Improving Buddhism

Is it Possible?

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Community in Improved Buddhism

Recall that the main purpose in designing an improvement for Buddhism is to make the resulting system enduring, in other words, each factor should be considered to see if it will tend to make the religion more permanent and stable, and that should be one of the major metrics for deciding on specific choices.


The nature of a religion involves a community of believers, and the constitution of that community is one of the principal factors that decides if the religion will exist after a few generations. It is certainly not the only factor, as the supernatural promises that can be made and were made in early Buddhism certainly would tend to keep the unsophisticated in the religion, and would also tend to draw in other unsophisticated individuals. But Improved Buddhism makes no supernatural promises, but is based instead on scientific fact and derivation, so community will be relatively more important. Thus the concept of an Improved Buddhism community needs to be created wisely.


Perhaps a way to start thinking about an Improved Buddhism community is to list the important features. One feature is the openness of the community to outsiders who wish to join. When the community starts, all members will be converts in a sense, either from an existing form of Buddhism or perhaps a generic believer in Buddhist concepts, or even from some other religion. Even a totally non-religious person might join. But after it is started up, there is the question of how someone might join it: what is necessary? A very open religion might allow anyone who is interested to join the community, and a very closed religion might put several barriers up, such as mandatory education, contributions, sacrifices, probation, or approval by some group. More or less information might be demanded before a prospective convert is allowed to participate, or there could be levels of participation with the higher ones being restricted to converts who had undergone some processing.


Once an individual decides to join the religion, and therefore the community, there needs to be some substance to the community that reinforces that decision. In a typical religion, this means that there is interaction between members of the community, socially, and often also via assistance and cooperation. Socially, there are activities, such as communal meetings, which are designed to reinforce participation. Assistance can involve mentoring, financial support under limited conditions, or financial cooperation in various ways, all done with good financial sense, but with preference given to other members of the community. Other ways of support are often present in a successful community, such as help with physical activities, such as moving or delivery, transportation, sick care, repairs and maintenance of any property or possession, and of course more. These activities tend to bind the community members to one another in a trust relationship, but they also allow higher level community members to more carefully know a probationary member. There can also be advisory assistance, if a member is in a difficult situation and has little experience in it, or if it is psychologically numbing and interpersonal support and reassurance would help. All of this involvement takes time from members, but it also gives back assistance in various ways, so it is not necessarily a negative cost. It is even possible to maintain that the community is an asset for its members, and these activities tend to build it and preserve it.


Location is another variable in the equation of the community. Living and working in close proximity to other members allows all the interactions of the community to be facilitated, and increases the number of informal interactions that also tend to build the community and the trust that is involved with it. There are really two levels of closeness. One is the radius dictated by a few minutes driving or using public transportation, and the other is the radius dictated by a few minutes of walking. In general, closer is better. Having a region where a significant percentage of the residents are adherents to the religion is likely ideal. This allows community activities to be done more efficiently, but more importantly it allows interpersonal interaction between members to occur with greater frequency. Again, this is a trust-building factor.


If there is a community, there is also a non-community, meaning individuals who are not members. Just as there are rules for how a member should interact with and cooperate with a member, there must also be rules as to how a member should interact with a non-member, including groups of non-members. The fundamental goal of the religion is self-preservation, and therefore there should be clear distinctions made between the ways in which members interact with one another and how they behave towards the outside world. Trust is a key element in intra-community interaction, and suspicion is the opposite of trust. In order for there to be a strong division between the community and the non-community, members should have a clear understanding that the trust that is developed between members cannot be duplicated between a member and a non-member. There might temporarily be good relations between a member and a non-member, but not to the degree that they should exist between members. There might be trust between a member and one or more non-members, but the rules of the religion or the customs should attempt to maintain some degree of suspicion.


Inside the community, there should be rules or customs that assist those who have tendencies to not follow the rules of the religion to change these patterns and to better be able to follow them. The behavior of a member is not simply a matter of concern for the member or his immediate family, but also for the community as a whole. The response of the community could be both support, in other words encouragement and attempts at understanding the difficulties which cause the errant behavior, and pressure, in which the community as a whole attempts to provide a cause for the member to want to change this behavior. The extreme instance is when the member is de-legitimized, in other words, barred from community activities and interaction and support, or even removed from the religion's roll of members.


Another factor in trust-building within a community is the permanence of membership. Is there a high degree of mobility where members leave one locale and move to another? If trust is created on a person-to-person basis, then mobility is the antithesis of trust. If trust is based on membership credentials, then mobility can be tolerated to a larger extent. The movement of people is hard to completely extinguish, so the question is more of how much tolerance of mobility should be built into the rules and customs. This might be looked at as a question of prioritization. Much mobility in our modern world comes from employment options. And employment options come from a prioritization of personal goals. Is having more money worth sundering trust ties with the local community and rebuilding them elsewhere? Or should the priority be based on remaining local, and seeking employment within a reasonable radius from the community? Obviously, these are not either-or questions. In a situation where employment is shrinking in one location, there might be no options possible for members to stay locally. In the opposite situation, where there are many options in the location where the member is, then an increment in income or responsibility should not overwhelm the desire to stay in the community where a person's history has been developed.


One of the causes of a breakdown of trust within a community is when members take community roles or roles within the religion as personal goals, and strive to achieve these. This competition would tend to degrade the trust relationship between members, as it makes them competitors instead of cooperators and supporters. This means that the choice of roles within the community and within the religion, if they are different, are important choices in the design of Improved Buddhism. Not only are the choices of roles important, but how an individual comes to serve in one, and how long they would stay in such a position are important.


There are two choices at the outset: is everything local, to the maximum extent, or is there a hierarchy from some top leader down to the lowest level of local leader? What functions might be performed by a hierarchy that would recompense the membership for the cost of having one, if there are costs, or would justify the loss of personal time taken for volunteer participation in the hierarchy?


One purpose of the hierarchy is the preservation of itself, by either electing members at a level for positions in the next higher level, or by members at one level appointing others at the next level below. This also extends to removing members from positions. As noted elsewhere in this blog, most of the functions of a member in the lower levels of a hierarchy have been specialized away. The role of the hierarchy member as a psychological counselor has been diminished by the emergence of an entire profession of psychologists and similar, less formally trained, advisors. Mediation has also become professionalized. Enforcement of laws for at least petty offenses might have been done by a hierarchy member in the past, but now has been taken over by the official government establishment. Business arrangements are still done on a private basis, but this conflates business leadership with religious leadership, and the two have distinct roles to play in the community. Interpretation of rules into specific instances might be done within the hierarchy, as there would be no one else able to do this on the outside. Thus, the hierarchy is certainly less relevant now. Most likely, in the modern era, a substantive hierarchy can be dispensed with, meaning there would be less cost to members, in money or time, to keep one in place and functioning well. This would mean that for Improved Buddhism, only a local level hierarchy would be necessary.


There are many other questions related to how a community might be established, what rules should govern it, and how it might grow, and these are best left to another post.

Improved Buddhism's Behavioral Code and Deception

Two of the things which a religion can still give to individuals in the twenty-first century are a behavioral code and a set of goals. To try and understand the details of how the first one might work, consider one activity which is usually considered deplorable, except by those who do it professionally, but is widespread in its extent and variety. That is deception.


What should a behavioral code say about deception? Not lying is an important rule of conduct in many religions, for example, the Inca code had only three precepts, but one was not lying.


A behavioral code needs at the top level, a set of principles that can be elaborated into many diverse situations. In the original Eightfold Path of Buddha, one of the principles is 'Right Speech', which means not only not lying, but speaking the truth, as well as knowing when to say what needs to be said, to avoid gossip and chatter, and to speak primarily about obtaining the goals of the speaker, which are supposed to be taken from another spoke of the eightfold path.


Buddha in his teaching years, would explain what right speech meant in the context of some scenario. These are still interesting and relevant, but today we have both an elaboration or generalization of speech and a widening of its scope. In Buddha's time there was no writing, only speaking, and so there would be no way for him to add 'right writing' as another prinicple. This must be obtained, if one takes 'right speech' as a tentative commandment for improved Buddhism, by elaborating on the reasons behind the choice of 'right speech' as one of the spokes of the Eightfold Path. The general concept employed here is communication. 'Right speech' needs to be parlayed into something like 'right communication', meaning there is no exception given for communicating the right things via texting, video call, radio performance, TV presentation, Netflix movie, advertising billboard, or any of the other means that our society uses.


Things have gotten so much more complicated. Back in Buddha's day, there was certainly an advantage to be gained by deception, but it was miniscule compared to what exists today. A farmer at a market might misrepresent the condition of some goods or an animal, in order to gain something more in exchange, but this was limited by the long-term local residency of the people involved, meaning they lose something in reputation if they gain something by deception. There is less reputation loss today, owing to the chaos in most marketplaces, although some electronic forums provide a substitute for it.


The elaboration of the precepts of a behavioral code is analogous to the task of elaborating laws based on a nation's constitution. The constitution, like the behavioral code, contains some general principles, and how they are applied depends on the decisions made in legal suits and elsewhere involving them. There are two extremes to the methodology by which this happens, and neither extreme works well by itself – always there is a compromise. One of the extremes is to allow precedent to be dictatorial. Once someone in authority makes a decision, that holds unless some exceptionally unusual situation arises and precendent is overturned. The other one of the extremes is to reason directly from the constitution for each situation, and re-think how it should be applied. In the former extreme, there is often contradictory precedent, if one digs deep enough, and then this allows some latitude toward making new decisions based on the perceived principles in the constitution. In the latter extreme, going through the effort to rethink the derivation of special cases, which are often repetitive, from the constitution is hardly worth the effort, when written explanations are available with previous derivations.


Unfortunately for static beliefs, there are many interpretations of any collection of general rules, involving different definitions of the words involved, different contexts in which they can be applied, different imputations of the ideas of the original writers of the principles, which might be used to better understand the implications of them, and then there is also the idea that there is some obsolesence in the principles and they need to be updated to better serve in modern times. The writers of constitutions sometimes write explanations of the meanings behind the principles, and sometimes these are as amenable to multiple explanations as the constitution itself. Thus, writing general principles is a risky business, if one wants to try and create something that accomplishes a goal over a long period.


Military organizations have the same problem. A general or admiral can give orders, and as these orders are filtered down through the military hierarchy, many more details need to be added to them in order to make them complete enough for successive levels to obey and implement. Lower ranks are supposed to be trained to make these elaborations properly, but judgement always intrudes into it, meaning there is no exact method for carrying out a general high-level order. The implementations are sometimes very important, as the results of a battle could depend on the details of them. This is similar to the interpretation of constitutions, where serious civil and criminal results might depend on just how a particular phrase or sentence is interpreted. Corporations are little different, in that decisions made at high levels need to be implemented properly down to the lowest level.


Given all this possible variance between the initial ideas of the founders of a religion and the authors of the behavior code, it would seem to be an excellent idea to define just what is to be accomplished by the behavioral code, perhaps, principle by principle. For the 'right speech' one, what is the benefit that is to be received by someone committing to following it, and as a question lying behind that one, what are the benefits that fall to society when the large majority follows the rule, and exactly who does 'society' represent.


In fact, if following a rule directly and immediately benefits the individual doing it, there is no reason that any behavioral code is needed, simply allow the individuals to pursue their own benefit. So the question about a behavioral code is are the benefits to the individual in some delayed, and possibly amplified fashion, or are the benefits to the individual of a different type, perhaps difficult to quantify? Or is the behavioral code for the purpose of dragooning individuals into following rules against their own benefits, either immediately or postponed, so that some group referred to as 'society' might benefit?


Consider advertising, so as to narrow the diverse possibilities of fraud and deception. Should a new Buddhist who has influence on advertising follow some specific rules that differ from the ones followed now? Advertising has at least three functions, one is to provide information to a potential buyer, another is to indicate the availability of a product or service from a particular seller, and a third is to induce an individual to purchase the product or service, possibly in the absence of justification, or despite objections, better choices, alternatives, different sellers, and many other reasons why it might not happen. The first one is where the usual and obvious forms of deception occur. In providing information, if there are misrepresentations, this can lead to the reversal of any arrangements so that the misrepresentations, if discovered, will not lead to gains. Factual errors, if stated explicitly, are the easiest types of fraud to discover.


A somewhat worse problem lies in the non-explicitly presented information. If something is hidden, a particular fault, then this might be grounds for a contract or agreement to be abrogated. However, if something is simply not stated, or words are used to indicate that some particular fact is true without explicitly stating it, then these grounds often do not exist. Thus, this is the area in which elaboration about 'right speech' is needed.


Buddha's and later teachers' instructions in this regard were more clear: not only do not lie, but tell the truth and do not misrepresent. These instructions also cover the area of the third type of false advertising: one where the goal is to induce purchase on the basis of emotional projections, rather than a sound basis. There is an advertising industry component that is built on inducing sales, for example by showing a happy group of people consuming something for sale, either implying they are happy because they consume this particular item, or that people who are happy consume it and they serve as examples of how to be happy.


An improved Buddhism version of 'right speech' would include strictures against false presentation of this nature. There might even be a substantial dialogue or document on what type of advertising conforms with Buddhist teaching and what does not. The advertising industry would have to change its methods if it chose to act along with improved Buddhist principles.


Advertising is simply one example, perhaps the most blatant and obvious one, about the intersection of 'right speech' and modern life. There can be many more. Some require deep thought and consideration, for example, fiction. Fiction plays a role in modern society and affects it, and what guidance might be given to a prospective author of a fiction masterpiece-to-be? Law provides a dilemma. Can a lawyer for a indicted individual lie to gain an innocent verdict, if the person indicted is actually guilty? There is a division here, in that, at least in some legal traditions, everyone deserves to be fairly heard, with the assistance of a legal expert, a solicitor or lawyer, if necessary. But can that expert state falsehoods, ones he knows to be false? It is not part of the legal tradition that guilty parties be falsely exonerated, but somehow the tradition of having representation has been reduced to that.


To develop a behavioral code for improved Buddhism that is appropriate for the twenty-first century involves first deciding on the fundamental basis for the code, meaning who does it benefit and how. Then it involves going through a list of behavioral categories, such as 'right speech', and determining how they operate in this modern world. Each of these categories will probably have multiple subcategories, and parables or scenarios or other easily-understood discussions need to be created for each of them. Then the body of the behavioral code will be complete.


One item about a behavioral code should be mentioned. If there is no supernatural rewards for following it, what methods need to be used to ensure that it is followed to a large extent? Buddha's example of making false promises, involving some unknown future existences, is actually a violation of 'right speech', in today's view, but of course it was not during his era. Obviously, much care needs to be taken to avoid something similar.


The Waning of Religious Influence

The Tretyakov Museum in Moscow recently hosted an exhibition of the paintings of V. V. Vereshchagin, who concentrated on painting portraits and scenes from India and Central Asia during the last half of the nineteenth century. The paintings are very realistic, and convey more than just the details of the subjects of the painting, but also create emotion in the viewer. One of those feelings is of the overwhelming influence of the local religions on people and their lives. Many of the paintings are of religious buildings or edifices, and others show religious personnel or religious rites.


The effect of these paintings in the twenty-first century is to indicate to someone just how much the world of religion has changed. Religion in the nineteenth century in many parts of the world could dominate the life of ordinary people, starting with the setting of both goals and pathways for their lives, extracting both income and voluntary effort from them, and controlling substantial parts of their behavior. The religious leader in a local area was the all-around point of reference for problems, and shared control of the region with the political and military leaders.


Francis Bacon changed all that, with his revelation about the scientific method. Starting in Western Europe, the basis for knowledge shifted, gradually but continually, from the theology that some individual or group would invent to those facts that can be derived from observations using the scientific method. That diffusion of a new point of view has spread outwards from scientists and those appreciating the method, to larger and larger fractions of the population, and also from Western Europe to more parts of the globe. The diffusion is slow, and certainly has not approached anything like completeness, but it continues and the final result can be extrapolated.


To create a religion for the twenty-first century requires a redefinition of the role of religion. Supernatural effects such as reincarnation no longer make much sense to a scientific person, and the aura of science spreads far and wide, meaning that the belief in these effects will be harder and harder to maintain. Pockets of belief will exist, but as decades move by, the pockets will grow smaller and smaller. People will simply leave them behind. Buddhism is an ideal religion for improvement to match twenty-first century knowledge bases, as it appeals only as a legacy to the emotions of self-preservation and status improvement, via reincarnation, and instead appeals to the weaker but more tenable emotions of avoiding mental suffering and assistance to others. When one strips reincarnation from Buddhism, the result is actually a more coherent, more logical, more presentable, and more acceptable religion. That removal alone, and the tidying up of details, procedures, and other ties that the religion had to reincarnation, leaves one with a basic structure of belief that works fairly well in the twenty-first century.


That structure of belief is much more compact and less extensive than the corresponding structure of belief was in the nineteenth century. The religious guru of that time might be expected to approve of marriages, console losses, predict or even affect the weather and crop growth, serve as the de facto leader of a village or any small region, resolve conflicts between adherents, provide advice on travel, interpersonal relationships, animal care, habitation arrangements, child rearing, and virtually anything. The guru was the wise voice in the village. Now, there is no need for any of this information, and information in the twenty-first century is available everywhere. It is like the difference between living in a drought with a single well, and suffering from a flood.


One item which science does not replace is goals for individuals. Various aspects of society attempt to fill this vacuum. Religion can have its say, but it competes with commercial advertising, showing people happy with various medicines, vacations, possessions, entertainments, which is supposed to replace the goals of individuals, turning their purpose into consumption of favored products. There are other aspects which add to this great unspoken pressure: simply media, including any media with advertisements, but also the entertainment itself. For example, in media, actors represent characters who are clearly motivated to gather for themselves various possessions and the rest of the list of things which are supposed to bring happiness.


Seeking happiness with possessions and experiences in lieu of having a different goal is a specific choice, and one which appears to be strongly favored by those parts of society which have as their own specific goal the sales of objects and activities; these parts also tend to possess the ability to control media to the extent that this is almost the only message related to goals presented to the large mass of individuals in today's society. As long as this situation exists, it would seem that religion, no matter how superb it is in positing goals for individuals, will have little effect and will find itself excluded from any competition for the selection of a life goal or life goals by individuals.


There are what might be called subgoals which are prominent in twenty-first society, which seem to be directly derivable from the dominant goal of happiness via consumption of favored products. Obtaining the means to collect these products involves proceeding through one of the pathways to consumption that exist, meaning, having a career trajectory that leads to them. Various pathways exist, and while performing some skillful actions as part of a career pathway may be a non-consumption goal, it is also a subgoal toward the general consumption goal.


Other goals that seemingly detract from the main goal of consumption, which may have been the dominant goals in parts of society before this transformation to consumerism happened, such as having a good marriage and family, have been largely subjugated to consumerism. Consumption was once a means to accomplishing other goals, such as providing for dependents in one's family, but it has been elevated from a means to other goals to a goal, the overarching goal, itself. This switching of means and ends has happened without any debate going on within society, without any division within political or other leaders of society on whether it should happen or not, and without any opposition to speak of from the large majority of the intelligensia. It simply happened.


Consumerism has been present for as many centuries as history has existed, and for some it was an end, not a means to other goals. For the majority of the population, care for self and those related was the primary goal. Relationships were wide, and extended to the minimal family, spouse and descendents, then to older generations, to second-order relatives, and to a wider circle, include more distant relatives and friends. Care for self and others involves providing for them in relevant situations, but it also includes a wider range of activity, including maintaining good relations, support in multiple types of situations, training and teaching, sharing, assisting in activities, and multiple more. A concentration on consumerism would have reduced these other activities to a minimum, and that would have violated the customs and habits that the members of the group grew up with.


It would be a mighty struggle, but perhaps one which should be undertaken by a newly improved religion: replace the goal of universal consumerism with something different. There is one thing which the older goal of care for self and others and the present goal of consumerism have in common. They are both related to the present, or at least the near future. It is possible to deviate from that, and to try to change the horizon of mankind's thinking from the current week or year or decade to something related to mankind's long-term existence here on Earth. This is a complete novelty, and involves asking questions that have not been commonly asked before. What do we, in the present day, what to do to provide for future generations, not simply the very next one or two, but for dozens or hundreds?


It is certainly far from sure that the old goal of care for others and self is not an excellent goal for an improved twenty-first century religion. Without the constant propagandizing of media to propel the population toward thinking of consumerism, the older goals might simply emerge from the background. They have not ceased to exist, but have simply been overpowered by media pressure. The alternative goal of thinking about mankind's long-term future can be seen as an extension of the idea of care for others to a generic care for others, meaning those who will live millennia from now.


The old religious concept of reincarnation served as a replacement for long-term thinking about mankind. As long as the people living in the future are just connected, via reincarnation, with the people living in the present, there is much less need to figure out how to provide for them. Everything is just a continual recycling of the essence of people who exist at the present. When one takes reincarnation off the table, then the people of the future are distinct entities, and can be thought of as a whole new group of others that can be thought about and perhaps prepared for in some way or another. Removing reincarnation from Buddhism creates a vacuum in the future, and consumerism does not fill it at all. Possibly an improved Buddhism should try to fill this vacuum somehow, in order to maintain the same large picture of human history that the original version did.

Funding Improved Buddhism

Someone is going to have to pay for any new religion. The money has to come from donations, at least initially. A religion might be endowed by donors, and then support itself from earnings from the endowment, but that simply moves the funding problem into the startup period of the religion. In general, a religion has to have a source of income to pay its expenses, being principally space and people.


Initially, these expenses can be quite low, with volunteers doing the work of the religion, and providing meeting spaces as well. Buddha’s early life involved living precariously on charity, as he gradually amassed some followers and a coterie of donors. But after a religion becomes widespread, it must have a regular supply of donors, including some who donate substantially. What motivates such generosity?


Donors might be divided into two categories, those who think the religion is a good thing in general and feel it should be encouraged, and those who seek a personal benefit from it. The first category can be thought of as altruists, and the second as selfish. There could be an inverted variant on the first category, of donors who think the religion will harm some group they want harmed, or change some direction in society that they do not appreciate and want changed. ‘Negative altruists’ might be a good label for the variant case.


The second category of donors want something in return for their contributions. Original Buddhism absorbed reincarnation from earlier Hinduism, and provided that as a backdrop to their novel contribution of a relief from suffering as the main benefit. Suffering in original Buddhism might be somewhat different from modern suffering. Buddha thought suffering included death, illness, and the fraility of old age. He did not include poverty on that list as the common feeling of that time was that poverty, at least the voluntary poverty of an ascetic, was a useful thing in teaching someone about the world. Buddha himself accepted extreme poverty for himself, and considered it a virtue. Neither was barrenness considered by him to be suffering, as he himself could have had more children than the one he did have, if he had remained a prince for more years than he did. He gave that up at age 29. Neither was unemployment a suffering, and Buddha made himself unemployed instead of taking up a role in the management of his father’s kingdom and eventually succeeding him as king.


It may have been that in Buddha’s era, economic suffering was also regarded as something to be escaped from, in addition to lifespan issues, and the majority of the population would have listed that among their chief ills, but Buddha was raised as a prince, and perhaps did not appreciate that category of suffering. Because of his preferences, the original direction of Buddhism was the conquest of lifespan issues, or rather the effect of these on a person’s mental state. Actually, reincarnation is another solution to lifespan suffering problems.


Nowadays, economic suffering is more prominent in Buddhism that it was to the founder. For the last century or two, the modification of the world into a consumerist arena has led to economic difficulties being less acceptable and tolerable. It is a matter of degree rather than a binary choice. Furthermore, psychological suffering is also more clearly recognized and described than it was during the era of the Buddha. People in Buddha’s era may have suffered from lack of self-esteem, but it does not seem to have entered into the list of problems that he recognized as worthy of conquest via the eight-fold way.

Buddhism satisfies its donors of money, time, and other resources by proffering a methodology for reducing the psychological effects of some suffering categories, and it was an easy expansion of the goals of Buddhism to include, in addition to lifespan issues, economic and psychological issues as topics to be remedied by the methodology. The solution of lifespan issues via espousing the concept of reincarnation or some other form of a supernatural continuation of a form of existence is much easier to provide and gain acceptance than is the solution via a cessation of normal human emotion, which is what the standard Buddhist solution is. Thus, continuation of the reincarnation concept within Buddhism is a way to increase donations, in essence being an inexpensive, although absurd, solution to these issues.


It is a hallmark of successful solicitation of donations to have the cost of donation be acceptable and not pose any great difficulties. Donations of money and time are not physically taxing, such as meditating for twelve hours a day might be. It is also much easier to donate something than to have to change one’s habits or means of making income. The idea of donation is that nothing of substantial tangible value is returned to the donor; only intangibles are returned, such as a feeling of satisfaction, a reinforcement of a concept which relieves anxiety, a wish for future success or happiness or problem solution, or some other very low cost benefit.


What is an improved form of Buddhism going to offer to its donors? The days when the local Buddhist monk was the smartest person in the village and all questions were referred to him are long gone. There are so many smart people offering advice, free or paid, that very few people would turn to a Buddhist monk for advice on worldly matters. Monks may have had a profession in which they were an expert before they choose to make a career and life change to become a monk, but the likelihood that some particular monk is a former expert in a field that a supplicant seeks advice in has to be very low. Monks may learn how to interact with others in such a way as to induce some calming, but there are also many lay people who, professionally or amateurishly, provide such information and interaction. In some remote and backward part of the world, isolated from modern life and especially the internet, monks might still provide the traditional advice of the village wise person, but this has to be the situation of only a very small fraction of the population of Buddhists. Thus, there must be something other than advice and instruction provided to potential donors to persuade them to contribute to the religion.


There is another way of categorizing the donors who are seeking some benefit, unconsciously or consciously. Unconscious benefits come from a good feeling induced in the donor by the act of giving. Conscious benefits arise from a rational, possibly incorrect, calculation that being a donor is in the best interest of the donor himself.


The division of interests between altruism and selfishness is unfortunately a misleading one. There are really a whole set of possibilities which are collected under the noun altruism. One might say there is diffuse altruism, where the donor does not care which human beings are being benefited by the religion, but this might be a very rare type of altruism. The complement to this is focused altruism, in which there is a subset of humanity that the donor desires to have benefits. There are as many types of focused altruism as there are ways of dividing humanity into altruism. Supposedly, one could even stretch the net of altruism wider and have donor who are interested in non-human beneficiaries, such as a particular type of non-human animal, or some different subset of nature, or even inanimate objects, such as those with particular relevance to the donor such as a historic building.


Let us leave non-human beneficiaries behind, and concentrate on human ones. A donor who is a focused altruist has some benefit in mind and some beneficiaries. Those constructing a religion must make some connection between this group and their activities. Recall that the only topic remaining to a religion to teach, where it has some special background, is values. This is more or less equivalent to goals for life. Thus the question of donor motivation is forcibly narrowed down very considerably. Improved Buddhism can seek donors among those who are focused altruists, and believe that the set of values which Improved Buddhism teaches are a benefit for someone or some group.


The only remaining gap is the question of who is to be the beneficiary, both of the donor’s desire for altruism, and the religion’s ability to teach values. Altruism when focused is more often than not focused on those nearby and somehow related to the donor. It would most likely be his or her family, starting with his or her children. So, it is not fairly clear that a religion in the modern world must focus on teaching values to young people, and among the donors to the religion will be those parents whose children are the recipients of the training, and who think that the values of Improved Buddhism are important for their children to espouse. One of the principal virtues within Improved Buddhism is the care for the next generation. Thus, this principal virtue fairly clearly coincides with the means of motivating donors.


It is really insufficient for anyone to think that by educating their children in values, they have necessarily improved their future. If the entire society does not accept these values, they will not be easy for these children to maintain it, and the values themselves may be a liability in a society where they are not accepted. Thus, the scope of teaching must be larger than simply one’s own family, but must contain some, likely local, subset of humans that will serve as a reinforcement for those taught values and as an environment in which they might be expressed. So, donors must be those who understand the value of the goals of Improved Buddhism, and who have some children of their own or related children who they understand will be benefited by having these values continued through the next generation.

Philosophy Underlying Improved Buddhism

Buddhism in its original form is sometimes referred to as a philosophy rather than a religion, as it has no gods. It does have some legacy spiritism, with reincarnation being the main element used to drive individuals to follow the guidelines for life it provides, and the sutras have mention of the commonly held ideas of a spirit world, full of demons and witches, as well as benevolent entities. It simply doesn’t have any highly powerful figures that some believer is supposed to subjugate himself to in order to gain benefits, either in the real world or in some imaginary place with imaginary creatures. The lack of any top-level god figures doesn’t mean it is not a religion, but the point made that there is much like a philosophy about Buddhism is very important for an improved Buddhism, without the legacy spirit world.


Philosophy, the science or art of knowledge, has several branches which are fairly distinct. Most of these branches have little direct contact with religion, but the one which does is ethics, or moral philosophy. Ethics is about rules for living, which are compact and concise statements, general in nature, which mandate or prohibit certain actions or behavior. The Eightfold Way is an example of a collection of ethical commandments. There is more to ethics than simply the choice of a set of commandments. One aspect is motivation. Why should someone choose to follow these guidelines, rather than some other set, or none at all?


Spiritualism is one of the methods used in earlier eras to compel or induce individuals to follow one of these sets of guidelines. It is applicable to an adult, as an adult can understand consequences of actions, and can be informed, by someone in whom trust or confidence has been developed, that the following of these guidelines will lead to some non-immediate and non-verifiable benefits, which must be of great importance. The designers of religions obviously have to give great thought to what benefits to list as coming from their guidelines, as they must be universal and compelling. The positive side of the benefits do not have to be deterministic, but can be probabilistic, as long as the negative part is deterministic. Fear and reward both make excellent motivators.


The coming of science, especially since the twentieth century, has undermined all the bases of spiritualism, leaving that motivational tool useless for those educated in science. Science is the study of nature, and no spiritualism can be invented that does not have some connection to nature, and that connection allows the hypotheses to be shown to be impossible. Even in the nineteenth century there were beginnings of this conflict, when bits of science began to impinge on the details of the lore associated with spiritualism. By late twentieth century, the main tenets of spiritualism were demolished, or at least the tools to do so existed.


Back in the nineteenth century, there was a concern among some ethical philosophers about how humans would or should govern their own behavior. With no spiritualism behind ethical guidelines, what would steer human decision-making on a path which would lead to further economic and technological progress, rather than have various factions of civilization dissipate themselves in ways not consistent with an organized society? This is the topic of nihilism, which is a set of comments on how to behave in a non-spiritual world.


Science in the nineteenth and twentieth century had not progressed far enough along, or had not broadened its scope enough, to sufficiently explore the other main method for motivating humans. That method is to program young children with the general guidelines while they are still too young to question them, and to program them deeply into the subconscious mind so that they would be difficult to uproot at later times. The result of this type of programming is to have adults who naturally follow the guidelines, and consider them to be the right thing to do. Adults will come up with their own justifications for following them, depending on their level of critical thinking. Those with a low level will simply remember slogans or phrases to justify their choices, made on the basis of the early life programming. Those with the highest level might spend their careers writing deep and involved tracts justifying the behavior from some set of hidden assumptions. Either way, the problem of how to have a society which has members who live according to rules which make the society capable of progressing is solved.


The sets of rules cannot be wholly arbitrary, despite the inability of children to reason about them. An adult should not be frequently hit with conflicts between programmed rules, so they should be as consistent as possible. Common situations need to be thought through by the designer of the religion so that there will be none of these conflicts between guidelines, or at least as much as possible.


There is one other crucial aspect of the rules. To understand that, one simple observation about a religion, successful in its operations, has to be made. If the religion has adherents, but they do not add anyone else to the list of adherents, it will die out when the adherents do. No religion is successful unless it promulgates itself to successive generations. A successful religion will have built into itself, as a very important feature, this successive promulgation of the religion. The population that supports it cannot allow itself to die out.


The population that adheres to a religion can be added to by either converting adults from some other set of beliefs or from no set of beliefs at all to the religion. This is the only way that a new religion can be started, and exactly how that is to be done can be referred to as the initiation problem. But once it is going, the religion must continue to maintain the population of its adherents, and for a religion that has no spiritualism to motivate members, young children are the principal pool from which adherents can be drawn. Young children are, in current society, largely in the control of their parents, which means that only those children of existing members are likely to be potential adherents. That means that the religious guidelines must include two things, the having of children and the programming of one’s own children not just to follow the guidelines, but to program their own children to follow them, which includes programming the following generation. For this reason, a good name for this philosophy, one incorporating this method of preserving the progress of society, would be ‘Recursive Philosophy’.


The children of adherents of this religion, or followers of recursive philosophy, need to be cared for well, as children who are not properly nurtured, trained, educated and motivated to fit into society as productive members will not be a basis for the continuance of the religion. Prior to the invention of contraception and other technology which reduces child-bearing, normal sexual impulses would tend to make an increasing population as long as there was a means of sustaining it. After these technologies started to be invented and distributed, that ceased to happen, and the concept of having children and raising them needs to be an inherent part of the guidelines of the religion. This is another reason why the name ‘Recursive Philosophy’ is appropriate. One of the principal goals that is delivered to adherents, as children in later stages of the religion, is the procreation and preparation of the next generation. This goal has to be raised higher in the religion than any other goals which might compete with it. A religion than becomes extinct because it has no adherents is a failure.


The religion must program adherents with the idea of recursion in that each generation has its main goal centered around the next generation. But there is more to it than this. The adherents must be directed toward the benefits of their own children, as they are the ones who will become future adherents and keep the religion alive and burgeoning. If the guidelines are sloppy and simply direct adherents to help children in general, they might divert their resources and efforts towards children who will become adherents of another religion. There must be a fence drawn around the members of the religion, not an impermeable fence but one which slows down any flow of resources and effort outside the band of adherents’ children to a level where it will not interfere with this part of recursion.


The second part of recursion is the construction of a set of guidelines that will be understandable to children and memorable as well. Anything too complex will fail, as children will not remember it correctly and therefore it will grow confused with successive generations. The material used for the programming of children must be suitable for a span of ages, as it would be expected to take years to complete the programming, and therefore this material must be suitable for ages from the very young to those almost to the age of reason.


Children learn because they grow up with parents who encourage it, so one aspect of the religion which uses a recursive philosophy to maintain its existence is that there must be knowledge spread through generations of how to raise children who would be amenable to learning what is being taught to them with the programming material. This and many other details of the second method of preserving a religion, without spiritualism, have to worked out quite competently. The science of neurology might be an aid in this direction.

Improving Buddha’s Eight-fold Way

Religions tell people what to do. Not as much as a boss tells his employees what to do or a military leader tells his troops what to do or a parent tells his children what to do, but in a more general way. It takes too many man-hours to dictate detailed actions to another human, so some abbreviated method of conveying instructions is necessary. And the type of behavioral effect that a religion tries to accomplish is different from the other three examples. The religion is trying to coerce people into following rules which, if followed by the large majority, will lead to some organized path forward for the society. Leaders of a society may follow these or be visible in some actions of following them, but it is not so important for the leaders of a society to exactly follow the rules that have been laid down for the large majority. They are exceptions in society already by their position and power, and can be exceptions for religion as well. Alternatively, they can have some convoluted reasons why their actions are consistent with the behavioral teachings of the religion. There is rarely any quantitative limits or conditions that allow one person to measure if another is following the behavioral rules, so feigned conformance is not necessarily difficult.


Thus the audience for the behavioral rules is the large majority of the people, but Buddha had a caste system in mind when he came up with his. To understand his rules, and then contemplate both their current-day applicability and how they might be improved, it is useful to first delve into their origin.


Who was Buddha? He started as Siddhartha Gautama of the Sakyas, the son of a king of a small region located in present-day Nepal, and had all the benefits that good genes and good training can provide. Legend has it that Buddha’s father was warned by a soothsayer that Buddha might leave the kingdom he was to inherit for monasticism, and his father tried to reduce the likelihood of this by limiting the prince’s environment to happy and pleasurable things, not allowing any suffering people or the dead to be seen. Two important points arise from this background. One is that as a prince, he became used to ordering others and making plans for their work. This leads to the tendency to value things in the future. People grow up valuing the past, and then prefer to copy some part of the past and regard that as what constitutes good. Others grow up valuing the present, and then make immediate decisions about what is good and what is not based on their feelings, moods, opinions, and conditions. The third set, those who think in terms of the future, see benefit in what will happen later on, but also learn a more expanded view, that of a ruler. A ruler might think in terms of the benefits of his people, although many rulers have not. Siddhartha seems to have absorbed the style of thinking relating to the future, with benefits couched not in his personal life, but in those of others, perhaps those who lived in his kingdom at first.


Siddhartha is often described as extreme in all good qualities, and perhaps he had them as a child and a young man, being smart, or the smartest in the kingdom according to the court, being handsome, or the most handsome in the kingdom according to the court, and so on. This would mean that extremes or being top of the list is something that he might have sunk into his mind at a young age. The extension of this concept is that extremes are of value. These four influences came together to Siddhartha as he strove to form a worldview. The extreme of time is eternity. Since everything dies or passes away or dissolves or otherwise ceases to exist as an entity, nothing in the world is worth anything. This is the essence of nihilism, which is a psychological affliction affecting those who think values exist in the future and who comprehend infinity.

Siddhartha then sought an escape from his own version of nihilism, by incorporating his father’s goals of eliminating suffering and death in Siddhartha’s environment as his own goal, but expanded to the extreme. Siddhartha wanted a way to help others escape from suffering, which is, after all, a feeling that exists in the mind. He reckoned that teaching people to not care about anything in this world, in miniature emulating his departure from a life of luxury into complete poverty, would be the way out, and so he began concocting a plan to help other people be more like himself, who he had learned at an early age in his palace was an ideal person.


He had learned the religious dogma of the day, which says that people, indeed all sentient beings from insects to humans, are reborn into new lives. As noted in earlier posts, this makes no sense and there is no way to come up with any self-consistent beliefs in this, but twenty-five centuries ago, the science and the critical thinking methods we have today were as distant as the Andromeda galaxy. So Siddhartha figured out that having some particular thoughts in one’s mind, and behaving according to some rules, would stop this rebirth cycle. This was all imaginary, but Buddha was very intelligent, and had learned persuasion very well, so his concept of an end to rebirth, meaning to himself an end to suffering, became very popular and remains so today.


So, in some implicit statement of self-praise, he decided that to escape suffering, that is, rebirth, another person would have to imitate his life and give up the world. Then there was a set of following steps, things to think and not think, things to do and not do, that were the magic that would stop rebirth. Siddhartha came up with eight steps, all somewhat vague, but all explicated during his long tenure as one of the Indian subcontinent’s leading religious thinkers. The first step, abbreviated as right view, means someone would have to accept the idea of rebirth and suffering and getting out of it, which led to a long time, perhaps eternity, in a better state called nirvana, which is the opposite of being alive. The second step, abbreviated as right resolve, means imitating Siddhartha’s flight from the palace, in other words, leaving their lives, families, occupations and whatever and becoming a Buddhist monk. Then the next six steps are all about how to be a good monk and achieve nirvana.


The main part of the behavioral rules, translated into English as the Noble Eightfold Path, is for monks. For ordinary people, the idea is to follow some more basic rules and try to be reborn as someone who could be a monk, and then make the escape to nirvana. For example, women suffered prejudice in those times, so the prescription for a woman was to follow some rules for her whole life and hope to be reborn as a man, who could then become a monk.


It is easy to understand the psychological origins of the Buddha’s philosophy and behavioral prescriptions as they are rooted in his childhood experiences, and these have been logged and passed on. If we ask, how should the Noble Eightfold Path be modified for present day life, when we no longer believe in reincarnation, there are a few preliminaries to discuss.


The most essential is the first step of the Noble Eightfold Path, the right view, or better, the right worldview. Instead of reincarnation being the basis for it, a finite life must be, as there is no consistent way out of this. If we train someone as a future valuing person, in other words, one who thinks about the future and decides what to do today on the basis of what consequences these actions will have, then it is important to explain that infinity is not something worth considering. Otherwise we simply return to nihilism. Short term benefits are wonderful to contemplate, and in fact these are exactly how we should determine what to do, but extending the evaluation period to eternity and then allowing nihilism to depress us is not a good replacement for Buddha’s “right view”. Better to find a worldview that incorporates the finiteness of existence yet still allows future thinking, the hallmark of high productivity in non-routine situations.

One middle way is to set a finite period and look at benefits during that period. With a moving period, humanity can get to the end of time without having to gobble it all down at once. The worldview associated with that is that we are an interconnected set of entities, but the types of connections vary with era, and need to be revised for each era. Buddha’s era was one of a struggle for survival, and this affected people’s lives on a daily basis. As we go forward into more and more affluence, with survival being almost guaranteed in many regions, something quite different from Buddha’s rules of behavior may be needed.


Buddha’s second rule, herding people into monasticism in order to reach nirvana, is also unnecessary as that purpose is obsolete. Monasticism does have many attributes, however, and perhaps some of them have some relevance for today. It harks of stoicism, in the original Greek version of it, which stated that anyone could find happiness if they had the proper view of the world, used logic, and followed some behavioral rules. It might be that Greek stoicism would be a good source for adapting Buddhist behavioral canons to the modern era. Greek stoicism emphasized understanding Nature, which today translates as an appreciation of science. What could fit better in an era where science is expanding on a daily basis?

Means and Ends in Religious Education

What good is a religion which does not have any supernatural assertions in it? If a religion, improved or not, teaches or assumes that there is no reincarnation or any substitute for it, what is left for it to do? One feature remaining is religious education, which may serve as a supplement to any formal or informal education. It does not cover academic topics but instead what might be called life questions. If a person cannot be induced to follow some behavioral rules by the promise of intangible and unverifiable supernatural rewards, what might take its place, so that behavior does not degenerate into chaotic or vengeful actions, and society can continue to maintain and improve the status quo, specifically the standard of living, or the probability of preservation of the species or some faction of it, or whatever other social goal is absorbed into the religion?


Religious teaching relating to behavior can be divided into the teaching of means and the teaching of ends. Means are simply procedural rules. ‘Do not lie’ is an example of a procedural rule of the prohibitory type. ‘Exercise frequently’ is an example of the mandatory type. There are different collections of these generalities. When a person who has received this education and attempts to follow it, there is sometimes a clear definition of what should be done in a particular situation, and sometimes the prescription is somewhat vague and requires interpretation. Thus the religious education needs to have both a listing of the prohibitory and mandatory rules and an exhortation or motivation to follow them, but also a method for interpreting exactly what they prohibit or mandate in some more complex situations. If the interpretation is to be done by the person who has received the religious education, there must be some assurance that the ability to do it is also present in the person. This implies some thinking ability.


When a person with this religious education is faced with a situation in which one or more of the rules apply, the first question he might ask is whether he should follow the rules and what are the consequences and costs of doing so versus the consequences and costs of violating the rules. The answer to this depends on the age or more specifically the rationality of the person when the rules were taught. Religious teaching of pre-rational children or non-rational adults can result in memorization, which might be questioned and ignored later in life by a rational person, or it might result in the teaching being embedded in the feeling system in the brain, so that the person feels good when following the rules. The type of teaching to achieve these two very different results is quite distinct.


The latter type of education can be termed character-building. What it is is the programming of the internal reward system of the brain to follow some rules because they inspire some good feelings, meaning a neurochemical response happens. This inspiration of good feelings happens because the history of the person is such that they grew a network of associations from instinctual feelings through multiple layers up to the following of these religious rules. The very earliest association layers happens when a child is very young and subject to instinctual rewards, and then these are built on by whoever is nurturing the child. Then the religious training must be connected to these early layers.


It is also quite possible to connect religious rule-following to fears and anxieties. Again, a child must have layers of associations built between elementary fears, such as deprivation or punishment, and other early behaviors, which must then be connected by religious teaching with these sets of rules to be followed. It could be possible in some child that both a reward and a fear connection is built up between neurochemical responses and religious rules.


For a person who absorbs these connections when pre-rational, and then becomes rational with age, the rationality typically does not go toward questioning these rules, but instead interpreting them or justifying them. Hearing examples of these rules produces some mild feelings of positive, or possibly negative, correlation, which can be misinterpreted as assurance of correctness or knowledge that they are right or just or some other rationally conceived meritous attribute. The assurance does not arise from a rational checking of a lifetime of experience, but instead comes from the neurochemical response which produces positive feelings. A person who has these embedded layers connecting religious teaching with the neurochemical reinforcement system in their brain does not have much capability of questioning the basics, except as an exercise to find the flaws in the questioning.


A person who has had this experience, and lives within a virtual world of rule correctness, can be said to have absorbed internally the means of making choices. Rationality is not invoked in situations where a decision or behavioral choice needs to be made, but instead a feeling exudes which overwhelms the logical questions and simply provides some generic rules which are applied. The accuracy or logical details of the application of the generic rules is not important, as the good feelings which arise do not arise because of logical correctness or exactness with which the rules are created. Instead, the feelings arise because of some associations in the brain which become exercised by the situation.


The alternative situation involves a person whose pre-rational experience does not result in him having developed associations which match those of a religion that he comes into contact with. If he is learning about it voluntarily, and seeks to make a decision as to whether to use the behavioral rules it promulgates, and is highly rational, he would question the ends of the rules, rather than checking to see if following them makes him feel good or if they seem intrinsically correct, which is how a mind can disguise the good feelings under a cloak of pretended rationality. In detail, the question is what are the consequences of one person, himself, following the rules or alternatively, what are the consequences of the large majority of people in a social community following these rules? The first phrasing of the question appeals to someone who has learned to think about how to increase some benefits or metrics relating to himself, and the second phrasing appeals to someone who does not think about his own benefits particularly, but about the social benefits to some other group with which he associates or somehow values.


Without the supernatural kicker, consequences of following rules have to have some earthly benefits, and so the first part of answering this question comes from the person’s choices of what constitutes a benefit. The two phrasings of the ‘ends’ question do not interact necessarily with the metric question. A person who was raised to be acquisitive, without thinking about the utility of excessive acquisitions, would likely have as a metric the standard of living. This would be applied to himself, if his goals were self-oriented, or to some faction, if his goals were externally directed toward some group of others. This type of person might be thought of as being concerned about the present or the near future.


Another end which might have been chosen by a particular person involves the past, and is generally described as asking how well the set of rules will preserve something in the past which is highly valued by this person. Some heritage or some existing state of nature or some monuments or some cultural features might be the items which serve as the keystones to his internal goal system, the one which is being compared to the consequences of following his targeted religion’s set of behavioral rules. It could even be the idea of preserving the set of rules that was used in previous generations, and so the date of origin of the set of rules might be an important variable. In this situation, the set of rules has jumped from being a means to accomplish some external goals or provide some benefits to being an end in itself.


The obvious third category of goals that a person might have grown up with involves future projections. This person would ask how does the set of rules lead to a future in which some faction of people either simply live or live well, such as with a higher standard of living that the same faction does now. This is a good test of rationality, as the prediction of the future involves a deep understanding of the mechanisms by which events unfold, some understanding of the nature of probabilities, and a solid understanding of potential disruptions that might affect some simple linear projection forward.


These considerations imply that an improved Buddhism would have to have several explanations, one suited for heritage based individuals, another suited for standard of living types thinking about the present, and another suited for those who live in their mind’s view of the future and extract their metrics from that future projection. The older period in which children, in their pre-rational period, could be programmed to follow a religion might be passing by, and something new would have to be installed in its place. It might be that rationality is going to decay, and then the struggle will be decided by deciding what form of non-rational thinking will dominate society or factions of it. In that case, an improved Buddhism might take the preservation of thinking abilities as one of its goals, rather than an increase in acquisitions by its members.


Nihilism, in short, is a small branch of philosophy that consists of saying life has no meaning or purpose. It is connected with the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who used the phrase “god is dead” in the sense that at his time, the nineteenth century, the ancient concept of gods no longer played much of a role in the decisions of people, specifically, those in his circle. It is hard to make sense of this. In a previous post, a series of examples was given, in which some individual assigned some purpose to some bit of life. Perhaps this doesn’t qualify under Nietzsche’s definition, as it would seem he was mostly referring to human life.


Rather than go into word play, let’s just consider one or more examples of this in order to try and clarify what is being meant. Suppose we have an individual human being, ‘Joe’, who says he has no purpose in his life. How old is Joe? Suppose he is ten years old, and precocious enough to have some idea of what the word purpose means. So he says he has no purpose in his life, and then we ask his parents, who disagree and say he has the purpose of getting an education and building a good character. Who is right? A ten-year-old is legally under the control of his parents, limited to be sure, but substantially, and so he doesn’t get to pick his purpose as he cannot use that to choose his actions. If instead of nothing, he said his purpose was to steal hubcaps, his purpose would not be that, as he would be sufficiently controlled by his parents, we assume, so that he doesn’t get anyone’s hubcaps, or if he does, he has to give them back. Instead, he has to go to school. So, his purpose would clearly seem to be getting an education and whatever else his parents decide he will do. He may refuse to learn there, but the non-completion of a purpose does not mean the purpose does not exist, just that it has not been satisfied.


After Joe grows up and turns eighteen, his parents no longer have any legal sway over him, so he is forced to decide on his own purpose. He can decide to fulfill his childhood hope of stealing hubcaps, or if his parents planted their own values deep in his juvenile mind, he might decide to continue his education and become an auto body mechanic, with the purpose of removing dents from cars and otherwise making them operational and even beautiful again. He does have a purpose, and even if he says he has no purpose, watching him get up every weekday and go down to the car shop, where he labors for the full day fixing auto bodies, should convince anyone what purpose he has given himself in life. He could easily add other purposes, such as being a father and raising children who become dental hygienists or accountants, which would indicate what their purpose was, or at least one of them.


Joe could decide to be less independent and when he turned eighteen, to ask his parents what he should do. Doing what they say converts their phantom purpose for him, which they cannot set because they do not control him, into his purpose. Joe may get his purpose from someone else, or from some Twitter comment that he finds especially motivating, or from some blog he happens to read. But he makes the choice, and it is him that assigns purpose and meaning to his life.


Joe might be home one day, and notice that he has no potatoes. His life is a void as far as potatoes goes, as he has not bought any recently, has not grown any in his home garden, has not stolen any, or obtained any as a gift from potato-bearing friends. Joe can correctly conclude that he has no potatoes. He might be sitting on a couch in his living room, where he has been for days except for short breaks, and might conclude he has no purpose and his life has no meaning. He has chosen nothing to be his purpose, not working in an autobody shop and making auto owners happy with their repaired cars, not playing cards in an attempt to gamble his way to prosperity, not doing anything at all except sitting on the couch, which hardly qualifies as a purpose. Joe, like Nietzsche, can correctly conclude that life has no meaning, at least as far as his own life goes. However, unlike Nietzsche, Joe can realize that his life has no meaning because he hasn’t chosen one, and, not being a slave or a serf, he has no owner or master to give him one.


Nietzsche missed this point, as he was only looking for glorious purposes, such that a god might give to a human. Unfortunately, people can do what they want, and if some god message is received in their brain, such as ‘go work at an autobody shop’, the person getting the message may choose to ignore it, to accept it and perform it, or to accept it as a purpose but simply fail totally to complete it. That is because under our laws, people get to choose their own meaning for their lives. If Joe doesn’t have one, perhaps because he was as depressed as Nietzsche often was, then that is his choice.


Some people often say that anyone who has no purpose in life must turn out to be a hedonist. Joe, sitting on his couch, can have absolutely no purpose in his life, but because of his depression, or because his parents taught him to be a good person, or because of a lack of instincts in that direction, is anything but a hedonist. Actually, being a hedonist is tantamount to choosing a purpose for your life, specifically, maximizing the amount of pleasure you get, subject to whatever restrictions you place on your actions and conditional on what you actually enjoy. Unless Joe enjoys sitting more than most people could imagine, he is a nihilist without being a hedonist, and actually might be extreme examples of both of them. Most depressed people would fall into that category, and so would some very lazy examples. So, hedonism and nihilism seem to be more opposites than correlates.


Nietzsche might have grown up without much independence, being limited by parents or by his own fraility or by something else, and so didn’t realize immediately that purposes in any modern society are chosen by the individual. It doesn’t matter if theology has burnt out, as a god can’t give any purpose to an individual, only provide a suggestion, short of physically taking control of the person and subjecting them to his/her/its control. There is a bit more complication here, however, in that if the god or god-like person or messenger from god or agent of god or whatever role-player connected with some god can use some weapons to induce someone to follow their demands, they could be considered as providing a purpose, just as a slave-master does. The mechanism by which these demands could be imposed might be threats, which must be believed to be able to convey the demands. An uneducated person might be likely to believe a more educated person concerning threats. Likewise, promises could be made that might induce an individual to accept some god person’s demands, and again, a less educated person would be more likely to accept the statements of an educated one.


Some people make the strange assumption that any purpose someone gives themselves in life is immaterial, unimportant, irrelevant, or nonsensical because the person dies. The only way this statement can be made is to change the definition of purpose to include infinite extent. Why would someone stretch out something to eternity, as there is nothing that lasts to eternity in the universe? They play on the word meaning to refer only to infinitely long-lasting things, and therefore can conclude, using this weird definition, that there is no meaning to life or the world or the sun or anything because, and solely because, these things all have finite lifetimes. This assumption is so incomprehensible that it is hard to imagine what would motivate it, except possibly an inordinate love of calculus. It is quite true that purpose can be short term or long term, such as fixing the car in front of me or helping mankind learn the mechanisms of solar fusion in detail, but for any of these, finiteness is mandatory.


Meaning in life can be thought of as a higher order purpose than just a simple purpose that one takes on. Joe, our venerable example, in his auto-body role, fixes cars and so his purpose in life can be thought of as being to fix auto bodies, as well as some other less time-consuming choices. But if we change the meaning of the word ‘meaning’, without diving into recursive soup, to refer to a limited set of allowable purposes or extracted purposes, we could say his life does not have the meaning of beautiful car production, but of happy car repair customers, which might be a subset of one category of allowable purposes, making people happy or providing them with the means to buy groceries and other essentials, or something like that. No one who is involved in writing about meaning of life seems to pay much attention to the difficulty of categorizing all the goals and extracted goals that a person’s activities might have, so the search for meaning in life becomes rather vague and ambiguous, owing to the lack of good definitions.

Long-term Goals of a Religion

The title can have two interpretations. One is to continue asking about the motives and hopes that a designer of a new religion might have, and the other is to ask what missions should be put into the teaching of a religion that are more than immediate in effect.


The founder is an ordinary human being, and the motives of human beings may be diverse, but have been exhaustively cataloged as we have monitored one another for the last few millennia. Motives might be diffuse, such as love or hate for some faction of society, or some collection of individuals. Motives might also be precise, with a definite goal being known and valued.


One factor that separates these motives is the period over which they operate. Goals might be initially divided into short-term goals and long-term goals, with the term in question being the lifetime of the founder. The founder may have a set of goals, and the religion can be therefore structured to accomplish these goals. The goals can be further divided into self-centered goals and other-centered goals. Self-centered goals are mostly short-term ones, where the founder wishes to achieve something in his own life that he treasures, for example an exalted role, or the master of a harem or the founder of a dynasty. There might be some long-term goals, if the founder is a person who thinks primarily of the future: he might want his memory to be respected in some particular way, or his sayings remembered and utilized or his image idolized and prayed to.


All of these goals have origins in the life of the founder, as do goals in general. If the life of the founder is well-known in detail, some understanding of the motivating events or processes in the founder’s history might be used to better understand why he chose particular aspects of the religion, and what was the expected consequences of each choice. Founders are not necessarily capable of projecting the future, so what follows from some of these choices may not be what was intended. By trying to imagine the thinking processes of the founder, together with his biography, it might be possible to better interpret why he chose particular features and not others. The same goes for the details of the features.


The long-term, other-centered goals of a religion’s founder can be quite diverse. The first region of diversity lies in the choice of the target of these goals. It does not have to be a set of individuals, but it can be some agency or organization or state or collective which has rotation among the individuals who occupy positions there or belong to it. The founder's motive might be the diffuse hate of government, and in a governmental system with rotating leadership, there would be no individual who would be the target of the religion’s founder’s goals. If these goals are not diffuse, but aimed toward some faction of the whole human population, there can be many ways the dividing line between those included and those excluded might be drawn.


The dividing line can be sharp or fuzzy, in that membership in the target faction might be well-defined and precise, or not precise at all. If men are the target group, the line is precise. If tall people are the target group, the line is fuzzy. The precision of the definition of the target group might be important for some goals, but not for others.


If the goal being considered is long-term, with the measure being an average human lifetime, then the faction being targeted will have deaths and births continuously while the religion has force. This means that not only must instantaneous membership be defined, but the rules for entry must be also.


Reproduction is a simple solution to the problem of maintaining the boundary line between target and non-target. It could be that the child of parents in the group is in the group, or can become a member of the group if some conditions are fulfilled, or it might be if one parent is a member, perhaps a specific gender. If polygamy is in force, group membership for offspring might be restricted to the first partner or first partner to become a parent. If a harem situation exists, there could be exclusion for some of the children of harem members.


If the boundary of the group is based largely on reproduction, there can be exceptions according to certain rules the religion’s founder devises. Perhaps there is some ceremony or learning or actions or payments required. Perhaps it is based on individual judgment of an agent of the religion or or a committee that has the exception-granting power. These are details of the founder’s main choices, and might even only be decided after his demise or in his absence.


Some other boundary must be created with a new religion. If membership is voluntary, or open to volunteers from a restricted set of the population, there must be inducements to join. This is a very different type of religion that one based on reproduction. Some ceremonies or learning or other conditions might be imposed to mark the boundary between member and non-member.


An individual in either a reproduction-based or a induced-joining group may at some time opt out of the religion. This is probably not a problem for numbers if there is little cause for such opting out. However, in both types of religions, children of members would need to be programmed in some way as to provide them with a desire to stay in the group, or to stay involved with the group’s practices. The control of children’s programming is probably the strongest tool that a religion’s founder has to ensure long-term success of his religion, and to accomplish whatever other long-term goals he may have had for it. In every successful religion, this would be a noticeable feature.


In choosing long-term goals, the religion’s founder has a wide range of choices, but one is mandatory. The faction or group that is the recipient of benefits from the religion must be preserved. If the religion is based on hatred or a hope for destruction of a faction, then this is obviously not valid, in fact, the opposite is, but for favored groups, the founder must figure out how to maintain the boundary and preserve the numbers of the group. There would be special means, differing for reproduction-based and induced-joining groups. Once the start-up period for induced-joining groups is over, and some quorum of numbers is established, the founder may modify the rules toward preservation and away from induction of new members.


Now that there has been some discussion and cataloging of the possible personal goals of the founder of a religion, it is time to discuss the goals for the religion, or more specifically, the goals for the members of the religion, that might accompany the founder’s goals. However, there needs to be a distinction between goals that are set up for members to accept by the religion and goals that the members have from sources outside of the religion. These two sets of goals interact strongly.


As noted already, the first goal that the religion must give to its members relates to preservation of the religion via the programming of the children of members. Goals of the religion do not have to be explicitly stated, but can be discreetly introduced into the minds and plans of the membership. There is already an automatic drive for a member to program their children into membership. If a parent receives much fulfillment and happiness from the religion, and has a desire that his children also be happy, it is quite natural that a parent would follow the religion’s prescribed course of training for his children. The founder needs only to invent a means by which this training can be provided. There might also be some goals laid out by the religion to assist or foster this training, if necessary to back up the natural occurrence of child membership support by parents.


Beyond the preservation goal,and perhaps a goal of inducing more membership from the set of people who are allowed candidates for membership, there are other goals the religion might have. Another one, almost as mandatory as the preservation goal, is the support goal. Religions use the benefits of societal production for various purposes. Therefore one main goal of any religion must be to induce the membership to contribute services, products, or in more advanced societies, money of one sort or another. This contribution can be voluntary, or if the religion captures the government and can use it for its own purposes, mandatory from members or even from everyone within a government’s region of control.


Other goals are more flexible as to the choices and preferences of the religion’s founder. The goals for members that are religion-related are not invented by the members, but by the founder, in order to further his own long-term goals. If the founder feels great happiness if the members of his religion prosper, then he will seek to set up rules or guidelines within the religion that assist with that. This can involve the combined efforts of the membership, helping one another, or the training of mentors to assist individuals, perhaps a large number of individuals, to achieve success, according to the definition of success the founder espouses. Material wealth might be one definition of success, longevity another, finding good life partners another, fellowship might be another, and so on. Each of these might be chosen by the founder, or indeed, a collection of them. By looking at the guidelines and rules for living that the founder records, these goals of his might be figured out.


Describing a religion in terms of the founder’s goals might not be a conventional way of comparing religions, but it is very useful for the purpose of inventing improvements in one, and that is the purpose of this blog.

Buddha as the Designer of a Religion

One way to look at a religion is to look at its beliefs, or its behavioral guidelines, or its structure, or its facilities, or its members, or many other aspects. One way that does not seem to be very common is to ask what was the founder or founders trying to do with his religion. Religions accrete many things as time goes on, but if a founder can be identified, or hypothesized, it can be asked how did he manage to set up the critical parts of the religion.


Like any other organism, a religion must survive and reproduce in time and space. Survival for a religion means it has to hold together over the short term. It might face oppression, or competition for members, or discrimination by the governance of the time. Reproduction in time means it has to have a way for younger members to be brought into it and captured as permanent adherents and reproduction in space means it must somehow diffuse beyond its original boundaries.


Buddha must have understood how to organize this, perhaps only intuitively, but certainly effectively. Members contribute their time and efforts to a religion because they get a good feeling from it, most likely from a dopamine pulse connected with different aspects of it. Dopamine squirts out into our brain when as association with something positive in our younger years is made. Much of the youth of people, certainly in Buddha’s time, was spent with their parents. Buddha behaved in the image of the good side of everyone’s father, and so being with him subconsciously reminded people of this, and they felt the happiness that comes from a positive association. Buddha told everyone who attended his lectures or who became a monk with his retinue how to behave, just as fathers tell their children how to behave. More reminders of that association, one which almost everyone has.


Buddha was a planner, able to see how future events might work out. He was not working for personal honor or award, but to accomplish something that lasted longer than his life. He therefore established a group of higher level monks who might take his place when he died, and trained them. His idea was not that they would become Buddhas who also authored new behavioral codes, but that they would become teachers of his moral code, so it would be preserved and disseminated. Interpreters of the code for new applications, perhaps, but not inventors. That meant he had to be able to discriminate among the monks under his charge, to find some who were not innovators and did not want to find their own way and found their own sect, but who were instead good followers, intelligent enough to understand what he was doing but without the ambition to do the same themselves.


The father association that Buddha caused in other people who likely not carry over so well into the next generation of Buddha’s leaders, so other associations designed to make people happy enough to be involved in the sect had to be initiated. This might be the melding of the family, or brothers and cousins, together with peers. Buddha taught the monks who came with him how to behave toward one another, as well as how to conduct their daily lives. The relationship of the monks living together is akin to that of a family, and might generate the positive associations that we learn in childhood if we are lucky enough to live in a large family. Any family or group of close peers has negative events, generating negative associations, and Buddha’s rules for living together served to mitigate these, so the positive feelings would dominate and there would be good feelings driving the monks to stay with him.


When Buddha lived, about 2500 years ago, there had not yet been invented a convenient writing technology in his area, so he would have expected that his words would only be remembered for a long term if they were part of a codified oral tradition. For this reason, he needed a large body of monks to do the memorization and to teach it to newer monks. If he had lived two thousand years later, he might have designed his religion completely differently, using the technology of writing to preserve his ideas. This is an important fact. Technology determines the form of religion, just as the form of society influences the form of religion. Buddha had to tap into the positive childhood associations to make people feel good when supporting or learning about his teachings, and in an era where family life is very different, different forms of religion would be necessary to provide the same capture of emotion that is necessary to have robust adherence.


Buddha also structured the time of the monks in his retinue. They knew when to arise, when to wash, when to meditate, when to beg and when to sleep. Just as a parent controls the time of a very young child, Buddha did the same. Thus, the associations embedded deep within the brains of the monks, connected with their early mothering, large positive, were snagged by Buddha’s use of a daily time structure. Do older children like to have their time wholly structured? There is usually some rebellion, but that is a small fraction of the interaction of parent and child. Instead, there is, in an older child, the same positive association with having time structured for them that arose in very early childhood. Buddha’s tapping into this assisted in forming positive feelings in his monks, and aided in keeping them attached to him.


Reassurance and the dispelling of uncertainty is also something that parents do for their children. Reassurance comes in many varieties for a small child, with perhaps the simplest and earliest being the feeling of being protected from whatever perils there are by parents. Buddha might have provided some of this feeling, but a second variety, which occurs when a child begins to be independent, involves parents encouraging the independence and assisting in the actions taken. Learning to walk is an example of this. All children go through this, and there is undoubtedly good feeling generated. Buddha could take advantage of this by encouraging monks in their activities, albeit in a moral sense. Having right thoughts and right behavior and so on takes encouragement, and while providing the behavioral code is an important component, being reassuring about the monk’s eventual success also taps into these positive early childhood associations. While completely invisible, this is another way in which Buddha provided monks with positive feelings about being attached to him.


When one mentions uncertainty and Buddhism in the same sentence, the thought is reincarnation. Uncertainty regarding the existence of some essence within or around a person, which bounces from living creature to living creature is addressed by Buddhism, actually only echoing the reincarnation myths of Hinduism. This is certainly not the only uncertainty addressed by Buddhism, and may be one of the less important ones. Everyday life is all about interacting with other people, and Buddha provided guidelines for doing this. Instead of wondering how to approach a government official, or to talk to a streetsweeper or to deal with a shopkeeper or to accept a gift of charity from someone, a new monk can learn from Buddha’s teachings or imitate the example of more experienced monks. This area of uncertainty, revolving around interpersonal interaction, may provide more of a lift to spirits than any discussion of the essence of life.


Thus, Buddha, in the design of his religion, built into it multiple causes of positive feelings arising from associations with the mostly positive childhood experiences of his believers, supporters and monks. Buddhism has not lost these associations, and as far as modern childhood experience mirrors that of Buddha’s era, they will still lead to fervent membership. Understanding how Buddha arranged his religion to appeal to a wide variety of people by using almost universal childhood associations as deep triggers of positive reactions provides us with some clues as to how to improve Buddhism. One way is to look at how current experiences in a family setting or its equivalent produces good feelings, and then see how existing Buddhist thought evokes that, and how it might better be matched to produce a stronger evocation. Families nowadays are not too similar to those of 2500 years ago, but biologically the same steps have to be taken, which does provide some commonality. Perhaps nowadays there is much more diversity in family arrangements and roles, and so some thought as to how to accommodate that diverse set of arrangements and evoke positive feelings from them within Buddhism needs to be done.


One thing that has not been mentioned is the need to quiet down negative associations, as they will serve to drive away potential members. Along with a catalog of the positive associations in modern-day families, there needs to be a catalog of potential negative associations, so that they can be avoided as much as possible in designing the improvements to Buddhism. Perhaps also a catalog of personality types needs to be done, so to be able to more quickly pick potential candidates for Buddhism.

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