Feb 24, 2006

Apocalypse Not

The last time I blogged on the old site, I gave my first reactions to the mosque bombing in Samarra. Bad news for sure, with a whiff of apocalypse about it. Thinking more generally about the background, I think it shows up one of the key ways in which theistic religions are different from non-theistic ones like Buddhism or Taoism. That is their conception of time.

Theistic religions usually have a definite story-line for the universe with a clear moment of origin (creation) leading through some various struggles between good and evil, to a clear moment of ending (the millennium.) This was certainly the case with what may be the grand-daddy of the whole genre, Zoroastrianism where the whole of history is seen as a struggle between more or less equal Gods of good and evil. With a cataclysmic

(Odd linguistic digression: when the old Aryan tribes split into an Iranian (Iran = Arya) and an Indian branch they went their separate ways spiritually. And they took each others gods as devils and vice versa. The Zoroastrian good god is Ahura Mazda, and the servants of the bad god were devils. The Indians called one class of demons Asuras and their gods, of course, were devas.)

And what was true of Zoroastrianism has been true for the three great Semitic religions. Judaism is waiting for the Messiah, Christianity for the second coming and Islam, at least the Shiite form, for the Mahdi, the returned twelfth imam. Who, incidentally, is believed by some to be due to appear at the Al-Askari Mosque in Samarra.

It's hard to get away from this conception. Even Marxism, which Toynbee called the "fourth great semitic religion" is at heart a millenarian belief.

Buddhism, on the other hand, doesn't generally concern itself with beginnings and endings. (But then, there's the Tibetan legends about Shambhala) In fact, the Buddha said that questions about ultimate origins, or about the infinity or otherwise of the universe, were pointless and unanswerable.

Instead of a story with a definite plot-line, Buddhism has mostly seen the universe as a beginingless and endless cycle. Sometimes westerners criticize Buddhism as having a negative attitude toward the world. This is misplaced. Buddhism doesn't see the world as evil, but as pointless. The key concept is samsara as a wheel, endlessly turning. Sentient beings are much like hamsters in a wheel, running hard and going nowhere. It's all been seen and done before, countless times. Another aeon as a Brahma god, feeding on bliss? How utterly tedious.

The theistic universe is like a bad movie; utterly predictable. It starts out happy and innocent and then something goes wrong, somebody messes up and eats an apple they shouldn't. Then there's various adventures leading to a scary and exciting climax with lots of action where the good guys are almost wiped out but triumph in the end to live happily ever after.

This would only be an anthropological curiosity, except that there are people out there who believe this stuff with a passion. And some of those people have nukes.

The Middle East is a specially charged cockpit of apocalyptic potential. All the theistic religions, passionate about their own one true stories, have points of reference all over the real estate there. And then there's the Americans.

We should be careful about being too self-righteous. It isn't unheard of for Buddhists to act intolerantly or aggressively. But at least, we don't generally think the end of the world might be a good thing. I guess it would be as pointless as everything else.

3 comments:

Ahistoricality said...

A quibble: Judaism, more so than the other theistic traditions, emphasizes not "waiting for" the messiah, but "preparing for" the messianic age. Though there are traditions (Judaism is rather hard to generalize about, particularly with regard to the more abstract teachings like messianism) that cast the messiah as a "savior," the more mainstream tradition makes the perfection of the world our responsibility, not a simple historical "destiny" towards which we naturally progress.

Shi'a Islam does have a strong messianic tone, but it's a minority position; Islam generally does have a "day of judgement" idea, but it's not a strongly historical concept.

I love the linguistic digression, by the way; that'll be useful next time I teach that period.

E.M. said...

The linked-to article (on the issue of Sinhalese monks calling for bloodshed) is really hilarious. Quoth Bhante Medhananda:

"Buddhist monks (elsewhere) have learnt fighting techniques like Kung Fu for their self defence. Therefore fighting for self defence is not against Buddhist principles,"

This is another grim indication of the state of Vinaya "interpretation" on the island; although it is rather amusing to note that Chinese (Mahayana) standards and practices are here being accepted as orthodox. I am reminded of the Thai monk "Bhante Kitti" (recently deceased) who came up with the doctrine that no bad karma arose from killing a Communist --and became very popular with the authorities as a result.

Having recently returned from Sri Lanka, all of this was painfully familiar.

I should add, in relation to the central theme of the article, that messianic "timelines" have been quite a bit more been important to both the folk-religion of Theravada Buddhism and even the written doctrine of the religion than most westerners are willing to recognise. While the cosmology is cyclic, it is preached as a "fixed cycle" in which the appearance (and disappearance) of a messianic figure is an integral part (e.g., worship of the next Buddha-to-be has a long history in every Theravada country; all of the Jatakas and commentarian tradition of previous Buddhas present the same "fixed timeline" with a clear messianic model; more subtle and pervasive aspects of this conception of time are revealed in Theravada astrology & prognostication rituals --still a very potent part of the popular religion today).

I do not think it is quite honest to say that Buddhists regard the timeline of history as an open, endless dissipation, in contrast to Theists; the differentiation is more sharp when we speak in terms of competing conceptions of fate (or, indeed, the role of gods in reltaion to fate) rather than contrasting their conceptions of time.

It would perhaps be more honest to say that Buddhists conceive of themselves as living after the arrival and departure of their messiah, whereas Theists tend to believe the crucial historical moment of their religion is yet to come (and may possibly arrive within this lifetime). Gombrich's old study (Precept and Practice) has many touching sketches of the extent to which the rural poor of Sri Lanka are resigned to living in a world that is (now) without Arahants, and will proceed as such on a fixed timeline that is beyond their ken or control.

Whether we speak of a cyclic or linear timeline of religion, the sequence of historical events is presented as a fixed order (that the difference doesn't matter much to the Theists is shown well enough by the Mormons, who believe that this is neither the first nor the last world, but one in a long sequence of divine creations, and that mortal men may be "elevated" to the status of creator-gods for future worlds; this may sound familiar to many Buddhists). The Jatakas have served to re-enforce this notion in the minds of Theravada laypeople for at least the past thousand years.

It may be "wrong", but that is the religion of Buddhism as it exists --both in practice and on paper.

Ajahn Punnadhammo said...

The linked-to article (on the issue of Sinhalese monks calling for bloodshed) is really hilarious. Quoth Bhante Medhananda:

"Buddhist monks (elsewhere) have learnt fighting techniques like Kung Fu for their self defence. Therefore fighting for self defence is not against Buddhist principles,"

This is another grim indication of the state of Vinaya "interpretation" on the island; although it is rather amusing to note that Chinese (Mahayana) standards and practices are here being accepted as orthodox.


One wonders if the good bhante would say the same when it comes to other Mahayana practises, like the ordination of women.