Tuesday, September 02, 2014

A flickering firefly in the night

We are utterly irrelevant in the vastness of the cosmos, its evolution, and eventual annihilation...It isn’t that you exist and this “you” is irrelevant.  It’s that there is no “you” there in the first place to be either relevant or irrelevant.  Phenomena we call thoughts, feelings, and sensations – Yes. But at the heart of these experiences there is no “you” to be found. An apparent you – Yes.  There is only emptiness that manifests now and then as the person you take yourself to be. 

From what else I've read on the subject, I'd say that's a basically accurate summary of the Buddhist position. Buddhism has a fundamentally tragic outlook on life. Buddhism is an exercise in despair management. How to make the best of the losing hand we've been dealt.

As an atheistic philosophy, Buddhism is somewhat insightful on the costly nature of atheism. In addition, Buddhism reflects the hopelessness of a pre-Christian philosophy. 

Of course, popularizers like Sudduth try to pretty it up and make it sound better than it really is. It's hard to live with unremitting despair. So they dole out nuggets of chocolate-coated nihilism. The yummy rhetoric masking the toxic core. 

Buddhism is about learning to let go, before you have to let go, because Buddhism is a philosophy of flux. Nothing lasts. Sooner or later, you lose everything. So you might as well make the mental adjustment in advance to brace yourself for the inevitable. 

There's an element of truth to this. Ecclesiastes makes a similar point. But Buddhism is a half truth. A half truth is more persuasive than a pure lie. 

In Buddhism, both good and bad are equally ephemeral. In Christianity, by contrast, good is eternal. Preexistent and everlasting. Nothing ultimately good is ever truly lost. 

We might compare and contrast Buddhism with Hinduism:

After my father's death, I went to India and went through rituals that you in the West would find strange. I bathed and anointed my father's body, then carried it on my shoulder, stoked the cremation fires, and watched his body burn. I took his remains to the mouth of the Ganges and watched them float away to retune to the dust to where he came from. 
I am questioning the whole idea that there is such a thing as a person. A few hours after cremation the person has totally disappeared. You collect the bones; they're like little pieces of ivory. You wash them in the Ganges, and then the person merges back into the energy and intelligence of the universe from where he came…For a few years, which is nothing–like the flicker of a firefly in the middle of the night–we are individuals.  

Not surprisingly, this has affinities with Buddhism. The same reductionistic outlook. The insignificance of the individual. Eulogizing his brother at the graveside, Ingersoll said:

Life is a narrow vale between the cold and barren peaks of two eternities. We strive in vain to look beyond the heights. We cry aloud, and the only answer is the echo of our wailing cry. From the voiceless lips of the unreplying dead there comes no word.

That's atheism. That's Buddhism.

From Hinduism, Buddhism inherited reincarnation. Buddha was a reformer, but not a radical. Buddhism would be more consistent if it shed reincarnation. That illustrates the power of tradition. Dogma. 

Mind you, reincarnation is just as bad, in a different way. Every time you die, you wipe the slate clean and start from scratch. Everything slips through your fingers. 

Compare that to Christianity, where the best of the past comes back around in the new Eden, the new Jerusalem. Better than ever. 


  1. Perhaps Buddhism is similar to atheism in another respect: folk Buddhism attempts to candy coat itself for mass consumption (e.g. worshipping Buddha as a "god" of sorts) similar to how popular atheism still attempts to have some semblance of morality. But in reality this is arguably merely the difference between soft atheism vs hard atheism.

  2. A personal anecdote:

    I most desperately searched for meaning in life when I was a college student. One of the nooks and crannies in the world to which my search led me was a little Buddhist monastery tucked away in the hills in California.

    I requested to meet and spend some time talking with a Buddhist monk. A very elderly Buddhist monk seemed happy to oblige me. In fact, if I recall, he was the head of the monastery, or had some sort of significant position there.

    Anyway, I asked him several detailed questions over an hour or perhaps a couple of hours. He seemed largely bemused by my questions. But I believe I likewise sensed a profound blackness in him. As if on the exterior he wanted to come across as maintaining a calm cool, but underneath the surface lay unremitting despair. A frozen sheet of thin ice covering a deep, dark lake and whatever lay beneath.

    Of course, speaking with a Buddhist monk or many Buddhist monks is not a good way by which to judge Buddhism. Although I wasn't only attempting to judge the truth or falsity of Buddhism, per se. If Buddhism is true, then my life was still ultimately meaningless in the grand scheme of things. As such, I'd still be in despair, and likely be in despair for at least a subsequent reincarnation since I would never have been able to overcome my sense of despair in a single life span. So it was also important for me at the time to keep in mind or at least in the back of my mind how a religion or philosophy impacted one's "happiness" in life.

    In addition the incremental steps across several lives toward nirvana weren't worth it to me, even though the monk may well have said (I forget if he did say) this thinking would lead me further away from nirvana. After all, a journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step. I'd have to start somewhere. But how do I know I hadn't already started in previous lives to get to this point? And how do I know I'm not still progressing forward, perhaps not as fast as I could progress but nevertheless progressing, by placing a premium on "happiness" rather than truth if Buddhism is true?

    Besides, if other religions or philosophies tell me I have only one shot in this life (i.e. no reincarnations, only this life and then either heaven or hell), then wouldn't it make more sense for me to consider other religions or philosophies over and against religions which offer me multiple chances (reincarnations)?