Tuesday, April 18, 2006

On buddhism

I don't like to admit I'm a buddhist, for quite buddhist reasons. "Buddhist" fixes and categorises, whereas the essence of buddhism is embracing process and flux - in one's inner life as much as in the world. Plus the label was only created in the 19th century by European explorers. Given all my lengthy bile about pentecostal evangelism, I am loathe to proselytise; however, Pankaj Mishra's An End to Suffering is an excellent introduction for those curious to know more.

Buddhism is not so much a faith or a religion, and more a practical pyschology and an ethics. As such, I think it is perfectly possible to be a Christian buddhist, a Jewish buddhist etc. At the core of buddhism is a recognition that suffering is caused by the ego's craving, leading to the pains associated with greed, hatred and delusion. Whatever our wealth, we can't take it with us; the realisation of this alone can cause us to suffer.

The "four noble truths" that occurred to Guatama Siddartha as he sat and meditated for days under a fig tree in Bodh Ghaya 2500 years ago and supposedly reached enlightenment (aka nirvana) are simply a method for releasing the ego from its cravings, accepting the impermanence of the world and living a positive life of non-attachment. Easy to say, extremely difficult to put in practice.

Mishra's book pulls all the main themes of Buddhism together and compares with aspects of Western philosophy (Nietzsche, Schopenhaur etc). Its also an interesting travelogue of his own spiritual development as a lad from a relatively modest Brahmin background in Northern India growing up in the 70's and 80's.

The question that I have and have always had about buddhism is whether 'self' and 'ego' should be seen as synonymous. It is relatively easy to accept that desire can never be satisfied and therefore is a form of illusory being (how many who want to be rich could ever define a state when they would be rich enough?) In that respect, the ego is the cause of suffering and forms of non-attachment or weakening of the ego can only be seen as a positive path. However, from an ethical perspective, surely one would want to hold onto a notion of the integrated self? This self need not necessarily be transparent to itself or metaphysically pure in any way, but it would be seen to persist across time as an ethical entity. Put as a question, how could there ever be a foundation to ethics, if not through a recognisable stable ethical character? If one accepts that one's self is illusory and based on flux, and one then goes on to project this belief onto others, how then could one ever expect ethically responsible intentions and actions from the other? Surely a notion of ethical character and an ethically self-identical self have to come back in here?

But I suspect that Buddhism, in all its sophistication, has already addressed this issue and its my understanding that is limited. The fourth of the noble truths is that suffering can be ended by following an eightfold path (which are in essence practical guidelines or ways of living positively in body, speech and mind). For Nietzsche, this eightfold path takes Buddhism 'beyond good and evil' - ie beyond the notions of sinning and the pure good in Christianity - in that it recognises that negative perceptions and emotions inhere within us all. Anyone can become a fascist or a nazi, even if they have renounced 'sinning'. Buddhism becomes a practical method (through meditation and right living) of reducing and ending these negative perceptions, by first of all accepting they are potentially available for anyone.

Kierkegaard's three-stage hierarchy may be helpful here. For K, there are three stages of humanity: aesthetic being (a world immersed in sensous experience and bodily craving, sexual love etc), ethical being (a world where care for the other becomes essential) and spiritual being (I'm not sure what he meant by this however). The point is, if we take a Kierkegaardian approach to buddhism, all that is being said is that we must leave aesthetic (and perhaps ethical) being behind in order to attain a spiritual connection to the world (whatever that might be exactly).

Mishra confirms my committment to buddhisming (if not to buddhism). But my committment comes by way of critical questions and doubts that do not go away easily. But that is precisely what a belief system is for me: a structure of value within which one can articulate one's profoundest doubts about the relationship between self and world.


Un des oliviers de Flo 5:20 pm  

Hello Jeremy, I'm Oliver from Belgium! Nice blog! Come and see mine! Thanks!

babalawo 8:23 pm  

Book looks good. Do you want a convert? No thanks!

Ayoke,  9:11 pm  

he he? Budhism. Hmm. Epistemological wanderings...

Akin 10:01 pm  

It is amazing how many thing things happen in the East, first with the sun rising, then the wise men seeking Jesus and the Beatles travelling far away at the height of their fame.

In the search for self, fulfilment and sometimes power we end up on journeys we almost always take alone.

Gbenga,  3:21 am  

Leaving Buddhism and the book aside for a minute, the interesting thing is that the two essential issues in this particular blog are actually addressed in true Christianity and in the teachings of Christ. By true Christianity, I intend to exclude all the 'evangelical' hoopla and prosperity "gospel" delusions.

Christianity teaches its followers to die to 'self'; Christ taught that to gain one's life, one must lose it; that one should eschew materiality; that one should be humble (addressing the 'ego' issue). As pointed out in the blog, this is all more easily said than done.But the Christian message is that this is the real path to inner peace and satisfaction.

The most saddening thing, to me, is that the modern caricatures of Christianity (especially the televangelists' variety) lead in the very opposite direction.

Gbenga,  3:25 am  

Sorry for double-post.

For 'evangelical' in comment above, I intended 'fundagelical'.

St Antonym 2:35 pm  

The Kierkegaardian "teleological suspension of the ethical" fascinated me for years. His most imaginative reading is in the book "Fear and Trembling," in which he retraces the possible reiterations of Abraham's attempt to murder his son, and links it to the concept of "obeying God" while going against every known possible standard of human decency. It's philosophy of a very high pitch, and I took it as a challenge and a comfort. I aspired to be a "knight of faith."

But now, I simply find that approach morally bankrupt, and ethically indefensible (which it is, by design). Nietzsche is closer to my heart these days, not least for his Buddha-like ability to look into the structure of suffering. Of course Nietzsche went mad, but not before laying bare to the world the horror behind the blood-sacrifice and torture that underpins much of Christian theology.

Enjoy the book. I'm a huge fan of Pankaj Mishra, and of his approach to the life of the mind and the spirit. He balances competing demands quite well.

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