Almost everyone knows a Buddhist. However, of the Buddhists people we know, very few of them actually understand Buddhism. The post-modern West has placed all the components to Buddhist traditions along a buffet line, and just as it has done to all systems of faith, it’s modern adherents go along and pick only those parts that are most amenable to them.
The majority of western “so-called” Buddhists are people who have abandoned the fundamental Christianity or Judaism of their parents and have come to realize that empirical atheism doesn’t even attempt to access non-physical reality and therefore leaves people in an existential quagmire. Do not miss this vital reality. Buddhists are not evangelical. People find this faith because it offers a worldview and practice that helps to quiet the deeply felt anxieties of performance and suffering that immobilize and derail so many who are trying to manage life in the First world. In third worlds, it stops suffering through austerity which seldom comes by choice.
I’ve interviewed numerous subscribers to Buddhism and it’s almost always the same story. Few can retell the story of Siddhartha and what he saw upon leaving his kingdom. Few know anything about a Bodhi tree or what it even means. If you ask about the four nobel truths or the eight-fold path you’ll be lucky to get even 50%. Instead people gravitate to Buddhism because they can get a taste of spirituality, but without the sin management system, nor the looming Judgment Day of the American Christian faith.
For the sake of this series, we need to get beyond our western mindset. The highly disciplined, deeply committed practitioners who have given their lives to austerity in the East are very few and far between in the West. If you subscribe to Buddhism, then at least commit to learning about it. Let’s not read a Tich Nat Han book, download a mediation on our Calm app and then claim to be Buddhist.
Buddhism is on the surface Atheistic, in that it doesn’t worship the Buddha (except in some practices where it’s more like an honoring). As an offshoot of Hinduism (Siddhartha was a hindu), Buddhism and it’s practices cannot escape the presupposition of transcendence. Buddhism is a square gaze into the aging, diseased and dying life and a strategy of releasing all attachments through asceticism. For this last part, the Western mind of accumulation and power are completely incongruent. The process of enlightenment under the Bodhi (Wisdom) tree for Siddhartha was a transforming experience which was previously beyond his grasp. Think about it, something, beyond Siddhartha, happened to Siddhartha to bring about his enlightenment. Freedom through austerity.
The heart of Buddhism is in it’s three Universal Truths:
- Everything is impermanent and changing.
- Impermanence leads to suffering, making life imperfect.
- The self is not personal and unchanging.
Also in the four nobel truths:
- All life involves suffering.
- Suffering is caused by desire and attachment.
- Desire and attachment can be overcome.
- The way to overcome them is by the Eightfold Path.
And lastly the eight-fold path.
- Right seeing or understanding
- Right thought or intention
- Right speech
- Right action
- Right work or livelihood
- Right effort
- Right mindfulness
- Right concentration
Clearly, even at a cursory glance, within Buddhism, there is orthorpraxy, thus orthodoxy, and sin. Add to this the belief in the mind’s rebirth, then there is no end to trying to be better. Human effort is exhausting. No wonder the West won’t go too deeply into this belief system. It would cost too much. Furthermore, the circular reasoning is unavoidable for me. The trying and failing create our suffering which only exists because of our attachment to Buddhism itself. Legalism is not just a Judeo-Christian problem. The list has led to Buddhist fundamentalism in other countries which has led to much discord, harm and war with neighboring Muslims. Even in the most simple of systems of faith, there seems to be no escaping the corruption of the human heart, which for me, is true suffering.
What amazes me is how in the West we can have atheists, like Sam Harris, who use logic, science and reason to try and debunk religion, yet are comfortable adopting aspects of Buddhism without giving it the same level of intellectual critique as other faith systems. Sure, meditation might help someone with anxiety, but the suffering and purpose of anxiety still remains unaddressed. Suffering and it’s purpose are key considerations of the Buddhist faith and reasonable questions for all faiths. If we don’t access these answers in our belief system, what have we really gained?
If a person tries and practice Buddhism from an atheistic vantage point, then the only option is to barely scratch the surface and merely pay lip service to 2500 years of practice. If the truths are in fact true and taken deep upon the heart along with the practice, then there can be no atheistic expression of Buddhism, for enlightenment and freedom from suffering (Nirvana) are not intrinsic to the life which remains untransformed by Buddhism. A phototropic celebrity from the West may lay claim to Buddhism, but clearly have missed it.
Once again, we find that “something more” which lies beyond and through it all continues calls the human heart into deeper devotion to that Thing beyond the thing. We saw this in Abraham in Judaism, in Hagar in Islam, it’s at the heart of Atman (soul’s) journey in Hinduism, and here it is again in Buddhism.
What is it that calls us all? Is it an object? Or a subject?
Just how spiritual is it to temper ones affections, or to counter one’s instinct, or to detach from those things for which we really want to attach ourselves? The True Buddhist knows, as C.S. Lewis said, “That which tempers the instinct cannot itself be the instinct.” The True Buddhist knows and learns how to relate to that which tempers our most ill-tempered parts. The spirituality of practicing presence, is the same spirituality as admitting there is a presence, a consciousness, which is there beyond and through our own.
By now in this series you should be able to plot our trajectory. Each system of faith is like a unique finger pointing to that which is beyond everything. Each trying its’ best to bring about the best version of the human race and each falling prey to the worst aspects of humanity in the process. Does this mean that all religions should be abandoned? Surely not. But it does show us the futility of pretending that our life is somehow un-monitored. The fact that we, ourselves, strive for self consciousness opens up the discussion far beyond the practice of any faith. Perhaps Buddha’s greatest gift to the world is the monitored life. Self-consciousness is enlightenment.
Buddhism deserves to be practiced as far as it goes. Yet, like Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism, the devotees end up satisfying their ontological longings from the practice itself and not from the destination to which the practice was intended to deliver us. How many really want to be taught by austerity?
Our post-modern culture thinks it wants to get all out of religion. Until the existential pain of existence proves to be more than we can handle. So fearing the getting all in to a religion, our practice has become the skimming of one or all religions instead. And this reveals an aspect of our humanity that our world is seeking to avoid. Buddhism is not afraid to look deeply into our humanity and ask for a change. That change, will however cost us. It cannot be a surface level attestation or some milk-toast practice. If we begin down this road of enlightenment, we quickly discover just how dark we are and just how hard it is to change. So the question remains:
What do we do with evil, when it’s not in our will to overcome it?