Improving Buddhism

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Buddha and Suffering

In the stories about the life of the Siddhartha Gotama, before he became the Buddha, he lived as a prince. There were many princes in India at that time, but Siddhartha's life had a unique twist to it. His father, the king, decided to make his son's life free from suffering, in total. He did not only seek to ensure his son did not suffer, but had an even broader goal: ensuring his son never came in contact with suffering.


This may seem to be a laudable goal, but the side-effects of the choice were profound. Someone who grows up normally, and sees many people go through episodes of suffering, from injury or disease, from loss of a loved one, from a reduction in their circumstances of life, or simply a personal change, builds up familiarity with suffering. The person learns that people have lives which include suffering, that it is largely unavoidable, and it is transient. Siddhartha learned none of this, except perhaps through teaching. The story of his life goes on to say when he was older, after marrying and having a child, he decided to take a tour of his own, by horseback, beyond the secured area where he had lived his whole life. He encountered suffering. It was a shock. He decided to devote his life to this problem. What he saw as a grave problem was a matter of common life to most people, but certainly no one wished to endure any more suffering than absolutely necessary. Siddhartha came up with a proposed mechanism for avoiding it, but the cost was perhaps more than the saving.


In Siddhartha's area at that time, the Vedic beliefs in re-incarnation were very popular and very strong. They believed there was some essence of each person, containing some parts of the personality but nothing physical, that lasted beyond death. It would come back to the world of the living into some newly born body.


In Siddhartha's eyes, this exacerbated the problem of suffering. Instead of enduring suffering for one lifetime, an essence would have to endure suffering for all the lifetimes the essence would be involved in. This was too much for Siddhartha to contemplate, and so he adopted a new philosophy, non-Vedic in tradition. It was very similar to the Zoroastrinian philosophy from the neighboring country of Persia, which was that essences would continue on indefinitely existing, but could go to a kind of eternal bliss. Siddhartha's modification of the Zoroastrinian belief system was that the world of bliss, which he called nirvana, was more or less an unconscious feeling, and one could get to that state by doing a great deal of meditation, of the right kind, before dying. Maybe you could experience a bit of it while still alive.


Siddhartha was faced with the same question which occurs in all religions which promise a great afterlife: if the afterlife is so superior, why not arrange to die sooner and get there sooner. He noticed that there is only one solution to this embarrassment, and that is to proclaim it was better to stay in the normal, original life if you devoted your time to good causes, such as helping other people find nirvana. Thus the term boddhisatva was invented, meaning someone who could go on to the better life, but chose not to out of generosity and affection for the rest of mankind, who would be assisted in finding their own ways to the better life. Absolutely no one at all seems to take the promise of a better life after death seriously enough to want to get there any faster than necessary and they will use all kinds of attention and activity to avoid going there. Dangers will be avoided, no voluntary starvation to death, no very risky behaviors, attempts to cure any life-threatening ailments, and so on. It is as if the afterlife is something to talk about, and maybe to meditate for and reason about and preach about, but not to leap into.


Siddhartha's life as a young man had a few periods of what might be called self-inflicted suffering, when he fasted very severely. At that time, one of the options for finding out about the truth of existence was thought to be fasting, and so it was undertaken by many young seekers. There certainly is bodily pain and discomfort caused by such fasting, but it was undertaken out of choice and could be halted at any time, so the suffering was of a different type as compared to someone who was starving with no way to obtain food for themselves. It might be compared to marathon running in the modern world, which is a difficult and strenuous activity, and can be thought of as voluntary suffering, but for a goal. Goal-oriented physical suffering can be extreme, but the mental side has no suffering, but instead some compensatory joy of accomplishment.


In contrast, the large majority of Siddhartha's life was quite pleasant, divided into two periods interspersed with the voluntary suffering interval in his thirties. As a prince, he had everything that period could offer, and after he became a well-known and well-respected guru, wealthy people competed to offer him, and often his main disciples, a comfortable place to stay and be cared for by servants. Thus, Siddhartha's contact with suffering was very limited, involving little personal experience and much of the opposite experience, lavish quarters and meals. His vicarious experience with it was profound, however, and it shaped his choice of how to live his life.


What is there to be learned about suffering? Did Siddhartha have enough to be able to competently appreciate it? If one has little contact with suffering, it is easier to invent a cure than if one was continuously afflicted by it. With little contact with suffering, there is no way to determine if the amelioration was actually working. Could he have invented a set of rituals which had no utility whatsoever, or had only a small effect compared to some other ritual behaviors?


How could a person create a religion which would become one of the largest on the planet if there was no substance in his recommended behavioral patterns? Could the placebo effect be working in billions of people at one time? This is hard to conceive, but is there any way to determine if it is actually possible?


Listening to people talk about Siddhartha, one comes away with a set of beliefs which might explain this. One of those beliefs is that intelligence is more or less unbounded. In other words, one person might be hundreds of times smarter than another. There is no metric or measure which indicates this or tests this, but that does not interfere with the common belief. The companion belief is that Siddhartha was hugely more intelligent that other people, and therefore was able to figure out things that others could not. The extreme part of this belief is that Siddhartha was so smart, no one could completely understand him, or his beliefs, and so the only option everyone has is to try and deduce from his teachings some pieces of the whole picture of the universe that only he was able to comprehend. This is a form of celebrity worship, but a very different kind. It is one based not on notoriety, but on presumed intelligence. People could believe in what Siddhartha taught, and learn as much as their inferior brains could hold, because he was the only individual in all time who was able to grasp this big picture in its entirety. We all need to be supremely grateful that he chose to spend the latter half of his life teaching this to everyone who was interested, and that a set of monks, including some very smart ones who grasped more than most people, preserved the traditional teachings and propagated them.


Siddhartha was not the only celebrity in his period of time and place of location; there were, for example, many royals in different small kingdoms in that area, and were also many rich merchants and land-owners. Siddhartha's teaching had a supplementary benefit for these people, who were surrounded by luxury of the day. Siddhartha taught that these benefits were of little concern compared to nirvana, and that achieving it vastly outweighed all the luxuries and trappings of power and wealth that this group of celebrities possessed. The implication of this teaching is that a believer in Siddhartha's philosophy should not strive to rebel against this arrangement in society, as it is not important, nirvana is. This is very convenient for those with great power and wealth. Everyone else would not find it objectionable that this great inequality existed; nor would they seek to combine efforts and topple the arrangements.


Vedic philosophy had the same result. Instead of rebelling against inequity, one should try to live according to the Vedic script in whatever station one was born into, and hope to be born into a better one on the next go-round. This calming effect seems to be very popular among religions which grow to be widespread. The Vedic philosophy did not have an intelligence-celebrity, but they had other features which were popular, such as gods who could be prayed to for various benefits and favors. Again, rebelling is not the proper path, but praying for some improvement in their life is, and hoping to get a better draw in the essence lottery next time was even more of the same. Thus, all royalty and wealth celebrities could serve as examples of people who would choose to follow one of these religions.


To summarize, Siddhartha may have had little experience with suffering and little basis for coming up with a solution to it, but he did have a great deal of intelligence and could see what set of beliefs would be popular among all classes of people in his era and location. His followers promoted him to the brightest person ever to have lived, with unmatched insight that no one else could completely master, so that there was good justification for adherence to his philosphy. Like many other religions, he used an afterlife concept which calmed people and gave them some relief from mental anguish, and now, we are faced with deciding how to improve this, without losing its appeal. A religion without an afterlife is a much more difficult thing to invent, however.

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