Philosophy 25: Comparative World Religions (West)

Back in April, I posted my midterm essay. Since then, I’ve been participating in various discussions, both online and off, about my faith. I finally sat down and wrote my final essay, I thought I would share it with everyone here.

The first question that’s asked is, “Why did I choose Buddhism?” To be honest, I have had the opportunity to explore other religions in the course of my life, most of them with a tremendous following in the Western hemisphere, such as the various sects of Christianity, Judaism, and even some secular faiths. Rather than follow suit with the exploration of other Western religions, I decided on Buddhism to further my exploration of Eastern culture. A lot of my preconceptions about this faith come from my memories of reading about the story of Siddartha, along with some of the more popularized and quite probably false tenets of the faith. My knowledge of the methodology behind the faith is equally as limited.

I visited two facilities in San Jose; one led me to visit another. The first of the two was the Pao-Hua Buddhist Temple, which practices Chinese Traditionalist Buddhism. When I arrived at the temple, I did not know what to expect from my visit there, though the office said I could visit any time between eight in the morning to five in the afternoon. I spent some of my time visiting the various different altars they opened up to the public, which were spread out in an almost deliberate fashion. Each one seemed to have a distinctive difference in statuary, offerings, and writing. My understanding of the Chinese written language is limited only to those pictographs which are also common in my studies of the Japanese language, and it was unfortunate that I was not versed enough in the Chinese language to understand the significance of the altars. I watched as many people kept coming and going; driving up to the temple, visiting the alters while also carrying sticks of incense, praying and kneeling before the altar, and then leaving the temple. There was no order or any sense of reason behind their actions that I could observe as I stood in the middle of the courtyard watching them move around me. I made contact with one of the members of the temple, and they directed me toward a nun, who then helped me get in contact with a monk. However, my discussion with the monk was limited to simple questions, for her understanding of the English language was even more limited than my Chinese. She did provide me with the address of another Buddhist church, to which I was very grateful, and I immediately departed for Japantown.

Most of my time was spent at the San Jose Buddhist Church Betsuin in San Jose’s Japantown. I made an appointment to speak with Reverend Gerald Sakamoto in his office on Fifth Street, just to the north side of the main temple. He welcomed me graciously and we retreated to his private office so that he could answer my questions. As with the Pao-Hua Temple, he invited me to attend Sunday services, however, my work schedule prevents me from doing anything other than work every Sunday. I thanked him for the invitation, and we settled in to have what would end up being an hour and a half of questions and answers about the Buddhist religion.

My first question was, “What is the basis of Buddhism?” He recounted to me the story of Shakyamuni Buddha, and his departure from the life he led as Siddartha Gautama to follow the path that is now known as Buddhism; the pursuit of enlightenment through the understanding of the Four Noble Truths, as well as the Eightfold Noble Path. The First and Second of the Four Noble Truths is that life is suffering, and that this suffering is caused by our attachment to ego. The Third Noble Truth states that it is possible to gain freedom from this suffering by understanding the true nature of ourselves and the cause of the attachment to ego. The Fourth Noble Truth lies in the Eightfold Noble Path. The path is simply a set of eight guides on the journey to enlightenment: right views, right thought, right speech, right conduct, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right meditation.

The tradition that the San Jose Buddhist Church Betsuin follows is called the Jodo Shinshu tradition, which is based on the Larger Sukhavativyuha Sutra, the Meditation Sutra, and the Amida Sutra. These three sutras are known as the Jodo Sanbukkyo or Three Pure Land Sutras. The differences between the Chinese Traditionalist Pao-Hua and the San Jose Betsuin lay in the fact that the Betsuin observes a Westernized form of Buddhism, complete with Sunday services that include sermons, choirs, and other Protestant-like traditions to appeal in a broader sense. It also gives the Japanese community a sense of participation in a group, rather than individual contributions, providing them with an outlet to communicate and discuss their ideas with others in social functions and get-togethers.

Reverend Sakamoto also brought the Buddhist religion into context when discussing recent events; we discussed a general Buddhist perspective into the war in Iraq. The Buddhist ideal that life is sacred serves as a basis for a pacifistic mindset, but seeking enlightenment through understanding is often difficult when violence is being employed to further what could be considered an unenlightened agenda. Of the Four Noble Truths, war is an unenlightened means to an egotistical end. We defend because of our attachment to that ego, and therefore can no longer see things in their authentic state. We only see what we wish to see, and how can understanding be gained from such a perspective?

The discussion left me with so many more questions, but I had taken up enough of the reverend’s time for that day. I will be personally pursuing a dialogue with the reverend if he’s willing to indulge me. When I had written my midterm essay, I explained a great deal behind my perspective for not pursuing a faith. After researching Buddhism, I think there are possibilities I did not previously know that are available for me to pursue and assist me in continuing my personal exploration. I look forward to walking a new path after having been idle for so long.

The unexamined life is not worth living. It’s an interesting statement to make, for it does not say to whom the life should be examined by. Ourselves? Others? Society? Is it for others to examine how one lives, or perhaps bring judgment as a result of the examination? Is it just enough for us to examine our own lives and judge them as we see fit? In the sense of intelligence, it would seem to me that only the individual can examine and judge his or her own life. Within religion, we have found ourselves inundated with beliefs, ideas, and faith in the sense that the path we walk is the correct one. But that’s a statement without qualification; for if one walks a path and determines it to be the correct path, if others walk a different path, are those alternate paths equally as correct? For them, yes.

Examining our lives is the fundamental way we can look within to understand ourselves. The first question often becomes, “Who am I?” Is it important for us to determine that identification in a sense of definition by action? Or is it enough to recognize ourselves by personality and character? Or, do we allow others to define ourselves and accept that definition as our own? I contend that no one can truly know another to the degree that one knows him or herself. The personality and desires that drive it are the sum of experiences unique to each of us, and therefore the path that we choose must reflect that personality’s desires. This is why there are so many different kinds of paths available, each leading toward a goal that is the desire of the personality.

This planet called Earth has a population of over six billion people. Even in a day and age where the numbers were substantially less, the amount of cultures and subcultures provided regions of the planet with such a diversity that allows for different perspectives to be considered when examining those ideas and beliefs. To every religious group, there’s a faction, usually small, but often very loud, that endows itself with the duty of seeing to it that their way of life is protected from the influences of other cultures or ideas. To be ideologically pure to the original structure of their belief system, by policing everyone and either calling attention for the purposes of social persecution or perhaps they wield some sort of structural power and use it to further a political agenda that might be contradictory to the ideals they teach.

In my research of Buddhism, I found that the methodology may differ, but the message is the same: How you conduct yourself is as much important as how we treat those around us. Respect and understanding are just two parts of journeying toward enlightenment, and seeing things for what they are, in their authentic state.

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