Okay, so… why Buddhism?
If you’ve been following me/friends with me for a while you’ll know that I’ve been outspokenly atheist in the past. Making a commitment to Buddhism may seem, on the surface, to indicate a huge change in my cosmological thinking. That actually isn’t the case, and I’d like to quickly explain why I chose to take refuge in Buddhism (that’s what they call it when you become a Buddhist) and maybe why it isn’t that big of a deal, when it comes to ‘religious conversions.’
First: everything I am going to say applies only to Theravadan Buddhism, and to a specific Western school that is descended from the Thai Forest Tradition. These systems place meditative practice at the forefront and try to harken back to the original, canonical teachings of the Buddha. So when I say “Buddhism is…”, I’m speaking of the tradition that I follow. There are MANY traditions, and they can be wildly different. Zen and Tibetan Buddhism and Nichiren Buddhism can be quite different from what I practice, but are no less admirable and noble.
With that out of the way: Buddhism is non-theistic. Buddha had specific cultural biases – as an Indian living 2500 years ago he took reincarnation as a fact of life, and he accepted the wide variety of gods who make up what we today call Hinduism. But he didn’t care about them. Buddha said that he wanted to talk about two things: suffering and how to end suffering, and he saw that the gods could not or would not end suffering. Therefore they held no interest to him.
Further, the Buddha kept silent on a lot of other metaphysical questions, preferring instead to talk about observable experienced reality. Is the world infinite or finite? He didn’t care, he just cared about the cessation of suffering in this moment.
So as a Buddhist I don’t worship Buddha, who I believe was born and died a human being. He is not divine. He was, however, way cool.
Buddha, born a prince named Siddhartha Gautama, became enlightened when he realized a few fundamental truths about human existence. They’re the Four Noble Truths:
1) There is suffering (this isn’t a great translation of the Pali word dukkha, which more accurately means dis-ease or dissatisfaction, but suffering works well enough).
“Birth is suffering, aging is suffering, illness is suffering, death is suffering; union with what is displeasing is suffering; separation from what is pleasing is suffering; not to get what one wants is suffering”
2) Suffering is caused by craving – either to have things/sensations or to be rid of them
3) There is a way to end suffering
4) That way is the Eightfold Path
Buddha loved him some fucking lists, so then comes the Noble Eightfold Path, which delineates good ethical guidelines (speak truthfully, don’t kill any living beings, make a living without creating suffering), meditation guidelines (effort, concentration and mindfulness) and wisdom guidelines (correct understanding and correct intention). Following the Eightfold Path would lead to nirvana, or the cessation of suffering.
What’s really cool about Buddha’s teachings is that his attitude was always “Don’t take my word for it, see for yourself.” Buddhism is a religion predicated on direct experience. It’s like the scientific method for spirituality – try doing these things and you will see an improvement in your life.
I have seen for myself. I’ve seen the improvement. Meditation practice and striving to live by Buddhist ethics has improved my life. I suffer less, although I still suffer plenty.
Being a Buddhist, for me, means a commitment to the Dharma, to the teachings of the Buddha. I believe that his philosophy is correct. I believe that he figured out a lot of the underlying things that bedevil us all, and he created a system that can, if not give us total liberation, really make a huge improvement in our fucked up psyches. I think that human evolution has left us in a weird place where we still have the survival mechanisms of small mammals low on the food chain, but we are no longer small mammals low on the food chain. Buddhism offers a system to correct those survival mechanisms.
There’s more to it than those two lists. On a larger level I fully get Buddhism’s view of the world. All things are impermanent, and all that arises must pass away. That’s EVERYTHING, from the sadness you feel today, to the happiness you feel tomorrow, from your own life to the very Earth itself. EVERYTHING ENDS. It’s such an obvious concept, but it’s not one we live out day to day. In Buddhism you do.
The big piece of Buddhism that appeals to me, though, is the concept of metta – clunkily translated into lovingkindness. You know Christ’s urging that we love our neighbor as ourselves? Imagine if Christianity actually made that a central, fundamental and driving tenet of its religious practice. The Buddha teaches that only through positive mind states like metta (one of the Four Immeasurables – Buddha could have worked as a listicle writer at Buzzfeed!) can one’s own suffering be overcome.
This is the part of Buddhism that is special to me. It’s what makes meditation – popularized in the West as mindfulness, a way to get calm and become more productive – spiritual as opposed to self-helpy. As a Buddhist I seek to improve myself so that I may be of more use to other beings. My goal may be the cessation of suffering, but that goal is a) achieved by helping others and b) achieved so that I can further help others. This resonates with me deeply.
This is also the part of Buddhism that makes it a real ‘ism’ to me, as opposed to just a series of mind exercises.
The questions of karma and rebirth must be brought up. Do I believe in them? I think only a fool disbelieves in karma – ‘what you reap is what you sow’ is a cliche for a reason. I’ve seen it in action in my own life.
As for rebirth? I’m working through my thoughts on this. One teaching of Buddhism is that there is no self, ie there is no fixed soul that has your identity. What you perceive as “you” is just the process that arises from the interaction of five aggregates (body, sensations, perceptions, mental activity and consciousness). So what is reborn? It’s a pretty serious question since Buddha emphasized both the lack of a soul AND rebirth. I tend to believe in the concept of karmic momentum, which means that your actions can continue to create suffering past your own death. It ties in with my understanding of the core Buddhist tenet of dependent origination (nothing arises on its own, which sort of says that nothing began the universe, that it is dependent on its own existence), so just as there is karma that set into motion the events and context that led to my own birth, so will my karma lead to events and context that will lead to other, probably suffering-causing, events and arisings in the future. If that makes sense. A lot of Buddhism sounds like stoned dorm talk, tbh. I like that too.
Anyway, this long update is to say
1) No, I don’t suddenly believe in God
2) I have studied and experienced Buddhism and have felt the impact of the Dharma directly on myself
3) I wanted to make a more formal commitment to that path (but even the most formal lay commitment to Buddhism is super loose – many people are Buddhists AND also practice more traditional theistic religions on top of it)
4) I like religions that have a lot of lists and also a lot of terminology in a dead language that sounds like it’s from a cool fantasy novel
5) I believe we can all become better people and in doing so we can help others
but most of all
6) I believe that Buddhism is the only religion that will get us the future we see in STAR TREK.
This commitment to Buddhism grew out of meditation practice that was undertaken in an originally secular way, my experience in recovery, my therapist who turned out to be a Buddhist psychologist and a shit ton of reading and listening to lectures from wise people who deliver love with humility. But it all really came together when I realized all the great wisdom from the past 50 or so years seems to have its origins in Buddhist thought. You’d be shocked which inspirational figures have found themselves aligned philosophically with the Buddha.
If you have any questions I’ll do my best to answer them. I’m not here to proselytize, but if you’re anything like I used to be you don’t have a strong understanding of just what Buddhism teaches (I used to think Buddha vanished to LotusLand after he attained nirvana) and I think if you looked into it you would find Buddhism to be an incredibly practical path to having a life that sucks a little bit less than it does normally.