Anatta is difficult to accept

Looking at the very ethnically, linguistically, nationally, and philosophically fractured state of Buddhist peoples around the world today, as well as at the continued popularity of later-Buddhism philosophies like Buddha-nature, it strikes me that, even (approximately) 2,560 years after the Buddha’s parinibbana, many people still have difficulty accepting the Buddha’s teaching of Anattā and letting go of attachment to self identities.

Why do you believe?

There are so many (often-conflicting) philosophies and religions in the world. Why is yours the right one? Have you taken the time to really study and practice the world’s philosophical and religious traditions, to find the one(s) with which you actually most agree and feel are true, or do you just believe what your family or society tells you to believe? Similarly, do you believe what you want to be true, or what you think is most likely to be true?

What if governments weren’t monopolies?

How might life be, if governments were not monopolistic within their territories, for example, if several federal governments (e.g., one run by democrats, one by republicans, one by environmentalists, etc.) competed to offer laws and services to a country, and citizens could subscribe to only one government at a time? I wonder if this freedom would cause people to fight less with each other.

  • People within the same territory could pay fewer taxes for fewer benefits, or more taxes for more benefits. There probably would need to be a base level of oversight and taxation (i.e., a very small unifying federal government) that all governments require (e.g., for military defense of the homeland), but I can imagine many competing governments with differing cultures or philosophies catering to people with those cultures or philosophies: the various ethnic groups, religions, etc. that are most common in the US. Perhaps people’s ID cards could be used to access benefits offered by the government to which they subscribe.
  • There could be several US presidents, possibly a committee, and elections could end at the primaries.
  • People could be free to live under the kind of government they prefer all the time, not just every four or eight years (or never), and people could actually live under the rules of the smaller parties that currently never win elections.
  • There might be several legal and penal systems that sometimes need arbitration. For example, if Muslims were allowed to wear full-face burqas in public by the democrat government but were prohibited from it by the republican government, and a democrat Muslim wore a burqa in a republican-majority area, how would that be handled?
  • This model might also show people very clearly and quickly the consequences of different forms of government.

O ye religious studies scholar, to what degree is Buddhism a religion?

First, what is “religion”? The word has many meanings around the world, far beyond how Americans often equate it with the three largest Abrahamic religions. People usually mean some kind of everyday/mundane expressions or representations of faith in, or past experience of, “numinous” (i.e., somehow going beyond everyday experience) things. The expressions often include traditional concepts, stories, institutions, rules, practices, rituals, relics, statues, images, talismans, etc. To the degree that one actually experiences numinous states of consciousness, it usually is not called religion, but instead is called spirituality, attainments, visions, feelings, trips (if drugs are involved), exploration, or just experience. Religious expressions often have as much to do with mundane things (nationality, culture, history, politics, etc.) as they do with numinous things, and experiences that people call numinous sometimes feature mundane religious elements (e.g., Christians sometimes see visions of Jesus or angels, Buddhists sometimes see visions of the Buddha, etc.). To what degree that back-and-forth is accurate, or is people’s brains/minds constructing what they want to see to some degree, is hard to say. Arguably, like much of science, the mundane vs. numinous distinction assumes a conventionally “normal” or “healthy” human perspective. Some people’s everyday experiences may include what others would consider numinous. Also, what humans call everyday experiences are the result of specific evolutionary processes in land-based environments only on this planet, so other species might consider different experiences normal.

Buddhism is often said by Western scholars to have a philosophical or psychological monastic core, which is similar to (and much more developed than) phenomenology in the West, as well as a more religious pop-culture periphery. People usually encounter the pop-culture periphery first, so get the impression that Buddhism is quite religious. Buddhist bhikkhu(ni)s (monks and nuns) are the people who most often and seriously study, engage, and experiment with the Buddha’s theories and methods in empirical or intellectual ways. Lay (non-monastic) people can be anywhere on the spectrum of more experience- or knowledge-oriented to more faith-oriented. Whereas a monk might only deeply revere the Buddha, a lay person might worship and pray to the Buddha. Like many religions, the pop-culture periphery probably has become increasingly embellished with dramatic folklore, ornate artwork, etc., as non-monastic people have elaborated upon Buddhism over more than 2,500 years. There can be quite a stark difference between a spartan forest monastery, which can feel more like a psychology laboratory, and an ornate city temple, which can feel like a shrine or art gallery. Later forms of Buddhism (Mahayana, Vajrayana, Pure Land, Zen, etc.) seem to have drifted the monastic core in more religious of directions, with the Buddha(s) being made more god-like and salvation-oriented.

Shallow exploration

My main problem with how people in the US explore Asian philosophical/religious traditions is how shallowly they usually go about it.

Buddhism, for example, is from India (not China or Japan, as many Americans seem to think), is over 2,560 years old, has a canon the size of a bookcase (because the Buddha taught for 50 years, compared with Jesus’ 3 years), has many sects/traditions, and has thousands of years of commentaries and history as well as hundreds of millions of followers in many countries. But all one really sees of it in the US mainstream are misunderstandings (e.g., that nirvana=heaven, which it doesn’t, or that those fatuous Budai statues one sees everywhere are the Buddha, which they aren’t) and things from more than 1,000 years after the Buddha lived, like: Japanese Zen architecture and koans that people take as pithy aphorisms, the Dalai Lama and Tibetan prayer flags, householders (not monastics) teaching “Vipassana” or “Mindfulness” mixed with either New Age things or psychotherapy, and often-decapitated Buddha statues being used randomly as exotic artwork.

Similarly, Hinduism is the oldest living religion in the world, with about 4,000 years of history and many different varieties. But all one really sees of it in the US mainstream is many-armed statues and Yoga, which people here do mostly for either exercise or sexual exhibitionism in spandex pants, ignoring its spiritual and lifestyle aspects.