Thursday, February 10, 2005

Responses to Critiques of Buddhism

As a Buddhist, I frequently hear arguments against Buddhism as a spirituality that I feel are supported only by a very technical and insincere reading of the arguments. It may help, then, for me to describe my own experiences with Buddhism.My parents were in a Gurdjeffian spiritual school headed by an enigmatic and creepy individual. My Dad was still deeply involved, but my half-Quebecois activist-oriented Mom had had her fill of the group. I grew up in a house where spiritual issues were openly discussed alongside math, politics, and culture. I had always had experience with meditation, but it only came later that I fully saw Buddhism for its beauty. As a child, I would lie up at night thinking of death, of suffering, of love, of feeling and passion. I saw a world of infinite wonder, of flocks of delicate birds in the sky and ancient trees with their memory stretching far beyond any human's. This world of serenity and love was one that kept me going, as I was a very quiet and asocial boy, and I slowly had to develop confidence to use my intellect and my ideas to speak. People who know me now but didn't know me then are amazed that I was once so quiet and introspective, for now I am possibly too loud and talkative.

When I started to read Siddhartha by Herman Hesse and the works of the Dalai Lama, alongside philosophy in a coffee-table book that introduced me to everything from Hegel to Kant to postmodernism (things I would become intimately familiar with in my years of debates, reading Kritiks of language and assumptions virtually every negative round), I began to see something that appealed to me: A combination of rationality and passion, a philosophy so reasonable and common-sense that it evoked the best of David Hume and the Enlightenment to me. Reading the Dalai Lama is much like reading the works of Rousseau or Locke: the logic is allowed to develop in such a quiet and yet inexorable manner. Buddhism is the scientist's religion: It postulates nothing but observations that are practically axiomatic of any understanding whatsoever. With these very few assumptions (the Dalai Lama narrowed it down to one: our ethics should be concerned with confronting suffering), an entire edifice is developed, but it is an edifice that is not canon and is ever-changing. Buddhist monks have a practice where one stands and accentuates points with a decisive hand gesture, where the other sits down and responds. A debater's philosophy! How could I not turn this down.Buddhism to me is about combining passion and rationality. We want to be effective moral agents in a complex world. We see that we suffer, and that we do not want to suffer, and further that our suffering makes us blind to others' experiences and reduces our capacities to function. We then see that we suffer because we attach emotional stigma to particular things. If we are poor, we suffer when we see others' opulence; if we are an angry person, we suffer because we let our rage get the better of ourselves. From this, we see that our emotions are caused by a world which is called "illusion". This is possibly Misunderstanding #1. "Illusion" does not mean that one can wish away gravity, as idiotic postmodernists would hope. It rather means that we are contextual with and yet above the external world; that our emotions are caused by external events, and as long as we do not have that control, we will not be a unified self and we will suffer. The idea, then, is to isolate those things that make us lose control, that make us suffer, and slowly come to terms with them. Through this process of self-discovery simultaneous with discovery of the other, of the universe, and of nothingness (because Buddhism postulates that, as we are inevitably affected by and affect other things, we are not an I unto ourselves but something defined by and defining an external reality), we widen both our rationality and the depth and quality of our emotion. The ultimate realization of this is Nirvana.

Misunderstanding #2 is that Nirvana is a place or is a zombified drugged out state of mind. It is one thing to retreat from samsara; that is what the Buddha emphatically did not do, and what he said was idiotic when he created his Middle Way. It is quite another to rise above but affect samsara and seek to find others and assist them. A bodhisattva is a being of infinite compassion; she is capable of not only projecting her feelings onto others but truly feeling them as they feel it. However, unlike some, she does not get overwhelmed by this onrush of empathy; rather, she revels in it and absorbs it all for the sake of the Other. Infinite compassion thereby implies infinite will. Nirvana means that one is in full command of one's emotions and passions, that the mind is no longer like a wild chariot or a barrel of monkeys but instead like a computer under the control of a single, passionate, feeling, loving human being. At this exalted point, one uses anger if it will accomplish a moral task, or sadness, or love, or whatever is necessary. One does not suffer for the suffering of others; what is the point of increasing the amount of suffering? Rather, one feels that suffering and says, "This is inexcusable and must be stopped. How must I proceed?" Patience, rationality, love, compassion, understanding, humor (because humor is fundamentally about evoking satisfaction from another through understanding of their condition), curiousity and intrigue (because one should be interested in everything so one can understand with and empathize with anybody), solidarity, individuality, serenity, and bliss are all aspects of the Buddha mind. I have achieved this state in an incomplete form in very rare moments, as have many people, and I would like to always feel this way.

Misunderstanding #3 is that Buddhism necessarily implies passive resistance. I will readily concede that it leans that direction, but that is not necessary to it. Zen masters do occasionally use violence. The key point is that one should not hate or blame someone else, but understand their motives completely and be willing to forgive them endlessly. However, forgiveness does not mean passivity. If someone is being violent towards someone else, I would stop them, not out of revenge or anger or punishment, but in order to prevent them from doing further harm and to not attempt to coddle someone else's pathologies. It is one thing to be understanding, but it is another thing to submit to and legitimate someone's cruelties. Instead, one must, with patience and love (perhaps tough love), try to make someone else see the contradiction of what they are doing. It is true that a Buddhist will readily sacrifice themselves rather than harm another: for example, the famous Buddhist monks protesting the Vietnam war. Yet that is a perfect example: It was not pandering to the genteel sensibility of middle America; instead, it was going the extra mile to truly show the oppression and destruction for what it was. Many people remember that sacrifice truly vividly; what it showed was that there was a need so drastic to take a second look that it was worth sacrificing many years of possible productivity.


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