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nutshell guides: BUDDHISM
Buddhism is what it is. Buddhism also isn't what it isn't.
Hold on - that might not make sense. Let me explain, just a little, and perhaps it will make more sense.
What most Americans perceive as Buddhism isn't really what Buddhism is, just like what most Americans perceive as Islam isn't really what Islam is.
See, most Americans perceive Islam to be a religion of anger, violence, misogyny, pain, suffering, Allah, burkhas, veils, AK-47s, and ayatollahs. What Islam really is - like any religion - is Man's feeble attempt to understand the will of God.
I could say that in the Middle East, Christianity is commonly perceived as a religion of anger, violence, pain, suffering, God, crosses & crucifixes, Christmas trees, M-16s, and preachers on God-TV. It makes as little sense to base your perceptions of Christianity on those things as it does to base your perception of Islam on the things in the above paragraph.
So the common American perception of Buddhism as the religion of that little fat guy (Gautama Buddha was his name), bald-headed Asian monks in orange robes, reincarnation, Enlightenment, and endless monotonous meditation is just as mistaken as the above perceptions of Christianity and Islam.
Buddhism is not a religion. Religion is man's excessively feeble attempt at reconciling his existence with his belief in the Divine, his belief that there must be some Higher Power guiding his life or at least establishing his belief system. For Buddhists, there is no higher power.
All religion is BUNK - even (maybe even especially) Buddhism. "But why?" I hear you cry. It's simple! Buddhism is understanding that God created you, and you created God; that you and God are one and the same, now and always, and you can no more be separated from God than God can be separated from you.
But then again, that's the whole point of Buddhism, that Buddhism is bunk. Buddhism is about the question, and questioning everything around you - including religion, government, United Airlines, Led Zeppelin, the Rock of Gibraltar...and Buddhism.
Buddhism is the attempt to perceive Truth and Reality, and the realization that you (as a human) can only choose to accept or reject them as they are. You can no more alter Reality than you can create an Oldsmobile out of thin air.
Buddhism is not a New Age, crystal-gazing, guru-following religion. Many Buddhists do not believe in reincarnation (though it is central in some branches of Buddhism). Buddhists do not believe in an afterlife.
Real Buddhists know this existence - this life in which you find yourself right now, at this moment, reading this web page - this is the only life. So a real Buddhist lives life in the moment.
A Buddhist neither fears the future nor laments the past, for (s)he can change neither. A real Buddhist does not fear death, because there simply is no way to avoid it, and no sense in trying to fool yourself into thinking that death is merely a gateway to some glorious afterlife.
A Buddhist isn't searching for the answers; everybody (Buddist or not) already knows the answers, since they are the Truth and Reality of everyday life. What Buddhists search for are the questions, with the understanding that then the answers will make sense. When the answers make sense, this is known as enlightenment.
However, Buddhism isn't all about attaining enlightenment. A real Buddhist knows the search for understanding IS a form of enlightenment itself.
You'd have to live in a hole in the ground to have never at least heard of the show on NBC called "My Name Is Earl". This show plays on the popular (i.e. Western) idea of what "karma" is, that karma is basically some kind of spiritual piggy bank in which we store our good and bad behaviour. The result of this "storing" of karma is repayment in kind, like simple interest - if you behave poorly, bad things happen to you.
Karma isn't luck, good or bad. Karma is action - the simple process of living your life. You don't "store" karma by your actions, hoping that someday you've stored enough "good" karma to reach Heaven or attain Enlightenment. Rather, you create karma every single moment of every single day simply by living your life and making the choices you make.
Buddhism has some precepts, some general "rules" or guidelines for its followers to strive towards. They are below, liberally paraphrased and interpreted by my limited understanding and life experience.
Now, Zen Buddhism, which I attempt to follow despite (or in addition to) my affiliation with Jodo-Shinshu, adds a few precepts such as "See perfection in everything and do not focus on the faults or errors of others", "Realize that you are they and they are you - do not isolate yourself and blame others for problems or inequities", "Control your anger", and "Experience the everyday intimacy of life around you."
It all sounds far more complicated than it is.
Remember, Buddhism is about being fully in the moment - whatever that moment is, wherever it finds you, and whomever you are sharing it with.
Also remember - you shouldn't take my word for it. Seek and discover for yourself.
One of the aspects of Jodo Shinshu, or Shin Buddhism, which I really like and appreciate is something called the Four Great Bodhisattva Vows. They are:
It goes something like this: right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right meditation.
I'm going to include one link here, to the web page of Soto Zen Master Brad Warner... but don't take his word for anything, either.