Monday, May 17, 2004

Enlightenment vs Divine Revelation

I ran across this paper that I wrote for a class I took on Theravadin Buddhism (The oldest form of Buddhism) my first year at USF and thought it might be worth sharing.

Enlightenment vs Divine Revelation:

Ethics in Buddhism and Judaism

by John W. Leys

     Though Theravadin Buddhism, a predominately
atheistic religion, and Judaism, the first of the great monotheistic
religions, may sometimes have what appear to be polar ideas of what is
ethical, they both have several concepts in common. Through the use of
their major texts, scriptures and teachings, a comparison and contrast
will be drawn between the ethical and moral systems of Buddhism and
Judaism so as to gain an insight as to how their ethics can and are
applicable in today’s world.

    Buddhism and Judaism hold very different world
views. Instead of striving to please a specific God or gods, Buddhists
seek detachment from all that is perceived to be real. . The Buddha
taught that life is an illusion (Sanskrit - Maya), that the world is
transient and human beings are but illusory constructs bent on seeking
what is not real. The Buddha acknowledged that all life is suffering
(Sanskrit - dukkha) and suffering is caused by desire, specifically
desire for the illusory and transient.. People desire what they can not
or should not have or need. This is not to say that a person cannot
seek happiness or the basic fulfillment of life’s sustenance, but that
one should not seek more than is needed. When and if one does such a
thing, they are creating an attachment to the world and thus prohibits
their entrance into enlightenment and ultimately Nirvana. Nirvana is
the state of nothingness, it is the realization that all life is
suffering and that all is illusory. Once this is realized, the Buddhist
is able to break the cycle of samsara that binds them to this plane of
existence, thus ending their suffering.

    Jews, on the other hand, strive to honor the
covenant that God made with their ancestors. This is achieved by
fulfilling God’s Law and through it living a holy life. Like Buddhism,
Judaism teaches the concept of the middle path. Excess in anything is
deemed to be dangerous to one’s spiritual growth. On the other hand,
Jews do not believe that the physical realm is in anyway inferior to
the spiritual realm. God created everything, therefore it was
ultimately declared that asceticism was to be considered sinful. Buddha
himself taught that asceticism in and of itself would not lead to
enlightenment, but this is really only true if the acetic is denying
himself anything. The goal of the Buddhist is to remove the desire for
the thing itself so that one is neither inclined to indulge or deny
such desires.

    The mystical tradition in Judaism, known as
Kabbalah, teaches a concept somewhat similar to Buddha’s concept of
dukkha. While most times it is translated as "suffering" a more literal
translation of dukkha is "imperfection." The Kabbalah holds that when
God created the universe moral flaws and imperfections were
inadvertently introduced into it. Thus evil, sickness, and suffering
became part of what was meant to be a perfect and good universe.
However, according to the medieval Jewish mystics, these imperfections
are reversible. Every time a Jew fulfills even the smallest part of
God’s Law, every time a sacred act is performed, every time a good deed
is done the universe moves closer to that ultimate state of repair.
Like many Kabbalistic  concepts, this concept of tikkun olam,
repair of the world, has made its way into mainstream Judaism. Combined
with the social activism present in Jewish tradition since the time of
the prophets it has had a profound effect on the way Jews interact in
the world. In fact one of the standard Jewish prayer books contains a
poem by Edmond Fleg, ‘I am a Jew’, which contains the line "I am a Jew
because for the Jew the world is not complete; people must complete
it."  1, 2

Judaism has a similar ethical systems to those of its daughter
religion, Christianity and there is a sense of immediacy not present in
Buddhism. The Buddhist has an infinite number of lifetimes to attain
enlightenment, which invariably affects its ethical system. Jews,
however, do not believe in reincarnation and believe that this life is
the only opportunity they have to fulfill God’s Law. Failure mean that
the covenant has not been honored, God’s will has not been carried out,
and,  if one subscribes to the concept of tikkun olam, that the
world will not be repaired.

Buddhists and Jews derive their ethical systems from the teachings of
great prophets and teachers like Moses and the Buddha. Upon reaching
enlightenment Buddha realized the true nature of the universe, which he
encapsulated in his Four Noble Truths:

  1. Dukkha - Imperfection / Suffering. The first noble truth is simply that the world is imperfect and that life is suffering.

  2. The Origin of Dukkha. - The second noble truth is that dukkha
    arises from desire of material things. Merely knowing this to be true
    is not enough, though. One must aspire to eradicate it entirely.

  3. Cessation of Dukkha - The third noble truth is simply the realization that dukkha can be ended.

  4. The Noble Eight Fold Path to the Cessation of Dukkha - This is
    the essence of the Buddha’s teaching as it is this path which he taught
    would lead to Nirvana and end the cycle of rebirth and eternal

  1. Right Understanding

  2. Right Thought

  3. Right Speech

  4. Right Action

  5. Right Livelihood

  6. Right Effort

  7. Right Mindfulness

  8. Right Concentration

    By following these tenets of Buddhism, along with
what Buddha called ‘sila’ or morality, one can guide his or her life in
a manner that will be happy, fulfilling and meaningful. Jews seek
similar ends through fulfillment of  the divine law given to Moses
and the Israelites at Mount Sinai following the exodus from
Egypt.  Though Jews derive their moral theology from the entire
Hebrew Bible or Tanakh, special emphasis is given to the first five
books of the Bible which they call the Torah3
, which is variously translated as either Law or Teachings. According
to Jewish tradition there are 613 commandments contained within the
Torah which govern all aspects of Jewish life. While all of the
commandments are said to be of equal importance, greater significance
is given to what is commonly known as the 10 Commandments which God
revealed to all of the Israelites at Sinai (The first and only time He
would speak to all of the people at once). These ten commandments are
considered to be the cornerstone of Jewish moral theology. Some have
even argued that these 10 commandments, which are known in Hebrew as
Aseret Ha-Dibrot, the Ten Statements, are actually categories that all
the other commandments fall under. As given in Exodus 20 they are as

  1. I the Lord am your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage.

  2. You shall have no other god before me. You shall not make for
    yourself a sculptured image, or any likeness of what is in the heavens
    above, or on the earth below, or in the waters under the earth. You
    shall not bow down to them or serve them …

  3. You shall not swear falsely by the name of the Lord your God; for the Lord will not clear one who swears falsely by His name.

  4. Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy …

  5. Honor your father and mother …

  6. You shall not murder.

  7. You shall not commit adultery.

  8. You shall not steal

  9. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.

  10. You shall not covet your neighbor’s house … your neighbor’s
    wife, or his male or female slave, or his ox or his ass, or anything
    that is your neighbor’s.4  

Many have argued that within these ten statements can be found the
essence of the Torah and of Jewish ethics. However, the first century
Jewish scholar Hillel held a different view. Once a stranger came to
Hillel and said he would convert to Judaism if the rabbi could teach
him all of the Torah while standing on one foot. Hillel responded "What
is hateful unto you, do not do unto your neighbor. The rest is
commentary -- now go and study it!" 5 

    The most immediately noticeable difference between
these two systems is that almost half of the Ten Commandments are
concerned with belief in and the Jews interaction with their God. For
Jews the existence and belief in the one God is central to their entire
belief system. So much so that twice daily Jews recite a prayer called
the Shema, which is taken from chapter 6 of Deuteronomy "Hear, O
Israel, the Lord our God, The Lord is one." It should be noted,
however, that the second commandment does not in fact prohibit the
belief that there are other gods but just that the Israelites were to
place none of them above the God of Moses. This preoccupation with the
divine is in striking contrast to Buddhist teachings in which the Hindu
pantheon of Gods, which the Buddha was presumably brought up to worship
by his father, plays no part at all. And though Buddhism is sometimes
referred to as an Atheistic religion there is evidence that the Buddha
did still believe in the gods after his enlightenment, he just didn’t
believe that one needs to rely upon them to be released from dukkha. In
his eyes each person was responsible for their own salvation, no god or
messiah figure what needed or desired.

    This leads to the second major difference between
the two codes, the manner in which they were arrived at. Buddha was a
human being not a god, not an avatar; not even the messenger or prophet
of a god. He formulated his teachings completely on his own after years
of searching and meditation. The enlightenment he achieved was entirely
his own doing and the insight he gained was the result of years of
work. In contrast the Torah was composed by God and revealed to Moses
at Sinai. While many Jews today believe that the Torah is a
collaboration between God and Israel it is generally believed that he
is the sole source of its inspiration.

    It is also worthy to point out how vague Buddha’s
eight fold path is in comparison to the Ten Commandments, and the rest
of the Torah’s commandments for that matter. While Buddha taught that
one should use "Right Action" the God of Israel came right out and
named the specific actions that were prohibited, i.e. murder, stealing,
adultery, et cetera. While many of these things are actions Buddha
would no doubt want his students to avoid he did not specifically
prohibit them. This has made it necessary for Buddhists to attempt to
interpret what exactly he meant. From the eight fold path and the
concept of sila, Buddhists have devised five precepts that all lay
Buddhists must follow:

  1. Do not lie

  2. Do not steal

  3. Do engage in sexual misconduct

  4. Do not use intoxicants

  5. Do not kill

Interestingly several of these mirror several of the Jewish
commandments. It is natural to draw a parallel between the first
precept against lying and the third commandment. However, despite
popular belief the third commandment does not comment in lying but
rather on perjuring one’s self in God’s name. The issue of lying is
actually taken up by the Rabbis in the Talmud. Despite the relative
specificity of the Torah there were many disagreements on how the
commandments should be carried out. This resulted in many commentaries
and explications of the Law by the ancient Rabbis. This code was known
as the Oral Law. In time in was committed to writing as the Talmud. In
Leviticus 19:14 God commands that the Israelites are not to "Put a
stumbling block before the blind". Rabbi Hinnukh commented on this
verse that "There are three pillars upon which this world is
established: truth, moral confidence, and mutual trust. Without these,
society could not survive."  And it is from this that Judaism
derives its prohibition against lying.6

    The fifth precept is clearly parallel to the sixth
commandment. Until recently this commandment was often translated as
"Thou shalt not kill", which is practically identical to the Buddhist
precept. However, this is an error that resulted from the Hebrew
Bible’s being translated from one language to the next for many
centuries. The actual Hebrew reads, as noted above, ‘murder’ not
‘kill’. This makes a great deal of difference when interpreting the law
in question. Most Buddhists take this precept to mean that they should
not kill any kind of animal and as a result most Buddhists are
vegetarians. Many other Buddhists, especially the monks, take this
precept so seriously that that they will not even swat at  a fly
and sweep the sidewalk in front of them as they walk as not to step on
any bugs. The rationale being that to kill is not a "right action" and
that by killing you are adding to the dukkha of the world which is the
antithesis of Buddhist goals. Killing will also create karma between
the killer and the victim. This karma will bind the person even further
into the cycle of rebirth.

    Jews too take this issue very seriously. The value
of life is very high in Judaism’s ethical structure. Though, as the
wording of the commandment suggests, Judaism does teach that there are
certain times, such as during war or in self defense, when killing is
unavoidable and perhaps even required, on the whole one’s life is
valued above all else. Human life is seen as a precious gift from the
Creator and to destroy such life is considered by some to be the
ultimate sin, short of denying God all together. In fact, all the
commandments in the Torah save three are suspended if a life is at
risk. This is supported by a verse in Leviticus 18:5 which teaches that
"You shall, therefore, keep My statutes and My ordinances, which if a
man do he shall live by them." The Rabbis took this to mean that you
should live by them and not die by them.7 
The three exceptions to this ruling are that one may not save his own
life by murdering an innocent, performing acts of idolatry or otherwise
denying God, or by engaging in forbidden sexual relations. Besides
those extreme cases there is nothing even in the holy Torah that is
more important than preserving life.

    Despite being between 2500 and 3500 years old, the
ethical guidelines purported in these two religious traditions are
readily applicable to modern life and current ethical issues. An issue
that has been debated for many years is that of the death penalty. Is
it ethical to put a person to death as a punishment for killing? The
Buddhist response would be in the negative. In the Buddhist system the
killer will be punished by his own karma as he is trapped in the cycle
of rebirth. Killing him would not only go against the concepts of sila
and Right Action, but would also just serve to reinforce the
attachment, and therefor the negative karma, between the survivors and
the killer. By having the killer executed the karmic bonds only become
stronger. Buddha would teach that it is better to devolve such bonds
and let the killer go where his path leads him.

    As is well known biblical Judaism fully endorses the
death penalty in regards to violations of several commandments. And the
precept of "An eye for an eye" does come into play in this situation.
However, as noted before, Jews have always put a great value on life,
even the life of a murderer. As a result the Rabbis of old made it very
difficult for a person to be sentenced to death. There had to be
absolutely no question of the persons guilt and once acquitted there
could be no retrial. So distasteful was the thought of taking a life
that the Rabbis would go through great lengths to avoid it in these
cases. It should also be noted that the first murderer, Cain, was not
sentenced to death by God on the grounds that, since he had never
witnessed death, he did not really know what he was doing when striking
down his brother.

    As has been shown both Buddhism and Judaism have
very unique moral and ethical systems that govern how people are to
live their lives and to what end. While the basis of these systems and
even the goals of the systems are radically different, they sometimes
offer the same answer to the same ethical questions though not for the
same reasons. This could point to what some call "universal law", which
are thought to be common to all cultures, but whether this is true or
not is beyond the scope of this paper. Perhaps what is most fascinating
is that both Buddhism and Judaism teach that the world is somehow
imperfect or incomplete. Both are greatly concerned with the suffering
of life. And both go in completely opposite directions to find a
remedy. Rather than try and complete and/or heal the universe as Jews
are obligated to do Buddha taught that we should try and escape from
what he saw as an illusory world. Though it is not true to say that
Buddhist do not try an alleviate suffering in the world while they are
here, it is certainly not the goal of their religion. The question a
Jew might ask is if that in itself is ethical.


  1 Rabbi Jules Harlow. Siddur
Sim Shalom (New York: The Rabbinic Assembly - The United Synagogues of
Conservative Judaism, 1999), 814

  2 Rabbi Joseph Telushkin. Jewish Literacy (New York: William Marrow & Co., 1991) 115-17

  3 The other two divisions of the
Hebrew Bible are Nevi’im - Prophets and Kethivim - Writings. It is from
the initials of these three divisions that the word Tanakh is derived.

  4 Tanakh - The Holy Scriptures
(New York: The Jewish Publication Society, 1988). All quotations from
the Tanakh are taken from this addition unless otherwise noted.

  5 Telushkin 120-121.

  6 Abraham Chill. The Mitzvot (Jerusalem: Keter Books, 1974) 225

  7 Teluskin, 521


Abraham Chill The Mitzvot (Jerusalem: Keter Books, 1974)

E.W. Adikaran Early History of Buddhism (Sri Lanka : Buddhist Cultural Center, 1994)

Richard F. Gombrich Buddhist Precepts and Practices (Cambridge: CUP, 1973)

Richard F. Gombrich Theravadin Buddhism: A Social History London: Kegan, 1988)

Rabbi Jules Harlow Siddur Sim Shalom (New York: The Rabbinic Assembly - The United Synagogues of Conservative Judaism, 1999),

Peter Occhiogrosso The Joy of Sects (New York: Doubleday, 1994)

Tanakh - The Holy Scriptures (New York: The Jewish Publication Society, 1988).

Rabbi Joseph Telushkin. Jewish Literacy (New York: William Marrow & Co., 1991)

Walpola Rahula What the Buddha Taught (New York: Grover Press, 1974)

Richard H. Robinson and Willard L Johnson The Buddhist Religion (New York: Wadsworth, 1997)


The background image on this page is a Hebrew translation of the verse from Bob Dylan's song  It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding), from which the title of this blog is taken. Translation courtesy of Yoram Aharon of Hod-HaSharon's page--found via YudelLine-- which has many Dylan lyrics in Hebrew.