Many people develop an interest in Buddhism, but it can be difficult to know where to start.
When I first became interested in it, I resisted for many years going to a temple and meeting other Buddhists. I resisted because I was worried. I was afraid of sitting in the wrong position during meditation, or saying something wrong, or accidentally revealing my lack of knowledge.
I was worried about things I didn’t need to worry about. Buddhists are generally not very judgmental people, but the people you meet at a Buddhist temple are probably paying attention to their own practice and not to you. We tell ourselves stories that keep us from doing things.
In my community, the Rime Center, there is a hand position that we sometimes do called the Mandala Mudra. This is a hand position where you squeeze your hands together in a very specific way. I’m telling you this to tell you that I’m sure I’m not doing it quite right and no one is watching me and no one cares.
It’s actually a general fact of life that I believe to be true: you are the center of your story. You are not the center of everyone.
In any event,
Buddhism. Some people are caught in this question: “Is Buddhism a religion?”
And I think this question is not very interesting. I don’t call it a religion when I talk about it. I call it my religious tradition. But it’s really just because that term sounds better to me. I have no problem with the use of the word religion. People have strong opinions about it. Generally, people who want to say it’s not a religion fall into one of two views.
1) they love their religion and want to keep it, so they worry about the possibility of having another one.
2) they don’t like religions. Maybe they had a bad experience, who knows.
More than anything, I think Buddhism is a practice. It’s not something we believe in and it’s not something we are as long as it’s something we do.
I practice Buddhism.
Buddhism is a religious tradition that was founded 2500 years ago by a historical figure we call the Buddha.
Who was the Buddha?
In Buddhism for beginners Thubten Chodron describes the Buddha as “A human being who lived 2500 years ago and purified his mind of all defilements and developed his full potential”.
It sounds really heavy. He completely cleared his mind and reached his full potential. It seems like a lot. But this fact is so important to the story. He was a person. He wasn’t a spirit, he wasn’t a god, he wasn’t an angel, he wasn’t a divine hero. He was a person. He was a very wise and determined person, but he was not fundamentally different from you or me. So we can all do what he did. It is something to which we can aspire.
We are encouraged to study the Buddha’s teachings and put them to the test. Then we can develop faith in them. We can clear our minds and reach our potential.
He saw that the religious traditions of his time were steeped in hostility to science, mean to minorities, elitism and sexism. But, more importantly, he did not believe that the religions of his time really tackled the problems of human life.
The goal of Buddhism, in my opinion, is to help us live the best possible life for our own happiness and the happiness of others. It’s about human flourishing and reaching our potential. How can we make this world a better place?
That’s the point.
In Buddhism for beginners Thubten Chodron says:Abandon negative action; create perfect virtue; submit your own mind. This is the teaching of the Buddha.
It really goes to the heart of what we’re trying to do.
Stop doing bad things, do good things, take control of your mind.
If we can stop doing things that cause harm, then we can make the world a better place for ourselves and for others. We can work to cultivate virtue by learning to develop attitudes rooted in love, compassion, joy, and equanimity. When we surrender our mind, we can lay down our emotional baggage to see the world clearly and we can begin to make better choices. It can help us be calm and peaceful and also stop constantly making enemies.
Many people come to Buddhism because they are interested in meditation. I think that’s really good and I think as Buddhists we do a lot of good in the world by teaching people how to meditate. But we would be mistaken if we thought that was all. Buddhism is about being a whole person.
“Let go of negative actions »
In this case, what is a negative action? Things that harm us and others. We know what those things are. We know when we do. Sometimes we want to do things we know are wrong and we do them anyway because we really want to. Living a self-centered life doesn’t make us as happy as we think. But doing things that harm ourselves and others also causes disharmony with the world around us. And also I really like this quote from Mark Twain, “If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything.” When we make ethical mistakes (and we all do), sometimes we can get by by trying to cover them up. And the truth is that many of our most selfish actions bring only fleeting joy anyway.
“Create the perfect virtue”
I’m not sure of the word “perfect”. But the point is important. To give up negative action is to stop the harm we are causing. To create virtue is to help. Not only do we not want to push people down, but we also want to help them if we can. Stock what we can to help others, to live a life of kindness and compassion with a boundless heart, helps create harmony, and makes the world a slightly better place for everyone, including ourselves.
“Subjugate your own mind »
Meditation is made for this in my tradition, and in most traditions. Some branches of Buddhism do other things to master their minds, but meditation is usually a component of that. We train our minds to learn to really pay attention, to see the world clearly, and to lay down some of our emotional baggage. Our consciousness is fractured and most of the time we go through life on autopilot. Sometimes we just do things and aren’t really intentional or genuine in our behavior. We get lost and get confused easily. So we train to befriend our spirits in order to learn how to stop doing that. It helps us make better choices in life. It’s hard to make the right choice when you don’t see your options clearly.
This is really the heart of the problem. This is what we do. I think it’s no coincidence that the stuff about being a good person comes before the stuff about meditation too. Cultivating virtue is really important and if we forget that, we could end up in all kinds of trouble. Living in harmony with the world around you is important.
The Buddhist teachings are full of lists. I will share some lists with you now. The beauty of having teachings in a list is that they are easier to remember when we need to think about them.
There is a teaching called “The Noble Eightfold Path”. It is said that this is what you must do to make these areas “right” in your life. Getting it wrong in these areas in our lives is one thing that bothers us. There are eight of them and they are in three categories: ethical discipline, meditation and wisdom.
-Right speech: use words that are true, kind and appropriate
– Righteous activity: taking actions that do not harm others
-Right Livelihood: earning a living by honest and non-harmful means
– Right effort: determination to counter disturbing and negative emotions
– Mindfulness: counteracting both laziness and excitement in our meditation
– Correct concentration: training our mind to focus ostensibly on an object
-Right view: the wisdom that realizes emptiness and connectedness
– Right thinking: the mind can clearly explain the path to others and is motivated by the desire to free itself from suffering.
These are not practiced in order, rather they are things that we simply need to think about and try to embody in our lives.
It is also said that there are three things that we really rely on to help us. These are sometimes called “the three jewels”. I like to think of them as “the three refuges”. When we are struggling, these are the things we can turn to for help. We rely on these things to guide us and provide us with support.
1) The Buddha
3) The Sangha
The Buddha is this historical figure who founded this tradition, but it is also an idea which represents our own potential.
The Dharma represents those teachings of that tradition that have gone down through the ages to help us through this life and do those practices.
The Sangha is the community, those people with whom we practice Buddhism.
And the thing is, I think some people really want to put the Sangha aside. Many people don’t want to practice with others. I don’t know if it’s introversion or discomfort or something else. But I know a lot of people I talk to who are interested in Buddhism don’t have communities they practice with. And that’s fine, people can do whatever they want. But having the support of the community is really important. Being around other people with similar goals helps us to be more motivated. And having friends trying to grow those things too probably really helps us stay out of trouble.
I will share a quick story.
The Buddha’s assistant, Ananda, went to see him one day and said, “I think having a spiritual friend, a sangha, is so important that it’s half the way there.”
And the Buddha replied, “No, Ananda. Having spiritual friends is all the way.
I think about that a lot. There are some very good books and articles to read on Buddhism. And of course, you can learn to meditate and start doing it on your own. But if you really want to learn more about Buddhism, if you plan to be a Buddhist, there’s no substitute for being in the room with other Buddhists. So if you’re interested, get out of your comfort zone and meet people.