Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Buddhism 101

Gosh, I'm kind of disappointed that only two people had anything to say about Buddhism. Evidently there isn't as much knowledge about it out there as I had presumed. I am not a Buddhist, by the way, in case anyone is getting the wrong idea; I take insights where I can find them. So this is the best I can do as an interested dilettante. And, as I suggested below, I am looking at Buddhism from a foreign perspective. Any real Buddhists out there who want to set me straight, please come ahead.

Buddhism has evolved, of course, since Siddharta Gautama's day. The Theravada, or southern school, which originated in Sri Lanka and spread through Southeast Asia, is closer to the original. The Mahayana school, which originated in China and spread to Japan and Korea, is more familiar in the United States, in the specific form of Zen. Many years ago I tried to tell a friend about Buddhism and she said, oh yes, she met some Buddhists and they just said that if you chant NAM-MYOHO-RENGE-KYO over and over again every day, you'll get whatever you want. Alas, there is a cult that believes this, which calls itself Buddhist. That is like calling Heaven's Gate a Christian denomination, however. These beliefs have nothing whatever to do with the teachings of Siddharta Gautama. (NAM-MYOHO-RENGE-KYO is the title of a famous sermon of Sakyamuni, which means more or less The Lotus of the True Doctrine.)

Anyway, Sakyamuni's teaching can be summarized as having four major components. These are:

  • The four truths;
  • The eight-fold way;
  • The impermanence of all created things;
  • The non-existence of self.
The four truths are:

  • Existence is suffering;
  • The cause of suffering is desire (or attachment);
  • People can achieve liberation from suffering;
  • Liberation is achieved by following the eight-fold way.

The eight-fold way is:

  • Right views
  • Right intention
  • Right speech
  • Right action
  • Right livelihood
  • Right effort
  • Right mindfulness
  • Right concentration.
The first seven steps on the path translate fairly straightforwardly into English, but "concentration" refers to a state attained in meditation, not to focusing intently on your work. A Buddha means a person who is awake, or illuminated. It refers to someone who has followed the 8-fold way and become liberated from suffering and illusion.

The idea that life is suffering does not mean that we are always suffering or never happy. However, pain and disappointment are the fate of all. Whatever we can acquire of worldly wealth, it is never enough. Whatever loving relationships we form, death will always end them if nothing else does. Whatever we want for our family, our town, our people, our society, our world, most of it we will never have. Suffering, then, arises from selfish craving. There is not space here to discuss impermanence and not-self, but for now I will just say that both of these ideas help to guide us on the 8-fold way to liberation, by showing us the futility of egoism and of clinging. The Buddhist ethic is one of selflessness and compassion. Wanting things for ourselves is ultimately the cause of disappointment and pain; caring for others, without clinging or selfish desire for material or emotional rewards, is part of the way to liberation.

To a humanist or realist, Sakyamuni's arguments are particularly respectable because he insisted that no-one should take anything he said on faith. His epistemology is empirical -- try it, and see if it works. Also, there is no moral pressure on anyone to either be a Buddhist or to follow the 8-fold way. When the time comes, and one is ready, it is there. If you're busy wallowing in worldly pleasures, that's your own business.

Now, Buddhist tradition gets into all sorts of abstruse metaphysics and complex philosophical wrangling that would put western academia to shame. I'm not going there. But does this make sense to people so far? Are these ideas religious, or are they something else? If you believe in God, do they still make sense? What is the relationship between the Buddhist form of inquiry, theology, and science?