Buddhism: Its Serenity, Its Science and Its Sometimes Unsettling Ambivalence

The idea of Westerners talking about Eastern spirituality never fails to conjure up images of pretension, as embodied by racketeering hippy ashrams or university students seeking an escape from their monotheistic upbringing by claiming to be ‘quite into Buddhism’ (notice they very rarely say “I am a Buddhist”, dabbling is generally the name of the game). Despite these associations one can understand how such ideas gain popularity in cultures dominated by a combination of the modern market and Judeo-Christian religion. I may mock those in the West who pursue it as a form of escapism or as a fashion statement but I confess to being interested in the subject myself, although I have certain reservations that would prevent me from adopting it as a way of life.

One of the main appeals of Buddhism is its adaptability to modernity, particularly in the case of the Mahayana (‘Great Vehicle’) branch, the more widespread and flexible version as practiced in Tibet, as opposed to the more conservative Theravada school.

Global events in recent years reinforce the problem of rigidity in monotheism and the idea of revelation laid down in a holy book that cannot be improved upon or questioned. Around the time that the violence in the Middle East erupted (though easily missed amid all the tumult), the Dalai Lama announced on his Facebook page that he no longer believes religion alone is a sufficient foundation for ethics, further underscoring the contrast between religious philosophies. The Dalai Lama is something of a science and technology enthusiast, and has previously stated that aspects of Buddhist doctrine that are contradicted by subsequent scientific discoveries will simply be adapted to reflect the new discoveries. In his words, “if there is something wrong, we change”. Indeed the foundation of Buddhism is that it does not offer enlightenment laid down in the form of doctrine, merely a methodology to attain it for oneself.

This touches on an aspect of Buddhism that appeals to me in particular (in contrast to the Abrahamic tradition): its attitude towards knowledge. In the Old Testament, our expulsion from the Garden and the stain of original sin all stems from our reckless pursuit of knowledge, as represented by the plucking of fruit from the Tree of Knowledge. Forbidden knowledge, in this case, is also synonymous with sinful sexuality and (via Eve’s acquiescence to the temptations of the serpent) the sinfulness of women. I don’t have the time nor the space to detail here the extent of the harm this epistemological attitude has inflicted upon Judeo-Christian civilisation, suffice it to say that the most destructive fringe fanaticism in the world today is that which rejects enquiry, is ashamed of sex, and oppresses women. Buddhism embodies the inverse of this attitude; the goal of a Buddhist is to achieve ultimate knowledge, which is generally imagined to be, not sinful or depraved, but a state of joy and compassion.

By strange coincidence, the arboreal metaphor persists in both cases: it was under the “Tree of Enlightenment” where Siddhartha Gautama sat in meditation and became the Buddha (“The Awakened One”).

 The rejection of emotion (specifically anger) that goes hand-in-hand with this practice is also troubling. Outrage can, in fact, be a vital driver of progress.

From an intellectual perspective I find the latter attitude more conducive to my own view of knowledge as being a good in and of itself, but there is a socio-political element to be considered as well. The idea of forbidden knowledge of the divine is extremely useful for those who wish to consolidate power in this earthly realm. Knowledge is, after all, power and the ability to ration it is an unparalleled method of control. Men such as William Tyndale were killed for trying to democratise divine knowledge by having it translated into the language spoken by the masses; and, similarly, the Brahman faith that preceded Buddhism was based on divine knowledge contained in vedas that were strictly controlled by a priestly class. The Buddha’s contribution was to assert that this knowledge was available to everyone through their own efforts without the need of an intermediary.

This ‘democratisation’ of religion is often cited in relation to the most obvious contrast between Buddhism and most other faiths (and one of its main appeals to Westerners raised in monotheism); it has no God and therefore no ‘absolute’ authority. There are grey areas here, of course; some schools have multiple ‘deities’ and ‘demons’, but these are generally metaphors for various personal struggles.

The demon, Mara, for example, against whom the Buddha had to win an internal battle before he could achieve enlightenment, represents indiscipline and unwholesomeness.

It is also difficult to argue that the Buddha himself isn’t, in some sense, worshipped.

While there are some schools that attribute to him superhuman powers and a divinely prophesised birth, the broadly accepted view, and the one he himself allegedly maintained, was that he was merely an enlightened man – an achievement open to all. It is the potential of every being to become a Buddha themselves.

Even so, something of a personality cult has developed around his legacy. This is something that, by most accounts, he did not want, preferring instead to emphasise the importance of each individual’s internal Buddha-nature (it is worth digressing here to note that, while much can be said about the problematic aspects of some modern Islamic movements, the Prophet Mohammed apparently had the same problem: he stressed that he was only a messenger and it was only the message that was divine. It is for this reason that images of the Prophet were originally forbidden: because he feared they would be worshipped as idols. How ironic then that this very decree should only reinforce fundamentalist violence and prophet-worship). While Buddhism may not make use of a God in a monotheistic sense, it must be recognised that many Buddhist cultures have advocated various kinds of leader worship. The Dalai Lama himself was technically a hereditary theocratic monarch. It is to his credit that he has relinquished that role. He rather amusingly described the restful night he had after giving up his political role, “that night, very unusual sleep!”

As the Chinese Taoists recognised, everything contains the seed of its opposite and it is from some of the most appealing aspects of Buddhism that problematic beliefs and practices emerge. The commitment to non-violence and compassion seems on the surface to be beyond criticism. If one unpacks this, however, it is necessitated by karma – the cycle of death and rebirth that must be transcended to achieve Nirvana. Like other pacifist sects such as Jainism or Quakerism, this has the downside of essentially advocating non-resistance to evil. Furthermore, the cycle of karma induces a kind of weird celestial consequentialism that can have very troubling results.

In Cambodia, for example, when the Khmer Rouge murderers were on trial for their nightmarish crimes, the Buddhist party objected to their punishment on the grounds that all those killed had committed sins in previous lives. The rejection of emotion (specifically anger) that goes hand-in-hand with this practice is also troubling. Outrage can, in fact, be a vital driver of progress. The rejection of emotion can also have the effect of reversing non-violent tendencies. The Zen discipline, in particular, can engender an indifference to compassion as a mere emotive distraction from the path and was influential, in combination with Shinto beliefs, in inspiring the Bushido (‘Way of the Warrior’) code of the Samurai as well as the Japanese army in the Second World War, as Brian Victoria explores in his book, Zen at War.

The key foundation of Buddhism, from which most of these beliefs stem, is its contention that suffering stems from desire and the self, and, in order to achieve enlightenment, one must reject desire and the separateness of the self.

While the belief in selflessness is a pleasant notion there is a little too much self-abnegation (probably inherited from earlier ascetic traditions) for my taste. It is mainly for this reason that I always found the wholesale appropriation of Eastern traditions by the hippy movement in the sixties, as well as many other bohemian movements of various descriptions, very amusing. While the attraction may be that Buddhism, as well as other traditions such as Taoism and Hinduism are less rigid, they are anything but hedonistic. The same error is made by happy-go-lucky ravers, who adopt the iconography and vernacular of the Rastafari movement while evidently unaware of quite how strict and puritanical a sect it is. The assumption is that because it involves long hair and ganja it is automatically permissive, in fact it prohibits alcohol and involves a life of strict dietary habits and religious observance.

While I previously mentioned the appeal of Buddhism’s openness and adaptability to science, even this can present problems.

One of the most fascinating aspects of Buddhism (as well as other Eastern mystical traditions such as Taoism and Hinduism) is not just its adaptability to science, but its already existing parallels with the still emerging discoveries of modern physics, as described in Fritjof Capra’s The Tao of Physics. These commonalities, while a fascinating area of inquiry when explored with integrity and rigour, tend to open the floodgates for new-age babble.

Despite these concerns, I would still conclude that there is an openness to the Buddhist tradition that forms the basis of its appeal to many people in the West.

Indeed, one of the key features of the religion is its welcoming of lay-people. One can adopt many of the useful methodologies of Buddhism such as meditation, contemplation and its rich philosophical content without embracing self-denial and piety.

Lacking as it does the bribery of paradise or threat of damnation it, by extension, lacks many of the expansionist elements of proselytizing faiths, emphasizing an inward rather than an outward focus.

Apart from anything else, when you don’t feel the impulse to warn everyone around you about their inevitable damnation, you tend to take yourself less seriously. Hence the fact that the Buddha is the only religious icon that is frequently portrayed in the throes of laughter. Indeed, as the Zen saying goes “when you have attained Satori (enlightenment) all that remains is to have a good laugh. It is still open to abuse like any religion or ideology, but, at its core, rather than laying down the law through a series of injunctions and prohibitions, it merely provides tools for the individual to find their own way.

And the most effective way to help anyone in life is to provide them with the means to help themselves.

Featured Image Credit: Flickr

Robin has a background in the UK, South Africa, and the Middle-East. A keen follower of international current affairs, he holds a Masters degree in Global and Comparative Politics. He is a contributing editor to On Netflix Now. Follow him on Twitter @Robin_GJ