The principal problem i have with most religions is not what they believe as far as the universe as a whole is concerned. The universe is a big place and not really my business to comment on at this point in my life. My principal problem with religion is that it does not often cultivate good. It merely cultivates karma.
I’m not a religious person. I’m not an atheist either. I guess really? I just don’t know and maybe more importantly than that, I don’t care. But certain dynamics do catch my fancy from time to time and one such dynamic is this idea people have about what makes a person good. And it turns out that, if you take most religions at their word, not much does. That if you take most religions at their word, the default state of humans is not that nice, however well-meaning most of them might be. If you take most religions at their word it is more about the relative forgiveness of whatever deity you believe in and less about the ability to achieve ‘goodness’ in the average human lifetime.
Throughout history, religion and spirituality have operated on a slick barter-exchange philosophy. If you do good, good things will come your way. This has some rational basis in reality. If you do something nice for someone, the likelihood that they will return the favour increases. If you are known for being a nice person, the likelihood that people in general will treat you well also increases. (This is not to be confused with being a passive doormat – which does nobody any good whatsoever) It follows logically that if you’re a jackass, people will tend to treat you like one. Let your asshole do the talking and you’ll become, essentially, a giant asshole with a mouth (read Burrough’s story about the man who taught his asshole to talk for more information on the subject.)
Karma is one of those nasty things, like money, sex or controlled substances that you need to sort of understand to have any control over. Imagine you live in a village of 100 people. One morning you wake up pissed off and angry at the world, ready for a fight. And you pick a fight with someone.. anyone.. for any little transgression not because they’ve pissed you off all that badly but mostly because you’re just in a toxic mood. That person now has been loaded up with the overflow of your nasty mood. He, in turn, takes that overflow and turns it on someone. Either someone else, or himself. This negativity slowly snakes throughout the community of only 100 people as hurt individuals pay it forward relentlessly. And eventually makes it’s way back to you. Except that by the time it reaches you again, it has grown and festered and been blown to such an unnecessary proportion that you’ll often get back three times what you originally dished out.
There are only two ways to stop this overflow. Either it reaches a wise and serene person who merely absorbs it and converts it to some kind of empathy and softness. Or YOU must become that wise person who absorbs it and converts it to some kind of empathy or softness.
Religious people TEND to want to stop this vicious cycle of abuse. Their hearts are sort of in the right place. They are of the (not incorrect) belief that they can cultivate their sense of filial love of their fellow man into a sort of karma-killing machine. That they can harness and neutralize negativity and sadness, manufacture it into empathy, and turn it back out as compassion. This is a noble thing. But not as easy to achieve as many would have us believe.
There are several sects of Buddhism that talk about attachment. But I personally believe many of the scholars of attachment misunderstand. They talk about the road to enlightened serenity beginning with the vague idea of “giving up attachments” and many of them often talk of money. The trouble is.. they, and their followers take words like “money” literally. They talk earnestly about giving up the need for material possessions, forgetting in their zealous sense of self-sacrifice that karma itself is a material possession. Or at the very least, our desire for it is the same as our desire for, say, a Bentley. When the great scholars and philosophers spoke of the attachment to money, what they were really trying to say is we have an attachment to expectation. Give and you receive in kind. Give kindness and you will receive something good. Or at the very least, something good will happen.
This is a problem because the two things sort of cancel each other out. If you do good to be recognized as a good person, are you really doing good? Or merely trading in some sort of karmic stock exchange? That may or may not even exist? And more importantly, if you doing good results in your own suffering, are you still willing to do good? Or is your good contingent on what it can buy you? Whether it be heaven, praise? Love? Enlightenment? More good? A perfect world? A longer life or a healthier body?
This is what all religions were trying to get at with the idea of noble suffering i think. The idea of penance or whatever you want to call it. A lot of them are on the right track with anonymous charity or dying for sins or whatever.. but even that is false. Because you’re still getting something out of it. You’re still getting the smug feeling of having been very magnanimous and dedicated to what you believe in. And this is a kind of karma.
The zen buddhists also have this nice idea (from what i can tell) that there is simply NOTHING. That a true buddha is free of karma. That there is nothing the self can gain or lose from doing wrong or right but that they are done because it is the buddha-nature. There is nothing else except that. This idea is even closer to what you’re wanting to strive for but even this is false. Because the hope of attaining emancipation through enlightenment is a kind of karma-exchange. So you are not really free of anything yet.
I think love.. real love.. has something to do with the idea that if you carry the fire inside, you will help keep the fire burning inside humanity. For every hero that sacrifices without thinking, many people will come away from his story with hope for themselves. Their light will burn a little brighter. They’ll wake up ready to face at least one more day with the knowledge that maybe humanity ISN’T just a steaming pile of jackasses. That maybe they’re willing to, if nothing else, continue to attempt to deal in karma which, while not a perfect system, isn’t bad for the average person. And perhaps it’s best if the hero is totally unaware that he has done this. And that the world is totally unaware of who he is. And things continue pretty much the same for everybody.. but the light is just a little brighter. And sometimes the light doesn’t get any brighter. Sometimes the sky still stays dark no matter how much compassion you pump out. Sometimes you start the fight knowing you will lose. But you begin anyway. Because it is your nature.
I read a story a year or so ago about a man who was driving on the highway and saw an overturned oil tanker. The driver of the tanker had been doused in boiling tar. And without thinking, the man pulled over, thrust his arms and half his torso into the tar and saved the driver’s life. Then he ran away. That man lost the use of both of his arms. He refuses to talk about it and nobody knows who he is. He has suffered terribly and will never be the same. But that driver of the oil tanker is alive today because of that one man’s truly and totally selfless action. He didn’t do it for recognition or even because he couldn’t stand to see another man suffer. He did it for the same reason that a bird builds a nest. It was simply his nature. That man is my hero. Whoever he is.