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Buddhism: The Day Humanity Went Solo

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Stephen Hawking, one of the most influential scientists of all time, recently had this to say about heaven.

I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail. There is no heaven or afterlife for broken down computers; that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.

Below the belt, says the theistic community.

A belief in an afterlife or not, humanity usually takes issue when someone insults one of our favorite stories/ideals. History is full of cases where individuals who challenge the notions of the religious status quo are ignored at best and at worse put to death for their beliefs. But we aren’t just talking about the nuance of doctrinal variance here, which occurs within every religious tradition. We are talking about something deeper, an ideal that kills friendships, relationships, and sometimes even human progress.

The existence and/or need of God(s) or to define them.

Humanity constantly analyzes this question. Remember the brilliant and wily Odysseus from the Iliad and the Odyssey? During his voyage home from the war in Troy, the gods (specifically Poseidon for Odysseus killing the god’s son) were so jealous and frustrated with his independent will and ego that they tormented and hindered the wayward traveler at every turn. Only when Odysseus was brought to the edge of death was he literally forced to acknowledge his need of the gods.

Poseidon. Good at making waves. Piss-poor father figure.

So what makes Buddhism so different? Ol’ Siddhartha liked to ride the middle of the road. In fact, he referred to his method as “The Middle Path.” Not too hot, not too cold, just right. This is the same guy who said extremes on either side of any spectrum were “unskillful” means to achieve anything. Turns out, unsubstantiated belief was one of those.

Buddhism is mistaken (and preached by its opponents) as atheistic. There are certainly atheistic Buddhists. I know a few. Nice folks (hey guys!). The truth however, is that Siddhartha grew up, reached Enlightenment, and died as a Hindu. He believed in the same pantheon of gods his countrymen did. This fact is illustrated in the many references he made to the gods throughout the sutras (discourses) and the Dhammapada. What makes the Buddha different is how he redefined the relationship between man and the gods.

Frankly, they can’t help us. Not when it comes to suffering anyway.

Buddhism is not a religion. Let’s go ahead and clear the air on that one. It can certainly resemble one within some of the more devotional schools that follow the Mahayana traditions, however the focus is not on any god, but on suffering. The Buddha discovered that for all the power the gods had, they could not end suffering for anyone. So, since suffering is the main concern for humanity and not even the gods can end it, what’s a revolutionary to do?

The Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path.

Reality hit the Buddha hard. If the gods can’t end suffering, then it is up to us. The Buddha worked for years and finally discovered the path. That is why Buddhism isn’t a religion, but a method to reach a specific goal: to end suffering. This goal, according to the method, transcends the ideals of heaven and gods. Siddhartha focused on teaching The Way for the rest of his life. When asked about theological issues such as the nature of the gods or specific questions about heaven or hell or the origin of the universe he had a very specific and profound answer…

Silence.

In fact, he explains his silence here:

I teach only that which helps us to find the Way. That which is pointless I do not teach. Beyond the fact of whether the universe is finite or infinite, temporary or eternal, there is a truth that must be accepted: the reality of suffering.

Theological questions will drive you nuts. Trust me, I know. Mankind has come up with theory after theory, revelation after divine revelation about who/what God is and all the details about his/its/their nature and how to worship and all the rules and rituals and, really, it’s enough to make your head spin. Who’s right? Who’s wrong? We get wrapped up in debates–especially these days between atheists and theists (and many times between theists)–and where do we find ourselves at the end of these debates?

Nowhere. Nothing is verified. Nothing is proven. No empirical knowledge. No proven experience. Just highly subjective notions,  ruffled feathers, and a continuation of…yeah, suffering. SO the Buddha asks, why focus on defining things we have no way of defining? Why not focus on the here and now, what we can do something about?

My wife has had a particularly difficult time with this month because of its lack of focus on the divine. The concept of a non-central God or deity is foreign to her. “What, we have to do this ourselves? I don’t buy it.” I thought I’d have a tough time myself coming from four traditions which make God or a god central to one’s life and then suddenly saying “Thanks pal, but I can handle it from here.” But really, leaving the nest it isn’t so bad…

What about you? So often folks pray for a miracle, help, or just a dialog but come up with nothing. Have/could you leave the nest of God and strike out on your own? If we can independently end our own suffering (as the Buddha did), do we need to submit ourselves to a “higher power” who doesn’t seem able to handle the task? And what about heaven? If we’ve ended suffering in this life, does the idea of a heaven appear superfluous? Nirvana is a state of non-suffering, and suffering is desire. If we don’t cling to the idea of an afterlife or some propagation of our selves, do we need it to be there?

If a rooster lays an egg on a roof with a 60 degree pitch and the wind is at a brisk 40 degrees F, blowing SE at 15 miles per hour on a Tuesday afternoon, which side will the egg roll off of?

Exactly.



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abowen

posted September 5, 2011 at 10:21 am


Penny,

Of course the Buddha didn’t say it would be easy, after all, it took him six years just to find the way. The Buddha did say that once you’ve reached the farther shore, abandon the boat. Indeed the journey is a lifetime, however having reached Enlightenment, the journey becomes showing others the path. From a Buddhist standpoint, Enlightenment in this lifetime is certainly possible, otherwise why teach it? This is why there is often a friction between theists and Buddhists, because for a Buddhist there is no need to wait for the hereafter in order to reach the goal. The goal is here, now, waiting to be realized and not dependend on a divine third party. But that doesn’t work for everyone. Different strokes for different folks ; ) Thanks for reading along, as always, I enjoy your insight.



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Penny Green

posted September 4, 2011 at 11:15 pm


Sorry I wasn’t clear on that. The teachings and the Way of the Buddha are definitely within reach of anyone who wishes to practice them, but I still think Enlightenment (big “E”)is something that, as far as I’ve heard and experienced, is pretty elusive for most of us. The teachings of the Buddha (and other Manifestations of God) help us find the path and make progress, but it is more of a lifelong journey than the attainment of a destination. I and most of the people I talk to get little moments of enlightenment (small “e”) from time to time, but I’m not sure that any of us will ever “attain” Nirvana in this lifetime and just stay there for the rest of our lives. Or maybe I’m just travelling with the wrong crowd. :)
I’m also not sure about liberation/bliss and union with the Divine being a particularly Baha’i concept, at least not in this plane of existence. I’ve generally understood that to be more connected to liberation from our material existence at the time of death. Actually, now that I think about Enlightenment/Nirvana in that way, I guess it is possible for us to achieve, at least eventually.
Anyways, perhaps I am straying into “That which is pointless” since the Buddha is no longer available to clear this up for us.
Still enjoying and sharing your posts!



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abowen

posted September 4, 2011 at 7:30 pm


Penny,

Thanks for commenting. The Buddha would likely feel disappointed that you percieve his teachings and the goal of Enlightenment/Nirvana as one only a “Manifestation” can reach. He always stressed the capacity for all to reach what he reached, otherwise he would not have taught the 8-fold path for so long. In effect, his life and teachings say “Here, I reached this goal and you can too!” At the same time, I recognize your Baha’i point of view. You’re concept of liberation or bliss comes from a union with or peaceful devotion to the divine. The Buddha would ask why you needed such a medium, however would respect your method of reaching this status. That said, it is truly inaccurate to suggest that the Buddha would have condoned needing the divine to reach Nirvana.



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Penny Green

posted September 4, 2011 at 7:03 pm


Hi Andrew,
I wanted to comment on this post in May but I’ve had an unusually hectic spring/summer and have had a hard time keeping up with PC. Got a little time to spare today, so I hope it’s OK if I throw in my two cents’ worth now (no late fees right?)

“If we can independently end our own suffering (as the Buddha did), do we need to submit ourselves to a “higher power”…?”
Although the Buddha may have been able to end his own suffering, I think that that capacity is unique to the Manifestations of God and well beyond the reach of us mere mortals. The Buddha gave us spiritual tools and teachings that help us cope with life which, because of its impermanence, is filled with suffering, but we human beings can never independently end our own suffering; we can only hope to alleviate it somewhat. In order to do this, we need the help of our “higher power.” We can’t do it alone, as most AA members will agree. In my own spiritual journey, I am learning that “submitting myself” to God is not about caving in to some authority figure or dictator; it’s more about learning to rely on the ultimate Source of all good for help and assistance when I need it.

As far as God being “unable” to end suffering, I think that suffering is simply the natural consequence of living in a world that is finite and of having attachments to that world as part of the nature of being human. Maybe it’s like the natural consequence of having a planet that holds it shape together is that when somebody jumps off a cliff or tall building, they suffer. Both are due to the same force -gravity – without which life on earth would be impossible.

I also think you threw in some pretty big IFs in your May 19 comment. I seriously doubt that there has ever been a human being who has ever completely been able to end suffering, be free of desire or need, or be perfectly content and happy, so I would guess there is still a need for prayer. Would be interesting to know the Dalai Lama’s take on this one.

Really enjoying your site as always – keep up the good work!

As for Stephen Hawking and others like him, they are most certainly entitled to their own opinions; I just feel a little sad for what they are missing out on. Would we still be having these marvellous online conversations if we all believed that our brains (and by extension ourselves?) are nothing more than computers?



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Kora Kaos

posted May 20, 2011 at 5:51 am


Boy.  I’m glad I’m not my brain =)

And I’m glad that I can always be in the present moment, the way out of suffering.  (Well.  I TRY.)



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Kora Kaos

posted May 20, 2011 at 5:51 am


Boy.  I’m glad I’m not my brain =)

And I’m glad that I can always be in the present moment, the way out of suffering.  (Well.  I TRY.)



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Anonymous

posted May 19, 2011 at 7:28 pm


That’s why it’s important to enjoy the journey ; )



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Anonymous

posted May 19, 2011 at 7:28 pm


That’s why it’s important to enjoy the journey ; )



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Anonymous

posted May 19, 2011 at 7:27 pm


There is a third option. The gods or God did not create us. In general, Buddhist believe in the realm of the devas…basically gods, a realm in which we can be reborn. This is like heaven, only as with everything, it is temporary. If the gods can’t end suffering but we can, why pray to them? If we are free of desire or need, why pray to them? If we are perfectly content and happiness radiates from within regardless of the outside world (even God is shown to lose his temper. Not very Buddha-like) then why pray to them? This is the Buddhist argument, however some folks are comfortable with and even emotionally need a personal god figure. This is fine too.



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Anonymous

posted May 19, 2011 at 7:27 pm


There is a third option. The gods or God did not create us. In general, Buddhist believe in the realm of the devas…basically gods, a realm in which we can be reborn. This is like heaven, only as with everything, it is temporary. If the gods can’t end suffering but we can, why pray to them? If we are free of desire or need, why pray to them? If we are perfectly content and happiness radiates from within regardless of the outside world (even God is shown to lose his temper. Not very Buddha-like) then why pray to them? This is the Buddhist argument, however some folks are comfortable with and even emotionally need a personal god figure. This is fine too.



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Anonymous

posted May 19, 2011 at 12:29 pm


Hey there Kay. I’m glad you’re enjoying this month. Why does the focus away from a personal God present a struggle for you? Would it be worth examining why you need a personal deity in the first place? It does kinda put one’s traditional theist attitudes in an uncomfortable place, doesn’t it? Almost as if we are children, all grown up, thrilled and terrified at the same time to set out on our own and leave home.



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Anonymous

posted May 19, 2011 at 12:29 pm


Hey there Kay. I’m glad you’re enjoying this month. Why does the focus away from a personal God present a struggle for you? Would it be worth examining why you need a personal deity in the first place? It does kinda put one’s traditional theist attitudes in an uncomfortable place, doesn’t it? Almost as if we are children, all grown up, thrilled and terrified at the same time to set out on our own and leave home.



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Anonymous

posted May 19, 2011 at 12:26 pm


Thanks Kirei!

Free will brings an interesting dimension to this topic. Free will in fact implies that it is given instead of developed. So in the first case, you would have to convince a Buddhist that a god created Man to have free will. On the other hand, if God(s) cannot end our fundamental suffering, what is their purpose? If we are able to end suffering on our own, what is left for God?



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Anonymous

posted May 19, 2011 at 12:26 pm


Thanks Kirei!

Free will brings an interesting dimension to this topic. Free will in fact implies that it is given instead of developed. So in the first case, you would have to convince a Buddhist that a god created Man to have free will. On the other hand, if God(s) cannot end our fundamental suffering, what is their purpose? If we are able to end suffering on our own, what is left for God?



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Kay

posted May 19, 2011 at 12:59 am


 I understand why some might regard Buddhism as pessimistic, however I don’t find it so.  It seems logical  and doable.  I like that it is regarded as the middle path.  I feel I am a moderate person so I am not surprised that Buddhism has always appealed to me.  I do struggle with its lack of a personal God, but also tire of trying to seek answers to life’s questions that appear to be unanswerable.  My favorite month so far.



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Kay

posted May 19, 2011 at 12:59 am


 I understand why some might regard Buddhism as pessimistic, however I don’t find it so.  It seems logical  and doable.  I like that it is regarded as the middle path.  I feel I am a moderate person so I am not surprised that Buddhism has always appealed to me.  I do struggle with its lack of a personal God, but also tire of trying to seek answers to life’s questions that appear to be unanswerable.  My favorite month so far.



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Kirei

posted May 18, 2011 at 6:24 pm


This is interesting. I like the Buddhist concept of taking responsibility for ending our own suffering – but I would have to disagree that God (or the gods) “can’t” end our suffering for us. I think the reason why God/the Gods don’t end our suffering is because it would violate our free will. Like you said, suffering comes from desire – and desire, when unchecked, can lead us to do some pretty stupid/violent/senseless/damaging things that ultimately cause more suffering for ourselves, and more suffering for others. But if God took away our desire (and thus, our suffering), he would be taking away an integral part of who we are. So we have to eliminate suffering for ourselves. It’s not that they (the gods) can’t, they just won’t. We need to learn.  



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Kirei

posted May 18, 2011 at 6:24 pm


This is interesting. I like the Buddhist concept of taking responsibility for ending our own suffering – but I would have to disagree that God (or the gods) “can’t” end our suffering for us. I think the reason why God/the Gods don’t end our suffering is because it would violate our free will. Like you said, suffering comes from desire – and desire, when unchecked, can lead us to do some pretty stupid/violent/senseless/damaging things that ultimately cause more suffering for ourselves, and more suffering for others. But if God took away our desire (and thus, our suffering), he would be taking away an integral part of who we are. So we have to eliminate suffering for ourselves. It’s not that they (the gods) can’t, they just won’t. We need to learn.  



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Anonymous

posted May 18, 2011 at 5:48 pm


If this were February, I would take the Baha’i perspective ; )

And speaking as an honorary Buddhist regarding the stepping stone comment,
one might say “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”



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Anonymous

posted May 18, 2011 at 5:48 pm


If this were February, I would take the Baha’i perspective ; )

And speaking as an honorary Buddhist regarding the stepping stone comment,
one might say “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”



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Beth Irwin

posted May 18, 2011 at 5:26 pm


Or you could take the Baha’i perspective. Buddha was an earlier Manifestation of the Unknowable and brought the message that was right for his day and age. But the human race has progressed since His time. We can now see the need to practice detachment so that we don’t become lost in the material world. We can understand that we need suffering to learn the lessons of this world and progress in the next, as a gem requires polishing to shine. And we can realize that our Creator is unknowable, beyond our ability to comprehend. But we can find what our limited comprehension IS capable of in the lessons of the Manifestations, culminating in the one for our time, Baha’u’llah. Buddha was a stepping stone on mankind’s path to the infinite. We are farther down the path now, but it doesn’t mean the earlier step was a wrong one. Simply an earlier one. 



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Beth Irwin

posted May 18, 2011 at 5:26 pm


Or you could take the Baha’i perspective. Buddha was an earlier Manifestation of the Unknowable and brought the message that was right for his day and age. But the human race has progressed since His time. We can now see the need to practice detachment so that we don’t become lost in the material world. We can understand that we need suffering to learn the lessons of this world and progress in the next, as a gem requires polishing to shine. And we can realize that our Creator is unknowable, beyond our ability to comprehend. But we can find what our limited comprehension IS capable of in the lessons of the Manifestations, culminating in the one for our time, Baha’u’llah. Buddha was a stepping stone on mankind’s path to the infinite. We are farther down the path now, but it doesn’t mean the earlier step was a wrong one. Simply an earlier one. 



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Anonymous

posted May 18, 2011 at 5:08 pm


Ah yes, yes! Carolina, we are all so different, and beautifully so, aren’t we? A transient reality makes everything sparkle for theists, non-theist, and undecided alike.



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Anonymous

posted May 18, 2011 at 5:08 pm


Ah yes, yes! Carolina, we are all so different, and beautifully so, aren’t we? A transient reality makes everything sparkle for theists, non-theist, and undecided alike.



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Anonymous

posted May 18, 2011 at 5:08 pm


Ah yes, yes! Carolina, we are all so different, and beautifully so, aren’t we? A transient reality makes everything sparkle for theists, non-theist, and undecided alike.



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Carolina Fautsch

posted May 18, 2011 at 4:52 pm


I respect Buddhism, and I believe that for certain people with certain mindsets, it is an ideal path. I certainly think there are powerful reasons why it is so appealing to Westerners now. As you describe, it’s very much a practical method, and very independent and (in its ironic way) proactive. You’ve described the strengths of Buddhism very eloquently. Dependence on God doesn’t necessarily ease our suffering; but for many, the Buddhist perspective certainly does.

However, aside from specific meditation techniques, it’s just fundamentally incompatible with my own perspective. I simply find suffering meaningful, because my ‘path to the divine’, if that makes sense, involves MORE attachment to the world around me– essentially, celebrating desire. I recognize the things of this world are transient, but to me that makes me love them all the more; and I embrace the fact that I will have to mourn the world as it passes by. As someone who values intensity and variety of experience, acceptance of suffering is part of the rich tapestry of our lives.

But I realize that’s just not going to work for a lot of people who are in a lot of pain and need a tangible framework and set of tools to make their lives meaningful.



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Carolina Fautsch

posted May 18, 2011 at 4:52 pm


I respect Buddhism, and I believe that for certain people with certain mindsets, it is an ideal path. I certainly think there are powerful reasons why it is so appealing to Westerners now. As you describe, it’s very much a practical method, and very independent and (in its ironic way) proactive. You’ve described the strengths of Buddhism very eloquently. Dependence on God doesn’t necessarily ease our suffering; but for many, the Buddhist perspective certainly does.

However, aside from specific meditation techniques, it’s just fundamentally incompatible with my own perspective. I simply find suffering meaningful, because my ‘path to the divine’, if that makes sense, involves MORE attachment to the world around me– essentially, celebrating desire. I recognize the things of this world are transient, but to me that makes me love them all the more; and I embrace the fact that I will have to mourn the world as it passes by. As someone who values intensity and variety of experience, acceptance of suffering is part of the rich tapestry of our lives.

But I realize that’s just not going to work for a lot of people who are in a lot of pain and need a tangible framework and set of tools to make their lives meaningful.



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Anonymous

posted May 18, 2011 at 2:20 pm


Haha Ushta te, my good friend Dan

Don’t take my word for Buddhism not being a religion. Ask a Buddhist. I’ve
asked several and none describe their pratice as a religion, but as a
method to free themselves from suffering. You also define religion as a
system with moral beliefs (right living). Is that all? In that case, an
atheistic humanist becomes a religion (don’t tell them that), correct? All
symantics, right? And the Buddha would wonder why anyone would spend the
energy over such a discussion.

Enlightenment is not freedom from suffering, but the wisdom and
realization of suffering, its cause, and its cure. Nirvana is the complete
dissolution of suffering when all craving for what is impermanent
(everything) comes to a halt. In this way there is no belief. Science
varifies the transient nature of all things. The Buddha asks the question:
If all things are transient, why cling to them? Clinging to what is
transient then becomes the source of suffering. Pretty cut and dry.

As for pessimistic attitudes, Buddhist are actually more joyful (in
general) simply because they’ve released themselves from the source of
suffering: attachment. A Buddhist’s joy is generated constantly from
within instead of being conditioned by outside elements. This is why an
Enlightened Buddhist is level-headed in any situation, because they know
that all situations–good or bad–are subject to change and can then focus
on the moment instead of panic–hoping for or wishing for an outcome. The
Buddhist smiles because he has ended his suffering and dependence on
outside stimuli for happiness. It exists internally and eternally. In that
case, the Buddhist is actually endlessly optimistic.

Andrew



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Anonymous

posted May 18, 2011 at 2:20 pm


Haha Ushta te, my good friend Dan

Don’t take my word for Buddhism not being a religion. Ask a Buddhist. I’ve
asked several and none describe their pratice as a religion, but as a
method to free themselves from suffering. You also define religion as a
system with moral beliefs (right living). Is that all? In that case, an
atheistic humanist becomes a religion (don’t tell them that), correct? All
symantics, right? And the Buddha would wonder why anyone would spend the
energy over such a discussion.

Enlightenment is not freedom from suffering, but the wisdom and
realization of suffering, its cause, and its cure. Nirvana is the complete
dissolution of suffering when all craving for what is impermanent
(everything) comes to a halt. In this way there is no belief. Science
varifies the transient nature of all things. The Buddha asks the question:
If all things are transient, why cling to them? Clinging to what is
transient then becomes the source of suffering. Pretty cut and dry.

As for pessimistic attitudes, Buddhist are actually more joyful (in
general) simply because they’ve released themselves from the source of
suffering: attachment. A Buddhist’s joy is generated constantly from
within instead of being conditioned by outside elements. This is why an
Enlightened Buddhist is level-headed in any situation, because they know
that all situations–good or bad–are subject to change and can then focus
on the moment instead of panic–hoping for or wishing for an outcome. The
Buddhist smiles because he has ended his suffering and dependence on
outside stimuli for happiness. It exists internally and eternally. In that
case, the Buddhist is actually endlessly optimistic.

Andrew



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Dan Jensen

posted May 18, 2011 at 2:00 pm


So Andrew, you’ve converted to what might best be called a “practice” this month, rather than a religion. What, then, is your religion? ;-)

I’m not sure that I agree that Buddhism is not a religion, because I believe the foundation of Buddhism to be a moral belief (a belief about right-living). To regard enlightenment to be a matter of becoming free from suffering is a fine idea, but it is nonetheless based on a belief; a belief that I do not quite share. My problem, and perhaps I will be set straight on this someday, is that I find Buddhism to be too pessimistic about the world. I believe that when one speaks of life, one should have a Buddha-like honesty about suffering, but joy is no less fundamental. This is where my Zoroastrian dualism parts ways with the Buddha. The Buddha’s smiles are not quite enough for me.

That said, I admire how Buddhism has managed to keep itself somewhat disentangled from theism. Some Buddhists are theists, of course, but the important point is that theism is not obligatory. I often wish that more of my fellow Zoroastrians could see Zoroaster’s rebellion against the gods in the same light; if not that of man “going solo”, at least of one man trying to steer our religious impulses toward a better life and a better world.



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Dan Jensen

posted May 18, 2011 at 2:00 pm


So Andrew, you’ve converted to what might best be called a “practice” this month, rather than a religion. What, then, is your religion? ;-)

I’m not sure that I agree that Buddhism is not a religion, because I believe the foundation of Buddhism to be a moral belief (a belief about right-living). To regard enlightenment to be a matter of becoming free from suffering is a fine idea, but it is nonetheless based on a belief; a belief that I do not quite share. My problem, and perhaps I will be set straight on this someday, is that I find Buddhism to be too pessimistic about the world. I believe that when one speaks of life, one should have a Buddha-like honesty about suffering, but joy is no less fundamental. This is where my Zoroastrian dualism parts ways with the Buddha. The Buddha’s smiles are not quite enough for me.

That said, I admire how Buddhism has managed to keep itself somewhat disentangled from theism. Some Buddhists are theists, of course, but the important point is that theism is not obligatory. I often wish that more of my fellow Zoroastrians could see Zoroaster’s rebellion against the gods in the same light; if not that of man “going solo”, at least of one man trying to steer our religious impulses toward a better life and a better world.



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