Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Jesus, Buddha, and Asatru: A Comparison

In the modern world, isolation is not a luxury that anyone can afford anymore. To be honest, I don't think "isolation" is something that you can find, no matter where you look- if we believe in Wyrd, then we must admit that there's no such thing as isolation- no matter where you live, where you go, what you think or do, you affect the world, and are in turn affected by it. No man or woman is an island. We can dream of the "good old days" when our ancestors lived off on their own lonely stretches of coast or their own forests, safe with one another, helping to support one another, and living in the peace and frith of our communal ideal, but such a dream may only exist in our heads. In the "old days", people were no less bound up in each other's fate and well-being as they are now.

Even people living distantly from one another affected one another; they still do. The noble men and women who left the politics on the Scandinavian mainland for the peace of Iceland's shores found that they couldn't leave the mainland behind at all- eventually, politics and religious conversion from the mainland found them.

Since we do not and cannot live in isolation, we have to be aware of what other people in the world think and believe. Their thoughts and beliefs will affect us, just as ours will affect them. Comparative religion and religious dialogue is good for this- it helps us to situate other people in our heads, helps us to understand what they think, and by comparison and contrast, we get a clearer picture of what we think. I'm sure they get the same gift of clarity from the contrast.

For this article, I wanted to compare three religions- Christianity, Buddhism, and Asatru. The real point of this article is to demonstrate the clear differences between two of the world's largest "revealed" religions (Christianity and Buddhism) and Asatru, which is an organic faith that lacks any historical founder. It is interesting to note the "organic" seeming elements of Buddhism and how there are clear "marks" of similarity between Buddhism and Asatru- but this can't be surprising, considering Buddha himself grew up in a Polytheistic and animistic Brahmanic religious world, among Vedic peoples who were of Indo-European extraction like our ancestors in Northern Europe.

Buddha certainly would have known of the Thunder-God who slew giant monsters and defended the world with his powerful thunder-weapon; he simply wouldn't have called him "Thor" or "Thonoraz"- he would have called him "Indra". As a side note, one of Indra's names- PARJANYA, comes from the same Proto-root "PERKWAWNOS", which refers to the "divine striker"- we get our word "percussion" from this root, and the names "PERKUNAS" and "PERKONS", and PYERUN, names by which the Thunder-God was known in Northern and Eastern Europe, also come from that root. The ancient idea of the Thunder-God fighting and killing a world-threatening dragon or serpent (such as Thor fighting the Midgard Serpent) is captured in Indra's mythical defeat of a great dragon. Interestingly, all of these Thunder Gods had the oak tree as their sacred tree, and the clearly related Proto Indo-European root word *PERKWU means "oak".

Buddha may not have died a worshipper of the Gods, for he gave up worshipping them after his "enlightenment", but he was born a worshipper, born among the warrior caste to a noble family who worshipped the same Gods that the Indo-European peoples across the map worshipped.

Buddhism and Asatru have little in common on the moral level, but it is a fact that Buddhism was the brainchild of a man who was of the Arya people, a cousin Indo-European people who invaded and settled in Northern India.

Buddhism's metaphysical structure still has undeniable Indo-European mystical elements- aside from the existence of Gods in the various Buddhist heavens, (Indra, the Thunder God, is still believed to be a "Dharma protector" or a protector of Buddhism today- yes, in Buddhist belief, the Thunder God actually converted to Buddhism!) the Buddhist cosmology has a "sacred mountain" (Mount Meru) that stands at the center of the cosmos or world, with hells or underworlds at its roots, heavens on its top, and the "continents" that make up this world of humans and animals around its middle. This is easily compared to other related Indo-European ideas of a "cosmic axis", such as the World-Tree of our own ancestors.

As many of the ancient Indo-Europeans believed in the possibility of rebirth, so the Vedic Arya peoples certainly came to believe it, and Buddha believed it. Buddha pretty much departed from most of the other "central" tenets and worldview-features of his people, however. His religion and philosophy was centered around a path of great introspection and meditation, and had world-renouncing or the monastic life as an important ideal. He ditched any notion of "duty" to caste or clan or kin, and instead taught detatchment from such "vain" social ideas.

He also taught complete non-violence, which was a luxury our ancestors in Europe simply couldn't afford. Nor could they (or would they) give up their duties to their clan and kin, or do as Buddha did and decide that the Gods weren't worth praying to.

Though Buddha himself believed Gods existed, he didn't think they could help humans achieve enlightenment or lasting happiness, so it wasn't required that any Buddhist disciple believe in them. To this day, many Buddhists are non-theists, agnostics, or atheists of various stripes, and many people are attracted to Buddhism today because it doesn't require them to believe in a God or Gods.

Now I shall compare these three religions. Asatru is my specialty, so I am able to give a few more details on it, though I think my characterization of the stances of these three faiths is more than adequate. Naturally, I think that Asatru has a better balance of beliefs than either Christianity or Buddhism.

Asatru gives us a grounding in the fellowship of our fellow man, in ancestral troth with the Gods, and in the sacredness of this world, where Christianity carries a disbelief in the Gods and a palpable dislike of this world on its shoulders, and Buddhism is a bit abstract and undefined when called on to name a clear position on these matters of substance.

Asatru gives a social, religious, and mythical structure that doesn't go too far into invading people's natural freedom and creativity, like Christianity's structure certainly does, while Buddhism seems to wander as far from "structures" of thinking as it can. Asatru shares a vision of the interdependance of all things, like Buddhism does, but Buddhism fails to offer back a solid basis for human belief and life, preferring to refrain from such speech and stay with "emptiness".

This all goes back to Buddhism's lack of belief in any sort of "inherent" existance for anything, and its skeptical need to refrain from commenting on things. For many people, that's a comfort. In the most esoteric strains of Asatruar speculation- strains not agreed upon at all (or even recognized) by all Asatruar, there is something to be said for the ultimate essence of humans and other beings existing "free" from everyday labels or limitations- but this is far from an everyday focus for Asatru, as I am sure it was not for the ancestors.

Lack of inherent existence is a fine enough idea, deep enough for esotericists, but most Asatruar need more, and we aren't afraid of the fact of our belief. Maybe (if you're Buddhist) you'll think this is a sign that we are part of the "unwashed, unenlightened masses"- Barbarians in the typical sense of the word. You'd be wrong, but this isn't the place to explain why. I can only quote a great mystic from Germania's later centuries, who said it all with a simple quote that captures the spirit of our cause:

"The least of things with a meaning is worth more in life than the greatest of things without it."

Now on to our comparisons.

The Cross, the Prayer-Wheel, and the Hammer

Jesus was a theist; Buddha an agnostic. Asatruar are polytheists. Jesus believed humans were creatures of God; Buddha did not speculate, and Asatruar believe that all humans are descendants of the Gods.

Jesus taught of a single world corrupted by sin, which is passing away soon to be perfected by God; Buddha taught that the natural world was neutral and indifferent to such labels as "fallen" and "sinful", and that all forces were naturally arisen without the need for any creator, and dependant on one another. Asatru accepts an animistic vision of life in which all powers and forces in existance, animate or inanimate, are sacred and interdependant on one another, and dwelling in a great "web" of relationship through which they affect one another. The outcomes and effects of the forces combining in this web is referred to as "Wyrd", and it is a very central religious and philosophical concept.

Jesus taught the reality of sin against a holy God; Buddha taught a method--the Four Noble Truths/Eightfold Path--to free people of the experience of suffering in this world. Asatru teaches of an over-arching sacred cosmic order that mankind has a place in, an order within which mankind finds his place and a duty or purpose to fulfill. violating that order and failing in those duties, which includes a universal duty to help preserve the safety and well-being of society and of fellow men and women, is wrong or evil action.

Jesus taught resurrection; Buddha taught repeated rebirth (and a way to escape it). Asatru teaches, in common with all Indo-European Paganism, of rest in various "worlds" beyond this one for the dead, including an Underworld where most of the dead go, and a belief that after the current universe-order comes to an end, it will be regenerated and all of the dead will be born again into the new world, to live again. A few spiritually adept, brave, or insightful people find another fate after death, which some believe puts them in a condition of either freedom from these cycles of life, death, and regeneration with the cosmos, or in a state of higher conscious participation with that cycle.

Many Asatruar also believe that the spiritual power and other qualities of a person can be reborn among their descendants, and some ancient lore suggests that certain people are reborn themselves, to live many times within the same universal cycle.

Jesus called people to follow him to find forgiveness and eternal life. Buddha gave the Dharma, refused worship, and never claimed any knowledge of God. He instead offered nirvana (the "blowing out" or extinguishing of delusions that caused attachment, craving, and suffering). Asatru offers the goal of "Frith", which is a powerful sense of lasting peace which comes from discovering "one's place" or "where one belongs", among friends, family, kin, and within the body of nature itself. This ideal requires that people make effort for the good of those to whom they belong, for the land upon which they live, and to endure all things that Wyrd or Fate deals out to them with courage as far as they are able. There are no rewards promised either in this world or the afterlife for virtuous behavior; virtue is seen as its own reward to the noble person.

For Jesus, eternal life is earned through accepting one's sinful nature, asking for forgiveness, and leading an exemplary life following his example as best one can; for Buddhists, Awakening or Enlightenment is the "highest Good" for people, and leads to a lasting state of happiness, though it is a very difficult thing to attain; for Asatruar, the perpetual existence of the "soul" or a "person" is assumed, as the spirit of each being is a natural and perpetual part of the cosmos itself, like any other natural force. The "highest good" for most Asatruar is finding one's place and finding reciprocal peace and happiness with family and kin, which includes the Gods (who are seen as kin) and spirits that live in the natural environment near human beings.

There are esoteric aspects of Asatru, and paths within it which claim that mystical insights can transform a person's spirit, "sacrificing the lesser self to the greater Self" and winning for that person a new and mysterious condition of divine or perpetual being, but these and other related ideas belong to specific esoteric guilds, cults, subcultures, or mystical societies within Asatru, and is not something that most Asatruar concern themselves with.

Those who deal with the mystical or esoteric elements of Asatru might make the claim that the mystical attainments they believe in represent a hidden "highest good" for people, but few would make the claim that all people will be able to achieve these things, whereas Jesus taught that all could be saved, and Buddha's way was for all people, and could lead to enlightenment and happiness for any who accepted his teachings and sincerely practiced.


Steven Caldwell said...

I wish I had encountered another artivulate practitioner of Asatru when I was a practitioner myself. ( I was a solitary practitioner for nearly 15 years and am now a Buddhist ) You make some valuable contributions to interfaith communications particularly in terms of the emphasis on community among follwers of Asatru (the Frith as it is known) yet you don't explore the Buddha's statement that Friendship is the whole of the spiritual Life. I think you might find that Buddhism does place a significant emphasis on Community and friendship although it differs in nature from that practiced by Norse pagans. I look forward to more of your entries given that I am deeply inspired by my pagan past.

Ama said...

I found your blog this evening and find it very interesting, so I hope I'll be able to read it regularly, even though I might not always have time to comment (I write slowly since english is not my language).
Your comparison was a very interesting reading, and there must be a reason why a buddhist (no, two) sit here and read your blog, don't you think? ^_^
What I have to say though, is that it seems to me that the buddhism you use to make this comparson is an 'abstract' one, a synthesis of what is a very complex reality.
So complex that some forms of buddhism differ from each other as much as two different religions could do.
Some Buddhisms actually worship different deities while others (=like the one I practice)are "atheist" but at the same time they aknowledge the existance of gods and demons...in daily life ^_^ (does it seems like a contraddiction? I don't really think it is).
A japanese monk from the 13th century, after studying all the different forms of buddhism existing at his time, and after concluding which one for him was the 'one to follow', said that it was more important to debate with the followers of what he called 'the provisorial teachings' (and convince them of their errors) than to do the same with followers of other religions (this just to say that he, a buddhist monk, found the most dangerous teachings among other buddhist teachings, with dangerous meaning teaching which might lead the persons to illusions and suffering instead of peace).
The buddhism I practice, based on the last teachings of the historically recognised Buddha (collected in what is called the Lotus Sutra) refuse the idea of a search for the Nirvana (which sounds for us very egoistical and un-natural) and in the contrary we believe in manifesting enlightenment in this life, right as we are, and at the same time we make a vow, as Bodhisattva of the Earth, to eternally help others search for/reach this same state of inner peace, happiness and outer harmony while we are continuously reborn in the unstoppable wheel of life.
This enlightenment is not difficult at all to realise; we do this every day through our practice, which consists of a chant of a vibration to harmonize our being with life's vibration, and the sharing of this state with others.
Some of Buddhism's most important principles are the oneness of mind and body, and of beings and their world. We consider every being a Buddha right now, not in 1000 lives, only some people have a tendency not to manifest their Buddha state and rather manifest the other 9, like greed, hell & rage, animality/stupidity, tranquillity, extasy, etc.
We don't consider life a static thing, so all those states change all the time : nobody is 'a Buddha, and period'. We rather try to manifest it more and more so our life can be colored by this state more and more, exactly (and in the opposite way) as another person could become more & easier angry with time and reinforce his tendency to loose his temper when the occasion arises.
Our final goal of this personal revolution, which is meant to spread out around us until it affects our society, is called kosen-rufu, often 'synthetized' as "world peace" (but not a static peace, rather a state of things where the natural, unavoidable conflicts are solved with humanity and respect for life itself, trying to create value from it...I know this might sound too idealistic to many, but I'm sure not to you ^_^).
The notion (believed by many) that the historical Buddha taught a way to escape rebirth, is a misunderstanding if seen from our perspective. Its final and revolutionnary revelation came when he told he didn't actually attained enlightenment under the Bodhi tree on that specific day, (as he made people of that time believe, in order to prepare them gradually to a greater truth), but that he had been a Buddha since the 'time without beginning'(and so all of us).
The Four Noble Truths etc. are a part of the Theravada/Hinayana (=by some called Small Vehicle, which means it can help only some individuals for some period of time, not everybody at all times).
The Buddha himself asked the people, when he revealed the final state of things he had been enlightened to, to forget all his own provisorial teachings.
But still to this day, many persons follow those provisorial teachings, even though there are a lot of contraddictions :for instance many women monks today follow Sutras which says women cannot attain enlightenment.
Actually, to my knowledge, all Sutras and Buddha's teachings say that women cannot attain enlightenment, save for the last teaching, the Lotus Sutra, where it is revealed for the first time that there are no differences between men and women in this regard, and where he explained that if he lied previously it was to gradually prepare people to the truth (at his time the belief that women were inferior was very radicated in society and needed a lot of preparation to be challenged).
In the Lotus Sutra there is an interesting story he uses to explaining /justifying why he lied :)
As a last comment, it seems to me that Buddhism tries to explain life and death (not to suppress suffering, which is not possible) in order to help people live valuable lives with an inner peace, and harmonizing with the forces of the Universe (which are by many called Gods, by others are treated as science, etc. but which exist anyway no matter how one likes to approach them). It seems to me, reading your interesting writings, that Asatru has much the same purposes. As you write 'we Heathens', I feel I am one too =) Your humanity and sincerity touches me deeply, and so your values and your wisdom. I am happy that for each bad news I receive in my day, I find as many good news on the other side, and I am so deeply grateful to discover that there is not only one or two valuable beliefs systems out there (even though different of course!) but many more, and so many honest and good persons carrying them on.
Thank you ! Keep writing =)
PS I also permitted myself to publish a part of your writing on my journal, I hope it is ok...?