04 June 2013

«The Unwinding»

I started to read The Unwinding by New Yorker writer George Packer, but found myself less than thrilled with the anecdotal/episodic structure. It purports to tell the story of the gradual displacement of the elements of our society that gave it cohesion, once that unity born of the New Deal and World War II had run its course, but there is no unifying analysis or insightful commentary. Similar themes are treated much better in Gar Alperovitz's What Then Must We Do? and Richard D. Wolff's Making Democracy Work: The Cure for Capitalism, both recently appearing.

03 June 2013

Materialism and Buddhism; how it is I can lay claim that I am still a Buddhist

The post below may have been too precious in its attempt at irony, but this one will be more straightforward.

As can be seen from earlier posts on here, I have for some years identified as a Buddhist, an identification which I still embrace, although my honestly held beliefs have changed.

Some will argue, just as some self-identified Christians argue that they are entitled to be Christians without believing in the divinity of Jesus or in the Trinity, that Buddhism is not in any case a religion at all, but a philosophy.

I address that below. Buddhism very definitely is a religion, for most of its practitioners, because they have faith, (definable as belief in precepts defining reality that is not based on inference from falsifiable evidence but on authority or subjective experience), in transcendence. Enlightenment, nirvana, whatever you want to call it. Some even make claims for miraculous events arising from the powers of those who have gone beyond a certain point in the 'path to enlightenment.' For most Buddhists, this transcendence of suffering and extinction are, in fact, the point. 

Having said that, I believe that there is a core of philosophical precept in Buddhism which is not, in fact, essentially religious, and which is a precious treasure of distilled experience. Because philosophy is not limited to the study and understanding of what is real, it is also experiential, i.e., the acceptance of precepts based on the experience of our progenitors as to what makes life better, for ourselves and others.

Some of these things are nearly universal in philosophical systems, and in religions, like the golden rule. The extolling of compassion, of the practice of wishing others happiness, and of taking delight, rather than envy, in the happiness of others; the practice of giving for its own sake; the virtue of truth as opposed to deception; of not taking what is not given; of respecting and preserving life; of not using one's body to cause harm to others; of, as Christians put it, of not appropriating unto oneself more than one's due portion. In these things, Buddhist ethics and mind training is not unique, but its specific techniques for clearing the mind of distracting thought and harmful emotion, of concentrating the mind and of bringing the object into the path, which I think of as using the power of the mind to visualize a goal of self-improvement as a means of achieving it; these things are particularly well-developed in Buddhist tradition and are of literally incomparable value.

But, here, I will maintain that none of that requires a religious perspective. Stephen Batchelor, author of Buddhism Without Beliefs, has argued for something similar. One can, indeed many do, stick to a scientific understanding of the world, and yet embrace all of the key elements of Buddhist teaching: there is no intrinsic reality to material form; attachment to the transient and impermanent nature of form creates suffering; suffering is reduced by decreasing attachment and anger, and seeing things as clearly as we are able to do. All of these precepts, and the techniques associated with them, can be practiced without adopting a world view that goes to the further reaches still associated with Buddhism as a religion: the doctrine of rebirth; a form of belief in karma that necessitates accepting a mechanism that transcends ordinary matter and energy; the doctrine of everlasting englightenment, even after the death of the body. These are the soteriological aspects of Buddhism as religion which, if they are true, obviously are greatly important and much superior to the more limited secularism of a philosophical Buddhist.

But some of us just can't go there; we don't experience the subjective "reality" that makes us change our view. And for us, the good news is that there is still much of great value in the Dharma, or preceptual system, of Buddhism.

Which is why, while I profess no religion nowadays, I remain, at least in my own mind, a Buddhist.

The Noöscape of Soteriolical Ontology, or, may we not choose to just say no?

I have been thinking a good deal lately about the borderline between religion and philosophy, and whether, as someone who is rather profoundly inclined towards empirical skepticism, there is anything that can be politely and respectfully said that, well, excuses people like me from the whole issue of religion.

It seems to me that makes something religio as opposed to philosophia is soteriology. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soteriology). Basically, as I understand it, the goal of a view of reality that embraces soteriological precepts is not merely to give meaning to life but to establish immortality and ultimate salvation (or, in the case of some Eastern religion, transcendence of delusion-based reification of karma so that the only reality is clear light, or the luminosity which is the essential nature of what is real). Either way, escape from the suffering and extinction which are the lot of earthly life, is seen as not only possible, but the goal, sometimes for oneself, sometimes, one is tempted to say in more advanced form, primarily for others and only secondarily for oneself.

To an Epicurean materialist (which is how I think of myself these days), who insists that only that which can be reliably inferred from evidence-based ratiocination should be admitted as “reasonably certainly real,” the whole issue of soteriology is a dead letter. The subjective experience which is defined only in terms of itself that is necessary to experience meditative transcendence, or the “grace” that leads to “salvation” in Monotheistic religions, are simply not inferable from evidence based reasoning.

So, I tend to say to those who cite authority, or subjective experience, for the basis of their view of reality, “Bon Voyage. I wish you well, and if you are right, I am sure you will benefit in ways that I am too dense to appreciate… but, unfortunately, my own self-respect and honest belief keeps me from going there with you.”

Is it asking too much to expect others to respect that?