Tuesday, December 02, 2008

The Path To Enlightenment?

Confidentially, if I weren't a Christian, I would probably be a Buddhist.

No, I'm not flirting with another way, not ranking religions in order of preference, I am stating a fact based on a passing knowledge of Buddhism and observations of my own personality. If Christ were not, I would be drawn to Buddha. That said, I remain cautious in my study of it, as a criminal psychologist might approach a charismatic sociopath.

But there is something curious about it that sets it apart from other non-Christian religions, even Hinduism, which it very closely parallels in many ways.

The Buddha, born Siddhartha Guatama in modern day Nepal, is claimed by Hinduism as a Hindu reformer. His quiet revolution was a reformation of sorts of the corrupted Hindu caste system. To Hindus, he was, in many ways, to Hinduism what Martin Luther was to medieval Catholicism.

The Hindu brahmins, comparable to Catholic priests, or Celtic druids, had a rigid, gratuitous system set in place, an exclusivity so very similar to the arrogance of Tetzel and the Pontiff of old. Theology was a science studied only by the priestly caste, thus hoarded by the brahmins and doled out, sold out, actually, at exorbitant rates to the lower castes. The similarity grows sharper when we learn that the ruling class insisted that the holy writ remain encoded in Sanskrit, a language not read or spoken by the unwashed masses.

Guatama was astute enough to recognize the nakedness of the emperor, and bold enough to point it out, so endearing himself to the common people, much as Luther, or, as is often pointed out, Jesus Christ.

You may know the damning generalities of his path to enlightenment. As I have mentioned before, he left a wife and child to find his inner peace, an odyssey that in today's parlance, suspiciously resembles the irresponsible freedom of a deadbeat dad. There are, however, extenuating circumstances to be considered in the case of the future Buddha.

He was born to luxury, the son of a feudal lord, a very handsome man according to many historical accounts. (yes, I too had trouble reconciling this little known fact with the fat little icon in the Happy Dragon Buffet)

Legend, of course, obscures much of the reality, understandable for the history of a man born in 563 B.C.E. (an ignominious irony, might it not be said he was born upon 0 A.B.?) However, Buddha would no doubt have cast such as ignoble pretension, for he claimed not godhood, angelic perfection, nor even sainthood.

But, upon the birth of little Saddhartha, according to legend, fortune-tellers were consulted by the eager father. It was agreed that this was no common birth. (It occurs to me that if you were a seer summoned by a king upon the birth of his son, you would be well-advised to come up with some more promising future besides rice-picker or dung-shoveler.) Greatness was read in the leaves, the palm, the crystal, the cards. However, the fortune split into a duality contingent upon the path chosen by the boy. Were he to seek things of a corporeal nature, he would become India's greatest king. Were he to set his mind on things transcendent, however, he would become world redeemer. Apparently the fortune-tellers decided to shoot for the moon. His father decided to pave the path for the arguably more modest fate and determined his son should be the ruler of India. Nothing was spared the prince-to-be. He was lavished with luxury and expectations. When he was of age, a wife was found of uncommon beauty and the probable result of such a promising union soon followed; a beautiful baby boy.

All was as it should have been, but somewhere in the idyllic existence a monkey clambered upon Saddhartha's back. According to legend, it came about as a result of a chance encounter with an old man. His father, it is said, went to every extreme to spare his son the distasteful realities of life. Saddhartha was never to encounter any physical or mental deficiency or deformity or anything that foretold death in his goings forth. On this particular occasion, however, one octogenarian was overlooked and the poor young prince was hazed into reality. And his initiation into the real world was only just beginning. On three consecutive journeys he encountered a sick person, a corpse, and finally, a monk. (I hazard a guess that a few of his father's servant deeply regretted these revelations.) Being the thoughtful young man he was, he could not dismiss these aberrations. They became a cancer attached to his contentment. He began to brood over the temporality of life and reflected on the passing of the seasons, the fading of the flower and such.

Legend aside, the fact is that upon approaching his thirtieth year (the ill herald of an early mid-life crisis, perhaps?) he came to a fateful decision. He would sever all relational and financial connections (distractions, he called 'em) and sally forth to discover the meaning of life.

Now, my inherent bias notwithstanding, this decision may or may not have been an agonizing one. It is not beyond the realm of reason to suspect that this was simply a very curious and emotionally stunted man, having been brought to thirty inside of a bubble. However, by all accounts, Saddhartha Guatama was an unfailingly compassionate individual, so, the benefit of the doubt would lead us to surmise that the night he left all behind was a torturous one, unless he had not yet come into his gift of compassion. He bid his sleeping wife and child a silent farewell, stridled his magnificent white horse, and ordered the gatekeeper to accompany him to the forest, where he dismounted, changed attire with the gatekeeper and sent him back to the house with a message for his father.

Tell my father that there is no reason he should grieve. He will perhaps say it was too early for me to leave for the forest. But even if affection should prevent me from leaving my family just now of my own accord, in due course death would tear us apart, and in that we would have no say. Birds settle on a tree for a while, and then go their separate ways again. The meeting of all living beings must likewise inevitably end in their partings. This world passes away and disappoints the hopes of everlasting attachment. It is therefore unwise to have a sense of ownership for people who are united with us as in a dream-for a short while only and not in fact.

This early creed of sorts of the budding Buddha is pregnant with philosophical conundrums.

He is to be forgiven in stating that against all wishes in due time death would sever their attachments. Let us look at Buddha in his proper historical and cultural context and recognize that although we have a hope and promise of reunification with our loved ones who pass on in the Lord, the prospect of Heaven, properly so called, would have been a giant hurdle for a nominal Hindu, not to mention an entirely novel belief, a gargantuan Abrahamic leap of faith.

So, upon agreeing with his fatalism only for the sake of argument, can we accept his conclusion? That of course, depends on his motivation, upon which we can only speculate.

Was it the prospect of the pain of future partings that led him to take an early leave of his loved ones? Reasoning it out, it might make sense to live in the moment, but might it have been a preemptive personality glitch not dissimilar to the view of the atheist who, faced only with miserable perpetuity, takes his own life?

Or was it clinical dispassion he felt as he looked in on his sleeping wife and boy? Maybe the resignation of a mad scientist intent upon his spiritual experiment or the mental disconnect of a man who kills his family because he is about to kill himself. Whatever the reason, it is a curiosity born of situational ethics that we seem predisposed to forgive a man the desertion of his family if it is for any reason other than monetary irresponsibility.

Moving on, we find a sort of Buddhist exegesis of yin and yang in his word picture of the birds and following conclusion that all that comes must go. This is paramount in Buddhism. Hold nothing dear. Possessions, pride, family, distractions all.

You may be familiar with a well known cinematic epoch promoting stealth Buddhism. In the final episode of the popular movie series Star Wars, the young man who is to become the villainous Darth Vader is moved to villainy by his refusal to disconnect himself from all distractions. Reading from a Focus review, Anakin Skywalker, the future Vader, tells his mentor, Yoda, of nightmarish visions of his wife's death. Yoda's response is as follows: "The fear of loss is a path to the dark side. Death is a natural part of life. Rejoice for those around you who transform into the Force." Continuing in his structural pig Latin, Yoda instructs, "Mourn them, do not. Miss them, do not. Attachment leads to jealousy. The shadow of greed, that is. Train yourself to let go of everything you fear to lose." It is worth noting that in this case as in the Buddha's, it is his wife he refuses to relinquish, and heedless of the little Jedi toad they call Yoda, Skywalker takes matters into his own hands. Then in a deft New Age twist, the movie combines shades of traditional absolute morality and truth with the wisdom of the Jedi. Hearkening unto the Dark Lord's promise to protect his wife, Anakin Skywalker chooses to believe, with the Dark Lord's urging, that there are many truths and the Jedi view of the Force is only one among many. He chooses what you might call the dark side and begins his descent into monstrousness.

Not to get sidetracked, but this storyline attempts to unite two opposite fundamentals; the detachment of Buddhism with objective morality, a concept Buddha rejected. As regarding absolute truth, Buddhism holds that the only absolute truth is that all truth is relative.

So nothing must take preeminence in our lives. There is an obvious parallel in Christianity. Christ demands absolute fealty, to the diminution of all else we hold dear. What we formerly held dear we must count as loss, and count nothing greater than Him. But that's only half the story.

C.S. Lewis, channeling Screwtape, wrote that whatever God takes away from a man with one hand he returns with the left, that when a man is completely His, he is more himself than ever he was before. God is "a hedonist at heart."

As Abraham was willing to sacrifice what was most dear to him, God, in effect, received the sacrifice and then returned it.

Buddha held out no such hope. By lowering his instinctive expectations to zero, he aimed to transcend the agony of grief.

More later.

1 comment:

Devan said...

Good thoughts...Yet again, I am reminded of the hope and faith that I have because of Christ and His forgiveness.
Sometimes, it's easy for me to get caught up in seemly hopeless circumstances of life. And every time...not just sometimes, but, every time the Lord switches the outcome into something good.
I'm glad that at the end of my road, I'll find a loving Savior.