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Buddhism: 11 Common Misunderstandings and Mistakes

August 5, 2023

People have numerous false beliefs about Buddhism. Buddhists want enlightenment to be blissful all the time, they think. Something you did in a prior life caused your misfortune. Everyone knows Buddhists must eat vegetarian. The majority of what “everybody knows” about Buddhism is false. Examine these prevalent yet incorrect Western beliefs about Buddhism.

Buddhists Learn Nothing Exists

Many diatribes challenge the Buddhist belief that nothing exists. The writers wonder, who imagines something if nothing exists?

The Buddha does not teach that nothing exists. It challenges our perception of reality. Teaching that beings and phenomena are nonexistent. No, Buddhism does not teach nonexistence.

The “nothing exists” legend stems from a misinterpretation of anatta and shunyata. These are not non-existence philosophies. Instead, they teach a one-sided view of existence.

Buddhism Teaches We’re One

Everyone knows the Buddhist monk’s “Make me one with everything.” to a hot dog vendor joke. Buddhism teaches we’re one with everything?

The Buddha taught in the Maha-nidana Sutta that the self is neither finite nor infinite. In this sutra, the Buddha advised us to abandon self-identity beliefs. We believe we are components of One Thing or that our individual self is fake and only an infinite self-that-is-everything is true. Going beyond conceptions and ideas is necessary to understand the self.

Buddhists Believe in Reincarnation.

Reincarnation is the transmigration of a soul into a new body when the previous body dies, but the Buddha did not teach it. First, he taught there was no soul to transmigrate.

Rebirth is a Buddhist doctrine. Rebirth is the energy or conditioning of one life, not a soul, according to this theology. “The person who dies here and is reborn elsewhere is neither the same nor another,” wrote Walpola Rahula, a Theravada philosopher.

You don’t have to “believe in” rebirth to be Buddhist. Buddhists are often agnostic about rebirth.

Buddhists Should Be Vegetarians

Some Buddhist schools require vegetarianism, although all advocate it. In most Buddhist schools, vegetarianism is optional.

The early Buddhist scriptures reveal the Buddha was not vegetarian. First, monks begged for food, and if given meat, they had to consume it unless they knew it was slain for them.

Karma Is Fate

“Karma” denotes “action,” not “fate.” Willful thoughts, words, and deeds cause karma in Buddhism. We create karma every minute, which affects us every minute.

Buddhists don’t view “my karma” as anything you did in your last life that determines your fate in this one. Karma is action, not result. The future is uncertain. You can improve your life now by changing your voluntary acts and self-destructive patterns.

Karma Punishes Deserving People

Karma is not a cosmic justice system. No unseen judge controls karma to punish wrongdoers. Karma is impersonal like gravity. What rises falls; your actions determine your fate.

Karma is not the only cause of events. If a terrible flood destroys a community, don’t claim karma caused it or that the people deserved punishment. Accidents can happen to everyone, even the virtuous.

Karma is a powerful force that may make or break your life.

Always Blissing Out Enlightenment

People think “getting enlightened” is like flipping a happy switch and going from ignorant and miserable to blissful and calm in one big technicolor Ah HAH! moment.

The Sanskrit term for “enlightenment” implies “awakening.” Over time, most people awaken slowly and imperceptibly. Or they awaken through a series of “opening” events that disclose more but not the complete picture.

Even the most awakened teachers are not blissful. They live in the world, take buses, have colds, and run out of coffee.

Buddhism Teaches That Suffering is Expected.

This concept stems from interpreting the First Noble Truth, “Life is suffering.” People read it and conclude Buddhism teaches life is always unhappy. No, I disagree. Problem: The Buddha, who didn’t speak English, didn’t use “suffering.”

He stated life is dukkha in the earliest scriptures. Pali term dukkha has numerous meanings. It can signify everyday discomfort or anything transient, partial, or conditioned by others. Since joy and bliss come and go, they are dukkha.

Buddhism Is Not Religion

Buddhism is not a religion. It’s philosophy.” Sometimes “It’s a science of mind.” Well, yes. It’s philosophy. If you define “science” broadly, it’s a study of thought. This is religion too.

It all depends on how you define “religion.” People who have only experienced religion define “religion” as believing in gods and supernatural creatures. The view is limited.

Buddhism does not require belief in God, yet most schools are extremely mystical, making it beyond simple philosophy.

Buddhists Worship the Buddha

The historical Buddha achieved enlightenment on his own. Buddhism is non-theistic; the Buddha did not say there were no gods, merely that believing in them hindered enlightenment.

Enlightenment and Buddha-nature—the essential nature of all beings—are likewise represented by “Buddha”. The Buddha and other enlightened beings are revered, but not gods.

Buddhists Avoid Attachments, Preventing Relationships.

People mistakenly think Buddhist “non-attachment” means they can’t create relationships. That’s not its meaning.

Attachment requires a self-other dichotomy and an other to cling to. We “attach” to things because we’re incomplete and needy.

Buddhism emphasizes that the self-other duality is an illusion and that everything is one. Knowing this deeply eliminates the need for connection. Buddhists can still have loving relationships.

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