I've been reading a lot about Buddhism in the last week or so. This in itself is not particularly noteworthy; I read a lot about a lot of things. I usually get something stuck in my head for a couple weeks and study it as intensely as my schedule will allow. A few weeks ago, I learned about as much as a lay person can know about designing nuclear fusion rockets for interstellar spacecraft propulsion. Now it's Buddhism.
Of course, I came into this already knowing the barest of basics of Buddhism. I knew the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path. But I had never really thought about it in any serious, analytical way since a humanities class in high school. Not only was that a decade ago, but it was high school, so how serious could it have really been?
What I discovered is that, independent of Buddhism to the best of my knowledge, I already live my life pretty much according to the practices of Buddhism. I certainly and absolutely reject the entire spiritual component of Buddhism. But I still find myself using what is apparently the "Buddhist method" when it comes to ethics and how I deal with problems.
Now, different schools of Buddhism will phrase things slightly differently, or disagree on specifics, but I'd like to go through this generally as I understand it. The Four Noble Truths of Buddhism are: life is suffering; the cause of suffering is selfish desire; there is a way to ease suffering; the way to ease suffering is the Noble Eightfold Path.
I. Life is suffering. I think this should be self-evident to anyone who lives. But for me, I think the most significant element of this truth is exemplified in the folk wisdom that sometimes bad things happen to good people. We are not in control, and we never will be. The universe is utterly indifferent to the affairs of people. You can never have everything you want; as you climb Maslow's hierarchy of needs you simply want the next -- and when you reach the top, you will still want things like world peace or an end to hunger or not to be vaporized when an asteroid hits the planet.
II. The cause of suffering is selfish desire. This one is a bit less immediately obvious. At least, it isn't intuitive to me. But when I think of it, this is essentially true. Every act of suffering can be framed as a frustration of a desire. Simple unhappiness may result from the frustration of one's desire for a given material possession, or for the acceptance of peers, or something of that nature. The suffering of hunger is the frustration of the innate desire (and indeed, necessity) to eat. The suffering of torture is the frustration of the desire to avoid pain. So long as a person desires something, anything, there will be suffering.
III. There is a way to ease suffering. I depart from the Buddha himself, and from Buddhists in general, in that I pretty firmly believe that it is impossible to reach Nirvana, if my understanding that one who has attained this enlightenment is completely free from desire and therefore suffering. If I ever lived a life in which the death of a loved one did not cause me suffering, I am not sure that would be desirable. But I steadfastly agree that it is possible to ease and to minimize suffering, and that an extremely large amount of the pain and grief people endure is avoidable.
IV. The way to ease suffering is the Noble Eightfold Path. Obviously, my acceptance of this truth is dependent upon just what that path is. So let's look at it:
1. Right understanding. This simply means understanding the Four Noble Truths.
2. Right thought. This refers to having good aspirations and intentions, good will, and non-violence. Have you met me? The part of this that pertains to one's commitment to Buddhism itself I cannot say I follow, but my will towards others is pretty unfailingly good. The Three Poisons are greed, hatred, and ignorance. I feel that I do a good job of avoiding them.
3. Right speech. Abstaining from lying, divisive and abusive speech, and idle chatter. I don't really have a huge problem with idle chatter, but I would say I ascribe to this idea.
4. Right action. This is essentially the ethical code of Buddhism, most typically listed as the Five Precepts: don't kill (I'm a vegan), don't steal (I don't), don't rape or commit adultery (usually understood as "sexual misconduct" rather than the prudish moralism of the Abrahamic religions), don't lie (I don't often), and don't abuse intoxicants (I do drink, but I can honestly say I have never been, nor do I have any desire to be, so drunk or high that I seriously lost function or control).
5. Right livelihood. Don't engage in occupations that involve any of the bad things above. So no weapons dealing, warfare, slaughtering animals, slave-trafficking, cheating, and the like. I'm a teacher and wannabe writer, so I think I've got this one covered.
6. Right effort. This would be the daily effort to follow all of the elements of the Eightfold Path. I do consciously try to do most of the things I've said I do. Anyone who has seen me calmly ignore being cut off in traffic or something similar knows that I'm a level-headed person, but this is actually a conscious decision on my part. When something starts to upset me, I just make it stop and it goes away.
7. Right mindfulness. Being "in the moment," detached and aware of what is happening. I think for me this is related to the above. I try to be conscious of my consciousness, if that makes any sense, and I started doing this at a young age completely apart from Buddhism. When I have a bad feeling, I am aware that it is just a feeling and with a bit of effort I can make it go away.
8. Right concentration. Meditation. I don't do it, but I am interested in it. I completely reject the supernatural element some would have, but I do believe that it is probably a good way to focus one's thoughts and maintain calm. So learning to meditate is not out of the realm of possibility for me.
So, in a way, I think I am an accidental Buddhist. But I don't think I could ever describe myself as a Buddhist, because I reject the entire metaphysical underpinnings of the religion. It is currently considered hip for Americans to look at Buddhism as "a philosophy" rather "a religion," but I think this is simply because they can't conceive of a religion that doesn't feature a God to pray to. I'm not entirely sure that Buddhism (and Taoism, and Confucianism, for that matter) aren't a distinguishable class of beliefs from Western religions, but if they are, they are certainly not as secular as "philosophies." If Buddhism were a philosophy rather than a religion there would simply not be any talk of spirituality and certainly not of reincarnation. That there are fairly large numbers of Buddhists who ignore these aspects of the religion is rather irrelevant, and only a reflection of Buddhism's avoidance of doctrine.
But Buddhism without the Buddha, and without a supernatural conception of karma and enlightenment, is just a way of living life to minimize suffering. To continue to call it "Buddhism" is like calling science "Christianity" or algebra "Islam." At most, it could be called a Buddhism-based philosophy. But my experience, to me at least, proves that arriving at this philosophy does not require being "Buddhism-based."
Pragmatically, however, I am interested in the spread and continued popularity in the West. Because there are plenty of people who do believe in supernatural hocus-pocus, and who could not conceive of a worldview in which reality was all that existed, it would be preferable to people who believe in moral concepts described above that that those who need a spiritual component to their lives fill that need with a religion that follows those concepts rather than one that does not.
I have said that politically I would rather live in a world in which the borders of the debate fell between the socialists and the anarchists and the liberals than between the liberals and the conservatives. Likewise, I would love a world in which the great religious divide was between the Buddhists and the humanists and the atheists -- a world in which we all agree on what is good, and merely disagree on why.