachable soul which could continue from one life to the next. Yet the Buddha
appears to have accepted the Indian belief in rebirth, which was already current
in his time.
But how could this be, if there is nothing to continue from one life to the
next? One explanation offered is that the last thoughts of the dying person
condition the birth of someone who is due to be born later. But this doesn't
seem to be a fully satisfactory answer, and it raises as many problems as it
At least one prominent Buddhist teacher in modern times is reported to have
rejected the rebirth idea. My own experience of Theravada monks in Britain has
been that they adopt a non-committal attitude to the matter. All the emphasis is
on the here and now, with little being said about any possible future or past
The Buddha himself consistently refused to be drawn into metaphysical questions
of this kind, and it is still entirely possible for someone to practise Buddhist
meditation and call themselves a Buddhist while being agnostic about rebirth or
even dismissing it altogether as an outmoded belief. Belief, once again, is not
The wider picture
In his book on the Buddha Michael Carrithers (see below) writes: "His teaching
was suited to a world of different political philosophies and different
religions, but a world in which certain basic values must guide personal
relations if we are to live together at all, and it is difficult to see how that
mastery could be irrelevant to us." It's hard to disagree with this.
Many of us today feel that the world is faced by almost insuperable problems:
war, terrorism, ecological and environmental catastrophe. All these things arise
from our own minds; they are in principle soluble, but the solutions appear to
be beyond our reach. What makes them unattainable is largely human greed and
short-sightedness. We are blinded by our own desires, and trample on others and
destroy our world in order to attain our ends.
A world in which Buddhist values were the norm rather than the
exception would certainly be a pleasanter place to live in. It may
be that such a state is unattainable, but unless we at least approach it
there seems little chance that our society will endure for very long.
This is surely something that concerns secularists as much as the
religiously minded; in fact, rather more so, since for secularists this
is the only world we have.
Here are some of the books that I have found valuable in learning
more about Buddhism. There are many others that might have been cited,
but these should give a balanced introduction to the subject. More
extended reviews of some of them can be found on my book reviews page
in the religion
category, along with reviews of books on related subjects.
The Bodhisattva's Brain: Buddhism Naturalized, by Owen
Flanagan. This is a new (2011) examination of Buddhism by an
analytic philosopher with a good knowledge of the subject. Essential
reading for anyone interested in the naturalistic approach to
Buddhism—strongly recommended. (Review available)
The Buddha, by Michael Carrithers (Past Masters: Oxford University
A short but very good "biography" of the Buddha, with an exposition of
the basic teaching. (Review available)
Theravada Buddhism, by Richard Gombrich (Routledge and Kegan Paul:
London and New York).
An excellent and detailed account of the origin and development of
Theravada Buddhism, from the earliest time to the present day. It gives
a good sociological impression of how Buddhism works in practice as a
Buddhism: its essence and development, by Edward Conze (New York,
Hagerstown, San Francisco, London).
Conze was a scholar who specialized in Buddhism. The book reflects a
rather older view of the subject (it was first published in 1951) but is
still worth reading.
The Buddhist Religion, by Richard H. Robinson and Willard L.
Johnson (Wadsworth Publishing Company: Belmont, California).
This book provides a historical overview of the development of
Buddhism as a whole, including the Mahayana. It is one of the best
places to find a general picture of Buddhism. But probably few
people will read it from cover to cover, and it is probably best suited
to dipping into or using as a mini-encyclopaedia about Buddhism.
The Monk and the Philosopher: East Meets West in a Father-Son
Dialogue, by Jean-François Revel and Matthieu Ricard; translated
by John Canti (Thorsons, London).
J-F Revel is an eminent French philosopher; M. Ricard, his son, is a
former scientist who has become a Buddhist monk. This book is the record
of a conversation between them in which they compare their ideas.
Teachings of a Buddhist Monk, by Ajahn Sumedho (Buddhist Publishing
Ajahn Sumedho was for a long time the Abbot of Amaravati, a large
Theravada monastery in southern England. American by birth, he is a
highly respected teacher who trained for 10 years in Thailand under one
of the best-known Thai masters, the late Ajahn Chah. His talks have been
collected and published; they are extremely readable and are one of the
best sources to get a feeling for what Buddhism is like in practice.
The Heart of Buddhism, by Guy Claxton (Crucible: Wellingborough).
Claxton is an academic psychologist who has written books on education
and on Eastern religions, especially Buddhism. He recommends Buddhism as
a path to mental health and stability in a fractured world.
Greek Buddha: Pyrrho's Encounter with Early Buddhism, by
Christopher I. Beckwith.
A scholarly study of Early Buddhism, tracing its probable influence
on the Greek school of sceptical philosophy known as Pyrrhonism. The
book contains some revolutionary but well-researched ideas about how
Buddhism developed and who the Buddha was. (Review available)