By Gerald “Strib” Stribling
In the movie Sergeant York, Gary Cooper played a reprobate hillbilly before the mule he was riding home was struck by lightening, after a debauch across the border in Kentucky.
After that he went to church, cleaned up his act, read the Bible, and turned into a real goody-two-shoes before the Great War broke out.
Personally, I have never had an epiphanic ecstatic experience anything more serious than washing pot brownies down with Danish malt liquor. I am not spiritual. Like my favorite monk says about celibacy: How can you miss something you’ve never had?
I’ve yet to see the light, though I’m not closed to the experience.
It appears that many people are spiritual, and have had ecstatic and/or epiphanic experiences. I might not know what I’m missing. But there is no doubt that religion changes people. Mean people do turn into nice people. Greedy people turn into generous people. Vengeful people forgive.
Spirituality and religion, on an individual level, is the glue that holds some people together. There is a lot of talk among progressives about how destructive organized religion can be. I prefer to think that it does more good than harm.
Anyway, in all that religious/spiritual stuff, including Buddhism, what is its ultimate objective? It exists to change people’s intentions for the better.
Here is how the Buddha described Right Intention:
And what, sirs, is right intention? Intention toward renunciation, intention toward non-harmfulness, intention toward non-injury: this, sirs, is called right intention.
The Buddha wasn’t talking about renouncing Satan, drive-in movies and premarital sex. What the Buddha meant by renunciation is for people to give up harming living things. In Buddhism, that’s pretty much rule number one. It heads the list of the other things someone with Buddhist sensibilities would renounce (stealing, lying, getting drunk and engaging in unauthorized sex). But not hurting anyone or anything is the grand-daddy of all Buddhist Precepts. It’s what’s behind the other four Precepts, and it’s the foundation of the Eightfold Path.
Having an affair is a good example. Why is it wrong to screw around on your partner? It’s wrong because it hurts someone you love (or at least used to love).
So whether you’re born again, or you take the Refuges, or you’re initiated into a coven, your conversion experience is primarily about realigning your intentions. What’s fascinating is that these new intentions—whatever the religion—take the same general direction: toward kindness, brotherhood, compassion and love. Worshiping is a confirmation of these values; it shows respect for their origins. Hypocrisy is avowing these values in church, temple or around the boiling cauldron, and then behaving like a total jerk in the rest of your life.
Although some people do not regard Buddhism as a religion (I’m one of them), nevertheless it shares many characteristics of a metaphysically-based faith. The most salient one, I believe, involves right intention.
Renunciation takes other forms, but essentially, non-harmfulness forms the basis of them all. Not hanging around with people who are bad influences is renunciation— one the Buddha specifically recommends. Instead, he said, you should cultivate friendships among righteous people.
Here’s a classic example of cognitive bias: in American Buddhism, the “righteous guy” is tall and skinny, has a ratty ponytail, wears Birkenstocks and turtlenecks at the same time, and is dictator of the local meditation center; or, is a woman into New Age stuff like crystals and Tarot cards. Granted, stereotypes have to come from somewhere, and there is a preponderance of people who fit those descriptions, but sometimes identifying oneself as a Buddhist is meaningless on the righteousness scale.
Righteous is as righteous does. To quote Stephen Batchelor: Buddhism isn’t something to believe in, Buddhism is something to do.
There is a “to do” directive in the Eightfold Path: number four, “Right Action.” In order to take right action in our lives, we choose our actions based on Right View, which leads to Right Intention.
There are all sorts of wacky supernatural powers that are attached to the Buddha’s mythology, and some that are not supernatural at all—demonstrating the Enlightened One’s courage, force of will or precociousness.
One cautionary tale frequently told to children illustrates that Right Intention is subject to the laws of common sense:
When he was three years old, his royal parents and their retinue attended the yearly rice planting festival. Little Siddhartha was sitting on a royal blanket happily picking his nose under the watchful eyes of several servants, but when all the action started down in the flooded paddy, they abandoned little Sid to go watch. When they returned, little Sid was gone. They searched frantically for him, and finally they found him, toddling down one of the paddy dikes, in the direction of where the plowing was going on. Some farmers stopped what they were doing, snatched up the chubby little fellow, and returned him to the picnic.
His father, King Boomlakkalakka, asked the little tyke what he was up to.
Siddhartha, erudite at age three, explained: The farmers behind their plows were working so hard, sweating and toiling under the hot sun. He wanted to go help them. And the water buffaloes that pulled the plows had to strain so hard in their labors that their muscles rippled and bulged. He wanted to go help the buffaloes, too. And what’s with all the birds eating bugs? He wanted to put a stop to the wanton slaughter of the June bugs and dragonflies.
Everything has to eat to live, his father explained. If the birds did not eat the bugs, they would starve. If the farmers and the buffaloes didn’t work so hard, they would starve, and we would starve. Also, it is not a good idea for babies to play where water buffaloes are stomping around.
And they say that he never did another stupid thing again.
You start with non-harmfulness, and you work your way toward “loving-kindness,” which might better be called (according to Sylvia Boorstein) “unbounded friendliness.”
Loving-kindness is kind of wimpy, I like Sylvia’s translation. Loving-kindness sounds like puppy and kitten videos. Unbounded friendliness sounds more like a bunch of righteous guys splitting a twelve-pack.
Editor: Dana Gornall