I joined the girls’ cell group at my church last Friday evening. I have been joining the girls cell group session since the start of the year because the guys’ discipleship group which I am in hasn’t been meeting regularly, and I was interested to get to know the girls around in my church a little better. Frankly, I find the gender segregation for cell group for youths around the same age group at my church somewhat inane. It has been that way since I was in secondary school because a youth leader who was at the church back then felt that this was the way in which the respective cell groups should be organized. I can partly understand the reason that gender segregation would allow for group members to talk about things that are personal to the respective gender group, but I thought it was unhealthy in the sense that it build barriers in socializing members of the opposite genders. Anyway, the church scene has changed somewhat in the passing years, along with the leaderhip in the church youth group. It is more autonomous now, and considering that most youths of yesteryears are now in their 20’s, I thought that there is somewhat more prerogative for individuals to choose who they want to socialize with at church.
The girls’ cell group was going through the second part of their comparative religions study on Buddhism. I had missed the study on the first part. They had previously went though comparative religious sessions on other religions like Islam and Hinduism. Typically, the session would seek to teach the basic tenets about the respective religion, and highlight inadequacies or unsatisfying aspects of the religion according to the view of the cell group leader.
The study session touched upon the concept of Nirvana in Buddhism. The handout prepared by the cell group leader defined Nirvana as the cessation of all conditioned thoughts and desire which are purportedly the root of suffering. It then went on to highlight the moral contradiction in the Buddhist doctrine of Nirvana by quoting from an excerpt from David Johnsons’ A Reasoned Look at Asian Religions:
“The moral contradiction is precisely this : A person should want to get saved from desire or selfishness. But wanting to save oneself is just as selfish as any other act for selfish ends. If a person wants enlightenment, he still wants. And wanting, desiring, is the very fault which prevents enlightenment.”
I have never really understood this aspect of Nirvana in Buddhism. It seems to me like a quasi-mythological concept in an otherwise philosophical and secular religion. Why does Buddhism speak of ‘entering Nirvana’, as if Nirvana is some place like the Christian Heaven, when it has been defined by some at least that it is simply a cessation of desire? I am also somewhat skeptical of the critic provided in the handout about the moral contradiction of Nirvana. For one, it appeals to me as somewhat nit-picky, or overly-semantic. So the wish to end desire is also a desire, therefore the contradiction. It is quite similar to another critique levied by some on relativism – “The proposition that everything is relative is an absolute, therefore the contradiction.” I used to be quite impressed with such identification of contradiction by virtue of self-reference, but I am less impressed now because I think that such critiques assume that the proposition must be treated as making an absolute statement. It can be dealt with if the proposition is qualified, such as qualifying Nirvana as being the aim to end all unnecessary desires instead of all desires, or such as qualifying that there are some things which are relative in nature, and others which are absolute. That way, there is no contradiction.
I just don’t wish to dismiss possible merits to the propositions of other religion or ideas simply on the pretext of some logical fallacy which seems trivial to me. And I think that Buddhism might have its valuable insights to offer if we don’t completely dismiss it for some of its radical views. On the one hand, I think it is radical that Buddhism suggests that all suffering is an illusion. I don’t think such philosophy is empathetic to those who are truly suffering. However, I think that Buddhism may be somewhat instructive when it talks about how suffering is a matter of perception. Well, I think that suffering is in someways due to how an individual perceives it. For example, two individuals may be suffering from the same illness or misfortune, but one is more affected by it than another. I think that it helps to have a good attitude and a healthy sense of optimism towards dealing with one’s misfortune or suffering.