There’s an argument going on in one particular blog circle: Personal Failure, Michael Mock (both atheist), and Former Conservative (liberal Christian) are arguing with Red Cardigan (Catholic) about atheists and philosophy.
Red Cardigan has chastised atheists for not being particularly interested in philosophical questions like “Why are we here?” or “Why is there suffering?” She says, “The part that frustrates me is that people from the dawn of human history have grappled with these questions, not finding them either frivolous or evidence of clinical depression.”
True, many people throughout history have. But many people have not. I’m reminded of the Buddhist parable of the arrow. According to the story, the Buddha was repeatedly asked philosophical questions by one of his students. At that time, Hinduism was going through a time of intellectual exploration, and there were many questions to ask. After a while, the Buddha got tired of questions about dualism vs. monism, reality and illusion, and the immortality of the soul. This was his response:
It’s just as if a man were wounded with an arrow thickly smeared with poison. His friends & companions, kinsmen & relatives would provide him with a surgeon, and the man would say, ‘I won’t have this arrow removed until I know whether the man who wounded me was a noble warrior, a priest, a merchant, or a worker.’ He would say, ‘I won’t have this arrow removed until I know the given name & clan name of the man who wounded me… until I know whether he was tall, medium, or short… until I know whether he was dark, ruddy-brown, or golden-colored… until I know his home village, town, or city… until I know whether the bow with which I was wounded was a long bow or a crossbow… until I know whether the bowstring with which I was wounded was fiber, bamboo threads, sinew, hemp, or bark… until I know whether the shaft with which I was wounded was wild or cultivated… until I know whether the feathers of the shaft with which I was wounded were those of a vulture, a stork, a hawk, a peacock, or another bird… until I know whether the shaft with which I was wounded was bound with the sinew of an ox, a water buffalo, a langur, or a monkey.’ He would say, ‘I won’t have this arrow removed until I know whether the shaft with which I was wounded was that of a common arrow, a curved arrow, a barbed, a calf-toothed, or an oleander arrow.’ The man would die and those things would still remain unknown to him.
Right now, you’re alive. Worry about how to live. The meaning of suffering is less important that the fact of suffering. Maybe there will come a time to worry about the afterlife, but it is not now.
(Of course, it should be said that there were something like eighteen schools of Buddhist philosophy within a century, much of it very abstract. Apparently not many people took this lesson to heart.)