I have been a member of this forum now for a few months, but have not posted anything, so this will be my first. At any rate, in reading some of the posts listed here, it seems that there's a pretty large variety in the interpretation of what it means to be atheist or not. I do not believe in a god or gods. I simply see no reason to suppose supernatural causes when empirical observation itself seems to suggest little reason to believe in such hypotheses (if no god is required for an explanation of how the universe works, why posit the existence of one?). At any rate, I have been a practicing Buddhist for about the last 15 years and have attended several retreats, including a month long retreat last year.
I have no interest in the dogmatic or religious aspects of Buddhism, do not believe in reincarnation, and have to admit that I'm fairly skeptical about the actual existence of the “Buddha” as a historical figure at all. I do not believe there is a state called “enlightenment” in which one has escaped the wheel of samsara, nor that if the Buddha did exist, he was anything but an ordinary human being with some exceptional personal insight.
With that said, I think that the process of meditation, examining the nature of self, and the understandings on suffering presented in Buddhist doctrine of the four noble truths can be quite beneficial, even when one has adopted a more empirical process of viewing the world (maybe especially in an empirical process of viewing the world).
A lot of the other posts I've noticed on this site seem to have a bit of a bent towards the supernatural, or towards the dogmatic or religious aspects of Buddhism, even if the poster themselves identifies atheist. Given that, I guess I'm curious how many people who are members of this network find themselves enjoying the benefits of meditation, but like me, are not interested in the esoteric religious aspects of Buddhism.
I'm very interested in hearing about the experiences of other practitioners of Buddhism who have no belief in the supernatural, psychic abilities, or anything else that smacks of spirituality in general. I've heard plenty from folks who embrace the more spiritual components of Buddha, but am more curious now about others who practice Buddhism from a more skeptical or scientific worldview. Anyone else out there? How long have you practiced? And maybe why do you practice?
I haven’t always been atheist. Interestingly, it was my participation in Buddhism that eventually led me to cease believing in supernatural phenomena. In regards to meditation on loving-kindness (which I have practiced quite a bit over the years) and especially the practice of meditating “on the Buddha,” my questions would be: 1. What precisely are they useful for in a non-supernatural respect? 2. What is it that makes them useful means? And then finally: 3. If they are useful means, and they are non-supernatural practices, why do they need to be couched in language and imagery that seems to indicate that they are (i.e. the Buddha as either a deity or “enlightened” being)?
I think in order to be “fair,” one must examine the sacred cows in any philosophy and challenge whether or not they are grounded in practical reality. If they’re not, I have no objection to tossing out doctrine that is held in place simply because its always been that way.
Also, in regards to impermanence and non-being, both seem to be methods of inquiry that are not only quite rigorous, but are consistent with scientific inquiry into the nature of “mind” in a more general way.
As for the questions:
In regards to meditation on loving-kindness (which I have practiced quite a bit over the years) and especially the practice of meditating “on the Buddha,” my questions would be: 1. What precisely are they useful for in a non-supernatural respect? 2. What is it that makes them useful means?
Metta, or lovingkindness, helps to overcome the illusion of self-absorption (because there is no 'I' objectively, the 'I' is nowhere to be found in the body or mind). It saves us from being too concerned with ourselves. People who are self-absorbed suffer more, are more subjective and moody, whereas people who are compassionate or focused on another, or on service, tend to be happier, more cheerful. If you see Buddhism as a science of being happy, then it makes sense that it is concerned with lessening self-absorption.
As far as meditating on the Buddha, vegans say that you are what you eat but Buddhist say that you are what you think because, if you read the Dhammapada's first two verses, you'll find that in Buddhism everything is mind. Therefore, suffering and happiness both occur in the mind and one must master the mind to be happy.
This is where the importance of meditation lies: if you are scattered you won't be able to use the mind appropriately, ergo it's used to find a point to focus on. And then, the disciplines of nembutsu or meditation on Buddha helps to focus on Buddha himself, which embodies peace and equanimity. It anchors awareness. For some people, especially for beginning meditators or people with a devotional disposition, it's very useful, it feels like the eye of the storm. Buddha is steady, calm in the midst of samsara, of constant change that we can't control.
And then finally: 3. If they are useful means, and they are non-supernatural practices, why do they need to be couched in language and imagery that seems to indicate that they are (i.e. the Buddha as either a deity or “enlightened” being)?
If that turns you off, then you shouldn't use it. I find imagery of Buddha quite beautiful and inspiring. I have a Buddha in marble in my room, and sometimes depending on where my mind has been I can use it efficiently to meditate and find myself centered and at ease again.
I've also done Tara meditations and awakened motherly compassion, even to the point of tears. This is not for everyone, but yogis believe these kinds of practices purify the heart chakra, the emotional self, and one is able to experience more wholesome emotions, it can be an emotional detox.
Awareness is usually focused on the body, especially the 'hara' point beneath the navel, but sometimes strong emotions demand attention and need to be dealt with before one can meditate successfully. If the emotions are unwholesome, then this type of meditation can help. Meditation should never be a tool to mask our emotions, to hide from them, all of our (healthy and unhealthy) emotions are a chance to be more aware.
I shouldn't comment right now... Friday night... beer... you are asking the same thing I have asked here.
Read my earlier post. The controlling parameters of life are brain chemistry and social forces. Buddha had the right brain chemistry but he lived in a different society. But many of his words are not related to social aspects of the world, like the 4 noble truths. I don't practice, I am. I'll try to make sense later.
Don’t practice Buddhism? Are Buddhist? I wasn’t sure I understood the next to the last sentence, although I enjoyed the Friday night beer part. :)
I say practicing; just implying I’m not Buddhist in the traditional sense and that I have little or no value for Buddhism as a religious identifier. I “practice” Vipassana sitting meditation.
It sounds like you and I would agree that what we typically construe as a self, or “I,” is actually the product of a particular process generated in the chemistry of the brain. That process is ever changing and is subject to the arising and falling of certain internal and external conditions, which we have little or no control over, and are not truly separate from. Does that sound close at all to what you were referring to?
I don't practice I guess in the sense that I read about Buddha many years ago and the words changed my life but I don't care to study the different sects or different types of meditation. I don't identify myself as a Buddhist because it is a label, and just as a false as the construct 'I'. At the same time these constructs are necessary to communicate with others. That's why I said "I don't practice, I am." Which means I (what other word can you use) don't strive for enlightenment, I don't need it. I'm content after realizing that all of my suffering comes from this 'I' thing that lives in my head. I just am what I am and that is all that I am. Who could need more than accepting the reality that is your actual experience and not having a desire for it to be something it isn't.
In my experience, people have a tendency to naturally favor their own view of the world, over the views of others, and believe that their understanding of the world is inherently more accurate than the understanding of others (in Psychology these are called attribution errors, and we all do it to one degree or another). I’m certainly not immune, as you might guess from just reading my posts. I don’t even know that we’re really aware what we’re thinking the vast majority of the time. It just sort of “happens.” Given that the way we think about the world goes a long way towards constructing our experience of it, for me it just makes sense to spend time observing and understanding that process through the direct observation of it (i.e. meditation, using a more global attention to experience, including the passing of thoughts). In my practice, though I may still have my biases and erroneous thoughts, I find that I’m a bit less attached to, or identified with them, than I might have otherwise been. The research on meditation also suggests that it generates an increase in the gray matter associated with global attention functions in the brain, and I find that I can use as much help with that as I can get (here’s that study by the way, http://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2011/01/eight-weeks-to-a-bett.... Anecdotally, I don’t find myself as upset or bothered by life circumstances, partly because I don’t consider my identity or “self” to be a permanent unchanging thing. I don’t attribute supernatural effectiveness to meditation. I don’t believe that I am enlightened, or on the way to any such state. I don’t believe that we are immune from the laws of physics in any way, or that we are separate from the animal kingdom. I’m not looking for spiritual understanding through my practice of Buddhism, though I have to admit that as I grow less attached to my ideas about who I am, I notice I’m more receptive to points of view other than my own, even if I don’t necessarily agree with them. Its probably worth mentioning, that even from a more scientific materialist view of the world, we can see that even though we may be good at collecting data, that data still is internalized via a human being. That human being whose own biases, worldview, and thoughts influence how that data is viewed, is generally the greatest source of error in any research and scientific inquiry. For me, being able to observe the activities of my mind seems to help me keep a little objective distance from them, and therefore, (hopefully) I’m a little less dominated by them. At any rate, I’m kind of rambling here, and don’t know that I’m at all getting at what you were interested in hearing… Is this it at all?
Enlightenment does happen, but it's not the experience people make it out to be. It's very natural. There are moments of ecstatic bliss, or waking up and being there, they are called 'satori' or momentary awakening in Zen Buddhism. They do not go on forever, but are very powerful and insightful. I've had these moments in meditation and I personally think they do change your brain and your perception long term, in fact this is one of the findings of neuroscientists who have studied the brain under the influence of meditation.
What I think needs to happen is people need to take the halo away from this concept of a buddha, or of enlightenment. Zen is a naturalist philosophy. Zen is completely ordinary.
but am more curious now about others who practice Buddhism from a more skeptical or scientific worldview. Anyone else out there?
I suppose I would count. I approach the Buddha-Dharma from a skeptical POV and perhaps scientific in that my method favors ideas that can be tested within the context of day to day life. Now with that said, I don't think that the so-called supernatural aspects should be flat out rejected simply tweaked. For example, if one were to meditate on the image of a Buddha or Bodhisattva, is it required that we believe in them as real beings or is it enough to consider them to be archetypes of traits we wish to develop through practice?
The same holds true for karmic rebirth. It's not necessary to believe it refers to reincarnation (the mechanism for which appears to violate the ideas of impermanence and no-self)? We can look at rebirth in terms of volitional action (karma) and how the results of our actions not only influence the world around us, but across generations. The cycle of abuse is a good example.
How long have you practiced?
about 14 years
And maybe why do you practice?
Apart from the physical and mental effects of shikantaza and the ethical discipline of the Bodhisattva Precepts, the philosophy of Zen (and Theravada) echoed many things about the world that I discovered through my own experience.