A Buddhist critique of God’s/Gods’ eternity

The following is a Buddhist critique of the common theistic idea that God(s) is/are eternal. Eternity means constancy — that something always remains the same. For example, if something eternal is speaking, then it must always have spoken and must always continue to speak, forever. If something spoke eternally, it would also not be able to make more than one sound forever. Although the Abrahamic “I am that I am (or that I will be)” suggests constancy, were an eternal being actually to speak, it would not be able to say more than one sound/word (e.g., “I”), and it would always have been speaking that sound/word and would still be speaking that word today, tomorrow, etc. It could not stop and start speaking, such as to pronounce multiple or even polysyllabic words, because then it would have changed from a time/state when it was not speaking to a time/state when it was speaking and vice versa.

Therefore, as I understand, from a Buddhist perspective, claims that God(s) spoke at great length (e.g., giving entire holy books and many commandments), or that God(s) did some temporary corporeal action (e.g., bringing plagues or floods, destroying cities, writing on stone tablets, etc.) are highly suspect. If they truly are descriptive of a real being — though that being could be immensely big, powerful, old, etc. — that being cannot be eternal, because, by doing those things, it changed.

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Living a more refined life

Buddhist meditation techniques usually seem to me to be a way of experiencing life in a more refined, subtle way. One usually moves from counting or naming things, to noting things in silence, to softening and quietening one’s mind more and more. There is a movement from more crass, loud, agitated, etc. experiences to more subtle, refined, quiet, still, etc. experiences.

About euthanasia

Even for (famously compassionate) Buddhists, euthanasia (killing someone or something to stop it from suffering) is a complicated topic. Here are the issues I have encountered when talking to Buddhists and reading Buddhist philosophies over the years:

  • Intentional killing is bad karma for the killer, breaks the first precept, etc. It could cause the killer to have an unpleasant future life(s). On the other hand, euthanasia is probably about as harmless of an act of intentional killing as is possible, because one is doing it mainly with the intention to avoid or stop suffering. On the other hand, the Abhidhamma (the philosophical section of the Buddhist canon) says that life is a series of instantaneous moments, which condition each other in a series. Any action takes many moments (e.g., killing or dying usually takes a few minutes), so it is probably possible for an action to create instances of both good and bad karmas in a complex mixture (i.e., one moment might be dominated by your compassion and another moment by your willingness to kill). Also, the last moments of one life conditions the first moments of the next life, so one should be in as peaceful or positive of a state of mind as possible when dying. (Side note: In Buddhism, there is no clear difference between humans and nonhumans. Humans have merely reached or evolved to a level of complexity where they are capable of complex thoughts and attaining enlightenment. Human mindstreams can supposedly be reborn in animal or other nonhuman bodies, if their mind is best suited to that kind of life. Unlike in the Abrahamic religions, there is no exception made for killing animals. Intentionally killing any sentient being is bad to some degree, and where exactly sentience begins is unclear.)
  • Life’s problems, including death, are considered to have been caused by that being’s karma (past intentional feelings/thoughts, words, and deeds), which conditioned that being to be born, and continues to condition everything that happens to them throughout their life. Everyone’s suffering is largely their own fault (the Buddha heavily emphasized the effects of karma, but later commentators also acknowledged the effects of the five niyama: genetics, the seasons, karma, that the mind is a stream of thought-moments, and the actions of powerful beings). The only way to stop making new karma is to meditate enough to become enlightened. As I understand, Buddhists think that it is no one else’s responsibility to stop another person or animal’s pain or suffering, though if someone wanted to ensure that they (themselves) continue to have nice rebirths, others’ suffering is an opportunity to behave generously, compassionately, etc. toward others, in order to accumulate merit for oneself. One is not abusing someone by not helping them through some natural situation, including illness or dying; their karma caused/conditioned that situation for them, and as karma is a natural law, it is an impartial, objective, just, etc. reaction to someone’s past action (i.e., nature has a built-in criminal justice system where people eventually automatically get exactly what they deserve). However, one must be careful about how one feels about others’ suffering. If one feels cruelly/sadistically happy that someone else is suffering, that is probably a negative karma for oneself. Neutral or peaceful karma leads to Nirvana or a middling/boring human life; positive, compassionate, loving, etc. karma leads to Heaven, wealth, beauty, etc.
  • Similarly, killing someone or something does not necessarily spare them/it from having to face its karma in a future life. However, Buddhists often believe that one could make merit for that being by doing good things and then transferring that merit to that being, to try to negate some of that being’s negative karma and spare it from suffering in the future. Without such an intervention, one must face one’s karma eventually.
  • Death and mortal pain offer important opportunities for the mind to watch the body fail. They provide important spiritual lessons, namely to clearly see the impermanence of life, that one should not become too attached to the body or one’s current lifestyle, and to see that a part of the mind (the “mindstream” or citta-santanaa) is separate from the body and survives death (though is not an immortal soul or spirit like in the Abrahamic religions).
  • Strong neurological drugs, like narcotic or opioid painkillers, the drugs used for anesthesia and euthanasia, intoxicants, etc. hinder or destroy one’s clarity of mind, making it difficult or impossible for what is left of the brain and body to clealy see what is happening, and maybe preventing the mindstream from knowing what to do, where to go, etc. for a good rebirth.

Instead, Buddhists usually advocate the following:

  • Offer palliative/comfort care to the terminally ill (mild painkillers that don’t disrupt mental clarity (like NSAIDs), a comfortable bed or chair, good food and liquids, help them to use the toilet and to bathe, etc.), and sit with them as they die (meditating, chanting, or praying with or over them; encouraging them; holding their hand; helping them stay calm and clear-headed; etc.). In the case of dying animals, I understand that it is difficult to communicate such things to them, and they may not have the cognitive ability or education to understand what is happening to them (interestingly, nature/God doesn’t seem to care about this). Nevertheless, I have seen how touching or holding an animal and making sympathetic or soothing sounds can be calming to them.
  • The Buddha initially recommended that people meditate on death, sitting in cemetaries, mortuaries, etc., watching bodies decay, and contemplating how one’s own body would eventually become like that. However, that was too depressing for some monks, so the Buddha switched to teaching breathing meditation (Pali: anapanasati), which is more mentally neutral. Some Buddhist monks encourage people to wait a few seconds before breathing in, to contemplate the feeling of breathlessness. I have also seen elderly people practice dying by stopping breathing for a minute, so that they might feel less traumatized when they actually die. And I have seen various animals encounter dead members of their own species, with various reactions: ants sometimes carry a dead ant back to the hive, and female dolphins and gorillas sometimes mourn (carry around, hold, contemplate, etc.) their own dead babies for days or weeks. I am not sure whether seeing a dead animal would help another animal of the same species learn to cope with death or would traumatize it. Like human children, animals do not seem to have as many socially learned filters, taboos, etc. about natural things (e.g., nudity, sex, and violence) as do adult humans.
  • If a person is in a coma, vegetative state, etc., I understand that Buddhists are encouraged to care for them in the hope that they might one day regain consciousness. The Buddha similarly encouraged healthy monks in a monastery to take care of sick monks. Caring compassionately and selflessly for others purifies one’s own mind, reduces one’s self delusion, and is good karma. If this continues for a long time, hopefully there will be some kind of government or other institutional facility and funds for the person’s long-term sustenance, so that their family is not burdened.
  • If a person is being kept barely alive by machines, I understand that Buddhists are encouraged to take care of them for a reasonable amount of time (the length of time is ambiguous) in the hope that they might recover and regain consciousness, but if they do not regain consciousness, to unplug the machines and let them die naturally in peaceful surroundings, with as much clarity of mind as possible.
  • In the case of stray animals, I understand that perhaps they should be neutered or spayed (if adequate veterinary facilities exist), and that they should either be allowed to roam freely or be taken in as pets, living off of people’s generosity. I have never seen an animal shelter in a Buddhist-majority country. The cacophony of stray dogs barking and howling at night can be quite loud in Buddhist-majority countries; people don’t like it, but they tolerate it. It is also considered wrong by some Buddhists to deprive an animal of its freedom by keeping it as a pet, though some wealthy Buddhists do have pets, including purebred animals. More common is that there are neighborhood or village animals that roam from house to house getting food, medicine, shelter, etc. from generous people or living as they wish in nature.

Loving-kindness is a better way to live

Metta-karuna (Pali: loving-kindness and compassion) are ethically, and perhaps morally, better than aggression, greed, and so on. Though someone may attack, curse, or hate me, I resolve not to do those things to them in return. Why? Because kindness and compassion are better than those things. A world full of kindness and compassion would probably be a nicer place for everyone to live than one full of anger and cold-heartedness, and cycles of revenge must be stopped somewhere. Also, there may exist something like karma or God’s judgment, such that unkindness, hatred, etc. may lead to a worse life for oneself in the future.

I am not saying that I am necessarily better than an unkind person, that my self/essence/soul is better than their self/essence/soul. (Actually, I suspect that we are all made of the same stuff, in different and changing configurations, whatever that stuff is.) I am saying that kind behavior is better than unkind behavior.

Of course, there are times when one must stand one’s ground. There is an art to standing firm but remaining kind. For example, if someone tries to steal my life savings, I cannot let them, but I can be as kind as possible in stopping them, and I do not have to chase after them looking for revenge. As I understand, liberal-majority states’ laws around the world about defending one’s body and property usually go along those lines, that avoidance if possible, or minimal sufficient defensive force if necessary, are best.

I am also not saying that I love it when people (or animals, plants, bacteria, etc.) mistreat me. I do not love that some people yell at me, threaten me, manipulate me, try to force their beliefs or preferences on me, are racist or nationalistic to me, try to cheat me, and so on. But I try to empathize with what reasons or life experiences might have prompted them to behave that way, I resolve not to hate them even if I do not understand them, and I try to treat them kindly.

Mindfulness exercise: Don’t scratch

One of the simplest, and quite difficult, mindfulness exercises I have seen bhikkhus recommend is not to scratch when you have an itch. Most itches go away on their own in a minute or two. If it’s caused by something more persistent, like a bacterial or fungal infection, scratching can worsen or spread the infection, and might wipe away any medicated cream/ointment you may be using. Of course, you still might want to look at the itch, in case it’s caused by something like heavy sweat or an insect on your body, which perhaps you should remove.

Similarly about coughing… both otolaryngologist (ear, nose, and throat (ENT)) and internist doctors have told me that coughing is hard on the throat, and that it’s usually better to drink liquids to clear the throat.

Attachment doesn’t have to be positive

When speaking of attachments, desires, cravings, etc., people often seem to focus on positive things: love of/for pleasure, family, friends, a certain place, etc. However, attachments can also be negative. For example: an activist might hate corruption or injustice, a police officer might hate crime or criminals, a military officer might hate foreign aggressors, a terrorist might hate another religion or ethnic group, an abused person might want revenge, an abusive person might want to exploit others, a corporate boss might want to conquer every competitor, a politician might want dictatorial power, and so on. Of course, most people probably have a mixture of positive and negative attachments.

As I understand, in Buddhism, rebirth happens because of any attachment to this (or any) world, not only positive attachments. The Buddha also seems to have been attached to “the pleasure of renunciation, the pleasure of seclusion, the pleasure of peace, the pleasure of self-awakening” (AN 8.86), which are perhaps attachments leading to nirvana.

The hells of strong emotion

Here are two early Buddhist quotes I don’t often hear in today’s entertainment-saturated, militaristic societies:

On one occasion the Blessed One was staying near Rajagaha in the Bamboo Grove, the Squirrel’s Sanctuary.

Then Talaputa, the head of an acting troupe, went to the Blessed One and, on arrival, having bowed down to him, sat to one side. As he was sitting there he said to the Blessed One: “Lord, I have heard that it has been passed down by the ancient teaching lineage of actors that ‘When an actor on the stage, in the midst of a festival, makes people laugh & gives them delight with his imitation of reality, then with the breakup of the body, after death, he is reborn in the company of the laughing devas.’ What does the Blessed One have to say about that?” …

[The Buddha replied:] Any beings who are not devoid of passion to begin with, who are bound by the bond of passion, focus with even more passion on things inspiring passion presented by an actor on stage in the midst of a festival. Any beings who are not devoid of aversion to begin with, who are bound by the bond of aversion, focus with even more aversion on things inspiring aversion presented by an actor on stage in the midst of a festival. Any beings who are not devoid of delusion to begin with, who are bound by the bond of delusion, focus with even more delusion on things inspiring delusion presented by an actor on stage in the midst of a festival. Thus the actor — himself intoxicated & heedless, having made others intoxicated & heedless — with the breakup of the body, after death, is reborn in what is called the hell of laughter. But if he holds such a view as this: ‘When an actor on the stage, in the midst of a festival, makes people laugh & gives them delight with his imitation of reality, then with the breakup of the body, after death, he is reborn in the company of the laughing devas,’ that is his wrong view. Now, there are two destinations for a person with wrong view, I tell you: either hell or the animal womb. … (Samyutta Nikaya 42.2)

Similarly about soldiers:

“Then Yodhajiva[1] the headman went to the Blessed One and, on arrival, having bowed down to him, sat to one side. As he was sitting there he said to the Blessed One: “Lord, I have heard that it has been passed down by the ancient teaching lineage of warriors that ‘When a warrior strives & exerts himself in battle, if others then strike him down & slay him while he is striving & exerting himself in battle, then with the breakup of the body, after death, he is reborn in the company of devas slain in battle.’ What does the Blessed One have to say about that?” …

[The Buddha replied:] When a warrior strives & exerts himself in battle, his mind is already seized, debased, & misdirected by the thought: ‘May these beings be struck down or slaughtered or annihilated or destroyed. May they not exist.’ If others then strike him down & slay him while he is thus striving & exerting himself in battle, then with the breakup of the body, after death, he is reborn in the hell called the realm of those slain in battle. But if he holds such a view as this: ‘When a warrior strives & exerts himself in battle, if others then strike him down & slay him while he is striving & exerting himself in battle, then with the breakup of the body, after death, he is reborn in the company of devas slain in battle,’ that is his wrong view. Now, there are two destinations for a person with wrong view, I tell you: either hell or the animal womb. … (Samyutta Nikaya 42.3)