My previous post describes a week-long silent Buddhist retreat I took last month, which affected me more than I expected. In this post, I’ll offer a few further reflections on the experience, and on Buddhism.
Happiness Versus Truth
Western Buddhists insist that Buddhism is not a religion, it is a science, an empirical method for analyzing the mind and its relation to the world. This claim is disingenuous. Like the monotheistic faiths, Buddhism espouses unprovable supernatural doctrines, namely reincarnation and karma.
And Buddhism is arguably anti-scientific, or anti-intellectual, in that it avoids wrestling with big “why” questions. Why is there something rather than nothing? Why is life this way and not some other way? Why is life so unfair and painful? Buddha supposedly discouraged this sort of metaphysical speculation. He merely accepted that life is hard and prescribed methods for making it more pleasant.
Some seekers find it hard to stop asking why. This tension within Buddhism was dramatized in Jack Kerouac’s autobiographical novel The Dharma Bums, published in 1958. The two main characters are “Ray Smith,” Kerouac’s avatar, and “Japhy Ryder,” based on poet Gary Snyder, who kindled Kerouac’s interest in Buddhism. In one scene, Smith and Ryder are hiking and have the following exchange (which I’ve lightly edited):
Smith/Kerouac: Japhy, do you think God made the world to amuse himself because he was bored? Because if so he would have to be mean…
Ryder/Snyder: Well it says in the Sutra that God… doesn’t himself emanate a world from his womb but it just appears due to the ignorance of sentient beings.
Smith/Kerouac: But he emanated the sentient beings and their ignorance too. It’s all too pitiful. I ain’t gonna rest till I find out why, Japhy, why.
Ryder/Snyder: Ah, don’t trouble your mind essence. Remember that in pure… mind essence there is no asking of the question why and not even any significance attached to it.”
I’m with Kerouac, my fellow lapsed Catholic. I need to ask why, even if I never get a satisfying answer. When I took psychedelics, I was after truth more than happiness. If I had to choose between them, I think I’d go with truth, even if it turned out to be weird and disturbing. I’d prefer to have it all, that is, to feel good about life, embrace it in all its flawed inexplicability, and also to keep trying to figure it out. Probably impossible, but that’s my goal.
How Buddhism Makes You Nicer
The retreat has forced me to reconsider my doubts about whether meditation makes you nicer. As I said in my last post, meditation and other spiritual practices can help you savor each moment, no matter how tedious or annoying, for its own sake. A side effect of that perspective is seeing all people as ends in themselves. Even those who bore, annoy or enrage you–spam callers, car salesmen, rude students–deserve your respect, at the very least.
I experienced this feeling on my first day back from the retreat. Veterans had warned me that re-entry, especially to a clamorous city, would be jarring. But I was fine, more than fine. On my first evening home, I strolled beside the Hudson on a promenade thronged with people of all ages and ethnicities. I found everybody, even vain young men strutting their stuff, fascinating, funny, adorable.
There is a downside of this hyper-appreciation. When I encounter someone who is obviously suffering, like a homeless person with swollen, diabetic legs, it’s harder than it used to be to coldly ignore him. But what should I do? It’s one thing to feel compassion, but when and how should you act upon it? Should I volunteer at the homeless shelter down the street from me? Donate half my paycheck to the poor? Fortunately my compassion feels shallow, so I probably won't have to make these tough choices.
How Buddhism Makes You Meaner
And that brings me to my final point. Obviously not all Buddhists act like saints. Some supposedly enlightened teachers act like jerks or worse. I have an idea why. During the retreat, I became dissociated from my thoughts and emotions, a condition I call The Laziness. I am normally pretty anxious, but my anxiety subsided. It couldn’t get a grip on me. That felt great, because fear harshes my mellow, it keeps me from grokking the moment. To be fearless is to be free. Right?
But fear also serves a social function. It keeps us from acting badly toward others, because we fear social disapproval or punishment, or simply the sting of conscience. Sociopaths lack fear. Buddhism’s ethical precepts—right speech, right action and so on—are intended to keep liberated practitioners from becoming fearless, nihilistic jerks. But some people, freed from fear by Buddhist practice, become jerks anyway.
Your innate temperament might determine how you respond to fearless enlightenment. If you have a strong predisposition toward empathy and compassion, you become a good guru, a bodhisattva, who cares for others. If you have an innate desire for sex and power, if you love messing with people, you become a bad guru, de Sade in a saffron robe. Enlightenment, according to this view, might not transform us as much as we’d like. First there is an asshole, then there is no asshole, then there is.
I’m still glad I took the retreat. It’s one of the most meaningful experiences I’ve ever had, even if I’m not sure what that meaning is.