Buddhism and the need for a sense of awe
Forging a conscious relationship with the world around us and the larger universe is important. It is one of the most powerful instincts that follows our human quest for self-actualization. We humans seem to need a sense of awe. But it doesn’t have to be done in groups, or by following a leader.
From an article by Carl Sagan’s widow Ann Druyan:
It’s a catastrophic tragedy that science ceded the spiritual uplift of its central revelations: the vastness of the universe, the immensity of time, the relatedness of all life and it’s preciousness on this tiny world.
When I say "spiritual," it’s a complicated word that has some unpleasant associations. Still, there has to be a word for that soaring feeling that we experience when we contemplate 13 billion years of cosmic evolution and four and a half billion years of the story of life on this planet. Why should we give that up? Why do we not give this to our children? Why is it that in a city like Los Angeles, a city of so many churches and temples and mosques, there’s only one place like this Center for Inquiry? And that it’s only us here today? Fewer than a hundred people in a city of millions? Why is that? Why does the message of science not grab people in their souls and give them the kind of emotional gratification that religion has given to so many?
Great question. There are as many metaphors for this feeling of uplift as there are humans. God, Gaia, universal spirit, Buddha, collective unconscious, your own psyche. There’s no problem with questing after the feeling. For me, it’s easy to get that feeling just staring into the night sky. Or contemplating how small and insignificant we are and how brief our life–contrasted with the towering achievments modern humans have made compared to earlier generations. I get the feeling when I look at my children, or others I love. Or even looking at plants, or fractals, or insects, or simple geometric forms, or human cells and organs, or pretty much anything in the material world. I appreciate it all. To me, all of it has a ‘miraculous’ awe-inspiring quality.
The laws of chemistry and physics impress the hell out of me and inspire reverence. They never change. They can always be counted on. (At least on any time-scale that matters to humans). All we have to do is understand and follow the laws, and we are masters of our world. What could be better than that?
But my method doesn’t work for everyone. Some need drama, guilt, fear, and a personal god. Some need to believe that their lives are directed from above: i.e. "If you don’t like where you are, know that god had a reason for putting you there"…etc….When people take their spirituality into these areas, and construct their fantasies of predestination or spiritual Armageddon, the battles can spill over into the real world. I consider all elements of this process to be vulgar and obscene, because they deny the magnificent reality and utter beautiful sufficiency of the vast and very real physical universe. Such fantasies are a direct affront to my own powerful sense of ‘spirituality.’
In my religious studies, I’ve found one exception to this generalized revulsion: Buddhism. It’s almost a non-religion, and probably the least harmful. Sam Harris agrees with me. In the last chapter of "The End of Faith," Harris cites Buddhism as the solution to many of the world’s problems. I wouldn’t go that far. I think Buddhists still need to get over their concepts of deprivation and asceticism as a path to enlightenment, as well as the misplaced idea that suffering is caused by desire.
Desire plays a very important role for humans. The suffering is the messenger of our biological ‘decision making apparatus’ pursuing things that provide sustenance and evolutionary advantage–[ref. Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs]. In this sense, the ‘suffering’ is there as a motivator, it’s part of the program, and is clearly meant to be satiated, not avoided.)
Some Buddhists also seem to have a need for following leaders, which is bound to get them in trouble–or at least hinder their individuation.
The law of ‘karma’ is another fantasy to help people deal with ongoing and blatant injustice. It’s also good for keeping people in line. There is actually no karmic justice at all in life, only winners and losers. (How could Hitler, Stalin, and Mao have been subject to the law of karma??–they could never possibly repay the karmic debt for the millions of deaths they caused).
Then there’s the whole Nirvana fantasy, which involves the continuity of consciousness after death, which also presupposes reincarnation and its eventual end (‘escape from the wheel of rebirth’). Again, people should refrain from commenting about the afterlife, since there’s no way of verifying any of it. We’ll know (or likely not) when we get there. Anything that takes away from full participation in the one life we actually know we have for sure is to be avoided at all costs, including pining and questing after ‘nirvana.’
But at least Buddhists don’t believe in an omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent god, and I’ve never heard of a Buddhist religious war of any kind. It’s kind of hard to hurt anyone when you’re meditating.