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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The not-quite-present moment

Though trying to live in the present moment may be an enlightening exercise, as long as one is conscious, it probably is physically impossible to actually live in the present moment, because the brain always needs a few milliseconds to construct feelings of the self and world from the sensory input it receives. The reality we see is always slightly delayed.

Did the Buddha ignore God(s)?

One thing I find puzzling about the 10 Unanswered Questions and Poisoned Arrow parable in the Pali canon is that they seem to ignore the existence of devas and/or a personal/interactive creator God. If such beings exist, why can’t we just ask them for the answers to those questions? Why do we have to find the answers ourselves? Is Buddhism saying that such beings don’t exist, that such beings are inaccessible or unreliable for some reason (e.g., they live outside of time in a nirvana-type state, or they might not be truthful), or that the answers are beyond human comprehension? What experiences had the Buddha had that allowed him to make such an absolute “it’s useless to try to answer these questions” statement? Though a great achievement, if the Buddha only (re-)discovered, but did not create, nirvana, how could he be sure that he knew the full reality of nirvana (e.g., that nirvana is truly eternal or how nirvana compares with the rest of the universe)? Why did the Buddha not feel it appropriate or necessary to acknowledge whoever or whatever underlies, supports, etc. nirvana? Was, or is, God(s) offended by being ignored or taken for granted in this way?

Don’t brood: have difficult conversations

Many times in my life, in myself and others, I have seen how inaccurate, incomplete, often negative views can be reinforced by brooding or brainwashing — by a person going into some kind of echo chamber (in their head, on the Internet, only spending time with similar people in the real world, etc.) for a long time and repeating certain thoughts or feelings over and over until they become more and more extreme. The same was apparently true in the Buddha’s time, about 2,600 years ago: “‘He insulted me, he hit me, he beat me, he robbed me’ — anger will never cease in those who dwell on such thoughts” (Dhammapada, 3).

But real people are small and complicated. Everyone finds themselves born into a certain body, family, country, etc., which can be hard to escape. Everyone has had many unique past experiences that informed them. No one can see or learn everything. The only way to understand the complexity of life or people is to get out of your comfort zone (either mentally or physically) and have strange, new, different experiences. Brooding or brainwashing in isolation usually only makes one’s views more xenophobic, unrealistic, inaccurate, and incomplete; having difficult, new conversations and experiences usually makes one’s views more connected, realistic, accurate, and complete.

Here is a nice Ted talk, which says pretty much the same thing:

Mindfulness 101

Mindfulness is probably the main Buddhist meditation technique embraced by the Western mainstream, including Western psychology. In general, it teaches people how to keep a mental distance from their experiences — both to reduce life’s stressfulness and to help people think, feel, and behave in a more calm, clearheaded way — without taking drugs. Like any skill, mindfulness takes practice, but pretty much everyone (excluding perhaps people with serious brain injuries) can do it.

Here are the mindfulness meditation steps that have worked best for me:

  1. With your eyes open, not focused on anything in particular, sit in a room and (mentally, internally) note what you see. Don’t get up and do anything in the room. Don’t critique the room; just let it be as it is. Don’t make any plans about what you will do in/to the room in the future (cleaning, re-arranging, socializing, etc.). If it helps, put a one-word label on the things you see (e.g., wall, outlet, carpet, door, etc.). When you’re comfortable with the process of labeling, stop using labels and just observe the room without thinking about it. Notice that the room was built at some point in the past, that it’s existing/abiding for awhile, and that it will someday decay or be destroyed. Actually, you’re not necessarily watching a room — you’re watching images, sounds, etc. that your mind is creating, based on sensory input. These mental constructions may be different than the room’s objective/absolute reality.
  2. Close your eyes, and mentally watch the sensations of your body: pains, pleasures, itches, urges, fatigue, etc. Again, don’t do anything to them. Just let them be as they are. Don’t scratch, don’t shift around, don’t go eat or drink anything, don’t go to the toilet, etc. Just watch. If labeling things helps, do it as before (in step 1, above), but stop once you’re comfortable enough with the process, and just watch the body without thinking. Notice that sensations all follow a predictable, bell-curve-type pattern: they arise, they may abide/stay awhile, then they decay on their own if you don’t do anything. Even itches, aches, etc. will eventually go away on their own. If any sensation is especially troublesome, hold that part of your body at a mental or physical distance, and say to yourself things like “the pain is over there… the pain is separate from me”.
  3. Turn your attention away from your bodily sensations, towards your mental thoughts and feelings. Watch the thoughts and feelings like clouds passing in the sky, or like a movie or TV show on a distant screen. Don’t get caught up in the movie. Don’t give the thoughts or feelings any energy (because this movie is like a “choose your own adventure” story). Don’t pursue, expand upon, cling to, dwell on, etc. anything you see. Just let things come into your mind, stay awhile, and then go. Like so-called “external” things and bodily sensations, notice that thoughts and feelings eventually fade away on their own; you don’t have to fight with them. Also notice how the part of your mind that is doing the watching feels. It isn’t tied up in anything, so it can be very calm, stable, and clear. No matter what happens in life, you can always return to this peaceful state of mind, and can use it to think more clearly.

This practice can be deepened further with Buddhist vipassana and jhana meditations, finding ever-more subtle and peaceful levels of the mind, and gaining ever-more insights into the nature of mental and so-called “physical” phenomena.

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.