Chapter Eighteen: Buddhism
The Buddhist understanding of God is perhaps the most ambiguous of the world's major religions. In fact, Buddhism has been accused by rival faiths of being a fundamentally atheistic religion. As odd as this might seem, it is certainly true that many Buddhists do not view God as an interacting person in the same way that Christians, Muslims and Hindus do. For many if not most Buddhists, the importance of the idea of a personal god is replaced by the idea of a transcendental unity of existence, a cosmic force that binds all of creation together.
The ultimate goal in Buddhism is to mystically merge with this force in a spiritual state called nirvana. This state will cause the end of both mortal suffering and the perpetual cycles of reincarnation. To achieve this nirvana state one must first discover the secrets of spiritual enlightenment: a complete understanding of the true nature of reality and its absolute acceptance.
Buddhism developed within the worldview of Hinduism. Its revered founder was Siddhattha Gotama, an extraordinary man who is believed to have lived approximately 560-480 BC. (Buddhism a History p 1) Born to the devoutly Hindu Sakya clan, Gotama's emergence into the world is recorded as being a great cosmic event. While his mother was still pregnant with him, the gods of the Hindu pantheon were said to already be watching out for the future Buddha. "The guardians of the world hastened from heaven to mount watch over the world's one true ruler; thus the moonbeams though they shine everywhere are especially bright on Mount Kailasa" [overlooking his birthplace]. (Buddhist Mahayana Tests p 4-5) His birth was also attended to by the gods. "When he was born, the earth, though fastened down by (Himalayas) the monarch of mountains, shook like a ship tossed by the wind; and from a cloudless sky there fell a shower full of lotuses and water-lilies, and perfumed with sandalwood." (Buddhist Mahayana Texts p 7)
A famous sage named Asita came to visit the boy and recognized certain marks on him that foretold of his important future. "Thus the great seer beheld the king's son with wonder,--his foot marked with a wheel, his fingers and toes webbed, with a circle of hair between his eyebrows, and signs of vigour like an elephant." (Buddhist Mahayana Texts p 11) The sage then makes a prophecy about the great purpose of the young child:
"Having forsaken the kingdom, indifferent to all worldly objects, and having attained the highest truth by strenuous efforts, he will shine forth as a sun of knowledge to destroy the darkness of illusion in the world. He will deliver by the boat of knowledge the distressed world, borne helplessly along, from the ocean of misery which throws up sickness as its foam, tossing with the waves of old age, and rushing with the dreadful onflow of death." (Buddhist Mahayana Texts p 13)
This initial part of the prophecy of the Buddha is revealing in that in brings up two key principals of Buddhist doctrine even before they are said to be taught by Buddha. First is the idea that one must abandon the material world in order to gain supreme spiritual knowledge. The second idea is that the world is in great distress, full of the suffering caused by sickness, aging and death.
The prophecy continues:
"He will proclaim the way of deliverance to those afflicted with sorrow, entangled in objects of sense, and lost in the forest-paths of worldly existence, as to travellers who have lost their way. By the rain of the Law he will give gladness to the multitude who are consumed in the world with that fire of desire whose fuel is worldly objects, as a great cloud does with its showers at the end of the hot season." (Buddhist Mahayana Texts p 13)
We see here more clearly the Buddhist idea that suffering is caused by desire for the material objects of the physical world. The sage promises that following the future Buddha's spiritual laws will allow people to end this suffering.
The prophecy ends with the bold statement that the young boy will grow up to achieve nirvana and teach the world about this discovery:
"He will break open for the escape of the living beings that door whose bolt is desire and whose two leaves are ignorance and delusion,-- with that excellent blow of the good Law which is so hard to find. He, the king of the Law, when he has attained to supreme knowledge, will achieve the deliverance from its bonds of the world now overcome by misery, destitute of every refuge, and enveloped in its own chains of delusion." (Buddhist Mahayana Texts p 14)
Gotama's childhood is described as one full of great wealth and enjoyment. He was described as being an exceptional student. "When he had passed the period of childhood and reached that of middle youth, the young prince learned in a few days the various sciences suitable to his race, which generally took many years to master." (Buddhist Mahayana Texts p 20) His father, the King of the city of Kalipa, arranged his son's marriage to a beautiful woman named Yasodhara. There seemed no end to the good fortunes of the handsome young prince. But all was not well for the father of Gotama. Although the King accepted the prophecy of his son's future, he hoped that Gotama would delay his religious life until his later years, until after he had assumed the throne of the kingdom. The King came upon a plan to shield his son from all the hardships of the world. "'He might perchance see some inauspicious sight which could disturb his mind,'-thus reflecting the king had a dwelling prepared for him apart from the busy press in the recesses of the palace." (Buddhist Mahayana Texts p 21)
So Gotama enjoyed the delights of a virtual earthly paradise in his sheltered world. Beautiful woman accompanied his every move. He ate the best food and drank the best drinks and enjoyed the pleasures of music and dance. In Buddhist terms, he was avidly pursuing the worldly pleasures.
But one day the women of Gotama entourage described to him a beautiful forest nearby, one filled with tender grasses and sparkling lotus ponds. Feeling shut up in his private residence, he decided to take a trip to visit the place. His father, relenting at the request, tried his best to shield Gotama from any unpleasantness. "He prohibited the encounter of any afflicted common person in the highroad; 'heaven forbid that the prince with his tender nature should even imagine himself to be distressed.'" (Buddhist Mahayana Texts p 27) The King's agent dutifully removed anyone who was sick or suffering from the selected route.
But the gods had other plans for Gotama. "But then the gods, dwelling in the pure abodes, having beheld that city thus rejoicing like heaven itself, created an old man to walk along on purpose to stir the heart of the king's son." (Buddhist Mahayana Texts p 30) Seeing the old man, Gotama asks his charioteer about him. The charioteer, prevented from keeping the Kings secrets by the gods, startles Gotama with his response. "That is old age by which he is broken down,-- the ravisher of beauty, the ruin of vigour, the cause of sorrow, the destruction of delights, the bane of memories, the enemy of the senses." (Buddhist Mahayana Texts p 31)
The gods again create a man, this time suffering from a disease. The charioteer again gives the sheltered Gotama the harsh truth. "Gentle Sir, it is a very great affliction called sickness, that has grown up, caused by the inflammation of the (three) humours, which has made even this strong man no longer master of himself." (Buddhist Mahayana Texts p 32)
Finally a third encounter reveal the full truth of the suffering of the world to Gotama. The gods conspire to create a funeral precession to cross the prince's path. The charioteer tells him the greatest secret of all. "This is some poor man who, bereft of his intellect, senses, vital airs and qualities, lying asleep and unconscious, like mere wood or straw, is abandoned alike by friends and enemies after they have carefully swathed and guarded him." (Buddhist Mahayana Texts p 35)
These encounters produced a tremendous shock in the life of Gotama. After seeing the old man Gotama ponders: "Old age thus strikes down all alike, our memory, comeliness, and valour; and yet the world is not disturbed, even when it sees such a fate visibly impending. . . how can I rejoice in the pleasure-garden, when the thoughts arising from old age overpower me?" (Buddhist Mahayana Texts p 32) After seeing the diseased man he laments: "Even while they see all this calamity of disease mankind can yet feel tranquility; alas for the scattered intelligence of men who can smile when still not free from the terrors of disease. . . having heard this alarm of disease, my mind shrinks into itself, repelling from pleasure." (Buddhist Mahayana Texts p 33)
After seeing the dead man Gotama exclaims: "Is this end appointed to all creatures, and yet the world throws off all fear and is infatuated! Hard indeed, I think, must the hearts of men be, who can be self-composed in such a road... how can a rational being, who knows what destruction is, stay heedless here, in the hour of calamity?" (Buddhist Mahayana Texts p 35)
Shaken by these new found discoveries, Gotama is unable to enjoy the life of physical pleasures that he once cherished. "I do not despise worldly objects, I know that all mankind are bound up therein; but remembering that the world is transitory, my mind cannot find pleasure in them. Old age, disease, and death-if these three things did not exist, I too should find my enjoyments in the objects that please the mind." (Buddhist Mahayana Texts p 46)
While Gotama is unsure of what to do, the gods again intervene. A mysterious beggar visits him and tells him this story:
"Oh bull of men, I, being terrified at birth and death, have become an ascetic for the sake of liberation. Desiring liberation in a world subject to destruction, I seek that happy indestructible abode,--isolated from mankind, with my thoughts unlike those of others, and with my sinful passions turned away from all objects of sense. Dwelling anywhere, at the root of a tree, or in an uninhabited house, a mountain or a forest,-- I wander without family and without hope, a beggar ready for any fare, seeking only the highest good." (Buddhist Mahayana Texts p 51-52)
The ascetic, finished with his story, magically rose up and disappeared into the sky. Astonished by this heavenly visit, Gotama sets his mind on achieving his own liberation from suffering and death. Unable to remain in his sheltered world, he prepares to leave the city to travel in search of enlightenment. "Then he with his eyes long and like a full-blown lotus, looking back on the city, uttered a sound like a lion. 'Till I have seen the further shore of birth and death I will never again enter the city called after Kapila.'" (Buddhist Mahayana Texts p 61)
As Gotama traveled from forest to forest to visit other ascetics and hermits seeking their own enlightenment, he began to form some of his beliefs. One of them was the uncertainty regarding metaphysical questions:
"It is not for me to accept a theory which depends on the unknown and is all controverted, and which involves a hundred prepossessions; what wise man would go by another's belief? Mankind are like the blind directed in the darkness by the blind." (Buddhist Mahayana Texts p 101-102)
He also decided that the levels of meditation that some of his fellow seekers aspired too would not bring an end to the many causes of suffering. Gotama believed that unfulfilled pleasures would continue even in a life after the present one. The various levels of the heavens and the different stages of reincarnation must still be dominated by desire, and Gotama believed that desire unfulfilled must ultimately be the cause of suffering. We must recall that in the Hindu worldview the hereafter was believed to be full of intense passions and intrigue. The gods, as Gotama knew them from the Hindu writings, were just as lustful and insatiable as human beings. As Gotama puts it:
"The victims of pleasure attain not to happiness even in the heaven of the gods, still less in the world of mortals; he who is athrist is never satisfied with pleasure, as the fire, the friend of the wind, with fuel." (Buddhist Mahayana Texts p 112)
So Gotama struggled to find a way to remove the very desires that ultimately lead to suffering. To do so would require a transcending of the physical world. A person would have to not desire, not strive, not do anything that would enflame the passions of self. Inspired by his fellow ascetics, Gotama tried to end these passions by living a supremely self-controlled lifestyle. For six full years he practices self-mortification, abstaining from all worldly pleasures. He ate only fruit, sesame seeds and rice. (Buddhist Mahayana Texts p 133)
But at the end of the six years he failed to achieve the perfect mental and spiritual state he had sought. His body had become emaciated from the diet, and his mind was weak and unable to concentrate. Discouraged, he allowed himself to regain his strength until he was able to rest at ease again. It was now that he decided that quite meditation was the way to achieve the enlightenment he was seeking. Sitting down under a great tree, he made this confident declaration: "I will not rise from this position on the earth until I have obtained my utmost aim." (Buddhist Mahayana Texts p 136)
And there, sitting calmly under the Bohdi tree, Gotama became the Buddha, the enlightened one. According to the Buddha-karita this revelation came in two parts. In the first, Gotama became aware of all of his past lives. This insight into the great cycling of souls left him with a profound sense of compassion for all things, for each rebirth had gone through the same sufferings as the last. Perceiving the world of the living rolling on and on like a great unyielding wheel Gotama said: "All existence is unsubstantial, like the fruit of a plantain." (Buddhist Mahayana Texts p 148)
In the second stage of his enlightenment he perceives that some souls are reborn into heaven, while others into hell. Hell, the fate of those who have performed evil actions in past lives, is full of the most unimaginable horrors. Others are reborn into horrible conditions on earth as their punishment.
Considering the fate of those who suffer so, he perceived a great chain of cause and effect. First the rebirth into a future of suffering was caused by the existence of the separate soul. This soul's existence was sustained by its desire. Desire was caused by sensations, which were produced through the senses. The senses all rise from consciousness which survives because of what Gotama called "latent impressions." Finally, these latent impressions of the world develop out of ignorance. (Buddhist Mahayana Texts p 153) Therefore we have Gotama saying: "Thus ignorance is declared to be the root of the great trunk of pain by all the wise; therefore it is to be stopped by those who seek liberation." (Buddhist Mahayana Texts p 154)
But this enlightenment was not yet the perfected state of Nirvana. Gotama, now called the Buddha, decided to postpone his own entrance into that mystical union by first teaching others about his experience. "I will first establish in perfect wisdom worlds as numerous as the sand, and then I will enter Nirvana... "(Buddhist Mahayana Texts p 160)
It is important to note at this point the belief in Buddhist theology that the Buddha had now gone beyond the power and abilities of the gods of the Hindu pantheon. According to the Buddha-karita, some of the gods had tried to prevent him from achieving enlightenment by trying to distract him away from his meditations. After his successful transformation other gods showered him with beautiful cloths to wear. But he declined to accept them, dismissing the gifts from the gods as unfit for the life of a religious mendicant. Note the fact that the gods do not cause or even help the Buddha to attain enlightenment. He does it on his own. This idea that spiritual growth does not require divine intervention would have a major impact on the Buddhist view of the gods and on other religion's view of Buddhism.
The essence of Buddha's teaching were distilled down into what are called the Four Noble Truths. The initial explanation of them is quite simple. Buddha perceived human life to be one of suffering. This suffering is caused by unfulfilled desire. The only thing that can end the cycle of human suffering is the removal of all harmful desires. To remove these desires, to become enlightened, the believer must follow the teachings of Buddha.
In the original teachings of Buddha we find an almost total refusal to answer metaphysical questions. This is in sharp contrast to the founders of the world's other major religions. The reason that Buddha has often been accused of being an atheist is not that he taught that there was no god, but that he simply refused to state his opinion about the idea of an ultimate personal God. Buddha also refused to even answer the question of whether reincarnation was a reality, whether the soul was eternal, or whether the universe itself was infinite or eternal in nature.
To understand why he refused to answer these apparently fundamental theological questions we must more closely examine the Four Noble Truths. This is the real heart and soul of Buddhism, not belief in God or reincarnation. All thinking, all actions a person can perform are to be based on there four ideas. If we accept them as true, that life is suffering, suffering is caused by harmful desires, that removing these desires will remove suffering, and that the teachings of Buddha will lead to this enlightenment, then we can see why the Buddha wanted to de-emphasize all other metaphysical ideas.
Belief in the pantheon of gods in Buddha's Hindu world would not help in achieving enlightenment according to the Four Noble Truths. Neither would belief in reincarnation, or any other metaphysical belief. In fact, having strong opinions on any metaphysical subject might have a negative affect on achieving enlightenment. The beliefs themselves might be the cause of harmful desires. Buddha, when asked about his belief in life after death, once answered:
"This question is not calculated to profit, is not concerned with the dharma, it does not redound even to the elements of right conduct, nor to detatchement, nor to purification from lusts, nor to quietude, nor to tranquillization of heart, nor to real knowledge, nor to the insight (of the higher stages of the Path), nor to Nirvana. Therefore is it that I express no opinion upon it." (Philosophy of the Buddha, p. 113)
In another instance he responded to a series of metaphysical questions by answering:
"To hold that the world is eternal -- or to hold that it is not, or to agree to any other of the propositions you adduce, Vaccha-is the thicket of theorizing, the wilderness of theorizing, the tangle of theorizing, the bondage and the shackles of theorizing, attended by ill, distress, perturbation and fever; it conduces not to aversion, passionlessness, tranquility, peace, illumination and Nirvana." (Philosophy of the Buddha, p. 113)
Some consider the original teachings of Buddha to fall more into the category of a philosophy than a religion. But after his death, differing schools of Buddhism would form that soon gave Buddhism a more religiously orthodox view. Buddha himself would grow into a deity in many schools of Buddhism and is today often worshipped in a similar manner that Hindus worshipped their gods.
But the central ideas of the Four Noble Truths would endure these changes. While belief in deities became common in Buddhism, the belief that they ultimately could not help in the personal salvation of achieving enlightenment was maintained. The Dhammapada, a later writing of Buddhism, accepts the existence of gods, but says "Only by solitary effort can the world been seen as it truly is." (Dhammapada, 410).
Achieving enlightenment is seen as actually going beyond the abilities of these lesser deities of the Hindu pantheon. A Buddhist who has achieved nirvana in life has actually gone beyond the knowledge of the gods. "Whose course Gods, gandhabbas, and humans do not know, whose intoxicants are extinct, an Arahant, that one I call a brahmana" (Dhammapada, 411). While the worship of the gods might go against Buddha's original intent, the functioning of the Four Noble Truths remains essentially the same.
Belief in reincarnation would also become much more central to Buddhism than they were to Buddha's original teachings. Tibetian Buddhism in particular would devise an amazing complex description of the process of dying, the soul migrating to the underworld, and eventual reincarnation in another being.
Many Buddhists believe that they will remember their past lives when they achieved enlightenment. "Who knows in every way the passing away and rebirth of beings, unattached, well gone, awakened, that one I call a brahmana" (Dhammapada, 410). Enlightenment to these Buddhists means not just merging into the Ultimate Reality, but also achieving knowledge about their own personal past.
In Buddhist thinking suffering means in large part that all things, even those that seem pleasurable, are doomed to eventual decay and destruction. This belief sets Buddhism apart from its parent religion of Hinduism. Hindus believe that the soul is an indestructible entity. Although most Buddhists accept reincarnation, they paradoxically do not believe that souls permanently continue after death. Some Buddhists accept the existence of a pantheon of gods, but they do not believe that they are eternal or of any help in the quest for enlightenment.
The Eightfold Path lays out the lifestyle that believers must practice to achieve enlightenment. They are: right view, right thoughts, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration. Buddhists are expected to renounce the distractions of earthly desires. They are expected to treat others with compassion and complete nonviolence. Meditation is one of the key techniques to be used to help achieve a centered state of mind. One of the goals is to deconstruct the conscious mind to achieve a state of blissful emptiness.
Buddhism is today divided into two major schools, Mahayana and Theravada. According to Head and Cranston:
"Southern Buddhism -- the Buddhism of Ceylon, Burma, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam-bears the name Theravada, the doctrine of the Elders. It is also called Hinayana, or the lesser path or vehicle, a belittling name never used by Southern Buddhists. Northern Buddhism -- the Buddhism of China, Japan, and Tibet -- is known as Mahayana -- the greater path or vehicle." (Reincarnation In World Thought p55)
The two denominations differ in part in their teaching about the soul:
"The Southern version, briefly, is that at death a man's tendencies and trials of character are [by a chain reaction of cause and effect] reborn in some other person or individual, but without any connecting link of continuing egoity. Northern Buddhism, on the other hand, while exuberantly metaphysical in form, is said to have preserved the teaching given by Buddha to his arhats, or initiated disciples, and here one finds unmistakably taught the doctrine of a permanent identity which unites all the incarnations of a single individual." (Reincarnation In World Thought p56)
They also differ regarding whether the Buddha totally entered the state of Nirvana after becoming enlightened:
"The Southern School, consistent with the ideas already mentioned, believes that Buddha exists not; the chain of Karma was severed at his death; and the goal of Nirvanic absorption took place. The Mahayana school affirms, to use the words of Radhakrishnan, "that Buddha standing on the threshold of Nirvana took the vow never to make the irrevocable crossing so long as there was a single undelivered being on earth."" (Reincarnation In World Thought p57)
"To the Northern Buddhist, furthermore, Nirvana is not a state of extinction of consciousness and individuality. In Eitel's Handbook of Chinese Buddhism he states that even the popular exoteric systems of Chinese Buddhism "define Nirvana as the highest state of spiritual bliss, as absolute immortality through absorption of the soul into itself, but preserving individuality... This view is based on the Chinese translations of ancient sutras and confirmed by traditional sayings of Sakyamuni [Gautama, the Buddha] who, for instance, said in his last moments 'the spiritual body is immortal."" (Reincarnation In World Thought p57)
The state of Nirvana has several different versions in Buddhism. Of central importance is the debate over whether an individual will remain a conscious entity. According to British author Sir Francis Younghusband:
"Western writers refer to Nirvana as if it were a state of blank emptiness, when the man's mind would be devoid of all intelligence and all feeling-a complete vacuum. The truth is the precise opposite. One who has attained the state of Nirvana may indeed be motionless and regardless of all sights and sounds. Yet inwardly his soul may be in a condition of intense activity... This is the goal of Buddhism. Not nothingness, but superlative activity. So Buddha urged each to become what he is-what he really is down in his deepest foundations-what in moments of loftiest exaltation he discovers himself to be." (Reincarnation in World Thought p133)
A similar sentiment is expressed in Henry Steel Olcott's work A Buddhist Catechism:
"On this point [of reincarnation] the Western world is for the most part as far from understanding the Oriental conception as it is mistaking Nirvana for "annihilation."... Much of the Western misconception is due to ignorance of the difference between [a man's] individuality and his personality at any given period. These two are only temporarily coincident and conjoined. . . In each birth the personality differs from that of a previous or next succeeding birth. . . But though personalities ever shift, the one line of life along which they are strung, like beads, runs unbroken; it is ever that particular line, never any other. It is therefore individual, an individual vital undulation, which began in Nirvana... and leads through may cyclic changes back to Nirvana." (Reincarnation in World Thought p159)
To speak of the Buddhist view of God is therefore a difficult thing. God to the average Buddhist is more of a transcendental force of existence than a personal deity like Yahweh, Jesus, Allah or Krishna. Many Buddhists worship past saints who achieved enlightenment as virtual deities, including Gotama himself. This form of polytheistic worship shares may similarities with its parent religion of Hinduism. But what sets Buddhism apart is its insistence that deities ultimately cannot help a person achieve enlightenment. The quest for nirvana must be a personal quest using the various techniques taught in the different schools of Buddhism. Most Buddhist don't in fact believe that they will achieve enlightenment during their lifetime. Instead they hope to reincarnate into a higher level of spiritual understanding in the next life that may one day allow them, in one form or another, to achieve enlightenment and nirvana.
Problems with Buddhist Inerrancy
The first problem encountered with trying to verify the Buddhist view of God is that Buddhism has no official view. Compared to the other world religions, Buddhism is much more philosophy than theology. The founder himself simply declined to answer any questions pertaining to God or the gods. His goal was instead to lead followers in a transformation of thought and emotion so they could live without suffering. Questions of metaphysics were considered beyond the ability of an individual to know for certain, and in any case would not lead to the cessation of suffering. A passionate desire to know God can even be seen as counterproductive to reaching this state, if in fact God can't be know in any definite sense.
Perhaps more to the heart of the religion than the belief in god or reincarnation is the belief in nirvana. Differing traditions give somewhat opposing descriptions of this state, ranging from simply non-suffering to a great universal consciousness. What attempts has their been in Buddhism to confirm that such a state actually exists? The answer seems to be none. Belief seems based, if the founder is any indication, on individuals simply saying they have had achieved the state. Some schools include details of a change that could actually be verified. For example, you are suppose to fully remember all past lives once nirvana is achieved. This could actually be tested at least, but as we saw in the chapter on reincarnation, so far the track record for verifying past life information is dubious at best.
Some schools also claim supernatural powers for the enlightened few. These include feats such as invisibility, flying, out of body travel and various types of bodily invulnerability. As yet no such claims have been verified under controlled conditions that would past muster with the scientific community.
This inability to verify that a state of nirvana or enlightenment actually exists as described by Buddhist scripture is a severe challenge to Buddhist theology. It goes hand in hand with the problems of the Four Noble Truths. The blanket statement that life is suffering seems much less convincing in the modern world than it might have thousands of years ago. Life for most of us is much safer and healthier than for our ancient ancestors. Public opinion pulls in wealthy nations like the United States certainly don't show that most people consider their lives to be mostly suffering. Many say they are truly very happy in life, with their enjoyments often far exceeding their suffering.
And our modern understanding of the world also brings into question the second Noble Truth, that desire causes suffering. Most Buddhists interpret this to mean excessive desire, perhaps more accurately translated as lust. Does removing the desire for things unattainably remove suffering? For most people their greatest form of suffering comes from the loss of something loved, like a spouse or child. This is not the same as a life of suffering. For many the enjoyment and satisfaction of being in a loving relationship far outweighs the shorter term suffering caused by that relationship's eventual end in death or separation. Love, for many anyway, increases the enjoyment of life. If a life of suffering is not caused by love for many people, what then could cause such an unhappy state?
A physical illness or injury can certainly cause a life of suffering. But we see countless examples of people suffering the most horrendous disasters and personal violations imaginable and still feel that they live happy lives. Can we say that for at least some life is all suffering then? The problem with this approach is that if one of the Noble Truths only holds for a small part of the population, such as people who eventually commit suicide, then its not a universal truth.
The third Noble Truth, that ending excess desire or lust will remove suffering, is also questionable. The old saying that the chase is more enjoyable than catching your prey is sometimes true. The powerful effect of desiring and anticipating can be fulfilling in itself, even if the end goal is never realized. And how can we know what desires are unattainable? It seems hard to square this view of eliminating desire with trying to improve the lives of human beings. Are we to view an inner city teacher struggling to educate troubled children and teens as engaging in excess desire that will go largely unfulfilled. Do we call this a wasted life? Do we say that they should have only done in life what they could realistically accomplish to help them get closer to enlightenment?
The humanistic drive to improve the life of humanity is to some degree at odds with the notion of removing all excess desire that can't be fulfilled. This is not to imply that Buddhism is immoral. More to the point, few Buddhist actually adhere to the extreme ideology that a literal interpretation of their teachings would cause. In fact Buddhism stands somewhat above the other world religions in the relative rarity that Buddhists have engaged in acts of violent religious persecution of nonbelievers.
The final Noble Truth, that following the teachings of the Buddha will lead to the removal of excess desire, removal of suffering and cause enlightenment is difficult to verify. Who are examples of individuals who have achieved enlightenment who can display any unusual powers? The most recognized leader of Buddhist today, the Dolai Lama, states bluntly that he has not achieved enlightenment. The worldwide Buddhist community has not named any individual who has achieved enlightenment that can demonstrate any type of supernatural ability. What then is the basis of the statement that following the teachings of the Buddha will lead to enlightenment? Only the fact the Buddha convinced his followers (but not everyone who knew him) that is was true. You apparently must accept their claim as a matter of faith.
Buddhist belief in reincarnation attempts to explain the apparent suffering and unfairness that exist in the world. Consider this Japanese Buddhist view:
"A man... was now sickly and poor, because in some previous existence he had been sensual and selfish. This woman was happy in her husband and her children, because in the time of a former birth she had proved herself a loving daughter and a faithful spouse; this other was wretched and childless, because in some anterior existence she had been a jealous wife and a cruel mother... The girl whom you hoped to marry has been refused you by her parents,-- given away to another. But once, in another existence, she was yours by promise, and you broke the pledge then given. Painful indeed the loss of you child; but this loss is the consequence of having, in some former life, refused affection where affection was due. Maimed by mishap, you can no longer earn your living as before. Yet this mishap is really due to the fact that in some previous existence you wantonly inflicted bodily injury..." (Reincarnation In World Thought p60)
What effect this doctrine has is difficult to say. The Fourteenth Dalai Lama took this positive view:
"Belief in rebirth should engender a universal love [because] all living beings and creatures, in the course of their numberless lives and our own, have been our beloved parents, children, brothers, sisters, friends. And the virtues our creed encourages are those which arise from this universal love-tolerance, forbearance, charity, kindness, compassion... If belief in afterlife is accepted, religious practice becomes a necessity, which nothing else can supplant, in the preparation for one's future incarnation... By whatever name religion may be known, its understanding and practice are the essence of a peaceful mind and therefore of a peaceful world. If there is not peace in one's mind, there can be no peace in one's approach to others, and thus no peaceful relations between individuals or between nations..." (Reincarnation In World Thought p62)
But others could certainly adopt a less compassionate view of the needs of human beings. In any case, we are left with the same dilemma with Buddhism that we discovered in the other four religions we have examined. All claim that members of their faith had supernatural abilities in the past, but none can demonstrate such abilities today under scientifically controlled situations. The Buddhist belief in enlightenment and nirvana, the supernatural cornerstone of the religion, must be accepted as a matter of faith. Because, like all the major religions, Buddhism is centered around metaphysical ideas, there is no way to objectively prove or disprove the ultimate truth of its beliefs. No Buddhist can prove that their faith is ultimately true, and no one can prove that the faith is untrue. For anyone not brought up in the culture of Buddhism as a child, belief in the religion must require that great leap of faith -- the personal conviction that something is true even without the verifiable evidence to prove it.