Within our sangha (or buddhist community) there are to be found Christian Buddhists, and Catholic Buddhists, Jewish Buddhists and many other forms of post-Common Era dual-belief system alignments, sometimes even Agnostic and perhaps Atheistic Buddhists. So what’s the explanation for this? Or how do these belief systems co-exist?
Broadly speaking, and vastly simplified here for the purposes of discussion, most belief systems have historical development roots in three specific eras: Before Common-Era, Common-Era and Post Common-Era. Buddhism and many others were organized in the Before Common-Era period, preceding the development of the Roman Empire by about 400 years, where civilization in general marked a change towards political rule over monarchies. During these monarchies, there would have been people who were questioning why things were the way they were, much as we continue to do today. A few among those people chose to write down their thoughts on why the order of things and life existed, and what part does an individual play among the continually turning wheels of life as it marched on incessantly.
Some religions are centric towards a deity figure, and specific in their traditions, symbolism, and rituals towards respecting that deity. Buddhism, similar to Confucianism following the teachings of Confucius, and Taoism regarding the teachings of Lao Tzi and Zhuangzi, follows the teachings of Shakyamuni (also known as Gautama and Siddhartha.) These were people, not deities, and although eventually imbued with character descriptions matching how one of the purest form should be, they were and continue to be acknowledged and respected as having started out the same way you or I did – they were born, grew up and old, and eventually life passed away. A philosophy is borne from people asking themselves, why do we live? How can we be happy? What makes us sad? And proposed answers become the fundamentals of that philosophy. Thus, a philosophy is sort of a guidebook to how you can live your life following certain principles and having a particular positive outcome (which in Buddhism’s case is Nirvana, or a place of never-ending happiness, contentment with one’s self and others, and a sense of purity.)
As long as the way in which you exercise these principles does not conflict with your own spiritual beliefs, there shouldn’t be a conflict between them. For example, we have laws that make it illegal and punishable as a crime to kill another person. We can abide by that law, which may not part of our spiritual belief system, and still remain true to our own beliefs. Since laws and regulations are concerned with what you cannot and should not do, philosophies provide the guidance of the complimentary – what you can and should do as a person among society. Consider a philosophy as a reinforcement to what your belief system prescribes already, in a way that can be exercised and practiced each and every day, with everyone around you, whether friend, family or even strangers and enemies.
For example, from the Bible, Matthew Chapter 7 Verse 12, “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.” Shinnyo-en Buddhism expresses the practice principle as, “Place yourself into the other person’s shoes.” This applies to all actions, words and opinions that affect another person. Shakyamuni came from a wealthy family that was blind to the poverty surrounding them in their own community. That’s why he felt it was important to attempt to see what the other person sees, and let that shape your actions.
Some beliefs place an emphasis on voluntary service, that is not to seek compensation for efforts provided. Buddhism emphasizes the minimization of your own ego in your actions, so you would not be performing the voluntary service with expectations of recognition for the service by others, nor being self-serving in your motivation for why you are volunteering. At the same time, there is acceptance for those unable or unwilling to volunteer their services, and simple hope that by providing an example of how to improve the world by making efforts, without concern or motivation for recognition, everyone can benefit and live in a nicer world.
Buddhism is basically a philosophy which encompasses a variety of traditions, practices and beliefs about how to make this world into an ultimately better place for everyone. Buddhism strives to create harmony amid diversity – to respect and appreciate differences in others, and accept that as the way things are in Nature. These actions become a way of living, and whether that is defined as a religion or philosophy is simply a matter of definitions.