Dave Chappelle Buddhism

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The Buddha

We may never know what prompted the producers at Saturday Night Live to schedule Dave Chappelle as the host of the first show after the presidential election. It was their good luck, the nation’s good luck, that a large enough majority of voters in 2020 chose the qualified candidate so that we could eject the most overtly racist president in our history from office. The majority of our presidents owned slaves before the Civil War had the effect of causing us to prohibit legal slavery in the United States, but racism was the norm then and entirely uncontroversial. Challenging racism was controversial, until the African American civil rights movement of the first half of the 20th century made the allegation of racism the most grievous insult one could hurl in our political culture.

Chappelle is the current favorite Black comedian of white America. As far back as Moms Mabley, white Americans have had a favorite Black comedian, reflecting no doubt at least in part the prominent feature of our racism that white people like Black people when they entertain.

Since the civil rights movement, Black comedians have had much more leeway to make race an explicit part of their humor. Richard Pryor is a famous predecessor to Chappelle as a Black comedian who explicitly included race in his work on Saturday Night Live. Eddie Murphy is another.

Chappelle takes this interesting tradition a step further by being very explicitly critical of white people as a class and about racism. He has been highly successful as a comedian despite, or because, he is willing to be very explicit about what he thinks, even when his thoughts are likely very controversial. In his monologue, notice how the audience laughs and applauds, but somewhat hesitantly, after a brief pause. They seem slightly stunned even as they are amused.

His mother is a Unitarian minister, but his religious beliefs are not terribly important. He starts his monologue by invoking his great grandfather, who was born a slave but later learned to read and devoted his life to education, freedom for Black people, and the African Methodist Episcopal church, a major Black Christian denomination. Black people developed, by necessity under slavery, a distinctive version of Christianity that is importantly different from white Christianity.

Regardless, Chappelle can still offer a useful model for Buddhists. He tells jokes about “white people” that elicit sometimes hesitant laughter from the white people who typically predominate in his audiences, by necessity, since ours is still a mostly white society. Various Black artists have had great success by appealing primarily to Black people, but Chappelle has very broad appeal, as hosting Saturday Night Live indicates.

Just as the most demanding teachers are often very popular with their students, one way to be very popular as an entertainer is to be brutally honest.

This is the model the Buddha used. In the four noble truths, he told other humans that, at the macro level, human life sucks, and that it sucks because of how we think and act. He followed up this bad news with some good news — you can choose to think and act differently, with the result being that you will stop the seemingly endless cycle of death and rebirth that you are currently caught in, whether you realize it or not.

The Buddha lived before the advent of Christianity. A persistent theory has it that Jesus spent most of his life in India, living as a Buddhist monk. He achieved complete enlightenment, then returned home to Jerusalem, where he lived briefly before suffering the grisly death from which he derives the enormous fame he now enjoys as a religious figure.

This is a fascinating story. The Dalai Lama has written that all of the world’s major religions have compassion as their core principle and motivation. All humans should be free to choose their religious beliefs and practices. This is a core tenet of government in the United States and undoubtedly one of its best features.

But, whatever the experience of Jesus during his lifetime, Christianity is really messed up and leads humans badly astray. The myth of Jesus’ death and resurrection, which are central to Christianity, depend critically on belief in an omnipotent deity. Jesus supposedly came back to life three days after he died and got sucked up into heaven by this omnipotent deity. According to Christianity, he was the son of this omnipotent deity. These events only make sense, if they do, when one assumes an omnipotent deity who caused them to happen. Starting in the 17th century, empiricist philosophers stated their doubts about the impossible events that make up the Christ myth.

His followers should emulate him as much as possible, but they cannot be him or become him. This omnipotent deity had only one son, and you are not him.

The Buddha refused to discuss the existence of an omnipotent deity, telling his followers to keep meditating and to follow the middle way, avoiding the extremes of nothingness and eternalism, which is what Christianity posits. Whatever Jesus taught, it is very clear that most modern Christians see dead people as existing for eternity in this heaven place.

It is necessary to take a step back and think logically, something Christians rarely do about their own religion. Positing an omnipotent deity causes all manner of logical problems. If your god is omnipotent, then it causes everything that happens on the earth. Some theologians, like the American Jonathan Edwards, writing in the 18th century, emphatically defended the absolute sovereignty of god, and the logically necessary corollary that human salvation depends entirely on the will of god. Nothing any human can do will have any impact on the outcome at all.

The century before, the highly influential English philosopher John Locke, a devout Christian, finally just gave up trying to explain in his own mind how god could be sovereign — entirely in control — while still allowing humans the capacity to make choices. The easy solution to this dilemma, increasingly popular in the early 21st century, when Locke’s empiricism rules the day and the Holocaust makes belief in any omnipotent deity nearly impossible for any thinking person, is just to abandon all belief in an omnipotent deity. In the United States, people who describe themselves as “religiously unaffiliated” grows rapidly.

Buddhists, if we think of Buddhism as a religion, are not “religiously unaffiliated.” In our hegemonically Christian culture, a lot of people have trouble conceiving that a religion could do without an omnipotent deity, but that is actually just a peculiar feature of what we call the Abrahamic religions, Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. Lots of other belief systems posit lots of gods.

Buddhists should not say things like this, but Christianity is just wrong. Especially if you believe your omnipotent deity is also benevolent, you have to explain why it has allowed nearly incessant warfare among the humans it supposedly created “in his own image,” especially wars such as the ones that broke out in the wake of the Protestant Reformation and the Counterreformation, in which the Catholic Church killed lots of people for rejecting its official teaching and its various spin offs, such as the English Civil War and the Exclusion Crisis, in which the English deposed the Catholic King James II in favor of the Protestant William and Mary.

This god then also apparently approved his followers’ invasion of “the Americas,” where they raped, pillaged, enslaved, and murdered millions of Natives and later Africans, whom the good Christians imported as slaves, creating the ugly tradition of racism that persists to the present day, including the policies of Donald Trump, who won the votes of most white Christians in 2016.

It is impossible to demonstrate conclusively, but the decline in Christian belief, especially in Europe but also in the United States, since World War II, may be correlated to the moral horror of the Holocaust, in which heavily Christian Germany, home of the Protestant Reformation, deliberately tried to kill all of the Jews on the planet, as well as members of various other abject populations, such as Roma, or Gypsies, gay people, and disabled people. That Jews were the chief scapegoat was obviously a function of Christians having consistently persecuted Jews for nearly 2,000 years before the Nazis took power.

Christians in large groups are not nice people.

The Buddha, again, identified ignorance as the affliction of all humans. To be Buddhist in the 21st century indicates the belief that humans are still enough now as we were when the Buddha lived in the fifth century before Christ that the Buddha’s prescription still applies. Being Buddhist is not a magic solution. It takes work to adopt the five precepts and begin a regular meditation practice.

But meditation is s concrete, specific practice that anyone can adopt as a route to enlightenment, which is sort of like salvation, except that you cease to exist entirely instead of living for eternity in this heaven place, which doesn’t make any more sense than believing in an omnipotent deity.

The historical evidence overwhelmingly shows that the Christian notion of “sin” is not morally effective. It has never stopped any group of Christians from committing any atrocity they set their minds to. From the tiny sliver that we now call Israel, Christianity exists everywhere on the planet, which is the result of pushy, aggressive Christians using various more or less coercive methods to get other people to adopt their philosophically incoherent belief system.

Islam clearly went through a major period of expansion that was more or less violent, but only Christians, beginning with Columbus at the end of the 15th century, ultimately tried to colonize the entire world, with their success or lack of it usually depending on the susceptibility of the native populations to disease (which was enormous in “the Americas”) and their command of gun powder, which Christians used to their advantage in subjugating local populations.

This is how the United States came to be. The English learned of the voyages of Columbus and what he had found and sent out their own explorers, eventually starting colonies in “North America,” which had profit as their primary purpose, but spreading Christianity as a close second. When profit motive dictated, English settlers started buying Africans, later consigning them to the unique status of slaves for life. Thus, good Christians created the intractable problem with race and racism that we still deal with today.

Again, everyone should be entirely free to choose their religious beliefs and practices, but we should not find terribly surprising the decrease in Christian belief in this, our hegemonically Christian culture. But any assessment that is historically and philosophically honest will lead thinking people to the conclusion that Christianity is not a sensible option.

This may not be a very popular argument in some quarters, but it is honest and verifiable. Each person will have to decide for themselves if that matters.

People who value empiricism and logic increasingly turn to Buddhism as a much more sensible choice.

So be sensible and meditate.

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Written by

Uppity gay, Buddhist, author, historian.

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