This article is closely linked with the last post, The End of Metaphysics, which addressed the traditional Buddhist belief system based on the doctrine of reincarnation – that karma perpetuates the round of samsara across lifetimes, and that the alternate existence of nirvana is the escape hatch.
What I wish to explore is the possible fallout from our re-envisioning this traditional Buddhist belief system, or to put it in a metaphorical cliche, “Are we throwing out some of the baby with the bathwater?”
This question is important, because we have many examples in the modern western world of having stripped away so much tradition and ritual from our lives that the result often leaves us feeling shallow and diminished. Sometimes we need the outer mythic forms to keep us engaged and inspired. Said in another way – if we let go of our need for a metaphysical storyline of our existence and accept a simpler here and now reality, do we end up with something that causes us to lose an important emotional connection with the teachings?
It’s all well and good to see through the transparency of our myths, but what do we have left after our deconstruction? Are we removing an important support for our lives, depending now on our rational minds instead of our hearts? Are we creating an emotionally barren life?
Many of us love the beauty and romance of the all-encompassing universe populated with spirits, gods, and places to go that are better than what we have here. There is great solace in the existence of these other places and beings that we can share our company with, whether in dream or after-life. When we give ourselves over to this belief, we don’t have to feel so alone and our vision can be enriched by the many possibilities. This leap of faith in envisioning a populated universe is, I believe, what powers a lot of the outpouring of creativity in religious expression.
As Buddhists, we are drawn to the sumptuous display of Buddha images, deities, shrines, and inspired architecture that house them. This is my primary connection with the tradition. Even in the more austere Zen tradition, there is an aesthetic that calls out strongly. In the more visually elaborated traditions such as Tibetan Vajrayana, there is a great feast for the senses. In Theravadin countries in South East Asia, there is a similar feast of Buddhas, rich shrine décor, and temple enclosures, but minus the panoply of deities.
Also part of the Buddhist tradition is ritual in its many guises. This is often an elaborate custom, rich with sounds of voice and music.
I find a great satisfaction in these various displays and would miss them very much if they were eliminated from the tradition. So, what makes me think this expression would become diminished if we dropped the belief of past and future lives, being driven by karma through the samsaric round, and holding out hope for refuge in nirvana?
Would we be less inspired to devote our resources on Buddha images, stupas, elaborate shrines and other fanciful display, feeling that such representation was just a fabricated mythic expression? Is this a necessary outcome of pulling back from a faith in traditional Buddhist tenets?
Personally, I don’t think it has to have this result. Perhaps some people would be more comfortable with a rarefied outcome to match their secular sensibilities, but I’m already deep into the appreciation of the Buddhist aesthetic and want to embrace it as much as I can.
From my vantage point, whether we believe in reincarnation, or any of the other traditional tenets, doesn’t really matter in regards to our emotional connection. As expressed in the last post, the Buddha’s main teachings did not hinge on these doctrines. There is still a great deal of inspiration to celebrate in the Buddha’s teachings – plenty enough to give us the juice to create whatever outward forms of appreciation we desire. We don’t have to be motivated by wanting to accumulate a storehouse of merit to help guarantee a better rebirth. We can motivate ourselves to build stupas and temples, Buddhas and shrines solely by our heartfelt appreciation for the profound teachings that lead humans away from suffering toward true happiness. That is surely enough.