A lot can happen in 20 years – Part 4
This follows on from Part 3.
As mentioned in Part 1, I realised that it’s exactly 20 years since I entered the full-time workforce, and a lot can happen in that time, so thought I’d share my road to reason. This is a continuation.
The next 8 years or so saw me maintain at least a passing interest in religion, but it became more generalised to include the breadth of what I considered to be global wisdom. I gradually came to call myself an agnostic over this period, losing all of the “fear” beliefs surrounding fundamentalist Christianity (the whole You’ll go to hell if you do/don’t… thing), and it played less of a role as other matters in my life took precedence: university, career establishment, buying a house, moving across the country, moving overseas, etc.
It was a few years after I moved to the UK that I regained an interest in religion — not necessarily from an “I need religion…” viewpoint, but rather to explore it with more academic interest and to re-assess its part in my life, if at all. I realise that it’s glib to say “we’re all going to hell because we’re all heretics to someone’s religion”, but another way of looking at that is to think that many of the world’s old religions had at least kernels of truth. Judaism, Christianity and Islam are perhaps unique in that essentially they share a common origin — the Pentateuch (or Torah) — and some other world religions are based upon other religions or cultural legends. While the Mithraic legend and Horus history are probably the most obvious for Christians, I chose to look at other religions rather than stick with the Judeo-Christian theme with which I had more than a passing familiarity.
As I wasn’t “looking for god”, I looked at Buddhism and, in particular, Theravada (also called Orthodox). It is the oldest of the main variants of Buddhism today (Theravada, Mahayana and Vajrayana) and is the only natively non-theistic variant, and therefore an excellent candidate for a life philosophy. There is no deity, rather deference and respect for Gautama Buddha, the person who is believed to have discovered enlightenment and shared it with others. To this end, I read a great deal, become involved with the national Buddhist Society, regularly attended a local Buddhist group’s meetings, and even spent a day at a monastery, 30 miles outside London, to learn the various forms and modes of meditation. I still regard that day as one of the most peaceful and relaxing of my life, if for no other reason than we seldom take the chance to genuinely switch off from our thoughts, concerns, desires, greed, insecurities, aspirations, fears and dozens of other mental hamster wheels.
My experience with and study of Buddhism was a fascinating and peaceful experience — and I still occasionally make use of anapanasati meditation to relax myself — though as with my prior experience, there were dogmas, beliefs and practices that were clearly not real or applicable in a world outside a monastery. Part of this is, I suppose, a problem that afflicts many monastic people who deal with people who live in the real world (to do with relationships, business, time spent, etc), but the parts that bothered were to do with genuflecting towards statues of Buddha (it seemed the same as praying to a deity) as well as their viewpoint on suffering. The concept of the ending of needless suffering — euthanasing even a pet, for example — were alien, as pain is a part of life and is to be accepted. It wasn’t just those points, but it pointed out to me that this was not an entirely rational community.
I have not spoken about the other core variants of Buddhism, as I feel unqualified to do so, suffice to say that my understanding is that Mahayana — from which oriental Buddhism and variants originates — allows for the godhood of Buddha or Buddhas, as some revere more than one, and Vajrayana (Tibetan) includes aspects that are shamanic and involve magic and other superstitions. While I am not attempting to denigrate these variants, these points do show why I chose Theravada. It allowed for a thorough examination of a philosophy without the distractions of deities and such.
Continued in Part 5.