Buddhism, a Religion Based on Not Giving a Fuck?

Buddhism Not Giving a FuckThis picture got posted on my Facebook wall (why is it called a wall?) last week. Apparently it’s one of those things that’s been making the rounds on the Internets lately judging by the number of comments it had attracted even before it reached me.

I don’t even want to get into the implied racism of choosing to illustrate this idea with a photo of a bucktoothed, bespectacled Asian with his head bowed submissively. Instead I’d like to focus on the caption.

First off, Buddhism is definitely not a religion based on not giving a fuck.

Someone posted a comment on this photo correcting it to “doctrine based on not giving a fuck” and someone else said, “Not a religion idiot.” But the problem isn’t whether or not Buddhism is a religion. That really depends on how you define the word religion. No, the problem here is about whether or not Buddhism is about not giving a fuck.

I’ve been doing some soul (or lack of soul) searching to try to figure out how exactly it got to the point where so many people imagine that Buddhism is about not giving a fuck. Here’s what I’ve come up with.

For one thing, Buddhism actually doesn’t give a fuck about a lot of the things that are considered by most religions to be extremely important. For instance, in Buddhism it doesn’t matter what you believe. I have to qualify this, though. Because there are Buddhists out there who do think it matters very much what you believe. Stephen Batchelor writes about his struggles with these kinds of Buddhists in his book Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist. Batchelor was once part of a Tibetan-based Buddhist organization who cared very much about what he believed. I myself was called an anti-Buddhist by some who thought that my non-belief in what they called “literal rebirth” made me a heretic. But those Buddhists were confused and wrong.

Buddhism is not a belief system. It has a cosmology attached to it. But it’s not crucial to the practice that you believe any of that stuff. Gautama Buddha was concerned with relieving human suffering. He didn’t see any reason to think that belief played any great part in dealing with the pain he saw as inherent to existence.

Nishijima Roshi likes to say, “The only thing I believe in is reality.” That kind of belief is important to Buddhism. But that’s not what most religions mean when they talk about belief. Those other religions (or doctrines or whatever) want you to believe in things that you can’t verify for yourself. Deepak Chopra articulated this recently in one of his Twitter postings. It said, “Only the invisible is truly real.” That’s the complete opposite of Buddhist belief. We believe in reality, not in invisible stuff whose existence is found only in ancient books.

Buddhism also does not give a fuck about worship. There are no gods up there in the sky who demand compliments and gifts. We do sometimes bow down in front of statues. But we don’t do this because we believe the statue craves our praise. We bow to something higher within ourselves that the statue represents.

Buddhists also don’t give a fuck about certain behavioral issues other religions think of as terribly important. For example, I don’t know of any Buddhist organizations who oppose gay marriage. The Dalai Lama famously said that he thought homosexuality was a violation of the Buddhist principle of not misusing sex (I happen to disagree). But even Mr. Lama said it was not a very great violation and that if people were happy in their homosexual relationships he didn’t see any terrific harm in them. Abortion is not a major issue to any Buddhists that I’m aware of. The teaching of evolution in public schools doesn’t matter much to most Buddhists. In fact, unlike most other religions, Buddhism has no fear at all that science will one day come along and disprove its basic tenets. On the contrary, Buddhism embraces science.

But I’m not sure this is quite what the caption on the photo of that bucktoothed monk was referring to as not giving a fuck. I think whoever made that image may have perceived Buddhism as having a very casual attitude toward pretty much everything in life. He probably perceived Buddhism as a religion that had enshrined the attitudes of stoners like the guys from Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure as its ideal.

But that’s not really it. Or maybe it is. But it’s not quite the same, I think. I actually like Bill and Ted and have quoted them  as people (albeit fictional ones) whose philosophy is worthy of respect. “Be excellent to each other” is a great sentiment. But the real world people upon whom Bill and Ted are modeled are usually people whose system is too full of THC for them to be able to care about much of anything. They’re so unfocused that nothing can possibly matter because they’re too numb to their environment to care much about it.

Buddhism is about being extremely aware of everything that’s going on. By becoming more aware of reality, you also become aware that your own thoughts are not so important. This means that you can have as many fears, worries, neuroses and so forth as you want. You just don’t really care very much about them because, after all, they’re just thoughts.

It seems to me that for most people “giving a fuck” means being intensely wrapped up in your own thoughts. Buddhists don’t learn how not to worry. They learn how not to worry about being worried. It’s not that we don’t care. We care a lot. But we also see what our real role is in the things we care about.

Buddhism is not a philosophy of complacency.

There is a huge difference between accepting things as they are and being complacent or apathetic. I definitely want to change the world. I seek nothing less than to completely overthrow the current society, which is sick and depraved and headed for disaster. I give a huge fuck about that. But I’m not going to do it fast and I’m not going to do it alone. In fact, I will be dead and gone long before things change in the way I know they must.

But that’s not enough to make me simply lie back down and say, “fuck it.” I take action. But my action doesn’t seem like much. I meditate every day and I teach others how to meditate. I write. I give lectures. I devote all of my life to making the world better. But I do it in ways that probably seem small and ineffective to those who have a different definition of what “giving a fuck” ought to look like.


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75 Responses

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  1. Broken Yogi
    Broken Yogi July 12, 2012 at 12:47 am |

    Oh, I do give a fuck about some things, like conversation and friendship. Way too much probably.

    And for what it’s worth, I find your and other people’s criticisms useful. The topic itself is useful. I don’t feel like I’m being attacked, so I don’t feel like I’m defending anything, I’m just trying to answer your questions honestly. This is just conversation among interested friends as far as I am concerned. We are friends, right?

  2. Fred
    Fred July 12, 2012 at 7:16 am |

    The question is what is psychotic delusion, what is illusion and what is insight?

    They could all be the same.

  3. Ted
    Ted July 12, 2012 at 8:04 am |

    I think there are a couple of ways one can look at practice that don’t work. One is to look at practice in terms of what I should be doing. This doesn’t work because it presupposes some “me” who “should” be doing something, instead of focusing on the “me” who “is” doing something. It can lead to a lot of guilt tripping and self-flagellation.

    Another way to look at practice that doesn’t work is the sort of blind faith attitude that always used to piss me off as a kid when my Christian friends threw it in my face: don’t question it at all–just have faith, just do it.

    I don’t think this works either, because even supposing we have perfect faith in the teacher, how do we know we’re actually following his or her instructions if we don’t think about it? And furthermore, if we have perfect blind faith in the teacher, how do we know that what the teacher is telling us to do is trustworthy?

    But then there’s the other attitude that I think doesn’t work: oh, I’ll just make it up as I go along. This is just like having blind faith in the teacher, only the teacher is you. How do you know you’re trustworthy without analysis?

    So when someone tells me they don’t give a fuck about their practice, I worry that they are making one of these latter mistakes, rather than that they are correctly avoiding the first mistake I mentioned.

  4. Broken Yogi
    Broken Yogi July 12, 2012 at 8:21 am |


    I’m sorry I’ve gotten you all worried about my practice. I can’t possibly say I haven’t made the mistakes you are describing, because if I have, I wouldn’t know it. I do think I’ve made every mistake possible at one time or another, including the mistake of worrying about whether I’m making a mistake. As I said before, my practice involves letting go of such self-concerns and worrying. Call it the Alfred E. Newman buck-toothed smiling Asian approach to practice. What I noticed is that trying to practice, and concerning myself about my practice, never actually produced much in the way of practice. I get better results from not trying to practice, or giving a fuck about it either way. Of course, what do I know? At least there’s less dukkha and tanha, and isn’t that the whole point?

    I prefer Nisargadatta’s attitude about practice, which is:

    M: It is the urge, the hidden motive that matters, not the shape it takes. Whatever he does, if he does it for the sake of finding his own real self, will surely bring him to himself. There is no need of faith, which is but the expectation of results. Here the action only counts. Whatever you do for the sake of truth, will bring you to truth. Only be earnest and honest. The shape it takes hardly matters.

    Q. Then where is the need of giving expression to one’s longing?

    M. No need. Doing nothing is as good. Mere longing, undiluted by thought and action, pure, concentrated longing, will take you speedily to your goal. It is the true motive that matters, not the manner.

  5. boubi
    boubi July 12, 2012 at 11:22 am |

    Fact is that buddhists don’t give a buck.

    BTW when you announced your financial difficulties on the other site, i wrote to the other froggie, for lack of your mail, about a couple of ideas of lectures on how to make a few buck playing the synergy with SG. Just ask him.

  6. Ted
    Ted July 12, 2012 at 11:54 am |

    Don’t worry, BY, I’m not losing any sleep. Just enjoying the discussion.

  7. Ted
    Ted July 12, 2012 at 11:56 am |

    (Er, also, I think your quote from Nisigardatta is quite eloquent.)

  8. Alan Sailer
    Alan Sailer July 12, 2012 at 11:58 am |

    “This picture got posted on my Facebook wall (why is it called a wall?) last week.”

    I did not spend any time contacting Facebook to get an actual answer, but it seems very plausible that it’s called a wall because in the physical world people often tape, pin, nail or otherwise fasten photographs to a wall.

    The virtual world often uses terms borrowed from the actual world.


  9. jyoung
    jyoung July 12, 2012 at 12:08 pm |

    I think it is true that some people have the view that those who call themselves “Buddhist” don’t really care about the environmental and social issues going on today. I think that is why there is a rise in people being interested in socially engaged Buddhism which calls for more action apart from meditation alone. I have read Derrick Jensen and he is a big one for saying that Buddhist beleive thoughts of loving kindness are enough to stop the current environmental destruction of the planet. I think he has a point but I also know that most of us do a lot more than “sit on a cushion” but I think there is a need for greater social and enviornmental action by those who identify as Buddhist and the population in general.

    Thanks Brad for this site and a way to share our view points on many subjects.

  10. misterfurious
    misterfurious July 12, 2012 at 12:23 pm |

    Gotta love Mr. Chopra.

    Hey Brad, you know how much of your money issues would be solved if you just went around saying stupid, nonsensical, pseudo-mystical shit like, “Only the invisible is truly real”? That’s like saying, “The only animal that is real is the Unicorn.” People obviously eat that shit up. In fact, you could do it ironically, and your long-time followers would be in on it and everyone else would think you were serious. Come on, morals and ethics are for pussies anyway….

  11. Ted
    Ted July 12, 2012 at 1:46 pm |

    jyoung, what you say is very true, but there’s a second face to it: people who want to make the world a better place often are not capable of doing so because they are so ruled by attachment. I was an activist before I started practicing Buddhism, and that’s probably part of what drove me to Buddhism: activism often isn’t very effective. I remember working to stop the rebuilding of the old Oak/Fell connector to 101, because it was such a blight on the Lower Haight. We got the law passed, and the very next election a neighborhood association from out west got it repealed. The end result was a win, but it was a painful process, and one of the rare processes that actually produced the outcome my group of activists wanted. You see the same kind of thing going on in modern politics—people can’t see past their ideologies, and get attached to things that don’t matter and squander huge amounts of effort and public trust trying to make the wrong thing happen.

    This is not to say that there are no good deeds to be done, but even when you look at foreign aid, it does not always serve the declared purpose. So a savvy Dharma practitioner puts his or her focus on the practice, and lets acts of kindness arise from the practice, rather than trying to make a practice of kindness.

  12. Broken Yogi
    Broken Yogi July 12, 2012 at 2:40 pm |

    I’m not one of those people “who believe thoughts of loving kindness are enough to stop the current environmental destruction of the planet.”

    But I do believe that not thinking, and not craving, and generally reducing the number of fucks given (I love that term as a unit of psychic attachment) will lessen both environmental destruction and the general fucked-up-ness of the world.

    If you look at the problem of environmental destruction, it is generally caused by people giving a fuck about a whole lot of things. People who are against environmental destruction think the solution is to “out-fuck” those people, by giving even more fucks about environmental preservation, or to get people to switch their fuck from one side to the other. But the general effect of giving a fuck about anything is to introduce a violent opposition into the situation, and that generally just makes things more fucked up. It increases the number of fucks being given, whereas the goal ought to be to decrease the total fuck quotient. It ought to be to help people see that the best way for them to live is to give less of a fuck about the things that cause environmental destruction in the first place, and that really can’t be done just by shifting fucks around, one has to stand by the principle of reducing fuck all.

    So my view is that starting with oneself, and reducing the world’s fuck-all quotient from square one, helps everything more than one’s giving a fuck activism ever did. One can even still be an activist, but one who not only doesn’t give a fuck, but uses not giving a fuck in a positive way to encourage less fuck-giving all around. It can actually be contagious or have spooky action at a distance, if one really doesn’t give a fuck. But just thinking thoughts of loving kindness won’t do it. Giving a fuck isn’t even what loving kindness is actually about anyway. Best to just chuck all that concerned thinking.

  13. Fred
    Fred July 12, 2012 at 3:46 pm |

    Concerned conceptual thinking arises in duality. Everything is arising.

    Do “you” think that “you” can influence the way the play of impermanence

  14. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote July 12, 2012 at 3:50 pm |

    I also think the Nisargadatta quote is eloquent.

    Ted, I enjoy seeing your picture, humor and humility is what I see and I wish I had one to match. Like Khru’s picture, which we hope makes a return soon!

    “I think that is why there is a rise in people being interested in socially engaged Buddhism which calls for more action apart from meditation alone.”- jyoung

    I think people who fit in well in Zen and other meditation centers are blessed in that they generally get by on a vegetarian diet and not a lot of sleep, work hard, and provide a place where others can experience satisfaction from the inside instead of from the outside. I’ve always believed that experiencing satisfaction from the inside was the real key to transforming my life and my society, as opposed to overt action to alter the consequences of unregulated capitalism. That doesn’t mean I don’t vote, and sign petitions; I do.

    Does mean I have to keep those “vague, fuzzy, indistinct, half-remembered memories that I nevertheless know are memories I never had before” happening, even if I cannot see the reason in them.

  15. Broken Yogi
    Broken Yogi July 12, 2012 at 4:21 pm |

    ‘Do “you” think that “you” can influence the way the play of impermanence

    In duality, everything affects everything else. No man is an island. The quality of our presence here effects everything. That means the quality of our intention and motive is what counts most. If we are living in conflicted “giving a fuck” mode, that is what we add to the world. If we reduce that, we have “helped” the world simply by not fucking it up. Our ego may be an illusion, but it’s an illusion that can do some real harm.

  16. Fred
    Fred July 12, 2012 at 4:45 pm |

    “Our ego may be an illusion, but it’s an illusion that can do some real harm.”

    Yes, I suppose that an illusion with an honorific title in Buddhism gained
    through wealth creation for a Buddhist organization could brain wash an illusion
    who was never allowed to leave his side into thinking she was a goddess.

    And fornicate with this illusion and other illusions under the rubric of spiritual
    purification and ultimate enlightenment.

    The illusion of insight became a psychotic delusion.

  17. Fred
    Fred July 12, 2012 at 4:48 pm |

    “The illusion of insight became a psychotic delusion.”

    Any examples of this in the Adi Da camp?

  18. Broken Yogi
    Broken Yogi July 12, 2012 at 9:49 pm |

    “Any examples of this in the Adi Da camp?”

    OMG, how many grains of sand are there on the banks of the Ganges?

    Do you really want to go there?

  19. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote July 13, 2012 at 12:09 am |

    Fred, I read that post following up on the tragedy in the desert, and I was not impressed that there were any new facts.

    I don’t see it the way you do; the way I see it, these folks are trying to follow their bliss and help others to do the same. There’s a real difficulty in communicating anything meaningful about practice, and some people have a natural talent that doesn’t serve them when they try to communicate with people who don’t have a natural talent. Or even when they try to communicate with other people who have a natural talent, but one that is truely different from theirs.

    The best teachers teach mostly by means of a kind of remote viewing in real time, and they know when they do.

    do you wish you were them?

  20. Fred
    Fred July 13, 2012 at 11:52 am |

    Mark, here’s a look at it from the inside:


  21. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote July 13, 2012 at 1:48 pm |

    OK, that’s interesting about his path diverging from that of his teachers.

    I’ve read that Kobun asked three times for permission to go to the U.S.A., and three times his teacher refused him. Traditionally in Japan, if the teacher refuses three times you must obey his wishes. Kobun left for America. Nevertheless he and his teacher did complete the transmission ceremonies years later (inka?).

    I guess there’s no similar ceremony in Tibet?

    Then there’s the whole notion of people who are given permission to teach, like Philip Kapleau, but refused inka (in Kapleau’s case because he insisted on chanting in English at his center in New York).

    No similar authorization to teach in Tibet? Is any monk considered qualified to teach in the Tibetan tradition?

  22. Ted
    Ted July 14, 2012 at 12:05 am |

    I would think that the Geshe ceremony would carry a bit of that weight, but no, the focus in Tibetan Buddhism is on the student being careful about what teacher to choose, not on some lineage giving teachers permission to teach. This comes with its own set of problems, of course, but it has some good effects.

    Pabonka Rinpoche is rather famous for breaking with tradition by teaching laypeople, for instance. If he’d had to obey the hierarchy, that wouldn’t have been possible—he would have been restricted to teaching monks.

  23. elifair
    elifair August 1, 2012 at 5:34 am |

    FYI: The monk in the photo is Venerable Geshe Kelsang Gyatso. He is the founder of the New Kadampa Tradition. This tradition and its leader are at odds with the Dalai Lama, although the two monks studied under the same teacher when they were younger. An interesting story.

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