I have finished reading Buddhism for Dummies. I now at least feel like I can have a semi-informed opinion on Buddhism. I may be wrong. Reading Buddhism for Dummies and thinking you have an informed opinion on this ancient religion may be like flying across the United States at 35,000 feet and feeling you have a pretty good idea that you understand the country.
But I can also relate real-life experiences attending a half-dozen services with my wife at the Ekoji Buddhist Temple in Burke, Virginia. At least at this temple the members are uniformly nice and harmless people. Perhaps they are saddled with as much baggage as the rest of us but they really do seem a lot more serene than most people I meet. They are also friendly and respectful. Unlike other religions where men in suits are anxious to have coffee with you after the service, I found none of this at this temple. Like my religion Unitarian Universalism, Buddhism is a come as you are no pressure sort of religion.
That is not to suggest that Buddhists are entirely out of the proselytizing business. Once enlightened, out of a spirit of compassion Buddha traversed much of northern India preaching his dharma. Upon his death, his followers also spread far and wide to preach the dharma too. However, I don’t think you ever have to worry about anyone leaving Buddhist pamphlets in your door or knocking asking you if you are enlightened.
Buddhism is centered on meditation. While meditation can relieve a lot of human suffering, by itself I do not think it offers a panacea. Following Buddhist dharma gives no assurance that in the next life you will be living in bliss. Rather it suggests your next life will be a lot like your current life, at least in the sense that you will be wrestling with the same sorts of issues. However, they claim that through techniques like guided meditation, you can discover your inner spirituality and through lots of study and practice anyone can achieve enlightenment.
You can be both a Christian and a Buddhist and it is not necessarily a contradiction. Guided meditation techniques pioneered by the Buddhists are useful for anyone, regardless of whether they are even religious. At its core, Buddhism is about eliminating human suffering through attacking its root causes, not in achieving salvation. If like most human beings you suffer, there is little reason not to give Buddhism, or at least meditation a try. It’s not like it has to cost anything. Many Buddhist temples will offer guided meditation free to all comers, or you can pick up a book and try to learn it by yourself
If there is a theology to Buddhism, it is that reincarnation happens. Not all Buddhists believe in reincarnation, but clearly, the vast majority of them do, otherwise they would not be so concerned about the karmic consequences of their actions. Most karma acquired during a given life is not addressed during the same life, but is carried forward into the next life for you to stumble through again until you get it right. In this sense, for those who prefer religions that are salvation-based, Buddhism is a big disappointment. If you believe in salvation, all your bad karma is pardonable by some higher authority upon death. In most cases, you are expected to be earnestly devoted to the beliefs and practices of the faith in order to achieve salvation.
For those who believe in salvation, getting into heaven is like getting past the bouncer at a club. If you are not too obnoxious, the bouncer lets you through. To the Buddhist (well, except a few like the sect my wife belongs to) you get into the club when you are spiritually ready to enter. In actuality though you are already a member of the club, since you are already divine in the sense that you have an immortal Buddha nature, you just have to get in touch with it. Achieving enlightenment sounds a lot like an alcoholic deciding to put down the bottle and embrace sobriety. When you achieve enlightenment during your mortal life, you pass through the door (nirvana). Out of compassion, many who do achieve enlightenment elect to reincarnate to help others also achieve enlightenment. For those who believe in salvation, there is little point in going back to an earthly life to wrestle with sinful mortals. You leave all that behind.
Part of meditation amounts to self-psychoanalysis. The theory goes that if you ponder a personal problem long enough, you can see it from all its various sides and permutations and know how to resolve it. The other part of meditation is to learn to exist in the moment. I personally am skeptical on the value of the self-analysis part of Buddhism, but I do see value in learning to exist in and appreciate the moment. People like me who perhaps spend too much time thinking about the future may end up missing the joy of being alive in the present. As Buddha taught, while death is inevitable, suffering is not. If you can develop a state of mind where you can revel in the now, you can spend less time worrying about the future. If you can master this, then it alone will do a lot to relieve your personal suffering.
I think the evidence is clear that Buddhism is one of the best major religions on the planet. As evidence, observe the behavior of Buddhists. Over 2500 year, have Buddhists caused any wars? They have not, as best as I can determine. Have they fought internecine wars to achieve dominance of one sect over another, such as have happened between Catholic and Protestant or Sunni and Shiite? I do not believe so. Do they go around hurting other people? All people hurt other people at times, sometimes inadvertently, but overall Buddhists take great pains to avoid being in the hurting business. They strive to be always mindful of what they say and do and the consequences of their actions. No other religion that I can see is doing as much to generate real harmony. Moreover, by their nature, they are not materialists. They tend to be natural environmentalists, vegetarians and eco-friendly. It takes a really tortured soul to hate a Buddhist. How can you hate someone who gives no offense?
If you think you are free to muddy up this world in order to achieve your salvation, Buddhism is not for you. However, if out of compassion you want to make this world better for everyone, including yourself, as well as all the other creatures on the planet, Buddhism might well be for you. If you are less concerned about slipping through some pearly gates in some amorphous next life then in relieving your suffering and the suffering of your fellow men, Buddhism is for you.
What is to dislike? Well, it may be just my Western orientation, but there is a fair amount of mysticism in Buddhism. The ringing of a gong, the smell of burning incense and the frequent use of chants do little to me to make me feel spiritually connected. There is also a strong belief in the nobility of celibacy, at least among the clerics. Sex is generally frowned upon for those who have or are trying to achieve enlightenment. I guess you are supposed to have transcended such earthly pleasures.
For me and for many of us of Western orientation, a religion like my Unitarian Universalism may be a better fit, while achieving similar aims. However, if your religious orientation is more spiritual than religious, if you feel more human-centered than salvation-centered, and if compassion is at the center of your being then Buddhism should feel very natural.