Saturday, October 5, 2013

Buddhism Meets Some Strange Anthropology

Video meliora, proboque, deteriora sequor. 
("The better path I gaze at and approve; the worse, I follow.") —Ovid

     Now that I am residing at a Burmese "temple" again, I am reminded of a phenomenon that for years has struck me as remarkable, and which used to puzzle me quite a lot. On the one hand, most Burmese Buddhists, including monks, seem psychologically incapable of doubting or questioning their own religion, and the scriptures of their own religion. If even the commentarial tradition states that the Buddha was 25 feet tall, or that his feet didn't touch the ground when he walked, or that, even though he discouraged his disciples from showing off psychic powers in front of laypeople, he himself once levitated into the air and sprayed fire and water out of his body simultaneously ("the twin miracle") in order to impress some non-Buddhists, then it simply is true, period. On the other hand, the overwhelming majority of Burmese monks do not make a serious attempt actually to follow the Buddha's instructions in the scriptures of their own religion. This seems quite a paradox.
     As a case in point, certain activities are repeatedly denounced in the Pali texts as obstacles to the Holy Life, including the drinking of alcohol, indulgence in sensuality, and the acceptance and use of money. The following are some verses from the Vinaya Cullavagga, section 12, attributed to the Buddha:

     Defiled by lust and aversion are some philosophers and priests,
     Men swathed in ignorance, delighting in lovely forms.
     These ignoramuses drink ale and wine, they indulge in sexuality,
     They accept silver and gold.

     [Thus] some philosophers and priests live by wrong livelihood;
     These are called defilements by the Buddha, kinsman of the sun.

     Defiled by these defilements, some philosophers and priests
     Do not blaze, do not shine; they are impure, dirty animals.

     Surrounded by darkness, slaves to craving, led on by the force of existence,
     They fill the dreadful cemetery, taking yet another rebirth.

     A Western monk might indulge in the luxury of some skepticism here, or maybe even eclecticism—he might be of the opinion that maybe the Buddha didn't really say this stuff; after all, the above passage in particular is found in a late passage describing the origin of the Second Council, long after the death of the Buddha, and is not found anywhere in the Sutta Pitaka; the Buddha's actual attitude might have been less puritanical. Or, it may represent ancient Indian cultural conditioning more than Ultimate Truth, as there have apparently been very highly advanced persons who drank alcohol (like Jesus of Nazareth), or had sex (like Krishnamurti), or handled money (like Jesus and Krishnamurti). But for most Burmese monks skepticism and eclecticism are simply out of the question. These are not realistic, viable options. They have to believe what the books say. But at the very same time, although only small minorities get drunk and consort with women, about 98% of them handle money (and most of the remaining 2% consent to money being handled on their behalf, which is against the very same rules)…even though they cannot doubt or question that the Buddha himself strongly condemned this.
     So this is the paradox: How can somebody be absolutely 100% convinced that an infallible, enlightened being said that doing X is wrong, yet go ahead and do X anyway? I used to really wonder about this.
     One explanation is that Burmese monks are Byronic heroes of a sort, doing what they know is wrong because they just can't help it. They are like chickens told to enjoy swimming in ponds like a duck; it is too much in violation of their inner nature. The trouble with this explanation is that they don't seem to be bothered much by the idea that they really may burn in hell for a zillion gajillion years as a result of their misdemeanors as, they are warned in the texts, is liable to happen—and of course they cannot disagree with the texts. Perhaps they're all in a state of hysterical denial? It doesn't seem very likely.
     After years of wondering, I finally came to the tentative conclusion that, deep down, they really don't believe the Buddhist texts after all. At a superficial level they do, without question, but deeper down they don't. Or maybe, to put it somewhat strangely, they believe it, but they just don't see the point of it.
     If they really saw the truth of, say, "Handling money causes you more harm than good," then there would be no difficulty at all in not handling it. Not to handle it would be effortless, like not handling fire or centipedes. But when it is merely the intellect (or emotion for that matter) that "knows" something, we still don't know it. In other words, ideas are not the same as real knowledge. This can be problematic sometimes.
     As for myself, not handling money has always been pretty easy—damned inconvenient sometimes, but still pretty easy. On the other hand, not desiring a woman has been more difficult. This is because, deep down, I am still not 100% convinced that I'm better off without one. 
     I've had plenty of experiences which indicate pretty clearly that having a mate would not be the end of my troubles. It's more a matter of choosing the lesser of two evils, or, to use a less negative word, of two dissatisfactions.
     A similar principle may be seen in the following scenario: Which is better, to slap a mosquito quickly and be done with it, or to sit there and let it bite, experiencing perhaps five minutes of aversion and irritation, with maybe some hatred or worry mixed in besides? Especially if it's an anopheles mosquito which might be infected with malaria parasites, and if it's a fussy one…biting in this place but not finding a blood vessel that suits it, then buzzing around a little and biting over there, but not finding a good vein there either…. Some mosquitoes are like that. Sometimes it really might be that just slapping the little beggar and being done with it would produce less unskillful karma overall than would enduring the frustration of letting it bite.
     Getting back to the idea of easy belief without deep conviction, though, it may of course be remarked that Burmese Buddhists do not have a monopoly on this. Western Christians, even fundamentalist ones who consider the Bible to be the infallible word of God, are not so different. My mother once had a friend who was a very devout Christian—one who had one of those pictures of a European-looking, brown-haired Jesus gazing upwards with light shining from his face mounted over the fireplace in her living room. She also talked about Jesus a lot, and prayed a lot. Yet at the same time she had been divorced and remarried at least once; and as the Bible says, in fact as Jesus himself says in the Bible, anyone who divorces and remarries committeth adultery. It seems there are quite a few Christians out there who disregard this teaching of the Gospel much in the same way Burmese monks disregard the money rules. (In fact the Church of England originated largely because King Henry VIII, an antichrist if there ever was one, wanted to divorce and remarry—plus become more powerful and wealthy.)
     Or how about all those statements in the New Testament like, "Gather not up your treasures upon the earth," or "It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to attain the Kingdom of Heaven," or "Weep and wail, O you rich man, for the sorrows that shall befall you," or "Woe unto the rich, for they already have their consolation," or "So every one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be My disciple," or "Sell all that you have, give the money to the poor, and follow Me"? There have been many very devout Christians, even canonized saints, who were extremely wealthy, and many more poor ones who were poor simply because they were unable to be otherwise. Back in the old days devout European nobles had gold-bound prayer books and jeweled rosaries. Maybe some still do have them, if they are still Christian. Such hysterical selective blindness with regard to religious faith seems to be universal human nature. 
     John Stuart Mill once wrote,
      "To find people who believe their religion as a person believes that fire will burn his hand when thrust into it, we must seek them in those Oriental countries where Europeans do not yet predominate, or in the European world when it was still universally Catholic."      
In a sense this is undoubtedly true; although in another sense the exact opposite is the case—the people of the West actually believe their religion much more completely and wholeheartedly than do the people of other modern cultures. This is because the predominant religion of the West is scientific realism, scientific materialism, or "Scientism"*—and it is so much in harmony with human nature, and thus so believable. And people believe it so deeply and unquestioningly that they are enslaved by it without realizing it. They believe it so implicitly not because it is true, but largely because it is consistent with worldly experience and is furthermore a spiritually bankrupt system which requires virtually no moral talent or effort whatsoever, no living up to a difficult ideal. (It is mainly when political correctness enters the equation that hypocrisy and selective hysterical blindness come in.) Materialism has become the mental and spiritual prison of most of the human race, so much so that most of us do not believe that it is a prison, or that there is a way out. Most of us simply believe—but do not really see—that it represents reality itself. This includes most Western people who consider themselves to be members of more traditional religions, like Christianity or Buddhism. But at the same time it is largely people's deep faith in materialism that makes it so powerful.
     I would guess that our best hope of moving beyond this situation, aside from the ever-present option of the destruction of the human race, is that it will occur from the inside, inspired by unusually wise scientists, or else from outside, inspired by some charismatic spiritual genius—possibly facilitated by the near destruction of the human race. But, the momentum of Western materialism being such as it is, and human nature also being such as it is, the wise scientists or spiritual geniuses will likely be ignored at first, and no doubt already have been; and if ignoring them doesn't work, then they may be persecuted or even martyred. History repeats itself, because we humans rarely learn from our mistakes. But so long as we survive the planetary disruptions brought about by our new, spiritually destitute religion, we're bound to outgrow it sooner or later.

* For a detailed discussion of the religious nature of Scientific Realism, see the essay "Buddhism and Scientism" on the home website,    


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