He who learns must suffer, and, even in our sleep, pain that we cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God. - Aeschylus

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Fair Questions: Why am I not a Buddhist?

For folks who either know me in person or through my writing, it's probably obvious that I have a certain knowledge of and affinity for Buddhism.  I occasionally update my Facebook status with quotes from the Buddha's discourses, discuss the Buddha's teaching in philosophical circles, and share insights from Buddhism in conversations with friends where I think it might help them.  My stoic demeanor is well known, and I have been told by a friend that I was the most Buddhist Catholic he had ever known.

And in my writing, I have examined various kinds of Western misunderstandings about Buddhism (and will continue to do so).  I have addressed those who believe the Buddha to be an agnostic or atheist and explained why this is absolutely not true based on the evidence of Buddha's discourses.  In that same piece, I addressed a claim made by some who obviously haven't read that Pali canon that Buddhism does not have a Hell as monotheistic religions do.  I have addressed those who believe that Buddhism is more compatible with contemporary egalitarian ideals in the West, specifically contemporary feminist ideals.

I have addressed Nietzsche's misunderstanding of Buddhism in the Genealogy of Morals.  I have suggested that Buddhism is not superstition.  I used the Buddha's teachings as an example of why Valerie Tarico's critique of religion failed miserably to understand religion prior to critiquing it.  I even used a definition of liturgy provided by a Zen Buddhist priest to help others understand what liturgy is in a Christian context.

Given all this, I can see why people might wonder why I never became a Buddhist.  I will try to answer that question today.  Hopefully this will explain to those who find it interesting why I will never be a Buddhist.  I could provide a list of points of my agreement with Buddhism and points of my disagreement with Buddhism, but I think in this case that simply telling my story would be more useful.

I started taking an interest in Buddhism because of my study of martial arts, specifically Japanese martial arts.  That lead to an interest in Zen Buddhism, specifically as expressed in the writings of Takuan Sōhō and Dōgen.  I found the practice of meditation particularly helpful, both in my practice of martial arts and the development of a more peaceful acceptance of the struggles of my life.

Out of this interest in Buddhism, I began reading some of the Buddha's discourses online while I worked nights as I was getting my first degree.  I also began studying Buddhism as a tradition, seeking to understand its history and relationship with politics.  I looked at the early Buddhist councils and tried to gain some understanding of the differences between the Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana traditions within Buddhism.

As I studied Buddhism and compared it with Christianity, I kept finding that everything I found valuable in Buddhism was already present in the ancient Christian tradition when I did my research (mysticism, a deep wisdom tradition, a comprehensive cosmology, etc.)  So I needed some new way of deciding between the two.

I decided to go back to a fundamental question: what's the highest purpose of a religion as it relates the person practicing it? I decided that the highest purpose of religion for the practitioner is not to find a worldview and moral path that fits who we are, but instead to find a worldview and moral path that fits who we want to become by challenging us on every level so that we are constantly growing in moral practice.

The difference between Buddhism and Christianity for me was that Buddhism fit the person I was, but not the person I wanted to become. Which is not to say that Buddhist ethics would not prompt me to grow and change, but that it would not do so in such a way as to radically transform my core ethos into something greater.  My core ethos as a 21 year old was the same as the core ethos of Buddhism: transcend suffering by accepting it and gradually detaching from it through the liberating power of the mind. This was an ethos I had developed as a coping mechanism for the traumas of my life, small as they were in many ways. Buddhism couldn't transform my core ethos because I already shared it. 

Christianity on the other hand had a core ethos of suffering as a loving gift offered in service to others, and also an informative process that helps us to understand ourselves while developing morally. This was a core ethos I did not share at all. It would force me to step outside of my deepest coping mechanisms and become an entirely new person. And I'm very glad that is has in fact done that for me over the past few years. I'm a much better person for it.

It probably seems odd that I could honestly say that Buddhism fit me better than Christianity despite growing up within the Christian tradition,
but it's not surprising when I consider the case of many of my atheist friends. They didn't sit down under a tree one day and reason out the truth of everything. What I found from my discussions with them is that by and large they became atheists because they realized that their existing philosophical views and moral intuitions lead to a worldview without room for any sort of God they could conceptualize. 

 I think that's how many of us think through an issue. We generally leave our core assumptions unexamined and just overturn one of our conclusions because we realize that it's incoherent with those core assumptions. I would go so far as to say that many people in the U.S. hold assumptions that should lead them to atheism, but they nonetheless cling to theism and/or Christianity. They are atheists who don't know it yet. And in much the same way, I was once a Buddhist who didn't know it yet.

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