I have a page for Buddhism here because over the past 42 years (as I write this in 2013) it has become such an important and useful part of my life that I can hardly leave it off a personal website. Also, because it has been so useful in reducing suffering and keeping me out of trouble, I would like to spread the word. I am not a professional (or even an amateur) holy man, and I am certainly not an academic expert on Buddhism, so what follows arises only from my own study and experience. No doubt others, some much better-informed than I, have different views of this ancient discipline, and they are welcome to them. But this is how I understand Buddhism, and how I use it.
Buddhism Is Not a Religion
Americans tend to group Buddhism with the so-called “Eastern religions,” and there are places where Buddhism is treated like a religion, with temples and idols and prayers and sacrifices and incense. But at its core Buddhism is not a religion, but a psychology for reducing (or even eliminating) one’s own suffering.
Buddhism developed from the radical insights of one historical figure, Gautama Siddhartha, who was born in what is now Nepal sometime in the 5th century BCE. For more on his life, look here.
Here are some ways Buddhism is different from a religion.
- Gautama was not a god, and the insights that developed into his teaching were not revelations from outside. Some religious traditions, Buddhist and Hindu, have fudged on this point and quasi-deified him, but these are later corruptions and have no basis in the Buddha’s teaching.
- There is no faith element in Buddhism, and no dogma. There is nothing to believe. Buddhism is experimental and empirical – the Buddha asked that people examine his insights in the light of their own experience, try them out for themselves, and decide for themselves if they were useful. His dying words were that we should work out our own salvation with diligence, and seek no buddhas outside ourselves.
- There is no teaching at all about God, divinity, creation, afterlife, or any final judgment. Divinity is not excluded, it is just not mentioned, and is beside the point of Buddhism. The Buddha advised people to continue whatever religious practices (if any) they were following when they encountered his teaching, and did not try to supplant them.
- Note: The Buddha did assume that there was such a thing as reincarnation. This was a part of the world view of his time and is not a necessary or essential part of his message. He would no doubt have disapproved of religious practices that included human or animal sacrifice.
- There is no formal structure, no hierarchy, and nothing to join or be excommunicated from. There were Buddhist Councils in antiquity, to try to settle what the Buddha actually taught. And there are all sorts of Buddhist organizations a person can join, with widely differing views and functions. Taking the Refuge Vows can make you a Buddhist, sort of, if you want them to. But a person can be a Buddhist without joining anything, and no membership in anything is necessary.
- Just as Buddhism is not a religion, it is also not an abstract philosophy like Platonism or Existentialism. It is a psychology, but a very practical one. Its purpose is to show people how to avoid suffering. Because suffering arises from desire, and attachment, and from clinging and related emotional responses to changing conditions, and those responses in turn arise from failure to recognize the transient nature of phenomena, including ourselves, Buddhist psychology has to dig fairly deep to reach the sources of suffering. But unlike many modern psychologies that seek the sources of suffering in individual traumatic experiences, Buddhism regards everyone’s suffering as having the same basic origin: the attempt to grasp what cannot be grasped, and to cling to the evanescent.
The Life of the Buddha
Before going into the core of the teaching in more detail, this seems like a good place for a quick overview of the Life of the Buddha. Of course his life was not written down until centuries later, and the tradition may not be precisely accurate in every detail. But because the Buddha was a real person, his teaching has always been understood within the context of his life, and it does not matter all that much if the details are historical or legendary. So this is the story as it has come to be accepted.
- Gautama Siddhartha was born into a Hindu royal family in Kapilavastu, in what is now Nepal, at some time in (or near) the fifth century bce. His father was the King. Wishing to keep his son from knowing of the evil and suffering in the world, the King made a very pleasurable life for him within the palace complex, but would not allow him to leave it. Prince Siddhartha enjoyed the pleasures of his sheltered life, married and had a child, and remained where he had been placed well into his 20s.
- But despite all the care that was taken to shield Prince Siddhartha from knowledge of unpleasantness, eventually he did leave the palace, and while exploring saw (it is said for the first time) an old man, a sick man, a dead man, and an ascetic. These Noble Sights, as they were later called, disturbed him. When his chariot driver explained to him that age, sickness and death affected everyone, he decided (at the age of 29, tradition says) to steal quietly away from the palace and become an ascetic himself, in order to find a solution to these problems.
- So he did that, and went into the forest, and sat with several groups of ascetics (what we might call yogis), and learned what they had to teach. He became adept at their disciplines, achieved high levels of meditative awareness, and was invited to leadership in their communities, but he was not satisfied with his insights and kept moving on. Over six years of study, his austerities and self-mortifications became more and more severe, until he was down to one leaf or one nut a day and looked like a skeleton. He was near death when a village girl rescued him by offering him some custard.
- Gautama realized from this that asceticism alone could not bring him to an understanding that would satisfy him. So he decided to follow a more moderate Middle Way, with plenty of meditation but no harsh austerities. He seated himself beneath a large tree (later called the bo-tree, from bodhi, Sanskrit for enlightenment) at a place now called Bodh-Gaya in the Indian State of Bihar, and vowed not to move until his understanding was total.1 After a struggle said to have lasted 49 days, Siddhartha became fully awakened and began his career as the Buddha, which is a title rather than a name and means the Awakened One.
- There is a large technical literature about the Buddha’s enlightenment, full of long Pali and Sanskrit words and with concepts parsed and sorted out into many numbered piles. I have always found these analyses as arid as they are forbidding, and will not relate them here. It is sufficient for my purposes to say that the Buddha identified what are now called Four Noble Truths, which contain the essence of Buddhism.
- After his enlightenment the Buddha began a 45-year career of wandering around northern India teaching what he had learned. His first public teaching was given in a deer park at Sarnath, just outside Varanasi on the Ganges; this event is called “Turning the Wheel of the Dharma.” He founded the Sangha, a community of like-minded seekers, which became the order of monks (and later nuns too – Buddhist monks and nuns do not necessarily not take lifelong vows the way Christian ones do). Now the word Sangha means all people, whether monks or not, who are following the path to liberation from suffering pioneered by the Buddha.
- At the age of 80 the Buddha died of food poisoning, leaving behind a vigorous Sangha that spread his teachings over much of India, southeast Asia, and eventually Tibet, China and Japan too. Over the years his followers split into various sects, a few of which I mention below, and of which I favor the oldest and simplest, called Theravada. Some centuries after his death the first collection of his sayings, called the Dhammapada, was edited and published (although of course this was long before printing). Many of his lectures (called sutras) are preserved in the Buddhist canon, and there are stories about him in a literature called jakata, and centuries of effort have produced an enormous body of writings reporting and interpreting and analyzing his teachings, supposed philosophy, and method of practice. I feel that the Dhammapada, the Four Noble Truths, the highlights of the Life of the Buddha, and a few basic meditation hints, are all a person needs to achieve enlightenment.
The Four Noble Truths
- The First Noble Truth is that life is full of suffering. Everywhere you look people are suffering. In Pali, the language of the earliest surviving Buddhist writings, the word translated here as suffering is dukkha. It is useful to realize that this means also anxiety, and longing, and disappointment, and envy, and all kinds of anguish and mental dissatisfaction.I am not including suffering caused by real physical pain – if you break your leg, of course it will hurt, but ending that kind of suffering is not what Buddhism is about, at least not at my level (formal Buddhist analysis does include the sufferings of illness and pain). But the rest of the suffering we go through is all in our heads, and relieving that is what Buddhism is for. It is an interesting point that everyone suffers – not just the poor and downtrodden, either, but everyone. The movie star is found strung out on drugs, fighting with a policeman. The plutocrat in his Mercedes should suffer less than the bum on the street, but he too is suffering – from greed, from anxiety, from stress, from fear. That mental suffering is a universal condition is the essence of the First Noble Truth.It is worth remembering that even if we get what we want, we will probably not be satisfied, because satisfaction of desire gives rise to desire for more of the same, and so on insatiably. Sense-pleasure is like the potato chips in the advertisement – most of the time, anyway, you can’t eat just one. So even the satisfaction of desire does not lead to an end of suffering, but perpetuates the longing for getting what we want, and/or the anxiety that we might not get it, and/or our sorrow when we do not get it, and/or our fear, when we do get it, that we might lose it.
- The Second Noble Truth is that suffering is caused by desire. Here again, the word is too narrow for the concept. Desire in this context means craving in all forms – for sense-pleasures, for owning things, for recognition, for accomplishment, for wealth and fame and power, for what we wish to become, but also and indeed most important, for having things be the way we want them. The classic forms of what we crave are:
- getting what we want;
- not getting what we don’t want; and
- not losing what we have.
Almost all our suffering can be traced to these cravings.
Longing to get what we want it the most easily recognizable source of suffering. This means not only objects and specific pleasures, like money or sex or victory or pie, but all the ways we want to make the world suit our preferences. The world is big, and not likely to remake itself to suit us. The discontinuity between what we want and what we have can be small-scale and personal – wishing not to have to commute every day on the bus – or large-scale and altruistic – wishing people didn’t have to endure war and starvation. It all comes down to the same thing – being bummed out because things are not different.
An important special case of longing for what we want is the longing to become what we want to be. Whether or not the ambition is a creditable one doesn’t matter much. Wanting to become a saint or a bodhisattva or a benefactor of humanity can be just as damaging and painful as wanting to become a millionaire. Both involve us in grasping and striving, in ego-centricity, in commitment to unstable structures, in living for the future.
Fearing to get what we don’t want is a complementary form of suffering. Fearing rejection is the flip side of longing for acceptance. Just as longing is the characteristic form of the first kind of suffering, anxiety is the characteristic form of the second kind. As with craving, almost all anxiety can be traced to fear of not getting what we want, or of getting what we don’t want, or of losing what we have.
I don’t want to miss my flight, so it makes sense to do what I can about it and move quickly toward the gate, but worrying about it brings on anxiety, and so I suffer. This anxiety doesn’t make it any more likely that I will get there in time – by moving quickly I am already doing what I can about that – but it adds a needless burden of suffering.
Fearing to lose what we have is the most subtle and pervasive form of craving, because it extends beyond our obvious longings and anxieties to a more basic one – fear of change. One of the core insights of the Buddha was impermanence – everything changes. Things arise and pass away – this is true of everything from our thoughts to the objective conditions of life at the moment, to our very selves. Nothing is permanent; even we are not permanent. All sense pleasures fade. All structures are unstable. Trying to hold on to what we have is a doomed effort – everything changes, eventually we lose all we have (even our lives) – and there is no way to keep anything as it is.
Therefore attachment to existing structures is a potent cause of suffering, because we are grasping at what cannot be held. Attachment is a good synonym for suffering here – it is our attachment to having things be as we want them that causes us to suffer.
These ideas are summed up by what classical Buddhism calls the three poisons: attachment, aversion and ignorance. Attachment leads us to long for what we want and to cling to what we have; aversion leads us to fear what we don’t want and try to flee from it; and ignorance keeps us from seeing that that is what we are doing, and from seeing that all phenomena, including our experience, arise and fall away.
- So the Third Noble Truth, so obvious in the abstract but so difficult to implement, follows inexorably from the first two. To defeat suffering, defeat desire.Of course this is not easy. No one, least of all the Buddha, said it would be. But a life of suffering is not easy either, and using the Buddha’s metaphor of reincarnation it only leads to endless rebirths, where we endure the same suffering and play out the same drama. We need not accept this metaphor as a fact of life to feel its power.The Third Noble Truth is that there can be a cessation of suffering, that there is such a thing as cessation of the desire and attachment that causes suffering. The method of defeating desire – of outwitting it, as the Dhammapada so elegantly puts it – is set out in the Eightfold Path.Three insights are important here. The first is that most of our suffering takes place when our minds are dwelling in the past or in the future. We replay that awful moment, or pine for the lost love, or regret our poor choice, and we suffer mightily. When we remember that all of that is in the past, and over with, while we are now in the present, it is possible for us to stop hurting ourselves with the memory. Likewise when we grow anxious over what we hope to have – the boon we hope is coming, the victory we hope to achieve, the pleasure we hope to experience – we are living in the future, which is not only not here, but may never come as we imagine it will. So here too, if we can return our minds from the future to the present, we can abate the suffering from anxiety, and anticipation, and insecurity, and any of the dozens of future-based pains.Second, part of the technique of doing this is to learn to observe our thoughts as they arise, and notice when they lead us into future-tripping, or past-tripping, or clinging or attachment or greed or anxiety or any of the countless states of mind other than a calm presence in the present. This is not easy to do either, because we are not used to doing it. But just the awareness that our thoughts, like everything else, arise and pass away, are transient and impermanent, and are only thoughts rather than actualities, helps us not let them lead us into familiar painful paths. Once we recognize our thoughts for what they are, they lose a lot of their power. They only have the power we give them, and we give them power only through ignorance.Third, despite tales of instant enlightenment, none of this is the work of a day. Even the Buddha, after six years of preparation, took 49 days to awaken. We will take longer than that. But the good news is that it doesn’t all have to be done at once. We get better bit by bit, the Dhammapada says, like water filling a bucket a drop at a time. Even a little awareness helps a little. Every time we catch ourselves clinging, and let go, we burst one little balloon of suffering, and we get better at the process. It can be done – that is the Third Noble Truth.
But how can it be done? The Fourth Noble Truth is the method of overcoming suffering, called the Noble Eightfold Path.
The first two elements prepare the seeker for the work.
- Right Understanding. At the start, you must understand what you are trying to do. The first three Noble Truths give this background – the truth of suffering, the cause of suffering in desire, aversion and attachment, and the end of suffering through the end of these things. If you come to the work believing that your suffering is imposed from outside – by your particular circumstances, by the state, by childhood trauma, by your mother or your ex-wife or your boss, by fate or your unfortunate choices or rotten luck – then you are unlikely to make much progress toward ending it, at least along the Buddhist path.
- Right Intention. Second, you must intend to see the process through. It involves a lot of effort, and resolution, and mental flexibility, and perhaps a little moral courage, and (many people say) some tedium in meditation. Are you prepared to put some energy into it – as much energy, for example, as you put into suffering? If you don’t positively intend to go as far as you can on this path, it is best not even to start it until you do.
- Note: That’s the majority view, anyway. I myself am not so sure about this. On the principle that we get better little by little, it seems to me that dabbling without resolution is quite OK and probably beneficial. People need to become familiar with the concepts, and some of them are pretty radical. Anything a person gets, even from dabbling, if more than s/he had before. So I don’t really agree that Right Intention is needed at the start. But I do agree that once a person resolves to try this path in earnest, then s/he needs to be earnest about it.
The next three elements are basic standards of ethical conduct. These are a practical necessity because it is not really possible to purify yourself while taking advantage of other people, or treating them dishonestly or unethically. Lying or cheating or stealing or offering violence to other people means you are putting your own desires first – but those are the very desires you are trying to master! Moreover, dishonest or unethical conduct blocks your path to enlightenment because it entrenches you in the illusion of your own centrality, forecloses compassion, obscures your understanding of your transience and that of your desires, and enmeshes you further in the complications of karma.
- Right Speech. Don’t lie. Don’t abuse or insult people. Don’t chatter idly. Don’t say wounding or hurtful things. Don’t spread malicious gossip.
- Right Action. Don’t hurt people, or animals either. Don’t take what is not freely given. Don’t intoxicate yourself. Don’t commit sexual misconduct.
- Note: This is not the place for quibbles about just what these precepts cover. I eat meat, for example, even though that makes me complicit in killing animals. Maybe I shouldn’t, but I do. Back in the day I intoxicated myself a lot with marijuana, and I think I grew in understanding because of it, and particularly in understanding Buddhism. Sexual misconduct is a cultural and situational variable. It is sufficient for present purposes to be aware of these issues and be mindful when choosing action. A drunken knife fight in a strip club: probably not Right Action.
- Right Livelihood. Working as an arms dealer, or a slave trader, or a pimp, or a bartender, or a butcher, or even a soldier, will likely impede your progress on the Buddhist path.
The final three elements apply to the work itself.
- Right Effort. Mastering your thoughts and your desires and attachments takes effort. It is not an easy discipline. You have to keep at it all the time – we have a lot of conditioning to transcend, and inertia runs against us. We forget, and find ourselves rehashing old grievances or plotting advantage or worrying ourselves with some ambition, but we have to keep trying to remember that this is what causes us to suffer. Drop by drop, like water filling a jug, it gets easier.
- Right Mindfulness. Paying attention, being mindful, allows us to see our thoughts as phenomena that arise in our minds, as waves arise on the surface of the sea. But the waves are not the sea, and our thoughts are not our minds, and the ideas that fill these thoughts are not ourselves. I forget who it was who said that awareness is what lies between our thoughts – a powerful image. We are conditioned by years of indiscipline to imagine that our thoughts are the same as our consciousness, but it is not so. By identifying our thoughts as they arise, we can see them as transient phenomena, naturally produced by our minds just as our breath and our heartbeats are produced by our bodies. But that does not mean we need to believe everything we think, or follow every impulse our thoughts elicit. Likewise our desires and longings and graspings are only thoughts too, or conditioned responses to stimuli of pleasure or displeasure. We cannot overcome them by resolution, and still less by antipathy (bad desire! go away!). But by recognizing them as mental phenomena that arise and pass away like all other phenomena, by noticing this process at work, by identifying and naming our thoughts as they appear in our minds, we can deprive them of their power over us (power we give them) and begin to avoid the suffering they would otherwise inevitably cause us. So pay attention.
- Right Concentration. This refers to the techniques of concentration and meditation that foster the kind of mindful awareness just discussed. I am no authority on techniques of meditation, but I can at least understand the aim – to calm the chatter, to slow things down so we can see and name our thoughts as they arise, and by doing so deprive them of their power to dominate our minds and our actions. Like everything else, it is a matter of practice – see a little today, and so with some effort see a little more tomorrow. Our thoughts and even our desires are not wicked or evil. They are natural products of our minds; they are not our enemy. The enemy, if we must have one, is not desire but ignorance. Once we recognize our thoughts and desires we can get past our attachment to them, and can set them down without regret.
- As Ajahn Sumedho wrote: “At first, you let go but then you pick them up again because the habit of grasping is so strong. But at least you have the idea.“2
A Buddhist sage compared our thoughts to a puppy. The puppy jumps on the couch. He is not allowed on the couch, so we pick him up and lay him back on the floor. The puppy isn’t bad – he is just being a puppy – of course he wants to be on the couch. And we don’t hate the puppy, or blame him, or beat him – we just patiently continue to pick him up and move him back to the floor, until finally he learns his place. Being angry at our thoughts will not help, and being angry at ourselves won’t help either. Just keep recognizing thoughts and desires as they arise, and keep setting them down again.
It is astonishing, once we begin to notice it, how our thoughts hijack our minds. How many times have we suddenly awakened from a daydream, to realize that we have been somewhere else, in the past or in the future, or planning or rehearsing or replying or comparing or analyzing or judging or commenting or humming a song? The sudden realization of where our thoughts have taken our mind does feel like awakening from a dream. And we remain awake for a moment or two, and then drop off again, and awaken again later. When we notice our thoughts arising and passing away, we are not asleep. We are awake as long as we can keep this up, although we will certainly drop off again, and awaken again. The aim is to stay awake as long as we can, or even stay continually awake. That is why Gautama was called the Awakened One. The goal of meditation is just to stay awake.3
The breath is a good tool for staying awake. It is always there, and it is not a thought. So when we awaken from the dream in which we are judging or analyzing things and concepts, rehearsing what we will say to someone tomorrow, replaying what went wrong (or right) at that meeting fifteen years (or minutes) ago, doing what the learned and ironic sage Alan Watts called talking to ourselves in our heads, then in order to stay awake we can return our concentration to our breath. In, out; in; out. It’s not a thought! And it’s always available; it’s happening right now.
- Note: Unlike the case in yoga, the reason for concentrating on the breath in Buddhist awareness practice is not to control it, but to refocus our attention away from our restless thoughts. It would be counter-productive in Buddhist practice to try to control the breath.
Some other concepts
- It bears repeating: our suffering arises in our thoughts. It is as insubstantial and as ephemeral as the thoughts that give it rise. Persistent suffering is the result of persistent habits of thought – the Dhammapada offers the vivid image of the wheel of an ox-cart digging itself a rut as it rolls over the same place time after time. But a habit is only a habit – it is not a fixed feature of nature, and it is not a condition outside ourselves. We can control our thoughts, or at least their effect on us, if we will take the effort to do it.
- The Dhammapada goes further and says, in its very first verse: All that we are arises in our thoughts. This brings up a feature of Buddhist teaching I find very difficult: that we ourselves are as insubstantial as we are transient. Our personalities have no essence, the teaching goes, but are arbitrary aggregations of functions, called skandhas after the small piles of spices cooks gather at the market before preparing a meal. These skandhas – usually listed as form, sensation, perception, mental formation and consciousness – are themselves not only transient but are formed by countless varying external conditions, and thus are without inherent essence. So what we think of as our personality is just a construct, empty and “Not-Self.” I find this very hard to recognize in my own experience, and have managed reasonably well on the Buddhist path so far without twisting myself into knots trying to annihilate my conception of my own personality.
- The three Refuge Vows are a useful recollection. They can be taken formally (as I took them once from a Tibetan lama) or just kept in the mind. They are these:
- I take refuge in the Buddha.
- I take refuge in the Dharma.
- I take refuge in the Sangha.
Taking refuge in the Buddha means, among other things, realizing that enlightenment and purification are not impossible. Gautama, the Awakened One, not a god but a person like us (only somewhat cooler), proved that by doing it, by sitting down under the bo-tree and vowing not to stir until he was enlightened. I think the Life of the Buddha is the most inspiring story in all human civilization.
Taking refuge in the Dharma means realizing that there is a coherent theory of life and mind, on the human level anyway, and an accessible way to live mindfully and serenely. Tell the truth. Don’t hurt people. Remember everything changes. Stay calm. Pay attention. Desire is suffering. Beware of attachment. This is a refuge because it makes life easier and less chaotic, and protects us from illusion, and gives us a context for understanding what we see and feel, and provides an unchanging anchor in a ceaselessly changing world.
The Sangha, originally the body of monks, is often understood as other people on more or less the same path. We take refuge in the Sangha when we help each other, or accept help, or just recognize that we are not alone on this path.
- Compassion. It helps a lot to regard other people with compassion. Compassion helps us avoid cruelty and anger and selfishness and unkindness and exploitation and countless similar ethical transgressions. It is important to avoid these not only because they hurt other people, but because they hurt ourselves: by creating unhealthy karma, by distracting us from our own spiritual work, and by reinforcing the very tendencies – attachment, greed, egocentrism – that we are trying as Buddhists to overcome. They foster an unhealthy and inaccurate view of ourselves, in which we and our desires are central, and other people are peripheral phenomena recognized mainly in their relation to us and what we want. The world is not really like that, and we will not get very far toward liberation until we realize that and act accordingly. Also compassion fosters humility, which is one of the most useful attitudes to bring to the Buddhist endeavor. As the saying goes, we are all bozos on this bus.4 Once we internalize this viewpoint it becomes a lot easier to let go of the illusions we cling to, almost all of which depend on a view of ourselves as unique, separate, central and unchanging. We are really none of those things. If we are not unique, separate, central and unchanging, probably no one else is either. Look around you: are all these people really separate? Or are we more usefully thought of as a colonial organism, separate on top like mushroom spores, but connected at the bottom?5 This idea of connection may be more powerful than just a metaphor. What is the point of one spore feuding with another, or imagining itself a sporier spore, or stealing its lunch? Professor Robert Thurman, the distinguished scholar of Tibetan Buddhism, points out that the illusion of centrality is the main impediment to enlightenment. We are all accustomed to thinking of ourselves as the center of everything, because that’s how it looks to us from where we are. With that orientation, no wonder there is greed and grasping, and dominance games, and striving and conflict. But gather 200 people in room, and it becomes obvious that we can’t all be at the center – in fact none of us is. Thurman says that the main insight of Buddhism is not that none of us is here, but that all of us are here, in relation to each other. Really understanding this clears up a lot of confusion, and this understanding, rather than a high-minded indulgence of the other due to our own ineffable nobility, is the basis of useful compassion.
Karma and Reincarnation. Karma at its core is nothing more than the Law of Cause and Effect. Whatever you do has an effect, and often the effect comes back to you with surprising directness. Acting in anger or violence brings anger and violence back on you. Act with kindness and generosity, and you will get that back.6 This happens a lot, but obviously it does not always happen. At the time of the Buddha, Indian philosophy taught that it does always happen, but just not in this lifetime. To keep the moral universe in balance, the effect of our actions had to be felt, if not now, then the last time around, or the next time. And why do bad things happen to us, that we do not deserve? It must be that we do deserve them because of what we did in an earlier life. On this view our existence becomes an endless cycle of birth and rebirth, sometimes higher, sometimes lower, sometimes better, sometimes worse, depending on our actions in each life. This cycle was called Samsara, meaning endlessly recurring, and the aim of enlightenment was to get off the carousel, the so-called Wheel of Birth and Death, and by purifying our minds avoid rebirth. The Buddha shared this view, but it is not credible to me or to many other people in this age. It is reasonable to see it as an incident of the world-view of his times, and not essential to his teaching. Buddhism works perfectly well without reincarnation, and one reason we can feel safe in doing without it is that it assumes facts for which there is no evidence. It is, in other words, a faith position, and the essence of Buddhist thought is that nothing is to be taken on faith, but that everything is to be tested by experiment. Karma is still a helpful concept, and the idea that what we don’t learn in this life we will have to come back to learn later is still useful as a metaphor. But there is no reason to take it literally.
- Buddhism, Hinduism and Yoga. Americans who have not examined the subject have a tendency to regard Buddhism, Hinduism, Yoga and Vedanta as more or less the same thing.7 But they are not the same at all. The core insight of Hinduism (and Vedanta) is the identity between the individual soul and the Godhead, summed up by the Sanskrit phrase Tat Tvam Asi – That Thou Art. Buddhism does not concern itself with Godhead, but is a psychology aimed at removing suffering from experience. Indeed Buddhism regards the personality as an artificial construct, and looks for the Self in the emptiness between our thoughts. Hindu insight: Look inside – everything! Buddhist insight: Look inside – nothing! Yogic meditation leads the adept through increasingly advanced meditative states, aiming for transcendent awareness of identity with the Divine. Buddhist meditation has a similarly elaborate series of meditative states, and meditation has been considered an essential element of Buddhist practice from the founder on down. I am ill-equipped to distinguish Buddhist from yogic meditation – I am not a very accomplished meditator myself, and have found it possible to gain if not all then most of the benefits of Buddhist principles just by understanding them intellectually and working them into my life. The only useful point I can make here, in distinguishing Buddhism from Yoga, is that achieving advanced meditative states, however beneficial, is not the goal of Buddhist practice. The goal is to avoid suffering by freeing oneself from ignorance, attachment and aversion. To do this we need to quiet our minds, recognize our thoughts for the transient recurring distracting misleading phenomena they are, disentangle their demands and enticements from our perception of reality, and maintain a consistent mindfulness. Whatever helps, helps. But meditation is a tool in Buddhism, not the main event. Buddhist meditation has nothing to do with yogic breath control, or supposed health benefits, or stress reduction. Of course reducing the suffering and anxiety caused by longing, and grasping, and clinging, will also reduce stress, but this is the result of the insight and its application, not of the meditation itself.
Flavors of Buddhism. Buddhism has had a complicated history over the 2500 years or so since Gautama died. Over that time many schools have arisen, and appropriately enough some have passed away. For present purposes I need name only a few. The earliest separate school was called Theravada – this is the Buddhism that spread from India to what are now Sri Lanka, Thailand, Indochina and (until it became Moslem) Indonesia. It is the old-time religion (although not of course a religion), and is considered by many to be the purest as it is closest in time and content to the Buddha’s original teachings, and least contaminated by external influences. It is the school I identify with. For historical reasons that need not concern us here, Buddhism eventually declined in India. By the time of the Moghul conquests (13-16th centuries) there was hardly anything left of Buddhism in India; it had migrated to Tibet, Central Asia, China, and eventually Japan. Buddhism merged with local traditions in these places, changing its nature significantly. Tibetan Buddhism, the type best-known in the West, mixed the Buddha’s teachings with a highly developed local religious system. Tibetan Buddhism has countless buddhas and countless domains for them, as well as a system of gods and demons and hells, and a quasi-divine status for buddhas of many kinds. I have nothing bad to say about Tibetan Buddhism, which has helped many people to a high level of consciousness, but it doesn’t appeal to me, and so I don’t practice it, but prefer to keep it simple in the old-style Theravada way. One of the important differences between the Tibetan school, called Mahayana (meaning Greater Vehicle), and the Theravada school, called Hinayana (Lesser Vehicle), is the question of arhats and bodhisattvas. The Hinayana emphasis is on personal purification and awakening. The Dhammapada says you cannot do the work of another – don’t even try. If you become an awakened being, an arhat, you have completed the course.8 The Mahayana folks say no, being an arhat is not enough – once enlightened you have to become a bodhisattva and return to save everyone else. “Sentient beings are numberless, I vow to save them all” is the bodhisattva vow. The Hinayana folks don’t take this vow. If I become enlightened, then maybe I’ll reconsider saving everyone else. But I have a lot of work to do first, before I have to make that decision. Meanwhile, as noted, give me that old-time religion. This may seem like a fundamentalist view, but Buddhism, unlike other spiritual paths, becomes more reasonable rather than less the more fundamental you get. There are other schools too. There is the Vajrayana, which incorporates tantric techniques. There is the Pure Land, which concentrates on devotion to a heavenly Buddha called Amitabha who dwells in a faraway paradise. Chinese Buddhism focuses on offerings and prayers and recitation of mantras. Zen, a form of Japanese Buddhism, concentrates on austere meditation practices in order to achieve sudden illumination. In Soko Gakkai people recite the syllables nam-myoho-renge-kyo (meaning I devote myself to the Lotus Sutra) as many times as they can. Some American Buddhist churches seem almost indistinguishable from Protestant churches, down to the pews and hymnals. Since the psychedelic revolution of the 1960s there has been a flowering of distinctly American Buddhism, often with a Theravadin flavor and often led by Americans (many of them Jewish), where the focus is on mindfulness, meditation, ethical conduct, and overcoming ignorance, attachment and aversion. This is the approach I feel most comfortable with. There are more kinds of Buddhism than you can shake a stick at. As usual, I can only write here about the particular kind (Theravada, Hinayana) that works for me, without disparaging anyone else’s preferences.
- Enjoy life! Renouncing desire doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy life, or try to do good in the world. As Ajahn Sumedho said: “Desire does not cause suffering; the cause of suffering is the grasping of desire.”
The Dhammapada (Pali for Dharma-path) is the oldest Buddhist scripture, the original collection of the Buddha’s sayings first written down centuries after his death. It collects the sayings of the Buddha in their least corrupted form. It is like a red-letter Bible, except the Buddha is not a god (neither was Jesus, of course). It is short, having 26 chapters, each the size of a middle-sized poem, 423 verses in all.9
There are many English translations of the Dhammapada, but I favor two of them. For people new to the book, and to Buddhism generally, I recommend the translation by Eknath Easwaran (1910-1999) (pronounced Esh-waran). Easwaran was a Hindu from Kerala who became a professor of English at the University of California at Berkeley. He originally became interested in the Buddhist and Hindu scriptures as literary texts, but ended up a sage with an ashram in Marin County (north of San Francisco).
I favor this translation for newcomers because it has a superb Introduction that lays out the Life of the Buddha and the basic concepts of Buddhism in an exceptionally clear and accessible way. In his translation each chapter is given in free verse, and each pair of chapters has a matching commentary. The best practice is to read the Introduction first, and then afterward read a pair of chapters, then the commentary, then the chapters again, and then stop until the next day and think about what you have read. The reason for stopping is that the Dhammapada is so rich that reading more than that at one sitting would be too much, and it would all blend into one big indigestible lump of good advice. That is not the way to get the best out of this text. It is more than good advice – it is a way to radical rethinking. Plus you probably don’t have time to read more than a pair at a time.
For my own use I prefer the brilliantly concise translation by Thomas Byrom. I carry the tiny Shambhala Pocket Classic edition around with me and read a chapter every so often, like a breviary. It is a very telegraphic version more suitable for people already familiar with the book, but I find that when I think of a line from the Dhammapada it is almost always from this translation. Here too the best plan is: read two chapters, then read them again, then stop. I buy both versions in quantity to give away. Both are available quite cheaply at www.bookfinder.com.
There is no hurry. If you read one pair of chapters a day you will be done in less than two weeks. Resist the impulse to keep going. When you finish all the chapters, start again. It is inexhaustible.
- What I have written above is not a comprehensive exposition of Buddhist philosophy. It only lists some of the highlights of a complex and highly developed system. Moreover, it is a sharply abridged and idiosyncratic view based on my own experience, which is fragmentary and by no means fully realized. I am no bodhisattva or any kind of a realized being, or even much of a meditator – I am just a bozo on the bus like everyone else. This article is only a summary of what I have found useful to comprehend the world and avoid suffering.
- While I have mentioned the Life of the Buddha and the Dhammapada as the main pillars of my own Buddhist understanding, there is much else available, in every medium.
- There is a vast literature of discourses and interpretations in every school of Buddhism. I am not competent to suggest a path through these, but the Wikipedia article on Buddhist texts provides a good overview. Edward Conze’s Buddhist Scriptures (Penguin, 1959) offers a useful and helpfully-presented selection.
- It is easy to get lost in the weeds in Buddhist texts. The discourses, written down in a time long before printing, are sometimes cast in repetitious language helpful for memorization. Probably for similar reasons, especially in the psychological discourses, they often categorize concepts in lists: five universal mental factors, five object-determining mental factors, eleven virtuous mental factors, and so on.10 I find such minute analyses distracting.
- But I don’t mean this warning to discourage anyone from reading the Buddhist scriptures. There are many translations available in print and on the Internet – look for ones you find sympathetically presented. A good starting place would be Ron Epstein’s online Resources for the Study of Buddhism. He also offers a useful list of links to sutras; there is a very eclectic and interesting index to his postings. There are many other gateway lists on the Internet. Also useful: http://www.buddhanet.net/cmdsg/index.htm and http://dharmanet.org/learning.htm
- There are likewise many hundreds of excellent modern books on Buddhism. One of my favorites is Ajahn Sumedho’s Teachings of a Buddhist Monk. Browse in any serious bookstore or library and see what appeals to you in language, subject and approach. Typing Buddhism into the search box in the books section at Amazon brings up more than 28,000 entries.
- Buddhist teachers give what are called Dharma talks in almost every American city. They can be a helpful resource for beginners and veterans alike. Look on the Internet for local Buddhist groups and centers and see what they offer. There are lots more on YouTube by many masters famous and obscure. Here’s an especially interesting one by Professor Robert Thurman, “Toward American Buddhism”.
- And don’t forget to take refuge in the Sangha – others on the same path can provide valuable help along the way.
- There is a vast literature of discourses and interpretations in every school of Buddhism. I am not competent to suggest a path through these, but the Wikipedia article on Buddhist texts provides a good overview. Edward Conze’s Buddhist Scriptures (Penguin, 1959) offers a useful and helpfully-presented selection.
The Buddha said:
- Seek no Buddha outside yourself.
- Buddhas only point the way – the effort has to come from you.
- The tree in the picture is not the original one. This kind of tree is now called Ficus religiosa. ↩
- Ajahn Sumedho, an American, trained as a monk in Thailand and later became abbot of a Buddhist monastery in England. His slender, wise, and exquisitely conversational book Teachings of a Buddhist Monk is easily available at www.bookfinder.com. The above quotation was taken from his book The Four Noble Truths, available in e-format from www.amaravati.org. ↩
- The image at left is The Night of Enlightenment, by Minh Quang (1991). Reproduced with permission. See www.palmbeachmahabodhi.com. ↩
- This phrase seems to have originated in the title of a 1971 Firesign Theatre comedy album. ↩
- The image, from a Dartmouth College electron microscope photograph, shows mushroom spores (Agaricus bisporus): basidiospores on top, joined in the stromal layer on the bottom. ↩
- “Cast thy bread upon the waters: for thou shalt find it after many days.” Ecclesiastes 11:1. ↩
- Vedanta is the philosophy of the Self and the World underlying the related disciplines of Hinduism and Yoga. It is distilled from many sources, some as ancient as the Vedas and the Upanishads and some relatively modern. Swami Vivekenanda (1863-1902) popularized this approach in the West. ↩
- Arhat is a Sanskrit word. Some Theravada writers say arahant, which is the same word in Pali. ↩
- By comparison, Paul’s Epistle to the Romans has 433 verses. ↩
- See, for example, the lists mentioned at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mental_factors_(Buddhism). ↩