Project Conversion

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…


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?


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