03 December 2010

What is Important?

THIS IS MY PARAPHRASE of the Cūḷamālunkya Sutta (M 63) in contemporary idiom and context.

Once there was a man who had been brought up a Christian but gave it up, and then later on became a Buddhist. He did his best to live the spiritual life with help from a Buddhist mentor; he became a vegetarian, gave up drinking and meditated every day. He picked up and started to using the Buddhist jargon. A couple of times a year he went on a retreat for a week. It felt good to belong, the teachings seem to make sense, and he did seem to be happier than before. But some doubts from his religious upbringing continued to plague him, and his pious Buddhism didn't seem to help. He read The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, but he just could not decide if God existed or not. The Sunday supplement of his newspaper kept talking about the debate between militant atheists and Christians, not to mention Muslims; he knew he didn't believe in creationism, but wasn't it possible that there was some intelligent designer? And what if there was? He went round in circles trying to reason his way through it, and became completely distracted. Eventually he decided that he had to know the answer to this question before he could carry on with his practice of ethics and meditation.

So he went to see his Buddhist mentor and laid out the problem. Then he said: "My question is this - does God exist or does God not exist? I need to know one way or the other, else I'll never be able to be whole-hearted about my practice. You're a wise person. If you know then just say so, one way or the other. Put me out of my misery or I'll have to go off and find another mentor who does know."

His mentor asked "when you started to learn about ethics and meditation at our Buddhist Centre did we say any about God? Did we promise to say anything about God? Is there anything about God in our literature?"

"Well no," replied the man, "you didn't, and there isn't."

"And when you came to the Buddhist centre, did you originally come to learn about God?"

"No. I came because I was unhappy and a friend told me that meditation would help me. And I liked the people and the vibe, so I hung around. Actually, not talking about God was one of the attractions."

"So, why are you now asking about God?" His mentor asked. "Why is God suddenly relevant?

"Look, the mentor said, "you would wait a long time for me to have anything to say about God. You'd die long before I said anything on that subject. If you are waiting to practice ethics and meditation until you know all about God, then you're like a man who has been shot, and refuses treatment until he knows what kind of gun shot the bullet, and what kind of bullet was used; you want to know the identity of the shooter, his race and religious beliefs, before allowing a surgeon to remove the bullet and save your life. You will die before you can know the answers to your questions. Then what?"

"Whether or not you believe God exists, whether or not God actually exists, there is birth, old-age, sickness and death; there is sorrow and disappointment; there is pain and suffering. Look at how many people believe in God. Has that changed the amount of suffering in the world at all? Has it perhaps even made things worse? Whatever your opinion about God and it wouldn't change the existential situation anyway. You'll still suffer. After many centuries the fact of millions of people believing in God has not changed this. So why get all stirred up about what to believe? What you believe is not as important as how you live, because how you live really makes a difference."

"I can definitely help you with disappointment and suffering. If you want a way to deal with disappointment once and for all, to put an end to sorrow, distress and depression; and to put an end to the constant repetition of pointless lives (presuming that you believe in rebirth) then I do have something useful for you. This method is really helpful, and it leads to greater happiness without any reference to God. There seems no limit to the improvements that you can experience through this method - at least I haven't found any limit yet. This method leads to disentangling yourself from the things that cause the problem; to sobering up from being drunk on sensuous pleasures; to turning your back on that which causes you constant disappointment once and for all. Once you understand why you get disappointed, then the way ahead is fairly clear, though of course it's not always an easy path."

The mentor said all this and the man took it away and mulled things over. After a while he realised that he did not need to know about God, and he was delighted to be relieved of this burden. He got on with his practice, and made progress, and soon forgot all about God.


image of God from dumb.com.
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