The Buddhist religion dates back to about 563 BCE with the birth of Siddhartha Gautama in Lumbini, Northern India, which now is in Nepal. He was the son of a king, and in childhood was completely sheltered from the real world. But when he was eventually exposed to the miseries of the world, he also encountered a monk who had found peace through contemplation and the renunciation of material objects. Siddhartha was so impressed with that approach that at the age of 29 he renounced his crown and family and set out on a journey to seek the Truth.

After a lengthy period of self-denial, discipline and meditation, he attained Supreme Enlightenment. Thereafter as he worked to share his teachings with others he became known as the Buddha, or “the Enlightened One.” 

The teachings of Buddha were not actually written down and finalized for about 500 years. Nevertheless, Buddhism slowly spread to numerous countries all over the world, and this resulted in the development of the religion. Today there are an estimated 350 million Buddhists in the world, with the largest concentration in China and Southeast Asia.

Buddha is not a god, and Buddhists do not believe in a god that is the creator of the universe. Instead, Buddha is the highest form of morality and the Supreme Teacher. Hence, the name Buddha is derived from “budh,” which means “to awaken and be aware or completely conscious of.”

Buddhism today is divided into large numbers of denominations, but most of these share a common set of fundamental beliefs. One of these is reincarnation, which is to say that people are reborn after dying, and this may be done repeatedly. Then after many cycles, if people release their attachment to desire and to the self, they can attain the state of liberation and freedom from suffering that is known as Nirvana.

Most Buddhists also believe in three trainings or practices that can lead to Nirvana. The first is Sila, which is virtue, good conduct and morality. This is in turn founded upon two principles: equality, which means that all living entitles are equal, and reciprocity, which is like the “Golden Rule” in Judaism and Christianity.

The second practice is Samadhi, which is concentration, meditation and mental development. Developing one’s mind is the path to wisdom, which in turn leads to personal freedom. The third practice is Prajna, which is discernment, insight, wisdom and enlightenment. This is the heart of Buddhism. Wisdom will emerge only when the mind is pure and clear.

There are also four “Noble Truths” that most Buddhists accept. They are Dukkha (Suffering exists. It is real and almost universal.); Samudaya (The cause of suffering is human failings, such as a desire for wealth, power, fame, sensual pleasures, etc.); Nirodha (There is an end to suffering when the mind reaches Nirvana, which is freedom, liberation and non-attachment.); and Magga (Following an 8-fold path of right understanding, thinking, speech, conduct, livelihood, effort, mindfulness and concentration).

So with the Buddhist cosmology, there are a variety of heavens and hells into which people may be born, but they are not forever. Therefore people can “fall” from a heaven, or “rise” from a hell, based upon their prayers (and other people praying for them) that repent for past transgressions and sincere vows not to repeat them, and an overarching respect for all life, which is shown by refraining from the killing of any living beings.

Humanism is more an ethic than a religion. It affirms each person’s ability and responsibility to lead meaningful and ethical lives that add to the greater good of humanity. It has its roots in ancient Greek culture (with its emphasis upon improving society), the Renaissance (for its advancement of science), the Enlightenment (with its concept of the separation of church and state), and 19th Century “freethought” (with its challenges to discrimination and advocacy of reform).

Most humanists do not believe in a supernatural power, but draw a clear distinction between belonging to a religion, on the one hand, and being “religious,” on the other. This leads humanists to explore the meaning and possibility of having a religion without having an actual god.

In his book “A Common Faith,” John Dewey described the humanist philosophy. He began by noting the “religious” attitudes that devotees had toward their religions. From this he argued that people could equally possess that religious attitude toward the ethics of most religions for the betterment of mankind, without ascribing to the dogma of any of those religions. In other words, Dewey tried to emancipate the religious experience from the religion itself. 

Instead of a faith founded upon ideals guaranteed to exist by a supernatural authority, humanism is a moral faith founded upon ideals inherent in the natural relationship existing between man and his environment. And the higher purpose is to meet human needs in the here and now. In fact, most humanists believe it is immoral to wait for God to act for us. Ultimately the responsibility for the kind of world we live in rests with each of us.

We began this short series of columns on religions with a discussion about the critical importance of the separation of church and state. Then we discussed some of the world’s great religions in an attempt to learn from them, and grow from that learning. We now end the series by noting that governments could avoid many problems if they would adopt Humanism’s “religious” higher purpose to meet human needs in the here and now, instead of adopting the tenets of any particular religion. That was the approach adopted by our Founding Fathers when they said that there was a natural order of things, and that some “truths were self-evident,” and that approach should be re-emphasized and continued today.

Judge Jim Gray (Ret.)