Saturday, December 31, 2011

Why I am a bad Buddhist (and why I practice yoga)

Over the last few days, I have been reading and thinking about early Buddhism (i.e. the Pali Canon), and comparing them in my mind to Advaita Vedanta in preparation for one of my spring philosophy classes. One big difference between Buddhism and Vedanta (I think many would argue that this is the chief difference) is over the existence of self. Vedanta holds that there is a greater universal Self of which we are all a part (simply put, this means that ultimately, I am you and you are me, and there is no separation whatsoever between us. The trick is to find a way to realize this with our entire being; hence Self-realization.)

Buddhism (at least early Buddhism), on the other hand, holds that there is really no self at all. Self, the Buddhist would argue, is a convenient fiction that we use in order to live our everyday lives in society. Ultimately, says the Buddhist, all there is is an endless stream of feelings, perceptions, volitions, and consciousnesses of these things. The notion of a self, as it is conventionally understood, is simply a useful label we conventionally assign to a certain bundle of feelings, perceptions, volitions, and consciousnesses, because we have discovered that doing so allows us to conduct our practical existence in a way that is productive and fruitful. Suffering, the Buddhist holds, arises because we forget this simple fact--that what we call the self is simply a convenient fiction, nothing more--and over-identify with it. Notice that I said "suffering", not "pain". According to the Buddhist, pain is inevitable in human existence; suffering, however, is optional, and arises to the extent that we over-identify with the fiction of the self.

Which is all very well in theory. Despite my best efforts, however, I just can't bring myself to believe that there is really no such thing as a self. Very often, the first emotion that assails me when I wake up in the morning is anxiety. I'm not going to bore you with the lurid details of just what exactly I am anxious about. But they all boil down to one thing: Anxiety/angst and fear over what may or may not happen in the future. And it is pretty obvious (at least to me) that if one experiences anxiety/angst/fear, one must believe that there is a self to which these bad things may or may not happen in the future. In other words, one is being a "bad" Buddhist. Or, to put the same point more personally, I am being a bad Buddhist.

Come to think of it, maybe this is why I practice yoga. Assuming that my present yoga practice is based on a Vedantic worldview (hmm... is yoga still NOT a religion? Something to think about here, no?) which posits that I am part of a greater cosmic Self, it might be that I am attracted to yoga because of the prospect of someday attaining self-realization and becoming one with this Self; the image that comes to mind here is that of a drop of water (me) rejoining the great ocean of Self.

I wonder if all this means that from a spiritual point of view, I am trying to have my cake and eat it too: Might it be that I am trying to reap all the benefits of the Buddhist view of not believing that there is a self in everyday life (so as to avoid the existential suffering that arises with over-identification; something I haven't been too successful with thus far) while also having the assurance that I ultimately belong to and am part of something greater (the Self)? How long can one keep up this neither-here-nor-there spiritual position (if indeed, it is even possible in the first place)? Hmm... what a mess.  


  1. I don't see a conflict. Scholars, religionists, and linguists have muddled things, and there is too much attachment to words. When a buddhist sees through the illusion of self and rests in their buddha nature is the same as when a vedantin "self-realizes". Different words, seemingly contradictory, that say the same thing. I like how LaoZi says that which can be named is not the dao - once you try to name and describe an experience the essence gets lost, but it's essence of the experience that matters.

  2. I find it so fitting how you've posted about Buddhism today. I am currently reading Cave in the Snow, the story of Tenzin Palmo, a Buddhist nun. I am in by no means a philosopher and I am just starting to scratch the surface of the spirituality within my yoga practice but I love this discussion. In the end does it even really matter? As Tom said, there seems to be a similar goal in mind, everything else is just words.

  3. Interesting, Tom. I'm not sure if this is one of the many cases of over-attachment to words that abound when one tries to verbally describe something that is quite indescribable(I sure hope it is).

    Not to go deeper down the word-attachment rabbit-hole (even though I'm probably already doing it :-)), but I can't help noticing that very little has been said about exactly what it is that the Buddhist sees when he sees through the veil of illusion. Perhaps, like the vedantin, he too sees that he is also part of a greater entity (Self)?

    I have no answers here (as always). Just speculating.

    Thanks for sharing, Juliana. I've never read Tenzin Palmo. I'll do that soon. I really don't know if it matters in the end. But, well, that's why we're here, right? :-)

  4. Super interesting. I don't know enough about either religion/philosophy, but would you say that the fundamental difference between the beliefs is that there is a greater entity in one case and no greater entity in the second case? Having a greater entity, a "God", means that everything happens for a reason because God created the world for a purpose. In the second case, there is no God and no self; we don't know why the universe is the way it is and we're not meant to find out, so just hang on tight and enjoy the ride (of life).

    I don't think you're a "bad" buddhist. I think the default mode of the brain is to cling on to the idea of self, to constantly evaluate the current situation and to identify potential threats, even when there are no threats around, and that's the source of anxiety/suffering. The practice of Buddhism is a tool to try to relieve this anxiety/suffering. It's an aid to help us get through life, rather than an ideal for us to attain within this life time. But I could be wrong. I don't really understand the whole re-incarnation idea.

  5. Hello Yyogini,
    "would you say that the fundamental difference between the beliefs is that there is a greater entity in one case and no greater entity in the second case?"

    This sounds right, at least in theory. If not having a greater entity (God, Self, whatever) means that things happen without any greater reason whatsoever... in my view, this makes Buddhism less attractive as a worldview.

    Thanks for not thinking I'm a "bad" Buddhist :-)

  6. I tend to think that being aware of and undecided between these two different views is actually a good thing. Because 1. really, we can't know which is closer to the truth, and 2. knowing that we don't know keeps us more open then believing that we've got the ultimate truth locked down.

  7. Thanks for sharing, Carol. I'm not sure if *we* can't know which is closer to the truth; all I know is that I, in my present state, do not know what the truth is. Will I know one day? I don't know...

    I agree with you that knowing that we don't know keeps us more open than believing that one has the ultimate truth locked down. But the "truth fundamentalist" in me is always curious about whether there might be a fact of the matter about this issue behind the veil, so to speak. And given this curiosity, I can't help but keep thinking and pondering.