Drawing Wisdom From The Past
"The Humanist can draw upon this tradition in the individual pursuit of a just and ethical path through the world
As a Humanist, I have embraced my own responsibility to foster good in my own life and the world around me. My quest for a personal, internal compass has taken me through study of religions and social sciences as an amateur student, while working in human services and small business. Raised a Roman Catholic in a home where Russian Orthodoxy was also practiced with primitive credulity, I started my pursuit with extensive indoctrination by and challenging of Christian dogma. It occurred to me at an early age that these ritual-encrusted institutions were based in a very simple, human source, a Jew, named Jesus.
So, I looked for the real Jesus. I read and reread the New Testament. I read books on the concrete pursuit of the man. I once consulted a spirit medium whom I happened to know. His spirit-guide told me Jesus was actually a magician-mystic, trained in Egypt and India and groomed from childhood to play Messiah by the Jewish Essenes, an order of communal ascetics. Ultimately, I came away from my inquiry believing that the Jesus upon which Christianity is based was an intelligent, compassionate pacifist, who saw the absurdity of greed and violence in the name of religion, nationality or social status.
I revived an early interest in Judaism, inspired by the large Jewish presence in my childhood. My father, ostensibly an Irish cop, volunteered at the local Young Men's Hebrew Association. I later found out that my paternal grandmother was born to a secularized German-Dutch Jewish family. So, at my father's insistence, I was the only non-Jewish child at the YMHA . My peers and I spent hours debating the difference between my lessons in Catholic school and their lessons in Hebrew school. I went back and I spent some time reading translations and interpretations of Torah. Then I read I and Thou by Martin Buber. I found myself back to where I had been at the end of my search for the real Jesus. Same basic message: Let's love one another compassionately.
Subsequent journeys brought me to The Koran, Brahmin texts, The Book of Mormon, modern pop-Eastern thought like Be Here Now by Ram Dass and his generational peers. This all brought me back to my gradual study of various Buddhist traditions, a daunting, evolving buffet of cultural and linguistic interpretations of another human source, Siddhartha Gotama, The Buddha of history.
I admire and appreciate Stephen Batchelor's current pursuit of the source of Buddhism through his understanding of ancient language as shared in his recent book, Confession of a Buddhist Atheist. Unraveling the effects of time and countless interpretations is like sweeping layer upon layer of dust from a scattered pile of dinosaur bones. And that is just the beginning. Reconstructing the dinosaur and then testing the engineering of your model to see if it could actually breathe and walk requires determination and many hours of hard work.
Shaped by my practical commitment to promoting peace and easing suffering in the world, I see a personally relevant message in The Dhammapada, a body of sayings attributed to Gotama Buddha. When I belonged to a Buddhist community, I chose a Buddhism of action, Nichiren Shoshu Buddhism. Its focus at the time was World Peace through social action. However, I found the rigid ritual of that very secular Buddhist practice to be weighed down with the same politics and materialist corruption that has infected most organized religions. The message of the The Dhammapada seems to me to be intrinsically humanistic in the finest sense, since it is strikingly similar to the messages of other liberated human beings, people who seemed to be trying very hard to break the patterns of patriarchy and greed in their experience of the world. Perhaps my attraction to the Buddhist message lies in its voice, which is consistently personal and grounded in the realities of birth, aging and death.
One basic aspect of the life of Gotama, as conveyed in most accounts, particularly interested me. It was an aspect of the Jesus story as well, though few theologians or critics of Christianity seem to see it. This is Gotama's abandonment and challenge of patriarchy and cultural norms. In a similar way, Jesus, whenever challenged by the patriarchal authorities of Judaism is described as blunt and disdainful. His lifestyle is juxtaposed to the haughtiness and materialism of the patriarchy of Judaism and Roman occupiers.
Despite the rituals and hierarchical development of Buddhism through its evolution, this free-thinking individualism of Buddhism has survived clearly. Any human being can read or hear his message and seek to understand his path to individual liberation. Canto XII of The Dhammapada on The Self:
157. If a man esteems the self, let him guard himself with great care. Let the wise man keep vigil over himself, in one of the three watches (of life or of the night).
158. Let each first firmly establish himself in right conduct, then only may he admonish others. Such a wise man does not suffer blemish.
159. Let a man mold himself into what he admonishes others to be. Thus well-controlled he can control others. It is extremely difficult indeed to control one's own self.
160. The self is the master of the self. Who else can that master be? With the self fully subdued, one obtains the sublime refuge which is very difficult to achieve.
I believe the encouragement of healthy individualism in Buddhism is its greatest asset for the secular humanist. This is not the materialist individualism, or commercially fueled hedonism, of the modern capitalist world. This is an individual commitment to change the self in order to change the world for the better. It is an individualism based in mindfulness, compassion and non-violence within society. By practicing this form of individual development conscientiously and deliberately, the Buddhist participates in the liberation of all beings from the miseries of the human condition. The Humanist can draw upon this tradition in the individual pursuit of a just and ethical path through the world without subscribing to canons of impersonal dogma or mindless ritual. It is also important, in my opinion, to read the Buddha's words as encouragement from a person who is conveying the wisdom of his own experience, rather than prescribing dogma or ritual. Various ideals of the practicing Buddhist individual are enumerated in Canto XV on Happiness:
197. Blessed indeed are we who live among those who hate, hating no one; amidst those who hate, let us dwell without hatred.
198. Blessed indeed are we who live among those who are ailing, without ailments; amidst those who are so afflicted, let us live in good health.
199. Blessed indeed are we who live among those who are yearning for sense delights, without yearning for such things; amidst those who are yearning for sense delights, let us dwell without yearning.
The Dhammapada is generally free of theism. Its words, stripped of specific cultural and historical references, speak clearly to my modern atheist mind. Here I find a basic human exhortation to create good in the individual life and thereby in the environment. It is not weighed down with dogma or ritual. My application of its wisdom to my own life in my nursing practice and life in community has withstood many difficult tests. I have found it a useful tool in maintaining my balance as a non-violent person in violent situations, as a caring person in an impersonal society and as a member of social minority in a society prone to conformity.
For Humanists, living outside the conventional norms and prescriptions of organized religions, Buddhism, as understood from reading its basic texts, can offer a sustaining source of personal encouragement. I must reiterate that I am not a Buddhist scholar by any stretch of the imagination. I will leave that to greater minds. Yet, I am able to read the English translations of Buddhist teachings, attributed to Gotama. I am able to discern wisdom, as it speaks to me in these texts. This, simply put, is the place of Buddhism in my humanism. It is an important element of a wide variety of sources of wisdom, which I apply to my daily practice of promoting the good in myself and my actions.
So, I am a practicing Humanist in the way that some, more prone to authoritative prescription and mystical ritual, are practicing followers of religion. I see my journey through life as my path. I see my commitment to alleviating suffering and promoting peace through mindfulness, compassion and non-violence as the core of what I consider my humanism to be. I owe a great deal to Buddhist tradition for helping me formulate an understanding of my own humanism.