Lately I have taken to answering questions regarding spirituality, anxiety, and depression. I thought I would share one of the latest questions I answered as I think it covers some of the common misinterpretations I see of Buddhism.
The question was basically along the lines of, “I just hate that Buddhism makes me depressed and doubtful these times. It does make me feel half-dead these days due to my past mental issues. What are your thoughts?“
They elaborated more with a long comment that I will spare the details of here. However they primarily stated that they do not like religion — especially Buddhism — because it restrains how one thinks to a large extent with peace-loving and kindness-spreading doctrines, and that one should only believe in science, etc.
They felt that Buddhism uses this goodness-spreading ideology to make us believe in the supernatural (which he references reincarnation and far-fetched ideas of karma).
Here was my response:
It sounds to me that this is more the way you are interpreting Buddhism than Buddhism itself. I’ve noticed that there is a big misinterpretation for one thing about what Buddhism means regarding transcending desire and the ego, in turn hopefully alleviating suffering that is self-caused (which then leads to you being more naturally “good” and peaceful).
The truth is, we are human and we will always have an ego and desires. We won’t always be peaceful internally or externally. Getting rid of either of those things or suppressing them is not the point. The point is to use meditation and mindfulness as a tool to strengthen the “observer” part of your mind so that desires and your ego do not control you to such an extent.
In other words, so that you can become better at simply watching the noise of your mind and your desires and therefore you are not strung around by them without any awareness or willpower. This premise in itself is very logical.
Reincarnation and karma are complicated subjects. It is really difficult to know whether reincarnation is real, obviously, but in my opinion it is not necessary to believe in that to grasp the core teachings of the Buddha.
Karma at its most fundamental level is simply cause and effect. Why it gets so complicated though is that with our human mind, we can only understand a certain level of karma that’s happening at any given time. For example we can clearly see: “I talked shit about this person and someone revealed it, and now they think poorly of me.” What we don’t always know are the more subtler levels of karma; for example karma happening even with our thoughts. If your mind is constantly negative, your life will reflect that externally in a myriad of ways that you may not see.
Again, meditation and mindfulness are a way to be able to enhance your awareness of this.
And then we have science which is still (and probably will always be) trying to grasp at the layers of “karma” of the universe itself. How one thing causes another, and another, and another.
Throw in the idea that our soul may possibly be an energy that is not destroyed after our body dies, and we can start to try to understand where karma could potentially be woven through a timeline longer than our currently Earthly identity (however again, it is not necessary to actually think about this for the mental wellness and freedom of mind that core Buddhism is trying to teach).
Karma however on its very fundamental level is crucial to understand. We have to be able to tune in and understand cause and effect, and the more aware we are of it, the more control we have over ourselves, our mental states, and our lives. Period.
In the world of humans, there will be a million different interpretations and practices of what they think Buddhism is or should be.
This applies to science as well. Anything in the world can only go so far as the human mind and technology has allowed for it. An unwavering faith in certain scientific explanations could potentially be just as bad as an unwavering faith in religious concepts. There is still much we do not understand and we must leave room for that no matter the subject.
The point is you don’t want to cling too tightly onto belief of any sort, and Buddhism does not condone doing so even if people have taken to different ways of interpreting its core message.
I believe your own self should always be your guide. But you will always be lost if you are clinging too firmly to a belief of any sort. The best way to strengthen your inner guide is by becoming more reflective. Learn to listen to yourself, your inner voice. You have one, believe me. Meditation is a great tool for doing that, and Buddhism can be a guide if it is interpreted properly.