The most important difference between Buddhism and other religions is that Buddhism is not a Club religion. In Club religions when you join the club, you become special in some way and closer to truth and God. You may begin to discriminate between those in your club and those outside and in the worst form of this is believers vs infidels. Infidels, which could include the animal kingdom are lower than believers … Buddhism is not immune to this sort of thinking though the essence of enlightenment is beyond this kind of thinking. An enlightened person does not say that he/she is better than, or worse than or equal to me. In club religions there is a great need to get others into the club and save them, lest the non club members get punished in the afterlife for not being club members.
Firstly, Buddhism is different in that the Buddha was not out to found a club, but did create a form to help people realize freedom from suffering. All living beings need to be cherished with no discrimination between believers and non believers. Secondly, the Buddha said not to believe in anything just because it was in a book, or coming from a sacred teacher or by specious reasoning – and he applied this rigor to his own teaching. He said of himself that he was a teacher, only a pointer to the path, that we must tread the path ourselves. Buddhism is thus an open religion – you can try it to the extent it helps you. The message of Buddhism is pretty universal – generally, Buddhism tends to state what most sensible people know for themselves – that actions motivated by greed, hate and stupidity lead to trouble. Under these circumstances, Buddhism is not an exclusive teaching, but some of its teachings such as the 37 factors of enlightenment and the four noble truths are fairly unique. Buddhists show respect to the founder, the Buddha but actually they venerate and try to establish in themselves good states of mind. If you can have good states of mind, you are on your way to peace and freedom.
Insofar as there is a club it is the club of enlightened beings (Arya Sangha) of which there are four stages in the southern Buddhist tradition, or the club of Bodhisattas in the northern and southern traditions – most Buddhists don’t belong to these clubs especially if they claim them. It is probably wrong to talk of these as clubs, rather lineages of beings who have cleared attachments and obstacles that bind beings to existence based on ignorance. Beings in these lineages cant turn away from enlightenement. Bodhisattas are quite exclusive beings who have decided to become Buddhas in the future. Many will fail in their attempts and this lineage is not for the faint hearted.
Buddhism is different for me compared to other religions including secular atheism or greed based consumerism or even science for the following reasons and this is why I find it special:
1. Compared to other religions I can get free food in monasteries. To a limited extent this is also found in Sikhism and in the Hare Krishna movement. I have eaten my tastiest free meals from Buddhist monasteries.
2. Compared to dry science or atheism which has no medicines for mental ailments except mixtures of chemicals or “be proud of it” or “grin and bear it” – Buddhism explicitly explains right from wrong attitudes with an analysis as to why. It provides techniques based on meditation and various training exercises to transform your whole being from one of a demented, confused fool to a tolerant, humane person who may not claim to know as much as he claimed to know when he started, but by knowing this is that much more knowledgeable – in other words, Buddhism clears away insanity.
3. True Buddhist masters do not wish anything for their teachings, especially money – this makes them invulnerable to bribery and corruption or sensuality.
4. Buddhist centers often own vast areas of beautiful natural landscape and you can get access to all these acres at very little cost – other teachings don’t offer the same facilities and don’t care quite as much about nature.
5. Compared to Science Buddhism takes you to areas where science can’t reach like psychic states of mind – you can find out what happens after you die or before you were born and you can learn to read minds. Why deny yourself the possibilities of hidden knowledge?
6. The greatest miracle of all is to be able to be humble before the universe and have loving kindness to all sentient life and Buddhism provides practical ways of reaching to all the corners of the universe, not just this world but to all states of being – and to bring blessings to all creatures without being persuasive or preachy or having to touch them directly – like when you meet a stranger and know that he/she is on your side and you are natural friends without exchanging any words.
7. And finally, you get liberated from having to be Buddhist, or anything, to be subject to any views or any forms through the application of wisdom. It is true freedom or the path that reaches for true freedom.