Yesterday we joined Thanissaro Bhikkhu for a day-long sit with our Laguna Beach sangha. The theme for the day’s dharma talk was “Questions and Doubts.” I felt honored that Than Geoff had added the second part of that title at my request. Because, yes, I am a skeptic when it comes to religions of all kinds. I have reiterated, perhaps too often, that I am reluctant to call myself a “Buddhist,” even though I have engaged in a serious and committed sitting meditation practice for some fifteen years and have done my best to understand and follow the teachings of the Buddha; and I have often struggled with my inability to make that final leap, that final avowal.
So I brought that struggle with me to our session yesterday. After the period of meditation that started the day, Than Geoff led us for a good half hour on an extraordinary, wide-ranging trip through the history of Western religious attitudes and man’s perception of, and relationship to “God.” As I understood his argument, the fundamental difference between those religions and Buddhism is the notion of absolutism, whether of the authoritarian God himself or of man’s interpretation of his existence or his word. The heart of the Buddha’s teachings lies less in the answers than in the questions we ask and the actions that we take, the way we choose to live our lives. It’s a “work in progress” rather than a system of beliefs.
Than Geoff’s talk, and his answers to the questions that followed—many of them, I have to say, from my skeptical self—helped me to refocus my thoughts in an important way. Up until now, I have thought about religion principally in terms of the transcendent: what happens beyond and after our physical existence. Religion, as I have understood it, was about providing answers to the unknowable, the mystery of death, the experience of the numinous; and as such, it always seemed to involve what our current, often vociferous atheists refer to as “magical thinking.” I have found it as difficult to accept that kind thinking as the atheists who scoffed at it, and yet I have found their screeds to be in the long run unconvincing and deeply unsatisfying.
The ultimate challenge, in this way of thinking about religion, is the afterlife. I have never—at least since graduating from Sunday School—been able to give much credit to the notions of heaven and hell. The whole idea of a God making judgments about who should live in bliss for all eternity and who should burn forever in the fires of hell has seemed absurd to me, and incongruous with the very concept of a merciful and loving God. It’s for this reason that I have tended to identity rebirth as the source of my discomfort with Buddhism “as a religion.”
So far as the afterlife is concerned, one part of the Buddha’s teaching reminded me very much of Blaise Pascal’s famous wager in his struggle with Christian thought: to believe in God is a better bet than not to believe, Pascal argued. If you believe and God exists, you’ll go to heaven and avoid hell; if you believe and you’re wrong, you have nothing to lose. But if you don’t believe in God and God does exist, you’ll lose heaven and go to hell; if you’re right, and God really doesn’t exist, then you still have nothing to gain. The Buddha, Than Geoff explained as we went through the relevant text from the Pali canon, agrees that he can’t prove the truth of rebirth and other lives, and argues, like Pascal, that it’s simply the better bet. But the Buddha's wager works positively both ways: if you learn to act skillfully in the world, you stand to gain no matter what the outcome after death because you’ll be happier in this, your single lifetime. And for the Buddha, of course, if we do get to experience an afterlife--or lives--the prospect is not for the “eternal” damnation envisioned by Pascal; hell is just another stage along the path to the deathless, the end of suffering.
Than Geoff, however, made it clear that this was not the central issue—and indeed that an understanding of rebirth is dependent on what is the central issue, which is action, and the consequence of action. Unlike the belief or faith required by other religions, the practice of Buddhism requires only constant questioning, and the testing of actions in the real world against the results they produce: do they add to our stress and suffering, or do they act to release us from their grip? The “deathless”—again, as I understand it—is not the reward of eternal bliss offered through the grace some higher power, but the result of our actions in the world: the eventual, final release from all suffering.
Of course, it doesn’t really matter to anyone, doctrine-wise, whether I call myself a Buddhist or not—though it does seem to matter whether I call myself a Christian, or a Jew, or a Muslim. Buddhism is different from other religions in that regard. It matters really only to me, and I have to conclude that my long-standing reluctance has its origin more in personal and emotional history than in mature thought. There is the history of my father, the Anglican priest, the example of his very physical (Christ-like?) suffering on the crucifix of his ill-health, the guilt I felt for many years about not being able to accept his teachings, and my inability to confront him with my reality as a apostate to the religion to which he devoted his entire life.
So what I think what I’ll do is try being Buddhist on for size. The next time someone asks me if I’m a Buddhist—and it happens fairly frequently—I think that instead of using the usual circumlocutions and qualifications, I’ll try simply saying Yes.