Q: Question: I read your response to the comparison of Jainism and Hinduism and it was very helpful. Maybe I donít really understand many of the complexities of both (I am more familiar with Hinduism), so my question is: If Jains do not accept a "Creator God" and neither does Buddhism," how are they different. It seems they have similar beginning stories, both believe in reincarnation, both strongly support laity not reaching enlightenment (Theraveda as you said), both believe in Karma, both believe in non-violence. Both do not believe or actively worship the hindu gods. So where and how are they different in theology?
A: This is a really good question because it highlights how easy it is for people to substantiate the apparent claim that all religions are ultimately the same. One can take a number of beliefs and practices shared by any two religions, line them up side by side, and say, "Oh look, there''s really no difference between these two religions." However, most of the time this apparent similarity is an illusion. It is based on only a partial sample of what belongs to both religions; if we were to add the parts that are missing, all of a sudden it could just be that the two religions look as though they have virtually nothing in common--though that conclusion might be an overstatement as well. Most religions share certain beliefs at least on a very superficial level. But all that says to me is that this superficial level is not very interesting if the core of the two religions contains mutually exclusive beliefs and practices.
This potential risk of self-deception by looking at only a few samples definitely applies to the similarities and differences between Jainism and Buddhism. Every single point that you made is valid, and yet the difference between Jainism and Buddhism is a very thorough one, to the point where they are definitely mutually exclusive. Here are some of the big points of distinction.
1. Jainism and Buddhism have radically different concepts of one''s self. In Jainism, each individual living being is its own soul. Plus, there are millions and millions of souls in the universe, each one responsible for its own destiny. For Buddhism, the ultimate truth is that there is no self. Here, the key is to recognize that one''s "self" (atman) is actually a "nonself" (anatman). Once one has seen behind the illusion, one becomes eligible for Nirvana.
2. The two religions understand karma very differently from each other. In fact, you may ask yourself, if there is no abiding self in Buddhism, how can there even be such a thing as karma? If there is no self, then theoretically there is nothing that migrates from one incarnation to the next, and, consequently, there is nothing that could carry any karma between reincarnations. We need not delve into the many Buddhist explanations for this phenomenon, most of which are based on the idea that even if nothing substantial has exchanged, an imprint of one''s personality can, nevertheless, be transmitted. The contrast to Jainism is obvious because in Jainism, karma is actually corporeal stuff. There are two kinds of things in the universe, those that are living beings (jiva) and those that are dead matter (ajiva). Karma belongs to the latter category, and each time that a person does something bad, some more karma matter clings to his soul. (Actually, any action will produce some karma because it is impossible to act without in some way disturbing something in a negative way, but positive actions, while accumulating a certain amount of karma, may also wipe out a greater amount of karma.) Now, if it were left to itself, your soul would be weightless and float up to the head of the human-shaped universe, where it could exist in total bliss forever. The effect of having your soul barnacled by karma matter is that, instead, it weighs more and more and slowly sinks to the lower levels of the universe, where it will undergo even greater suffering.
3. Thus, the two religions differ greatly in terms of the ultimate goals they seek to achieve. In Buddhism, the end is attained when one has totally lost his personal identity and submerged it in Nirvana, which is totally beyond our understanding. In Jainism, one seeks to let his soul rise up to Nirvana, where one exists perpetually in a state of never-ending joy.
4. Finally, the methods of achieving their respective goals are also miles apart for both religions. If you remember the story of the Buddha, after having grown up in luxury, he spent seven years living in total self mortification, subjecting his body to enormous punishment, and yet none of those measures brought him enlightenment. It was only after he had decided to end it all, that the thought came to him that enlightenment is found neither through luxury and indulgence nor through rigorous asceticism, but through the "middle way," which neither clings to nor denies one''s body or the world in which one lives. On the other hand, Jainism has always maintained that same rough asceticism. Its founder, Mahavira, did not cease any of his self mortifying ways after he gained enlightenment, but continued to pursue them right to the end of his life, and he counseled his adherents to live in the same way. As a matter of fact, speaking of the end of one''s life, Jainism actually recommends that a person should at the very end of their life seek a comfortable place to meditate and to starve oneself to death. This practice is called itvara, and it only applies to the most advanced Jain monks.
Now you can see the other side of the picture. Despite the superficial similarities, you can recognize that Jainism and Buddhism differ as to their understanding of one''s self, the nature of karma, their ultimate goals, and the ways to get there. There is a contemporary school of thought that declares that all religions are ultimately the same, but if you look at the details of what individual religions actually teach, you will find that, just as in this case, each religion is distinctive, and it is not just one out of many paths to reach the same goal as all of the others.