I will begin this article with a reaffirmation: I have been an atheist since about 1962 or 1963. The notion of a creator god is, to me, both absurd and repellent. The Christian church I involuntarily attended as a child differed not at all from other Christian sects in its adherence to the doctrine of “original sin.” This view maintains that all men are essentially wicked and sinful at their core, and can only become “saved” through acknowledging Christ as “the redeemer.”
The notion of man as an innately sinful beast, I have come to realize, has enormous social and political consequences. Such a pessimistic appraisal of man’s worth has been used to justify the most outrageous tyrannies and extraordinary cruelties. It also works insidiously to destroy whatever self-esteem individuals might have. In its psychological impact on populations, it works like a virulent plague, denigrating man and rendering him susceptible to control. At the same time, it elevates the Church – the leaders, the enormous looted wealth and the body of doctrine that sustains them – to positions of invincibility and infallibility. The close ties between church and state, outlined by Bakunin well over a hundred years ago, are predicated on a mutual worship of authoritarianism, intolerance and cultish isolationism.
Three of the world’s most destructive religions originated in the eastern Mediterranean region. Judaism, the first of the monotheistic epidemics to emerge from the scalded brains of desert lunatics, later begat both Christianity and Islam. Today, the greatest threat to peace and prosperity for hundreds of millions of people turns on the fratricidal hatreds of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The hymnal in my parents’ church set the tone well: “Onward Christian soldiers, marching as to war . . .” The sadistic horrors perpetrated in the names of Jesus, Moses and Mohammed defy comprehension, and thankfully require no elaboration here.
Let us be clear about one thing: the sickness we confront today is not “terrorism.” It is the pathologically insane belief that individuals are less than dirt in the eyes of a fictitious, unprovable “god.” This is the kind of “idea” that impels young men to follow their hormonally driven urges to kill, whether they be young Jews, young Baptists, or young Shiites. It is sobering to know that there are millions of young men out there who will kill you over a silly issue of theology. George W. Bush, who is linked politically to fundamentalist Christian fanatics, is no less a threat to peace than Osama bin Laden, whose “god” of “mercy” and “justice” is even more bloodthirsty than Jerry Falwell’s. In the meantime, the rabid Zionists continue to bulldoze entire neighborhoods whenever a Palestinian teenager throws a stone, proving themselves over and over again the moral equals of the Nazis they pretend to abhor.
But this is not an article about monotheistic religions. Most of the readers of this journal are all too cognizant of the centuries of human misery and suffering those religions have wrought. Rather, this article is about Buddhism, its ethical teachings, and its curiously non-religious character. As a philosophy, it is perhaps not wholly compatible with anarchist beliefs, but I was surprised to discover how closely it parallels some of the conclusions I’ve reached independently. Certainly, from what I’ve learned, a fruitful discussion between ethical anarchists and practicing Buddhists is not only possible, but perhaps well worth pursuing. Any such dialog with Christians, Jews or Moslems is, of course, entirely out of the question. By their very nature, these God-centered religious systems are intolerant of atheism and irremediably authoritarian in nature. Not so with Buddhism.
A CURIOUS FIND
Growing up in the nineteen fifties and ‘sixties, I was sheltered from any deep knowledge of oriental philosophies. Even later, in the late ‘sixties and early ‘seventies, as I began arguing for a revolution against the existing social order, I ignored Buddhism altogether, assuming that it was “just another religion.” At the time, I would have shunned any philosophy that emphasized slow, evolutionary, personal change. With all the impatience of youth, I favored a massive and violent upheaval, immediately, at whatever cost. I just wanted the bad guys dead and off my back.
Two things drew me to a closer examination of Buddhism recently. The first was simply an isolated bit of news which remained interesting but essentially meaningless until I saw a context within which it made sense. I opened my newspaper last year to read about a boy who had attended my high school while I was there in the mid-nineteen sixties. His name was Jim. First, a bit of background.
About forty years ago, Jim was on a camping trip with his family, somewhere up in the Colorado mountains, when he had a heated argument with his mother. He clubbed her to death. He went out to find his father, who was fishing. The father reacted strongly to the news Jim gave him, and so Jim clubbed him to death, too, and then made up a story for the authorities about a “stranger” attacking and killing his parents. Jim’s father was a respected family physician in our town. It did not take the authorities long to pin the crime on Jim, who was only sixteen at the time. He was tried and sentenced to life imprisonment in the Colorado state penitentiary. The year was about 1965.
The article I found myself staring at last year was about the very same Jim. Incredibly, he was now trying to get clearance from one of the local hospitals to practice medicine there. When he first entered prison for murdering his parents, a group of compassionate Chicanos protected him from the kinds of criminal gang rape that occur routinely in prisons, but which no one cares to do anything about. Jim vowed to return the favor. He studied in prison, and won a college degree with a 4.0 average. In the 1980s his sentence was commuted by the governor of Colorado, and Jim applied for admission to a medical school. He won a degree in medicine and had spent ten years in the migrant camps in California, giving his services away free to the workers there. Now he wanted to open a small practice in Denver and wanted to do surgeries at one of the local hospitals.
The second, but as it turned out, far more significant event, was the discovery of a book, The Monk and the Philosopher, in a thrift store. What prompted me to buy it (apart from the price, which was only a dollar), was the blurb on the dust jacket. Jean-Francois Revel, one of the co-authors, wrote a book nearly forty years ago entitled “Without Marx or Jesus” in which he criticized both communism and Christianity. The other co-author was his son, Matthieu Ricard, who, in the early 1970’s, was well on his way toward becoming a distinguished microbiologist in France. He had, instead, simply moved to India and joined a Buddhist monastery, and he’s been with the Dalai Lama ever since.
Now here was a curiosity worth looking into. Why, I asked myself, would someone so highly trained in western scientific methodology, suddenly leave it to become a Buddhist? In my mind, I still knew virtually nothing about Buddhism, and assumed it seized its victims and rendered them into glassy-eyed Hare Krishna-like zombies. The book I was holding, The Monk and the Philosopher, was written in the form of a debate or dialog between the father and the son.
Now, usually, when I read a book which contrasts two widely differing points of view, I find myself almost immediately leaning toward one position or the other, secretly “rooting” for the writer whose views most approximate my own. Judging from my hasty reading of this book’s dust jacket, I figured I’d be solidly behind Jean-Jacques by about page two, savoring his demolition of his son.
As it turned out, I read the book with complete fascination, first siding with the father, then with the son, as their discussion progressed. Clearly, my ideas about Buddhism had been all wrong from the very start. Matthieu Ricard had become a Buddhist not in spite of his western scientific training, but because of it! In fact, his father held many of the same misconceptions I’d held, and Matthieu Ricard did such a beautiful job of dispelling them, that I found myself almost arguing out loud against his father on some pages – “No, no – that’s not what he said at all. You don’t understand.”
In other words, this was a book like none I’d ever read. But please do not misunderstand me as I relate this. I experienced no profound epiphany; I did not see “the light,” nor did I feel like I’d been struck with any divine revelation. What I slowly and quite rationally began to understand as I read was that many of the ideas I already had formulated by myself were returning to me on the pages of this book as established precepts in a system of belief already 2500 years old! If anything, I was somewhat ashamed that I’d lived so many years without recognizing this.
A westerner who looks at the core teachings of Buddhism quickly realizes that it has far more to do with philosophy than it does with religion. In its essence, Buddhism is little more than the description of the path whereby one attains enlightenment. That enlightenment is defined as the cessation of suffering, and it is accomplished through a rigorous taming of the mind, obliterating all negative thoughts and impulses that mask or obscure the true nature of consciousness. Once all the clap-trap is pared away, what is left is the Buddha nature, so that it is theoretically possible for anyone to become a Buddha. The philosophy is decidedly humanistic, setting as its objective the end of suffering, not only for all humans, but for all sentient beings. Buddhism acknowledges no creator god whatsoever.
Matthieu Ricard states, for instance, in The Monk and the Philosopher,
“What we’re talking about here is the idea of a permanent Creator entity, sufficient in itself, without any cause preceding it, creating things as a voluntary act. Point by point, Buddhist dialectics refute this idea. Let’s take all-powerfulness, for instance. A Creator would have to be all-powerful. Either the Creator doesn’t ‘decide’ to create, in which case all-powerfulness is lost, for creation happens outside his will; or he creates voluntarily, in which case he can’t be all-powerful, either, as he’s creating under the influence of his desire to create.
“Can a Creator be a permanent entity? No, because after creating, he’s different from how he was before he created, He’s become ‘he who created.’ What’s more, if he creates the whole universe, that necessarily implies that all the causes of the universe must be present within him. Now, one of the bases of the law of cause and effect, or karma, is that an event can’t take place as long as all the causes and conditions for its arising are not assembled, and that it can’t not take place once they are. That means that a Creator either could never create or would have to be constantly creating. This sort of reasoning, and many others like it, can be applied to all the traditions that envisage a Creator who’s eternal, all-powerful, who exists intrinsically, and so on.
“In Asia, this form of dialectics continues even nowadays in philosophical debate and discussion. The relative aspect of phenomena, or in other words the world of appearances, is distinguished from the ultimate nature of everything. From an absolute point of view, Buddhism holds that an entity that truly existed could neither arise in the first place nor ever disappear. Being can’t be born from nothingness, because even an infinitude of causes wouldn’t be able to make something that didn’t exist come into existence; nor can it be born from what already exists, as in that case there would be no need for it to be born.”
Buddhism expresses no dogma. The Gautama Buddha encourages his followers to take nothing he says on faith, to question and test his teachings, and to decide for themselves whether his path is the right one or not. All of this is so alien to what we find in Christianity, Islam and Judaism that we are dumbfounded on first exposure to it.
But there’s more to it than that. Even the claims regarding consciousness and “Buddha nature,” which seem mystical at first appearance, have, on closer examination, an uncanny affinity to rationalism and western scientific methodology. Take, for instance, the Buddhist conception of matter. In The Monk and the Philosopher, Ricard says,
“Buddhism takes a middle path. It doesn’t deny the reality of phenomena in the relative world of perception, but it does deny that they are permanent, autonomous entities existing behind phenomena. . . . The kind of solid entities that Buddhism refutes are, for example, indivisible. particles of matter and indivisible instants of consciousness. It’s close to the formulation of modern physicists, who have abandoned the idea of particles as being little cannonballs or infinitely small masses. What’s called mass or matter is, rather, a sort of nonuniformity of the energy field. Buddhism leads us to the notion of the unreality of the solid world through an intellectual reasoning that doesn’t claim to be a theory of physics but which examines intellectually the very possibility of the existence of atoms, of indivisible particles. . . . According to Buddhism, atoms can’t be considered fixed entities, existing according to one single, determined mode. So how could the macroscopic manifest world, which is supposed to be composed of such particles, have any fixed reality? All this helps to destroy our notion of the solidity of appearances. It’s in this sense that Buddhism affirms that the ultimate nature of phenomena is emptiness and that emptiness carries within it an infinite potential of manifestation.
“. . .Buddhism doesn’t claim to be trying to account for physical phenomena in the way modern science would. What it’s trying to do is to break the concept we have of the solidity of the phenomenal world in our everyday experience. Because that concept is what underlies our attachment to a self and to phenomena, and is therefore the cause of the dualistic way we separate self and others, existence and non-existence, attachment and repulsion, and so on, and therefore all of our torments. In any case, Buddhism is here quite close, intellectually, to certain viewpoints in contemporary physics, and its contribution ought to be included in the history of ideas. One of the great physicists of our time, Henri Margenau, wrote: ‘toward the end of the nineteenth century the view arose that all interactions involved material objects. This is no longer held to be true. We know that there are fields which are wholly non-material.’ Heisenberg said, ‘Atoms are not things,’ and Bertrand Russell, ‘The idea that there is a hard little lump there, which is the electron, is an illegitimate intrusion of commonsense notions derived from touch . . . Matter is a convenient formula for describing what happens where there isn’t.’ Sir James Jeans, in his Rede Lectures, went as far as saying, ‘The universe begins to look more like a great thought than like a great machine.’”
What Matthieu Ricard is referring to here is in part the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, a linchpin of Quantum Mechanics. That principle asserts that in the electron “cloud” that surrounds an atomic nucleus, any given electron’s precise location cannot be described with certainty – only as a probability. Quantum Mechanics also posits that the very act of observation of events at the subatomic level affects or alters the event being observed. In other words, “reality” at the subatomic level is not the same as “reality” at the macroscopic, phenomenal level, and in fact, the standard assumptions implicit in a materialist analysis break down altogether at the subatomic level. This is, in fact, the prevailing view of physicists today, and Ricard is making a case that these findings validate the assumptions of Buddhism with respect to the nature of phenomena. Ricard again:
“The goal isn’t to deny that there’s any such thing as the phenomenal world as we perceive it – what Buddhism calls conventional truth – but to show that the world isn’t as real as we think. In fact, coming into existence seems impossible, because, once again, being can’t arise from nothingness, and if it already exists it doesn’t need to arise. At the same time, it doesn’t ‘cease,’ because it’s never come into existence. That is what leads Buddhism to say that the world is like a dream or an illusion. It doesn’t say the world is a dream or an illusion, because that would be falling into nihilism.”
Whether Ricard is right or not isn’t as important for the purposes of our discussion as the fact that here is a spokesman for a “religion” who can hold up his end of a conversation. Imagine trying to discuss the nature of matter with an intellectual barbarian like Pat Robertson.
There is little doubt that over the past 2,500 year, followers of Gautama (Buddha) have deviated into all kinds of tangential trails. Many converts to Buddhism brought along with them indisociable attachments to their old “gods,” creating hybrid rituals that accommodated both the Buddha and older pagan silliness. Those who propagate new philosophies cannot always be held responsible for the deeds of their followers. As much as I dislike Christianity, I know that many of the things reputedly praised by Christ – such as turning the other cheek in time of conflict, or praying alone in one’s closet and not “in the streets and the synagogues as the hypocrites do” – are rarely taken to heart by modern Christians. Ricard seems to agree when he says,
“Christ himself professed nothing other than love of one’s neighbor. Personally, I don’t think he would have approved of the Crusades and wars of religion. As for the Inquisition, how could those who took part in it dare to call themselves Christians?”
It stands to reason that Buddhism, which is over five hundred years older than Christianity, might have suffered a similar fate. As, in certain respects, it has
But in other respects, there are seemingly millions of practicing Buddhists who come much closer than Christians to living as the founder of their movement advised. Those who have lived and traveled in Tibet, for instance, commonly report that the people there are deeply pacifistic and compassionate. Even in the face of the most outrageous provocations by the Chinese Communists, they have maintained their composure and equanimity, proving themselves morally superior to the invaders. Why is that?
Perhaps it has something to do with the nature of the philosophy itself. Ricard maintains that “to be able to help beings, there should no longer be any difference between what you teach and what you are.” Buddhism, which holds that every individual has within him the seed or nucleus of a “perfect” Buddha, seems to be the very antithesis of Christianity, which holds that man is nothing more than a putrid gob of sin. Buddhism, which teaches that there are a “thousand paths” to Dharma (the Buddha-like state), seems to invite individual experimentation and deviation, whereas Christianity (as well as its two sister religions) demand absolute and unvarying adherence to a single course. The Buddha said, ‘Do not accept my teaching out of respect for me. Examine it and rediscover the truth in it for yourself.’ What Pope, what Mullah, what Rabbi, has ever invited his students to do the same?
Moreover, Buddhists place the responsibility for “salvation” (they call it enlightenment) squarely on each person’s own shoulders. Salvation does not come magically from a ghost in the sky after mumbling the right words. It is earned, through hard effort.
As a moral philosophy, placing responsibility squarely where it belongs – with each individual – rather than with the welfare state, the community, the police, or any other authority, Buddhism is far superior to the religions that try to enforce morality at gunpoint. The Dalai Lama wrote in his Ethics for the New Millennium, “we find that no matter how sophisticated and well administered our legal systems, and no matter how advanced our methods of external control, by themselves, these cannot eradicate wrongdoing.” Moreover, in Buddhism, there is literally no such concept as “evil.” In fact, there is no “good,” either. Buddhism seeks to dispense with all dichotomies, as they lead to a rigid and incorrect way of perceiving reality. Doing the right thing is not a matter of following a rigid formula or law; it is a matter of acting from an experience of life-long training and preparation for making choices. By making morality and “right choices” an object of personal analysis and study, one learns for himself to become moral. He does not act morally simply because to do otherwise would result in a jail term, or perhaps ending up in hell, which seem to be the prevailing motivations for correct behavior in the West.
Nor does Buddhism equate morality with religious piety. The Dalai Lama has often said that “whether or not a person is a religious believer does not matter much.” And of non believers he observes,
“. . . many who reject religion do so out of convictions sincerely held, not merely because they are unconcerned with the deeper questions of human existence. We cannot suppose that such people are without a sense of right and wrong or of what is morally appropriate just because some who are anti-religion are immoral. Besides, religious belief is no guarantee of moral integrity. Looking at the history of our species, we see that among the major troublemakers – those who visited violence, brutality and destruction on their fellow human beings – there have been many who professed religious faith, often loudly.”
Matthieu Ricard explains Buddhism as a philosophy which places the burden for altering bad behaviors squarely with each individual. I’d struggled about ten years ago to overcome a severe drinking problem. I’d attended one or two AA meetings and immediately rejected their “twelve step” program, which required one to place one’s entire fate in the hands of “a higher power.” It was so obviously a recycled version of Christianity that I was instantly repelled. Stating at once and without blushing that alcoholics are “powerless” against alcohol and at the same time in need of a “higher power” to lead them to sobriety, without seeing that this logically leads to a dilemma in which alcohol itself must then necessarily be one such “higher power,” although at the same time the very thing to be overcome, AA seemed suddenly ridiculous and forever saddled with trying to explain how alcoholism could cure alcoholism, much as Christians are saddled with the responsibility for explaining how a good, just, wise and omnipotent “god” could coexist with evil. Only through the most contorted, convoluted “reasoning” could one reconcile such contradictions, and this is exactly what AA founder Bill W. is reduced to. In order to mitigate the utter absurdity of his position, he adopts cult methods to keep his followers in line, requiring that they practically memorize the AA bible and deviate not one angstrom from its message. Those who overcome alcohol on their own are, furthermore, ridiculed as “dry drunks.”
So I resolved to overcome alcoholism on my own, and I did. As I write this, I have not touched a drop of wine, beer, or liquor in nearly eleven years. Now, incredibly, here I was reading about a major world philosophy that holds that what I did is not only possible, but is probably the only workable way to do it. I had taken personal responsibility for my behavior and I had corrected it. In essence that is Buddhism. Buddhists do not have to reconcile the existence of God with free will because they embrace free will and deny that there could ever be any such thing as a creator god.. What a concept!
Suddenly, the story of Jim, the fellow high school student who murdered both his parents and subsequently went on to become a doctor and lead a moral life, made perfect sense. The story was newsworthy here precisely because it flew in the face of traditional western “wisdom,” which held that murderers must be punished, even with death, and that state-operated vendettas are the only thing standing between us and . . . yeah, you guessed it – anarchy! I doubt that a story like Jim’s would have astonished anyone in pre-1949 Tibet or in Dharmsala, India today.
For many years now, I’ve come to accept a version of anarchism that holds, quite simply, that no social changes are possible – certainly not the eradication of government – until individuals have evolved and progressed to the point where that option becomes attractive to them. Anarchism at gunpoint is no better and no different than the kind of morality at gunpoint that we already have. Now, suddenly, here I am reading about a philosophy that says basically the same. Here is one exchange between Jean-Francois and Matthieu:
J-F: The idea of making men peaceful one by one, in such a way that adding them all together ends up making a human race opposed to violence, seems impossible to realize in practice. Our century, at least, has hardly made any progress at all in that direction.
M: That’s true, but the alternative, change imposed from the outside, which consists of forcing more and more restrictive laws on recalcitrant individuals – a totalitarian system, in the end – is not only impossible to realize in the long term but is also fundamentally flawed. You can tighten the screws for a certain amount of time, but the oppressed always end up expressing their malcontent and freeing themselves from the oppressor’s yoke, whether by peaceful or violent means. They’ll find ways of getting hold of arms and of using them.. . . In any case, the first thing is to make peace within oneself – inner disarmament; then peace in the family; then in the village; and finally in the nation and beyond.
To change the world, you begin by changing yourself. At the very least, if you have to live in a violent and insane world, you can live it in dignity and with self-respect. Buddhism is the moral philosophy. It is attractive to me because it teaches that I am solely responsible for what I do, what I am, what I become, and how I will effect my own change. And insofar as that is essentially the essence of Buddhism, there is nothing mystical or “religious” about it. Take nothing on faith, not even the Buddha’s own teachings. Experiment and see for yourself if his ideas don’t work. What kind of “religion” could this be, that counsels skepticism and denies that one can be “saved” by anything other than his own human efforts? What kind of “religion” could this be that regards not just people, but all sentient beings as worthy of equal love and respect?
Perhaps the most secular interpretation of Buddhism is given by Stephen Batchelor in his book Buddhism Without Beliefs. Batchelor dismisses virtually all of the religious overtones which, he maintains, were grafted onto the Buddha’s original teachings after he died. His analysis of Buddhism closely parallels Jefferson’s analysis of Christianity, going to original sources and ignoring any texts which are appended to the Buddha’s actual teachings. For instance, he writes,
“The Buddha was not a mystic. His awakening was not a shattering insight into a transcendent Truth that revealed to him the mysteries of God. He did not claim to have had an experience that granted him priveleged, esoteric knowledge of how the universe ticks. Only as Buddhism became more and more of a religion were such grandiose claims imputed to his awakening. On describing to the five ascetics what his awakening meant, he spoke of having discovered complete freedom of heart and mind from the compulsions of craving. He called such freedom a taste of the dharma.”
Even so thoroughly religious a spokesman for Buddhism as the Dalai Lama acknowledges that most of the ritual associated with the Tibetan practice of Buddhism is entirely irrelevant to an understanding of the core philosophy of the Buddha. He says, “We may also conclude that we humans can live quite well without recourse to religious faith.”
Stephen Batchelor shows uncommon insight as he seeks to explain how Buddhism was gradually corrupted. What he says could apply as well to Christianity, Jeffersonian democracy or Marxism:
“The power of organized religion to provide sovereign states with a bulwark of moral legitimacy while simultaneously assuaging the desperate piety of the disempowered swiftly reasserted itself – usually by subsuming the rebellious ideas into the canons of a revised orthodoxy.”
He also notes that
“The dharma in fact might well have more in common with Godless secularlism than with the bastions of religion. Agnosticism may serve as a more fertile common ground for dialogue than, for example, a tortured attempt to make Buddhist sense of Allah.”
The Taliban recently came under harsh criticism for dynamiting ancient Buddhist statuary in Afghanistan. I am coming to realize why it is that the Taliban, and Islamic zealots in general, would fear an ideology like Buddhism as much as they fear atheism.
Am I a Buddhist? No, I cannot say that I am. My knowledge of Buddhism is, at this point, still profoundly simplistic. Buddhism appears to be a system of psychology, an attempt to understand, explain and harness the unique qualities of the human mind, more than a “religion.” Matthieu Ricard writes that “Nothing, other than the mind itself, can allow us to know the ultimate nature of the mind.”
Buddhists say that the problem with the Western scientific approach is that it fails to take this into account and struggles to make objective sense of consciousness, reducing it to a set of chemical interactions. Buddhists maintain that this will explain the workings of the human brain adequately, but cannot explain the quality of consciousness, which goes beyond brain function. They do not make any claim to the effect that understanding consciousness requires some mystical leap of faith – to the contrary, they insist that there are experimental steps that can be taken to observe the nature of consciousness, but that by its very nature, it is only amenable to observation by itself. Matthieu Ricard says,
“According to Buddhism, the conflict between materialist and idealist points of view, between mind and matter, is a false problem. In fact, in the mind of most philosophers and scientists, it’s a question of ‘solid’ matter and ‘nonmaterial’ mind being in opposition to each other. But the dominant idea today among scientists is that such a dualism infringes the laws of conservation of energy by supposing that a nonmaterial object can influence a material system. Such a view of things does indeed raises insoluble problems. So it might be useful instead to investigate the ‘reality’ of matter itself, for it’s actually in reifying matter that materialism comes up against its failure to understand the nature of mind. According to Buddhism, atomic particles can neither be “solid” nor even exist intrinsically at all. No collection of such entities, however numerous, is any more real than its constituent parts. Without making too much of the parallels with modern physics, it’s hard not to be reminded of Heisenberg, who wrote, ‘Neither atoms, nor even sub-atomic particles are real. They form a world of potentialities or possibilities rather than objects or facts.’
“What do you mean by objective knowledge? The nature of elementary particles can’t be known independently of the systems we use to measure them. [one of the core principles of quantum mechanics – PR] In the same way, a universe independent of any human concept couldn’t ever be known by the human mind. What is it that’s attached to the reality of phenomena? It’s the mind. And here, what are we working on? The mind! If we succeed in unblocking the solid way in which the mind perceives the world – a way of perceiving that leads to endless suffering – then that’s undeniably objective knowledge, not of the physics of the natural world, but of the mechanisms of suffering, and it’s undeniably an experimental verification of the results of that science of the mind.
“A present instant of consciousness, which was itself set off by a preceding instant of consciousness, sets off the next instant of consciousness. We’ve said that the world has no real beginning in time, and the same goes for consciousness. This is also one of the reasons why we consider that at the moment of conception, the spark of consciousness that animates a newly formed being can only be caused by an event of the same nature, a conscious one, even in the case of a spark as primitive as the one we could imagine in an amoeba.”
All of this is admittedly difficult to follow, but then again, so is quantum theory, so is string theory.
I am aware that there are a good many Buddhist sects that place much more emphasis on ritual than on belief, and I am not prepared to take my Buddhism in such “churchified” form. Perhaps I am only a Buddhist as far as Thomas Jefferson was a Christian when he extracted all the quotations of Christ from the gibberish that constitutes its biblical matrix and set them apart. As it turned out, there was little that was mystical or divine in what Christ is actually reputed to have said. No claims that he would be “resurrected.” No boasts about a “virgin” birth. Nothing about “transsubstantiation.” For me, Buddhism is intriguing because it seems to parallel the tenets of ethical anarchism. At least, it is not incompatible with ethical anarchism. It treats men, women, children, the sane, the crazy, dogs, criminals, salamanders, stamp collectors, butterflies and goldfish as equally worthy objects of respect.
In the hostile, violent, insane and dangerous present, it can be comfort enough just to know that someone else, somewhere, held similar values to our own. That those values have been respected throughout a twenty-five hundred year history. That there are “religious” leaders like the Dalai Lama who, although they are probably not even religious at all in the way we think of religion, maintain an open, scientific and liberal perspective. What other major religious leader would acknowledge and respect atheism, for example?
There’s another test of Buddhism, quite unscientific, but perhaps indicative of something. Go out and find some magazine photographs of the Pope, an Islamic ayatollah, or a Jewish Rabbi. More often than not, you will see a scowling, unhappy visage. This could be someone suffering from severe hemorrhoids, or the gout. These fellows look about as fun and lighthearted as Leonid Brezhnev or Alexei Kosygin. Now go find a photo of the Dalai Lama. Notice anything?
DO YOU HAVE A FRIEND IN BUDDHA?
Anarchism itself is not a coherent philosophy. It is a loosely related collection of philosophies, all of which take as their starting point the desirability of absolute human liberty and the wrongfulness of authoritarian government. There is a full spectrum of “anarchism” that ranges from the pacifistic, voluntaristic and evolutionary anarchism of Kropotkin to the violent and revolutionary anarchism of Bakunin and Nechayev and on yet again to the fiercely individualistic and anti-altruistic, anti-collectivist anarchism of Stirner. There is no such thing as “pure” anarchism, and the means which anarchists embrace range from pacifism and non-violence to the rock-throwing, window-smashing behaviors of thugs and criminals who confuse anarchism with nihilism.
The history of Marxism shows a steady progression from the abstract theories of a reclusive German economist who had no grasp whatsoever of human psychology to the revolutionary scheming of yet another man who had a gift for mob oratory but no grasp of morality, to the leaden authoritarianism of party hacks who had a talent for political maneuvering but none for creativity or originality. To say, in the end, that Yuri Andropov was a “Marxist” makes about as much sense as saying that a creep like Bob Black (or a fool like Noam Chomsky) is an “anarchist” or that the late, unlamented Madalyn Murray O’Hair (who, in her final years was obsessed with fashioning her movement into a parody of a church replete with atheist “saints”) was an “atheist.” If Bob Black can turn anarchism into a movement that justifies calling the police in to bust your supposed friends, we can perhaps begin to comprehend what over two thousand years of human ignorance and idolatry have done to warp and alter the original teachings of Christ and Buddha. Even a lapse of two hundred years can transform a group of deistic, anti-Christian and rabidly libertarian “Founding Fathers” into beaming sponsors of everything from gun control to prayer in public schools and the teaching of “creation science.” Orwell’s 1984 was not so much an ominous warning for the future as it was a satire on what was already happening in 1948, when the book was published. In fact, the Memory Hole has been functioning for at least two thousand years, and probably a lot longer. Practically all of recorded history is revisionist, and one has to read deeply between the lines and extrapolate from ordinary experience to discern any reality whatsoever. Everything you think you know about your country, your ethnic origins, and your religion is massively edited and whitewashed.
So, summing it all up, we have to conclude that the religious, ritualistic elements of Buddhism today are irrelevant add-ons and remodelings that have taken place over more than two thousand years. When Catholicism came to Meso America, it quickly blended with pagan beliefs and rituals, so that the “Church” as it exists in Mexico and Peru is a grotesquely mongrelized thing compared to the “Church” as it exists in Spain. And that Spanish “Church” is, in turn a far cry from the “Church” that existed in the dark catacombs and sewers beneath the city of Rome seventeen hundred years ago. Even the “Church” founded by the Apostle Paul was a crude caricature of the religion outlined only a few years earlier by one Jesus.
Moreover, one can hardly expect a Christ or a Buddha to have much to say about the weather in Guatemala or the functioning of quarks or pi mesons. Discoveries quickly outdate the culturally-rooted elements of a philosophy. We can forgive Benjamin Franklin for not taking relativity and quantum mechanics into consideration when he was writing on scientific matters. One must separate the universally valid elements of a belief system from the culturally and temporally-rooted elements.
What is universally valid about Buddhism is not its current preoccupation with reincarnation. It is the path to enlightenment — rooted universally in simple human experience living and dying in human society– taught by the Buddha. Reincarnation is nothing more than cultural context – a hold-over of Hindu beliefs that were prevalent in India in Gautama’s time.
What is astonishing and altogether important for us to recognize and acknowledge in contemporary Buddhism is its sense of justice, its liberalism, its tolerance of opposing views in a world now largely dominated by rabid sectarian creeds. The very message of Buddhism is couched in the language of skepticism and tempered with admonitions to doubt and to test. This is what makes it so refreshingly different from the “Believe-me-or-I’ll-kick-your-fucking-infidel-ass-into-everlasting-hell” mentality of Christianity and Islam, in particular.
The Dalai Lama is a moral man, and his preoccupation with morality extends to the secular world he sees in his travels. Matthieu Ricard writes that “The Dalai Lama often says to journalists, ‘It’s really good that you poke your noses into things and uncover the state’s scandals. An authentic politician should have nothing to hide.’”
1. Stephen Batchelor, Buddhism Without Beliefs, New York, Riverhead Books, 1997.
2. Jean-Francois Revel and Matthieu Ricard, The Monk and the Philosopher, New York, Schocken Books, 1998.
3. Dalai Lama, Ethics for the New Millennium, New York, Riverhead Books, 1999
All wrong-doing arises because of mind. If mind is transformed can wrong-doing remain? ~ Gotama Buddha ☸