Once upon a time I started meditating. I did not do it to improve my life, as part of a spiritual search or to find any deeper truths. I did not meditate to stimulate my chakras, find myself or discover my unity with everything. I did not meditate to express my original enlightenment. No, I meditated to improve my concentration. Yep, that is it. Yet something happened.
My life improved significantly. I did not find love or respect. New opportunities did not come my way. I did not perform better at work or in relationships. No, my outward conditions remained identical, but my worrying decreased. See, even though I was not in any financial or physical trouble, I was in mental trouble, as I suffered obsessive worries. With meditation, most of the worry vanished within a month and I was MUCH happier. I was so sold that I kept meditating long after I stopped caring about my concentration. In fact, I wanted to go further.
I studied more and picked up some of the associated philosophy. Gradually, I came to realize that Buddhism often went hand in hand with meditation. I was not looking for a religion, and knew little about Buddhism, but my experiences with meditation taught me that:
- At least one Buddhist tool worked out of context, so syncreticism was ok
- Buddhist tools could be secularized
- Happiness came from within and not in external changes
- Happiness was to be had in this life
- Happiness was not all or nothing.
With this in mind, I started looking for a meditation group.
I assumed a group would help me go farther, learn new techniques, and/or provide me with the company of like-minded people who would encourage me. So I searched and over the years ended up in various Buddhist communities. I spent serious time with two of them, and in between practiced, studied, made friends, attended talks and critically reflected on what I saw.
This series is about some of what I learned. But first, what is Buddhism?
Buddhism: stuff supposedly taught by some guy called The Buddha.
This may be a lousy definition, but it’s also the only one that passes the sniff test. There is a huge range of (sometimes contradictory) practice that goes under the name of Buddhism. For example, all of the following could be considered Buddhist practices:
- Tibetan monks doing Tantra
- Pureland lay practitioners chanting a sacred name
- A guy waving a stick of incense around and praying
- A college professor reflecting how desire caused her pain
So let me say I do not care about Buddhism, never did, and likely never will. Karma, reincarnation, super powers, Pali, etc… are irrelevant to me. What matters is being happy, and Buddhism has some useful things to say about happiness. Yet even that subset has suffered under the influence of dogmatism, extremism, sharp dualisms and pointless philosophizing. Therefore, common sense and a healthy dose of iconoclasm are needed to isolate these teachings and bring them back to earth.
Many Buddhist schools seem to agree. Some expressions used that reveal an iconoclastic attitude are:
- A finger pointing at the moon
- Crossing a river with a raft, then abandoning it
- Killing the Buddha on the path
In each case the message is the same. Focus on applying the message and not the medium or even the message per se. The medium could be used as a crutch for those that need it, to be abandoned when no longer needed. These are good sayings, and someone outside of Buddhism could be forgiven for thinking Buddhists live by it. Most don’t.
This includes even those secular Buddhists who treat Buddhism as a philosophy. Even there, many of the problems that plague Buddhism as religion, culture, dogma have crept in. After all, anyone can attach to the superficial form of something and miss the real point. This bait-and-switch is not the province of religion, but of the human mind.
Hence this series. I would like to present Buddhism by slaying its sacred cows. In the process, I hope to separate the wheat from the chaff and also invite the more skeptical to look under the hood, to see the usefulness of Buddhism Without the Bull. I am sure many see a lot of the myths (Free Tibet, Buddhism/Science, Cuddly Dalai Lama) and smell a rat. Rather than perpetuating the myths and having them throw the baby out with the bathwater when they discover the bull, I want to pre-emptively show them the bull and invite them to look deeper at the good stuff that is there. While I strive to be polite in tone, what I have to say may offend some.
Like the Neglected Philosophies series, this will be open-ended. However, my experience has already suggested the first three articles. One of the Buddhist temples I attended would close with a chant: Namo Buddha, Namo Dharma, Namo Sangha. This means “I take refuge in the Buddha, I take refuge in the Dharma, I take refuge in the Sangha.”
Ironically, those are three huge problems, and I will tackle each in subsequent articles.
Stay tuned next time when I take the Zen advice to slay the Buddha, then go the extra mile by peeing on the corpse.