Suffering and compassion in Memphis

February 17, 2011 in How does Memphis test your Faith? What gives you faith in Memphis?, Question of the Week by Mark Muesse

What tests my faith in Memphis? What gives me faith in Memphis?

A discussion of “faith” probably makes more sense for practitioners of the Abrahamic traditions than for Buddhists and others whose worldviews do not depend on belief. While faith is a principal way of understanding one’s participation in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, it is not a central category for talking about Buddhism. Buddhism is not founded on faith. The Buddhist traditions do not ask anyone to accept creedal statements, scriptures, doctrines, or beliefs on faith. Rather, Buddhists are encouraged to discover the truths about the world and themselves by what can best be described as an empirical method. The Buddha himself insisted that those who would follow in his way should not accept what he taught on his authority but on the basis of their own experience. He told them:

Do not accept anything simply because it is said to be revelation;

Do not accept it merely because it is traditional;
Do not accept anything that is hearsay;
Do not accept anything because it comes from sacred texts;
Do not accept it only on the grounds of pure logic or because it seems rational;
Do not accept it because you agree with it after reflecting on it;
Do not accept it on the grounds that the teacher is competent or simply because he is regarded as “our teacher”;

But when you know for yourselves that these things are wholesome; that these things are blameless; that these things are praised by the wise; and that these things, if undertaken and practiced, lead to benefit and happiness, then you should accept them and abide in them.

Thus, Buddhism does not ask anyone to take a “leap of faith” in the face of absent or ambiguous evidence. Only those things that can be verified by experience, that one can see for oneself, are items in the worldview taught by the Buddha.

To ask, then, how Memphis tests one’s faith is not a straightforward question for a Buddhist. The question seems to ask what is it about Memphis that makes it difficult or challenging to maintain belief in god or other transcendent reality. One thinks of Job and how he was able to keep his faith in the god Jehovah despite his many tribulations. But since the practice of Buddhism does not depend on remaining faithful to a god, the city of Memphis cannot present a challenge to Buddhist “faith” in that sense. To the contrary, Memphis provides ample confirmation of the fundamental precepts of the Buddha: that suffering is a pervasive fact of life as we know it and arises because of the human tendency to live in self-centered and self-serving ways.

To ask about faith in Memphis, however, is a question that does not require such a carefully parsed answer. Here, faith is used in a different sense to inquire about the aspects of the city that inspire confidence and hope rather than support or challenge belief in higher realities.  In this sense, what is heartening about Memphis is its abundance of people of goodwill and compassion. For Buddhism, the basic answers to life’s problems lie in fully acknowledging the transience of existence and practicing kindness toward all beings. It is gratifying to see that there are many in this community—people of every religious persuasion as well people of no religious persuasion at all—who manifest this basic orientation in their willingness to work toward solutions of common problems and promote the deeper understanding of differences. There are many here who recognize the destructiveness of self-centered living and the tremendous suffering it entails. To be sure, the city has a long way to go—as we all do—to expressing fully our compassionate natures. But for Buddhists, compassion and wisdom are our fundamental qualities as human beings. Whether or not we always act wisely or compassionately does not change that. Everyone is capable of immense kindness, although years of selfish living sometimes make it hard for that quality to come to expression.

Buddhism has no ambition to make others Buddhists or to ask them to accept a different belief system. It merely enjoins everyone to sharpen their attentiveness to the way the world is and to observe compassion toward one another, irrespective of belief, ethnicity, gender, class, or any other socially constructed distinction we impose upon our lived experience. There many here who live their lives in such a manner, and that is a good reason for keeping faith in the city.