INTRODUCING MYSELF AS A BUDDHIST AND AN ATHEIST


Who am I? I am a man who was born and has lived and will die rather sooner than later and then be forgotten forever. This doesn't mean that nothing I do counts because things I do contribute to the shared inheritance of the world I have shared with you. And this doesn't mean that no one will ever talk about me when I'm gone. But I'd rather not have to think about that too much.


I think of myself as a poet and a Buddhist and an atheist.


Because I am presenting myself as a Buddhist, it is only right that I tell you that I am a Buddhist and a little bit about what being a Buddhist is for me, which in essence is saying something about what kind of Buddhist I am.


But before any talk about spirituality I should introduce myself in my role as an atheist. If you want to hear a little bit about atheism discussed reasonably and from a positive point of view rather than one that is self identified as antagonistic to religion, I recommend a book called Atheism by Julian Baggini. It has a subtitle that reads “a brief insight”. This book was published by sterling publishing Company of New York in 2003 and revised some for 2009. There is a summary version of this book in paper back published by Oxford in its “a very short introduction” series with “a very short introduction” as a subtitle. It shares its text with the bigger book but lives up to its subtitle. And it shares its basic attitude of rationality and goodwill.


I have said all of that because you will not understand what kind of Buddhist I am unless you understand that I am an atheist and what kind of atheist I am. I do not believe in a God or gods or a heaven or hell or multiple lives. I do not believe there is an alternate universe or higher dimension full of those particular creatures we have become familiar with from religious scriptures which seemed chiefly to act out our good and bad psychic energies in a way that we can talk about them reasonably. And I think you both give at this point to see why I don't throw the baby weight with the bathwater when I talk about religion.


I am what the author of the book “atheism” would call a “naturalist”. I believe the entire mechanism and all the contents of the universe to be the outcome of what we can call natural processes. You can think of the universe that are merged as energy and matter in space over the horizon of our space time as being a vast blossom of cause-and-effect, in effect an avalanche of interactions in which, amazingly, order can increase and combinations of transactions can become chemical reactions and even living organisms and all that they can do. And I believe that it is a largely expanding and therefore cooling place in which someday all of the stars in space will evaporate their energy and everything will spread out as the universe expands infinitely into an even singular temperature near absolute 0. But that chilly day is 1 trillion years away. And after all, our universe now that is starting to speed up a little in its expansion with time, and spread out even more quickly than ever before in space, is itself about 13 billion years old. That means that the farthest stars we can see away or something less than 13 billion years old. In other words we are seeing them as they were 13 billion years ago. The closer the stars we are looking at are, the less time it is spent for light to reach our eyes, and we are seeing them as they were ever so much more recently.


So if I think the world is a vast mechanism of self evolving energy burning transactions, an avalanche where interesting things can happen as they are done and then undone, why have religion? Everything just is as it turned out to happen.


Well, we don't look at the universe as a global mind knowing the whole universe infinite in extent and in its details in one glance and the immediacy of the moment. That godlike view would belong to a God if I thought there was one. We are divided from the universe by our birth as an independent little entity, at least in our own fictional understanding of ourselves. And that perspective or point of view of us and then all of that creates a situation in which you can say one can take one view or another about how we should deal with all of that and vice versa. In other words we have a relationship to other people and the world around us, and that relationship is meaningful within the structure of the point of view we have about who we are and what the universe is.


That essentially aesthetic judgment is a fiction of our mind, an invention of our creativity, and subject to our subjectivity, but it is not to say it doesn't carry truth, important truth that it's worth knowing while you live in this world you share with others.


This map of meaningfulness that we lay on the machinery of the universe like the papier-mâché skin on a skeleton of a broad assortment Museum is our way of experiencing the meaningfulness of an impartial and disinterested universe and behaving in a meaningful way to other sentient creatures like ourselves that live embedded in their own spiderwebs of meaningfullness.


It is the way we embrace our humanity in a nonhuman infinity.


Now I have said that I think that all things in nature are the result of natural processes. There is one thing that stands apart from that. That is the presence of existence itself. The very fact that we exist experiencing all this as a collection of objects in interaction rather than one big universal sigh of energy with lumps in it flies in the face of thinking of the world as just a machine and nothing more.


We have the universe of the machine and then we have the daunting fact that it exists. The problem of existence standing outside of the explanation of a mechanism with parts which exhibit cause-and-effect is a finger-pointing directly at Buddhism.


In my view, the Buddha was a man who lived, had an important experience that he talked other people about, and he ate some bad food and died about 404 years before the common era, 2417 years ago years ago as of the time of this writing, early in the spring 2013.


I believe that he lived his life as a man and then was either buried or exposed to the elements to be dispersed by the birds. But with the birds in every direction the religion of Buddhism spread. Now for me Buddhism is a tradition of spirituality. That means it is a tradition of applying a map of meaningfulness to the universe that somehow ties the universe of brutal cause-and-effect together with the amazing fact that it exists at all. Somehow these 2 facts are like the mother and father of a child who walks in kindness.


Why would this be so? Because the Buddha asked why the world was so hard. Why is there suffering? Why is there sickness, why is there death? Why do we repeat the same mistakes over and over hoping that things will turn out better this time?


Because the Buddha was not looking for a God out there or a self in here, but was looking for a medicine for what was going on all around him, when he observed his own experience he found that instead of a hard object like a rock made of diamond at his core called the “self” he actually turned out to be composed of 5 dynamic constantly changing heaps of tiny elements. Each moment of perception contained form. Contains a judgment about whether that form was good or bad news for us or neutral. It also contains our habitual patterns of responding to that form. It contains our experience of that form as a perception and our consciousness of it. These 5 aggregates or what there really are when the illusion of there being a man or a woman there dissolves in meditation. Just as in a classical movie film there are 24 frames being shown on the screen in the theater every second, a series of still photographs going so fast we blur them into a motion picture, these 5 heaps of fundamental experience or blurred together in our minds which under the sway of our experience of a self and other relationship to the universe, imagines that there is a eternal substantial self there.


And looking out at the universe the Buddha saw that everything that he examined was like a cloud that came together due to past causes and present conditions. You planted seeds in the past and when the rainy season came the seeds sprouted and became plants. Past causes and present conditions.


And there was an ethical charge to all of these particles of form, valuation, habitual formation, perception and consciousness working together to experience a universe of cause-and-effect moving in time.


Well if the Buddha like an atheist saw the universe as being a mechanism that was a natural outcome of natural processes of cause-and-effect, why did he create a lineage of spirituality?


Why? Because he was looking for a medicine for the suffering that people experience in their lives because they are people. He determined that fundamentally we suffer because we cling to what is created by and then disassembled by change. Everything is in the state of change. Pretty girls with ripe breasts and limber legs and happy faces in just a few years soften and begin to melt like a candle placed too close to an open flame in a fireplace. Then when they look in the mirror see the same thing happen to them. We cannot cling to our youth, we cannot cling to the things we have struggled so hard for and maybe even have done terrible things for. Because when we take our last breath people come in from every direction and pickup what they want and walk away from us.


The Buddha believed in the simple psychology that if you are exposed again and again in meditation to recognizing the aggregate nature of your own body and your feelings and your thought processes and even the spiritual elements of your understanding, then you would come in time to be becalmed and like a stream whose waters are calm you would also be able to see clearly to the bottom, and seeing clearly you would understand the 4 Noble truths of Buddhism, that of the existence of suffering or insufficiency, that the cause of that is grasping at what cannot be held on to, but that there is a state of liberation from this grasping, a state of freedom obtained by living your life according to the noble eightfold path for which Buddhism is famous.


Because I believe the Buddha was a man, I have no trouble thinking that he may have begun a program that needed a little more work to become finished. And I think that in what we call Mahayana Buddhism the other shoe dropped. Now Mahayana Buddhism eventually divorced itself in a political way from traditional Buddhism and try to turned away both were presented into something that looked like 2 political parties with completely exclusive political platforms that kept them apart. And because people in those days where very few people were literate and the creation of literature was the privilege of the wealthy or the Royal, people in such days attributed their insights to gods or angels and the ability to scale to other dimensions as a way to compete for economic resources, without which their books would not be published nor would the houses be built to which people could come to listen to those books. They made idols of their masters, deifying them, and they worshipped their lineage by the ways they struggled with others to express their patriotism.


We should not judge them because we do the same thing today. We simply have different ways of expressing our fearfulness and our desire to have coercive power over others.


And, for me, Buddhism has invested 2400 years in developing techniques of liberating human beings in a single lifetime.


For me of lineage of spirituality is one in which one human being inherits a tradition of cultural learning built around mapping meaningfulness on the world and making one a harmonious un-self-centered actor who lives to benefit others and leave as few negative causes as seeds planted by their life to be harvested as landscapes of misfortune by future generations.


It is this very fact of existence and its being without any parts or any high or low or any kind of seam or boundary that astonishes us and is our reward for giving up clinging to that seething cloud of flies whose silhouette has always been a “self” to us.


Yet because the eminence of imminent transcendence is everywhere, and is never separated from you for a single 2nd or a single whisker even as you are deeply embedded in duality of me and other, somehow it can work as a tincture in your character anyway. Don't ask me.


But as a Buddhist this is where I pitch my tent. It is the eye of the storm of a suffering old man going very soon to death. And I go with no daydreams of an afterlife in heaven or hell or future incarnations. Because I'm a Mahayana Buddhist it is simply enough for me to know that someone will have to inherit the world in which I have planted the seeds of my deeds. It is for those people as unknown to me as, I will be unknown to them, that I live my life trying to cultivate meditation and transform my character by dancing around the strange attractor of liberation into Buddha wisdom.


Now I am displeased. 2417 words into this, my effort, (including these), at expressing Buddhism, and I am not sure I said what I needed to at all.



2417 words by Leo Rivers, the Garage House, Cottage Grove, Oregon, Saturday, March 2, 2013 9:19:49 PM


Baggini, Julian. Atheism. Sterling, 2009.


Baggini, Julian. Atheism  Atheism: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press, USA, 2003.

 © Leo Rivers 2013