I finished Gabriel Cohen’s Storms Can’t Hurt the Sky: A Buddhist Path Through Divorce. Gabriel Cohen is a freelance journalist whose wife, “Claire” (not her real name), left him. He found solace in Buddhist lectures, which gave him the tools to recover from his bad experience and start a new life.
I’ll open this “book review” with a personal anecdote. When I was at Harvard, I was taking a class on religion and public education, and I sat next to a conservative Baptist minister. I told him that I didn’t know how to determine which religion is the right one, and he responded with some irritation. “Well, which one matches the way the world is?,” he said.
He didn’t exactly explain what he meant, but I think he was referring to original sin. There are many passages in the Bible that portray human beings as morally bad, particularly Romans 1-3. And, when we look at all of the greed and murder and adultery and suffering in the world, we can easily concur with the Bible that something is wrong with the human race. For the minister, that demonstrates that Christianity offers the accurate description of reality.
My problem with this argument is that other religions also try to account for human immorality. I mean, how can they not? For a religion to be relevant, it needs to explain features of the surrounding world.
So how does Buddhism account for human immorality? Basically, it says that human beings look to people and things to make them happy, and they also seek to avoid suffering. The problem with our approach is that life cannot always satisfy us, since things do not always turn out the way that we like. And so how should we approach life? According to Buddhism, we should view all of it as an opportunity to develop character (e.g., patience). We should deliberately choose not to get mad (the implication being that we can control our emotions). We should get our minds off ourselves and serve others, which makes us happy. We should be compassionate towards people, even those who have hurt us, since we are all in the same boat: we seek happiness and the avoidance of pain. And, unlike Christianity, Buddhism does not view humans as inherently bad–they simply see life the wrong way. That’s why we need enlightenment.
A lot of this overlaps with evangelicalism. “We should not look to people and things to satisfy us,” I’ve heard evangelicals say. “They’ll always disappoint you. Look to the Lord Jesus. He will never disappoint!” “Stop being selfish! Give to others, for that is the key to happiness.” “Suffering builds character.” “Forgive others, for you are a sinner too!” And I once heard Gordon Hugenberger, the pastor of Park Street Church in Boston, preach that we can control our emotions.
Joel Osteen says a lot of the same things, but he differs from Buddhism in one respect: Joel affirms that we should expect good things from God, for that is his definition of hope! Buddhism, by contrast, advises us to go through life with low expectations. How else can we cope with the fact that life stinks? We become less disappointed when our expectations are low in the first place.
Where do I stand on all of this? I’m rather mixed. I like Buddhism’s claim that I can choose not to be angry. There are times when I say to myself, “Look, I’m upset right now, but life is not perfect, and I’m only making things worse by getting all agitated about it!” Such an approach actually alleviates my anger.
I’ll admit that my problem is selfishness: I look to people and things to make me happy. I expect the entire world to serve me, when it’s usually not all too eager to do so. Is giving the panacea? Maybe. Maybe not. There have been times when I’ve received a lot of satisfaction from service work. But there are also plenty of people who give and give and give, and the result is burn out rather than happiness. Moreover, what if I give to others and they don’t appreciate me? I also have problems with Cohen’s view that we should always let others have their way as we attempt to avoid conflict. That can allow them to walk all over us! Although we shouldn’t be inflexible and insensitive to the desires of others, there is a place for self-assertion, every now and then. As Steven Covey says in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, think “win, win.” That means we should try to come up with solutions that satisfy both parties (whenever possible).
I’m mixed on the question of whether my expectations should be high or low. I admit that I no longer do what Joel Osteen tells me to do: look in the mirror and speak God’s favor over myself and my day. Maybe I should get back to doing that. Instead of complaining to God about not having a job right now, for example, perhaps I should thank God for the job he’s about to give me. There are plenty of passages in the Bible about trusting God to give us good things.
And, yet, bad experiences are an opportunity. But they’re not just an opportunity to become better people, as important as that is. They are also a chance to wait on God, who is able to make our situation better, in this life and the life to come.
I kind of like the Buddhist conception of humanity. Which is better? To say, “We’re all thoroughly evil, but now I’m regenerate, and so I must forgive you” (Christianity)? Or to say, “Most of us mean well, and we’re combinations of good and bad. But we go through life misinformed, as we look to people and things to make us happy” (Buddhism)? I don’t know. The Buddhist one gives me a kinder view of my fellow human beings. And, yet, I’m reluctant to say that everyone means well, since there are plenty of jerks out there!
I also like the way that Buddhism is non-dogmatic. Buddha did not say, “Believe my way, or you’ll go to hell for all eternity!” It’s more like, “Here is what I’ve concluded about life. See if it works for you” (or perhaps that’s Gabriel Cohen’s postmodern rendition of Buddhism). Buddhism also believes in reincarnation, which gives people numerous chances to get things right.
And, yet, I can tell that Cohen believes there’s a lot at stake. He talks about a murder that occurred in his apartment, which was a sobering reminder to him of where anger can lead. That goes beyond saying, “Do this, if it works for you.” It’s pretty crucial that we learn the right way!
Another thought that occurred to me: In certain strains of Buddhism, a bodhisattva is someone who reaches enlightenment yet “compassionately refrains from entering nirvana in order to save others” (wikipedia). Is Christ like a bodhisattva? Yes and no. Like a bodhisattva, Christ put himself in second place to save us, for he left the comforts of heaven in order to show us the path to glory. As the song goes, “You came from heaven to earth to show us the way.”
On the “no” side, there are plenty of biblical passages that present Christ as God, or at least as someone who always had his act together. That means he never needed to become enlightened, since he already saw things in the right way. And, yet, we read in Hebrews 5:8-9: “Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him” (NRSV). His experience as a man enables him to be a compassionate high priest for us (Hebrews 4:15). I don’t think that Christ learned the path to salvation on earth and is now trying to enlighten us, which is what characterizes a bodhisattva. Rather, he came to be our salvation, not to achieve it himself. At the same time, he did get something from his experience on earth that he did not have before, and that allowed him to become a compassionate Savior. In that sense, he is somewhat like a bodhisattva.
So will I become a Buddhist? No, but it does have insights that can help me every now and then. And, as Gabriel Cohen notes, one does not have to become a Buddhist to practice its suggestions.