Fundamental truth in Buddhism
Buddhism, like all the great religions, includes important fundamental truths.
In the study of spirit, as in the study of physics, of biological evolution and of neuroscience, it is possible to make progress in coming closer to the greater objective truth, even though this progress may follow ups and downs and spirals, like those described by Toynbee and by Piaget (or by Joel Whitton, whose book Life Between Life and its new sequel can be seen as an important Buddhist source).
I have learned many things about the strands of Buddhism, after visiting many dozens of Buddhist centers and temples and intellectuals, from the Pamir mountains to the biggest temple of all (near Xian) to Nara to Chicken Dragon Mountain to the suburbs of Washington DC. But here I will focus on a few very central foundations.
First, a story. Fifteen years ago, because of my personal circumstances, I was a very regular member and attender of the Quaker meeting in Adelphi, Maryland. A Zen Buddhist friend asked what Quakers are about. To him, over beer, I said: “It is not a religion with doctrine, really. That is important to me, because I have my own ideas and understanding. It is a practice, not a doctrine. At the core, it is a matter of getting together every week for a kind of silent group meditation. People do speak on rare occasion, when they feel truly moved by the higher inner spirit to do so, but only when they feel it will strengthen the inner nonverbal communication, dialogue and community.” He said: “That is amazing. That is actually what we say we are doing in Zen Buddhism, except that in Zen Buddhism … we say we have no doctrine, but we spend a lot of time arguing doctrine.”
This reminded me of the old history of Nara in Japan, where people talk and laugh to this day about the violent emotional battles between the blue hat monks and the yellow hat monks, all of whom agreed violently that halfway enlightened people do not feel such violent emotions. Some Buddhist tell a rough story of seven circles of existence, to try to put the foibles on such monks in a good context, but Christians should not be too smug about such paradox and apparent hypocrisy.
By analogy, I still remember a meeting on Rhodos, where a high archbishop from Georgia and a high archbishop from Russia started to behave like people in an old black and white comedy movie – two big fat men in black robes throwing pies at each other over some kind of political issue. At the time, I wondered: “What would Jesus say about these people’s ability to advance and manifest the core value of love, what the whole thing was about?” But Christianity also includes Tolstoy, who wrote the Grand Inquisitor, and Buddhists do sometimes rise above doctrinal wars.
But the doctrinal debates are not without content, and real learning does involve content.
In 2011, visiting the local public library with my wife, I saw a little article in Tricycle (the American Buddhist magazine) by Stephen Bodhian, who had been a student of leading Buddhists both of the Tibetan school and of the Zen School. He reported a kind of debate between the two. At the end of the debate, the Tibetan Buddhist leader ended with a one word summary of his goal: “mindfulness.” The Zen Buddhist then had the last word in this debate: “no mind.”
This is a huge gulf, which becomes ever more important as one learns more and needs less approximation on core matters. From what I have learned (some summarized in my 2012 paper in press in Neural Networks), I would say that the TIbetans are 100% right and the Zen 100% wrong on this particular point, as discussed here. The Zen view can be useful to some people in some circumstances, just as even the belief in Adam and Eve can be helpful to some people struggling to make progress and survive in some circumstances, but there is a larger truth, and nihilism is not it. Zen can be very helpful to some people trying to rise above some of the florid fantasies and political aberrations which some Tibetan Buddhists can fall into at times, but it serves mainly as a kind of antidote, as a source of questions, not as a foundation for answers. Nihilism is not a correct or reliable foundation for answers or for the constructive leading of life.
One core concept of Buddhism is that of the boddisatva versus the Buddha. This story is told in many ways, but the most common version is that the state of being a boddisatva is one step below the final state of buddahood. The boddisatva is in a way like a retired person who spends his last few years teaching and telling stories to the grandchildren, before disappearing altogether from this world and its people. In the highest stage, the individual role rises to a higher plane of some kind, never to
visit us troubled people again.
From my experience and my best understanding, I would say: “Not quite.” Even Gautama Buddha, when asked about reincarnation of the individual soul, said that it is like a drop of water returning to the ocean and evaporating as part of the circle of water. The water continues, but as part of that larger ocean.
No matter how much we learn here on earth, we are connected to each other and to the basic spiritual matrix of the earth, just as cells in the body are connected to each other and to the biological matrix (e.g. bones). The natural evolution and growth is not really separable. For so long as the spirit of humanity and of the earth endures, and so long as we physically live in this neighborhood, we grow and we cycle in this world. It is the evolution of the whole, not of the independent personal “Buddha,” which is the path and the highest destiny we have in front of us. Of course, evolution of the whole INCLUDES the greatest realization and development of its components as well, but it is not realistic to imagine we can or should safely escape our basic humanity… even as we develop independent thinking in order to better contribute to that greater whole.
To be honest… I have wondered in recent years: “What happens if the human species really does succeed in going extinct?” If we are honest, and yet human, and pay attention to what is happening today on the earth, we would be foolish and arrogant to imagine we can be certain that this will not happen. I have spent much of my time and effort trying to improve the probability that the human species avoids extinction, but it is clear that success is not even close to being guaranteed. There are multiple possible future paths… and total extinction is very much part of many of them. Not all, but many.
I suppose it is possible that souls which are advanced enough may find a place somewhere else in the galaxy. But as rule, the more people count on that, the LESS likely is it that it will apply to them, if it applies to anyone at all. In this world, when a body dies, the cells do not fare so well.
This idea reminds me of a guy I knew who used to be a major partner in Arthur Anderson, looking for a job elsewhere. Even if one survives… it is not so much fun to be looking for a new job when the previous place ended in bankruptcy – especially when one talks to folks who want results (“by their fruits you will know them”), not excuses. And it’s all a very big “if” anyway.