21 February 2004

Look on the dark side of life

This is lazy, inadequate religion. If we deny the reality of suffering, we will ignore the distress of others. At its best, religion requires the faithful to see things as they really are. In Buddhism, the First Noble Truth that is essential for enlightenment is that life is dukkha: "unsatisfactory, awry". The Buddha's father tried to shield him from sorrow by imprisoning him in a pleasure-palace, walled off from disturbing reality. Guards were posted to drive away any distressing spectacle. For 29 years, the Buddha lived in this fool's paradise, locked into a delusion and unable to make spiritual progress. Finally the gods intervened and forced the young man to confront mortality, sickness and decay. Only then could he begin his quest for Nirvana

The Buddha's palace is a striking image of the mind in denial. As long as we immure ourselves from the pain that surrounds us on all sides, we remain trapped in an undeveloped version of ourselves. Denial is futile: suffering will always breach the cautionary barricades that we erect around our fragile existence. The ideal is to find a still centre within that enables us to face pain with equanimity and use our experience of dukkha to appreciate the sorrow of others.

The failure to confront unpleasant reality can also be politically dangerous. In the Bible, those preachers who told people to look on the bright side, that God would protect Jerusalem and that everything would work out for the best are condemned as 'false prophets'. The prophet Jeremiah has become a byword for excessive gloom, but if people had listened to his dire predictions, the Babylonian army might not have destroyed Jerusalem. He was not being 'negative'; he was right.

In our global world, we can no longer afford to edit out the uncomfortable spectacle of human misery. In the past, we have sometimes pursued policies that have resulted in great suffering, telling ourselves that all would ultimately be well. We have let conflicts fester until they have become intractable. We have supported such allies as Saddam Hussein, ignoring the atrocities they inflict upon their people. We are now rightly outraged by his massacre of his Kurdish subjects, but at the time we ineffectually turned a blind eye. Today we are reaping the reward of our heedless karma. The pain that we ignored in some parts of the world has hardened into murderous rage.

I suspect it is impossible to understand the state of the world that George Bush has wrought without any inquiry into his faith. Armstrong's language about false prophets sounds very like the meme that the US is under the special protection of God. Molly Ivins laid out a record of Bush's obliviousness last year. No administration has ever put quite so much energy into erecting First Amendment zones around the president. I've blogged recently about the Bush administration's assault on empirical fact. A lot of these efforts sound like guards driving unpleasant truth out of sigh of the Buddha's palace.

I've liked Armstrong's stuff since I read her History of God.

No comments: