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 and the Thai Dhammakaya Movement, 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.

Science as the new church

Atheism/scientism seems to me like more of a reaction against (mostly Christian) theism than a philosophy in its own right. It apparently lacks a clear system of ethics or morality, to prevent people from using it in selfish, angry, greedy, etc. ways. Most people never achieve science’s full understanding on any topic, or will ever see the inside of a real laboratory while a groundbreaking experiment is happening. Almost no one achieves science’s full understanding on multiple topics, and no one achieves science’s full understanding on every topic. One must have faith in the claimed scientific findings and knowledge of others as well as in scientific institutions run by self-interested people. And science reinforces federal government or large corporate control (e.g., that only large governments or corporations usually can afford, or are socially mobilized, to fund the largest, most groundbreaking research; that people should run out and buy the latest technology; that people should not object, or should be powerless, when new technologies put them out of a job; etc.), social hierarchies (e.g., levels of professors, administrators, and students), and gatekeeper institutions (e.g., large publishing companies). These things are very similar to how large Christian churches and monasteries have been run since ancient times. Scientists are like today’s monks — separated from the general population by their over-achievements or their mental obsessions, cloistered away in expensive controlled environments, trying to ignore most of life in order to focus intensely on something in order to find the truth of it — and normal people are often required to have faith in them.

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.

What distinguishes and unifies the US?

My family came to North America about 350 years ago, before the US existed; we were among the early British settlers/invaders of the continent (for which I am not proud); and we have participated in most of the milestones of the US’s history (for some of which, such as slavery, I also am not proud). I am nearly middle-aged now, and have spent most of my life in various places around the US. Though I have met a few political refugees here, and there are small enclaves of foreign diaspora communities mostly around large cities, still it seems to me that the only thing that really unifies most Americans is overworking to fund indulgent materialism and the world’s largest military expenditure. When I meet people from/in other countries, their impression of the US is usually that it’s where people go to make money. So, on this Independence Day weekend, I ask: what else distinguishes and unifies the US?

  • Economic hub? Though the NYSE is the world’s largest exchange by market capitalization, if foreign companies are going to be listed on a stock exchange outside their home country, they usually use the London or Luxembourg exchanges. The US’s high tax rates also often motivate US companies to keep large sums of money elsewhere.
  • Equality? Billionaires and large corporations, dynastic or life-long politicians, mass media, and the electoral college form an almost untouchable oligarchy / class system. The US is still struggling with age-old issues like gender, ethnic, and religious equality, as well as, after hundreds of years, what to do with the conquered indigenous peoples who it still grants only pitifully small reservations on undesirable lands (I’ve visited a few in the western US). US TV and film are still mostly dominated by people of northern European descent.
  • Freedoms? In terms of freedoms and “development,” the US consistently ranks 10-15th, or lower, in the world. The US military-intelligence establishment has created an immense police/surveillance state, the US has one of the highest incarceration rates in the world, and people often note that every little thing in the US is becoming more bureaucratic and litigious. The US TV and film industries are saturated with endless cop, courtroom, forensics, and spy shows. Even street cops these days often look like paramilitary commandos.
  • Healthcare? Other than the way that very poor people sometimes can go to emergency rooms for free, the US is one of the few wealthy countries that doesn’t provide any form of universal healthcare.
  • Infrastructure? The US is so large, its state, county, and city governments so numerous, and its large corporations so powerful that its mass-adoption of new technologies (e.g., fast/ubiquitous trains, broadband, etc.) often falls behind smaller countries.
  • Inventions? Most of the US’s inventions are either business-related or militaristic. The US’s main cultural inventions include: the materialistic “American Dream,” a fall harvest festival that often presents a false unity between Native Americans and European invaders as well as excludes vegetarians and non-theists (Thanksgiving), sports that either resemble cricket (baseball) or emphasize genetically unusual (large or tall) people (American football and basketball), deep-fried or refined-sugary foods that cause obesity and heart attacks, blues and rock music inspired by the oppression/legacy of slavery, arrogant/violent cowboys, and small and rather arbitrary modifications of British English words (e.g., travelled to traveled, colonisation to colonization, theatre to theater, etc.).
  • Language? The US’s official language came from England, it is slowly losing ground to Spanish, and many immigrant communities around big US cities avoid English if they can.
  • Laws? The US’s legal system has Roman and European roots.
  • Political leadership? US politics are so ideologically oppositional that most of the legislative time seems to be spent in stalemates or passing useless bills. There also are always quite large political parties (libertarians, environmentalists, etc.) with agendas that are poorly represented by the main two parties. For decades, the US public has gone back and forth about whether the president should be a functional statesman or a ceremonial celebrity (functions which countries with monarchies usually separate), and the president has gained such an incredible amount of power that the entire world nervously watches a year-long election pageant every four years. One of the current presidential candidates is a billionaire playboy reality TV show star, and the US has a history of electing to high offices celebrities who lack much political experience (e.g., Ronald Reagan and Arnold Schwarzenneger). During the Cold War, US and Russian leaders had the power to mostly destroy humanity within a few hours or days, among similarly vast telecommunication and economic powers. Yet, though the president’s power is much more immense than when the US was created in 1776, a single person still can hold office for a lengthy eight years.
  • Religion? The US’s main religions and holidays came from the Middle East and Europe, membership in them is steadily falling, and many immigrants from places other than the Middle East or Europe have different religions. In many US workplaces, saying anything about cultural, ethnic, gender, philosophical, political, religious, etc. things has become taboo, because somebody might take offence, and few Americans are broadly educated or acculturated enough to have intelligent discussions about such things. This adds to the general sense that Americans’ public lives must be purely secular and materialistic. The most notable American religious inventions that come to my mind are radical off-shoots of foreign mainstream religions, for example: Southern Baptists, Christian cults (the KKK, Charles Manson, Heaven’s Gate, etc.), and the Nation of Islam (Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali, before they changed to mainstream Sunni Islam).
  • Responsible living? People in the US are highly materialistic/indulgent, wasteful, and apparently in denial about both life’s impermanence and the effects of their actions on the rest of the planet or on future generations. For example: they surround themselves with young people and new things, throw things away that are barely broken or simply out of style, live in giant houses and drive giant cars, eat mostly imported food and waste about 30-40% of their food, eat food and medications containing many synthetic chemicals which might cause cancer and environmental harm in the long-term, embalm their dead bodies with hazardous chemicals that can leach into the ground(water) after death, use electricity/fossil-fuels and non-recyclable plastics with reckless abandon, rely on heavy industry and nuclear fission power that release mercury and other toxins into the environment which accumulate over time and take thousands or millions of years to decay, make their appearances look more unnatural with every passing year, and on and on. Even many of the chemicals (e.g., heavy metals) used in 4th of July fireworks can be toxic to the environment, and often are released into lakes or rivers during municipal fireworks displays.
  • Standardization? The US is so isolated that it is often among the last to adopt international standards. For example, only the US, Liberia, and Myanmar (a closed anocracy) continue to use non-metric measurement systems; the US has idiosyncratic electricity voltages and frequencies; non-Unicode or non-ISO character encodings are still common in many US people’s computers; and, until 2009, the US had an unusual analog TV encoding system (NTSC).
  • Virtue and tolerance? The US’s love of graphic sex, intoxicants, and violence in media, sports, and sometimes life, as well as its habit of trying to influence and police the world, are highly reminiscent of ancient kingdoms or European colonialists.