Sunday, February 28, 2010

May Bill Maher be happy, be peaceful, be liberated

A somewhat different perspective on this blog entry by Bill Maher over at The Huffington Post. The comedian has been catching some flack for getting Buddhism wrong. And undoubtedly, he got it wrong. But reading his words more closely, I find it very hard to feel offended.

A snippet:
"Christianity is for rubes. Buddhism is for actors.

"And it really is outdated in some ways - the 'Life sucks, and then you die' philosophy was useful when Buddha came up with it around 500 B.C., because back then life pretty much sucked, and then you died - but now we have medicine, and plenty of food, and iPhones, and James Cameron movies - our life isn't all about suffering anymore. And when we do suffer, instead of accepting it we try to alleviate it."
It's striking how easily Mr. Maher sweeps this question of suffering, of dukkha, right under the rug. Why suffer? Just alleviate. Yet it must be obvious to anybody who has come face-to-face with life's realities that "alleviation" is just another word for denial, aversion to suffering, the desire to remain ignorant, the desire to get rid of that which is not wanted. At best, "alleviation" is a temporary fix. At worst, it is suffering itself, pure addiction, a blind devotion to the impossible pursuit of just feeling okay about everything.

Who can escape old age, sickness and death? These must be accepted, because sooner or later, the drugs wear off, the face of reality shows itself, the end comes in short breaths, fading breaths. We can try to alleviate right up until the end, but we cannot alleviate the fading away that inevitably shadows every living, breathing moment.

The wonderful teaching of the Buddha that Mr. Maher has overlooked is that this suffering has an end, and there is a way to the eradication of suffering. Ironically, that path includes seeing things as they are, which Mr. Maher unfortunately appears to describe as "acceptance," a position he rejects:
"Craving for things outside ourselves is what makes life life - I don't want to learn to not want, that's what people in prison have to do. Buddhism teaches suffering is inevitable. The only thing that's inevitable is that if you have fake boobs and hair extensions, Tiger Woods will try to f--- you."
Prison. Mr. Maher imagines that this samsara does not constitute a kind of prison, where we are caged in by deep-rooted habits of greed, hate and delusion. Why do we want? We want because we perceive lack. What do we lack in this world of medicine, abundant food, iPhones and James Cameron movies? Perhaps we don't have the ability to know the basis of our wants, the underlying nature of our desires, of that insatiable appetite that we learn to live with, that we strive to alleviate. That is what Mr. Maher chooses to accept. A path that leads to more suffering.

Mr. Maher is right, but in a way he apparently has not yet understood: Craving for things outside ourselves is what makes life life. There are so many things about that statement that are true.
In this fathom-long body with its perceptions and thoughts there is the world, the origin of the world, the ending of the world and the path leading to the ending of the world.
-AN 4.45
The whole concept of "outside ourselves" points in the wrong direction, away from what needs to be done here and now.

Of course there are things that we want. When we observe our experience, we realize that these wants are present. They rise and pass away. They are not-self. They are simply wants. And the fact of the matter is that some wants can help us along the path. And here is one of them:
May all be well and secure,
May all beings be happy!
Whatever living creatures there be,
Without exception, weak or strong,
Long, huge or middle-sized,
Or short, minute or bulky,
Whether visible or invisible,
And those living far or near,
The born and those seeking birth,
May all beings be happy!

- Metta Sutta

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