21 December 2004

Why I am a Buddhist

Why I am a Buddhist
I am a Buddhist, because I have come to accept the value of Buddha Dharma as a vitally important aspect of my life. Buddhism takes many forms, and involves many supernatural and religious beliefs in many of its human institutions, but at its core, it is not a religion at all, but a way of life, and a practice of philosophy and practical living. There is no essential belief in revealed truth of any kind, nor is there at the core of the system of thought known loosely as Buddhism any need for belief in a supernatural or supreme being, or any special forces shaping history in a miraculous way.
Even as a young child, I had serious reservations about the doctrines of Western Religion. I was told that God created the universe. I remember, even at 6 years old, finding this unsatisfactory. "Why, then," I thought, "where did God come from?" I've never had a satisfactory answer to that either. I was told (though not too emphatically by my more or less agnostic parents) that God gave his only son, and that only those who believe in him are "saved." This has just never seemed believable to me. I apologize to Christians reading this who are offended or who must condescend to pity me. But I don't ask for your pity, for I simply don't buy this story, and I never have. But what Jesus says, in the Sermon on the Mount, in the Beatitudes, is truly wonderful and transcendent. And I find that all of it, and more, the more being a lot of practical methodology, is present in Buddhism. So for me, the Dharma, or teachings of Buddhism, just make more sense and correspond to the reality I find myself living in.
The Story of the Buddha
The Buddha was a man, and not a god. He was born as Siddharta Gautama, the prince of small kingdom called Shakya (hence one of his designations, Shakyamuni, the Shakya prince) in northern India or present-day Nepal. Traditionally, until he was 29 years old, he lived the life of King's son - that is to say, he partied a lot, ate a lot, probably had sex a lot, and he remained protected from the seedier side of life outside the palace walls.
The story goes that one day the pampered prince accidentally saw a old sick man in the street, and Siddharta was overcome with horror at this unaccustomed sight of ugliness, disease, and decay. How could people ever be happy knowing that all life must end in death and decay? Siddharta remained in this deep funk until he one day encountered an ascetic holy man. In the midst of all the working-class depression, this man somehow managed to maintain a serene attitude. The prince became a follower of this holy man, and thus embarked on his spiritual career.
In Siddharta's day, being a beggar monk or mendicant, was an acceptable lifestyle; people respected these mendicants for giving up earthly ambitions and devoting themselves to a virtuous poverty. They received shelter and handouts of food from pious folk everywhere. There was a lot of disagreement, however, as to what exactly it means to be holy and virtuous. Ask a dozen different gurus and you'd get a dozen different answers. Which was the right way? Siddharta, having become a poor monk, joined the school of ascetics, who believed that mortification of the body leads to the purification of the mind and spirit. This is a major theme in spiritual practice of many religions. Starving yourself, sitting upright for days without sleep, poking needles through your body - this was all pudding and lollipops to the ascetics. Siddharta pursued this path to paradise with varying degrees of success until the age of 35. But finally, having reduced himself to a almost skeletal proportions, he realized that this self-denial wasn't any more rewarding or productive of englighened mind than his original lifestyle of ignorant hedonism had been.
Siddharta abandoned his vows of asceticism, much to the disgust of his fellow practitioners, and he strengthened his body and sat down under a fig tree to meditate. And that's when it happened: Siddharta Gautama realized the Middle Way between hedonism and asceticism, and came to understand completely how to train the mind to avoid the pitfalls of desire and attachment, and became, in the traditional formulation, enlightened. He was now the Buddha. Buddhist philosophers have espoused and developed on the teachings of the Buddha contained in the sutras, in a phenomenologically extremely subtle and complex system of thought, but the essence of it is not intellectual or terribly hard to understand: it is the process of recognizing the impermanence of phenomena and letting go of attachment to them, and of opening the heart to compassion, lovingkindness, joy in others' joy, and equanimity (see the brahma-viharas, below).
In India of the Buddha's time, there was a background of belief in reincarnation. the law of karma, and a variety of deities. These beliefs form a backdrop to traditional Buddhism. For modern Westerners, however, the literal belief in reincarnation and supernatural entities is easily dispensable.
The Buddha made no fuss about his experience of enlightenment, according to traditional accounts, but his former holy man pals, who were still annoyed with him for abandoning his ascetic vows, noticed that he seemed to be peculiarly serene and that his eyes seemed to shine with the light of understanding. So they gathered one day and asked the Buddha what was going on. That was when the Buddha gave his first talk as the Awakened One, the lecture which explained the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism. These noble truths are the core of the Buddhist belief system; the only way to reach enlightenment (which is good) is to accept these Noble Truths.
The Four Noble Truths
The First Noble Truth
Life entails suffering. All human beings experience pain, loss, anguish, fear, hunger, disease, and death.
The Second Noble Truth
The origin of suffering is the craving for pleasure, existence, and non-existence. You get it in your head that you want things, and your mind then becomes an instrument for chasing those things. The actual objects you desire are irrelevant; wanting things - anything - severely circumscribes a person's capacity to be at peace and to experience happiness, which is what all people want. The body needs sustenance, but it's the self that craves pleasure, existence and non-existence, and it's the self that in wisdom will come to be seen as insubstantial. This is the Buddhist doctrine of anatman, no-self.
The Third Noble Truth
Some people say that all this talk of suffering makes Buddhism a pessimistic religion; and in a certain sense this is true. However, the pessimism is tempered by the Third Noble Truth, the truth of the cessation of suffering; that there is a way to rid yourself of this suffering. This is the “Good News” aspect of Buddhism.
The Fourth Noble Truth
To rid yourself of suffering, you need to follow the Eightfold Noble Path pioneered by Gautama. The way is available to anyone, and effective, although difficult. It is not, however, impossible, and, unlike many ‘religions,’ there exists a large body of extremely practical methodology for progressing along the way to the transformation that can result in the cessation of suffering. What the Buddha himself said, on several occasions, is that it is difficult, and requires great effort, but that he would not ask it of his followers if it were not possible, and that he, having followed this path himself, could testify to it.
The Eightfold Path
The whole reason for becoming Buddhist is to make happiness possible, through enlightenment, which may be thought of as “opening of the heart.” In order to do this, you must follow the Eightfold Path. The eightfold path is not a recipe, but it is a method, and it works in baby steps. Like the “steps” in 12-step programs, it can be like a spiral, where you keep returning to and deepening your understanding of each of the stages.
  1. Right Knowledge: Strive to comprehend the first three Noble Truths. The Four Noble Truths are not at all simple, and require much insight and understanding.
  2. Right Thinking: Consciously dedicate yourself to a life in harmony with the Noble Truths elucidated by the Buddha. The intentional direction of thought towards working on the path is right thinking (see right effort below, for the conscious direction of action in general).
  3. Right Speech: Use speech not to cause harm to others, but to direct them towards an open heart and the virtues.
  4. Right Conduct: For lay Buddhists (meaning Buddhists who aren't monks), Right Conduct means following the Five Precepts(see below). If you're a monk, there are some more rules for conduct, which detail how to conduct yourself in order to be free of impediments to serious progress. Lay people inevitably are compromising their spiritual path and settling for achieving peace and harmony, but not the cessation of all suffering.
  5. Right Livelihood: Go peacefully into the world and do no harm. This involves choosing a vocation or profession that does not cause harm to others. (Easier said than done).
  6. Right Effort: Conquer the flow of negative thoughts, replacing them with good thoughts. Direction of one’s efforts towards achieving these goals.
  7. Right Mindfulness: Achieve an intense awareness of your body, emotions, and mental states. Quiet the noises in your head and dwell in the present. This is the meditation of everyday life, in which you cultivate the awareness of your life in the context of the efforts to follow this path.
  8. Right Concentration: Learn about (and practice) various kinds of meditation, for which detailed procedural systems are in place, and which have a proven track record. There is nothing mystical here: meditation is nothing more than (or less than) a complete system of training the mind.
The Five Precepts
The Five Precepts are the basic rules of conduct for lay Buddhists-as opposed to monks and nuns, who have additional complex rules. The Five Precepts aren't commandments given to you by an angry God who threatens you if you disobey; rather, they are guidelines meant to improve your karma and help you along the Eightfold Path to enlightenment. These few rules keep you out of the worst kinds of trouble, ultimately making you happier. They are like, and yet unlike, the ten commandments; their goal is the happiness of people and the cessation of harm and suffering.
  1. Avoid the taking of life. This is at its most basic level a proscription against murder, but in deeper terms it means a reverence for all life, and the avoiding of unnecessary destruction of life of any kind, and a prescription to love the Earth and living things, and to protect them.
  2. Avoid the taking of that which is not given. This has deeper levels too… unnecessary ownership of resources others need is seen as causing harm.
  3. Avoid falsity of word and deed, and use of words to cause harm. Again, this contains deeper levels. Not only not to lie, but not to use language to manipulate, or to gossip about people to their detriment; or to conduct oneself so as to cause deception or to take advantage. This is a prescription for basic honesty, and minding of one’s own business.
  4. Avoid sexual conduct which causes harm. Room for interpretation here, but the main thing is to recognize that sex and sexual behavior are dangerous if great care is not given to ensure that others are not hurt by your actions.
  5. Avoid intoxicants, which cloud the mind and cause heedlessness. On its face, this is simple; but it can also apply to avoiding toxic thought and foods, as they work in the same way as drugs and alcohol to poison the mind and heart.
The Brahma-Viharas
An essential quality, or set of qualities, of all of the stages of the Eightfold path are the Brahma Viharas, or sublime conditions. These are the essence of Buddhist thought: they pervade everything, and are the essential condition, or quality, of bodhicitta, the heart of enlightenment. It is this bodhicitta that develops in you as you enter the stream and follow the teachings of the Buddha, and is itself the essence of the teachings as well as what makes them possible. The Four ‘Sublime Conditions’ are:
  1. Metta (Pali; Sanskrit, Maitri): caring, lovingkindness. Toward all you meet or reflect upon, your heart feels caring and lovingkindness.
  2. Karuna: compassion. This is the sympathetic pain upon encountering the suffering of others (or of oneself; karuna begins with oneself).
  3. Mudita: sympathetic joy, the happiness of seeing happiness in others.
  4. Uppekha (Upeksa): equanimity; the ability to accept others, as they are; and reality, as it is. Tricky sometimes, for it involves the phenomenon of karma. You are not responsible, and cannot possibly be responsible, for the suffering of others or the condition of the world. You do what you can (right effort, right mindfulness, the other brahma viharas), but you don't allow them to overwhelm and destroy you. Another way to think of this is "letting go."

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