Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Views That Divide Us


Until I'm able to shed my ego, through death or enlightenment (not much of a possibility at this late stage), I cling to the views and opinions I have developed over many years of engaging the world. Among them are the goals, perhaps contradictory, of both critical understanding and transcendental experience. Is it possible to be both a mystic and an intellectual?

This week I have learned that others probably think not. I've lost a few friends who strongly object to some of what I have written in this blog, and to ideas I've expressed in emails. They accuse me of doing harm and of harboring bad intentions. One pointed out my love of contention and lumped me with "intellectual Buddhists" who "tend to dispute with anyone who will listen. And then congratulate themselves for bravery." All of this has disturbed me deeply.

I'll admit to being contentious, tactless and negative in the sense that critical analysis requires submitting accepted truths to the acid of examination and study. My opinions about the topics in the title of this blog are bound to offend someone. One friend, who has not yet written me off, says that "intellectuals accept a notion of free speech, that intellectuals have the right to form an opinion on anything and discuss it." I'm not sure if free speech is only the prerogative of intellectuals, but I do subscribe to the notion that all ideas can be scrutinized and that none are out of bounds.

And yet I do admit that my views and opinions may seem unduly negative these days. The political scene, in the U.S. and Thailand, is dismal. Although I've not written much lately about sex, primarily because I now find myself in a loving and satisfying relationship with a Thai woman, I continue to find evidence of sexual hierarchy and repression in most religious paths that stem from a fear and even hatred of the body. Why is it that denying the selfish and self-centered demands of the ego all to often is connected to a total rejection of embodiment and the world into which we humans are thrown? A religion or spirituality that renounces life without compassion for the poor souls condemned to live it, those who have little time for meditation or money for religious retreats, is nihilistic and I want no part of it.

But such condemnation and criticism is rarely appreciated. Why do I persist in searching for "the truth"?

I have a wonderful friend in California, one of the kindest people I know, who once told me that his philosophy was "do the right thing" (that it came from a film title says much about his preoccupation). What is the right thing? "You'll know it, when the time comes," he said. And this accords with the research of cognitive psychologists who are showing that very young children soon develop a moral sense, just as they develop language; the brain is apparently primed for it. Religious explanations come later. In a recent letter, this friend said,
I remain a devout atheist...spirituality is just a bunch of synapses firing in a certain way. So is jacking off. But we have to fool ourselves and believe being generous or selfless or soulful is somehow good and maybe get us into heaven, if there is a heaven. We don't know. But why not come down on the side of the good and positive? We have nothing to lose.
I like that.

Of course, this doesn't satisfy the True Believers who need certainty to cement their faith. Pascal Boyer, in his book Religion Explained (he doesn't exhaust the topic but his theories are interesting), speaks of fundamentalist religions as "coalitions" organized around essential concepts demanding belief in which the costs of defection are high. Disbelief is costly and painful to the ostracized heretic. The more people fear a rudderless, perhaps immoral, world without any certainty, the more they cling to the doctrines and dogma that unite them with others of like mind. Fundamentalism fears competition because it makes defection easy.

I was attracted to Catholicism because of the moving Medieval rites and rituals which brought tears to my eyes, and because it contained a mystical tradition that held out the possibility of a transcendental unity beyond the messiness of mundane life. The first was the domain of religion as social and the second the domain of the individual. I gradually came to see that the Christian coalition was too restrictive and I could not subscribe to the truths of faith. As for the latter, I stil have hope that someday the scales over my eyes will fall off and I will truly see. But that hasn't happened yet, because maybe I don't think the right thoughts or perform the correct practices.

I was attracted to Buddhism while growing up in America because its teaching seemed universal, without the kind of gatekeepers that guarded the treasures of the cathedral. The Buddha taught how the mind works and how to be happy, and meditation promised a technique for ending stress and finding the answer through an inner experience that did not require external certification. I tried meditation for years and I lit candles on an altar containing icons from all the religious faiths, but the experience of transcendence (or whatever you want to call it) remained out of reach (wrong technique? wrong thoughts?). On my first visits to India and Thailand, I soon discovered that the faith of the common people was vastly different from the stripped-down version of Buddhism and Hinduism I'd encountered in books and on religious retreats. And after two years in Thailand, I've learned that the gap remains between the temple practice of the people and the uptown practice of expats and educated Thais on the yoga mats and meditation cushions who attend Dhamma talks. Who is the "intellectual Buddhist" here?

When Pali scholar Richard Gombrich came to Bangkok recently, he was impolite enough to criticize the Thai Sangha at a talk sanctioned by that august body of senior monks which regulates Buddhism in this country. I applauded his remarks which hastened my downhill slide from the local sangha of expats. In his talk at the World Buddhist University, Gombrich admitted that he did not call himself a Buddhist, even though he believed The Buddha
to be one of the greatest thinkers -- and greatest personalities -- of whom we have record in human history...I maintain that the Buddha belongs in the same class as Plato and Aristotle, the giants who created the tradition of western philosophy. I think that his ideas should form part of the education of every child, the world over, and that this would help to make the world a more civilised place, both gentler and more intelligent.
Because he did not believe in all of the Buddha's ideas and values, the academic intellectual from Oxford did not identify himself as a Buddhist, even though "I believe that my understanding of his ideas makes me at least as sincere an admirer of the Buddha as are millions of those who identify as Buddhists."

I suppose this must be enough for me now. While I do not currently meditate, I continue to read about Buddhism and its connections with Southeast Asian history and politics, not to mention the analytical tool of cognitive psychology which opens up new realms of investigative possibilities. I am, I believe, a sincere, admirer of the Buddha and most of his teachings as I understand them. Nan says her prayers to the Buddha every night and includes me in them. We refresh our Buddha icon with flowers every Wan Phra and often take gifts to the monks at the nearby temple to make merit. I hope that she has a fortunate rebirth. It's too late to worry about mine.

I may have lost the few readers I once had with these posts about religion, and I apologize. I think the subject is just about exhausted for me at the moment and I'll try to let it rest. Soon I'll resume writing about daily life in Thailand, study groups and street demonstrations, the monsoon's last gasp and flooded river piers, the new school term and unwelcome job offers, ghost movies and romantic TV dramas, a vegetarian celebration (10 days), the busy dermatology clinic and a crowded book fair. Now I must watch the latest episodes of "Mad Men" and "Californication." Lest you missed it, this intellectual has done nothing particularly brave about which to congratulate himself.

4 comments:

NellaLou said...

"I'm not sure if free speech is only the prerogative of intellectuals, but I do subscribe to the notion that all ideas can be scrutinized and that none are out of bounds."

Point one-quite so. If not free speech and thought for everyone then what?

Point two-quite so. This accords completely with the Buddhadharma.

Doesn't a person at least examine, smell and taste their food before swallowing it? Why not so with ideas as well?

If some readers are turned off by your examinations then you may consider at least one new regular reader here.

Thanks for your insights and honesty.

Roxanne said...

Will:

This is *your* blog. To my mind, that means you get to write about whatever you want.

If I don't like what you write, I figure I don't have to read it--the same as, if there is a television show or movie with which I do not agree, I have the choice to not watch it. I can just turn it off. I choose to read your blog. I'm the one with the power.

You are certainly entitled to your thoughts and beliefs. I don't have to agree with you. And that's okay. If people can not agree to disagree, then what will become of this world?

I appreciate your thoughts and images about Thailand.

I hope that you are doing well.

P.S. It is never too late. As long as you are breathing, there is still opportunity.

G. Lee said...

Anonymous in your last post provided a nice reminder that Buddhism, if anything, is "encountering the Dharma", the actuality of what is really happening beneath the surface of personal consciousness, where there is no division...and no conflict.

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