Wednesday, 24 January 2018

Loving Life and Lovingkindness

Prajna arises from unexpected places - sometimes even trolls. Some of you may remember a troll who stopped by the Progressive Buddhism Facebook page a few weeks ago. She left this insightful pearl of wisdom: “I’m sorry, but this is all just New Age nonsense.” (I paraphrase, since I can’t find the original post) Most days I ignore trolls. This time something prompted me to click on her name to investigate her public-facing information. 

Not much was there. I understand. I also keep public posts to a minimum, but one visible item did intrigue me. It was a YouTube link to a portion of a talk by anti-theist Christopher Hitchens answering the following question from a member of his audience: 

“If there is no God, why do you spend your whole life trying to convince people that there isn’t? Why don’t you just stay home?”

Hitchens’ response perfectly verbalized my frustration with organized religion. I’ll leave his words intact here: 

“what I find repulsive about especially monotheistic, messianic religion, with a large part of itself it quite clearly wants us all to die. It wants this world to come to an end. You can tell the yearning for things to be over whenever you read any of its real texts or listen to any of its real, authentic spokesmen.”

Yes! Nailed it! On balance religion pulls us away from the present moment, replacing it with fantastical images of a glorious unearthly future. In doing so, the good that can be done in the present moment, the compassion and care that could be shared in the present moment is marginalized. Being oriented toward piety in exchange for some final reward, there is little incentive to make the most of the present moment.

Buddhists are equally as guilty when they bow to mirages of perfect inner peace. Obsessing over reincarnation, enlightenment, and nirvana, many practitioners become tightly attached to defeating samsara. Focusing on ontological endpoints prevents the practitioner from fully engaging in the present moment. In Hitchens’ words:

“so the painful business of living as humans and studying civilization and trying to acquire learning and knowledge and health and medicine and to push that far can all be scrapped and the cult of death can take over.”

In Pema Chödrön’s teachings, there is a parallel lesson. We have to “learn to stay” with our uncomfortable thoughts, feelings and physical difficulties. 

It would seem that most religions actually discourage staying in the present moment. Similarly to those who have detailed plans for what they will do when they win the lottery or when they retire, religion encourages practitioners to imagine a world in which they don’t have to work and where there is no frustration or pain. 

I remember a former patient who was a busy well-respected surgeon. He and his wife had been looking forward to his retirement when they were finally going to relax and travel. Unfortunately, the surgeon developed an inoperable brain tumor six months after retiring. This couple reached their endpoint, but without their expected reward. 

One antidote to craving a final reward is to embody “don’t know mind” in terms of our assumptions about existence after death. Maybe there is a heaven where we are reunited with our family and other loved ones. Maybe there isn’t. Maybe we reincarnate repeatedly until we reach enlightenment. Maybe not. Maybe there is nothing but annihilation of the consciousness and it’s over. 

I return to Pema: 
“Given that death is certain and the time of death is uncertain, what is the most important thing?”

My answer: Live now. Love now. Be kind and generous now. Be awake and engaged now. Make this time and this place the best that is can be. The afterlife will come when it comes. Only then will we understand. 

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