Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Exploring Natural Buddhism - Part Three: Buddhism Demystified

Ask any average American what they know about Buddhism, and you'll probably hear three keywords over and over: Karma, Reincarnation, and Enlightenment (nirvana). I'll admit, back before I decided to investigate Buddhism myself, my impressions were generally the same: here's an Asian religion where they believe if you meditate a lot and do good works, you'll get reincarnated higher and higher up the ladder of life until, eventually, you reach enlightenment and dissolve into a state of eternal bliss.

Turns out... not exactly.

Now, it is certainly true that there are Buddhists who believe those things--I certainly won't argue that. There are Buddhist sects that number in the tens, and even hundreds, of millions that believe those things, sure.

But I will argue that, not only are those supernatural beliefs not a requisite to call oneself a Buddhist, supernaturalism is not even a requisite for understanding the aspects of karma, rebirth and enlightenment and for gaining something from that understanding.


Most people imagine karma to be a metaphysical tally of our good works and evil deeds, recorded by someone or something, that affects what happens to us in this life or maybe even a future one. Certainly there are many religions, including some sects of Buddhism, that preach that, and the concept has even worked its way into pop culture.
But the Buddhist understanding of karma goes back to the word's roots. In the ancient Sanskrit, "karma" meant, simply, an action or deed, with the implicit understanding that every action would have some type of reaction. Karma, as understood generally by Buddhism but certainly by Natural Buddhism, is simply the reality that actions have consequences. Every word we speak, every action we take, ripples out from us to the rest of the world, and will have many unforeseen consequences.
But karma is not purely about external ripples; actions are understood to affect the person who performed them, as well. I like the phrase, "neurons that fire together, wire together" to explain the principle of how karma does affect one's "fate." The actions we take change our own perception of ourselves. They form habits. A lie, for example, isn't always an unwise action because of how it may hurt other people; it may also be an unwise action because it makes it easier for us to lie the next time. And so, in this way, it may be said that lying generates bad karma, not because some metaphysical force is keeping track and waiting to smite us with punishment, but because we are setting ourselves up for future suffering.


I find the topic of rebirth in Buddhism to be an interesting one, and I freely confess that I am still a bit of an amateur when it comes to understanding the very widespread Buddhist idea of rebirth. If a central Buddhist truth is anatman--the truth that there is no Self--what is it that reincarnates into different bodies? From a metaphysical standpoint, this makes no sense to me. From a naturalistic standpoint, though, I find the idea of rebirth both uplifting and refreshing.

There are two sides of rebirth to a Natural Buddhist: the physical, and the relational.

I first became aware--not just intellectually, but on a deep, emotional level--of the physical nature of rebirth when I watched The Fountain. In fact, I cannot think of a greater teaching on the nature of life, death, and rebirth than The Fountain, so I would highly encourage you to go watch it, if you haven't already.

But, to sum up a beautiful and enlightening movie in a few banal lines, the moment it all clicked for me was when Rachel Weisz's character, Izzy, was explaining to her husband, (Hugh Jackman's) Tommy, how she had come to accept her impending death. She told the story of a man she had met while exploring Mayan ruins in Central America; he related to her how his father had died, yet he was not sad for he knew his father lived on. A tree, he said, had been planted above his father's grave, and his father's spirit lived on in the tree. When a bird ate the fruit from the tree and flew away, he said, his father's spirit flew with that bird.

"Matter flows from place to place and momentarily comes together to be you," the biologist Richard Dawkins said. When the sun shines, plants convert basic elements from the earth into the catalysts for life. When we eat the plants, we transform those elements into our body, which we then use to gaze at the stars--the descendants of the same supernovas that forged our atoms.
And, when we die, our elements are returned to the earth, to forge new lives and new thoughts.

This is the physical reality of rebirth.

The relational truth of rebirth is one we've all seen, we all acknowledge. But it is one of those truths that it is useful to point out again, from time to time.
How many of us were lucky enough to know our great-grandparents? Probably some, but by no means all. How many of us know even the names of our great-great-grandparents? Probably even fewer.
Yet, I guarantee you, the lives they lived had a very real impact on our lives, today. And I'm not talking about the big, obvious things like their financial choices or relationships, but about their personality quirks, their likes and dislikes, their tics and tendencies. Character attributes like courage, perseverance, honesty--these things get passed down from parent to child just as surely as any material inheritance, and can continue from generation to generation.

In this way, our good actions, our good karma, gets "reborn" in future generations. And, it should go without saying, our bad karma gets reborn, too... by weighing future generations down with things like guilt, insecurity, hatred.

Everything changes; our personalities are affected by causes that have come before. Even as the molecules in our body will one day be the seeds for future life, who we are now in our character plants seeds that will be future personalities.

Enlightenment - Bringing it all together

In English, the word "nirvana" is often translated as "enlightenment," but an equally valid (and far more useful) translation is "awakening." At its most basic, to be Awakened in the Buddhist sense means to become aware of everything I've laid out above and in the previous post. It means to recognize that all things are interconnected, and that all things are constantly changing. It means to become aware that unhappiness is a natural state, but that it, too, is connected to causes and, as an impermanent thing, it may be curtailed. One who has awakened recognizes all these things... and acts.

I hope in my own humble way I've helped you to understand Buddhism a bit better, and why I think it is a valuable practice no matter what your underlying beliefs. I realize I moved pretty quickly on some very broad topics, so if there are any questions or things you'd like to see more on--or if you disagree or feel I've done a topic a disservice--please post a comment!

In my next post, I'm going back to where it all began... The Buddha.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Exploring Natural Buddhism - Part Two: What is Buddhism?

In my introductory post, I addressed the question Why Natural Buddhism?, but I'm embarrassed to say I never really explained what those concepts mean to me. Certainly, I provided links over there on the right; but, seriously, even I don't usually click on links on the blogs I read!
Anyway, it's better if I put things in my own words. After all, as much as I like the sites I link to, that doesn't mean I agree in lockstep with everything they say.

So, last week I asked the question, "Why Naturalism?" But since I already addressed "Why Buddhism?" in my first post, and because people in the West have such a variety of ideas about what Buddhism actually is, I thought it might be better to explore a little bit of what I understand Buddhism to be.

I think the first, most important question to ask is, Is Buddhism a Religion? By this I mean a religion in the Western sense, with supernatural beliefs, rituals, scriptures, dogma and the like. Of course, like most things involving Buddhism, the answer is... complicated. In fact, all the answers I'm going to give in this post are going to be mere glimpses at a much more complicated answer, but there's no way I can give such a broad topic as Buddhism the proper scholarly treatment in a single blog post. So I'm going to answer the best I can, from my perspective; take this post with the proper amount of salt.

So, first off, Is Buddhism a religion? No. But, are there Buddhist religions? Yes. Lots of them.
What I mean is this: there is nothing inherent in Buddhism itself that requires supernatural beliefs or explanations.
What about karma, rebirth, enlightenment? I'll get to those in a bit, but in order to understand Buddhism you first have to understand the context in which it arose. The Buddha--or whoever invented Buddhism--lived in India in the 400's BCE. Hinduism was the primary religion of the day, and Buddhism was not created as a rival religion. It was introduced as both a philosophy and a practice, and was more interested in explaining pragmatic answers to life here and now, rather than postulating where we came from or where we are going. As such, you will find many Hindu beliefs mixed in with the Buddhism of Hindu countries, but those beliefs are easily passed off as allegory or ignored all together without losing anything from Buddhism.

The Core of Buddhism

What is at the core of Buddhism that does not change whether it's imported to a Hindu culture, or a Confucian/Taoist culture, or even a Western non-dualist culture? Two things:

The first is the philosophy, or worldview, of Buddhism: Impermanence and Interconnectedness. A Buddhist understands and accepts that all things arise and all things pass away. There is nothing permanent; not a feeling, not a relationship, not a stone, not a mountain, not the planet and not even the universe. All things change, nothing stays the same.
Furthermore, this arising, changing, and passing away does not happen in a vacuum--all things are connected in relationships of cause and effect. This applies not only in physics, but also in psychology and interpersonal relationships. (For a very quick, rough example of this, think about what happens to your relationships when you're late for work, or you have a headache. Physical, external factors have as much of an impact on our actions as our internal personality)

The second part is the practice, the active part of Buddhism. This is rooted in the understanding of interconnectedness. We realize that even our suffering and our happiness are rooted in causes, and by stilling our minds and examining things from the right perspective we can eradicate conditions that cause suffering and create conditions that cause happiness.
Note that this doesn't mean we try to control our environment to suit our needs. The conditions I'm talking about are conditions of the mind. Buddhism points out that bad things will always happen--that's part of life--but our response to those things determines whether we experience suffering or peace. If we cling to the way things are now, we will suffer when they (inevitably) change. If we cling to the idea that material acquisitions will make us happy, we will never know peace. Obsessions, aversions, irrational attachments; these are conditions that will plague us with suffering. But these mental states are conditions of the mind, they are not permanent. Buddhism is about recognizing them and finding practical ways of dealing with them.

And that, I believe, is the core of Buddhism--eradicating suffering, increasing happiness; not just for the practitioner but for all living beings. A simple, pragmatic approach to the realities of life; an honest approach, examining our intentions and desires in order to find the most skillful means of realizing them.

Soon to follow: karma, rebirth and enlightenment--I'll be explaining these concepts from a naturalistic viewpoint, and why they tie in intimately with the realities of impermanence and interconnectedness.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Exploring Natural Buddhism - Part One: Why Naturalism?

Well, it's a new year (new decade, even), which is as good a time as any for beginnings, so I'm thinking about starting a series of posts to continue the question "Why Natural Buddhism?" Since, as you can see from my list of favorite blogs on your right, my interests range over a broad spectrum, I'm not exactly sure where the majority of my readers come from. So I don't know whether you're acquainted with Buddhism, or naturalism, or both or neither! So I thought maybe I should expand a bit on what those subjects mean to me. (I hesitate to say "what those subjects are," as that would imply that anyone who sees them differently from me is wrong)

So, Part One: Why Naturalism?

In case it wasn't obvious, "Naturalism" means, in this usage, the opposite of "supernaturalism." I prefer the term to "atheist," though one usually implies the other, as I don't like to be labeled simply in opposition to someone else's beliefs. I don't call myself an afairiest because I don't believe in fairies, though I know some people who do (in other words, I'm not being facetious, here). I like the term "skeptic," in some instances, as it means that I don't take things for granted and prefer to withold judgment until I do a little research on my own; but too many people correlate "skeptic" with "humbug," or something similar. I'm not sure why, but there it is.
So I like the term "Naturalist;" it's a positive term, in that it describes what I do believe rather than what I don't, and it's not a common term, so it can act as a bit of a conversation starter. (It also has a vaguely Victorian feel to it, which I don't mind at all)

But why am I a Naturalist, anyway? No matter what I or other people call it, why do I choose to limit my worldview in such a banal way? Do I hate God? Do I have a chip on my shoulder against anything I can't see or touch? Doesn't it make me depressed to think of the universe in such an analytical, cold, scientific way?

Well, first off, I didn't grow up a Naturalist. As I've mentioned previously in this blog, I was raised a very fundamentalist Evangelical Christian. I believed very strongly in a supernatural worldview--indeed, my world was full of "spiritual warfare," where every coincidence or random thought was a sign of a higher conflict. Even after I studied my way out of Christianity where I could no longer force myself to believe in the Bible, I still saw the world in spiritual terms, and looked to everything from ancient pagan beliefs to New Age "woo" in order to explain the mysteries of the world.

I can see very clearly now that my problem was ignorance; I knew very, very little about how the world worked, and so I sought out easy answers--easy because supernatural explanations were what I was used to, but also easy because they did not require much expertise. Does it sound good? Does it kinda make sense? Ok, must be true.
Of course, you know what they say; "Fool me twice" and all that. I wasn't satisfied taking answers on faith anymore, having done so wholeheartedly for 20 years and having been so wrong. I wanted to know how these authorities knew that chakras carried energy through our bodies, or that the myths of the vikings weren't literally true, but those gods and goddesses really do exist in some... existy... way... Really!
And I'm sure you know what I found. None of them had any good, solid reason for believing or proclaiming such things. It felt good, they liked it, maybe there was an anecdotal "friend of a friend" story, and that was it. And that, my friends, is Step #1 for becoming a Naturalist: realize that there are no good, solid reasons for believing in supernatural explanations. Sure, there may be some mysteries that we don't yet understand, but that's no reason to go inventing myths. I always find it amusing how supernaturalists who are so averse to big bad scientists love to point out that men used to believe the earth was flat or that the sun orbited us, and look how wrong they were--what if today's materialists are just as wrong and it turns out [insert particular brand of supernaturalism] is right?
The irony, of course, being that it was science that overturned those erroneous worldviews, not mystics or scriptures. In fact, humans have consistently overturned supernatural explanations for natural ones throughout recorded history. The sun does not orbit the earth, the gods do not live in clouds or rain down lightning, mushroom rings do not grow because of fairies, and humans were not created ex nihilo.

It wasn't until I reawakened my love of science that I realized just how much we do know about the world. Not only that, I also learned that scientists were not simply proclaiming godless dogma because it sounded good to them--as I had been taught and as I'd seen every supernaturalist do--but they actually had repeatable, testable ways of explaining and proving beyond all reasonable doubt those things that we do know. And that is, of course, Step #2: realize that almost every feature of the cosmos is already explained by purely natural means.

And far from being a downer, learning the truth about why things exist and how they work is incredibly uplifting and beautiful. Creationists, for example, love to use phrases like "pondscum" to ridicule the idea that our ancestors arose from simple replicators in a primordial concoction. On the contrary, realizing that I share most of my genes with all life on this planet is at once a humbling yet exhilarating awakening. To understand that the molecules that make up my brain were forged in the hearts of long-dead stars, and now I use them to contemplate those stars' existence is a marvellous truth that connects me with, not only all life on earth, but with the entire universe, as well. Imagine if some of the stardust from a star that helped make me also accumulated into life-sustaining planets elsewhere? A truly awe-inspiring prospect.

And that's what gets me about the supernaturalist worldview--they like to claim that we're missing out on something if we don't think an anthropomorphic deity made us with its own purpose in mind, or that there's some magical soul in our brains that is influenced by constellations or karma. But I've been there, I've believed in those things, and I can honestly tell you that there's no comparison; they are the ones who are missing out, here. You know, when I believed there were monsters in my closet, I found it comforting to pull the sheet over my head and believe it would protect me.

It's a lot better to just realize there are no monsters.