Revealed Religion Vs. Dharma

Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism and Hinduism (Sanatana Dharma) are dharmic religions. Hinduism is really a mix. For example, the Vedas are revealed, but the Upanishads are dharma. Unfortunately, dharmic religions are often painted with the same brush as revealed religion.

The Abrahamic religions were revealed by God and for this reason, orthodox Christians (including evangelicals and fundamentalists) and Muslims (possibly excluding sufis) cannot question their revealed texts. Jews on the other hand are encouraged to question. Israel means “He who struggles with God.” I am not sure what is behind this difference, but this is one of the things I admire about Judaism.

For dharmic religions, I will stick to Buddhism as that is what I know. A dharmic religion is supposed to be just how things are. Buddhadharma is sort of like the laws of physics, only they describe the inner world. It is a map of the inner states of mind. The ethics that are advocated support generating these subtle states of mind. In other words, the external practices are about supporting the internal states.

The only faith required is enough faith in the practices to try them. If you follow the Buddha’s recommendations, you are supposed to find out for yourself what he says is true. So far, so good in my experience, but I still have a long way to go.

In the kalama sutra, the Buddha says not to accept anything until it makes sense to you. This even includes what he has said. Also the sutras are fallible. The truth is in your experience.

Words can never express these experiences adequately and therefore are fallible. This is why a teacher in Buddhism is important. The teacher has presumably already had the experiences and can guide you. Of course there are bad teachers and problematic teachers, but these are openly discussed in the Buddhist community.

Openness is considered a virtue in Buddhism. Turning a teaching into a dogma is considered closed-minded and discouraged. When I would talk about ideas I read in the sutras, my Zen teacher would say, “Those are pretty words. What is your experience?”

The purpose of all of this is to become a more compassionate person and to end your personal mental suffering. An excellent example of the fruits of Buddhism would be the work of Thich Nhat Hanh during the Vietnam war. He gave medical aid to any injured person regardless of what side they were on. When the North won, he was exiled as an enemy of the state for helping South Vietnamese and American soldiers.

There is considerable violence in the Bible and the Koran. I haven’t yet seen any violence in the sutras. The Buddhist canon is huge, so I may never know if there are violent passages.

Unfortunately, Buddhists have on occasion been responsible for violence. There is a Buddhist monk in Burma (the Burmese don’t consider Myanmar a legitimate government) is leading Buddhists to violently oppressed the Muslims in that country. In Sri Lanka, the Sinhalese oppress the Tamils. The Japanese Buddhists collaborated with the emperor’s war machine in the early 20th century.

Any ideology can be used to dehumanize and oppress others, not just religion. Look at all of the people killed in the name of communism. I think killing in the name of any ideology happens when it is taken too dogmatically.

The important distinction between the inerrant word of God of the Abrahamic religions and a dharma which has been discovered by a man like the Buddha is often missing is discussions of religion. If you are searching to find the truth whatever it may be, it should be done with the best available information. Not all religions are equal. In fact, dharmic religions aren’t really considered religions by their adherents. They are simply dharmas.

©2017 Stephen L. Martin

Graphic: Symbols of the dharmas of India. Clockwise from upper left: Om the symbol of Hinduism, Khanda the symbol of Sikhism, Dharmachakra the symbol of Buddhism, Jain Prateek Chihna the symbol of Jainism. License: Pradyumnas741, Dharmic religions, CC BY-SA 4.0

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