Recently, I had an ongoing email conversation with a strong Christian; someone who honestly believes that the Truth, the whole Truth and nothing but the Truth is what’s written in his denomination’s version of the Bible. He wanted to understand Buddhism — well, to understand what I understand about it. I don’t claim to be an authority on the subject.
In contrast, I accept the wisdom of a Shintoist saying:
There are many mountains to God, and many paths up each mountain.
Even atheism can be a mountain to God.
There are a great many belief systems, including dozens of versions of Christianity, which claim to be exclusive Truth. They all state that all the others are wrong. This being their only common assertion, it must be true.
People I consider true Christians, like Pope Francis, do not share this belief. The Holy Father has gone public in accepting the truth of certain other belief systems, which is wonderful from a Church historically known for its intolerance.
Anyway, here is a record of my exchanges with my friend “A:”
BOB: If you look around my web site, you’ll see I am a Buddhist. I didn’t choose this. When I was 23, I was about to marry a girl who wanted the ceremony in her church. So, I had an interview with the minister. He and I talked for several hours, and he told me I was a Buddhist. I knew nothing about that philosophy, so read up on it — and the man was right. Since then, it has only developed further, although I’ve read deeply about most other major religions.
You’ll find that the moral imperatives of Christianity and Buddhism are identical. This is why in my current work, a science fiction series, my hero turns out to be the reincarnation of both the Buddha and Jesus. They were the same Spirit!
A: I would be interested to hear more about what has shaped your worldview.
I am fascinated with discussions about morality. But I’m less interested moral ontology than I am with moral epistemology. That is, I would submit to you that while both a Christian an Buddhist can be — or act — morally, a Christian worldview better explains the fact of moral imperatives.
As I understand it, God is optional in Buddhism.
I am curious, do you espouse moral relativism, or do you believe that objective moral values exist?
BOB: Those are rather big words you’re using. 🙂
Buddhism is not a religion, but a philosophy. You can be both a Christian and a Buddhist, or an atheist and a Buddhist. The only religion it is not compatible with is Islam, because the Qur’an explicitly rejects some things Buddhists consider to be demonstrably true.
I strongly accept Jesus’ message, and do my imperfect best to live by it. However, I reject the modern Bible as God’s word. It is the construction of Constantine’s Synod in the 4th century. And I think the Torah is also a political construction, although the changes were made much earlier.
Later expansion: The God of Jesus cannot be the source of some tracts in the Bible. As just one example, take the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, the inspiration for so much hate in western society, and in Islam. Lot offers up his virgin daughters for gang rape. I certainly want to have nothing to do with any supposed deity that approves of such evil. That’s more the words of the Devil, who must have deliberately corrupted the Torah.
And the Synod of 365 AD was a well-intentioned but political gathering. They designed a religion that affirmed the power of the emperor in many subtle ways, and put women down in a way Jesus would not have. They chose to accept some of the documents Arab civilization had preserved, while selectively ignoring others. Their presentation of Jesus’ message of unconditional Love is wonderful, and based on historical facts available to them, but the work as a whole is fictional.
A: As I understand it, Buddhism tries to provide an answer to the question of suffering. Buddha taught that desire is the cause of suffering. Therefore, to eliminate suffering, you must eliminate all desire.
But how does the practicing Buddhist escape his/her desire to eliminate desire and end suffering?
I find this to be a fatal flaw in the philosophy. How do you reconcile this contradiction?
BOB: Trouble is with translation from Pali to English. Dukha doesn’t mean suffering, and the Four Noble Truths don’t say to eliminate desire. The best translation is attachment.
In my psychotherapeutic practice, I often hand out cards to my clients. Here is the relevant one:
|Geniuses at survival can live in hell, with peace in their hearts. We can learn from them. If I don’t like something, I need to work at changing it. But that takes time, and may never succeed. For now, I can simply accept it. Best illustration is pain.
Pain = sensation + emotion.
1. I have an unpleasant sensation. If I simply accept it, I’m not hurting. It can stay there, I’m OK.
2. Sometimes I can’t manage this. Then I’m hurting. I can accept that for now I’m hurting, in pain, do want it to go away — and it’s OK to feel like that. Then I may be in pain, but it’s OK.
3. Sometimes, I can’t do this, and am in despair: “What’s the point of living like this?” If I can accept that for now, I’m in despair, I can still carry on.
Acceptance at one level may allow return to a better one, but can’t be done for that reason — or it’s not real acceptance and won’t work.
This is the first three noble truths. The fourth is the Eightfold Path for reaching enlightenment.
A: It’s interesting that the card on acceptance leads all the way to “what’s the point of living,” because that really is one of the ultimate destinations of philosophical inquiry.
I find the card unsatisfying because it offers only a temporary solution to pain. Ultimately, “acceptance” cannot answer the question of why one should go on living.
The card mentions, “For now, I can…” and “accept that for now….” But what about later when all acceptance has failed?
On Buddhism, why should one choose to live over ending it all?
To answer that question, you must have an answer to why we are alive in the first place.
So on Buddhism, why are we here? How did we get here? What is our purpose? And what is our ultimate destiny?
A worldview must sufficiently answer these questions, and the answers must soar beyond the abstract and actually correspond to the human experience.
A: I was thinking of one more thing.
Regardless of whether or not Dukkha can be adequately translated in English, Buddhism teaches that it is something to be overcome — or the goal is to be liberated from it.
So how is Dukkha to be overcome?
BOB: It’s on the card on acceptance, which, as I said, states the first 3 Noble Truths. The fourth is more complex. Look up “the eightfold path.”
One English translation I’ve read is:
All life is suffering.
All suffering comes from attachment (or wanting). This can have two forms: wanting to stop something bad, and wanting to hang on to something good (because all is change).
So, to stop suffering, become not-attached.
This is through the steps of the eightfold path, and is a difficult journey.
I am writing a science fiction series at the moment. In that, a wise person quotes a lost tract from the Buddha:
There is no reality. There is no thing, and no nothing. There is no body, and no nobody. There is just what is, and that isn’t. Only change is constant, and only consciousness can see it. What the consciousness sees, it sees.”
Clear as mud?
Later expansion: A’s focus on permanence indicates a major difference between western and oriental thought, and one of the reasons for the destructive nature of western society. We live in the future. Many people go through their entire adulthood without ever enjoying the moment. Even in situations like sharing sex with a loved one, they worry about performance, “am I doing well enough?” Everything is hurry, worry, what-if, what-next.
This sad state of affairs is because of an illusion. Read my quote from U Gaun with care again. Another version is: “The past is history. The future is a mystery. I give you a PRESENT.” Life is like looking at a river. The view superficially seems to stay the same, but is ever-changing, because each piece of water is new. The bit of water you saw a second ago has moved.
So, there is only NOW. As Pip writes in Ascending Spiral when reducing a client’s suicidal despair: “I focused her on Now. This moment. This instant. This.”
For me, for any Buddhist, if I am contented with my situation for this split-second, then I am contented with my situation, because this split second is all there is. Interestingly, that’s also part of both the Christian and Muslim messages, but commonly ignored.
Why should one continue living? Because life has purpose. We are here on this planet to attain enlightenment. That means, my task, worked toward life after life after life, is to grow into a perfect person.
Our ultimate destiny is to become enlightened, so we don’t need to be born again, to get off the wheel of life and suffering. One of my cliches is: “We are caterpillars feeding on the green leaves of experience, until we have learned enough to graduate as butterflies.”
A: Thanks for continuing the conversation.
Westerners over the last half century seem increasingly dazzled by the mysteries of Eastern philosophy. I too was once amused by koans. Philosophical contradictions appear deep, suggesting we must be on to something very big — maybe even the truth.
But when I bring the conceptual back to actual human experience, I must reject them.
Your explanation to escape Dukkha is non-attachment. What happens when you become non-attached to the idea of escaping Dukkha? If you were honest, you would have to abandon your quest to escape it — which means allowing attachment again.
The idea of Monism has problems as well. If everything is really just “one,” then distinctions and “twoness” are an illusion. You are not you. You are just part of the one. This has serious philosophical implications. It also leads directly (if you believe in a god) to Pantheism, which has its own set of problems.
Ultimately, Buddhist philosophy is a form of monism (with pantheism being optional). Do you accept all those implications, and are you comfortable with them?
BOB: >What happens when you become non-attached to the idea of escaping Dukkha?
That’s nirvana! When you simply accept what is and don’t want to escape anything, then you have full acceptance.
>The idea of Monism has problems as well. If everything is really just “one,” then distinctions and “twoness” are an illusion. You are not you. You are just part of the one. This has serious philosophical implications. It also leads directly (if you believe in a god) to Pantheism, which has its own set of problems.
There is a great sea. It has waves. I am a wave.
Later expansion: You can see that A is blinded by his future-orientation. He wants a permanent solution. Turn the switch, and there is no more suffering. Enlightenment is not like that. Once attained, it is attained for that instant — because that’s all there is. There are no guarantees for the next instant, because there is no next instant. Time and its passage are illusions. There is no reality. Only change is constant. Nirvana is living in this moment, which is perfect because I accept all its imperfections.
The wave metaphor is very powerful. Buddhism contains the paradox of reincarnation. Some western interpreters of Buddhist philosophy reject the concept of reincarnation, because there is nothing separate from All, so nothing that can be born again. This is true-and-false.
In my essay I is a paradox I wrote:
- There is the limitless ocean. A wave arises. You can point to it, identify it as “that wave.” It has boundaries, it can affect objects, perhaps even overturn a ship. It progresses from one location to another. It is real.
However, the wave is not a unit, a thing, merely a deformation on the surface of the ocean. A body of water rises, then goes down again. Its energy is transferred to a neighbouring body of water, so that the energy progresses while the water doesn’t. (There may be a current moving the water along, but that’s independent of the waves. Only near the shore, where sea bottom undercuts the wave, does an actual physical body of water move.)
The wave has a duration of existence. After awhile, its energy ceases, or more exactly is transformed into something else, and the wave smooths out.
This is remarkably similar to me and my body. Constantly, I inhale oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide. Every day, I take in food and water, and get rid of wastes. Cells in my body die and are replaced (or not; aging is change too). The wave is constantly changing volumes of water; my body is a constantly changing volumes of materials. There is 0 overlap between my body now and what it was 10 years ago.
In that essay, I was concerned with the illusion of individuality. Here, the relevant aspect is that although the wave is an indivisible part of the ocean, it does have continuity through (the illusion of) time. If this can go through a lifetime, then why not thousands of lifetimes?
I think of the real Me, the ongoing life spirit, as the wave. I , the bit currently associated with the Bob body, am the current froth on its top.
Clear as mud?
I’d love to have comments on this, particularly from people with an understanding of Buddhist philosophy, but from others as well.