The dark side of the ‘good’ religion

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.


  1. Dunc says

    As a criticism of many of the mainstream schools of Buddhism (particularly of the Mahayana branch), it seems fairly accurate. One of the central texts of Mahayana Buddhism -- The Wheel of Sharp Weapons -- even goes so far as to explicitly state that all illness is the result of actions in previous incarnations.

    Of course, the thing about Buddhism is that there are so many different varieties of it, even more so that with other religions… To the extent that I’m really not sure it makes any sense to talk about “Buddhism” without any further qualifiers. The article makes numerous references to the Dalai Lama, so I presume he’s talking about Tibetan Buddhism, which is one of the most hidebound and regressive of the lot -- and probably would not be nearly as popular in the “West” (and probably the rest of the world too, including Tibet) if it weren’t for the Chinese occupation. The current Dalai Lama undoubtedly helps a lot too, but he’d be just another regressive, patriarchal theocrat if it wasn’t for the occupation.

  2. doublereed says

    Karma is a direct harm of religion. Most people think of it as a “I do good things and good things will happen to me!” but that’s only half of it. It is a blatant example of Just-World Hypothesis and it is a blatant example of Victim-Blaming. Karma, in all its various forms, is probably one of the worst religious ideas ever created.

  3. jamessweet says

    I was assuming this was going to touch in the story in today’s news:

    In any case, as Dunc touches on, it all depends on what type of Buddhism you are talking about — the same as any other religion, really, as there are branches of nearly every religion that are relatively innocuous and branches that are downright dangerous. Buddhism at its worst is just as bad as any of the Abrahamic religions. Buddhism at its best is possibly better than the best offered by most other mainstream religions, but then we are starting to talk into a watered down westernized form of Buddhist philosophy as opposed to the actual religion.

    Some aspects of some sects of Buddhism are interesting and relatively inoffensive. That’s the furthest I will go :p

  4. Mano Singham says

    I was going to talk about the issue in Sri Lanka when I address the political aspects of Buddhism.

  5. Johnny Vector says

    Buddhism in Japan, in general, is sort of a background noise. Weddings are shinto, funerals are Buddhist. And otherwise, at least among the educated people I know, religion is mostly ignored. And yet, in regard of the organization and driving force of actual Buddhist orders, see for example The Funeral, by Juuzou Itami. The scene with everyone chasing the stacks of cash offerings that were caught by a gust of wind is priceless. Organizations are organizations the world over, it seems.

  6. jamessweet says

    Yeah, Japan is getting pretty close to Doing Religion Right. Not that there aren’t problems, but for a lot of Japanese, it seems to be about as serious as Santa Claus. It offers traditions and trappings and all of that fun stuff, without actually having any referent to reality.

    I’m going with my equally atheistic wife to a Passover seder tonight. I always enjoy it.

  7. jamessweet says

    I wondered if that’s what you were talking about when you referred to a future post 🙂 Sorry if I jumped the gun.

    It was interesting to me, cuz I almost posted something to my Facebook feed about how this is a reminder that most Buddhism, as it is practiced in real life, is just yet another dogmatic religion, with all the attendant problems, and that my secular friends shouldn’t go so easy on it.

  8. HP says

    One thing that always bugs me about sympathetic Western atheists’ accounts of Buddhism is that they seem to be derived almost exclusively from a few books by the Dalai Lama and Daisetz Suzuki, Zen and the Art of the Archer, some selections from a few sutras, along with the experiences of recent Western converts.

    If all of my knowledge of Christianity came from Reinhold Niebuhr, M. L. King, the Book of Psalms, the four canonical gospels, and maybe some old Xtian mysticism like The Cloud of Unknowing or the Gospel of Thomas, I’d find it a pretty attractive religion, too.

    My rule of thumb is that religions are what religions do. Buddhism should be evaluated on the basis of the actual daily practices of religious Buddhists, not on the basis of philosophical works or founding texts.

    Looking forward to your post on Sri Lankan Buddhism — isn’t that the deal where their whole indigenous religious practice was reformed in the early 20th c. by a white American adventurer and Spiritualist dilletante?

  9. Mano Singham says

    I totally agree with you that what a few sophisticates say, divorced from actual practice, has little relevance to how we should judge religions.

    As for your last question, you may be thinking of Henry Steel Olcott and Helena Blavatsky who spent some time in Sri Lanka and became Buddhists. They started the Theosophical Society and founded some schools in the country but I don’t know that they changed the course of Buddhism in any way. There is a road named after Olcott in Colombo. As far as I know theosophy flourished for a while in England under Blavatsky and later Annie Besant but one does not hear of that movement anymore so it may have died out.

    Buddhists in Sri Lanka pride themselves on being the custodians of the ‘purest’ form of Buddhism, whatever that means. They believe that Buddha delegated that task to them and this is part of the problem. They are so enamored of the idea that they are some kind of chosen people that they are willing to practice the most appalling things in order to ‘protect’ their religion.

  10. MNb says

    “is should be emphasized that Buddhism looks fairly good”
    In northern Myanmar (Birma) muslims are the victims of persecution by buddhists.
    Just google “myanmar persecution of muslims”.

    “takes all the fun out of life”
    I know of exactly one religion which aims at having as much fun during life as possible: pastafarianism.

    “The more passionately one lives and enjoys life …”
    I have enjoyed a very passionate love and marriage. Though it ended in a painful divorce I wouldn’t have wanted to missed the experience. Fortunately my ex and I are on good terms again; all the pluses and minuses are more thanks/due to her than to me.
    When I compare this to buddhism the latter looks like a zombie religion to me.

  11. Kimpatsu says

    There’s another issue with Japanese Buddhism, too. Some schools of Japanese Buddhism such as Kongo Zen do not believe in reincarnation, and in fact have nothing to say on whether there is an afterlife or a soul. It focuses on improving your character so that you are a slightly better person today than yesterday, and will be slightly better again tomorrow. (The analogy is polishing the facets of your character as you would the facets of a diamond--a “kongo”.) This practice is underpinned by the striving to “live half for oneself and half for others” (similar to the golden rule). No gods involved.
    Sounds a bit like humanism, really.

  12. G. Priddy says

    3 of the 4 Noble Truths make a lot of sense to me. Most suffering (at least the self-inflicted variety) has to do with wanting something other than what we have, or wanting to be somewhere other than where we are. I find there is value in re-channeling those types of desires. Like all things, eschewing desire is fine in moderation.

    The Buddha supposedly said, “If the Buddha is in your path, run him over.” Basically, don’t let mindless adherence to Buddhism distract you from the real journey.

    The Dalai Lama supposedly said, “The essence of Buddhism is: ‘help others as much as you can, and if you can’t help them, at least don’t hurt them’.”

    I know that’s a lot of cherry-picking, but it’s more than I would choose to cull from any religion.

  13. says

    Yes, I was thinking of Olcott. The article I read apparently exaggerated his role in Sri Lankan Buddhism, but it was only one source, read casually a few years ago. So yes, if you have a future post on Sri Lankan Buddhism as a Sri Lankan ex-pat, I’m eager to learn more.

  14. says

    It’s also probably worth remembering that while the Empire of Japan was nominally Shinto, most of its soldiers were devout Buddhists. And if kamikazes, the Rape of Nanjing, the Burma Road, and the Bataan Death March aren’t horrific enough for you, look up Unit 731 for some real nightmare fodder.

    The point, of course, isn’t so much that this religion or that religion is particularly nasty, but that all human beings are fully capable of committing atrocities, and that believers can use any religion — or no religion — to justify the horrors that humans can inflict on one another.

  15. Mano Singham says

    Unfortunately, although I am from Sri Lanka, my knowledge of Buddhism is scant. I was raised as a Christian.

  16. Siya says

    When I turned away from the Islam of my parents and community and embraced Buddhism (of sorts) I did so primarily for these words of the Buddha: “I teach only suffering and the end of suffering.”
    I don’t bother with karma and rebirth for which I have no evidence, and fortunately, there’s no God who threatens punishment if I don’t ” believe it all.”
    Basically, meditation and the cultivation of compassion and loving kindness for all sentient beings have allowed me to relate to the world in ways that have reduced suffering and increased joy and liberation.
    One of the names of the Buddha, which many are not familiar with is “The Happy One.”
    May all beings be well and happy. May they be free of pain. And may they have the courage, determination, understanding and wisdom to deal with the inevitable problems and failures in life.

  17. Vincenzo says

    I have married a Theravada Buddhist, and by marriage, ended up learning a decent deal about Buddhism. Suffice it to say that in my “in-law” extended family, almost all of its male members have been Buddhist monks at one point or another in their lives. I agree with most of the comments (Buddhism is not a religion but Buddhists often behave as if it were, there are many different strands of Buddhism etc.). But I do not see the entire karma and reincarnation as typical of Buddhism. Various branches of Buddhism interpret the Dharma as stating that there is not self and no soul. In which case, reincarnation makes little sense, nor does the claim that “the best one can hope for in Buddhism is a better next life.” since there is no soul that can have a next life. By the same token, karma simply means that every action has a consequence (which is true but not especially earth shattering). If anything, reincarnation seems to be an idea from Hinduism that found its way into other forms of Buddhism (popular Theravada, Tibetan, etc.)

  18. Phil says

    I like Valdemar’s reply. I would add it is disingenuous to trash dogmatic faiths. Catholicism, for example, brought us St. Francis of Assisi and Mother Teresa. They were not rebels, but were informed by their faith; it’s just that most people do not live their faith that gives their faith a bad rap. Of course, those who want to not be disingenuous should read the official books of faith of the religion of which they speak. Do the books teach one to love one’s neighbor? God found it time to change some rules for his people, so what could be done before the New Testament was not allowed anymore. Thus, you read an official catechism. I wonder if Buddhism preaches forgiveness of those who hurt you, even very badly. because you can be forgiven for doing horrible things to God and others, which is why you must forgive or try repeatedly, if for no other reason. Wanting to is psychologically and spiritually relaxing, though. Jesus brought that to the world.

  19. bachalon says

    Vincenzo, the teachings on anatta are not meant to be a metaphysical declaration but rather part of a broader method to help with the attainment of nibbana by regarding everything within the boundaries of the senses as not possessing what one thinks of as oneself and thus avoiding attachment and suffering with the inevitable changes that will occur. When asked specifically if there was a self or no self, the Buddha was silent since either answer would fall into one of the two extreme positions of either annihilationism or eternalism.

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