I found answers!
I’ve been reading a magnificent book called What Buddhists Believe. The copy I have was printed by the Texas Buddhist Association*. I’m a bit slow in getting through it, haven’t finished it yet, but on about every page I find stuff that just thrills my soul. What a wonderful world this would be if people would abide by what this book teaches!
Consider these examples:
In the world today, there is sufficient material wealth. There are very advanced individuals, brilliant writers, talented speakers, philosophers, psychologists, scientists, religious advisors, wonderful poets and powerful world leaders. In spite of these intellectuals, there’s no real peace and security in the world today. Something must be lacking. What is lacking is loving-kindness or goodwill amongst mankind. (p165)
Man should learn how to practice selfless love to maintain real peace and his own salvation. Just as suicide kills physically, selfishness kills spiritual progress. Loving-kindness in Buddhism is neither emotional or selfish. It is loving-kindness that radiates through the purified mind after erradicating hatred, jealousy, cruelty, enmity and grudges. (p166)
All my life I’ve had one question on my mind. That question is WHY? Well, there’s actually a few thousand questions that begin with the word, “why?” Why are humans so cruel, so hateful, so rude, so selfish? I grew up in the sixties. The news carried video of dead VC, gave body counts, told about the war in Vietnam. The next story on the news was of some race riot or protest. It was a quiet day around the house when someone wasn’t arguing, mom wasn’t complaining about some illness, or some other crap was going on. Why?
When I became a teenager I started studying about the world, history, government, and though my research was rudimentary and unlabeled I studied psychology and sociology too. I looked to the Christian faith I grew up with for answers. I never could find them. Year after year the “WHY” grew bigger and bigger as I tacked on more unknowns. Why did not God change the world? Why would people not listen to Jesus? Why did Christians ignore what Jesus taught most of the time. Why was living a “holy life” so difficult even for me?
My wife has asked me, sometimes with great frustration, “why do you always want to know WHY?” I don’t know. I just do. I hunger and thirst for the answer to why. I’ve been angry, cynical, sad, depressed, confused, totally freaked out on occasion because I just don’t understand! Why are people the way they are?
Everything I can learn about I have learned about. I understand nuclear fission, mechanics, plate tectonics, biology, meteorology, I’ve studied all the sciences. I’m no scholar in any of them but I understand them. Science and the physical world is easy. People? They are beyond my comprehension. Why do people ignore the obvious and follow the inane and the insane? Why the hell will they not stop being so stupid!?
I was stupid, too. I didn’t know why I was stupid but I acted stupid and I knew I was acting stupid. I just felt it. I still don’t know why most people are the way they are but I now know why I was stupid. I was deluded. I was brainwashed by a religion that made me stupid. I didn’t stop being stupid until I quit listening to irrational Christian theology and started learning what Buddha taught and how Buddhists believes. Then came my answers.
What Buddhists Believe encapsulates so much of what I’ve learned in the past couple of years about Buddhism. Buddhism is wonderfully consistent in basic teachings. Though there are sects whose beliefs differ at the periphery the heart of Buddhism remains true to the same tradition. Christianity is exactly the opposite. Protestant/Catholic beliefs, denominational beliefs, all differ in their core doctrines. The name of “Christ” and use of the same incomprehensible Bible are the only common denominators among all of Christianity. I’ve referred to the statement before that some say Christianity is a group of different religions built up around the same person. Lots of Christians shop around for a church that believes “the way they do.” But if belief is so relative, how can any of it be true?
Buddha’s teaching is thrilling on so many levels! It’s not confusing at all. Buddhist belief is consistent, direct, even obvious. What Buddha said makes sense. (What Jesus said in the Gospels makes sense, too, but it can’t be all he said and Christianity always changes the meaning of his words to suit its doctrine.)
Christianity dances around the periphery of humanity, the surface emotions and beliefs, never digging into the center of humanity’s great problems. Methodologies that delve into the deep workings of the mind like meditation is more often condemned than it is supported in conservative Christian circles. Meditation “opens a person up to be influenced by evil.” Philosophy and scholarly efforts to discover the mind of man are also often blasted by conservative Christians who view such pursuits as vain and, again, a gateway to doubt and disbelief. I wonder why!?
Rather than exploring humanity in depth Christian teaching tosses all deep thought on God, blames bad behavior on “sin,” praises good behavior as having been inspired or supported by “the spirit.” Humans are mere pawns in the eternal war of good and evil. More conservative Christians tend to believe every single thing that happens is “ordained.” In other words, the whole world is a machine run entirely by the “hand of God.” There are so many contradictions to that idea that to describe them would fill several volumes. Those contradictions led to me scribbling a few dozen more “WHY’s” to my list over the years.
Buddha bored right down to the center of our being. He did it by applying his iron will to the problem of human suffering. He sat down under a tree, closed his eyes, and promised himself he would find answers or starve to death in the search. He found answers.
Buddha recognized that nobody is really to blame for our problem but ourselves. We suffer. Actually, the word suffer doesn’t come close to what Buddha meant. He used the term Dukkha. The book says “Dukkha contains not only the ordinary meaning of suffering, but also deeper ideas such as imperfection, pain, impermanence, disharmony, and insufficiency. …[it] includes physical and mental suffering: birth, decay, disease, death….” (p.75) Dukkha is the misery of our heart even when we’re as happy and joyous as we’ll ever be and it’s the horrible pain of physical ailments and emotional turmoil.
We experience this pain because we desire or crave things that will never truly satisfy. Even when we get what we want it does not satisfy because it never lasts. Sooner or later everything comes to an end, including ourselves. Just knowing that we will die and not have the things we desire go with us into death is enough to cause us great suffering. We desire things because we are ignorant, says Buddha. We do not understand the reality of things, that all things are impermanent, that if we attach ourselves to them, desire them, we set ourselves up for a fall.
We can overcome suffering, or dukkha. We do it by recognizing the truth of our nature and the nature of the universe, by learning to separate ourselves from “things,” and by practicing a way of life that disciplines our mind, softens our heart and protects our body.
I have, of course, outlined the Four Noble Truths. These basic teachings answer so many of my “Why’s!” Now I get it.
Christianity puts everything off on God. Christians believe they couldn’t do much for themselves even if they wanted to. It can be a frustrating existence. All the talk of free will and choice in Christianity never made sense. How can we have “free will” and still be required to rely upon the “spirit?” Especially when the spirit seemed so fickle? Buddha taught our “salvation” is up to us. “Salvation” to Christians is very different than “salvation” in Buddhism. In Christianity Salvation is a mystical, spiritual rescue by a divine entity. In Buddhism salvation is merely enlightenment, the point when all things make sense and we finally break through to pure understanding. Humans must strive for the goal of enlightenment on their own. Nobody is going to zing it into their heads.
“Why can’t I be who I should be?” How many quatrillion times did I ask myself that!? Because I was sitting on my ass waiting for God to do my work for me. Duh.
One of the major problems of Christianity is that it lives in the past and the future rather than the present. Christians obsess over historical events. Even more strange is how Christians obsess over Jewish historical events. I learned more about Jewish or Hebrew history as a kid than I ever did about Jesus. Why is that?
If Christians are not bickering over what Isaiah meant or how to interpret “The Law” or why King David couldn’t keep his pants zipped they jump forward into the future. Prophecy is a very popular subject in Christianity. Is Jesus “coming back?” When?! What are the signs? If the subject isn’t prophecy it’s heaven. Get saved to go to heaven. How sweet heaven will be. Having trouble? Just endure to the end! The only answer I ever got when I was having real trouble was “pray about it,” or “trust God,” or “everything will work out.” What good are all those empty phrases when the power is off, I have an eviction notice and my car has been repossessed? Trust me, I’ve been there!
“…The problem facing mankind is not in his past or his future but in the immediate present.” (p.112/113) Buddha said humans must stop living in the past or the future if they are to solve their problems. When there’s a disconnect notice for the lights and an eviction notice and the car is being towed my problems are right here and now. Way back then life was such a struggle. When we were young and poor and I was almost living at church my wife and I endured a lot of financial and emotional hardships. The Church offered support sometimes, some food or a few bucks, but no solutions.
Buddha does offer solutions. Buddha says we have to deal with our problems now using our mind and in such a way that we will alleviate suffering. Put this way it’s a little vague but the most important point is that he said we are responsible for ourselves. If I had not “depended upon God” and had used my own common sense I would probably not have been in such a shape back then. Why did all my troubles get me down? Because I dug myself a hole, not because God was punishing me, teaching me a lesson, leaving me alone because I was not “in the spirit” or some other stupid notion.
I still don’t have all the answers. I have a lot of answers. The answers I have are ones that make my life simpler, easier, clearer. Why am I here? If I’m asking why am “I” here in this world, what is the purpose of man, where did we come from, the questions remain unanswered. “Why am I here” in the practical sense is easier. I can look back over several decades of stupid mistakes, virtually all of which were wrapped up in my misguided desire to “do God’s will,” and easily recognize how I wound up where I am now.
To be honest and not put too much blame on Christianity I must also say that I am where I am because of my own ignorance. I was being selfish when I did not realize I was. I was being hateful when I thought I was kind. I was being stupid when I thought I was being smart. My motives were good but in my ignorance and arrogance I was never able to see my way past what I wanted and on to what humanity needed for me to do and be. The first person singular “I” always got in the way.
Is there a “God?” Is there a “God’s will?” You know, I just don’t know! If there is I no longer believe we as individuals will ever have it whispered to us in our ear. I do not believe there is a little voice that tells each person how to make each decision. I once believed that to be true. I was so convinced I was right so many times, only to crash and burn. Either I was “unworthy” or God was wrong or I was wrong or…. hello? I was just stupid.
I have more questions than ever, now. I still want to understand why people are the way they are. I still look up at the stars and ask what it’s all about. What I don’t do is try to figure it out or rationalize about religious reasons. I do have a few clues about how and why humanity acts as it does. But I don’t obsess as much over those questions. Instead I look to the answers I have and go day to day, striving to live in each day rather than letting it pass by. Buddha said we waste our time trying to figure out the universe. Our time is much better spent figuring ourselves out and choosing a better way of life for ourselves so we can make the lives of others better.
Back to the quotes at the top of the page:
…. What is lacking is loving-kindness or goodwill amongst mankind. (p165)
Man should learn how to practice selfless love to maintain real peace and his own salvation. … It is loving-kindness that radiates through the purified mind after erradicating hatred, jealousy, cruelty, enmity and grudges. (p166)
I challenge any Christian to explain why these words are bad or wrong. I don’t care about yesterday, it’s gone. I don’t care about tomorrow, it’s not here yet. I don’t care about prophecy, if it is true nobody can change it and if it isn’t you’ve wasted time obsessing. I don’t care about heaven or hell. If they exist and there is justice, justice will be served. If not, what can we do? What I care about is that many millions are suffering. At this moment in time I cannot help all of them. What I can do, what I should do, what I must do, is choose a path that eliminates as much suffering as possible within my world. Thus I seek to be more loving and kind, have more good will, follow the Path that eliminates hatred, jealousy, cruelty, enmity and grudges out of my mind.
All my life my goal has been to “change the world.” All my life I was told that not everybody will be “saved.” I had to live with the frustration that an omnipotent God was not going to use his omniscience on behalf of all people. There was nothing I could do about it. How frustrating! Those words spoken every Christmas about “all the world shall be saved” were in the end hollow and meaningless.
“Buddhism is a righteous way of life for the peace and happiness of every living being,” the book says. “It is a method to get rid of miseries and to find liberation. The teachings of Buddha are not limited to one nation or race. It is neither a creed nore a mere faith. It is a teaching for the entire universe. It is a teaching for all time. Its objectives are selfless service, good-will, peace, salvation and deliverance from suffering.” (p123) Works for me!
In Buddhism I find the only answers I need to live my life in peace. Nobody knows what came before. Nobody knows what comes after. Anybody can see what Buddha saw. Anybody can practice what Buddha taught. Anybody can find “peace, salvation and deliverance” if they seek it. Even Christians! “Why am I here” is still an unanswered question. But while once I wallowed in a muck of confusion before, now I step one foot after the other, knowing the most important question I ever asked has been answered: “what should I do now?”
I can’t wait to see what the book says in the second half!
* What Buddhists Believe, K. Sri Dhammananda, Reprinted & Donated by the Texas Buddhist Association, Houston, TX. This book is available online free from several sources. Here’s one:
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