My mother was a Buddhist. I watched her pray and often prayed with her when I was a boy. Like other Buddhists, she used to worship at home in a private corner where she kept a small statue of Buddha and a picture of the Chinese Goddess Guan Yin. Since childhood, I have come to know Buddhism through practice and observation. Later, I was enrolled in a Catholic high school and got baptized three years hence with no objection from my mother. Although being a Catholic, I have developed a special familiarity and fondness with the Buddhist religion.
I visit the local Buddhist temple periodically to pay homage to my deceased parents whose name plates have been placed there according to their wishes. My Catholic friends raise eyebrows when they hear about my visits to the temple of a foreign religion. So does my parish priest. I understand where they come from. To me, Buddhism is not foreign because I grew up with it. I ask Buddha to bless my family every time I visit the temple. Why not? I need all the blessings to survive in this treacherous world. In addition, I enjoy the free vegetarian lunch served in the temple on days of religious celebration during the year.
I think Buddhism conveys an inner peace in a special way. It does so not because of the things the Buddhist church actively promotes, but rather the things it avoids to tightly control. The following facts illustrates:
The Buddhist church respects other religions and harbors no bias toward any of them. It never insists its Gods are the only true gods. It never says that only Buddhism can save your soul. It never calls people of other faiths gentiles, pagans, or infidels. It never advocates violence or injustice toward people with beliefs that conflict with its own doctrines. It never insists its Gods created the universe and the human race. Hence it readily embraces modern scientific discoveries about the universe and evolution rather than being hostile to them.
The Buddhist church is loosely organized. It does not have a world leader approaching similar status with the Pope or other religious leaders. Its organization does not have a pyramidal hierarchy like other religions. Each local temple operates independently and is led by a senior monk assisted by junior monks, nuns, and volunteers. The monks and nuns are busy praying and maintaining the temple. They never go out to promote their religion with the mission to increase the size of their flock. They don’t have to because the believers come to them offering donations and volunteering services. You don’t have to officially register with a church to be a Buddhist. There is no such thing as excommunication. The believer is connected to the church spiritually and naturally.
The Buddhist doctrine does not have a set of standard rules for the faithful to observe. Buddhists don’t carry a bible that is treated as the words of God similar to the Christian Bible or the Moslem Koran. Buddhist literature consists mainly of inspired human-written prayers, philosophical writings, important dates for religious celebration; and stories about heaven, hell, gods, heroes, and moral human behaviors. Since the temples are run independently, there exists a great diversity of doctrines influenced by local cultures and customs. Therefore, the basic characteristic is the high flexibility and tolerance of Buddhist teachings that embrace every culture and belief, even scientific knowledge that usually conflicts with ancient religious teachings.
You may ask: Can a religion be run so loosely this way? It can be done obviously. Buddhism is one of the world’s oldest and greatest religions whose faithful are rising in numbers around the world every day. The proper question is: Should a religion be run by a hierarchy of corruptible humans whom we want to believe as sacred or holy? Or should it be allowed to develop organically under the invisible hand of God? I think the Buddhist church has found a way by staying out rather than maintaining tight control. Without a hierarchical structure and a stiff inflexible doctrine, the Buddhist church is liberated from the worries of running an earthly organization. These worries include: not enough faithful to sustain the church, insufficient finance, competition with other religions, conflicts with advancing scientific knowledge, conflicts with other beliefs; and above all, the alienation of its own faithful as the world is changing fast. How can a church be able to convey inner peace when it is beset with these kinds of worries?
The alienation of the faithful is most visible in the Catholic religion. A rebellion occurred in 1517 known as the Protestant Reformation. A second schism occurred when Henry VIII established his own Church of England in 1534. A third schism was marked by the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648) that sucked in most European countries. Nowadays, the world is watching how the Catholic Church tries to manage the declining numbers of faithful in the First World while those in the Third World increase rapidly.
As I see it, a true religion starts with an idea to fulfill human spiritual needs. As it grows in size, the tendency exists of its being hijacked by a group of corruptible and power-hungry people who want to manage and control. This is described in the Christian Bible where Jesus faced off with the High Priests and Scribes, and revealed their hypocrisy. This negative tendency marks the secularization of the religion. Since we are humans, all religions are subject to a certain degree of secularization or corruption by human earthly motives. By comparison, the Buddhist religion is the least secularized among all the great religions of the world. It has chosen to be run by the invisible hand of God rather than by tight human control. Therefore, it is able to convey a deep sense of inner peace through a true spiritual connection with the believers.