Thursday, May 13, 2010

The First Noble Falsehood

All of the religions of the Classical Civilized Paradigm have in common a core belief about the relationship between the soul and physical existence. This belief is expressed in different ways in different faiths, but the most elegant expression in my opinion is the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism, first of which is that all life contains the element of suffering, or, more simply and as believed in practice, that all life is suffering. For Buddhists, the joys and pleasures of life (while acknowledged to exist) are, in essence, the bait for a trap. They’re here to bind us to the world so we can suffer more. The point is to get out.

No other religion puts it quite that way (or, in my opinion, quite that well), but all of the Great Religions share that conclusion: the point is to get out. We don’t belong here. We belong somewhere else or in some other conditions: in Heaven, in Paradise, reunited with God from Whom we have become separated, or restored to the bliss of non-manifestation. The details vary widely, of course. Religions of the Hindu/Buddhist complex believe in reincarnation or soul transmigration, and so teach that we may go through many incarnations before finally being freed to go where we belong. Religions of the Abrahamic lineage (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) don’t have this belief, and so teach that there is a single lifetime after which comes God’s judgment and (hopefully) a passage to the place where we belong. But in none of these faiths is incarnate, manifest existence on the physical plane seen as anything but a mistake.

This idea – that we are here by mistake, and our focus should be to remove ourselves somewhere else – is what I call, in a play on the Buddha’s teaching which I’m sure he will have enough enlightenment to forgive, the First Noble Falsehood.

In fairness to the Buddha, we can’t be sure that this is what he actually taught. No writings by him have survived, and that’s rather a mystery. The Buddha, who was a prince, was certainly literate. Did he really not write down any of his teachings, or were his writings lost – or suppressed – after his death? We may wonder the same thing about Jesus and Mohammed, who were also literate and who have also left us no writings. Be that as it may, an inevitable disconnect occurs in communication between the teachings of an enlightened spiritual leader such as the Buddha or Jesus, and the form those teachings take when embodied in an organized religion, especially after the old boy isn’t around any longer to interfere with the process.

Part of that disconnect arises simply because of the difficulty of communicating the deep truths of the spirit in words. Language isn’t designed for that purpose. Its vocabulary communicates things from one person to another that both people are already familiar with. In giving you directions to the post office, I know that you know what a street is, what a post office is, what it means to turn left or turn right, and how to identify various landmarks that I may give you to show the way. If someone wants to communicate something that is a bit outside his listeners’ experience, then one starts with the things the listener knows and builds on that. But to communicate spiritual reality is very, very difficult, because it is outside of the experienced world of most people. It can usually only be done in metaphors and parables, and even then most people will attach meanings to the parables that aren’t correct. “He who has an ear, let him hear.”

But beyond this, further problems came in for all Classical Paradigm religions as they became established and involved in politics. Ideas and teachings that did not serve the political purposes of the faith were suppressed, and ideas that were necessary for that purpose were introduced. And it is at this juncture, I believe, that the First Noble Falsehood arose.

Politics is in large measure about privilege. It’s a battleground between those who enjoy an elite, entitled, privileged position, and those who would like to see them lose it. Sometimes those who would like to see them lose it simply want to replace them as the privileged elite. Sometimes the goal is to eliminate privilege altogether or at least reduce its prerogatives. In modern times that latter manifestation has become more acute, but in the ancient times when the Buddha lived, the elite (to which class he himself was born) had things pretty much any way they wanted. Politics – a game the Buddha’s social class played exclusively, commoners need not apply – was thus all about upholding and supporting their status and power, except of course when it involved infighting among them for a larger share of power than one’s fellows.

Religion was, under the Classical Paradigm, always a partner with the state. Often, it was an actual arm of the state. As such, it always served the purposes of the state, which included public order, but also included the upholding of privilege. Now privilege, to the enlightened eye, is unjustifiable. It is simply wrong, and needs to be abolished. And so, if religion is to serve the purposes of the state, a filter must exist to allow the passion which an enlightened teacher’s teachings inspire to be twisted into the service of privilege, something he would in all cases have abhorred. And the First Noble Falsehood serves that purpose admirably, by taking that passion and turning its focus away from this world altogether and towards another reality where there is no social privilege to be threatened.

The challenge to privilege and power represented by spirituality when focused on this world where we actually live can be seen in modern times. Look what Gandhi accomplished for Indian independence or Martin Luther King for racial equality in America. There is magic in genuine spirituality, a power of the heart that moves the hearts of others. To the holders of privilege, spirituality is dangerous, and must be channeled into non-threatening, or ideally even privilege-supporting paths.

Jesus was not put to death on a whim.

The story of Christianity’s co-option by the Roman state in the 4th century CE is a good illustration of how the process works, and where the First Noble Falsehood comes from. I said above that under the Classical Paradigm religion was always intertwined with the state, but actually early Christianity represents an exception. Under Roman law, Christianity was an illegal religion, but the laws were seldom enforced. Christians could be arrested any time, given a chance to recant their faith, and executed in brutal ways if they refused, but most of the time they weren’t. The net effect was that Christians were free to practice their religion (except when some Emperor or other got a bug up his sphincter and started a persecution), but was not involved with the state at all. It couldn’t be, because it was illegal. Nor could intra-faith politicians (you know the type, all religions have them) call on the state to enforce their authority. For that reason, during the time between the mission of Paul and the Council of Nicaea, Christianity was one of the freest and most diverse religions of all antiquity.

It was also frequently troublesome. Christians refused to pay token worship to the official state religion, and so in the view of the state endangered Roman society’s relationship with the Gods, on whose favor it depended. Christians were also frequently pacifists and anti-slavery advocates, thus endangering the Roman state’s ability to defend itself against foreign enemies and the foundation of the Roman society’s economy. Here was spirituality acting as a threat to privilege, which it so often does.

Three Emperors attempted to stamp out the religion through persecution. None succeeded. In the early 4th century, the emperor Constantine tried a different approach: co-option. By repealing the laws against Christianity, by calling a council of “Bishops” (note that this in itself favored the more authoritarian forms of Christianity over the less so, since only the authoritarian Christian sects recognized “Bishops” to start with) from all over the Empire to iron out exactly what the faith stood for and taught, and finally by making Christianity itself the state religion of the Roman Empire, Constantine and his successors transformed it from a rebellious and dangerous spirituality into a useful tool of politics. One of the primary levers of this transition was to bring to the fore, and interpret in certain pro-privilege ways, the otherworldliness that had always been an element in the religion. Rather than oppose war and slavery in this world, believers were taught to focus on the next, where there was no war and where everyone was free. By the time of the Roman Empire’s fall, Christianity had become wholly a tool of civic authority and the defense of privilege. The First Noble Falsehood was an important part of that transition.

The transition to that state for other religions is less visible, and in some cases I suppose it’s possible that the First Noble Falsehood was enshrined from the beginning so that no actual transition occurred. What is certain, however, is that so long as religion and the state remained partners in politics, any religion allowed to survive would of necessity transfer any passions for reform from this world to another.

With the separation of church and state which has become the modern norm, spirituality is now free to manifest itself in worldly ways and has begun to do so once more. It is, I think, time to abandon the First Noble Falsehood. We are not here, embodied in physical existence, as a mistake, and our goal is not to leave this life for another, but to make of it the best and holiest thing we can, in love of those around us and in homage to the principles we cherish.

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