Buddhism: Overgeneralizations and Shortcomings of the Most Respected Religion
Basic precepts of Buddhism
Do all desires lead to suffering?
The key to sustaining happiness
Is Buddhism pessimistic about life and suffering?
Should life be enjoyed?
It's not what they SAY, it's what they DO
Common characteristics of devout Buddhist practitioners
Avoidance of big existential questions
Obscure goals and presumptions
Conclusion and Suggestions
Among great intellectuals and freethinkers, Buddhism hold a highly respected status for its insightful non-confrontational wisdom and insights into the human condition. Even Atheists who despise Christianity and theistic religions have a certain amount of respect for it.
Buddhism is a religion that began about five centuries before Christ in India with Gautama Siddharta, a Hindu Prince. Seeking the truth about suffering, old age and death, he left his palace to find answers. After years of searching, he meditated under a Bodhi tree for 40 days before becoming Enlightened, or awakened, with the truth of how to end suffering and rebirth. At that point, he became the "Buddha" and taught others the path to liberation from suffering for around 50 years.
It is not completely clear whether this story is truth or legend, but its followers say it doesn't matter, for "Even if it were proven that Buddha never existed, all the teachings would still be true", as they say (which can't be said for the founders of most religions of course).
Since then Buddhism has flourished in other parts of Asia and developed into several sects with varying practices but similar core teachings. It describes itself as a path to Enlightenment that leads to the cessation of suffering and rebirth. Ironically, though Buddha himself taught against the idleness of rituals and idol worship, his followers soon created idols of Buddha himself, and developed rituals to worship him, as you can see in Buddhist temples today.
Buddhism is the least controversial of the major religions. It does not anger or offend, nor demands that one accept bizarre or extreme tenets on faith. It does not preach that there is a God out there who will punish you unless you repent, obey his doctrines and worship him. Buddhists are not known for starting wars in the name of their religions, demanding that non-believers convert, or causing division among people.
In fact, it is practical and sensible, and resembles more of a psychological path or discipline than an organized religion. Its insights, teachings and meditation practices are a great self awareness tool that helps one understand their mind, control their thoughts and emotions, bring clarity and balance to oneself, and aids in the cessation of "suffering", so it teaches.
As such, it does not receive the kind of heat and criticism that Christianity does, for instance. As you probably know, there are many books, websites, films, and organizations out there dedicated to debunking or disproving Christianity, mostly from hateful Atheists. But there is nothing like that directed at Buddhism, for it holds a far more respectable and non-controversial status, deservedly so.
While other religions and belief systems are attacking each other out there - Christians, Muslims, Judaists, Atheists, etc. Buddhism seems to be mostly exempt from such "religious wars" of belief.
The only attempted critiques of Buddhism I've found were by Christian Fundamentalists who understood nothing about Buddhism, but merely threw Bible verses at it, which proved nothing.
Albert Einstein, not being a fan of organized religion, allegedly said this regarding Buddhism:
"Buddhism has the characteristics of what would be expected in a cosmic religion for the future: It transcends a personal God, avoids dogmas and theology; it covers both the natural and spritual; and it is based on a religious sense aspiring from the experience of all things, natural and spiritual, as a meaningful unity." -Albert Einstein
More praises about Buddhism by famous people here:
Even Oxford Psychology Professor Susan Blackmore, an Atheist who has authored books attempting to debunk mystical experiences and Near Death Experiences (e.g. "Dying to Live"), considers herself a practitioner of Buddhism (albeit a non-mystical version of it) even though she does not believe in life after death.
Successful Hollywood stars like Richard Gere, a student of the Dalai Lama, also find meaning and truth in Buddhism.
However, no religion or belief system is perfect and complete, has all the answers, or is without shortcomings and flaws. Religions are man's attempt at interpreting the divine and mystical nature of reality, and thus are subject to the imperfections and flaws of man as well. As such, they contain a mix of truths and fallacies, wisdom and inaccurate claims, etc. It is up to the seeker to find the value in each religion and separate the "wheat from the chaff". In addition, they are all guilty of categorizing things in a black and white manner as well.
And Buddhism, as great as it is, is no exception. But being so universally respected, its shortcomings are not usually pointed out, even in academic or scholarly circles. Critical thinkers do not usually feel inclined to critique it. Hence serious critiques of Buddhism are hard to find.
Therefore, since few valid critiques of Buddhism exist, I hope you don't mind if I take it upon myself to do one which points out Buddhism's inaccuracies, flaws and shortcomings, in a constructive manner of course.
Coming from a Buddhist family, I have been exposed to it for many years and am quite familiar with it. But being a free thinker and true skeptic, I am not afraid to question even my own beliefs or family religion, or apply critical examination and honest inquiry to them. Such is the hallmark of the "true skeptic".
I've spent many years studying religion, spirituality, philosophy, parapsychology, mysticism, metaphysics and quantum physics, so I come from a different perspective than most who hold mere materialistic perspectives of working and consuming. As such, I am able to see strengths and weaknesses of each belief system, as well as incomplete areas, from a deeper depth than most.
Though there are different sects and variations of Buddhism, for our purposes we will be referring to the basic forms of it that revolve around "The Four Noble Truths" and "The Eightfold Path", which teach the basic tenets outlined in the next section.
Here is my thesis:
Although Buddhism is a great religion that provides valuable insight into the psychological nature of man, it overgeneralizes the state of suffering in life, contains inaccurate black and white views, fails to take into account lifeâ€™s complexities, and does not address important questions and issues. Therefore, it is not for everyone.
We will compare some of its core tenets with basic life examples to demonstrate this thesis.
Basic precepts of Buddhism
First, here are the basic core teachings and precepts of Buddhism in brief:
1. The root of man's suffering lies in the attachment to endless cravings and desires that are ultimately illusory and transient. In addition, we have a false illusory sense of a self (or "ego" as Freud called it) that we treat as separate from others and are attached to, which creates suffering.
Siddharta, the founder of what we know of Buddhism, discovered these truths and revelations while meditating under a Bodhi tree for 40 days and nights (which parallels Jesus' 40 days and nights in the wilderness during his temptation by Satan).
2. The solution to man's suffering is in the practice of non-attachment and abstaining from intoxicating pleasures. One cultivates a mindset of non-attachment by being mindful of one's actions every moment throughout the day, and engaging in regular sitting meditation practice.
Additionally, by focusing on the present moment rather than on the past and future, one develops mindfulness and a higher level of awareness, which puts one in control of their thoughts, actions and emotions. This aids in freeing the mind from illusion and attachment, as well as its futile grasping of wants, desires and pleasures.
3. Throughout life, one accrues karma, both good and bad, which results in rebirth into this world in an endless cycle or birth and death. By freeing oneself of karma, both good and bad, and of attachment, not only to wants and desires but to one's own ego or self as well, one can end the cycle of birth by reaching "Enlightenment", an awakened state free of karma. At this point, one ends the cycle of rebirth and ascends to higher levels of existence, such as "Nirvana" or "Heaven". This is the goal of Buddhist monks who engage in daily mindfulness and meditation practices.
The foundational doctrines of Buddhism, known as the "Four Noble Truths" and "Eightfold Path", basically illustrate the teachings above. You can read them here: http://www.thebigview.com/buddhism/fourtruths.html
4. At higher levels, Buddhism is supposedly beyond the ability of words to describe. One must experience it at this level to understand it. But I will try my best to explain the gist of it. The Buddhist doctrines of emptiness and impermanence state that life and reality are illusions without true form, due to the transient and temporary nature of all things. By realizing this truth, one gradually releases their attachments, not just to their desires, but to duality as well.
Duality is the mind's beliefs that opposites are different and that one opposite is better than the other, when in fact they are both just different sides of the same coin that cannot exist without the other and in fact follow each other. This is symbolized by the famous Taoist circle of Ying and Yang which represents the concept of "unifying the opposites into an equilibrium of balance". Thus, the transcendence of duality is one of the ways in which Buddhism and Taoism converge.
Now, putting aside the reincarnation concept (which is difficult to prove or disprove, and a whole other issue) there is definitely a lot of truth in these precepts. We will not argue with that. No one would disagree, for instance, that not getting what one wants or losing something that one clings to results in suffering. And the concept of karma is widely agreed upon, even by non-religious people.
But despite Buddhism's highly respected, non-controversial status as a sensible path of self-improvement and introspection, it is not without its flaws. Some of its teachings embody black and white generalizations that are not always accurate, do not apply to every situation, and do not take into account the complexities of life and mind. Moreover, it is incomplete in that it does not address some important issues and questions regarding the meaning of existence and life.
Allow me to elaborate. Let's begin.
Do all desires lead to suffering?
The main problem with Buddhist teachings is that they teach that "ALL desires as bad and leading to nothing but suffering" and therefore one should try to get rid of them. This is a big overgeneralization and inaccurate as well. To put all desires and enjoyments into one group is narrow and a form of black and white thinking, which religion is often guilty of.
In reality, it's more complicated than that.
First, not all desires are unwholesome or the same, and not all pleasures lead to suffering or misery. For example, if I enjoy watching the sunset or going to the beach, and do that, I will have a nice time experiencing those things. Of course such moments are fleeting, as Buddhism teaches, but that doesn't mean that when it ends, I will be in regret or end up in "suffering". Or suppose I enjoy an exciting three days at Disney World. When it's all over, sure I'll feel flat for a while. But will I regret it and wish it never happened? Probably not.
Some pleasures are more wholesome than others. For example, if I eat organic healthy food, I will get a sense of pleasure from consuming healthy food that is good for my body. Likewise if I work out and exercise, I will feel good about being in shape. But if I'm addicted to alcohol or consuming twinkies and donuts all the time, I will feel a sense of guilt about consuming unhealthy products, even if they feel pleasurable for a short moment. And if I help people through volunteer work or charity, I experience the "joy of giving" as well. So it's inaccurate to generalize all pleasures as the same.
Furthermore, if one desire is satisfied, one does not have to feel flat or empty afterward. One can simply fulfill other ones. That's why it helps to have a "wide variety of interests and passions". For example, if I get tired of watching TV, I can read, go outside for a walk, bake cookies, or call a friend. The trick is keeping a healthy mix of activities. Diversify, in other words. Likewise, if I get tired of writing essays like this one that you're reading right now, (which I enjoy of course) I can simply write about something else, watch a movie on my computer, play a video game to unwind, read a good book, or even do meditation. I don't have to sit here feeling empty and flat just cause I'm tired of writing this essay. Why should I?!
But even if a pleasurable experience ends up in suffering, it does not automatically follow that it would have been better if neither happened. For instance, say you have an intoxicating romantic relationship that put you on cloud 9 for a while, and then your lover suddenly leaves you. Your heart would be broken and you'd be in withdrawal pain over having such an intoxicating experience suddenly end. It would be a classic case of great pleasure turning into great pain. However, after you've calmed down and gotten over it, would you in retrospect say "I wish that the passionate affair never happened?". Probably not. You'd probably see it from the perspective of this popular adage:
"Better to have loved and lost than to never have loved at all."
What this adage means is that ultimately, it is better to experience both pleasure and pain, than to not experience anything at all, for such experiences make one feel ALIVE. Love, romance and sex are all pleasures and joys that can quickly turn into pain or addiction. Yet, most of us would agree that it is better to experience them, and the consequences thereof, than to never experience them at all.
The experience of pleasure and pain, joy and sorrow, love and hurt, elation and despair, hope and disappointment, triumph and tragedy, etc. enrich you and are part of the growing process of the human experience. Artists, poets and novelists will tell you that such dichotomies fuel their work with meaning and purpose. Without them, the Shakespearean Classics would not be the masterpieces they are.
You might also have heard the saying:
"You regret more what you didn't do than what you did do."
This again conveys the same lesson that it's better to go for something you want, even if it results in an embarrassing mistake, than to do nothing and experience nothing.
Talk to European and Australian backpackers, the kind you find in youth hostels, or other perpetual travelers who live to experience the world. They will tell you that having enriching varied cultural experiences while seeing the world is what they live for. It's what drives their soul and makes them tick. Of course, these enriching experiences are impermanent. They know that. But they would rather have them than not have them at all, for the rewards that come from them are beyond words. Deep down, they believe that "life should be experienced to the fullest."
Let's say I take a trip around the world, having many enriching and exciting cultural experiences and meeting many fascinating people. Then when I come home, I go into reverse culture shock and am unhappy about having to readjust to the routine of mundane ordinary life again. Now, if you were to ask me if it would have been better if I had not taken that trip around the world, I would exclaim "Hell no! Even though I am having trouble readjusting back to normal life now, those experiences were priceless and I wouldn't trade them for anything in the world!" You see how that works?
In other words, just because something is fleeting and impermanent does not mean that not experiencing it is better than experiencing it. Everything has a valuable lesson for you after all.
Buddhist teaching is correct that desires are insatiable and the fulfillment of them is fleeting and transient. However, that does not mean that it is better to have no desires, or to not fulfill them. Buddhism does not prove that no pleasure is better than pleasure. I would argue that a life mostly consisting of joy and pleasure, in healthy amounts, is better than a life devoid of them.
Ask anyone who has been both poor and rich and they will tell you that being rich was better (except maybe in the movies). In most cases, having is better than not having, even though both cause some form of pain. Experienced travelers have observed that "the happiest people in the world are not those who have too little or too much, but just enough."
Sure Buddhism is right that enjoyments are transient, but that doesn't mean that not having them is better than having them. For most, transitory satisfactions and enjoyments are better than nothing. Shedding one's attachments and suppressing or abstaining from desire and pleasure, as Buddhism teaches, may be a path for some, but not for all. Not everyone is cut out to be puritanical. For some, it would go against who they are. For example, some are naturally festive and celebrate every moment of life, enjoying it to the fullest. In fact, this attitude is dominant in some cultures (e.g. Spain, Italy, Greece, Mexico, Latin America, Russia, The Philippines, Africa, etc). Such types would not be happy on such a puritanical path abstaining from enjoyment. After all, there is no one path, religion or lifestyle that fits everyone.
Buddhism does not address any of the lessons and considerations above. Instead it puts all pleasures and enjoyments into a box that it calls "suffering" and discourages one from pursuing them.
Nor does it assign any value to the concept of "living life to the fullest" or "having enriching experiences" either. Instead, such things are deemed pointless and distracting from the ultimate goal of Enlightenment and ending rebirth. Not only are they given no worth, but they are painted with a negative broad brush. The teachings clearly discourage enjoyment of life rather than encourage it.
The key to sustaining happiness
There are some, such as Elvis Presley or Marilyn Monroe for example, who get everything they want, ascend to the highest levels of fame, admiration and wealth, and then end up empty, depressed, unable to cope with the stress and pressures of their life, resulting in a psychological collapse that leads to drug addiction or even attempted suicide.
But that doesn't mean that success always leads to misery and despair. Tom Cruise or Bill Gates for example, lead generally happy fulfilling lives despite their huge success. The reason, probably, is because these people have strong interests and passions in other areas of life, not just in their career, that keep them balanced. Tom Cruise, for instance, is a devoted follower of Scientology. Regardless of whether that's good or bad, it gives him something to believe in and focus on besides his acting career. This helps balance his inner and outer life.
In the case of Microsoft founder Bill Gates, he is an intellectual who is highly intelligent and a gifted visionary. Intellectuals are able to view things more objectively and rationally than others. They have a greater degree of control over their mind than non-intellectuals (even if they don't practice meditation), and as such, they can control their thoughts and attitudes in a constructive manner as needed. So when they are feeling empty or depressed, they simply find ways to not feel empty or depressed. Therefore, they are able to create balance in themselves in ways that average people who simply ride along with their circumstances can't.
Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe on the other hand, were empty inside because they had no solid foundation or spiritual life to lean on to balance their inner and outer world, so they collapsed quite easily under stress. In other words, Presley and Monroe were rich and beautiful on the outside, but poor and destitute on the inside, hence an easy breakdown. They were not intellectual types either. Pop star Britney Spears, despite her stardom, reportedly also attempted suicide, and it's a good bet that she had no inner foundation either. (And in fact, in her hit song "Lucky" she sings about a starlet surrounded by fame and success who cries and feels sad and empty)
The lesson here is that the key to sustaining happiness is in the healthy balancing of multiple areas of life, both inner and outer, as well as physical and mental. One does not have to abstain from pleasures and enjoyment in a monk-like existence to attain "true happiness".
For the most part, happiness is determined by
a) One's attitude/outlook
b) Quality of relationships with others
c) Having "just enough" in the areas of life most important to you, in healthy balances, as well as a mixture of varied interests to keep your life stimulating, so that one area of your life doesn't become "all or nothing", but interchangeable and balanced out.
Since a and b are self-explanatory and already part of conventional wisdom, we won't need to elaborate on them. But as c is less commonly considered, we will explain the value of that area.
Here is an example of how having varied interests can make one more happy, or at least less unhappy. Suppose a girl whose sole interest is shopping suddenly has to move to a small town that has no mall. With no mall to shop at, she would soon become bored and depressed. But if she had other interests, such as hiking and camping, she would be able to enjoy them since small towns tend to be situated near nature preserves with ample opportunities for hiking and camping. In that case, while she may not be perfectly happy, she would be far less unhappy than if she only cared about shopping. And if she enjoyed writing poetry, she could do it there or anywhere, so she'd have some activity she enjoyed to pass the time.
Now here are some examples that illustrate the wisdom of having both mental and physical interests. Suppose a brainy guy had only cerebral interests. He read and studied a lot, but never exercised or did any outdoor activities. Eventually he would suffer from poor health, which would affect his intellectual activities as well. This imbalance would eventually cause some pain and suffering in his life, unless he changed it and started doing more physical activities.
Or suppose a star football player in school only had his sport going for him, and other than that, he was a dumb jock with no intelligence or inner qualities. Well not only would no one respect his mind or personality, but if someday his football career ended or he didn't make it into the College or Pro level, his life would come crashing down into a wreck. But if he had other interests or intellectual pursuits, he would have other things going for him and wouldn't "lose it all" if football didn't work out.
On a deeper note, if all your interests and life involved only the outer world, then if someday your outer world came crashing down, then you'd crash down with it and be left feeling depressed, empty and doomed. (This has happened to many Hollywood stars) But if you had a rich inner life, your focus would be inward as well as outward. This shields you and provides an inner foundation that will still be there even if your outer world isn't going your way. It is difficult to explain what a "rich inner life" is to someone who doesn't have one. Those who have it know what it is. It's one of those things you have to have to really understand what it is.
A great example of inner/outer balance is the "Kwai Chang Caine" character in the 70's series "Kung Fu" starring David Carradine. In many episodes, Caine was falsely imprisoned, facing execution or met with hostile aggression, yet he never lost his inner calm or state of tranquility. Being a Shaolin priest, he had not only reached higher levels of consciousness, but acquired mastery over his body and the martial arts as well. As such, he had a high level of mental, physical and spiritual balance. Thus he was able to deal effectively with the most extreme situations in calmness and balance.
The Taoist Ying Yang circular icon connotates that the unification of opposites is what keeps things in balance.
This means that, in some cases, having a mixture of wholesome and unwholesome interests and desires is better than having all one or the other, for it maintains a certain balancing or "canceling out" effect, whereas pretending to be all "goody and wholesome" all the time can eventually cause one to collapse from the constant repression of their "forbidden" desires. In such cases, it is better to find healthy safe releases and outlets for one's darker impulses, rather than repress them to the point where implosion may result. You may be shocked that I would advocate this, but if you think about it, it makes sense. Do you think, for example, that you can consume wholesome food and drink without having feces and urine come out at your other end? Every positive good thing needs to be offset by something undesirable as well. That's the law of the universe. Without this balance, collapse and implosion would result.
Likewise, should you eat only one thing? Shouldn't you eat different foods with a balanced variety of nutrients to get a "balanced diet"? In life also, one needs a healthy balance in multiple areas - mental, physical and spiritual. Simply abstaining from desires and pleasures isn't going to bring balance or happiness to most.
Is Buddhism pessimistic about life and suffering?
Reading the "Four Noble Truths", one easily gets the impression that Buddhism has a very pessimistic view of life, or rather the enjoyment of it. After all, the first Noble Truth teaches that "Life is suffering". Now how "optimistic" does that sound?
Look for yourself at the first of the "Four Noble Truths" below as described on a Buddhist website, and see what impression you get from it:
â€œ1. Life means suffering.
To live means to suffer, because the human nature is not perfect and neither is the world we live in. During our lifetime, we inevitably have to endure physical suffering such as pain, sickness, injury, tiredness, old age, and eventually death; and we have to endure psychological suffering like sadness, fear, frustration, disappointment, and depression. Although there are different degrees of suffering and there are also positive experiences in life that we perceive as the opposite of suffering, such as ease, comfort and happiness, life in its totality is imperfect and incomplete, because our world is subject to impermanence. This means we are never able to keep permanently what we strive for, and just as happy moments pass by, we ourselves and our loved ones will pass away one day, too.â€�
There are two obvious flaws in the Buddhist view of life described in the First Noble Truth:
a) First, while it does acknowledge that positive happy experiences exist in life, it diminishes them and focuses on suffering and pain instead, insinuating that suffering is the true reality and happiness a mere illusion. This is highly one-sided, subjective, unproven and not entirely accurate. Simply put, it gives far more weight to one side of the coin than the other. In Taoist terms, it is only gives legitimacy to one half of the Ying Yang circle while writing off its opposite as a mere â€œillusionâ€�, which is highly dualistic and not in balance with the â€œunification of oppositesâ€� principle. The truth is, suffering is a reality, but so are joy and happiness. While those who look at the world through rose-colored glasses are unrealistic and ignore the big picture, those who only seeing suffering and pain in the world do the same on the opposite end. The irony here is that Buddha taught that â€œThe Middle Wayâ€�, or path between extremes, was best. Yet on this subject, it does not take â€œThe Middle Wayâ€� at all but the extreme.
b) Second, while it is true that happy times and pleasures are transient, so are most forms of suffering as well. Disappointments, pain and sorrow usually pass too, and time heals most wounds. This Noble Truth doesnâ€™t take that into account. Instead, â€œsufferingâ€� is depicted as if it were the only constant and reality, which is inaccurate. Everyone suffers in some way in their lives, but that doesnâ€™t mean that suffering is the only reality, for its opposite is a reality too. Furthermore, while death is an inevitable part of life, not everyone has more suffering in life than joy. Some people live happier lives than others, and vice versa. These are subjective areas and exist in forms of degrees, not absolutes. For example, Tom Cruise is a movie star who has it all, yet would you lump his life in the same category as that of a homeless beggar deprived of food and shelter who is spat on everyday? While both have some sort of â€œsufferingâ€� in their lives, it would be ludicrous to lump them both into the same category, as Buddhism does, for the reality is that Tom Cruiseâ€™s life is infinitely more pleasurable and desirable than that of the homeless beggar.
So you see, both suffering and joy are realities of life, and both are temporary and fleeting. Such is life. Therefore, it would be more accurate to say that â€œsuffering is one aspect of lifeâ€� rather than that â€œlife is sufferingâ€�. Therein lies the inaccuracy of this foundational precept of Buddhism.
Now, if the foundation view of Buddhism is that "life is suffering" then its perspective is grim and dismal. It certainly isn't a positive one, regardless of the fact that it offers a way out of suffering. Buddhism also views all enjoyments and pleasures as ultimately leading to suffering as well. Buddhist authors even teach this in their books. Now if that isn't pessimistic, I don't know what is.
Buddhist teachers usually respond to the charge that "Buddhism is pessimistic" by claiming that it is a misconception. They will usually try to refute it with an explanation that goes like this: (I know cause I've read books by Buddhist teachers and listened to their lectures)
"Buddhism is not pessimistic. That is a misconception. It is in fact the opposite. The fourth tenet of the Four Noble Truths offers a solution for the cessation of suffering in this world. To provide a path that will end suffering is the greatest message of hope you can ever give humankind. It is the most optimistic thing in the world!"
Alright, now step back a minute and look at what's going on here. They are trying to reframe the whole issue by getting you to shift your perspective to theirs, which is that "the object of life is to end suffering and the karmic cycle of death and rebirth". If that is your objective in life, then sure, Buddhism sounds optimistic.
But that's like changing the subject, for our original focus was on THIS LIFE. From THAT perspective, Buddhism is pessimistic in the sense that it teaches that all desires, pleasures and happy times in this world are transient and ultimately pointless. Suffering is the only reality and constant, so it says. So, Buddhism is pessimistic in that regard. Rather than maximizing life to the fullest, it teaches that one should abstain and withdraw from the enjoyment of life.
Therefore, regardless of whether Buddhism is pessimistic or optimistic from your perspective, the bottom line is that it definitely discourages the enjoyment of life, as well as the pursuit of joys and pleasures. So that point still stands and I see no logical reason why the "Buddhism is pessimistic" charge is a false misconception, as they claim.
Of course, no one wants their religion to appear negative and pessimistic to others, so itâ€™s understandable that Buddhist teachers will try to reframe this issue by trying to get you see it from another perspective, namely theirs.
They can do that. But it doesn't change the fact that Buddhism has an obviously negative and discouraging view on the enjoyments and fulfillment of pleasures of life, as demonstrated in the previous section. And in fact part of Buddhist practice is to abstain from pleasures, so it is definitely discouraged. This aspect has not been disproven, merely sidestepped.
As mentioned earlier, the key to sustaining happiness is by cultivating a healthy attitude/outlook on life, developing quality relationships with others, and having "just enough" in the areas of life most important to you, in healthy balances. That works and makes sense. But Buddhism teaches that only by shedding your attachments to desires and pleasures can you be liberated from pain and suffering. That is a very puritanical lifestyle which is not for everyone.
Also, people are not usually 100 percent happy or unhappy at any given moment. Rather, they are a mixture of emotions, feelings and thoughts, which lie in positive, negative and gray areas to varying degrees. Such is the complexity of life. But Buddhism overlooks this and overgeneralizes life as a constant state of suffering.
The Buddhist view on desires and suffering seems to be a gross overgeneralization. As mentioned earlier, not all pleasures and desires are bad or lead to suffering. And even those that do are not necessarily bad nor better off being nonexistent. As an example, love, romance and sex are joys and pleasures that can quickly turn into pain, yet most believe that to experience them is better than not at all, hence the phrase â€œBetter to have loved and lost than to never have loved at all.â€�
These are complexities of existence that Buddhism doesnâ€™t consider in its narrow black and white view of life.
In addition, sometimes there is glory in suffering. The more tragedies one suffers, the greater the glory from overcoming them. Artists, poets and novelists understand the value of this and convey it in their work. The more sorrows you endure for example, the sweeter the taste of joy and bliss becomes, and the more appreciative of them you will be too. Moreover, as they say, â€œWhat doesnâ€™t kill you only makes you strongerâ€� so in that sense, suffering helps build character. Basically, suffering can be turned into a good thing and can even catapult one into spiritual growth.
As an example, Eckhart Tolle, author of the hit spiritual best seller â€œThe Power of Nowâ€�, tells us in the introduction of his book that after experiencing his soul go into a black abyss one night after being consumed by depression and hopelessness, he awoke the next morning â€œborn againâ€�. Suddenly everything around him, including the most mundane things, seemed vibrant and full of life. Along with complete oneness, he gained a deeper appreciation of everything and every moment than he never had before. This is a fine example of how suffering can bring about a transformation of spiritual consciousness.
On this issue, Buddhists are in acknowledgement that suffering can serve as a springboard to transcendence on the path to Enlightenment. So that is one spiritual lesson they do honor.
Should life be enjoyed?
Essentially, Buddhism has no answer to the simple question of "Should life be enjoyed?" for a yes or no answer would put them in hot water, potentially inviting criticism and charges of hypocrisy over contradicting its own core tenets. So it prefers to remain neutral. And since Buddhists prefer the Oriental manner of being non-controversial and non-confrontational, they prefer to avoid such questions, sidestepping them instead. Devout Buddhists tend to behave in a Asianized manner of subtlety and neutrality rather than being articulate, assertive and taking stands on issues (which is no surprise since Buddhism originated and developed in Asia). They do not like to debate or argue points with others. (I'm not saying that this is good or bad, it is simply how they are.)
However, this question or whether "life should be enjoyed or not" is important to many people. Just because Buddhists prefer to ignore it doesn't mean that others should too. That's simply not fair. Therefore, Buddhism is incomplete in this sense, for it does not provide answers to such big questions that people are hungry for.
Some Western Buddhist authors have written in their books that "The Buddhist path does not expect you to not enjoy things. It merely teaches you to not be attached to these enjoyments." However that does not really answer the question specifically, and looking at the lives of its devoted followers, it is obvious that they are trying to refrain from enjoying life as much as possible. Remember that "actions speak louder than words", so where words are vague, actions will be more specific.
Whichever way you want to look at it, Buddhism certainly does NOT teach that fulfilling one's desires, enjoying life or experiencing pleasures are GOOD things, not by any means.
In that sense it shares the same perspective of traditional Chinese and Japanese thinking in the belief that "the purpose of life is to toil and suffer, not to enjoy it". (You can trust me on this one, since I am Chinese American after all) Hence this is why Buddhism (as well as Christianity) is popular among Chinese, for its outlook fits their own cultural attitude toward life.
Now I don't know about you, but I'd rather enjoy my life, in healthy balanced meaningful ways, than not enjoy it.
Furthermore, since reincarnation is not an established fact, merely a hypothesis suggested by certain cases (e.g. the work of Dr. Ian Stevenson) and backed by circumstantial evidence, it isn't logical to base one's life solely on the outcome of "the next life", since we aren't really sure that there will even be one.
In other words, if Buddhism is correct that the path to Enlightenment will free one from the cycle of rebirth, then great. But if it is not, and if reincarnation doesn't even occur, then one will have wasted one's life under false premises. In that case, wouldn't it better to live your life to the fullest, experiencing all that you can, just in case this life is all we have?
It's not what they SAY, it's what they DO
Now, in response to the charge that "Buddhism teaches that desires and pleasures are bad", Buddhist teachers will usually claim that this is inaccurate, and will respond with something like the following: (I know cause I've read books by Buddhist teachers and listened to their lectures)
"Buddhism does not teach that desires are bad or should be eliminated. It teaches that the grasping of desires and the clinging or attachment to them lead to suffering and illusion, for all things are impermanent."
Ok fine. I can acknowledge that. But that doesn't change the key points above, nor does it change the obvious anti-enjoyment and anti-pleasure nature of the serious Buddhist path. I can PROVE this and show YOU how you can see PROOF of this for yourself. Allow me.
First, keep in mind one universal simple truth:
"It's not what they SAY, it's what they DO."
In other words, "Actions speak louder than words." With that in mind, go find the most DEVOTED practitioners of Buddhism and see how they LIVE and BEHAVE. I'm not talking about the casual dabblers or the laypeople interested in learning about Buddhism. I'm talking about the serious devoted practitioners who regularly meditate in ritualistic fashion, attend meditation center retreats where they live in silence for weeks at a time, and flock to lectures by great Buddhist teachers.
When you meet them, you will notice these common characteristics:
Common characteristics of devout Buddhist practitioners
a) They are gentle, modest, and polite in their demeanor and voice, but also very reserved and quiet.
b) They are very peaceful of course, but their emotions and behavior seem highly restrained and subdued as well. It's as though part of their human nature, especially the part that enjoys pleasure, were removed, numbed or suppressed. They also appear to be devoid of any passion of any kind.
c) They are very private people who will not disclose much about themselves, and prefer to keep social interaction brief and limited.
d) They will have polite conversations with you, but will not be into mingling, bonding or socializing for long.
e) Their communication style is more traditional Asian style than Western. They are not assertive, articulate, skillful or eloquent in their speech, but say only what they need to and keep it brief. There is no passion in their voice either.
f) They seek solitude and quiet contemplation most of the time, like monks. They are not much into social interactions, social activities or even stimulating conversations.
g) Good times, adventure, stimulation, excitement, fun, interesting knowledge, curiosity, and even wholesome enriching experiences, do not seem to do anything for them. They are not even fascinated or stimulated by intellectual topics. Just ask them out to do something fun, even if it's of a wholesome nature, and look how enthusiastic they react.
h) They do not live for dreams, aspirations or ambitions. Nor do they bask in the world of imagination, possibilities or exploration. Instead, they are simply subdued, as if all they wanted was solitude and quietness, all the time. Watch their facial expressions and behaviors and you will see this. It's like they are in another zone.
i) They seem to have a deep AVERSION to fun, enjoyment or pleasure, as if the ability to enjoy those things were gone from them. Like the traditional Chinese and Japanese mindset, deep down they do not believe that life needs to be enjoyed, but that one is meant to toil and suffer in life with some goal in mind, whether it's a career or the attainment of Enlightenment. What's funny is that serious Buddhist practitioners who are white act far more "Asian" than mainstream Asians do!
j) Look at Buddhist teachers, lamas and leaders giving lectures to audiences. You can find them on Google Video or YouTube. You will notice that they have a very gentle subdued disposition that is devoid of any passion, charisma, inspiration and energy. They are fond of cracking lighthearted jokes and humor during their lectures to ease the tension. But you can see that there is an inhibition about them which signifies that they are highly restrained from enjoying life or pleasures.
(If you can't visit a Buddhist center near you, then just watch videos on YouTube of Buddhist teachers like the Dalai Lama or Jack Kornfield and look at the expressions of their audience.)
Now, the behaviors above should make it beyond obvious by now that these serious Buddhist practitioners do NOT live to enjoy life, live it to the fullest, experience pleasures, or to have an enriching and fulfilling variety of experiences. I mean, get real.
Furthermore, look at the lives of Buddhist monks who have given up their whole lives for the Buddhist path. Everyday they follow strict routines and rituals of studying, meditating and chores, in silence. They do not talk much, not even to each other, but live extremely reclusive and subdued lives devoid of pleasure, enjoyment, stimulation or fun.
What does that tell you? That Buddhism at its heart is pro-enjoyment, pro-pleasure and pro-fun?! Certainly not! In fact, it tells you that its attitude toward enjoying life is rather quite grim and discouraging.
Of course, Buddhist teachers will deny that their path is anti-enjoyment or pleasure, for they do not want others to have a negative image of their religion (who does?). But they clearly cannot argue that Buddhism advocates the enjoyment of life or fulfillment of desires either. So where does that leave their position on "enjoying life"? In the middle? Nowhere? Or perhaps they have no position at all, since they prefer to sidestep this issue completely?
Regardless of their avoidance and neutrality on this matter, again it's what they DO, not what they SAY. In this case, the important thing is that the LIFESTYLE and BEHAVIORS of Buddhism's devoted and serious practitioners say more about its attitude toward enjoyment and pleasure than any official Buddhist canon does. It can't get any more obvious than that. Enough said.
Avoidance of big existential questions
Buddhism does not address or try to answer man's eternal existential questions, such as:
"Is there a God? If so, who, what and where is he?"
"What is the meaning and purpose of life? Why am I here?"
"Where did we come from? Who created us and why?"
Instead, it prefers to avoid such questions, especially the existence of God issue, seeing them as irrelevant, unknowable and inapplicable to one's goal of the cessation of suffering.
Nevertheless, just because Buddhists don't care about these questions doesn't mean others don't. Mankind has always had a thirst to find the answers to these big questions.
And if you believe that everything happens for a reason, then you would say that this thirst for meaning in humankind exists for a reason and must serve some function. As theists would argue, every desire in us must have something out there that can fulfill it, therefore if we seek God, then there must be one out there to be sought, so their logic goes.
Though Buddhism views such issues as irrelevant and does not like to get into them, they matter to many, especially those who are spiritual and intellectual truth seekers. Therefore, again, in this regard, Buddhism is incomplete.
Here is an example of how incomplete religions can sometimes fill in each other's gaps. Buddhism explains why some are born in wealth and health, while others are born in poverty and disease, why some are luckier than others, and why life seems unfair, with the concept of karma from past lives. It teaches the rule of cause and effect in the universe. But it says nothing about God, who created us, and why.
Christianity, on the other hand, does have explanation for why God created us, what went wrong, and what our purpose should be. But it does not have an answer for the inequities of life, why some are more fortunate than others through seeming chance, why some are born into better conditions than others, etc.
So if you combine those two, they teach fill in for what the other lacks. I'm not saying that either of these religions' explanations are true. What I'm saying is that when you combine things, such as spiritual traditions, religious or cultural myths, world views, philosophies, and even various forms of teachings, you get a much bigger and more complete picture than if you stick to just one belief system or view. Even if they contradict each other (e.g. Christianity does not teach reincarnation while Buddhism does) you can still find commonalities in the truths and lessons they teach (e.g. Jesus and Buddha both taught that Heaven was a state within and that one's inner state determines their cleanliness, not their outer state).
Some New Agers or liberal Christians, for example, have combined teachings from Christianity and Buddhism, in that they incorporate both God and reincarnation into their world view. Some who have had Near Death Experiences (NDE's), for example, also report that they witnessed the reality of both God and reincarnation during their out of body experience. What this means is that different spiritual traditions can give you different pieces of the truth, just as in that parable where the blindfolded men are each describing different parts of the same elephant.
I'm not saying that you should believe everything you hear of course. But you can find bits of truth, wisdom and lessons in each spiritual tradition or belief system that you encounter or study.
Obscure goals and presumptions
Some of the goals and presumptions of Buddhism are obscure. The awakened karma-free state of Enlightenment, which Buddhists and many other Eastern religions seek to reach, is one such example. It is not even clear if such a state really even exists or not.
First, Enlightenment is said by Zen and Tibetan teachers to not be something you can "attain" or reach. It is supposedly beyond words and even the ability of the human mind to comprehend. They paint it as some unknowable and unfathomable thing that can't even be described. Vague riddles are used to describe it that give it an aura of mystique.
Second, according to Buddhist wisdom, when one attains Enlightenment, one does not to talk about it or tell others. A truly Enlightened master would never tell anyone that he was Enlightened, so it goes. Anyone who does must be a fraud. So if no one who has reached Enlightenment would tell anyone about it, how are we to even know if such a state is possible or not? We can't logically know. Therefore, to believe in it requires a certain leap of faith, at least from the beginner's standpoint.
Third, since no one is perfect, the notion of someone who has conquered all their desires and has complete mastery over them seems a bit unrealistic and farfetched.
I would not argue that Enlightenment doesn't exist, for there is so much about reality that we still don't know. I am simply admitting that it is unknowable and obscure.
Moreover, their concept of a soul is different from the Western concept of it. They do not view the soul as some "entity" or being that leaves the body at death and enters the next life in another body at rebirth. The western concept of the soul, they say, is based on a false sense of self, which does not really exist.
According to the Buddhist view, all things exist as a result of an interdependent mix of causes and conditions, including consciousness itself. So, consciousness arises out of certain conditions, which leads to a false sense of self. When you die, your consciousness goes back into some void of formlessness or emptiness, before reincarnating under the right conditions. In other words, the soul has no form or existence between incarnations. I know this sounds confusing, but again it is an abstract concept that they say words cannot really describe. It cannot be visualized with the finite mind or understood in a literal manner, since after all, Buddhism can only be described with words up to a point. So we will have to leave it at that.
Fourth, the reincarnation belief in Buddhism is not an established proven fact. In parapsychology, reincarnation is a suggested hypothesis based on certain cases (e.g. ala the work of Dr. Ian Stevenson chronicled in his books). Knowing this, why should one base his or her life on getting out of the cycle of rebirth, when the whole phenomenon is not a proven fact yet? Shouldn't one live life to the fullest in this life, just in case there is no rebirth?
Furthermore, the Buddhist goal of ending the cycle of rebirth begs the question, "If the purpose of this life is to get out of the cycle of rebirth, then why were we put here in the first place?" Wouldn't it have been better if we were born in Nirvana or Heaven so we wouldn't have to go through all this or endure any suffering? How can the purpose of life be merely to get out of it? Doesn't that defeat the point of it? Isn't it more sensible to assume that life must have a grander purpose than merely trying to get out of it?
These are all considerations and areas that warrant further investigation and inquiry.
Conclusion and Suggestions
In conclusion, I would say that despite Buddhism's peaceful and introspective nature, we can logically conclude that it is not for everyone, for the reasons cited above, as well as its inaccuracies, overgeneralizations, shortcomings and dismal grim view of existence.
It is not some ultimate source of truth that addresses all spiritual needs and answers all the big existential questions. Nor is it some final end point for all truth seekers to reach that will resolve all their inquiries and searching. Therefore, for some it is simply INCOMPLETE, like any other religion, practice or belief system, even though it does contain wisdom and truth.
a) If you are the outgoing type that thrives on social interaction, who likes to mingle, connect and bond with others, Buddhism as a path will not be your fulfillment, for at its serious level it demands silence and reclusiveness, which goes against who you are.
b) If you believe that life should be lived to the fullest, that the purpose of life is to enjoy it, and you live to have a variety of enriching experiences, you will find that Buddhism does not encourage your view. Instead you will find that it paints a negative and pessimistic image of what you live for. Therefore, you will find it to be boring and no fun.
c) If you are a dreamer or romantic type with aspirations, or are very ambitious and passionate, you will also find no support or validation from Buddhism for what you are.
d) If you are a pleasure seeker, thrill seeker, or adrenaline junkie, you will not find Buddhism applicable to your lifestyle of course.
If you are any of the above, you will find that Buddhism is not a good fit for you. Just as a nonconformist and freethinker will not fit into the military, you will not fit into Buddhism as a serious life path.
The type of people who find true fulfillment in Buddhism tend to be reclusive types who prefer spending ample time in solitude and quiet contemplation, cultivating awareness and mindfulness. Those are the types drawn to Buddhism, whom you will find at Buddhist centers and retreats.
But that doesn't mean that Buddhism will have no value or use to you. You may still learn from the truth and wisdom contained in Buddhist teachings. You may benefit from Buddhist meditation practice in helping you live more efficiently, cope with stress and improve yourself. But it will not be the right path for you at the serious level. Rather it will be more like a perspective to you, one of many, that helps you from time to time to cope with stress or conflict.
There's nothing wrong with that of course, since we have a right to pick and choose what we deem valuable and applicable to our lives from every teaching, religion and belief system we encounter. In fact, most Westerners interested in Buddhism use it as a tool for self-improvement and aid in coping with stress, not as a path to abandon their world and earthly ambitions to live a monk-like existence.
My summation of Buddhism is that alone it is rather grim and dim, but great when combined with other teachings and spiritual paradigms. This means that is it incomplete and tells only one part of the truth. There is much more to reality than the tenets of one religion. Beyond a certain point, truth is incomprehensible to the human mind. Our minds are designed to understand things in the physical world. Past that point, understanding the other dimensions of reality with our mind would be like trying to teach math or Shakespeare to a dog or cat. It's simply beyond their cognition.
In fact, quantum physics tells us that matter is essentially empty. The universe is like a great thought or consciousness, of which we are a part of or a "dream" of. At the quantum level, there is no single electron or particle, everything exists only in relation to each other. There is no time, space or locality. This is what we are beginning to discover. Yet all this is not ultimate truth, it only points to a higher level of truth. As a Buddhist analogy goes, words and teachings are like a finger pointing to the moon. They can only point toward truth, but they are not "the truth".
As mentioned earlier, no religion is perfect or complete with all the answers. They all have their flaws and limitations, since they were created and developed by humans trying to interpret the divine aspect of reality. Therefore, I would advise the spiritual truth seeker to learn from all of them, for they contain partial truths and wisdom.
In fact, the most popular and admirable spiritual teachers and leaders today do just that. They incorporate teachings and lessons from many different religions, philosophies, sages and teachers, as well as discoveries in quantum physics and parapsychology. New Age authors and teachers who do that are, in my view, are far more COMPLETE in their teachings than those who preach from only one religion. They reveal a much larger picture of wisdom and spiritual truth than those who limit themselves to only belief system.
A great example of this is Dr. Wayne Dyer, a popular New Age author and lecturer who has been featured on PBS many times. In his teachings and writings, he shares wisdom from different major religions (including Buddhism), great sages, teachers, intellectuals and philosophers, as well as discoveries in quantum physics, parapsychology and holistic health. I may not agree with everything Dr. Dyer says (my critique of his "thoughts create reality" mantra can be read here http://www.debunkingskeptics.com/LawofAttraction.htm), but I find his teachings do present a more complete picture of reality than any one religion does.
In his PBS lectures, Dr. Dyer proudly says, "The purpose of life is to enjoy it!" So he is not afraid to enjoy life. He does not feel guilty about it like Buddhists and Christians do, but sees the wisdom in simply enjoying life every moment of every day.
You will also find that the most popular New Age bestsellers among spiritual truth seekers today tend to do the same - they teach multiple wisdom and truths from different spiritual traditions. Such titles include:
"The Power of Now" series by Eckhart Tolle
"The Celestine Prophecy" series by James Redfield
"The Peaceful Warrior" series by Dan Millman
"The Tao of Physics" by Fritjof Capra
Books by Wayne Dyer and Deepak Chopra
And many others.
To the spiritual truth seeker, I would say that it's time to stop being a mere follower, and start thinking for yourself. Combine freethinking into your practice and search. God, or the Universal Consciousness that brought you into existence, gave you a mind and the ability to reason. So why not use it to discover for yourself what aspect of each belief system out there applies to your life and has meaning and value to you?
After all, from a higher level of consciousness, every experience in life is meant to teach you something. Buddhism has important lessons for you, but so do other spiritual traditions as well. Take it all into account. Look at the whole "painting" of life, not just one small portion of it. That's the path.
As someone once said, "Truth is not something that you have. It's a continual search..."
So empower yourself.
Begin your journey of discovery.
The universe awaits...
Thank you for reading.