A critique of the “desert religions,” that is, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, is that of theodicy, the question of why an all-power (omnipotent), all-seeing (omniscient), and allegedly ‘good’ god allows evil and suffering even to exist.
In my mind, actual answers to this question are weak, relying on some grand plan—after the Old Testament, really?—or justice in the afterlife. These amount to system justification, in which what is immoral in the present may be excused (for now) simply because it is wielded by the temporally powerful.
Alexander Wynne has written an essay that explains how the same end is achieved in Buddhism: simply by denying the reality of physical existence. In this, you suffer only to the extent you think all this is real. Even as your stomach rumbles or you suffer the cold, you need only believe harder, or as he puts it, “cultivating mindfulness leads to the abandoning of negative mental states, following which the mendicant must only sit in solitude, being mindful ‘around the front’ (of the body), for meditative transformation to occur.”
With Wynne’s understanding, which I have seen also with Tarthang Tulku, social change is irrelevant because society does not really exist. It’s not really system justification but rather an idea, an ontology, of reality as a hallucination that utterly fails to explain how it is we exist with each other, how it is that we can even perceive each other’s existence, let alone how we can have some common basis of understanding (“reality”). These, too, might be nothing more than figments of our imagination. Which raises a more profound question than the one Wynne addresses of why the Buddha might bother with teaching students who may not even be there.
When I was in my Master’s program, and the program had been taken over by hard post-modernists, advocating the idea that it is theory, that which is in your mind, that is real, I actually suspected plagiarism and a third-grade level understanding of an Eastern idea. For me, Wynne’s essay completes that connection. It is solipsism, “the view or theory that the self is all that can be known to exist.”
You can call it Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, or post-modernism. None of it is anything more than an excuse.
- Cornel West poses the question of theodicy in Brother West: Living and Loving Out Loud (Carlsbad, CA: SmileyBooks, 2009). He responds with action in faith, seeking justice. As he stops just short of conceding, this does not actually answer the question.↩
- Alexander Wynne, “Who was the Buddha?” Aeon, December 17, 2019, https://aeon.co/essays/was-the-buddha-an-awakened-prince-or-a-humble-itinerant↩
- Tarthang Tulku, Love of Knowledge (Berkeley, Dharma, 1987). Full disclosure: I lived at Tarthang Tulku’s monastery, Odiyan in northwest Sonoma County, California, as a volunteer for about eight months some time in the early 1990s. To deny the existence of a physical reality is at odds with the emphasis Tarthang Tulku laid on pouring concrete in the construction of massive monuments there, the long hours he demanded of volunteers to that end, and the even longer hours he demanded of his students to that end. This was my first experience with a “total situation,” in which the powerful demand so much of one’s time that they have no time to contemplate an improvement in their condition, whether through social change or a change of employment.↩
- Oxford Dictionary of English, 3rd ed., s.v. “solipsism.”↩