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Thursday, 10 August 2017

The Buddha, And Why We Can't Have Nice Things


The middle of the first millennium BCE was an amazing period in human history. For reasons nobody can satisfactorily explain, revolutionary advances in ontological and ethical thought suddenly occurred more or less simultaneously all over the world. Socrates in Greece, Confucius in China, and Siddartha Gautama in India, are all examples of this sudden flowering of radical intellectual growth. Some historians push hard for a kind of networked theory, contending that this simultaneity must imply much stronger global connections than current thinking presumes, whereas others ascribe causation to a whole range of historical, personal, and spiritual forces.

Whatever the truth might be, the important thing is that, for whatever reason, this period is characterised by serious and unusually productive contemplation of the perennial question of what it is to be a human, and what might be the best and most ethical way of manifesting this being. For the Buddha, the problem was characteristically simple, but not. The question, as he saw it, was the problem of 'suffering' - how to explain it, how to deal with it, and how to transcend it. It's difficult not to connect this to much later early mediaeval thinking about the problem of evil, and the inescapable conclusion is that the Buddha was in fact contemplating exactly that.

The Buddha's solution was elegant, appealing, and, unsurprisingly, still strongly resonant today. Suffering comes from desire, he says, and the control of desire, coupled with a focus on understanding higher truths, is the only real way to overcome the lacrimae rerum which is the human condition. What really makes the Buddha stand out for me, however, is the fact that essential to this framework was a kind of higher atheism. 'Have and worship no Gods,' says the Buddha on repeated occasions. As I understand it, what he was saying was that dependence on ritual relationships, worship, and the community of religion, were all more or less insidious forms of attachment. In order to transcend suffering, we must also transcend our dependence on supernatural agents, not only as intercessants on our behalf, but as explanation for our plight. Complete intellectual and spiritual independence seems to have been the Buddha's recipe for true connection with a world he very much saw as immanent, and as containing solution and meaning in and of itself.

I'm painfully aware that this is a very complex idea, and that I've possibly made a pig's breakfast of attempting to explain it in a short paragraph. Thing is, though, I'm pretty sure I understand it, regardless of how clumsily I might be expressing it. What's very clear to me, on the other hand, is that practically none of the Buddha's immediate or early followers can say as much.

There are many conflicting and complementary traditions of the Buddha's death, but they all tend to agree on the major points. The great man was dying and, in a manner hauntingly reminiscent of Socrates, used his own personal death as an object lesson in philosophy. He showed them the transcience of the flesh by baring his own withered body. He counselled them yet again to fight their attachment to his person, and to instead listen to his ideas. He forbade them from deifying, enshrining, or worshipping him in any other way. On these points, all the traditions seem to agree. Interestingly, most of them also agree that his last meal was pork. But that's beside the point. The point is that the Buddha was insistent, in his dying moments, that no religion be established around his identity. 'Become a lamp unto yourself,' he is said to have advised.

I imagine his followers nodded sagely, made solemn promises, did their kind best to comfort him in his final moments, this man who neither needed nor wanted comfort. What I know is that everybody knows where the Buddha died because a shrine was almost immediately set up on the spot, and that everyone knows who the Buddha is because of the massive global religion which has been established around his identity. It seems that his ideas were simply a bridge too far. Be kind to others? Certainly. Live a virtuous and moderate life? No problems at all, boss. Transcend suffering and evil by striving constantly for complete mental and spiritual freedom? Um... say again?

It's one of my favourite ironies that the reason I know about the Buddha's atheism and aversion to formal religion, is the de facto deification of his memory by the formal religions created by his followers. For me, this is emblematic of humanity en masse. We are constantly limited by the slowest and silliest among us. No sooner do one or a few of us reach incredible depths of understanding, the very act of communicating those understandings corrupts, dilutes, and normalises them. From Buddhism to Christianity, revolutionary, transcendent ideas have been cut and watered down until they fit the shapes of the societies which adopt them, generally becoming practically unrecognisable in the process. Perhaps there's some comfort in the possibility of this representing a process of incremental progress, but I doubt it. What it most probably represents is the basic impossibility of fracturing permanently away from the community of humanity - a thought which is simultaneously heartening and deeply frustrating.

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