In no particular order, here are some common misconceptions about Buddhism held by many people around the world plus the actual facts of the matter.
#1. THE LAUGHING BUDDHA
Misconception: The fat laughing Buddha is intended to represent Gautama Buddha, the founder of Buddhism.
Fact: The Buddha and the so-called “Laughing Buddha” are not the same person. However, their pictures and statues are often thought by many Westerners to be of the same person. Siddhartha Gautama – the Buddha – lived 2,600 years ago in India and was a Hindu prince turned ascetic turned Spiritual Teacher and founder of Buddhism. The Laughing Buddha was a man known as Budai or Pu-tai. He lived 1,100 years ago (i.e. 1,500 years after the time of Buddha) in China and was an eccentric Buddhist monk of legendary generosity and joviality. “Buddha” means “The Awakened One” or “The Enlightened One” whilst “Budai” has a rather less lofty meaning, since it translates as “Cloth Sack.”
#2. BELIEF IN GOD
Misconception: Buddhists believe in God.
Fact: The belief in God is entirely incompatible with the philosophy of Buddhism. Buddha did not believe in God and no genuine Buddhist today believes in God. In fact, the belief in God is one of the major causes of humanity’s problems and sufferings. Buddhism does not even accept the notion of an impersonal God, let alone the illogical and unphilosophical theory of a personal anthropomorphic God. Some Mahayana Buddhist traditions acknowledge various deities – such as Avalokiteshvara, Tara, and Manjushri – but these are spoken of as “holy and enlightened beings,” none of which is the Deity and none of which is any type of supreme God figure.
#3. AGNOSTIC OR ATHEISTIC
Misconception: Buddhism is an agnostic or atheistic religion.
Fact: Buddhism is neither agnostic nor atheistic. Literally, an agnostic is one who “does not know” or who is not sure about something. Buddhism does not have an agnostic, unsure, or undecided view about whether or not there is a God. It adopts the very definite stance that there is no God. Yet this does not mean that Buddhists are atheists! Buddhism is not atheistic but is thoroughly nontheistic. There is a subtle and important difference between the two…the atheistic view is that nothing divine or spiritual exists at all, whereas the nontheistic view is that the divine and spiritual most definitely and undoubtedly exists but that there is nothing in existence which can be described or thought of as “God.” There is no God but there is the One Absolute Infinite Omnipresent Divine LIFE or ENERGY. However, to think of or refer to this as “God” would invariably lead to misunderstanding, misrepresentation, and confusion.
#4. BUDDHA IS GOD
Misconception: Buddhists worship the Buddha as God.
Fact: Buddha clearly and repeatedly denied that he was God and forbade people from worshipping him or praying to him. Buddhists have tremendous reverence, respect, and love for the Buddha but there is nothing to countenance their viewing him as God and they certainly do not worship him in the sense that theists worship their God(s). In some forms of Hinduism, Buddha is viewed as being an avatar or incarnation of Vishnu and is thus worshipped and prayed to as being the incarnation of an anthropomorphic God. Both Buddha and the religion of Buddhism repudiate such a notion however.
#5. A BRANCH OF HINDUISM
Misconception: Buddhism is nothing more than an offshoot of Hinduism.
Fact: Some people – mainly some of the followers of the Hindu religion – casually disregard Buddhism as being “merely an offshoot of Hinduism” and nothing more. It can be truly said that, in a certain way, Buddhism began as an offshoot from Hinduism. The Buddha himself was an Indian and a Hindu by birth and some of his main teachings were very similar to, or even the same as, those of some of the more philosophical forms of Hinduism. However, there were also some profound differences between the teachings of Buddhism and Hinduism right from the start and to dismiss the whole vast arena of Buddhism – as it is today, in all its many and varied forms, teachings, and branches around the world – as being nothing more than an offshoot of Hinduism, is a display of either crass ignorance or a religious superiority complex, neither of which have any place in this 21st century.
#6. AFTER CHRIST
Misconception: Buddha lived after the time of Jesus.
Fact: For some reason, many people have the strange and completely unwarranted idea that Buddha lived after the time of Jesus. Some evangelical Christians even use this ignorant and erroneous belief to proclaim that Buddha was one of the “false prophets” and “false teachers” who Jesus warned would come to earth in the future to mislead the unwary. Yet the fact of the matter is that Siddhartha Gautama (the Buddha) was born on the May Full Moon (Wesak) in 623 B.C. and passed away in 543 B.C. In other words, he was born 2,636 years ago and died 2,556 years ago. Buddha and Buddhism preceded Christ and Christianity by over 500 years. While there is next to no legitimate proof or solid evidence as to the actual life and times of Jesus, there is plenty for the Buddha.
#7. ANYTHING GOES
Misconception: Buddhism is an “anything goes” religion.
Fact: Buddhism abounds with very firm and definite moral/ethical precepts. The very essence of Buddha’s teachings is anti-desire and anti-sensuality. He stated that “the enjoyment of sensual pleasure is the womb of pain,” constantly emphasised restraint of the senses and thorough self-mastery, and lifted high the banner of perfect purity, cleanliness, and holiness of life.
#8. CHANTING FOR BLESSINGS
Misconception: Buddhism is about chanting to receive material blessings.
Fact: It is true that there are certain forms of Buddhism – particularly an increasingly popular Japanese branch of the religion – which encourage their followers and adherents to chant certain mantras in order to become rich and successful. This is a real disgrace, which in recent times has caused Buddhism to be seriously misrepresented and misunderstood amongst many Westerners who know no better. Such practices are of course the very antithesis of Buddhism and the teachings of its Founder and no-one who has read Buddha’s teachings for themselves (or who know anything of his life story) could fall prey to such delusional and even dangerous notions. We call them “dangerous” because, according to Buddha himself, the continuation and intensification of desire brings about the continuation and intensification of suffering.
#9. POSITIVE THINKING
Misconception: Buddhism is about positive thinking.
Fact: One of Buddha’s most well known statements is that with our thoughts we create our world and the world. A study of this Buddhist teaching shows us that our thoughts determine our actions and that it is our actions which create our Karma – our self-created destiny. But every action is the outcome of a thought in our mind and it is in this sense that Buddha spoke as he did. Some of today’s “positive thinking” and “law of attraction” enthusiasts have taken the Buddha’s words right out of context, deliberately isolated them from the rest of his teachings, and used them as support and supposed endorsement for their own theories. To imply – as some do – that Buddha was actually teaching that we can create and manifest the “life of our dreams” through positive thinking and visualisation etc. is just ludicrous and goes entirely against the very essence of Buddhism.
#10. ALL THE SAME
Misconception: Buddhism is all one and the same thing.
Fact: Just as there are many different types of Christianity – some of which have very different beliefs and practices from each other – there are also many different kinds of Buddhism. The two main forms of Buddhism are the Theravada and the Mahayana. Although the basic fundamental teachings of both are more or less the same, they differ greatly from one another in quite a number of other aspects. “Theravada” means “Doctrine of the Elders” and is older than the Mahayana, although both originally developed in India whilst Buddhism was still flourishing there.
The Theravada School is sometimes referred to as the “Hinayana,” meaning literally “Little Vehicle” whilst “Mahayana” means “Great Vehicle.” Many adherents of Theravada Buddhism view Mahayana as being largely distorted and false, whilst the adherents of Mahayana Buddhism have no problem with the Theravada, other than viewing it as being not quite complete and extensive enough, particularly because it fails to recognise and emphasise the Bodhisattva ideal which is so central and defining an element of the Mahayana. Theravada Buddhism is also known as Southern Buddhism and is the Buddhism of such countries as Thailand, Cambodia, Myanmar (Burma), Sri Lanka (Ceylon), Malaysia, and Singapore. Mahayana Buddhism is also known as Northern Buddhism and is the Buddhism of such countries as Tibet, Nepal, Bhutan, Mongolia, China, Japan, etc. It is said that Vietnamese Buddhism shows both a strong Mahayana and Theravada influence and cannot really be definitely categorised as either.
Even within the two distinct Schools of the Mahayana and Theravada, there are hundreds of different philosophies, teachings, and presentations. Thus there is no one set specific thing which can just be called “Buddhism.” It is a very diverse religion.
#11. THE DALAI LAMA
Fact: Although the Dalai Lama is probably the most prominent and well known Buddhist leader in the world today, he is not the world leader of Buddhism. There is no such thing as a world leader of Buddhism. The Dalai Lama is the spiritual figurehead of the Gelugpa school of Tibetan Buddhism, which is one of the four main branches of Tibetan Buddhism. The other three forms have their own Leaders and Heads. However, since the Gelugpas were the ruling and governing form of Buddhism in Tibet, the Dalai Lama also has the role of being the Spiritual Leader of the Tibetan people en masse and ostensibly has more overall authority and influence than any of the other Tibetan Buddhist leaders.
Misconception: Buddhism is fatalistic.
Fact: The teaching of the Law of Karma and reincarnation is a vitally important and foundational principle of Buddhism and indeed of all the Indian religions. But Karma is not fatalism…quite the opposite in fact! The teaching about Karma revolves around the concept of self-created destiny. The Law of Karma is the law of cause and effect, the law of action and reaction, the law of sequence and consequence. It says that for every cause we set in motion – and we are always continually setting causes in motion, through our actions and deeds as well as our words and thoughts – there will be a corresponding effect which will come back to us, since we were the originators of the cause.
It is apparent that this could be either positive or negative, good or bad, depending on the nature of the cause set in motion. Karma is not some type of “divine retribution” (Buddhism says that no such thing as that exists) or punishment but is simply the means whereby the Universe maintains its balance. It is the law of harmony and equilibrium.
In this current lifetime we may be reaping the effects of causes that we set in motion in previous lifetimes and in future lifetimes we will come face to face with the effects of the causes that we are setting in motion here and now. This teaching and belief inspires the individual to realise that there is no such thing as fate, luck, or chance, but that WE are the ones solely responsible for our own destiny. This encourages the person to live their life consciously and harmlessly, desiring to set only good, positive, and beneficial causes in motion for the sake of humanity.
Misconception: Buddhism is pessimistic.
Fact: A superficial glance at the fundamental principles of Buddhism may perhaps make it appear to be a pessimistic type of philosophy. We see Buddha repeating over and over that “All life is suffering”…”There is no sorrow like personal existence”…”Everything that exists is impermanent and subject to decay and death”…”Desire is the cause of all suffering” etc. and may develop the idea that this is pessimism and gloom and doom pure and simple. But if we look further, we see that Buddha doesn’t stop there. We now see him saying, “There is a way out of suffering…there is a way to freedom from all sorrow and misery…I have found the way and I can show it to you too.” So in fact Buddhism is both realistic and optimistic and many Buddhists are some of the most joyful and peaceful people there are.
#14. PHYSICAL YOGA
Misconception: Buddhism teaches physical yoga practices.
Fact: Hatha Yoga – which is the physical yoga involving stretching exercises and different postures, so popular here in the West these days – has nothing at all to do with Buddhism. It originates in Hinduism but even in Hinduism it is referred to as the “lower yoga” and the “lowest yoga.” When Buddha spoke of “yoga” he was referring to the conscious exercise and development of the mind and concentration in meditation. Before attaining Enlightenment, the Buddha had spent much time and effort in physical yoga practices himself but eventually concluded that such things were futile and worthless and always said so thereafter.
#15. JUST A WISE MAN
Misconception: Buddha was just a wise man, a dispenser of wise and pithy sayings.
Fact: This rather narrow view that many people today have of Buddha is probably largely due to the abundance of “Buddha Quotes” that can be found on the internet. Such things tend to be very popular on social networking sites such as Facebook, despite the fact that quite a large percentage of such quotes are false and do not originate with the Buddha at all. But if people do not explore and investigate Buddhism for themselves, they will never realise or even consider this. Buddha’s wisdom certainly was incredibly deep and profound and the things he did say are truly inspiring. But he taught a definite, intricate, extensive, and challenging spiritual philosophy and did not merely sit round dispensing inspirational quotes to people.
~ Blavatsky Theosophy Group UK ~
SOME RELATED ARTICLES: The Four Noble Truths, Self and Non-Self in Buddhism and Theosophy, Blavatsky and Buddhism, Buddha Nature, Alaya – The Universal Soul, The Two Paths, The Great Tsong Kha-pa, Theosophy and the Tibetan Book of the Dead, Belief in God is Superstition, The Secret Book of Dzyan and “The Voice of the Silence” – An Authentic Buddhist Text.