Improving Buddhism

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Nichiren Shoshu and Suffering

While Siddhartha Gotama, called Buddha, did not experience much involuntary suffering, in fact almost none at all, and so was not able to perceive how his methods of meditation would affect real people with real suffering, Zennichimaro, called Nichiren Shoshu, one of the founders of Japanese Buddhism, had the opposite life. He was born into a very poor family and never was the beneficiary of the rich during his life. He was a religious leader for the common people and lower middle class, who supported him at a moderate level. He had little appreciation for comfort, but instead devoted his time to providing, largely undesired, advice to the government. For his efforts, he was twice exiled, almost starving in one of these periods, and was almost executed by officers of the government.


The approach to suffering of these two men was totally different, despite the fact that Zennichimaro was a fervent follower of the teachings of Siddhartha. Zennichimaro understood real suffering, having experienced it, and chose to simply pay it little attention and instead devote his attention to a goal, that of converting the government of Japan and its people to a unique flavor of Buddhism, which he had invented. The religious sects in Japan which follow his teachings have a completely different orientation to suffering as compared to that of Siddhartha. These sects have a different view of suffering and therefore approach it differently.


Suffering has both physical aspects and mental aspects, and Buddhism treats them differently, just as does medicine. A person with a painful rash or a broken bone may be given pain-killers to quiet down the mental portion of the suffering caused by his medical condition. The rash may be treated and the bone set and braced, which deal with the physical part of the suffering. Sometimes the physical part of suffering is referred to as the real part, but the mental part is just as grounded in the real world, as it is governed by largely invisible but altogether physical effects within the brain, both chemical effects in the brain fluids and blood stream, and neural effects, involving the continuous activation of some pain sensors or analogous sectors.


Mental suffering does not only, and perhaps not principally, arise from medical situations. Instead, there are circumstances of life which lead to it. One may lose one's job, or have a loved one die, or hear about the loss of a battle between one's own country's army and those of an enemy. One may become enslaved. One may become exiled. One may be separated from all the other members of his family. One may be slandered. One may be imprisoned for a crime that was committed or not committed or for some behavior that the government deslikes and makes up a new crime to describe. The list can be extended, of course, but these are all causes of mental suffering, not necessarily connected to a medical condition.


These two leaders of Buddhism demonstrate two completely different approaches to dealing with mental suffering. One is the analog of pain-killer treatments and the other to bone-setting.


Siddhartha would have the suffering person learn meditation, so that the chemical and neural effects of suffering gradually abate and disappear into the background. This is done by meditative practices which focus on nullifying thought, leaving the mind in a quiescent state, where the knowledge of the situation leading to the suffering stays in some inactive memory, while the person stabilizes his mind and does not concentrate on anything, even on the lack of concentration. It is simply a means of turning off the switch on thinking, remembering, responding, reacting and even being aware of the world around him. It definitely alleviates the mental aspects of mental suffering caused by external events. There is also the remedy of the afterlife, which in Buddhism might be reincarnation, unless one manages to exit this loop of rebirth and get to a Persian state of permanent bliss. The idea of reincarnation was a legacy concept in Siddhartha's philosophy, as it was the most common belief set, almost universal, at the time and place he lived, 2500 years ago on the central section of the India-Nepal border.


Siddhartha adopted that concept, as it would have been very difficult to promote a religion that completely clashed with existing universal beliefs, and added to it rather than replaced it. His concept was nirvana, the state of bliss, and he was the conductor for the train taking people there. This innovation was brilliant, and whether it was deduced under a bodhi tree or elsewhere, it caught on and led to the development of one of the major religions of the world.


One can see how a person whose life was almost untouched by involuntary suffering would conceive of an answer to ordinary people's suffering as being something that a person of his background would understand: ignoring the problems and concentrating on mental stabilty and calmness. Suffering was not real for Siddhartha, as he had not experienced it. Mental calmness was real.


Zennichimaro knew exactly what suffering was, as his whole life was filled with it. The idea was not to ignore it, but to challenge it and do what one could to overcome it. That is the example that he gave and the direction he set in his voluminous writings. His followers should work to not fall into inaction because of the mental effects of situational suffering, but should organize their efforts to overcome it to the best of their ability. The idea of trying to ignore this suffering, in cases where something might be done or even where only some external event might alleviate them, was not even considered.


Zennichimaro taught a type of mediation, but it was not a means of achieving calmness and quiescence in the mind, but of focussing one's attention on the situation at hand and determining how to deal with it. During an episode of severe suffering, the human mind is often overwhelmed, and loses its organizational abilities and its ability to think through problems and seek solutions or at least ways to ameliorate the suffering. This is the problem that Zennichimaro attacked with his meditation. Siddhartha well understood that the human mind could be overwhelmed and flooded with contradictory impulses and ideas, but his recipe for solving the problem was to quiet the mind, so that peace could come in and the mental suffering could stop. Zennichimaro took the approach of trying to quiet the mind, but not totally, only enough to allow the creative and analytical processing of the mind to focus on the problem at hand. Either a way to resolve it could be found, or a way to mitigate the effects so that the suffering could be more eaily tolerated could be found.


Not knowing what to do is a type of mental suffering in its own right, and Siddhartha prescribed an approach of calming the mind and doing nothing deliberately while Zennichimaro prescribed an approach of calming the mind and then focussing on the problems at hand. They are totally different strategies, and it is clear that the background of these two men played a role in their recommendations.


One might label Siddhartha's approach as the pacifism type of behavior, and Zennichimaro's as the active type. The various sects of Buddhism have mostly chosen one or the other, but there are ways in which the two can be melded, and many of the Buddhist sects have chosen a peculiar form of blend.


The blend favored by many sects is the adoption of gods or god-like entities, who supposedly have the power to fix human suffering. Zennichimaro's teaching of activism is translated into fervent praying, according to some format the sect has developed, and waiting for the gods to do something, which means waiting for some external event to happen or for the memory of some loss to abate. Siddhartha's calmness is the state to be adopted while waiting for the event or process which will bring relief. This is a tactic which has been adopted by many religions outside of Buddhism, so it must have a very strong appeal. The idea of praying to powerful gods originated in very distant pre-historic times, when the gods might have been the sun and moon, or spirits living in trees, or creatures of a different species who communicate or even visit with humans. The trappings of the Buddhism sects which have returned to god-worship are of course very different from the trappings of other religions, which also differ from each other, but the underlying framework is the same.


The psychological roots of this huge collection of religions might be deduced or at least guessed at. People are born and parents love them and care for them and provide for them and take care of problems for them. This emplants some expectations in the infant brain. Some embodiment of long-past parents exist who will return to take care of the now-grown infant, and there we have the seed of a religion.


To create an improved form of Buddhism, we need to take into account all this paraphernalia. What can conceivably replace something as universal as the infantile memory of parental care? Perhaps an improved Buddhism can only deal with a prescription for dealing with real-world situations, hopefully in an active way as Zennichimaro showed, but using whatever calming methods of Siddhartha that can be transplanted successfully. The god-worship part might have to be left to a later time when education becomes more universal and more scientific.

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