Coming from a devout Buddhist family, I've been exposed to Buddhism for many years. I've also studied it during my research into religions and search for truth. But after doing some reflecting, pondering and analyzing of Buddhism lately, I have some new observations and critical questions that I would like to share and elaborate on.
First, if you look at the most devout practitioners of Buddhism, such as lamas, monks, nuns and those who do solitary meditation retreats for months or years, they seem different from other people in that they seem to have suppressed their desires and passions.
This is because Buddhism teaches that one should not cling to desires, since that causes suffering. So the devout practitioner's goal is to abandon and disassociate from their desires. Now I am not talking about the casual meditation practitioner. I'm talking about the serious devotee who has dedicated their life to Buddhism.
The problem with this is that it makes them seem less human and less alive. Our desires and passions are what drive us and make us alive. They are what make us human. To suppress them or disassociate from them the way devout Buddhists do seems unnatural. It's as if they've amputated part of their human nature, soul and personality. You know what I mean?
I just don't see how someone can live like that. Without desire and passion, one is not truly alive. One cannot live life to the fullest. And one cannot truly experience life in all its glory and tragedy. Emotions, feelings, passions, desires, etc. are what make us feel alive. How can you try to take that away?
So I am highly skeptical of the Buddhist claim that the answer to suffering is to abandon and disassociate from desires. That seems to go too far. You can't remove a fundamental part of human nature like that just to avoid suffering. It seems like the wrong way to go about it.
I mean, you don't eliminate pain by removing all sense of feeling and sensation right? To do that would defeat the purpose of our natural ability to feel and sense. Such things are there for a reason. Likewise, our desires and passions are there for a reason. It seems unwise and unnatural to try to remove them or abandon them. So to attempt to end suffering by suppressing, abandoning or denying our desires, passions, wants, needs, longings, wishes, cravings, etc. altogether seems too extreme.
Besides, I am not sure how realistic it is to try to suppress one's desires. It doesn't seem possible since desire is a part of us. Without it, we would have no motivation to do anything. What would be the point of living if one had no desires or passions? Wouldn't you become an unfeeling droid?
But even if it were possible to disassociate from desire in general, I'm not sure that would be a good thing. It would make you less human and less alive, as though you were half a person. You know what I mean? I just don't see how suppressing desires can possibly make one happy or fulfilled. It just doesn't make sense.
Now, I know that Buddhists do not use the term "suppress desires" to describe their aim. They will admit that removing desires is not possible. Instead, they prefer to say that they are "training their minds not to cling to desires". But I think this is a matter of semantics. You can spin it any way you want, but the result is the same either way: The most devout practitioners of Buddhism seem to have caged or repressed their desires and passions, or have disassociated from them, making them seem less human and less alive. They may have a peaceful tranquil smile on their faces, but they still seem less alive and human for some reason. Have any of you noticed that? It just seems very strange and unnatural to me.
Remember, I am not talking about the casual Buddhist practitioner who meditates occasionally to relive stress and studies Buddhism as a hobby. I am talking about the serious devotees who devote their life to Buddhism.
Moreover, being devoid of desire and passion makes one seem uninteresting and boring. The typical Buddhist devotees I've met (and I've met many) seem very quiet, solemn, repressed, and reclusive. They do not like to talk or socialize much. Instead, they limit such things and restrict conversation to polite formalities. They live a very orderly solemn lifestyle filled with rituals and strict schedules. And they seem somewhat repressed as well. I don't see how that brings joy, happiness or fulfillment.
But I guess that's the type of people who are attracted to Buddhism. I guess it takes a certain type of person to want to abandon their desire and passions, or disassociate from them. I can't imagine why though. So perhaps people with the kind of personality I describe above - solemn, quiet, passionless, repressed, reclusive, non-expressive - are the types drawn to Buddhism. Perhaps these types are "passionate" about subduing their "passions", and "desire" to repress their "desires", which is kind of an oxymoron. But oh well. To each his own I guess. Every religion must work for some people, otherwise they wouldn't exist.
I'm certainly not like that. As for me, I live for passion, romance, inspiration, intense feelings, adventure, etc. Those things are what make me tick. They are a part of my core being and soul. I live in a world of romanticism, so I do not even fit in strong materialistic societies. Plus as a writer, philosopher, truth seeker, and freethinker, my mind is highly overactive. I am constantly thinking deep thoughts, and abstracting about ideas and concepts. I can never silence my mind. So I don't think I would be cut out to take Buddhism too seriously. I would not be a good fit for it. I could take it in small doses, but not the extreme form of it that serious devotees do.
Rituals and reciting mantras - What's the point?
"Rehearsed routines lack the flexibility to adapt." - Bruce Lee
Here's another thing I don't get. In many Buddhist sects, practice does not just consist of learning about Buddhism or silent meditation. It consists of performing rituals and reciting mantras in scriptural texts over and over again too.
Now perhaps I'm missing something, but what is the point of that? Repeating orderly rituals (that someone else created) and reciting mantra texts (that someone else wrote) seems robotic and mindless, as well as tedious. It seems no different than taking notes at school and trying to memorize them for tests, which we all know does not result in real learning. There is no self-expression in it. It's more like following orders than being yourself.
So I don't see how reciting mantras and following rituals makes one more spiritual or brings them closer to enlightenment. Reciting mantras is not a form of creative self-expression. It's not something you create. It's just reading off a script that you did not even write. What is the point of that? How does that make you more spiritual or help you achieve enlightenment? I don't get it. Am I missing something?
I don't know. But my impression is that those who like to do rituals and recite mantras over and over again, find a sense of order in it which gives them a feeling of control in their life. That's my guess. If so, I'm not sure if that's a good thing though. It seems like a form of OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder) to me. And it seems like something that someone who is left brain dominant would do.
Am I missing something? Perhaps those who do these things can comment or explain the purpose to me?
My conclusion and advice on Buddhism, religion and life
My conclusion and advice about Buddhism is that it is good in small doses, like most religions and spiritual practices are. But it does not seem like a good idea to take it to the extreme, or have it take over your whole life. This is a sensible view of life in general, not just religion.
You see, the major religions of the world, including New Age beliefs, contain nuggets of truth and wisdom. They have great lessons to learn from and symbolic motifs that contain deep truths and meanings about our human psyche. This is true of Christianity and the Bible too. But if you take these religions too literally or seriously, or follow them to the extreme, it warps your mind and life, which is not good for you. And it can make you delusional and fall out of touch with reality and others too.
Now, let me clarify, I am not advocating that one live a hedonistic lifestyle of following every desire and whim. Of course not. We all know that overindulging in alcohol, drugs, sex, eating, or any kind of carnal pleasure is bad for you. Buddhist philosophy is correct that desires cause suffering, especially if they are not fulfilled, or if one becomes addicted to them. So it is not good to be enslaved to your desires of course. But that doesn't mean that denying or abandoning desires altogether is the answer. Extremities in any form are never good. BALANCE is the key.
Balance, moderation and variety are the key
The key, I think, is to follow the age old wisdom of "everything in moderation". Taking anything to the extreme, including Buddhism or religion, is not a good thing. Ideally, you need a BALANCE in all healthy and good areas of life, having a little in each category. Examples: You need SOME spirituality, SOME desires, SOME discipline, SOME work, SOME play, SOME rest and relaxation, SOME vacation, SOME time off, SOME exercise, SOME money, SOME material things, SOME food and water, SOME fruits and vegetables in your diet, SOME protein in your diet, SOME time with friends and family, SOME time learning new things, SOME time meditating, SOME time out in nature, SOME time to yourself, etc. See what I mean?
So you see, BALANCE is the key. One needs a balance in all areas of life (including desires and spirituality) with nothing taken to the extreme or over-indulged. Doesn't that make the most sense? Isn't that the wisest and most sensible way to live?
So for example, we all know that meditation is very good for you. It helps you manage stress, become more self-aware, mindful and conscious. Thus it is very therapeutic and beneficial. It helps you become more efficient in your life and thoughts, and makes self-control come more easily. This is why Buddhism, Eastern spirituality and meditation have become so popular in the West. Even many Western therapists and psychiatrists recommend meditation to their patients, since its beneficial results are well documented, even in Western science.
However, that doesn't mean that you should do nothing but meditate all day for months or years, like Buddhist lamas, monks, nuns and long term retreatants do. It's beneficial to meditate between 10 minutes and one hour a day, whatever you can manage, but months and years would be taking it to the extreme. You don't want one thing taking over your whole life, or be doing only one thing everyday, and neglecting everything else. That's not healthy or balanced. You see what I mean?
Even Buddha himself said that all things should be in moderation. He advocated following "the middle way". If you read the story of Buddha, it says that at first, Buddha tried to crucify his flesh to attain enlightenment, by not eating anything for months, which nearly killed him. Then he realized that that was too extreme and not the best way of going about it. So he quit doing that, began eating, and parted from his group. Therefore, it's kind of ironic that he would have advocated that one abandon life to meditate all day everyday long-term, since that would have seemingly contradicted his own teachings.
(However, we cannot know for sure what the original Buddha really taught or said, since like Jesus, he did not write anything down, which is oddly suspicious. I mean, you would think that a spiritual guru who wanted to start a new religious faith or movement, would at least write down some of his core teachings and tenets, wouldn't you?)
Combining multiple religions to get a broader view on spiritual truth
Furthermore, why limit your spiritual study and practice to only Buddhism? There are many other religions and spiritual beliefs. They all contain golden nuggets of truth and wisdom and lessons for you to learn from. A truth seeker should not neglect them. He/she should try to learn from each one, and decide what to take from them and what is relevant to their lives. Doing so makes one well rounded, eclectic, and more interesting. It also gives one a bigger and broader picture of spirituality. Why limit yourself to only one religion or spiritual tradition? If you do that, you miss out on what the others have to offer. See what I mean?
In martial arts, there is a style called Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) that combines multiple martial art styles, rather than sticking to one. By combining the strengths of various styles, a fighter becomes more versatile, fluid and adaptable. Why not do the same with religions and spiritual disciplines? Why stick only to only one and miss out on what the rest have to offer?
One of the greatest martial artists of all time, Bruce Lee, said that styles are restrictive and that their rehearsed routines lack the ability to adapt. I feel the same is true with religions and spiritual beliefs. Focusing on only one becomes restrictive and does not allow one to flow or adapt with truth and reality.
No religion has a monopoly on the truth. Just because a religion claims to be the one and only true religion, does not make it so. You gotta learn to separate the wheat from the chaff. Every religion contains different aspects that you can learn from. The late great mythologist Joseph Campbell, an eminent professor of world mythology who was featured on PBS with Bill Moyers, believed that all religions and mythologies of the world contain deep truths about the human collection psyche and consciousness, and therefore hold intrinsic value.
Also, the major religions on their own seem incomplete. But when you put them together, they can compensate for the other's lack. For example, Buddhism and Christianity both contain what the other lacks. Buddhism contains concepts such as karma, reincarnation, and insights into the nature and cause of suffering in life, which is lacking in Christianity. On the other hand, Christianity contains what Buddhism lacks, such as a creation story (or myth), and virtues such as faith in God, surrendering oneself to a higher power, the concept of spiritual rebirth and dying to your former self, having a purpose in life, etc. See how that works?
Of course, some people will find that one particular religion seems more relevant to them than the others, or that it somehow "feels right" for them. To each their own I guess. Ultimately, one has to follow one's heart and deep intuition to find their path, purpose and destiny.
Even the Dalai Lama says in his lectures that Buddhism is not right for everyone, and that it's ok to believe in other religions if you think it's best for you. This respect for other religions is what makes Buddhism stand out from others and gain respect among freethinkers.
From my years of studying various religions, I've found that: Religion does have value. It has helped many people and changed many lives. Every religion must work for someone, otherwise they would not exist. Some people need religion, it gives them purpose and a reason to live. You have to respect that. The problem comes when people become fanatical about it. Perhaps the late great comedian George Carlin put it best when he said, "Religion is like a pair of shoes. Find one that fits for you. But don't make me wear your shoes."
A final lesson on truth
My final lesson to you is this:
Truth does not come in a package, like fast food (which is how many religions present it). Truth is a search, a lifelong process. There are multiple layers to truth and to reality. Some layers are simple, some complex, and some beyond words. Some truth is objective at some level, and others are subjective.
It's tempting for our minds to try to find easy-to-understand answers and formulas for the nature of existence, which is what religions provide and what makes them appealing. Our minds like to keep it simple. But the universe and reality are a lot broader than you can think or imagine.
So embrace the mystery of life and the nature of reality. Revel in the magic of existence and the unknown. Remain open to all possibilities. Cultivate a mindset that is not resistant to change. Follow the truth wherever it may lead you. Do not be afraid to change or update your beliefs when truth reveals new layers to you. This, I believe, is the best approach to truth seeking. Thank you for reading.
My Buddhism Critique