24 December 2008

Why I am a Buddhist (updated 2008) (see Note, 2014)

(Oct., 2014) NOTE: In the unlikely event someone is reading this at a distance of some years, please see this (from 2013, which is more reflective of my current philosophy).  There are some things, such as specific identification with a Spiritual Guide and willing suspension of skepticism, in this post, to which I no longer adhere. I think that to some extent at the time (2008), I was 'trying to convince myself' of beliefs which I did not actually entirely embrace.


I am a Buddhist, because I have come to accept the value of Buddha Dharma as a vitally important aspect of my life. This was true when I first posted on this blog to explain why I am a Buddhist, and it remains true.

Four years ago, I wrote:

“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.”

I now realize that this is an incomplete view. Shakyamuni, the Founder of Buddhism on Earth, taught:

“Do not believe in anything simply because you heard it.
Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations.
Do not believe in anything because it is spoken and rumored by many.
Do not believe in anything simply because it is found written in your religious books.
Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders.
But after observation and analysis, you find that anything agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept and live up to it.”
Kalama Sutra

The point of this is not that there are not what you might call supernatural beliefs inherent in the teachings of Buddha, but that one is not, as a lay student or practitioner, asked to take these teachings merely on faith, but you are encouraged to undertake very specific mental training practices, from which, if you follow the methods sincerely and open your heart to the transformation which can take place, you will come to understand the truth of many things that the ordinary mind of conventional thinking and conventional reality cannot perceive. Faith is very much present in Buddhism, and indeed is crucial to progressing to advanced stages, but it arises from confidence in the truth of the teachings, which in turn arises from experience.

Four years ago, I wrote:

“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.”

This is still my view, more or less. Buddha Shakyamuni did not offer an explanation of creation. It is said that when asked questions of this kind he remained silent. It is clear from what he did teach that he believed these kinds of concerns were the wrong questions, in the sense that they were not useful to the goal of a spiritual life, which is to transform the mind to turn away from obsessive self-concern so that delusions can be overcome and the practitioner can be of maximum benefit to other living beings. (This at least is the focus of Mahayana Buddhism, in which the goal of practice is focused on aiding others to achieve enlightenment, as opposed to merely on achieving liberation from suffering for onself.) In the process of practicing for the benefit of others, by its very nature, the sources of one's own unhappiness and suffering also fall away.

The issues that really matter are not things like, “where did the world come from?”...but concerns like the following:
  1. Buddha taught that suffering and unease are the essential nature of the world in which we dwell, the world of the cycle of birth and death, called by the Sanskrit word samsara. • This being so, what is the method to overcome and escape this state?
  2. What is virtue? Why is it important and how may one develop and cultivate it?
  3. Buddha taught that all phenomena arise from karma, that is, actions (of body, speech and mind), and the effects that arise from actions. • This being so, what is the correct view of karma?
  4. Buddha taught that there is no soul, or essential nature of self, but that the view of self as separate from others is the fundamental delusion in a conventional view of reality shared by all sentient (aware but non-enlightened) beings, that is entirely delusional. This fundamental delusion is referred to as “self-grasping ignorance.” All other delusions, from self-cherishing (the wrong view that one's own happiness is supremely important), through all the forms of attachment, aversion (anger), and ignorance (the “three poisons”), are in fact derived from this root delusional view, that causes us to set our own mind apart from the minds of others. • This being so, what is the method to overcome delusion?
  5. Buddha taught that mind is a continuum, without beginning and without end. • This being so, what is the nature of the mind itself?
  6. Buddha taught that the ultimate nature of reality is emptiness • This being so, what is the correct view of the ultimate nature of reality? How may one go about experiencing a direct realization of emptiness?
One could go on, because there are, in the conventional formula, eighty-four thousand teachings, but these issues, and the very specific and detailed answers to these questions that are taught in Buddhadharma, cover the main points.

I am not capable of giving a summary of the teachings of the Buddha on these issues; but here's a flavor:
  1. Samsara is overcome by developing method; which is the practice of the first five of the six perfections: Generosity (or giving), moral discipline (especially observing basic precepts of morality), patience, energetic effort, and mental concentration; and the practice of the sixth perfection, wisdom; or wisdom realizing ultimate truth. Entailed in this summary is the entire Buddhist path, whereby wrong views and deluded mind which cause unhappiness and suffering, including the sufferings of birth, aging, sickness, death, and what you might sum up as frustration, are actually overcome, and a transcendent state of enlightenment is achieved. The enlightened state is a mind in which the world is pure, the mind is free of all delusion and all suffering and ignorance, and one's entire being is necessarily devoted to helping others to attain the same state. All feeling is pleasing; attachment, aversion, and ignorance (including the root delusion, self-grasping ignorance), do not arise, and the mind experiences a union of great bliss and emptiness. In this state, sometimes referred to as no more learning, the mind is omniscient, sees all of reality clearly (including the union of conventional truth and ultimate truth, the emptiness of all phenomena of inherent existence). This mind is completely filled with perfect universal love and compassion, and it pervades all of space. (Clearly, this is in some sense supernatural, and the practice of Buddhadharma is indeed a religion.)
  2. Virtue is a word that points to states of mind and actions of body, speech and mind which lead to happiness, for oneself and others. In other words, virtue is a phenomenon which functions as the main cause of happiness. That's all there is to it, but of course, that's a very great deal.
  3. Karma is action, and effects of actions; thus all actions are causes. Since effects are also actions and causes, it is an endless cycle. Through the force of our intention, which is a mental factor, we perform actions of body, speech and/or mind, which produce effects. (The most powerful, by far, of these actions are mental actions). Intention, in fact, is the only way to break the cycle of negative karma, for only through intention may negative effects of negative causes be transmuted into positive effects and further positive effects from those causes. The effect of virtuous actions is happiness and the effects of negative actions is suffering. The mechanism for karma is the residence in the mental continuum itself of karmic potentials. These “seeds” are the only thing, apart from the mental continuum itself, that survives the death of the body, so karma is vitally important, and the purification (transformation) of negative karma is one of the main practices of a Buddhist. Buddhists also recognize that karma is tremendously subtle, and impossible for an ordinary mind to fully see clearly, and that it can operate over tremendously long periods of time. Buddha taught that the suffering of this life is largely the result of negative actions of past lives. This is a tough nut for most westerners to swallow, but as you become more familiar with Buddhist thought, it becomes less alien and more natural seeming.
  4. Various methods of meditation (which is merely focusing the mind on objects of virtue), taught by lineage teachers such as Atisha and Je Tsongkhapa (or others, in other forms), lead to abandoning self-cherishing, and learning to cherish only others. From this comes universal lovingkindness, universal compassion, and universal love. These qualities of mind naturally lead to the gradual erosion of delusion and bring us closer and closer to the enlightened state. These are the method practices of the stages of the path, called lam rim, in Tibetan. Together with transforming the mind, called lojong, and the actual practices of developing wisdom (a correct understanding of emptiness), these practices are the main causes of enlightenment. (In Indo-Tibetan Buddhism there is another element, tantra, which for simplicity can be thought of as visualization and self-actualization as the object of meditation, which functions as a quick path to enlightenment, but this is perhaps too technical to get into further here).
  5. Buddhist understanding of mind is very different from the conventional Western view. Mind has the essential nature of clarity, and it functions to cognize, i.e. to perceive or know objects, meaning those things which are perceived or known. It sounds circular, but it really isn't; we have to have a way to point to what mind does, which is necessarily in some sense beyond the capacity of language to specify exactly. Even with the essential nature of clarity, mind may become clouded by delusion; once the delusion is removed, mind has the capacity to perceive purely and perfectly; whereupon the true nature of reality is directly perceived. This is really all there is to it, but it's not easy for a deluded mind to overcome its habitual patterns of incorrect view and the cycle of karmic potentials ripening.
  6. The very heart of Buddhadharma is the doctrine of emptiness, the true nature of reality, as mentioned above. This is so profound a topic that it is virtually impossible to say anything meaningful about it in a few words. My Spiritual Guide, Venerable Kelsang Gyatso, has pointed to it with this deceptively simple formulation: The things that we ordinarily perceive do not actually exist. Once all clouded mind and wrong view are removed, the mind sees the reality of phenomena, which is that all phenomena lack inherent existence, (sometimes called “existence from their own side.”) Seeing this, the true nature of things becomes manifest. But since without first removing all delusion, one cannot have this experience, and since it is an experience which, by definition, cannot be described in words, it can only be glimpsed, with increasing awareness and understanding through meditation and practice, until finally it can be directly realized.
Eventually, from practicing methods taught by qualified teachers, one experiences considerable lightening of the dark clouds of deluded thinking, and comes to have great confidence in the usefulness of the Buddha's methods and the truth of his teachings.

Kelsang Gyatso, after the horrendous attacks of 9/11, made the remark that as long as samsara persists, events of that kind would continue to happen. Seeing this, we should know that Dharma is truth.

This may seem to be a nonsequitur, but with awareness that the whole of Dharma is the only means to overcome the karmic cycle of birth and death, which is by its very nature suffering, one learns to learn from everyday life the truth of Dharma. All phenomena become Dharma teachings to an advanced practitioner (I'm told... not there yet).

Four years ago, I tried to recount 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 [36]. 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.

I have little to add to this. This story is inspiring, but less important to my way of thinking now than it was perhaps four years go. The story of Shakyamuni's life is not as important as the profound wisdom of his teachings.

Buddhist doctrine is often summed up in the formulation taught by Buddha as the Four Noble Truths. Below is what I wrote about the Four Noble Truths, in brown text. I have added a few comments.

The First Noble Truth

Life entails suffering. All human beings experience pain, loss, anguish, fear, hunger, disease, and death.
Comment, 2008: Life doesn't entail suffering. Suffering is the essential nature of deluded existence. All happiness actually results from blessing of enlightened mind. This is a profound realization in itself, akin to the Christian view that all good is from God.

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.

Comment: The origin of all suffering is delusion, and the fundamental delusion is self-grasping ignorance, as noted above. Otherwise, what this says is true.

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.
Comment: The “good news” is that there is Dharma; Buddha's eighty-four thousand teachings, which enable us to transform our minds and become exactly like him. This sometimes sounds creepy to people who are not yet familiar with the concept of self-grasping ignorance and the reality that our view of ourselves as separate and individual is in fact, delusional, i.e., contrary to reality. But the reality is that this method is the only source of happiness; all happiness arises from it, even in those who are not intentionally practicing it.

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.

Comment: The Fourth Noble Truth is the whole of Dharma, the actual method, realized by the enlightened mind of Buddha, for overcoming suffering of oneself and others. Even for someone who does not now believe in such a thing, they can think, what could be more wonderful? Even this thought is virtuous, and is a cause of eventual enlightenment.

The Fourth Noble Truth is often referred to as The Eightfold Path. This is what I wrote about it four years ago:

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).
    Comment: The key here is intention. I would not now put this in exactly this way, but it's accurate as far as it goes. Thought is specific to reforming the processes of the mind; there are many methods associated with this process, and all are very explicitly elucidated for the practitioner by Buddhist lineage teachers, whose teachings we are blessed to have available to us, even in these degenerate times, far from their origins in space and time.
  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.Comment: Right conduct is more than just the five precepts. It is sincere dedication to avoiding harming others, and to turning one's activities towards helping others.
  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.

    Comment: Effort is sincere dedication to actually putting the teachings into practice. This can be one's entire life work, filling all one's time, or it can be less than this, but there needs to be actual effort; progress to englightenment does not come naturally, but requires intention and effort, i.e., a little push. Get out of bed and sit on the cushion and try sincerely to meditate. Open the book and read. Get in the car and go to teachings. Try sincerely to understand and put into practice what you hear.
  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.

    Comment: The main issue with mindfulness is retaining Dharma in your consciousness. Our habitual patterns will re-emerge spontaneously and overcome virtuous intention without the effort to maintain mindfulness. This is so critical to successful practice that it is a separate stage of the path in its own right.
  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.
I wrote this four years ago about the Five Precepts, which are the core of the rules of living for lay people, or Pratimoksha, in Sanskrit.

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.
I still think this is a good summary.

The following is my earlier commentary on the Brahma-Viharas. I would no longer say that these are the essence of Buddhist thought, which is more than this. Rather, they are the essence of what are called method practices, as referred to above. By turning our minds towards these virtuous states, we increase the causes of enlightenment for oureselves and others. What could be more wonderful than that?
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:

Metta (Pali; Sanskrit, Maitri): caring, lovingkindness. Toward all you meet or reflect upon, your heart feels caring and lovingkindness.
Karuna: compassion. This is the sympathetic pain upon encountering the suffering of others (or of oneself; karuna begins with oneself).
Mudita: sympathetic joy, the happiness of seeing happiness in others.
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."
Comment: Equanimity is more than this. It is also, primarily actually, the transformation of the mind that sees others as either attractive, unattractive, or indifferent, and learns to cherish all living beings without exception or distinction. All these qualities in an enlightened being become truly universal. A Buddha has perfect love, compassion, and sympathetic joy for all living beings, and thereby has perfect equanimity. Training in these qualities is a cause to become like a Buddha. How wonderful!

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