The ceaseless categorizations of Theravada, the interpenetration of phenomena in Mahayana, and the myriad manifestations of life in Tantra all point to its fundamental view that there is no prime mover behind anything in the universe. However, trying to pin down Buddhism as a coherent set of ideas that go beyond this distinction is a challenge. It shares more with other world religions than it keeps apart.
Nonetheless, this striking attitude toward the ground of the universe – that there is none – that the universe, and by extension human life, cannot be reduced to any inherent cause – is so different from Western notions of a prime mover at work that it has drawn many Westerners into its fold.
While Buddhism may have been imported into the West by generations of immigrants who brought their cultural practices with them, it has also become a growing source of spiritual inspiration for over a million North Americans, most of whom are highly educated, white and secular, seeking a new age spirituality to replace Christianity.
In the West, Buddhist thought is rarely interpreted on its own grounds. Rather Christian thought or new age syncretism provides the platform from which it is evaluated. More recently, it has attracted attention from psychology and speculative neuroscience, as well as from post-modern thinkers seeking to undermine the fundamental assumptions in positivistic science. As a result, Buddhism has earned a popular appeal as a philosophy or ‘way of life’ rather than as a religion – religion, here, signifying systems of hoary practice and superstition.
This prejudice aside, the two disciplines merge on many fronts, with the distinction between the two resting on issues of materiality. Philosophy concerns itself with the physical and metaphysical, whereas religion concerns itself with the spiritual. While both are subjective, philosophy examines knowledge and being, and religion ponders the problem of evil. For religion, human existence is a predicament; there’s something wrong with life the way it is. Each religion offers a description of the predicament and how best to resolve it, so that life can be the way it was “meant to be” or, at least, better than what it is.
Christianity describes the human predicament as alienation from God, our creator. We live a life of sin caused by the Fall. Jesus Christ resolved this problem by revealing, in his person and work, that there are ways to live with integrity in the midst of sin. The experience of God is, of course, the source to the ending of life’s problems. Salvation restores our divine relationship, and leads to integrity of personhood. This divine relationship extends beyond death to eternity, as we are taken up into the body of Christ, and by extension, God.
Buddhism on the other hand focuses on our own feeling of dissatisfaction with mundane existence, rather than on our state of being in relation to an “other.” It considers how our state of mind can make things better or worse for us, depending on how we approach this problem. According to the Buddha, we experience day-to-day suffering because we expect to get and hold onto things, including psychological and emotional states, such as pleasure. However, the world is characterized by change, and as a result we live in a state of frustration and discontentment. This state can be perpetuated over multiple lifetimes, because our mind holds onto the situations at hand, and our psychological, or cosmic, energy is not contained purely within our body. It affects things.
In order to escape this predicament, one must realize the true nature of the universe and free oneself from the desire to gain fulfillment through ever changing things. This breakthrough “letting go” is nirvana – the cessation of craving. More positively, it can be described as the direct recognition of what one is: the pure and responsive “pre-reflective” experience. Once it is attained, final enlightenment leads to the cessation of karma, and the end of the cycle of rebirth (samsara). In other words, one simply ceases to be. In Buddhism, there is no God to join in unity.