Two Paths to Liberation (Part 4)

Suffering

To the Buddhist, the inherent nature of life is a state of suffering. The Christian expects much suffering during their lifetime on earth, but they also see life as a series of opportunities to love God and people.

The highest goal of life for the Buddhist is to become enlightened and to cease suffering. For the Christian, the highest goal is to live out a strong love relationship with God and people.

Buddha taught that any desire, even if it is “good”, is the cause of suffering. While Jesus taught that many kinds of desires can cause suffering, suffering can be experienced by Christians that is not caused by anything they have or have not done. Suffering can occur when it serves the purposes of God in a Christian’s life. For example, suffering can cause character development or somehow bring glory to God.

To the Buddhist, suffering is never a good thing. To the Christian, suffering arising from being persecuted for one’s faith can result in eternal rewards.

  Buddhism Christianity
Nature of Life Life is suffering Opportunities to love God & people
Highest Goal Eliminate suffering Loving God & people
Cause of suffering Any desire, even if “good” Many possible causes
Is suffering ever good? No Yes, when being persecuted

 

 

Two Paths to Liberation (Part 3)

Nature of Reality

Buddhists believe the universe always existed. Most Christians believe that God created the universe, either in the recent or distant past. Who or what is in charge of the universe? For Buddhists, everything is governed by karma. For Christians, God is in charge.

Buddha believed that one’s soul is an illusion. Christians believe that each person’s soul is very real and exists eternally, either in heaven or hell after one dies.

Buddhists believe that virtually everything is determined by karma. The only real exception is that one can attain enlightenment and cease existing, whereby karma is no longer in control. To Christians, free will is pervasive. Even though God governs, He does not force His will on human beings, except perhaps in God’s determination of each person’s eternal state (i.e., heaven/hell).

To the Buddhist, nothing exists permanently except the state of Nirvana, or total emptiness. For the Christian, God, heaven and hell, and the souls of every person are permanent.

Both Buddhists and Christians believe in life after death. However, in Buddhism, one reincarnates and returns to earth as either a person or animal. Christians believe in eternal life after just one life on earth, which will be spent either in heaven or hell.

The desired ultimate spiritual state of the Buddhist is enlightenment, enabling entrance into the state of Nirvana. The desired ultimate spiritual state of the Christian is life in heaven, to be experienced by all who have been saved.

                                 Buddhism Christianity
Universe created? Universe always existed Universe created by God
Who/What is in Charge? Karma God (Father, Son, Spirit)
Your soul Is an illusion Is very real & eternal
Free will Very little Pervasive
What is permanent? Nothing except Nirvana (a state of total emptiness) God, heaven/hell & the souls of every person
Life after death? Repeated reincarnation (could return as an animal) Resurrection
Desired ultimate spiritual state Enlightenment (Nirvana) Salvation (destined for heaven)

 

 

 

 

Two Paths to Liberation (Part 2)

Spiritual Growth

What is the source of truth? Buddhists looks deep within themselves by trying to exclude all outside voices. Christians do not trust what their inner selves may be saying, believing that all truth comes from God above.

Who is at the center of one’s life, spiritually? With the Buddhist, it is the self. With the Christian, it is the triune God (Father, Son and Holy Spirit).

Whether or not God exists, God is not relevant to the process of spiritual growth for the Buddhist. What is essential and critical, is the self. For the Christian, God’s role in spiritual growth is always essential and critical. The directive, “Let go and let God” is key to the spiritual growth of the Christian.

Spiritual growth for the Buddhist is a quest of the self to eliminate itself. The Buddhist is striving to engage in a process of spiritual bootstrapping. For the Christian, spiritual growth requires the self to submit to the authority and leadership of God. God causes spiritual growth when the Christian submits to His inspiration and direction.

The lifeblood of Buddhist spiritual growth requires prolonged, intensive meditation, often interspersed with chanting. For the Christian, Bible study, prayer and worship are essential activities.

                                 Buddhism Christianity
Source of Truth Deep within From above (God)
At the Center Self God
Existence of God Not relevant Totally essential
Self Self seeks to eliminate self Self subordinated to God
Source of Spiritual Growth Spiritual bootstrapping God enables when we submit
Lifeblood of spiritual growth Meditation & chanting Worship, Bible study & prayer

Two Paths to Liberation (Part I)

Paths to Liberation

This world is a difficult place, from which people throughout history have sought relief and liberation. Two major paths to liberation, Buddhism and Christianity, will be compared in this five part series.

What each path holds out as model behavior toward others is virtually the same. Each challenge us to overcome hatred with love and to seek to banish negative thoughts by intentionally focusing on positive thoughts. However, each claimed to be the only true path to liberation. To Buddha, intense, prolonged meditation is the only way. In Christianity, faith in Jesus (apart from good deeds) is the only way to salvation.

Buddhism is a system of self-improvement directed and implemented by the self. The problem is that self-improvement tends to be very slow. It took the Buddha billions of lifetimes to reach perfection and become enlightened. By his own admission, the Dalai Lama has not yet attained enlightenment. If he hasn’t made it, who has?

The Buddha modeled ideal behavior, having achieved perfection. He thereby became enlightened and entered nirvana. Upon death, he left this earth, never to return. After his crucifixion and burial, Jesus rose from the dead and made at least a dozen different appearances, being seen by over 500 people. He then ascended into heaven, where he is alive today and in active communication and interaction with many of his followers.

Because of these differences, the number of Buddhists who have claimed to reach enlightenment and nirvana is very small. In contrast, the number of Christians who claim to have been liberated (i.e., saved) is in the hundreds of millions. However, we should not assume that anyone calling themselves a Christian is following Jesus. Jesus clearly stated that he never knew many of his followers.

This dramatic difference in the accessibility of liberation is due to the central role of mercy and grace in Christianity. Mercy is not receiving the punishment we deserve for bad deeds and thoughts. Grace is receiving blessings that we in no way deserve. Neither mercy nor grace are available in Buddhism because the universe is tightly governed by karma. Karma precludes mercy as well as grace.

Precautions should be noted for each path. Buddhism requires, at a bare minimum, many months of intense, prolonged meditation. When Westerners attempt this, the result is often depression because people in the West are conditioned to avoid self-denial.

Christians can easily fall into having judgmental attitudes toward others. It is best for religion and politics to be kept separate, and not to be intertwined.

The following chart summarizes the above narrative.

                                 Buddhism Christianity
One way? Intense, prolonged meditation is the only way Jesus is the only way
Basis of liberation Good thoughts & deeds Faith in Christ
Mercy and Grace Non-existent Abundantly available
Liberation slow/quick? Slow. Buddha lived billions of lifetimes. Dalai Lama not yet liberated. Often quick. Key is letting go and letting God.
How many claim liberation? A few hundred Hundreds of millions
Precautions After months of meditation, depression is not unusual Need to avoid judgmental words and attitudes, and linking politics and religion

 

Barbara Walter’s Interview of the Dalai Lama

Seven years ago Barbara Walters interviewed the Dalai Lama. The interview is available on You Tube (9:17).

The interview covers an amazing amount of ground about Buddhism and His Holiness. It showcases his no-nonsense, disarming humility and his endearing giggle. The interview leaves the viewer with a clear sense of why he is admired and revered by hundreds of millions.

The Dalai Lama (Tenzin Gyatso) is believed to be the 14th incarnation of The Buddha (Gautama Buddha). He is often referred to as the “heavenly deity of compassion and wisdom.” Many Buddhists believe he is a god. When questioned by Walters, he denied being a deity, saying he is a teacher. He laughed and commented that he had an eye irritation and that shouldn’t happen if he is a god.

Walters described him as “the world’s foremost scholar in his very complex faith.” Buddhists do not believe in God the way Christians do, but they do believe some kind of heaven exists. Ancient Tibetan texts describe six distinct levels of heaven and six nightmarish levels of hell. When asked about the Buddhist vision of heaven, he described it as a very happy, very pleasant place, the best place to refine one’s practice of Buddhism.

For Buddhists, heaven is not a destination, but a place to visit temporarily. A place to go to continue to reincarnate until they become a buddha (enlightened one). Good compassionate people reincarnate as people, and bad people as animals. For example, a good dog may reincarnate as a person, and a bad person as a dog. From the Buddhist point of view, everyone is reborn (reincarnated) repeatedly.

As a three-year-old, he underwent testing before he was proclaimed the 14th Dalai Lama. During the testing, he pointed to objects that belonged to the 13th Dalai Lama. He said as a child he had clear memories of a past life, but now he does not.

Walters explained that Buddhists believe the ultimate goal is nirvana or enlightenment, which is a state of all-knowing contentment. The Dalai Lama explained that once you eliminate all negative emotions, you automatically become enlightened and enter Nirvana. Walters asked him, are you enlightened? He answered no. He said he does not know what will happen tonight, and that he is having trouble with his memory. He added, if he was enlightened, he would not be forgetful. He said he sees himself as just another human being, nothing special, nothing more. It is this humility that endears him to so many.

Gyatso is the first Dalai Lama ever to travel outside of Tibet. He is an ambassador of Buddhism recognized world-wide as a symbol of compassionate, non-violent living. Before an audience of 65,000 people in New York’s Central Park, Richard Gere introduced him as “one of the great beings perhaps to ever walk on this planet. . . .”

Walters asked the Dalai Lama what the purpose of life is, and he replied that the purpose is to be happy and is accomplished by warm-heartedness. That compassion gives inner strength, and changes our attitudes and the way we see things. When asked if the world is closer to heaven or to hell, he replied closer to heaven.

Moved by the time with him, Walters concluded her time with him by requesting if she could kiss him on his cheek. He permitted it and giggled. Then he showed her a New Zealand kiss and touched noses with her.

The interview raised some key concerns about the efficacy of Buddhism as a path to enlightenment and nirvana. If the Dalai Lama has not attained enlightenment, then who has? Attaining enlightenment is the only real way to be liberated from the suffering of this world, and from repeatedly being reincarnated into that same world of suffering. Only a very small number of Buddhists have “made it,” even in the 2,500 years that Buddhism has existed as a religion. This stands in sharp contrast to Christianity and Islam, where a high percentage of adherents believe that they will be freed from suffering when they enter heaven (or paradise). The difference is that in these two theistic religions, God (or Allah) is believed to do what no human being can—provide a way of liberation from this very troublesome world and the great limitations that plague all human beings.

If the Dalai Lama is “just another human being, nothing special, nothing more,” and is not enlightened, then is he really qualified to speak with such authority as a teacher? While his humility is disarming, it is also unsettling.

All this reminds me of the painfully honest confession of Bruce Newman, author of A Beginner’s Guide to Tibetan Buddhism. He noted,

When I look back on my twenty-three years of practice, I can’t but help but feel deeply disappointed by how little progress I’ve made in my meditation. In a sense, I’ve done most things right—I’ve played by the book, so to speak. Why then have the experiences of meditation, so tantalizing, been beyond my reach? Don’t get me wrong, it’s not as if nothing has happened; it’s just that progress has been painfully slow.[i]

While one may question the efficacy of sudden conversions in Christianity for many of its faltering followers, we also encounter many Christians who dramatically changed for the better overnight, or nearly so. This phenomenon is absent in Buddhism, where spiritual growth is “painfully slow.”

 

[i] Bruce Newman, A Beginner’s Guide to Tibetan Buddhism, (Ithaca, New York: Snow Lions Prod., 2004), 71.

One Way to God Available to All Mankind

Buddha and Jesus: Could Solomon Be the Missing Link?

[Excerpt from Chapter Sixteen of
Buddha & Jesus: Could Solomon Be the Missing Link?]

By R. E. Sherman

If there is just one way to God, shouldn’t it be available to all people at all points in time? Nevertheless, Christians have generally taken the position that the only people who will be saved are those who explicitly receive Jesus by faith as their personal Savior.  This position does not provide any provision of liberation for those who have never heard the gospel.  However, the Bible does imply that there is a way for such people.[i]  We see this principle highlighted, though in a negative way, in the parable of the faithful and evil servants, where Jesus said:

And that servant who knew his master’s will, and did not prepare himself or do according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes. But he who did not know, yet committed things deserving of stripes, shall be beaten with few.  For everyone to whom much is given, from him much will be required; and to whom much has been committed, of him they will ask the more.[ii]

While many doubt Christianity’s claims in part because Christianity doesn’t appear to offer salvation to those who have never heard of Jesus, no one seems to be bothered by the fact that Buddhism doesn’t offer liberation to those who have never encountered it.  There is, however, a Christian solution to this dilemma that is entirely consistent with biblical teachings, though it is not widely known or held.

Consider Jesus’ words in John 14:6b again. He said:

I am the way, the truth and the life, no one comes to the father except through me.[iii]

It is possible that “except through me” could mean that everyone must come before Christ to be judged, and that there is no way around that.  Such a belief gives Jesus the complete preeminence that evangelicals subscribe to.  In fact, it gives Christ more preeminence than the standard evangelical belief.  In other words, Christ is above any cut-and-dried criteria that humans think they know about who will be saved and who will not.  Who will be saved? In every case, the answer is that Jesus decides.

Such an alternative belief is also completely consistent with John 3:16:

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.[iv]

That verse does not preclude Christ from granting executive pardons to any person who otherwise would be condemned because of his or her absence of belief in Christ.  This would particularly be true of those who had never heard the gospel, as well as those who had never had a fair opportunity to consider and accept it.  It might even include Jews who all their lives had been taught disparaging things about Jesus. Just as Jesus, dying on the cross, pled with God, saying, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing,”[v] so Jesus may petition God for the pardon of any person who has ever lived.

Jesus is the judge of all people, including Buddha, Mohammed, and Moses.  He decides the eternal destiny of every person.  As stated in the New Testament book of Acts:

He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that He is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead.[vi]

Since Jesus is “judge of the living and the dead,” it could be viewed as wrong and arrogant for evangelical Christians to boldly state precisely what criteria he will use in his judgments of every person in history.

The usual interpretation of the verse where Jesus says “no one comes to the father except through me” is fraught with difficulties of application. To listen to many evangelicals, many people will be excluded from salvation who never had a chance to believe in Jesus, including those who never heard of him because of where they lived, almost everyone who lived before he was born, and even children who die young.  Evangelicals claim that the basis for salvation is faith, not works, and that it is utterly critical that this faith must be in Jesus, and in no one else.  Curiously, many of these evangelicals also maintain that Jesus was implicitly present in many different ways in the Old Testament. For example, Jesus was the Angel of God’s Presence,[vii] Commander of the Lord’s Army,[viii] Priest Forever,[ix] Redeemer,[x] and “a witness to the peoples, a leader and commander for the peoples”[xi] in different Old Testament passages that are historical accounts (and not prophecies of future events).  These evangelicals also teach the Trinity, stating that God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit are virtually interchangeable.  And yet faith in God is not enough for salvation, in spite of the virtual interchangeability of God and Jesus.

Related to this issue is whether people who knew of Jesus, but never became Christians—and yet seem to have followed Christian principles, such as loving others, during their lives—can be accepted into heaven. Typically, someone who balks at the idea of these “good” people not going to heaven will say, for example, “So, will Gandhi be saved?”  The truth is, we will never know for sure in this life. According to the Bible, if Gandhi is saved, it will be in spite of his Hinduism and it will truly be by the grace and pardon of Christ.  Jesus will make this decision for every human being who has ever lived or who will live. In all of this Jesus is totally exalted, as is made clear in Colossians:

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.[xii]

We also see the supremacy of Jesus underscored in Philippians:

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.[xiii]

Jesus also boldly proclaimed

All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth.[xiv]

That authority includes the power to judge the eternal destiny of every person.  This is not universalism, the belief that everyone will be saved.  Jesus will not grant executive pardons to everyone. Furthermore, Jesus will even reject many who claim to be Christians.[xv]

One reason Christians are often awkward in their sharing is that they may be overstepping the bounds of what mankind is authorized by God to do by trying to dictate what only God can decide: who will be saved and who will not.  Spiritual arrogance, whether it is really that or just appears to be that, is always awkward.


[i] Romans 1:18–23; 2 Peter 3:9.

[ii] Luke 12:47–48 (NKJV).

[iii] John 14:6b (NIV).

[iv] John 3:16 (NIV).

[v] Luke 23:34 (NASB).

[vi] Acts 10:42 (NIV).

[vii] Isaiah 63:9.

[viii] Joshua 5:14–15.

[ix] Psalm 110:4.

[x] Job 19:25.

[xi] Isaiah 55:4b (NASB).

[xii] Colossians 1:15–20 (NASB).

[xiii] Philippians 2:9–11 (NIV).

[xiv] Matthew 28:18b (NKJV).

[xv] Matthew 7:21–23 and Revelation 3:14–21.

No One Is Good Enough

Buddha and Jesus: Could Solomon Be the Missing Link?

 

[Excerpt from Chapter Sixteen of Buddha & Jesus:
Could Solomon Be the Missing Link?]

By R. E. Sherman

At the end of our last blog posting, we noted that there are two types of religion that include belief in some kind of heaven:

  1. Those that claim that each person must earn his or her way to heaven by being a good person; and
  2. Christianity, which claims that no person, except Jesus, has ever been good enough to go to heaven.  The Christian path is to admit that we are incapable of being good enough, and that, to be saved, we must put our faith in Jesus, his divinity and perfect goodness, and his sacrifice on the cross as the basis for entrance into heaven.

If it is true that no person can be good enough to go to heaven on their own merits, then none of the religions in the first category provide a way to God.  This then leaves Christianity as the only way to God, and its claim makes clear sense.

Too many people, if pressed, might say that they are good because they obey the Ten Commandments.  In other words, they don’t steal, murder, or commit adultery.  And they may honor their mother and father, in general, not counting their teenage years.  But while there’s a good chance they haven’t specifically violated some commandments, are these people aware of the other commandments?  Most “good” people tell the truth, most of the time, except for white lies, fudging on tax returns, and so forth.  But have they never “coveted,” or desired someone else’s spouse or possessions?  Have they never sworn?  Have they always kept the Sabbath as a holy day? Have they never sought some idol (i.e., some person or thing other than God that they look to as their hope for happiness and satisfaction)?  Everyone today pursues some kind of idol, whether it is money, prosperity, power, fame, or a comfortable retirement.  These are all idols.  Very few “good” people have kept more than three or four of the Ten Commandments.

The other problem many people have with Christianity’s claim to be the only way to God is the perceived behavior of Christians.  If Christianity brings people into relationship with the one true God, it should make Christians very humble and compassionate toward people with different beliefs.  Many Christians are like that, yet they are not the ones who are highlighted in the media.  Instead, so-called Christians who judge people with other beliefs and treat them with disrespect are showcased by the media. A Mother Teresa might also be showcased, but the media rarely draws attention to common, humble Christians.

To be sure, Christianity is anything but immune from problems, weaknesses, and divisions.  But this is also the case for every other religion.  Could the difficulty here be that all religions are filled with highly fallible, wayward people?  Could it be that the real problem is that people tend to believe their own religion provides the one true way while also having an attitude of judging people of other faiths?

How could the humble Jesus be so arrogant as to claim to be the only way to God?  This is a very troubling question, unless Jesus was God himself and was just stating the truth succinctly.  According to the Gospel accounts, Jesus claimed to be one with God many times.[i]  This precludes the option that he was just a great teacher or prophet.  He could not have been a great teacher or prophet if he repeatedly blasphemed God by falsely claiming oneness with him. As numerous Christian thinkers have pointed out, we are left with two choices: Jesus was either who he said he was, or he was out of his mind.  There is, actually, one other possibility: that early Christians conspired to put words into the mouth of Jesus as the New Testament was being written and when the canon was finalized at church councils.  According to this view, he did not really say that he was one with God. However, those who wrote the gospel accounts were eye-witnesses of the events described.  If they became co-conspirators after Jesus’ death to claim he said things he did not say—and that they saw the resurrected Christ—they would not have been willing to die for their faith in the divinity of Christ.  Nearly all of them were martyred.[ii]  And so, each person is confronted with the necessity of deciding which of these options is true.[iii]


[i] Sample quotes appear at Matthew 11:27, John 3:16, John 5:17–23, John 8:19, John 10:30, 36–38 and John 14:1, 7–11.

[ii] Steven Gertz, “How Do We Know 10 of the Disciples Were Martyred?” ChristianHistory.net, August 8, 2008, retrieved May 25, 2011.

[iii] C. S. Lewis popularized this argument in his BBC radio talks in the early 1940s, which were later adapted for his book Mere Christianity, first published in 1952. The argument is sometimes called “Lewis’s trilemma.” Other Christian thinkers often go back to this same argument, saying that Jesus must be “liar, lunatic, or lord.” If Jesus was a liar or a lunatic, he could not have been a good teacher; furthermore, he did not seem to be a liar or a lunatic. The only option left is that he was telling the truth and is Lord. Either way, the option of calling him a good teacher is untenable. See C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, 3d ed. (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2001).

Only One Way?

Buddha and Jesus: Could Solomon Be the Missing Link?

[Excerpt from Chapter Sixteen of
Buddha & Jesus: Could Solomon Be the Missing Link?]

By R. E. Sherman

Christianity is well known for its claims that Jesus is the only way to God.  This claim is based on numerous biblical passages, including John 14:6b, where Jesus is quoted as saying:

I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.[i]

What is less known is that one of Buddha’s own proverbs makes a similar assertion:

The best of ways is the eightfold; the best of truths the four words; the best of virtues passionlessness; the best of men he who has eyes to see. This is the way, there is no other that leads to the purifying of intelligence. Go on this way! Everything else is the deceit of Mara (the tempter). If you go on this way, you will make an end of pain! The way was preached by me, when I had understood the removal of the thorns (in the flesh).[ii]

In Buddhism, if you don’t have purity of intelligence, then you are deluded and lost; so, in essence, Buddha was saying that his way was the only way.

Most people intuitively disagree with the notion that there is only one true way to God.  Implicit in their thinking is the assumption that “good” people will go to heaven, regardless of their particular religion. That assumption feels logical and fair and helps to motivate good behavior. Yet this sensible notion is not without problems:

  • First, there is no clear standard as to what is good behavior.  Many wars have been fought where both sides claimed God was with them. Killing was viewed as being “good” by both sides. Standards of what is good change over time and between different nations and cultures. People in the American South used to think it was good to put down blacks and discriminate against them harshly. No more.
  • Second, there is no clear cutoff as to how good one has to be to get into heaven.  If you are 51 percent good and 49 percent bad, is that good enough?  Wouldn’t you have to be at least 90 percent good? Who knows, and who decides?
  • Third, this notion is not supported by the Bible. For example, the following verses contradict this notion: (1) “There is not a righteous man on earth who does what is right and never sins”;[iii] and (2) “All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags.”[iv]
  • Fourth, it makes Jesus out to be a liar. He claimed to be the only way to God, and if people can get into heaven simply by being good, Jesus wasn’t telling the truth.

There are two types of religion that include belief in some kind of heaven:

  1. Those that claim that each person must earn his or her way to heaven by being a good person; and
  2. Christianity, which claims that no person, except Jesus, has ever been good enough to go to heaven.  The Christian path is to admit that we are incapable of being good enough, and that, to be saved, we must put our faith in Jesus, his divinity and perfect goodness, and his sacrifice on the cross as the basis for entrance into heaven.

If it is true that no person can be good enough to go to heaven on their own merits, then none of the religions in the first category provide a way to God.  This then leaves Christianity as the only way to God, and its claim makes clear sense.


[i] John 14:6b (NKJV).

[ii] Dhammapada 273–275 (emphasis added).

[iii] Ecclesiastes7:20 (NIV).

[iv] Isaiah 64:6a (NIV).

Why Are So Many Famous Actors Buddhists?

Why are so many famous actors Buddhists? Here are a few: Brad Pitt, Richard Gere, Keanu Reeves, Uma Thurman, Leonardo DiCaprio, Harrison Ford, Tina Turner, Orlando Bloom, Goldie Hawn, Jennifer Lopez and director George Lucas. Why is that? Is it that actors are smarter and more discerning? Maybe. Maybe not.

Top actors tend to have special aptitudes. And it so happens that these aptitudes lend themselves well to the practice of Buddhism. Great actors have an exceptional ability to memorize lines quickly, via repetition. The practice of Buddhist meditation involves intensive, prolonged repetition of a mantra. Most people aren’t gifted at doing that, but great actors have that gift.

Brad Pitt, Harrison Ford and Leonardo DiCaprio

There is another special aptitude that great actors have…the ability to embark on a mind trip. Isn’t that what Leonardo DiCaprio did when he tried to be Howard Hughes? Or when Harrison Ford tried to be Indiana Jones? The capability of focusing one’s mind very tightly for long periods of time is rare. And yet, that is what is required to effectively practice Buddhist meditation.

How repetitive is Buddhist meditation? A common practice involves a mala, a necklace with 108 beads. One selects a mantra (a single word or phrase) and keeps repeating it, counting out one bead for every time the mantra is repeated. Once all 108 beads have been counted out, one kernel of rice is moved from a full bowl into an empty bowl….until all the kernels are transferred.

How many kernels of rice does it take to fill a bowl? Well, there are about 50 kernels in a tablespoon. A typical bowl might hold two cups of rice, or 32 tablespoons. So that’s 1,600 kernels of rice. Multiply that by 108. That’s 172,800 times the mantra is repeated. Do you get a sense of why not many people are capable of truly practicing Buddhist meditation? And most capable people aren’t willing.

So we see that what attracts many actors to Buddhism is also what makes it an unlikely religion for most people to practice. Few have the special gifts of rapid memorization or the ability to zone out through long, intensive, uninterrupted repetition of a mantra. And so, few people have the willingness to persevere toward enlightenment.

The paradox is that the religion that touts a high level of tolerance of other religions is also very narrow in terms of the very small percentage of people who are willing or able to practice it effectively.

Burma and Sri Lanka

The prevalent image of Buddhists as passive, nonviolent people is very largely true. However, there are vivid counterexamples. Burma (Myanmar) and Sri Lanka both rank in the top 25 of human rights violators.[1]

Burma is at least 90 percent Buddhist, and has the fifth largest Buddhist population in the world (48 million).[2] Yet it has had a very long, bloody past of conflict with its neighbors as well as internally. Warfare and internal strife have characterized Burmese history since around A.D. 1300, and since 1962, when a military junta seized power, Burma has been ruled by one of the most oppressive, violent governments in the world.[3] Under its present government, it was ranked as the 14th worst country[4] in terms of human rights violations.[5] Violations include detention of political prisoners, forced labor, child labor, human trafficking, and sexual violence against women by the military.[6]

The ongoing detention of political prisoners has, most notably, included Aung San Suu Kyi, General Secretary of the National League for Democracy (NLD) and recipient of the Noble Peace Prize in 1991.[7]

She is the daughter of Aung Sun, who founded the modern Burmese Army and negotiated with the British Empire for Burmese independence. He was assassinated in 1947, when she was only two years old.[8] She was educated at the University of Delhi; St. Hugh’s College, Oxford; and the University of London. In 1988, heavily influenced by Gandhi’s philosophy of non-violence and her Buddhist beliefs (Theravada Buddhism), she entered the political arena to work for the democratization of Burma and helped to found the NLD. She has spent approximately 15 of the 21 years from 1989 until 2010 under house arrest, refusing the freedom she was offered if she would leave the country.[9] In April 2012, at the age of 66, she won a seat in the lower house of the Burmese parliament.[10]

While known for its Ceylon Tea and called “The Pearl of the Indian Ocean,” Sri Lanka[11] was deep in civil war from 1983 until 2009, with an estimated 80,000–100,000 people killed during that time.[12] Sri Lanka is approximately 70 percent Buddhist[13] followed by 15% Hindu, 8% Islam and 8% Christian,[14] and has a Buddhist population of 16 million people, the seventh largest in the world.[15] The constitution of Sri Lanka guarantees human rights as ratified by the United Nations, but Sri Lanka is listed as the 24th worst human rights violator[16] and has been criticized by organizations like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International for violations.[17]

Amnesty International (AI) cites that both the government forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), a Hindu minority aggressively seeking independent statehood, committed “gross human rights abuses, including war crimes, for which no one has been held accountable.” Included in these crimes are the harassment and attacks of independent journalists and human rights defenders, enforced disappearances, arbitrary arrests, torture, use of child soldiers, and unlawful killings. AI further states, “At the end of the war, about 11,000 displaced people suspected of links to the LTTE were arbitrarily arrested and detained without charge or trial.” Since then, many of them have been released, but those who remain have not been lawfully charged or prosecuted.[18]


[1] “The Top 100 Offenders,” Guardian.co.uk, retrieved April 24, 2012.

[2] “Buddhism by Country,” Wikipedia, retrieved April 24, 2012.

[3] “History of Burma,” Wikipedia, retrieved November 4, 2010.

[4] “The Observer Human Rights Index,” Guardian.co.uk, retrieved November 4, 2010.

[5] “Myanmar (Burma) Human Rights,” Amnesty International, retrieved November 4, 2010.

[6]  “Mayanmar: Human Rights,” Wikipedia, retrieved April 24, 2012.

[7] “Myanmar,” Amnesty International, retrieved April 26, 2012, and “Aung San Suu Kyi,” Wikipedia, retrieved April 26, 2012.

[8] “Aung San Suu Kyi: Personal Life,” Wikipedia, retrieved April 26, 2012.

[9] “Aung San Suu Kyi: Political Beginnings,” Wikipedia, retrieved April 26, 2012.

[10] “Aung San Suu Kyi: 2012 By-Elections,” Wikipedia, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aung_San_Suu_Kyi#2012_by-elections, retrieved April 26, 2012.

[11] “Sri Lanka,” Wikipedia, retrieved April 24, 2012.

[12] “Sri Lankan Civil War,” Wikipedia, retrieved April 24, 2012.

[13] “Largest Buddhist Populations,” Buddhanet.net, retrieved April 24, 2012.

[14] “Sri Lanka: Demographics,” Wikipedia, retrieved April 24, 2012.

[15] “Buddhism by Country,” Wikipedia, retrieved April 24, 2012.

[16] “The Top 100 Offenders,” Guardian.co.uk, retrieved April 24, 2012.

[17] “Sri Lanka: Human Rights and Media,” Wikipedia, retrieved April 24, 2012.

[18] “Sri Lanka,” Amnesty International, retrieved April 26, 2012.