This may come as a surprise to many, but apparently near the end of last year golfer Tiger Woods found himself in the middle of a sex scandal that was covered extensively throughout almost every news outlet. During all this, a sub-scandal erupted when Fox News correspondent Brit Hume said that Woods should convert from his previous religion of Buddhism to Christianity, as Christianity offers more forgiveness than Buddhism. Woods did not convert and, in fact, during his public apology for all that had happened, discussed his adherence to Buddhism and an intention to reapply himself to its teachings in an effort to change how he was living his life.
Bill Maher later commented on Woods’ apology, saying that Buddhism as a religion is “outdated” and that “the -Life sucks, and then you die.’ This philosophy was useful when Buddha came up with it around 500 B.C., because back then life pretty much sucked, and then you died - but now we have medicine, and plenty of food, and iPhones, and James Cameron movies - our life isn’t all about suffering anymore. And when we do suffer, instead of accepting it we try to alleviate it.” And this is really where this article begins. Is this true? Have advances in science and technology improved the condition of life on this planet to the point that as a species we no longer suffer? If so, does this cause Buddhism, and by extension other religions, to become outdated beliefs that humanity should throw out?
I personally do not think so. While it’s true that, especially in the first world, we have reached an advanced enough level of technological sophistication that human beings as a whole live longer and live lives less prone to disease, thus decreasing physical suffering, the phenomena itself of physical suffering has not been eliminated. We all still get old, get sick, and eventually die, and up to this point there has been no exception to this.
In addition, I think that we still suffer a great deal mentally and existentially and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. Smartphones, iPods, Facebook, and Twitter all help us distract ourselves from this more subtle form of suffering, but they do not take it away. We still feel anguish, we still feel uncertainty, and we still feel resentful when we want things that we can’t have. In fact, as the things that we want grow more complex, the angst that we feel when we don’t get them seems to increase as well. We have various psychotropic drugs designed to alleviate mental suffering, though once again it still exists and is only lessened, not taken away. So, for lack of a better phrase, life still sucks, not necessarily in the same way as it did 2500 years ago, but enough that this is still a defendable statement.
Looking forward, specifically looking towards a transhumanist future, our technology and understanding of science will probably improve further from the point that they are at now. This will bring with it less disease, longer (possibly indefinite) life spans, and more advances in eliminating physical suffering. Thinking in the arena of smart drugs and the like, we will have further control over our mental states. Eventually, we may reach a point where humans (or our descendents, whatever form they may take) are immortal, hyperintelligent, and don’t suffer from mental illness. However, I don’t know if we will ever be able to overcome the mental suffering we all experience. We will still probably argue with those we love, want things we don’t have the ability to get, and experience stress from most of the same factors we have experienced it from since the dawn of time. Smart drugs can help, but unless we use them to numb ourselves completely from any sort of feeling at all, I don’t feel that we’ll be able to eliminate mental and existential suffering.
Bill Maher’s summation that Buddhism is founded on the principle of “Life sucks, and then you die” is true to an extent. Traditionally, the first teaching Siddhartha Gautama espoused was the life is filled with suffering. If this were to change, if we were able to create a world in which no one ever suffers, then Buddhism would become antiquated, and it would be obstructive to the further development of humanity or posthumanity. However, in many ways I think that suffering may be integral to the human experience, that it is a natural reaction to a world that does not always operate in the way we want it to. The core of Buddhist thought has always been learning to live in such a world, and both now and in the future it appears that the world will not conform itself to our desires. In this respect, Buddhism as a philosophy has a continued usefulness to the human race and, as our technology becomes more complicated may offer even further use. As the phenomena of suffering diminishes, the times when it occurs are felt more deeply, and in that way not throwing the philosophy away may greatly improve lives in a transhumanist future.
By Andrew Cvercko and Kris Notaro
Artwork by Alex Grey