Buddhism and the Supernatural
I have looked elsewhere at whether Buddhism can properly be called a religion or not and concluded that it really depends on which school of Buddhism you are talking about. Some Buddhist traditions are as religious as they come, including elements that any self-respecting religion has in spades; ritual, metaphysical speculation, reliance on arguments from authority, appeals to a supernatural being, etc., yet others have none of these trappings and more fittingly answer to the name philosophy than religion. What I would like to do in this article is step back from this kind of detailed appraisal of the various schools of Buddhism and look at what I consider to be the essential difference that makes Buddhism, in any form, fundamentally different from all other religions.
Perhaps unsurprisingly this difference revolves around the supernatural but since we aren’t concerning ourselves with the actual practices and beliefs of different Buddhist schools we won’t need to look at the specific supernatural beliefs each of them hold. Instead, we will ask whether these traditions still make sense even if those supernatural beliefs are removed. This means we can treat Buddhism as a whole rather than having to specify this school or that practice. The guiding question then is this; “Does Buddhism make sense in the absence of the supernatural?”
Perhaps the best way to begin to investigate this question is by looking at another religion, one which fully deserves that designation; Christianity. Now, any meaningful definition of Christianity MUST make explicit reference to the supernatural, i.e. Jesus as saviour, God and heaven at least, if not throwing in Satan and hell as well just for good measure. If you remove these elements from Christianity, quite simply, there is nothing left.
Ask yourself what lies at the core of Christianity. You might be tempted to say things like “love thy neighbour” and “do unto others” (neither of which are exclusively Christian, by the way), but that would be to miss the entire point of Christianity. Yes, Jesus did say those things (although he certainly wasn’t the first to do so) but if you think they are at the core of Christianity, you clearly haven’t been to church recently or read the bible very closely.
Those tenets don’t arise in a vacuum; on the contrary, they are surrounded and supported by an entire supernatural edifice. Why does Jesus urge us to love our neighbour? Because it’s fair? No. Because it will make for a happy life here and now? No. Because God told us to. Because if we do, our eternal souls will go to heaven when we die. Even “neo-Christians”, who pretend to reject the supernatural but still think we need Christianity to ground our morality in, reveal their intellectual sham when they find themselves taking refuge in this supernatural framework to legitimise (“God said so”) or force us to adhere to (“God is watching”) our moral injunctions.
But can’t we just drop the supernatural mumbo jumbo and run with the good stuff? Why must we remain bound by the primitive beliefs of past generations? Even if I’m right in saying that Christianity was inextricably linked to the supernatural in the past, why can’t we change this and centre it on things like so-called “Christian love”?
Well, we can, after all we defined Christianity in the first place, but it seems to me that such a sweeping redefinition would remove the very essence of Christianity; that is, what makes Christianity what it is and what makes it different from other fields of inquiry. How would this new “de-supernaturalised” Christianity different from secular humanism or philosophy? How is “Christian love” different from “love” if we discard explicitly Christian notions like God, heaven and redemption? Clearly it isn’t. If you want to appeal to the non-supernatural to explain, endorse or justify love, there is already a lengthy, distinguished tradition at hand in the study of philosophy. Dressing Christianity up in philosopher’s robes though is an insult to both fields.
This suggests a general formula - if you “de-supernaturalise” Christian X, then you are just left with X. In other words, Christianity stripped of the supernatural (God, heaven, redemption, etc.) becomes completely hollowed out (having lost its essence), 100% redundant (since we have other disciplines that cater to our non-supernatural needs) and no longer recognisable as Christianity. The bottom line here is that the supernatural is absolutely indispensable to Christianity and the same can be said for almost every single religion you can think of – certainly the big ones; i.e. Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism.
What about Buddhism?
First of all Buddhism is unique in that it’s founder never claimed to be a prophet for some deity (or in Christianity’s case, the son of a deity) and he explicitly refused to answer metaphysical questions (What happens after we die? Where did we come from before we were born? How did the universe come into being? And so on…) saying that the answer to those questions wouldn’t affect the answer to the only question that matters; how should I live?
Of course, since the Buddha’s time an entire supernatural edifice has sprung up featuring deities, transcendent realms, supernatural powers, etc. and even the original teachings of the Buddha included supernatural elements; most noticeably reincarnation, karma and the cycle of birth and death. So, although Buddhism is not without its supernatural crutches, does it still make sense if we force it to stand on its own two feet?
In the same way that Christianity is entirely fixated on Jesus redeeming our sins and preserving our eternal souls, Buddhism is equally fixated on attaining enlightenment. Now, this term tends to conjure up images of a mystical, transcendent state of being attained after years of esoteric meditation practice but the truth is far more prosaic than this. Enlightenment describes nothing more than the mental state of a person whose life is free of suffering. This is clearly visible when one looks at the absolute core of Buddhism, the centrepiece all schools of Buddhism revolve around; the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path.
The Four Noble Truths:
1. The truth of suffering/discontentment
2. The arising of suffering/discontentment
3. The cessation of suffering/discontentment
4. The path to the cessation of suffering; i.e. the Noble Eightfold Path
The Noble Eightfold Path:
1. Right View
2. Right Thinking
3. Right Speech
4. Right Action
5. Right livelihood
6. Right Diligence
7. Right Mindfulness
8. Right Concentration
This is not the place to investigate what each of these things actually mean in any detail but for our purposes we can clearly see that there is no mention of anything even remotely supernatural. The Four Noble Truths focus exclusively on suffering and the fact that it can be eliminated. The Noble Eightfold Path gives instructions on how to accomplish this. It’s that simple.
Now hold on. Since I asked why Jesus commanded us to love our neighbour I had better put the same question to the Buddha. Why should we buy into any of his “Truths” or follow his “Path”? Is it so we can live forever in a post-life paradise? No. In fact Buddhism is by and large, silent on what happens after we die (remarkable for a so-called ‘religion’). Is it because the Buddha told us to? No. In fact, he explicitly said we ought not to take anything on faith. Rather he urged us to try it for ourselves. If it works, use it. If it doesn’t, throw it. (Contrast this with Christianity or Islam where faith is the absolute supreme virtue) Is it because some peeping-Tom deity will be pleased with your efforts and elect to save your eternal soul? Hardly. So, why should we do any of this stuff then? Because if you do, you will live a peaceful life free from suffering, not in some future idyllic incarnation but here and now. That is the essence of Buddhism stripped of supernatural mumbo jumbo.
But couldn’t someone just argue that reincarnation and karma are central to Buddhism in the same way I argued that God, heaven and redemption are essential to Christianity? The short answer is no. Buddhism is, and always has been, heavily concerned with investigating the human mind and the way we create our own suffering with it. In a very real way, Buddhism can be considered a user’s manual for the human mind. We can see a specific example of this by comparing Buddhist meditation to its new age counterpart. The latter is almost always an attempt to get in touch with some Higher something/someone, manipulate energy or experience a deeper, mystical reality. The former is merely about watching and learning; watching what the mind does and learning how the thoughts it throws up impact us, for better or for worse, and how we might control this process. All done not in order to appease a nosy deity but to eliminate suffering right now and realise peace and happiness in this life.
There are many differences between Buddhism and religion; so many in fact that Buddhism’s designation as a religion has (quite rightly) been called into question. While it is certainly profitable to investigate these differences at the level of the individual beliefs/practices of various schools and denominations, I feel the difference that really makes the difference reveals itself only when one steps back and adopts a wider perspective.
I have argued that, while certain Buddhist schools have become bogged down in the supernatural, Buddhism as a whole is unique among religions in that it doesn’t depend on it the way others do. Relegating belief in God or Allah to an “optional extra” makes an absolute mockery of Christianity and Islam in a way that jettisoning karma and reincarnation from Buddhism quite simply doesn’t. Not only does “de-supernaturalising” Buddhism still leave us with a valuable and unique tradition, it stays true to many of the original teachings of the Buddha, a human man with an idea who never claimed to be anything more.