Saturday, June 19, 2010

Why Can't All Religious Believers Be Like This?


As I watched a recent interview with the Dalai Lama I marveled at the man's poise, grace and soft-spokenness. In the course of nearly 40 minutes I heard not one vituperative word or any afterlife -salvation threats spoken in rancor and self-righteousness. He spoke briefly of the Buddhist's Nirvana but didn't ordain that everyone in the world must comply....or else.

In other words, they leave people to other paths, without self-serving condemnation or opprobrium. It was certainly refreshing to see, and contrasted with the loathsome tele-evangelists always getting red in the face as they invoke their hell fire on unbelievers, and "the unrepentant".

In his book, Many Ways to Nirvana, the Dalai Lama consolidates his views and puts them into a perspective that is most welcome in a world poisoned by "us against them" thinking and religious hatreds.

One of the most enduring points he makes is on pages 142 and 143 and concerns the development of the human ego. In Buddhist teachings this is suppressed, because all Buddhists understand the dangers of letting it get out of hand, becoming too self-centered, and then negative.

As he noted (p. 143):

"The negative ego is the extreme, self-centered "I". That ego leads to the harm and exploitation of others"

Of course, we know this dynamic well in terms of confidence artists, and their ilk - people like Bernie Madoff who bilked billions from people who trusted them. But these extreme egoists also appear in religious guises - where they're most dangerous. They are, indeed, the "wolves in sheep's clothing" that Christ warned about.

How would one recognize such a wolf? A key clue is found in the Dalai Lama's elaboration of the negative ego entity (p. 161):

"The root of all disturbing negative minds is grasping at things as truly existent".

In the next 12 or so pages, he elaborates what this means. What I will do is try to paraphrase it all in the next eight or nine paragraphs. Since his language is also in terms of the several Buddhist schools (Shravakayana, Pratyeka-buddha-yana, and Mahayana) I will enlist the help of Buddhist philospher Alan Watts (This Is It) as well to make sense of what the Dalai Lama is saying.

The key word is "grasping". Our (human) mind does not see or perceive reality, and because it also GRASPS, it is "difficult to control". Why?

Because the human mind, though short on reality and factual existences, grasps to reach for certainty. But certainty is the very poison that kills the mind. It destroys it from the inside out, by making its possessor believe he has the absolute access to the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

This can come in numerous diverse forms, especially in religious faiths or settings, since these attempt to placate followers by offering nuggets of "truth" and abiding verities. Most often, despite there not being one scintilla of hard evidence for an afterlife, religions build their wobbly sand castles on afterlife forecasts and claims.

While an ungrasping mind can only confront the possibility it may survive death, the grasping mind becomes 100% convinced it can, usually because it appeals to a misunderstood ancient book for which 99.99% is myth, or mistranslated rubbish. (Or purposely re-translated rubbish).

Now, while some certainty may be an assist to many people, the real virulent problems begin when the grasping mind seeks no further than its facile solutions and formulas, because it's desperate to find one that works 100% as an afterlife insurance policy. Thus, the Catholics invent "sanctifying grace" to get heaven bound, while the Christian fundamentalists invent "belief on the Lord Jesus Christ as personal Savior". The true fact is neither of these is an absolute path to the desired goal, since we can't know what - if anything - an "afterlife" means. No one, after all, has actually returned from the literal dead, and told us. And the "resurrection" stories in the New Testament are merely plagiarizations of older pagan God -Man tales (based on Horus, Mithras etc.).

Watts' and the Dalai Lama's crucial point is that the extreme self-centeredness leads one to poison his existing certainty by overtones of anger and attachment.

The process is treacherous and insidious. The mental dynamic works something like this:

"Ok I have found this truth, in my Bible. It says I can lay claim to being saved if I follow this prescription. Now, I am assured of getting into heaven.

BUT, what about all the others, in all other religions, can they also get in by their own routes?

NO, it must not be that THEY can succeed in their way. THEY must follow MY way!

If they refuse they MUST MUST be damned to HELL! There MUST be only ONE path to Truth! And ONE TRUTH! That must apply to ALL and can only be the same as MY way!"


The breakpoint toward anger-attachment arrives with the second line, which is really a question. At some point the believer must ask if others can get to the final destination by their own chosen paths, or if they must necessarily follow his.

Now, he might have said, if a truly liberated being (like the Dalai Lama):"Sure - they can all go their own way!"

The problem is that the grasping mind suffocating in its neurotic need for certainty and pathological fear of uncertainty, can't abide this. Hence, anger and attachment enters. The anger is meted out to all THE OTHERS -who, if they didn't exist, would make life easy for the believer because he'd have only his own way to think about.

So, overtaken by anger (and fear) he's led to falsely reason that if he's right in his path, the OTHERS can't also be right. If he is saved, in other words, THEY must be damned. He can't tolerate them getting into the great place along with him. Or, his beliefs are diluted if he accepts those of the OTHER. The OTHER must therefore be eliminated.

The attachment is by virtue to his own beliefs, without any thought of others'. The (negative-ego based) attachment also poisons his intellect and mind to discrimination between judicious choices as well as moral values. Because he believes (is certain) he has sole possession of truth, he then becomes enabled to think he can do whatever he needs to eliminate the others who dilute it or criticize it. Thus, his morality also prevails over all others, and their moral values must be false or based on the wrong book (source of revelation). Hence, he consigns all other sacred books to the flames, whether Qu'uran, Upanishads, Talmud or other. They must not be granted the same respect as his Bible. And even other bibles are dismissed if they don't meet the exact specifications he (egoistically and falsely) assigns to his.

It was precisely this anger-attachment mindset which has led to the worst genocides the world has seen, because the mass killers believed they were in sole possession of truth.

As the Dalai Lama says (p. 167):

"Our mind is cunning and difficult to control, but if we make a constant effort - work tirelessly with logical reasoning and careful analysis we shall be able to control it and change for the better".

It is interesting to note here the reference to "logical reasoning and careful analysis". In other words, one must operate for the control of one's own mind by more than faith. As Daniel Dennett has noted, (Darwin's Dangerous Idea) "faith" is a meme that is self-protective and resists the scrutiny of logic or analysis. The Faith meme in this sense, is one of the most toxic to logic that can be found. (For example, its standard comeback to a skeptic using reason is that 'faith is superior to reason". But if that is so, faith can never be subjected to rational scrutiny!)

If one desists from using logical reasoning and analysis, then clearly the meme will take over the mind with disastrous results, leading to a self-reinforcing feedback loop. ("I believe because I am RIGHT, I am RIGHT because I believe") The person, rather than being authentic and making authentic choices, then mutates to an automaton under the control of others. This is why nearly one thousand died at Jonestown, Guyana in November, 1978. And that lesson should never be forgotten.

One would hope that one day more religious folks could emulate the Dalai Lama. The problem is that day may come far too late to redound to humankind's benefit.

3 comments:

Melissa said...

Link to the interview?

Melissa said...

The Buddha likened religion and spiritual practice to a boat. You use a boat to cross a river, he said. When you get to the other side, you don't pick up the boat and carry it with you. The important thing about a vehicle is where it gets you to, not what the vehicle itself is. And the value of a vehicle is assessed by how well it gets you to your destination, not by the inherent excellence of the vehicle.

I think for a lot of people the boat is indeed the whole point of religion - that's why the Episcopalians think their boat is better than the Methodists', and the Mormons think their boat is better than the Christians', etc.. And all are determined to drag their boats right on through the pearly gates with them so as to secure the best benefits in heaven (since, apparently, we'll all be judged according to the "inherent excellence of our vehicles"). Perhaps I'd feel differently about organized religion if one's eligibility to travel to the destination and climb ashore wasn't dictated by the particulars of one's boat.

Copernicus said...

Melissa asked:

"Link to the interview? "

Sorry, can't locate. It was a rerun of a (PBS) interview on the topic of Spiritual leaders that originally aired about 4-5 years ago.

It was reprised during a recent Rocky Mountain PBS funding drive, and the various PBS affiliates are free to run anything they want during these drives.

If I get the time and motivation (and copyright etc. permission!) I can see about making parts or all of it available as a youtube clip then post - dubbing from my tape.