Buddhism is winning converts beyond its traditional heartland but for many Westerners its message remains alien.
Donald S. Lopez Jr., professor of Buddhist studies at the University of Michigan, said the faith's hallmark is that "a permanent, indivisible, autonomous self is an illusion and that the belief in such a self is the cause of all suffering." This ignorance about the nature of things must be overcome.
The ultimate aim is to escape the endless cycle of death and rebirth into other lives and life forms ("reincarnation") and reach a state where desire and conscious attachment that cause suffering are extinguished ("nirvana").
This can be achieved by overcoming ignorance about reality and accumulating merit through deeds and devotions during the course of many lifetimes.
Lopez offers an accessible introduction in "The Story of Buddhism" (HarperSanFrancisco). The work underscores that Buddhism's scriptures are radically different from the Bible.
Though the Buddha's birth is traditionally placed at 563 B.C., there's no reference to his teachings being written down until 29-17 B.C. A longer gap, some 1,000 years, separates the Buddha's life from the earliest written accounts about it.
By contrast, even liberal-skeptical scholars see a gap of only four to seven decades between Jesus' death and the final written form of the four Gospels that recount his life and teachings.
The result, Lopez contends: "It is impossible to know precisely what the Buddha taught," so authorship and authority are vexing matters.
"Strictly speaking," Lopez writes, all teachings attributed to the Buddha "are apocryphal because none can be identified with complete certainty as a record of the teaching of the historical Buddha."
Another result is the rift among Buddhism's three major branches about what constitutes the scriptures, which is vastly more severe than such differences among Christians. The Yale scholar Jaroslav Pelikan wrote that nowhere in world religion is the problem of defining the scriptures "more acute and more complicated."
An additional aspect is that the scriptures present teachings of the Buddha that conflict with each other. Again, there are far fewer similar problems with the Bible.
For instance, along with the Buddha's fundamental "no-self" doctrine, the scriptures also quote him as saying "the self is one's protecter."
And consider the Buddha's practice of refusing to allow women to enter his religious order. Many were wives who had been forsaken when their husbands became monks, the case with the Buddha himself. When the Buddha was finally persuaded to change, he prescribed eight laws establishing that nuns were inferior to monks.
Or did he? The account was written centuries after the Buddha lived, and by celibate monks, so feminists are naturally suspicious. Ultimately, "what the Buddha actually said or did is inaccessible," Lopez concludes.
Westerners sampling the "ocean" or "baskets" often read "A Buddhist Bible" (Beacon), a collection by Congregationalist-turned-Buddhist Dwight Goddard.
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