General Question

whiteliondreams's avatar

Is there a neutral state prior to karma?

Asked by whiteliondreams (1693 points ) June 10th, 2012

Buddhist doctrine describes karma as the literal translation, which is “action”. My action is my doing. My karma is my doing. I have been thinking of the karma and nirvana connection and am trying to figure out if there is a neutral state prior to any action, such as neutrons for instance. If there is a neutral state, but this state somehow comes into contact with a negative or positive reaction, this would change the notion of neutrality into an action (karma). Therefore, in order to obtain nirvana, does this mean that a state of neutrality must be achieved? If so, how?

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46 Answers

gailcalled's avatar

How can neutrons be a neutral state, prior or after to any action?

whiteliondreams's avatar

@gailcalled…I’m not familiar with science, but do neutrons have positive or negative charges? I cannot edit my question because ten minutes have passed. Do you have anything productive to add to my discussion?

gailcalled's avatar

I need to understand it before I can answer it. Neutrons have no charge; electrons have a positive charge and protons a positive one. We are talking about physics and not Buddhism; they are as different as chalk and cheese.

whiteliondreams's avatar

Not so. They are not so different. In Buddhism, karma is the actions of your previous life and the actions you commit today will affect the next life; however, if you were once in a neutral state, then what object would affect you to create a positive or negative state? The main concept of Buddhism is to achieve nirvana, which is the state in which you are not reborn. Therefore, if you started neutral but came into contact with any pos or neg energy, you manifest. What can be done to get back into the neutral state of achieving nirvana? I mean no offense at all when I say that perhaps because you do not understand the ideology you cannot answer the question.

MilkyWay's avatar

@gailcalled Electrons need to be positively charged to get a positive charge, otherwise they are negatively charged by nature.

Bill1939's avatar

An action (physical, mental or emotional) increases the probability of the recurrence of that action. Whether past lives (and their karma) is possible, remains an open question for me. However, I believe that it is not just an individual’s karma, but the collective karma of everyone (including karma historically accumulated) that brings potential futures to be realized in the moment. Therefore, no one can be said to be free of karma (what I think you mean by “a neutral state” of karma).

A neutron is a particle without an electric charge. Protons have a positive charge, electrons have a negative charge, and their antiparticle forms have opposite charges. I do not think that particles at rest can be correlated to karma, though their motion (momentum) may be analogous.

I believe the issue of karma is whether it is good or bad, not present or absent. I imagine that a spiritual field, comparable to the earth’s magnetic field, envelops creation. Actions that are aligned with this field support creation’s continuation. This would be “good” karma. Actions in opposition would be “bad” karma.

I believe that nirvana is a profound peace of mind and the bringing to an end of one’s suffering. Dharmic religions (Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism and Sikhism), believe that one is subject to a repeated cycle of death and rebirth until the final extrication of one’s soul or consciousness (moksha or mukti) and a union with the Supreme being (the aforementioned spiritual field). If this is correct, then one should be seeking karmic alignment and not the neutralization of karma.

Lightlyseared's avatar

@MilkyWay positively charged electrons are called positrons and are anitmatter

Adirondackwannabe's avatar

This isn’t physics, it’s karma. Yeah, I think a neutral state would be necessary for nirvana. You’d have to be very mellow, nothing poitive or negative to achieve nirvana.

Rarebear's avatar

There is no such thing as karma.

Bill1939's avatar

Positrons are an antimatter form of electrons and have a positive charge, as @Lightlyseared wrote, and the antimatter form of protons is antiprotons, which have a negative charge. Most kinds of particles have an associated antiparticle with the same mass but an opposite electric charge.

Perhaps I can agree with @Adirondackwannabe‘s assertion that to achieve nirvana you must be free of karma. After one recognizes the existence of karma, they need to be free of that notion. Attachment to anything, including whether or not you have karma, creates karma and increases your suffering. The evolution of one’s nature from an animal beginning to a spiritual ending requires a shift in the focus of one’s consciousness away from self.

While karma is not literally a thing, as @Rarebear says, that doesn’t mean that this ancient term cannot be applied to the more modern concept of psychosocial momentum.

gailcalled's avatar

What, pray tell, is “psychosocial momentum”?

Bill1939's avatar

While the idea is not original to me, @gailcalled, the term may be. We are a product of the culture into which we were born. Our source for our mental universe of ideas, objects, emotions and values, the core of our belief systems, was the inculcates by our family, friends and community.

With experience and time, our mental universe can with increasing accuracy reflect the reality outside ourselves. However, initially our understanding is overly simplified and incomplete, filled with fictions arising from primal hopes and fears, and with mythologies and propaganda presented to shape our character.

Our predecessors were also products of their environment, as were all the progenitors that preceded them. Each epoch has been propelled by previous epochs. The history of civilization has shaped humanity and you. I call this propelling force psychosocial momentum.

gailcalled's avatar

Ah. And is “inculcates” now a noun?

Bill1939's avatar

“in·cul·cate tr.v. in·cul·cat·ed, in·cul·cat·ing, in·cul·cates. 1. To impress (something) upon the mind of another by frequent instruction or repetition; instill: inculcating sound principles. 2. To teach (others) by frequent instruction or repetition; indoctrinate: inculcate the young with a sense of duty.” The American Heritage Dictionary

I wanted to use inculcations, but I not sure that is a word. However, I believe you got my intended meaning, even if the word was badly chosen.

gailcalled's avatar

@Bill1939: I know what the verb means. In fact, the only noun form is “inculcation.”

Bill1939's avatar

I stand corrected, @gailcalled.

SavoirFaire's avatar

The question, it seems to me, rests in part on a confusion. States do not come into contact with actions or reactions. Actions are events that may cause things to transition from one state to another. According to standard Buddhist doctrine, however, there aren’t really things at all (anatta). Indeed, the illusion that there are separate, independent things is part of what must be overcome to achieve nirvana.

According to standard Buddhist doctrine, the karmic cycle is the working out of the consequences of our actions. Nirvana is not a neutral state so much as a state detached from the normal flow of events. People act, and those actions have consequences. Furthermore, those consequences extend beyond the lives of those who caused them. This leads to the doctrine of rebirth.

Now, rebirth is only a metaphor in Buddhism; no entity can literally be reborn because no entity truly existed in the first place. What the doctrine says, then, is simply this: you as a conscious being live in a particular way and die with a particular state of consciousness, a state that in turn affects the beginning state of some future consciousness. Thus the karmic cycle perpetuates itself until someone can end (their part of) the pattern.

How do we end the pattern? By removing those conditions that allow it to exist and perpetuate in the first place. Nothing can exist, after all, when that which sustains it ceases to exist. Water ceases to boil when its heat source is removed; suffering ceases to exist when the desire is removed (as suffering just is the result of a desire for a different state of consciousness).

When suffering ceases, nirvana is obtained. This is significant for any number of reasons, but its impact on the cycle of rebirth is that it represents an extinguishing of a particular causal chain. One who achieves nirvana does not contribute to the existence of any future consciousness because the illusions that perpetuate the karmic cycle have been overcome. Karma has come to a full stop in this particular case. There is nothing left to inherit.

This is a rather dry account given from the outside. With any luck, someone will come along and give a more lively—not to mention more accurate—account from the inside.

LostInParadise's avatar

@SavoirFaire , That was well put. There are aspects to Buddhism that I find appealing, but it seems, in it original non-Americanized form, to be very pessimistic. Desire leads to suffering, so the solution is to stop desiring and to enter a vegetative state, which is how Nirvana appears to me.

As to the original question, actions lead to actions, the way that a moving object transfers its momentum to another upon making contact. Nirvana is a neutral state, a way of quitting the game.

whiteliondreams's avatar

@gailcalled Your posts have no tone to their character or temper and it is difficult to tell whether you are being sarcastic or conscientious.

whiteliondreams's avatar

@SavoirFaire I understand the notion better with your explanation. I understand that nothing truly exists because something simply exists because significance is placed on an object or idea in order to discern it from others. There is this book I am reading called “Kamma” by Bhikkhu Silacara and he uses the examples of karma as cables under water that surface to show their current state of karma (good or bad) and that karma is in fact a web connected to all beings as @Bill1939 presumed. Another metaphor is that existence is a manifestation of karma. This is where I am begging the question, a manifestation from what state? In other words, what is the karma that disrupts nirvana to begin with? More specifically, before any manifestation.

thorninmud's avatar

Karma is best seen as a description of consequences of the self-illusion. “Karma” means “action”, yes, but it refers specifically to intentional action (karma belongs to the moral sphere, and so intention is central). Wherever there is intent, there is necessarily a notion of self as actor. Intentional action, then, carries the germ of an idea of self. Any action that carries this taint of self creates karma.

But a core insight of Buddhism is that this self is only an idea; that it is a character in a story that consciousness creates to explain the goings on in the world, not a real feature of the world itself. Karma belongs to this story, not to the world as it really is. Karma is, in this sense, what directs the plot of the story and what perpetuates the story. But it remains just a story about a fictional being.

The world as it is unfolds independently of this idea of self. Actions naturally occur all the time that do not involve a thought of self in the least bit. This is the level of reality that Buddhists call “no-self”. The vast majority of the actions of a human body have no self-reference. It’s only in retrospect that consciousness writes a story about a self that does these things: “My nose itched, so I scratched it”. In reality, there was no “I” involved. The reality is that there was no intermediary between itch and scratch. They were one seamless process. Such an action creates no karma. The premise of Buddhism is that the idea of self need not enter into actions. The idea of self gets implicated far more than is either required or useful, and so karma is generated unnecessarily.

Nirvana is none other than the world as it is, unfolding without self. It’s always right there, indifferent to this story of self and its karma. When attention is caught up in the self-story (as it usually is), then the world appears fraught with karma. When attention is directed away from the self-story toward the world as it is—toward no-self—then the self and its karma seem as irrelevant as last night’s dream. That’s Nirvana.

Nirvana, being the fundamental reality, isn’t something that happens when one attains a certain state. It is, and always has been, one’s inherent condition. This reality just gets confused by all of these self-ideas. In other words, Nirvana isn’t part of the story; the story is written on the paper of Nirvana, so that we can’t see the paper for the writting. Stop the writting—even for just a moment—and there’s the pure, white paper, just as it is.

LostInParadise's avatar

@thorninmud Can abstract reasoning exist without a sense of self? If all you do is react to what is, and not to what is not present or what might be present, then are you not reduced to being an automaton? Alternatively, doesn’t the ability to contemplate alternatives require consciousness?

thorninmud's avatar

@LostInParadise Abstract thought often involves self because thought represents the world conceptually, then manipulates those concepts, and the self is a denizen of that conceptual world. In the process of engaging all of these concepts, this old familiar concept of self often steps forward whether it’s called for or not. The concepts to which the mind resorts most frequently are the ones which tend to leap most easily to hand, and the self-concept is by far the most frequently referenced. This explains the momentum of karma, and the difficulty of winding it down.

To make matters worse, the self gets invoked as the thinker of the thoughts, just as it is assumed to be the entity behind a whole subset of other actions. The semantics of the thought process would have it that actions must involve actors, and so it postulates the existence of a self to fill this role. If thoughts are happening, well then “I” must be thinking them.

Inserting the concept of self in the thought process when it isn’t necessary (and that’s very often the case) makes the process less efficient at best, and at worst perverts it. Instead of the self being seen for what it is—a semantic expedient—it becomes the central consideration around which decisions are made.

There is most certainly a place for conceptual thinking. There is even a place for the self-concept. None of this is seen as inherently “bad” in Buddhism. Misunderstanding the nature of conceptual thinking (i.e. mistaking concepts for the reality they represent), and especially mistaking the self-concept for a real feature of the world, will lead to unnecessary suffering. That’s the gist of the Buddhist teaching.

You raise this specter of life as an automaton. This common conclusion is a direct result of this persistent illusion that the self is really back there running the show, the doer behind all our actions. But it isn’t. Thought happens without a thinker. Life happens without anyone to live it. You can’t imagine that this is the case, because your imagination requires that semantic tool of a self-concept. So instead, you imagine some blank, featureless existence.

LostInParadise's avatar

I appreciate your answer. It is similar to explanations I have seen before. I get stuck on the idea of thoughts without a thinker. If consciousness is an illusion, then who exactly is it that is having the illusion? Is the illusion just another disembodied thought? If so, then there is no way to take responsibility for it.

thorninmud's avatar

@LostInParadise When you say, “If consciousness is an illusion…”, I wonder what exactly you mean by “consciousness”. Is it experience itself, i.e. sentience? Is it the conceptual model of the world? When the thumb gets hit with the hammer, where does consciousness come into play? In the experience of the pain, or in the subsequent thought, “I just hit my thumb with a hammer?”

Buddhism wouldn’t contend that the experience of the pain is in the least bit illusory. In the moment of the experience itself, there is no hammer, no thumb, no I. There is just the experience. The “I just hit my thumb with a hammer” is how this moment will go down in the mental logbook that is our conceptual breakdown of experience. That’s not really illusion, either; it’s simply the way experience is encoded. Illusion enters the picture when we confound the experience with the interpretation, mistaking the map for the terrain, as it were.

“Disembodied thought?” No such thing. Don’t confuse the body with the self.

thorninmud's avatar

@LostInParadise (continuing here) Responsibility is karma, in a sense. When actions are performed in the name of self, then the self will also be implicated in the fallout of those actions. All of this plays out on the “story” level, in which there are selves acting and accruing karmic consequences. But again, this is a story written on the paper of Nirvana, which knows of no selves.

Does all this provide a kind of “no-self loophole” in which one could do all kinds of harmful things without engaging any responsibility, just by doing them without a thought of self? Absolutely not. Quite the opposite. It is the idea of self that is behind the actions that we universally consider reprehensible.

LostInParadise's avatar

So we lock up the idea of self, which has curiously attached itself to a body? Sorry, this is just not making sense to me.

I do like meditating, but in my view it is the meditative process that tries to create an illusion of separation of thought from self. Unlike others I have spoken to, I have not been able to master the art of seeing thoughts as transient bubbles. I do, however, find the practice a really effective way of getting focused.

whiteliondreams's avatar

For a lot of discourse, I am quite disappointed that I didn’t receive more great question stars. I guess it wasn’t a great question…in addition to your discourse, I realized that I was being selfish and requesting more of what I didn’t need. More lurve. Lurve comes and lurve goes. My ego (the self) was overreaching. Are you Buddhist @thorninmud ?

thorninmud's avatar

@LostInParadise No “locking up” required. It’s simply a matter of attention. When attention is steadily directed to the unfolding of experience, it can be seen as experiential fact that no self is involved in this. No one sees this, but it is nonetheless seen. Once seen, it becomes clear that self is just an idea. Then the idea of self can continue to fill its proper role as an occasionally useful construct, without usurping the role of commander-in-chief.

Everybody who undertakes meditation runs up against the same barrier you describe. The writing of the story is such a habit of mind that it carries over into the meditative experience and narrates it as it does other activities: “I am meditating, and here is what I am (or am not) experiencing…”. This seeing oneself as the meditator and experiencer can go on for a very long time indeed, and there’s really not much that you can do to foil that, precisely because you are the gremlin in the works. It just has to run its course. All that is to be done is to let go of concern about how you’re doing, and give yourself over to attentive absorption in the experience.

thorninmud's avatar

@whiteliondreams Good catch. And yes, I’m Buddhist.

thorninmud's avatar

@LostInParadise Oh wait, by “locking up” you meant putting in jail. Sorry.

We lock up a demonstrably harmful thought process, embodied as are all thoughts, and prone to creating further harmful karma.

flutherother's avatar

@thorninmud That was very interesting, thank you. Buddhism is quite different from anything in mainstream Western thought but some of its ideas seem similar to those of Chinese Taoist philosophy; the concept of wu wei, or ‘acting without acting’ for example.

SavoirFaire's avatar

@LostInParadise Schopenhauer also interpreted Buddhism in a rather pessimistic way and consciously emulated this interpretation in the formulation of his own pessimistic philosophy. Nietzsche originally accepted Schopenhauer’s analysis, but came to see Buddhism as much less pessimistic than Abrahamic religions—specifically Christianity—as time progressed. Buddhism does not denigrate this world in favor of another, for instance, nor does it conclude that life is not worth living. Instead, it shifts the focus to this moment and this life, which is a key move in rejecting pessimism (see this post). Moreover, the retreat from harmful desires is not unique to Buddhism. It is a central element of Epicurean philosophy—which, in my opinion, has quite a bit of overlap with Buddhism—as well as ancient Cynicism. Yet it would be implausible to call either of these philosophical traditions “pessimistic.”

As for nirvana being a vegetative state, the adept Buddhist is quite the active being. Meditation might seem like a vegetative state from the outside, but it is not. Indeed, neuroscientists have discovered that mediation is like exercise for the brain: a strengthening process with an effect that lingers even after a particular meditative session has ended. A very brief overview can be found here. Moreover, meditation is simply one aspect of Buddhism. It is an exercise in which people engage so as to keep the mind in proper order when returning to ordinary life. Thus the Zen saying that “when an ordinary man attains knowledge, he is a sage; when a sage attains understanding, he is an ordinary man.” What changes is the conceptualization of the world, not the willingness to engage with it. There are hermit monks, of course, but they are still engaged with the world (even if not with other people).

As for the Buddhist view of the mind, it also has parallels in Western thought. See, for instance, Hume’s view of the self. There are competing accounts of what Hume is trying to do when discussing these issues, but any reasonable account must recognize that he rejects the view that there is some separate thing called the self that is not the outgrowth of underlying elements. It’s not that there aren’t thinkers in any sense of the word, but that there aren’t thinkers in a particular sense of the word. But that sense of the word is what the thinkers take themselves to be, and so it turns out that there are not thinkers in the sense with which people are concerned. There’s just stuff that gives rise to thoughts, but no separate thinker to which those thoughts are conveyed (no Cartesian theater). This view does not support the notion of disembodied thought. Indeed, Hume—who, of course, was not a Buddhist—might be seen as trying to demonstrate that thoughts are just as much in our fingers as they are in our brains.

This post is more about Western philosophy than it is about Buddhism, but I hope it has been helpful nonetheless.

SavoirFaire's avatar

@whiteliondreams I hope that @thorninmud‘s responses have helped answer your questions, particularly this one. The advent of the karmic cycle is the conceptualization of the self as a separate being. I am not aware of any official Buddhist answer to what caused this. One might think it is irrelevant to the extent that the issue is how to solve a problem we know exists. If we wanted to explain it ourselves, however, then it seems to me that the answer would be “whatever caused human beings to start conceptualizing in such a way caused the karmic cycle to get going.” So we evolved to be capable of such forms of conceptualization, and then someone started actually doing it. If the habit seemed useful, and if its harmful effects were not able to be easily traced back to it, then this sort of self-conceptualization would perpetuate itself. It may just be a completely natural way for human beings to act. But that it is natural in no way proves that it is good or optimal.

LostInParadise's avatar

The first noble truth is that life is suffering. Suffering is relieved by removing attachment to earthly things. Until a person succeeds in detaching himself, he keeps returning to earth through reincarnation. Only when he fully detaches himself will he reach final Nirvana, ending the cycle of reincarnation so that he never again has to return. How can that not be seen as a negative view of life?

thorninmud's avatar

@LostInParadise The first Noble Truth is not “Life is suffering”, though somehow that has become the popular English formulation of it. The Sanskrit word dukkha, translated here as “suffering”, is actually closer to “unsatisfactoriness”. And this modifier is referring not to life, but specifically to the condition of self-hood. The import of the first Noble Truth is that the self can never be satisfied. Where there is self, there is necessarily desire; it’s a package deal. Even when there are moments of apparent satisfaction, there is also the dissatisfaction of knowing that conditions will eventually change. When we don’t have what we want, we’re dissatisfied, and when we do have what we want, it doesn’t remain satisfactory. So all things are also dukkha—incapable of bringing lasting satisfaction. This first Noble truth is a description of the core human malaise.

If it all ended there, that wouldn’t be very good news, but it doesn’t. The subsequent Noble Truths go on to identify the mechanism that generates dukkha, claim that it’s possible to put an end to dukkha, and then prescribe a method for doing this. That’s actually one of the most optimistic messages possible.

The solution boils down to what we’ve already discussed: rather than continue the futile pursuit of trying to satisfy a self that by its nature cannot be satisfied, instead discover the unsubstantiality of the self, that it’s just an idea. See that it also comes and goes (!), and that life is at its best when the idea of self is not in the picture.

It isn’t a matter of escaping the world at all. Nirvana is right here, all the time. There is nothing else to escape to. It just has to be seen for what it is.

LostInParadise's avatar

You can’t discuss Buddhism without addressing reincarnation and the fact that the goal is to get off the reincarnation treadmill and not return to earth. Life on earth is thus a bond which one is preparing to break free of. Reincarnation is no metaphor. It was taken literally by the Buddha.

thorninmud's avatar

@LostInParadise Understanding rebirth as metaphor is almost as old as Buddhism. The Abhidharma, among the earliest compilations of writings, considers the realms of rebirth as states of consciousness. According to this way of seeing it, you might wake up in the morning as a denizen of the “hungry ghost” realm, and be in the “animal” realm as you head to bed. The self doesn’t have a fixed, continuous existence; it comes and goes and shifts and changes according to circumstances. It is reborn many times, even in the context of a single human life. This understanding is not some modern attempt to accommodate Buddhism to Western tastes.

That’s not to say that the more conventional view hasn’t also held its own. I don’t find it in the least bit useful, though. I can certainly see self come and go, now in this form, now in that form, so my experience confirms the above understanding of rebirth. There is no way I can confirm the more conventional view, however, and I can’t see that it would have any practical relevance even if I could. So I don’t even bother with it, frankly.

Either way, though, let me clarify one thing: to whatever extent there is escape, it is escape from the endless cycle of rebirths of the self. Keep in mind though that the self has never actually existed as anything but an idea. If the idea of self were not to arise—not to be born—then what? It could be said that, in a sense, that that self is extinguished, and you imagine (for reasons I talked about earlier) that this must mean some blank state of non-existence, but that’s not so. You give more credit to the idea of self than it deserves.

SavoirFaire's avatar

@LostInParadise Is losing a penny in order to obtain a dollar a bad thing? Would someone who looked forward to such an event be properly called a pessimist? If not, then why should someone who believes that we can leave suffering behind and obtain something better be called a pessimist? Buddhists do not speak of reincarnation. They speak of rebirth. The word used in ancient Buddhist texts is not the same as that used in Hindu texts when discussing reincarnation, and this is by design. The words refer to different concepts. According to Buddhism, there is no such thing as the self (the word “anatta” literally means “no atman,” where “atman” is the Hindu word for the self/soul). Reincarnation is about the return of the atman, whereas Buddhists do not believe in an atman in the first place. Rebirth is about the perpetuation of suffering. It is hard for me to see why anyone who declares that suffering need not be eternally perpetuated should be thought to have a negative view of life.

whiteliondreams's avatar

@SavoirFaire Are you also Buddhist?

SavoirFaire's avatar

@whiteliondreams No, I am not. I have studied both Eastern and Western philosophy rather extensively, however.

LostInParadise's avatar

The problem of reincarnation is the same as the notion of salvation in Christianity. It denigrates our earthly existence, which some of us believe to be the only existence that we are given. I find very confusing the idea of a non-self thinking that it is a self and being reborn until it no longer thinks it is a self.

Another criticism I have of Buddhism is its lack of emphasis on charity. There are Buddhist charities, but not many. There is no equivalent to the Red Cross or Red Crescent. It makes sense it a twisted sort of way. If I have no self then neither does anyone else. To help those suffering deluded non-selves, the best that one can do is to teach them to be Buddhists so they can relieve themselves of their suffering.

There is something to be said for the Buddhist point of view. It makes good sense to periodically step back and look dispassionately at what is going on inside our heads. Certainly some, if not all, of our suffering comes from an exaggerated sense of self. I see the Buddhist point of view as part of a solution, but not the complete answer to the question of how to live our lives.

whiteliondreams's avatar

@LostInParadise You are taking for granted the fact that Buddhism also doesn’t promote its religion, there haven’t been any wars based on Buddhism, however, like many religions, it too can be corrupted and used for political gains as in Indonesia. Further, notice how concerned you are with charities that you would have to degrade the Buddhist philosophy of no self equates to peace, that you would compare it to institutions that gratify their sins through donation. Ie. I can give a couple bucks because I cannot afford to spend time educating others on their misbehaviors, or I will spend my one hour at mass on Sunday and my sins for the week are cleared. Buddhism doesn’t denigrate at all because you are under the impression that whoever LostinParadise is, exists. Sociology and Psychology 101: Without human nurture the only human nature is that of survival. The variables, which fall under survival are inert, as opposed to the nurtured cultural, communication, and moral “skills” we “develop”, I suppose. As we desperately try to escape being savages, humans have not been more savage since the inception of their cognitive abilities.

thorninmud's avatar

@LostInParadise One thing that bothered me immensely about the Christianity of my youth was precisely what you described—the idea that this existence is little more than a staging area, a travail to be endured until God whisks us away to a better place. To spend one’s life longing for something else seemed such a waste. Buddhism’s appeal for me was its message that no, this is in fact all there is; stop longing for something “better” and take a good hard look at what you have. As Hakuin said, we’re like a man in water crying “I thirst!”. The water is right here.

That restless desire for some better “elsewhere” is exactly what fuels the cycles of rebirth. Rather than making our peace with this existence and stopping the chase, we’re constantly chafing at what we don’t like about our present situation and imagining how much happier we would be if things were different. This carries forward the process of recreating the self in different circumstances, which is rebirth. Buddhism is an invitation to stop the chasing, stop looking for an escape, and discover that you’re already home.

People get confused by the talk of Samsara (the world of delusion and rebirth) and Nirvana, and the apparent opposition this sets up. They imagine that one has to find the escape hatch from Samsara to be able to transition to Nirvana. The metaphor of crossing a river from one shore to another is sometimes invoked. But this is all quite misleading. This shore is the other shore. Samsara is Nirvana. Or as Hakuin put it, “Nirvana is openly shown to our eyes. This earth where we stand is the Pure Lotus land.” It doesn’t look like much of a Pure Lotus land when seen through the filter of self, but lower that filter of self from in front of the eyes, and there it is.

SavoirFaire's avatar

@LostInParadise The problems are only the same if you insist on misunderstanding the place of rebirth—again, not reincarnation—in Buddhism. I’m with you on the Nietzschean view that we should not denigrate our earthly existences, but it is not clear to me that Buddhism does so. As for charity, the fact that Buddhists don’t make a big deal out of their charitableness does not mean that they are not charitable. Regardless, there are Buddhist charities.

Personally, I am not sure that there is just one single answer to how we should live our lives. I agree with the ancient Greeks that the proper goal of life is eudaimonia. I am not convinced, however, that there is only one path to eudaimonia. Both Aristotle and Epicurus present paths suitable for living a good life, I think, and I would argue that both Lao Tzu and Siddhartha Gautama did as well.

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