Is Buddhism Better?
We lived in Chiang Mai, near the ancient moat. The golden tower of Wat Champu was 25 meters from our door. Just as close, in other directions, were crumbling chedis, closely sown among houses and businesses.
No doubt new temples spring up, but all we've seen in Chiang Mai are centuries old. Some lie in undisturbed ruins but most are in continuous use. All are revered, and it's common for passerbys to wai, Thai style, to the Buddha image inside.
Unlike American Christians and Jews, who every generation plant and replace churches and synagogues and schools and parish centers in styles that trumpet their current affluence level, Thais are born to their places of prayer, and take them for granted completely. Temples and towers are as much part of the longtime landscape as hills and rivers.
Blending deep familiarity with transcendent awe, Thais seem completely at ease in the holiest places, though they observe all the rituals that connote sacredness: no shoes, no turned backs, and perfect attentiveness.
When an American guest placed a newly acquired jade Buddha image on our dining room table, a local Thai friend immediately removed it to a high shelf nearby, muttering in a tone as stern as a gentle Thai can produce, "cannot, cannot." Thais are hard wired not to look down on a Buddha image.
And yet. Except for the few Muslims and Christians among them, Thais don't believe in God, or at least any personal and specific divine being. And they don't have a creed or any set of beliefs. Even the ethical precepts, though central, are aspirational. Anyone and everyone can belong. Buddhism tends to cross-fertilize with local cultures, including superstitions and social practices like gender privilege.
Jewish scholars love Talmudic polemics. Christian theologians delight in endless apologetics. Muslim Imams treasure their debates about the Koran. For Buddhists? There is nothing to argue about. It's the only religion that systematically synthesizes rather than analyzes, with the result that there is no coherent theology -- only a consistent ethical code rooted in 2500 years of evolving teaching.
So does that make Buddhism better? Should we all rush out and take refuge in the three jewels of Buddha, Dharma, and Sanga? I don't think so. In fact the Dalai Lama often warns followers never to prosyletize or even promote their Buddhist views.
This post, in different form, originally ran in August, 2011 in my other blog: www.living-small.com