I recommend a wonderful little book written by Karen Armstrong called Buddha. I love good small books.
I find Buddhism in many ways to be a surprisingly congenial religion. Partly this is because it is very different from most other religions, especially the three severe monotheistic religions that were born in the Middle East.
For one thing, Buddha, unlike most religious leaders always wanted the members to think for themselves rather than relying on a charismatic leader. He expected his followers to exercise their own critical judgment. That is unlike almost all religious leaders.
Buddha believed that he became enlightened when he awoke to the truth that he had found embedded in the deepest structure of existence itself. He found that truth in himself, and believed that anyone could do the same. In fact, he believed it was necessary for each individual to experience that himself or herself, or the experience would not be genuine. That is why, again unlike other religions, the Buddha did not try to elicit faith. He did not want faith. He wanted each of us to experience the truth ourselves. He would be willing to help or guide us to this experience, but he could not tell us the truth. He could not tell us how to find it. That was our job.
Only then would each of us could become a Buddha. That is what enlightenment is. One becomes a Buddha. For the same reason one should not revere the man, the Buddha, it was rather his teaching, the dhamma (or sometimes dharma)that was important. The word is used in multiple Indian religions. In Buddhism, dharma means something like “cosmic law and order” but is also applied to the teachings of the Buddha. Reverence for the man would just interfere with one’s ability to experience the truth.
Similarly, one would not be able to get any help from the gods. Unlike other religious groups again, the Buddhist cannot expect any supernatural help to achieve enlightenment. Buddha believed that these truths embedded in existence were entirely naturalto human beings and could be experienced by any genuine seeker free from distraction. Buddha therefore refused to make belief in a Supreme Being part of the creed. One could believe in that if one chose, but it was not a necessary part of the enlightenment.
One of the beautiful aspects of Buddhism that really attracts me is this expansiveness or inclusiveness. It is willing to accept that there is more than one way to enlightenment. To someone brought up in the Christian religion that seems impossible. The Buddha just says how heachieved it. There might be other ways. It is up to each of us to achieve and experience the way on our own. If belief in a Supreme Being helps us to experience enlightenment so much the better for us. If it is not necessary that is all right too.
What the seeker sought was peace free from all the travails of life. As a result “the new religion sought inner depth rather than magical control. The Absolute could be found in everything, including oneself. Buddha was within each of us, all we had to do was find it in ourselves. As a result, again, unlike many less congenial religions there was therefore no need for a priestly elite. We are expected to experience the enlightenment directly, without an intermediary. In fact, that is the onlyway one can experience it.
Prior to Buddha the religions of India were generally extremely ascetic. One was expected to renounce all pleasure and desire. In fact according to some sects one was expected to seek out suffering and pain to help achieve enlightenment. While Buddha realized that often in life we were distracted by our desires and our search for personal pleasures, he did not preach asceticism. That too could become a distraction. Instead he advocated a middle way between the two extremes. We must be free from domination in order to find enlightenment. We have to be truly free.
What the enlightened one would have to achieve would be a genuine compassion for others. Complete fellow feeling for all creatures of the earth, not just humans. Selfishness would have to be overcome. Concern for others required in other words a complete subjection to the Golden rule. “Do unto others as you would have done unto you.” This is exactly what I have been saying about religions.Especially for laymen who had not experienced yoga training one could not expect that they lay aside all concern for themselves. I would suggest it is impossible in event and not desirable. However they would be expected not to be imprisoned by self interest. One would be expected to have genuine fellow feeling for others. One would have to have the ability to empathize and sympathize with the plight of all other creatures.
To me this is a very congenial religion.