Thursday, 12 June 2014

American Buddhism and the problems of Belief and Free-Inquiry

Early in the song …"Believe in me; Help me believe in anything
I want to be someone who believes" ~ from the song "Mr. Jones"; lyrics by Adam Duritz et al

There is a wildly famous quote from Buddha that I am told by Wildmind's Bodhipaksa is fully fake, a mistranslation of Buddha's true instruction, coming from the Kalama Sutta. Here, the fake quote:
"Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it. Do not believe in anything simply because it is spoken and rumored by many. Do not believe in anything simply because it is found written in your religious books. Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders. Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations. But after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it."
Here, per Bodhipaksa, is the quote properly translated. You may notice that it is for all intents the same as what is now and has long been the subheading at the top of this blogsite:
"Now, Kalamas, don't go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by the thought, 'This contemplative is our teacher.' When you know for yourselves that, 'These qualities are skillful; these qualities are blameless; these qualities are praised by the wise; these qualities, when adopted & carried out, lead to welfare & to happiness' - then you should enter & remain in them."
Bodhipaksa buys the logic of the authentic quote and rejects that of the “fake” quote. He writes:
In the original [valid] quote, accepting something because it “agrees with reason” would seem to be rejected, because “logical conjecture” and “inference” have been rejected, at least as sufficient bases for accepting a teaching as valid. It’s not that logic is rejected as such, just that it can’t be relied on. What is needed is experience. We need to “know for ourselves.

What we need to know for ourselves is not whether a teaching “agrees with reason” but whether when put into practice they are skillful, blameless, praised by the wise, and lead to welfare and to happiness.
Bear with me for a spell, reader. Things will get more interesting a bit later. First, though, in this inquiry into belief, we are met with what I have to believe is a dicey problem, particularly for a Progressive Buddhist, about how we should today accept these instructions which is often called The Buddha's Charter of Free Inquiry.

I find that, of the two, the fake quote is best representative of how I approach what to believe.  Digested, I take it as simply meaning “don’t go by faith.” Accept the teachings to the extent that they overcome your doubts. THAT would be how I subject anything I come to know and accept as true.

For me, the valid-translation quote presents problems for a modern truth-seeking being. It tells us “you should enter & remain” in teachings that take care of you (and by extension, everyone?) and make you (and everyone?) happy.

But the capital-T Truth, you see, doesn’t always correlate with my best interests or that which makes me comfortable and joyful. It is, it seems, independent of me. I am weighted down by a sensibility that requires that I see the Truth of “two plus two” equaling FOUR, no matter how advantageous it might be for me (or the world) if it equaled FIVE.

I would prefer to believe that this Climate Change thing wasn’t happening or that we, the people of earth, were responding to its challenges vigorously. By observation, and information I can trust, I am led to believe that we earthlings are NOT responding to the challenges and I am, thus, left to conclude that my well-being and happiness is not being attended to.

I believe it is true that we, the community of seven billion earthlings  and countless other living things on earth are imperiled. This is a capital-T Truth that I accept – not because I want to (I don’t want to!) – but because I feel I have to. I am not at peace with any of this; I am not happy. Now, maybe we’ll wriggle around our problems: Move coastal cities inland; find the technologies to re-use water and farm new species of plants in the blazing heat. But it feels like we are foolishly taking on a big, big risk, instead of doing the many things that would prevent people from, effectively, continuing to poison the atmosphere with yet more carbon to our great detriment.

Now, you might argue that I have drifted off-topic; that the “teachings” that are referred to by Buddha have nothing to do with the “news of the day,” but with “the way of the world” and how to BE in it. But for us 21st Century, First World people, understanding how the world works (and doesn’t) is important and adds mightily to how we fashion our role in it and what we come to understand is true.

The Kalamas to whom Buddha directed his words regarding “teachings” probably lived in a village and knew very little about what was going on more than fifteen miles outside where they resided. That is not the case for us, today. We know (or can easily learn) about the beginning of our universe and some planets beyond our own in it that might harbor life. We know more about ancient cultures, today, than has been known since these cultures disappeared from the face of the earth thousands of years ago. We can phone someone in Paris, France, or Paris, Texas. And, we have this Internet thing. An incredible flood of stuff at our fingertips that we may cram into our storehouse of knowledge. We are hot shit, people! Yowza! While much of what is on the Internet is skanky, we CAN sort through it. We CAN separate the wheat from the chaff.

We can (and should) use observation, analysis and reason to determine what we accept as valid or helpful or true. THAT is how it should be done in the 21st Century. "Teachings" of all manner should be subjected to our in-skull critic. [A cheer for the fake Buddha quote!] And we should be careful not to allow feelings of happiness or ours or the collective welfare sway a determination of what is capital-T True.

But the fake Buddha quote can be improved upon. Indeed the wonderful Barbara O’Brien,’s Buddhism guide, did that (though probably not intentionally), when she wrote about how a beginner should take up Buddhist practice. Her words could work as a preamble to the Fake Buddha Quote:
If you want to learn about Buddhism, I suggest putting aside all assumptions. Put aside assumptions about Buddhism, and then assumptions about religion. Put aside assumptions about the nature of the self, of reality, of existence. Keep yourself open to new understanding. Whatever beliefs you hold, hold in an open hand and not a tight fist. Just practice, and see where it takes you.
I might take out Barbara's last sentence -- "Just practice and see where it takes you." -- since, again, I don't think happiness or experience is quite the point. Driving around the track at the Indianapolis Speedway would be exhilarating; it doesn't mean I should quit my day job with the expectation of becoming a race-car driver. But, yes, have an open mind. And always be open to changing your mind or correcting yourself.
* - *

Later in the song …”Believe in me because I don't believe in anything
and I want to be someone to believe” ~ from the song “Mr. Jones”; lyrics by Adam Duritz

BUT, I write this not being a person of Faith (better word: Blindfaith). I am, if not comfortable, at least not driven to insanity by high doses of uncertainty and doubt always sparring inside of me. Being a Person of Faith seems like a quick and easy off-ramp to a contented life. Just buy the Bill of Goods, and everything is easy – now and always. Just fly the jetliner into the skyscraper and you’ll get twenty virgins to boink and Paradise will be yours forevermore. Or, Just listen to Fox News and we’ll give you some pithy examples of how you’ve been victimized – Big Government; No Liberty; A Negro President – and you can help us gun down the Commies in Washington D.C.

In his recent book, Why Materialism is Baloney, Bernardo Kastrup tells us about the Zuruahã people in the Brazilian Amazon. “[T]heir worldview entails the belief that the soul (‘asoma’) reunites with lost relatives after physical death. This belief is so deeply internalized that, in the period of 1980-1995, 84.4% of all deaths among adults – defined as people over 12-years old – in their society was caused by suicide. As a result, a population known for excellent health and very few diseases had an average life expectancy of only 35 years.

Some young Zuruahã people.
It is hard for me to know what to think of the Zuruahã people. Reading beyond what Kastrup writes, the Zuruaha appear to live highly tumultuous lives. While committing suicide is the best way to secure a better afterlife, it is motivated by more than a desire to be with ancestors and dead recent relatives; it is also motivated by fractious relationships within the tribe, guilt, getting attention, a hatred of old age, and jealousies – which can give rise to extended tumult and further suicides and failed attempts at suicide.

Christianity can sound like a great deal: Confess you sins; escape going to hell; live in a mansion in heaven; unrelieved happiness! But there are a boatload of reasons not to believe the Bible’s story. E.g: Exegetes tell us how the Bible was cobbled together; how the ruins of sites mentioned in the Bible don’t comport to what’s written about them. There is a lot to suggest that the Bible is largely fiction. And while we are told that “God is Love,” we also learn that he has whole families swallowed up by an opening in the ground; allows the Jews to slaughter a neighboring tribe; and for reasons that defy understanding, crucifies His own Son (which is Himself, somehow).

But most difficult for me is Why is the requirement to get into heaven one of believing something? of taking on blindfaith in who the Bible says Jesus is and confessing sins when God, theoretically, knows all and sees all, anyway? I live by trying to have commonsense, but this Bible stuff doesn’t make any sense.

So, surely, we should use our sweet reason to understand our lives and our world. And, since none of us are – nor was Buddha – All Knowing, we should accommodate others who adopt conclusions about the world different from ours. And, others will have ways of thinking that differ from ours. It might drive us a little crazy, but what can you do? Such are things on our small planet with a great multiplicity of people puttering around on it.

A couple years ago, Carl Jung’s The Red Book was published in English – both in Encyclopedic form, for those wanting the breadth of his crazy jumbled long-hidden secret thoughts; and in abridged form, for those who can only take so much. Generally speaking, I like Jung. I hope it is not just because I preferred his character to Freud’s when I saw A Dangerous Method a couple years ago. Anyway, here is a stretch of words from The Red Book:
The supreme meaning is the path, the way and the bridge to what is to come. That is the God yet to come. It is not the coming God himself, but his image which appears in the supreme meaning? God is an image, and those who worship him must worship him in the image of the supreme meaning.

The supreme meaning is not a meaning and not an absurdity, it is image and force in one, magnificence and force together. The supreme meaning is the beginning and the end. It is the bridge of going across and fulfillment. The other Gods died of their temporality, yet the supreme meaning never dies, it turns into meaning and then into absurdity, and out of the fire and blood of their collision the supreme meaning rises up rejuvenated anew. The image of God has a shadow. The supreme meaning is real and casts a shadow. For what can be actual and corporeal and have no shadow? The shadow is nonsense. It lacks force and has no continued existence through itself. But nonsense is the inseparable and undying brother of the supreme meaning.   – C.G. Jung, from The Red Book
So, does Jung, the genius, know something? Is he onto something? Is there some part of how the world is put together that he understands beyond what any ordinary fellow has access to?

I end, now, with a TED viddy with Bernardo Kastrup giving a lecture. Because of his accent and bad audio he is somewhat difficult to understand, but stay with him, if you can. He makes the point that we don’t DISCOVER mathematical principles; we create them. Likewise, we don’t DISCOVER the world around us, we create it and apply a logic to it to make things feel calm and consistant. While he doesn’t mention quantum weirdness, it is THAT which plays a major role in his insistence that we don’t live in an all-material world; that us being here is what is all-important. We are the unknowing creators. We are the train; not so much the passengers on the train. Sounds crazy, I suppose.
But when you eliminate all other possibilities [on a mission of discovery!?], it may be this is what we are left with.