As a way of life that is inherently foreign to the Western experience of the Abrahamic faiths, Buddhism is considered to be exotic, mystical, and exciting; whenever the subject is mentioned, it is with a discussion-crippling lack of understanding. The perception in the modern West is one fraught with misunderstandings focusing on orange robes and baldness and monks burning themselves alive for peace while talking about suffering in ways that might make a masochist blush. In addition, it is “one of those eastern religions,” meaning that the average American will confuse it with Confucianism, Taoism, Hinduism, and Shinto. The name Siddhartha Gautama means piss-all to an audience that considers Buddha to simply be a Christ analogue and cannot envision a religion as having no deity. Indeed, Buddhism has been associated with tantric yoga, the Devil, paganism, burning incense to ward off evil, tarot readings, and even the rise of counterculture and drug use. In a society with such crippling lack of knowledge about foreign belief systems, it must be wondered just how many self-declared adherents of them follow from legitimate interest compared to those who simply want to tag along with the exciting prospect of something that they don’t understand.
To get a proper feel for the mystical factor of Buddhism, one must approach from the Judeo-Christian vantage shared by those who most experience it. To this eye, an eye bleary from harsh recriminations and guilt due to an inescapable sin that all are afflicted with through no fault of their own, the Buddhist proposition of an unguilty soul is like a blessing. Compare the cultures: in Buddhism there is a pursuit not of absolution but of enlightenment; in the myriad fractions of Catholicism there exists a wide range of precisely how guilty one ought to be simply for thinking. It is comparable to a Sword of Damocles being revealed as papier-mâché; not only that, but the damn thing is nailed to the roof and it turns out that you needn’t stand under it. This is a religion that isn’t, by their definition, a religion. Gone is the threat of an eternity of damnation if you don’t measure up to some arbitrary level of goodness; instead, there is simply an opportunity to live a calm and reflective life of meditation and goodwill. No more the obsession with this sinful earth, no more the desperate pursuit of salvation and talk of hellfire. No judgment, scorn, and self-righteous condemnation. It is almost as though the Buddhists think that life can be lived without having to answer to a jealous and spiteful god. To legitimately consider such a life, one without guilt and shaming for every enjoyment, is purest heresy.
It is precisely that heresy which makes Buddhism’s siren song so tempting. To an entitled generation threatened constantly and pervasively with damnation, the promise of a belief system that doesn’t hate one simply for enjoying life makes sense. There’s no reason to follow a system that places such emphasis on propagation; there is already a crippling overpopulation problem and growing scarcity of resources. Instead of blithely following along, why wouldn’t they instead opt to follow a system emphasizing personal growth? Is not the pursuit of happiness written into one of the many edicts that the nation is founded upon? And what could be more effective at procuring happiness than a lifestyle geared towards self-betterment and achieving enlightenment?
This is not to imply that Buddhism is in any way illegitimate or misrepresenting of itself. Indeed, its non-judgmental nature is a matter of import, but only to outsiders. Buddhism is not jaded enough that it markets itself to potential new converts as a non-guilting faith. Instead, Buddhism simply offers its reflections and teachings.
Buddhism springs from a philosophy espoused by Siddhartha Gautama, the man who would become the first Buddha. We shall move quickly past his lineage as a prince and the prophecy of his fate as a great king or holy man; instead, we shall focus on his “Middle Way.” Until his time, there were two apparent fates for a man- to become enslaved to his desires, or to reject desire and live as a suffering ascetic. As a royal turned ascetic, Siddhartha experienced both extremes- and yet found no solace. Perhaps apocryphally, it is said that he once overheard a discussion of stringed instruments in which it was said that an instrument too tightly-wounded sounded shrill, but too loose made no sound. For an instrument to be harmonious, it needed to be somewhere in the middle. Siddhartha took this to heart, and as a result he created his philosophy of the Middle Way. This he based on “The Four Noble Truths,” which in turn led to “The Noble Eightfold Path.” The Truths were, in order: that life either is or leads to suffering; that suffering is caused be desire; that suffering ends with the cessation of desire; and that the cessation of desire can be achieved by following the path of the Buddha, or the “Enlightened One.” This path, the Noble Eightfold Path, was subdivided into three Wisdoms. The first, Prajñā, was focused on the correct worldview and intentions. Śīla, the second wisdom, regarded life, speech, and action. The third and final wisdom, Samādhi, minded the correct effort, concentration, and mindfulness. In order, the specific extension of each of the wisdoms was purification of the mind; living and acting ethically; and disciplining the mind so as to disarm and end desire.
However, the reasons for there being a need to follow such an elaborate path need to be explained. This manifests in the concept of karma, which is the driving force behind samsāra, or the cycle of reincarnation. Though the proposed mechanics differ between variations of faith, it is generally agreed that actions result in a person accumulating positive or negative karma, influencing the progression of their rebirths. In seeking their desires, life perpetuates the cycle of samsāra; it is only through Buddhism, the renunciation of desire, and the cessation of suffering that one may achieve Nirvana, or enlightenment. Nirvana is the ultimate goal of Buddhism, as it is the escape from samsāra and the quieting of the soul. Between sects there are slight differences in wording, with the inclusion of bohdi, a word with nearly the same meaning. Nirvana, however, does not translate directly to enlightenment; a misconception is that it is a kind of ascension. Instead, it means extinction, implying the ending of samsāra and the cycle of birth and rebirth. In this, Siddhartha gave no answer whether nirvana meant the ending of a person’s soul. In Buddhism there does not exist a concept of an eternal soul, only the karma following a chain of rebirth. It could be argued that the goal of Buddhism, with its dissolution of self, is a nihilist dream.
It is precisely this dream, this goal of nonexistence, that most attracts followers defecting from the Abrahamic faiths. Raised in a shaming culture that constantly reminds them of their inadequacy and impending fate in hellfire and brimstone if they fail to live up to a poorly defined standard or make the mistake of being born gay, there is little question as to why Buddhism and the other various Vedic and Eastern faiths are getting converts. Any mentally sound person, threatened with a horrible fate, would rationally consider other options.