Thursday, July 12, 2007

What is religion?

I am not going to give you a Webster’s definition, nor a Latin etymology-based one. Instead, based on my own academic experience and insight, I am going to offer one of my own, which will also illustrate why, in contradistinction from many of its adherents, I consider Buddhism a religion.

First, I believe religion arises from the juncture of philosophy, psychology and sociology. Most people could readily see the first two, but sociology? Yes, even for a hermitic monk. Even that monk’s idea of religious expression and devotion were originally developed in a communal setting and out of guidelines developed by a religious community.

Second, looking at the main branches of philosophy, I see religion as being concerned with metaphysics, ethics, epistemology and ontology. Even Buddhism falls into the first area, on a couple of grounds. Karma, as a law, is not a law about material substances, but the metaphysical idea of reincarnation. And, even if Buddhists reject the idea of an individual soul or the collective atman, something metaphysical, that is, something beyond the material world, is believed to be reincarnated. Not that I agree with Paul Tillich’s use of words, but if we want to talk about “ultimate grounds of being,” Buddhism has one, as I see it.

Ethics is obvious. By that, I am not saying that it is the primary, let alone sole, preserve of religions, just that every religion has some ethical focus. It may be minor in some, great in others, but it’s there.

Epistemology? Yes. Every religion is teleological in some way, and its mythos is in part, to riff on Aristotle, an attempt to explain either an efficient or a final cause of things.

Ontology connects with metaphysics as to the nature of what that cause might be, the nature of metaphysical objects, and the nature of anything, be it individual soul or individualized soul or not, the nature of humanity.

And, there is where psychology enters. Psychology in religion is about more than faith in the religious sense of “hope in things unseen.” Rather, it’s about how one orients toward the ultimate object of one’s concern, whether a personal God with a salvific-based resurrection, or moving beyond karma and its rounds of reincarnation to a depersonalized nirvana. As part of that, I can’t think of a major religion that doesn’t have prayer or something roughly analogous to it.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

More proof the Buddha was no Buddha

It’s likely that Siddhartha Gautama’s most famous phrase is:

“Life is suffering.”

If you’re a good Buddhist, life CAN’T be suffering, because you’re supposed to be in a state of satori. Rather, if the Buddha himself had actually obtained Buddhahood, he would have said, “Life appears to be suffering.”

Update, July 11: For some reason, Blogger's comment window isn't working for me today at work, either under my identity, or as an anonymous commenter. So, I'm posting here:

I don't think it's "sterile" nor do I think it's a matter of "dueling sound bites," the difference between "life is suffering" and "life appears to be suffering."

This hinges in part on other issues of Buddhism; I've already mentioned maya, which I know Theravada accepts, and I don't believe Mahayana rejects, at least. If life is an illusion, then the idea of suffering is ultimately an illusion.

It also hinges on the Buddhist rejection of atman, in another way. Arguably, can a good Buddhist even talk about "life" in this way if there is no reincarnation of an individual soul? I say not. In other words, what I see as implied invitation in the statement "life is suffering," for the listeners to agree that, "boy, yes, my life sure is suffering," or similar, can't logically follow if Siddhartha is enlightened enough to believe there is no "I" to be suffering.

Of course, I have other disagreements with the idea of karma, which I've blogged elsewhere on this blog. Frankly, I find it, more so in its Buddhist than its Hindu form (since Hinduism allows for an individual "soul"/life force which theoretically, at least, could remember the misdeeds of a past life which brought on an [apparentely] poor incarnation in this life), as appalling as fundamentalist monotheist ideas of hell.

Now, the people who have been posting here may see this as "village idiot anti-Buddhism" akin to "village idiot atheism." I don't. The original post and my comments to other commenters aren't snarky potshots but real issues. I made similar comments about Sam Harris' "End of Faith" on my Amazon review.

I find Buddhism to be a an interesting and enlightening psychological philosophy, but where it ventures into metaphysical issues as a religion, find it no more enlightening than any "Western monotheism."