Saturday, October 6, 2007

Intentional Buddhism

Those of you who have been reading my blog(s) for a while now may remember a post I made in which I tentatively described myself as an "accidental Buddhist." You see, it turns out that I independently came to more or less the same conclusions about anguish and happiness and ethics that Buddhism teaches, with a few exceptions here and there. Since that time, I've been studying Buddhism off and on, reading books and websites and listening to podcasts. All of this has confirmed what I thought before: when it comes to the actual core of what Buddhism is about and what it teaches, I was in some sense a Buddhist before I even knew these things.

I have hesitated to call myself a Buddhist for several reasons. First, the typical Western understanding of what Buddhism is covers many aspects of it that aren't central and ignores aspects of it that are, and I didn't want assumptions to be made about what I believed. It seems to me that the average American thinks that Buddhism is a quest for Nirvana, that it is concerned primarily with gaining good karma so as to get reincarnated in a better position and move closer to achieving that goal in some future life. I don't really believe in any of that, except perhaps metaphorically. For some reason, the actual central tenets of Buddhism (the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path) are pretty much not widely known outside of the occasional television documentary and comparative religion classes in favor of a focus on mysticism. Buddhism is a practice, not a belief system, even if there are many metaphysical and supernatural beliefs that most Buddhists hold. My concern was that if I said I were a Buddhist, people would think that I believe all of those things, and that has almost nothing to do with my understanding and practice of Buddhism.
Suppose, Malunkyaputta, a man were wounded by an arrow thickly smeared with poison, and his friends and companions brought a surgeon to treat him. The man would say: "I will not let the surgeon pull out the arrow until I know the name and clan of the man who wounded me; whether the bow that wounded me was a long bow or a crossbow; whether the arrow that wounded me was hoof-tipped or curved or barbed."

All this would still not be known to that man and meanwhile he would die. So too, Malunkyaputta, if anyone should say: "I will not lead the noble life under the Buddha until the Buddha declares to me whether the world is eternal or not eternal, finite or infinite; whether the soul is the same as or different from the body; whether or not an awakened one continues or ceases to exist after death," that would remain undeclared by the Buddha and meanwhile that person would die.

--The Buddha
I am still an atheist, a materialist, and a skeptic. I don't believe in rebirth, in souls, or in the supernatural. To the extent that I "believe" anything at all about Buddhism I believe that dharma practice is an effective way to live mindfully and reduce suffering and anguish for myself and others. That is all, and I believe that is enough.

The other main reason I didn't want to identify myself as a Buddhist was out of respect for practicing Buddhists themselves. I am just a guy, reading about the dharma and using what I've learned when I can. I don't attend any sort of group meditation or services, and I don't believe in a lot of the things that most Buddhists do (see above). I also didn't want Buddhists to make assumptions about what I believe or do not. But again I find myself at the conclusion that none of that matters. All that matters is the practice.

So I am now fairly comfortable calling myself a Buddhist, though when asked my religion I will still answer "none" and clarify that with "atheist." I do not believe Buddhism is a religion, but not for the usual reason that Buddhism does not require belief in a god. Buddhism doesn't require belief in anything other than the evidence acquired while practicing it. Every belief and behavior system we call a religion doesn't rely on evidence; "truths" about the nature of reality are declared, things are expected to be done. It doesn't matter if you like these things, or even if they bring you any happiness at all. You do them because God wants you to. Buddhism is dependent on trying things, and if they work, you keep trying them.
Come, Kalamas. Do not go upon what has been acquired by repeated hearing; nor upon tradition; nor upon rumor; nor upon what is in a scripture; nor upon surmise; nor upon an axiom; nor upon specious reasoning; nor upon a bias towards a notion that has been pondered over; nor upon another's seeming ability; nor upon the consideration, "The monk is our teacher." Kalamas, when you yourselves know: "These things are good; these things are not blamable; these things are praised by the wise; undertaken and observed, these things lead to benefit and happiness," enter on and abide in them.

--The Buddha
So if I am in fact a Buddhist, what have I considered, practiced, experienced, and found to work for me?

The Four Noble Truths
  1. Suffering and anguish exist.
  2. The main cause of suffering and anguish in our lives is desire and attachment. We want things and situations to go our way, we expect fulfilling our desires to make us happy, and our suffering increases when, inevitably, they do not.
  3. Suffering can be relieved not by fulfilling our desires but by modifying them.
  4. The way to relieve suffering is the Noble Eightfold Path.
The Noble Eightfold Path
  1. Right View. The Four Noble Truths are, in fact, true. Nothing is permanent. Everthing is interconnected in a chain of cause and effect. There is no real ego, no real self.
  2. Right Intention. Resist the pull of desire, resist anger, and strive to do no harm to any sentient being.
  3. Right Speech. Do not lie, do not slander, do not offend, and do not gossip.
  4. Right Action. Do not harm any sentient being, do not take what is not given, do not engage in harmful sexual relations.
  5. Right Livelihood. Don't earn a living doing something that causes harm, such as selling weapons, trading slaves or prostitutues, slaughtering animals, and drug dealing.
  6. Right Effort. Put your good intentions into practice.
  7. Right Mindfulness. Use your mind to always be aware and see things clearly as they are.
  8. Right Concentration. Use your mind to focus on good thoughts and action, such as training concentration through meditation.

1 comment:

  1. Ryan, 28, ScotlandOctober 24, 2007 at 4:33 AM

    Good post on Buddhism. You are right that there seems to be an awkward contradiction between atheism and supernatural buddhism. But have no fear! As you quoted, the Buddha is not interested in anything supernatural or unprovable. It is not a religion but a science of mind, an investigation into the truth of existence. And as such it is not surprising that you came to the same conclusions! I would recommend that you try out a Buddhist evening group or go on a weekend retreat - its a wonderfully useful complement to western science, not an antithesis. Try the Alan Watts podcast too - its a much more complete understanding of the world than Dawkins.