Tuesday, 12 May 2015

Faith, Buddhism and a Hurricane

The Average Buddhist has been quiet for a while. Life intervenes. Blah, blah. Yes, I’m busy, but the truth is my silence has more to do with existential angst than with my “To Do” list. I’m suffering from a serious crisis of faith. 

It has been twenty years since my first crisis of faith catapulted me from the Episcopalianism of my childhood. Growing up I was very involved in the church. We attended every week and I served as an altar girl throughout middle and high school. It was gratifying and centering at the time to be so intimately involved in the liturgy. Then one day I was sitting in the choir pew reciting the familiar Nicene Creed and I realized I didn’t believe what I was saying. It seemed sudden at the time, but it really wasn't. The words were etched into my memory and I could speak them like a reflex, but my belief and my faith were long gone. 

In Buddhism I found a refuge. The Four Noble Truths make sense to me as the fundamental way of the universe. One’s manner of understanding and interacting with those Truths supports a lifetime of evolution. In Buddhism, it is not necessary to believe in an omnipotent, omniscient superhuman being who blesses and damns, who prevents certain disasters but who in some undefined “plan” allows other tragedies to transpire. Even the words of the historic Buddha himself are open for proof by experiential testing. Some would say that faith is irrelevant in Buddhism. I’ve made the grim discovery that it’s not.

My my primary beef is with the teaching that the enlightened mind is the truth of human nature and that the horrible things people think and do are nothing but clouds covering the blue sky. As Buddhists, this is something we are asked to accept on faith and I just can’t do that right now. Despite that, I find myself paralyzed by the wish that I could do something more to disperse that cloud cover - something big, something heroic - that would turn the heads of the masses and wake everyone at once. Instead I am stuck with the drip, drip, drip. I am just one drop of water carving a canyon from a stream.

Merriam-Webster defines “faith” as “a firm believe in something for which there is no proof.” There is absolutely no proof that human nature is fundamentally good. There is ample proof that the opposite is true. As a person who desires enlightenment for all, where does that leave me? Suffering.

Still I should have learned by now, yes? Desire and attachment is the root of suffering. Desiring enlightenment for all is the root of an enormous amount of suffering on my part. So, what? Do I abandon it? Unfortunately to date I find that I’m unable to do that. Even if I could, what good would that do anyone else? If I become inured to the cruelty and the suffering of others, I become a part of the problem. Round and round. My cloud cover spins into a hurricane. I’m not sure how long the storm will last and the weatherman’s on break.

Anyone else feel this way too?


  1. Average,

    I guess I wouldn’t say that the “fundamental” nature of human beings is good; rather, there’s a sort of magnetic pull in the direction of a Buddhism-description of what is good.

    I’m not sure what distinction I’m making, other than to say that “good” in the Buddhist sense, for me, is very much unrelated to a Christian sensibility. Humans are free to act as they will; there is no onerous tag of “sin” and an otherworldly ultimate punishment attached to our wayward actions. We aren’t coerced to act in positive, socially-acceptable ways: we are free to be compassionate (or stinting); loving (or suspicious and upset); welcoming (or withdrawn and lock our front door shut).

    Yet, the freedom that we feel is more wide-ranging that the freedom that we truly have. We are beings with plastic brains, molded by the splendors and horrors of out upbringing and the events in our adult lives. Too, we are avaricious individuals, competing for a pedestal to stand on in the world, thus to prove (to ourself) that our life has meaning; that we aren’t just the outside container to a colon full of shit.

    There are “bad” people in the world, but they are motivated in their “bad” behaviors by their perception of the dire necessity to elbow their way to importance. In other words, people aren’t “bad” so much as deparate.

    Buddhism is a practice to dull the sharp elbows. To relax. To be just one among others. Ultimately, THAT is the greater good.

    1. Yes, I think it's a good word - desperate. And that desperation makes me so sad. All forms of desperation actually - physical and psychological.

  2. I get like this every time I read the facebook feed that I keep my family in. It is an unfortunate realization that the same people who had a hand in raising me, feeding me, held an open door for my friends who needed someone to talk to (even well into my college days) - now spread some of the most racist, sexist, xenophobic, poor-shaming, hate filled, venomous nonsense like some sort of poisonous fertilizer.

    And yet, whenever I post something that speaks to the common goodness of humanity, of our ability to give even when we have nothing, of a oneness of love, of our need to safety, love, compassion, to live free from fear and harm - and how those needs extend to animals and all living things - they share those posts too.

    My take away from this is that I cannot fix them. I cannot take on their karma and somehow replace their negativity with merit. What I can do, however, is control myself. I can still comfort them when they are in need. I can still live by example, and continue to talk about compassion for all things, even that which is at odds with me. Our practice allows us to witness all of that dross and nonsense without being swallowed by it. We can shoulder their burdens without their burdens breaking us because it isn't a part of us.

    And by controlling ourselves, we can hope that it opens their eyes. And if their eyes open, hopefully, their hearts will.

    On a larger scale, it really is not that much different. I would LOVE it if the people around me were just more... I don't know, AWARE of things. I can't grab them and point and say "Look!" But when I do things that get their attention, and see they can change, or should change, or, as I often hear, "I knew that... I just never really thought of it till I watched you do that," I know that the seeds are at least there now, for good to come around.

    (And this might have posted twice. If so, all apologies.)

    1. It's true, people are so full of contradictions. Still in our own minds we always manage to convince ourselves we're being totally rational and consistent. I feel like I can usually keep a good sense of humor about it until they're hurting people...

  3. Re: "My my primary beef is with the teaching that the enlightened mind is the truth of human nature…".

    Well, you may be relieved (or at least intrigued) to know that this ISN'T the teaching of the Buddha in the Theravada canon (a.k.a. Pali canon).

    Re: "There is absolutely no proof that human nature is fundamentally good. There is ample proof that the opposite is true."

    Yes, again, this is an issue where canonical Theravada Orthodoxy is 180 degrees different from "mainstream" Mahayana Buddhism: the whole Pali canon basically has the view that human nature is bad (individually, biologically, and also on the larger scale, socially/politically), and therefore you should have as little to do with it as possible (i.e., asceticism-lite, "lite" relative to contemporaneous Jainism and Hinduism).

    Mayahana Buddhism is flawed both in requiring you believe in a (latent) goodness-of-human-nature that is (as you say) empirically untrue, and it is also flawed in trying to tether this optimistic view of human nature to the continued praised of asceticism (sometimes really extending into self-mutilation in Mahayana tradition, i.e., unlike Theravada's very limited asceticism-lite).

    If you believe that people are good, and that society (i.e., people in aggregate) is good, then why would you renounce your family, friends and society, to live in a cave outside of it, surviving on rice-gruel and trying to "tear up desire by its roots"? The Theravada view is consistent: people are bad, society is bad, therefore eremitism is a great virtue, and the greatest happiness. Mainstream Mahayana tells you that people are wonderful, and have already (tacitly) accomplished Buddha-nature (if only they realized it, etc.), and heaps scorn on the monastic discipline of the Theravada, while offering a sort of loose approximation of it (wrapped up with a different set of gods and customs). What natural conclusion does that tend to? Being a nominal monk, while actually remaining involved in politics, finance, etc.? Being a layperson devoted to earning money and the enjoyment of the senses, while being a nominal member of an ascetic faith that says these same things should be renounced as evil?

    Many, many aspects of both Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism will disappear in the next 100 years, and many disappeared in the last 100 years. I don't think that belief in Indra is going to be revived in Theravada or Mahayana Buddhism. Many of what we now regard as common "articles of faith" will likewise disappear, just as the belief in Indra did (long ago).

  4. I totally see your point, but something in me won't let me give up on humanity - as much as I'd like to. Is there room for a Mahayana perspective that doesn't insist on the inherent goodness of humanity? Less than inherent goodness, I feel like what I see is so much lost potential. Thanks for the great contrastive description of the two main Buddhist vehicles! I haven't thought about it that way before.

  5. "My my primary beef is with the teaching that the enlightened mind is the truth of human nature and that the horrible things people think and do are nothing but clouds covering the blue sky."

    Eisel has unpacked this well in his comment. I would only add that we can look at 'human nature' (a concept that's hard to translate back into Pali) in two ways:
    1) our potential as beings in samsara, which is for complete goodness and awakening, and
    2) our current situation as beings in samsara, which is defined by at least some amount of greed, hatred, and ignorance.

    Both are true, and grasping one without the other is dangerous, imho. So you don't have to give up on humanity or ascribe to us 'inherent' (another tricky term) goodness.

    Secondly, you can return to your practice by focusing on your motivation to 'free all beings', while not clinging to an outcome of 'freeing all beings'. The motivation is what's key, and of course actions must follow from it, but none of us, at least from my samsaric point of view, can actually 'free all beings' in a literal sense. It's an aspiration and a sort of compass for life.

    A nice essay further unpacking a key dinstinction in Theravada/Mahayana thought is Bhikkhu Bodhi's "Dhamma and Non-duality" :


  6. Thank you - it is truly an irony that clinging and attachment are the sources of suffering and yet I absolutely do find myself falling into the trap of attachment to the outcome of freeing all beings. :)

    I will look forward to exploring the link as well.