How Buddhism Helped Me

New years are a time for reflection. So to kick of 2018, I wanted to share a few thoughts I had over the holidays on Buddhism, a tradition of thought I deeply admire. May 2018 be fantastic for all!

“Why” was always my favourite question as a child. I would occasionally embarrass my mother by peppering her friends with relentless “Whys” after statements like, “Tom and I got divorced.” And still, to this day, I ask “why” when approaching any problem or situation. For me, why lies at the root of all curiosity and being curious about the world breeds compassion and empathy.

When I was about 15 years old, I became very occupied with the so-called BIG whys… Why are we here? What does it all mean? Why is there evil in the world? My favorite English teacher at the time was fond of the great existentialist thinkers and so I also gravitated towards them. Albert Camus’ The Stranger, Jean Paul Sartre’s Nausea, and Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot all affected me deeply and amounted to something of a teenager bible.

From the writings of these cigarette smoking Parisians, I concluded that there is no absolute meaning. (And that smoking is and will always be cool ; ). There is no ultimate “why”. I enthusiastically adopted Sartre’s view that only by accepting the meaninglessness of reality would I be liberated to create my own meaning. Only the weak need pre-ordained meaning from God and the like, I smugly concluded!

In truth, I remain instinctively drawn to the existentialist philosophy today. The problem is that, at least for me, this way of viewing the world leads me down a hedonistic path of cynicism. If there is no meaning, then nothing really matters much and my definition of meaning became conveniently flexible. I become a whirlwind of desire, sucking up every ounce of life. As David Foster Wallace so memorably wrote,

“In the day-day trenches of adult life, there is no such thing as atheism… everybody worships… And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of God or spiritual-type thing to worship — be it J.C or Allah… or the Wiccan mother-goddess or the Four Noble Truths… is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things… never feel you have enough…. Worship your own body and you will always feel ugly… ”

In my final two years at Princeton, a certain darkness started to tug at me. I craved sturdier ground on which to build a life of meaning. So, I did what I often do when I have a question. I started reading the writings of people smarter than I. Spending nights in the library, I read some of the great thinkers who pulled my thinking this way and that with their brilliant insights. Over time, I found myself drawn to Mahayana Buddhism via Emerson’s Transcendentalism, particularly the philosophy of emptiness. Bear with me in the next section as we’re going to to take a brief dive into the core Buddhist teachings.

Buddhism 101:

At the heart of Buddhism is an amazing and radical claim. Namely, the reason that we suffer as humans and the reason we make others suffer is because we don’t see the world clearly. If we learn to see the world more clearly then we will suffer less and we will inflict less suffering on others. This basic idea is stated through the 4 Noble Truths which are the foundation of all forms of Buddhism. The 4 Noble Truths are:

  1. Suffering — Life always involves suffering, in obvious and subtle forms. Even when things seem good, we always feel an undercurrent of anxiety and uncertainty inside
  2. The Cause of Suffering — The cause of suffering is craving and fundamental ignorance. We suffer because of our mistaken belief that we are a separate, independent, solid “I.” The painful and futile struggle to maintain this delusion of ego is known as samsara, or cyclic existence.
  3. The End of Suffering — The good news is that our obscurations are temporary. They are like passing clouds that obscure the sun of our enlightened nature, which is always present. Therefore, suffering can end because our obscurations can be purified and awakened mind is always available to us
  4. The Path — By living ethically, practicing meditation, and developing wisdom, we can take exactly the same journey to enlightenment and freedom from suffering that the Buddhas do. We too can wake up.

In short, this Buddhist framework offers an explanation for why Mick Jagger and all the rest of us can’t get no satisfaction! And a path to realising some.

The Teaching of Emptiness:

The Mahāyāna Buddhist teachings expound on these core tenets regarding the illusion of self and dependent origination and expand them into the teaching of emptiness, which is a specific doctrinal position that emerged out of the Mahāyāna tradition in the second century. Nāgārjuna, founder of the Madhyamika (Middle Path) School, a branch of the Mahāyāna Buddhist School, was the first to elaborate a philosophy of emptiness. He teaches that emptiness is a property of all things because they do not exist independently or in an unconditioned form and therefore lack intrinsic existence. Emptiness does not deny the existence of things at the level of conventional truth but simply says that all things are empty of inherent of intrinsic essence because they originate dependently. Everything is interconnected, dependent, and in a constant process of flux.

In a standard example from the popular Pāli text, The Questions of King Milinda, the argument for dependent origination is evident. Nagasena, in the conversation, demonstrates to Milinda that though the chariot appears to possess an inherent identity it is, in reality, empty of the identity that we ascribe it; it is an assembly of various parts including “wheels”, “chariot-body”, “pole” and “axle” and much more. There is nothing that inherently makes it a “chariot” because it does not exist divorced or separated from the various components from which it is constructed; its identity arises dependent on all the other elements. This example is the traditional Buddhist explanation of the self, specifically. In Mahāyāna Buddhism, as theorized by Nāgārjuna, this notion of dependent origination is applied to every aspect of the world. Nāgārjuna explains,

Whatever is dependently co-arisen
That is explained to be emptiness
That, being a dependent designation
Is itself the middle way
Something that is not dependently arisen,
Such a thing does not exist
Therefore a not-empty thing
Does not exist.

Extending the Buddha’s original teaching of dependent origination, Nāgārjuna demonstrates using dialectical logic that all things, including philosophical views, are empty of inherent self-existence. Everything from the chair I’m sitting in, to the concept of self, to the spatial properties of the sky are empty of independent and permanent self-existence.

He thus forges a “middle way” between the extremes of eternalism and annhialationism. Emptiness is neither some sort of “Absolute reality” existing beyond the conditioned world — this would be a veil for eternalism — nor is it a nihilistic or “annihilationist” postulation that nothing exists. It is neither production nor destruction; neither annihilation nor permanence; neither coming nor going. One who has attained perfect wisdom realizes the complete emptiness of all phenomena, including the teachings of Buddhism, and is thus free from all conceptual grasping.

The teaching was designed not as a final position, but rather to demonstrate the emptiness of all things through a process dialectical logic. It is meant to assist beings on their path to enlightenment by showing them the emptiness of all things including philosophical views.

Conclusion:

In this philosophical worldview, I found what I needed. An intellectual and intuitive argument that enabled me to see the world, and all the sentient beings within it, as fully interconnected. We are all trees within a forest. Years later, I realise that part of what attracted me to this worldview was that I wasn’t required to believe in a higher power, something I’ve struggled to do. I could also empirically test the teachings through mediation and observation and found that the teachings were supported by my own personal experience of the world. From my basic understanding of Physics and Evolutionary Psychology, I believe the current science supports much of what Buddhism claims.

Now, I’m not sure many Buddhists would consider me a Buddhist. Sartre still whispers in my ear and I still drink, eat meat, get angry, and indulge in a variety of sensual experiences. Those closest to me could speak of a veritable temper. But more than any other philosophy I’ve encountered the Buddhist teachings on the philosophy of emptiness affected my life. It enabled me to perceive the world, as it really is, luminous and interconnected and to thus have a greater sense of purpose and meaning. I know at some gut level that my thoughts, actions, and habits ripple outwards into the future and the past.

I believe that all of the world’s religions, at their core, encourage people to feel a sense of compassion for others by loosening our sense of attachment to our egos. And so much of what people do in life, running around exerting all kinds of energy, is driven by our desire to feel that deeper sense of connection we feel when we become detached from our sense of self. Whether through sex, religion, art, nature, love, or sport we are all searching for that fleeting feeling of unity that comes from egolessness. It’s how we fill that void (which always seems to rear its ugly head on Sundays…) Imagine walking through life with a fundamental sense of connection to the world and all its sentient beings. You would feel a deeper bliss at all times, a calming of the mind. Easier said than done, of course.

Practically speaking, many today from Tim Ferriss to Ray Dalio promote mindfulness meditation as a way to experience the present moment and the sense of connection that arises from that. I am all for any practice that brings people into the present moment. But I believe, that people would benefit even more from mindfulness practices if they understood the philosophical underpinnings of the mindfulness teaching, namely the philosophy of emptiness. In an era when social media is disconnecting us, and our choices as consumers affect supply chains across the globe, the philosophy of emptiness is a powerful argument that reminds us how we are all inseparably woven together.

BIBLIOGRAPHY (not exhaustive):

Mindfulness in Plain English

A Flash of Lightning in the Dark of Night: A Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life

This is Water by David Foster Wallace

Waking Up Podcast by Sam Harris

Nāgārjuna, The fundamental wisdom of the middle way

Why Buddhism is True: The Science and Philosophy of Enlightenment