11/04/2013 06:12 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

The Buddha, Science, and Religion

"This is the supreme thing in Buddhism; this law of nature is the Buddhist God. The law of nature is an impersonal God. Because Buddhism, in fact has a God, it is a religion." -- Buddhadasa Bhikkhu

The Buddha was born with a silver spoon in his mouth, raised in the lap of luxury and well into his teens when he was first shocked by the sufferings of poverty, illness and death. The shock inspired his spiritual quest that grew into one of the world's major religions. Buddhism is unique in that it was born from observation rather than revelation. The Buddha was a careful observer, interested in fact rather than speculation. He noted that there are three dominant characteristics to the human experience. It is unsatisfactory, impermanent, and essentially selflessness.

Everyone has a visceral understanding of dissatisfaction and impermanence because everyone knows the constant annoyances that are the stuff of everyday life. Everyone knows the futility of trying to find solid, permanent ground in the turbulent stream of constantly shifting perception and experience.

Selflessness is not so obvious. In the geography of human existence, the individual sense of self is the compass that each of us uses to find and orient ourselves to the world and it is the lens through which we see the world.

Take a city, Cleveland for instance. Cleveland is a very real place with a lot of infrastructure and a very real history with successes and failures that have given it a very distinct identity. It wouldn't be quite right to say that Cleveland is an illusion. Cleveland is about as real as a place can get. We know Cleveland as a city by its location on the map and the way we compare it to other places. Geographers use the term "relative location" to describe this way of knowing a place. Cleveland also has an absolute location. It is the land upon which it is built that is the ground of Cleveland's being. Cleveland is quite real. It is also quite artificial. The ground of its being, the land, is not.

Each of us has so many relative identities -- age, income, family, gender, profession. Identities accumulate and they change over time, with earlier identities bumping up against and mixing with present ones in a very confusing way. So much personal infrastructure needs so much maintenance. We all work from the basic premise that if we do things right and manage our infrastructure properly, we'll become successful and we won't suffer. If we do suffer, we believe it to be because we've either done something wrong or someone else has done something wrong. We just don't accept dissatisfaction as simple fact of life.

Nothing is more human than the desire to get what you want. The Buddha was just like everyone else. What really made him different was his ability to question the assumption that getting what he wanted would make him feel better. He realized that he'd always want something more and that when he got it, he'd want something else.

When you find yourself standing on a street corner in Cleveland, you find yourself standing on the very ground of Cleveland's being. You aren't really aware of it. You are aware of Cleveland. But Cleveland couldn't be there without it. When your eyes pop open in the morning and you are just simply aware that you exist, you are standing in the ground of your own being. You couldn't be here without. But you ignore it as we all do. The moment of awareness opens the floodgates of memory and desire. Your memories and desires are as real as Cleveland but they are also artificially colored, rebuilt and repainted, and repaired -- just like Cleveland.

A young woman, deeply grieving the death of her infant son went to the Buddha for help. He told her that he could help her when she returned to him with a mustard seed from a house that had not known death. She eagerly went out to get the seed but found nothing but disappointment. House after house, she heard on tale of inconsolable loss after another. As she moved from house to house, she learned that she was just like everybody else. She didn't need the Buddha and she didn't need to believe in a future reward in heaven. She just needed to get it into her bones that she hurt like everybody else and that everybody else hurt just like she herself. It is the understanding of the commonality of experience that is the religious experience.

Our mutual but inaccurate understanding that religion is belief in a particular creation story is a stifling bit of social infrastructure which supports an artificial morality that condemns and punishes people for how they feel and what they do, putting humanity at war with itself. When we understand, when we feel that everybody hurts just like we do a different kind of morality emerges that is a deeply felt compassion for the suffering of all beings.

When the Buddha sent the young woman on her quest for the mustard seed, he was giving her a very concrete meditation that forced her to witness her own suffering through the suffering of other people. When we stop or normal activity and sit down to meditate, we are forced to witness our personal infrastructure. If we have the patience and the courage to examine our thoughts as they spin themselves into one identity after another we begin to become aware that thought emerges from a ground of being which is simple awareness. We could not exist without it. In the watching of the self we become aware of the selfless. If we are diligent and lucky, we begin to take refuge in the selfless nature of plain awareness.

Then we can understand that our individual story is inconsequential. Personal histories have great utility in that they help us orienting ourselves in an artificial grid of space and time. It is the illusion that this grid is actually real with real losses and gain that causes us tremendous suffering.

One of the many dubious benefits the Internet and the 24-hour news cycle is our increased ability to quarrel with one another. It is a way to reach out and let our neighbors know how bitterly we disapprove of them. We do it because we haven't felt how much it hurts to carry harsh views of other people. When we look into our own anger and feel its claustrophobic grip we get to look at our self righteous anger.

We learn that our anger isn't righteous. It is just anger. It is the impartial witnessing of anger that its medication.

We begin to feel how much better it feels to be kind to other people. Becoming kinder means that our immediate corner of the world becomes a kinder place. This isn't speculative theory. This is an experiment you can perform for yourself. Watch the self doing what is does and see what happens. Be patient and give it the time and attention that science requires. This science just might open you to religion.