When people try defend religions from the charge that they are riddled with superstitions and are a negative influence on society, they will often invoke Buddhism as a counter example. Even I have spoken favorably of Buddhism in the past but is should be emphasized that Buddhism looks fairly good only in comparison with religions like Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and Hinduism.
Its advantages are that it does not postulate a god, although many of its followers seem to have adopted all the trappings of a god-based religion. Nor is it doctrinally committed to absurdities that blatantly go against science, like a young Earth or a belief in the divine origin of its scriptures. It has also not succumbed too much to the drive to proselytize others, the cause of so much turmoil in the world although, as I will discuss in a future post, its efforts to ‘protect’ itself can lead to violence against other religions.
But Buddhism even as a philosophy also has its dark side and Dale DeBakscy writes about this in the latest issue of the New Humanist. He says that belief in the doctrine of reincarnation and karma can lay a heavy burden on people since “instead of misfortunes in life being bad things that happen to you, they are manifestations of a deep and fundamental wrongness within you” and thus it is hopeless to try and improve your condition, in this life at least. The best one can hope for in Buddhism is a better next life.
He also says that Buddhism takes all the fun out of life by stressing the impermanence of everything and that life is something to be escaped from to nothingness (or nirvana). One’s goal should be to detach oneself from all worldly attachments, so if you love someone or something and it gives you joy, that is actually a sign that you are doing something wrong. The more passionately one lives and enjoys life, the greater your failure while increased detachment is progress. It does stress the importance of compassion towards all living things, but in a detached way.
And although Buddhism recommends that people investigate and arrive at truth for themselves, in practice it is not as open-ended and flexible as it sounds because it prescribes what the goal is (nirvana) and the methods (including meditation) by which one should attain it.
Having been a teacher in a Buddhist school in the US, DeBakscy has seen the burden this philosophy imposes on young people.
[T]he drive to infect individuals with an inability to appreciate life except through a filter of regret and shame is perhaps even more dangerous in Buddhism for being so very much more subtle. Squeezed between the implications of inherited evil instincts and a monolithic conception of what counts as a right answer to the question of one’s own personal existence, a young person entering a Buddhist community today is every bit as much under the theological gun as a student at a Catholic school, but because society has such a cheery picture of Buddhist practice, she has far fewer resources for resistance than her Catholic counterpart. And that allows sad things to happen. I would urge, then, that as fulfilling as it is to point out and work to correct the gross excesses of Christianity (and, let’s face it, fun too), we can’t let the darkness of Buddhist practice go by unremarked just because it works more subtly and its victims suffer more quietly.
I suspect that many of these blog’s readers are more knowledgeable about Buddhism than I am and can chime in with clarifications.