Since my wife recently became an official Buddhist, I thought it was time to start learning a whole lot more about Buddhism. Since there is a Dummies book for just about everything, I have been reading Buddhism for Dummies, which is a surprisingly good introduction to Buddhism. I am about half way through the book.
While I expect to remain a Unitarian Universalist, I am finding nuggets I about the religion that I think are just brilliant. What I really like about Buddhism is that it grasps the central problem of human angst. It also has practical advice on how to address it. Our central problem is quite simple: we are aware that we are going to die someday, and our awareness of our death terrifies us.
How on earth (as opposed to heaven) do you deal with this knowledge? Since we are self aware, it is entirely natural to ponder death and its meaning, if any. It doesn’t take much pondering before you realize that death is both inevitable and inescapable. It is also completely natural to not to want to accept this reality. It is somewhat unnatural to deliberately orient a religion around our impermanence.
I am agnostic on whether Siddhartha Gautama (Buddha) actually achieved enlightenment or not. Like all religions, Buddhism requires some measure of blind faith. There are many thousands if not millions of living Buddhists who will claim that they have achieved enlightenment through various Buddhist spiritual practices. Enlightenment sounds like a worthwhile endeavor, not to mention a really cool experience. Whether Buddhists have acquired genuine enlightenment, or are deluding themselves, or are charlatans I cannot say. In any case, even enlightenment does not absolve you from death. Buddha was very clear on this. It is one of his fundamental truths: material things are by their nature impermanent, and living things most of all. So you too are impermanent and therefore must die someday. Therefore, the wise human lives his life fully cognizant of his or her impermanence and its implications and orients their behavior around this truth. This may not be surprising but Buddha was the first person to frame a philosophy of living around death, and this was some 2500 years ago.
Having accepted this, Buddha then wrestled with the next question: why do we suffer and what can be done to relieve suffering? His answer in brief: we suffer because we crave attachments to worldly pleasures. We do not understand that our selfhood is really a delusion. Suffering ends when you are freed from desire, or put more simply when you accept that there is really no “I”, just “we”. When you understand this intellectually and emotionally you experience enlightenment, and your suffering ends. When you make this leap, you understand that relationships are what really matter. Thus, you can use your time on what really matters: living, practicing compassion, learning dharma (Buddhist teachings) and spreading enlightenment. In spreading the teachings of Buddha, you help minimize all human suffering.
Another reason to like Buddhism is that some 2500 years later it still feels empirically correct. It has needed no updating for modern times. This feels true despite all we have learned in the meantime. To me, this is amazing. While theologians still argue about how many angels can fit on the head of the pin, or whether we need Jesus as an intercessor to experience God, or whether there is or is not a heaven, Buddhism offers grounded answers to life’s incessant questions. It does so by turning around our angst-filled questions about life. It’s not about whether you are saved or not saved, whether you are living in accordance with God’s murky laws or not, it’s about your suffering as well as the suffering of all other human beings on the planet. We as we exist in this life are what matters and collectively we are all capable of reaching a place where suffering ends. We don’t have to die in order to escape our suffering altogether. In other words, we can sort of have heaven here on earth, at least for ourselves, and potentially for everyone.
Buddhism does not necessarily deny the presence of a divine force (except possibly to suggest we are divine if we understand our Buddha nature). Instead, it draws our attention square on where it belongs: to the human, our nature, and our joint suffering as a species. In short, it is a human-centric religion, not a God-centric religion. Moreover, because humans today are largely the same people physically and spiritually that we were 2500 years ago, the enlightenment Buddha allegedly found still works today as a solution today. It is not a formula for happiness based on some absent deity’s assumed wishes, but a formula for genuine happiness based on our 46 unique chromosomes.
Admittedly, Buddhism is a hard sell, particular in our secular and increasingly materialistic world. It may have been a much easier sell when human lived more uncomfortable lives. While we may be more comfortable, I doubt we live less tormented lives than we did 2500 years ago. We still struggle with weighty issues that probably make us at least as miserable as we have always been. We may have fancy distractions like cars and computers, but they rarely leave us any happier. Buddhism offers solutions that appear to be grounded in our human experience, not in reading God’s murky tealeaves.
I am still parsing my way through what are arguably the mystical aspects of Buddhism. I am trying to figure out if these aspects of Buddhism perturb its essential message. It seems curious to me that while Buddhism acknowledges our mortality, many if not most Buddhists also believe in reincarnation. They take steps in this life to ensure that their next life, if any, places them closer to enlightenment. This might be due to a Hindu influence on Buddhism, since the religion was born in India. Hinduism of course has reincarnation as a fundamental tenet. Some sects, like Pure Land Buddhism (which my wife subscribes to) sounds very much like Christianity, as it is premised on the promise that all those who have absolute faith in Amida Buddha will achieve enlightenment and will find rest in the Pure Land.
I will provide more thoughts on Buddhism later.