Improving Buddhism

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Nichiren Shoshu and Suffering

While Siddhartha Gotama, called Buddha, did not experience much involuntary suffering, in fact almost none at all, and so was not able to perceive how his methods of meditation would affect real people with real suffering, Zennichimaro, called Nichiren Shoshu, one of the founders of Japanese Buddhism, had the opposite life. He was born into a very poor family and never was the beneficiary of the rich during his life. He was a religious leader for the common people and lower middle class, who supported him at a moderate level. He had little appreciation for comfort, but instead devoted his time to providing, largely undesired, advice to the government. For his efforts, he was twice exiled, almost starving in one of these periods, and was almost executed by officers of the government.


The approach to suffering of these two men was totally different, despite the fact that Zennichimaro was a fervent follower of the teachings of Siddhartha. Zennichimaro understood real suffering, having experienced it, and chose to simply pay it little attention and instead devote his attention to a goal, that of converting the government of Japan and its people to a unique flavor of Buddhism, which he had invented. The religious sects in Japan which follow his teachings have a completely different orientation to suffering as compared to that of Siddhartha. These sects have a different view of suffering and therefore approach it differently.


Suffering has both physical aspects and mental aspects, and Buddhism treats them differently, just as does medicine. A person with a painful rash or a broken bone may be given pain-killers to quiet down the mental portion of the suffering caused by his medical condition. The rash may be treated and the bone set and braced, which deal with the physical part of the suffering. Sometimes the physical part of suffering is referred to as the real part, but the mental part is just as grounded in the real world, as it is governed by largely invisible but altogether physical effects within the brain, both chemical effects in the brain fluids and blood stream, and neural effects, involving the continuous activation of some pain sensors or analogous sectors.


Mental suffering does not only, and perhaps not principally, arise from medical situations. Instead, there are circumstances of life which lead to it. One may lose one's job, or have a loved one die, or hear about the loss of a battle between one's own country's army and those of an enemy. One may become enslaved. One may become exiled. One may be separated from all the other members of his family. One may be slandered. One may be imprisoned for a crime that was committed or not committed or for some behavior that the government deslikes and makes up a new crime to describe. The list can be extended, of course, but these are all causes of mental suffering, not necessarily connected to a medical condition.


These two leaders of Buddhism demonstrate two completely different approaches to dealing with mental suffering. One is the analog of pain-killer treatments and the other to bone-setting.


Siddhartha would have the suffering person learn meditation, so that the chemical and neural effects of suffering gradually abate and disappear into the background. This is done by meditative practices which focus on nullifying thought, leaving the mind in a quiescent state, where the knowledge of the situation leading to the suffering stays in some inactive memory, while the person stabilizes his mind and does not concentrate on anything, even on the lack of concentration. It is simply a means of turning off the switch on thinking, remembering, responding, reacting and even being aware of the world around him. It definitely alleviates the mental aspects of mental suffering caused by external events. There is also the remedy of the afterlife, which in Buddhism might be reincarnation, unless one manages to exit this loop of rebirth and get to a Persian state of permanent bliss. The idea of reincarnation was a legacy concept in Siddhartha's philosophy, as it was the most common belief set, almost universal, at the time and place he lived, 2500 years ago on the central section of the India-Nepal border.


Siddhartha adopted that concept, as it would have been very difficult to promote a religion that completely clashed with existing universal beliefs, and added to it rather than replaced it. His concept was nirvana, the state of bliss, and he was the conductor for the train taking people there. This innovation was brilliant, and whether it was deduced under a bodhi tree or elsewhere, it caught on and led to the development of one of the major religions of the world.


One can see how a person whose life was almost untouched by involuntary suffering would conceive of an answer to ordinary people's suffering as being something that a person of his background would understand: ignoring the problems and concentrating on mental stabilty and calmness. Suffering was not real for Siddhartha, as he had not experienced it. Mental calmness was real.


Zennichimaro knew exactly what suffering was, as his whole life was filled with it. The idea was not to ignore it, but to challenge it and do what one could to overcome it. That is the example that he gave and the direction he set in his voluminous writings. His followers should work to not fall into inaction because of the mental effects of situational suffering, but should organize their efforts to overcome it to the best of their ability. The idea of trying to ignore this suffering, in cases where something might be done or even where only some external event might alleviate them, was not even considered.


Zennichimaro taught a type of mediation, but it was not a means of achieving calmness and quiescence in the mind, but of focussing one's attention on the situation at hand and determining how to deal with it. During an episode of severe suffering, the human mind is often overwhelmed, and loses its organizational abilities and its ability to think through problems and seek solutions or at least ways to ameliorate the suffering. This is the problem that Zennichimaro attacked with his meditation. Siddhartha well understood that the human mind could be overwhelmed and flooded with contradictory impulses and ideas, but his recipe for solving the problem was to quiet the mind, so that peace could come in and the mental suffering could stop. Zennichimaro took the approach of trying to quiet the mind, but not totally, only enough to allow the creative and analytical processing of the mind to focus on the problem at hand. Either a way to resolve it could be found, or a way to mitigate the effects so that the suffering could be more eaily tolerated could be found.


Not knowing what to do is a type of mental suffering in its own right, and Siddhartha prescribed an approach of calming the mind and doing nothing deliberately while Zennichimaro prescribed an approach of calming the mind and then focussing on the problems at hand. They are totally different strategies, and it is clear that the background of these two men played a role in their recommendations.


One might label Siddhartha's approach as the pacifism type of behavior, and Zennichimaro's as the active type. The various sects of Buddhism have mostly chosen one or the other, but there are ways in which the two can be melded, and many of the Buddhist sects have chosen a peculiar form of blend.


The blend favored by many sects is the adoption of gods or god-like entities, who supposedly have the power to fix human suffering. Zennichimaro's teaching of activism is translated into fervent praying, according to some format the sect has developed, and waiting for the gods to do something, which means waiting for some external event to happen or for the memory of some loss to abate. Siddhartha's calmness is the state to be adopted while waiting for the event or process which will bring relief. This is a tactic which has been adopted by many religions outside of Buddhism, so it must have a very strong appeal. The idea of praying to powerful gods originated in very distant pre-historic times, when the gods might have been the sun and moon, or spirits living in trees, or creatures of a different species who communicate or even visit with humans. The trappings of the Buddhism sects which have returned to god-worship are of course very different from the trappings of other religions, which also differ from each other, but the underlying framework is the same.


The psychological roots of this huge collection of religions might be deduced or at least guessed at. People are born and parents love them and care for them and provide for them and take care of problems for them. This emplants some expectations in the infant brain. Some embodiment of long-past parents exist who will return to take care of the now-grown infant, and there we have the seed of a religion.


To create an improved form of Buddhism, we need to take into account all this paraphernalia. What can conceivably replace something as universal as the infantile memory of parental care? Perhaps an improved Buddhism can only deal with a prescription for dealing with real-world situations, hopefully in an active way as Zennichimaro showed, but using whatever calming methods of Siddhartha that can be transplanted successfully. The god-worship part might have to be left to a later time when education becomes more universal and more scientific.

Buddha and Suffering

In the stories about the life of the Siddhartha Gotama, before he became the Buddha, he lived as a prince. There were many princes in India at that time, but Siddhartha's life had a unique twist to it. His father, the king, decided to make his son's life free from suffering, in total. He did not only seek to ensure his son did not suffer, but had an even broader goal: ensuring his son never came in contact with suffering.


This may seem to be a laudable goal, but the side-effects of the choice were profound. Someone who grows up normally, and sees many people go through episodes of suffering, from injury or disease, from loss of a loved one, from a reduction in their circumstances of life, or simply a personal change, builds up familiarity with suffering. The person learns that people have lives which include suffering, that it is largely unavoidable, and it is transient. Siddhartha learned none of this, except perhaps through teaching. The story of his life goes on to say when he was older, after marrying and having a child, he decided to take a tour of his own, by horseback, beyond the secured area where he had lived his whole life. He encountered suffering. It was a shock. He decided to devote his life to this problem. What he saw as a grave problem was a matter of common life to most people, but certainly no one wished to endure any more suffering than absolutely necessary. Siddhartha came up with a proposed mechanism for avoiding it, but the cost was perhaps more than the saving.


In Siddhartha's area at that time, the Vedic beliefs in re-incarnation were very popular and very strong. They believed there was some essence of each person, containing some parts of the personality but nothing physical, that lasted beyond death. It would come back to the world of the living into some newly born body.


In Siddhartha's eyes, this exacerbated the problem of suffering. Instead of enduring suffering for one lifetime, an essence would have to endure suffering for all the lifetimes the essence would be involved in. This was too much for Siddhartha to contemplate, and so he adopted a new philosophy, non-Vedic in tradition. It was very similar to the Zoroastrinian philosophy from the neighboring country of Persia, which was that essences would continue on indefinitely existing, but could go to a kind of eternal bliss. Siddhartha's modification of the Zoroastrinian belief system was that the world of bliss, which he called nirvana, was more or less an unconscious feeling, and one could get to that state by doing a great deal of meditation, of the right kind, before dying. Maybe you could experience a bit of it while still alive.


Siddhartha was faced with the same question which occurs in all religions which promise a great afterlife: if the afterlife is so superior, why not arrange to die sooner and get there sooner. He noticed that there is only one solution to this embarrassment, and that is to proclaim it was better to stay in the normal, original life if you devoted your time to good causes, such as helping other people find nirvana. Thus the term boddhisatva was invented, meaning someone who could go on to the better life, but chose not to out of generosity and affection for the rest of mankind, who would be assisted in finding their own ways to the better life. Absolutely no one at all seems to take the promise of a better life after death seriously enough to want to get there any faster than necessary and they will use all kinds of attention and activity to avoid going there. Dangers will be avoided, no voluntary starvation to death, no very risky behaviors, attempts to cure any life-threatening ailments, and so on. It is as if the afterlife is something to talk about, and maybe to meditate for and reason about and preach about, but not to leap into.


Siddhartha's life as a young man had a few periods of what might be called self-inflicted suffering, when he fasted very severely. At that time, one of the options for finding out about the truth of existence was thought to be fasting, and so it was undertaken by many young seekers. There certainly is bodily pain and discomfort caused by such fasting, but it was undertaken out of choice and could be halted at any time, so the suffering was of a different type as compared to someone who was starving with no way to obtain food for themselves. It might be compared to marathon running in the modern world, which is a difficult and strenuous activity, and can be thought of as voluntary suffering, but for a goal. Goal-oriented physical suffering can be extreme, but the mental side has no suffering, but instead some compensatory joy of accomplishment.


In contrast, the large majority of Siddhartha's life was quite pleasant, divided into two periods interspersed with the voluntary suffering interval in his thirties. As a prince, he had everything that period could offer, and after he became a well-known and well-respected guru, wealthy people competed to offer him, and often his main disciples, a comfortable place to stay and be cared for by servants. Thus, Siddhartha's contact with suffering was very limited, involving little personal experience and much of the opposite experience, lavish quarters and meals. His vicarious experience with it was profound, however, and it shaped his choice of how to live his life.


What is there to be learned about suffering? Did Siddhartha have enough to be able to competently appreciate it? If one has little contact with suffering, it is easier to invent a cure than if one was continuously afflicted by it. With little contact with suffering, there is no way to determine if the amelioration was actually working. Could he have invented a set of rituals which had no utility whatsoever, or had only a small effect compared to some other ritual behaviors?


How could a person create a religion which would become one of the largest on the planet if there was no substance in his recommended behavioral patterns? Could the placebo effect be working in billions of people at one time? This is hard to conceive, but is there any way to determine if it is actually possible?


Listening to people talk about Siddhartha, one comes away with a set of beliefs which might explain this. One of those beliefs is that intelligence is more or less unbounded. In other words, one person might be hundreds of times smarter than another. There is no metric or measure which indicates this or tests this, but that does not interfere with the common belief. The companion belief is that Siddhartha was hugely more intelligent that other people, and therefore was able to figure out things that others could not. The extreme part of this belief is that Siddhartha was so smart, no one could completely understand him, or his beliefs, and so the only option everyone has is to try and deduce from his teachings some pieces of the whole picture of the universe that only he was able to comprehend. This is a form of celebrity worship, but a very different kind. It is one based not on notoriety, but on presumed intelligence. People could believe in what Siddhartha taught, and learn as much as their inferior brains could hold, because he was the only individual in all time who was able to grasp this big picture in its entirety. We all need to be supremely grateful that he chose to spend the latter half of his life teaching this to everyone who was interested, and that a set of monks, including some very smart ones who grasped more than most people, preserved the traditional teachings and propagated them.


Siddhartha was not the only celebrity in his period of time and place of location; there were, for example, many royals in different small kingdoms in that area, and were also many rich merchants and land-owners. Siddhartha's teaching had a supplementary benefit for these people, who were surrounded by luxury of the day. Siddhartha taught that these benefits were of little concern compared to nirvana, and that achieving it vastly outweighed all the luxuries and trappings of power and wealth that this group of celebrities possessed. The implication of this teaching is that a believer in Siddhartha's philosophy should not strive to rebel against this arrangement in society, as it is not important, nirvana is. This is very convenient for those with great power and wealth. Everyone else would not find it objectionable that this great inequality existed; nor would they seek to combine efforts and topple the arrangements.


Vedic philosophy had the same result. Instead of rebelling against inequity, one should try to live according to the Vedic script in whatever station one was born into, and hope to be born into a better one on the next go-round. This calming effect seems to be very popular among religions which grow to be widespread. The Vedic philosophy did not have an intelligence-celebrity, but they had other features which were popular, such as gods who could be prayed to for various benefits and favors. Again, rebelling is not the proper path, but praying for some improvement in their life is, and hoping to get a better draw in the essence lottery next time was even more of the same. Thus, all royalty and wealth celebrities could serve as examples of people who would choose to follow one of these religions.


To summarize, Siddhartha may have had little experience with suffering and little basis for coming up with a solution to it, but he did have a great deal of intelligence and could see what set of beliefs would be popular among all classes of people in his era and location. His followers promoted him to the brightest person ever to have lived, with unmatched insight that no one else could completely master, so that there was good justification for adherence to his philosphy. Like many other religions, he used an afterlife concept which calmed people and gave them some relief from mental anguish, and now, we are faced with deciding how to improve this, without losing its appeal. A religion without an afterlife is a much more difficult thing to invent, however.

Governments and Religions

The relationship between a government and a religion needs to be clarified. There are many questions that can be raised. One is for governments which have coherent leadership, either a monarch or a group of oligarchs or some leader of a group which has the support of the population and rules with their consent, or a military dictatorship with existent military power over the population, or some other arrangement. The government has the ability to determine a state religion, if it chooses, and to set rules by which religions can exist and operate without having to be covert. There have been instances in history in which many different arrangements have been chosen, and it is an interessting question to try and find out why a certain arrangement might be preferred over another.


One precursor consideration involves the attractiveness, on a personal basis, of the religion to the leader or leaders of the country. Do they fall into the believer status, where they become convinced in the validity of the supernatural or other claims of the religion? If they are firm believers, then they make their decision with this factor in mind. They would probably have contact with the hierarchy of the religion, and may be closely involved with its activities. If the religion has teachings about how one should deal with non-followers, then this set of procedures might be the one adapted by the government leaders as their contribution to the religion. If the religion is run by those who seek power over others, they would obtain the most power by converting the leader or leaders of the government to their religion, and then exerting power over them to obtain power over the population.


A large religion is no different than a bureaucratic government or a large corporation or company. Those who rise to top are those who are strongly and emotionally motivated to do whatever is necessary for them to obtain power over people. Some may play the hierarchy climbing game for money, but there are other ways to obtain money at less effort. Power over other people is a very strong motivator for some, and in a religion it would be even less likely to have a money motivation replacing a power motivation.


If the government leadership can be convinced in the validity of the claims of a religion, then the religious leadership will have achieved a great deal, and it may open the way to expanding their power over the population. This would be the preferred method, and any shenanigans that can be used to convince the government leadership would be expected.


Once that is done, it would be a likely next step to have the government declare their chosen belief system to be the state religion, and this gives the religion access to funding from the government, and not simply rely on the charity of wealthy benefactors. Funding can be used for many purposes, and in the eyes of the power-hungry who might be occupying the upper rungs of the religious hierarchy, it can be used to increase their power over the population. One obvious step is the construction of impressive monuments that will increase the likelihood that less sophisticated members of the population will join the religion out of awe.


The next step for a religion to take, once they have convinced the government top leadership of their validity as a supernatural conduit, is to expand their control down through the ranks of the government. Local leadership will get the message that their power is contingent on their also becoming members, and so they might expediently join. The heads of the government are also celebrity figures, and their allegiance to a particular religion is enough of a statement that those who make their choices depending on the choices of others, in particular celebrity figures national, regional and local, will also become believers in the state religion.


The final step is one which is potentially disruptive, and that is to increase the pressure on the entire population to become members of the religion, and to participate in that religion's activities and celebrations. Not being able to do business with the government is one tool. Increased taxes for non-believers is another. Even more threatening steps can be taken, such as expulsion or even incarceration.


Those religious leaders whose principal motivation is power do not need to stop at this final stage in their lust for power over individuals, but can work on spreading their power to other countries, at least in the neighborhood of the one they have taken over. There are various devices that can be used in the search for power in other countries, perhaps starting at the top in other countries, just as they did in the country of origin, but also possibly starting at the bottom, with proselytization occurring using the funding supplied by the government and benefactors. If this proselytization is markedly successful, there will be pressure from below on the government in these neighboring countries to change their chosen religion to the one which totally dominates their neighbor.


This route, with its various stages, is the most promising for a religious leadership bent on increasing their own power, but it depends on one key event: the conversion of the leadership of the origin country to becoming a full-fledged member sof their religion, convinced of the validity of the supernatural claims and all the baggage that goes along with them. If this does not happen, the alternative is for the religion to become the most useful of all possible religions, so that it will be expedient for the government leadership to feign belief and take advantage of the utility of the religion. What exactly might this utility be?


The utility of a particular religion to a government leader depends on what problems and threats the leader foresees. This depends on the situation that has led to his appointment, or seizing, of the leadership role. For example, a military leader, who has won all the wars he has fought and established a large reign in some part of the world, might be worried about upstart warlords breaking apart his domain. He might also be worried about being able to recruit enough new soldiers and fighters to maintain his control. He could be worried about being able to collect sufficient taxes from the population he rules to pay for his military expenses and his government expenses. If a religion could help with one of these three problems, or some other pertinent ones, it might be a candidate for the various steps in gaining power. The military leader might personally join it, give off signs of adherence, talk about adherence to his associates, and otherwise imitate the signs of a true believer.


The utility of the religion could be high enough to merit further steps on part of a military leader, to cement his rule and to facilitate his desired activities. The religion he chose could become the state religion, or even mandated in one way or another. This happens because the religion might tell adherents not to object to being drafted into the military, as there were supernatural rewards awaiting those who did or those who succumbed in battles. The religion might tell the leaders subjects that paying taxes was the right thing to do, as some supernatural power indicated that. The religion might promote passivity toward rebellion, so no one would bother to take up weapons against the leader.


If we want to improve Buddhism so that it cannot either become a vehicle for power-seeking by some religious leaders or a tool for enlarging control or ensuring control of the population by a government, some specific changes have to be made. It is useless and futile to put into the teachings admonitions against power seeking by religious leaders, as the leaders will ignore them except to note that they need to provide rationales for what they do, so it appears they are not power-seekers. Instead, there should be no hierarchy, but simply a large number of tasks which are rotated among the religious leadership, so it is not possible for one to climb the ranks until he is in charge of everything and everyone. Up is not an allowable direction, only sideways is.


To prevent an improved religion from being used as a political tool by government leaders of all types, there needs to be no teachings which could be exploited to ensure these government leaders are not challenged when they seek to expand their power. This means, first off, no supernatural promises. Eliminating all the supernatural parts of the religion turns off most of the tricks that a government leader might use, such as telling his subjects that they should concentrate on the next life and ignore what he is doing to them and their lives at the present. Another aspect of an improved religion is that it must eliminate any automatic trust that members have in someone else's promises or proposed statements of fact. The lack of trust implies that anything said and not demonstrated as having strong evidence behind it is disregarded as deceptive. If government leader is constrained to a verified set of true statements, then most of the current practices of government would be impossible, and only ruling with the subject population's interests as a dominant driver could happen, although arguments about preparing for future generations certainly could be made, if they could be established in some way. With these three general changes, it will be much harder for the power-hungry to use the new religion to accomplish their motivation to control everyone else.

Meditation and its Uses

It is an oversimplification to ask what purpose or use meditation has. Meditation is a generic tool, like physical exercise or some object like a car. What is the purpose of exercise? It could have many, depending on the person and their circumstances. It could be part of a means of losing weight, it could be for sports competition, it could be for rehabilitation after an accident or surgery, it could be for enhancing one's attractiveness, it could be preparation for having a baby, it could be to strengthen the cardiovascular system, and undoubtedly more. An even longer list might be made for the uses of a car. Meditation is no different.


Meditation is less well understood than physical exercise or nutrition or surgery or many other things that have to do with the body. Its primary effects are largely invisible, although the person who practices it may have some qualities that differ from the typical non-user of meditation. Consider vegetarianism. There may be some benefits to the vegetarian which are not visible. Perhaps their arteries are less built up with cholesterol. Perhaps their digestive system gets upset less often. Perhaps they have less weight that they would if they were omnivores. Perhaps they think more clearly or sleep better. None of these is immediately visible, and it would be hard to quantify these benefits, and hard to measure them. Meditation's benefits and uses might be even more obscure.


With vegetarianism, there is also a possible confusion with experienced benefits that might not exist. If a person reads about vegetarianism and becomes convinced they will feel better, after trying it, they may report they feel better. What they are reporting could easily be a placebo effect, as when a person takes a pill they think is a medicine, and then report their ailment is getting better because of it. The mind has much unexplored power to affect the body, and thinking that a pain is lessening because of a pain-relieving drug may result in the pain sensation being reduced, or the person thinking it is reduced, even if the drug is nothing more than an inert tablet. To measure pain with an instrument, there would have to be much scientific research done to define pain in a physical sense, and then devise some apparatus that could measure it. Both of these are difficult tasks. Choosing benefits that meditation has is a problem that is clouded with the same cloak. It is hard to define what those benefits are in any physically measurable way, and, depending on what they are, it might be even harder to see if meditation produces them.


This leaves a very unsatisfactory situation of either relying on advertisement of benefits by practitioners, or seeking anecdotal evidence from people trying it for a sufficiently long time. Let's take a different approach. Let's ask about how it is used and try to deduce some answer from that.


There are different categories of meditation. Some types involve simply sitting quietly, trying to think of nothing at all. When thoughts inevitably intrude, they are allowed to exist for a short time, and then attention is taken away from them, so nothingness returns to the mind. What does this do for someone? It allows him to build the power within his mind to dismiss distracting thoughts or all thoughts completely. Why is this a good thing?


If one has had experiences which cause unhappiness whenever they are remembered, having the ability to dismiss them almost instantly might allow such a person to live a happy life, or at least one free from grief. Perhaps this is something that would appeal to a person so afflicted, if they had developed the bad habit of concentrating on and remembering clearly the cause of their grief, some loss, some disappointment, some unachievable goal, some catastrophe.


Unfortunately, the brain does not feel sadness and grief just because of what one thinks about. There can easily be an unremembered loss which lies deep in the brain, and causes feelings of despondency just as if the person were frequently reliving the bad experiences. Thinking of nothingness keeps active recollection out of some particular parts of the brain, those that visualize or those that communicate or others, but the rest are not so easily controlled. Perhaps with enough experience with meditating on nothingness, or, as the practitioners put it, not thinking of anything at all, even nothingness, the brain would learn to suppress non-verbal, non-visual recollections of the past unpleasant event. Brain training is not understood well enough to have much predictive power and to say which, if any, recollections remain resistant to meditation.


While the anaeesthetic purposes of controlling one's thoughts might be a very crucial task for some people, there are more things than can be done with this power. Consider the example of an artist. If his mind is constantly interrupting itself with random musing, recollections, diversions, expectations, hopes, and so on, he cannot concentrate his full thinking power on the object of art he is creating. To sharpen this statement, we can say that if meditation can improve the ability to concentrate on the topic at hand, and pull all of the brain's thinking resouces into that task, then the art will necessarily be better and may come to fruition faster. The same goes for any task which requires concentration or focus. It could be solving some scientific mystery or competing a difficult invention. It could be on mastering the ability to reason logically and speak persuasively. It could be on appreciating the overview of a programming task and systematically accomplishing it. It could be managing some enterprise or creating a chef's new special disk. It could be diagnosing a medical affliction or a complex plumbing problem, or determing how to solve agricultural problems.


If meditation can help in improving one's concentration skills, it should be universally appreciated, but it is not. Is it because, for some reason, there is no way to tell if one's concentration skills improve, in other words, no metric, that it is not more commonly practiced? Meditation is not like a pill that one takes and then quickly notices the difference. Meditation is a skill that has to be learned and then practiced, and so there is no A versus B test possible. People are so different, one cannot compare person X who meditates with person Y who does not, as to their concetration skills. There are a million undisclosed and unmeasured variables which separate two people. We can only summarize and say that one potential benefit is, besides a relief from grief, an ability to concentrate better.


Another use of meditation in some Buddhist sects is to help oneself through a crisis. This is not exactly the same as seeking to control one's mind so it does not become buried in grief or self-doubt or despondency; nor is it to concentrate on something positive as an antidote. It is to cease thinking of the problem as unsolvable, and to concentrate, to the best of one's ability, on finding a way that it might be solved, either by one's own efforts, by those of others, or by some twist of fate that relieves a bad situation. This use partakes of the two others, but by putting the two together, makes something more than just the sum. It is about concentrating the mind on the most significant part of human intelligence: problem-solving.


It is not about problem solving in the general sense, as one might do in some academic exercise or in a test of one's skills. It is not about problems which are separated from human emotions, but only about ones which are deeply involved with these problems. It uses the first aspect of meditation, strengthening the mind to face and cope with the existence of the problem, together with the second aspect of meditation, improving one's ability to concentrate on some narrow aspect of the huge chaos that life presents to us, specifically on the aspects related to the problem being considered and treated. Problem-solving involves creative thinking about what possibilities exist that might relieve the problem. It also involves critical thinking, which evaluates these possibilities in the context of everything about them that might affect their ability to resolve the problem. Critical thinking is not logic, but more mental simulation of a situation, a dynamic situation, and doing the mental simulation various times with the possible solution possibilities, to see which one is more likely to work and which outcome of the problem-solving might result. Real problems do not usually just evaporate and disappear, they lead to outcomes which might be more or less desirable. Meditation for the purpose of problem-solving tries to determine these outcomes as well as possible, and then determine the steps needed to put the best of them in place.


Buddha himself may not have taught about problem-solving as a benefit of meditation, but certainly in the thousands of years that his teaching has been used, others have elaborated on it and added that tactic to the uses of it. Meditation is not problem-solving itself, but in the preparation of the mind, both by way of relief of grief and by way of improving focus, in order that problem-solving might occur.

The Celebrity Process

Who starts up a religion? It can only be done by someone who achieves fame and notoriety via some means other than simply preaching his message. In modern parlance, the founder has to become a celebrity. Exactly how does this happen? Perhaps if we start to understand by examining how celebrities came to be part of the human scene, we can understand how they form now. It might also be useful to understand if they serve a beneficial purpose, or do more damage than good.


When humanity reached the state of having clans, or large groups which stayed together and functioned as a unit, or perhaps when the first small villages were settled and nomadic hunters realized they could live with agriculture and animal husbandry without having to move frequently, the concept of celebrity would have been easily invented. The first idea that might evolve was that of knowledge or expertise. Even with something as early in development as hunting skills, the most successful spear-thrower would have been noticed, and then when teaching became more than just an activity for parents and children, this expert might have showed others how to perform his skill with more accuracy or effectiveness.


The idea of an expert could easily spread to other activities in a clan, such as pottery, cooking, hut-building, animal disease prevention and cure, and many more. At this point, the concept of a local expert could arise, where throughout the whole clan, there was one person most skillful at, for example, curing sick cattle, and they would be the local expert.


If this person happened to be particularly intelligent, they might have more than one skill, and would therefore rise to the level of a savant, a person who might be asked about many different things. Soon we have a celebrity, a multi-functional expert who might be asked about almost anything in the hope that their expertise would have spread to that area as well.


Human brains being limited as they are, the concept of celebrity might have soon exceeded the actual extent of a savant's expertise, but since there was no concept of science or any way to undermine the concept of celebrity, their advice was soon memorized and attributed. It mattered not a lot if it was always correct, as the clan members now had a very efficient way of finding solutions to their problems: remember what the celebrity or savant said about this.


Another concept which needed to evolve about this time was that of conquest. One clan might battle another clan over hunting areas or trading or some other item, but out of this might come the idea of one clan taking over control of a thoroughly defeated clan, absorbing its members or simply demanding control and tribute, both in goods and services such as warriors. Now the victorious clan was on the threshold of building an empire, and with more warriors and perhaps better tactics, other clans could be added to the control of the clan-leader of the original conquering clan. Many new concepts would spring from this, but the relevant one is that the position of savant or celebrity now becomes more grandiose. Those who achieve it are the givers of advice over a much larger area, and there might even be established a hierarchy of celebrity, starting at the bottom with those in conquered clans, who took direction from the celebrity of their area of expertise in the ruling clan.


With a mini-empire, instead of a village, a city would be formed, as the leaders of the conquered clans would need some organization in the village of the ruling clan to administer them. Cities grow, and not only from conquest, but from things which are expedited by larger cities, and serve as a positive feedback for them, specifically trade and manufacturing. These both cause the ruling city to grow larger. As it grows larger, so does the role of the top-level celebrities.


Empires on Earth started about three thousand years ago, and perhaps much earlier with smaller ones, and continued almost to the present day, along with the auxiliary features that accompany them, such as well-known and well-respected celebrities. By the time of large cities and empires, celebrities would be known all through the city or empire, and would hardly be challenged in their expertise, no matter what topic they chose to comment on. When mass communication started, with books, letters, and most recently, broadcasting and then the internet, notoriety became even greater and more concentrated.


What is the essence of this process? The basis upon which celebrity is built is that of a large fraction of the population who are unable to figure out a large number of things by themselves, either from lack of time, or lack of resources such as data, or from lack of interest, or some other reason. Those who become celebrities move to fill this need. There was little other choice for almost all of mankind's history.


But that has changed with the development of the internet and the corresponding database of information. The internet, if it was easy to search and easy to understand, and especially was restricted to true and proven information, would provide the answers that most people seek from celebrities. Unfortunately, it has not yet lived up to its potential, and the internet today is full of errors, half-baked opinions, downright lies, incomplete presentations, misleading writing, and the whole host of things that could go wrong with a database. It is certainly not easy to simply log into one's computer, hit a search button to find out something, and have the answer in clear and understandable form pop back out is a second or two. The internet has even become, instead of a storehouse of information organized so that anyone can find out anything they need to know, a haven for celebrities competing for the attention of all the computer and smartphone owners in the world; they compete for attention and they compete with each other.


There is a premium on accurate information for questions which can be verified easily, but many questions, those of taste, reliability, expertise in professional or trade areas, and all other opinions, have no way of being checked, and so persuasiveness is the virtue which draws in adherents, not correctness. The methods of persuading others are well-known, by the persuaders but not by the large numbers of those who seek information, and so the process of celebrity figures providing information on a wide range of topics is as strong now as it ever was. It is easier to get the information, but just as hard to establish a basis for it.


Part of the problem is that most individuals are not particularly good at phrasing their questions in ways which would lead to verification. Language in general is a means of communication, and communication does not have to consist of accurate and correct information, just information. So, the process of improving our internet carried database is partly due to inherent problems in the sloppiness of language.


If everyone trying to become a celebrity was driven by the motive of wanting to help humanity, either as individuals, in groups, or as a whole, there might be more of a surge toward accurate and correct information, and more of a effort on everyone's part to use language as precisely as possible. But that is likely not the case. Instead, the position of celebrity is used to provide for benefits to the celebrity and to those who help him gain that position. The concept of fair trade in ideas has long disappeared, and might even be impossible in an age of mass communication.


What does this mean for improving Buddhism? It means that a person who has a way to improve the existing religion, or even to massively reform or reformulate it, must first recognize that his voice wil be ignored unless he achieves the position of celebrity. That task has to be done before or perhaps simultaneously with the reformulation of the religion or some part of it. The nature of the celebrity is also crucial. The person achieving celebrity has to achieve it with the potential listeners to his reformed religion doctrine. That would be people who are amenable to having a set of beliefs given to them for all the uses that a religion provides. The celebrity must be a moral leader, rather than a famous musician or a government leader.


The set of skills necessary for reformulating a religion, based on new information, technology developments, changes in the economic structure of the believers, or anything else does not correspond to the set of skills necessary for becoming a celebrity of the moral leader type. A celebrity is very oriented toward understanding people and how to successfully interact with them. A religion reformer is more of a studious thinker, who thinks in terms of organizations, interactions, contradictions between doctrine and itself or some part of the external world, leadership and hierarchy, and many other deep concepts. Finding someone who can fulfill both roles may be one reason why religions do not change much over decades or even centuries. It might not be a question of whether some improvement should be made, but rather is there anyone who has the dual set of skills to make the change happen.

Pavlov's Dog Loved the Bell

Ivan Pavlov won the Nobel Prize in 1904 for work on the digestion of dogs, and is singularly remembered for a series of experiments done in which he gave the dogs food at the same time as a buzzer or bell was sounded or a light was shown. He had developed ways to determine when the dogs salivated, and he found that, after a series of presentations of the signal and the food simultaneously, the dogs would salivate when only the signal was presented. This was the beginning of the idea of conditioned responses. 


Around the same time, two other winners of a Nobel Prize, Camillo Golgi and Santiago Ramón y Cajal, had developed procedures for staining nerves, which resulted in the discovery of the neuron, the fundamental cell of the nervous system. In terms of neurons, Pavlov's experiments were showing that a dog becomes conditioned to the signal when it is presented at the same time as an instinctual benefit, food, meaning that the neurons which processed the signal and those causing salivation had become strongly linked. We now understand that recently used nerve pathways become strengthened in response to the release of one of several neurochemicals. The pathway from the food recognition neural set to the nerves releasing these neurochemicals was fired when the food was presented, and all recent nerves became strengthened. The brain cannot disciminate, and It just reinforces blindly. As Pavlov repeated the presentation identically, he was building a strong nerve trunk from the neuron which was fired when the dog's auditory system recognized the sound, or the equivalent for the light, to the salivary gland stimulus nerve pathway. The linkage between the food recognition area and the neurochemical stimulus area were already well secured, even from birth, but the linkage between the signal recognition area and that neurochemical stimulus area were not, and became well linked from the repeition of the experiment. Simply and generally said, things associated with pleasurable events become pleasurable in their own right. By pleasurable, for dogs, is the neurochemical release. The neurochemical does two things, it makes recent connections stronger, and it so doing, it produces a 'like' for the dog. Pavov's dogs developed strong neural linkages between the cap neuron for the signal and the pleasure center, the neurochemical stimulus area. It could be said that the dogs loved to hear the bell or buzzer or see the light. Here we use the verb love in an animal sense, meaning exactly what was listed: a neurochemical response analogous to the one which occurs with the satisfaction of instinctual desires. Had Pavlov wanted to go further, he could have presented the signal along with a different secondary signal, and eventually the dogs would learn to respond to the secondary signal, because of its association with the already strengthened neural trunk related to the first signal.


This happens in mammals, of which humans are the most interesting species, at least to humans. In the 1920's, psychologist John Watkins did what came to be called the “Little Albert” experiment, in which a negative instinctual response, to loud noises, in an infant was linked to the presence of a rat. Prior to the conditioning, the infant petted the rat, but after the conditioning, would cry and withdraw when it appeared. While one example does not make conclusive science, there is no controversy now about the existence of conditioning in humans. We are conditioned, and it happens even at a very early age.


When this was new and exciting new science, back in the 1930's, George Orwell wrote a dystopian book, Brave New World, in which childhood conditioning was used for ulterior motives by the rulers of the empire that existed then. That may have left some negative opinions about it, but largely it has been used for very positive goals. Psychologist Arthur Staats, founder of psychological behaviorism, observed his own children and used conditioning techniques by reading to them and teaching them math at an early age. He found that a child's love for these subjects would be long lasting and lead to an improvement in their academic performance, a substantial one. 


This might even be broadened. If Improved Buddhism is to make better members by teaching, there is no reason not to start it at a very early age. There must be guidelines for parents in Improved Buddhism to understand how to help their child learn good habits, good preferences, wise thinking and healthy choices from an early age until maturity. Unfortunately, the subject of child-rearing has not yet crystallized into clear procedures for all to follow, and it must be part of the process of improving the religion to distill these procedures and then develop ways to teach them to parents. Some of the techniques are obvious and hardly need to be taught to parents, such as reading to children and teaching them math concepts at an early age, such as Albert Staats did. 


The moral code of the religion is where to start in inventorying techniques for teaching the young. The moral code is not yet completely determined, but it should not be a copy of any thousand years old code, but something which reflects the reality of today's existence. 


One element of the moral code is the boundary drawn between members and non-members. How this boundary is defined needs to be determined, but behavior between members should not necessarily be identical with that between a member and a non-member. In the modern world, where false information is used continuously and everywhere to promote personal interests, having a circle of individuals who can be trusted is important. Deception between members must be prohibited. Behavior of a member toward a non-member can be taken to be whatever relationships that non-members have, and in our society with falsehoods going everywhere, there is no need to insist that members take the self-destructive view of granting trust to non-members. The world is what it is, and it is not going to change to a universally benevolent place in any short time. Members must be prepared for the real world, and not taught impractical procedures.


The purpose of Improved Buddhism is not to make fodder of its members for the deceptive and exploitative practices of the world and thereby enrich the perpetrators of these practices. It is the opposite. It needs to prepare members so they have the right amount of skepticism and suspicion where it is needed. They need to understand common methods of being fraudulent, falsely gaining trust, misleading by any of a variety of means, and quantitative methods of checking the claims made by outsiders. 


What fallout does this have toward a choice of the conditioning given to young members? Conditioning is done by associating some object, anything with some sensory effect, or some activity of the subject, some 'operant', with some reaction. The reaction may be positive, such as done by Pavlov with food and Staats with parental affection, or negative as Watson did with loud sounds. These have very different effects on a young person's mind. The positive ones are perhaps easier to list and develop detailed techniques for, but the negative ones may be just as important, although mostly neglected in popular discussions of child-rearing. 


Negative conditioning gives incentives for activities to perform and to avoid performing. One of the difficulties facing us if affluence surrounds us is to train children to largely ignore it, and instead adopt excellent habits such as hard work, perseverance, attention to detail, planning ahead, and others which have led us to the high standard of living that is visible in many locales. The ability to make a promise to another member and then to hold oneself to keeping it might be another. The strength to overlook repeated failure and still maintain one's self-discipline might be another. These can be taught to older children, verbally and with examples, but there may be some parts of these things which are better done with negative behavioral conditioning. 


It is certainly recognized that there are dangers associated with a chaotic use of behavioral conditioning, especially negative. If done poorly, the child may develop a poor self-image, or find himself with too much fear to accomplish certain tasks. That does not mean ignoring it. Many popular writers on this subject simply project their own feelings in this area, about how to make one's child happy while learning and other tidbits only covering a limited portion of what should be done with behavioral conditioning. Improved Buddhism must make it a priority to completely understand how it works, what the pitfalls are, and what the benefits are, and then after categorizing what can be done, how to teach these techniques to parents who will apply them. We are more than a century after Pavlov made his discoveries, and it is time to gather together all this information and make it most useful. 


It is also necessary to understand how behavioral conditioning fits in with other modes of teaching, so that what can be done easier, safer, and more surely by other techiques does not become part of the behavioral conditioning instruction set. There is no reason to deny any member of Improved Buddhism the best possible training and education, and this should be one of the strongest features of the religion.

Eras of Thinking

One of the tenets of Improved Buddhism will be that everyone should be provided with the means to think for themselves. This is a very modern idea, as thinking was something typically reserved to those of importance in influence and power. Thinking does not mean being iconoclastic, and only holding opinions that are contrary to some more commonly accepted opinions. Thinking instead means having the mental ability to question any assertion and subject it to tests of logic, rationality, and scientific basis. After all, we are in an era of science, and why should the fruits of science not be shared with all members of the religion? 


The alternative to having the mental techniques of thinking clearly is to rely on others' opinions and concepts, plans and options. That has been the routine practiced by most of humanity over the last hundred thousand years or so. The advent of science, first slowly in the seventeenth century, and then then with increasing speed of advance, has made it possible to put that behind us, and to enter into a new era. It might be referred to as the Era of Thinking. 


With no capability for thinking independently, everything in someone's mind is decided by someone else. The information comes from those who are trusted to be correct and to be knowledgable and to act with the recipient's best interests as their motive, or at least neutrality in this regard. The recipient still has the task of picking who is trusted, but for most of history and in most locations, this was hardly open to question. The head of the local dominant religion was the trusted voice, except during the times of schisms. Other trusted voices were royalty and local aristocracy in the middle ages and before, and even further back, the only voice that the serfs had to listen to was the landowner. With the rise of the middle class, starting in the fourteenth century in Europe and later elsewhere, wealthy individuals from the sectors of trade and manufacturing slowly usurped these roles. 


The rise of mass media led to another shift in the set of those who were trusted. Book authors began to be candidates for being trusted. Newspapers arose and their editors and writers added their opinions to the list of possible trusted sources. When other media became widespread, first radio and then television and the internet, those who were heard or seen on these could adopt attitudes which led to trust being given to them. 


The difficulty with the use of the trusted individual is that the decision to trust or not is one that should be made after all the tools of thinking clearly have been employed to validate the person's trustworthiness, on several grounds, including lack of self-interest, ability to form correct judgements, and clarity of communication. The shift from independent thinking to trusting some other source, who might or might not be a capable thinker, is simply a shift of the topic of independent thinking. There can be no true trust without the ability to clearly think and validate the information source. This holds when absorbing opinions as a whole as well as during the process of thinking independently and utilizing external sources of information in addition to one's own observations.


There is no need to lament the ease with which powerful individuals served as the sole sources of information back in the days before science dawned, as these powerful individuals were no more able to ferret out truth than those who abdicated their own decision-making and turned it over to someone else. But as science grows stronger and more evident in our lives, there is certainly a need to lament the failure of so many to learn these techniques and apply them wherever practical and possible. Improved Buddhism must not only exhort its members to learn, learn, learn scientific and critical thinking, but must also make the road to these techniques as broad and flat as possible. Improved Buddhism does not have any reliance on trust, as all of its tenets should be derived from scientific bases to the extent possible, given science knowledge and its ever-expanding limits.


There is a huge amount of literature available now on how to make judgements, how to be wise, how to use data, how to organize anything at all, and more. The list of references grows and grows. As an expedient, simply sending members out to read whatever they find available would certainly be a large step in the right direction. Perhaps more can be done, to prioritize and develop a sequence of learning so that no prerequisites are missed.


In other words, how should these thinking techniques be best organized, for efficient learning and use? First should be the Thomson principle: “When you can measure what you are speaking about, and express it in numbers, you know something about it; when you cannot express it in numbers, your knowledge is of a meager and unsatisfactory kind; it may be the beginning of knowledge, but you have scarcely, in your thoughts, advanced to the state of science.” 


There are those who dispute the Thomson principle, and state there are many things which are important cannot be measured. Their arguments typically flow from the words of our language and the problem is not that things cannot be measured, but that they cannot even be defined. One typical counter to the principle is happiness. They might go on to say that what we really seek is happiness, not wealth or reputation or power. The difficulty is that they do not know what happiness is.  Instead it is simply a fuzzy word that different people use on different occasions for different purposes.  Is there such a thing as happiness?  Is it simply a proxy for a blend of different concepts, or a word used when the speaker wants to cause an effect in the listener?  People who say that X cannot be measured, but it is important, are contradicting themselves. If a concept is not definable, how can anyone assert with substance that it is important? Is this supposed to be some instinctual knowledge we have, and we must therefore agree with it? 


Let's pursue the example given, as it is commonly used and perhaps commonly misused. When we define something, we might explain it in terms of simpler words. Happiness isn't defined that way. It's defined in some dictionaries by synonyms. Some authors define it as a word for any of a collection of feelings. Other authors discussing happiness pick out a single one of the collection, such as contentment, which appears to be lack of stress, and elaborate on it. Sometimes a collection of examples is given in lieu of a definition. Without a clear definition, using it as a goal or a constraint on a goal will not provide any valuable information. When someone says that they just want to be happy, they are likely thinking of some state in the past that they hope to repeat and make long-lasting. Alternatively, some propose that happiness the result of some achievement, such as certain types of property, or some skills along with the employment of them. 


For someone who is learning to do clear thinking, this should be a red flag to indicate this word should never be used as part of their thinking processes, along with its synonyms. The essence of the Thomson principle is that language is full of terms which are not only not defined clearly when they are typically used, but which cannot be defined clearly. There is no reason to suspect that our language is perfect in some way, and each word that is in it actually has a usable definition. Language grew from our combined experiences, and was put together by people who were not accustomed to testing each word for definability.  So in Improved Buddhism, we should say that the first tenet is to use only words that can be clearly defined. If there is something missing, then it is necessary to figure out first how to define what we are trying to describe. If this is followed, it is inevitable that any term used will be in accordance with the Thomson principle. It follows that Improved Buddhism should also make it possible for the members to improve their quantitative skills, to take advantage of their capability to better define terms.


It also follows that once that members understand the Thomson principle and have good math skills, their ability will inevitably waterfall into a reassessment of how they absorb information. Looking for the data will become a preoccupation, defining new quantities and ways to measure them an avocation, and playing with data a new game. 


In order to usher in a new era, one of Thinking, is it really necessary to have more that this one principle and all that follows from it? Math skills, including logic, and scientific use of data, distinguishing causality from correlation, and verification instead of trust flow from this. There are a great number of subspecialties within the general concept of 'math skills', and these might be enumerated. Examples might be generated for the teaching of children as to how to detect vague and unuseful concepts, from everyday life and elsewhere, and how to replace them with useful, well-defined ones, and these will go far toward moving us all into the Era of Thinking.

Ancestor Appreciation in Improved Buddhism

Ancestor veneration is so common in virtually every society that has arisen on Earth that it would be beyond contemplation to not have it as part of any improved religion. But just exactly how should it be incorporated? 


This is connected to the beliefs of a society in an afterlife, in several variant ways. One belief is in temporary immortality where the dead person stays in some sort of conscious state without a body, and is still able to have some interaction with the world. Then the relationship that existed before death can still go on in some formalized practice. For example, the dead person's descendants could ask for assistance. This would apply in a society where one generation was actively involved in counseling or otherwise assisting lineal younger generations. Or the dead person could be shown respect in some manner, which would apply in a society where children were taught to be very respectful of their parents, grandparents and older people in general. Another sort of belief is in the existence of a spirit world, where the dead person's spirit has to travel some distance and certain ceremonies by his descendants is supposed to assist the spirit in that voyage. Alternatively, the spirit world could have different places, and moving from one to a better one is done with the assistance of a dead person's descendants. As a further alternative, the spirit world can be an unpleasant place, and dissolution of the dead person's spirit can only be assured by some ceremonies done on the part of his descendants or their surrogates. 


These and similar practices can be divided into two categories: those done solely by the descendants, and those which require the intercession of another person from some religious hierarchy. The latter category can be seen as a way to define tasks for the hierarchy, making them important in society and providing them with some support, which they likely need as they may not have their own source of sustenance. There may well be some precursor activities of the second category that descendants of a dead person feel they must have performed, even if most of their activities eventually are in the first category. 


Since science has demolished the antique beliefs in spirits and spirit worlds, these two categories of activities connected with a dead person no longer have the former rationales that they formerly did. There may be other justifications for certain activities connected with a dead person that do not conflict with any scientific world-view, and even have some psychological bases. Recall that a modern religion is focussed forward, rather than backward in time, and the principal goal is to improve future generations in every way possible. Ceremonies to honor the dead would only be appropriate if they have some value for the current or future generations. 


One obvious aspect is the grief that those close to a dead person may feel, and the grief may be very significant in some people, obstructing their ability to live a normal life after the passing away of someone. The usual way of mitigating these feelings, in many societies around the world, is to gather together those who were familiar with the dead person, and have some sort of ceremony dedicated to him. Possibly the way these are designed might provide more or less relief to those individuals who are most beset with grief. Buddhist wakes, funerals, and posthumous memorials are quite diverse among the countries where Buddhism exists in numbers, and often share many of the features of non-Buddhist ones in the respective countries. In an improved Buddhism, the same might be just as true. There is no harm in having a specific tradition related to deceased members of the religion, and in fact this may serve some benefit in relieving the grief felt by those close to the deceased. 


Beyond grief mitigation, three areas of concern exist for appreciation of ancestors. One relates to the teaching that the dead person might have done, not in a formal manner, but informally as a guide for how to live properly and how to make life decisions in the best manner. Those he shared this with might remember it, but not have it crystallized into something easily explained or transferred to further generations. Having memorials to the person, perhaps on some specific dates or approximately, such as seven days after the wake, or forty days or one year after the date of death, or some other traditionally chosen interval, in which what he taught or exemplified can be remembered, and through the interaction of those who knew him, might be codified into something that can serve as clear guidance for troublesome situations that those who participate in the memorials become involved in.


A second area of concern is closely connected to the first, but consists of regarding the person who has died as an example. To be an example does not mean that all details of a person's actions should be used as a basis for copying, but that at one time or another, or perhaps frequently, the dead person had shown some qualities which were admirable. Young people have flexibility in their personalities, and hearing about the best traits of someone who has recently died could have some beneficial effect on them, by giving them some part of their personality to emphasize and bring out, or by strengthening their resolve to master some ability or attribute. The attributes of the person might be some personal principle, such as honesty or integrity, or it might be some goal, such as supporting the education of his offspring. Any such attribute might be the aspect of that person that another individual takes as prominent, and tries to make it part of his characteristics as well. It could be that one of these attributes is recognized as a gap in the personality of one of the attendees at the memorials, and the example of the dead person is enough to give that attendee the psychological strength and will power to make it part of their set of attributes, over the short and long-term. It can also serve to sharpen the view of what the attendees think of as 'good', clarifying some aspect about how they judge and calibrate their opinions of third parties, or people in general. On the other side of the page, the discussion of the dead person might bring up some difficulties they had, or some undesirable traits, and that can serve as a motivation for others to either struggle through similar difficulties, or eliminate in themselves that undesirable trait or others similar to it. In short, these memorials serve as a way for others to improve themselves and their views of others in the community. If not done well, they could simply be a brooding session about what was lost when that person died, and how much worse the life situation of some of the attendees is because of this death. This is not beneficial, and should be avoided. There is no question that losses occur with the death of some people, but concentrating on the losses instead of trying to take what is the best of the situation and capitalize upon it is something that religious teaching should mention and discuss, as preparation.


The third aspect of memorializing deceased individuals involves deciding how to preserve their memory and share it with future generations, if it should be. Knowing about one's direct ancestors helps individuals to define who they are, to not feel alone or uncertain about how to live, and to be able to choose goals and characteristics to try and adopt. This means that, in this modern age, there should be some biographical material prepared and preserved for each person who has descendants. There has been a movement around the world to preserve the geneologies of ancestors, and there are individuals who have spent considerable time trying to trace their family trees back many generations. This is not as valuable as having some useful information collected about more recent ancestors. There is genetic dilution over generations, and someone five generations back only contributes, on average, one thirty-second of the genes that a person has. There is no simple way to measure or recount how much influence they had, by their actions and teaching, on later generations, but in older times, this must also have been diluted. The dilution of the latter aspects, not genetic but the intangible parts of inheritance, can be made less if biographical material is collected. Just what is collected might be a choice of the individuals directly connected to a dead person, but the occasions of the memorials to the person, at the specified intervals, could serve as an opportunity to have this material collected and saved somewhere as permanently as possible, for generations to come.


There are also more broad aspects of appreciation of ancestors, but not of one's specific ancestors but of those of the community that one is a part of. For example, there have been many, many wars in mankind's history, and it is not uncommon to memorialize those who sacrificed their lives in such wars. This can be part of the religious activities, but it might be broader. Those who have made great efforts that resulted in major improvements in the well-being of the community, for example, great scientists, might also be memorialized. This would serve to inspire others to follow in their steps as well.



Sources of Joy in a Religion

A new religion, or an improved variant of a very old one, must bring joy to the members if it wants to remain popular and be supported. With joy, there is no token membership, where a member is a member in name only, and does not want to participate in the activities of the religion, nor serve in any roles it may have, nor follow the moral code it advises, nor seek to interact with it on questions within the proper realm of religion, nor assist in other tasks. 


Joy is really the emotion of choice for a religion in the modern world. In former eras, when people believed in supernatural entities who would give orders, or need to be pleased with certain activities or gifts, or who had given instructions related to a moral code, or were simply capricious and to be avoided, fear was a powerful tool for cementing a religion together and keeping the members seriously involved. By convincing the members that the only way they could appease the spirits and have a better life, or have a new and better life after reincarnation or some other after-death transition, the religion could corral them into doing what was desired by the religious hierarchy. But that era started to phase out a century or more ago and the number of people who can be made to believe these supernatural stories grows less and less as education and rationality grow stronger. This leaves joy alone.


Joy is a bit understood in neurology. It involves the member being in a situation where some of the surroundings or actions or other memorable components or his current experience resonate with his pleasant memories and cause a bit of stimulation to the positive neuro-chemical sources. This is the microbiological understanding of happiness, and joy is simply short-term, strong but not intense happiness. When members find joy in participating in activities with other members, or even in tasks which are solitary, there is a neurological reinforcement which occurs to make this activity preferred, and therefore the member is likely to do it again, or something similar. Similar things resonate the same way with the memories of past happiness, as the matching in the brain is not exact, but even vague. Matching is also reinforced, so a member finding happiness and joy in one sort of activity will be more likely to want to do other similar ones.


Joy also comes from contemplation, or remembering previous activities that brought joy. The brain recalls activities, but when it does so, the same neural connection to those prior activities which brought happiness brings a shadow of it, not the joy, but a good but weaker feeling similar to it. This is simply how the human brain works to cause the person involved to want to repeat things which produced good results, ones which generated joy in the past, or at least some happiness. Furthermore, repetition strengthens the neural links between the original activities and the neurons directly connected with generating the proper neuro-chemicals. The neurons actually grow in size and develop stronger walls; they likely also conduct a bit faster.


There are two original nexuses which can serve to start the connection between religious activities and membership participation. One is that the member's brain can connect to childhood experiences which brought happiness, and second, it can connect with other adult experiences not directly religious, but which also brought joy. Clearly the first are things which are generated by parental actions, or perhaps by guardians or teachers, which the child is young or even in middle years. As noted elsewhere, a modern religion needs to be oriented principally toward future generations, starting with the very next one. Parents need to understand how to help their children have joyous experiences as adults, which are partially based on what they do in the religious vein, and how they do them. Children imitate parents, and that sets up a fount of joy in the child's brain, so that parents participating in activities within the religion that brings them joy, in the presence of their young children, is one of the better modes of helping a child learn about joy in a religion. Children also learn from their parents' instruction, and this is a weaker but also useful mode of helping one's children find joy in later religious experiences.


As children grow older there is a transition in how the human brain develops. In early years, it is mostly selection and die-off of non-productive neurons. But after about three or four, the processes that occur in adults, the strengthening of connections which produce joy or avoid trauma are reinforced, and reinforcement, at least of the joy connections, brings a kind of happiness to the child or adult. This means that a child should be introduced to religion early in life, and then kept involved as he grows older. Here is where a new improved religion comes strongly into play. Children in the contemporary era also learn some knowledge about the world, and it is not commensurate with any supernatural entities or spirit creatures. Instead, it is commensurate with a scientific view of the world. Older legacy religions will continue to be eroded by this unstoppable change, but a new religion, which is based on a scientific derivation of a meaning of life and a moral code which is derivable, logically, from this meaning of life, will be exactly well-suited for the older child's learning. The religion should be wholly compatible with a scientific world-view, and should be a scientific religion. 


This is not a supernatural religion dressed up in words stolen from some field of science. The supernatural part is not compatible with science, and there is no place for it in a modern religion. Improved Buddhism must not make use of the antiquated belief structures from twenty-five centuries ago, but must be based on modern science, and not be contradicted by it in any way. 


The other category of joy originating in a religion and its activities are those relating to adult interactions. A religion is a community and except for extreme introverts, the community interaction provides a source of joy to the members. These activities need to be chosen to be compatible with the new point of view of the religion, that it is modern and based on science, rather than some re-treads of old supernatural viewpoints. There is no place for worship type activities where the community holds gatherings and some sort of ritualistic processes are followed, for example, singing songs that praise supernatural entities or doing some unreasonable activities, such as burning incense before an idol or some object formerly said to be revered by the spirits. 


On the other hand, a complete tabla rasa is not necessary either. Activities such as singing together can certainly be a source of joy for the members involved, but the songs should reflect something relevant to the religion itself, the basis for life, the moral code, the history of their region, their religion, their ancestors, or other elements that connect to the religion. Discussion groups related to solving personal or group problems work, as long as the members involved or in authority are well-educated and know how to facilitate meetings. Discussion groups among senior members on some questions related to the direction of the local community are certainly relevant. Teaching activities are to be preferred as well.


Work teams, such as might be involved with the local facility where meetings are held, are another source of community joy, as long as they are led by non-fractious members, who also have a good understanding of the physical nature of the work to be done, and have some knowledge of how to be a good leader. Work teams might have a larger scope as well, doing something to assist individual members who have suffered disabilities or hardships of other kinds. This type of work serves to bind the community together even better than many other types of activities. 


Passage of life ceremonies should not be abandoned, but well-supported. Passage of life ceremonies involve births, passing certain thresholds in a child's age, marriage, anniversaries and death. Each of these represents major changes in a member's life, and the community should recognize that and have some sort of ceremonies, adjustable to match the member's preferences, that celebrate them. There needs to be a framework for each of these, specific people involved in specific roles, and perhaps symbolic items to be exchanged, presented, or displayed. Death has always been a significant ceremonial event, in most countries and in most times, and it is so significant to members, sometimes many of them, that it might be one of the largest and most extensive ceremonies of all the passage of life ones. In some countries, there is a specific ceremony to be held on certain anniversaries of death as well, and this would be an excellent idea to incorporate. In fact, there might even be a place for recalling ancestors within Improved Buddhism, as happens in some other religions, as long as the reasons for it are sensible and scientific.



Child-rearing and Advice

Child-rearing has many goals, as the result of it is the preparation of the next generation of humans to take over human society and continue to direct it and maintain it toward a long and prosperous future. Without properly raised children, society can turn to many dead-ends and leave the trail to continued existence at a high level behind. Child-rearing is slowly turning into a science, and prior to that there was only tradition to guide parents. Tradition differs in different regions of the world, and the results are different as well. It may be that some of the characteristics of different regions can be traced back to differences in the traditional patterns of child-rearing.


Because it is so incredibly important to the continuation of a religion, child-rearing procedures should be part of the information that forms the basis of the religion, at least until it becomes part of society's fundamental education. Instead of leaving these procedures to haphazard communication, they need to be brought into the realm of education and in lieu of other sources, religious teaching can incorporate what is known. Regrettably, the science behind child-rearing got off to a late start, and even today is not very well established.


Child-rearing can be thought of as having stages. First, there is the nurture stage, where a new-born is supported until it can grow into a youngster who can communicate. Second, there is the training stage, where the basics of the activities of life are taught. Third, there is the education stage, which involves the imparting of knowledge of all kinds to the young person. One could consider that there is also a fourth stage, in which advice is given to a young adult who is finding their place in the world and making multiple life choices. These stages have no precise start and stop points, and could be said to overlap considerably.


In the first stage, children learn by trial-and-error. The brain makes some signal to the motor nerves, for example, and then detects some response, either visually or tactilely. Mammal brains are set up to reinforce paths that are used, so if this trial does anything of importance, it can be recorded or reinforced so that it can be repeated. Parents, or their surrogates, are providing active care much of the time and so they might be providing the response that selects what is recorded. This means that parental choices during the nurturing period provide the child with strongly reinforced choices of elemental behavior. It also means that the extent to which the child is left alone, with objects to observe or manipulate, will have other effects. 


Some of the basics of personality are affected by this early nurturing. A child which learns that crying loudly will bring an invariable response to solve any discomfort will have different personality characteristics than one who learns that crying loudly has little effect and parental attention is governed by other factors, such as schedules. A child who is held a large fraction of the time does not experience the training that comes from time alone with objects for observation and touch. A child who is fed according to his parents' choices rather than being fed according, to some extent, to his own reactions to the taste and texture of the early food, learns that having one's choices accepted is a desirable thing, as opposed to learning to trust to other's choices. A long list of personality effects can be compiled, related to the details of the child-rearing practices that take place in the first two or so years of a child's life. Perhaps it would be possible to make a connection between the various personality types, listed according to some categorization scheme such as the famous Meyers-Briggs one, with parental behavioral choices. Of course, genetics and epigenetics play an important role in personality, but nurturing behavior also plays an important role, and so far, there is no robust outline of which traits are affected by either of these, or how the two combine to produce different personality effects. This gap in scientific knowledge should be rectified, and one of the goals of Improved Buddhism should be to see that this gap is filled in, reliably and competently, at the earliest opportunity.


Parenting habits play an equally important role in the next stage of child-rearing, when the parents and child communicate, but before there is any reasoning capability developed in the child. This stage represents a huge information flow into the child, and in many cases, there is little or no filtering of this information by the child. As long as the information is not self-contradictory, there is little reason for the child to not accept this information, and to store it as valid information, useful for the entire life of the child. It should be obvious to the parents that the information they choose to provide the child during this stage forms the basis for the child's behavioral choices, not just as a child but later as an adult. There is no formal procedure for teaching a child, and again, there is simply tradition or even less, randomness and impromptu choices, in what is done now. Again, there needs to be the application of science to this field, which is hardly even created at this time. 


Since the information provided by parents and their surrogates and supplemental personnel is so hugely important in how the child will develop, it is nothing short of astonishing that so little work has been done to codify the best methods of providing that information, of how it should be organized and ordered, what observations the parents can make to help them make timing and other choices, and how the parents can ensure that what they want to teach the child is actually what becomes embedded in the child's brain, in the best possible way. Just as for information provided in the first stage, as long as this part of the science of nurturing is not wholly developed and a part of society's general knowledge bank, taught to all parents, it needs to be an integral part of any advanced religion. 


Possibly it should remain a part of religion, even in future times when the missing sciences of first and second stage child-rearing are better established. There may be chunks of information, especially in the second stage, which are part of the religious background of the child that the parents provide via their training activities. Furthermore, parents are not the sole providers of this information after some threshold age, and others play a role. Those more specialized in religion might serve as the supplemental personnel who fill in for the parents here. Parenting is a tremendously important task, perhaps one of the most important tasks in human society at any stage of societal evolution, but there may not be enough room for specialization and additional personnel would be needed to do the best job of child-rearing. 


Relgious personnel at the outset of a new religion need to determine what it is that should be taught to a child, at different ages. Information should be provided in a coordinated way so that the information provided has the best chance of being remembered and, more importantly, being accessible and able to be utilized in all those situations where it would be of value. Instead of haphazard collections of information, chosen by the whims of individuals who feel they know the missing science of child-rearing, but instead fall far short of this knowledge, there should be an organized set of learning lessons for children, and there should be prescriptions for how to adapt this knowledge to each individual child. 


The third stage of nurturing, which is the stage after the child begins to be rational and can question, or rather filter, any information provided to him, and further begins to make choices as to what information will be gathered and accepted, is less important that the second, if the second stage was property fulfilled. The second stage provides the information that serves as the basis for filtering information in the third stage, and there should be no conflicts arising provided there is coordination between the information which is organized for the second stage and that which is organized for the third. 


In the period before there is sufficient science developed regarding child-rearing, how should a tentative and temporary set of this massive amount of information be collected, and how should instructions be prepared for parents and their associates in the child-rearing process? Only a committee or group with experienced people, including parents who have successfully raised children, might provide this information. The idea that some single individual can deduce the necessary results is simply unrealistic, and members of the new religion need to select from their numbers some contributors who can best perform the collection, organization and distilling job for general child-rearing information and for that specific to the religion. They should, as well, provide a call for society in general to support further scientific research to develop the whole body of information, so that children are not left to the whims of those who do not understand well how to do the critical tasks of child-rearing.

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