Posted by: yannaungoak | October 28, 2009

Critters and Beliefs

So, I’ve just moved house this weekend. The new place is in a more posh neighborhood but has nothing like the atmosphere of the old place. And what’s more, there’s no cheap food courts!

At the old place, we had a bit of a problem with bugs. Well, actually, not really a problem, because they were never annoying or plentiful enough to attract our attention for long. It was these little things about an inch in size, I don’t exactly know what they’re called, but lets just call them cockroaches for the purposes of this post:


Solitary creatures, they usually appear late at night from out of nowhere crawling along the floor or the walls. They’ve never appeared more than one at a time, so at first I thought there was only this one bug in the whole house. Being taught from a young age not to squish bugs for pleasure, I just let it roam around as it pleases and somehow developed an affinity to it.

The funny thing was that the first thought that came into my mind after I kept seeing the little cockroach roaming about a couple of times was that, it could very well be a reincarnation of a dead relative or something. It’s absurd, but that’s exactly what I thought, in all seriousness. I was actually considering that as an actual possibility. This is odd, because I’m usually quite dismissive of supernatural beliefs, and have gotten in many a debate with people from all walks ardently defending science from the nefarious ideas of mysticism.

I think it reveals something about my religiosity. When people ask me what my religion is, I have a hard time answering. Because, yes, I was born a Theravada Buddhist and I still am, in many ways. I practice the rituals, I have a deep respect for its philosophical and ethical teachings, but I’ve always had a problem believing in mystical cosmic concepts like karma and reincarnation. Also, I think the everyday conception of these concepts by the average practitioner of Buddhism is just dead wrong, in the sense that they have deviated from what was actually said in the Buddhist scriptures. For example, the popular conception of karma is analogous to Christian conceptions of sin, where you get punished for doing bad and rewarded for doing good. But that’s not how it was originally meant. Karma just means “action”, or more specifically, “intentioned actions”. It says that every intentioned act is like planting a seed, which will eventually grow into a plant as a consequence of you planting it. There is no cosmic enforcer of “karmic law”, it is just the natural consequences of your actions.

Unlike in Christianity or Islam, Buddhists do not have ready access to their holy book in their native language. Instead, the Tipitaka, or the compilation of all of Buddha’s teachings, is a series of humongous books that fill out several bookshelves. What’s more, the Theravada version, at least, is only available in Pali, and not in Burmese. This means that Buddhism is much more of a monastic tradition, where we rely on the monastic order as a liaison between the scriptures and the practitioners. As a result, it’s rather easy for the “popular view” of certain teachings to be way off the mark from their actual meanings. The situation is analogous to something like Physics, where there is a elite class of physicists who have been trained for many years in the discipline, and then there’s the laypeople, who only learn about physics from popular writings. Nevertheless, even though the average person doesn’t understand it, they would still claim to “believe” in Relativity or Quantum Mechanics. But, the question then becomes: when someone says they believe in Karma or Quantum Mechanics, are they saying:

  1. That they do not know what it actually means, but nevertheless they still believe it because they have faith in the monastic or scholarly community, and as a result, they believe whatever it is that monks define as karma or physicists define as Quantum Mechanics? OR
  2. That they do have in their mind a popular understanding of karma or Quantum Mechanics, and when they say they believe in the concept, that they are saying that they believe in that “popular conception” and not what “it actually means”? OR
  3. They believe in both the popular and the technically rigorous definitions? This last point is logically inconsistent, because obviously, if the popular conception is different from the technical definition, obviously both cannot be true. So, it makes no sense to believe in both.

Well, yeah, that’s some food for thought. As for me, if you ask me “Do I believe in Buddhism?” I would have to say, “well, not really, but, yeah, kinda”. This is because I know that the popular conception I have of Buddhist concepts are “wrong”, and it would be weird for me to believe in something that I know is wrong. But at the same time, I don’t have a conception of what the technical definitions of the Buddhist concepts are, and so I am not prepared to say I believe in them, because it will be weird for me to believe in something and yet at the same time not know what it is that I believe in.



  1. Nobody can know what exactly something means, which makes any system axiomatic in some level. Faith and belief can be axioms in a self-sufficient system but the other way around is not necessary.

    Who would draw the line between popular and technically rigorous definitions anyway in the first place if not for the already accepted positions of authority on truth? So I don’t think you can really question about definitions without risking trust on the authority because once you differentiate the difference, you automatically accept that you believe in that trust. But once you question on authority, you’re not in an axiomatic system anymore.

    i don’t know if i made any sense.

    • I agree mostly with this… but I think the important point to make (which is kinda what Yan is saying) is that to say that you’re a Theravada Buddhist assumes that you understand it the way monks do, not just as a lay person infusing your buddhist thought with animism, superstition, etc.

      People have this problem everywhere, and is a growing concern/problem with Christianity, which is why there are a bazillion branches. People want an authority to back up their beliefs. So in Christianity, there’s probably a sect that fits your general beliefs, where in buddhism, you are just a lay person, and your own beliefs are never addressed in this way.

      It’s something that people really want… an authority for their beliefs… they feel like it validates their beliefs, and also, provides a sense of community….

      The bottom line is that people want to trust someone to tell them what to think. It’s a hell of a lot easier than doing all the thinking yourself. And we all know how much Yan hates thinking 🙂

      • Yeah, I kind of see what you’re saying. But belief system is one that requires constant re-evaluation, almost comparable to linguistic self-system, almost attitudinal, almost ideational in, let alone pragmatism, conceptual assimilations. That’s why there’re many interpretations. I think we are vulnerable to an extent to accept some misery in life.

  2. I think you articulated the frustration felt by many young Burmese.

  3. So I saw this article in the newspaper this morning and remembered your little ‘dilemma’ over carbon credits while buying your ticket to s’pore.

    You know, that lao gan ma woman is supposed to be a multi-millionaire, no? She reminds me more of Colonel Sanders than Mcdonalds.

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