Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The possibility of The Buddha


Is it possible to be a Buddhist?

Obviously, there are hundreds of millions who call themselves Buddhists or try to follow the teachings of the Enlightened One. In that sense, if you call yourself a Buddhist, you are one, just as you are a Christian or a Jew if you say you are and observe a few rites.

I have never known quite what to say when asked what my religion is. Not if a short answer is wanted. I have been influenced to one degree or another by most of the major religions. It's fashionable in conservative circles to rail against eclectic, "cafeteria-style" religious beliefs or practices. You are supposed to choose one and adopt it wholeheartedly.

This I have never been able to do, because they all have some characteristics I find useful or admirable. Yes, that goes for Islam. The Muslim practice (which I think is mostly honored in the breach these days) of stopping everything five times a day and remembering Allah is beautiful. We benefit from stopping our business (busyness) regularly and remembering that the pleasures and travails of this world are only a shadow of Reality.


But also, all institutional religions are unworthy of their originators or greatest inspirations. In the hands of the worldly, the uninspired, the routine followers, the scholastics, they dry up over time. They become covered with irrelevant traditions that cling to them like barnacles. They can become perverted by fanaticism.

Of all the broad religious traditions, I think Buddhism comes closest to retaining the spirit of its founder and greatest teacher, Gautama the Buddha. Buddhists have never started a war to advance their cause. No one has ever been forced to convert to Buddhism.

To many Westerners, Buddhism seems a very peculiar religion, or not a religion at all. Where is God in it?


The Buddha lived and taught at a time (5th century BC) and place (India) when the huge mixture of beliefs and traditions we call Hindu -- a theistic religion -- had already taken on so much baggage in the form of gods, devas, gurus, chants, stories, and superstitions that the diamond-like clarity of spiritual knowledge was in danger of being lost. The Buddha sought to cut through the clutter. He taught spiritual pragmatism: never mind theology, never mind ideas about God. Life itself gives you the key to Enlightenment, provided you have the right relationship to it in your behavior.

Generally, Buddhism doesn't make distinctions between sacred and profane, the flesh and the spirit. It isn't worldly as opposed to a higher calling. It seeks the higher calling within the worldly.


In Creative Meditation and Multi-Dimensional Consciousness, Lama Anagarika Govinda says:
It is the finite that gives meaning to the infinite, because the infinite can express itself only through finite form. And vice versa: where the finite clings to existence for its own sake, without reflecting the infinite, it becomes meaningless and carries the seeds of death within itself.
For the Buddhist, he says,
... it is not a God who is responsible for the evil and imperfection of the world, because the world we experience is the creation of our own ignorance, our own cravings and passions. That imperfection should come out of perfection and completeness seems to contradict all reason, while the opposite appears more likely to the Buddhist. The experiences of life and the examination of those who attained enlightenment have taught him that from a state of imperfection, perfection can be achieved, and the sufferings resulting from our passions are the very forces that lead toward liberation.
To overcome our self-imposed suffering, the Buddha tells us, we have to purge ourselves of certain natural but harmful tendencies of mind and emotions -- something like Christianity's seven deadly sins. Releasing the grip of self-defeating tendencies means keeping a tight rein on every aspect of behavior. He calls it the Eightfold Path: right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration.

All told, this is a teaching of moral fierceness.


And that is where I have to ask: who can actually practice Buddhism? It seems that trying to would test a monk. What chance do any of us living in the world have? In the abstract, it's easy enough to sign on to all the "right" modes of conduct, but how much choice do we actually have?

For just one example, take "right livelihood." Roy Eugene Davis is not a Buddhist (he's actually one of the original disciples of the yogi Paramahansa Yogananda), but he essentially speaking about right livelihood in his book Life Surrendered in God: Handbook to New Era Discipleship when he says:
While instructing in matters of higher metaphysics and spiritual practices, the guru may also inquire into personal matters. He may ask, "How do you earn your living? Is it honest work, benefiting others and society, or does some harm result?"
 And other questions about the ethics of personal life.
If the disciple's answers are affirmative, instruction will continue. If not, the guru may say, "Go home and get your personal life straightened out and when you have done this, come back, and we will then continue our studies."
But in the world as most of us encounter it, how much choice do we actually have about the beneficial results of our livelihood? In modern Western society, conditions are such that we can usually avoid work that is dishonest and overtly harmful. Still, how many people are ever offered work that is unquestionably beneficial and hurts no one? With the best will, can we actually follow a livelihood that is "right" in every sense? Do we have a moral right to impoverish others who depend on us -- spouses, children, aged parents -- so we can congratulate ourselves on our right livelihood?


Similar questions lurk around all the other "right" behaviors. If they are what it takes to be a Buddhist, who qualifies? Buddhism offers, as far as I can see, no comfort for those who just try to be a little better. H.L. Mencken said that the average person is neither very good nor very bad. Is that reprehensible, or is it a survival strategy in a world of rewards and punishments?

Please, Lord Buddha. Help me understand. 



F. J. Dagg said...

On the other hand, under the present regime, one may be considered fortunate to have a livelihood at all, right or otherwise.

Rick Darby said...

F.J. Dagg,

Right you are.