Improving Buddhism

Is it Possible?

Anatta and Karma


Buddha was raised in a time of conflicts in metaphysics. Some Hindu philosophers preached the doctrine of reincarnation, which meant that there was some essence that moved from body to body when the first one died and a new one was born or conceived. This philosophy included the idea of karma, which was that if someone lived according to certain rules, they would accumulate karma and get to migrate to a better living condition in the next life. Other Hindu philosophers preached materialism, that the body dies and that there is no ‘self’, no essence, no spirit, which survives that death. This is labelled anatta. He accepted both of them and neither of them.


Many Buddhist practices and traditions follow the karma path, which is remarkably similar to that of Hinduism, except that the rules to be followed are different. Buddha in the Pali canon, the Theraveda sacred text, describes six levels of existence into which one might be reborn. There are two heavenly ones and one hellish one, in addition to human and animal existences. As noted elsewhere, this type of philosophy pushes people into a style of life that is conducive to social harmony, but also to social oppression. It teaches passive acceptance of what life offers, in the hope of a better deal in the next life.


For monks, the whole philosophy was different. They learned that there is only a non-self, no self at all, not in anyone or anything. The proper thing to do was to meditate, let go of any desires for selfish benefits, follow a stoical existence, and try to become enlightened, a state where one is calmly happy or at least not unhappy, while waiting for death at which time one could achieve nirvana, which is a state of nothingness.


Buddha was asked, in the Pali canon, if there was a self, and he declined to answer. His opinion was that both answers, yes and no, lead to suffering and Buddhists should not ask this question, even of themselves, and should not think about it. Better would be to follow the Buddhist rules for living.


We now know via science that the proper answer is no. There is no self, no essence, no spirit. One sect of Buddhism tries to posit that there is a tiny self, a ‘seed of consciousness’ that goes from body to body, but clearly that is not a solution to the scientific objections to the existence of any essence. By the way, Buddhists who do discuss karma and rebirth do not seem to discuss the other objections to the concepts, such as why anyone should bother with what happens to a ‘seed of consciousness’ or a spirit or whatever other elaboration is made of the concept of a long-lasting essence.


The Buddhist doctrines of anatta, as well as others about impermance, everything passes, and suffering, everyone suffers, clearly push the follower toward nihilism, both moral nihilism and existential nihilism. Buddha probably understood this, and tried to substitute some form of happiness for the goal to be sought. Some sects of Buddhism eschew the concept of rebirth or reincarnation and instead substitute the concept of seeking individual happiness via personal success in the world, which is what the Buddha was complaining of. He opined that meditative happiness was the desired form of happiness, not that which comes from worldly success, as worldly success dies away, leaving the possessor with a bit of that universal suffering, which was anathema to the Buddha. In one branch of Buddhism, the goal would be to educate everyone to Buddhism. This branch accepts rebirth, but as an option for those who attain high levels of excellence in Buddhist practice. They should choose to be reborn so that they can help others to attain Buddhist excellence as well; the reborn who do this are referred to as bodhisattvas.


Thus, Buddhism today offers a menu of beliefs, which in the broadest sense are all prescriptions for following a set of rules, but which offer different benefits. One benefit is calm happiness, another is an end to rebirth and personal suffering, another is rebirth in a better station in life, another is rebirth as a bodhisattva, another is worldly success within the limits of Buddhist rules. In today’s modern scientific era, only the first and last stand up to inspection, and this limited repertoire seems to be all that is possible. They are not even exclusive. One can spend part of their time meditating for calm happiness and the rest of their available effort on striving for worldly success. An improved Buddhism would therefore emphasize the development of methods for achieving a calm mind and also for self-motivation so that worldly success can be at least sought for. The calm mind would also serve to reduce any unhappiness with the lack of immediate achievement of worldly success, and this would in turn allow the motivation to succeed to stay unblocked.


How does this two-pronged approach deal with the dilemmas of both moral and existential nihilism? There is really only one way to overcome them, and that is the recipe advocated by Nietzsche, the will to power. One simply must make a conscious choice to accept the Buddhist rules for behavior, and then adhere to them. Moral nihilism clearly shows there is no supernatural origin for these rules, that there is no mysterious surveillance that watches over us and monitors whether we follow them or not, no reward system so we get a better rebirth in the next life, and no other reason why they should be accepted. They just are accepted or they are not. Existential nihilism tells us that there is no reason to seek worldly success, and no reason not to. It also tells us that the varieties of acceptable success can be anything, and only by accepting voluntarily some set of limitations and choices is the ambiguity dispelled. There is no universal order governing humanity, says nihilism. Accept this one, says Buddhism.


Now that the deep philosophical framework for an improved Buddhism has been laid down, as a stripped down version of the cacophony of Buddhist thought circulating today, it might be appropriate to go on to the next layer of details. These details govern meditation and behavior, separately and possibly linked.


The earliest and simplest form of scientific measurements of meditating people has revealed that the three characteristic forms of brain waves are differently affected by different forms of meditation. This helps classify meditation into three bins. One type is related to ceasing brain activity, in other words, to reduce neuronal processing in the cerebellum. This is done by concentrating on breathing, for example. This allows the brain to become quiet, and certain people may be highly benefited by a technique which allows their brains to rest and recover. Life is difficult and congested for some of us. Another type is related to using a part of the cerebellum as a monitor for the rest, in the sense of watching or detecting what thoughts pass through the brain and simply labeling them. The labeling process is an aid to organization of thoughts, and may assist those of us who are beset with too many confusing questions and options. The third type involves chanting some mantra or phrase, with the idea of building up our strength to tackle real-world problems afresh, and not give in to despair or excessive grief. This third type is a means to focus on a particular problem, as the chanting tends to pull other thoughts aside, leaving only one to focus on. Solutions or choices may appear during this third type of chanting.


Two things are important relating to meditation for an improved Buddhism. The first is that all three of these techniques are worth having available. Buddhist sects almost universally choose only one to espouse. The second is that improvements in these three types of mediation should be sought, using whatever experimental, anecdotal, and scientific information can be obtained. This covers both the technique itself, but also the means by which such a technique can be taught and perfected.


The other aspect of an improved Buddhism, the behavioral code, is a more ambiguous problem. If one asks a group of other people to simply jot down what they regard as the most important items for a moral code, the lists they provide will not be identical, but will have many differences. That is because we learn a moral code as small children, by either being taught it or by observing what others whom we respect or trust do. There are also lessons learned by interaction with other children, or even with adults other than parents or guardians. The moral rules we come up with in such a situation reflect what our brains have sorted out when they were very new. The experiences are likely completely subconscious, so the actual reasons we have them are obscure. In place of these memories, we may have some invented reasons, or else simply have a memorized list from later in life, which may not correspond with our deeper feelings, but are something we have been taught is the acceptable answer.


Coming up with a moral code is a difficult problem. Buddha made a great effort in that, and certainly his thinking provides a good starting point. However, it is worthwhile looking at it to see how it might be improved after 2500 years of learning. It may well be that the moral code should be affected by the society we live in, meaning that a moral code for medieval times and one for highly technical eras might be different in some aspects. This remains to be done.

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