Drenched in Thought

In mid-November 2012 (and many other times, before and after) I wrote a little about why I find Buddhism refreshing. Among my thoughts seven years ago was this one:

It (Buddhism) is a refreshing perspective,  far more appealing to me than any “religion” that requires me to suspend my disbelief and far more appealing than what I consider “militant atheism” that expends its efforts to condemn religious beliefs instead of supporting freedom of belief (or lack thereof).

Today, I feel the same, but at a higher pitch or greater volume. As I consider Buddhism’s Four Noble Truths, the intricate complexities of life seem simple, although presented in an unpleasantly mystical way:

1. Suffering: Life always involves suffering, in obvious and subtle forms. We always feel an undercurrent of anxiety and uncertainty.

2. The Cause of Suffering: Craving and fundamental ignorance cause suffering. We suffer because we mistakenly believe that we are a separate, independent, being. Alan Watts captured our misconception when he said:

We do not “come into” this world; we come out of it, as leaves from a tree. As the ocean “waves,” the universe “peoples.” Every individual is an expression of the whole realm of nature, a unique action of the total universe. This fact is rarely, if ever, experienced by most individuals. Even those who know it to be true in theory do not sense or feel it, but continue to be aware of themselves as isolated “egos” inside bags of skin.

I learned once, and did again, that the painful and futile struggle to maintain this delusion of ego is known as samsara, or cyclic existence.

3. The End of Suffering: Our obscurations, those efforts we make to hide our connections to the universe, are temporary. Someone once said they are “like passing clouds that obscure the sun of our enlightened nature.” Thus suffering can end because our obscurations can be purified and an awakened mind is always available to us.

4. The Path: According to Buddhism, by living ethically, practicing meditation, and developing wisdom, we can take the same journey to enlightenment and freedom from suffering that the Buddha took. We, too, can wake up.

The problem I have with this, as well as every non-religious “path” toward happiness or awakening or clarity or whatever you might want to call it is this: I don’t know whether I really believe it or I simply want to believe it. So either I don’t trust the philosophy, no matter how appealing I find it, or I don’t trust myself to be able to distinguish knowledge from desire.

Unitarian Universalism holds some of the same appeal but, at the same time, I am equally skeptical of it. Yet its seven principles are rooted in morality and decency as defined in Western culture; and I can buy into them.

Ultimately, I suppose, my internal struggles with philosophies of existence come down to my struggle with knowing who I am, at my core. I’ve written about that so many times. I would think the sheer volume of writing about exploring myself would have led me somewhere that offers answers. But that is not the case. I’m still just as lost as I ever was. As I’ve said probably dozens of times before, Paul Simon put the words in my mouth: I’m empty and aching and I don’t know why.

Religion, in and of itself, is not the opiate of the masses. Religion is just a thin shred of the broader opiate, philosophy. Philosophy is what guides us. It permits us to determine morality which, in turn, seems to need religion to serve as its anchor. I see Universal Unitarianism more as a philosophy than a religion. But most UUs tend not to see it that way. And I see Buddhism as a philosophy, too. Philosophy and religion intersect in a complex web, but they are not the same thing. Religion needs philosophy for sustenance. Philosophy stands on its own; it does not need religion for support. “Opiate” is not the right term, anyway. Philosophy does not dull one’s senses and weaken one’s control over one’s mind; it does just the opposite. Religion, on the other hand, does both. So maybe Marx was right, after all. Maybe religion is the opiate of the masses and philosophy is the potential antidote. Obviously, my mind is shifting with every stroke of my fingers on the keyboard.

I think all of this can be distilled, for me, into a few questions. Why am I the way I am? Who am I? What do I believe about life and the human condition? Why do I hold those beliefs? Simple, right? It’s taken me sixty-five years to begin forming the questions. It will probably take another sixty-five years to frame them properly. And another few lifetimes to draft and polish and embrace the answers.

On an entirely different subject, today is a brother’s birthday. Happy Birthday, Brother!

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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