Buddhism Underground

This is the first in an occasional series about my exploration of Buddhism while riding the New York subway.

Every morning on the subway I see people poring over religious texts. Seemingly oblivious to the groaning, shuffling tube-world of the subway car, these serious souls – Christian women; Orthodox Jews of both sexes; Muslims (usually women); and Holy Sisters of the Word Search – pass their daily commute in silent prayer or study. I am the only one marking up a book about Buddhism.

Buddhism’s teachings have much appeal in a complicated life, but they can be a little perplexing at first, and I had initially hoped the book would provide some explicit guidance for putting its principles into practice in some way. Reading it for the first time, I kept waiting for the author to get to the – well, not to the point, because he did make the central point again and again – but to the secret, the method, the trick even – or at least, a conclusion. We expect a book, whether fiction or nonfiction, practical or fantastic, to have a logical narrative flow. If it doesn’t, we think it’s a bad book.

But Buddhism teaches that there is no secret trick, and, in a sense, no narrative, since there is no reality to the perceived distinction between this and that, then and now. Indeed there is no “I,” no cork floating in the stream, but only stream, only thus. Shouldn’t a truly Buddhist book, then, also be only stream? Buddhism counsels us to be aware when our mind is “leaning,” whether it’s towards something we want to have or away from something we want to avoid. If we “want” Enlightenment, if we “want” to gain something from reading a book, we’ve already defeated our purpose. The book, then, should not be an instrument of our “leaning” this way or that.

From the standpoint of a student of literature and child of Western culture, one of the fascinating things about Buddhism as presented in this book is its use of small words to mean big things.

Whole. Mind. See. Awake. Thus. These words refer to aspects of the same phenomenon: simply being present.

The more we search for Truth among our thoughts and beliefs, the more subject to doubt we become… Anything that can be grasped must of necessity depend on other things for their validity. Hence, they are doubtful and perplexing… Ultimate Truth…can’t be countered or doubted or discounted because it is immediate, direct experience itself.

Words can never fully embody concepts. And Buddhism says concepts are artificial anyway. So words, any words, are twice removed from the Whole.

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One apparent problem – for me, anyway – with Buddhism is that it seems unscientific. Of course, deity-based religions like Christianity, Judaism and Islam are also unscientific, but they can co-exist peacefully with science because they rely on faith, which by definition does not require rational or scientific proof. (In fact, it’s when religion tries to pass itself off as scientific – as with “creation science” and its more insidious modern iteration, “intelligent design” – that bitter conflicts arise, with science put on the defensive by an enemy it cannot, by definition, engage, and religion – Christianity, in this case – devalued and shamed by its own professed champions.)

Buddhism, however, does not require “belief” or “faith” as such. In saying that all sensations, concepts and thoughts are artificial and unreal divisions of the Whole, it is profoundly unscientific, since science is the attempt to ascertain objective truth by studying observed phenomena.

Yet at the limits of science comes a recognition that we cannot ever completely arrive at objective truth; the best we can do is approach it asymptotically. The limits of our perception, the imperfections of our brains, will always be with us, preventing our understanding from becoming absolutely complete. So maybe Buddhism and science don’t conflict so badly after all.

We have to see where we can effectively apply our effort and where we can’t. When we’re not seeing we’ll put most, if not all, of our energy into the areas where we have no control. We’ll try to control situations, people, and things over which, in fact, we have little or no influence.

So says Buddhism Plain and Simple. And science, reason, and my therapist tell me exactly the same thing.

4 Responses to “Buddhism Underground”

  1. Jon,

    A very nice review. I read this first on The Buddhist Channel,

    seb says:

    buddhism seems unscientific”
    buddhism corelates very well to alot of the principles of modern physics.
    infact einstein himself remarked it closest to his own view of existence

    buddhism is based on awareness of change. and meditation on the sensations of the body

    peace brother. cool article

  2. Chuck says:

    Buddhism also correlates to Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, though perhaps inversely.

    I admit I don’t know much about Buddhism, but my limited take is that it points out more the inadequacy of language than it reveals or relates “ultimate” truth. I’m also not sure that the awareness it seeks to achieve is more a source of positive action or a view that accepts fate. Even to pose this seems inappropriate in its context, and that troubles me.

    Best to all

  3. Jon Sobel says:

    Well Chuck… good points – but one Buddhist concept is “right action” – I will be sure to be thinking “aloud” about these ideas in future posts!