As a cheerful and combative atheist, I often chide my Abrahamist friends—the Jews, Christians, Moslems, Mormons, Seventh Day Adventists, and the like, that, “ . . . for God’s sake, if you have to be religious then be a Buddhist!” It’s certainly a religion for grown-ups, I remind them, concerned as it is for ending human suffering, not snatching souls for Christ. “After all,” I continue, “Isn’t it rather juvenile to persecute all who refuse to accept your pernicious superstitions and dogmas? You’re just a bunch of bullies!”
Of course, after my little speech, the usual fatwas and excommunications are cast and I am chased down the hall by torch-bearing mobs screaming, “My god of love, peace, and harmony is so powerful I’ll KILL you to prove it!” I scream back, “You can be good without God!,” but to little avail. After all, is there not an old Arabic saying that goes, ‘He who would tell the truth better have one foot in the stirrup’?
The zealots cheerfully ignore their word and action contradictions. After all, they can usually count on forgiveness for their sins, however frightful, and even understanding from their god if it means the further spread of the faith. And God cares not how illegal and immoral the land grabbing is. As long as your weapons are better.
One can only wonder how many more offshoots of the Torah humankind will come up with before the species nails itself on the cross of Superstition. Thus Abrahamism gives a whole new meaning to the phrase satanic spawn. Buddhists, by contrast, don’t proselytize: they figure if they don’t get you in this life then you’ll be one in the next. They don’t bother with witch burnings, apostasy, or nontheists. And we’ve heard nothing from the Dalai Llama about rejecting Darwin.
Meditation in all its serious forms come from this religion, and so we look to the tools it has developed as the most effective way to chill out the over-active mind. Indeed, the Buddhist view is that much of human suffering comes from thinking too much and being too anxious about everything but the Here and Now.
How best to relieve human suffering? The Buddhist starts with himself. Then, moving outward, he refrains from offering a whole bunch of unwanted and unasked-for advice while thumping some so-called holy text and threatening Hell and Damnation and Beheading if you don’t follow it. Or, worse, declaring that God hates you and what you’re going through is God’s Just Punishment. One is hard-pressed to think of something more psychologically vile to do to one’s neighbor. By contrast, let’s say the Buddhist’s neighbor is suffering through a hell of depression and anxiety because, I don’t know; say the robber baron banking class has stolen the neighbor’s house out from under him or her.
The Buddhist neighbor might simply sit quietly with the aggrieved, or massage the person's feet, or, if asked, give concrete and useful advice, especially as to how to meditate and calm oneself. This can lead to a non-emotional state where one can deal with the lack of money, the injustice of the world, and the sheer outrageousness and tragedy that is human life itself.
Which, in turn, can lead to a vastly more practical and effective plan of action for the future. It’s much less juvenile than chasing down one’s problems with a machete, pitchfork, and burning fagot. With much less to be sorry for . . . or forgiven.
Thus Buddhism teaches us just how to be. Here. Now. In this moment—beyond the regret and sadness of one’s past and the fear of ruining tomorrow. It’s not an easy discipline, but it works. Not bad for a religion that is, for the most part, free of the emotional claptrap and superstitious baggage that seems to plague all revealed Western religions. God as my Best Buddy just doesn’t work for them.
Now how might a less confrontational and calmer view have played out on the world stage between leaders, nations, and cultures in conflict with one another, we may ask, since Man himself is, by natural selection, a mischievous, murdering ape that has spread across the globe in the blink of an historical eye. Yet, having said that, we as a species have shown we can be so much more than mere beasts.
I’m thinking now about that great tug of war between the West and Communism, and especially between President Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.
It is part of American conservative hagiography that Reagan’s vision of a global shield to render nuclear weapons obsolete bankrupted the Soviet Union and destroyed, as Reagan put it, “the Evil Empire.”
This dream of Reagan’s, called the Strategic Defense Initiative, has often been trumpeted by conservative historians as the driving force that reversed the arms race and ended the Cold War. Thus we saw at Reagan’s state funeral all the hysteria, sobbing, and almost cult-like mourning as if for the passing of Pharaoh.
Never a fan of Reagan or his destructive policies, I always thought that his Star Wars scheme was unworkable, juvenile, simplistic, and playing dangerously with everyone’s lives. The status quo was two tug-of-war teams of equal strength with a rope between them, so to speak, each side unable to pull the other over the line.
Reagan proposed to terrify the Soviets into building a whole new defense system to counter America’s, which he knew they couldn’t afford. It’s no wonder the Europeans satirized him as Darth Vader, not Winston Churchill.
How easy it would have been for the Soviets, under a psychopathic ruler, to send their missiles over before we could complete such an anti-missile defense system and take us out completely. Had we not refused to sign a no first strike treaty? Saddam Hussein, Osama Bin Laden, or Kim Jung Il might have done so, had they been able to, without regard to what would happen to their own people. Simply because they can, they’re paranoid, and they’re mean. And they’re bullies.
There is much in the ancient history of the human Id that overwhelms Reason and leads to the tearing down of the temple even at the cost of one’s own destruction. We may call this the Samson Syndrome, and we may yet see it play out with horrific results on the world stage.
However, in contrast to Reagan’s pistol posturing, how refreshingly different was Gorbachev’s response in the long, sad history of humankind. It was as if he ordered his team to let go of the rope and the other side falls down clumsily, gets up, dusts itself off and declares victory over the enemy.
We congratulated ourselves over how clever our leader was. But, during the summit negotiations, Gorbachev had already said something very close to the following; “I will do something very terrible to you, America. I’m going to take away your enemy.” He did. And, in a way, we haven’t recovered our national sanity since.
The truth of the matter, now seen in documents from inside the Kremlin during the late 80’s and from diaries, memoirs, records of the Politburo discussions, and interviews by journalists with key participants, is that the conscience and will which wanted to eliminate weapons of mass destruction, not propagate them, was Mikhail Gorbachev’s, not Reagan’s. Gorbachev had decided not to compete with America on a missile defense system while at the same time he waged a fierce and courageous internal struggle against his own vast military-industrial complex. Gorbachev knew that the huge Soviet defense establishment was a monumental burden on the country; indeed, it was bleeding the Russian economy dry.
Does this not sound familiar in our own time and place about us? I hope so. Gorbachev reveals that the extent of the bleeding was concealed with such secrecy that even he had trouble obtaining accurate information. In the end the Soviet Union bankrupted itself because of belief in its own economic fallacies even as we in the States will by the legacy of Reaganomics, if we haven’t already.
Even so, the Cold War ended without either superpower making nuclear weapons obsolete. And with its end the world was no longer bipolar and stable with the superpowers’ foot on the neck of the Beta apes, so to speak, but with multipolar, out of control weaponry, and growing more unstable by the month.
However, one of Gorbachev’s greatest achievements is almost Zen-like in its simple, common sense morality; really, the mark of the best kind of ruler: the things he chose not to do. He had been urged by his formidable military-industrial complex to build a Soviet Star Wars. He chose not to. He could have built a much cheaper, simpler, and massive retaliatory force. He chose not to. He said, “What is one missile, SS-18? It’s a hundred Chernobyls. In one missile.” And that is why, dear friends, Mikhail Gorbachev deserved, and got, the Nobel Peace Prize. And President Reagan did not.
I rest my case, Your Honor.
Gaius Julius Publius
*The author uses the pseudonym "Publius," as did the original anonymous authors of the Federalist Papers (among them were Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay); these 85 articles, published between Oct. 1787 and Aug. 1788, were designed to explicate the philosophy and intent of the newly-minted U.S. Constitution. The series of articles began as a response to other articles (anonymously authored by "Cato" and "Brutus") being published at that time that opposed ratifying the Constitution. At that time, public figures often adopted Roman names as pseudonyms. Hamilton coined the pseudonym Publius, short for "Philo-Publius," meaning "Friend of the People." In the tradition of the original Publius, the Baltimore Chronicle invited the author of this essay to address the situation in which he feels the U.S. finds itself today.
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