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Improving Buddhism

Is it Possible?

Giving Purpose to Members in Improved Buddhism

It is quite easy to say to someone what they should do. Just say whatever comes into your mind. It is much harder to come up with a method for figuring out what to tell someone to do, or to assist them in determining for themselves what direction to follow in their life, their career, their health choices, their relationships, or any other component of their existence. In order to produce correct advice, some procedure needs to be involved. A quick guess from one's intuition might be right or might be wrong. Rationality can be applied to improve the chances of a good suggestion.

 

To come up with some rational advice, one must start with some basic facts or postulates, and then reason from them to the specific situation being analyzed. If someone wants to know what choice to make in a situation, or what rules to follow in general, there needs to be some body of information from which it can be derived. At the top, for making human choices, is the extremely controversial question of the so-called purpose of life. If some purpose of life is assumed, then with luck and diligence, how to implement that purpose in a specific situation might be figured out. But the result is only as good as the assumption.

 

Improved Buddhism has thrown out all supernatural concepts, such as reincarnation, bodhisattvas, spirit creatures, and any other such baggage that was part of the culture in which Buddhism was started twenty-five centuries ago. Such concepts can easily be used as a starting point for rationally analyzing a situation and recommending choices within it This is the usual process for legacy religions, but if there are no such concepts to use as starting points, something else must be done.

 

Non-supernatural religions have to choose a starting point. They might choose some nice-sounding precepts and pretend they come from somewhere, but omit to mention their derivation. These precepts might be the things that parents teach their young children so they will play with other children calmly, or so they will be obedient, or so they will develop good character habits. This early child teaching sinks deeply into the brain, is hardly remembered as to the source, but does link to similar things and makes them seem right. This is an emotional reaction, based on infant and toddler teaching or example or something else which these young humans use to learn from. Such primitive precepts don't work well in the world and are only suitable for children's play groups, but they sound correct and real to those who were brought up with them.

 

To come up with something more realistic and complex than this, which can handle situations beyond the schoolyard, we can look at life itself, as humans are undeniably a part of it. Asking about the purpose of life is something of a misnomer, as purpose is given by someone to someone else, and there is no one in a non-supernatural religion to give purpose to anyone or anything. So it is better to ask about the tasks of life, which are generalizations of what we see living organisms doing. One way to categorize them is to divide them into fundamental tasks, of which five stand out: survival, reproduction, adaptation, evolution and dispersion. Different species fulfill these in somewhat different ways.

 

Survival includes collecting energy and materials necessary to sustain activity and to repair the organism if it is capable of that. Such activity might mean growing photosynthetic cells, moving to an area where food exists, breathing, or any of a myriad of activities that living organisms perform. Reproduction means budding or spreading roots which will turn into whole plants or exchanging genes with another bacteria or animal or plant sexual reproduction. It includes pollination or mate competition and many other possibilities. Adaptation means changing following a change in the surroundings or the environment that the organism inhabits, and might include, as an example, a diet change due to a food species being competed out of existence. Evolution means changes in the genetic structure due to the processes within cells affecting their DNA, specifically the nuclear DNA in a bacteria or the DNA in the reproductive cells of species which reproduce sexually. This is contingent on the fact that no life has been discovered which does not use DNA for their genetic coding, and no life lacks DNA. Dispersion means a spread of life from the area it currently inhabits to a different one, typically nearby. It might also mean from a type of environment to a different type, for example, when an inland species spreads out to the coast. There are encyclopedic amounts of details on all these activities, but having them categorized at high level allows some conclusions to be drawn which the details might otherwise obscure.

 

Buddha's first precept in his teaching was about not killing animal organisms. There is nothing in any of the tasks of life just enumerated that involves not killing of animal life in general, any more than there is about the killing of plant or bacterial life. It is said that this precept encourages compassion and kindness. It might be that the direction of effect is the opposite of that. Buddha, for some reason, took his personal goal to be the reduction of suffering or rather of the mental consequences of suffering, teaching people, for example, to not want material possessions to avoid the suffering caused by not having them. Some people grow up with an attachment to animals, or a diffuse sympathy for them. To avoid causing such people mental anguish, the first precept prohibits killing animals. A better approach might be to understand where such sympathy arises, and to stop it from being induced in young people, rather than by imposing the first precept as it now stands.

 

It is common nowadays for mothers to engage their children with stories about animals, or take them to zoos, or buy them stuffed animals or to do other activities which induce a small child to develop sympathy for some mental concept involving animals. That induction goes deep into the mind of the child and manifests itself years later as an emotional and non-rational sympathy for animals. The concept of animal which links with these feelings can be quite broad. Buddha did not work on the problem of the irrelevant and non-useful induction of these sympathetic feelings in the minds of very young children, and if he had, banning it, it might have done more toward alleviating the anguish some of these victims of child programming experience when animals are slaughtered or hunted or imprisoned or otherwise badly treated. One of the most important parts of Improved Buddhism involves great care over the training of young children, as unpleasant consequences can certainly arise when it is done without much planning or careful thought.

 

This misdirected sympathy for animals induced in young children is just one example of how Buddha's purpose of reducing mental suffering and anguish might be better accomplished by dealing with the actual source of it, knowledgeably, rather than using meditation or other tools to try and build barriers so these child-originated feelings will not cause emotional reactions in adults. Feelings do not spring into existence by magic, and babies are born with very few capabilities, but instead have a whole blank neural slate upon which likes and dislikes, positive and negative feelings, and loves and hates get written, mostly inadvertently, by those responsible for their training.

 

What are to be the new precepts of Improved Buddhism and how are they to be communicated to infants who cannot understand spoken words and toddlers whose learning consists mostly of imitation? The five activities of generic life certainly make a good starting point, but they need to be translated into something like precepts. One concept that can be included is the realization that human beings are part of life, and just as every other of the billions of types of living organisms follows these five activities, so also should humans in general, and each human in particular. However, rationality is only possessed by humans, so this tool, like the physical tools that technology provides, needs to be put in service of the generic life activities.

 

An umbrella concept is that life, almost by definition, is all about making ready for the next generation of life. Mankind's tremendous change from animals, in that humanity makes use of the resources of the planet in a more extenuous way than any other organism, means that resource usage needs to be considered, in light of future generations as well as in connection with the current one. Perhaps Buddha's first precept should be reinterpreted not as prohibiting the taking of life, but on the preserving of life, but life in general and over time, not for any specific animal at some crucial time. The fourth activity of life is evolution, meaning that entire species cease to exist and are replaced by others. Any actions taken to reverse this, and cast in concrete the existing set of species now living, would be very anti-life and should be anti-Buddhist as well.

 

Some very careful thought needs to be given to the concept of using generic life activities as the only foundation for revising Buddha's precepts, and once that is solidified, to figuring out how to do it. Once that is done, determining how to translate that into useful plans, both for dealing with adults and for training children, can be accomplished next.

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