Improving Buddhism

Is it Possible?

Buddha as the Designer of a Religion

One way to look at a religion is to look at its beliefs, or its behavioral guidelines, or its structure, or its facilities, or its members, or many other aspects. One way that does not seem to be very common is to ask what was the founder or founders trying to do with his religion. Religions accrete many things as time goes on, but if a founder can be identified, or hypothesized, it can be asked how did he manage to set up the critical parts of the religion.


Like any other organism, a religion must survive and reproduce in time and space. Survival for a religion means it has to hold together over the short term. It might face oppression, or competition for members, or discrimination by the governance of the time. Reproduction in time means it has to have a way for younger members to be brought into it and captured as permanent adherents and reproduction in space means it must somehow diffuse beyond its original boundaries.


Buddha must have understood how to organize this, perhaps only intuitively, but certainly effectively. Members contribute their time and efforts to a religion because they get a good feeling from it, most likely from a dopamine pulse connected with different aspects of it. Dopamine squirts out into our brain when as association with something positive in our younger years is made. Much of the youth of people, certainly in Buddha’s time, was spent with their parents. Buddha behaved in the image of the good side of everyone’s father, and so being with him subconsciously reminded people of this, and they felt the happiness that comes from a positive association. Buddha told everyone who attended his lectures or who became a monk with his retinue how to behave, just as fathers tell their children how to behave. More reminders of that association, one which almost everyone has.


Buddha was a planner, able to see how future events might work out. He was not working for personal honor or award, but to accomplish something that lasted longer than his life. He therefore established a group of higher level monks who might take his place when he died, and trained them. His idea was not that they would become Buddhas who also authored new behavioral codes, but that they would become teachers of his moral code, so it would be preserved and disseminated. Interpreters of the code for new applications, perhaps, but not inventors. That meant he had to be able to discriminate among the monks under his charge, to find some who were not innovators and did not want to find their own way and found their own sect, but who were instead good followers, intelligent enough to understand what he was doing but without the ambition to do the same themselves.


The father association that Buddha caused in other people who likely not carry over so well into the next generation of Buddha’s leaders, so other associations designed to make people happy enough to be involved in the sect had to be initiated. This might be the melding of the family, or brothers and cousins, together with peers. Buddha taught the monks who came with him how to behave toward one another, as well as how to conduct their daily lives. The relationship of the monks living together is akin to that of a family, and might generate the positive associations that we learn in childhood if we are lucky enough to live in a large family. Any family or group of close peers has negative events, generating negative associations, and Buddha’s rules for living together served to mitigate these, so the positive feelings would dominate and there would be good feelings driving the monks to stay with him.


When Buddha lived, about 2500 years ago, there had not yet been invented a convenient writing technology in his area, so he would have expected that his words would only be remembered for a long term if they were part of a codified oral tradition. For this reason, he needed a large body of monks to do the memorization and to teach it to newer monks. If he had lived two thousand years later, he might have designed his religion completely differently, using the technology of writing to preserve his ideas. This is an important fact. Technology determines the form of religion, just as the form of society influences the form of religion. Buddha had to tap into the positive childhood associations to make people feel good when supporting or learning about his teachings, and in an era where family life is very different, different forms of religion would be necessary to provide the same capture of emotion that is necessary to have robust adherence.


Buddha also structured the time of the monks in his retinue. They knew when to arise, when to wash, when to meditate, when to beg and when to sleep. Just as a parent controls the time of a very young child, Buddha did the same. Thus, the associations embedded deep within the brains of the monks, connected with their early mothering, large positive, were snagged by Buddha’s use of a daily time structure. Do older children like to have their time wholly structured? There is usually some rebellion, but that is a small fraction of the interaction of parent and child. Instead, there is, in an older child, the same positive association with having time structured for them that arose in very early childhood. Buddha’s tapping into this assisted in forming positive feelings in his monks, and aided in keeping them attached to him.


Reassurance and the dispelling of uncertainty is also something that parents do for their children. Reassurance comes in many varieties for a small child, with perhaps the simplest and earliest being the feeling of being protected from whatever perils there are by parents. Buddha might have provided some of this feeling, but a second variety, which occurs when a child begins to be independent, involves parents encouraging the independence and assisting in the actions taken. Learning to walk is an example of this. All children go through this, and there is undoubtedly good feeling generated. Buddha could take advantage of this by encouraging monks in their activities, albeit in a moral sense. Having right thoughts and right behavior and so on takes encouragement, and while providing the behavioral code is an important component, being reassuring about the monk’s eventual success also taps into these positive early childhood associations. While completely invisible, this is another way in which Buddha provided monks with positive feelings about being attached to him.


When one mentions uncertainty and Buddhism in the same sentence, the thought is reincarnation. Uncertainty regarding the existence of some essence within or around a person, which bounces from living creature to living creature is addressed by Buddhism, actually only echoing the reincarnation myths of Hinduism. This is certainly not the only uncertainty addressed by Buddhism, and may be one of the less important ones. Everyday life is all about interacting with other people, and Buddha provided guidelines for doing this. Instead of wondering how to approach a government official, or to talk to a streetsweeper or to deal with a shopkeeper or to accept a gift of charity from someone, a new monk can learn from Buddha’s teachings or imitate the example of more experienced monks. This area of uncertainty, revolving around interpersonal interaction, may provide more of a lift to spirits than any discussion of the essence of life.


Thus, Buddha, in the design of his religion, built into it multiple causes of positive feelings arising from associations with the mostly positive childhood experiences of his believers, supporters and monks. Buddhism has not lost these associations, and as far as modern childhood experience mirrors that of Buddha’s era, they will still lead to fervent membership. Understanding how Buddha arranged his religion to appeal to a wide variety of people by using almost universal childhood associations as deep triggers of positive reactions provides us with some clues as to how to improve Buddhism. One way is to look at how current experiences in a family setting or its equivalent produces good feelings, and then see how existing Buddhist thought evokes that, and how it might better be matched to produce a stronger evocation. Families nowadays are not too similar to those of 2500 years ago, but biologically the same steps have to be taken, which does provide some commonality. Perhaps nowadays there is much more diversity in family arrangements and roles, and so some thought as to how to accommodate that diverse set of arrangements and evoke positive feelings from them within Buddhism needs to be done.


One thing that has not been mentioned is the need to quiet down negative associations, as they will serve to drive away potential members. Along with a catalog of the positive associations in modern-day families, there needs to be a catalog of potential negative associations, so that they can be avoided as much as possible in designing the improvements to Buddhism. Perhaps also a catalog of personality types needs to be done, so to be able to more quickly pick potential candidates for Buddhism.

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