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.

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