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."
This is all good advice, but it contradicts some of his other teachings. This could be because, like any other religious text, it was written by multiple authors, all with slightly different but socially compatible agendas. Religions, regardless of their origin points, are fueled by dogma, so any good ideas get drowned out when the fervor gets initiated; there is a lot of "Yeah, yeah, that sounds good. Put that in there, too, and we'll probably get more people to listen to us." Sometimes, what sounds good is good, and sometimes, it isn't -- but none of this matters to those more interested in control than genuine enlightenment.
Keep in mind that the Pali Canon was written four hundred and fifty years after the supposed death of Siddhartha Gautama -- plenty of time for distortion, contradiction, and multiple personal interests to sneak in under the guise of "Buddhism." Even if it's written somewhere that the Buddha said something wise once, that does not justify other written, unwise statements. Hitler said a few sensible things in his time, for instance.
Of course, both the good and the bad came from a whole posse of people, and not from some mystical man towering above us normal peons; this automatically elongates the already lengthy shadow of idiocy looming over those who foolishly venerate a single man for somehow being neurologically unique. Nothing is more intellectually dangerous, and there are strong parallels between veneration of a man who can, according to the texts, never ever arise again with such brilliant (even though they're all either really obvious or incorrect) ideas on the one hand, and a man who is the only son of god who will come only once to bring us salvation on the other. The template, to the modern observer, is cheap, obvious, and a by-product of early civilization. It is the ideal logical fallacy: "You don't agree with this idea? Well, I heard it from this guy who is special. Therefore, I'm right."
It is probably impossible for a single human to be intellectually unique, so even if the Buddha was right to declare a puny list of four assertions the end-all-be-all, that would in no way justify anyone's abandonment of independent peer review in favor of adulation. I don't care how many layers of hell you've descended into for the benefit of mankind; you can't get away with putting together definitive lists and closing them off, never even once imploring others to add to or subtract from them.
It makes no sense to declare that one should not believe something on the grounds that it's written in a religious text, then turn around and also declare that you possess not just truth -- which is elusive and maybe even impossible to attain for humans -- but noble truth.
I wonder what would have happened to Darwin if he'd declared evolution "The noble, indisputable truth of life's procession". All those other scientists with their annoying journals and independent studies can go to hell!
There really is a pretty profound difference between "I know for certain that I am absolutely right about this, but please, come to the conclusion that I'm right on your own" and "This is what the evidence is currently indicating, but let's keep running the experiment and see if something new happens, or if we're missing something." If the Buddha were ever to promulgate the latter, there would be no Buddhism.
Furthermore, the Four Noble Truths are stupid to begin with. They basically advocate the idea that one can achieve freedom from craving, desire, and other forms of suffering through the Noble Eightfold Path. Obviously, we cannot extricate ourselves from our environs while alive, so there is no such thing as freedom from negative sensation without the termination of conscious experience altogether. In the Pali Canon, the Buddha is doing exactly what L. Ron Hubbard did by claiming to know not only why people suffer, but how to end it all and enter into a state of personal heaven as well. In short, he was a sophisticated swindler, handing out pamphlets advertising his -- and only his -- special ability to fix everyone. Capitalism, anyone?
Simple, one-size-fits-all, too-good-to-be-true methods for feeling perpetually blissful should always be scrutinized -- though, again, we should be careful not to project the agendas of the authors of the Buddhist texts onto whoever really was their original inspiration, given the ubiquity of distortion in the ancient world. The real Buddha could have been nothing more than a wiser than average guy with ideas that were great for their time but antiquated today.
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.
Does this really matter, though? Prior to plumbing, it was necessary to construct wells, but their then-necessity doesn't justify our continued drinking of unclean water.
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
This parallels the mythic intellectual hero (as opposed to the real person; see a pattern, here?) Socrates' rigged fights against the sophists: Relative to the morons espousing obvious gibberish, the hero appears wise and all-knowing, which provides further justification for submission to his agenda, and even his deification. This obvious false dichotomy is also a known tactic among physical fighters, and very effective against those with limited perspective.
What the Buddha actually did was suggest that his students become enlightened themselves - to see that things were really as he described them.
And, conveniently for him, they all wound up agreeing with him! No one ever stood up and said, "This is stupid. How is getting acquainted with how my body deals with the world going to end my suffering once and for all? How is it going to help that starving baby bird over there? Where's the absolute correlation between conscious willing and physical consequences?!"
I wouldn't describe meditation as contrived or requiring extensive training: how 'contrived' is simply paying attention to one thing?
Our brains have physical limits to how long they can remain concentrated on one thing at the expense of another, especially when the other thing is your intestines hanging out.
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.
The way to prevent your rebirth is by promoting the idea that no one should reproduce; if no one reproduces, then the infinitude of "yous" that come and go from each sentient organism's consciousness will eventually cease to emerge. Learning how to sit really still and ignore the world's attempts to engage with you is useful while alive, but it will not prevent your rebirth.
For example, if you have a child, but then go on to become the best meditator ever, this latter change may bring you happiness in moments where you would have otherwise been very uncomfortable, but your ascension to nibbana is rendered illegitimate by the existence of your child, who is interconnected to you and will suffer throughout his or her life. The correct path to nibbana, then, is not perfect mindfulness and higher realization, but the extinction of you, your child, and every other sentient creature -- regardless of how the extinction comes about. Certainly, the planet being instantaneously vaporized by a gamma ray burst has nothing to do with enlightenment or mindfulness, yet it is the real nibbana after all.
the most authentic position of Buddhism is completely indifferent to whether gods exist or not...this point is largely doctrinally irrelevant to Buddhism.
It really, really shouldn't be. The existence of gods has profound implications regarding existence and the nature of cause and effect. If gods exist, then there necessarily is a kind of functionality inherent in the system that we call the universe, for gods are human-like in desire and overall essence. Their existence may not change the fundamental nature of sentience, but it could if there really does turn out to be a reason for all the madness which we call life.
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.
I don't doubt that someone like the Buddha had paranormal experiences, but said person also did not have access to modern scientific knowledge or methods with which to properly and negatively analyze the experiences. Today, if we encounter what we perceive to be an apparition, we can first realize the importance of negatively analyzing the encounter by actively seeking out all those alternatives which potentially discredit the default assumption:
1. We now have evidence that our perception of reality is a filtered aggregate of abstractions constructed by neurons, each programmed to provide us with an analogy of the information they receive from the "external" world. Sometimes, the analogy appears grossly inaccurate, especially when subjected to unusual stimuli. In layman's terms, we may call this phenomenon an hallucination.
2. Humans enjoy pranks and hijinks, and must not be underestimated for their ability to deceive their peers.
3. Given what we know about sleep, comas, vegetative states, mental retardation, other species, etc., it would be silly to assume that a person's soul becomes physically locked away when the brain shuts down, only to become free and fully aware after death and in the absence of that which it apparently needed in order to be conscious in the first place.
...and so on. Anyway, your misconstruction of science as not only an ideology but dogma is counterproductive and ironic. Science is a process, much like the processes of baking a cake and refining oil. The outcome of each experiment must be independently verified by unaffiliated individuals, and if such individuals refine or overturn an idea decades after its introduction, then "science" welcomes the update.
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.
...And Jainism is not Buddhism, let alone the original teachings of the Buddha or his spokespersons. Anyway, if that's really what Jainism advocates, then it, too, is foolish, for suicide is a waste -- save for cases of extreme depression, terminal illness, etc. -- in the face of the source of the problem: reproducing DNA material. If we fail to end all life, then "we" will continue to exist for billions of years to come; we just won't remember any of it.
The universe feels; sometimes, parts of it remember the horror, and other times, they forget, or never experience it to begin with. If you have both stomach cancer and heart disease, the elimination of your stomach cancer may make your stomach happy, but the body is nevertheless suffering somewhere else.
Buddhism condemns violence: suicide is ultimately violence against oneself.
This is more of that goofy absolute rhetoric that I outed in the first post. It's the same as the Four Noble Truths or the Ten Commandments in its defining something as free from exception: What was the value metric used to come to this conclusion? Some things may always be bad, but we have to do the math to determine whether the outcome is negative, zero, or positive before we can say for sure.
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.
There's nothing arbitrary in shaving your head to represent your restrained lifestyle? What if I were to tell my lackeys that they have to wear KISS T-shirts in order to symbolically express the very same lifestyle -- and what if they all were to wear KISS T-shirts, with none questioning the practice? Would that be healthy, independent rationality, or would it be, like Scientology, a manifestation of an age-old human pitfall?
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.