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Many years ago, there was a scholar who spoke in front of a large audience, "There's no way the Buddha is real! All this stuff about karma and reincarnation is ridiculous." He gave a lot of reasons for his arguments, and he ended by looking at the sky and saying, "Buddha, if you are indeed real, then please come here and kill me now, only then will I believe you are real!"
He then waited quietly for a few minutes. Nothing happened. He looked around the audience and declared, "As you've all seen, the Buddha obviously isn't real!"
In the audience was an old lady who stood up and said, "Dear sir, your logic is quite brilliant, and you are a well-educated man. I am merely an uneducated old lady from a small village. I have no way to refute your argument. But I have a question that's been on my mind for a long time, and I wonder if you could help me?"
The man said, "Of course."
The old lady asked, "For many decades, I have believed in the Buddha and his teachings. The Buddha has taught me to be a good person and to do good deeds. I've learned about compassion, wisdom, generosity, and gratitude, and my life has been very joyous. If at the end of my life, I find out that the Buddha does not exist, and his teachings about karma and reincarnation are fake, then what have I lost?"
The man was silent for a while, and many audience members nodded in agreement with this lady. Finally, the man said, "Dear miss, I suppose you wouldn't have lost anything."
The old lady replied, "Thank you for answering my question. Based on your response, I have one more question if I may?"
The man said, "Sure."
The old lady asked, "What if at the end of your life, you found out that the Buddha is real, that karma and reincarnation are real, that Heaven and Hell are real? What would you have lost?"
I grew up in North America, and I was taught that religion is superstitious and illogical. Sometimes I walk along the street and see people with signs that say something like, "You need to believe in God or else you will go to Hell." These are quite threatening and gave me a pretty bad impression. I also remember seeing in the news that people fight wars and kill each other because of religious beliefs, which made me think that religions are harmful and should be avoided.
When I left home to go to university, my mother started learning Buddhism. Soon, she wanted me to learn it too. I was resistant at first, but I decided to keep an open mind and give it a chance.
I started listening to Buddhism lectures from Venerable Master Jing Kong (Chin Kung), who is a world-renowned monk and has spoken at UNESCO Peace Conferences.
He explained that Buddhism is not superstitious; it is an education. For example, when we see the Buddha image, the purpose is to remind ourselves to be compassionate and serene like the Buddha, not to blindly worship. People can make offerings out of respect and gratitude towards the Buddha, but we should not make offers to ask for good fortune; that would be superstition. It is also disrespectful to the Buddha because we are implying that we can bribe the Buddha.
Buddhism teaches us to cultivate virtues such as loving kindness, wisdom, gratitude, and respect, and to let go of vices such as greed, anger, ignorance, arrogance, and doubt. By doing this, we will have a good and happy life. I didn't see anything bad about that.
Proper versus Improper Religions
I also learned that there are proper religions and improper religions. At the beginning, religions were all proper, and they taught people to cultivate virtues and eliminate vices. But over time, some followers misinterpret or bend religious teachings, making them selfish, discriminatory, and superstitious. In other words, the problem is not the original religion, but rather the people who distorted the religion.
There are four easy ways to distinguish improper religions:
Worship over understanding
Showing off superpowers
Lack of legacy
Usually, improper religions are arrogant and discriminatory. They emphasize that only they have the correct ideology, and that other views are wrong. They make threats like "If you do not believe in our religion, you will go to Hell." Proper religions are kind and respectful towards all people regardless of your religious beliefs or lack thereof. Venerable Jing Kong said all religions are one family, and the teachings of all religions are mostly similar, which is teaching people to be good. The Buddha never forced anyone to study with him; all his students came by their own choice.
2: Worship over understanding
Improper religious leaders often emphasize listening to them rather than understanding the ancient texts. Proper religions emphasize deep study and correct understanding of ancient texts rather than listening to any particular person. For example, nowhere in Buddhist texts does it say that if you make offerings to a Buddha image, you can get good fortune. The texts clearly say that if you want to get good fortune, you need to cultivate virtues and do good deeds.
3: Showing off superpowers
The Buddha and his students had superpowers. For example, they could foretell the future, read your mind, teleport, and more. However, the Buddha forbade his students from using superpowers. He only used education to help living beings, and he taught class every single day for 49 years.
Why did the Buddha forbid showing off superpowers? Firstly, people tend to illogically worship someone with superpowers. They will believe anything and everything the person says. Proper religion is an education that you should scrutinize and test, not illogical and blind worship.
Secondly, demons and evil spirits also have superpowers. If the Buddha used superpowers to help living beings, then in the future, no one would be able to distinguish the Buddha from demons and evil spirits. Even now, there are cases where a spirit can talk to a human and tell him things that will happen in the future, and then that human might use that knowledge to try to get people to worship him. That would clearly be improper religion.
4: Lack of legacy
One more major difference between a proper religious leader and an improper religious leader is legacy. A proper religious leader learned from a teacher who is widely recognized to be proper and successful in their cultivation. They highly respect their teacher and simply pass on what their teacher taught, but adapt it to modern day circumstances. In other words, proper religious teachers come from a long line of recognized teachers over thousands of years. Improper religious leaders will say something like, "One day I became enlightened by myself." They don't come from a long line of teachers.
All religions talk about having a better next life, such as seeking birth in Heaven or in the Western Pure Land. At first, I was resistant to this kind of idea. Growing up, I was taught that there is only one life. Once we're dead, we're dead. But many things slowly changed my opinion.
First, Venerable Jing Kong said that the Buddha's teachings have been passed down for over 2500 years. Over all these years, countless smart people have scrutinized its teachings. If there was such a big mistake in its teachings, then people wouldn't bother passing on those teachings. Do you really think that all those intellectuals made a fatal error, and that you are smarter than all of them?
Secondly, people usually lie to gain something. But the Buddha was enlightened. His mind is completely compassionate and wise. He has no self-interest. As mentioned earlier, he never forced anyone to learn from him. All his students came to him out of their own will. In other words, why would he lie? He taught about karma and reincarnation to benefit people so that people can cultivate good karma and transcend reincarnation. It's not like you lose anything from that.
Thirdly, the teachings of karma are quite reasonable. It teaches us that doing good deeds will reap fortune, and doing bad deeds will reap suffering. If we want to have a better future, then we should cultivate virtues and eliminate vices. Simply praying without any action is just superstition. All the fortune (good karma) and suffering (bad karma) we have in this life are due to the merits and sins we accumulated in our past lives. In other words, only we are responsible for our life, and only we have the power to change our future. This kind of education is quite empowering and uplifting.
Lastly, I came across the book, The Scientific Proof of Causal Reincarnation, which gave many scientific case studies about reincarnation. Growing up, I was a science geek, so this book resonated a lot with me. For example, why do people have different natural inborn talents, interests, and fears? Because of their past lives! Why do some people get along at first sight while others have conflict at first sight? Also because of past lives! The book is a fairly short read, and I also summarized it here.
I'm not an expert on religion, and I am only a beginner when it comes to Buddhism, but in my own experience, Buddhism (at least proper Buddhism) is a good thing. It teaches us to be good people and to do good deeds so that we can have a better future.
No one forced me to learn Buddhism, and I won't give pressure to anyone to learn it either. But if you are interested, I could recommend some resources:
Weekly Wisdom #234