Buddhism: Religion, Philosophy, and Psychology—God(s) Optional…

img_1572

The Golden Spires of Shwedagon Pagoda

Ever wonder what religion would be like without the Father Figure? That’s Buddhism. Can you imagine religion without all the rules and restrictions? That’s Buddhism. Can you envision a religion without pulpits nor pews? That’s Buddhism. And what about no Heaven or Hell? Again, that’s Buddhism. And can you imagine what religion would be like without a God on a throne? Yes, Buddhism is all of this and more…

We’ve just got it in our heads that there is something preeminent and necessary about gods and goddesses, for the purposes of religion, and that may very well be true, call it the ‘primitive’ phase of religion, talking heads and sacred beds, divine revelations and karmic retributions. And in the beginning, capital ‘B’, the East and West were probably very similar, and probably closest to the Hinduism of today: the more gods and goddesses the better, and subvert the divine order at the risk of your own mortal and eternal suffering…

There’s only one problem: how many gods are enough? This could get ridiculous. And it did. So monotheism became the Next Big Deal, whether Buddhism, Christianity or Islam, and here we are today, one god and one god only, one each, but sometimes the same God, and still we are not totally satisfied, pacified nor fulfilled. So what comes next? Islam came close, with its God-without-a-face, and Buddhism, too, with its one face, many features…

But no religion has yet dared to drop its Gods entirely, not even Buddhism, for all the meditation rap and hip-hopping around the subtle lures of village folk belief in spirits—plural. And Tibetan Buddhism has more gods than you can shake a stick at, in six different realms, so although various attempts have been made to ‘un-deify’ Buddhism, none have yet totally succeeded, though meditation without the ju-ju probably comes closest…

There’s only one problem with such cash-only ‘Nowness’. There is no future in it, much less the past. A wise men (Santayana, I believe) once said that “those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it,” and I tend to agree, though obsession with it is counter-productive in my opinion. But the future is pretty special. This is what separates us from the ‘animals’, our abstractions and introspections, our math and our science, and it is good…

Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink…Look at the birdsof the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns… – Jesus H. Christ, Matthew 6:25-34, the Greatest Hits album

I believe Jesus later considered this statement “his greatest blunder,” (:-)), given that birds and many animals indeed do exactly that, but he certainly got the part about worrying right. That’s the trick, to find the sweet spot, neither too calculating nor too negligent, too active or too passive, not too obsessed with the past or the future. After all, the present is something of a conundrum, easy to glorify, but hard to define, best experienced in meditation, and long gone after that…

In fact there may not even be such thing as a present, best defined as something neither past and not quite future, but not quite certain, either. The ambiguity is reflected in language, the European languages obsessed with past and future tenses, not to mention voice mood inflection and stress, but Asian languages? Meh, not so much…

In Asian languages past tense pretty much plays out like “I go yesterday” or “I buy last year”, though the future usually gets a word of introduction, in Chinese the same word that means ‘want’, that is ‘will’, much more than ‘might’, and I don’t mean ‘may be’—get it? So we westerners are obsessed with time, thus it is only therapeutical that we should be obsessed with ‘nowness’, BUT…

It takes more than that to make a religion or a philosophy or a belief system or even a psychology. Meditation is no more than the bare bones of a belief system (which sounds better than ‘religion’), and while that may be better than dubious doctrinal beliefs, it is no substitute for a creative proactive set of guidelines for living. That ensures that we actually have a future, something that is increasingly in doubt…

Care to trade in your smog-filled traffic-choked river-sewage cities of Satanic mills and cheap thrills for something more peaceful and green, high-tech but still clean? That’s my Buddhism. I believe it was the great British philosopher and Pragmatist Jeremy Bentham who once argued that the moral imperative is “the greatest good for the greatest number,” but I might change the language a bit, and Buddha-like assert that the moral imperative is the least suffering for the greatest number…

…the definition of ‘goods’ being subject to interpretation. So now, once again, we are subject to too many gods, mostly of the consumeristic kind, but also the plethora of fad religions and supermarket spirituality that pass for Enlightenment in the modern western world. In this age of global warming, over-population, and never-ending global warfare, does the prospect of one day having your own self-driving car really excite and provide you the spiritual succor that you most need? Not me…

Advertisements