Why I am not a Buddhist by Peter Meyer
During my first year at university, when I studied natural science and mathematics, I came to regard myself as an atheist. But then I began to read about Buddhism, and I felt attracted by this religion (though some would deny that it is in fact a religion). I read books by Christmas Humphreys and Edward Conze, and, unlike Christianity, the doctrines of Buddhism at least made sense: This world is a place of suffering; all beings seek to escape from suffering; a sage appeared in India about 2500 years ago who discovered a path to freedom from suffering; he taught this path to others; this teaching was propogated and expanded into many lands and became what we know today as Buddhism.
Later, along with many other young people in the psychedelic sixties, I read the books of Lama Anagarika Govinda, Evans-Wentz, John Blofeld and others (but not Lobsang Rampa), and I was particularly attracted by Tibetan Buddhist art, with its marvellous depiction of various tantric deities. As with Islam, Christianity and Hinduism, the art of a religion is something that attracts people, but the beauty of the art does not entail the truth of the doctrine.
Buddhist art, however, did not emerge until many centuries after the enunciation of the doctrine by the historical Buddha, known as Shakyamuni ("Shakya" was the name of his family and "muni" means a sage). Texts recording his life and teachings were also not written until some centuries after the death of Shakyamuni. These texts have passed through the hands of editors for two millennia and what the Buddha did and taught over two thousand years ago cannot now be known exactly.
It seems he was born into a minor royal family, given the name Siddhartha Gautama, and had a privileged upbringing. He was protected from awareness of the usual sufferings of life — illness, old age and death — until, as a young man (having by this time married and fathered a son) he ventured outside the palace walls and came upon instances of all of these at first hand, an experience which appalled him. (This should alert us to the possibility that this story is not quite accurate; did no-one ever get sick, grow old or die within the palace walls?) Thereafter (so the story goes) Siddhartha concluded that this world was so full of suffering that escape from it (permanently, not just at death, since it was then widely believed that this led to rebirth) was the thing most worth seeking. Accordingly he left his wife and child, forsook his comfortable palace life, and became a wandering ascetic, living in the forest, seeking those who could teach him how to escape the sufferings of this world. For six years he practiced yoga and austerities, but his quest was futile, and he then decided to abandon the extreme asceticism which had reduced him to skin and bones.
At this point there appears a girl, named "Sujata", who is said to have tended cows, and was no doubt familiar with the psilocybin-containing mushrooms which grow on cow dung. Or perhaps she was not in fact a cowgirl but a reference to cows is made as a veiled allusion to such mushrooms. Whether Siddhartha sought her out (if psychedelic mushrooms were used in ancient India, as seems likely, then of course he would have known about it) or she (taking pity on his hitherto fruitless quest) approached him is not known, but he accepted from her a bowl of milk or something made with milk. His experience following drinking the milk was (as sometimes happens with strong psychedelics) at first somewhat hellish (he was attacked by demonic entities), but his courage allowed him to pass through this difficult phase and he attained a state in which egoic identity was abandoned and a profound spiritual awareness supervened; thus was his quest at last fulfilled, his goal attained.
The textual tradition, however, presents Siddhartha's Enlightenment as the result of an elaborate reasoning process: What is the cause of old age, sickness and death? Answer: Birth. What is the cause of birth? Existence. What is the cause of existence? Attachment. And so on: Attachment is caused by desire, which is caused by sensation, which is caused by contact, which is caused by the six senses, which is caused by 'name-and-form', which is caused by perception, which is caused by impression, which is caused by ignorance. Thus the removal of ignorance removes impression, whose removal removes perception, etc., up to removal of old age, sickness and death. Wonderful! (But how is ignorance removed?)
Thus, it is said, did the Buddha conquer old age, sickness and death! But, strangely, he grew old, got sick and died (as have hundreds of millions of his followers since his time), which would seem to somewhat undermine this claim.
Siddhartha's Enlightenment, although traditionally presented as a process of analytical reasoning as given above, is also presented as an event of cosmic magnitude, whereby he attained omniscience and (at least according to the Mahayana doctrine, wherein the Buddha is represented as god-like, or as an incarnation of a divinity superior to any particular god) a state beyond all limitations. It may have been something like the enlightenment experience of the shaman's apprentice described in the second "Life" by Knecht in Herman Hesse's The Glass Bead Game:
A strange tremor passed through the young man, an intimation of many links and associations, repetitions and crosscurrents among things and events. ... For a moment it seemed to him that the mind could grasp everything ... There must, it seemed to Knecht at this moment, be a center in the vast net of associations; if you were at this center you could know everything, could see all that had been and all that was to come. Knowledge must pour in upon one who stood at this center as water ran to the valley ... He would be the perfect, wise, insurpassable man.
This sort of experience (which certainly does occur) is clearly at a higher level than that of ordinary consciousness, and is very different from the rational analysis presented in the monastic texts as the content of Siddhartha's "Enlightenment".
But granting that Siddhartha did attain this state of profound illumination, he could not have done so merely by discursive thought, since then his insight could be presented conceptually (as given above: attachment is caused by desire, and so on) and anyone of sufficient conceptual ability could follow it and reach the same state. Thinking, though much to be encouraged, cannot produce Enlightenment. Really no explanation is given for how it happened that Siddhartha attained this supreme accomplishment at this point in his life. This event, as described in the texts, is miraculous. It is curious that some people, calling themselves Buddhists, who would normally be skeptical of miracles (as claimed, e.g., by the Catholic Church with the virgin birth and so on) readily accept what appears to be the miracle of the Buddha's Enlightenment. But, of course, for faith there are no obstacles, and nothing is too improbable to be believed.
Some weeks later, according to the received tradition, Shakyamuni met some ascetics with whom he had previously practiced austerities and he mentioned his insights to them. What he actually said to them we can never know, but according to the teachings of the monastic tradition he taught the "Four Noble Truths" and the "Eightfold Path". The Eightfold Path consists of practical injunctions, such as gaining one's livelihood without harming others, which are entirely admirable. The Four Noble Truths assert that this worldly life is full of suffering, that the cause of suffering is attachment, desire and ignorance, that there is a way to free oneself from these "mental defilements" (namely, the Eightfold Path), and that diligent practice of this will result in a state of complete ataraxia and non-attachment (including a realization of the illusory nature of the ego), with the all-important boon of the cessation of rebirth (and thus of old age, sickness and death).
Since rebirth, that is, reincarnation, has not been a commonly held belief in the West since Christianity rose to prominence in the 4th Century, and since Buddhism hardly makes any sense except in the context of escaping from rebirth, it is curious that it appeals to Westerners. If one does not believe in rebirth then it makes no sense to try to escape rebirth. Westerners who adopt Buddhism apparently accept the doctrine of reincarnation as part of the territory. But if one previously (before becoming a Buddhist) did not believe in reincarnation, what could lead one to do so? Perhaps Western Buddhists are actually less interested in escape from rebirth (in which they do not really believe) than in attaining "Enlightenment" (which, according to the Vajrayana, is possible in this lifetime, though according to the Mahayana generally thousands of lifetimes, and thus rebirths, are required).
Buddhist teaching does include some important insights, such as that everything which is compounded will eventually decay into its component parts (thus one shouldn't become too attached to anything), and that in fact everything is compounded (apart from Nirvana, the state of awareness which is beyond all distinctions) and has no real self-existence (this includes one's own ego).
However it is a central teaching of Buddhism that worldly life is basically one of suffering, and for the wise person the only goal should be to escape from it. Thus Buddhism is world-denying and life-denying. It sees no value in the things of this world, except as a means of escape from it. And it's not just material things that are devalued; all things are devalued, including love of wife and children (as Shakyamuni demonstrated when he abandoned his family in order to practice austerities in the forest, leaving his wife without a husband to care for her and his son without a father to raise him). For me, however, this worldly life has value, not as a means (as it is for some people) for pursuing fame, wealth or power over others, but as a venue for experience and action — the experience of friendship, love, beauty, exploration, adventure, the gaining of understanding and knowledge (including spiritual knowledge), and engaging in creative activity (as well as just having a good time occasionally). One who follows the teachings attributed to the Buddha (and is not just playing at being a Buddhist) is obliged to devalue all these things, and regard them as unhelpful to the sole task of escaping from the round of life and death. No more enjoyment of travel, music or the pleasure of conversation with friends — everything must be for the sole purpose of escape from this life and the next.
A lot of people learn about Buddhist ethics, as expressed in the Eightfold Path, and decide that this is a good guide for how to live one's life. Thus they become sympathetic to the doctrines of Buddhism (which, as elaborated in Mahayana Buddhism, go way beyond the simple doctrine of Shakyamuni into some abstruse philosophical doctrines, though the dubious claim is made that all such doctrines can be traced to "the Buddha", if not to Shakyamuni then to some "celestial" Buddha or to a deity said to be a manifestation of "Buddhahood", none of whom was ever mentioned by Shakyamuni).
But a distinction should be drawn between being sympathetic to Buddhism (or being in agreement with the ethical precepts of Buddhism) and being a Buddhist. The latter occurs only after one has "taken refuge". This step, said by its advocates to be "very important", is done by reciting three times something along the lines of: "I go for refuge to the Buddha, I go for refuge to the Dharma, I go for refuge to the Sangha." (The Dharma is the doctrine and the Sangha is either the community of Buddhist monks or of all Buddhists.) One is admonished to recite this "from the heart". Then having taken refuge, one continues to recite the refuge formula daily as a mark of commitment to achieving Enlightenment (which, unfortunately, never seems to happen). In Tibetan Buddhism one is encouraged to recite the refuge formula 100,000 times as part of the so-called "preliminary practices" (preliminary, that is, to the really interesting teachings). One who has spent the two or three years needed to do this (together with the 100,000 prostrations, the 100,000 mandala offerings, etc.) is unlikely ever to acknowledge it as simply a form of self-indoctrination (viewable in hindsight and by others as pathetic).
Explanations of the refuge formula expound on the meaning of the words "Buddha", "Dharma" and "Sangha" — exoterically the historical Buddha, his doctrine and the community of monks or of Buddhists (though there are esoteric interpretations as well). But rarely, if ever, is anything said about what "going for refuge" actually means. It is usually explained metaphorically. In a non-religious context one "takes refuge", for example, by finding shelter in a solid building while a storm is raging. Since Buddhism is presented as a path to escape from the sufferings of worldy life and to attain "Enlightenment", perhaps "taking refuge" provides shelter from those sufferings. Or perhaps one finds shelter from the effects of the three so-called "root defilements" (of the mind): ignorance, greed and hatred (nothing is ever said about desire for control and manipulation of others for one's own benefit). But this is stretching the metaphor, and in any case one should ask: What is the practical consequence of "taking refuge". The short answer is that it means giving control over your thoughts and actions to other people.
Of course, those expounding the Buddhist doctrine do not present it in this way, but in a more positive light. Taking refuge is said to "open the door" to all the practices in the Buddhist tradition and to give one "a definite positive direction" in which to move. Thus, it is said, it creates the conditions for the realization of "countless benefits" and gives one safety from rebirth in the lower realms. Ignoring the usual hype of "countless benefits", and the dubious claim of protection from undesirable rebirths (which is impressive only if you already believe in the danger of rebirth "in a lower realm"), this amounts to saying: "Now you can adopt the ways of thinking and daily practices which those whom you regard as your teachers say you should adopt, and think and act accordingly." In other words, one who has "taken refuge" says in effect: "Tell me what to do."
Perhaps we should put it more kindly: One who has "taken refuge" says: "I have faith (because I was told that 'the most important thing is faith') that the historical Buddha attained complete Enlightenment and taught a method whereby others (such as me) can attain Enlightenment also (if I practice diligently), so please tell me what to do to achieve this goal."
But what is the basis for this "faith"? As noted above, the historical Buddha lived about 2500 years ago, his teachings were not written down until long after his passing, and since then (like the Bible) have passed through the hands of many editors (many with a vested interest in obtaining "followers", especially those inclined to be generous when the construction of new monasteries — or in Western countries, "dharma centers" — is contemplated). If the teaching of the historical Buddha provided a path to Enlightenment then surely there would be, even now, at least a few Enlightened people around. Have you met any? Of course, there are many Buddhists who are admirable in one way or another (the same is true of many non-Buddhists). But to my knowledge none has attained "Enlightenment" (though there are some who have occasionally attained the unitive state sought by mystics). So why should one believe (have faith) that there is a method, which can be learnt, for attaining the goal of "Enlightenment"? Is not this goal actually a pie-in-the-sky come-on which benefits mostly those who have made a career out of teaching the so-called path to attain it?
It is the same in all religions. One who is a Christian, a Muslim or a Buddhist has abandoned any attempt at thinking for themselves, has adopted a faith (because there are short-term psychological benefits in doing so), and has accepted a self-imposed obligation to think and act as "good" Christians, Muslims and Buddhists are supposed to think and act. Of course, this is not the same in all religions. A strict Muslim prays to Allah five times a day, but a Buddhist need only recite the refuge formula. A Buddhist avoids killing any living creature but a Muslim may kill an unbeliever if this is permitted by the judgment of some mullah. A strict Muslim shuns alcohol but a Catholic drinks wine during the Mass (believing, if they are a good Catholic, that they are drinking the blood of Jesus Christ — a pale imitation of the original practice of drinking an infusion, of red color, of the psychoactive Amanita mushroom).
And how are the followers of any particular religion "supposed" to think and act, if they are to be "good" Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus or Buddhists? They follow the dictates of authority. That authority usually manifests in the form of priests, pastors, bishops, rabbis, mullahs, pandits, lamas and any person learned in the textual tradition of the religion. Such people "shepherd" the faithful along "the true path", and those who are shepherded are actually just like sheep, who cannot think for themselves. (There is actually a small book written for such people; it is called Buddhism for Sheep.)
In fact, such people are worse than sheep. A sheep is what it is and cannot be more or less than what it is. But a human being has the ability to observe intelligently, to think, to judge something in the light of past accumulated experiences, and (whether or not this is "permitted") to seek new experiences in order to widen their knowledge. Those who adopt some expression of faith and then say, "O great lama (priest, rabbi, mullah, whatever), tell me what to do!", are allowing themselves to be controlled by others and are choosing not to exercise their full human potential.
It is not surprising that governments everywhere (even in China) are tolerant of, or even supportive of, Buddhism (as shown by the large number of Tibetan Buddhist "dharma centers" which have sprung up in Western countries in recent decades). Those people who wouldn't hurt a fly, or at least, have "compassion for all sentient beings", are unlikely to present much threat to authoritarian and tyrannical regimes. Buddhist doctrine does not encourage resistance against social injustice, because (following the ideal of the historical Buddha) society is something to be abandoned, left behind, so as better to practice renunciation of the world and attainment of "Enlightenment".
Although it may be useful to talk with those who have spent time seeking spiritual knowledge, the best teacher is experience. Those who desire to increase their knowledge of spiritual reality have only to strive for this any way they can, always relying on their own innate intelligence, and lessons will be provided. As the historical Buddha is reported to have said (his last words to his followers), "Seek out your own salvation with diligence." One way to interpret this is: You have to follow your own path (always being true to yourself), not some path laid down for you by some "authority", however much surrounded by the elaborate trappings of high office or venerated by thousands of gullible genuflecting devotees.
Oh ... about merit. This is allegedly acquired by performing good deeds, especially making offerings. It is supposedly gained by performing practices conducive to spiritual advancement, such as making offerings to Mahayana deities, meditating on their qualities and requesting blessings. Acquisition of merit allegedly produces a happier life and a better rebirth. It is customary among Mahayana Buddhists, at the conclusion of such practices, to "dedicate the merit", which is a transfer of merit to other beings in order to help them on their spiritual path. But in the ordinary meaning of the term, merit is in the eye of the beholder, it does not exist substantially. So who keeps track of the amount of merit one has gained? Who keeps track of the transfer of merit when it is "dedicated"? Is there some bodhisattva whose task this is? Since Buddhists believe in countless beings existing in countless worlds, this would seem to be a very difficult task. Or is this concept of merit really fictitious? And has this fictitious concept been promoted by the monastic hierarchy because it encourages Buddhists to make offerings to that hierarchy, thereby ensuring that the monks can eat, live in monasteries, and occupy themselves in performing rituals and chanting scriptures (leaving it to others to do the manual work)? And if that hierarchy's long-term goal is to establish control over the entire planet (see The buddhocratic conquest of the west) then it is going to need money.
Finally, I am not a Buddhist because a Buddhist cannot say "I am a Buddhist" without in effect denying a central tenet of Buddhist doctrine. When someone says "I am a Buddhist", they implicitly assert the existence of something to which the word "I" refers. This contradicts a central theme of the teaching of Shakyamuni Buddha, namely, that "the ego" is an illusion, that there is no "self" which exists apart from and as the object of that form of consciousness which we know as "self-awareness".
When religious people say "I am a Buddhist", "I am a Christian", etc., what they are really doing is asserting a particular self-identity. They are identifying themselves in a particular manner. They are not content simply to experience the world (outer and perhaps inner) and to act. No, they must be something. And something important. They must be "a believer in Christ" (the Son of God the Father and the Redeemer of our Sins), or "a follower of the holy Prophet Muhammad" (to whom Allah delivered his Message to Humanity), or "one who has taken refuge in the Buddha" (who attained Supreme Enlightenment for the benefit of all beings). This is really pathetic. It is just a form of egoism. Such people cannot live without the crutch of the illusion, not only that they are really self-existent entities, but that their lives are significant because they are following devoutly the teachings (or alleged teachings) of some historical or quasi-historical personage to whom is attributed divine, semi-divine or nearly-divine status. Who needs it?
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