Psychoanalyst Erich Fromm on the Art of Love and Unselfish Understanding

Psychoanalyst Erich Fromm on the Art of Love and Unselfish Understanding

To Listen is to Love

Erich Fromm (1900–80) was a famous German psychoanalyst, philosopher and social critic. His best-selling work, The Art of Loving (1956,) has been translated into more than fifty languages and has sold more than thirty million copies. Fromm argues that one of the deepest human desires is wholeness and unity. Consequently, humans seek to overcome their persistent sense of separateness by finding love, that profound experience of belonging and unity that still makes allowances for individual identity and expression.

According to The Art of Loving, one’s character orientation and social outlook depend greatly on one’s ability to experience meaningful loving relationships with others. The principal responsibility in practicing the art of loving is overcoming one’s narcissism, which Fromm argues is tantamount to cultivating objective reality and embracing the spirit of generosity—doing cosmic good, in other words:

Society must be organized in such a way that man’s social, loving nature is not separated from his social existence, but becomes one with it. If it is true, as I have tried to show, that love is the only sane and satisfactory answer to the problem of human existence, then any society which excludes, relatively, the development of love, must in the long run perish of its own contradiction with the basic necessities of human nature.

The Art of Therapy is the Art of Listening

'The Art of Listening' by Erich Fromm (ISBN 0826406548) For Fromm, the first duty of love is paying attention to othersto listen and to understand. His less-popular, but equally noteworthy The Art of Listening (1994) explores listening as an act of love. Based on the imperfectly-edited transcript of a 1974 colloquium on psychoanalysis, The Art of Listening presents Fromm’s therapeutic method of dealing with the emotional distresses of people through listening.

Psychotherapists endeavor to listen non-judgmentally, understand keenly, and frame questions that will assist their patients work out whatever they should do to change their lives. Exploring this nature of communication between the therapist and his patient, Fromm explains that the therapist must offer himself as a thoughtful individual specifically trained in the art of listening. Fromm identifies listening as “an art like the understanding of poetry” and offers six guiding principles for mastering the art of selfless understanding:

  1. The basic rule for practicing this art is the complete concentration of the listener.
  2. Nothing of importance must be on his mind, he must be optimally free from anxiety as well as from greed.
  3. He must possess a freely-working imagination which is sufficiently concrete to be expressed in words.
  4. He must be endowed with a capacity for empathy with another person and strong enough to feel the experience of the other as if it were his own.
  5. The condition for such empathy is a crucial facet of the capacity for love. To understand another means to love him—not in the erotic sense but in the sense of reaching out to him and of overcoming the fear of losing oneself.
  6. Understanding and loving are inseparable. If they are separate, it is a cerebral process and the door to essential understanding remains closed.

Even though The Art of Listening focuses on becoming a better shrink through listening, there’s much in this excellent book by way of techniques, dynamics, and mindsets that make for the most favorable listening relationships in life, as in therapy.

Weak Kindness & The Doormat Phenomenon: Balance Kindness with Strength

Kindness Can Be a Weakness

'The Art of Being Kind' by Stefan Einhorn (ISBN 0749940565) I’m currently reading Swedish oncologist Stefan Einhorn‘s The Art of Being Kind (2006.) Arguing that being a good person is the key to a happier and fulfilled life, Einhorn stresses (watch his TED talk) the need to distinguish ‘true’ kindness from ‘false’ kindness.

Einhorn describes three forms of false kindness:

  • Manipulative kindness where deceitful kindness masquerades as goodness. This superficial kindness is driven by some ulterior motive—to shrewdly obtain something, rather than to be genuinely helpful.
  • Stupid kindness that lacks appropriateness—trying to help someone who doesn’t want to be helped, for instance.
  • Weak kindness is thinking that being kind sometimes means yielding and being a doormat to others’ demands.

Weak Kindness Will Make You a Doormat

The doormat phenomenon is the outcome of weak kindness where a doormat bends over backwards to desperately satisfy others, often resorting to do whatever it takes to try to make others happy, no matter how badly the others treat him/her. In the name of kindness, the doormat allows others to walk over him/her due to lack of strength, fear of conflict, or fear of rejection.

The doormat phenomenon is perpetuated primarily by an inability to say “no” effectively. Here are the consequences of being too gullible, too empathetic, and too timid.

  • Doormats neglect their own self-interests.
  • Doormats often resort to passive aggression and/or resentment. Eventually, they find themselves silently annoyed by others.
  • Doormats don’t enjoy spending time in a social context, since they resent the people they assist.
  • Doormats often face more demands than they can handle. Hence, being fully conscious of how they’re taken advantage of and unable of standing up for themselves, they suffer from stress and depression.

Don’t Be Duped by your Own Kindness

Weak Kindness & The Doormat Phenomenon: Balance Kindness with StrengthThe key to leading a wise and purposeful life is to balance kindness with strength. To be wise and kind,

  • Be profusely kind and obliging but never weak. Don’t give up your power to another person. Don’t become a people-pleaser. Don’t put everyone else before yourself.
  • Be vigilant for nefarious people and their hidden motives. Be alert and aware of the many negative ploys and manipulations you could confront.
  • Be assertive and stand up for yourself. Don’t say “yes” when you really want to say “no”. Don’t be so desperate to please others as to ignore your own priorities. Keep your own interests at the forefront of your mind.
  • Be on the lookout for win-win opportunities to be kind and giving. Don’t always prioritize other people’s needs above your own; seek opportunities to help out where you can expect some reciprocity. Successful people tend to ask for what they want.

The Chinese use a “flower and sword metaphor” to illustrate the need to balance kindness with strength. For the most part, present the world a flower—a symbol of kindness and compassion. However, when people try to take advantage of your kindness, that is to say when they try to crush the flower, wield the sword—a sign of protection and strength. The sword exists to protect the flower.

Idea for Impact: Wise kindness entails judiciously subjugating some of your self-interests sometimes in aid of others’ welfares, while still having the courage to stand up your values when necessary. Be kind when you can, and tough when you must. Remember, a wise person’s own happiness matters as much to him or her as the happiness of others—no more and no less.

What Do You Want to Be Remembered for?

The Curious History of the Nobel Prizes: Alfred Nobel Changed His Likely Legacy from “Merchant of Death”

Alfred Nobel Changed His Only Likely Legacy from The Swedish scientist Alfred Nobel (1833–96) is most remembered in the awarding of Nobel Prizes every year. The spur for the Nobel Prizes apparently came from a remarkable incident of careless journalism.

Nobel patented the explosive dynamite in 1867. Before long, he became very wealthy as the owner of a vast international explosives empire.

In 1888, Alfred’s brother Ludvig died. A French newspaper wrongly announced Alfred’s death instead under the title “Le marchand de la mort est mort” (Eng. trans. “The merchant of death is dead.”) The article called him the “dynamite king” and reported, “Dr. Alfred Nobel, who became rich by finding ways to kill more people faster than ever before, died yesterday.”

Upon reading this obituary, Alfred Nobel was so distressed at the prospect of how the world possibly could remember him. He wanted to leave a better legacy for himself and rewrote his will. Nobel left 94 percent of his estate to institute five prizes to celebrate the greatest achievements in chemistry, physics, physiology/medicine, literature, and peace. (The “Nobel Memorial” economics prize was instituted in 1968 by the Sweden’s central bank.)

Make a Conscious Intention to Embrace the Spirit of Your Life’s Work

'Managing the Nonprofit Organization' by Peter Drucker (ISBN 0060851147) Peter Drucker (1909–2005,) the 20th century’s leading thinker on business and management, advocated self renewal through the probing question “What do you want to be remembered for?” in his Managing the Non-Profit Organization:

When I was thirteen I had an inspiring teacher of religion who one day went right through the class of boys asking each one, “What do you want to be remembered for?” None of us, of course, could give an answer. So, he chuckled and said, “I didn’t expect you to be able to answer it. But if you still can’t answer it by the time you’re fifty, you will have wasted your life.”

I’m always asking that question: “What do you want to be remembered for?” It is a question that induces you to renew yourself, because it pushes you to see yourself as a different person—the person you can become. If you are fortunate, someone with moral authority will ask you that question early enough in your life so that you will continue to ask it as you go through life.

Your Life’s Work Becomes the Essence of Your Legacy

'Self-Renewal: The Individual and the Innovative Society' by John W. Gardner (ISBN 039331295X) Emphasizing self-renewal and its inhibitors, the American intellectual John W. Gardner wrote extensively about the need to embrace change for personal enrichment and fulfillment. In his seminal Self-Renewal: the Individual and the Innovative Society (1964,) Gardner encourages a sentient attitude toward the future to kindle self-renewal:

For self-renewing men and women the development of their own potentialities and the process of self-discovery never end. It is a sad but unarguable fact that most people go through their lives only partially aware of the full range of their abilities. … Exploration of the full range of our own potentialities is not something that we can safely leave to the chances of life. It is something to be pursued systematically, or at least avidly, to the end of our days. We should look forward to an endless and unpredictable dialogue between our potentialities and the claims of life—not only the claims we encounter but the claims we invent. And by the potentialities I mean not just skills, but the full range capacities for sensing, wondering, learning, understanding, loving, and aspiring.

Idea for Impact: Asking, “What should be your legacy?” is a Great Self-Actualizing Exercise

The English novelist Jane Austen (1775–1817) wrote in Mansfield Park (1814,) “We have all a better guide in ourselves, if we would attend to it, than any other person can be.”

One single spark in your mind has the potential to alter your life forever. Inspire your personal renewal by contemplating the following questions: What do you want to be remembered for, 5-10-20 years from now? What should be your legacy?

Without doubt, you can’t tell your future—you really don’t even know what’s going to happen next. Even if you make a deliberate plan, it probably won’t succeed because reality will regulate your plan. In spite of this life’s uncertainties, reflecting on the question “What do I want to be remembered for?” can help you become more intentional in your behavior and more mindful about your life’s purpose.

If You Want to Be Loved, Love

Love is an Outpouring of Everything Good in You

Love is an “Outpouring of Everything Good in You”

In 1958, when American Nobel laureate John Steinbeck’s son Thom was fourteen, he attended boarding school in Connecticut. There, “Thom” (the American novelist and screenwriter Thomas Myles Steinbeck (1944–2016)) met a young girl named Susan with whom he thought he might be in love. Soon after, Thom sent a note home and declared his love for his new school sweetheart. In response, John Steinbeck wrote the following stirring advice on how to navigate love.

Dear Thom:

We had your letter this morning. I will answer it from my point of view and of course Elaine will from hers.

First—if you are in love—that’s a good thing—that’s about the best thing that can happen to anyone. Don’t let anyone make it small or light to you.

Second—There are several kinds of love. One is a selfish, mean, grasping, egotistical thing which uses love for self-importance. This is the ugly and crippling kind. The other is an outpouring of everything good in you—of kindness and consideration and respect—not only the social respect of manners but the greater respect which is recognition of another person as unique and valuable. The first kind can make you sick and small and weak but the second can release in you strength, and courage and goodness and even wisdom you didn’t know you had.

You say this is not puppy love. If you feel so deeply—of course it isn’t puppy love.

But I don’t think you were asking me what you feel. You know better than anyone. What you wanted me to help you with is what to do about it—and that I can tell you.

Glory in it for one thing and be very glad and grateful for it.

The object of love is the best and most beautiful. Try to live up to it.

If you love someone—there is no possible harm in saying so—only you must remember that some people are very shy and sometimes the saying must take that shyness into consideration.

Girls have a way of knowing or feeling what you feel, but they usually like to hear it also.

It sometimes happens that what you feel is not returned for one reason or another—but that does not make your feeling less valuable and good.

Lastly, I know your feeling because I have it and I’m glad you have it.

We will be glad to meet Susan. She will be very welcome. But Elaine will make all such arrangements because that is her province and she will be very glad to. She knows about love too and maybe she can give you more help than I can.

And don’t worry about losing. If it is right, it happens—The main thing is not to hurry. Nothing good gets away.

Love,
Fa

Love is Intended to be Realized in the Offering, Not in the Receiving

According to University of South Florida’s Seneca scholar Anna Lydia Motto, the great Stoic philosopher’s writings are chockfull of his profound understanding of the true significance of the many forms of love—i.e., love for one’s spouse, family, friends, fellow humans, and country.

'Moral letters to Lucilius' by Seneca (ISBN 1536965537) In Moral Letters to Lucilius (Latin orig. Epistulae morales ad Lucilium), Seneca quotes his friend and fellow Stoic philosopher Hecato (or Hecaton of Rhodes):

I shall show you a love
potion without a drug, without
a herb; without the incantation
of any sorceress: if you want
to be loved, love.

The Ability to Love is a Faculty to Develop and Practice

Love is an oft-misunderstood concept. The German Philosopher Erich Fromm (1900–1980) wrote in his brilliant The Art of Loving (1956) “Most people see the problem of love primarily as that of being loved, rather than that of loving, of one’s capacity to love. Hence the problem to them is how to be loved, how to be lovable.”

Love is not something to fall into after fortuitously discovering the person (or any desirable object). Love is something we learn to “do” from years of arduous toil.

Any loving relationship demands compromise, cooperation, acceptance, forgiveness, tolerance, stability, devotion, and commitment. Genuine love, therefore, involves cultivating, nurturing, and practicing the cognitive and emotional faculty of loving.

If You Want to Be Loved, Love

Idea for Impact: Love, and Be Deserving of Love

To relish this complex and richest of all experiences, focus on offering love rather than on being loved.

As the Indian philosopher Nolini Kanta Gupta (1889–1983) once said, “The secret of love is the joy of self-giving. The secret of joy is self-giving. If any part in you is without joy, it means that it has not given itself, it wants to keep itself for itself.”

If you want to be loved, love.

No one unqualified to bestow love upon others is himself/herself deserving of love.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

A Grateful Heart is a Happy Heart / Book Summary of “The Gratitude Diaries” by Janice Kaplan

At one dismal New Year’s Eve party, veteran author and journalist Janice Kaplan heard a woman gripe and grumble. While reflecting on this experience, Kaplan realized that she herself had much to be grateful for, but frequently wasn’t. She resolved to “spend the coming year seeing the sunshine instead of the clouds.”

That self-declaration was the genesis of an inspiring yearlong experiment in living gratefully and concluding that being thankful really does offer a conduit to happiness.

'The Gratitude Diaries' by Janice Kaplan (ISBN 1101984147) Kaplan recounts her transformation “from grumpy to grateful” in her book The Gratitude Diaries: How a Year Looking on the Bright Side Can Transform Your Life (2015.)

Throughout the year, Kaplan maintained a gratitude journal and wrote down three things that she was thankful for each day. She also decided to “find one area to focus on each month—whether husband, family, friends, or work—and become my own social scientist. I wanted to see what happened when I developed an attitude of gratitude.”

Here are a few highlights from The Gratitude Diaries:

  • Kaplan started her yearlong gratitude experiment by appraising her marriage and recognized all over again what a good man her husband was. “When you expect everything, it’s hard to be grateful for anything. So I decided that now was the time to put aside impossible expectations and start appreciating [my] husband.” After she expressed appreciation to her startled husband, “the warm feelings between us [grew] stronger than ever…. Gratitude was making us both a lot happier.”
  • Discussing the importance of not overlooking one’s blessings, Kaplan writes, “We get used to something—whether a husband, a house, or a shiny new car—and then forget why it seemed so special in the first place.”
  • One month, Kaplan instituted a “no-complaining zone.” Writing about the need to emphasize life’s positives over its negatives, Kaplan mentions, “If you can change something that’s making you unhappy, go ahead and change it. But if it’s done, gone, or inevitable, what greater gift can you give yourself than gratitude for whatever life did bring?”
  • Kaplan discusses the story of her heartfelt and earnest reconciliation with her sister. This meaningful experience was the beginning a “new friendship” and had both women “appreciating the good in the moment rather than fussing about the past.”
  • Kaplan concludes, “gratitude lodged deeper and deeper into my heart and soul…. Gratitude affected how I looked at every event that happened. Being positive and looking for the good had become second nature—and that made me much happier.” And, “by living gratefully, I’d had the happiest twelve months I could remember.”

'The Gratitude Diaries' by Janice Kaplan

Recommended: Speed Read. Janice Kaplan’s The Gratitude Diaries confirms that gratitude truly is an attitude—how you feel has less to do with events that occur in your life and more to do with your attitudes. Kaplan’s experiment substantiates that keeping a gratitude journal boosts your sense of wellbeing. With interviews on gratefulness with psychologists, friends, and other thankful people, The Gratitude Diaries encourages you to pause, take stock of your blessings, and be grateful for what you have in life in order to make life more pleasant, gratifying, and peaceful.

Confucius on Dealing with People

Confucius on Dealing with People The teachings of Confucius (551 BCE–479 BCE) have dominated Chinese traditions and philosophy for centuries. He taught followers to lead a virtuous and righteous life, love others, honor one’s parents, lead by example, and treat others as one would like to be treated:

  • Confucius on keeping one’s wits about one: “The superior man may let others lie to him but not make a fool of him. The superior man encourages what is beautiful in men; the inferior man, what is unbeautiful.”
  • Confucius on the spirit of humanity: “What makes a place beautiful is the humanity that dwells there. He who is able to choose and does not settle among humane people is not wise.” Moreover, “the superior man does not neglect his neighbors” and “the superior man honors the worthy and tolerates all men.”
  • Confucius on showing consideration for people of all ages and from all walks of life: “Let me respect the tranquility of the ages; let me be loyal to my friends; let me love children tenderly.”
  • Confucius on managing parents: “Serve them in life.” It is not enough to feed one’s parents “if respect is absent, wherein should we differ from the beasts?” If parents seem to be mistaken, we may respectfully argue and protest, but we must obey them.
  • Confucius on managing friendships: “Have no friend who is not your equal.” Also, friends should “loyally admonish one another and tactfully set one another right.” Friends should be dependable: “even if the season be cold, we know that pines and cypresses are evergreen.”
  • Confucius on the right conduct toward authority-figures: “A good official serves his prince in the right way; if that is impossible, he withdraws.” Further, a good official “will not circumvent the prince but oppose him openly” and “will not be chary of good advice.” Moreover, “if the country is on the right path, he may speak and act boldly; if it is not on the right path, he may act boldly, but he will speak cautiously.”
  • Confucius on the right conduct toward subordinates: “The superior man gives his servants no ground for complaint that he makes insufficient use of them, but (unlike the inferior man) he does not expect perfection; he takes men’s abilities into account and does not dismiss old and trusted servants without grave cause.”

'From The Great Philosophers, Volume I' by Karl Jaspers (ISBN 0156835800) Reference: German-Swiss psychiatrist and philosopher Karl JaspersThe Great Philosophers (trans. Ralph Manheim.) I recommend The Great Philosophers for its delightful introductions to the philosophies of four great minds from the “East” (i.e. east of the Danube river:) Jesus, Socrates, Confucius, and the Buddha.

Kindness: A Debt You Can Only Pass On

Kindness - Paying it Forward

Paying It Forward

Life is a journey enriched by the people you share it with.

Over the course of this journey, you’ve encountered many people who have worked hard and gone beyond expectations to support you.

They’ve been a great source of pleasure, celebrated your triumphs, and stood by you in times of distress.

From time to time, they’ve even sacrificed their interests to do you a favor or two.

How, then, will you return their generosity and affection?

Sometimes, life will have moved on and you can’t pay them back, even if you want to.

The only way to return people’s favors is through your own social roles—as a parent, spouse, child, brother, sister, friend, caregiver, facilitator, supervisor, teacher, mentor, manager, leader, volunteer, benefactor, or philanthropist.

Life assigns you these roles to help you honor your debt to the people who have touched you. That is a debt that you can never fully pay back, but must simply pass on.

Why Do We Have Children - Paying it Forward

“Why Do We Have Children?”

The following essay drives home the importance of paying it forward.

One day after years of trying, a father finally succeeded in getting his daughter to comprehend the love he felt for her. The young woman had just given birth. Naturally the baby became the center of her world. “Now you understand how much I love you”, her father said to her.

Except on rare occasions, a parent’s love is absolute. Children come first and get the best. Savings, housing, friendship and leisure time—everything revolves around the child. What is the cause for this strong attachment? Why do we happily sacrifice our pleasures, our money, sometimes even our lives? Why do we have children?

Many explanations have been given: we procreate to perpetuate the species, out of duty, for normal and religious believes, to reassure ourselves, out of carelessness or passion. But the focus, the center from which everything starts to make sense, is the child himself. We make babies because we need them: we need them because they need us.

We give our children everything: life, support, protection, tenderness. But in giving our all to them, we become the source of everything. This bond that makes us be sons to our fathers and fathers to our sons is indestructible. Nothing can undo the fact that we are born by this woman, our mother, just as nothing can undo the fact that we are parents of this girl, our daughter. A sage Jew, Rambam, once suggested to his son the objective necessity of this parental chain. “You are not only my son”, he told him. “You are also my father’s grandson”.

We have children to honor our debt to our parents. A debt that can never be paid, only transferred. Whatever the meaning and the price may be, one must marvel at the inexhaustible abundance of this love. It was the first and remains the basis of all the loves to come.

[Source: From an issue of Reader’s Digest India circa 1989. Author unknown.]

What Is the Point of Life, If Only to Be Forgotten?

While traveling around the magical Norwegian Fjords and contemplating life one day last summer, I recalled a young man’s story. He had spent many years in an Indian prison despite being acquitted because everyone had forgotten about him.

What Is the Point of Life

Forgotten

In 1988, Pratap Nayak was arrested at the age of 14 after getting caught in a violent clash between two rival families in his village in the state of Orissa. A corrupted lower court promptly sentenced him to life imprisonment.

Thanks to the Indian judicial system’s sluggishness, it took six years for a High Court to pronounce Nayak innocent. Unfortunately, nobody informed him or the prison officials about this judgment and his lawyer had died during the intervening years. Nayak’s family had assumed helplessness and lost touch with both him and with the lawyer.

Nayak remained in jail for eight more years after acquittal until a prison system auditor realized that Nayak wasn’t supposed to still be in prison. When he was finally freed at age 28, he was astonished and said, “no one bothered about me … not even my own family.”

When Nayak was finally reunited with his impoverished family of bamboo craftsmen, his father cried, “How shall I take care of him? We don’t get enough to eat ourselves. Had he completed his education, he would have had a good job by now. They ruined his life.”

“Life’s but a walking shadow … then is heard no more”

Shakespeare’s Macbeth (Act 5, Scene 5, Lines 22–31) contains one of the most eloquent expressions of our lives’ cosmic insignificance:

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

The Meaning of Life

What Difference Does It Make What We Do with Our Lives?

Whenever I’m enjoying the splendor of the mountains and the waters—as I did in the Norwegian Fjords—and marvel at how these natural elements came to be millions of years ago, I meditate upon the fact that what we identify as our lifespan is but a tiny sliver in the grand timeline of the cosmos. We’re born, we live, we die, and then, as Shakespeare reminds us in Macbeth, we are “heard no more.”

In the grand scheme of things, everything is pointless, irrelevant, and ultimately insignificant. Our lives are impermanent and almost everything that most of us accomplish during our lives will someday become obsolete and be forgotten.

Yet, we rouse ourselves out of bed every day and engage in various activities that are all somehow tied to a purpose or mission—a mission we’ve either consciously created for ourselves or subconsciously accepted as an assignment from somebody. Central to this mission is that we hope to bring about more meaning to the lives of people around us.

This mission imbues us with a sense of purpose—invariably, it is a manifestation of a strong desire within ourselves to bring value, meaning, and joy for others and ultimately for ourselves as well. Even the prospect of smiling, complimenting, or expressing gratitude to another person feels good and adds to our own happiness because we know we’re adding more meaning to the other’s life.

The Key to a Life Well-led Is to Make as Big a Difference as You Can

Idea for Impact: The Key to a Life Well-led Is to Make as Big a Difference as You Can

The utmost measure of a life well-led is how you use your unique talents to do the most good you can. Enrich your life by trying to make a difference. Better yet, try to make the biggest difference you can. Perhaps if you’re fortunate enough—as the Buddha, Mahatma Gandhi, Albert Einstein, Richard Feynman, Bill Gates were/are—your contribution can create ripple effects and create an enduring legacy that lasts long after you’re gone.

If you want to be remembered and appreciated for having contributed something to the world, strive to live in the service of others and make the largest possible positive difference you can. That’s the key to a life well-led.

The Buddha Isn’t God or Superhuman

Today is Vesak (or Wesak) in South East Asia, the most prominent of Buddhist festivals and a celebration of the birth, enlightenment, and death of Gautama Buddha, the historical Buddha. Vesak is celebrated on a different day in South Asia.

I’ll take this opportunity to clarify a common conception—or misconception—taken up during casual comparisons between Buddhism and the Abrahamic faiths. I’ll also shed light on Buddhist gods and deities.

Was the Buddha God or Superhuman

The Buddha Never Considered Himself Savior or the Guardian of Truth

According to foundational Buddhist scriptures, Gautama Buddha claimed to be an ordinary man—not a God, superhuman, or prophet. The Buddha even denied that he was omniscient, though he did emphasize that what he knew was all that really matters.

The Buddha presented himself as a philosopher, an enlightened human being. He was only exceptional in having deeply contemplated the true nature of reality. He claimed he had identified the sources of pain and suffering.

The Buddha taught that humans are fundamentally ignorant about the nature of existence and that everything in life is unsatisfactoriness (dukkha) caused by ignorance (avidya) and selfish craving (tanha.) As a teacher, the Buddha was deeply interested in the ethical remaking of a person and declared that it lay within anybody’s capacity to follow his life experience to achieve awakening. The Buddha insisted that his teachings should not be accepted on blind faith—Buddhism is therefore a ‘religion’ of reason and meditation.

Siddhartha Gautama, the Historical Buddha

Do Buddhists Believe in God The entire philosophical edifice of Buddhism centers on Gautama Buddha’s enlightenment. He was born into royalty as Siddhartha Gautama during the sixth century before Christ. According to tradition, at Siddhartha’s naming ceremony, Brahmin astrologers predicted that the newborn was predestined to become an extraordinary ruler of humans, as a great king or holy man. His father desperately wished the former for his long-awaited heir. He isolated Siddhartha within their palace’s protective boundaries and took precautions to ensure that Siddhartha would never experience any trouble, sorrow, or suffering that could cast even the slightest shadow on his happiness.

At age 29, Siddhartha strayed from his palace’s simulated paradise and chanced upon an old man, a diseased man, and a corpse. He also encountered an ascetic who strove to find the cause of human suffering. Depressed by his encounters with human suffering, Siddhartha resolved to follow the ascetic’s example. Leaving his wife and infant son behind (they later became initial disciples), Siddhartha left his affluent palace and lived as a beggar. After pursuing six years of ascetic practice and arduous meditation, he attained new depths of understanding about the nature of life, ego, consciousness, and reality. He achieved enlightenment and thus became the Buddha, the “Awakened One,” or the “Enlightened One.”

Theism is Incompatible with Buddha’s Teachings

The concept of an omnipotent God does not feature substantially in Buddhism. Indeed, scholars quote verse 188 of the Dhammapada, “Men driven by fear go to many a refuge, to mountains, and to forests, to sacred trees, and shrines,” and state that the Buddha believed that the concepts of religion and godliness stem from primal fear, just as sociologists and psychologists have recently posited.

Unlike people of other faiths, Buddhists believe neither in a creator God nor in a personal God entitled to their obedience. Consequently, Buddhism does not derive its system of ethics from any divine authority, but from the teachings of Gautama Buddha.

Buddhism: Gods and Deities

Buddhism: Gods and Deities

Buddhist doctrines have evolved over the centuries. In some schools of Buddhism, the worship of the Buddha is merely an act of commemoration for the founder of their ancient tradition. Others defy the foundational Buddhist teachings that the Buddha is not an object of prayer or devotion and worship him as a deity who holds supernatural qualities and powers.

Gods in Buddhism Religion - White Tara To account for the misconception of a Buddhist God, the more-religious forms of Buddhism added gods to serve as objects of meditation. According to these schools, living beings can be reborn into various realms of existence, one of which is the realm of the gods. The Buddha was said to have taken various animal and human forms and reborn as a god several times. The gods (those born into the realm of the gods) are mortal and impermanent—i.e., they are born and die like other living beings. These gods do not play any role in the creation or sustenance of the cosmos. Adherents can meditate upon these gods and pray to them for practical (but not spiritual) benefits.

The Mahayana schools of Buddhism also believe in many supernatural beings that feature prominently in Buddhist art: various Buddha-figures, ghosts, demons, and bodhisattvas. Bodhisattvas are would-be Buddhas who represent various virtues of thought and action. In Tibetan Buddhism, for example, the Sitatara or the White Tara (‘star’ in Sanskrit) is a female Bodhisattva. She is a meditation deity who embodies compassion, longevity, and tranquility.

Buddhist God or Deity - Pu-Tai or Budai Finally, the Laughing Buddha (Pu-Tai or Budai in Chinese and Hotei in Japanese) is a holy person per Chinese folklore. He represents a future bodhisattva and epitomizes contentment. His popular image is often mistaken for that of Gautama Buddha. Rubbing Budai’s belly is said to bring good luck and prosperity.

Recommended Books & Films

  • English poet Edwin Arnold’s “The Light of Asia” (1879,) a book that deeply inspired Gandhi. The Light of Asia illustrates the life of Siddhartha Gautama, his enlightenment, character, and philosophy.
  • German theologian Rudolf Otto’s classic “The Idea of the Holy” (1917) explores the mystic, non-rational aspects of the idea of God and contains abundant references to foundational Buddhist teachings.
  • Italian filmmaker Bernardo Bertolucci’s “Little Buddha” (1993) includes an remarkable visual retelling of the life of Prince Siddhartha Gautama. Bertolucci also made the epic “The Last Emperor” (1987.)

Gandhi on the Doctrine of Ahimsa + Non-Violence in Buddhism


Non-Violence in Buddhism

“Thou shalt not kill.” This command forbids committing murder—specifically slaying a fellow human. The seventh of the Torah’s Ten Commandments (the Decalogue) allows for the execution of animals.

Non-Violence in Buddhism This specific tenet can be interpreted as comparatively lenient, even indulgent, compared to the mainstream Hinduism and the derivative Jain and Buddhist philosophies. Within these contexts, non-violence is a fundamental building block of ethics. Naturally, this idea of refraining from cruelty proscribes murder, but it also surpasses that guideline. In fact, practicing pacifism deters all varieties of violence against any sentient being, be it a human or an animal. Under the rule of non-violence, these creatures are protected from aggression, hostility, cruelty, sadism, and savagery—all unacceptable forms of conduct.

In accordance with the concept of anatta (the idea of there being no self,) Buddhism teaches us that, should we cling to the illusion of possessing autonomous ‘selves,’ we will fail to fully comprehend non-violence. Upon removal of the sense of the individual self, inflicting damage on another in turn damages the perpetrator. Should you inflict violence upon another, you too will suffer its effects.

Gandhi on the Doctrine of Ahimsa

Violence is the utmost form of asserting oneself over another. An alternative to aggression is Ahimsa or non-violence. This peaceful method was recognized as an entirely credible ethical code when Gandhi adopted it. He took up non-violence in his struggle against injustice and oppression, first as a peace leader in South Africa and then as the leader of India’s independence movement. Gandhi’s own definition of Ahimsa is as follows:

'Mahatma Gandhi: Essays and Reflections on His Life and Work' Edited by S. Radhakrishnan (ISBN 1553940261) Literally speaking, Ahimsa means “non-killing.” But to me it has a world of meaning, and takes me into realms much higher, infinitely higher. It really means that you may not offend anybody; you may not harbor an uncharitable thought, even in connection with one who may consider himself to be your enemy. To one who follows this doctrine there is no room for an enemy. But there may be people who consider themselves to be his enemies. So it is held that we may not harbor an evil thought even in connection with such persons. If we return blow for blow we depart from the doctrine of Ahimsa. But I go farther. If we resent a friend’s action, or the so-called enemy’s action, we still fall short of this doctrine. But when I say we should not resent, I do not say that we should acquiesce: by the word “resenting” I mean wishing that some harm should be done to the enemy; or that he should be put out of the way, not even by any action of ours, but by the action of somebody else, or, say, by divine agency. If we harbor even this thought we depart from this doctrine of Non-Violence.

Source: ‘Mahatma Gandhi: Essays and Reflections on His Life and Work’ edited by S. Radhakrishnan