By Jed McKenna
(This article may be freely reprinted. Please retain the footer information and link. Text version here.)
Whether there be prophecies, they shall fail;
whether there be tongues, they shall cease;
whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away.
For we know in part, and we prophesy in part.
But when that which is perfect is come,
then that which is in part shall be done away.
When I was a child, I spake as a child,
I understood as a child, I thought as a child:
but when I became a man, I put away childish things.
1 Corinthians 13
Being critical of Buddhism isn’t easy. Buddhism is the most likable of the major religions, and Buddhists are the perennial good guys of modern spirituality. Beautiful traditions, lovely architecture, inspiring statuary, ancient history, the Dalai Lama; what’s not to like?
Everything about Buddhism is just so — nice. No fatwahs or jihads, no inquisitions or crusades, no terrorists or pederasts, just nice people being nice. In fact, Buddhism means niceness. Niceism.
At least, it should.
Buddha means Awakened One, so Buddhism can be taken to mean Awake-ism. Awakism. It would therefore be natural to think that if you were looking to wake up, then Buddhism — Awakism — would be the place to look.
The Light is Better Over Here
Such thinking, however, would reveal a dangerous lack of respect for the opposition. Maya, goddess of delusion, has been doing her job with supreme mastery since the first spark of self-awareness flickered in some monkey’s brainbox, and the idea that the neophyte truth-seeker can just sign up with the Buddhists, read some books, embrace some new concepts and slam her to the mat would be a bit on the naive side, (as billions of sincere but unsuccessful seekers over the last twenty-five centuries might grudgingly attest).
On the other hand, why not? How’d this get so turned around? It’s just truth. Shouldn’t truth be, like, the simplest thing? Shouldn’t someone who wants to find something as ubiquitous and unchanging as truth be able to do so? How can anyone manage to not find truth? And here’s this venerable organization supposedly dedicated to just that very thing, even named for it, and it’s a total flop.
So what’s the problem?
Why Doesn’t Buddhism Produce Buddhas?
The problem arises from the fact that Buddhists, like everyone else, insist on reconciling the irreconcilable. They don’t just want to awaken to the true, they also want to make sense of the untrue. They want to have their cake and eat it too, so they end up with nonsensical theories, divergent schools, sagacious doubletalk, and zero Buddhas.
Typical of their insistence on reconciling the irreconcilable is the Buddhist concept of Two Truths, a poignant two-word joke they don’t seem to get, and yet this sort of perversely irrational thinking is near the very heart of the failed search for truth. We don’t want truth, we want a particular truth; one that doesn’t threaten ego; one that doesn’t exist. We insist on a truth that makes sense given what we know, not knowing that we know nothing.
Nothing about Buddhism is more revealing than the Four Noble Truths which, not being true, are of dubious nobility. They form the basis of Buddhism, so it’s clear from the outset that the Buddhists have whipped up a proprietary version of truth shaped more by market forces than any particular concern for the less consumer-friendly, albeit true, truth.
Buddhism may be spiritually filling, even nourishing, but insofar as truth is concerned, it’s just the same old junkfood in a different package. You can eat it every day of your life and die exactly as awakened as the day you signed up.
Bait & Switch
Buddhism is a classic bait-and-switch operation. We’re attracted by the enlightenment in the window, but as soon as we’re in the door they start steering us over to the compassion aisle. Buddhists could be honest and change their name to Compassionism, but who wants that?
There’s the rub. They can’t get us in the door with compassion, and they can’t deliver on the promise of enlightenment.
It’s not limited to compassion, of course. Their shelves are stocked with all sorts of goodies and enticements, practically anything anyone could ever want, with just the one rather notable exception.
If they had just stopped when they had Anicca, impermanence, and Anatta, no-self, then they would have had a true and effective teaching they could be proud of, except there would be no they because Buddhism would have died with the Buddha. They’d have a good product, but no customers.
This untruth-in-advertising is the kind of game you have to play if you want to stay successful in a business where the customer is always wrong. You can either go out of business honestly, or thrive by giving the people what they want. What they say they want and what they really want, though, are two very different things.
Me Me Me
To the outside observer, much of Buddhist knowledge and practice seems focused on spiritual self-improvement. This, too, is hard to speak against, except within the context of awakening from delusion. Then it’s easy.
There is no such thing as true self, so any pursuit geared toward its aggrandizement, betterment, upliftment, elevation, evolution, glorification, salvation, etc, is utter folly. How much more so any endeavor undertaken merely to increase one’s own happiness or contentment or, I’m embarrassed just to say it, bliss?
Self is ego and ego resides exclusively in the dreamstate. If you want to break free of the dreamstate, you must break free of self, not stroke it to make it purr or groom it for some imagined brighter future.
Maya’s House of Enlightenment
The trick with being critical of so esteemed and beloved an institution is not to get dragged down into the morass of details and debate. It’s very simple: If Buddhism is about awakening, people should be waking up. If it’s not about awakening, they should change the name.
Of course, Buddhism isn’t completely unique in resorting to shoddy marketing tactics. This same gulf between promise and performance is found in all systems of human spirituality. We’re looking at it in Buddhism because that’s where it’s most pronounced. No disrespect to the Buddha is intended. If there was a Buddha and he was enlightened, then it’s Buddhism that insults his memory, not healthy skepticism. Blame the naked emperor’s retinue of lackeys and lickspittles, not the unbeguiled lad who merely states the obvious.
Buddhism is arguably the most elevated of man’s great belief systems. If you want to enjoy the many valuable benefits it has to offer, then I wouldn’t presume to utter a syllable against it. But, if you want to escape from the clutches of Maya, then I suggest you take a closer look at the serene face on all those golden statues, and see if it isn’t really hers.
Jed McKenna is the author of the Enlightenment, Dreamstate, and Jed Talks trilogies. The Search Is Over. Learn more at WisefoolPress.com.