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God Squad: A lesson on Buddhism in honor of Buddha's birthday

The official date for Buddha's birthday this year

The official date for Buddha's birthday this year is May 19. Credit: Dreamstime

Happy birthday to you
Happy birthday to you
Happy birthday, dear Buddha,
Happy birthday to you!  

Wesak (or Vesak) is the annual (well not exactly annual since there is no Wesak in 2020) birthday celebration of Siddhartha Gautama, the first and best of all Buddhas who lived from the 6th to the 4th centuries before the Common Era.  The United Nations' official date for Vesak this year is May 19.

I sadly admit to neglecting the fourth-largest religion in the world in my weekly survey of spiritual wisdom, so let me try to correct that lacuna with a brief summary of what Buddhists believe and how the Buddhist take on the mysteries of existence differs from and complements the Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

The central problem of existence for the Abrahamic faiths is sin, and the central problem of Buddhism is suffering (dukkha). Sin is caused by attachment to evil, and suffering is caused by attachment to anything. By attachment (tanha) Buddhists mean believing that things are real which are not really real. Everything in life is perishable and transient and evanescent. Nothing lasts, and when we say that we need these things, we set ourselves up to suffer when they die or disappear. In the West sin is very real, a failure of people to live up to our divine souls that are eternal like the God who created them.

For Buddhists, this suffering at the emptiness of existence is the first of four noble truths. After dukkha, the second noble truth is the origin of suffering that is called samudaya. It means that dukkha is caused by attachment. The third noble truth of Buddhism is called nirodha, the truth that the ending of attachment (tanhakaya) can be attained by letting go of the illusions we have that the world is real. The fourth noble truth is called marga, the path. There is an eightfold path to the elimination of attachment that leads to the end of suffering: right view, right resolve, right speech, right conduct, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right samadhi (meditation).

In Judaism and Islam, the way to spiritual liberation is also called a path. It is halacha in Judaism and Sharia in Islam. Christianity also believes in a path to liberation through right belief in the divinity of Jesus. For Buddhism, like the Abrahamic faiths, this world is not the real world. The real world is with God after death for our souls in Heaven. However, Buddhism takes a much more severe view about the illusions of the world we are living in now.

For Buddhism, we cannot change the world because the world is not ultimately real. Learning this on the deepest level leads to release (moksha) from the cycle of rebirth first identified by Hinduism. However, unlike Hinduism, Buddhism rejects the idea of a soul (atman). Rebirth of the soul through reincarnation is ultimately unreal. Nirvana (enlightenment) is not a place but a state of being completely free from illusions about the impermanence of the world.

Buddhism does not believe in God. In some ways it is more like a philosophy than a religion, and yet its reverence for the Buddha is so great that the Buddha has become like a god in many versions of Buddhism. Enlightened Buddhas are free from the world and yet some of them out of love return to earthly existence as Buddhas (bodhisattvas) to teach Buddhist truth. They are like prophets in the West or like Jesus (without the divinity). This view that some who are enlightened need to teach others who are not enlightened yet is characteristic of every religion on earth.

At the core of the Buddhist faith is the community of monks (bhikkhus) and nuns (bhikkhunis). Together they are called the sangha. Householders can be Buddhists, but it really is a clerical religion; the highest level of the faith is reserved for those in the sangha who are celibate.

What I love about Buddhism is that it never loses focus on kindness and compassion as the practical goal of human life. Buddhism is not overly concerned about theological disputes; it is not a proselytizing religion. It respects all faiths and teaches nonviolence and vegetarianism. The Buddhists I know are kind and calm — great achievements in our broken world.

So I wish The Buddha — and Jr. Buddhas out there -- a happy Wesak. One of the Wesak customs is to release caged animals. Let me know if you are releasing a tiger, and I will stay inside on the 19th.

SEND QUESTIONS AND COMMENTS to The God Squad at or Rabbi Marc Gellman, Temple Beth Torah, 35 Bagatelle Rd., Melville, NY 11747.

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