Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Down-to-Earth Buddhism

Lately, I've been running across links, either in print or through audio, between modern rationalism and Buddhism. Perennial Shroud of Turin-buster Joe Nickell offers his interpretation of Tibetan sand mandalas over at the Center for Inquiry. I had the opportunity to watch Tibetan monks in the process of making one of these, too, many years ago. Breathtaking is the word for it, especially when I returned days later to watch the very moving ceremony in which they sweep all the intricate colored sands together into one mound and then pour it into a single clear vessel. Despite Joe's seeming apologies for the monks' own magical thinking, he hits upon a universal meaning of the ritual: It's a "metaphorical balm for our troubled world."

Also, the good folks over at Reasonable Doubts podcast have begun a three-parter on Buddhism, featuring interviews with Stephen Batchelor. Batchelor had impact in the Buddhist world years back with his Buddhism Without Beliefs, a book I am presently reading, which attempts to whittle away overly complex metaphysics from Buddhism's inherent agnosticism. In his latest book, Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist, he amps up the freethinking aspects of Buddhism. The first of the doubting guys' interviews with him is a great introduction to Buddhism itself. Even Christopher Hitchens gives Batchelor's book a plug.

Another recent interview with Batchelor over at Buddhist Geeks (he's making the rounds) is worth a read. He gives a great summation of the "imponderables," which were metaphysical questions that Siddartha Gautama (the Buddha) dismissed as irrelevant:

Now, one of the things that I think is central to the Buddha’s teaching is that he is extremely suspicious of metaphysics and there are of course these famous questions that he refused to answer: Does the universe have a beginning? Does it have an end? Is it finite? Is it infinite? Are mind and body the same or are mind and body two separate things? And then the last four: Does the Tathagata exist after death or does he not exist after death? Now this latter one, I think, is being tampered with slightly. I think it’s almost certainly the case that what the Buddha meant was “Does one continue after death or does one not continue to exist after death?” Tathagata was simply being the way he referred to himself. So in other words, it just means one.

Now I think if you put those unanswered questions together, you’d get a picture of what, even today, remained as the big questions of life and death, and they’re just as unanswered now, by science, as they were at the Buddha’s time. But in any case, the Buddha wasn’t interested in rejecting these ideas because they were somehow wrong. But he was concerned with people getting involved with that kind of speculation because it would lead one away from the actual practice of the path....
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(Image: Wikimedia Commons)

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