What makes me a Buddhist? There are many branches of Buddhism, some more a religion than others. One of my favourite books is What Makes You Not a Buddhist, by Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse. In the beginning of his book he says ....’wisdom is the primary concern of a Buddhist. Morals and ethics are secondary.’ For me, finding Buddhism was very much like coming home. Honestly, I am not sure I can believe in past lives and reincarnation, and I am also not sure that I need to, but I can see how this feeling of coming home might seem like an indicator of a past life. Buddhist thought makes sense to me, although the more it veers towards religion the less it appeals. I have been a wisdom seeker my whole life, and always believed that morality and ethics are within us, not something imposed from without. No threat of punishment or promise of reward in an afterlife is needed to develop morality and ethics. The teachings of the Buddha were a philosophy on how to live the best life and they grew in an environment that was influenced by Hinduism. What fascinates me is translating it into other cultures and keeping religious dogma out of it.
A Buddhist accepts the following statements as true. The wording is my own.
Nothing is permanent............... also understood as everything changes
All emotions can lead to pain
Nothing actually exists
Nirvana is beyond concept.........Nirvana is often thought to be heaven but is actually better translated as inner peace and it is not a place nor an after life.
I’m going to examine how I relate to these statements. Some of them are easier for me to put into words than others. First I’d like to add a few more aspects of Buddhist teaching, words attributed to the Buddha who taught around 500 BC. His interest was in alleviating suffering and as he share and taught his wisdom he said that his words must not be taken for granted without analysis, individuals must think for themselves, examine what he says and decide if they think it to be true, meditate and live life, walk your path and seek your own wisdom. The Buddha* was not a Buddhist, he was a teacher and calling oneself a Buddhist is a simple way to indicate that you agree with his teachings and attempt to live life in accordance with them. It is not necessary to identify as a Buddhist publicly or privately and some people even find ways to layer Buddhism onto their religious beliefs. I tend to layer mine with other philosophies that allign with it and calling myself Buddhist sometimes is really just a matter of allowing others to have some idea of how I think and try to live my life.
The realisation that nothing is permanent is an easy one. It doesn’t take much living of life to find out that everything dies, changes or can be worn out, worn down, damaged, or destroyed in some manner. Some things can last a very very long time, but unless what we know as things-whether they are of nature or are man made-do not permanently stay as we know them. I have never met anyone who would argue this point, though when a person consciously realises it may vary.
The idea that all emotions lead to pain probably troubles some people. They will argue, but how can joy be pain? Surely there is pure joy and happiness in the world also. Yes. There is. But we can lose it. It can be taken from us and the loss of it becomes pain. My intuitive understanding of this lead me quite early in life to develop a strategy whereby I always mentally prepare myself for the worst, imagine how I will cope with it, then hope for the best. Typically I am an optimistic and glass half full sort of person but I know how easily that makes one vulnerable to pain. Knowing that pain can come of anything allows me to be prepared for it and not as bowled over by it if it does come. It also allows me to really appreciate all of those moments when it does not come.
Nothing actually exists, or as it is sometimes worded, all is emptiness. Okay, this one is certainly more difficult to wrap my mind around and it seems so negative so I’m giving it more space. There are negatives in life, but understanding them and preparing for them helps to face them. We reach for things, we grasp, we are perhaps disappointed by an illusion or we take hold of something which we then fear losing. We develop an idea which turns out to be wrong and are devastated. All things are empty and do not really exist, is a way of saying that we give meaning to things, we put it there and it is not inherent. Everything can and does change. Even mountains disappear, albeit over very long periods of time. If life is truly empty then it is there for me to fill up with meaning, and I can grow, change and adapt, letting that meaning expand or letting go of parts that I find don’t work. To me this is a wonderful thing although perhaps the hardest one to practice. If you see criticism as empty you have to also see praise as empty.
Everything that we believe exists depends on something else to explain that existence, seeming to be the sum of it’s parts and yet it is not any of its parts alone and those individual parts can change so then what is it? By the time we get to atoms we have not got the things we think are there. This is not to say that the illusion of things being things is not useful for every day living, but to understand their true nature-nothingness or emptiness- is perhaps even more useful. It allows us to stop grasping and to let go but it does not require that we adopt an ascetic life. There is always a chance of becoming attached to that too.
I have noticed that there is something about the current trend towards and all women are beautiful campaign that irritates me. Beauty and non-beuaty are subjective, in the eye of the beholder as common wisdom tells us. This should actually make it at least somewhat irrelevant. Aside from my objections to assigning women value based on physical beauty, I do not object to the desire to be beautiful by one’s own standards or to enjoy the fact of someone close to us perceiving us to be so. Those generare positive feelings which are certainly nice to have but remember, they can so easily be lost and thus result in pain. It is better to understand that beauty is an empty concept that humans like to fill up with their own beliefs. I imagine a large bucket into which people are constantly pushing, pulling, dragging heavy concepts and dropping them with a clang. When I look inside that bucket I know it is actually empty.
There is a saying I hear used by followers of Abrahamic religions. I do not know it’s origin but I like the concept although I do not believe in a God. The saying is:
Let go and let God. This easily translates in my mind to a different concept of God-God as the universe, not a divine being, dictator, creator parent figure or tyrant, simply the forces that are the universe. If I have any concept of a God at all it would be a pantheistic one which seems to fit well enough with Buddhism.
*I am not concerned with whether or not the story of the Prince, Siddharta Guatama who became Buddha and taught his wisdom is a myth or based on a true and historical person. It does not matter as we are not intended to worship him as a man or a god. The wisdom is the same, regardless of its origins and a good story is an effective way to teach it.
So is our entire world a collective delusion? Perhaps somewhat, but also somewhat not. It is a relative truth. We are here to perceive it, to attribute meaning to it, attempting to understand it and label it. That is the human condition. If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so is everything else. Often, many people agree on what they are seeing and this allows us to share ideas, to use language, to live in harmony. It’s not a bad thing, but it’s also not a permanent and entirely real thing.
How do we know which is the dream and which is reality? Often we need to wake up from our own dream. Are we just all part of the Matrix? We entertain ideas like this sometimes because subconsciously we are aware that what we see might not be the way things really are. Or they might be. But we don’t really know. Neither can we know exactly if what you see and what I see are the same because we only have our own eyes.
A rose, is a rose, is a rose....and by any other name it would smell as sweet.
Nirvana, is often understood to be the Buddhist heaven, a final afterlife. This is not the case, though the teaching approach most Buddhists take is a meet you where you are approach so if heaven and hell are your reference points, they will teach Buddhist concepts in that language and with those metaphors. I’ve notice that they will not always tell you that they are metaphors. This is let for the individual to discover, as part of her own path, because Buddhism is not intended to be prescriptive. So Nirvana, is essentially reaching a point of inner peace that sticks and the individual at last has Buddha nature or is a Buddha. Essentially it is that simple, although reaching this point is not simple. I suspect that for some, it is better to believe in reincarnation in order to believe that one has many chances to try for this Buddhahood and eventually get there. For people like me, it’s okay. I am not grasping at Buddhahood, only intending to live the best life I can while on that path. I make mistakes, I slip backwards into attachments but my practice helps me to pick myself up and go on again, and to forgive myself for making mistakes. They are merely moments of learning and I live for learning. With that in mind, I might really want to consider taking joy in all of my mistakes and ignoring those moments when I get it right the first time. Oh happy thought!
May all beings find peace.