Comparative World Religions Midterm

01Oct99

Questions:

Why do religions exist? Give at least three possible reasons, and defend them with good arguments.

Putting it in extremely simple terms, religions exist to help humans deal with certain questions that are difficult to answer. One of the most obvious groups of questions in which religion proves to be of assistance is the group of questions related to death. Religion can help us deal with death in a more comfortable way.

Religion can also make us feel more secure about the world, or rather, the universe in which we live. Religion tries to help us understand something about our immediate environment by offering us stories about our creation; it often also includes stories to try to explain the stars and the heavens in a manner in which we can feel more comfortable with our place in such an unfathomable reality.

Another explanation for the existence of religion is that “human beings are also social by nature.” Religion often offers the means for social gatherings, providing both a location and a means of communication. The communication is not limited to those resembling social gatherings, but also includes communication that uses more creative means of expression, such as music and art. Religion also often provides a sense of security and belonging for older people and people in less favorable social and economic conditions. <top>

List, and briefly describe, five characteristics that are typically associated with a religion.

It is difficult to list characteristics that all religions must have, but there are a few characteristics that are commonly looked at when studying religions. They characteristics looked at are the following: belief system, community, ethics, characteristic emotions, ritual, and sacredness.

The belief system, or worldview, of a religion is its approach to understanding the universe and our place in the universe. Many of today’s religions are practiced using “sacred texts” as the basis of our worldview. Most of these, however, have their roots in the oral tradition, where the knowledge of the understanding of the universe was passed down from generation to generation by word of mouth.

The belief system is developed, practiced, and shared among a community. This community is also likely to have ethical rules of conduct to help society function more smoothly—a social lubricant of sorts. These rules of conduct may include rules concerning the treatment of outsiders to the community, and treatment to elders and the poor. Often, the basis or the justification for these rules would be said by religious leaders to have “been revealed from a supernatural realm.”

Religions often have a certain degree of ritual involved in their ceremonies. Rituals do not have to be ceremonial in nature. I may, for example, decide that I desire to meditate quietly in solitude, but make it a daily ritual.

The religious community may also set aside particular locations for the ceremonies to be practiced. These locations are often removed from the realm of the ordinary, and placed into the realm of sacredness. A cathedral, for example is a sacred building, and—even for those outside of the religion—will point out its distinction from ordinary buildings, simply with the sheer beauty of the architecture and its impressive size. <top>

What are the four Vedas about? Describe them in detail.

The name Veda means knowledge or sacred lore, and the work they refer to represent the earliest of the Hindu sacred texts. The Vedas were originally passed down through the oral tradition and include ceremonial rules and chants. There are four collections of these sacred texts.

The most important of these, the Rig Veda, presents, among other things, a chant / hymn about the creation of the universe. The Rig-Veda, or “hymn knowledge,” is a collection of chants to the Aryan gods. The Yajur Veda is a collection of “ceremonial knowledge” and includes hymns to be recited during offerings. The Sama Veda is another collection of chants, and includes music to accompany the chants. The fourth Veda, the teachings of Atharva (cleverly called “Atharva Veda”) includes knowledge of charms, as well as additional “practical prayers and charms.”

The Vedas were changed later on to include detailed ceremonial rules called Brahmanas and Aranyakas. Brahamanas were included for the priests of the same name, and detailed such tings as ritual objects, and ceremonial times and places. Aranyakas were written to allow ascetics to practice the Vedas in a “non-literal, symbolic” way.

The Vedas end in the philosophical work of the Upanishads. <top>

Define the concept of maya, and describe the impact of this concept on the Hindu understanding of death.

The Upanishads’ use of maya often translates into “illusion.” Maya deals with appearances and our perception of reality. The reality of the world, for example, may not be quite how we see it. Instead, the world we see as real is often the one that we create with our projection of our perception.

Yogis who have “risen to a state of super-consciousness,” see the world as close to reality as is possible. This view of the world is very different from the view of the “real” world that we have. All materiality, and the multitude of “real” worlds created by individuals, vanish.

Although we see only an illusion of the real world, Hindus believe we must treat maya as real as long as it “appears real and demanding to us.”

The illusion involved in maya lies in our viewing our material things and ourselves as individually real, while “in reality,” everything is Brahman. As such, death is not seen as “the end.” Since we are all ultimately “manifestations” of Brahman, which is “ultimately beyond time and beyond space,” our death is maya. Reality is that we keep on living—the spirit never dies. Reality is that we may never have been born—there may have never been a beginning. <top>

Describe three of the yogas and explain how they function within Hindu practice.

Yogas are active means, versus quiet meditation, of living spiritually. The word yoga means to join, and is related to the word yoke. Yogas can be seen as the paths that lead to our union with the divine. Hinduism recognizes that different people operate differently, and as such there are different yogas to accommodate for these different needs. Here is a description of three kinds of yogas.

Jnana Yoga, or knowledge yoga, is the study of the Bhagavad-Gita and the Upanishads, and studying under gurus. This is a very philosophical yoga that seeks to make aware in the yogi that everything is united under Brahman.

Bhakti Yoga, or devotion yoga, involves devotion to deities, and to one’s parents, spouse, and spiritual teacher. Bhakti Yoga can come in various forms, including “chants, songs, food offerings, and the anointing of statues.” This can be seen as the way to unity with love.

Raja Yoga is a type of yoga that promotes meditations as its mean of becoming spiritually united with the divine. Meditation can be practiced in many ways. The most commonly know form of meditation in the western world is the “emptying of the mind.” In whatever form, the purpose of the meditation is to clear the mind and to use your energies “to reach higher consciousness.” <top>

List the Four Noble Truths. Explain how they illustrate the practical nature of Buddhist teaching.

The Four Noble Truths are Buddhist teachings about the truth concerning life.

The First Noble Truth is that “to live is to suffer.” Put more illustratively, birthing is painful, as is growing old. Disease—or dis-ease—is also suffering. Finally, death also hurts—it causes suffering to those around you. The more optimistic view of this message is that with acknowledgement of the suffering of life, we can find out why we suffer, and ultimately, reduce that suffering.

The Second Noble Truth is that “suffering comes from desire.” Unfortunately, we all have desires. We all have certainly seen this truth. We have all been in situations where we swore that “If I just had this one thing, I would be content,” only to find that, when we get that thing, there is another craving to take its place. This discontent is the cause of our suffering.

To solve this, the Buddha says that the Third Noble Truth is that “to end suffering we must end desire.” Buddha’s personal mean of recognizing this truth was to live it; he left his possessions, his family, and all that he was attached to behind, opting instead to be enlightened. Since not all people can be monks, however, Buddhists have a variation of this truth for common folk, and that is to accept things as they happen and focus on inner peace rather than happiness. We cannot change the world.

Nirvana, the ultimate Buddhist goal, is the subject of the Fourth Noble Truth, which says, “Release from suffering is possible and can be attained by following the Noble Eightfold Path.” When one follows the Noble Eightfold Path and attains Nirvana, the individual will have control over themselves, and not be a victim of desire, pressured by outside forces. <top>

Describe two typical practices associated with Zen and explain how they relate to the goal of achieving enlightenment.

Enlightenment, or satori, in Buddhism is the recognition of our unity with the universe. Once enlightened, we can see that the separations we make are based on our projection of the distinctions in our minds. Like many of the eastern religions, this recognition represents the concept that everything essentially consists of the “same basic energy of the universe,” and that the variations are basically manifestations of this energy.

Zen monks have several techniques for reaching enlightenment, of which the most often used in zazen, or sitting meditation. Zazen is practiced in a peaceful setting, where the individual—calmly and with discipline—sits for several hours in the morning and evening. One builds up on this meditation, starting with breathing exercises, and moving up to other techniques such as word repetition. Through practice, one is able to “focus on the moment” and enter a “state of simple awareness.”

While sitting hour after hour, the Zen monks may also employ another technique for achieving Satori: the koan. The koan is a question that, to us, may seem absurd. One example is “What is the sound of one hand clapping.” The koan is “not a question that can be answered using logic.” Instead, the koan asks questions that demand so much pondering that it “agitates” and exhausts the mind. In this thoughtful, open state, there is the possibility for a flash of satori. <top>

Explain the yin and yang, using examples as necessary to illustrate your explanation.

The yin and yang is the thought that the universe is composed of “opposite but complementary principles.” The yin is often seen as possessing “passive or receptive” forces, while the yang represents more “active or aggressive” forces. While it does include such examples as male and female, night and day, right and left, and good and evil, the yin and yang is not a case of good against evil. The opposites are not competing, and we are not expecting one to win.

What we do expect, however, is that there will be a balance between the two forces. Each force invades the other—there is a seed of the opposite within itself. They form a cyclical process whereby the opposing forces eventually exchange places with each other. One of nature’s clearest examples of this concept is that of the seasonal cycles. Winter, for example, is a time when little life flourishes. But it contains an element of spring, which gradually takes over, with warmth and life. This “yang” of spring continues through summer, but in summer there is also the yin that leads us from autumn, and back into winter.

This is representative of the idea that “everything contains its opposite and will eventually become its opposite.” <top>

What is the Tao Te Ching and what role has it played in the Taoist religion?

The Tao Te Ching is like the Bible for Taoists. Its title means “the classical book about the way and its power.” The short book consists of eighty-one short chapters, and deals with politics, ethics, and metaphysics—”the study of what is genuinely real.”

Throughout the book, there are references to the Tao, or, if translated, “the way.” The Toa, however, is nameless, formless and indescribable. It cannot be put into words, so the appointed author of the book, Lao Tzu, used brief, paradoxical poems to write of the Tao. I have heard that one can read it in an hour or a lifetime.

The Tao Te Ching goes on to say that not only is Tao the origin of everything, but also, “all individual things are ‘manifestations’ of the Tao. We may be inclined, then, to think of Tao as “God.” This does not, however, mesh with Taoist thought, which believes that Tao “does not have a personality.” Human beings are given no favored status by Tao, but were simply produced “along with the rest of nature,” and are merely a part of Tao.

The Tao Te Ching offers a lot of imagery in its poetry to try and help portray something natural that most resembles Tao. One of the most powerful of these images is water, which Taoists observe as effortlessly flowing, constantly adapting to its environment, and which they also observe to be one of the basic necessities of life. <top>

Explain the ideal of wu wei.

The wu wei, the ideal of effortlessness, is one of the main teachings of the Tao Te Ching. Wu wei literally means “no action,” but can be better described as the “avoidance of unnecessary action and action that is not spontaneous.” The wu wei contains recommendations about how we should live to live in harmony and balance with nature. This may seem to go against the idea that our actions should be spontaneous, but the recommendations are simply recommendations, not rules. It suggests looking at, and learning from, the effortless way in which nature gets done that which is absolutely necessary. The way of nature is referred to as Tao. To live according to the wu wei, one must be in tune with Tao, and live a life without tension and imbalance.

The wu wei can also be applied on different levels. For example, in the case of politics, the wu wei, as was noted before, are not rules. Applied to governments, the wu wei would agree that “the less government, the better.” On a personal, moral level, the wu wei suggests that in acting spontaneously, we would not have “selfish attachments to the consequences of our actions.” Finally, as noted before, on the “cosmic” level, we should follow the Tao, and realize that “there is nothing artificial in natural events.” <top>

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