I will answer from the perspective of a Buddhist who was raised Christian. Religion is a Western concept to describe the Abrahamic faiths. They are religions because they were revealed by God and are about obedience, faith and devotion.
Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism and Sikhism consider themselves dharmas. Dharma means natural law, like the laws of physics.
I cannot speak to the other three, but in Buddhism, the dharma is the natural laws of our inner–experience and the nature of ultimate reality. Out of respect to Hinduism, Jainism and Sikhism, I like to use the more specific term Buddhadharma.
Ultimate reality is neither the reality of the physicist nor does it conflict with it (As far as I know. I haven’t experienced ultimate reality yet.). Physics is a verbal description, a set of models, that are used to make predictions about reality. It is a intellectual process.
Science is a wonderful thing. It has improved our living standards and Buddhism is all about ending suffering. Buddhists who are familiar with science, believe in evolution and the big bang. There is no reason not to. The Dalai Lama said that any teachings of the Buddha that conflict with science should be discarded.
The experience of ultimate reality as I currently understand it, is experiencing both the inner and outer worlds directly without the mediation of the discursive mind. In other words, when you see a tree, you experience it fully. You see brown bark and green leaves. You hear them rustle in the breeze. That’s it. There are no thoughts about it. There is no distraction. There is only experience.
The Buddhadharma was not revealed, but discovered by a man who became awakened (enlightened) and is now known as the Buddha (awakened one). It is as if we are asleep until we experience the Buddhadharma for ourselves. The Buddha only asks that we have enough faith to try out the practices and see if he is right. The focus is on experience, not on gospel. In the kalama sutra (a sutra is a Buddhist scripture), the Buddha says not to believe it, even if he himself said it, until you have experienced it for yourself.
There is no creator god in Buddhism. The Buddha even approached the question of the existence of a creator differently depending on the student. The Buddha always taught according to the student’s understanding. This method of teaching is called skillful means.
The Buddha didn’t want his students speculating about metaphysical subjects like the existence of God, when there were more important things—from a Buddhist perspective—for the student to do, like ending their suffering.
He would tell atheists, there is a God and tell theists, there isn’t a God. He wasn’t being a troll. He was shaking these people out of their rigidly held views. Rigid views prevent the experience of things as they are.
When pressed, the Buddha would say the question of the existence of God is irrelevant. This is why Buddhism is considered non-theistic rather an atheistic.
I once heard someone say, “If there is a God, your beliefs about him will get in the way of you experiencing him.” In other words, Buddhism is about discovering things by personal experience rather than having beliefs about it.
There are supernatural elements in Buddhism such as karma, rebirth and beings on other planes. I don’t accept these supernatural bits. Yet, Buddhism still holds together and makes sense to me.
There are scholars who say that rebirth was only taught to the laity, not to the monks. The laity in ancient India would have grown up believing in reincarnation. The Buddha may have been respecting that belief and using it to illustrate points. This could be another example of skillful means. He met them where they were in the understanding of reality. I have also found references to a sutra that attempts to explain rebirth naturalistically using iron-age “physics”.
The focus of Buddhism is on spiritual practice. The most well-known practice is meditation. What isn’t commonly known is that there are a wide variety of meditations taught in Buddhism. There are meditations to cultivate compassion, loving-kindness and equanimity.
There are calming meditations that result in the senses dropping away, so that one is alone with her or his mind. This cultivates understanding of one’s mind. There are other practices that give insight into the nature of reality.
Christians have religious experience too. I am not denigrating that. However for the Christian, belief comes first and one’s experience is interpreted in terms of this belief. To do otherwise for the orthodox Christian would be going against the word of God. You will find elements of faith and devotion in Buddhism, particularly in the Mahayana and Vajrayana schools, but they are secondary.
Orthodox Christians believe that a Christian who embraces Buddhism is guilty of a sin. No Buddhist I know would have a problem if another Buddhist combined Buddhism and Christianity. I am sure they are out there, but that would be due to an individual’s prejudice not due to the Buddhadharma.
It should be clear by now that a dharma is considerably different than a revealed religion like the Abrahamic faiths. A dharma shouldn’t be painted with the same brush. In other words, the truth of the beliefs of a revealed religion should be made in comparison to the beliefs of other revealed religions. The truth of a dharma is best tested in one’s experience.
Guess what? Buddhist pray. Who do they pray to? No one. They are expressing their heartfelt wishes for the growth, happiness and freedom of everyone. Opening your heart like that is a wonderful practice.
Which dharma is correct? If you compare Buddhism to Hinduism, there are three major differences. Hinduism asserts there is a creator, there is a soul and accepts the Vedas as being revealed by God. Revealed by God? Although Hindus coined the term dharma, they also have elements of revealed religion as well.
For me, I like the simplicity, directness of Buddhism as well as its lack of a creator over the complexity and theism of Hinduism. However, it is not either/or. There are some practices from Hinduism that I use to support my Buddhist practice.
Jainism is not very practical in the modern world. The monks practice austerities and sweep the ground in front of them to prevent them from killing insects. However, they have no creator either.
Guru Nanak developed Sikhism to try to reconcile Hinduism with Islam and bring the two factions to peace. Like Muslims and Hindus, they believe in a God. By attempting to reconcile the two elements of revealed religion were fused with a dharma.
When one experiences ultimate reality, she or he may come away convinced they have had an experience of God. I think how you experience ultimate reality depends on your belief. In other words, I think there is a universality to spiritual experience. The difference is in your interpretation of the experience.
Aldous Huxley called the universality of spiritual experience, the perennial philosophy. After all, the brains of the practitioners of the various religions and dharmas have the similar brains, so they the brain structure responsible for spiritual experience should be roughly the same. Unless, the different spiritual practices of two practitioners causes each of their brains to change in different ways.
The perennial philosophy emphasizes that which is universal to all spiritual experience. Buddhism seems to me to be the most direct path to those experiences.
Not all religions and dharmas cultivate all of the experiences. Buddhism and Hinduism both use tranquility practice to cultivate a state known as samadhi. What sets Buddhism apart are the insight practices that give one insights into the nature of reality that are not found in Hinduism.
If we compare religions and dharmas to competing models in science, in my opinion Buddhism is the model that has applied Occam’s razor the most to itself. So yeah, although, I have great respect for other faiths and dharmas and often use their teachings and practices, Buddhism to me seems to be a more accurate model of the inner world.
©2017 Stephen L. Martin
Photograph: 1893 Parliament of world’s religions, Chicago