We begin with a paradox. The Buddhist religion, in practice, looks not so different from Christianity or Judaism in practice, but the wisdom, the thought that animates it, can seem startlingly unfamiliar, contradictory, practically other-planetary. Indeed, there is a Buddhist aphorism that advises: “Want to go far in your spiritual development? Then assume everything you are ordinarily thinking is wrong.” Let us glance briefly at the religion, and then explore the strange wisdom behind it.
The robes may require redying from saffron or maroon, and stupas might be remodeled into steeples, but otherwise, as they go about their daily rounds, Buddhists and Christians appear not so dissimilar. Buddhists offer prayers to the Buddha and bodhisattvas much the way Christians pray to Christ and the saints: each goes to temple or church, performs rituals, and observes holy days; both hope that virtuous actions will assure them a good life now as well as in the posthumous next. Such simple faith and simple observances describe Buddhism on the popular level, but the logic behind that simple faith — Buddhist wisdom — issues from different assumptions entirely. There are two incongruous back-door entrances that can lead us indirectly into its unusual world: old folk tales and twenty-first-century science.
Have science and religion changed places? Contemporary religion often busies itself with secular concerns, as fundamentalists take up politics and liberal congregationalists campaign for environmental issues. On the other hand, physicists and cosmologists espouse metaphysical possibilities — multiverses, string theory, twelve and thirteen dimensions — that make angels dancing on pinheads look positively tame. Want an irrefutable argument for some sort of afterlife or immortality? Don’t look to theologians but to e = mc².
The discoveries of quantum physics appear, however, to oddly echo the wisdom that Buddhists intuited long ago. There could quite plausibly be a book of parallel sayings displaying what Einstein said opposite what the Buddha said. In quantum physics, for example, the observer determines for subatomic phenomena the location and character of what’s observed. Buddhists likewise believe that there is no independently existing reality “out there,” even in everyday experience. In Bell’s Theorem (called “entanglement” by Schrödinger and “spooky action at a distance” by a skeptical Einstein), two subatomic particles, once intertwined, will ever afterward instantly register what happens in one another, though billions of miles might separate them. Postmodern science thus seems to validate the premodern Buddhist wisdom that everybody and everything are on some level interconnected.
Except that there’s a problem here. Actually, two problems. First, laypeople usually cannot comprehend the science behind the physicists’ theories; second, generalizations from the subatomic world supposedly do not apply to the way things happen up here in the macro world of human interaction. “That we should try to form a rational and coherent world-view on the basis of our best, most fundamental [scientific] theories,” writes the Oxford physicist David Deutsch, seems obvious; instead, it’s considered heresy. A human correlative to quantum mechanics, with its observer-determined reality and spooky action at a distance and emptiness of matter, may be found, however, in the least likely of places: Buddhist folk tales. Let’s listen to a couple of them.
Buddhist Wives’ Tales
First tale: A shriveled-up old woman wanted one thing only: a relic of the Buddha. Fortunately, her merchant son traveled extensively, so he could obtain one. Unfortunately, he was always too busy to remember. Now as he was packing his bags, his old mother said, “My dear son, if you fail to bring back a relic of the Buddha once more, I shall kill myself.” “My dear mother [he reassured her], despair not. I shall not forget, I shall not forget.”
He forgot. Just as he was returning home, though, he recalled his promise, and spying a dog’s tooth in the mud, he retrieved it and wrapped it in costly silk. “Here, dear Mother,” he said, “a most invaluable relic, a genuine tooth of the Buddha.” The old woman, thrilled, began prostrating before the rotting dog’s tooth and praying to it and making it offerings. And, the tooth began to glow and produce miracles. End of story.
The moral we moderns would take from this story is: the old bat was bonkers and the wonders of religion are hoaxes, no better than a canine molar. Freud would have delighted in this story, with religion shown to be an illusion. A Buddhist, and also Freud’s greatest rival, extracted from such a tale the opposite conclusion. Carl Jung was one of the first Westerners to penetrate the complexities of Tibetan Buddhism. He posed the question: are the gods and goddesses of Tibetan Buddhism real, or merely mental projections? Jung’s surprising answer was not the niggardly Western “either/or” but the Eastern “both/and.” Instead of being either one or the other, Buddhism posits a subtle middle ground where in-here and out-there merge, where subject and object are never entirely separate, a fact symbolized in that tale by the supplicated tooth aglow.
That the observer and the observed are in cahoots sounds like psychological projection, but Buddhist wisdom, like the physicist, goes much further. In Buddhist relative (or historical) truth, that dog’s tooth was a dog’s tooth and the mother a gullible innocent. But in Buddhist absolute truth, everything is considered to have the same unconditional nature as the Buddha. The old woman was doing with the tooth what Buddhists advise devotees to do with their teachers. See your guru as an ordinary human being, they say, and you’ll get the benefits from an ordinary human being; see him or her as the Buddha, and you’ll get the blessings of the Buddha. Here, substitute dog tooth for teacher.
Second tale: A beggar was so poor that he lived in a drafty dark hovel and went about always hungry, and his future seemed foreclosed before it happened. One day a rich man requested his manual assistance and rewarded him with a large bag of seeds. As his hut was rat-infested, he suspended the bag by a rope from the ceiling. That done, he stretched out and began to daydream, and oh, what a daydream it was. Everybody and everything else in the harsh world was forgotten. He’d plant the seeds and from the proceeds of the harvest would buy more seeds, more land. Year by year he’d thus acquire more land and reap larger and larger crops, making him the richest man around. And so daydreaming, he enjoyed his first happy evening in memory. But the rats, unnoticed, had climbed down the rope and gnawed on it till, suddenly, the frayed rope snapped. Down fell the bag and killed the man instantly.
What’s the lesson of that story? For a Buddhist it has a sad moral about a man lost in daydreams who died tragically. Most Westerners, however, might think differently, rationalizing that the rats would have gnawed through the rope in any case, and at least this way the beggar died happy, finally.
Does wisdom advance; does it progress, as do most fields of knowledge? Do we twenty-first-century know-it-alls understand what it means to be human better than Socrates, the Bible, or Plutarch did? The answer to that question, so stated, seems obviously no, but in fact few historical phenomena are easier to trace than the development and evolution of Buddhist wisdom. The two views of the beggar’s death above could represent the “before” and “after” of the greatest shift in Buddhist wisdom, which began around 200 BC.
In earlier or hinayana Buddhism, one attained enlightenment or release from suffering for oneself, and the beggar’s hour of happiness mimicked that solitary achievement. In later or mahayana Buddhism, one connects with all humankind by working for the enlightenment of everyone. Of that larger liberating vision, however, the beggar knew nothing, dying as he had lived in “the prison of one’s corporeal self.” There is a second important difference between earlier and later Buddhist wisdom. In hinayana Buddhism enlightenment was equated with nirvana, liberation from the world of birth and death (samsara) with all its care and woes. Mahayana Buddhism, however, tells of a deeper level of reality that underlies nirvana and samsara alike, of a felicitous equanimity that can accept the seemingly good and the seemingly bad with equal unruffled ease. On that deeper level (what medieval scholastics called pure being), experience has a wordless but luminous and tonic quality to it that can be subtly realized if, not lost in thought, one remains consciously attentive to it. Experiencing that deeper reality, some Tibetan monks who were imprisoned and tortured by the Chinese Communists claimed, upon their release, that life in prison had not been that unpleasant. If only the beggar had known that possibility or had at least been a little more mindful; he might have even noticed the rats gnawing away.
The Friendliness of Emptiness
Late in his life Einstein was asked about the next great question physics should work on. He answered, “Whether or not the Universe is friendly?” That is one question to which Buddhists claim to know the answer.
When the curtain is pulled back in The Wizard of Oz, there’s nothing there, just a foolish old man tugging on some strings. Same thing when the curtain is pulled back in Buddhism, only this time there’s not even an old man. Contemporary physics states that the universe, from atoms to outer space, is 99. (and here, on the right side of the decimal point, add a long string of 9s) percent empty. Buddhism rounds off the figure. It’s rather like the TV sitcom Seinfeld: a show about nothing. Unlike Seinfeld and physics, however, Buddhism draws human implications from the emptiness that ultimately weaves the fabric of the cosmos.
What most distinguishes Buddhist from Occidental wisdom may be what each thinks a person is. The soul or self to which the Greeks exhorted us to be true and which the early Christians honored as holy and which Renaissance courtiers polished into a rare and incomparable gem — it simply does not exist in Buddhism. Instead, in Buddhist ontology, a person is an ever-shifting, ever-coalescing-and-dispersing confluence of elements that are themselves in flux and dispersing. An early fan of Buddhist notions about the ultimate emptiness of selfhood was Friedrich Nietzsche. If a person possesses a soul, he said, then the worst fault is that he allows it to fall into sin. If there’s no soul or fixed self, then the most serious human flaw is simply ignorance of one’s nature. And that, Nietzsche said with rhetorical exaggeration, represents a thousandfold improvement in wisdom.
Buddhist wisdom might be likened to a personal user’s guide to this physicist’s and astronomer’s impermanent, unsubstantial, mainly matterless universe. Using meditative techniques, Buddhist monks have experimented with emptiness on a personal, experiential level to test out its human corollary. They do this by not fixating on anything, mentally fabricating nothing, and resisting the urge to solidify, correct, or react to anything. Buddhist emptiness (shunyata), they discovered, does have some practical application. Meditate on the breath, which is as close as the ordinary mind can come to experiencing emptiness, and it will aerate the burden of being a solitary individual. Practice compassion, which shows the boundaries separating you from others to be ultimately transparent, and it will enhance your relation to the world. Can you do these two things: Breathe in and out? Be kind? If so, you have already taken baby steps down the Buddhist path.
On that path you should be like that old woman who rejoiced not because, but in spite of, what the dog’s tooth was. Don’t be like that beggar, lost in daydreams starring oneself, oblivious to the subtle wonder in mere being. Then presto, the universe will become friendly, even if it is not really (or did not seem so before). Such is the paradoxical prescription of Buddhist wisdom.