ME 6103: So You Wanna’ Be a Buddhist? Eat this…

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Buddhist shrine in Sri Lanka

So you’ve just finished “Buddhism for Dummies” and think that you might want to take the big plunge, into Buddhism, that is, and now you’re wondering what to do next? Well, I’ve got good news and bad news: there is no Big Plunge, not really, so you can just start calling yourself a Buddhist when ever and wherever you want, limited only by time and circumstance…

And if you need more than that, then you can go to a Buddhist meditation retreat for a more intense introduction, BUT: unless it’s coordinated with a Buddhist temple, then it’s probably not really Buddhist. Most American meditation events are yoga-affiliated, and while that’s fine, and highly recommended—it ain’t Buddhism. Yoga is a Hindu discipline. Meditation is both, Hindu and Buddhist, too, plus the almost-forgotten-by-now Jains, and others…

Unfortunately many Buddhist-oriented yoga teachers think that the yoga qualifies them to teach Buddhism, too, but it doesn’t. They’re not the same—far from it. Even worse, some people like to lump under Buddhism all their favorite New-Agey fad religious fantasies, which is a serious mistake, most of which have the distinctive frangrance of recycled Christianity, i.e. forgiveness, salvation, and most of all—love…

Now I’m an MA grad student in Buddhist Studies, and I don’t even know the word for love in Pali or Sanskrit, though ‘loving-kindness’ has been borrowed from Christianity, hopefully under no duress, as a new modern translation for the word metta which formerly meant only ‘friendship’ or ‘friendliness’, ‘compassion’ at most, before the Christian make-over. And now Christians have borrowed Buddhist ‘mindfulness’ in order to compete, so it’s a tie score, I guess…

The problem in the West is that, outside of expatriate Asian communities, Buddhist temples are hard to find, and the ones that exist may or may not have any activities to interest Anglos and Europeans. But there is much literature available, and if one perseveres, an accurate picture is possible, and very profound, well worth the time. So let’s go down the check-list of scheduled classes:

1) Four Noble Truths. Got that? Do you agree that ‘suffering’ is the best word to describe this world that we live in? If not, then you might be in the wrong place, and if you think ‘fun’ is a better description, you might want to ‘bang a U-ie’ and head back down the street to First Baptist. I hear they’re building an amusement park out back. Optimist or pessimist, whatever, in the Buddhist POV, this world is simply not the place or time to: “Go for it!” “Give it all you’ve got!” “Live fast and die young!” “Give me freedom or give me death!”

There is no freedom, or very little, anyway, just free will. But there are profound and very real limits. And if you agree that craving is the cause of most suffering, at least most voluntary suffering, then we’re on the same page, especially if you agree that avoidance of extremes is the best path forward from this conundrum. The point is simply not to ‘be all that you can be’, and do all that you can do, though that’s nice, as much as it is to avoid as much suffering as you can, especially if you can help others do the same, simultaneously. And…

2) If you agree that anicca, change and impermanence, is the perfect accompaniment to this suffering, then we’re right on target, especially if you can agree to permanently bury your ego—no, better make it your entire ‘self’…ness. This anatta is crucial to a proper understanding of Buddhism, and is easiest for a Westerner to wrap his head around as something like ego-suppression. These two, together with dukkha/suffering form the three Buddhist ‘Marks of Existence’…

3) What else? Then there’s Dependent Origination, the doctrine that all entities are intrinsically related, even connected, and that nothing is really unique, everything connected in their ultimate sameness. How best to illustrate this? Let’s try this: gather dinner together in your begging bowl. First start with a bed of rice. Now add some type of curry, right there on top of the rice, Sri Lankan or Thai, it doesn’t matter. Now add a vegetable dish beside it. Now add something else. Look good? Now mix it all together. If it still looks good, then you’re a Buddhist, especially if you think it tastes good, too…

If this all sounds pessimistic, even depressing, then I’m sorry, but that’s simply the way it is. If you want to fill that half-full glass to overflowing, then there’s a word for that: global warming, or poverty, or hunger. If you want to keep it half-full, subject to conditions, then that’s sustainability. And that’s Buddhism. And not only does it not cause global warming, it promotes community and harmony among us as brothers and sisters of the dharma, none head-and-shoulders above the rest, and none down on the ground, hopefully. This is village equality at its best. This is philosophy at its most sublime…

But this is all just doctrine and belief, of course, so if you want to just concentrate on the meditation, then that’s fine. That’s what unifies all the various Buddhist schools and connects us with a not-so-distant Hindu cousin, too. Frankly, much of what gets written, even in Buddhism, I wouldn’t want to be associated with, like ‘noble birth’, for example, or any (re) birth, for that matter, and so forth, and so on…

Meditation is easy. The idea is to put thoughts and other ‘mental formations’ on hold for a while, to let your mind return to stillness, mostly just by concentrating on breath, or something else innocuous, but ubiquitous. Just sit comfortably with your hands on your knees or folded politely in your lap, and you’re good to go. Please do NOT raise your arms into the air like so many yoga-weekend poses, nor show any cleavage, and for God’s sake: don’t stand on your freakin’ head! Just sit there and don’t squirm! Now you’re Buddhist…