Did you kiss the dog you love
When you were a little child?
Will you lay in the arms of
Some sweet reverie a while?
—Jim White, “A Town Called Amen”
When we “hold this sacred,” what do we mean?
We put it above all else. We create a kind of purity that should not be spoiled; it is a moral issue, since it is behavior—ours or others’—that might spoil it. Underneath this, though, is the lurking knowledge of our mortality. We hold something sacred because we want to use it as a talisman, a charm, a protection against the ultimate impermanence, our own death. Because of this, the sacred becomes both vital & fragile, in danger, in need of defense. We will likely visit some form of violence (social &/or physical) on those who violate it. If it is not held pure, then its magical efficacy is in doubt. It can no longer protect us. This is why maintaining it becomes literally a matter of life and death, something people are ready to die for or kill for.
While this interlocking set of ideas is relatively easy to spot in established wisdom traditions, some version of it pops up in even the most contemporary habits of thought. When Ray Kurzweil assures us that we will be able to upload our minds to a computer, and thus achieve immortality, it takes the form of the idea that digital technologies will save us. It is the conviction (demonstrably false1) that the mind is an information processor that is being held sacred, as part of the idea that science itself is sacred; its self-correcting design is the token of its deity; its ability to produce “truth” (about the material world) is held inviolable; its superiority to any other way of approaching the human existential situation is held sacred and defended at any cost.
In contemporary Buddhism in the West, the notion that there is something “sacred” survives in various forms. As more and more scientific evidence emerges that the teachings of Gotama have measurable physical and psychological benefits, the need to defend something beyond (or beneath or above) those mundane truths seems to become stronger. I once heard one of the leading lights of the Western mindfulness movement urge a group of people who support one of its institutions to make sure to preserve “the sacred, whatever that may mean.”2 The lack of specificity in that statement, and in many other discussions I have witnessed or become aware of, seems to highlight that this is a felt need rather than a well-defined idea of the sacred. When interrogated, this need shapes itself into something like Romanticism, “interconnectedness,”3 Vedanta teachings of nondualism, nature worship, art, and so on, depending on whom you ask. Many Buddhists feel that they need something sacred; but Gotama would call this craving & clinging, a kind of bhava-upādāna, clinging to becoming or being, or to a view about the eternal.
But ultimately most traditional wisdom systems and the current empirical/scientific hegemony work in the same ontological way: First, establish what exists, and by inference what does not exist. This becomes “Truth.” Based on this Truth, one elaborates systems of deciding what is the best course of action in any given situation. The initial rationalizations for certain feelings & needs become codified into a set of spiritual laws & ethical norms. Because this is linked back to some version of “the sacred,” we feel we have achieved the greatest possible solidity for the foundation of the fortress that defends against thoughts of our mortality.
For reasons that I will elaborate, I do not think this is how Gotama thought about it. His empirical, phenomenological pragmatism takes a completely different approach to the human existential problem, one that, properly understood, avoids the cognitive dissonance between a materialistic, scientific culture and the human nature that fears death and clings to the sacred.
The fortresses of most wisdom traditions, as practised, are in fact built on the shifting sands of cognitive dissonance. Our existence is a flux, and somewhere deep inside, we know this. No intellectual construct, no pile of information, facts, “knowledge,” or sacred rituals can change that. Subtly, constantly, quietly but insistently, we hear the voice of impermanence speaking to us: “This body will die,” it says, like the dark, minor-key tone of the breeze in the trees as a storm approaches. Like the deep gray transparency of an overcast afternoon, it is a question and an answer all in one. The question repeats, and the answer is always the same. We make our raft from scraps of various sacred rituals, well-worn ideas, the memories of our parents’ warm embrace, the childlike wonder like a worn piece of old blanket kept at the bottom of a pocket. But all around us, as far as the eye can see, out to the end of the circle of imagination that moves with us wherever we go, is the endless empty sea. Deep in our hearts, no matter what beliefs we profess, we know the truth.
That is our existential truth; that is why we create the sacred.
The purpose of these essays is to offer another way of relating to these thoughts and feelings, one that does not build a fortress on top of cognitive dissonance, on needing something to exist eternally or be sacred in the way I have described. Preserving, reconstituting or tweaking some existing understanding and articulation of “sacred” won’t work in our empirical, materialistic age. The power of cognitive dissonance is too strong, and resisting that pull while clinging to old beliefs tends to cause very bad behavior by human beings, even those who may have all the appearances of being deeply spiritual and advanced in their understanding.4
1 See for example The Empty Brain
2 Jon Kabat-Zinn at BCBS donor event July 9, 2016
3 This term is frequently conflated with paṭiccasamuppāda, dependent arising, which is a completely different idea, one of Gotama’s diagnostic tools for seeing the origins of suffering, whereas “interconnectedness” is a Romantic idea in which pity for suffering beings is mistaken for karunā, compassion.
4 For example, Buddhists in Burma (e.g., Sayadaw U Pandita & others speaking disparagingly about Muslims), Thailand & Sri Lanka have spoken & acted in uninspiring ways that seem in conflict with their nominal spiritual stature.