A friend sent me a quote by Goethe.
“Until there is commitment, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness. Concerning all acts of initiative and creation, there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: The moment one definitely commits oneself, then providence moves, too.
“All manner of things occur to help one that would never otherwise occur. A whole stream of events issue forth from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would come his way.
“Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. Begin it now!”
It’s a very pretty quote, but see, I don’t buy it. I don’t know what Goethe defines “providence” as, whether it be God or the Universe or the Force. However, I do not believe any such power outside of myself moves in accordance with my whims, intentions, or desires. For one thing, I don’t imagine I’m that important to the Universe are large. Rather than find that deflating, I’m actually reassured. It means no matter what I do, I can’t screw things up too badly.
I know that it may often seem that providence moves. When we are wishy-washy, we create our own obstacles and overlook our own opportunities. When we commit, we open our mind to seeing things we might have previously overlooked. I have witnessed this many times before – with my decision to return to the University to study architecture, with my decision to take Refuge and then Bodhisattva vows, with my decision to pursue chaplaincy. When these were maybes, there were all sorts of roadblocks. But when they became “Yes, I will do this!” I began to seek them genuinely and in that seeking turned up the needed solutions.
I think this kind of opinion is troubling to many. First and foremost, to theists. But also to many Buddhists. Even those of us who have left our Protestant heritage behind, and all its mythologies and mysticism, still want to believe in some greater power beyond ourselves is at play. We have been inculcated since birth to believe in something. Some of us throw ourselves headlong onto the alter of karma, rebirth, chi, drala, or stories of mystic powers attributed to the Buddha and Bodhisattvas. I do not know if these things are true, but my intuition denies them.
The Dharma often says life is a dream. What if it really is? What if I am mad and gibbering in some mental institution somewhere and all the things and people around me are no more than figments of my imagination? What then should I do? Should I sit quietly and refuse to interact with these figments lest the me who is lost to reality be seen to act like a madwoman? Or should I act on what I perceive to be true as best I know it?
I have perceived nothing in my life to encourage me toward the metaphysical. I believe the physical is quite fantastic enough as it is, and more than sufficient to explain the mysteries of life, the universe, and everything – someday.
This is more or less the premise of Stephen Batchelor’s recent book, Buddhism Without Beliefs, which has been creating quite a stir in the buddhablogosphere. (Tricycle hosted a long comment thread and Huffington Post even published a piece on the issue.) I was surprised when I picked it up how slim a volume it is, but when it comes right down to it, Buddhism stripped of its religious trappings is a rather simple thing. I assume where people are having the most trouble are in the chapters on Rebirth and Culture.
“It is often claimed that you cannot be a Buddhist if you do not accept the doctrine of rebirth. …
“The idea of rebirth is meaningful in religious Buddhism only insofar as it provides a vehicle for the key Indian metaphysical doctrine of actions and their results known as ‘karma.’ While the Buddha accepted the idea of karma as he accepted that or rebirth, when questioned on the issue he tended to emphasize its psychological rather than cosmological implications. ‘Karma,’ he often said, ‘is intention’: i.e., a movement o the mind that occurs each time we think, speak, or act. …
“Where does this leave us? It may seem that there are two options: either to believe in rebirth or not. But there is a third alternative: to acknowledge in all honesty, I do know know.”
Because I do not know, and cannot know (though I definitely have an opinion), whether the doctrines of karma or rebirth are true, I must choose my actions based on either possibility. I may choose to take the word of others who tell me these things are true and say innumerable mantras and prostrate innumerable times in order to assure myself of a fortunate rebirth. Or I may chose to follow my intuition and do otherwise. This is not to say chanting and prostration have no place. Even in an agnostic view, they can serve definite purpose, as they too have to do with intention as much as any other action, thought, or speech.
In the chapter on Culture, Batchelor mostly warns of stagnation, dogma, and repression of an individual’s ability to question and seek imaginative solutions to their own (and others’) suffering. It is a very sensible warning, for any institution, religious or not. The other day a friend and I were watching Young Victoria and the Queen, newly moved into Buckingham Palace, complained as to the chill in the rooms because no one department could agree whose job it was to light the fires. Any suggestion that something be done about it was scoffed at because “these ways have always served us well in the past.”
While change should certainly be eschewed for change sake and “progress” given a gimlet stare, the idea that Buddhism should adapt to the western culture it now finds itself in does not strike me as at all revolutionary. After all, that is what happened in almost every Asian country Buddhism has ever spread to. Why now the insistence on importing and preserving ancient forms which may or may not be integral to the Dharma itself? Practices which may only serve to alienate Americans and relegate Buddhism to the role of an exotic dish in an ethnic restaurant, rather than a useful medicine for the benefit of all? Of course, there is danger that something may be lost. But this danger exists in either case.
I cannot deny my upbringing – scientific and secular that it is. Therefore, though it may be insulting to Asian traditions, I cannot deny I find the idea of prayer wheels quaint and superstitious, prayer flags cheerful like children’s stories, opening oneself to the “blessings of the Buddhas from heave” lovely in theory, and the notion of rebirth about as reassuring as the belief that FEMA will come and save us from the flood.
However, I most emphatically do not think this makes me any less a Buddhist. Nor is the Buddhadharma any less applicable to my life. Suffering is. I suffer. I can be free from suffering. This is no less relevant should I fail to believe in rebirth or “providence” or the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Compassion can never lose relevancy. The search for freedom from self-centered delusion can never lose relevancy. The commitment to helping others can never lose relevancy.
If I am a bad Buddhist for my denial of the metaphysical, whatever label it may bear, well then at least I can still seek to be the best bad Buddhist I can be.