Thursday, April 25, 2013

Fairy Tales for the Afterlife

"The emotions generated from writing on hard, sad topics are real and need tending to. I have multiple strategies for addressing them—stepping away from the computer, reaching out to friends and family, going for a run, focusing on positive things, reading poetry, finding music that feels right in the moment, turning to a ritual such as making a pot of homemade chai, reminding myself that what I feel is but a tiny fraction of the pain felt by the person who experienced it firsthand." 

The internet brings a world of hurt into our computers and homes: Bombs at the Boston Marathon destroy lives and limbs, an explosion at a West Texas fertilizer factory wreaks havoc, Buddhist nationalists slaughter Muslims in Myanmar, a tall building housing garment workers collapses in Bangladesh, Syrians and Iraqis continue to kill each other in their civil wars, fire destroys a refugee camp on the border of Thailand, Israeli soldiers shoot at Palestinian children throwing stones at them, drones decimate wedding parties in Pakistan and Afghanistan, landmines in Southeast Asia continue to claim victims decades after the wars ended, girls are raped in America and India and some commit suicide because of bullying and shame, disturbed gunmen enter schools and movie theaters to shoot and kill the innocent indiscriminately, prisoners are tortured and held for years without charge or trial, harmful chemicals pollute water and food, immigrants suffer looking for a better life while poverty and economic inequality strangle the future of the young.

What's a Buddha to do but cry?  Is it any wonder that most religions offer consolation only in the afterlife?

Suffering -- the common translation of dukkha in the Pali lexicon -- is nothing new.  The dangerous elements of nature and contagious disease cut short the lifetimes of our ancestors.  Elites have always been blind to the suffering of the poor.  But when a young nobleman in South Asia became aware of the suffering caused by birth, sickness, aging and death, he left his wife and child at home and set out as a pilgrim in search of a solution to the problem of suffering.  According to tradition, he realized the answer, awakened to it and became The Buddha, while meditating overnight under a Bo tree.  His first "noble" truth is that the human situation is characterized by suffering; it's inevitable.  While the three other noble truths of his teaching point toward a "right" way to live in the world, according to the Buddhist tradition, suffering will only cease when one has transcended the cycle of death and rebirth.

Buddhism, like Christianity, is an otherworldly religion which promises salvation or enlightenment in the afterlife.  This can have the effect of encouraging adherents to devalue this particular life that we are living while working towards their reward after death.  The ethical principles that each religion promotes may be beneficial to other humans now, but the real test of their worth comes later. That Buddhism teaches rebirth and Christianity does not, is only a stylistic difference.

The Buddha renounced his birthright, family and fortune to become a wandering monk.  After enlightenment, he settled down to form a sangha of disciples, and for a long time he taught the dhamma on the cessation of suffering.  His example of renunciation has been imitated by countless seekers for 2,500 years. Buddhist monks and nuns reject normal human life in order to devote themselves full-time to achieving the same realization as their founder and thereby transcend the wheel of rebirth.  This life of suffering is only a means to the desired end of all life.   Even lay Buddhists, admitting that their path is insufficient, accept that their goal of devotion is limited to an auspicious rebirth.

Buddhists are undoubtedly moved by the contemporary world of hurt described in the first paragraph. This arises from compassion for the suffering of others that a recognition of our own suffering can bring.  Sickness and death are shared by all.  The development of Engaged Buddhism, a this-worldly movement started by the Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hahn and Sulak Siviraksa, seeks to help others through Right Action in the world today.  But Buddhism as a whole finds it difficult to avoid the charge of escapism.  This life, and often this body, is considered an impediment to true knowledge, never to be valued in and for itself.

There are many forms of escapism, and today's social networks can be a means to avoid engagement with life.  They inform, but do they motivate us to help beyond signing an online petition or making a donation to a good cause?  Many of us feel overloaded by the misery that arrives in our inbox or on our Facebook wall.  Democracy was predicated on an informed electorate and it's never been easier to find out what's happening in the world if we can weed out the rumors, lies, conspiracies, half-baked theories and the spam.  I'm not arguing against internet and cell-phone technology for keeping us from face-to-face interactions.  A call, email or message is a connection even if flesh-and-blood are not merged.  The problem is that simply knowing about suffering is not enough for us to engage with the world.  We confuse "knowing" with "doing," just as spiritual pilgrims may confusing "not-doing" with "knowing."

Dealing with the emotions that come with our awareness of suffering is important, as the writer I quote at the beginning points out, but it is not a substitute for dealing with the issues that cause suffering.  We must always see that our own response is "a tiny fraction of the pain felt by the person who experienced it firsthand."  A good cry, listening to music, a pot of tea, deep breaths, and even meditation, are all ways to get a grip, a first step to maintain our equilibrium.  As evidence accumulates that the United States is in the control of banks and corporations more concerned with profits than people, many look for resistance by the underprivileged and excluded that finally comes only in the form of toothless demonstrations and petitions that are ignored by the powerful.  Congress rejects simplified gun control even though an overwhelmingly majority of the electorate supports it.  Why is America, the foremost state terrorist in the world today, still seen as a democratic nation?

I went to the memorial service this week for an American who died of natural causes at the age of 39, leaving his elderly mother alone in Bangkok.  We remembered the good things about his life.  Later, his mother confided in me that she had to pay bribes in order to have him buried, and some of the money went to a church. This is suffering.  I have no solution for it, but I would not counsel the mother to await her reward in heaven, or in a better rebirth.

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