Buddhism 301: Do I save myself, or do I save the world? Decisions decisions…

img_1893I’m paraphrasing, of course, but this is the question that has plagued—no, let’s say intrigued’—the sangha (Buddhist community) for two and a half millennia, more or less, if not in so many words, then in so many actions, cutting to the chase, and allowing for interpolations and extrapolations, i.e. whether to think big, farming ideas and allowing for fierce and free debate, or to think small, on the achievement of individual ‘liberation’ and the purging of ‘defilements’ from the composite makeshift personalities that we call ‘I’…

And if that’s an oversimplification, then it’s for a worthy cause, ’cause sharper focus is what’s needed for Buddhism to escape the same fate in the West that it met in India a millennium ago, going down in defeat largely because of its inability to distinguish itself from a resurgent ultra-nationalistic Hinduism and an insurgent Islam, such that Buddhism simply got lost in the shuffle of competing meditative traditions and could no longer count on its fall-back position as the non-Hindu alternative…

And a similar situation faces modern Buddhism in the West, where it is the religion of choice for many atheists, non-theists and mixed-message New Agers, while the people who could most benefit from it really have no idea what it is, given the fact that there are few qualified teachers in the West, and teaching a class in yoga doesn’t count…

The people who need it most, of course, are those with a genuine spiritual yearning, of whatever sort, and that is something difficult for many atheists to understand. But it shouldn’t be, because atheism is in fact their religion. At least they believe in something, other than themselves, even if that something is a bit uninspiring to me, and too often pharmaceutical in nature, or at least in the form of liquid refreshment…

Of equal or greater urgency is the plight of agnostics, who are more politically correct in simply pleading ignorance, but as they say, sometimes ignorance is no excuse—for what? For ignoring a sizable portion of what it is that makes you a human being: that’s what. So an avowed atheist like Sam Harris (or is he agnostic? No, they don’t avow) can simply deny that any sort of spiritual yearning actually exists, when queried as to why half the world dutifully and willingly line up for a dose of religion at least once a week, of whatever the sort…

And that is an insult of course, as if all those people really want is a better standard of living (read: more stuff), and when presented with that, any vestigial religious genuflections will simply fade away into the vast gray matter of nonsense from whence it came. There’s your global warning (!) right there, elite arrogance overriding native intuition, and in effect replacing it with something far more sinister—consumerism. Instead an agnostic will typically ‘believe in himself’ or something hideous like that…

That contradicts one of the main tenets of Buddhism, of course, anatta, or non-self. And this is where Theravada starts, by combating the ‘defilements’ of the typical false self, full of itself (!) and unapologetic about it. And where Theravada stops, at the edge of personality, is where the Mahayana tradition picks up, best exemplified by various Chinese schools, and the Buddhist tradition best known in the West—Zen…

It wasn’t always that way, though, these divisions solidifying after centuries of debate that were much more sharply metaphysical in nature, and even bordering on science for the time, defining the nature of ultimate reality as physicists are wont to do. This is in line with my current dictum—mandate—that ‘religion pick up where science leaves off…’

But science as we know it wouldn’t exist for another millennium or two, so it isn’t fair to accuse them of not leaving to Science what belongs to Science, because that wasn’t an option, so they did the best they could, basically leaving the earliest most traditional Buddhist doctrine and practices to the Theravadins, while allowing Mahayana the Big Wheel everything else as a clear field for experiment. And it worked, amazingly, so that now Mahayana is indeed the bigger ‘school’…

…and that includes the Tibetan-Tantric-Vajrayana-Mantrayana school, which is at least half-Hindu, with six levels of god-realms to boot. And while that is not really my brand of Buddhism, especially given the Hindu-style past lives that accompany it, the Dalai Lama does good work and Chogyam Trungpa made a very interesting comparison about how the three largest current divisions of Buddhism—Theravada, Mahayana, and Tibetan—could be seen to represent the three stages of life, his Tibetan unsurprisingly at the top…

This is not unlike my own assignments for Islam, Christianity and Buddhism. Of course Indian ascetics long ago realized that life could be divided into phases, in which the last one was the time for ‘going forth’, and finally going out into the woods to die, perhaps, long after fulfilling the demands of householder and patriarch and career-seeker ad infinitum

Fast forward to the present in the era of Big Science, and past lives are nothing but quaint, if not outright superstitious, and karma awaits discovery of a transfer particle to prove its linkage to DNA, while most of us simply meditate away and hope for the best. In fact, while Mahayana has a strong literary and academic tradition, much of Theravada largely ignores it, actual words from a monk in my Thai forest temple: “thinking is kilesha (defilement)”–ouch!!!

Thus the centuries-long metaphysical debates over this and that, suchness and emptiness, are now reduced to Theravadins battling their demons and defilements, the entire world in the palms of their hands, while Mahayanists do battle with armies, taxmen and bill collectors, and others of us dream of a paradigm shift so profound that it might just change the world. Buddhism starts where the ego leaves off, and the sooner the better. Decisions decisions…

“I want to live in the world…not in my head”–J. Browne