Unsatisfactory Simplicity

By Tim Butler | Posted at 11:07 PM

On its surface, pure Theravada Buddhism seems like an attractive worldview. There is plenty to like about it: it features philosophical simplicity, and its middle path, while restrictive, might seem like a peaceful respite to many who want to escape the hectic everyday world. Unlike the expanded worldviews that are often built on top of Buddhism, it seems that one could argue that there is little to assert as even a potential conflict between the components of Theravada Buddhism.

So why does there seem to be a tendency for almost all cultures that have Buddhist roots to add on additional layers of complexity, such as savior-like Bodhisattvas, various other similar concepts or even the elevation of merit making? Why not keep the system simple and focused on the self? Yet, while this might seem a bit puzzling at first, as anthropologists and other observers of such things will note, Buddhism has not appeared in any substantial fashion within a society without the addition of elements that start sounding like ideas from theistic religions. More correctly stated, the composite religion of most Buddhists is quite theistic, or at least, animistic, indeed.

It would seem that the philosophical system that focuses on eliminating unsatisfactory beliefs, is, in fact, unsatisfactory. Why would this be? Perhaps one can argue that we should return to the idea that humans have some kind of innate desire for the supernatural. We could follow Freud’s line of thought and suggest that this originates from some kind of primeval neurosis or we could follow the ideas of C.S. Lewis and argue that God has placed natural law within us that causes us turn and look for the One beyond the Many. At any rate, we do seem to have a hardwired need to have someone save us.

As I wrote in a past consideration of savior figures (not presently available online, although I should remedy that), “people need the hope of a solution to the problems that plague everyday life, those problems that have no clear answer.” While the Buddha offers what appears to be help for the realization of life’s “unsatisfactoriness,” it is an introspective solution that still leaves the actual saving to the individual. The Buddha is what I would term a “philosophical savior” – he may provide “right thinking,” but the individual receives no substitionary assistance against the sea of troubles that rushes toward him or her. As an American monk, in the classic video series the Long Search with Ronald Eyre, explained, it is all about looking in one’s self. This is comforting to some extent, for we do like the idea of accomplishing our own salvation, but at the same time we seem to sense that we cannot do what needs to be done. If everything depends on me, it seems that I may be in trouble, especially if it is a mental process on which my fate hinges.

Therefore, it seems reasonable that those shown a system like Buddhism may find the simplicity of its system worth trying to adopt, but cannot face dukka, if we wish to call it that, or “the fall,” in Christian terminology, without a life preserver thrown our way. If we acknowledge that there is a cohesive order of some sort in the universe, be it God or the Void, it just seems logical to acknowledge that there must be some help outside ourselves unless the universe is just a cruel joke. We should not ignore the possibility that the universe is a cruel joke, or simply completely gratuitous, but if one has reached the point of acknowledging that a religion offers the key to understanding life, the universe and everything, it seems that we have already moved past the idea that there is no hope at all.

The question I would ask is this: can anyone truly eliminate the belief in a savior completely? As an atheist, C.S. Lewis was angry with God for not existing; that is, even when he did not believe, he believed enough to place the blame on God. I suspect most people who do not acknowledge a belief in a savior, still have someone or something in mind that serves a scapegoat; however they do not acknowledge it to others, or perhaps even themselves. While I am not a Buddhist monk, and cannot know what goes on in a monk’s mind, I wonder if it isn’t something like the mindset of the Deists. As Deists believed that their good works would, in the end, tip the cosmic scale of justice in their favor despite acknowledging failing to be perfectly good, I suspect that many Buddhists may realize they cannot eliminate desire, for even the desire to eliminate desire is a desire, but hope that they will be “desire-less enough” to accomplish their goal. In either case, there is an unmentioned component to the hope. Despite acknowledging an absolute standard, we start to figure that in our cases, the rules will surely be bent just a little. Once we reach this point, there is an assumed savior, for anything that bends the rules for us would be, by definition, someone saving us – a savior.

In the end, no matter how we try to work it out, we come back to this need to be saved. I would submit that the unsatisfactoriness of our own efforts is precisely why Theravada Buddhism does not generally exist “in the wild” without being combined with other spiritual beliefs that help with this need.

Tags: Religion

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