The Parable of the Poisoned ArrowThis parable gets at an important aspect of Buddhism: Metaphysics isn't important. Only the path (the dharma) matters. The teaching of the Buddha is aimed at alleviating suffering. It isn't intended to satisfy our metaphysical curiosity. Is there a God? A soul? Free will? Heaven? Hell? In Buddhism it doesn't really matter. It just concentrates on getting the arrow out.
One day, a new follower of the Buddha approached him with a series of questions.
He asked, "Master, do we have a soul? And does the soul survive our death?"
The Buddha responded, "Why do you wish to know these things?"
"Because," the man replied, "without these answers what is the point of following you?"
The Buddha responded:
"This is what your are like. You are like a man who has been struck by a poisoned arrow. Your friends take you to the healer so that the arrow can be removed and an antidote given for the poison. But you refuse to allow the healer to remove the arrow until he first answers all your questions. Who shot the arrow at you? What was his motive? What kind of arrow is it? What kind of poison did he use? On and on you ask your questions as the arrow remains in your body with the poison seeping into your blood. And so you die before your questions are answered.
You want my teaching to answer your questions.
My teaching only removes the arrow."
It's this lack of metaphysics that makes it hard to characterize Buddhism as a "religion." Thus, many people feel more comfortable calling Buddhism a way or philosophy of life. You don't really believe things in Buddhism (although you can). Rather, you do things. Which is why Buddhist "observance" is called practice rather than faith.
In contrast, we tend to think of Christianity as a religion. That is, Christianity tends to concern itself with the metaphysical questions. Thus, Christianity if often defined by orthodoxy, having the proper answers to those metaphysical questions. For example, for many Christians your views regarding the Trinity are considered to be of some great importance.
This is not to deny that Christianity is not practiced. The early Christians were called "The Way" (dharma). Christians are "followers" (disciples) of a "Master." In this, the emphasis is less on believing things about Jesus than moving in the world the way Jesus moved in the world.
Some of the comments to my last post--What defines a Christian?--got me thinking about these points of divergence and convergence between Christianity and Buddhism. Specifically, although this is a very crude way of framing the issue, I tend to think you can group Christians into one of two camps. On the one hand are Christians who define their faith via metaphysics. That is, being a Christian is about what you believe. About God. About Jesus. About life after death. And so on. In this view, we see Christianity as a religion.
On the other hand, you have those who approach Christianity in a way that looks similar to the Parable of the Poisoned Arrow. That is, these people consciously follow the Way of Jesus (count themselves as his disciples) without giving much thought to metaphysics. In this, Christianity is less a religion than a way of life. A Christianity that is defined as practice rather than as belief.