A Straight Shot of Politics

A blog from a gentleman of the Liberal political persuasion dedicated to right reason, clear thinking, cogent argument, and the public good.

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Location: Columbus, Ohio, United States

I have returned from darkness and quiet. I used to style myself as "Joe Claus", Santa Claus’ younger brother because that is what I still look like. I wrote my heart out about liberal politics until June of 2006, when all that could be said had been said. I wrote until I could write no more and I wrote what I best liked to read when I was young and hopeful: the short familiar essays in Engish and American periodicals of 50 to 100 years ago. The archetype of them were those of G.K. Chesterton, written in newspapers and gathered into numerous small books. I am ready to write them again. I am ready to write about life as seen by the impoverished, by the mentally ill, by the thirty years and more of American Buddhist converts, and by the sharp eyed people [so few now in number] with the watcher's disease, the people who watch and watch and watch. I am all of these.

Thursday, October 14, 2004

The Buddhist view of "Original Sin"

I often describe what I do on other people's blogs as honing my knife on the hardest stone. Debating religion and politics is a contact sport and I wouldn't have it any other way. In the previous post I linked to a splendid debate started by La Shawn Barber. You should go and read the entire thing, for my participation was, inevitably, only partial among the 133 (!) wonderful and lucid posts there.

But since this sport has the effect of refining my thinking into far purer form than mere blog posting does, I have revised my own comments into an essay which eliminates the more contentious moments and states fairly, I think, the Buddhist view of whether or not all people are "inherently sinful".

La Shawn does a wonderfully vivid literary job of stating the case for "original sin" from which I extract the following starting point:

"Some of you may have heard the phrase, "total depravity." It means that man is sinful through and through, though not as bad as he could be. Despite what humanists think, man is not inherently good, committing evil acts only because of his environment, poverty, ignorance, racism or the latest fad-excuse. We are inherently bad. Every word, thought and action is tainted by sin because we are sinful. In our unregenerate and rebellious state, we do not seek after God nor do we want to please or obey him.....

"The wicked are estranged from the womb; They go astray as soon as they are born, speaking lies." (Psalm 58:3)

"The wicked are estranged from the womb. That's a hard saying, isn't it? While it may not be explicit in this passage, "the wicked" referred to is every human born. We don't usually associate sin with a precious baby, but the fact is we are born sinners. The "good" we do, if any at all, does not meet God's requirements."

The Buddhist view of the matter is somewhat different: none of us are "inherently" anything, neither "inherently good" nor "inherently evil", and we act in unskillful ways because we are confused about this fact. Buddhists are not creationists, and view arguments about the existence or non-existence of a "creator" God who is omnipotent and omniscient to be irrelevant to the religious problem of humankind, which is how to deal with the sufferings of birth, old age, sickness, death, and rebirth.

We speak of the Universe as existing "from beginningless time", meaning by that, functionally, that the problem of how it all started is essentially irrelevant. The primary religious question is: What do we do, right now, with our elbows deep in the suds of our own kitchen sink, to address who or what we really are?

What a Buddhist takes on trust (note I said "trust", not "faith", nothing in the Dharma cannot be directly tested by experience sooner or later, though much may not be testable immediately) is the existence of prior and future lives. Buddhist ethics is based on "karma, cause, and effect". Unskillful action is that which results in personal suffering for the individual who commits it, though how soon that action "ripens" into suffering depends upon individual circumstance. Sometimes several lives are necessary for the "ripening" to occur.

The reason we act "unskillfully" is that we hold the confused and incorrect belief that there is a permanent "self" within us which must be supported, protected, and defended against the rest of the world. This belief results in the three emotive "poisons": bewilderment, craving, and anger. These poisons drive our actions which continually recreate and sustain the illusion that we have a "self" which is something apart from the appearance of the rest of the world.

When I state my Buddhist views, people of a predominantly Christian background often find them confusing. This is a function of the fact that Buddhism has a radically different starting point in viewing both the world and our religious relations to it. For example, in the form of Buddhist logic that I have been taught--as part of the tradition of "analytical meditation"--each of the following "four extreme views" is in error:

If you say that anything exists, you are in error.

If you say that nothing exists, you are in error.

If you say that things both exist and non-exist, you are in error.

If you say that things neither exist nor non-exist, you are in error.

When you abandon all of these four errors, what is left? Pure, radiant, unobstructed bliss.

Of course, someone not familiar with this tradition might ask, "Is this bliss existent, or non-existent?" But the moment you ask the question you fall back into one of the "four extremes". Beyond the four extremes the question is not "answered". Rather, the neurotic emotional NEED to ask the question disappears. More generally, our problems come from the chronic habit of attempting to impose precisely this question as a frame around our experience which, of and by itself, has no fixed limits, frames, or boundaries.

We call this habit "grasping and fixation", fixation on the belief in a permanent "self" somehow different from a permanent "world" to which this ficticious self relates. This grasping and fixation is the essential source of all our suffering. The practical techniques of Buddhism (what we call "skillful means") are about eroding this habit of trying to impose an answer to this question on our experience.

Buddhist logic systematically obliterates all attempts to predicate anything, because predication itself is the intellectual expression of the illusion of "self" and "other" caused by grasping and fixation.

The surest "skillful means" for addressing the religious problem directly is to put to one side for the moment all such intellectual framing devices as "good", "evil", "matter", "spirit", "soul", "causality", "creation", and so on. Then, once you have your mind clear of such things, just ask who?, what?, and where? is the "me" who is asking all these questions. Look as hard as you can for that "me" and don't rest until you are sure you have found it and can actually look at it face to face.

Well, then who IS doing the asking and the looking? And why is the question so frightening? For it is truly so to almost everyone when they first ask it clearly.

Is it "me" doing the looking? Well, what color is "me"? What shape is "me"? Where is "me" located exactly? In my head? In my heart? In my navel? Is my hand as I type a part of "me" or an object that "me" perceives? Where is place, exactly, that "me" ends and the objects that "me" perceives begins? Why can't we define or locate that boundary?

If we can't find "me", how on earth is "me" going to "find God"?

Is "me" merely a result of some of the more complicated gyrations of "matter"? Or is "me" really "spirit" which has somehow been injected into some globs of "matter" and not others? And if "me" is either a part of "matter" or a part of "spirit", where are boundaries that separate "me" from the rest of "matter" and the rest of "spirit"? Where are the boundaries between "matter" and "spirit", in my so-called body for that matter? Or in the world?

Is your "you" the same as my "me" or is it different? Does my cat have a "you" like I have a "me"? Can my cat "find God"?

We can assume anything we please about all this. We can assume a "self", assume a "first cause", assume a "creation", assume whatever we need to assume to "prove" anything we want: that we are "inherently good"; that we are "inherently evil"; that God is this way, or that way, or the other way. But the Buddhist question for all this is a simple one: Why should we assume any specific starting point? What is so inherently necessary about the particular assumptions which you favor, which I favor, or which anyone favors?

If we can't find the answer to the problem of religion sitting with us in our own chair, as a real part of our own experience, why should we expect to find it anywhere else?

Now, for the sympathetic Christian listener, this may suggest the question of Why do we all NECESSARILY start out ignorant of our true nature? (which even the Buddha did); as well as the question, Is the self who desires liberation the same as the self who disappears once liberation happens?

As far as I can see, the Dharma asserts no absolute "necessity" for our confusion and corresponding suffering. It merely points out that we all ARE confused, why we are all confused, and what we can do about it. The power of it, for someone with the karma to become a Buddhist (which not everybody has in any given lifetime), is that it describes your confusion so exactly, it pins the WHY down in such a way that it makes perfect sense, and offers you realistic solutions to the problem.

The second question is a little harder to answer because the way the question is phrased is tangled up in the problem of our confusion itself. To quote from a favorite commentary of mine, "Enlightenment does not mean going somewhere else or becoming someone else." Desire itself, even "desire for liberation" is part of the problem because it is a craving to go somewhere else and become someone else, to run away from who we are rather than work with it.

The solution to the problem is to stick right here where we are and work with "right here where we are" undistractedly clearing away our confusion. The "self" does not disappear. The "self" has never been there from the first, any more than Wolf Blitzer (say) really lives in the box with the buttons that sits in the corner of our room. There is no Wolf in the box, there is no "self" in us, and there is no eternal permanence in any of the things we see around us. They are all "mere appearance". What "liberation" consists of is the total dispersion of our confusion about these things down to the subtlest and most persistent habits that persuade us to "reify" anything.

In that sense, "liberation" is a process. If I sit and think about it, I know Wolf doesn't live in my TV. But that doesn't mean that I'm not prone to throw the sofa pillows at him when I think his election coverage is unfair! On one level, I know this is silly, on another level the emotional impulse to do it is quite strong. What practical Buddhism consists of is working with stuff like that.

If you'd like a Christian comment that points in the same direction, try St. Catherine of Sienna: "All the way to Heaven is Heaven. For He said, 'I am the Way.'"

You gain confidence as a Buddhist through this process of skillful means. Confidence in what? Confidence that I have, and everyone else has for that matter, the potential to clear away ALL of that confusion--not immediately, and not by merely snapping the fingers, but we have it none the less. We call this "buddha nature" which is inherent in everyone.

Once you start the process of clearing away some of your confusion the results become quite plain. You are a little less confused than you were and you can see how you could disperse the rest of your confusion with a lot more effort and work. You realize that Wolf isn't really in the TV and your impulse to throw a pillow at him is part of the confusion that could use some more work. And you can perfectly well conceive of simply letting the emotional impulse go for good, to cease to be bothered, particularly, about the pointless jabber in a box which you yourself can turn on and off. You could do that. It is possible.

Now I myself can claim no great progress at this. For I am lazy and Buddhism is very hard work. The Japanese describe it as like being a mosquito trying to bite an iron ball. But even the small amount of work I have done has not been totally fruitless. After over 25 years of it, I am somewhat less confused than I was when I started (I was quite confused back then, by the way!) and I'm perfectly confident that I could get clearer if I just worked harder, even to the point of complete and total "liberation". It is possible, and, however many lifetimes it may take, I am committed to do it and help everyone I can along the way.

This leaves, for the sympathetic Christian, other questions, such as, What is the nature of the alternative to the illusion of self? Buddhists often appear to be reticent on this point.

As a practical matter, my teachers (who are Tibetan) say that teaching from the vantage point "of the fruition" is better for people with some experience of the Dharma than for an introduction to it. It is possible to merely drift in dreams of "being Enlightened" and neglect to do the real work. So Buddhists generally stress suffering and confusion as the starting point, to keep a practitioner grounded and motivated at the beginning.

But what they do say about the fruition is this:

The way things really are is that they are "empty, luminous, and unobstructed." They are pure potential out of which any appearance whatever can manifest itself. No matter what happens to appear to us, that empty, luminous, and unobstructed ground does not change--and there is no essential difference between ordinary appearances and that unobstructed ground.

"Enlightenment" means simply to realize this. The "enlightened beings" don't live in any different world than we do, and that world has been inherently perfect, pure, and stainless from the beginning. We are confused about it, they are not. Because our confusion is so deep and abiding, there are parts of this perfect world that we cannot even perceive and we chronically misinterpret what we can perceive.

So the world of an enlightened being is not different from ours, but they have more perceptual capacity from their enlightened knowledge, just like I have more perceptual capacity, due to knowledge, than my pet cats. One can elaborate on the details of all this, and there are extensive Dharmic descriptions of the things that we in the "human realm" generally do not see, but that is the essence of the matter. Buddhas and enlightened Bodhisattvas manifest in ordinary appearances, but they are not limited by them.

Now I am nowhere near to achieving such liberation personally. But I am convinced, from extrapolating my small experience with Buddhist skillful means, that the world is actually pure, perfect, and stainless even though none of us ordinary folks see it that way. I am also convinced, from the same extrapolation of my experience, that assuming past and future lives is reasonable and that "karma, cause, and effect" over many such lives is the best explanation of the moral nature of our journey in this world. By implication this means that, as a Buddhist, I am correct to be non-evangelical and to present these views on their own merits for the examination of my neighbors of other religious traditions.

So to all those of other religions I say--be the very best Christian, or Jew, or Moslem, or Hindu, or whatever, you can be--nothing will be more important for your future.

To all those of secular views, I say--keep focused on the religious questions, even if you don't come to religious answers.

For in this matter, working on the questions is far more important than "finding the right answer." This is, at least, what a Buddhist believes.

With thanks to La Shawn, La Femme Crickita, Mark S., AWG, and Adrian for acting as stones on which to hone my edge. And with thanks as well to all the other participants for sustaining equally interesting comments on other vantage points on Original Sin.


Blogger Concerned Muslim said...

Very interesting. Just a Muslim perspective on some of the issues: Unlike the Judeo-Christian belief that Eve was created out of Adam, that's not the case in Islam. They were both created from the same spirit at the same time & Eve was not responsible for Adam eating the apple - they were both tempted by Satan.

I also find the Christian (& Judaic?) belief that human beings are born sinful. From what I have ben taught in Islam, babies are known to be "masoom" or infallible. It means they are completely innocent & sinless & it is after they attain puberty, they are held accountable by God for their wrong actions.

10:50 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

TO: Joseph Marshall
RE: Very Interesting Read...


Wish I could reply to it in depth at this time, but I'm having WAAAAAY to much fun with this new development environment. [Note: Not being sarcastic, I'm over the learning curve's hump and things are getting exciting.]

Will probably address this on Sunday. Possibly where I usually blog so as not to take up too much of your bandwidth.

Hope all is well with you in Ohio. You've been awefully quite. Been out collecting voter registrations? Like that Chad Staton guy?



6:09 AM  
Anonymous Eric said...

Very good read. I'm stuck on the idea of original sin. Think about it. Have you ever seen a baby that held hatred, anger, resentment, or prejudice in it's heart?

I don't think you can say environment plays no part. We all learn as children from the world around us. The question then becomes how do we stray away from what concerned muslim calls masoom and into the wandering ways of the wicked world? And how do we get back there.

Buddhists of the Zen tradition just sit.

I also have another theory that has led me away from my Catholic upbringing and Christianity in general and that is that beliefs are dangerous.

12:14 PM  
Blogger Lycas7x said...

It sounds like buddha nature and original sin concepts are like mixing apples and oranges. I don't want to let go of God yet. I don't see him as the czar of the heavens or the creator, but perhaps more like JUNGS collective unconsciousness.

Many thanks to our concerned Muslim. The flower already existed in the seed. I have a vision of all the people on Earth living together in peace and saving the planet from our shortsighted past.

The wisdom of buddha; the passion of christ; and the vision of mohomad. United Strength.

2:25 AM  
Blogger Lycas7x said...

Its a wonder anyone takes the time to post anything. It never takes your password and the computer age has become so impersonal.

Does anyone really have a valid opinion? Whose got the time to return to an article for feedback or remember an issue from one day to the next?

2:35 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Actually, I do have the time, since my bipolar condition now forces me into partial seclusion to dampen down mania. This is why I no longer write much. It is simply too stimulating. But the comments to this ol' blog still come to my e-mail and I return to respond to them.

To all I would say that you don't have to swallow the world in one gulp and you don't have to make yourself frantic because of your own "evil". Relax, an take all such concepts lightly and skeptically.

Even though my brain biochemistry tosses me around like a boat in a gale, it too is mere appearance on a perfect ground that always stays the same.

12:41 PM  
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