5 Seconds of Buddhism

Let’s have 5 seconds on Buddhism:

1. Pithy “eastern-sounding” quotes attributed to the Buddha about non-judgement and being nice to everyone probably aren’t by Gautama. Gautama wasn’t about being nice or being non-judgemental. His philosophy is centred around wisdom and the wise judgement that follows lengthy introspection and empirical knowledge.

For example, the Buddha doesn’t say to tolerate falsehood or delusion. He doesn’t say to dismiss or ignore discussions about these issues and the people who demonstrate them. Quoted from the Kalama Sutta, in which the Buddha speaks with the Kalama people of India:

“Now, what do you think, Kalamas? When delusion arises in a person, does it arise for welfare or for harm?”
“For harm, sir.”
“And this deluded person, overcome by delusion, his mind possessed by delusion, kills living beings, takes what is not given, goes after another person’s wife, tells lies, and induces others to do likewise, all of which is for long-term harm & suffering.”
“Yes, sir.”
“So what do you think, Kalamas: Are these qualities skillful or unskillful?”
“Unskillful, sir.”
“Blameworthy or blameless?”
“Blameworthy, sir.”
“Criticized by the wise or praised by the wise?”
“Criticized by the wise, sir.”
“When adopted & carried out, do they lead to harm & to suffering, or not?”
“When adopted & carried out, they lead to harm & to suffering. That is how it appears to us.”

Now, let’s be really careful here for a second: Gautama is not describing mental illness. He’s talking about having a wilfully ignorant, delusional character like we see illustrated in Donald Trump or Ted Cruz. While he does say not to entangle yourself in useless debate or to spend energy on wilfully ignorant minds, he affirms that the Kalamas need [not] “go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability…” and so forth. He advocates for an empirical view for framing critique and wisdom, and as anyone who’s ever had their foot in their mouth knows: That’s hard.

Gautama expects people to develop wisdom, not merely have it. A key part of Buddhist practice is centred around the cultivation of wisdom and wise behaviour, classified as Upaya, or “Skilful Means”. It’s a term of pedagogy, and a part of what many casual learners miss. The Four Noble Truths or C̣atvari Aryasatvani tells us that there’s a method to end suffering, and developing wisdom is key to that.

2. Quotes which reference the “Soul” are very unlikely to be from Gautama or another Buddhist teacher. Buddhism talks about consciousness and mind, but almost never the “soul”. When they do, it’s usually as a refutation of a permanent self or personal divinity. While the Yogacara schools of thought do ascribe alaya-vijnana as the continuum of consciousness, the metaphysics involved do not postulate a single continuing self, but rather qualities which may or may not recombine into similar persons in future births. This is further reduced down by things like Pure Land because they were speaking to the common person and not scholars in the past, but even this goes back to the Yogacara ideas, which are not directly from Gautama, but expounded by Maitreya, Asanga, and Vasubandhu (later Buddhist teachers).

3. Buddhism isn’t about pithy dismissiveness, nor about good feelings. The detachment described in Buddhism is intended to be practical, giving a person distance from their own suffering to be able to analyze it and find closure. Mahayana philosophy (the more popular school of thought in East Asia which sects like Zen and Gelug are a part of) balances this with a strong focus on compassion, affirming that you need to be gentle in your skillful means, especially with others. Otherwise you may wind up doing more harm than good, even in “detachment”. This is a core component of debate in Mahayana circles, wherein they classify one set of learning as “hinayana” — dealing only with establishing mental and emotional clarity and detachment. Hinayana, at least in this context, means “lesser vehicle/learning”, while the Mahayana (greater teaching) supersedes this initial philosophy with a strong focus on personal and social compassion.

Buddhism isn’t about good feelings, pithy sayings, or detachment. It’s about concentration and self-appraisal. It’s about being skilled as a human being practicing their humanity. It takes years to experience the fruits of your practice because of how demanding the requirements of Buddhist practice are. If all you’re getting out of it is relaxation, you might be doing it wrong.

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