Though one were to live a hundred years without seeing the deathless state, the life of a single day is better if one sees the deathless state.
At the request of friends and family, I will be developing a few pages on Buddhisms as "new feature" to my site. Because Buddhism is in the minority of religious practices in the United States, it may be difficult or impossible to find a Sangha (Buddhist Community) or Guru (Teacher or guide). May these pages serve as guidance to those interested in Buddhism, but who may lack a teacher.
Although I am a Buddhist practitioner, I make no claim to be a Buddhist scholar, expert, or Guru. The intention is to introduce Buddhism and provide supplemental (short/introductory) online references for further reading.
Alternate pages for an overview of Buddhism:
- "5 minute" overview of Buddhism see A Five Minute Introduction (to Buddhism) .
- Or for a longer, perhaps 45 minute overview see Buddhism .
Who was Buddha?
The founder and spiritual leader of Buddhism was Siddhartha Gautama and he lived between 563 and 483 BC. His biography is rich with imagery and legend and is a good introduction to Buddhism.
The short version is that he was of noble birth, but as a young man he renounced his birthright and studied (Hindu) asceticism. He ultimately attained a deep wisdom termed satori or enlightenment through what he termed 'The Middle Way', a balance between the extremes of self denial (asceticism) and self indulgence . After enlightenment he continued his spiritual work as a Guru (spiritual teacher) passing (transmitting) his wisdom to others.
The details of the story are much richer and a short (one page) version can be found here: Life of the Buddha. A longer (PDF) version can be downloaded from buddhanet: Life of the Buddha (PDF). Hermann Hesse also wrote a (fictional) novel, Siddhartha, loosely biased on the life of Buddha.
This story was also told in the movie Little Buddha.
Buddhism is a humanistic and compassionate practice with a goal of ending suffering, or enlightenment. The potential for enlightenment is within ourselves, in our thoughts and actions, and is not attributed to a supernatural force or being. Buddhism is therefore somewhat agnostic in terms of god (or gods) or other supernatural phenomena.
The essential teachings of the Buddha's include:
- The four noble truths outline the source of suffering.
- The eightfold path outlines a "code of conduct" or Buddhist ethics.
- The precepts outline the initiation of a Buddhist practice.
Before diving into the specific teachings, however, some background is necessary.
Language, or more importantly translation, is a major barrier to understanding the four noble truths. "Life is dukkha" is almost universally translated as "Life is suffering". This translation is a huge impediment and many people immediately dismiss Buddhism as a pessimistic religion.
In addition to suffering, it is crucial to understand dukkha has additional or alternate meanings including impermanence, temporary, or conditional. See this discussion for details.
I also highly advise you read this two paragraph overview of A Buddhist perspective on suffering.
With that background, a very nice "summary" of these teachings can be found at the big view :
Styles of Buddhism
Over time, as Buddhism spread to various cultures, several schools or styles of teaching have developed:
- Theravada (Southern) Buddhism.
- Mahayana (Eastern) Buddhism.
- Tibetan Buddhism, also know as Vajrayana or Tantric Buddhism.
A brief overview of the types of Buddhism can be found here: 3 Types of Buddhism.
My personal preference/bias is for Zen (Japanese) or Chan (Chinese) Buddhism with a sprinkling of Taoism (The "T" is pronounced as a "D", or "Daoism").
Zen Buddhism is part of Mahayana Buddhism.
Although some Buddhist terminology, such as Karma or Nirvana, is well known, an overview of Buddhist or Eastern Philosophy is beneficial.
Dharma can be translated (roughly) as natural law (principles or order) of the natural world or universe.
Karma is often conceptualized as a form of social justice or consequences of our behavior. Karma can also be understood as the natural consequences or results of our intentional mental, verbal, or physical action (or activity). A more in depth discussion of Karma can be found here.
Nirvana is often misunderstood as "Buddhist Heaven". Nirvana is the ultimate achievement in Buddhism and is characterized by both deep compassion and freedom from suffering. My understanding is Nirvana literally translates to extinguishing, blowing out, or unbinding.
Perhaps a better semantic term for Nirvana is Enlightenment. Enlightenment occurs spontaneously and manifests once one is free from delusions, greed, hatred, and fear, in our thoughts, words, and physical activity. The natural and spontaneous aspect of enlightenment is expressed as the "hidden jewel" (within us).
"It (Nirvana) means freedom everything that leads us to dissatisfaction, like desire, jealousy, greed, ignorance, etc. After a person attains this sense of freedom, he moves into a state of total ecstasy. All karmic debts get settled and he doesn't need to go through the cycle of birth and death again."
- The potential for Enlightenment is within all of us, and thus can achieved by anyone and everyone (this means you).
- Personal Enlightenment is a great achievement, but it is a beginning, and not the end, of a Buddhist practice. The ultimate goal of the Buddha, and thus Buddhists and Buddhism, is Enlightenment for all beings.
Discussions of Karma and Nirvana bring up the subject of Samsara or the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. Rebirth or reincarnation in particular seems to be a common "hang up" for many Americans. If the idea of reincarnation does not set well with you, I would de-emphasize the idea of rebirth in your practice. Personally I consider rebirth/reincarnation to be an Eastern (Indian) cultural expression of the immortality of the soul.
Buddhist teachings are termed sutras. The Buddha's sutras were memorized and passed on to his followers in an oral tradition and thus they often take the form of a conversation. The sutras were written between 500-200 BC.
As with Nirvana, the Buddhist concept of 'Emptiness' is often misunderstood as nothing, 'void', or 'nothing'. It is essential to understand 'Emptiness' is referring to metaphysics and is pointing to non-duality. Dualism is pervasive in western philosophy and culture and dates back to Plato and Descartes. We naturally fall into duality or schisms - mind/body , good/evil, etc. Another example of non-duality would be Tao, not to be confused with Taoism. Taoism is religion, Tao or Dao is a metaphysical concept and is expressed in Taoism, Confucianism, and (Chinese) Buddhism. Dao is described as nameless, formless, "the primordial essence of the universe" (think "star wars" and "the force") but also 'Emptiness'.
For a more in depth discussion of the metaphysics of Emptiness see:
- The Philosophy of Yin and Yang
- Buddhism and Emptiness - seeing our relationship with the Universe
Because of the limitations of language and translation, the essence of Buddhism can not be taught in words. At first this seems to be counterintuitive and the expression of this concept is at the core of many Koans (more on Koans later) and many colorful (Zen) Buddhist conversations.
Just as learning to ride a bike, Buddhism and Enlightenment is an experience. No matter how much you read about bicycles, from the mechanics to descriptions of various bike trails, you can not learn to ride a bike from books alone.
Enlightenment is thus described, often times in colorful and obfuscating language.
Getting started - What to do when there is no teacher ?
No - You do not need to shave your head or wear Saffron robes !!
Zen Buddhism 101
- Zazen (sitting meditation) is Zen Buddhism.
- The eightfold path and the precepts are the initial set of instructions I advise to start living Buddhism.
Although Zen Buddhism teaches "sudden enlightenment", the enlightenment experience is more or less difficult for any particular individual. To recycle the imagery of learning to ride a bike, imagine the "sudden instant" when a person transitions from awkward sputtering movements to gracefully balancing on to wheels. The transition is "instantaneous". Similarly, a Zen master strives to bring students to the sudden transition of satori. Also similar to riding a bike, the moment of transition is not the end, but a beginning.
Zen Buddhist Philosophy and Practice
As it is almost impossible to separate philosophy from religious beliefs, an overview of Buddhist / Eastern Philosophy is a good place to start.
In this discussion, I am using "philosophy" to refer to the conceptual or intellectual framework of Buddhism and "practice" to refer to the actions, or behaviors, both conscious and unconscious, arising from such a belief system. In other words, we practice what we preach.
The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has a very nice overview of Japanese Zen Buddhist Philosophy and I suggest, as an introduction, reading the first paragraph.
It is likely the remainder of the page will make your brain hurt and in that event I would return to the content or concepts after gaining some additional experience with Buddhism.
My advice is to familiarize yourself with Buddhist philosophy, read as much or as little as you like, but do not get overly distracted by it. It is more important to start a practice and understanding of the philosophy will follow.
In the absence of a guru or Sangha, I highly suggest some further reading. I will cover specific topics in more depth on other pages, but as in introduction to Buddhism I advise the following links. This is obviously an abbreviated list and the goal here it to direct people to a core set of readings I consider "essential" to understanding Buddhism and hopefully one can read the following information within 20-30 minutes.
- The Eightfold Path. The Eightfold path is a "code of conduct" if you will and is what I feel is the core of a Buddhist practice. People often start reading about Buddhism with the four noble truths but, IMO, the four noble truths often misunderstood and thus not the best place to start.
- Now that we have some understanding of a Buddhist practice, the reason or purpose of our practice is outlined in The Four Noble Truths. The four noble truths + the eightfold path is the core of Buddhism. The four noble truths outlines the cause of suffering and the eightfold path is how we bring and end to our suffering.
- Sutras are Buddhist teachings. Many are ascribed to the Buddha's original words (the Buddha's teachings were initially an oral transmission). Sutras can be difficult as they can be lengthy, repetitive, and esoteric. As an introduction to Buddhism, my favorite Sutras (I promise the Sutras listed on this page are all relatively short reading) are The Diamond Sutra, The The Heart Sutra and The Platform Sutra (limit your initial reading to the first chapter "Autobiography" only for now).
- The Diamond Sutra is the longest of the three.
- The Heart Sutra is the shortest, but quite esoteric / profound and it may help to also read some of the many commentaries, although the commentaries obviously become lengthy ...
- The Platform Sutra (first chapter) is very practical, "down to earth", and enjoyable reading.
- The Diamond Sutra is the longest of the three.
- Koans are short Zen stories or parables. Although short, they are often obtuse and esoteric. For now I will suggest my two favorite, Te Shan burns his books blue cliff Record, Case 4 and No Water, No Moon.
Meditation is not unique to Buddhism and, because it is not widely practiced in the United States, is often misunderstood. Meditation can be practiced outside a Buddhist or Religious framework and has benefits to physical and mental health and wellbeing. The benefits are improved concentration, less mental consternation, and often people feel they "wake up". If you wish to practice Buddhism I strongly suggest you start a meditative practice, as little as 10 minutes 3 times a week can be a beginning.
There are many guides on meditation and I will not cover specific instructions here. It is more important to start a meditative practice then to fixate on the details. If you have difficulty, review the various guides and make adjustments.
- Zen Mountain Monastery - How to meditate
- Ray Menezes - Zazen
- Great Master Dogen's rules for zazen (care of Ray Menezes)
I will comment on 4 elements of meditation:
- Physical activity / Body position. As you start to meditate, it is most important to sit comfortably , in a chair, half-lotus, or full lotus, the positioning should be comfortable. In addition to sitting meditation, I would also suggest you consider walking meditation as an alternate.
- Mental activity or focus. Now that you are sitting, what to do with your mind ? I suggest starting with any of the breath following techniques. If you fall asleep, get more rest / sleep and return to meditation. Do you find you enter into an ongoing mental conversation with yourself? This is the "monkey mind". Return to following your breath and practice. The initial goal is to be able to relax, concentrate, focus your attention.
- Integration. Although you may experience a variety of sensations and mental states during meditation, withdrawal from reality into some esoteric mental state, trance, dream, or alternate reality is not the goal of meditation. Now that you have learned focus your mental activity, can you maintain this psychic clarity throughout the day across your mental, verbal, and physical movements? Or does your mind wander off topic? Review the eightfold path once a week or once a month, and allow one of the eight to be the focus of your meditation (rather then breathing) for a week. Strive to maintain awareness of the eightfold path outside of your meditative practice. Walking meditation may help.
- Consider Koan study. Allow a Koan to become the focus of your meditation for a week or a month. Do not worry if you do not have insight into the Koan immediately, or even at the end of the week. As your practice deepens so will your comprehension.
The goal of a meditative practice is not an altered state of consciousness or a withdrawal from reality, quite the opposite. Learn to focus your mental faculties, wake up.
When you are not meditation, use your new found ability to focus your mental, verbal, and physical activities and appreciate the experience or journey as your life unfolds.
Integration or Where do we go from here?
Buddhism cultivates, among other things, deep compassion. Our world view will change from the self-centered me/mine/consumerism mentality to conservation, sustainability, environmentalism.
Buddhism is not for everyone and I find people often get lost in the details of the four noble truths or the first two elements of meditation. You do not need to become a monk or a recluse to practice Buddhism. Simply start on the eightfold path and allow the lotus to unfold.
There are many online resources for Buddhism, from blogs to monasteries, to entire web sites.