August, 2004 (revised from earlier)
Why am I Buddhist?
I would like to believe that we are all Buddhists hence, I am Buddhist. Yet I know that the simplicity of that assertion would not find massive support from within my closest circle of friends and relatives. In fact, was I to say that aloud, I’m quite sure that most would either not believe my sincerity or, if they did, would think me very naïve? But basically, I believe in that statement. Most of the people I know share most of the same values as I do vis-à-vis our fellow man. The only difference between them is perhaps to what extent they would put the well-being of others ahead of their own. Ah, you may say, that is exactly what is non-Buddhist about most people. Not true my friend. It is a simple fact of humanity that we are all looking for happiness and wish to avoid suffering. Everyone wants those two things. The only time that we put ourselves first is when that desire is under threat.
Ironically, we always feel best when we have achieved the goal of making life easier for someone else. Most people only strive to include their nearest and dearest in this effort, but some include total strangers too. What about people who support one of the many humanitarian NGO’s on some level or other? Why do they do that? Because they instinctively feel a sense of responsibility for the difference in status that exists amongst creatures in the world. That is the first step towards compassion. For some, it is a question of pity. Some say that when your fear touches someone’s pain, it becomes pity; but when your love touches someone’s pain, it becomes compassion.
Having established that this basic instinct for self-preservation has the added benefit of helping others at times, then the next step is putting others ahead of you. Now for most people that sounds quite holy, but it truly isn’t. In fact, there is a great deal more satisfaction received from helping others achieve their goals, then achieving selfish goals. Once we achieve a personal goal, we are left with a bit of an empty feeling leading us to think: Now what? We are rarely satisfied with the status quo on achievement. However, when we have helped someone else achieve their goal, then we feel a true sense of accomplishment and a job well done. And that’s the end of that!
By devoting myself to the precepts of Buddhism, I meditate on the emptiness of phenomena and egolessness, and these efforts help me to think of others first. Now to most people who haven’t tried it before, the concept of no “I” may be a difficult one to accept, but once you really study the basis for this assumption, then it all begins to make some sense and other concepts become clearer as well. Obviously, if my intention here is simply to answer the question of why I am Buddhist, then I cannot rattle off all the tenets of the Buddhadharma without making the whole piece sound like an exercise in gibberish. Suffice it to say, that once stuck into the material, I find that the principles of life, death, rebirth, karma, selflessness and emptiness which are taught there all begin to fit into the vast jigsaw puzzle that we know to be our existence (or non-existence) within the realm of this world that we inhabit for the time being.
As a Buddhist, I feel a sense of responsibility towards all sentient beings. That is to say that I feel that I have to try to save all from suffering and the causes of suffering but more than just that. I want to help all achieve happiness. I know that this goal is one that is achievable. Obviously the goal cannot be achieved by a single individual in a single lifetime, but we all have our part to play and need to make an effort in that direction by the actions that we perform while on this plane of existence.
To illustrate my point, I would like to make a rather bold contention:
The world today is full of war, hatred, suffering, starvation and disease as a result of man’s inhumanity to man. That is not news. However, I believe that in my lifetime or my nephews’ and nieces’ lifetimes, or their children’s lifetimes at the latest, it would be possible to eliminate the threat and suffering of human terrorism from the planet. How, you may ask? Simply by educating the world, one small section of the population at a time, to always compare the righteousness of a cause with the evil motivation of causing innocent people to suffer for that cause in addition to the inhumane and monstrous methods used to achieve those aims for the selfish attainment of a most questionable and misplaced concept of paradise.
Also, I believe that we have the means and ability to eliminate some of the worst plagues to visit mankind, such as Ebola and AIDS, just to mention two. All that would require is the abandonment of profit ahead of humanity. Can’t be done, you say? Fine…why can it not be done? Because WE won’t let it be done? WE comprise the people who make these decisions in the world. And we know where WE stand on this issue, don’t we? So, it follows, that sooner or later the matter WILL be dealt with in a manner which will achieve the goal.
If we teach compassion and loving kindness, patience and tolerance to our children, they will in turn teach it to theirs.
It all depends on the seed we sow now!
Yes, we are ALL Buddhists! Perhaps, some are more Buddhist than others. That will change. I want to help. That is why I am Buddhist!
February 1, 2008.
I have wanted to update this page for some time now. In order to measure my growth or change with regard to my faith, I felt it necessary to re-read my original text. I have not rewritten any part of it although I have corrected a few spelling and grammatical errors which had escaped my scan previously.
To my surprise, nothing has changed! And yet, everything has changed!
Everything I wrote down four years ago still reflects my feelings on the subject now. However the change I mention is based on my certainty about the assertions I have espoused.
I have been convinced, as many before me, that Buddhism is both a philosophy and a religion. The philosophy is based on both the known and as yet unknown aspects of the universe at large contained in all the sciences. All of mankind’s scientific discoveries and endeavours are contained somewhere in the Buddhist philosophies and in particular in the approaches of quantum mechanics and physics but not restricted to those. The greatest similarity between the philosophies and the sciences is the requirement to test all aspects of any hypothesis prior to espousing any conclusions, and even here it is the Buddhist and scientific approach which dictates that even these may be brought under closer examination at any time.
And just as in quantum, the moment one feels that a breakthrough is imminent, yet another question or puzzle raises its head.
The religious aspects of Buddhism are all geared towards developing a clearer, more rational analytical mind. The meditative practices, particularly in the Tibetan traditions, are so varied and numerous that almost everyone can find a system which works for them. The one thing which they all have in common is the strength one develops through faith. That is to say that if one has faith in one’s own abilities, they will undoubtedly succeed. On the one hand Buddhism presents a specific scenario and on the other hand it forbids you to accept it at face value. The operative word in Buddhist philosophy as well as the Buddhist religion is: test, test, and test! Don’t take anyone’s word for anything without thoroughly analysing it first! You may, of course, always trust your guru or lama but don’t accept his claims if doubts occur. You may however follow his instructions: they may very well lead you to realization.
The subject which has caused me the greatest consternation and frustration is the Buddhist philosophy of shunyata or emptiness. This is the subject which deals with the nature of reality, the way in which objects and phenomena truly exist (different from the way we believe them to exist), and the false assertion of self. I have at this point received numerous teachings on the subject by various teachers. I feel that the different approaches used by each new teacher has helped me reach what might be acceptably called an ‘intellectual understanding’ of the subject. However, each time I reach a level where I believe a deeper understanding is at hand, I am reminded of one of my teachers’ advice to meditate on the ‘emptiness of emptiness’ and I’m back at square one again. Never mind! Somewhere in this muddle, I think that’s ok. It only spurs me onward with new determination.
Oddly enough, in spite of being told on numerous occasions that the principles of karma require the greatest application of faith, I don’t see it in that light at all. For me, the law of cause and effect is simply a matter of logic. How in the world can anyone argue that results arise from anything other than their causes? Conversely, how could anyone doubt that all our actions give results which are similar in basic nature (sooner or later)? The only space in which I might concede that faith is required is in the concept of rebirth. We have no one who can prove this theory although there are a multitude of anecdotal accounts which would appear to support it. In order for karma to follow us through this life and beyond to our next life, one needs believe in its likelihood. For my part, I cannot deny that even babies are born with tendencies already in place. For example, some babies are born with the tendency to cry more than others; some need constant attention while others are always happy and sleep through the night: the good baby/difficult baby syndromes. I could give many more examples of early life tendencies which do not appear to be learned, but many people would insist that these may be genetically instigated, so I won’t bother. Personally, I am convinced in the ‘possibility’ of rebirth although I don’t believe that all sentient beings experience this or that they necessarily return in the same form. In fact, Buddhism doesn’t claim this either, other than to assume that consciousness is a continuum which has existed since beginning less time, in one form or another, depending on karma. But the greatest contribution to the promotion of humanity in the principles of karma can be found in a quote in Sogyal Rinpoche’s book ‘The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying’ which reads: “If you want to know about your previous life, look at your present condition. If you want to know about your next life, look at your present actions.” This should be enough to cause anyone to act a bit more cautiously.
I have chosen the Mahayana Buddhist path and specifically in the Tibetan tradition. The reason for this is quite simple: the Tibetan Buddhist path puts the liberation of all sentient beings before the goal of self-liberation. The idea of developing boddhicita (the earnest desire to achieve enlightenment for the sake of liberating all sentient beings) is a very ambitious aspiration and very difficult to achieve. However, I believe that boddhisatvas (enlightened beings who have rejected nirvana but instead chose to return as human to liberate others) walk among us and that would logically follow that if their path exists then this MUST be the meaning of my existence. The ambition isn’t so much to amass merit (all merit has already been achieved) as it is to liberate others. This requires a perfection of compassion, loving kindness and equanimity. I don’t claim to possess any of the qualities required to attain that goal but since we are all possessed of Buddha nature then it is only a matter of lifetimes before I can join that group. I intend to persevere.
When putting all these things together, I had to reconcile my Roman Catholic upbringing with the Buddhist understanding of ultimate reality. In Buddhism there is no dogma which insists on the existence of God, the creator of all things. For that matter, the only dogma in Buddhism at all is the one which insists that we question and test all our beliefs. For that reason, many people don’t regard Buddhism as a religion at all. The truth is that I feel that I have a better and closer relationship with God than in my previous religion. I have a different and less caricatured vision of God, but my spirituality is heightened through my meditation on the nature of reality, on how all things exist and the inter-connectedness of everything in the universe. So, I don’t feel comfortable when people accuse me of having no God in my religion. I think it is more a matter of: you have one idea of God, and I have another. As a Buddhist, I accept that not all people can have the same religion; any spirituality is better than no spirituality; I must be tolerant of all; I must not differentiate between friend, enemy or stranger; I must develop compassion for all beings; I must develop loving kindness for all beings. These are quite lofty goals, I know, but I have met people who possess these qualities, so it’s possible.
The bottom line for me is simply this: through my study of Buddhism and the meagre efforts that I exert, I have developed a sincere desire to be a better human being. It may not be enlightenment, but it’s a start.