Ancient Wisdom for a Modern World: Buddhism

presented on July 28, 2002

by Carolyn Creech

The goal of Buddhist teaching, called Dharma, is enlightenment – seeing things as they really are rather than as we wish or believe them to be.

This liberation of mind, this personal transformation – this direct awareness of reality as a whole – is fully accessible to anyone willing to attend to his/her actual experience. 2500 years ago a man named Gautama, the son of a king, from northern India (present day Nepal), experienced this liberation, after consulting many religious leaders, observing the world, and after awakening from what he considered the crippling ignorance that kept him from knowing what was actually going on. He became known as the Buddha, the word means the awakened one. He devoted the remainder of his life to teaching others how to experience the same freedom of mind. He summed up his teaching in a single word: awareness. Not awareness of something in particular, but awareness itself – being awake, alert, in touch with what is actually happening…examining and exploring the most basic questions of life. It’s not about belief, doctrine, formula or tradition. It’s about freedom of mind. The Buddha appeared to have learned to see directly into the nature of experience.

As a result of his teaching and his life, a new religious philosophy arose a eventually spread throughout the world. In the process, like all religions, Buddhism accumulated a variety of beliefs, rituals, and practices. As it spread from country to country, it acquired cultural trappings: special clothes, statues, incense, bells and whistles…particular architectural forms, icons and symbols. All of these seem inevitable but they don’t express the heart of what the Buddha taught. In fact, they often get in the way and veil the simple wisdom of the Buddha’s words (does this sound familiar, do Jesus’ or Mohammed’s teachings come to mind?). In recent years, teachers bringing Buddhist philosophy to the West, have worked at distilling the authentic teachings, from what was added later by people with less acute insight.

The observations and insights of the Buddha are plain, practical, and eminently down to earth. They deal exclusively with here and now, not with theory, speculation or belief in some far-off time or place. Because these teachings remain focused on this moment, they remain relevant, and of profound value to every culture and every person who investigates them seriously. In this, the 21st century, much of the ancient ceremonial practices have faded in importance as the Dharma has spread to America and speaks to our times.

The Buddha never considered himself to be something other than a human being – only someone who was fully awake. He never claimed to be a god, or to be inspired by God, or to have access to any occult or supernatural power. He attributes his realization and understanding solely to human endeavor and human ability. Many buddhas (awakened human beings) exist – each is a human being, not a god. Buddhism is not a belief system – not about accepting tenets – quite the opposite – it is about examining the world, testing everything, every idea – about seeing – it’s about not being afraid to examine anything, including our own personal agendas. We must examine the Buddha’s teaching itself – the Buddha invites people on all occasions to test what he taught.

Authentic Buddhism begins with fact – perception – direct experience. It really isn’t an "ism" but a process, a spirit of inquiry. It is more accurate to call it the "teaching of the awakened" – buddhadharma. Buddhist writings can only assist you, no words can see for you – you must do it yourself as the Buddha did – buddhas can only point the way.

Buddhism doesn’t tell a story of creation or speculate that we’re heading toward an afterlife – does not speak of beginnings or endings – it says truth only needs to be seen – we must learn to journey into now.

Here is the essence of Buddhist philosophy – remember, it’s not a religion – and it is very compatible with UU principles. The Buddhadharma points out that there are four truths or facts of existence or "the way it is":

  1. The first is the existence of dissatisfaction or duhkha.
  2. There is a dissatisfaction existing in out lives – life is difficult, flawed and imperfect. Personally, we have longings, feelings of pain sometimes brought on ourselves or to others, we are confused and pass this confusion on to our children, we deal in beliefs ignoring reality, we tell ourselves and others stories, to protect our image, we have angers and resentments. When the Buddha looked honestly into his own heart and mind he realized that the suffering – and the means to stop it – lay within himself. The Buddha Dharma urges us to examine the nature of our problems and act upon them. Trying to manipulate the world (reality) is futile – wanting reality to be something other than what it is. This is what causes dissatisfaction(or suffering) to arise within us.

  3. The second truth or fact is that this dissatisfaction rises within us. Our spiritual quest is not a journey in the usual sense of the word – it is a path to becoming awakened – to be fully present in reality as it really is. To do it you must come to these realizations:
    1. You must realize that life is always changing. Everything in experience is subject to death – it goes on endlessly – vitality consists of this very birth and death. It’s what makes our lives vibrant, wonderful, alive. The desire to hold on, to somehow stop change, is the greatest source of trouble in our lives.
    2. You must understand that you are already complete, worthy and whole. You are already in reality whether you see it or not. We’ve been taught that we’ve got to figure things out – but enlightenment is already yours – just attend to what’s going on – you only need to stop interpreting what you see.

And….3. You must see that you are your own refuge, your own sanctuary your own salvation. The Buddha said, "Each of you be a light unto yourself; betake yourself to no external refuge. Hold fast to the truth. Look not for refuge to anyone besides yourself." You are the final authority, not the Buddha, the Bible, the government, the President, Mom or Dad, no community of philosophers, scientists, priests, or school can bear responsibility for your life – that authority is yours – you can neither get rid of it or escape it. You can pretend to give up this ultimate authority or ignore it, act as if you haven’t got it, try to give it to someone else – you really haven’t gotten rid of it. You choose to give it to someone else, to deny or ignore it – you make the decision to pretend you lack the authority. But this authority is not a burden – it is wonderful – it means you have the power to wake up.

3. This is the third truth or fact of existence: whatever is subject to arising is also subject to ceasing. Remember, number one was the existence of dissatisfaction and number two was that dissatisfaction arises within us.

4. The activity of seeing (awareness) is the fourth truth of the Buddha Dharma – meaning there is a means by which we can experience freedom of mind – enlightenment. It contains eight aspects and is called The Eight-Fold Path. It is a realization and a practice for bringing about the cessation of suffering or dukha.

In the description of the Eight Fold Path, the use of the word "right" means appropriate, in sync with reality, not right vs wrong, not dualism It means conducive to awakening. It is not a path to get from point A to Point B; each step connects and depends on all the others. This wheel shows the interconnectedness of all the steps.

1. The first step is Right View: looking at the world realistically and seeing the truth of exactly what is taking place. Long before psychologists were talking about "delusional systems" or "denial", Buddha Dharma was exhorting spiritual seekers to know and understand themselves; it was telling them to look at the world realistically and see the truth of exactly what is taking place in the here and now. When we open our wisdom eyes, we don’t necessarily get to choose what we see. It’s just what is…and "what is" is in constant motion, changing from minute to minute…a dynamic whole. What you see and feel this moment will change in the next…life has an illusory nature.

2. Right Intentions: this step asks us, as seekers, to purify our attitudes and thoughts – to become totally straightforward and honest with ourselves – and, in so doing, to develop a working loving-kindness, empathy, and compassion toward all creatures. We cannot find deeper spiritual understanding without developing the faculties and qualities of the heart and mind. We need to resolve to awaken.

3. Right Speech: Think kindly, speak gently and clearly. The wisdom of cause and effect – or karma – teaches us that everything matters – every breath, every syllable, every sentence. As we walk the path to enlightenment, nothing is meaningless; it all counts. To reflect upon speech is to think about self and others – we use speech as an expression of ego and the need to hang onto and confirm our illusory self. We tell ourselves and others stories about ourselves and our lives. Buddha’s advice was to speak the truth; tell no lies. Try to be centered and clear so that your words ring with truth and sanity. Use words to help, not harm; don’t gossip or tell tales; avoid harsh, abusive language; such speech is unnecessary, undignified and disturbing.

4. Right Action: asks of us, as spiritual seekers, to focus on how we live our lives. Life is the ultimate art form; we are the creators. Try to create the life you want. Demonstrate generosity, patience, awareness, wisdom and discipline with your actions. Karma teaches that when we behave positively, we get positive results; if we hurt others, we hurt ourselves, helping others we help ourselves. The practice of Right Action is about cultivating goodness and virtue in the way we treat others; it’s about creating harmony in our world, our home, in this very life, right now through loving-kindness and compassion. Right Action is probably a forerunner of the Golden Rule.

5. Right Livelihood: for centuries has asked us to love our world through our work, instructing us to avoid vocations that harm others. Work provides a major opportunity to put one’s beliefs into action. We intend to work together in a friendly way, encourage cooperation, reduce competitiveness, treat everyone fairly, bring out the best in our co-workers, rein in our egos, and adopt ethical business practices. These are ideals to work toward. We all have strong feelings (pride, jealousy, desire); they are not the primary issue; attachment to them is – losing ourselves by identifying too strongly with them, letting them take over our minds and obscure our clear-seeing – our awareness. There have always been those who laugh at men and women with genuine spiritual values. In answer to the question: do we act on what we believe and know to be true or do we go along with what others consider "normal?" Buddhist mind training says: "Of the two witnesses, listen to your conscience." Some say "Money is the root of all evil." Buddhists would disagree; they say ignorance is the underlying problem. How we relate to money can either further good or evil; it is helpful or harmful depending upon whether we use it or abuse it; whether we possess it or it possesses us. So – Right Livelihood can be described as work that helps us live here and now while keeping us connected to a higher, more timeless reality – work that genuinely develops us as we develop it.

6. Right Effort: suggests that we work to elevate ourselves, to develop more wholesome mind states, while gently striving to go deeper and live more fully. It takes sincere spiritual effort to examine our lives and work at cultivating ourselves. Some aspects of right effort are: renunciation or giving things up – for the modern world, rather than abandoning our way of life or going into the desert to meditate, Right Effort advises us to abandon our intense emotional attachments/compulsive pre-occupations – get rid of excess baggage... remember, life and the things in it are illusory, ever changing. We’re urged to move toward allowing rather than controlling; accepting things as they are; letting go; ending cherishing me and mine; not clinging to narrow-minded opinions, opening up and thinking for oneself; allowing for more to life than meets the eye-other dimensions. To meet the challenge of spiritual laziness or depression, it is helpful to place some trust in inner practices: dynamic meditation gives back far more energy that it takes. Add to this active meditative arts: chanting, breathing, singing, yoga, especially in a spiritual community. Right Effort urges cultivation of sublime states of being:

Loving kindness and friendliness

Compassion and empathy

Joy and rejoicing

Equanimity and peace of mind

7. Right Mindfulness: the whole thrust of Buddha’s teaching is to master the mind. If you master the mind, you will have mastery over the body and speech…mastery of the mind is achieved through constant awareness of all your thoughts and actions. Maintaining this constant mindfulness in the practice of tranquility and insight, you will eventually be able to sustain the recognition of wisdom even in the midst of ordinary activities and distractions. Mindfulness is thus the very basis, the cure for what Buddhists refer to as the suffering in life. Many Westerners, in fact, have already benefited from the truths contained within Right Mindfulness even if they are unaware of their roots in Buddha Dharma. Consider all the books, articles and personal growth techniques reminding us to "let go and live in the moment," "to be present," to "live a conscious life", to be "in touch with your feelings." The lack of mindfulness is reflected in not really eating, when we eat, not really sleeping, when we sleep, either lamenting about or clutching the past or anticipating and fearing the future; we’re semi-conscious at best - not fully present . Forgetting to stay in touch with who we are, what we are, what we’re doing – we miss the beauty, the sadness, the actuality of our lives – the truth of our experiences. We often hurt others without noticing we’ve done so, not present for our loved ones we find ourselves with alienated children and angry mates. The direct human repercussions caused by a lack of mindfulness and awareness are omnipresent – from misplaced keys to misdirected lives. Present awareness and mindfulness implies an understanding of what we are doing and saying. It sounds simple – but it isn’t easy to live fully in the present moment. Meditation is how we train in mindfulness and awareness. Many Dharma teachers call mindfulness the first ingredient in Buddha’s recipe for awakening.

8. Right Concentration: Right Concentration implies spiritual intentionality, focus, mental discipline energy and attention – achieved through meditation. The easiest way to begin to focus the mind in meditation is to count one’s breaths. The purpose is to sharpen one’s attention, to teach the mind focus. From there one moves to awareness, just awareness of one’s breathing, air passing the nostrils – in and out. This calms the mind, lets you practice collecting and concentrating your mind – when attention wanders – pull it back. All this is to help you be aware, to concentrate on what’s happening in this moment, during all your every day activities. Meditation can be practiced daily, as a time to calm and focus ourselves, to provide spiritual space and perspective. Once the skill of focusing is mastered, meditation on the steps of the Eight-Fold Path can aid us in improving our practice of each step in daily life. Right Concentration involves recollection, remindfulness, vigilance, alertness, and perseverance; it thus brings us full circle back to the wisdom of Right View and authentic understanding.

So, there are eight steps – Right View and Right Intentions are considered Wisdom Training. Right Speech, Right Action and Right Livelihood are Ethics Training and Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration are thought of as Meditation Training. As you can see, practicing Buddhist principles is really a discipline and requires a continuous effort – in an attempt to become an awakened, enlightened human being.

As many of you know, my daughter, Holly, is a mental health counselor and she is particularly knowledgeable in the use of personality typing techniques (such as Meyers-Briggs). She has pointed out to me that certain personality types gravitate toward particular religious philosophies and practices. And, to each of these different types, one spiritual practice will have a better fit than another. Sometimes this comes in the form of an "Aha" experience or sometimes it’s profound enough to be called an "epiphany." I had never really looked at this phenomenon in terms of personality type, thinking of it as being more of an intellectual thing. But now I am beginning to realize the compatibility of this idea with the view that one size does not fit all. Sometimes the religion you were raised in fits your parent, but doesn’t fit you. You have to force yourself to practice it – or you do it dutifully but get no spiritual lift from it. As soon as you can do it gracefully, you fall away and family rifts occur, with hurt feelings. Often, in doing so, one feels "religion" is not for me. Many stay away from "religious’ or "ethical/philosophical" practice for life as a result of not understanding what has happened. Though I don’t profess to know the answer to whether all humans are innately spiritual beings and long for some connection, as many believe, I do think that much broader psycho-spiritual health would exist in human communities if people allowed each other the freedom to find the kind of spiritual practice which suited them – if in fact, we all joyfully supported such seeking – even encouraged it.

For the time being, I have found Buddhist philosophy to have this fit for me. I don’t know that I’ll ever call myself a Buddhist, I don’t think that really matters. But I am consciously trying to practice Buddhist philosophy, trying consciously to talk the talk and walk the walk of the Eight-Fold Path. It is very compatible with UU principles and maybe it’s specificity appeals to me, I’m not sure. I am aware, through all my reading on the subject, that many prominent UU’s, including Gene Reeves, former Dean of the Meadville Lombard Theological School, also practice Buddhist philosophy. At any rate, the ways in which I would like to improve my life have a remarkable fit with what you see here on this wheel. The time I put into the little Buddhist Study Group we have formed is not work for me, it is really a labor of love. As I labor, I learn; as I learn, I practice.