Many people assume that because I teach meditation I am probably a Buddhist. This is a natural mistake to make since the two are often confused. However meditation is a practical skill. Buddhism is a conservative Asian religion. There is no automatic connection between the two.
Meditation as a skill is compatible with the scientific world view while Buddhism with its reliance on karma and reincarnation is not. Buddhism also believes in a strong Cartesian duality of body and mind which no good scientist takes seriously nowadays.
I can’t claim to know what Buddhism means to ethnic Buddhists nowaday. I haven’t done the study and the field is too diverse. In this article I will restrict myself to explaining the key ideas of Buddhism as mapped out in the original texts. In doing so it will become obvious why I am not a Buddhist.
We have no excuse for being ignorant of what the Buddha taught. He established a highly regulated monastic order during his forty years of teaching. About eight hundred of his sermons have survived. His arguments are clear, systematic and practical. We know exactly what he wanted his followers to do. He is a most impressive thinker even if we disagree with his values.
The Buddha was a typical old-style ascetic. He loathed the world and all worldly pursuits with an intensity that is almost impossible to imagine nowadays. He taught a path of liberation from the world and from future rebirths and gave detailed instructions on how to achieve this. Because his approach is so cold and uncompromising, Buddhist teachers have sweetened the message ever since.
Nowadays Buddhism is usually presented as promoting peace, ‘compassion,’ living in the present and having a philosophic acceptance of whatever happens. There is nothing wrong with this but it is far removed from what the Buddha actually taught. I regard this as ‘Sentimental Buddhism’ and it doesn’t do him justice. There was nothing at all sentimental about him, as you will see.
SUFFERING AND FREEDOM. The Buddha was unashamedly a one-idea man. “I teach but two things,” he said, “Suffering and the end of suffering.” He argued that life is inherently miserable, painful and frustrating because nothing lasts forever. As a result we suffer because we cling to things that are subject to decay and death. We are attached to our bodies, to sense-pleasures, to material goods, to people, to our opinions and beliefs, to our sense of self and to life itself. He said that all of the above are impermanent. None of them is worth clinging to, and that anyone who loves anyone or anything is bound to suffer.
The Buddha said we find perfect peace through detachment, solitude and inactivity. We can only achieve this by systematically purifying our minds of all emotion. Eventually it shouldn’t trouble us whether we or the people around us live or die. Maintaining our serenity and detachment under all circumstances is more important that life or death. If this last statement seems unbelievable, please realise that I am not mispresenting him. It is in the ‘Parable of the Saw’ and many other texts.
Through this discipline we can become liberated in this lifetime and not suffer the indignity of further rebirths. This state of mind is called ‘Nirvana.’ It literally means the ‘snuffing out’ of the will to live. You can see why even in his own lifetime he was accused of nihilism.
THE FOUR NOBLE TRUTHS. The Buddha organised his philosophy into numbered lists for mnemonic purposes. His teaching is thus represented by the Three Characteristics of Existence, the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path and so on. The Three Characteristics of Existence are Suffering, Impermanence and No-Soul. These are like articles of faith in all schools of Buddhism. The Buddha said that we become enlightened only through profound insight into any one of these or by contemplating The Four Noble Truths.
The First Noble Truth is that ‘Suffering is Universal.’ Every pleasure is shadowed by the inevitability of future loss. The Buddha provocatively said that ‘to be married to a beautiful, well-bred, sixteen-year-old virgin from a wealthy family is suffering,’ because she is bound to get sick and die eventually.
The Second Noble Truth is that ‘Suffering has a Cause’ which is Ignorance or literally ‘blindness’. We become attached to transient things because we don’t see life ‘as it really is’ in terms of the Three Characteristics.
This ignorance manifests through our desires, which leads to the aphorism that virtually defines Buddhism: ‘The cause of suffering is desire.’ The word ‘desire’ covers a range of related concepts such as attachment, craving, clinging, greed, lust, longing, pleasure, affection, love, delight and the appreciation of beauty. Desire is anything that a psychologist would regard as ‘approach’ behaviour. The failure of desire to permanently satisfy us leads to an equally long list of emotions: anger, frustration, agitation, resentment, envy, despair, shame and so on.
The Buddha said we can end this guaranteed suffering through the cessation of all desire, through bodily stillness and mental inactivity. This is the Third Noble Truth: ‘Suffering has an End.’ We attain perfect tranquility when we take delight in nothing. “To be untroubled is the highest satisfaction.”
The doctrine of No-Soul or Emptiness is a refinement of the above. Because our memories, thoughts, feelings and bodies are all subject to change, the Buddha concluded that we have no lasting core of self. We have no soul. Consequently we also suffer because we are attached to who we think we are. The Fourth Noble Truth is the path of training to extinguish our sense of self.
SOME EXPLANATORY COMMENTS. The Buddha’s pessimistic analysis of reality in terms of Suffering, Impermanence and No-Soul seems very extreme. Most of us suffer from time to time, but the joys of life more than compensate. We readily adjust to change and our sense of self is quite durable enough for a lifetime. So why is the Buddha making such a fuss about things that most of us cope with reasonably well?
It is often claimed that Buddhism requires no beliefs and that it is an empirical ‘test-it-for-yourself’ philosophy or ‘way of life.’ In fact, the Buddha’s arguments only make sense if we also believe in reincarnation and karma. His argument is logical but his premises are wrong.
The Buddha was looking for an absolute solution to suffering within the context of an endless series of lifetimes. He said we may have a good life now but we are bound to reap our bad karma in the future. We may have a strong sense of self now but we will lose it when we are reborn.
Because our desires will inevitably lead to attachment, loss and suffering in this or in future lifetimes, he argued that we should systematically weed them out right now. We should aim for an unshakeable serenity that is very similar to the Stoic ideal of ‘apatheia’ (literally ‘no passion’) so that nothing can ever trouble us again.
MEDITATION: THE FAST TRACK TO NIRVANA. The Buddha developed a detailed course of training for this purpose called The Eightfold Path. It goes somewhat like this. First, you lead a moral life and don’t harm others. Then you disconnect from worldly pursuits and human contact as much as possible. If you are serious, you become a monk or nun.
Only a monk is sufficiently free from worldly distractions to cultivate the eight trance states. The first of these states is readily attained in any good meditation but the eighth is almost equivalent to Nirvana: no sense of self or the world, no consciousness, no perception of anything: ‘neither nothing nor not nothing.’
The monk then tries to integrate this depersonalised state of mind back into his daily consciousness. He examines his experience from the perspective of the Three Characteristics. He constantly guards his mind against unproductive thoughts and behaviour and tries to purge his remaining attachments. When he has perfected this task, he is said to be enlightened. After that, his only role is to serve as an inspiration to others.
The Buddha said Nirvana could be achieved within ‘seven days, seven months or seven years’ of dedicated practice, and thousands were said to have awakened in his lifetime. Nowadays Nirvana tends to be mythologised as an impossibly remote ideal, but the Buddha seems to be describing a state that really is achievable. Its most obvious characteristic is that it is a clear-minded, vigilant state of complete detachment.
Nor are Buddha’s guidelines hard to follow. They are quite logical and we can see how they would work. They requires no divine intervention or spiritual guides or a sojourn in Asia. Many solitary people are already halfway towards the kind of life required. With a little preparation, anyone could become a virtual monk or nun for a year or two if they wished.
All it would take is a hut or a one-bedroom flat and sufficient money saved. Complete isolation or a quiet environment are not essential. Most Asian monasteries nowadays are within big noisy cities. The Buddha’s monks had to see people every day to get their food. When I did a seven-month retreat, it didn’t disturb me to go to the city each week for supplies. Anyone could easily set themselves up to follow the Buddha’s instructions if they thought it was worthwhile.
So why do so few people even attempt it? Quite simply, the kind of renunciation that the Buddha asks for, although possible, is extremely unattractive. He regarded any kind of love, affection or even friendship as obstacles to be overcome. He proscribed all entertainment (no literature, music, TV, newspapers or movies), and all gossip (no talk of politicians or sportsmen or celebrities).
He said we should never discuss anything except what is conducive to enlightenment. The Buddha would have told Shakespeare, Bach, Socrates and Darwin to stop wasting their time on trivial pursuits and get serious with their lives. Inner peace may be possible but we would have to pay an extremely high price for it.
MORALITY: THE SLOW TRACK TO NIRVANA. The Buddha gave the fast track one-lifetime instructions for Nirvana, but he knew that few people would want to follow it. So he also gave a slow track version for ordinary people, namely to be good.
Buddhist morality is quite simple. It can be summarised as ‘Be friendly, don’t hurt anyone and support the monks’. It is based on two principles, namely ‘ahimsa’ and ‘metta.’ In keeping with the ideal of detachment, neither of them require that we actually do anything.
Ahimsa literally means not-harming or nonviolence and it extends to all living creatures. It comes from the ancient Indian belief that you create bad karma for yourself by hurting others. Because nonviolence seems like a rather tepid virtue, it is more commonly translated by the term ‘compassion.’
‘Metta’ means no more than ‘goodwill’ or ‘friendliness’, although it is usually translated by the archaic Christian term ‘loving-kindness.’ Metta is a disposition of indiscriminate friendliness and well-wishing towards friend and enemy alike. The Buddha said that this ensures that you are liked by others and can more easily avoid conflict.
There is a third element to Buddhist morality called ‘dana.’ This literally means ‘donation’ or ‘giving,’ although it is usually translated as ‘generosity.’ Dana contributes to a symmetry of spiritual practice between monks and laity. The monks meditate and teach and thereby help ‘save all beings’, while the laity practice giving by supporting the monks in this good work.
In reality, dana operates more like the Catholic practice of indulgences to pay off sins. Lay people give money to monks so they can ‘earn merit’ towards a better rebirth and thus counteract their bad karma. The more money they give, and the more highly ranked the monk or lama who receives it, the better their consequent rebirth. Conversely, money would be wasted in helping the poor who are not regarded as suitable recipients for earning merit. The Buddha said there is a thousand times more profit to be gained by giving money to monks, even depraved ones.
As a result, there no tradition of charity in Buddhism. Westerners are astonished when they realise this since we assume it would be part of any religion. All major Christian churches run schools, hospitals, welfare groups, retirement homes, counseling services and aid agencies, and we expect our secular governments to carry on that Judeo-Christian and Islamic legacy. We think of helping others as part of what it means to be a good person.
Charity however is a Western virtue. It means to love and actively care for others. This is different from just being friendly and not hurting them. Buddhism places a much higher value on inactivity and detachment than on love. People are people everywhere but religions do differ. In a word, we can say that Christianity is about love and Buddhism is about peace. In Christianity ‘compassion’ mean helping the unfortunate. In Buddhism ‘compassion’ means teaching them the path to enlightenment.
The doctrine of karma probably explains this absence of practical compassion. Buddhism usually regards any misfortune as being payback for one’s evil deeds in past lifetimes (‘It’s their karma’). Even those who died in the 2008 Chinese earthquake were reaping their karma said the Dalai Lama. Westerners tend to regard karma as an attractive metaphor or myth. Buddhists take it far more serious. The Dalai Lama recently describes it as the inexorable law that explains everything in human experience.
So if monks don’t do pastoral or charitable work, how do they use the money they receive? Typically they build, which explains the splendour of many Asian temples. For the last twenty years, the Dalai Lama has been trying to raise half a billion dollars to build the tallest Buddha statue in the world. It will be in India, some sixty stories high. This is called the Maitreya Project. The rationale is that this will promote loving-kindness and peace throughout the world.
MEDITATION. The classical ascetic values of the Buddha are now so out of date that few people take them seriously. I don’t know of anyone nowadays who wants to cut their attachments, extinguish their passions and put an end to birth and death. Buddhist monasteries are not exactly besieged with people yearning for Nirvana.
Meditation on the other hand is as useful as it ever was and Buddhism has promoted it like no other religion. The Buddha was the world’s first and best meditation teacher. I would challenge anyone to name his equal. He believed strongly in the value of looking inside and finding out the truth for yourself, which is a very modern attitude. He also mapped out the field so clearly in just a few short texts that my own approach to teaching meditation still has a close resemblance to the methods he devised 2500 years ago.
Because he made meditation so central to his teaching, Buddhist institutions have continued to keep the practice alive. Many of them offer excellent opportunities for lay people of any religious persuasion or none to meditate for as long as they like. They provide this service for free or at a very cheap price. Without the support and encouragement of such institutions, thousands of Westerners would never have learnt to meditate at all. Meditation as a practice is undoubtedly the Buddha’s greatest gift to the West.
Meditation helps develop a calm, clear, well-trained, self-observant mind. The Buddha accurately claimed that this is the basis for insightful decision-making and action. Where we differ from the Buddha is in the purposes for which we now use it.
Nowadays we use meditation for relaxation and sleep; for stress, anxiety and health; for thought-control and emotional restraint; for concentration and decision-making; for self-knowledge and body-awareness; for sports performance and achieving goals; for aesthetic pleasure, philosophic understanding and much more. A calm, clear, well-focused mind is useful for virtually anything we do. Most Westerners who meditate even within a Buddhist context are likely to do so for these non-Buddhist reasons.
So what can Buddhism offer the West apart from meditation? I don’t think there is very much. The Buddha’s argument that desire will inevitably cause suffering is weak unless we also believe in reincarnation. If this is our only lifetime, there are better ways to avoid suffering than retreating into philosophic detachment.
Buddhism moral values such as nonviolence, friendliness and tolerance are hardly unique to Buddhism. Every religion and civil society promotes them. Nor does Buddhism have better moral credentials than other religions. Buddhism has always allied itself to ruling elites and supported the status quo. Japanese militarism and Pol Pot’s spiritual cleansing of Cambodia both found support in the Buddhist idea of ‘No-Soul.’ Nor is there any shortage of brutal religious wars in the history of Buddhism. Being Western-centric we just don’t know about them.
Meditation as an introspective discipline designed to relieve one’s suffering covers the same ground as Western psychology. Some psychologists have found that Buddhist practices such as mindfulness can be very useful with their patients.
However, Buddhism is a psychology without a self. It sees attachment to one’s identity as a root cause of suffering and aspires to an egoless state of pure consciousness instead. This doesn’t resonate at all well with Western humanist values or with our democratic respect for the individual.
Buddhism is often promoted as being rational and scientific, as a way of life rather than a religion. Buddhism is certainly more intellectual than devotional, but it still has plenty of gods to propitiate, and the Buddhist Hells are just as ghastly as the Christian ones.
Buddhism deserves respect as a religion and it has given its meditation practices to the world. Other than that, its moral credentials are average. Its indifference to charitable works makes it less compassionate than Christianity or even Western governments. Its psychology is antagonistic to the individual. Its reliance on karma, reincarnation and a duality of body and mind make it quite unscientific. I am grateful to Buddhism for its meditation practices but I am happy to leave the rest behind.