I’m fortunate enough to have a friend at work with whom I can sometimes banter beliefs. One day, while we both rode extensively in the company truck, we meandered into a conversation about religion. We soon became enmeshed in a detail of whether Buddhism is in fact a religion. As with similar debates, the issue involves clarification of definitions.
"It seems to me," He said, "that Buddhism is a philosophy." This, in response to my declaration of not believing in a creator being, or to a clumsy attempt at enumerating core values while supporting an agnostic position. That’s when a definition of the term "religion" came into play. Clearly, his concept of the term needed little extrapolation. Mine, however, wandered aimlessly. I fear I failed to do it justice.
With that episode in mind, I submit this week’s tidbit, written by Stephen Batchelor in his concise rendering of Buddhist "philosophy" entitled: Buddhism Without Beliefs. Thus begins his chapter on Agnosticism:
Suppose… a man were wounded by an arrow thickly smeared with poison, and his friends and companions brought a surgeon to treat him. the man would say, "I will not let the surgeon pull out the arrow until I know the name and clan of the man who wounded me, whether the bow that wounded me was a long bow or a crossbow, whether the arrow that wounded me was hoof-tipped or curved or barbed."
All this would still not be known to that man and meanwhile he would die. So too… if anyone should say, "I will not lead the noble life under the Buddha until the Buddha declares to me whether the world is eternal or not eternal, finite or infinite; whether the soul is the same as or is different from the body; whether or not an awakened one continues or ceases to exist after death," the would still remain undeclared by the Buddha and meanwhile that person would die.
– the Buddha
I wish I had this in mind during our discussion. The whole God thing, heaven and hell, the afterlife; all are, in the Buddhist view, vain pursuits and distractions of what really matters. How does one’s belief in a divine Creator-Being help in our daily life? How does a belief in eternal damnation work to reduce suffering in ourselves and others?
When asked what he was doing, the Buddha replied that he taught "anguish and the ending of anguish." When asked about metaphysics (the origin and end of the universe, the identity or difference of body and mind, his existence or non-existence after death), he remained silent. He said the Dharma was permeated by a single taste: freedom. He made no claims to uniqueness or divinity and did not have recourse to a term we would translate as "God."
While such metaphysical conundrums form a basis for interesting suppositions, while much is made of such theories in world religions, they are "beside the point" of awakening. They neither support nor contradict Buddhism. Believe if you want, but don’t let beliefs hinder mindfulness, compassion, and the clarity of vision to do what is right in the moment. Namaste.