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Five Common Misconceptions Concerning Buddhism

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For most Christians in the West, Buddhism is probably the least familiar of the five world religions to be covered in this year’s Secret Church simulcast. As a result, there are a number of common misconceptions about Buddhism. Below you’ll hear about five of these misconceptions, as well as a corrective for each one.

1. There is a Buddhism.

No, this is not a misconception because everything is an illusion; like almost all religions, it is improper to say there is a Buddhism. Instead, there are many diverse strands of Buddhist beliefs and practices throughout the world. The two primary strands are Mahayana and Theravada. Others are Zen, Tibetan, Vispassan, and Pure Land. Most Western converts to Buddhism have followed the Zen, Tibetan, or Vispassan strands. Therefore, there really is no Buddhism, but many Buddhisms.

2. It’s all about Nirvana.

According to the Oxford Dictionary, Nirvana is a transcendent state in which there is neither suffering, desire, nor sense of self, and the subject is released from the effects of karma and the cycle of death and rebirth. It represents the final goal of Buddhism.

It is common for those who don’t know much about Buddhism to have heard about Nirvana (even if they are only familiar with the band). It would be easy to think almost all Buddhists have to be thinking about and pursuing Nirvana.

However, many Buddhists are far more concerned about merit. In many Buddhist traditions, a person is judged (at death) on their good works (merit) and bad works (demerit), both of which determine their rebirth. In some Buddhist traditions, this judgment applies not only to rebirth, but also to a state before rebirth. Earn enough merit and you’ll up spending some time in a form of paradise until the merit is exhausted; then you go down to a hell-like punishment to burn off the demerit. If you don’t earn enough merit, then you go straight to punishment (followed by a bad rebirth).

As if that isn’t bad enough, consider that you also need to earn merit for those who have died—a parent, sibling, or child. Think of the weight of trying to earn enough merit to keep your mom in paradise and thus out of a hell-like punishment. Here is where the monks enter: when you see monks begging for food, the Buddhist sees a chance to earn merit (they aren’t begging, they are dispensing merit). Every gift to the monks earns merit. Sponsor a festival, earn merit. Become a monk, earn merit for you and your family. Build a temple or other religious building, earn merit.

So although Nirvana does play an important role in Buddhism, it may not be at the forefront of a layperson’s mind.

3. Buddhist monks are well-respected, wise ascetics.

Sometimes when people think of Buddhist monks they think of someone like the Dalai Lama—a Tibetan Buddhist monk known for sage wisdom and living as a refugee. Others may think of monks “begging” for food and living in a communal space, and they imagine that all monks live an austere, ascetic life. Though both of these misconceptions bear some truth, they are still misconceptions. The character of the majority of monks is similar to the surrounding laypeople. Some individuals become monks to accumulate merit for their family, and they may only become a monk for a few years, not a lifetime.

Many monks enjoy a higher standard of living than the people around them (especially senior monks). Recently there have been scandals involving monks wearing expensive watches and flying on private jets. Monks have also been plagued by scandals involving drugs, sex, tax evasion, violence, and even murder. Obviously not all monks are of low moral character, but in general, their character is no greater than the character of an average person.

4. American Buddhism are all hippies.

Buddhism gained a foothold in the United States with The Beat Generation and the hippie movement which followed. However, due to immigration and an influx of Southeast Asian refugees, many who practice Buddhism in America are either immigrants or second or third generation Buddhists. There is typically a significant divide between those who practice an immigrant faith and Westerners who convert.

5. There are about as many Buddhists as Christians or Muslims in the world.

Often when we think of the traditional religions under the banner of world religions (Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism), we have a hard time understanding demographics. It would be easy for someone to assume that the world religions are all about the same size. Yet, this is not the case. Christianity (≈30%) and Islam (≈20%) are the largest. Hinduism picks up about 15%. Buddhism come in around 6-7%.

Southeast Asia has the highest concentration of Buddhists, though the population continues to stretch north up into China. China has the most adherents (≈250 million), while Cambodia and Thailand have the highest percentage of Buddhist adherents (≈90-95%). North America has around 4 million Buddhists (≈1% of the total population).

— Buddhism is one of the religions that will be covered in this year’s Secret Church simulcast titled “A Global Gospel in a World of Religions.” To learn more about Secret Church or to register, go here.

Stephen Lewis is a Ph.D. candidate in World Religions at Southern Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. He and his wife attend Ada Bible Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where he serves on the small groups team.
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