Buddhism As a Spiritual Path – Questions and Answers

A response to something I had written to a correspondent helped me crystallize some thoughts about Buddhism and spiritual paths that I would like to share.  I will qualify this at first by reminding you, as I’ve done earlier in these postings (http://blog.paradigm-sys.com/740/) that I’m not a Buddhist scholar or an advanced meditator by any means, but the psychological nature of Buddhism has long appealed to me and I think I’m qualified as a Westerner with a serious interest who’s been at it a long time to share some reactions which I hope will be thought-provoking. 

My correspondent wrote that one of my answers to his question reminded him of something he had heard some spiritual teacher say, “When a Zen master answers his students question well, it’s like two arrows meeting tip to tip, extinguishing each other.”

Well that’s one way to look at it.  It contains a number of assumptions, though, that are just that, assumptions.  One dictionary defines assumption as “… an idea that is formed without evidence.”  My concern is that when you don’t recognize that assumptions are assumptions, they can become implicit articles of faith and have a big influence on you.

I saw an instructive and amusing example of this a couple of years ago.  One of our neighbors had a fence made of a large opening wire mesh across his backyard, separating it from the street.  He was having a new and more attractive board fence constructed somewhat further toward the street, and the wire had been removed from the old fence, but not the fence posts yet.  One afternoon I noticed his dog out in the backyard.  It ran around a bit, then toward the street, but stopped at the old fence line.  It walked along the old fence line, back and forth, never crossing, as if the fence were still there.  It’s easy to think that the dog’s mental map showed “This is where you can’t go any further!” and was still operating.  I went and told my neighbor about it, though, before the dog had a chance to upgrade his mental map of his territory and wander out into the street.

One of the things any culture does is erect a lot of “mental fences” so you just don’t go beyond a certain point.

The biggest assumption in the Zen Master quote is that Gautama Buddha reached the highest possible level of enlightenment and attainment possible for human beings.  This is an explicit belief for most if not all Buddhist, of course, but I’m concerned with the automatic way it may affect us.  Further, Buddhisms in general also believe that our intelligence has been steadily lessening and our karma getting worse ever since Gautama Buddha’s time, so an implicit measure of a person’s level of spiritual realization is do they come to the same conclusions as the Buddha is supposed to have reached?

If that assumption about the Buddha having reached the highest level is true, then it’s a reasonable way to assess a person’s spiritual level.  If it’s not true, then assessing a person this way is a mechanism to produce social compliance, and creates mental and spiritual fences of an unknown nature.

Now I think that whatever it was the Buddha attained was an absolutely remarkable achievement and extremely helpful for the world as it existed in his time, and for a long time afterwards, including today!  The life of almost everyone was fairly miserable for much of human history, and there wasn’t much you could do about it.  If you were born in the caste that picked up the shit from the streets at night, the Untouchables, that’s what you did all your life, that’s what your ancestors had done and that’s what your children would do.  Even more, it’s probably what you would do life after life after life, reincarnation after reincarnation, because it would probably take millions of lifetimes, even if you lived as virtuously as possible in each one, to really create much of a karmic potential for change for you.

To describe this view as pessimistic is, to me, to put it mildly!  To describe this as “realistic” in terms of what people could see looking around the world is also quite accurate: there was very little social change except when one tribe conquered another tribe, which led to great additional suffering for many.  So I don’t really know what Buddhist enlightenment is like, but it certainly includes a major degree of becoming very “cool,” not being upset by the things around you, and having a certain kind of inner bliss.  Who wouldn’t want that?  There have been innumerable occasions in my own life when I wish I had been a lot more calm and cool!

We, on the other hand, have been raised in a culture that believes in Progress.  If I go three generations back, my ancestors were peasants and factory workers, and that’s probably all they ever were before that.  Yet amazingly, I’m a Professor!  My son is very successful in his amazing discipline of video animation, and my grandson is going to be an architect!  In terms of spirituality, my ancestors knew only one religion, Christianity, and while there’s a lot of good things about Christianity there’s a lot of bad things too.  I, b contrast, have a good intellectual knowledge of many ways of approaching the spiritual, and a little bit of practical knowledge of some of them, and I and my kids and grandkids take the opportunity to choose to work with spiritual systems that appeal to us as “natural.”  This  seems like spiritual progress to me!

So the Buddha reached enlightenment.  Wonderful!  Marvelous!  But is this the highest possible achievement for humanity?  I have no idea, but I know that assuming or implicitly believing that may well create limitations on what might be possible.  I have no doubt that the practice of Buddhism has reduced the suffering of an enormous number of people over the centuries.  But how does that compare with the reduction of suffering that occurred, e.g., by the scientific discovery of bacteria and principles of hygiene?  How does not dying of typhoid fever compare with dying of typhoid fever but being very calm through the dying process?

So from my point of view as an academic and a scientist, I’d say the best answer to a question is an answer that makes the questioner think more deeply.  Not an elimination, “extinguishing” of the question because you’ve gotten The Answer from One Who Knows, but where you are now thinking more deeply, perhaps being aware of assumptions that went into your question, perhaps seeing other relevant areas you need to know more about, perhaps seeing a possible direction to go in that you’d never thought of before because it’s socially unthinkable, perhaps seeing hidden emotional roots affecting what you think, etc..

To my knowledge, putting all the emphasis on seeing how your mind works would probably not lead you to discover bacteria, or all sorts of other important things about the external world.  Yes, it’s very important to understand more about how one’s own mind works, and gaining knowledge and skill in keeping it from going off in crazy directions that harm yourself or other people.  I’ve spent much of my life doing that.  But as an only direction?  I can’t go for that.

As the industrialists Henry Ford is supposed to have said, “Those who think they can and those who think they can’t are both right.”

So if my answer extinguished the question, I hope this has relit the fire, and this direction of thinking will light many fires in the future!


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