Tuesday, August 18, 2009

An Aha! Moment

Yargh! Too many things to blog about today: I want to write about being "an aging artist" (yes, yes, I know, I'm only 23, not very aged, but still, aging), and about why I loved Ponyo, but was not so impressed with Up, and also about how in Christian Apologetics class last night, I finally felt like I understood what the Buddhist nirvana is about.

But I'll start by letting you know: I did eventually figure out where that cut on my face came from: it was a papercut! A papercut on my face! Oh, the hazards of being a student.

Okay, now about the Buddhist nirvana. When I took World Religions at Whitworth, I felt that of all the major world religions, each one held a peculiar appeal for me, except Buddhism. Our text book explained that the Buddhist idea of nirvana should not be understood truly as nothingness, and that Buddhism is not really so pessimistic as Westerners think. But the author did not explain what exactly the Buddhist nirvana was. Which makes sense, since it cannot really be described. But then, how are you suppsed to know what is meant by the term?

So in Apologetics class last night, Dr. John Carstensen was giving his argument for belief in a supernatural God, as opposed to a pantheistic God. His argument was something like this: For the pantheist, all of Nature is the infinite God. Because God is infinite, God cannot be described, except by way of negation (not finite, not divisible, not possessable, etc.). And because all is God, and God is one (not divided), all plurality (things being separate from each other) is an illusion.

Carstensen's critique here is that this is not a reasonable belief because it contradicts the whole of personal experience. We do not experience the oneness of the infinite, we only experience a plurality of things in the world. But I doubt this would be at all persuasive for a Buddhist, since they presumably just take it on faith, by intuition, and by some mystical experience of oneness, that in fact, contrary to experience, plurality (the separateness of things) is an illusion.

Anyway, Carstensen then introduced into the pantheist's world Descartes's one supposedly unquestionable fact: I exist. For the pantheist, this statement does not work. Because the only thing that really exists is the oneness of God, not the separateness of the self. It is not quite right, even for the pantheist to say, "I am God," because it is the whole of the universe, not the finite self, that is God. And to a Westerner, it is also nonsensical to say "I do not exist." But that is what Buddhists say.

Also, the problem of evil becomes more acute for the pantheist even than for the supernatural monotheist. If God is identified with a world that contains evil, then either God contains evil, or evil is an illusion. It would seem Hindus go with the option of God containing evil. Buddhists go with evil as an illusion. And I must say, I much prefer the Hindu approach to the Buddhist. And the Christian approach to the Hindu.

In fact, I think it's an outrage to declare evil an illusion.

But anyway, now I think I actually have some idea of what Buddhism is all about. It's like a pantheist religion that refuses to say "all is God" because they don't want to name the infinite oneness in any way, even by calling it God.

If you have made it to the end of this post, congratulations! I will write about those other things some other time.


Patrick Lewis said...

""I do not exist." But that is what Buddhists say"

You had me right up to this point, but I may simply be misunderstanding you. In all my reading about Buddhism, I have never read anything comparable to this... what would you call it? nihilist? notion. Are you defining Egolessness (that is a funny word: say it three times fast :) ) with nonexistence?

Virgiliana said...

Yes, I think that in the English language, the word "I" implies an ego by definition.