Buddhism reflects many perspectives
The fundamental message of Buddhism is the truth of suffering and release from suffering here and hereafter.
There are said to be 84,000 teachings or paths to communicate its message. This numerical symbol suggests that there is, in effect, a way for everyone to gain spiritual liberation, despite their limited capacities or defilements.
Hence, we see a great diversity of beliefs, concepts, literature, myths, legends and practices in Buddhism that have developed in its 2,600-year history in response to the needs of the people of many cultures. For early Western observers it seemed a "veritable jungle of superstitions." For those who came to understand it more deeply and accurately, it was a creative faith that adapted to varying environments wherever it spread. This explains the wide variety of religious styles of Buddhism over the world.
While there is a unified perspective on life among Buddhists, it can be viewed as a diamond that has many facets, each gleaming according to the angle of light. Each facet glows at the appropriate time. It is notable that while Buddhist philosophy can be quite complex, it has developed a wealth of stories, parables, doctrines, poetry, symbols and rituals to enable ordinary persons to grasp its insights.
Consequently, we find, even in Hawaii, a diversity of Buddhist traditions and sects which serve the many peoples who have come here. Yet, all these groups maintain their universality and commonality, coming together to commemorate important events in Buddhist history such as Buddha's birthday and the day of his enlightenment, as well as his first sermon, which launched Buddhism into history.
The figure of 84,000 teachings is also applied beyond Buddhism, recognizing that any faith or teaching that brings consolation and significant spiritual insight is ultimately an expression of the highest truth of Buddhism. Over history Buddhism has been a tolerant, accepting tradition, often absorbing native religions into itself.
The Buddhist view of reality distinguishes the inconceivable dimension of cosmic truth and the sphere of conventional truth of everyday experience and language. On the conventional level everything is seen as relative, subject to causes and conditions. The Buddhist understanding of reality and human knowledge transforms all religious teaching to symbols as expressions of belief but not in themselves necessarily the final truth.
Everything is a finger pointing to the moon, pointing to something beyond itself.
As a consequence of this view, Buddhism has had little conflict with other religions through its history, and there have been no Buddhist religious wars. Buddhism itself has been persecuted and constrained because of its egalitarian implications and its implicit criticism of contemporary societies by its offer of a brighter world beyond this life.
Buddhists have advocated peace by first encouraging people to become peaceful within themselves through the practice of reflection or meditation in some form.
Presently, many temples observe Obon in our community, reminding us, whatever our ethnic or historical descent, of our debt to our many ancestors who shared their wisdom with us. The gala festive music and dancing should not obscure the depth and meaning of the spiritual tradition that inspires it.
Alfred Bloom is a religion professor emeritus with the University of Hawaii and is a member of Honpa Hongwanji Betsuin.