Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The Buddha's teachings are garbage

Notice how I didn't title this "Buddhism is garbage"; while stupid, Buddhism and its various sects often have nothing to do with what the Buddha actually taught, making them far less attractive as targets for critique. For example, the following were not part of the original teachings of the Buddha, yet are often essential to modern Buddhist practice:

1. Monastic hierarchy

2. Arbitrary rituals and customs (e.g. shaving one's head, wearing a robe, reciting formalized chants)

3. Forbidding sex (obviously in direct opposition to the Buddha's conception of the Middle Path)

4. Reincarnation; "seeing" past lives; dualism

5. Compassion for non-sentient life (e.g. trees and possibly insects)

...and, most importantly:

6. "Isms," or treating ideas as groups to be generalized, "converted" to, etc.


So, fine, the Buddha was right not to incorporate any of these things into his teachings. That's great, but he was nevertheless about as far from being scientifically minded as one can get. Don't believe me? Think the Buddha was some atheist way ahead of his time, or on par with Einstein? Have a look at the following flaws in his modus operandi:

1. The numbered lists: Everything that the Buddha taught seemed to break down into definite lists which more or less could not be challenged by his disciples. Perhaps you think this point ironic, since I'm putting it on a list of my own, but the difference is that I will neither title nor close off this list in an attempt to formalize it or make it dogma; in fact, it's very likely that I'll add onto it in the minutes and hours following my publishing this post.

Given the nature of data and the very states of impermanence and not-self that the Buddha was so fond of demonstrating, he should have more carefully considered that his lists would need updating and refinement as he encountered more worldly problems. Likewise, he should have considered listening to others, and consequently spent equal amounts of time both teaching and learning. Titling your list "The Noble Eightfold Path" or "The Four Noble Truths" is setting you up for adulation and blind acceptance on the part of your "followers." Wouldn't it have been better for the Buddha to have simply said, "I've found four things about reality that are worth teaching, but I, in being imperfect, am both student and teacher, just as you are. If you happen to find a fifth noble truth, by all means, let me know about it"? Certainly, the Noble Eightfold Path is very far from a complete list of methods for avoiding suffering; it doesn't even account for what currently appears to be the primary cause: unregulated emergent process.

2. The neglect of non-human causes of suffering: The Noble Eightfold Path basically asserts that we can end all suffering by changing our thoughts and actions. This is patently false; anyone who has ever passed a kidney stone, been shot in the stomach, or endured cancer can tell you that intense pain, no matter how good you are at managing it, is a by-product of material interactions which cannot be stopped unless their causal processes are. In other words, while I may be able to deal with suffering better upon taking up the Noble Eightfold Path, this in no way demonstrates that my newfound ability to cope with suffering also leads to the cessation of said suffering. It doesn't matter how great you are at meditation, mindfulness, or detachment from desire; if you're being beaten with a baseball bat or ripped apart by an alligator, your psychological sophistication is not going to prevent -- or even mitigate -- your suffering. Incidentally, how meditation could ever help starving baby birds is beyond me.

The solution really is far simpler than a contrived set of mental practices requiring extensive training: Just don't have kids.

3. The ambiguity: The Buddha often spoke in parables and metaphors -- which, in the general sense, may occasionally edify a person seeking to understand an elusive concept not easily grasped using more literal means -- but the Buddha is almost never direct with his followers in the Pali Canon. The lack of clarity of wording has had such dramatic consequences, in fact, that today, there are entire "Buddhist" sects which teach literal reincarnation where the Buddha only ever spoke of a metaphorical "rebirth" of one's moral energy, or kamma. Worse still, the concept of rebirth isn't even all that accurate: One transfers one's ideas, notions, and physical actions through the world both while alive and after death, so it's a continuous process, and not something that occurs exclusively after the body ceases to function. Counter by claiming that, in accordance with the flux of material reality, the Buddha was referring to the continuous generation of new "selves" who have causal influence on their environments and you'll further illustrate my point that the wording of the Buddhist texts is so ambiguous that we can't even agree on what it's referencing.

This problem could have been easily solved by the Buddha's referring to the phenomenon in question as simple transmigration of data and information -- both physical and conceptual -- rather than as a "rebirth."

4. The gods: Contrary to popular belief, the early Buddhist texts are filled with nonsense about gods of all sorts. Dimensions, planes, and immaterial consciousnesses are often spoken about as things which the Buddha confronts during intense meditation sessions. Essentially, they're all leftovers from the obviously whacky Hinduism, but the Buddha took what were integral facets of a supreme godhead and turned them into imperfect, desirous beings capable of suffering just like anyone else. The claim that a conscious, sentient being is necessarily imperfect, in part because of its desires and impetuses, is accurate; the claim that any such beings exist beyond the Earth, or in other realms of existence, has no basis in empirical observation whatsoever.

It's like saying that, even though it's quite obvious that man contrived Santa Claus, there could be a guy who rides a sleigh driven by flying reindeer somewhere in another dimension -- except that the Buddha apparently took the unfounded presumptions of his backward Indian culture quite seriously, to the point where he actively believed that gods and ethereal realms were real in the most literal sense imaginable.

5. No suicide or antinatalism: If ending suffering is the most important activity of life, then why didn't the Buddha advocate suicide or the cessation of human reproduction? You can counter by claiming that spreading the word on how to obtain enlightenment is a far better use of one's time than suicide, given that it will help end not just your own suffering but the suffering of others, but what if you're suffering so horribly that meditation does nothing to ease your mind? Is it okay to kill yourself? Furthermore, even if there were a valid reason within the Buddhist paradigm to forbid suicide, what does that have to do with merely refraining from having children? Sure, modern monks don't reproduce, but that has more to do with the false notion that the Buddha advocated abstinence than with any desire to end life as we know it -- and, assuredly, monks do not attempt to stop laymen from reproducing.

It seems rather obvious to me that the Buddha was entirely invested in the agenda of life: He saw that part of it was bad, but instead of trying to fix it proactively, he advocated messy self-help steps for those unfortunate enough to have had to endure the onset. If he'd truly been interested in eliminating all negative sensation, he'd have said more on how to cleanly terminate one's own life -- or at least strongly emphasized the importance of abstaining from sexual reproduction (regardless of social status).

And above all else, no matter what the Buddha actually said, the fact that some 350 million people continue to not only venerate but outright deify him goes to show what a mess we're in. If I, a random, anonymous person on the Internet can so effectively dissolve the original words of the Buddha with a few paragraphs, then why is he being treated with such reverence? Why is he being singled out above billions upon billions of people? If I can put a dent in his ideas, and there are seven billion people on Earth, how many others do you think can do the same?

Is it possible that the entire "path" advocated by the Buddha is -- like just about everything else that justifies enslavement to non-rational cognitive faculties -- a sham? Here's a final word of advice: No matter how much you agree with a person or set of ideas, if the method used to arrive at those ideas is flawed, or if the ideas share space with really stupid ones, you're better off not trying to gain social status through associating with their "isms." Always discuss ideas one at a time.

9 comments:

  1. These are great points that I'm sure no Buddhist has ever heard before. You sure are a genius!

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  2. http://xkcd.com/675/

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  3. You lack full knowledge of the Buddhas teachings. I know little myself, but enough to see your ignorant on the topic and taking things at mostly face value.

    One of the great things the Buddha said that will single handedly dissolve many of your points:

    "Do not believe in anything because you have heard it.
    Do not believe in anything because it is spoken by many.
    Do not believe in anything because it is written in religious books.
    Do not believe in anything on the authority of your teachers.
    Do not believe in traditions just because they have been handed down.

    But after observation and analysis,
    when you find that anything agrees with reason
    and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all,
    then accept it and live up to it."

    Monks on this note are even encouraged to debate, question, and try to disprove things. Buddhism is about shutting up and letting the wheel of the mind come to a stop, so the true self can be realized. With that realization you discover pain, suffering, thought, feeling...all this stuff is created by your mind, it is not really you.

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  4. In response to your post.
    1. The Numbered Lists
    Numbered lists are a mnemonic device from oral cultures not an exclusive enumeration of dogma. There are two possibilities- that (a) the Buddha, wishing his disciples to be able to memorise his teachings, presented them in list form, or that (b) the subsequent process of oral transmission resulted in this format. Large collections of such lists are recorded in the Abhidhamma. In my own experience, I have heard these lists frequently challenged. However, Buddhism is profoundly pragmatic and I see it as part of the Buddha's skill as a teacher that his teachings are not only easily remembered, but appropriately ordered.

    The Buddha did entertain the arguments of famous philosophers and those of other sectarians and his contemporaries. These arguments are recorded in numerous places in the Pali Canon. But the four noble truths aren't a theory: they're a road map to enlightenment drawn from the Buddha's first-hand experience. By way of analogy, I have never been to London. It would be ridiculous for me to say, 'I have a hunch that the map of London should look differently', and then, comfortable in my house in Australia, to redraw the roads and train-lines as I please. The type of situation you suggest (with the students as teacher) is that the Buddha encourages his students to do precisely that. What the Buddha actually did was suggest that his students become enlightened themselves - to see that things were really as he described them. And many did -with many students going on to become teachers in their own rights.

    2. 'Non-human causes of suffering'
    Meditation is a very effective form of pain management, it simply depends how good you are at it. I say this having suffered from migraines for years- my experience is that meditation is much better than my medication. It is possible to be completely unfeeling of physical sensations in a meditative state. I have known several monks and nuns who have voluntarily undergone tooth-extractions without anaesthetic because they simply saw it as a waste of time. I wouldn't describe meditation as contrived or requiring extensive training: how 'contrived' is simply paying attention to one thing? But like literacy (which in my country we have a compulsory 12 years of education to develop), concentration(and its more refined form, meditation) is a real skillset which improves with education.

    That being said, the underlying cause of pain is getting born! The Buddha fell upon the rather obvious solution when he suggested not getting reborn.

    3. 'Ambiguity'
    Ambiguity is inherent in all communication. For instance, the Australian constitution requires seven judges and cases in the High Court of Australia to interpret. But does that mean we shouldn't have a constitution?

    I admit there are some areas where the textual sources which Buddhists have at their disposal are unclear: for instance, people aren't really clear who the references to white-clothed lay followers in the Pali Canon refer to. Thankfully- the main tenets of Buddhism relating to suffering and the end of suffering are wonderfully clear- they're outline in lists, afterall. :P But the thing is, Buddhism is not 'religion by the book'. The Buddha's teaching is about lived experience, the 'ehipassiko dhamma' which invites individuals to 'come and see for themselves'. It's living out the Buddha's teachings for yourself which clarifies all doubts.












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  5. 4. Heavenly beings are part of the dramatis personae of Buddhism. You see that they act just like any other actor. Their presence or absence is completely irrelevant to the truth of suffering and the end of suffering. Thus, Buddhism is correctly described as non-theistic: the most authentic position of Buddhism is completely indifferent to whether gods exist or not...this point is largely doctrinally irrelevant to Buddhism.

    Conversations between the Buddha and numerous gods are recorded in the Canon: evidently, the Buddha was not merely parroting earlier Hindu beliefs- the heavenly realms are not just a leftover in Buddhism. Having observed the paranormal in front of my own eyes as a child, I am tempted to take seriously the anecdotal evidence of others' encounters with non-human beings- the type of experiences which are actually censored by current scientific dogma. Naturally if you haven't had such experiences you're not going to be so readily convinced. However, I suggest you open your eyes to the possibility that the Buddha- who was able to articulate a remarkably detailed and coherent philosophical system- was not suffering from any momentary lapse of intelligence when he described non-human realms.

    5. Suicide
    The position of suicide in Buddhism is more complex than you make out. At the same time as the Buddha, another teacher, Mahavira, was teaching a religion, Jainism, that would ultimately espouse suicide as the height of saintliness.

    Buddhism condemns violence: suicide is ultimately violence against oneself.

    To deal with your earlier and more dispersed points:

    Monks have always abstained from sexual activity- this is not a modern invention and completely consistent with the Middle Way. At one end of things, you have starving yourself and hanging upside down from trees as the practice of ascetism. At the other end of things, you have eating as you please and untrammeled hedonism. The mild life of a monk, with its one or two meals a day, its abstinence and restraint, is a genuine compromise between the needs of the body and the quest for spiritual liberation.

    Likewise, the trappings of a monk have persisted largely unchanged (in Theravada Buddhism) since the time of the Buddha. Wearing one's robe correctly and shaving one's head are simply part of the practice of renunciation- these things are not arbitrary ritualisations, they are the customs of those bent on renunciation.

    What dent have you left on Buddhism? I've read this, and it's really just the poorly structured, ill-numbered, factually misinformed rant of an anonymous netizen. In the end, Buddhism is about the end of cognitive enslavement- about breaking free of the very boundaries of conscious and conditioned reality. The human need for freedom (for freedom of mind, for freedom from addiction) gives rise to the journey, the pragmatic teachings of the Buddha offer a path to that freedom. The Buddha stands out among all people who have ever inhabited the earth as someone who could credibly talk about what it means to have a mind without limits.

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  6. As human beings we waste far too much time criticizing the belief structures of others. Why do we all think we know what's best for the next person? Do we not all rationalize things for ourselves differently? Is there not something more constructive you can do with your time than attempt to deconstruct a system of beliefs you will never be able to "dent"? Focus instead on what you do believe in, instead of what you don't.

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  7. 1. Every second of your waking life is spent deliberating and acting. To frame critique of belief as something egregious is to give every belief some degree of credence. Is it a waste of time to critique fascism or racism? If not them, then where are you drawing the line? Where it preserves your personal beliefs? How convenient.

    The notion that demonstrating to others why their beliefs -- and subsequent actions -- are bad for the world is foolish is itself utterly preposterous. Why should Martin Luther King have bothered with his speech? He should have had Kris Hancock around to inform him that criticizing racists and their prevailing social institutions is a waste of time.

    2. I don't believe anything.

    But thanks for the critique of my critique. I guess explaining why others are wrong is only right when you're explaining why explaining why others are wrong is wrong.

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