April 4, 2010
Since coming to Korea I have been reading about Buddhism and most recently I have been trying to find and read sayings of the Buddha himself. Since then I have been very antsy to write about what I have found and yet I am also very hesitant as I realize I have barely touched the surface of this great and amazing tradition. In truth I only have my gut reactions to share based on limited reading. So I write both eagerly and cautiously.
I have studied Buddhism before in a few classes so when I opened some new books about Buddhism I was not beginning from scratch. But most of what I knew or at least remembered from these classes was historical. I knew the rough sketch of the Buddha’s (Siddhartha Gautama of the Sakyas) life and a little about the spread of Buddhism but that was about all. I could not have told you anything significant about what Buddha taught except a few of the big concepts like the Four Noble Truths and the Eight-Fold Path but of course I could not have told you what those actually were. And even after a few weeks of reading I still mix them up and forget them but what has changed is that I feel like I have experienced something I never had before. I have experienced an encounter with the Buddha. Even as I write that I am not sure what I mean by it. I did not have some spiritual epiphany or out of body experience. The clouds did not part nor did an angel speak to me. But in a small way I did hear a voice. Not in my head but simply on the pages in front of me as I read the words of Buddha. Now whether the words I read were ever actually spoken by the Buddha or not I have no idea. I have spent years studying the Gospels and have seen them examined from every angle to determine what was genuinely said by Jesus verses the author’s creative license and like most things people do not agree. I know that similar studies exist concerning the historical life of the Buddha and trying to determine what he actually taught verses what later believers simply added. But those issues do not concern me here because when I read these words I was affected. I knew I was hearing the words of someone who was different, who was special. I can honestly say it reminded me of many of my experiences with the Gospels.. When I read what Jesus said I knew I was reading the words of someone who was different, who was special. One of the books I have been reading is called “The World’s Religions” by Huston Smith and much of what I write here comes from exposure to that text and the sources it relies on. (I do recommend it to anyone. It gives you the meat of a textbook with the artistry of a story) In it Smith says,
How many people have provoked this question-not “Who are you?” with respect to name, origin, or ancestry, but “What are you? What order of being do you belong to? What species do you represent?” Not Caesar, certainly. Not Napoleon, or even Socrates. Only two: Jesus and Buddha. When the people carried their puzzlement to the Buddha himself, the answer he gave provided an identity for his entire message.
“Are you a god?” they asked. “No.” “An Angel?” “No” “A saint?” “No.” “Then what are you?”
Buddha answered, “I am awake.” (Hudson Smith p.82)
In my reading I have been shown that so many things common to all religions such as authority, speculation, rituals and tradition all seem to be completely absent in the teachings of Buddha. Buddha preached a religion devoid of authority, which instantly caught my attention. For like Christ with the Sadducees and Pharisees he was preaching against a group, the Brahmins, who held a monopolistic grip on religious authority and teachings and sought to make it accessible to all. But unlike Christ Buddha does not replace one religious authority with another instead he challenges individuals not to passively accept what the religious authorities are telling them and instead to do their own religious seeking.
“Do not accept what you hear by report, do not accept tradition, do not accept a statement because it is found in our books, nor because it is in accord with your belief, nor because it is the saying of your teacher. Be lamps unto yourselves. Those who, either now or after I am dead, shall rely upon themselves only and not look for assistance to anyone besides themselves, it is they who shall reach the topmost height.” (Smith, 94-quoted from E.A. Burtt’s The Teachings of the Compassionate Buddha, 1955)
I was both comforted and stung by these words. I love that every time Buddha had the chance to accept the faith of others and place himself above them he did not do it. Instead he placed the burden of enlightenment back upon the individual, on those who would seek it. But it was also painful to hear because of the responsibility it places upon the individual to work out their own salvation. That idea goes against almost everything I was taught as a Christian. We can do nothing on our own and are completely at the mercy of one greater than ourselves to rescue us if it is his will. But Buddha says, “Here is a path to the end of suffering. Tread it.” And every individual must tread this path him or herself. Buddha tells his follower not to pray to him after he is gone for he will be gone. “Buddhas only point the way. Work out your salvation with diligence.” (Smith 97-quoted from Christmas Humphreys, Buddhism, 1951)
Another odd thing about Buddha’s teachings that were difficult for me was that they were solely pragmatic. Buddha did not deal with metaphysical speculation or any philosophical issues beyond, these are the problems of life and here are the solutions. Buddha did not deal with the universe and humanity’s place in it but rather ignores the universe and deals with where we are here and now. Buddha teaches that humanity’s problem is suffering and his teachings were meant to be tools to solve this problem and if they did not do that than they were worthless and should be abandoned. He compared his teachings to rafts, which help people cross to the other side of a river but once at the other shore they are of no further use. So while amazing this was hard for me in that I love speculation. I love the kind of questions, which not only cannot be answered but are probably of no use even if they can be answered. Yet again I loved Buddha’s continued selflessness and his unwillingness to see his ideas as anything more than tools to be discarded once they had served their purpose. And of supreme importance Buddha’s teachings are egalitarian to the core, similar to Jesus’. He is adamant that women are as capable as men in reaching enlightenment and he constantly rejects the caste system of Hinduism and its assumptions about Brahmin spiritual superiority.
Another difficulty that has arisen from my encounter of Buddha is once again being faced with the question of, “what value does reason hold if any?” While Buddha clearly does not believe reason is the tool needed for achieving enlightenment he does seem to understand its power and gives it a place within his worldview. So I appreciated that but it remained difficult for me because reason has been of great value to me, especially recently so reading the words of Buddha similar to reading the words of Christ were difficult in that they were an assault on my “faith” in reason. As I have read various sayings of Buddha and examined Buddhism I have found myself doubting everything I have written and come to believe in the past year. I have been left examining my confident or at least loud declarations for or against various beliefs. I could not help but feel once again that there must be more to us than merely our flesh or at least I could not help but hope there was. Still my reason remains. It cannot do everything, that I know but even those who view reason as unhelpful or even dangerous must see that reason matters. Even if reason does not contain the power to convince one of the truth it clearly has the power to reject other people’s truth claims. Smith says, “Until reason is satisfied, an individual cannot proceed in any direction wholeheartedly.” (106) and I agree. On the most basic level this can be seen at the very beginning of every person’s religious or spiritual journey. You have to decide what life’s problem is before you can determine any solution and the way people do that is with their heads. Buddha says the problem is suffering, Christ says the problem is sin. My faith in God at age 12 came only after my mind had decided there was a problem (sin) and that Christ was the solution. The core of apologetics is getting people to see there is a problem. You need to use reason to awaken their minds in order that they ultimately choose your faith with their heart. In this sense the mind always precedes the heart. Only after the mind sees a problem in its heart can the heart make up its mind. But doubt remains.
So here I sit wanting to write more and more but not sure I should. Buddha has caused me to doubt myself in a new way and for that I am thankful but also scared. Buddha has reminded me of my past and my wonder in the teachings of Christ. And Buddha has encouraged me to not give up the search for truth. I am not Buddhist and I know very little about Buddha but I do feel I know this much, he was awake.
*perhaps it is fitting that I wrote this on Easter the day that Christians say Jesus once again was "awake"