Sin and Death by Francis Hayman, 1749 from ILLUSTRATING PARADISE LOST part of Darkness Visible:A Resource for studying Milton’s Paradise Lost. Cambridge University.
Romans 6:23 “the wages of sin is death”
John 3:16 “For God so loved the world, he gave his one and only son that whosoever believes in him shall not perish but have everlasting life.”
This post isn’t about Christianity per se. It’s actually about secularism and beyond that about some basic concepts in Buddhism. But Christianity is mentioned since some central concepts of Christianity still remain strong cultural themes even in the very secular and scientific arenas. And increasingly this undercurrent is presenting itself in various Buddhist arenas.
Certainly the terminology has changed. And the determination of many to throw off what has been sometimes perceived by some people as the shackle of an authoritarian and restrictive religion is certainly in evidence in many media these days. The tone set by some of the New Atheist Sect, can leave many believing that Religion, with the capital R, in the Abrahamic sense, is well on it’s way out. We have overcome!
But what if that is not the case? What if some of the core concepts of the Abrahamic religions, in particular Christianity, still lurk under the bright shiny technological badges of secularism? What if they have only been transformed and incorporated into the secular matrix? There are lots of concepts that can be examined in this framework such as Commandments ( Law and Order-tv show and political platform), resurrection (resuscitation, cryogenics), grace (Deus ex machina, Ghost Whisperer), messiah (Obama, Lady Gaga) and many others.
The two concepts that I want to examine in this regard are those of original sin and redemption. These are the very heart of Christianity and the center of Euro-American* culture. The central question then is–Has the deep impact of “the great imperfection” of humanity actually declined with the advance of secularism? Or has it simply taken other forms? And how is this affecting the shape of Buddhism among convert communities in Euro-America?
From the blog Stuff Christians Like the author Jon takes issue with the many euphemisms for sin that appear in the Christian community in a post called #494. Sin Synonyms – Pretty ways to say an ugly word.
But when Christ died on the cross He didn’t do so because He wanted to shift my paradigm. He didn’t come to help me realize my full potential and unpack my baggage.
He died because my sin was so great it separated me from God. He died so that my sin would die too. The big ugly, gross pile of sin, sin, sin, I was carrying around. Sin is one of those words intricately tied to my salvation and I don’t want to mute it in a sea of spin off ideas.
I am not particularly interested in refuting Christian doctrine in this post. What I am interested in with this particular quote is the characterization of sin, and especially Original Sin. The idea that we are, from birth, wrong, bad, incorrect, misshapen, flawed, broken, guilty and in need of correction is rather interesting. The doctrine of Christianity, the Old Testament, book of Genesis to be exact, explains the reasoning for this. And the Gospels of the New Testament explain the redemption part. (the little Bible quotes at the top of this post summarize the basis of Christian doctrine-oh I feel the wave of reductionism accusations approaching already)
From Original Sin to Original Sickness
It is interesting to note that many of the synonyms for original sin or sin in general are very similar to those that are illness related. Consider the examples below. Can you tell the difference between those that connect to sin and those that connect to illness?
||something that causes hurt
Now that I’ve gone and mixed them all up I can’t either. But I assure you that about half are in the sin pile and half are in the illness pile, although a number of them are in both piles.
With concepts of sin and illness having such overlapping definitions it is not surprising that Euro-American culture, with rapidly escalating technology and emphasis on rationality and science is moving away from the sin model into the sickness model of the original face of humanity.
To be unhealthy is becoming the New Original Sin. Secular scientific and particularly medical models are becoming the modality to happiness as the numbers of “sick” increase every year. Although “cures” seem to be less and less forthcoming.
Where Aristotle indicated and Keats stated, “Beauty is truth and truth is beauty”, now it seems that Health and Beauty is not just a department in the drug store but also indicative of secular Ultimate Truth. Healthiness as well as cleanliness has now replaced godliness.
The New Holy Grail is eternal youth, clear vision, perfect health, ideal heart rate, athletic ability, glowing skin, firm buttocks, lustrous hair, perfectly arched feet, plump moist lips, straight white teeth, globular breasts/solid pecs, optimum weight, regular bowel movements, firm calves, dense bones, 6-pack abs, well-focused attention, cheerful mood, calm abiding, creative expression, serene countenance and abundant happiness all brought about by (and a guarantee of) the material comfort of technological secularism. Sounds kind of like heaven or, more cynically, the ideal of a eugenics program.
A great deal of current physical “sickness” is related to the technologically driven lifestyle. Increases in weight, for example, can in some part be attributed to various combinations of the increased availability of transportation, entertainments that do not require physical participation, foods that do not require much physical labor to acquire and more jobs that require less effort to do.
The body has become something to ignore, pamper, tolerate or sometimes obsess about. It can be seen as an impediment, a prison, a point of social conflict (think racism), a vehicle for “me” (If I see Descartes on the road I’ll shoot him with my cross-bow), an extension of the mind, a possession, a toy, an interconnected network of self-mobile sensory apparatus, meat and bone, a shell, a physiological machine. Whatever the case it is the material manifestation of the conglomerate we identify in space and time as self. Physical desires, comforts and enjoyments revolve around doing less or having someone else do the more grueling physical work on our behalf. And where physical work is required or even desired it is preferably on the terms that it be an enjoyable experience. (gardening vs. toiling in the field, hobby boat building vs working in the shipyards). Necessity has it’s limits, even in the gym.
We have our skin exfoliated, feet pedicured, teeth veneered, noses straightened, eyes lasered, colon cleansed, ears candled, hormone levels checked, body hair waxed, sinuses neti-potted, muscles massaged, bones chiropracted, eyebrows plucked, prostate probed, scalp treated, fingernails manicured, blood sugar tested, joints physical-therapied, boobs lifted, bowel colonoscopied, blood grouped, face tightened, cholesterol levels verified, cervixes papped, ears acupunctured, hearts ECG-ed, bodies scanned and brain waves measured.
The effects of changes in physical conditions within the culture are quite obvious. However these changes, when taken up in the psychological realm are a little more amorphous in terms of effects.
Technology promised an easier and more enjoyable lifestyle. The media in the 20th century depicted many of these rosy possibilities with the assurances that as soon as we had the right technologies in sufficient abundance all our problems would be solved and life would become an experience of unending enjoyment. We would be as shiny and bright on the inside as we were on the outside.
But things haven’t quite worked out that way. Many people have everything they want in almost unending supply yet there is discontent. The feelings of emptiness, unrealized expectations, disappointment, even betrayal abound. And these feelings have become pathologized and more notably taken to mean that there is something wrong with us rather than the cultural environment we are creating around us.
We have our moods adjusted, thoughts realigned, creativity enhanced, attention recalibrated, imaginations re-engineered, minds refocused, lives counseled, paradigms shifted, feelings analyzed, habits deconstructed, personalities typed, diagnoses suggested. We are all, if not at the moment, then in the past and certainly in the future somehow unhealthy.
There is a new revision of the DSM-Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association in the works. Many categories have been expanded and some new “pathologies” have been suggested. How about excessive laziness or just plain old anger as a diagnosis category? That ought to get pretty much everyone that has so far escaped, into the clinic.
Will the psychological juggernaut continue until everyone can be labeled “sick”? What will the transformation of Original Sin to Original Sick bring with it in the future?
A great deal of time and effort is now spent to rectify the illnesses of discontent. Devoted confessions are made to counselors of all types. Miracle cures are gulped down several times a day with the fervent prayer to wellness. Pilgrimages to wellness centers are made and donations are offered to obtain relief. Medical clergy, and their suppliers offer absolution in the form of the next new mood pill, on nightly television commercials. Satisfied parishioners show up on talk shows to laud the miracles that have relieved them of the heartbreak of psoriasis or their re-oriented methods of attraction for malfunctioning lifestyles.
An entire industry of self-help is devoted to identifying the “weaknesses” of the human heart and mind, and for a fee, offering to help manage those chronic disturbances. Why are so many so willing to believe they and their lives are flawed, incomplete and unmanageable? I
Quackery is often as believable as science if presented with enough zeal and the perfect tone of righteousness especially by someone well known. A celebrity endorsement without any valid scientific backing can cause millions to lose their common sense and replace it with hysteria. (see recent elephant journal reprint of an article regarding vaccinations and autism for an example)
My caveat. There is certainly legitimate science, medicine and psychology and it has a definite purpose and demonstrated validity. But you’re not going to find that in Rolling Stone magazine or on Oprah or in the ads of their advertisers.
Testimonials to “bad habits” that have been overcome also abound. These are encouraged in order to demonstrate repentance and atonement and to make way for forgiveness. Many 12-step programs function on this basis. (12-step is beneficial to many people. I am just pointing out this characteristic.) Just like in the revival setting, the crowd shouting “Testify!” and the contrite parishioner begins his tale of woe and redemption. That’s part of the treatment to resolve the flawed human perspective. Things like alcoholism, gambling, excessive indulgence in sex and the like are now seen as a disease rather than a vice or sin. There are very few of us who cannot come up with a good tale of contrition and the price paid for sins of commission or omission.
No need to forget the self-confessed Bad Buddhist in this area as well. Catalogues of failure, ignorance, distraction, lapse, bad behavior, missteps, errors, overstatements are fairly common. It is as if these are some price to be paid or some kind of admission of failure in order to begin a redemptive process. It is as if we need an excuse to become Buddhists. It is as if we have to admit to some original “badness” to be worthy of what Buddhism offers. I think that’s bullshit.
Science and in particular medicine and psychology comprise the new church in the secular culture. Where physical ailment is not sufficient to identify the particular tribulation of an individual, the psychological disciplines can provide definition of the area of frailty quite handily. And for some, the non-Christian spiritual realm as well is being beset by this metaphor of illness/unworthiness. so we have psychology sneaking in the backdoor of the Buddhist temple as well.
I came across this rather profound revelation on someone’s blog a while back:
It just occurred to me that there might not be anything wrong with me
What if that is true for all of us? What does that mean in terms of self-esteem and other aspects of the psychological framework? Suppose we are not originally flawed, wrong, misshapen, bent, ill-formed? What does this mean in terms of larger culture? What does this mean in terms of spirituality? What does this mean in the way we live our lives?
The metaphors of illness do appear in Buddhist texts. But they do not carry with them the hopelessness of the born bad, inherently evil, perpetually atoning individual. In other words they are not accompanied by an unending burden of guilt. There is not so much the need to redeem the human in the sense of physical, mental, spiritual existence as there is to assist him in simply seeing what he really is. There is no need for redemption, and it’s implication of the fallen being in Buddhist practice.
Unfortunately though the psychology of original sin is well entrenched in Euro-American cultures. Mixing the image of “fallen man” into the Buddhist endeavor simply turns Buddhism into either a form of psychology or a Judeo-Christian endeavor with a different costume and terminology. It becomes about redemption rather than about enlightenment. They are not the same thing.
Robert Aitken wrote:
Many Zen Students and even a few teachers think Zen is a kind of psychology. This is a little like thinking that persimmons are a type of banana. The Zen master is more like a flea than he or she is like a psychologist. More like a cool breeze. More like a mountain peak. I am not exaggerating or being fanciful.
via A Gift of Dharma for 4.9.10 Rev. Danny Fisher
There are many posts on this blog about Buddhism and psychology. (list here) I don’t think it’s a good mix for a variety of reasons. Two of the major reasons are:
1. Psychology and Buddhism have different objectives. Psychology attempts to heal egoic suffering. The ego is intimately involved in that process. It is a process of ego engaging with itself as a discrete entity, a closed loop that does not seek to look beyond. Even in psychological frameworks such as family therapy it remains egos as fixed entities engaged with each other. Buddhism attempts to relieve suffering by moving far beyond the notion of individual ego to the point of transcending or realizing the insubstantial nature of the ego itself.
2. Psychology and Buddhism have different initial views of what constitutes the inner foundation of the human being. Psychology posits ego. Buddhism posits Buddha nature.
Ego and Buddha Nature are somewhat at odds with one another until one has looked at it though the dharmic eye. The Buddha Nature is not in any way, shape or form (indeed formless!) the same as the ego. To the Buddhist way of thinking the ego as it is, is the neurotic element. It cannot be “fixed”. Efforts to that end may relieve certain samsaric difficulties and give a more comfortable existence but they will not reveal Buddha nature. That is not their purpose.
Psychological redemption allows people to feel better about specific issues for varying periods of time. Buddhist redemption, although I find that term misplaced in Buddhist context (and no I won’t use the word soteriological), isn’t about such specifics. The difference here is between the relative and the absolute. The difference is between redemption and enlightenment. Redemption makes what was bad good. Enlightenment simply shows what is. Redemption changes the participant to some degree although they remain with the same set of original core beliefs in the solidity of existence. Enlightenment shows the participant who they really are. Good and bad are irrelevant. They are completely different orders of experience.
Another reason I find the term redemption misplaced in the Buddhist context is that it implies first that there is something to be redeemed and second that to redeem is to save (ie. our souls) from some less than desirable circumstances. Both of these insert a lot of needless notions into the process. There is nothing to be saved and the only circumstance actually available is reality. One can try to escape reality for a time or make some kind of dualistic peace with it but one cannot be saved from reality.
In Buddhism there is a completely different way of looking at human’s basic nature. That is the Buddha Nature. In some schools it is related to or called “luminous mind”, tathāgata-garbha, suchness, essential nature, ultimate reality, the source of all, Buddha Essence, the ground of all things, Dharmata or the mind of Buddha. There are many variations and descriptions of what it entails. (If indeed one were to label Shunyata an “It” and thereby reifying the unreifiable-but that’s for another discussion) To describe the indescribable takes a lot of description.
For the purposes of this discussion, because we are dealing with the original nature of human beings as well as psychology, I am going to take up Trungpa Rinpoche’s term “basic sanity”.
Sanity by general definition can be called a state free from delusions. Sanity is characterized by reality contact, that is knowing what is and isn’t real.
Traleg Kyabgon Rinpoche discusses the term “basic sanity”:
[Trungpa Rinpoche said] “You could have a basic sound understanding of the logic of things as they are without ego. In fact, you can have greater sanity beyond ego; you can deal with situations without hope and fear, and you can retain your self-respect or your logical sanity in dealing with things.”
Basic sanity in Trungpa Rinpoche’s thought represents the attitude of enlightenment, which is free from hope and fear. The implication here seems obvious enough: the attitude of ignorance, if it can be put that way, dominates our deluded, samsaric mind through the inveterate afflictions of hope and fear. In the idiom of Trungpa Rinpoche’s teaching style, this would be termed neurosis.
from First, the Bad News in Buddhadharma Magazine Spring 2006
The awakened state of mind, of which basic sanity is the hallmark, and the discovery of this natural-born state is discussed by Trungpa Rinpoche in the Introduction of Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism:
According to the Buddhist tradition, the spiritual path is the process of cutting through our confusion, of uncovering the awakened state of mind. When the awakened state of mind is crowded in by ego and its attendant paranoia, it takes on the character of an underlying instinct. So it is not a matter of building up the awakened state of mind, but rather of burning out the confusions which obstruct it.
In the process of burning out these confusions, we discover enlightenment. If the process were otherwise, the awakened state of mind would be a product, dependent upon cause and effect and therefore liable to dissolution. Anything which is created must, sooner or later, die. If enlightenment were created in such a way, there would always be the possibility of ego reasserting itself, causing a return to the confused state.
Enlightenment is permanent because we have not produced it; we have merely discovered it. In the Buddhist tradition the analogy of the sun appearing from behind the clouds is often used to explain the discovery of enlightenment.
In true meditation there is no ambition to stir up thoughts, nor is there an ambition to suppress them. They are just allowed to occur spontaneously and become an expression of basic sanity. They become the expression of the precision and the clarity of the awakened state of mind.
There is no need to struggle to be free; the absence of struggle is in itself freedom. This egoless state is the attainment of Buddhahood. The process of transforming the material of mind from expressions of ego’s ambition into expressions of basic sanity and enlightenment through the practice of meditation – this might be said to be the true spiritual path.
from Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism by Chogyam Trungpa
There’s not any mention of guilt or the like in these descriptions. And it is fairly clear in the first paragraph that whatever paranoia we may feel, be that in the form of incorrectness, incompleteness and unwholesomeness is a function of the ego and not generated by the basic sanity of the individual.
A Buddhist’s View of Original Sin
In a most interesting interpretation of the Original Sin narrative, Buddhadasa Bhikkhu, in speaking to a Western audience, describes it as follows:
In people language, “to die” means that the bodily functions have stopped, which is the kind of death we can see with our eyes. However, “die” in the language used by God has quite a different meaning, such as when he spoke to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden telling them not to eat the fruit of a certain tree, “for in the day that you eat of it you shall die” (Gen. 2:17). Eventually, Adam and Eve ate that fruit, but we know that they didn’t die in the ordinary sense, the kind that puts people into coffins. That is, their bodies didn’t die. Instead, they died in another way, in the Dhamma language sense, which is a spiritual death much more cruel than being buried in a coffin. This fate worse than death was the appearance of enormous sin in their minds, that is, they began to think in dualistic terms–good and evil, male and female, naked and clothed, husband and wife, and so on. The pairs of opposites proliferated making the pain very heavy, so much so that their minds were flooded by a suffering so severe that it’s impossible to describe. All this has been passed down through the years and inherited by everyone living in the present era.
The consequences have been so disastrous that the Christians give the name “original sin” to the first appearance of dualistic thinking.
from NO RELIGION by Buddhadasa Bhikkhu
[I’d like to examine this telling a little further but the post is already quite a length. Consider the references to God, the cruelty of being buried in coffins, inheritance, minds flooded by suffering and the appearance of dualistic thinking as definition for original sin in bi-cultural terms for a start. I also wonder how much is the translator’s imposition on this narrative.]
Starting with the premise that the Buddha Nature is the foundation of the human being rather than some flawed being with an ancestral burden of anguish gives a considerably less dour view of human existence. That there may be blemishes or imperfections caused by ignorance, rather than such flaws inherent in every being, paints a somewhat more optimistic set of possibilities for people. These flaws, or accretions simply comprise an impression of solidity. Where these accretions congregate or aggregate might just be mistaken for a thing in itself. That is, we might mistake aggregates (skandas) for a solid thing such as an ego.
The portrait of the sin filled individual eternally bearing the Sysiphus-like burden of the ages, always on guard lest his original nature return, being punished for crimes he did not commit and waiting until death for some relief, strikes me as a rather onerous way to live.
On the other hand the Buddha Nature scenario says, “We can get over it.”
*Euro-American means Europeans and Americans, Americans (North, and to some extent Central and South) of European descent, those who’s culture is predominantly European based at present or historically and is still practiced to some degree, in short Euro-American means mostly white people with Christian origins.
Musical Accompaniment- The Doors-Break on Through