It's interesting how my attitude toward Buddhism has changed during the course of my descent (or ascent) into churchlessness. I used to find Buddhism wonderfully non-dogmatic. Now, I see it as permeated with an uncomfortable amount of religiosity.
A couple of fellow Tai Chi students recommended "The Monk and the Philosopher" to me. With the subtitle, a father and son discuss the meaning of life, how could I resist making a visit to Amazon?
Last month I wrote about how when the Monk (Matthieu Ricard) and his Philosopher father (Jean-Francois Revel) discuss karma, I disagreed with the Buddhist notion that Tibetans brought upon themselves the Chinese invasion of their country.
Having finished the book, I have more quibbles with the Monk's belief system. I agree with the Philosopher's conclusion:
That's pretty much how I see it.
Buddhism's basic advice for us is pretty darn simple: lessen your desires; accept life as it is; embrace change; don't ruminate about what can't be thought.
As the Philosopher points out repeatedly, this wisdom isn't unique to Buddhism. The Greek Stoics, such as Marcus Aurelius, said almost exactly the same thing (see my Marcus posts here and here).
The Monk liked to argue that if following Buddhist precepts leads someone to serenity, this shows that Buddhism has a correct view of reality -- which includes quite a few metaphysical concepts such as karma, reincarnation, and such.
Well, there are serene people who don't do a lick of meditation, or accept any Buddhist beliefs. And there are devout Buddhists who haven't achieved peace of mind after years or decades of practice.
Many Christians feel great by believing in Jesus. If a certain psychological state is proof of a metaphysical position, then every religion is right and every religion is wrong.
Studies of identical twins find that genetics explains about half of the differences in happiness between individuals. Some people are born with more of a potential to be happy than others.
Meditation and other techniques that change mental patterns can affect someone's happiness, but there seems to be a limit to our changeability. I suspect that certain sorts of people are drawn to Buddhism (or some other faith) because it meshes with their view of life -- which is different from the faith changing that view.
Another quibble: I agreed with the Philosopher when he said...
But in Buddhism there's no transcendent God, so what is monastic life or retreat from the world, directed toward? In a word, since Buddhism isn't a religion, why does it look so much like one?
I didn't find the Monk's defense of Buddhist rituals very convincing.
Such customs are useful outer supports allowing believers to communicate with an inner truth. I know from experience that when ordinary Tibetans offer thousands of butter lamps (the equivalent of candles) they're well aware that the light they're offering symbolizes wisdom dispelling darkness.
The prayer they'd be making as they offered lamps would go something like, "May the light of wisdom arise in myself and in all living beings, both in this life and in lives to come." Even very simple people are aware of the symbolism. The same goes when they're reciting mantras.
Not likely. The Monk ignores the great popularity of Pure Land Buddhism, which is religious through and through.
Like every faith, if you peel off the dogmatic, fundamentalist, religious aspects of Buddhism, from my churchless perspective you're left with something much more appealing.
The question is: isn't that "something" simply everyday life, lived honestly?
It's really the peeling off that's the challenge..
Would this be a case of "don't ruminate about what can't be thought"? (as in, what's left when you peel off the dogmatic, fundamentalist, religious..)
I went down the "don't ruminate" path for awhile, I think I'm coming back to the "ruminate" path again, hence my return to this blog :)
Posted by: popchess | February 17, 2009 at 08:55 PM
I agree Brian. It seems that once the honest life is wrapped in beliefs it loses its appeal. Those beliefs become opaque and oppressive when mistaken for naked truth.
Posted by: Jayme | February 17, 2009 at 09:41 PM
Brian, thanks for the book reference and post. Nice comment Jayme.
My present lifestyle offering: 'Figure out how best to thrive.'
This is in fact an unselfish effort which needs skill, will power and a building sense of connection in a family, a community and a planet.
Serenity in Buddhism would not be an aim, but is the face of constant observation of the reactive mind and this would also be the direction of the retreat and monasticism in Buddhism.
Posted by: Dance | February 17, 2009 at 10:34 PM
This is one the remarkable aspects about both Buddhism & Taoism. While both can be followed as a religion, both can also be adopted as a philosophy (without ANY of the religious trappings).
The same can't be said for the monotheistic religions because the deity of each is so intertwined with the philosophical elements. While there are many philosophical Taoists like myself, I've never heard of a philosophical Christian, Jew or Muslim. This is not to say that a follower of these three faiths can't concurrently be philosophical, but it would difficult -- if not impossible -- to take the philosophy as a substitute for the religious faith.
Posted by: The Rambling Taoist | February 17, 2009 at 11:37 PM
Actually Christianity (using Jesus' words) can be lived as a philosophy of life and leave out the worship part as it is very much a way of approaching the world and others-- and quite similar in its ideas to say Lao Tzu's teachings.
One thing is that serenity is not the way to change the world. Now if that is not one's goal than it's fine for a personal approach to one's life but even there, would you make the strides to improve a relationship if you worked only on accepting it as it was? Is serenity the opposite of passion? Will someone who is serene sacrifice to improve the world or does it take someone with passion? Would a culture that lived for the experience of serenity be able to maintain itself in a world that is so much the opposite? I guess if someone showed this quality and others wanted it, it could work; but how much do others want it? The thing is dealing with human nature as it is; so that our life has peace but we are not rolled over by those who don't.
Currently we live in a country that for the most part takes care of our safety for us; but it's not been like that always in the world-- nor is it always even here. Is the test of a religion how well it works in a time of turmoil or of peace? Maybe a lot of religions grow in those violent times, such as Christianity did. You read of the peaceful response those early Christians had to being martyred but if their whole viewpoint had been that way, the religion would not have spread... unless you believe that was brought about by Divine will.
Posted by: Rain | February 18, 2009 at 08:21 AM
Are there concepts in the philosophy of Taoism? Are any of these concepts illusional? If it is possible to be free of concepts, then can One have Taoism without the philosophy?
Posted by: Roger | February 18, 2009 at 08:26 AM
Dear Rain (et al.),
As for "Divine will" (or whatever corresponds to that expression in a view that seeks understanding), I suggest that not only the spread of Christianity, but of all else that exists too, comes from it. If one contends that "The universe is unity," then, this likewise includes all viewpoints and their advocates/holders - including guru-cult followers, fundamentalists, terrorists, rapists, child-molesters, AIDS, the Black Plague, Pol Pot, the Inquisition, hypocrisy and nastiness on the internet, etc., etc. So also therefrom comes opposition to such examples. (Likewise my weariness with it all.)
Robert Paul Howard
Posted by: Robert Paul Howard | February 18, 2009 at 09:26 AM