Sunday, October 2, 2016

What Do You Believe In?

What do you believe in?  Do you believe in God?  Do you believe in Christ, or Muhammad?  Do you believe in Karma and rebirth?  Do you believe in Heaven and Hell?  Do you believe in predestination or in free will?

When you talk about religion in the West, questions about belief seem to be at the very core.  As I grew up, I thought about these sorts of questions a lot.  But I haven't seen the same emphasis on belief outside of Christianity and Islam.  Sometimes, people will ask me what do Buddhists believe?  And I always have to pause, because it's the wrong question to ask.

Imagine someone asking a Christian, "How do Christians behave?"  The answer might involve following the Ten Commandments, or the teachings of Jesus, or attending church on Sundays.  But the question misses the point.  If I don't believe in Jesus as the savior and as the son of God, then I'm not a Christian, even if I behave as a Christian does or should.

Buddhist teaching (at least Theravada), on the other hand, focuses on action and awareness.  Buddha didn't teach people what to believe.  He taught people to develop awareness and to act with compassion.  My teacher, Bhante Devananda encourages visitors to his temple to continue with whatever religious beliefs they have or grew up with. The important thing, he says, is how you think and act, not what you believe.

"Do not be idolatrous about or bound to any doctrine, theory, or ideology, even Buddhist ones. Buddhist systems of thought are guiding means; they are not absolute truth." -Thich Nhat Hanh

But that doesn't mean that beliefs are not important.  Our beliefs have a large impact on how we perceive the world around us and on how we think.  Our perceptions and thoughts then impact our behavior in very direct ways.

Buddhist practice encourages me to ask myself the following questions about each of my beliefs:
  • Does this belief conflict with my other beliefs, with what I've experienced, with what I've seen or been told, and if so, how do I reconcile that?
  • Does this belief have a positive or negative influence on how I feel and how I perceive things around me?
  • Does this belief inspire me to act responsibly and benevolently?
  • Does this belief help or impede my ability to create and maintain interpersonal connections?
  • Does this belief help or impede my ability to be productive and achieve my goals?
  • Does this belief help or impede my resilience in the face of adversity and challenge?
I'm the type of person who's naturally inclined to ask these sorts of questions.  But I realize that puts me in the minority.  These may be difficult questions to answer objectively.  For most people, it's difficult just to ask these questions.  And confronting the implications of the answers can be extremely challenging, even painful.

In this same line of thought, when I have a debate with someone, I try to stop myself and ask, am I being helpful?  It's natural for us to argue our beliefs, especially if we feel strongly or have solid evidence.  But if the audience is not receptive, it might be best to drop the argument.  Is it more important to be right or to be helpful?  The question seems to answer itself when the other person isn't willing to listen anyways.

Even accepting that it's better to be helpful, I find it can be difficult to act accordingly.  But it's a challenge that I will continually work at overcoming.

Thank you for reading.  Use the comment tool to post any thoughts or questions.  And please share my blog with others who might find value in it.  May you be well and happy.


  1. I am an avid reader of your blog. Please post more!

    1. Thank you for your encouragement! I'll try to get one or two out in the near future. I'm keeping very busy with other projects. But I hope to have more time for this blog in 2018.