Buddhism Addendum

Just a follow up to my previous two posts (here is part one and here is part two).

I came to the conclusion that Buddhism was too weak a sauce to rescue a materialist Westerner from his drab, disenchanted worldview. And at the same time, I said, because it is a spiritual practice, the materialist Westerner, having dabbled with it and found it lacking, was likely to come to the conclusion that all spiritual practices are false.

In the process of coming to that conclusion, I realized there are a couple more things I can say about Buddhist practice as I have known it, positive things indeed.

  1. Buddhist meditation can lead to a spontaneous realization of the inherent moral laws of the universe. I mentioned before how the rules for ethical behavior in Buddhism are considered suggestions and not laws, and I called that a shortcoming. But I’d also like to point out that the experience of discovering the true universality of a moral law can make a strong impression. It’s a sort of window on the Truth, what C. S. Lewis called the Tao in The Abolition of Man.
  2. I said it before but it bears repeating, Buddhist meditation, pursued with vigor and discipline, really does reveal the ugly nature of the ego. It can be quite a painful thing to see, but ultimately it’s good to do so.
  3. Meditation can also reveal something like a glowing brightness, a general goodness, that pervades the human being. Essential goodness, one might call it. (This is a dangerous one, because the dilettante can easily mistake it for some sort of godhead originating in one’s own self. Nevertheless, there is essential goodness there, and it’s not bad in and of itself to perceive this.)

Combining the implications of 2 and 3 get us very close to the Christian notion of sin, especially as Pascal lays it out in his Pensées. Man is truly glorious and godlike. Man is wretched and vile. How to reconcile these two facts?

And they are — as diligent meditation can show — irrefutable facts.

And what are we to make of these facts in light of item 1, the universal law?

I don’t have a conclusion here; this is merely an addendum. Food for thought.

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10 comments on “Buddhism Addendum

  1. bgc says:

    An excellent series of posts. Truly memorable.

    When I was very interested in (neo) paganism/ animism I saw a divide between the mainstream who sought only positive emotions and religious experiences – and an elite minority who emphasized the ‘need’ for grappling with the dark side of things: people like Jung and his modern disciple James Hillman.

    However, Jung and Hillman could not really explain *why* you should want negative experiences – except that in some long term way it would make you happier of stronger, or something.

    In a Godless state of subjectivity, however, it is hard to see that it would be worthwhile taking the *risk* of negative experiences without some fairly solid kind of ‘guarantee’ that it is worth the misery – so these aspects tend to be ignored in favor of a feel-good spirituality, which also does not acknowledge sin.

    This – I think – is usually the case for the Western dabblers in Buddhism – if my own experience is any guide: they only want the good feelings and not the asceticism (hunger, pain), discipline, obedience etc.

    Consequently, modern mainstream versions of old religions – Western Buddhism, Western Shamanism, Neo-Paganisms such as Witchcraft and Bardism etc – are all very different from their ancient roots: the modern ones are almost wholly feel-good practices.

    And this is why modern Western spirituality so seldom forms a ‘gateway’ to Christianity.

    • outofsleep says:

      “Consequently, modern mainstream versions of old religions – Western Buddhism, Western Shamanism, Neo-Paganisms such as Witchcraft and Bardism etc – are all very different from their ancient roots: the modern ones are almost wholly feel-good practices.”

      Indeed! And the same of course can be said for modern feel-good PC-style Christianity vis-a-vis ancient Christian roots.

  2. bgc says:

    “And the same of course can be said for modern feel-good PC-style Christianity vis-a-vis ancient Christian roots.”

    Absolutely right.

    To the point that discussing sin is usually regarded as an act of aggression/ repression.

    On the other hand, the nature of ‘sin’ is (IMHO) mostly seriously misunderstood in mainstream Western Christianity, as being essentially a matter of ‘law-breaking’ – rather than (what it is, at root) a false relationship with reality.

    When sin is seen as primarily law-breaking then Christianity becomes merely a matter of forcing people to be obedient, by whatever means are effective (i.e. of bribing/ forcing people to ‘submit’ to The Law);

    however, when sin is perceived to be a false relationship to reality then the core of the Christian life may be restored to its properly ‘mystical’ (prayer-based) focus.

  3. Wyandotte says:

    If I may opine on sin, here:

    I heard a preacher say, “We aren’t sinners because we sin; we sin because we are sinners”. I liked this, it made sense to me. It says that, after all is said and done, we are not perfectible. We will always have that false relationship to reality to a greater or lesser degree. Otherwise, why would we incarnate?

  4. zhai2nan2 says:

    In an earlier post, you wrote: ‘[Left unanswered: Why do these acts cloud our minds? Why should this be so?]’

    I think you hint at an answer with your point 1 – that the universe includes inherent moral effects – karma or the judgement of God or something.

    I realize you probably don’t have a complete answer, but I’d like to see you expand on those speculations.

    • outofsleep says:

      Yes. It’s true that I don’t really know, but you’re right to say that I’m thinking of that same question when I mention point #1.

      As far as I can tell, there is a universal moral law, and this law must have been laid down by God. Evil begest evil because it’s evil. Basically, karma exists. The Buddhist answer as to “why karma?” is … well, that’s just the way the universe is. The Judeo-Christian answer is .. well, that’s just the way God is, and therefore by extension the universe. When you put it that way it seems like a distinction without a difference, but I think there’s a big difference. But I can’t put it into words this morning.

      • bgc says:

        One difference is the answer to the question: how do we know?

        For a Christian, we know that natural law is just because God wants us to know, revelation.

        In other words there is purpose, there is reason, there is reality and we can know about these.

        But without a ‘personal God’ who has revealed the truth to us, there is no reason to assume that humans have accurate knowledge of *anything*, including what I have just said – there is an infinite regress.

        It’s that choice, again, between regarding reality as a delusion or as real. If you choose ‘delusion’, then that invalidates the choice… The Cretan liar paradox.

        I think it is a genuine insight – simple but profound – maybe even a ‘proof’ – that relativism, nihilism etc are all self-refuting.

  5. zhai2nan2 says:

    ‘But without a ‘personal God’ who has revealed the truth to us, there is no reason to assume that humans have accurate knowledge of *anything*, including what I have just said – there is an infinite regress. ‘

    There are a few sources of claims about karma that usually get rejected by orthodox Christianity.

    1. Deep mystical experience, such as the visions of Plotinus. These “non-dual” experiences often convince the mystic that all things are One Thing and thus one ought not to kick a puppy because one would be kicking oneself. Since these are often impossible to put into words, they are hard to analyze.
    2. Shallow psychic experiences with spiritual entities, such as a conversation with a repentant ghost who informs the psychic that karma is indeed a force to be reckoned with.
    3. Observations of natural phenomena relevant to karma. E.g. one might observe that people who eat dogs tend to be tarred and feathered in London but recruited as caterers in Korea.

    Claims from 1 are often so vague that the orthodox churches scarcely know what to make of them. If they lead to philosophical monism, they are heresy in churches that believe God is separate from Nature.
    Claims from 2 are usually laughed off. Ghosts are not nearly as impressive as a squad of social workers.
    Claims from 3 can be endlessly debated.

    Avoiding an endless regress can be done in various ways. Socrates believed dialectic was a good foundation. Some of the Logical Positivists believed that sensory experience was a better foundation than dialectic. I suppose the difference between the Catholic Church and Plotinus is that the Church believes in historical revelations made to the apostles, whereas Plotinus believed only in first-hand revelations experienced by Plotinus himself.

    • outofsleep says:

      Good comment, thank you.

      I don’t think it’s exactly correct to say the Catholic Church “rejects” your categories one and two. I think many saints and orthodox Catholic philosophers have affirmed mystic visions, both of the holistic and the personal/psychic variety. Have not many saints (beyond just the Apostles) had mystic visions of earlier saints, and of Mary and of Jesus?

      The difference would be that the Catholic Church is not (or at least claims not to be) FOUNDED on interior experiences, but rather on the historical revelations to the Apostles. Later psychic/interior experiences happen within the existing theological framework of the church, and are not meant to be “load-bearing” experiences (if you will) but rather just the part of the personal story of this or that individual.

      • zhai2nan2 says:

        ‘The difference would be that the Catholic Church is not (or at least claims not to be) FOUNDED on interior experiences, but rather on the historical revelations to the Apostles.’

        Good point. The Catholic Church started when the cock crew for the third time, got solidly entrenched when Thomas did his unsanitary manual examination of Jesus’ spear wound, and finally got a specific verbal doctrine with “Feed my sheep.”

        What I missed the first time around is that: Catholicism is founded on apostolic experiences of physical miracles (resurrections of Lazarus and Jesus, Pentecostal fires, etc.), rather than apostolic visions.

        Miracles are highly problematic. On the one hand, Catholicism concedes that other faiths can have true inspiration from God, the “baptism of desire.” Thus Plato can be assumed to be in Heaven, because he desired Catholic salvation when it was not available. So if Buddha, or Socrates, or Pythagoras were to work a miracle, it might be by the grace of God. On the other hand, Catholicism warns that wicked spirits will pose as pagan gods and produce tricks. So any non-Catholic offering an example of miracles is potentially in league with demons.

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