Cyanide Soup For The Soul

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Enlightenment is ego’s ultimate disappointment. – Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche

Over the past few years, I have spent countless hours engaged in heated debate with my friend Bernie about a pair of concepts that taken together seem to create Buddhism’s most glaring contradiction.  Earlier this week, a blogger I follow also raised the question of how to justify the belief in reincarnation with the Buddhist notion of Anatman (literally “no soul”).  Some clues to the resolution of this paradox can be found in words attributed to Gautama Buddha, the gist of which were admonishments to a disciple upon being questioned about the existence of a soul that if these are one’s concerns when he hasn’t even figured out how to control his own mind, then he is asking the wrong questions and grasping at the extreme of eternalism.  This morning, it finally dawned on me that these allegories might just be sufficient to put the matter to rest.

In questioning the logic of the coexistence of reincarnation and Anatman in the Buddhadharma, I was approaching the problem from a distinctly Western mindset; in other words, an ego-driven desire to have everything make sense in a rational context.  First of all, let’s look at this Freudian hypothesis of ego.  Ego is an abstract idea; it isn’t something that can be located within the physical body or the brain, nor is it a spirit underlying our thoughts and actions.  It is a psychological construct that is sustained by man’s fear of non-existence.  The word itself was coined as a sort of umbrella term encompassing every self-conscious trick of the mind that serves to imbue the individual with earthly pride and faith in his or her own infinite duration.  This can almost make it seem like quite a handy device to minimize our fears and anxieties, but ultimately, it ends up trapping each of us in an ever-growing web of imagined phobias and enemies.

The monotheism of the West feeds the egotism of its adherents by insisting on the existence of an eternal soul within each of us whose job it is to indulge the capricious whims of its incomprehensible and often cruel foreman named God.  This concept creates in the minds of its devotees a world of perpetual struggle between “us” (the pious) and “them” (the heathens).  It enables the clerics and scribes of the Jewish, Christian and Muslim faiths to proclaim that the ephemeral phenomena of earthly life are vitally important to human salvation and for the faithful to take it as their divine responsibility to evangelize and short of that, to subjugate non-believers through violence.  Just think about the ludicrous terms “Holy War”, “Crusade” and “Jihad” and the countless lives that have been cruelly dispatched in the service of this horribly evil theology.  People who believe in the same god, read the same scriptures and perform almost identical rituals are nonetheless convinced that slight deviations from orthodoxy are sufficient reason to persecute or even kill people they have willfully forgotten are their own spiritual brethren.

Perhaps now it is becoming clear just how dangerous our ego-driven misinterpretations of esoteric teachings really are.  More significantly, our fearful and lazy grasping at the ubiquitous belief systems of our own culture is the catalyst of most of our misery.  Look below the surface of any of our current crises and sure as shit, you’ll find monotheism at its core.  Political strife, partisan hatred, bigotry, sexism, homophobia, violence, revenge, mass incarceration, warfare – each has its roots in the erroneous belief in mankind’s earthly superiority and eternal soul.  The outspoken militancy of our self-declared atheists seems to betray an uncertainty in their own one-sided position that probably arises from a lifetime spent immersed in a culture that so fearfully clings to its own importance.

Therefore, I think the real question isn’t how to resolve the paradoxical nature of two seemingly contradictory Buddhist concepts.  The wisdom behind the linguistic confusion is that without an eternal fate to ponder, one is free to find divinity in the moment; in the mundane, the beautiful, the dull and the obscene.  When the mind abandons the contemplation of imagined significance in the theoretically suspect directions of linear time, all that remains is the look and feel of the moment.  It is here and only here that one’s soul becomes eternal, if only for one glorious instant.

15 thoughts on “Cyanide Soup For The Soul

  1. Love love love this post. You very eloquently explain something so often missed by those on a spiritual path, particularly westerners undertaking Buddhist teachings. There’s an Alan Watts lecture on YouTube that talks about the differences between eastern and western understandings of the soul and the ego, and Jung has written quite extensively about it too. It’s a very interesting topic. Western schools of spirituality, including most esoteric orders claiming to be based on eastern mysticism, confuse the ideas of the ego and the eternal. I’ve been thinking along similar lines lately too, which you will see from my post earlier today 😉

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Thank you! And in a case of perfect timing, I read your brilliant post about 5 seconds after I finished this one, and I think that perfectly illustrated another profound point about the confounding questions of existence.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Well I suppose we know what the theme of the day is, eh? I really enjoyed reading this: I’ve always been curious about Buddhism, and your blog has become my own personal highlights reel. I mean holy shit, this is important stuff!

    Liked by 3 people

  3. An instant in Eternity—I’m still trying to figure out how you can spin flawless concepts like these so effortlessly. But yes, I believe Western thought and influence has reached its zenith and we’re globally working our way out of the proverbial ‘fog of war’. The West tried to convert the world to Christianity and wound up being absorbed into the milieu of paganism, polytheism, Buddhism, all-ism that surrounds us. The global community wasn’t having none of that and try as they might, the Conservative Christian and alt-Right cannot circumvent the reality we are all in the same melting pot. That’s my two cents.

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    1. Thanks, Pablo! When I envision a Utopian type of society, it’s always something very primitive and respectfully nature-dependent. This makes me wonder if mankind once had all the wisdom it would ever need but squandered it in the name of progress. Or maybe I just like to think of a world where I won’t have to wash the dishes anymore.

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      1. Have you had a chance to read Sapiens? It draws a parallel to our hunter-gatherer ancestors and the story behind the Eden myth. Once humans embraced agriculture they lost a world of leisure and wild variety of diet (Paradise) to become enslaved to their farms. According to Harari ‘By the sweat of your brow you will produce thorns and thistles and eat grass until you die’ was a self-inflicted curse.

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  4. Making the complicated simple is a rate gift which plays an important roll in your ability to inform us with so many relevant and helpful expositions you provide. thank you..

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Holy shit, Paul. Honestly, I learn so much from you and appreciate your intelligence and perspective SO much. You force me to think about things I wouldn’t otherwise and so often make my brain hurt – which is a GOOD thing! What an incredible piece of writing and just, you know, goddamn wow.

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  6. I agree, buddhism is a lot less destructive and a lot less contradictive than monotheism. I actually find the socalled contradiction in buddhism not so contradictive after all. There are, in my opinion ways of solving the problem. If there’s no self, or soul as you call it, and we still reincarnate, it might be explained as a carpet, of course in a lot more dimensions than a normal one. I mean, if there is only one mind we all form part of, when we die we will still form part of the same mind, another place. I realize my theory is incomplete, but it’s hard to explain quantum mechanics as well, if you know what I mean. It might just be that the mind, consiousness and so on is just very, very complex, and we just lack information to understand it. Pure reason has it’s flaws, as Immanuel Kant elegantly demonstrated. Talking about QM, Schrödinger had some very interesting theories on the mind, basically that all logic says there can only be one. I’d like to add the other possibility, that there are none. Who knows;)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. We seem to be incredibly like-minded. I’d estimate that about half of my quasi-spiritual view of the Universe is based upon theories of quantum mechanics. And I agree that mind has only binary possibilities: either one or none, both of which will cancel out the individual ego/soul/personality in the end.

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