Common grounds between Buddhism and Judaism

Since there is a Jewish Buddhist movement, here is a list of ways in which (Theravada or early) Buddhism and Judaism are, as I understand, more similar to each other than either is to Christianity:

  • In both, though there are things on which most members of each religion agree, there is no firm dogma, because the spiritual goal (experiencing God or Nirvana) is thought to be beyond mundane human thought. Individuals are free to explore their own spiritual feelings and beliefs, and to develop their own understandings. Prophets, Messiahs, the Buddha, and monks are people who may have had an especially clear or rich spiritual experience, but they are not God(s) themselves. Said another way: both religions are more orthopraxic than orthodoxic (i.e., less faith-based, more focused on what people do and experience than on what they believe).
  • Absolute reality, God, etc. is usually thought to be some kind of unity or single substance, not a trinity, a hypostatic union (hybrid God-man), etc.
  • Both are/were largely aniconic (Buddhism was in the early days) and prohibit giving anything a higher status than God or nirvanic beings.
  • Like devas in Buddhism, early Judaism seems to have acknowledged polytheism (e.g., El becoming YHWH, “You shall have no other gods before me,” etc.), but neither made polytheism central to their religion.
  • Hell is not forever. In Judaism, hell is more like Catholic purgatory and lasts only a short time, so that God can teach sinners a lesson. Those souls who are too bad to be redeemed are either destroyed by God, which seems much more compassionate to me than eternal torment, or continue to exist in a remorseful state. In Buddhism, the length and depth/badness of a hellish life varies based on one’s karma, with the worst hell being called avici. Both also find rebirth/reincarnation possible.
  • Both generally lack a notion of original sin, though in Buddhism, the mind that is reborn has typically had many past lives and has accumulated many both good and bad traits. Both see people as a mixture of good/selfless and bad/selfless impulses, and see a Middle Way-type balance to be necessary for successfully living in the world (e.g., a person has to be a little selfish in order to have food to eat, to do a job, etc.).
  • Less focus is placed on external forces (e.g., the devil, praying to angels or saints, God(s) taking physical form, etc.), which are usually considered to be metaphorical. Unlike how Christians often interpret it literally, the oft-quoted line from Genesis 1:27, that man was made in the image of God, is usually taken in Judaism to mean that human’s nature, essence, or capacities for things like reason and intuition are similar to God’s, not that God literally has a human-like (or any corporeal) form.
  • Both Buddhism’s precepts, the Brahmaviharas, etc. as well as Judaism’s kosher rules are concerned with how to kill animals as sparingly and humanely as possible. In both, the brief five-to-ten precepts/commandments are just a categorization or introduction to a much longer set of vinaya/commandments about many aspects of life.
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Knowing nationalism, culturism, and racism

You don’t really know nationalism until you’ve lived in a foreign country. People back home often don’t accept/trust things you did in the other country, sometimes even things you did at an embassy, and vice versa. Government officials in the home country ask you questions like, “why would you want to live there?”, and require you to help them spy on you and tax you (e.g., tell them what foreign bank accounts you have). People at foreign company and government offices usually ignore your emails. And locals of the other country often treat you suspiciously. People in other countries are usually nice to paying tourists, but not so nice if you try to live there.

Similarly, you don’t really know culturism and racism until you’ve lived in an area where you are in a cultural or ethnic minority. People constantly stare when you walk down the street, and sometimes comment on how (dis)similar you look to them. Taxis and buses don’t stop maybe half the time, and people are physically pushier with foreigners on buses and in crowds. Customer service people in businesses avoid you unless you confront them, and local customers cut in line ahead of you. It’s harder to get a job and to navigate relationships of all kinds. People often don’t want to hear or see things from your culture. People from both cultures sometimes do mocking/poor impressions of the other culture or ethnicity in front of you, and expect you to find it funny. And people are judgmental and rejecting, if you look or speak in any way that they don’t find beautiful/healthy, humble, thankful, and positive.

In such an interconnected world, it’s amazing to me that many people are still so small-minded.

Outgrowing the jungle

Most human institutions (companies, governments, schools, etc.) still seem to behave like monkeys: forming into tribes that are led by an (possibly elected or inherited) egocentric dictator, or hierarchical layers of dictators, and that fight with each other. I hope that humans will use the steady improvements in Internet- and travel-related technologies to make societies ever-more distributed, representative of, and verified by everyone.

How do you know who you’re talking to?

A few questions for theists: How do you know to whom/what you pray? Even if you feel that some kind of God exists, how do you know He/She/It isn’t a malicious, malevolent being misrepresenting Itself as a kind, benevolent being? If everything is left to faith in traditions, institutions, prophets, etc., how can you confirm the identity, nature, agenda, extent, etc. of what you call “God(s)”? If there is an all-powerful creator God, shouldn’t that being be able to make all humans clearly understand Her/Him/It, and what might it say about God that all humans haven’t been made to clearly understand Her/Him/It (e.g., is God not all-powerful, not always loving, etc.)? If God changes (i.e., takes actions to create or affect this world or people), to what extent can God be eternal?

Valuing life

What is appealing about eating, or wearing, the rotting carcas of a dead animal or plant?

Why are captive, genetically weakened animals and plants more valued than the freer, stronger animals and plants in the fields and forests?

Why do larger, more intelligent animals (cows, pigs, etc.) deserve to be killed and fed to smaller, less intelligent animals (cats, dogs, etc.)?

Why is a human brain and body configuration more valued than non-human configurations?

What positive contributions do you make to the world that justify killing thousands of other beings for you throughout your life?

Why are humans in other countries less valuable than humans in your country?

Why are children you give birth to more valuable than orphan children who have already been born?

9 disgusting things about sex

Mainstream media find any excuse to make sex seem appealing, so here are 9 ways in which sex is disgusting.

  1. It’s a chemical addiction, and it’s built into most people’s bodies, so it’s very hard to stop taking the drug. If you think you’re not a sexual drug addict, just try not doing or thinking about sexual things for a few days, weeks, or months (depending on how often you usually do it). The withdrawal symptoms are similar to cocaine (anxiety, depression, fatigue, insomnia, nightmares, obsessive thoughts, etc.). Sex is often associated with other drug use.
  2. There are few/no natural safeguards. Sexual cravings often lead people to create unwanted children, too many children, or to have abortions. There are also a wide variety of sexually transmitted diseases, some life-threatening. It’s very easy for people to be physically compatible but mentally incompatible, with short, lustful actions causing many difficult, life-long consequences for multiple people.
  3. Sex involves close, including oral, contact between parts of the body that are otherwise only associated with using the toilet.
  4. Sex-related organs of the body (e.g., women’s enlarged hips and breasts, men’s prostate and external sex organs, etc.) are quite fragile, and are prone to cancers, injuries, pain, and infections.
  5. Sex involves the body automatically creating things that are technically alive (sperm and eggs), and then destroying most of them.
  6. People’s bodies are just different configurations of skin, fat, muscles, glands, nerves, bones, etc., but sexuality causes people to get attached to certain configurations, putting pressure on people to modify their bodies, often unhealthfully.
  7. People often associate sexual thoughts with racist thoughts, preferring the physical features of their own ethnic group. Humanity probably began as a single species in Africa 50,000 to 100,000 years ago, and we keep moving farther and farther away from that genetic unity.
  8. Sex, and sexualized media, encourages people to revel/wallow in very self-indulgent, fickle, exploitive, greedy, jealous, aggressive, objectifying, shallow/mindless, etc. states of mind. Much like food advertising, sexualized media is very charged and harsh, showing exaggerated things in extreme situations. Often apparently/mostly because they are pretty, people often receive ridiculously large amounts of money and power as actors, models, or politicians.
  9. Sex has led to a variety of dangerous, exploitive, or criminal social activities: harassment, discrimination, segregation, strip clubs, sex clubs, porn, prostitution, sex slave trafficking, forced marriage, rape, genital mutilation, castration, etc. About 50% of people who have been raped develop PTSD (source).

A conversation about truth between a natural scientist and a Theravada Buddhist

Scientist: If it can’t be measured with an objective, mechanical instrument, it didn’t happen.
Buddhist: Everything you’ve ever thought, seen, made, or done — including hypotheses, instruments, experiments, results, and theories — are constructs of the brain/mind. Everyone’s experience of life is inherently subjective; objectivity is impossible. Even one person cannot truly understand another person.
Scientist: But humans have evolved on this planet for millions of years. Under Earth-like conditions, our constructs are probably very accurate.
Buddhist: Under land-dwelling, great-ape-like conditions, the constructs are probably very accurate. But can a human really fathom the experience of something like the underwater echolocation experience of a dolphin, or the “rapid-pink” (Varela, Rosch, & Thompson, 1991, p. 183) combined temporal-visual sense that allows small birds to fly through dense bushes? Minds are embodied, and different species’ brains and bodies seem to be configured differently.
Scientist: Under ape-like or aquarium conditions, humans can observe dolphins and see what their echolocation abilities seem to allow them to do (e.g., navigate in the dark). Then we can create instruments (e.g., sonar), with which we can interact, that seem to us to allow us to do the same things as dolphins.
Buddhist: We can mentally construct a perception of physical instruments….
Scientist: Agreed.
Buddhist: So the goals of science are conceived from a human perspective. Humans see something they want to understand, or a challenge they want to overcome, so they set about finding a way to feel like they’ve understood or overcome it. What bothers me about this is that, earlier, you claimed “it didn’t happen,” in an absolute sense. How can a research project that was conceived in a species-biased way lead to an impartial, unbiased realization of absolute truth?
Scientist: When research is done on extremely large scales, and involves extremely brilliant people, I think the results approach absolute truth.
Buddhist: I will grant you that it approaches an intersubjective truth, which may be all that most selfish/greedy/angry humans really care about (i.e., a human-serving truth), but not absolute truth.
Scientist: Then on what grounds would you say that absolute truth has been found?
Buddhist: With practice, the human mind has the capability to internally turn upon, observe, and go progressively deeper into itself. Eventually, we think it can go to such a basic level that it is no longer human, and some Buddhists think no longer subjective. From such a perspective, we think that one is in a less biased, or possibly unbiased, position to observe reality.
Scientist: How could that be verified? How could a human, from their everyday state of consciousness, confirm that a Buddhist meditator has gone to such an unbiased state?
Buddhist: Well, we don’t know whether you scientists could think up a way to measure states of consciousness, but we think that people who can achieve such a state are able to tell whether other people have attained it. “Enlightenment,” as we call it, is like a club with very difficult entry requirements. Western science also has quite high entry requirements: a high degree of cognitive abilities, often many years of school, a controlled laboratory environment, etc.
Scientist: How much practice are we talking about here?
Buddhist: For most people, it takes about three years of vigorous practice in solitude (i.e., few external distractions), with a good teacher.
Scientist: So it’s independently, empirically verifiable, but very hard to verify. Most people aren’t going to spend three years sitting out in the woods, in order to gain the ability.
Buddhist: Right. It would be wonderful, if more people would make the effort, but not many are willing. The Buddha suspected that it would always be that way.
Scientist: Can anyone do it, or only certain, privileged people?
Buddhist: We think pretty much every human being has the mental capability. Brain-damaged or severely mentally handicapped people might not, but most people can. It’s easier for some people than others (e.g., people with a calm temperment who live a peaceful life), for many reasons, but it’s just a learned/developed skill, like playing the piano.
Scientist: So it’s transcultural and dissociated from things like personality, gender, and social position.
Buddhist: Yes.
Scientist: It sounds like Buddhist meditation, at least at a very advanced level, might be the doing of science from a more basic or simple, and possibly less biased, state of consciousness.
Buddhist: We would agree. Unfortunately, in order to communicate the findings of enlightened people to humanity, it is difficult to avoid the trappings of languages, cultures, institutions, and so forth. But, like Western natural/positivistic science, we think that there is basically one truth about one reality.
Scientist: Must one worship Buddha statues, wear charm bracelets, and so forth, to practice Buddhist meditation?
Buddhist: No. Monastic Theravada Buddhists think that the Buddha was just a man who accomplished something great. He is highly respected, but not worshipped. Westerners often mis-understand bowing as worship; in the Buddha’s case, it is only supposed to indicate deep respect. However, pop-culture and later Buddhist traditions sometimes take the Buddha in more religious, folklore, magic, astrology, etc. of directions. Buddhist monks are not supposed to participate in such things. It seems like some scientists also have faith in things like the scientific method and the capability of the discursive part of the human mind to understand everything. And then there is science fiction.
Scientist: Thank you. This has been very enlightening.
Buddhist: Not really, but please find a good teacher and practice meditation. Meditation is not the same as talking or thinking about things. Don’t take your discursive, human mind for granted.
Scientist: I’ll think about it.

Reference: Varela, F. J., Rosch, E., & Thompson, E. (1991). The embodied mind: Cognitive science and human experience. MIT Press.