A few months ago, I watched The Buddha on PBS for the third or fourth time. Almost every time I see that it’s on, I watch it. That’s not my usual practice with television; generally, I don’t watch it much and rarely make a point to watch specific programs (I will admit to Breaking Bad while it was on, The Good Wife, and a very few others). Normally, if I’ve already seen an interesting program, even something exceptionally interesting to me, I pass it by. I pass the evening, instead, by reading or watching another program or cruising the internet or playing word games or….whatever. But there’s something about The Buddha that draws me. I want to watch it again and again. There is something there that, with every viewing, teaches me something.
For many years I identified myself as an agnostic and then, later (and now), an atheist. I do not believe in a super power to whom prayers, in the right format and under the right conditions, will be answered. Yet I find considerable wisdom in many religious teachings and traditions. Perhaps even in some religious rituals (which in my view are intellectual anachronisms born of superstition and fear), there are seeds of knowledge, kernels of essential truth. That last point is a departure for me. More on that in a moment.
Those seeds of knowledge and kernels of truth, though, are buried under layer upon layer of self-serving bureaucracy. I find the inherent organizational self-perpetuation in religion annoying and hypocritical. If I look deeply, though, I see commonality among religions. But it’s not the commonality of a god. It’s the commonality of kindness and goodness, often hidden beneath adulterated idiocy born, I feel sure, of fear…fear of inadequacy or fear of discovery. Buried beneath the sometimes choking ceremonies and solemn protocols of the church are admirable motives and guidance: be good, do good, help others. That guidance does not need a mystical being to convey legitimacy. The motives behind the guidance does not require a “manager” to make them right. So why do so many religions arm themselves with the ultimate weapon, a supreme being, to force conformity with the guidance they seek to give? I will hazard a guess.
Despite humankind’s collective desire to do and be good, the “outliers” reveal there are aberrations that strain our common bonds of humanity. Despite our collective teachings, our guidance to love one another, treat others as one wishes to be treated, and so on, some among us have always been unwilling to function within the boundaries we have set forth. Failing to persuade the “outliers” to behave as society would like them to behave, the church tells them there’s another reason to do as we wish: the supreme being says so. The laws of society should accomplish the same things, but to behavioral outliers, the laws of Man are challenges to overcome, rules to be broken. But, at least in some cases, if religion has succeeded in persuading these outliers that an eternity of agony awaits them if they don’t straighten up and fly right, they might be good. Might. Not bloody likely, but might. The words of a mysterious being with powers beyond any humankind can ever hope to achieve, just might hold more sway, though, than laws written by imperfect Man.
What attracts me to The Buddha, I suppose, is the fact that it tells the story not of a deity but of a man. It tells the story of a man born to privilege who came to understand that the accessories of privilege are superficial and unable to provide fulfillment. And the teachings of Buddhism, as I’ve come to understand them in an admittedly superficial and limited way, give guidance, not dictates. But Buddhism shares plenty of core values with the other major religions. And Buddhism, today, is awash in ritual and ceremony, the things I decry about other religions. But this ritual does not disturb me the way I find the rituals of other religions disturbing. And I wonder why.
As I consider this, I begin to understand why I come back to the television set when The Buddha comes on. I learn something new each time. I make one step closer to “enlightenment.” This time, I learned how important ritual can be to understanding the message. And I learned—not from the television program but from myself—that it really doesn’t matter where the message comes from. It doesn’t matter whether the message is said to emanate from a supreme being or from our own minds based on our experience with reality. What’s important is the message. And my understanding and interpretation of the core message in every religion corresponds to the ethic of reciprocity, known in Western religions as “the golden rule.”
I’m not a Buddhist, I’m an atheist. But I like the core teachings of Buddhism. And I’m coming to realize that I like the core teachings of Islam and Christianity and Hinduism and others, when they are stripped clean of the dangerous and violent “baggage” they so often carry. It’s the basis of those teachings with which I have quarrels, along with some of the moral teachings that I believe are based on anachronistic clutter. But, then, if those religions emerged as a means to “enforce” the fundamental moral codes that I believe are innate in humanity, I can tolerate them, just as long as they stay true to those fundamentals. That’s the problem, though. Violence is anathema to those fundamentals, but is commonly justified in religious practice.
The recent “apostolic exhortation” of Pope Francis gives me a shred of hope that the Catholic Church, at least, might be moving ever so slowly away from some of its more bizarre rules. However, that shred of hope is tempered by the fact that he said the male-dominated priesthood is “not open to discussion.” He did, at least, say women should have a greater role in leadership of the church. Why should I care, since I am not a Catholic and believe VERY strongly that religion should have no measurable role in social or governmental policy? I care because the church (and, here, I refer to all religions) has a strong role to play in government and society simply because so many people look to the church for direction and guidance. I’d rather the church teach adherents to admire and appreciate and support secular government and society.
The very public resurgence of evangelical Protestantism—especially because so much of it has morphed into a monstrously uncharitable, right-wing, politically based, venomous religion based more on greed than charity—does not give me much hope. Nor does what I have seen in Islam, though the issue there maybe the lack of a central authority which can help dictate behavior.
Back to the title of this post: if the roots of religion were maintained as the guiding principles of each faith, I doubt I’d have any issues with them, except of course to disagree with the source of humankind’s fundamental goodness. In a nutshell, I think it’s in the “genes,” while the church says it’s in the “G’s” (or singular “G”).
Churches, or their secular alternatives (which I wish I could define and encourage), could be powerful, positive forces for good. But the only way that can happen, globally, is for adherents to religion, as well as atheists and agnostics, to refrain from attacking one another, both intellectually and physically. I’ll freely admit that I behave badly toward religion more frequently than I treat it well; I have been guilty of making fun of belief in “magic” and have felt, and probably have said, people who believe in a supreme being are willing participants in their own delusion. But when I see religions and the churches and synagogues and temples and so forth representing them evolve into less judgmental institutions, I’ll make every effort to do the same and to encourage those who share my perspective on divinity to follow suit.
Ultimately, the future of humankind and the earth we call home depend on recognizing that we must all make real efforts to get along, look out after each other and the planet we call home, and focus on solving problems instead of being problems.
This little piece that started out being about my intrigue with Buddhism has grown into something else. I don’t know quite what to call it, but it’s not a critique of a television series.