(image courtesy of LACMA)
A New Buddhist
“Sometimes, if you stand on the bottom rail of a bridge and lean over to watch the river slipping slowly away beneath you, you will suddenly know everything there is to be known.”
― A.A. Milne
When I started my journey into mindful retirement, I didn’t know where it would lead me. I just knew that I wanted to have a different kind of life from what I had experienced so far. I wanted to replace my goals for achievement and success with a focus on peace and self-knowledge. As I read more, studied and practiced mindfulness techniques, I began to see a disconnect between my Protestant Christian upbringing, and my growing need for a mindful way of life. Because my late husband, Chris, was a Buddhist, I knew just enough about the religion to be dangerous. So, I started reading about Buddhism along with mindfulness. A question I’ve heard many times is, “Must one be a Buddhist in order to embrace mindfulness?” After much reading, I believe the answer is ‘no’. But, adopting Buddhism as a spiritual and philosophical value system feels right for me.
Because this spiritual transformation is the most important event in my life during 2016, (and arguably, in my entire life) I decided to write a short introduction to the basic concepts of Buddhism here. Most of the following ideas are not mine and I am indebted to the various sources I used. Perhaps they will also help you better understand what Buddhism is all about.
One more thought before you read on: I am only a novice at understanding Buddhism and I have a lot of questions about each of the following tenets. So I inserted some of my questions into the following discussion as they occurred to me. Trying to get these questions answered will undoubtedly be part of my continuing journey in seeking peace and self-knowledge.
What is Buddhism?
Buddhism does not include the idea of worshiping a creator god, so some people do not see it as a religion in the normal, Western sense. It is more a spiritual mindset than a religion. (Question: If there is no God, how was the universe created?) The basic tenets of Buddhist teaching are straightforward and practical: 1) impermanence; 2) no self; 3) Nirvana. Buddhism teaches practical methods which enable people to realize and use its teachings in order to transform their experience, to be fully responsible for their lives. (https://thebuddhistcentre.com/buddhism)
- Impermanence (everything is always changing)
Buddhism declares that in this world there is nothing that is fixed and permanent. Everything is subject to change and alteration. (Question: Can’t love be everlasting? If everything is changeable, is there any value in having goals?) The Buddha and his followers accepted that existence was in flux, and continuously becoming. Life is comparable to a river. It is a progressive moment, a successive series of different moments, joining together to give the impression of one continuous flow. It moves from cause to cause, effect to effect, one point to another, one state of existence to another, giving the outward impression that it is one continuous and unified movement, while in reality it is not. The river of yesterday is not the same as the river of today. The river of this moment is not going to be the same as the river of the next moment. So does life. It changes continuously, becoming something different from moment to moment. (http://www.urbandharma.org/udharma8/imperm.html)
- No Self (nothing has a solid core or soul)
The ‘self’ is comprised of five aggregates. All human beings create individuality of self through one, more or all of these five aggregates. It is through clinging to these empty phenomena that stress and suffering is able to overcome our minds. The five aggregates are: 1) body, 2) feelings, 3) perceptions, 4) thoughts, and 5) consciousness. Clinging to one, or more or all of these phenomena also allows thoughts of “I”, “me” or “mine” arise. (Question: Does the drive to survive, such as by eating, constitute clinging?) The Buddha compared these aggregates to leaves on the ground. Just as we would say that the leaves are not ours, so too we should think that these five aggregates are not ours. We experience them but they are not ours. (Question: If there is no soul, what is it that engages in reincarnation?) (https://www.reddit.com/user/Outye/)
- Nirvana (peace is freedom from fixed concepts)
In Theravada Buddhism, Nirvana is the consequence of one’s dedication to extinguishing desires or clinging. Nirvana is not only a state of liberation from wants, but also a freedom from the suffering that is associated with them. (Question: what’s the difference between wants and needs? Are all wants associated with the suffering of clinging?) To Theravada Buddhists, self-knowledge is a tried and true path to this state of being. By understanding that all things are ephemeral and ever-changing, one can begin to comprehend how they may cultivate Nirvana within. This is because, when one realizes their existence is only a moment in comparison to all of time, they may begin to embrace a more humble disposition, which is akin to the frame of mind needed to reach Nirvana.
Buddhism teaches that when a person dies they are reborn and that this process of death and rebirth will continue until Nirvana is attained. A person is made up of thoughts, feelings and perceptions interacting with the body in a dynamic way. At death this stream of mental energy is re-established in a new body. Thus, Buddhism explains the continuity of the individual without belief in an “eternal soul”, an idea which contradicts the concept of impermanence. (http://www.inquiriesjournal.com/articles/1370/understanding-nirvana-in-theravada-and-mahayana-buddhism-in-support-of-nagarjunas-mahayana-perspective)
In an upcoming post, I plan to discuss some of these Buddhist concepts more in depth. I hope you will join me in this journey of discovery.
10 Buddhist Books Everyone Should Read
by Lion’s Roar Staff May 10, 2016 (www.lionsroar.com)
- After the Ecstasy, the Laundry
by Jack Kornfield
According to Jack Kornfield, enlightenment does exist and is even pretty common. The rub is that after achieving it, day-to-day tasks and troubles still await you. This is a guide to translating our spiritual awakenings into our imperfect lives.
- A Beginner’s Guide to Meditation
by Rod Meade Sperry and the editors of Lion’s Roar
Advice and inspiration from Buddhism’s most renowned teachers, including many Lion’s Roar readers’ favorites like Pema Chödrön, Thich Nhat Hanh, the Dalai Lama, Norman Fischer, Judy Lief, and many more.
by Thich Nhat Hanh
Addresses both personal awakening and engaging compassionately in the world. Using anecdotes from his own life, as well as poems and fables, Thich Nhat Hanh teaches his key practices for dwelling in the present moment.
- Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism
by Chögyam Trungpa
Based on the highest view of the Vajrayana school, it defines basic principles not only of Buddhism but of spiritual practice altogether. Always contemporary and relevant, a profound influence on how Buddhism is understood today.
5.Happiness Is an Inside Job
by Sylvia Boorstein
With her characteristic warmth, Sylvia Boorstein teaches how practicing right mindfulness, concentration, and effort leads us away from anger, anxiety, and confusion and into calmness, clarity, and joy.
6.Mindfulness in Plain English
by Bhante Gunaratana
Perfect for anyone interested in mindfulness, Buddhist or not. This classic of the Theravada tradition explains what mindfulness is and isn’t, how to practice it, and how to work with distractions and other obstacles.
- Real Happiness
by Sharon Salzberg
Using almost no Buddhist-specific terms, this helpful little book nonetheless hits all the right notes when it comes to how to do basic meditation and related practices that can help us cultivate more kindness, connection, and contentment in our everyday lives.
- What Makes You Not a Buddhist
by Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse
A precise delineation of the key tenets that define Buddhism, versus what is superfluous, merely cultural, or not Buddhist at all. A good book to read if you’re deciding whether or not you’re a Buddhist, or just want to know what Buddhism really is.
- When Things Fall Apart
by Pema Chödrön
If you’re facing a challenging time in life, this is the book you want. It shows how to develop loving-kindness toward yourself and then cultivate a fearlessly compassionate attitude toward your own pain and that of others.
- Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind
by Shunryu Suzuki
(Weatherhill, 1973; fortieth anniversary edition, 2013, Shambhala)
Though covering Zen basics like zazen posture, bowing, intention, and so on, Suzuki Roshi’s masterwork is hardly just for Zen people—or just for beginners, for that matter. It skillfully introduces important Buddhist concepts like non-attachment, emptiness, and enlightenment.