For over 2000 years Buddhism has existed as an organized religion. By religion we mean that it has a concept of the profane, the sacred, and approaches to the sacred. It has been established in India, China, Japan and other eastern cultures for almost 2000 years and has gained a strong foothold in North America and Europe in the past few centuries. However, one might ask; what fate would Buddhism face had Siddartha Guatama been born in modern times; or more specifically in modern day North America? Would his new found enlightenment be accepted now as it was thousands of years ago?
Would it be hunned by society as another “cult” movement? What conflicts or similarities would it find with modern science; physics in particular? The answers to these questions are the aim of this paper, as well as a deeper understanding of modern Buddhism. Although I will stick with traditional ideas raised by Buddhism, one detail in the story of Siddartha Guatama must be addressed in order for it to be relevant to the main question being asked: What obstacles would Siddartha Guatama face had he been born in modern day North America.
Primarily, it must be recognized that rather than being born into the Hindu religion (which in tself is mystical), Siddartha would have most likely been born into a Christian family. This in itself presents the first obstacle, that being that Christianity is a strictly monotheistic and non-mystical faith. Hence from the outset, although in the traditional story Siddartha faced a conflict with his father (Ludwig 137), in the North American scenario the conflict would have been heightened by the fact that his search for enlightenment was not even closely similar to the Christian faith.
As with science, changes in religious thought are often met with strong opposition. It is interesting to note though, that many parallels can be found between modern physics and Eastern Mysticism. As Fritjof Capra writes: The changes, brought about by modern physics . . . all seem to lead towards a view of the world which is very similar to the views held in Eastern Mysticism. The concepts of modern physics often show surprising parallels to the ideas expressed in the religious philosophies of the Far East. 17-18) Thus by examining some of the obstacles imposed by typical western thought on modern physicists attempting to develop new theories, we can apply the same onclusions to the situation that would be faced by Siddartha Guatama in modern day North America. Traditionally, western thought can be summed up by French philosopher RenJ Descartes’ famous saying, “Cogito ergo sum” or “I think therefor I exist”. That is, typically, western man has always equated identity with his mind, instead of his whole organism (Capra 23).
This same line of thought can be found in traditional Newtonian Mechanics in which the observer of an event is never taken into account when describing the event. Rather, all things are said to occur at an “absolute time” in space, never taking into ccount the observer’s position or speed relative to the event or the rest of the Universe. However, in the beginning of the 20th century, new developments in physics began to shake the framework of the scientific world.
Due mostly to work by Albert Einstein, but also Ernest Rutherford and others, the scientific view of the universe took a drastic turn. These scientists recognized flaws in the classical Newtonian view of the universe. The recognition of these flaws led to the development of the Quantum Theory of Matter as well as Einstein’s Relativity Theory. These theories, as well as the discoveries that they led to, incorporated the entire universe as being comprised of energy, and that particles, time, and space, are just different representations of this energy.
Naturally this faced strict opposition. So much so that in spite of it’s ground-breaking nature as well as the fact that it had been proven, Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity failed to earn him the Nobel Prize. Even to this day many find it difficult to comprehend these more abstract theories. Both concepts – that of empty space and that of solid material bodies (Newtonian Mechanics) – are deeply ingrained in our habits of thought, so it is extremely difficult for us to imagine a physical reality where they do not apply (Capra 64).
Thus, by applying the obstacles faced by modern physicists, it easy to see how a more close-minded western way of thought would be skeptical of Siddartha’s new philosophy. Rather than accept, or even recognize, the more abstract theory of reality that Siddartha would be presenting, western society would rather push it off to the side and stick with it’s more concrete concept; that being Christianity. However, as with modern physics, this opposition would ot be out of stubbornness but simply out of a lack of the ability to grasp the concepts that Siddartha would be trying to portray.
By hypothesizing what would happen had Buddhism been formed in 20th century North America rather than 5th century BCE India, we would be putting Buddhism into a category of Fringe religions. By Fringe religions we mean: all those groups not accorded full social respectability nor recognized as being of equal status with those religious groups in which most important societal spokespersons participate and with which they identify (Shupe 7).
Since Buddhism, ad it been formed by Siddartha in 20th century North America, would be viewed as a Fringe religion at first, we can also apply western societies reaction towards actual Fringe religions to the thesis. It is not a far leap of imagination to move from the observation that a fringe religious group is “odd” to a sense that its religious challenge really possess a serious potential threat to one’s way of life and valued social relations (Shupe 27). It is this common misconception, imposed upon virtually all new religions, that would prove to be the main obstacle in the formation of Buddhism.
Currently such religious movements as the Jehovah’s Witness, the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints, and the Black Muslims – established and relevant as they are – face this type of obstacle (Shupe 7). Be it through negative exposure by the media or trouble with the law (one is reminded of Waco Texas) these new Fringe religious face a constant barrage of opposition.
The opposition can often get so trumped up, especially by the media, that the religion will often be dismissed as a cult. he media picked up on the term (cult) undoubtedly because of it’s vaguely xotic, unsavory connotation . . . in the 1970’s, many “cults” included Mormon’s, Jehovah’s Witnesses . . . and Zen Buddhists . . . irrespective of their differing affinities to Judeo-Christian tradition (Shupe 8). With such a backlash against new religions, it is amazing that Buddhism was even able to get a foothold in North America, despite being a established religion for over 2 millenniums. Despite having these obstacle to overcome, Siddartha’s new found religion would not have to fight on it’s own.
As stated earlier, there are many parallels that can be drawn between Buddhism and modern physics. As a matter of fact, Siddartha Guatama stated over 2000 years ago what has only come into realization by physicists today: He proclaimed it as shiki soku zeku and ku soku zeshiki1. Ku, literally “emptiness” or “void,” does not mean “nothingness” but “equality. ” Shiki soku zeku indicates the idea that all things . . . originate from the same foundation . . . Similarly, ku soku zeshiki means that all things . . . are produced by ku, and therefore ku is identical with shiki (Niwano 207).
It is through this main parallel that it is likely that scientists, hysicists in particular, would embrace this new concept of reality. Through personal experience it is my interest in modern physics that piqued my interest in Eastern Mysticism. Therefor through the western ideal of attaining as much knowledge of the universe as possible (read: space exploration, particle accelerators, etc) it is quite possible that Buddhism, had it been formed in 20th century North America, could become a mainstream religion after surviving the initial onslaught of opposition.
Thus, had Siddartha Guatama been born in modern day North America, there ould be a number of obstacles for him to face in the founding of Buddhism. He would have to overcome the problems of being born into a Christian family/society; a society not used to such abstract ideas of reality, the close- minded nature of western thought, and the problems posed by a media that likes to jump on anything new and unusual and tear it to shreds. However, if it were to overcome these obstacles it is quite probable that it would become a deeply rooted religion in North America due to the likely support it would gain from the scientific community.