Monday, August 5, 2013

Academic Theory: Buddhism

Naturally, because we discussed Hinduism last week, it would stand that this week we cover Buddhism's role in literature and philosophy. Tenets of Buddhism are more common in literature today because (while it is still multifaceted and incredibly diverse and complicated), unlike Hinduism, Buddhism is less enmeshed with an ethnicity or cultural identity. As it stands, Buddhism is more philosophy than religion, and is a splinter sect of Hinduism that rejects the divine and certain aspects of the godly hierarchy that cause issues with class disparity. The origin of Gautama Buddha, is the story of a young prince who is hidden away from all suffering as a rich and privileged person, and is slowly exposed to the sufferings of the proletariat. Interpreted under Marxist criticism Buddhism becomes a  populist religious movement that rejects the class structure of the former Hindu overlords. That's just an interpretation however, so take it for what it is.

Buddhism is an atheistic religion, and while there are variants like Pure Land Buddhism that suggest some form of extraplanar afterlife, Buddhism primarily escapes the notion of reincarnation, and a continual cycle of existence. The pursuit of Buddhism leads to an annihilation of the pleasures of the self, laid out in the Four Noble Truths:

  1. Understanding the reality of suffering.
  2. Understanding where the suffering comes from.
  3. Understanding that once the root of suffering is determined, that it can be removed.  
  4. Escaping suffering completely, and finding the path to Nirvana.

Buddhism is a very threatening spirituality to Westerners. I say this not to suggest that there is something wrong about it's teachings. I gather this conclusion by watching how Westerners adapt Buddhism to serve them, almost as if it was justifying their quirks and lifestyles. In a region of the world where food is scarce and death is common, it would make sense for Buddhism to espouse a philosophy of dealing with suffering. Here in America (or any western nation for that matter), we do not suffer, so Buddhism reduces to this pseudo spiritual pleasure trip.

Now I get into this not because I have an ax to grind but to show you that there is a lot of potential for Buddhism in literature. It can be a serious assessment of pain and how to deal with it in the real world, or it can be a sarcastic lens through which to view the Western world's denial of pain that they so often deal with. Here's an example of how I would integrate Buddhist philosophy into a narrative:
A boy awakes to rubble. There are no sounds in his mind, as he sees them scream. The center beam, broken and split like a fallen tree, has been felled by the shifting earth. Blood pools around him, the life force of thousands raining down from above. Covered in their hopes and dreams, explosions bleed through the silence and he has returned. He searches for a way out, but sees no door. His eyes are closed, stung by acrid fumes flooding the death chamber. His hands on the walls, wet with fluid, feel for a portal to safety. Behind him a man lies paralyzed, shouting into his smart phone. He is arguing, blinded by egotism. He is crushed and the boy no longer looks back. A rogue stone trips him, but he picks himself up. He finds a severed hand, but continues on. And when he finds the door he opens it, and is enveloped by light. The earth is far below him, and he is trapped, but his suffering has ended. He will end it once and for all. Let myself embrace the earth that made me, he thinks, I have found peace in the storm. 
And he jumps.
I want you all to consider how this short narrative condenses some of the major themes of Buddhism. If you want, feel free to comment bellow what you think and we can discuss it there.



SW




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