synthetic zero

May 4th, 2009

Andrew Sullivan circulates a misunderstanding of Buddhism:

From 2003, John Horgan explains why he gave up on Buddhism:

“…what troubles me most about Buddhism is its implication that detachment from ordinary life is the surest route to salvation. Buddha’s first step toward enlightenment was his abandonment of his wife and child, and Buddhism (like Catholicism) still exalts male monasticism as the epitome of spirituality. It seems legitimate to ask whether a path that turns away from aspects of life as essential as sexuality and parenthood is truly spiritual.”

From this perspective, the very concept of enlightenment begins to look anti-spiritual: It suggests that life is a problem that can be solved, a cul-de-sac that can be, and should be, escaped.

Of course, this is a fundamental misunderstanding of Buddhism. I agree, of course, that it may appear at first that the idea is to “transcend” ordinary life towards the notion of a nirvana which is far away, distant, and “detached” from life. But this is a misunderstanding: in fact the true emphasis is on the “Middle Way”, neither caught up and tossed around by life nor renouncing ordinary life, but rather participating fully in life while not becoming overly reactive to it (either in terms of clinging nor in terms of fear or aversion). In later schools this developed into the notion of “samsara is nirvana”, which is to say that there is no fundamental difference between the world of samsara and the world of nirvana — it’s a matter of how one relates to it. A fully enlightened perspective is one which can be in the world but not trapped by it; free, but not separate from the world. In fact, in Buddhism, the idea is that being overly attached to things, situations, or people actually prevents us from really appreciating them, because we become caught up more in our ideas than really present to what is right in front of us, our loved ones, our friends, and the circumstances of our lives.

It also ought to be pointed out that there are many sects and approaches to Buddhism, which include the full gamut from monastic celibacy to traditions in which monks can and do marry, and lay traditions which have a wide variety of approaches, including practicing right in the midst of ordinary life. To the extent one does meditate in a monastic or retreat situation, from a Buddhist standpoint this isn’t seen as an end in itself, but merely “skillful means” — the idea is not to retreat forever from life, but to make it a little easier to understand life in a simpler context. In many traditions the idea, furthermore, is that one ought not to stay in such a situation indefinitely, but rather, once one has had some level of insight, be it after a day or years, return out into the world to live your life and help others.

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