Sunday, March 2, 2014

The fine line between nothing matters and everything matters

An acquaintance of mine and I used to often chant, "It just doesn't matter." We would look at the ways of the world and think to ourselves, "Seriously?"

Because in the larger scheme of things, nothing really mattered. We were all going to die some day. Whatever wealth (or debt), reputation, knowledge, even friendships that we gathered along the way during this journey of life, the bottom line was we will die and all that will be lost. Food for worms we would become.

It is a beguiling notion and, unsurprisingly, many Buddhists succumb to the siren's call of nihilism. In fact, in my "Buddhism" list on Twitter, I saw this Tweet:

"The problem with dinner banter is most people don't want to hear your views on how nothing matters."

It's difficult not to believe at times that the point of living is dying, or as Jake Shears of Scissor Sister so eloquently sings: "Happy yesterday to all, we were born to die."

Is that really all there is to it? Because if it is, then I don't give a shit about the debts I run up, let the poor suckers I leave behind deal with that. If the banks want to extend me that credit, then fine, I will use it to the max and not give a shit because in the end, when I'm dead, they ain't getting nothing.

Or is that all there is? Perhaps we are all born to die, but is that it?

Ah, nihilism, come here my pretty.

Buddhism is filled with practices and concepts that are frequently co-opted by the opportunistic and simplified to such an extreme that one's delusions become strengthened rather than eradicated. The concept of "mindfulness" is one in particular, as exemplified here (please be aware that I cite Justin's post not because I have any "skin in the game" regarding the Google busses, etc., but because it's an excellent example of how mindfulness gets dumbed-down into an elite practice of showy privilege).

Perhaps the most misinterpreted teaching of the Buddha's is that to the Kalamas, which is often distorted into a justification for doing whatever you can rationalize as being OK. As the venerable Bhikkhu Bodhi wrote:

"On the basis of a single passage, quoted out of context, the Buddha has been made out to be a pragmatic empiricist who dismisses all doctrine and faith, and whose Dhamma is simply a freethinker's kit to truth which invites each one to accept and reject whatever he likes."

This is nothing new. During the Buddha's lifetime there were others who confused the Dhamma for a doctrine of nihilism. In the Vajjiya Sutta, a group of wandering mendicants make such an assertion:

"Now wait a minute, householder. This contemplative Gotama whom you praise is a nihilist, one who doesn't declare anything."

Interestingly, it's the lay follower Vajjiya Mahita who corrects these wandering mystics:

"I tell you, venerable sirs, that the Blessed One righteously declares that 'This is skillful.' He declares that 'This is unskillful.' Declaring that 'This is skillful' and 'This is unskillful,' he is one who has declared [a teaching]. He is not a nihilist, one who doesn't declare anything."

By declaring there are skillful ways to do things and unskillful ways to do things, the Buddha is quite clearly stating that yes, things do matter. Our actions matter. They matter because the intentions we form prior to our actions matter. The Noble Eightfold Path is all about the right ways to do things, presented with the understanding that there are wrong ways to do things. Or, the better way to explain it, there are skillful means and unskillful means. There are desired outcomes and outcomes to be avoided. The more we choose skillful actions, the more we experience desirable outcomes.

And none of this requires a belief in an afterlife. Being aware of that, the Buddha skillfully taught how we can "hedge our bets." By acting in accordance with the Dhamma, we're covered whether there is or is not an afterlife, whether there is rebirth or no rebirth. And clearly, we can experience the fruits of skillful living during our life now, as revealed in the opening verses of the Dhammapada.

The nihilist can speak with such aplomb about the fact that we all die and there's nothing that comes next. Yet, we do everything we can to extend whatever time we do have, to extend every moment of happiness we experience, and to avoid every unpleasant situation. This all becomes less frenetic once we become aware of the fact that we are where we are because of what we did in the past, and if we want to enjoy a happy future, then we need to pay attention to what we are doing right now in this moment.

Because it matters.


  1. You say, "and there's nothing that comes next." That hits the nail on the nail on the head. We never really know about anything including when we depart, but we do how we can affect others good or bad. Bad or negative action only bounces back on us double, and I am finally getting it, albeit s l o w l y paying attention. Thanks for this post.