I used to have quite a high opinion of Buddhism, because growing up in Venice, Palermo, and London, my only experience of it was through my religious education lessons at a private secondary school, and a few books I read here and there.
I absolutely hated the first three years of religious education, because it was spent rote learning with the scariest teacher in the entire school.
He died under some suspicious circumstances around three years into my school time there, and around that time, there were two more deaths also, one boy crashed his car while drunk, and another suffocated while trying to put on a scuba diving suit at home alone, and fell and hit his head.
I’ve got vague memories of the details, but this teacher stuck in my head for obvious reasons.
Because I never bothered doing any homework during my six-year stay at school, I used always just to lose my books so I wouldn’t have to hand anything in.
It was very convenient and worked quite well; I had this air about me of a clever boy who was quite distracted, and so losing all my books was something that was almost expected of me, and in fact, I delivered to those expectations!
So Buddhism felt quite undogmatic, and in a way, just what I was perhaps looking for. I was really looking forward to learning more as I came to live in South East Asia. Still, then I realised that actually, it’s pretty much like every other religion I have experienced, especially Catholicism.
It’s full of superstition, silly rehearsed tradition, and generally a lot of useless stuff that I can’t imagine the original Buddha ever agreeing to if the original story of the Buddha is to be believed.
This sounds like Catholicism because I can’t ever imagine Jesus agreeing to all these old men in robes playing with incense.
Again, perhaps I’m not the best person to judge, as my knowledge – if it can even be called that – is at best passing. Still, for a religion which teaches non-attachment to material goods and compassion as two of its main ideas, I see an awful lot of monks using the latest iPhones, and taking selfies with those dreaded selfie sticks, and driving Range Rovers.
So it makes me wonder if anything that is started with a good idea in mind will inevitably be corrupted as time passes and the original ideas are diluted in the power plays of lesser men and women?
The Author Willian Irvine, in some of his books makes a good point about religions in that they don’t actually provide you with a philosophy of life. If you look at the members of most religions, they tend to do the same things except for the very specifics. They hold similar jobs and want similar cars, and nothing is wrong with wanting the latest consumer gadget, a bigger house, or the latest model car.
So I used to think Buddhism was the answer to this, but I have realised that Buddhism is not because it means many different things to different people. I think the best way to get the value of Buddhism is to learn some of the core precepts, the ones that anyone with an ounce of common sense will see are useful, and then think about them and stir them around in your head for a while, and slowly start applying them to small parts of your life, and see what happens.
We shouldn’t have any expectations, but for instance, the practice of meditation I have found, the few times I have managed to make a continuous effort to do it daily for a time frame spanning into months, to be incredibly beneficial.
Now, there is nothing “spiritual” or “Buddhist” about this; it is simply a physiological reaction to being calm and somehow emptying your thoughts. I have no idea what actual changes happen in your body during or after meditation, but this knowledge is not required to gain the benefits.
I don’t have any idea how a team of surgeons removed my Appendix when I was 9, but I am damn glad that they did, and I felt much better afterwards!
Let me now give you the story of this time when I experienced quite an absurd situation.
I was inside at my brother’s restaurant having lunch with several other Italian men, around 8 or 9, and one of the fake monks that go around soliciting donations from tourists came up to the tables who were sitting outside and started begging for money. You can tell these monks are not real because they tend to wear proper shoes, and after a while, you just tend to recognise the faces anyway. They also tend to give shitty little bracelets out too.
Someone from our table went outside to warn the customers not to give the man any money, and the fake monk raised his fist in a threatening motion as if to punch our friend. He quickly changed his mind when confronted with more than half a dozen men who instantly came outside, but at least it did show his true colours to the other guests.
What made me think, however, was why the fake monk was any worse than the real monks.
Sure, he was lying about being a member of the Buddhist religion, but, in the end, he is doing the same actions that the actual Buddhist monks do — soliciting for donations so they can survive.
Both types of monks adhere to fakeness; the difference is in the degrees of fakeness.
The real monks are upfront about being part of a religious group that could be considered fake, or at the very least insincere, while the fake monk is faking about being part of a religious group that could be considered fake.
If a double negative cancels itself, perhaps it is best to give the money to the fake monk?
Again, from a purely practical point of view, I wonder if we should give any religion a certain level of respect purely because it exists, or should it be treated for what it is at face value? I simply can’t see how handing out half a dollar in the mornings and having three guys in orange robes mumbling for a few minutes outside your place of work can do anything.
The fact that the Buddha left his life in a royal court and went to live as an ascetic gives me the impression that he would not have been impressed by such spiritualism. I believe he would have been far more interested in how we can help ourselves via philosophical means, such as using reason to make the world a better place, not via chants and incantations.