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. 🙂