Two problems of Buddhism

May 6, 2009 | By | 16 Replies More

One of Andrew Sullivan’s readers wrote to say that Buddhism had two fundamental flaws:

A) It dodges the issue of death “through the conceit of reincarnation.”  and

B) It “blames victims for their circumstances (karma).”

Succinct and persuasive arguments, in my mind.   Yet I, just like this reader, am sympathetic to many of the other ideas offered by Buddhism.


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Category: Religion

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (16)

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  1. Alison says:

    Buddhism was one of the many options I studied during my years of spiritual exploration. While it holds a great deal of wisdom, it still relies on the afterlife as a source of reward. Because you are supposed to strive towards a permanent afterlife (no more reincarnations) life is characterized as suffering. Even understanding that it's a comparative term, I really couldn't see living my life as something I had to endure to make myself good enough for Nirvana. No Boddhisatva, I!

  2. Tony Coyle says:

    Alison – I think the concept of afterlife is one thing that turns me away from religion entirely.

    I'd prefer to be remembered for my deeds and my impact. I don't need (or intend) to hang around forever.

    When life was 'short and generally brutal' – I suppose an afterlife was appealing: a release from aches and pains and trouble. I prefer to work for a longer productive life on earth, than hope for everlasting life afterward. I'd rather do good things now – simply and selfishly to improve the environment for myself and my family, but with the side effect of improving it for everyone else too.

    Waiting for god, I'd be tempted to do 'just enough', rather than 'as much as I possibly can'.

    In any case – that is only a dilemma for those who believe. I don't.

  3. Rabel says:

    There was an Asian-Indian man who talked to a tree, and asked, "how many more lives must I live?" The tree replied, "as many leaves are on this tree." The man gave thanks and accepted his fate.

    Not everyone has a Saul(Paul)experience; to be knocked off and blinded for 3 days on the way to Damascus…and then preach the Gospel like there is no tomorrow. Sometimes, the caboose(unemotions) runs the train.

    Tony, I believe our politics are expressed from our eternal beliefs. I know it changed my political biases. Now, I understand you more. How sad and lonely it must feel that this physical life is all we have?

    • Erich Vieth says:

      Rabel: That you think it "sad and lonely" to reject supernatural (I would call it "sub-natural") explanations, shows that you don't understand Tony (or me or many of the other authors at this site).

      From my viewpoint, it is neither sad nor lonely to live the life you actually are living on Earth. It is full of amazing things. You can connect with wonderful people, many of whom also life fully in this world. When you live in this world, morality and meaning come from deep down in your bones; they are not imposed on you from the outside. Therefore you earn who you are and what you accomplish through your thoughtfulness and your hard work. You don't see life as a treasure-hunt, where you gain a big prize by bowing down to a despot (even a kindly despot) or by uttering words you consider to be "magic" because they come from a "holy" book.

  4. Tony Coyle says:

    Rabel – how constrained your life must be to think mine sad and lonely.

    Far from 'sad and lonely' my life is full of human riches. Friends and family, music, art, science, and literature. Even work that I enjoy.

    My contributions are what fuel me – the contributions of others guide me – the thanks and friendship of others is my reward.

    The magic in my life is the joy I see in my children when they master a goal.

    I don't need a sky fairy for any of that.

    I feel sad for you that your human life is so empty you need to fill it with superstition.

  5. lisa rokusek says:

    Funny, in my experience of Buddhism there is neither a focus on reincarnation, nor a desire to get to some other spiritual plane. And I personally think one misunderstands karma if one sees it as a cosmic boomerang of retribution and payback.

    What I get from studying authors like Thich Nhat Hanh and Mingyur Rinpoche (2 different approaches to Buddhist theory)is a means for living well in the here and now. We live best when we live mindfully present in whatever we are doing and opt out of the worry, compulsive what ifs and constant monkeymind so common in our present world.

    This type of Buddhism is more about waking us up to the clarity, compassion and ability to live in the now within us through meditation and mindful practice – so as to allow us (and others)to escape suffering.

    I like this quote:

    Suffering recedes to the extent we let go of the framework of grasping. The mind that grasps is the mind that sets us free – Mingyur Rinpoche

    So, for me, and at least in this type, Buddhism doesn't point us anywhere other than ourselves in our here and now. I find that amazingly satisfying and challenging. It has awakened me to a new level of awareness and possibility for compassion.

    “The miracle is not to walk on water. The miracle is to walk on the green earth, dwelling deeply in the present moment and feeling truly alive.” Thich Nhat Hanh

    “Smiling is very important. If we are not able to smile, then the world will not have peace. It is not by going out for a demonstration against nuclear missiles that we can bring about peace. It is with our capacity of smiling, breathing, and being peace that we can make peace.” Thich Nhat Hanh

    “Sometimes your joy is the source of your smile, but sometimes your smile can be the source of your joy.” Thich Nhat Hanh

    “A bodhisattva is someone who has compassion within himself or herself and who is able to make another person smile or help someone suffer less. Every one of us is capable of this.” Thich Nhat Hanh

  6. Alison says:

    Tony, that is exactly what drove my epiphany towards atheism. No matter what spiritual belief you might choose, there is always the possibility that you're either following the wrong one, or doing it wrong. You won't know, supposedly, until after you're dead – and nobody's ever had a credible encounter, personally, with a dead person to make sure they're on the right path. The anxiety it caused knowing that there was no way to be sure until it was too late was very high. I'm the kind of person who asks "is something wrong?" before it's obvious that there is, and apologizes and admits mistakes so that communications with other people don't shut down. (Partly because of this, Rabel, my life is anything but lonely!) I'm no pushover, and have lively discussions with people who disagree with me that never escalate into arguments – much easier to do in person than on the internet, to be sure! The feedback is immediate; I know where I stand with people, so I never have to wonder if I'm doing right or wrong. No time is wasted in fruitless worrying about eternal punishment for an innocent mistake.

    The interesting thing is that this allows me to live in the now, to be here and aware and mindful. Buddhism and some of the other practices I tried in order to accomplish this never did, and required a great deal of work as well. It's amusing and ironic that abandoning spirituality made me more "spiritual" than pursuing it ever did.

  7. karen says:

    Hi all So true. Buddhism is flawed because it is based on the premises of reincarnation and karma, probably two non-existants. Buddhism is also flawed in some other ways. There is a great deal of emphasis on getting to Nirvana i.e. enlightened as a single person. We have had a fair number of enlightened persons, sages and prophets. However it hasn't done more than rippled the surface of our existence. Why? Because Buddhism talks about personal enlightenment. There is nothing personal about our lives. We can't live alone in any contributory way for long periods. So new buddhism is the only hope for current buddhism. That will be when we become enlightened together as one rather than individually one after the other.

  8. Amber says:

    It should be reiterated as above that "true" Buddhism not only is agnostic toward the concepts of an afterlife, but that this definition of karma you've provided is (albeit commonly) misunderstood. Buddha's descriptions of karma are really more thoroughly compared with the notion of cause and effect. What you do will have ramifications, so given those ramifications, what should you do? Karma in itself does not declare some sort of external supernatural mechanism exactly punishment or reward based on the actions taken in life—it is merely the expression and understanding of how the things we do have an impact.

    As for an afterlife, while Buddha did believe in reincarnation, the Buddhist teachings themselves do not require it at all, and in fact urge one to question them as equally as one would question any assertion that cannot be tested.

    Rejecting Buddhism is certainly within your right, but rejecting based on the notions you've provided here is simply a straw man argument.

  9. jon says:

    I would have to agree that the two "problems" show an incomplete understanding of Buddhist thought, at least how i understand it.

    @ Original- there is no dodge on the issue of death. Your body is a configuration of elements and chemicals, which will at some point, decompose into a lower form of entropy. This is unavoidable. Reincarnation is the cycle of "now" that everything is a part of. The great Truth, is an endless wave of being/non-being. You are not the same person you were when you began reading this post, and you will not be the same person 20 years from now. There is no continuation of the "self" because the "self" is an illusion- merely the experience of the "now".

    Karma- this is sanskrit for "action", which may provide a better understanding (or not). Yes, there are actions that we directly reap the consequences of, and there are times that we are entangled by the thorns that others have sown. Discerning which is which, and the arising of these deeds is part of the process of "right seeing", one of the characteristics of enlightenment.

    Enlightenment- as I understand, is not a permanent quality or achievement attained by the buddhist. It is not like the evangelical christian's saved/unsaved grouping; enlightenment is an arising of consciousness, an awareness of the moment in its fullness and fluidity. It is available to everyone immediately. we all have moments of Enlightenment balanced with darkness, but for some the enlightened periods are longer in duration.

    Nirvana- this is not a heaven you go to. And the buddhist doesn't cease to exist. Well, kind of. Nirvana is related to enlightenment like unconsciousness is related to sleep. When we "see" that the self is an intellectual construction, an illusion, then it ceases to be who "we" are. There is no "I", "we", "you". only "thus". making peace with the "thus" and walking the eightfold path is the nirvana (escape from suffering, which is a construction of the "self".)

    I probably just muddied the waters, but maybe I cleared up a point or two.


  10. Andrew says:

    In Theravada Buddhism, there is no afterlife for one who has achieved Nibbana. Instead, that person's existence is considered to have calmed to the point of non-existence, like a ripple on water. Nibbana means "extinguishment".

  11. iloveBuddha says:

    Allison- (Just saying) if you think about Christianity, aren't they supposed to be "good enough" for Heaven?

  12. MrGuyIncognito says:

    You don't even give reason for why you don't believe both Karma and Reincarnation…

    EVEN THEN, you've barely scratched the surface of Buddhism. According to the Buddha's teachings, of which the religion is based, 'Reincarnation' doesn't exist in Buddhism, it's in fact 'REBIRTH', – YOU'RE GETTING BUDDHISM CONFUSED WITH HINDUISM, REBIRTH happens when your good/bad Karma (KARMA=ACT) affects what kind of a life you start, ( your next life ), – like in Physics, where people like Newton explain that Energy cannot be started but converted/passed on, a life cannot be started but passed on.

    Rebirth doesn't 'dodge' the conceit of death by rebirth, because Rebirth is like a candle that lights another candle, the other candle in fact blows out, is that practically what death is?

    Buddhism is very Science-based. If you look into the Buddhist quotes and teachings, it clearly states that you shouldn't blindly take up his Teachings as a system but a truth, and that you shouldn't believe anything not even the Buddha's words if they don't match up to your experimentations/clarified estimations. Buddhism promotes FREEWILL and faith, because anyone can attain Nirvana(the ultimate goal in life), It's not heaven but It's Omniscience, it's the truth.

    We can't lay out Nirvana with experimentation for you, because it's attained at the end of the cycle of Rebirth, where we wouldn't have to cling onto these things, but judging by what the Buddha has told us about the life we're living, the things we can easily estimate and understand,that don't go by our worried minds,make the end result understandable.


  13. levi says:

    ilovebuddha-In Christianity you are not judged by your actions you are saved by grace…all you have to do is accept Christ

  14. Pete Vander Meulen says:

    Levi: the statement contradicts an individual's acceptance of the faith you prescribe. The very "acquisition" of grace, as its called, is an action. One must choose. The Bible's New Testament is peppered with choices for or against. Jesus preached action and choice, not awareness and acceptance. Grace seems an after-effect, not a pre-disposition; a right of passage, not a right of entry.

  15. Springer5 says:

    I find Buddhism frustrating. Before I say anything else. I do not mean any disrespect to Buddhists.

    However, here’s just one example….

    My brother is a Buddhist. I am not. I do however, happen to believe that non-humans should be treated with the same respect as humans. It’s a “campaign” issue for me at the moment. Although a Buddhist, my brother eats meat, which I find hard to understand, as I always thought that Buddhists are not supposed to want to “cause” unecessary suffering, and that they would live their lives with as much compassion as possible.

    When discussing this with my brother he says things like….

    “The instruction to commit violence to animals in factory farms and slaughterhouses is with the factory owner and the slaughterhouse owner, not the consumer”. He seems to be suggesting that because he never actually kills anyone humslef, he has not done anyting wrong, although he believes at the same time that we should encourage those who are behaving immorally (the factor farmers etc) to change their ways and trat the animals with more compassion.

    I haven’t studied Buddhism in depth so I relaly don’t understand the logic of asying that someone who muys meat ISN’T complicit in the suffering that goes on to produce it. To me these people are only going to carr yon doing what they do, if people like my Buddhist brother carry on paying them to do it.

    Now….. it may be that, to all you Buddhists out there, there is a logical explanation of this attitude, If ther is I’d appreciate someone explaining it to me better than my brother has.

    howeer, even if there is an exaplantion which works *for Buddhists*, it still leaves the animals (which AREN’T Buddhists) suffreing, in part by his hand.

    Like I said I’m not haivng a go a Buddhism, but it seems to me that either he’s not a very good Buddhist (although I understand that many of them do eat meat, strangely), or the danger is that Duddhism condones suffering today, as long as it helps out tomorrow, but if they’re wrong, all that’s left is more suffering today !!!

    Thanks for anyones thoughts on this.

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