Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Our Culture Is the Serpent in the Garden of Eden

As told in Genesis, in the paradise that God created, man and woman were naked, but they were not embarrassed by their nakedness and they were one with all things.  The only thing forbidden to them was to eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.   They lived in a world where there was no knowledge of right or wrong, good or bad.  Interestingly, the paradise of Genesis is virtually identical with the Buddhist Nirvana.

But once they ate the fruit of the tree, they became aware of and were embarrassed by their nakedness.  They now had knowledge of value judgments; they were no longer innocent.  They lost God’s favor and were forced out of the garden into a world full of the frustrations of cravings, fear, and strife.

The Abrahamic faiths’ take on this story is that man is a sinner because he violated God’s commandment.  And that women are the causal source of sin because it was Eve who listened to the serpent and tempted Adam to eat the fruit; it is thus also a cautionary tale regarding sexual temptation.  Man can only be saved by obeying God, which is to obey the multilayered moral and ritual strictures of His religion (take your pick as to which one).  

But if one looks at the story with fresh eyes, without all the layers of religious interpretation by rabbis, monks, imams, and others, a different lesson takes shape.

The real lesson here is that the world of God is the world of innocence, where there is no good and evil.  There is no evil because there is no desire for what one does not have.  There is no good because man does not compare himself to others.  There is no good or evil because man is one with himself and all things.  This is the world of freedom from the known.  The point is not so much that God’s commandment was broken, but that because it was broken, mankind lost its innocence and the world was never the same.

Speed forward several millennia to the current age.  The world is filled with serpents, those who seek to entrap mankind with the knowledge of good and evil, of beauty versus ugliness, of every duality one can create.

The consumer culture on which our capitalist economy depends is based on people being manipulated by marketing into wanting more of what the masters of the world want them to crave and into thinking that a product will in some way give them entry to a better life by satisfying that craving.  We have all been taught that happiness comes from having what we don’t have and thus we have become creatures controlled by craving.

The political culture is based not on bringing people together but by dividing them into opposing camps.  Often fomenting ill will and at times even hatred towards those “others,” thus again manipulating the populace.  Political rhetoric today, such as it is, appeals mostly to the emotions, even when it is put in a form which sounds rational.

Even the prevailing religious cultures provide no refuge.  Religion, which theoretically should be the main advocate for peace on earth and goodwill towards all, instead has over the millennia been perhaps the major source of strife among mankind.  It has been, together and in concert with nationalism, the greatest divider and thus the greatest source of conflict.  And how convenient to fight others, exploit others, dominate others in the name of promoting God’s law, when in truth it is always about promoting the power of nations and individual men.  And to the extent that the fight was against “savages,” ironically those who were being “saved” often lived a life and had a culture much closer to the garden of eden than the warriors of religion.

Towards its own, religion has never really been a force to bring mankind back to the state of grace that existed in the garden of eden.  Instead, it has created a system of fear, using its own concept of good and evil to control its flock and build power and influence.  

In truth, though, none of this should be surprising.  Religion is after all, despite its protestations to the contrary, a product of man, not of God.  If it were the latter, why would there be so many different religions, all at odds with each other?  

Is there then no force in the world to help mankind return to a state of innocence, which is its birthright, and live in peace?  The only force I know is found in the teachings of the Buddha.  His teachings seek to enable man to perceive that all his suffering is caused by what he has learned from family and culture and that all this learned experience is empty of any intrinsic existence and has no inherent value.  When he perceives these truths, man becomes one with all people and things, has unconditional loving kindness and compassion for all, and experiences all things without the intervention of thought ... he is once more free of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil.  And when he reaches that state, all suffering and doubt cease.  (I must acknowledge that I am a practicing Buddhist.)

The Buddha was a historical person.  Why did this man do what other holy men have not?  Because he did not see his role as saving mankind by bringing him back into God’s grace through a renunciation of his sinning.  The Buddha saw his role as relieving mankind’s suffering by putting him back in touch with his true pure nature, thus ending his craving and bringing him peace.

But even here, the teachings of the Buddha are one thing ... Buddhism as an organized religion can at times be something quite different, witness the Buddhist mobs doing harm to Muslims in Myanmar, or even at times vying groups of Buddhist monks fighting with each other.  These are cases of men being Buddhists in name only.  They have strayed far from the teachings of the Buddha.

Indeed all religions ... including Judaism, Christianity, Islam ... have at their core the basic moral teaching of doing unto others as you would have them do unto you and most sought in their own way to bring mankind back to a state of grace because they are all based on the teachings of truly holy men.  But the basic teachings of most religions also created an us v them culture, and in the hands of less holy men the religious establishment has turned this aspect into the dominant theme of our world.

If we want to free ourselves from having tasted the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, if we want to experience peace and happiness, there is only one way, and that is to turn our back to the dominant culture and follow the simple truths of the teachings of the Buddha and the other religions, but disavowing any teaching that your religion is the only path to God.

One final note ... Eden was a place here on Earth, not a paradise one accessed in heaven upon death.  While there is no way, given the dominant forces and the conditioning of mankind, to ever achieve that state of innocence again here on Earth, we can each in our own small way create waves of Eden that spread out from each of us.