Saturday, September 28, 2013

The Ultimate Failure of Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Life


Rick Warren wrote an amazingly successful spiritual book, The Purpose Driven Life.  According to amazon.com, it has sold more hardback copies than any other non-fiction book in history and it is the most-translated book in the world, except for the Bible.  Recently a new edition was published.  

If so many tens of millions of people have read his book, where is the great change that should be occurring in the world?  The point is that it isn’t.  It’s like the Bible.  Untold millions of people have read and reread the Bible, many with great fervor, but there are precious few who truly walk in Christ’s shoes, who do what Jesus would do.  The same is true for Jews and those of other religions.  As the saying goes, they may talk the talk, but they don’t walk the walk.

What is going on here?  Why are there so many people who are reborn Christians or are similarly reconnected with other religions, and yet we have seen no increase in peace and love, in the lack of suffering in this world?  If anything, this reconnection to spiritual roots seems to have increased the divide among people, the us v them mentality, that is so endemic among the religious evangelical or ultra-orthodox.  Perhaps that’s because it’s much easier to focus on their love of God, their sense of community, and the form or rituals of religion rather than the essence of His teaching.

To examine the book’s ultimate failure in this regard, look for example at Day 16 of The Purpose Driven Life.  Warren notes that God expects us to love others, even those who may be difficult, and even those who are not members of “God’s family.”  He states that this is vital to our purpose here on earth, that without love our other actions or abilities don’t matter, noting that God has commanded us to love one another and that we must show it by our actions.

This is a beautiful thought.  I, and I’m sure many others, have written similarly about the transformative nature that the teaching, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” would have on the suffering in this world if only it were followed.  Yet despite the fact that it is the moral cornerstone of every major religion, its essence is uniformly dishonored, ignored by most of humanity, regardless whether religious or not, rich or poor, educated or not, a leader or a follower.

Why is this so?  The answer is simple ... our ego controls what we do, our every action.  The product of all our learned experiences ... whether from our family, our peers, or the larger culture that form our environment ... it is very powerful, entrenched in our minds.  Every feeling, perception, and judgmental thought is a consequence of that training, that conditioning.  It is the only “I” we know.   And it is from our ego that we usually divine our purpose, unfortunately. 

If we attempt to do something which is not in line with what our ego wants us to do, we find it almost impossible to make any progress.   And clearly, the messages of “love your neighbor as yourself” or “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” run counter to what most of us have learned from family, peers, and our culture.  Instead, it’s all about “me” ... doing whatever is necessary to get ahead and achieve one’s goals.  It’s about competition.  “It’s a dog eat dog world, and I’m not the one who’s going to be eaten.”  

So the answer to the question of why millions of people have read and sincerely believe in The Purpose Driven Life as well as the Bible and yet their actions towards themselves, their family, and the world around them have changed hardly at all, continuing to inflict suffering on themselves and others, is that Rick Warren’s book, as well as the Bible, does not confront the issue of how to surrender your ego to God.  Not to speak of some other higher power such as the god inside you or your true Buddha nature.  

That's because he and the Bible treat our "temptations" as the voice of the Devil, and his solution is to resist the Devil by humbling yourself before God and quoting scripture to the Devil when you are tempted.  But while being born again may be very effective in freeing oneself from an addiction, like George W. Bush’s alcoholism ... something large and visible which causes damage to oneself ...  it often has little impact on reducing the hold of the seven deadly sins (lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, and pride ... oddly, the list does not include anything about doing harm to others), and it has little or no impact on all the other aspects in which the ego manifests itself in one’s everyday life.

It’s just not that simple.  One must first acknowledge that all these forces, regardless where they originated ... family, peers, culture, the Devil ... have become part of us through our ego.  They are thus at the very core of our self-image, our concept of "I."  That acknowledgment is the starting point.

I can personally attest that even for someone who has practiced Zen Buddhism for almost 20 years and meditates every day, feeling truly at one with all beings, being free of all one’s hot buttons and fears, is a real challenge.  It requires constant vigilance and discipline.  For as soon as one is distracted and lets one’s guard down, the ego sees an opening and seizes the moment.  One is never totally free of it for it is a part of us.

That said, if one addresses the ego as Buddhist teaching does, one slowly evolves to a point where the negative impulses towards ourselves and others are replaced largely by feelings of love and compassion.  It frees us to recognize and perform what is our real purpose in life ... to offer others joy and help relieve the suffering of others.  

And by so doing, we experience joy ourselves.   Feeding our ego never brings us real joy because it always needs something more to be satisfied.  That is why in our culture one can never be rich enough, powerful enough, sexy enough, young enough, etc.  The messages we receive from almost every outlet of our culture feeds and strengthens this aspect of our ego.  

Listening to the sound of a different drummer, to your true self, is a huge challenge.  But it can be done.  For books, a blog, and an advice column on freeing oneself from one’s ego, go to my website, www.thepracticalbuddhist.com, by clicking on the Self in No Self book icon in the right margin.

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