Buddhism, the good and the bad

My previous article describes a week-long silent Buddhist retreat I took last month that touched me more than I expected. In this article, I will offer some additional thoughts on experience and on Buddhism.

Happiness versus truth

Western Buddhists insist that Buddhism is not a religion, it is a science, an empirical method for analyzing the mind and its relation to the world. This assertion is fallacious. Like the monotheistic religions, Buddhism espouses indemonstrable supernatural doctrines, namely reincarnation and karma.

And Buddhism is arguably anti-scientific, or anti-intellectual, in that it avoids grappling with big “why” questions. Why is there something rather than nothing? Why is life like this and not otherwise? Why is life so unfair and painful? Buddha would have discouraged this kind of metaphysical speculation. He simply accepted that life is hard and prescribed methods to make it more enjoyable.

Some researchers find it hard to stop asking why. This tension within Buddhism was dramatized in Jack Kerouac’s autobiographical novel Dharma tramps, published in 1958. The two main characters are “Ray Smith”, the avatar of Kerouac, and “Japhy Ryder”, inspired by the poet Gary Snyder, who aroused Kerouac’s interest in Buddhism. In one scene, Smith and Ryder are hiking and having the following exchange (which I modified slightly):

Smith / Kerouac: Japhy, do you think God made the world to have fun because he was bored? Because if he was, he would have to be mean …

Ryder / Snyder: Well, it says in the Sutra that God …

Smith / Kerouac: But it also emanated from sentient beings and their ignorance. It is too pitiful. I won’t rest until I find out Why, Japhy, Why.

Ryder / Snyder: Ah, don’t disturb your mental essence. Remember that in the pure essence of the mind there is no question to ask why and even no meaning attached to it.

I am with Kerouac, my non-practicing Catholic colleague. I have to ask Why, although I never get a satisfactory answer. When I took psychedelics, I looked for truth more than happiness. If I had to choose between them, I think I would go with the truth, even though it turned out to be weird and disturbing. I would rather have it all, that is, feel good about life, embrace it in all its inexplicable flaw, and also keep trying to figure it out. Probably impossible, but that’s my goal.

How Buddhism Makes You Kinder

Retirement has forced me to reconsider my doubts about whether meditation makes you more enjoyable. As I said in my last article, meditation and other spiritual practices can help you savor every moment, no matter how tedious or boring, for itself. A side effect of this perspective is seeing everyone as an end in themselves. Even those who annoy, annoy or infuriate you (unwanted calls, car salesmen, rude students) deserve your respect at the very least.

I felt this feeling on the first day of my return from retirement. Veterans warned me that returning, especially to a noisy city, would be shocking. But I was fine, more than fine. On my first evening at home, I strolled along the Hudson on a boardwalk crowded with people of all ages and ethnicities. I found everyone, even the conceited young men strutting, fascinating, funny, adorable.

There is a downside to this hyper-appreciation. When I meet someone who is clearly in pain, like a homeless man with swollen legs and diabetes, it is more difficult than before to coldly ignore them. But what should I do? It is one thing to feel compassion, but when and how should you act on it? Should I volunteer at the homeless shelter down the street? Give half of my salary to the poor? Fortunately, my compassion is superficial, so I probably won’t have to make those difficult choices.

How Buddhism Makes You Mean

And that brings me to my last point. Obviously, not all Buddhists act like saints. Some so-called enlightened teachers act like fools or worse. I have an idea why. During the retreat, I became dissociated from my thoughts and emotions, a condition I call laziness. I am normally quite anxious, but my anxiety has eased. He couldn’t get hold of me. It was great, because fear hardens my softness, it prevents me from grokker at the moment. To be fearless is to be free. Law?

But fear also has a social function. It prevents us from acting badly towards others, because we fear disapproval or social punishment, or simply the sting of conscience. sociopaths lack of fear. The ethical precepts of Buddhism – righteous speech, righteous deed and so on – are intended to prevent released practitioners from becoming intrepid nihilistic morons. But some people, freed from fear by Buddhist practice, become morons anyway.

Your innate temperament can determine how you respond to fearless awakening. If you have a strong predisposition for empathy and compassion, you become a good guru, a bodhisattva, who cares about others. If you have an innate desire for sex and power, if you love to play with people, you become a bad guru, de Sade in saffron robes. Enlightenment, from this perspective, might not transform us as much as we would like. First there is an asshole, then there is no asshole, then there is.

I’m still glad I retired. It was one of the most meaningful experiences I have ever had, although I am not sure what it means.

Further reading:

Buddhist critic goes on silent Buddhist retreat

Can Buddhism Save Us?

Does Buddhism Give Us Answers Or Questions?

Why don’t I dig into Buddhism.

Meta-meditation: a skeptic meditates on meditation

Can meditation make us kinder?

Research on TM and other forms of meditation stinks.

The strangeness of the strangeness

How does it feel to be awake?

What should we do with our visions of Heaven and Hell?

Was Wittgenstein a mystic?

Yes, make psychedelics available legally, but remember the risks

Meta-Post: Horgan Posts on Psychedelics

Rational mysticism: spirituality meets science in the search for enlightenment