The concern of Buddhism is with man rather than with the material universe. The phenomenal world is held to be without substance and to be in a constant condition of flux. Man himself is no less impermanent than the material world. He neither is nor contains a self, but is rather a bundle of phenomena whose body is part of the transient, physical world. Man is a union of a succession of mental and physical phenomena, always dissolving and disintegrating. He constitutes five ways of “grasping”: the body; perception; cognition; mental phenomena; and consciousness. He is subject to the cycle of becoming and passing [samsara]. His condition is one of suffering and this characterizes all existence. Suffering is occasioned by lust and by pleasure, and to liberate man from suffering is the impulse of all Buddhist teaching. Everything is subject to the cycle of birth and death. Rebirth is believed to occur in different hierarchically conceived realms, usually represented as five:—as gods, as men, as spirits, as animals, or in hell (and sometimes a sixth—as demons). Of these statuses, that of man is the one in which liberation is most readily attainable, even if still remotely. Animals are too dull to reach out for liberation, and gods are too haughty.
A law of karma operates as a neutral, incorruptible process according to which past deeds constitute causes which have consequences that become effective in subsequent lives. Thus, the condition experienced in present existence is regarded as having been caused by past deeds. Although karma is not totally deterministic, quality, circumstance, and physical appearance are determined by karma. None the less, actions remain free, and motives as well as actions give effect to karma. Good deeds are held to improve the prospects of future lives. Rebirth into future lives does not imply a belief in a soul, however, since man is not regarded as having any psychic continuity of being. Each life is the impulse for the next rebirth. Thus, there is a “conditioned origination”, and lives are like links in a causal chain. Each life has a conditioned dependence on previous lives, as one flame is lighted from another.
The idea of sin, as a central item in the Christian scheme of salvation and damnation, as an offence against god(s) is also lacking in Buddhism. Rather there are wholesome and unwholesome acts, leading towards or away from ultimate liberation from the chain of rebirths and suffering.
The idea of sin, as a central item in the Christian scheme of salvation and damnation, as an offence against god(s) is also lacking in Buddhism. Rather there are wholesome and unwholesome acts, leading towards or away from ultimate liberation from the chain of rebirths and suffering. Man is locked into the system of recurrent rebirths through desire (craving). Pleasure, lust, delight, attachment, the craving for becoming or destroying, must all result in suffering. Liberation from attachment and craving will cause suffering to cease. That liberation from the chain of rebirths is attained as Nirvana, the cessation of craving, and this is to be achieved only by enlightenment. Those who strive for it will attain it sooner or later, and so banish their ignorance. Total enlightenment, which brings Nirvana, must be attained by each individual for himself. Whilst he may be assisted by instruction, he must, none the less, tread the path for himself. In contrast to the teachings of orthodox Christianity, in Theravada Buddhism it is maintained that no heavenly being can intercede for the believer, nor render him any assistance in his quest for salvation, nor can this goal be attained by prayer. Nirvana itself is not nothingness, as it has sometimes been represented by Christians, but is seen as a state of bliss, deathlessness, purity, truth, and everlasting peace, reached by extinguishing all passion. It is the realization of “non-selfness”.
Practical endeavour towards achieving liberation consists in treading the eight-fold path of right views; right resolve; right speech; right conduct; right livelihood; right effort; right awareness; and right meditation. All of these injunctions are to be pursued simultaneously. To fail to do this is not to commit sins of omission, but merely to fail to act in accordance with enlightened self-interest. Adherents are also abjured to observe ten prohibitions; to renounce the ten bonds which tie men to the ego; and to renounce the immoral acts proscribed. But the emphasis is on practising loving-kindness rather than merely maintaining the canons of morality. The whole point of religious practice is to overcome suffering by overcoming the delusion of ego, and thus to thwart the cycle of rebirths and of transmigration.
Like other ancient religions, Buddhism has been the recipient of extraneous residues from the folk religions of the regions in which it has taken root, and thus among one of numerous alien “deposits” to be found both in its formal body of ancient teaching and in the actual practice of contemporary Buddhists in Theravada lands is acceptance of the idea of the existence of gods. These beings are not regarded as required objects of worship, fulfill no special role, and are altogether peripheral to the central themes of Buddhist soteriology, persisting merely as residues or accretions from other religious traditions which practical Buddhism tolerates and accommodates.
Finally, it may be noted that there is no traditional parochial organization in Buddhism. Monks have no pastoral obligations. Although in recent decades, some monks have sometimes taken up educational tasks or worked for social welfare, their traditional concerns have always been primarily if not exclusively with their own salvation, and not with community service or pastoral care of the laity. They afford the laity opportunities to make merit, and hence to create good karma, solely by providing laymen with the opportunity to provide alms for monks by replenishing the begging-bowl which each of them carries and which symbolizes their poverty and dependence.
This overview of Theravada Buddhist teaching makes clear the sharp contrast between this religion and Christianity. There is no creator-god, and hence worship is of a radically different kind from that prevailing in the Christian churches. There is no conception of original sin, no idea of a personal saviour or of divine intercession. The idea of an immortal soul with continuity of consciousness is absent, and Nirvana or unending rebirths contrast sharply with the traditional Christian idea of glory or eternal punishment. There is no dualism of flesh and spirit. By no means least important, the conception of history is not of the linear variety, such as is found in the Christian scheme of primeval happiness, the fall of man, the vicarious self-sacrifice of deity, global apocalypse, and an eventual resurrection of the saved elite to heavenly glory. The cyclical scheme of rebirths is an orientation which has profound implications for other facets of the Buddhist worldview, and one which differs from the western conceptions of time, progress, work and material achievement. Although, in the past, often condemned as an atheistic system, regarding an impersonal law as the ultimate power in the universe, and remote from traditional western preconceptions of what “true religion” should resemble, none the less, Buddhism is today universally recognized as a religion.