On Eastern Religions

by Luke Wadel

[This will Be Under Construction For Some Time]

The topic of Eastern religions is a complex one due to the intimidatingly enormous variety of doctrines and practices which they contain. It is not my purpose to treat all of them nor to treat any one of them exhaustively. In fact, my knowledge of Eastern religions is fairly limited, but I can comment upon what I have learned. The Catholic Church will start us off with some general observations; I shall mostly treat a few of the doctrines and goals of these religions which stick out in my mind and which I am asked about.

The Church discerns some common ground in which we rejoice and which we pinpoint for our dialogue.

From ancient times down to the present, there is found among various peoples a certain perception of that hidden power which hovers over the course of things and over the events of human history; at times some indeed have come to the recognition of a Supreme Being, or even of a Father. This perception and recognition penetrates their lives with a profound religious sense.

Religions, however, that are bound up with an advanced culture have struggled to answer the same questions by means of more refined concepts and a more developed language. Thus in Hinduism, men contemplate the divine mystery and express it through an inexhaustible abundance of myths and through searching philosophical inquiry. They seek freedom from the anguish of our human condition either through ascetical practices or profound meditation or a flight to God with love and trust. Again, Buddhism, in its various forms, realizes the radical insufficiency of this changeable world; it teaches a way by which men, in a devout and confident spirit, may be able either to acquire the state of perfect liberation, or attain, by their own efforts or through higher help, supreme illumination. Likewise, other religions found everywhere try to counter the restlessness of the human heart, each in its own manner, by proposing "ways," comprising teachings, rules of life, and sacred rites.

The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions. She regards with sincere reverence those ways of conduct and of life, those precepts and teachings which, though differing in many aspects from the ones she holds and sets forth, nonetheless often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men. Indeed, she proclaims, and ever must proclaim Christ, "the way the truth, and the life" (John 14, 6), in whom men may find the fullness of religious life, in whom God has reconciled all things to Himself.

Vatican II, Nostra Aetate 2

There is, then, some common ground at which to start, which is a cause for hope and joy. I might add to what was said that we rejoice that the Easterners frequently show a holy and conscientious respect for the elderly and for the family, and a regard for the sacredness of life itself. But to achieve the fullness of this joy, various obstacles must be removed first. I will mention a few.

No Real Self

A few years ago, after I had first come in contact with Eastern religions, I had a nightmare about visiting a Zen Buddhist monastary. It was not that the Buddhists in my dream were violent or even inhospitable. The scary thing in the dream was that so many Buddhists there were becoming quite successful in attaining their goal: they were ceasing to conceive of themselves, the world, indeed everything in the universe as individual, distinct and separate things. Everything is one, they taught, and individuality is illusion. Therefore they were endeavoring to remove from their minds completely the first principle of logic, the law of against self-contradiction. The law against self-contradiction states that an individual thing cannot be in two contrary ways at the same time. Since the people in my dream were successfully convincing themselves that individual things are illusions, and that differences are illusions, they were destroying their use of logic. In my mind, they were destroying themselves.

The reason I still remember this dream so visibly is that this is the ultimate goal of some influential branches of Eastern religions. My dream was not merely a collection of bizarre images that I remember from a deep sleep; the Buddhist goal and efforts are real. Many Hindus also, so I am taught, have as their ultimate goal the realization that their atman or "self" is exactly identified with Brahman and not distinct. Considered distinct, atman is an illusion. "Brahman," the highest reality, is everything that is real, and is not in parts. So according to these people, the senses are deceiving us. Many Buddhists, like the Hindus, seek the "enlightenment" that comes from realizing anatman, the doctrine (again) that there is no self, no individual, in ourselves or in anything. These things do not apply to all variations of Hinduism or Buddhism, and thankfully not to all who belong to these religions, but they are by no means small matters.

For those who do believe thus, there can be no individual responsibility or virtue. There is no freedom to be unique. If individuality is an illusion, sin is an illusion. What about the people and things we see and interact with? Everything we see, hear, touch, or think is nothing but some unknowable, unspeakable, non-diverse thing. For these reason, there is no real reason to punish wrong, to educate our children (they as distinct persons are illusions), or care about being good. There is no God outside of the universe to give it laws. There is an acknowledged need for "compassion" since they say that everything here is suffering, but there is no love of the person in their ethics, at least if their ethics agrees with their anatman.

In my dream, the Buddhists were taking drugs that alter the mind so that logic and belief in differences in things could be completely removed. And why not? They had succeeded; they lay there looking at me without realizing or perceiving anything at all, not knowing anything about my presence. Other Buddhists were causing themselves agony to force their minds with a harsh asceticism to see everything as one and not many. Now I do not know much about Buddhists or Hindus taking drugs to be illuminated and to get out of the cycle of their reincarnation; it was a dream. However, from what I study while awake, it seems to me that this doctrine and the defeating of logic would logically result in these measures. Acheiving the goal is the theological equivilent of blowing oneself up. To the Catholic, that is mutilation, not enlightenment.

The Christian God Does Not Exist

It has been mentioned above that in the East, many realize that an unchanging Higher Power exists, which is Father, is appropriately loved, and gives us grace to become spiritually perfect. Catholic Christianity agrees with those Easterners who believe in this God. Some who outwardly acknowedge many gods actually acknowledge some of these as being what we would call angelic beings: spiritual and powerful in a limited way, but proclaim one god to be the Unlimited One, the all-powerful and unchanging. Even if they give this God different names, we still recognize Him and serve Him with them.

But this belief in God is not common to all Eastern religions. Confucianism, Taoism, and schools of Buddhism and Hinduism are only systems of ethics joined with an almost metaphysical naturalism, and they do not recognize the existence of God. Oftentimes, there are beliefs in gods in these religions, but these gods symbolize nothing more than natural forces.

For those who believe in God but do not agree with Christians about his attributes, I ask you to look at this.

For those who do not believe in God at all, please click here.

Truth is Relative


All Religions Are the Same

There seems to be a lot of talk about everyone being right, no matter how much they disagree with each other on religion. Or, at least in certain Hinduisms, there is the idea that there are several levels of reality, some more "real" than the others which are also real, and at one of the intermediate levels lie Christianity. Those who promote the idea of a relativism of truth are not all agreed on how contradicting systems relate to one another; the important is that they are all true.

This is going further than saying that there is some truth in every religion; it is saying that everything in every religion is true. Some in the West now as well as in the East now consider it to be an advancement of our times that we scoff at any one religion but vehemently affirm every religion. We are practically at the point of hearing, for example, that while Christianity's doctrine of the Trinity is wonderfully sublime and acceptable since every religion has some kind of threesome related to the "divine" somewhere, at the same time the Trinity is to be rejected because it is a uniquely Christian doctrine.

But we must be truly realistic, and not in a sense which makes nonsense of the word "reality." Let us remember the first rule of logic, (again) the law against self-contradiction. It is that we cannot contradict oursleves. Two opposite doctrines are not both true at the same time. Not every religion is the same. I will say something very unpolitically incorrect: not every religion is equal; some are less than others. And let us not hear, "My religion is the right one for me, and yours is true for you." Rather, the whole truth is for everybody and falsehood is for nobody. Nor is oneness acheived through millions of divisions.

Other Resources

~ For a history and critique of pantheism, click here.
~ Relativism is not the Basis of Religious Tolerance. Click here.
~ Members of Eastern religions do not believe in a distinct spiritual Creator. Again, please check out my pages on God's Existence and afterwards, on God's nature and number.

Objections and Replies

Objection 1: A Buddhist or Hindu master would say that you have not described their religion accurately.
Reply 1: Yes, but they say that even they cannot describe it accurately. This goes especially for those who believe that nothing can be described accurately, since accuracy involves making distinctions in word which correspond to distinctions in reality. But there are no distinctions in reality for these people - there is no individual anything.

Objection 2: Your Catholicism appeals to logic and the virtues of both the individual person and of individual families, groups, organizations, and countries. But what makes logic and these virtues worth our time?
Reply 2: Every person is unique and sacred in himself. Do you love someone? They are the primary individual reasons. Also, virtue and logic are reasons in themselves. One does not have to prove that they are worthwhile; it is self-evident. Finally and most of all, our Creator who made the world of human and lesser things beautiful and good, deserves better than the ideal of believing in a non-distinction of everything.

If there are problems with my assessment, please tell me by email.

Copyright 1997, Luke Wadel. Written permission of the author is required for copying, electronically or otherwise.

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