What could I say to you that would be of value, except that perhaps you seek too much, that as a result of your seeking you cannot find.
~ Hermann Hesse (in Siddharta)
An early psychologist – I forget who – quipped that psychology is a science designed to solve the problems it has laid into its own path. I see much truth in that. But luckily, there are also fresh insights and results that keep us moving forward.
What about religion? Judaism, and perhaps Christianity, can be seen as attempts to understand, explain, tame, and overcome a divine revelation, which, if read literally, is a most puzzling, and not a particularly humane, document. Were this document not there, or were it ignored, life might be easier, as we could focus our efforts on science and philosophy, or simply living.
Christianity makes all manner of metaphysical assumptions, to which Christian doctrine and morality is supposed to be the answer. If we accept the concept of sin (original or otherwise), we must find a way to overcome. Christian doctrine says how. Without the metaphysical concepts of sin and eternal damnation, there is no need for a moral code that enslaves the soul. There remains, of course, the need for a terrestrial, human-oriented code to regulate social behavior and to minimize harm.
What about Buddhism (et alii)? What little is known about Siddharta, it is amazing that a 2-hour (no commercials) TV special can be produced, with Richard Gere, the spiritual seeker, narrating. During the first 30 minutes (I did watch the rest), we learn that Siddharta, once he had become a witness to the misery of the world, left his wife and newborn son. He does not say good-bye because he realizes that if he picked up his son, he would not be able to leave. Does this not strike you as the suppression of a human and morally good impulse? The various experts who exegesiate the Buddha’s life assert that, in order to gain anything, you first have to lose everything. There is no evidence to suggest that this is so. The exegetes go further by saying that spiritual growth requires personal sacrifice. Again, this is mere assertion, and it is a myopic one at that. True, Siddharta must have felt pain when leaving his family, but what about their pain? His sacrifice was intended; their sacrifice was the result of a betrayal. May we forgive Siddharta his callousness, thinking that without it, he could have never become the Buddha? Perhaps. Who knows what would have happened? Justifying means with ends is a brute fallacy if alternatives are not even considered.
The ultimate goal of Buddhist practice is the achievement of enlightenment and Nirvana, to wit, the end of the eternal cycle of rebirth and suffering. There it is again, the metaphysical premise. If we shrug off the idea that we have lived billions of lives before and that we will do so again, full of suffering, then the task of finding enlightenment does not present itself and the Nirvana is nowhere to be seen. Why would Buddhism do so much for the perfection of mindfulness and presence in the moment, when one eye remains trained on an eternity of suffering? The practice of mindfulness, it seems to me, would be less paradoxical if it took itself more seriously. Focus on the present moment and the lotus blossom (or the glass of Pernod) in front of you. Eternity never comes.
Buddhism, Christianity, and, I am sure, other religions, seem to be obsessed with death, and how to cheat her. Siddharta was shocked by the sight of a corpse, and presumably he was even more shocked by the prospect of becoming a corpse a billion times yet. He struggled hard to sublimate these shocks. Why not just accept that death is the price we all pay for life? So let’s make it a good one. Here. Now.
Note. When suggesting that Buddhism and other religions are exercises in question-begging, I mean the following: When a religion offers the prospect of attaining salvation or Nirvana, it begs the question of whether there is such a thing (and its alternative of eternal suffering) in the first place. Would you not be wary of the healer who claims your aura is frayed, only to then offer you expensive therapy? If you do not agree with me that there is no such thing as an aura, then what about subluxations or the spirits of your ancestors residing in your spleen? Once diagnosed, all these ills can be treated - for a price - by the diagnostician. It is a pretty transparent conflict of interest. One response to this suggestion that the administration of religion comes down to the faith-healing of imagined diseases, is to deny that the argument applies to one's own version of Buddhism or Christianity etc. Sure, one can celebrate the contributions of mindfulness training or zen practice to mental health, but not without raising (not begging) the question of whether such practice can be called Buddhist if it has shed the metaphysical assumptions introduced by the Buddha. If the answer is yes, my observations do indeed not apply to all of Buddhism. However, one wonders why such practitioners would want to be considered Buddhists if they reject a central part of the dharma.