October 17, 2006

Buddha Break

I've been neglecting Buddhism, both in my personal life and on this blog. I'm working to change this, and I'm going to make an effort to write more about Buddhist topics and tie it into the context of this blog.
Looking to the future, I've been extremely concerned of late about humanity's survival prospects. It's been hard for me to be hopeful about the future, and I often feel defeatism creeping in.

Buddhists are no strangers to despair. In fact, much of Buddhism is the practice of dealing with suffering and the absurdity of existence. A core teaching of Buddhism is the acknowledgment that nothing is permanent -- not even human civilization. To make this point, Buddhist monks have been known to create intricately detailed sand mandhalas and, when finished, destroy the masterpiece without remorse. The destruction of the mandhalas is meant to characterize the beauty of human existence despite the ultimately temporary nature of our lives.

This does not imply that Buddhists should be socially detached, or that defeatism be embraced. People should still strive to create beauty, alleviate suffering and help people achieve their full potential.

For more on Buddhism and existentialism, read this short but excellent piece, "A Look at Hopelessness and Absurdity."
I caught an interesting bit of information today while reading Stephen Batchelor's blog. Evidently, before Pope Benedict XVI was the pope he had some rather harsh things to say about Buddhism. Shockingly harsh, actually.

Back in 1997, when he was still Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, he said that Europeans were attracted to Buddhism for its "auto-erotic spirituality" that offers "transcendence without imposing concrete obligations." At the time, he predicted that Buddhism would replace Marxism as the Catholic church's main enemy (that must have been before he caught wind of transhumanism -- but I find it interesting to note that Benedict condemns two belief systems that I'm rather partial to).

According to one blog I came across, Ratzinger's "auto-eroticism" remark was a mistranslation from the French term, "auto-erotisme," which more properly translates to "self-absorption" or "narcissism." I'm assuming the Pope is referring to the Buddhist practice of meditation and the process of personal re-conditioning. It's upsetting to note that he completely dismissed other Buddhist tenants such as unconditional love, compassion and non-violence.

I'm almost positive the Pope is reacting to the fact that Buddhism offers a legitimate threat to Catholicism. It offers a fairly simpatico moral code, but without the metaphysical Christian baggage; Buddhists don't believe in God or the soul. Buddhists don't believe in the self for that matter, which runs completely anathema to the untouchable Christian vitalist conviction. Consequently, Buddhism appeals to modernist rationalism and empiricism. No wonder it's one of the world's fastest growing religions (if it can be called that).

As for the Pope's remark about Buddhism offering no "concrete obligations," I suppose that's symptomatic of the Catholic need for clear-cut God-given values (notice how he avoided the term "absolutist obligations"?). Christianity is a very binary system -- the entire cosmos can be divined into right and wrong, sinful and pious, good and evil -- there's virtually no middle ground and no room for compromise. Buddhists, on the other hand, simply ask that everyone do the best they can do within their own circumstances to cause as little suffering as possible to other sentient beings. Makes sense to me, and not just because it's more realistic, but because it's devoid of such concepts as redemption, damnation and other eschatological nonsense.

Sometimes I wonder if I’m wasting time on the topic of the Pope and Catholicism, with all its bioconservatism, sexual repression, homophobia, intolerance and irrationalism. Perhaps it’s because of just that.

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