Introduction/Prologue to “Dharma Ramblings”
This is a subject that is very near and dear to me. I will do my best to do honor to the subject and present it in the way that I feel demonstrates the meaning best, and will not be accurate precisely to perhaps everyone else’s Buddhism, but it is my Buddhism and I would like to explain it.
To begin, I think it is entirely necessary to examine at least briefly the general story of the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gotama, or Gotama Buddha. Siddhartha was born to a very prominent family in the Indian Subcontinent, the Sakya tribe. The Aryans had already introduced the caste system to the Subcontinent by this point, and so society was organized in different castes that established a hierarchy that determined many aspects of people’s lives. As a member of the Ksatriya caste, Siddhartha was ordained by birth to be a warrior prince of sorts and would one day rule.
However, prior to his birth, there was a prophecy that would directly shape his life. Essentially, the prophecy revealed to Siddartha’s father, King Suddhodanna, was that his son would either become a great and powerful king or a prominent religious man. His father far preferred he become a king, and so sought to shelter him for much of his life. Siddhartha grew up and lived a fantastic life. He was beautiful, smart, athletic, and considered to be of great character. He took a wife and lived a life of excess but something was missing.
One day, he leaves the protective bubble of the city walls and goes to the country side with a cart driver. On his journey outside he spots a number of things that he simply did not understand due to his sheltered life.
First, he spots an elderly man walking with bended back, grey hair, and with great pains. His father went to such great ends to hide the suffering of the world that he hadn’t even thought about old age and death. This got Siddhartha thinking and he went on additional ventures into the country side seeking more, for now his head was heavy with curiosity. Next, he came across a diseased man, and he realized that many people lack even the benefit of good health and sanctity of the body. On a subsequent venture, he spots a corpse. This rattles Siddhartha and he begins to question the point of his life of good fortune if age, sickness, and death command all, rich or poor. On his fourth venture, he spots an ascetic (wandering mendicant seeker) meditating beneath a tree, smiling in silence.
These visions alerted Siddhartha to the impermanence of his pleasures in the face of age, illness, and death. Realizing that he could not ever hope to find a lasting happiness in his princely life, he decided to follow in the steps of the ascetic and search for spiritual liberation. After a tearful and sad departure from his family, a 29 year old Siddhartha sets off to join the wandering ascetics, effectively renouncing the material world.
Once he joins the ascetics, he lives a life of self-mortification. They wear the simplest clothing (if any), sleep in the wilderness, practice intense forms of meditation, and beg for what little food they actually do eat. After spending nearly 6 years with the ascetics, Siddhartha realized that he was no closer to enlightenment than he had been as a prince. He then discovers the idea of the Middle Way.
The Middle Way is one of the most basic concepts of even a simple interpretation of buddhist philosophy. He discovered that his pitched quest for enlightenment was bearing just as many results as had his life of comfort. Ignoring the quest for enlightenment was just as hopeless as destroying the healthy balance of mind and body that is vital for the process. It is said that a girl saw him and offered him a bowl of what was essentially a honey/milk/oat meal type dish that would have been extremely satisfying especially for the now skeletal and emaciated Siddhartha. This act of compassion marks the beginning of a tradition of compassion, for what else is Buddhism if not the philosophy of compassion?
Fortified and ready to resume, he went to a nearby tree and resolved to sit beneath it in meditation until achieving enlightenment. This tree is called the Bodhi Tree, or “enlightenment tree”. His fellow ascetics at this point are disgusted with him and leave him thinking he was a quitter.
Long story short: Siddhartha finds his enlightenment and expounds two sections that make up the most important aspects of Buddhist dharma (truth, way, belief).
First is the Four Noble Truths
Life is dukha, which is often translated as suffering, but it is more so related to dissatisfaction. This is the difference between life is only suffering, and there is suffering in life because we become dissatisfied.
The cause of this dissatisfaction is arising, or attachment. We suffer because we grasp after transitory experiences, create expectations that are unrealistic, and fear change.
This dissatisfaction can be beat
The Eightfold Path will help beat this satisfaction
Second is the Eightfold Path
Right Understanding- know that getting rid of self-centered views will help, and know that enlightenment is possible.
Right Thought- cleanse yourself of excessive greed, violence, and ill will and try to cultivate selflessness, compassion, and willingness to give up these negativities.
Right Speech- don’t lie, don’t slander/gossip, and basically if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say it. That’s called “noble silence”.
Right Action- don’t intentionally do bad things. This encompasses things like stealing, killing, sexual misconduct(this is considered to mean rape, and not anything else), and so on. Be a good person in your actions.
Right Livelihood- lead a life and work a job that doesn’t cause harm or injustice to others. You don’t need to be a millionaire, earn what you need, and if you have much more than you need, perhaps help your neighbor.
Right Effort- cultivate the beginnings of enlightenment. Do all of the above as consistently as possible, and you are putting forth a right effort.
Right Mindfulness- this is the idea that one should cultivate an awareness of the body, the mind, one’s surroundings, people, and the world and try to live free of prejudices and instead evaluate independently.
Right Concentration- this is the final stage and it is the cultivation of insight through focused thought. Develop a personal tranquility and balance and developed an unbiased and non-grasping view. Focus on the causes of duhka in your life and investigate the whys and hows.
There is more to the historical Buddha’s story, but this is the extent of his background you need to understand my following post. Now, I will quickly explain some concepts from a later tradition of Buddhism—Zen. Zen is a form of Mahayana Buddhism that has some different practices from the traditional and basic one explained above. In the above Buddhism, the goal is the find enlightenment, develop good karma by doing good deeds, and earn yourself a better rebirth. They believed that people could influence how many rebirths they had left by accruing good karma until finally they reached nirvana, or total enlightenment, and exited the rebirth cycle. This was only achieved by Buddhas. Siddhartha found enlightenment on his own, and became the Buddha, but all who found enlightenment through his teachings were considered “Arhats” who were closer to nirvana, but would still be reborn.
In Mahayana and especially Zen, there are different goals. Instead of becoming an Arhat and finding your own enlightenment, you want to become a bodhisattva, who seeks enlightenment so that they might embody compassion and help all other beings find happiness and enlightenment too. Zen is unique in that the lessons are not meant to be learned through teachings specifically, but to be transmitted through experiences that lead you to personal discovery. There are many koans, or Zen riddles, that are contemplated during meditation and they require outside-the-box thinking that challenges the prejudiced and biased mind. They aren’t supposed to make sense logically. You’ve all probably heard some, such as “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” There are also wonderful Zen stories (read a few, they are all extremely short but very poignant http://www.101zenstories.com/index.php?story=toc) that are also meant to demonstrate Zen teachings and way of life.
Mahayana also focuses on an idea of emptiness or voidness, that is interpreted a wide number of ways. It’s not a nihilistic thing as it may sound. It has more to do with the idea that (in the most simple terms I have) things in this life do not exist independent of other phenomena. Things are therefore empty of inherent existence because they do not exist as just themselves but as the interwoven web of other phenomena that give rise to the object in question. A great explanation can be found here.
Well, believe it or not, that was actually incredibly brief given the range of subjects covered. Please tune in for the next post because it is going to be my Buddhism and how it affects my daily life.
“Dharma Ramblings” by Jordan Taylor Kit
The following is an incoherent discourse on my dharma, and my perspective in Buddhism as a result of my studies and experiences.
Buddhism is more philosophy than religion, and that is why I love it. It is compatible with other religions. It attempts to explain one of the simplest questions that we have all experienced: “Why aren’t I happy?”
Instead of telling you it is because you sin, or because you are gay, or because you don’t believe in this god or that god, it instead tells you that you can find the answer through contemplation.
My Buddhism is simple and not as supernatural as some traditions.
I think when you die, you are dead and that’s it. I don’t think that’s a bad thing either.
Now comes the question of living. I think my Buddhism has opened my eyes in a way that let’s me eliminate bias and prejudice so that I can evaluate the world around me more accurately. I give my enemies just as much of a chance as I do my allies. I realize that attachment is the primary source of dissatisfaction.
Say you have sex. Hey, that feels great, doesn’t it? But it doesn’t last forever. It comes to an end, and this isn’t where dissatisfaction comes from. You get attached to that sensory high, and instead of letting it pass and going on with your life, you want it back. You want to prolong it. You want to remember it. You want to have sex again to recreate the feeling. Sounds a lot like drugs. The idea is that you develop these attachments in your life through this addiction to ecstatic experience. You don’t despair because your friend moves away, you despair because you are attached to them and you want the pleasure of them being near you forever.
How do we break this? We learn. We investigate. We meditate (side bar: doesn’t only mean sitting with your eyes closed, it can be focused concentration hoping for insight) and understand the nature of dissatisfaction like the Buddha did.
The real short of this aspect of Buddhism is to take things in stride. “So it goes” minus the depressing undertones.
I think the Four Noble Truths are in fact noble and truthful, and that the Eightfold Path is indeed a great guideline to live your life by. But you can’t forget the Middle Way. You can’t live your life in extremes of either excess or intentional religious zealousy and expect to find any kind of lasting happiness.
I believe in compassion above all. This is one of the greatest things to come out of Buddhism and especially in Mahayana Buddhism where it is ideal to become a bodhisattva and strive not only to find personal happiness and understanding but to help others find it too. This is not in a position like a missionary in old Christianity and especially in modern Christianity that practically spreads doctrine by the sword, but the position as an example to man kind. If someone seeks your teaching and you experiences, you give it to them. You demonstrate compassion to all beings. A bodhisattva would sooner engage in charity than shout from a soap box.
I love this and I really strive to embody the ideal here in a non-supernatural sense. If the Buddhist terminology scares you off, look at it like this: I want to find my own enlightenment, understanding, and happiness in life and I want to share it with anyone who wants these things too. I want to help the people I can help, and with any luck, they will in turn help the people of the world because we are not independent beings. Part of why I write is because I want to relay my understanding, whatever it may be, to the world.
Many aspects of Zen appeal to me because I have always had the following view on institutionalized religion:
If you look at the stories of the great religious figures, you see that they all came to their realizations through their own spiritual experiences and seeking. SEEKING. SEEKING IS KEY. I like Zen because it is about a personal journey that in the end only you can go on and you can’t fake it. The unique personal experience is what gives meaning to dharma (of any religion). If I tell you to wait two minutes before drinking your tea because it is hot, very few people will actually wait the two minutes because they are anxious to get to that tea. The person who disregards what they are told and attempts to drink the tea prematurely, burning their mouth, understands the meaning behind the warning infinitely greater than the person who waited obligingly for two minutes before sipping. Experience trumps theory, plain and simple, and Zen is based entirely on that. At the very best, Zen opens the door, and you must walk through on your own.
I believe I can learn something from nearly anyone if I am compassionate, kind, unprejudiced in view, and humble as best as I can be. Everyone has their own dharma (truth/way) and I acknowledge that you don’t have to be the Dalai Lama to harbor opportunity for insight.
It’s a very Mahayana thing to believe that everyone can become enlightened and be a Buddha, and I truly believe this. Mahayana explains that not only can people become Buddhas, but that they already are and they just don’t know it yet, and life is about waking up to that fact. As such, I know such amazing people, truly insightful and compassionate and kind people that I know they are Buddhas and bodhisattvas and so I try to learn what I can from them and cultivate my own enlightenment.
Zen monks are not like what you might expect. They don’t just sit on their butts all day meditating. They spend a majority of their time doing chores, mundane tasks, and other such activities but the trick is to turn these activities into a demonstration of your Buddhism. They think that you lose clarity of mind when you cloud it with thinking about the next ten things you still have to do. This is summed up in the sentences, “When you sweep, sweep. When you wash dishes, wash dishes.” Don’t think about the next thing, or multi task, but do something and do it right, not too fast and not too slow. One of my favorite quotes to this effect is from Kerouac who says, “Wash your dirty dishes like you are washing the infant Jesus.” This captures the care taken with mundane activities, and it all promotes that clarity of mind.
Another thing that I learned from Buddhism and my studies is the beauty and inherent wisdom in nature. Nature is so free from the machinations and constructions of mankind and as such is less affected. There is more purity to it and so I turn to nature like another teacher. If there is a loving-god-like presence in the universe, in my opinion, it is nature. I’m obsessed by birds and animals and I love water. I grew up on the ocean and later moved to the mid west, but even here at Baldwin-Wallace College, as you can see from many of my writings, Coe Lake has become a refuge for me, as have the Metro Parks and the river. Many times I’ve ridden my bike or hiked through these places and thought, “Time stands still here, how can there possibly be a world of suffering outside this place?” and use that as a basis for my meditations. Hell, last week I lost my phone because while drunk I took a fancy to how starry it was outside, and set my phone down in the grass and simply lay down looking up at the stars, forgetting on my way back inside. I even slept in the yard Saturday night in just my sleeping bag because it was so wonderful out. I love nature and I learned to listen to nature studying Buddhism.
I really don’t care what religion anyone follows one way or the other so long as they are trying to be happy, lead a better life, and aren’t harming anyone else. I’m not trying to proselytize here either because Buddhism isn’t for everyone.
A benefit of Buddhism is that it is completely flexible. The nature of a philosophy based in inquiry is that is is dynamic and ready to adapt to your circumstance.
I don’t think what started all this or what comes after this are ultimately important questions to ask. I won’t waste my life pondering these questions because I am in it now and I want to find out how to become enlightened and how to make others happy. My whole life is one meditation, in that sense.
To conclude (because I could ramble forever but won’t), I encourage anyone who has an interest in Buddhism to contact me! Please! It’s like my favorite thing in the world to talk about, and I can recommend or even send you books that can explain things better than I ever could in a single post. If you want anything clarified, want to dispute something, or want to share your Buddhism or your own beliefs, please please please do not hesitate!
Everyone’s Buddhism is different, and that is mine.