Buddhism as 21st century spiritual philosophy
Exploring early Buddhism
by Mike Meyer
Funny how these things happen. I’ve been working through the problem of religions for many years but with greater urgency as the bizarre role of religion in the collapse of America has become, well, more bizarre. The base reality, as we all know, is the disappearance of the classical religions in post industrial cultures. This was the inevitability of their irrelevance as their traditional interpretations of reality were made absurd with greater knowledge and broader education.
I have no interest in dealing with any fringe religionists who will make outrageous claims and denunciations. But I am very interested in discussing the ideas I present here with anyone who finds them interesting and, perhaps, relevant. Because of my lack of interest in religion as stated above I’m not going to rehash the last three thousand years. Start googling for more information or ask and I will try to answer what I can as a historian who taught for some twenty years.
It has been my and others realization that the nature of the western conflict between the closely linked western classical religions (generally referred to as the Abrahamic religions) and the rise of science incidentally came close to tragically destroying spirituality in the modern world. This led to the radical emphasis on exclusivity of the surviving Mediterranean religions opting to declare war on new knowledge. That left people with a choice between science or religion but a clear lack of scientific support for the inherent human need for a spiritual context for our lives.
This has led to rediscovery of what were once called pagan spiritual traditions of various kinds from the rise of the New Age ideas in the 1960s. The real foundation for this was the introduction of Buddhist traditions in the 19th century from British colonial rule culminating in the American discovery of Japanese and Chinese Zen traditions in the Beat era of the late 1950s. This began the split between religion and spirituality that, incidentally, has greatly accelerated the decline of the old religions in post industrial societies. Human social evolution often works surprisingly well in finding new answers for needs that have lost their old answers while old people declare all hope lost.
Just to be clear I’m not dealing with the battle between science and Judeo-Christian-Islamic religions that is already long finished, but the effects on the emerging planetary civilization that is in phase change now. I’m also not dealing with pre or early industrial cultures that are still struggling with chains of absolutist religion. That is another story that others have covered exhaustively.
Within the western post industrial cultures traditional religions will probably be below 10% of the population within the next ten to fifteen years if not sooner. At that point they become cultural vestiges, as they are in much of western Europe and East Asia. Their teeth are already surprisingly dull in America and have a life only because of their irrational acceptance by the reactionary portions of American society and the traditional focus on religion to justify racism and bigotry in a misbegotten and ancient war against diversity.
Spiritual styles and trends are very much generational in nature and the rise to adulthood of the Millennials or Gen X has shown that generation to be the tipping point in abandonment of traditional religion. Surveys have shown that they are very clearly interested in their own spiritual health but don’t see religion as relevant to that. For some the New Age collections of traditions works but the one clear area of growth in North America is in the broad tradition of Buddhist meditative techniques and ideas. This is even broader if secular terminology is used such as mindfulness or simply meditation training.
The traditional Buddhist temples and churches in America, predominantly in the west with larger Asian populations, are going the same way as churches. The temples are dying just as every community has abandoned churches that make good restaurants, recording studios, or community centers. As always there is the sadness of cultural traditions fading away. As noted above, they do not usually fade away completely but only slowly with a few people maintaining the traditions and rituals for another generation or so.
A surprising link to the distant past
The funny thing that happened was my nearly accidental discovery of new historical research in classical Greek history. Over the last fifteen years or so there has been new archeological discovery of old Buddhist documents related to the origins of ancient Buddhism in Central Asia. This has caused a reappraisal of at least one branch of classical Greek philosophy and the discovery of a much closer link between Athenian classical philosophy and the origins of Buddhism.
What brought this to light for me was a link to a book that I had not heard of but found to be fascinating. This is The Greek Buddha: Pyrroho’s Encounter with Early Buddhism in Central Asia by Christopher Beckwith.
If that title stopped you in your tracks, relax. I will tell you what it is about and why I think it is relevant. Having said that I am going to assume a working knowledge of Buddhism in the world today based on the idea that if you have read this far you have some interest. But I will add that this should teach you that there is more here than you imagined. At the same time this may also appear obvious from our current use of Buddhist traditions and knowledge as a spiritual tool. And that is important.
Updated history of early Buddhism
A broad knowledge of Buddhism was probably presented to you as part of Indian history in university world cultural courses. As a refresher there were Vedic traditions and then the Upanishads all as part of Hindu religious tradition and somehow this was part of an Aryan invasion of Indo European language group peoples who liked cows a lot and who displaced an earlier indigenous people. And then around 500 BCE there was the Buddha. From there, Siddhartha Gautama or just Gautama, became enlightened under a tree and pretty much Buddhism began. About 500 years later Buddhism, as a religion, spread to China and Southeast Asia and then the whole split into Mahayana that went to China and Japan and Hinayana (or Theravada) that stayed in Southeast Asia. After that the Japanese developed Zen Buddhism from Chinese Chan teachings and about five hundred years after that Alan Watts wrote about in 1957. Zen became a Beat thing and then a Hippie thing and ever since has been part of California and New Age culture.
If you know more about it than that, good. For now the issue is way back at the beginning and concerns what Buddhism was before it became Buddhism as a religion. For the most part this is probably completely unknown so it would be new information in any case. This would be true even for Buddhist practitioners and students.
Why is this important? Unlike other classical religions and philosophical systems Buddhism has always been different. Even though it evolved into and remained a functioning religion, one of the “great” religions at its base it was always recognized as more of a system for dealing with the pain of life rather than a set of moral codes with dictated actions for worship of mythological beings of various types.
This was a bit hard to see if you actually were part of a Buddhist culture as religious or normative Buddhism was defined by the Buddha as an object of veneration, Dharma as the law, and the Sangha monastic organizations all with very specific rules. The items of belief included karma based on right or wrong actions that controlled at what level you would be reborn (reincarnation) and a range of spirits as well as junior Buddhas or Bodhisattvas who are able to assist you to enlightenment. Enlightenment basically trumps karma and gets you into the Pure Land or heaven and out of the rebirth cycle.
There is about 2,000 years of tradition in these things modified by region but, unlike the Mediterranean religions, you could pick and choose components beyond the basic structure and still be part of the same system of spiritual action. And, despite the popular assumption, Buddhism never recognized any gods. Enlightened beings could be viewed as nearly divine or not. Even religious Buddhists are atheists although they may not fully understand that or even agree if they came from a traditional sect.
Underlying this was the basic reality that living is filled with pain and desires for things we can’t manage to get and, maybe are disappointed with if we do get them. The Buddha’s goal was to figure out how to control that pain and make for a realistically happy and rewarding life. This is very different from every other religion that demands allegiance to some divine spirit or other that will take care of you, if you do it right, after you die or punish you brutally for doing it wrong. The real part was the local ruler who was the working proxy for the divinity and to whom you owed obedience first. There are sects of Buddhism that are very much like that also as that is the basic structure of most all human religions that have become organized and focused primarily on justification to rule with side dishes of morality and conduct.
There are some problems with all this, however, because what are taken as the oldest teachings of Gautama say that nothing that we think means anything. Not only that but what we think of as “me” doesn’t really exist. And that is the cause of the pain and suffering tied to desire, anger and everything else that makes us miserable. Enlightenment is really just firmly internalizing that knowledge and living it. That’s the secret. That’s it. Building a standard iron age religion from this was a problem but the few teachings dating back to the original Gautama said this so those teachungs had to be respected.
The really strange thing is that all of the oldest statements about this attributed to the Buddha are negative statements. This tells you what truth and reality aren’t but not what it is. Why does it use the negative? Almost no philosophical system nor religion works with this kind of logic. That is why it is so unique and what amazed a young Greek philosopher who was with Alexander the Great during his campaign in India in 326 BCE.
Pyrrho (c. 360 — c. 270 B.C.E.) was a Greek painter who took up philosophy and poetry. He would later become the founder of western skepticism. And, yes, we are all skeptics and live in a skeptical age. This was based on the understanding that there was no way to ultimately make any judgement of good or evil because there was no adequate criterion by which to judge. This was a very radical idea in classical Greek philosophy and many philosophers questioned what Pyrrho was doing.
They also made up stories about him having to be watched because he paid no attention to things and would hurt himself or fall into ditches. A careful analysis of the information about him suggested a very different reason for his actions. Epicurus, who didn’t like skepticism never the less admired Pyrrho because he was able to remain tranquil in all situations. We now know how he came to be this way.
In short he seems to have adopted and tried to embody the Buddhist concept of enlightenment. This was not religious but an ascetic philosophy almost completely lost in the fabricated story of Siddhartha Gautama as the semi divine Buddha. Gautama, also interestingly known in Buddhist tradition as Shakyamuni, was actually, it appears, a forest monk in the Scythian kingdoms of central Asia and not in India (as we know it) at all. This is the reason for the term Shakyamuni which means the Scythian in Japanese based on Chinese.
The historical tradition
As with all the classical religions that usually require a savior like hero to embody divine ideals most all of what became the story of that hero was made up to meet all of the popular expectations. While we have some sense of what little may be historically valid in the Mediterranean religions including Christianity (almost nothing prior to 100 CE) in Buddhism we have nothing but the traditions developed hundreds of years later. There has been, sadly, very little real archeological work on ancient northern India.
That makes the discovery of a known Greek philosopher who was with Alexander’s army in the areas of the earliest evolution of Buddhist learning and tradition amazing. We know from references to Pyrrho’s writing (none of which has survived) that he studied with Buddhist forest monks while there for several years. We also know he was an artist and popular in his youth but was very different, as mentioned above, when he came back.
Just to complete this brief overview, Pyrrho was studying with forest monks within something like 150 years of Gautama’s life. The normative Buddhist tradition has nothing of real historical validity before very close to the Common Era or 250 years after Pyrrho and Alexander the Great.
The link between Gautama, classical Greek philosophy, and the modern rediscovery of the underlying spiritual philosophy of Buddhism as an abstract, skeptical form of something like existentialism, is a logical link to its value in the new age of scientific spiritual knowledge.
The exploration of this logical link between the foundations of early Buddhism and classical Greek philosophy producing a surprisingly successful spiritual system for the 21st century will be covered in an upcoming article.
And thanks to those who found this interesting and wanted to go farther.