Why Buddhism Beckons
Greg Spearritt presents a personal take on Buddhism.
It was an eye-opener for me to discover, in Hinduism, that religion could be about something other than propagating one’s faith. A non-proselytising religion? Ridiculous!
As much as this notion – in its stark contrast to the thrust of my own religious heritage – appealed to me, Hinduism has never stirred me much. In fact, the non-Christian faith that has fascinated and challenged me most is Buddhism, one of the world’s great missionary religions.
I hasten to state at the outset that my practical experience of Buddhism is very limited: it’s chiefly the book-learned versions that have informed and inspired me, though I once spent a salutary day at Chenrezig Institute, a Tibetan Buddhist meditation centre in the hinterland of Queensland’s Sunshine Coast. I also categorically acknowledge that it’s highly likely I have misunderstood or at the very least failed to appreciate the subtleties of the Buddhist thinking discussed here!
Some Basics: A Very Potted Summary
The Pope, Don Cupitt and Jerry Falwell are all considered (at least by some!) to be Christians. If anything, in Buddhism there’s an even more bewildering range of beliefs and practices, so I’ll have to be specific about the varieties I’m talking about.
Two kinds of Buddhism we commonly encounter in Australia are Zen and Tibetan traditions. Both are developments of the Mâdhyamaka stream of Mahâyâna Buddhism.
‘Mahâyâna’, meaning ‘greater vehicle’, stands in contrast to the older scholastic Buddhist tradition known as Theravâda. Feeling among some Buddhists about which tradition is truer to the intentions and teachings of the Buddha runs as high as it does (or has in the past) between some Protestants and Catholics.
Theravâdan Buddhist traditions are found chiefly in Sri Lanka, Burma and Thailand; Mahâyâna traditions predominate in other East and South-East Asian countries. Theravâda is generally seen as more austere, more literal in its interpretation of texts, more conservative and more rigorously ‘atheistic’. Mahâyâna is considered more ‘colourful’ and expressive, more inclined to incorporate emotion and ritual. In Theravâda Buddhism we have arahats, enlightened ones who have escaped the round of rebirth and are a step away from Buddhahood. In Mahâyâna traditions, adherents follow the Bodhisattva ideal, vowing that they won’t move beyond the world of illusion and rebirth until they are able to free all other beings from suffering also.
Both Mahâyâna and Theravâda traditions share the bedrock Buddhist discovery: the Four Noble truths.1. These are:
1. Dukkha – ‘unsatisfactoriness’, sometimes translated ‘suffering’. In life there is undeniably suffering – ill-health, torture, separation from loved ones. There is also happiness, however it is short-lived, and when it changes (as when the beauty and vigour of youth decays to wrinkles, aches and tiredness) suffering results. In its deepest sense, however, dukkha is about ‘conditioned states’: everything is impermanent, in a state of continuous flux; nothing has inherent ‘being’ or existence.
2. Samudaya – the cause or arising of dukkha. The fundamental cause is our thirst or craving, our clinging to and desire for not just pleasure, permanence, wealth and power, but also ideas, ideals, views and beliefs.
3. Nirodha – the cessation of dukkha. There is liberation from the continuity of dukkha, known most commonly to us in the west as Nirvâṇa.
4. Magga – the Noble Eightfold Path, the Way that leads to the cessation of dukkha. It encompasses acting in ways consistent with wisdom, ethical discipline and mental discipline.
What’s so hot about Buddhism?
Being something of a bowerbird when it comes to religion, a number of Buddhist ideas and attitudes tempt me to appropriate them.
Although it’s a ‘missionary’ faith, Buddhism has caused far less persecution and bloodshed, and less destruction of the natural world than has Christianity. One reason for this is that Buddhist regard for others extends to all forms of life, which seems to me a good general principle to adopt in these humanly callous and environmentally critical times.
Another reason is that doctrine is nothing like the issue for Buddhists that it is for Christians. Doctrine for the Buddhist is a means, not an end, a point illustrated by the parable of the raft: we use a raft to cross the river, but it makes no sense to strap it to your back for the rest of the journey. Buddhism is about ‘being’ and ‘doing’ rather than believing. Even the Noble Truths, as Stephen Batchelor points out in Buddhism Without Beliefs, are calls to action, invitations to discover their veracity for yourself, rather than items of dogma.
Then there’s the issue of self-reliance: individual Buddhists are responsible for their own salvation (or better, ‘liberation’). Wise people such as Zen masters are there to help, but ultimately your destiny is in your own hands. This appeals to me far more than substitutionary atonement and forgiveness mediated by priest or church. Of course, liberation for the Buddhist has to do not with sin, but with correctly apprehending the nature of things. Guilt is not an issue.
Many Buddhist stories are great stories. I find Zen parables and sayings particularly stimulating, designed as they are to shake us free of our usual logical way of apprehending things. Thus, although Buddhists normally revere the Buddha, we are told: ‘If you encounter the Buddha, kill the Buddha’, or perhaps even stronger: ‘The Buddha is a shit-wiping stick’. Attachment even to the Buddha is an obstacle to knowing and acting on the true state of things.
Another example: everyone knows the practice of meditation is key to attaining enlightenment. DT Suzuki recounts the story of Ma-tsu, who practises tso-ch’an (‘sitting in meditation’) assiduously. 2. Along comes Zen master Yuan Huai-jang:
Yuan Huai-jang said: ‘Friend, what is your intention in practising tso-ch’an?’ Ma-tsu said: ‘I wish to attain Buddhahood.’ Thereupon Huai-jang took a brick and began to polish it. Ma-tsu asked: ‘What are you engaged in?’ ‘I want to make a mirror of it.’ ‘No amount of polishing makes a mirror out of a brick.’ Huai-jang at once retorted: ‘No amount of practising tso-ch’an will make you attain Buddhahood.’
There are some such conundrums in Christianity, as for example the issue of the kingdom as within and also yet to come. But there is seldom the same appreciation that our time-honoured ideas and sacred expressions fail to encompass the reality: the stultifying literalism and creedalism of Christianity make an idol of our language and restrict honest religious exploration. The mystics have always been treated with suspicion; heresy (choice) is anathema.
Then there’s the complex but fascinating notion of sûnyatâ (‘emptiness’). When you look for the self, for instance, you find nothing. It’s like saying you want to see the ground beneath your feet: you step back, only to find that the ground you’re now looking at is no longer beneath your feet. To use another example: where is this ‘me’ that I talk about? My arm is not ‘me’. My torso is not ‘me’. Even my brain is not ‘me’, else I wouldn’t need to call it my brain. ‘I’ am in fact a collection of things, of cells, of ideas, of experiences, a collection which is continually changing. So also my house, my town, my nation: nothing has inherent existence or substance. We need, in conventional terms, to talk about such things, but we are deluded if we cling to them as permanent, self-existing entities.
I find this perspective persuasive: life is indeed fleeting, insubstantial, contingent. I also find this view liberating. If ‘I’ am not fixed, I am free to change, to reinvent and do purposefully and consciously what we do anyway, which is take on personas like actors (I am a different person in different social contexts). I need not accept that my religion or my nation is or ought to be one thing: there is room for creativity, for refinement, for remaining relevant and lively. Moreover, if there is no ‘I’ here, there is no-one to die, and both death and time may be viewed in a very different light:
Instead of a supposedly permanent ego anxiously watching time fly past or slip away, I am time. As long as I am time, it does not slip away. Any activity involving intense concentration and absorption bears witness to this. 3.
Sûnyatâ is also a spur to compassion. In my likes, dislikes, understandings, abilities, inclinations and even cellular makeup I am not the person I was at 10 years old or even at 30 years. I plan for my retirement, but the person I am then will effectively be another, different person… why not extend the same care and concern to others around me now?
Another intriguing aspect of Buddhism is its rejection of the either/or dualism that is so fundamental to western thinking. For at least the Mahâyâna Buddhist, reality is non-dual. My first exposure to this idea was as a child listening to Donovan Leitch singing, ‘First there is a mountain, then there is no mountain, then there is…’. It’s not that the mountain exists, nor that it doesn’t. Truly knowing the mountain in what is called its ‘Suchness’ involves transcending the does/doesn’t dichotomy. Keiji Nishitani gives the example of fire. Fire transcends both burning and non-burning: it exists by virtue of the fact that in its burning it does not burn itself. Thus, “Because of non-combustion, combustion is combustion.” 4.
There is even in Buddhism the use of the ‘tetralemma’. The sage Nâgârjuna would have us appreciate ‘emptiness’ by seeing that all of the following are absurd positions to hold: the mountain is; it is not; it both is and is not; and it neither is nor is not.
I don’t pretend to understand all this, but I stand by my adjective: intriguing. I admit, however, to some sympathy with the outrageously imperialist/orientalist opinion of 19th century scholar Poussin:
The historian [of Buddhism] has not to deal with Latin notions worked out by sober and clear-sighted thinkers, but with Indian ‘philosophumena’ concocted by ascetics… men exhausted by a severe diet and often stupefied by the practice of ecstasy. Indians do not make a clear distinction between facts and ideas, between ideas and words; they have never clearly recognized the principle of contradiction. 5.
Having noted that, I must admit that my own position is self-refuting. To say, as I wish to, that there is no Truth or Way save the arbitrary truths and ways we humans create for ourselves is in itself to posit a Truth.
Why I’m not a Buddhist
The appeal of Buddhism for me is intellectual and perhaps to an extent moral, but not, by and large, practical. Sûnyatâ is a fascinating philosophical concept, but for practising Buddhists it’s much more than this. It has shattering, harrowing and liberating implications that I can’t see and have no desire to spend years investigating in meditation. 6.
The Buddha explicitly rejected metaphysical speculation. He saw his teaching as akin to healing: if you’re pierced by a poisoned arrow, it’s pointless to say you won’t have it extracted until you know who fired it or what kind of bow was used.
I can see the sense in this, but I’m afraid I’m addicted to speculation. Exploring ideas and using language are activities that bring me satisfaction and even delight. They may not save my immortal soul – or save me from another round of rebirth – but they’re life-enhancing and I would not willingly lose them.
One Zen master says:
The more you talk and think about it, the further astray you wander from the truth.
Stop talking and thinking and there is nothing you will not be able to know. 7.
What does it avail a man, I wonder, to know everything but be unable to articulate any of it? If I experience absolute bliss but am unable to tell anyone or even think about it, how can my experience be distinguished from fantasy? 8. For me, talking and thinking are irreplaceable ways of integrating and savouring experience – of savouring life.
Buddhism is ultimately about escaping this ‘conventional’ world of woe in which even ‘what appears as pleasure is pain in the making.’ The Buddha himself said:
…there is, O monks, an Unborn, an Unbecome, an Unmade, an Unconditioned; for if there were not this Unborn, Unbecome, Unmade, Unconditioned, no escape from this born, become, made and conditioned would be apparent.
I prefer to see, with Don Cupitt, that this world is not to be escaped by means Buddhist or Christian. This world is to be embraced in all its meaninglessness and impermanence. We can make our own meaning, support one another in the vicissitudes of life and savour the undeniable joy and beauty that does exist.
Buddhism is of course more than highfalutin philosophy. It’s a religion with much popular support the world over, and at the ‘popular’ level there is much I don’t resonate with at all. Rebirth, for instance, just doesn’t ring true, anymore than does the Christian notion of afterlife. It’s one of those supernatural bits that plague all religions. Buddhism has its gods, evil spirits and heavenly Buddhas just as Christianity has angels, saints and Satan.
At Chenrezig I found a couple of things hard to swallow along these lines. One was the references in the introductory lecture on Buddhism to the “realm of the hungry ghosts”. The ‘peta’ is a pitiable creature, a ghost with a huge belly and a tiny mouth so that it can never assuage its hunger. This fate potentially awaits those for whom insufficient merit is accumulated to rise to a higher level of being. After the lecture I came across a huge prayer drum, a contraption which by spinning around was a mechanical means of delivering the prayers crammed inside it to some Buddha-or-other. A notice was proudly displayed to the effect that the drum contained prayers on microfiche, presumably to maximize the number of prayers delivered into the ether on each spin!
And one more thing. Respect for all forms of life is a fine principle. You won’t find fillet mignon on the menu at Chenrezig. This is not a bad thing in my view: the vegetarian fare was very tasty, and it would probably be healthier and allow for fairer distribution of food resources if we all forswore meat. However, I draw the line at sharing the loo, as I did at Chenrezig, with a particularly nasty species of jumping ant which seems to have no Buddhist compunction in inflicting pain on other lifeforms. Sitting in the lecture room, it took all my resources to respect where I was and keep gently shooing away the march flies instead of just going thwack!
Buddhism is not for me. But then, nor is Christianity. Perhaps I’m too firmly rooted in western thinking and sensibility for either.
1. See Walpola Rahula What the Buddha Taught (Grove Weidenfeld 1974).
2. The Zen Doctrine of No-Mind (Ed. Christmas Humphries, Rider & Co 1969) 44.
3. Joan Stambaugh Impermanence is Buddha-nature: Dogen’s Understanding of Temporality (Uni of Hawaii Press 1990) 36.
4. Religion and Nothingness (trans. Jan van Bragt, Uni of California Press 1982) 117.
5. Quoted in Guy Richard Welbon The Buddhist Nirvana and its Western Interpreters (Uni of Chicago Press 1968) 272-3.
6. See Jeffrey Hopkins Emptiness Yoga: The Middle Way Consequence School (Ed. Joe B. Wilson, Snow Lion 1987) 35,120 and 280.
7. From Verses on the Faith Mind by Chien-chih Seng-ts’an, Third Zen Patriarch (606CE).
8. Don Cupitt makes just this point in What is a Story (SCM 1991) 177.
Karen Armstrong Buddha (Penguin Putnam Inc., 2001)
Stephen Batchelor Buddhism Without Beliefs (Riverhead Books 1997)
Don Cupitt The Time Being (SCM 1992)
Peter Harvey An Introduction to Buddhism (Cambridge Uni Press 1990)