Improving Buddhism

Is it Possible?

Funding Improved Buddhism

Someone is going to have to pay for any new religion. The money has to come from donations, at least initially. A religion might be endowed by donors, and then support itself from earnings from the endowment, but that simply moves the funding problem into the startup period of the religion. In general, a religion has to have a source of income to pay its expenses, being principally space and people.


Initially, these expenses can be quite low, with volunteers doing the work of the religion, and providing meeting spaces as well. Buddha’s early life involved living precariously on charity, as he gradually amassed some followers and a coterie of donors. But after a religion becomes widespread, it must have a regular supply of donors, including some who donate substantially. What motivates such generosity?


Donors might be divided into two categories, those who think the religion is a good thing in general and feel it should be encouraged, and those who seek a personal benefit from it. The first category can be thought of as altruists, and the second as selfish. There could be an inverted variant on the first category, of donors who think the religion will harm some group they want harmed, or change some direction in society that they do not appreciate and want changed. ‘Negative altruists’ might be a good label for the variant case.


The second category of donors want something in return for their contributions. Original Buddhism absorbed reincarnation from earlier Hinduism, and provided that as a backdrop to their novel contribution of a relief from suffering as the main benefit. Suffering in original Buddhism might be somewhat different from modern suffering. Buddha thought suffering included death, illness, and the fraility of old age. He did not include poverty on that list as the common feeling of that time was that poverty, at least the voluntary poverty of an ascetic, was a useful thing in teaching someone about the world. Buddha himself accepted extreme poverty for himself, and considered it a virtue. Neither was barrenness considered by him to be suffering, as he himself could have had more children than the one he did have, if he had remained a prince for more years than he did. He gave that up at age 29. Neither was unemployment a suffering, and Buddha made himself unemployed instead of taking up a role in the management of his father’s kingdom and eventually succeeding him as king.


It may have been that in Buddha’s era, economic suffering was also regarded as something to be escaped from, in addition to lifespan issues, and the majority of the population would have listed that among their chief ills, but Buddha was raised as a prince, and perhaps did not appreciate that category of suffering. Because of his preferences, the original direction of Buddhism was the conquest of lifespan issues, or rather the effect of these on a person’s mental state. Actually, reincarnation is another solution to lifespan suffering problems.


Nowadays, economic suffering is more prominent in Buddhism that it was to the founder. For the last century or two, the modification of the world into a consumerist arena has led to economic difficulties being less acceptable and tolerable. It is a matter of degree rather than a binary choice. Furthermore, psychological suffering is also more clearly recognized and described than it was during the era of the Buddha. People in Buddha’s era may have suffered from lack of self-esteem, but it does not seem to have entered into the list of problems that he recognized as worthy of conquest via the eight-fold way.

Buddhism satisfies its donors of money, time, and other resources by proffering a methodology for reducing the psychological effects of some suffering categories, and it was an easy expansion of the goals of Buddhism to include, in addition to lifespan issues, economic and psychological issues as topics to be remedied by the methodology. The solution of lifespan issues via espousing the concept of reincarnation or some other form of a supernatural continuation of a form of existence is much easier to provide and gain acceptance than is the solution via a cessation of normal human emotion, which is what the standard Buddhist solution is. Thus, continuation of the reincarnation concept within Buddhism is a way to increase donations, in essence being an inexpensive, although absurd, solution to these issues.


It is a hallmark of successful solicitation of donations to have the cost of donation be acceptable and not pose any great difficulties. Donations of money and time are not physically taxing, such as meditating for twelve hours a day might be. It is also much easier to donate something than to have to change one’s habits or means of making income. The idea of donation is that nothing of substantial tangible value is returned to the donor; only intangibles are returned, such as a feeling of satisfaction, a reinforcement of a concept which relieves anxiety, a wish for future success or happiness or problem solution, or some other very low cost benefit.


What is an improved form of Buddhism going to offer to its donors? The days when the local Buddhist monk was the smartest person in the village and all questions were referred to him are long gone. There are so many smart people offering advice, free or paid, that very few people would turn to a Buddhist monk for advice on worldly matters. Monks may have had a profession in which they were an expert before they choose to make a career and life change to become a monk, but the likelihood that some particular monk is a former expert in a field that a supplicant seeks advice in has to be very low. Monks may learn how to interact with others in such a way as to induce some calming, but there are also many lay people who, professionally or amateurishly, provide such information and interaction. In some remote and backward part of the world, isolated from modern life and especially the internet, monks might still provide the traditional advice of the village wise person, but this has to be the situation of only a very small fraction of the population of Buddhists. Thus, there must be something other than advice and instruction provided to potential donors to persuade them to contribute to the religion.


There is another way of categorizing the donors who are seeking some benefit, unconsciously or consciously. Unconscious benefits come from a good feeling induced in the donor by the act of giving. Conscious benefits arise from a rational, possibly incorrect, calculation that being a donor is in the best interest of the donor himself.


The division of interests between altruism and selfishness is unfortunately a misleading one. There are really a whole set of possibilities which are collected under the noun altruism. One might say there is diffuse altruism, where the donor does not care which human beings are being benefited by the religion, but this might be a very rare type of altruism. The complement to this is focused altruism, in which there is a subset of humanity that the donor desires to have benefits. There are as many types of focused altruism as there are ways of dividing humanity into altruism. Supposedly, one could even stretch the net of altruism wider and have donor who are interested in non-human beneficiaries, such as a particular type of non-human animal, or some different subset of nature, or even inanimate objects, such as those with particular relevance to the donor such as a historic building.


Let us leave non-human beneficiaries behind, and concentrate on human ones. A donor who is a focused altruist has some benefit in mind and some beneficiaries. Those constructing a religion must make some connection between this group and their activities. Recall that the only topic remaining to a religion to teach, where it has some special background, is values. This is more or less equivalent to goals for life. Thus the question of donor motivation is forcibly narrowed down very considerably. Improved Buddhism can seek donors among those who are focused altruists, and believe that the set of values which Improved Buddhism teaches are a benefit for someone or some group.


The only remaining gap is the question of who is to be the beneficiary, both of the donor’s desire for altruism, and the religion’s ability to teach values. Altruism when focused is more often than not focused on those nearby and somehow related to the donor. It would most likely be his or her family, starting with his or her children. So, it is not fairly clear that a religion in the modern world must focus on teaching values to young people, and among the donors to the religion will be those parents whose children are the recipients of the training, and who think that the values of Improved Buddhism are important for their children to espouse. One of the principal virtues within Improved Buddhism is the care for the next generation. Thus, this principal virtue fairly clearly coincides with the means of motivating donors.


It is really insufficient for anyone to think that by educating their children in values, they have necessarily improved their future. If the entire society does not accept these values, they will not be easy for these children to maintain it, and the values themselves may be a liability in a society where they are not accepted. Thus, the scope of teaching must be larger than simply one’s own family, but must contain some, likely local, subset of humans that will serve as a reinforcement for those taught values and as an environment in which they might be expressed. So, donors must be those who understand the value of the goals of Improved Buddhism, and who have some children of their own or related children who they understand will be benefited by having these values continued through the next generation.

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