Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Mahayana Buddhism

The most fascinating aspect of Mahayana Buddhism is the idea offered by Paul Williams in Buddhist Thought that “Buddhism is thus an orthopraxy rather than orthodoxy.”(pg 99) Williams’ point here is that a Buddhist is free to believe anything that he wants, provided that he stays on the Eightfold Path. A Buddhist can believe that Buddha was a mortal who found the Path, taught others the way, then died. A Buddhist may also believe that Buddha was actually a deity, who still lives and may be experienced by the faithful Buddhist. For some, it is easier to follow the way of a mortal. For others, they find it easier to follow the way of a deity. Regardless of the individual Buddhist’s conception of the Buddha, both follow the way.

In the Christian tradition, there is much concern about the corrosive effects of orthopraxy divorced from orthodoxy. Many Christians worry that following the Ten Commandments, (which, as previously mentioned in another context, bear some resemblance to the Eightfold Path) or following the example of Christ without actually believing, will result in hypocrisy. In other words, people whose outward acts do not match their inner convictions will eventually stop acting in the correct way because they cannot see a point to continuing. At that moment, such a person will have neither orthodoxy nor orthopraxy, and will instead be cast adrift, likely to pursue ever more damaging behaviors. Since Christian salvation occurs after death, there is nothing concrete on this side of death that can be used as incentive.

Many Christians will argue that even the most disciplined follower of “correct actions” will eventually falter because the cravings of the flesh, or as it is expressed in the Christian tradition: “sin” will win out. There are many instances in the Epistles of Paul where he cautions followers that they must have faith even as they follow the laws. Paul, and many subsequent Christian commentators had a pessimistic view of the ability of men and women to continue living a wholesome life, doing wholesome things, without the under-girding of faith. Rules and punishment are no substitute for faith because there is nothing of value to be gained in this life so there is no reason, absent faith, to do good works.

Buddhists have a different conception. Although the Buddha taught in the Four Noble Truths that “Life is suffering,” he also taught that the cessation of suffering is possible. Followers of Buddha argue that it is possible to stay on the Path indefinitely through self-control and the application of rules that punish and correct deviance from the path. Further, in this life, Buddhism offers a culmination to staying the right path. That culmination point is nirvana. Christianity does not offer anything comparable in this life. Faith in Christ and doing good works allows a Christian to develop a temporary sense of well being, but since sin prowls this world like a hungry lion at all times, Christians are never free.

That being said, Buddhism does at least offer to me the solid example that orthopraxy is a viable alternative. Since Mahayana Buddhists can continue on the same path as those who believe something different within their own tradition, then perhaps a Christian can use the example of a Buddhist to maintain his own self control. The value of such an approach is clear. Self-control is a good thing to have, regardless of belief. Since self control is good, it is appropriate to find guidance in the maintenance of self control wherever one can. I know that I intend to try.