By Ty Phillips
Buddhism has failed you.
This is at least partially what Philosopher Todd May would like you to believe in his piece for the New York Times titled, Against Invulnerability. May argues that the teachings for the cessation of desire, dispassion and his self titled invulnerability doctrine, are in fact, inhuman and unfeeling. Unfortunately May, a professor of philosophy, seems to be ignoring the entirety of the Buddha’s life and teachings in order to bolster his claim.
Buddhism has failed you.
Again, I say this not because it’s what May wants you to believe, but because it’s what I have also come to conclude, yet don’t believe. I know, I am not making any sense. How can I agree yet not believe? Bear with me; this is going to take some leg work.
The Buddha, in his life and teachings, was very much against the grain of societal norms. He is the first recorded religious figure to allow women into the priesthood. He went against the grain of the Brahmanical caste system, and like Jesus after him, was frowned upon for associating with people who had a less than desirable resume.
The caste system that he fought against is in large part, what May is arguing against. After the Buddha’s passing, large parts of Indian culture migrated back into what he was openly against—the Buddhist priesthood. One of these doctrines seemed to lend itself to ignoring, if not openly looking down upon, the lot of life that the poor, outcast, sick and downtrodden seem to have. Official doctrine became, “it is just their karma.”
May argues that the Buddhist notion of dispassion in times of crisis, famine and plague are percieved from the Buddhist orthodox view in an inhuman and uncaring way.
He is absolutely correct in this notion. The reason I don’t agree with him though, is that it is in fact, 100% against what the Buddha actually taught. Notions of past actions ruining our present and how we escape them was not in the menu of what the Buddha served to the masses.
This cold and heartless idea that we or they are getting exactly what they deserve so we just move on, look away and focus on ourselves is confronted fully in the story of the Buddha coming across the sick monk. The monk—sick, starving and covered in his own refuse—was discovered by the Buddha and his attendant, Ananda. Upon seeing this poor soul, the Buddha and Ananda washed him, clothed him, fed him and sat him up in a place of safety and respite so that he could heal.
The Buddha addressed his community afterwards and said to them, “if you do not take care of others, who will take care of you?” The point of this parable was a teaching tool that we are to live by example.
We must take care of each other, lift each other up and always be ready with a helping hand.
Sadly, we hear very little of Buddhism outside of its monastic precepts. Again, this is where I feel Buddhism has failed you but where I do not agree that it’s the whole truth. Many of the Buddha’s teachings on community and laity are unknown to 99% of the general public.
We shouldn’t be though. They are there. They also disprove this mistaken notion of being inhuman and robotic.
Now while I have stated before that dispassion, in Buddhist terms, does not mean a lack of enjoyment. Dispassion means not being controlled by gain or loss. It is a lack of grasping for only the pleasant or avoiding at all costs, the unpleasant. It is simply awareness and stillness within each moment that is not directed by fear.
Dharma teacher Gil Fronsdal in his 2005 article titled The Buddha and Love, follows that up with his understanding;
“One of the Buddha’s most useful teachings is to point to a range of healthy emotions that can arise independent of any craving, aversion or egotism. He emphasized that meditation can help bring about forms of joy and happiness, free of any attachment, that are useful for spiritual growth. In addition, the Buddha encouraged the cultivation of delight, enthusiasm, contentment, tranquility, peace, ardency, faith, empathy for others and most significantly, various forms of love. All these are understood as promoting both spiritual maturity and the capacity to live happily in the present. They also are the emotions that support a positive and engaged attitude toward one’s life and community.”
May contends again though, that these teachings go against the grain of human nature and desire. He is absolutely right and this is precisely why the Buddha gave these teachings. Our seemingly natural urges and compulsions are the root of much of our suffering.
The Buddha saw this and offered better way—a way rooted in wisdom and compassion instead of base animal instinct; a way to lift each other up.
May seems to miss the point of the majority of these teachings in his attempt to confuse later theology with the actual teachings of the Buddha, much like modern New Atheists argue that Jesus and the Crusades seem to be compatible and therefore throw the baby out with the water.
So what is the truth of the Buddhist compassion and human factor? The truth is, Buddhism teaches the notion of a selfless love and doing for others; to find a motivation that isn’t rooted in selfish craving but instead with the notion of open ended selflessness. Dispassion isn’t about becoming unfeeling, but instead avoiding the constant pursuit of self.
Maybe it’s just me, but I am okay with that.
Editor: Dana Gornall