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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.

  • Be mindful and reverential of all life. This means a Buddhist eschews violence and refrains from killing anything as a matter of principal. This is why many Buddhists are also vegetarians, although eating vegetables is still killing something.
  • Be respectful of the property of others. This means a Buddhist doesn't steal, but it means more than that, and is tied in with the following two precepts. It's also kind of a call to be generous; a Buddhist needs to try to not be too attached to worldly possessions. If you can find that path, you feel free to give to people what you have that they need and you never need to take anything from anyone that is not freely given.
  • Be concious of your relationships and pay close attention to them. This means that a Buddhist carefully cultivates his interpersonal relationships and strives to be a loving, caring individual. This includes working on containing (not denying) your lust, and subsequently controlling (not denying) your sexual urges.
This is possibly the most confusing of the precepts of Buddhism, but also one of the more basic and direct ways to understand what Buddhism is really all about. Some Buddhists believe that they must be physically and sexually pure to attain Enlightenment. Since I've already told you that "Enlightenment" as a populist Buddist belief is bunk, there is no need to become celibate to attain that which is simply nonexistent. Some Buddhists believe they can take advantage of their positions of respect and authority to pressure others into sex. Since Buddhism is based on mutual respect and questioning authority, this path is also mistaken. What Buddhism - and controlling your sexual nature - is all about is becoming moderate in all things, swinging neither to one extreme nor the other. If you are able to control your sexual urges, and release them when, where, and how it is appropriate, my guess is you'll be able to control your other wants & needs, and find the middle road with them as well. Now back to our list.
  • Respect honesty and truth. While on its surface this means "don't lie", there is - as always - more to it than that. This doesn't mean "be brutally honest no matter what the situation" and tell your wife or girlfriend that yes, she does indeed look fat in that pair of pants. It's far more meaningful than that. Respecting honesty and truth means that a Buddhist does not deceive himself or others. This is also difficult, as self-deception is almost as important to humans as their sex drive!
  • Be respectful of your own body. This means - once again - to take the middle road. Don't be over the top in anything you put into your body, especially intoxicants. This doesn't mean don't drink beer - it means don't drink beer every night of the week until you're a blithering, idiotic drunk. Older translations of the precept read (paraphrased, of course) "Don't poison your body", which can take on a myriad of meanings, literal and figurative, since your mind is part of your body. So if you come across a drunk selling Ecstacy that's claiming to be a Buddhist monk, well, you can pretty much bet he's not a safe person to trust.

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:

However countless all living things, I vow to save them.
I make this solemn vow: that I will strive to save all life from pain and grief, and with the Dharma pave a road to guide all beings to Buddhahood.
However endless our angry passions, I vow to extinguish them.
I make this solemn vow: that I will try to break the grip of craving and desire, and through the Buddha's great compassion, quench the pain of human sorrow.
However vast the Buddhadharma, I vow to learn it.
I make this solemn vow: that I will aspire to learn the countless lessons of the Law, and having learned one, reach still higher until I am free of ignorance.
The Way of Buddahood is the Way of Enlightenment. I vow to attain it.
Another aspect of Jodo Shinshu (and other strains of Buddhism) I like is something called the eightfold path - a lesson in living.

It goes something like this: right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right meditation.

Good stuff.

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.