Rectifying Buddhism does not rest on investigating Buddhism's historical claims of the Buddha's supposed virgin birth, unlikely childhood and early adulthood, or subsequent spiritual discipline and enlightenment. It does not rely on the heavy dose of skepticism that would naturally arise from an examination of Buddhism's cosmology, pantheon of buddhas, bodhisattvas, and hungry ghosts, and claims of mass enlightenment at the word of a patriarch. Neither does it require challenging the specious claims of lama authority and succession or all the ways in which Buddhism picked up East Asian cultural biases. All of these elements of Buddhism can be demolished and yet Buddhism would still stand - and stand stronger without that baggage. While Christianity rests in large part on the weak link of Jesus's historicity, let alone unique divinity, and Islam hangs on the thread of revelation, Buddhism is at bottom based on its examination of finite and infinite.
Buddhism is not a religion exclusively based on faith, historical events, or hagiography; and adherents attracted and limited to those elements aren't likely candidates to rectify its philosophy. Since it is primarily based on intellectual investigation and ultimately on direct self-realization, challenges must primarily be philosophically oriented. These difficulties are compounded as a result of Buddhism's emergence from a more ancient tradition grappling with highly sophisticated reflections on existence unfamiliar to most Buddhists, not to mention most humans. Buddhism's sophistication is a sign of depth of thought, but it also turns Buddhism into something like an excessively complex watch that is hard to fix when broken.
Many misunderstandings crept into Buddhist when philosophical declarations serving as models of finite-infinite distinction were thought to qualify ultimate reality. Emptiness, in particular, is referred back to so often that it is hard to tell whether Buddhist writers are referring to emptiness in relation to their phenomenal existence or emptiness as a positive aspect of nirvana realization. It has come to the point that comparisons can be made between Buddhism and the Dark Age Christian ideal of seeing life merely as an opportunity to slowly kill oneself. This is a sad commentary, but the positive representation of self-knowledge would distance Buddhism from this degeneration.
What is emptiness? Nothing positive or negative about the infinite, or nirvana, can be absolutely declared. The ancient Vedic concept of emptiness was a little of both, attempting to be neither. Emptiness is understood in relation to the four divisional misperceptions of space, time, causation, and individuation. The infinite is "empty" of these misperceptions. The infinite is also empty of the substances of atoms, prana, and causal ideas. It is a negative positive statement, but in no way does it seek to belittle any range of existence where a division or substance appears.
Nirvana is not void or voidness or empty, to be precise. These designations are only useful for those whose avenues of knowledge are limited to the mind, feeling, and the five senses. Further, stressing voidness ad nauseam becomes a depressing psychological paradigm for Buddhists who do not adequately comprehend the purpose of such an attitude. Instead of stressing the positive realization of the infinite, they focus on the negative, as it what it is not, what is lost, life is void and empty, etc.
Joseph Goldstein, who authors Buddhist flavored books on Insight Meditation, writes, "The moment of opening to the unconditioned, nirvana, confirms most deeply the liberating emptiness of self. In that moment we come to zero." He is poorly describing nirvana from the vantage point of the narrow, individuated self. More properly expressed, the infinite is empty of narrow selves. It is empty of individuation. But stressing this negative appreciation of the infinite to readers who are not likely to have developed a healthy self repeatedly results in increased self-deprecation.
Technically, he is not wrong or incorrect, though it is a bit "empty" on substance, which leads one to think that Goldstein does not fully understand the ancient theory of self from where Buddhism emerged. How much less will his readers? One clue that he does not fully understand what he is saying is that the opposite could be said and still be true. He could be speaking of the fullness of self and the moment "we" come to everything. And if he went with the opposite, though it would still be weak on substance, at least the narrow self would not use the material in psychologically destructive ways - again, a common occurrence in Buddhist circles.
When comparing the descriptions of nirvana given by Buddhist spiritual leaders with the states of self-knowledge as described by modern and ancient yogis, including the Buddha, it's clear that Buddhism focuses so much on the negative of the path to nirvana because it lacks real masters that had realized the positive of nirvana. Anyone can preach emptiness. Like love, it is an easy and alluring ideology, especially for vulnerable people who want distance from endless Western theological assertions crowding their minds. But most Buddhists, who are influenced by the writings of little more than students on the yogic path who are nevertheless approached as authoritative lamas, rinpoches, and meditation masters, assume that anything positive, like bliss, is but a way station on the path to nirvana that is eventually consumed in some Cosmic Emptiness. What is more accurate is that nirvana is a state of infinite bliss, infinite self-knowledge, which has not actually been attained by the plethora of Buddhist scholars that write on it.
Here is Goldstein again: "Ecstasy can mean different things, and it can come from many different causes. In the course of meditation practice, ecstatic feelings often flood our consciousness when our mind is pure, bright, and luminous. Although they may be wonderful feelings, they arise because of certain conditions and will eventually pass away.
"There is another kind of ecstasy. It results from the wisdom of emptiness, of seeing the impermanent, insubstantial nature of all phenomena, where there is no clinging, no attachment, and no fear. In this experience, we become one with the unfolding process of life. This oneness is quite subtle, because it is the oneness of becoming zero."
To be blunt, Goldstein doesn't know what he is talking about. The bliss of nirvana does not result from seeing the impermanence of the phenomenal world. This statement reminds me of Thomas Aquinas, who declared that the joy of heaven comes from seeing all the denizens of hell. Besides the fact that you'd have to be a pretty sick puppy to be attracted to a religion that tells you that you are one big zero (which is probably why Christianity is so good at prepping people to become Buddhists), Goldstein can't help but describe even his ecstasy in negative terms. Logically, anything so absolutely negative can be described in similarly absolutely positive terms. Both descriptions are facile, but when the only positive thing you can say is that the experience is subtle (meaning it is subtle to him and he's not that familiar with it), maybe you're out of your league. The mastery of the finite senses and mind is needed in order to realize the infinite, but nirvana requires no wisdom of emptiness; that wisdom is for those, like Goldstein, who are still plodding.
A reader who is not well informed may easily conclude, when putting down the Buddhist book and picking up the book on yoga, that the bliss of samadhi is but a passing show on the way to the zero of nirvana. The eighth step of the Buddha's and Patanjali's path is samadhi, but Goldstein implies that the bliss of samadhi eventually passes into emptiness. This is incorrect inasmuch as samadhi is the very technique of expanding the narrow and sense-bound awareness to the infinite.
The bliss of nirvana is not created or conditioned by cause and effect. Samadhi destroys the cause and effect that limit the intuitive capacity. The bliss of nirvana is not a feeling nor is it a function of the mind, even a pure one. Further, it is an unconditioned bliss, so it is not dependent on certain conditions. Neither is this bliss subtle; finding the self stretched over galaxies in roaring infinite bliss is not a subtle realization. Describing ecstasy in any other manner amounts to little more than an equivocation.
But becoming zero must have a purpose. What is the purpose of being empty of attachment and fear? These are all practical attitudes on the Buddhist path, but toward what end? If nirvana is the end, why is it the end? Goldstein's book is dedicated to the happiness and liberation of all beings, but why do we want happiness or liberation? What are we being liberated from anyway?
Attachments and fear are narrowing patterns of nervous energy and sense awareness. They squander energy and limit the intuitive capacity. Abstaining from food or speech in order to conserve energy in no more asceticism than abstaining from energy-wasting habits of thought and feeling. Zero is not positive, but at least it is not the negative of depleting one’s energies on patterns of behavior that limit the intuition to finite avenues to knowledge.
None would want liberation if liberation were merely the end of suffering. Death, where the possibility of rebirth is ignored is also zero, empty, and the end of suffering. Atheists will attain to such a state through death according to their philosophy, and they certainly do not need to meditate to get there. Suicide is a great deal faster, so why bother with the slow suicide of passive insight meditation? Seeing the impermanence and insubstantial nature of phenomena hopefully does not culminate in platitudes that vaguely describe how wonderful our lives will be either. It is the positive attainments, if any, which give liberation any meaning.
Yogis like Paramahansa Yogananda differ greatly from Buddhist writers who routinely hide behind words that promise little and result in less. In the technique of the third Kriya initiation he writes, "The advanced student, by the power of samadhi, can feel the universe as his own body...His consciousness perceives all motion and changing life, from the circling of the stars to the fall of a sparrow, and the whirling of the smallest electron." One hardly finds in Buddhist literature such a positive description of the attainment of universality. It is as if the Buddha in nirvana is still limited to the five senses, but is fine with that for he sees the emptiness of the phenomenal world. There is a lot more to liberation than that.
Goldstein again, "We could be in a later stage of pain, in which the practice is deeper than it was in an earlier stage of bliss. So pleasant or painful feelings do not indicate how well your practice is going." Remarks like these cause me to shake my head in disbelief. What is going on here? This is a gross misuse of the word bliss, where it can be compared with something pleasant and relative to something painful. If this is a snide reference to the bliss of yoga, it is underhanded and subversive. If Goldstein had a moment of breathless samadhi, he would, like Aquinas, value all his previous writings to straw. But let’s let him keep his word.
The realization of ananda (infinite bliss, or translate it as you like), which drowns all pain and pleasure because it is not known through finite, dualistic avenues to knowledge, is not a beginner's stage in meditation. With the ananda of samadhi, the yogi immediately withdraws the awareness into the spine and up the brain in infinite self-knowledge free of the perception of a narrow body, breath, and sensory world.
Buddhists like Goldstein consistently describe the indescribable in relation to phenomena - specifically the emptiness of phenomena. They are so dogmatically focused on their path that they confuse it for self-realization. In their defense, they do not claim to have the samadhi of the yogi, but at the same time they presume theirs is the way to liberation and disregard the self-mastery of yogis.
How can anyone write on Buddhism in the last fifty years without grappling with the words and lives of Yogananda, Ramana, and Ramakrishna? If a Native American medicine woman insightfully discusses finite and infinite, Buddhist thinkers must respond, for that is the crux of their religion. So it is that even as one cannot honestly contend with Buddhism without discussing finite and infinite, one cannot honestly present Buddhism without entering into dialogues, originating in whatever source, on finite and infinite.
Once the mind ceases to grope after thoughts, sensations, etc. what happens then? This psychophysical practice, which is not limited to Buddhist and predates Buddhism, can be precisely called pranayama because it conserves all the energy that would normally be running after the world. But then what? Where will the prana, and with it the mind and senses, go? If the prana is not directed into the spine and up to the brain, then where will it go? If the breath-watching or "mindful" meditator does not actively direct the prana, or the mind, back on itself, it will eventually find a way to stretch out toward the world of the senses again.
Goldstein writes that liberation means to let go of suffering. He writes, "Enlightenment means purifying our mind and letting go of those things that cause so much suffering in our lives. It is very down-to-earth." Very well, this is enlightenment for most of Buddhism today. But this is not self-knowledge. This is not the state of the Buddha. This is not nirvana. This is not samadhi. This is not yoga. This is the method to enlightenment.
Buddhism as an organized religion, though philosophically much closer to yoga than other religions, is one of the worst enemies of yoga because it parades itself as yogic when it is far from it. Perhaps exercise yoga is worse because it actually uses the name yoga, while Buddhism does so less frequently. Still, it uses the same words and symbols - meditation, enlightenment, Buddha, nirvana, liberation, self, ego, desire, freedom from suffering, bliss, ecstasy, and numerous Sanskrit and Pali terms - but it uses them in very different ways. In all ways, it is the religion of enlightenment, selling tickets to enlightenment like a church sells indulgences or passage to heaven.
In closing this discussion, it is inspiring to recall that after the decline of the Upanisadic tradition, the Buddha was born and in some small way restored it. After a few centuries, Buddhism began to decline as well. Eventually, Adi Sankara came and invited Buddhists back into the fold of Vedanta. But this did not help the Buddhism of East Asia, which had long since left India, and has since come to the West.
As Buddhism is now a popular religion in the West, it is difficult to cut through the wall of pride and intellectual conceit that Western Buddhists routinely exhibit. But Adi Sankara faced the same difficulties when confronting Buddhists, and so did the Buddha in the Brahmin of his time. Piercing the wall is done by striking at the heart of the issue: What is the infinite, what is the avenue to nonfinite knowledge, and what is the test of infinite self-knowledge?
While a few scholars have lightly touched on the limitations of Buddhist thought as it is exported from East Asia (Toynbee, Buber, Fromm), no one with wide readership has yet come forward to bring the discussion to mainstream Buddhism with sophistication and call Buddhism on its gross failings. Further, Toynbee's assessment of Buddhism leaves much to be desired, and other philosophers hardly gave it a glance because translations were not easily available. This is tragic for many followers of one stripe or another of Buddhism, as everything decays that is not challenged in some meaningful way.
Then again, with other pressing issues facing humanity, perhaps all efforts are too little too late. The narrow Buddhist identity, like the narrow identity with any religion, is not prone or quick and sharp enough to question sacred beliefs. On top of this, the time may be short, considering that ecological devastation, wars over dwindling resources, and over population will eventually make converts of us all to the religion of survival. In that regard, rectifying Buddhism or any religion is practically a luxury.
But where rectification of an attitude toward the finite, at least, improves our approach to personal, societal, and global issues, none of us has the luxury not to participate.