Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The Religion of Growing Up

People sometimes ask me if I'm religious, and when I reply that I am, they want to know what's my religion. I used to reply that my religion is Buddhism, but I've quickly learned that this answer tends to bring about more confusion than clarification. This is because a lot of people seem to believe that Buddhism is not actually a religion, it is more like a philosophy.

The above belief is, of course, dead wrong, as Buddhism is more like an anti-philosophy. But it also gets tough to explain how is Buddhism a religion, since in the Buddhist teaching one cannot find a Creator, nor gods, nor other divine beings and prophets or what-have-you.

This is why I now tend to claim that my religion is called "Growing Up". Simply put, I firmly believe in the power of growing up. What that means is that in case anyone is feeling upset, unfulfilled, vexed, sad, depressed, and so on, the way out of that predicament is simple -- try to grow up. Once you grow up, all these afflictions will vanish for you.

And of course, the flip side of the above is that anyone who feels sad, forlorn, unfulfilled, addicted, torn, etc. is afflicted like that because he or she are still hanging on to their childhood. Once you leave your childhood behind you for good, you enter the world of grownups, where all these hang ups and all that suffering ceases to be present.

So yes, there is a higher calling, an invisible power that presides over human beings and that can lead them out of the darkness and into the world of eternal light. The presence of that power is what constitutes my religion, my belief system. You cannot see it, you cannot touch it, but you can achieve it. And all you have to do is simply let go of your childish behavior and allow yourself to grow up.

And that's what, in a nutshell, constitutes the Buddhist faith as well. The strong, unwavering belief in the power of growing up. The unshakeable conviction that, once we let go of our childhood, we will wake up in the splendid world of grownup human beings, where all our present problems become marvelous opportunities.

Here is how, in general, human predicament and human delusions work: every human being is keenly aware of the constant change that shapes and colors and flavors our lives. There is no denying that change is inevitable, and that it is constantly at work. Everyone knows that, and everyone agrees with that. But it is what we do with this acknowledgement that makes a difference, that separates childish people from grownups.

All religions (with a notable exception of the Buddhist religion) claim that change is bad, going even as far as claiming that change is evil. Many entrenched world religions ascertain that change is the work of the Devil, or that change is the deceptive hypnotic web that is weaved by some evil demons. At any rate, change, as it occurs in the world, is there to deceive us, to trick us, to lure us away from all that is wholesome and good and holly.

God and truth, on the other hand, are the opposite of change. They are unchangeable, immutable, forever there, forever substantial. Change is totally insubstantial, and as such, is to be avoided at all cost.

To that end, religious systems devise all kinds of practices that will get us out of the evil and deceptive world of change, and into the bosom of salvation. However, when asked to demonstrate that aspect, or part of reality that is not characterized by change, all these sophisticated religions fail. Other than producing some mumbo-jumbo fantasized concepts, such as an immutable 'soul' or 'spirit', which no one has ever been able to see, touch, or feel, all these religions appear impotent. The true substance, the true philosopher's stone or the holly grail, is nowhere to be found. And yet, the blind faith, the wishful thinking that somehow, somewhere, there is a safe world where change will not affect us, persists.

Buddhism, on the other hand, is the only religion that turns all this on its head. In Buddhism, the only real, non-deceptive thing is change itself. Any apparition of substantiality, or lack of change, is considered the work of deception, and is to be avoided. In Buddhism, allegedly immutable things, such as 'soul', or 'spirit', or 'heaven' etc. are considered utterly harmful. The only way out of the miserable predicament that humans find themselves in is through embracing change, which is just another way of saying 'by growing up'.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Is Buddhism a World-Denying Teaching?

Often times we hear people denouncing Eastern religions and spiritual teachings as being world-denying. Buddhism, being of Eastern origins, gets bundled into the same category of world-denying practices. I should like to add that these accusations often seem to originate from the Christian-based thinkers.

Obviously, Christianity itself could just as easily be accused of the 'world denying' propensities, seeing how eager Christian practitioners are to denounce the world, or as they call it, the valley of tears. Their teaching and practice is all about suffering and tolerating the unpleasantness of this world in order to earn the reward of life everlasting in Heaven (Heaven being, of course, the absolute denial and negation of this world.)

But here I want to ask the question what is meant by 'world' and what is meant by 'denying it'?

For most religious practitioners, 'world' is synonymous with 'creation', and 'world denial' is synonymous with destruction. The truth of creation is the highest value and the highest goal in the minds of the 'creationists'. Is there an equivalent to that in the Buddhist teaching?

Four Truths in the Buddhist Teaching

We as Buddhist practitioners are aware of four kinds of truths. These truths inhabit our practice, and are detectable at various times to variously trained practitioners.

The first kind of truth is the truth we tend to uphold while being in the state of sleep and dreaming some dreams. At that point, the content of our dreams appears to us as undeniable truth, something that is simply self-evident. We do not feel, at the time when we're engulfed in dreams, that we have to stop and step back and reevaluate the truth of what's unfolding before us in our dream.

However, when the conditions change, that is to say when we wake up, the simple truth that was so self-evident to us a moment ago, ceases to be the truth and turns out to be untrue. The states we were experiencing while dreaming did not continue to hold true when our conditions changed from sleeping to being awake. So that, for example, while I may have been unbearably embarrassed in my dream where I was under the impression that I have showed up at the office without wearing my pants nor my underwear, upon waking up I immediately realize the falsity of that fact and the foolishness of feeling embarrassed about something that never happened.

So we see that the first kind of truth is subject to conditions. At one point in time it appears to be holding true, but the next moment its truthfulness simply evaporates.

The second kind of truth that we can talk about in Buddhism is the truth of the optical or other apparitions, as they may occur to us while being awake. Thus a person could find himself wandering in the desert, not having any water to drink. At some point, that person may look toward the horizon and joyously discover that there is a little lake full of fresh water awaiting him. He may then rush toward that lake, hoping to quench his thirst. But sooner or later, the conditions will change for that person, and he will be forced to recognize the falsity of this, the second level truth. Such truth used to hold true for the time being and under certain conditions, but as soon as the conditions change, the truth evaporates. Therefore, the second kind of truth in Buddhism is also conditioned. It arises under certain conditions, and then it perishes when those conditions cease to be present.

The third kind of truth is the truth of the so-called normal waking living. This truth holds that there are space and time which possess certain attributes (i.e. up, down, left, right, west, east, south, north, before, now, after, etc.). Also, it holds that there are various objects that come into being, stay around for a while, and then vanish. All these objects are distinct and separate from each other.

What Buddhist practice reveals is that this third kind of truth is also completely conditioned. Same as the first two kinds of truth (i.e. the truth of dreams while being asleep and the truth of optical illusion while being under duress), the normal everyday truth of being born, growing up, aging, getting sick and dying is also applicable only under certain circumstances. Remove those circumstances and conditions, and the normal everyday truth evaporates in the same way that the truth contained in the dreams evaporates upon waking up.

The fourth kind of truth is the so-called ultimate truth, that is, truth of the totality. Unlike the first three kinds of truths, this truth is unconditioned. It is unborn and unperishable. Regardless of how violently and abruptly the conditions and the circumstances may change, ultimate truth cannot be affected.

What is being denied in Buddhism?

Buddhism negates and denies the unconditional validity of the first three kinds of truth (that is, the truth contained in dreams, the truth contained in optical and similar illusions, and the truth contained in everyday norms accepted by the consensus). Buddhism does not negate the validity of the absolute truth. But if anyone blindly believes that the first three kinds of truths contain immutable validity that is not affected by the changing conditions and circumstances, than such person is being delusional.

So is Buddhism denying the world? It would depend on the definition of the notion of 'world'. If by world we mean the world of dreams, then yes, Buddhism is denying the unconditional validity of that world. Also, if by world we mean the world of optical illusions, then the answer is also positive. Same for the world of socially constructed norms, such as our regular daily world of sowing seeds and harvesting crops, chopping wood and carrying water. Buddhism does indeed deny the unconditional validity of that world. In other words, Buddhism claims that such worlds are only relative, being dependent on conditions and circumstances, and thus being at their whims.

What is not whimsical, according to the Buddhist teaching, is the undeniable validity of totality, of ultimate truth. Buddhism does not deny nor negate this world. Buddhism only denies the world where the truth, even though appearing to be self-evident, cannot withstand protracted scrutiny.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Is it better to be Kind than Right?

better to be kind

The above message was created by Anne Harwell and I am using it here to illustrate the typical malaise that is characteristic of our culture and our civilization.

So what's wrong with the above banner? It triumphantly states that "it is better to be kind than right". By claiming that, the statement establishes a tacit assumption that to be kind means to be wrong. Then, it takes a 'wiser' stance and claims that, be all that as it may, it is still better to be wrong, but kind.

The question that immediately comes to mind is: "Based on whose authority do these people claim that to be kind is to be wrong?" And if that's indeed the case, based on what authority are we now to accept that it is better to be wrong (i.e. kind) than to be right?

This false dichotomy, the erroneous pitting of being kind against being right, is a clearcut case of intellectual weakness. The author blindly accepts the idea that one cannot possibly be kind and be right at the same time. But one needs to stop and ask oneself: "Why would being kind mean that one is wrong?"

The problem lies precisely in that question. Somewhere along the line, people have made this unexamined assumption that being kind equates to being wrong. It would be pretty much impossible to determine why and how did that terrible miscalculation arise. Still, the erroneous thinking is here, as witnessed in the above poster.

To remedy this terrible confusion, I will say that to be kind always means that one is right. There is no exception to this rule. Any time you are being kind, you cannot help but be right.

In the light of this realization, one can more easily see how tragically misguided is the sentiment that formulated the above poster.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Delusion and Arrogance

The defining characteristic that separates humans from animals is that humans tend to be very self-congratulatory. We humans think of ourselves as being the 'bees knees' in the grand scheme of things. We are at the top of the food chain, we have no natural predators, we control our environment, and basically we are the masters who are calling the shots.

This is precisely what I'd call the height of self-delusion. Being the self-proclaimed and self-appointed masters of the universe, we are indeed the most arrogant living beings, period.

So what is it exactly that we humans are so incredibly proud of? What is our crowning achievement that sets us so high above any other living beings?

Is it perchance our ability to think in abstract terms? Let's watch the video clip below depicting a human being engaged in an exercise of abstract thinking and reasoning. The subject is given a brief glimpse of five randomly distributed single digit numbers (each number unique, in this case the numbers are 1, 3, 4, 6 and 9). The numbers then get masked by opaque squares, and the subject is challenged to touch the masked numbers, from the lowest to the highest. The exercise then gets repeated, each time with different numbers distributed differently around the touch screen:

Ouch! That was quite bad. Let's now watch the video depicting a chimpanzee attempting to pass the same test:

Yowza! Monkey business indeed!

There's plenty of more similarly revealing videos coming from the Japanese research lab, underlying the chimps' superiority over highly educated humans.

Suddenly, I don't feel so self-congratulatory anymore. Nor do I feel so self-important anymore.

In our next installment, we'll probe a bit deeper into what appears to be the obvious difference between humans and chimps. The results are quite revealing.

You can now go and tap yourself on the shoulder for being so superior to other living beings.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Shunyata and Love

Shunyata (often translated as emptiness) is at the heart of experiencing reality as it is. Anyone who's been in the position to taste the unsurpassed flavor of freedom had actually been in intimate touch with shunyata at that moment. And that moment is, of course, timeless.

From the phenomenological perspective, that is, from the perspective of attempting to describe the indescribable experience of shunyata, one can only say that there is an unmistakable realization that all the everyday things and concepts are unreal. Everything that we cherish and everything that we feel brings meaning to our lives is perceived as false and irrelevant once we experience enlightenment by getting in touch with shunyata.

What then tends to be rather confusing to the innocent bystanders, who may become aware that someone in their community has experienced liberation, is why is it that liberation invariably brings love? Why is it that, once someone realizes how utterly futile all human hopes and dreams are, all that's left for that person to feel is love? Why not feel hate instead of love, or feel anger, or cynicism, or any other arbitrary emotion?

The reason is very simple: love is the most immediate manifestation of intimacy. When a person experiences liberation, enlightenment, shunyata, what becomes immediately apparent is how intimate every apparition, every manifested as well as every unmanifested phenomenon is. All separation is gone, disappeared in the same way the night disappears with the light of dawn. And all that is left is absence of separation, absence of anxiety, absence of vexation. In other words, love.

The above description may be naive and simplistic, but it is nevertheless true.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

It's Not About You

My mother died ten days ago. When I heard the news, my first reaction was a friendly welcome. A feeling of welcoming a very dear friend.

Now, that reaction may strike you as being completely odd, even inappropriate. You may be now wondering: "Alex, where is the sadness and the sorrow that every living human being must feel upon learning that their mother passed away?" Here is why I think my knee-jerk feeling of sadness was almost instantaneously replaced by the feeling of embracing a new, long awaited friend:

It's not because I didn't love my mother, or because I wasn't close to her, or because we had unresolved issues. No, I've been close to my mother my entire life, and we cared for and deeply loved each other. It's also not the case of witnessing someone suffering long and unbearable illness, and wishing for a swift mercy death. No, my mother was healthy, in good spirits. She died suddenly, from a heart attack (even though she was only 74 years old).

But an event as significant as my mother's death revealed something to me that was a lesson worth learning. Instead of taking this sad event as the tragedy that unexpectedly happened to me, I was blessed with the insight that could be summed in the following sentence: "It's not about you, it's about her!"

There is an enormous feeling of liberation whenever we manage to leave the world of personal convenience and neglect our puny egomaniacal concerns, and place our selves in other people's position. My mother's dying instantly put me into that position. All I was concerned with was her own situation, not mine.

This feeling helped me tremendously in solidifying my own convictions that self is irrelevant, and that the meaning of life can only be found in seeing through the falsity that is masquerading as self, or ego. This is why I consider my mother's death as her gift to me. She gave me the gift of life, she gave me the gift of teaching me how to survive, and now she gave me the final gift -- the gift of knowing how to die.

So, no matter what happens, it really helps if you carry with you a strong insight that it's never about you. You, as a separate being, are irrelevant. If you can clearly see that, then there will be no more obstacles to stop you in releasing your lion's roar of liberation!