So I Went To This Buddhist Class Last Night … Part I

16 Jul



Last night I went to an introductory Buddhist class here in my town.

I had a great time!

And as can be expected, the experience got my brain cells moving around and you know I love it when that happens…

I have been having a slow yet steady love affair with Buddhism for quite some time now. I feel that the theories laid out in the Buddhist philosophy, or religion, if you prefer, mostly make sense.

To cut to the chase, I think that the Buddhist framework for identifying the causes of suffering and removing those causes are realistic, tangible, practical, and meaningful.

Furthermore, I also think this framework inherently has nothing to do with theology or God, which in my search for truth,  I find incredibly seductive.

You see, I have a kind of unspoken motto I follow when it comes to all spiritual stuff: I don’t want to fool myself.

I strongly feel this way!

I’ll say it again: I don’t want to fool myself!

And that is why Buddhism is so wonderful to me because it presents such a well thought out method for being happy and living life; something that it testable and doesn’t rely on faith, in order to “believe” it.

That’s the thing really – there’s nothing to “believe.”

Yet there is one prominent aspect of Buddhism that is faith based.

And it’s the biggest hurdle I see that Buddhism has to jump here in the West in order for it to be applicable in the modern world: it’s those pesky ideas having to do with rebirth and reincarnation!

Even the teacher noted as such when he stated that the concept of rebirth was a big speed bump for him. He went on to say that if it was a problem for you, to simply set it aside and not worry about it. I really like that open mindedness but at the same time, I think it’s something that ultimately holds back Buddhist ideas from being applicable and relevant to a couple billion people. It’s a cultural speed bump, and one that many secular people are not going to accept because it doesn’t make sense to them.

Recently, Buddhist teacher and writer Stephen Bachelor took a nice step in jumping over that speed bump by publishing Confession of a Buddhist Atheist. I have not had a chance to fully read this book (yet) but it points to what I think is an inevitable evolution of Buddhism in an increasingly scientific world: Buddhism eventually is going to drop theological ideas concerning rebirth, reincarnation, and to the small extent that it’s even present now, it will also drop any emphasis on worship or deification of Siddhartha Gautama, aka The Buddha.

At least that is what will happen if Buddhism continues to spread in the Western world, where these two partners will evolve together in the ongoing dance that all cultures and religions take part in as each one adapts to the other.

Case in point: when was the last time you read a book on Buddhism written for Westerners that put any emphasis on reincarnation? For sure, it is in some, but even then, my point is that it’s not emphasized. And for many teachers, when talking to Western students via their books, rebirth is rarely mentioned at all.

A sign of things to come?

Theology and Faith: Just A Distraction from What Matters?

Atheist Sam Harris states that:

“The wisdom of the Buddha is currently trapped within the religion of Buddhism.”  (Source: Shambala Sun)

I felt much the same way during a Q&A session of the class, wherein which people asked such questions as:

Can an animal be enlightened in a single lifetime?
Are people born into poverty and suffering because of their previous lives?
Can a human being be reborn into a lower realm?

(By the way, the teachers answer was no, yes, and yes, respectively.)

Now by no means am I mocking the individuals asking these questions. I don’t know their motivation for seeking clarifications on such things, but either way, I don’t have any personal ill will towards them for seeking answers to these questions.

But I couldn’t help thinking:

Isn’t this just a huge distraction from what really matters?

To put it in Buddhist terminology, if the goal is to eliminate all negative qualities of mind and instead to actualize or realize all positive qualities of mind, then to me, these questions surrounding rebirth and reincarnation are a pointless distraction.

Nothing in my day to day life has anything to do with the theological concept of whether or not an animal can become enlightened or whether I might be reborn as a roach or an ant.

And in this way, I see a connection between how when Buddhism (or anything) steers into theology, you quickly get steered into activities that are somewhat meaningless.

What do you guys think?

See, per my motto of “not fooling myself” I tend to get really hung up on points like this. I need everything to make sense, to add up. In a way, the idea that these things are distractions has become a self fulfilling prophecy for me – the irony being that (even the absence of ) these beliefs has still become a distraction. Oh vey!

Note: I really would love to hear others thoughts on the points raised in this article. And to clarify, I have much love and respect for the millions of Buddhists who believe in rebirth, which includes nearly every Buddhist teacher I’ve studied and learned from by reading their books. 🙂

7 Responses to “So I Went To This Buddhist Class Last Night … Part I”

  1. Joshua L July 16, 2010 at 4:59 pm #

    I’m not sure I understand your opinion of Buddhism. You say that you “think that the Buddhist framework for identifying the causes of suffering and removing those causes are realistic, tangible, practical, and meaningful.” And yet you say that when someone asked, “Are people born into poverty and suffering because of their previous lives?” to which which the teacher responded, “yes,” you thought that this was “just a huge distraction from what really matters.” Don’t these remarks contradict each other?

  2. Ben July 16, 2010 at 6:32 pm #

    I can see how that sounds contradictory and maybe even it is to some extent. Let me see if I can clarify my own thoughts. 🙂

    When I said I “think that the Buddhist framework for identifying the causes of suffering and removing those causes are realistic, tangible, practical, and meaningful” I was referring to the specific practices you can take in your own life to “calm the mind” or however you want to phrase it i.e. meditation practices and training. This is something tangible and falsifiable i.e you can put it to the test.

    Compare this to wondering about rebirth and whatnot – there’s no way to test this or prove it one way or the other. It’s theological speculation. And in that sense, it doesn’t “really matter” to me because it’s neither here nor there.

  3. Joshua L July 16, 2010 at 10:32 pm #

    That makes more sense now.

    I do think that reincarnation, at least in theory, is verifiable, even if it isn’t falsifiable. I don’t actually believe in reincarnation, but there have been attempts at proving it, albeit feeble attempts. In fact, you mentioned such possible evidence in a quote from Carl Sagan on this post.

  4. Ben July 17, 2010 at 8:52 pm #

    Can you explain to me the difference between something that’s verifiable versus falsifiable? (I had been using the terms interchangeably!)

  5. Joshua L July 17, 2010 at 11:46 pm #

    The words may take on different shades of meaning in different contexts, but I understand them this way: Something is verifiable if it can be proved true, and something is falsifiable if it can be proved false.

    What I meant by my comment was that if someone tells me they have been reincarnated, I cannot prove them wrong (at least not on scientific grounds). However, I might be able to prove them right by seeing if they have a memory of a past life.

  6. Chris September 8, 2010 at 7:21 pm #

    Hi Ben. This post resonated with so many thoughts going through my head lately. The difference between the verifiable, the faith-based, and not wanting to be fooled. I wrote a post on the topic but there is still more to explore and write about. Faith-based concepts should really be kept as a personal matter, not to be imposed on others. They can be shared, but not forced on others. Many wars and other conflicts could be avoided if people and organizations just followed that principle.

    But I agree with your observation regarding Buddhism that there are aspects that can be verified in our own experience and that some teachings are valuable that way. But who can truly verify that reincarnation is a “fact”. If that were possible, then most people and scientists would have long acknowledged it by now.

  7. Joshua L September 9, 2010 at 12:44 pm #

    I think the issue of faith is stickier than it may appear at first blush. I understand why you might not want faith-based concepts to be imposed on others, but the alternative isn’t so good either.

    Consider this: Almost everyone concurs that murder is immoral. Of course, there are disagreements about what constitutes murder, whether the death penalty is a good idea, whether such-and-such a war is justified, etc. But almost everyone agrees that you can’t just take someone’s life for no reason. The idea that murder is immoral is grounded in the assumption that human life is valuable. But you can’t prove that human life is objectively valuable. One way or another, the idea that human life is valuable must be taken on faith.

    So opposition to murder is, at it’s heart, a faith-based concept. And yet we impose this belief on others by making laws to prohibit murder. Isn’t that a good thing? Isn’t it good that this faith-based concept is imposed on others?

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