Friday, September 06, 2013

The Four Noble Truths of the Buddha, last part

Part 11 here.

Buddha's lasting legacy is a peace-loving, inward-focused religious community in East Asia.  His commandments and teachings continue to be revered and followed by Buddhists as well as by other secular or humanist individuals and communities.

In an era of increasingly powerful weapons and industrial degradation of the environment, the Buddhist principles of non-violence appeal to sensitive individuals.  The Buddhist conception of eventual justice (Karma) appeal to those who find, to their distress, that cruelty and untruth win the day, again and again.

In the 20th century, many non-violent movements (especially in India and in South Africa) popularized the concept of "peaceful resistance", coupled with a religious or spiritual righteousness.

Buddhists are generally not known to be ambitious in a worldly sense.  Their ideal is renunciation, after all.  Therefore Buddhism particularly appeals to people disenchanted with structure and authority, introverts, anarchists, counter-culture enthusiasts, and those who justly consider the modern world to be increasingly stressful and unhealthy for the mind and the body.

Buddhism can be considered to be individualistic, but it also stresses on the Sangha (the community of monks) and on larger ramifications of one's acts (the ethical edicts in the noble eight-fold path, especially "Right Livelihood").  Though many consider Buddhism to be non-hierarchical and democratic, its monastic communities are known to be otherwise.  Though Buddhism seems to encourage inquiry, in practice it is as faith based as any other religion.  Doubt is considered a hindrance on the path to Nirvana (it is one of the "Five Hindrances").

Religion serves many extremely useful functions in a traditional society: cohesion, faith, a foundation for ethical behavior, consolation for sorrow, rituals and prayers, a philosophical/mythological basis for temples and monasteries, and so on.  Even if on philosophical grounds, Buddhism fails to make the mark, it deserves commendation for making meditation and inward-awareness (or mindfulness) a fundamental part of religious practice.  Meditation, whatever flaws it might have, is a great way to remain calm and relatively free from stress and from agitating impulses.

The Buddha, as is known, will continue to be regarded as a great philosopher and a compassionate teacher.  His teachings may be flawed, but his intent to lessen human suffering cannot be doubted.

Buddha's four Noble Truths and the noble Eight-fold path are the philosophical bases of Buddhism, but as is common for religious teachings, only very serious seekers need to look at these with an investigative eye.  Most Buddhists and people interested in Buddhism do not bother with the philosophy but imbibe the attitude and practice of non-violence and mindfulness.  And they are, I surmise, better individuals thereby.

My intent in subjecting the four noble truths to scrutiny is to exhibit that as a philosophical treatise Buddhism is ancient, archaic and ambiguous.  That it contains assumptions which are no longer scientifically tenable.  Something need not be true to provide comfort, however, and I have no intention of dissuading someone away from Buddhism or a Buddhist meditation practice if they find it useful.

However, for anyone who wants to re-orient one's entire life towards the spiritual goal of transcendence, or someone who seriously considers renunciation of "worldly desires", or monk-hood, as a valid path to achieve peace of mind, I hope my analysis can make them reconsider both the end and the means.

Spirituality and religion is useful to lay-people, who are not concerned with philosophy, as a complement to the stresses and sorrows of worldly life with its worldly goals.  When spirituality takes over one's life and becomes the goal, then I think one has lost one's way.  Let me elucidate with an analogy.  Exercising for an hour or two every day is great for health and enables one to achieve one's goals with more energy and health.  But if one discards other goals as secondary and just focuses on exercise and fitness as a means to "health Nirvana", then one would be considered neurotic.

Buddhism is fine, as long as one doesn't take it too seriously.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

ndSpiritualism--detestable but meaningful world, with its baggage of connotations--to me is a philosophy, or absence of philosophy which is a philosophy itself, which one freely chooses as a compass for one's life. The Buddhism you refer to is as useful as last years beautiful calender. I admire your persistent experiments over the years and courage to extricate yourself from a series of choices. Here's one which has withstood the test of time so far as I am concerned and one which satisfies all boundary conditions.