Present Moment vs Past Lives, Buddhism vs Christianity…

“Do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future, concentrate the mind on the present moment.” – Fake Buddha Quotes

“Do not dwell on the past, do not dream of the future, concentrate the mind on the present moment,” is a saying that is often attributed to the Buddha, but in fact is not, and even qualifies as a ‘Fake Buddha Quote,’ though it is not so far off the mark, really. As explained in that FBQ website, the quote itself comes from a 1934 Japanese Buddhist booklet, but ultimately seems to derive from the Dhammapada verse 348 which literally says something like (depending on the translation from Pali):

Let go of the past, let go of the future.
Let go of the present. Having gone beyond becoming,
with mind completely freed,
you will never again come to birth and aging.

So that’s ‘Same same but different,’ as we say in Thai pidgin English. The FBQ website’s articulation is well worth reading, but my main take on it is that the present is also rejected, which best makes the point of the Buddhist foundation in renunciation, not ‘present moment,’ which is probably best described as Eckhart Tolle’s philosophy, possibly via that same Japanese thread. Which is all fine and good, as far as it goes. The problem is that it doesn’t really go very far. And neither does the Buddhist renunciation principle, which is very Jain-like in essence.

But Buddhism is at its best as the Middle Path, not as Jainist renunciation, nor as Vedic ritual upon ritual upon reincarnation. In fact I think Buddhism can be seen as the middle path between those two traditions. The problem is that we have to eat, if we want to live, which pretty much prohibits total renunciation, and so many modern Jains became money lenders, and worse. But Buddhism is still a good semi-renunciation option to the full-on Vedic ritual and reincarnation, albeit with a somewhat fudgy rebirth that tries that ‘same same but different’ trick on reincarnation, but never really pulls it off successfully, final outcome pending reconciliation, ad nauseam ad infinitum.

Ironically the one school that did specifically advocate for the ‘present moment’ was Christianity, by Jesus himself, not some latter-day Platonist or Aristotelian riffing on the Myth of the Cave or Aristotle’s Metaphysics. And that of course is the famous verse in Matthew 6: 26, which goes something like (depending on the version): “Look at the birds of the sky: They don’t sow or reap or gather into barns, yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Aren’t you worth more than they?”

There’s only one problem with that metaphor and analogy: It’s wrong. Birds may not reap and sow, but some certainly gather. Woodpeckers do, and squirrels are famous for it, acorns the featured menu item par excellence, but other items can also suffice. Certainly worms don’t store well through the winter, but hey, you do what you can. The point is that animals are capable of planning for the future, and in fact do just that. Luke even doubles down on the concept a couple chapters later:

Luke 12:17
So he thought to himself, ‘What shall I do, since I have nowhere to store my crops?’

Luke 12:19
Then I will say to myself, “You have plenty of good things laid up for many years. Take it easy. Eat, drink, and be merry!”‘

Luke 12:24
Consider the ravens: They do not sow or reap, they have no storehouse or barn; yet God feeds them. How much more valuable you are than the birds!

All of which is to say: Buddhism is not necessarily the ‘Present Moment’ religion that many people—and Buddhist monks—imagine, and Christianity was—but failed at it. And if wildlife is the analogy, then that is just wrong. But Eckhart Tolle never relied on that analogy, so that’s no diss to him, and to the extent that meditation is precisely a concentration on the present moment, then he is right, just not necessarily all the time, unless you want to meditate all the time. Some monks do, and then there are the Jainist rishis. They hardly eat. Most of us eat.

The irony is that many of those present-moment Buddhists are also past-life Buddhists, full of rebirth and the generation-jumping karma of retribution, as if to embrace the logical conclusions of various Buddhist streams of thought is to embrace the essence of Buddhism. But it’s not. To embrace the middle is the essence of Buddhism, and that’s a trickier proposition than most people realize. It’s not total renunciation or total devotion to endless consumption. It’s the sweet spot between the two. It’s not sadism or masochism; it’s the sweet spot between the two.

On balance life is a suffering of sorts, true, but that is a form of suffering within the theatre of the senses, life defined by frequencies of light and sound. We are free—within limits. The challenge is to be content within those limits. That should be no problem, since they are far more extensive than we could ever traverse in a human lifetime. The danger right now is not that we might not have enough freedom. The danger right now is that we might have too much freedom. Those limits define us, after all, sights sounds feelings tastes and smells, something to satisfy every palette and palate…