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Confessions of a Pseudo-Buddhist

A few years ago I was shopping in the local grocery store.  As I was walking down the aisle, I passed another guy, whom I noticed was looking at me.  He called me by name, and I recognized him–he’d been my best friend’s roommate in college some thirty years before.  It turned out that we both lived in the same small town now.  We talked for awhile, catching up.  At one point, I mentioned in passing that I was a member of the local Catholic parish.  He looked at me somewhat askance, and then said, “I always thought you were Buddhist!”  I don’t remember how I responded to that at the time.  Thinking about it later, though, I decided, upon looking back, that I probably did come off as a Buddhist in those halcyon days of yore.  Since then, I sometimes describe myself at that point as a “quasi-Buddhist” or a “functional Buddhist”.  Maybe “Buddhist fellow-traveler” would be better.  Best of all, perhaps, as with the title of this post, “pseudo-Buddhist”.

I’ve discussed here how reading the Dhammapada caused me to become interested in Buddhism.  I read voraciously about Buddhism in the sources available to me at that time–principally books on Zen, though there were some others, as well.  In particular, I read and re-read D. T. Suzuki’s An Introduction to Zen Buddhism, a book I need to write about in detail in the future.  In conversations I’d often quote the Buddha or refer to Buddhist concepts.  I can easily see why my friend thought I was, indeed, Buddhist.  On the other hand, there was no real depth to it.  Except for brief attempts on maybe one or two occasions, I never really tried meditation (much later, after I became Catholic, I’ve done Buddhist and other forms of meditation relatively extensively).  I certainly never took refuge, the official way of converting to Buddhism.  I was vaguely aware of a Buddhist study group in the city were I was living at that time; but for reasons of which I’m unsure even now, I never made contact (I did do mediation at their meditation center many years later, once more, after I came into the Church).  You might say that such Buddhism as I exhibited was all saffron and no substance.

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Līlā; or, It’s Just a Ride

One of the perennial questions of religion is raised by the existence of evil.  The world, as is apparent to  anyone with eyes to see, is a rough-and-tumble place, a place where huge amounts of extremely nasty things occur.  In and of itself, this obvious fact is, while unpleasant, also unremarkable.  For a non-believer, the evil in the cosmos just is.  There’s  no particular reason for it, any more than there is for any other observed phenomenon.  The universe is a quirk of random chance, and it is as it is, a mixture of good and bad.  Much of the badness, in fact, is a function not of any cosmic principle, but of our perspective as humans.  Disease, suffering, and death are very much meaningful–and unpleasant–to us, since they affect us in ways we don’t at all like.  For the disease-causing pathogens that live on us, though, we’re a veritable smorgasbord, a means by which they prosper, albeit at our expense.  Things like earthquakes, hurricanes, and such are impersonal phenomena that just happen with no motivations at all, either good or bad.  They occur merely because of natural processes, and the fact that we are sometimes in their way is our problem, not theirs. It’s all a matter of perspective.

Even for believers of various stripes, not all religions give any particular answer to the “problem of evil”.  Buddhism famously begins with the assertion that the cosmos is irremediably screwed up, to wit, the First Noble Truth, which declares that “all existence is suffering”.  In short, the world is a cesspit of misery that will never be any better than it is.  We may have better or worse experiences in the course of manifold reincarnations, but in the end, it all boils down to suffering, even if it’s deferred for a bit.  Thus the goal of Buddhism is to leave the wheel of birth and rebirth–samsara–for good by attaining nirvana.  At that point, one is no longer reborn into this universe of misery.  Jainism takes a similar viewpoint, in which the ultimate goal is the cessation of rebirth through moksha (liberation) at which point one’s jīva (soul) leaves the phenomenal cosmos for the Siddhashila, a place of perfection in which the now-purified and omniscient jīva dwells eternally in perfect bliss.  As with Buddhism, the idea is that evil, suffering, and nastiness are baked into the cake of the universe, so that the idea is to escape the universe.

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Quote for the Week

Let me tell you again that you must be pure and help any one who comes to you, as much as lies in your power. And this is good Karma. By the power of this, the heart becomes pure (Chitta-shuddhi), and then Shiva who is residing in every one will become manifest. He is always in the heart of every one. If there is dirt and dust on a mirror, we cannot see our image. So ignorance and wickedness are the dirt and dust that are on the mirror of our hearts. Selfishness is the chief sin, thinking of ourselves first. He who thinks, “I will eat first, I will have more money than others, and I will possess everything”, he who thinks, “I will get to heaven before others I will get Mukti before others” is the selfish man. The unselfish man says, “I will be last, I do not care to go to heaven, I will even go to hell if by doing so I can help my brothers.” This unselfishness is the test of religion. He who has more of this unselfishness is more spiritual and nearer to Shiva. Whether he is learned or ignorant, he is nearer to Shiva than anybody else, whether he knows it or not. And if a man is selfish, even though he has visited all the temples, seen all the places of pilgrimage, and painted himself like a leopard, he is still further off from Shiva.

–Swami Vivekananda, “Address at the Rameswaram Temple on Real Worship”, in The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, Vol. 3; courtesy of Wikiquote.

I Ain’t Got No Body, Revisited: Rethinking Angels

Way back here we looked at the question of why humans are created as embodied beings.  In most Abrahamic religions, and in some other Western religious systems, as well (e.g. Platonism and Gnosticism), God is said to have created the bodiless intelligences–what we call “angels”, some of whom later become “demons”–before He made embodied intelligences–that is to say, us.  Since the angels are typically seen as far superior to us, the question arises as to why God bothered in making embodied creatures to begin with.  I came to no definite conclusion on this question, though I have some ideas banging about in my head.  What I want to do here is to put a different spin on the whole question by looking at the angels and speculating as to what, exactly, they are.  This will tie in with some other themes we’ve looked at.

In the Christian tradition*, beginning with Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite and continuing through various Church Fathers and theologians throughout the centuries (not least of whom as St. Thomas Aquinas in the West), angels have always been understood to be bodiless spirits.  In our discussion of the soul a little while back, we described the human soul as the seat of personality and intelligence, which is immaterial and which can survive the death of the body.  An angel has a personality and intelligence, just like a human; but it has no body.  Thus, an angel could be viewed as a pure mind.  Angels, of course, are often described as being humanoid in appearance–and sometimes, spectacularly, non-humanoid (see Ezekiel 1:4-21, Isaiah 6:2, and Revelation 4:6-8, for example).  Despite this, though, they lack physical bodies–such appearances are for the benefit of humans.  The angels either take on a temporary body (to put it in modern terms, they manipulate matter into a body which they use like a puppet) or manipulate the viewer’s mind so that they see an apparition that isn’t physically there (something like this is implied in the Book of Tobit, when Raphael reveals himself to be an angel; see Tobit 12:15-19). Theologians have debated which of these scenarios is likelier; but they have agreed that angels have no bodies of their own.

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In Praise of the Cat Path; or, I Can’t Save Me

Heaven help me I’m
Drownin’ and I can’t save me
Send some salvation
To keep me alive
–Anna Nalick, “Satellite”

On Facebook, posts with cats get lots of traffic.  Maybe the same will be true of my blog because of this post!  😉  Even if not, cats are never out of place….

Back here, I made reference to the Hindu concept of cat paths (or religions) and monkey paths.  Though I had originally encountered the term long ago–probably sometime in the 80’s–I couldn’t remember the original source of the metaphor (though I think it was in something by Huston Smith).  I did find a worthwhile and very readable discussion of the concepts here.

The poles of my religious life are Buddhism and Christianity.  I was raised in a vague and generic cultural Protestantism, without ever belonging to a church.  When I read the Dhammapada in my freshman year of college, it was the beginning of a long flirtation with and study of Buddhism, though once more I never actually took refuge or joined a sangha.  Eventually, I moved back towards Christianity, eventually joining the Catholic Church twenty-eight years ago and change.  Throughout all this time, and up to the present day, I have periodically practiced Buddhist forms of meditation and Catholic devotions.  It has been a sort of oscillation between the two ends of the spectrum, Buddhism and Christianity.

However, when I reread the Bhagavad Gita, I discovered that I was actually more Hindu than I thought.  Why that’s so I discussed here.  The point I want to make is that in some ways Hinduism does a better job of categorizing human religious thought and response than either Buddhism or Christianity manage to do.  This is probably because of Hinduism’s long-standing and in fact dizzying pluralism, coupled with its enormous antiquity and the availability of holy men and scholars who have analyzed Hindu thought for millennia.  These sages have long realized that human temperaments are varied, and that each relates best to the Absolute–i.e. God–in different ways.  Thus, despite my tendency to ping-pong around the poles of Buddhism and Christianity, I think that using Hindu categories will be most effective for this post.  Thus, I’ll put on my sannyasi robes and adopt a Hindu perspective for what follows.  Namaste, and let’s start!

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Picking and Choosing: Religious Affiliation

I am continuing with my use of older essays, written in a different context, as new blog posts.  Longtime readers know I’m Catholic, but that I became so only after an extended period of studying the various world religions.  This was originally written to a friend to give a brief explanation of my thinking on why, for me, at any rate, Catholicism was the right choice.  I might not phrase everything quite the same way if I wrote this today; and the format is of an explanation to another person; but I am editing it but lightly, leaving it substantially as originally written.  I should also point out that this is strictly personal–others of other faiths will have their own reasons for why they joined the traditions to which they adhere.  This post is intended to be descriptive of myself, not evangelistic of others.

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Heaven, Hell, and the Religions

We’ve looked at universalism in the Abrahamic and Dharmic religions, and in a summary way in the other major (and minor) religions of the world.  In this post I’d like to see what, if any, broad patterns we can find, and what their relevance is in general and in particular, specifically in regard to universalism as a concept.

In the case of traditional and folk religions, the very concept of an afterlife often seems murky–the dead inhabit a shady, insubstantial realm such as the Greek Hades or the Hebrew She’ol.  Alternately, they may inhabit the realm of the deified or semi-deified ancestors.  These two possibilities are not exclusive, it should be noted.  Some such religions, such as that of the ancient Celts and some strands of the ancient Greek religion, had some sort of belief in reincarnation (or “metempsychosis”, as the Greeks referred to it).  By and large, there is no consistent idea of reward and punishment–Heaven and Hell–in most of these faiths.  To the extent that there is, it is either ambiguous or applicable only to a few (such as the Greek Elysian Fields and Tartarus) or it seems to have been imported from other religions (any notions of heavens and hells in Chinese and Japanese religion, for example, come from Buddhism).

In general, I think it fair to say that there is no clear evidence for reward and punishment in the afterlife in any of the religions that precede the Axial Age, with the probable exception of the religion of Ancient Egypt and the possible exception of Zoroastrianism (so many Zoroastrian writings have been lost and there are so many issues with dating the ones we have, that there is some ambiguity as to how old certain doctrines actually are).  I think it is also safe to say that there is also no clear evidence of reward and punishment in the afterlife in the traditional and folk religions that have survived to modern times, except insofar as they’ve been influenced by so-called great or world religions.

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Universalism in Various Religions: The Dharmic Faiths

Last time, we looked at universalism in the Abrahamic faiths.  In this post, I want to look at universalism in the Dharmic religions.  The Dharmic faiths are the great religions which originated in the Indian subcontinent, stemming ultimately from the ancient beliefs of the Indo-Aryan peoples.  The oldest of these is the religion we refer to  as Hinduism, traditionally known to its adherents as Sanātana Dharma, “the eternal religion”.  From Hinduism gradually developed the Śramaṇa movement, which developed eventually into Buddhism and Jainism.  The most recent of the Dharmic faiths, Sikhism, came into being in the 15th Century, evolving from the branch of Hinduism known as the Sant Mat movement.

All of the Dharmic religions share certain basic concepts.  Chief among them are

  1. The idea of an eternal universe that goes through infinite cycles of creation, evolution, decline, and dissolution
  2. Many levels of existence beyond the earthly
  3. A belief in reincarnation or rebirth, in which beings take on numerous lives in numerous realms
  4. A belief in karma, the principle by which one’s actions are requited, for good or for ill, in the present life and/or future lives
  5. Finally, a belief that beings can ultimately end the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth (samsara) through proper spiritual practice

Having laid our the similarities, let’s look at the religions individually.

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The Dharmic Faiths

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Having looked at the Abrahamic faiths, let us turn our attention to the Dharmic religions.

The Dharmic Religions–Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism, as well as a few other minor ones, originated in India, as the Abrahamic faiths originated in the Middle East.  Dharma, the central concept in these faiths, is a Sanskrit term notoriously difficult to translate.  Most English speakers can’t even pronounce it right.  The Sanskrit letter अ, typically tranliterated “a” is pronounced like the “u” in the English word “but”.  The letter आ, transliterated “ā”, is pronounced like the “a” in “father” (or better, like the “a” in the Spanish “padre”).  The diacritical marks of scholarly Sanskrit transcriptions are not often used in popular works; but in any case, “dharma” is the correct spelling and transcription.  Each “a” represents अ, the short form of the vowel.  Thus, “dharma” is correctly pronounced with the first syllable rhyming with “fur”, thus:  DUHR-muh (there is also a puff of air after the “d”, which is why it is spelled “dh”; but few English speakers can get that correctly, and I can’t always do it right myself).  English speakers almost universally rhyme the first syllable with “car”:  DAHR-muh.  This, quite simply, is wrong.  Actually, the best known Sanskrit word borrowed into English, “karma”, should rhyme with “dharma”–the first syllable should sound like “cur”, not like “car”, thus:  KUHR-muh.  However, I learned the standard English pronunciation (KAHR-muh) before I learned Sanskrit phonology; and the word has become thoroughly naturalized in English with the “wrong” pronunciation.  Therefore, I follow the masses in saying KAHR-muh.  I do insist on holding the line on DUHR-muh, however, notwithstanding popular pronunciation or sitcoms!

If we can’t even pronounce the word, small wonder we have trouble translating it!  Depending on context, “dharma” could mean any of the following:  natural characteristic, moral law, path, doctrine, religion, property, sign, obligation, or duty, among others.  Etymologically, it comes from a Sanskrit (and ultimately Indo-European) root meaning “firm” or “solid”.  At its root, “dharma” means “natural law” or the natural principle that is characteristic of a particular thing.  A rock’s dharma is to be hard; water’s is to flow; an animal’s is to follow the lifestyle of its species.  Only for humans is it more complicated.  A person’s dharma is the whole set of morals, ethics, obligations, and responsibilities for humans in general and for that individual in particular, according to his age, class, occupation, and state in life.  For example, truthfulness, honesty, cleanliness, etc. are the dharma–appropriate behavior and way of living–for all people.  A child’s dharma is to obey his or her parents, and a parent’s dharma is to provide for his or her children and raise them well.  The dharma of a married person is to be a good spouse, and of a sannyasi (renunciate) to be celibate.  The dharmas of a teacher, an engineer, a laborer, and a priest would all be different, according to the occupation of  each.

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I Do Not Think That Word Means What You Think It Means

In this essay, the word in question is not “inconceivable”, but “God”.

My jumping-off point here is part of the interview with philosopher John Gray, excerpted back here (emphasis is in the original):

(Interviewer) You also say that ‘atheism does not mean rejecting belief in God, but up a belief in language as anything other than practical convenience.’ What are you getting at here?

(Gray) [Fritz Mauthner] was an atheist who thought that theism was an obsessive attachment to the constructions of language: that the idea of God was a kind of linguistic ideal. So that atheism meant not worshipping that ideal. But he took that as just an example of a more general truth: that there is a danger in worshiping the constructions of language. Of course religions like Christianity are partially to blame for this.  But for most of their history, these so called creedal faiths didn’t define themselves by doctrine. Instead they had strong traditions of what’s called Apophatic theology: where you cannot use language to describe God.

The “idea of God” is what I want to talk about here.

In the broadest sense, “theism” is the belief in one or more gods.  In this context, Gray is obviously speaking of monotheism.  One of the most persistent problems with theism, in my view,  is the problem of anthropomorphizing God, that is, conceptualizing Him as if He were human.  In a polytheistic religion, giving the various gods and goddesses human traits is more or less a feature, not a bug.  Even in a monotheistic religion, some degree of anthropomorphizing is unavoidable, since we have to use some categories in which to speak of God, and the categories of “human” and the various human attributes are the most accessible to us.  However, the danger of making God into a big man with a long white beard sitting in the sky is that it tends to end in attributing petty and nasty human characteristics (vengefulness, spite, hatred, favoritism, and so on) to Him, with bad results for believers.  After all, if God is OK with smiting the infidels, the believer might end up thinking it’s a good idea for him–and his armies–to do so, too.  Gray, however, seems to be taking it beyond mere anthropomorphism and locating the problem in language itself.

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