When the Dalai Lama visited Canada in 2007 a Catholic asked if he should convert to Buddhism. The Dalai Lama replied that the man should use Buddhism to become a better Catholic. A humble answer, it seemed, but it was also a clever one. Buddhists do not wish to compete with other religions. How rare, I thought. It took some time to sink in, but the Dalai Lama’s reply also positioned Buddhism as a meta-religion, a perspective from which to understand and enhance other religions. Clever. Each new insight I get into Buddhism confirms that position is not presumptuous.
Becoming Enlightened is written by the Dalai Lama. I have knee-jerk resistance to claims about enlightenment. What is enlightenment anyway, a state of perpetual bliss? When asked what the Buddhist outlook is, the Dalai Lama says “its view is dependent-arising, and its prescribed behavior is nonviolence”. Let’s unpack that. Dependent-arising means that all the fascinations and fears that lead us about by the nose cause us grief until we finally give up our illusion that self has any permanence. Most pleasures we seek are rooted in suffering. I learned years ago that the only pleasure in smoking is the relief from withdrawal caused by the previous cigarette. Like wearing tight shoes for the pleasure of removing them. We eat and drink and shop too much to smother the stresses of daily life, mostly the jostling of other people against our wishes and egos. Year by year I lay down my addictions and discover another kind of pleasure, rooted contentment and brimming creative energy. It feels very enlightened but the Buddhists ultimately insist on altruism, committed service to others. From this view, my enemy is more instructive than my friend, for it shows where I still cling to the illusion of a separate self. I still have a long way to go.
Reading Becoming Enlightened I am again challenged by one core tenet of Buddhism that I have always found illogical. As discussed above, we do not have a permanent self. The Dalai Lama is careful not to use the term, soul, but it seems to me that is exactly the thing he is saying does not exist. The Buddhists also say that actions in this lifetime affect our reincarnations in future lives. But if we have no soul, how can there be any personal connection between one life and the next? It seems like a contradiction.
Frustrated that Buddhism could be so right about practical things and so wrong about this metaphysical issue, I asked the question of Aardvark social search. The responses were very helpful. Mark quoted Rapola Wahula, “If we can understand that in this life we can continue without a permanent, unchanging substance like Self or Soul, why can’t we understand that those forces themselves can continue without a Self or Soul behind them after the non-functioning of the body?” Ah ha! I am still tripping over the assumption of a permanent self, both in this lifetime and possible future ones. This answer turns my question on its head. Our self is just a gathering of physical and mental energies with no permanent core (“dependent-arising”). We do not require a permanent self for continuity past death; moreover, it is not until we give up the illusion of self that we can finally stop reincarnating. Heady stuff. Another one of the social search answers gently suggested my fixation on soul reflects a Christian bias. Point taken. Perhaps there is wisdom in the Dalai Lama’s advice to stick with the religion of your parents.
Becoming Enlightened is a worthy source of reflection for outsiders to Buddhism like me.