Why we must carefully avoid attachment to substitutes for God, beauty, & other symbols of the eternal: There’s nothing wrong with valuing beauty & benevolence in human experience, as long as we don’t deify, reify, or get attached. But we must understand why we crave them, & what the alternatives might be.
“He perceives gods as gods. Having perceived gods as gods, he conceives gods, he conceives (himself) in gods, he conceives (himself apart) from gods, he conceives gods to be ‘mine,’ he delights in gods. Why is that? Because he has not fully understood it, I say.”1
We crave order, stability, predictability. We want to believe in a benevolence that inheres in the nature of things. As we mature, we seek to transfer the answers to these needs and wants from our parents to some other source of safety. Our inborn ability to detect agency in the world, combined with these needs, has led to a common feature of human cultures, namely deities, “higher powers,” and so on. The amazing, historically rapid increase in our scientific and technical mastery of our physical environment —verging on terrifying—has had two consequences that bear directly on how we cope with the existential needs just described.
First, our ability to truly believe in the idea structures, metaphors, and language games created by our cultures prior to the last century or so have been severely compromised. The level of cognitive dissonance we must accept if we want to maintain such beliefs continues to rise steadily, with no end in sight. To put it bluntly, our old tricks for suppressing the fear of inevitable death don’t work any more. Some know this consciously, others—far worse for them & for us—only unconsciously.
Second, there have been, broadly speaking, two responses to this. The first is to double down on the beliefs, creating enormous pressure to compartmentalize the mind into everyday rational/pragmatic and irrational/magical-thinking sections; this is how you can have fundamentalists who use cell phones and fly on airplanes, and even use these to kill people who threaten the stability of their inherently unstable belief systems. The second category of response is to modify the language game, substituting more abstract, less literal ideas for the traditional cultural metaphors that simply extend or replace concrete notions of parents, order, beauty and benevolent deities. This thread goes back a long way in human culture, but has expanded beyond traditional religious systems, for example with the Romantic movement and its precursors that flowered at the end of the 19th century.
Many contemporary Buddhists in the West have either accepted traditional fundamentalist interpretations of Buddhist texts (cultural beliefs & practices associated with various traditions), or been swept up in this second category of responses, filtering & adapting their interpretations of Gotama’s teachings through the lens of Romantic tradition. Just as there is a reason that deities usually come in “mother” and “father” forms (including in later Buddhist traditions), there is a reason Romatic poetry figures prominently in many of the Dharma talks you hear these days. It is a way of appealing to both the fundamentalist & Romantic responses, without overtly committing to either one.
I submit that this is an unfortunate misunderstanding of what Gotama taught. Even when cleverly disguised as “the sublime”2, this approach carries with it the same increasing pressure of cognitive dissonance as the first response of fundamentalist doubling-down. It does not avoid dukkha, psychological suffering, but rather leads toward more of it. Moreover, I believe that Gotama, through his strategy of understanding the dependently arisen nature of experience, offers a pragmatic solution, when combined with meditative development of calm, concentration and insight. Seeing anattā clearly—experiencing the world without a sense of a fixed self—we can dissolve attachment to the need for a sense that human-focused order, beauty, and benevolence is part of nature. At the same time, the wholesome types of order, beauty and benevolence, cultivated by humans toward other beings, can be seen, and how they alleviate dukkha can be directly known.
That is the subject of the following essay.
1 Mūlapariyāya Sutta, MN 1 (Bhikkhu Nanamoli & Bhikkhu Bodhi, The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha.)
2 Stephen Batchelor, After Buddhism