Improving Buddhism

Is it Possible?

The Waning of Religious Influence

The Tretyakov Museum in Moscow recently hosted an exhibition of the paintings of V. V. Vereshchagin, who concentrated on painting portraits and scenes from India and Central Asia during the last half of the nineteenth century. The paintings are very realistic, and convey more than just the details of the subjects of the painting, but also create emotion in the viewer. One of those feelings is of the overwhelming influence of the local religions on people and their lives. Many of the paintings are of religious buildings or edifices, and others show religious personnel or religious rites.


The effect of these paintings in the twenty-first century is to indicate to someone just how much the world of religion has changed. Religion in the nineteenth century in many parts of the world could dominate the life of ordinary people, starting with the setting of both goals and pathways for their lives, extracting both income and voluntary effort from them, and controlling substantial parts of their behavior. The religious leader in a local area was the all-around point of reference for problems, and shared control of the region with the political and military leaders.


Francis Bacon changed all that, with his revelation about the scientific method. Starting in Western Europe, the basis for knowledge shifted, gradually but continually, from the theology that some individual or group would invent to those facts that can be derived from observations using the scientific method. That diffusion of a new point of view has spread outwards from scientists and those appreciating the method, to larger and larger fractions of the population, and also from Western Europe to more parts of the globe. The diffusion is slow, and certainly has not approached anything like completeness, but it continues and the final result can be extrapolated.


To create a religion for the twenty-first century requires a redefinition of the role of religion. Supernatural effects such as reincarnation no longer make much sense to a scientific person, and the aura of science spreads far and wide, meaning that the belief in these effects will be harder and harder to maintain. Pockets of belief will exist, but as decades move by, the pockets will grow smaller and smaller. People will simply leave them behind. Buddhism is an ideal religion for improvement to match twenty-first century knowledge bases, as it appeals only as a legacy to the emotions of self-preservation and status improvement, via reincarnation, and instead appeals to the weaker but more tenable emotions of avoiding mental suffering and assistance to others. When one strips reincarnation from Buddhism, the result is actually a more coherent, more logical, more presentable, and more acceptable religion. That removal alone, and the tidying up of details, procedures, and other ties that the religion had to reincarnation, leaves one with a basic structure of belief that works fairly well in the twenty-first century.


That structure of belief is much more compact and less extensive than the corresponding structure of belief was in the nineteenth century. The religious guru of that time might be expected to approve of marriages, console losses, predict or even affect the weather and crop growth, serve as the de facto leader of a village or any small region, resolve conflicts between adherents, provide advice on travel, interpersonal relationships, animal care, habitation arrangements, child rearing, and virtually anything. The guru was the wise voice in the village. Now, there is no need for any of this information, and information in the twenty-first century is available everywhere. It is like the difference between living in a drought with a single well, and suffering from a flood.


One item which science does not replace is goals for individuals. Various aspects of society attempt to fill this vacuum. Religion can have its say, but it competes with commercial advertising, showing people happy with various medicines, vacations, possessions, entertainments, which is supposed to replace the goals of individuals, turning their purpose into consumption of favored products. There are other aspects which add to this great unspoken pressure: simply media, including any media with advertisements, but also the entertainment itself. For example, in media, actors represent characters who are clearly motivated to gather for themselves various possessions and the rest of the list of things which are supposed to bring happiness.


Seeking happiness with possessions and experiences in lieu of having a different goal is a specific choice, and one which appears to be strongly favored by those parts of society which have as their own specific goal the sales of objects and activities; these parts also tend to possess the ability to control media to the extent that this is almost the only message related to goals presented to the large mass of individuals in today's society. As long as this situation exists, it would seem that religion, no matter how superb it is in positing goals for individuals, will have little effect and will find itself excluded from any competition for the selection of a life goal or life goals by individuals.


There are what might be called subgoals which are prominent in twenty-first society, which seem to be directly derivable from the dominant goal of happiness via consumption of favored products. Obtaining the means to collect these products involves proceeding through one of the pathways to consumption that exist, meaning, having a career trajectory that leads to them. Various pathways exist, and while performing some skillful actions as part of a career pathway may be a non-consumption goal, it is also a subgoal toward the general consumption goal.


Other goals that seemingly detract from the main goal of consumption, which may have been the dominant goals in parts of society before this transformation to consumerism happened, such as having a good marriage and family, have been largely subjugated to consumerism. Consumption was once a means to accomplishing other goals, such as providing for dependents in one's family, but it has been elevated from a means to other goals to a goal, the overarching goal, itself. This switching of means and ends has happened without any debate going on within society, without any division within political or other leaders of society on whether it should happen or not, and without any opposition to speak of from the large majority of the intelligensia. It simply happened.


Consumerism has been present for as many centuries as history has existed, and for some it was an end, not a means to other goals. For the majority of the population, care for self and those related was the primary goal. Relationships were wide, and extended to the minimal family, spouse and descendents, then to older generations, to second-order relatives, and to a wider circle, include more distant relatives and friends. Care for self and others involves providing for them in relevant situations, but it also includes a wider range of activity, including maintaining good relations, support in multiple types of situations, training and teaching, sharing, assisting in activities, and multiple more. A concentration on consumerism would have reduced these other activities to a minimum, and that would have violated the customs and habits that the members of the group grew up with.


It would be a mighty struggle, but perhaps one which should be undertaken by a newly improved religion: replace the goal of universal consumerism with something different. There is one thing which the older goal of care for self and others and the present goal of consumerism have in common. They are both related to the present, or at least the near future. It is possible to deviate from that, and to try to change the horizon of mankind's thinking from the current week or year or decade to something related to mankind's long-term existence here on Earth. This is a complete novelty, and involves asking questions that have not been commonly asked before. What do we, in the present day, what to do to provide for future generations, not simply the very next one or two, but for dozens or hundreds?


It is certainly far from sure that the old goal of care for others and self is not an excellent goal for an improved twenty-first century religion. Without the constant propagandizing of media to propel the population toward thinking of consumerism, the older goals might simply emerge from the background. They have not ceased to exist, but have simply been overpowered by media pressure. The alternative goal of thinking about mankind's long-term future can be seen as an extension of the idea of care for others to a generic care for others, meaning those who will live millennia from now.


The old religious concept of reincarnation served as a replacement for long-term thinking about mankind. As long as the people living in the future are just connected, via reincarnation, with the people living in the present, there is much less need to figure out how to provide for them. Everything is just a continual recycling of the essence of people who exist at the present. When one takes reincarnation off the table, then the people of the future are distinct entities, and can be thought of as a whole new group of others that can be thought about and perhaps prepared for in some way or another. Removing reincarnation from Buddhism creates a vacuum in the future, and consumerism does not fill it at all. Possibly an improved Buddhism should try to fill this vacuum somehow, in order to maintain the same large picture of human history that the original version did.

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