THE RELIGIOUS WRONG
My friend Barbara, a lifelong New Yorker, always cuts off conversation if I say anything about Buddhism, insisting she does not want to hear another word about religion. “All religion does is screw things up,” she says. Since I don’t totally disagree, we have an accord, although it’s shaky. It’s organized religion we can’t stand. Getting organized to mobilize the downtrodden--and that's history for you-- turns religion poisonously political, putting people like her, and me, against it. Just read history, any paragraph will do, and ask: am I afraid of a Gnostic sitting silently in a cave, or a horde of Crusaders stampeding toward me with longknives? The Dalai Lama or the Saudi imam with a squad of suicide bombers?
My friend's attitude is a really good reminder how inextricably we have conflated politics with organized religion, despite the one brief shining moment the writers of the Declaration of Independence tried to pull these seeming Siamese twins apart. Our misconception of them as synonymous is so ingrained, two years ago, science professors at
The night before the Stanford embarrassment, I was invited to give Mingyur Rinpoche the back story of the culture that produced those scientists. His hosts were anxious to get him acquainted with
That was the time Roman emperors, anxious to conquer, saw the glory of power in this ultimate organizing principal of one instead of many, and glommed on, turning religion into the politics of the one and only, ruler of the world, the universe, you name it. The moon changed continually, which helped polytheists prefer it, but the sun stayed fixed, revolving around one Earth the way the world revolved around one Emperor, one Pope, eventually one Caliph—all representatives of one God, holder of the only truth. Le soleil, c’est moi stuff. This mandatory hand-me-down thinking that has led to what science sneers at as blind faith inevitably exterminated everything associated with freedom, with spirituality as self-discovery, with religion as a personal, private, inner—read that: independent —endeavor. The cropping out of the many for the one erased a lot of hard won human knowledge. We call what happened when information became a controlled substance, The Dark Ages.
It took a millennium for light to appear through cracks in the cementing of absolute conformity. An English King wouldn’t let a Roman Pope tell him who to marry. A German undercut ecclesiastical arrogance by setting up a Reformation for individuals to go direct to God avoiding a wholesale middleman. As its seamen discovered the world,
The absolute power that absolutely corrupted human wisdom sustained itself with vigilant weeding. The Church tried to kill Galileo who said Earth revolved around the sun, and thus was not the one and only. The Inquisition burned anyone who didn’t bow to the absolutism of one autocrat. Christians annihilated Muslims who returned the favor, Protestants fought Catholics for supremacy. Women were burned as witches for having other knowledge. Monotheism’s scorched earth policies were all along a holocaust that consumed diversity with its implicit tolerance and curiosity, just as it continues to consume the stubbornly independent natural world—she-- as an enemy to bring under absolute control.
Today’s headlines are perfect examples of how monomania makes Western civilization gladiator sport. One side has to be right, leaving the other wrong; one on top, all else bottom. Monolithic thinking is totalitarianism that allows only one cause, one solution, one magic bullet, one CEO, the chosen, all the uber alles. It’s the neo- conservative rationale hiding in the Bushies, and the reason Stanford didn’t want to hear from a Buddhist monk. It’s Western medicine’s blind focus on one single organ, with everything else dismissed as side effect. The refusal to tolerate a complex, interdependent web has led the Dalai Lama to complain: “Sometimes I believe scholars overemphasize differences within their field. They don’t take a holistic view--seeing how it’s unified. They focus on small differences.”
The latest absolutist hypocrisy contaminating the world is the superior objectivity of Western science, our latest entry in winner take all religion sweepstakes. It is on a one-way street. It only sees one thing. Absolute belief in the one and only material world is the biased blindspot in the eye of organized science. Westerners are consequently prime consumers of the next big thing, and science obsessively focused on finding the one magic bullet. Science denies other points of view arising from subjective human experience, the very guts of religion which means 'to tie an individual back to the great whole'.
And since this arrogance infects feeder ideas, I gave Mingyur Rinpoche a list of ten words that will prevent science from understanding his Buddhism.
To the West, mind is monolithically the brain, nowadays compared to a computer controlling all activity with neurons and chemicals. Some scientists call human beings a “brain with a large carapace body around it”, dismissing, say, a soul. Mind has no synonym, except maybe intelligence which boomerangs back to brain, to its ability to absorb information. Science is comfortable with a narrow definition of mind because brain as tangible matter is one big thing. In 1990, one scientist said to His Holiness: “There is a common idea that there is a nonphysical soul, but when you look more closely at what neuroscience has discovered, it looks like there is only the brain.”
Funny, for Buddhists mind IS the one big thing. It IS all there is. But because it’s so important, in the way the Eskimos have many words for snow, Tibetans have many words for mind. They are trying to express a huge, amorphous concept that includes animals, is sometimes located at the “heart” while nowhere and everywhere at once. It cannot be found yet it is revealed. Awareness, memory, consciousness, knowledge, energy, soul and intuition color its synonyms. But the biggest difference in cultural reference is that these words imply a scale far grander than the limit of one human being. They represent the invisible bind of beings in the web of the universe. The Dalai Lama says the automatic assumption that brain and mind are the same severely limits the scope of scientific inquiry, because scientists are only looking for answers in an arbitrarily limited framework, like one human body. A continued frustration His Holiness expressed is science does not recognize that there is a big difference between what is not found and what is found not to exist. Hold that thought.
To the West, this means “feeling”, usually surging beyond control. Emotion comes from Latin meaning to stir up and move out-- to carry away from reason. Thus reason is set up as right, emotion wrong. People are taught to manage emotions to not be unreasonable. Thinking without emotion is considered logical, objective, scientific--like a computer. The brain is supposed to work this way. Science has invented bullets to kill emotions because they prevent that. Emotions are generally associated with women, reason with men, giving them justification for feeling superior. Yet, there are good emotions, so defined because they integrate the self into society.
Tibetan, Sanskrit and Nepali have no exact translation for emotion, because it is one mental state among many, another more barrier to clarity, another cause of suffering as bad as “rational” thought. Emotions are seen as energy surges through the body, set off by thoughts. In Nepali russ, juicy or juice causing, is used. The Tibetan sem used to mean consciousness embraces both thoughts and emotions. The Dalai Lama says: “…what you’re really concerned with is what specific mental states impede the achievement of Nirvana…Some are emotions and some are not, but it doesn’t really matter. What’s important is they all share that common factor of being impediments.”
In the West self means Ego, body and soul, me myself and I. It’s also mind as a solid absolute: “I think therefore I am.” The cultural goal is to distinguish, thus separate self from others, primarily done by stressing differences and expressing beliefs to proclaim their exclusive rightness. Westerners value conflict as an opportunity to express and assert themselves. Psychology focuses on the outer or public self in interaction with society, paying no attention to the inner self. Emphasis entirely on the external image of the self leads to charismatic public figures with troubled private lives, obsession with appearances. Emphasis is on achieving conformity to a preset ideal. When the Dalai Lama asks if thinking can cause depression rather than, say, chemical imbalance, scientists say yes BUT they are concerned not with individual thinking, but with training or medicating a depressed self to behave better in external circumstances.
In Asian cultures, the individual must integrate into an interdependent family and community, and is consequently defined in relationship terms, a theory of relativity! The goal is to fit in, not stand out to stand alone. Because self has to be part of a team, psychological emphasis is on getting the inner self in harmony with the greater good, the larger world. Suffering is seen as universal, not necessarily personal. Buddhism deconstructs the concept of self, claiming there is no such thing. Its whole point is: get over it. Remember that thought you held?
The West had an Age of Enlightenment which gave birth to
In Buddhism, there is no difference between public and private, politics and religion. All emotions and thoughts are afflictions. Each obscures pure perception by letting imagination fog vision. Thus all thinking must be abandoned. Enlightenment is no longer being hostage to and distracted by thoughts or emotions. It represents the collapse of delusion, the achievement of a pure, clear view of reality. It is not a political word, but a personal one.
To the West, this is sympathy, pity or sorrow for another. It never includes the one who feels it. It is always outward bound, separating the one who feels or thinks it from the object of the thought or feeling, often making the subject feel superior to its object. Christian missionaries who took Bibles and Spam to Tibetan refugees considered themselves compassionate, for they were doing something to save the world while Buddhists just sat there. That sort of charity can perhaps be included on the fringes of dana (Sanskrit) or jinpa (Tibetan), generosity. Just giving without involvement is the concept common in the West.
Sanskrit karuna and Tibetan tsewa as well as the whole concept of Bodhisattva means no separation between the person with empathy from the suffering it recognizes. Compassion for others starts with generosity for the self, giving it space to see its own suffering playing out. Compassion means understanding suffering enough through personal exploration to know exactly how to help others without causing harm, to exchange self for other. It also means fearlessly giving your all without wanting a tax deduction or anything at all in return.
To the West, this means to think hard about something as in “go meditate on it.”
In Buddhism, to the contrary, it means learning to not think about anything at all, which is excruciatingly hard. The Sanskrit word bhavana means to cultivate, the Tibetan word gom to familiarize. So meditation is very scientifically studying the mind step by step to gain familiarity with the way it works and what it is. That certainty eventually leads to controlling it, and helping others do likewise. This is considered the most vital human activity since all activity is controlled by the mind. Buddhists see mind as continually distracted by passing thoughts, and the habitual tendency to follow them causes suffering. It is like daydreaming at a traffic light with Dharma as the horn honking to remind you what is really happening. Meditation takes many forms, but all are rigorous, tested guides for cultivating familiarity with the mind’s shenanigans in order to extinguish the thoughts that pass through, blocking clarity and deluding reality. Buddha called it taming the mind.
Because the West also speaks of subconscious and unconscious, this means being actively awake from sleep and knowing to some factual degree what is going on around as well as inside you, a conscious thought. The Dalai Lama says Western theories of consciousness, from external behavior to the duality of matter and mind, or neural brain correlates, only deal with its material aspects. Indeed, it is thought to reside somewhere in the brain and be a function solely of neural firing. Sometimes it gets confused with conscience, thus thought of as soul, a religious matter science has no use for.
The Dalai Lama says the Tibetan word namshe dwarfs the English word because it automatically includes the unconscious as not separate. It also includes cognitive states (thinking) and emotional states, motivation, imagination, intuition. It includes the whole pack of internal experiences scientific equipment cannot measure like karmic memory. Although it cannot be materially pinpointed, it is the vast array of knowing and doing that animates every being.
8. TRUTH (OBJECTIVITY/SUBJECTIVITY)
In science, proof must be objective: it must be physical and repeatable. Expertise can be acquired passively by memorizing what somebody else says. Ideas are tested materially, with no supposed personal bias, machine-like, through deduction and induction based on mathematical absolutes. Truth is tied to reason, assuming personal perspectives don’t intrude. The Dalai Lama says experiments get constructed in a very small framework because scientists can’t see hidden biases. For instance, as materialists, they claim what they cannot physically find does not exist. Thus they dismiss karma and consciousness beyond neurons firing. On the other hand, legal proof has nothing to do with this kind of sanitized thinking, being based only on subjective personal experience-- and the power of persuasion.
Like legal proof which attempts to codify the volatility of human behavior, Buddhism is based on subjective experience, but objectively. How else can mind/ consciousness be directly and rigorously observed except by the individual it affects? Buddhism is a logically derived method using inductive or deductive inference to bridge cause and effect. Nothing is random or abstract. The path, laid out by repeated experience, and repeatedly followed, inevitably leads to the same, predictable end. How much more scientific can you get? The Buddha said to test everything, not to take anything on faith, but the West with its blind faith God obsession does not grasp that, just as it does not realize a Buddhist teacher is not someone who has memorized a bunch of facts to gain expertise, but someone who has personally participated in the planned process and achieved its desired experience. One of the problems is that those who have achieved the experience cannot brag about it to those who have not.
9. THE INVISIBLE
Again, the West, mired in materialism, discounts whatever cannot be seen, sticking to the story that what cannot be physically located does not exist. Except perhaps in children's books. This shows need for control and fear of losing it. Science knows that a brain damaged person who cannot consciously recognize another’s face still somehow produces the same vibrant skin response a normal person would upon the approach of a familiar friend. But it trivializes what it cannot explain.
Buddhism is the science of the invisible: mind, consciousness, change, karma, perception. It believes the mind is an MRI system turned on dreams, thoughts, tendencies. Through the mind’s microscope, it has identified dhatus, ayatanas, indryias, alaya—the process by which consciousness arises. The mental realm while dependent on the physical and controller of it cannot be reduced to it: subjective experience exists. No scientific finding of the neural mechanics of color perception can explain what it feels like to see purple. The Dalai Lama says: “Reality, including our own existence, is so much more complex than objective scientific materialism allows.”
Although Buddhism is totally atheistic, the West calls a teacher like the Dalai Lama a blindly worshiped god/king. The West is knee-jerk anti-atheist because people who can’t accept a single god represent a threat to those who cling to one. Stuck with its single point of reference, the West ends up equating Buddhism with Evangelical Fundamentalist Christianity, Islam with its violent streak, Catholicism with its history of suppressing truth, Judaism with its obsessive shtick about being chosen-- numero uno, and the too many crazy cults that have come in the last century or two including Mormonism. History’s residue is religion scarred by its description as blind faith, irrational obedience, super power madness. The West has no other word for Buddhism because it has no 24/7 full-time equivalent modus operandi or way to describe continually monitoring your behavior in the world. Ironically since the word religion comes from Latin re-ligio, to tie back again, Buddhism more clearly represents the concept than, say, organized efforts at sermonizing. But to admit this is to uproot the taproot of our civilization, to admit error in our ways, and, as we all know, breaking up is hard to do.
Also, politically, religion has come to mean emotional, as opposed to rational, private as opposed to public, dividing as opposed to uniting (science unites by common proof), make believe as opposed to real, mind as opposed to matter. It is seen as the exact opposite of science, which has set itself in opposition to religion to gain supremacy in the ongoing shock and awe competition for hearts and minds. Religion has also come to stand for rigid ideology, which some Westerners as well as Buddhists point out applies perfectly to modern science, worshiping as it does what it thinks is its pure objectivity and the divine right of its physical evidence, despite prejudiced hypotheses. To Buddhists, this represents the afflictive mind set of fixation, a paralyzing poison, like botox, that really screws everybody up.
The Dalai Lama says it’s impossible to fully understand reality from a singular objective method, yet Americans believe all reality can be determined by modern science with its single method: objective third person inquiry, usually reliant on machinery. Why does it rely only on one method? Because anything not proven this way can be discarded as false or insignificant, i.e. worthless. That is a philosophical assumption revealing prejudice which discounts human nature, consciousness, karma, seeming contradictions…everything of interest to Buddhism, the pure science of the mind.
It certainly doesn’t inspire confidence that the arrogant scientists who rejected Mingyur Rinpoche had Dark Age minds closed even more tightly than my friend’s. What do you think they afraid of?
"Wordsmithing to attest how the Dharma saved me from myself!"
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