The basic idea of Buddhism, as I understand it, is that our lives are filled with suffering caused by attachment, a special kind of deluded desire for oneself to be permanently united with an object. This desire is deluded because it rests on false metaphysical beliefs in (1) the permanence of external things and (2) the existence of a persisting self. We try to grasp onto things with the intention of having them permanently, but this is impossible both because external things are impermanent and because there is no persisting self that can have them.
Luckily, Buddhists suggest, we can let go of these beliefs through meditation. This can help us to notice how the world, as we perceive it, consists in a flow of constantly changing experiences. And it can also help us to notice that there is no persisting self that is having these experiences. We are inclined to identify ourselves with our thoughts, but we can see in meditation that thoughts are just more experiences that come and go.
Are these ideas correct?
Well, I think it’s true that our lives do involve a lot of suffering, and that suffering is indeed caused by desire. If I didn’t care about anything (including any physical sensations the Romulans might be giving me), then I wouldn’t suffer. (I think suffering just means something like being averse to what you think is going on.)
But I’m not sure how much my desires (to focus on my own case) really count as attachments. Here are some things I want: I want to be physically comfortable, I want to go on runs, I want to hang out with people, I want to do things that other people find useful. Comfort and runs and hanging out are nice; I want there to be more of these experiences rather than less. And being useful just means helping other people have nicer experiences. None of these desires seems to require anything permanent. Of course, I might want, for example, to be comfortable for as long as possible, in which case permanent comfort would be ideal, but that doesn’t mean my desire is really just aiming at that permanent state.
I’m also not yet convinced that my natural metaphysical beliefs are actually as false as Buddhists suggest. Of course, nothing is permanent, and everything is constantly changing. But I’m not sure how far I was ever really inclined to believe that anything was permanent. What I am inclined to believe is that a lot of things persist intact for a long time. And on reflection, I don’t see what reason I have for rejecting that belief. True, my perceptions of these things can change radically from one moment to the next, but the external world exists independently of my perceptions. I also think that I do exist as a persisting thing. That thing, again, is a physical human being. That’s the thing that’s having my experiences, using my brain.
Even if I don’t think the Buddhist picture is generally right, does it nevertheless contain valuable insights?
I think so. While I think the self does exist (it’s just the whole organism), I think the Buddhists are right to suggest that we shouldn’t identify the self with our thoughts, and that meditation can help us overcome the tendency to do that. And detaching ourselves from our thoughts is useful. If I identify myself with my internal monologue, then I’ll feel committed to anything I think, just as I’d want to stand behind any claim I made in public. (This applies both to thoughts expressing beliefs and to thoughts expressing desires.) But if I see a thought not as something that I myself have asserted, but just as something that’s appeared in my brain, then I can let go of it more easily. And that’s a good thing, because a lot of my thoughts are just momentary impulses that I wouldn’t want to endorse on reflection.