Come, Let Us Reason Together…

We often think of ‘renunciates,’ i.e., those living lives of “ascetic self-denial,” as holy people who have given everything away for the purpose of living lives of poverty and contemplation. Yet, even after giving away all of our material possessions, we can still be encumbered by immaterial ‘possessions’ such as anger, greed, and delusion. And lately, it seems to me that if we could free ourselves of our delusions, we’d be done with anger and greed.

If we cannot stop clinging to our delusions, we might as well keep our money, fine clothes, big houses, or just the hard-earned pittances of the grueling 9-5 minimum-wage existence because nothing will change, and as the old saying goes, it’s easier to be miserable with money than without it. Nothing will change until we ‘let go’ and stop clinging to our puffed up sense of ‘self’; our delight in others’ misfortune; our need for others’ approval; and our “right” to revenge. I know this because I’ve lived “with” and “without,” and additionally, despite being aware of some of my delusions, my actions often tell me, at the most disheartening times, that I am still  under the influence of those delusions.

In the  Dhammapada, the book to which I like to refer to as the “Buddhist Bible,” the final verse of chapter 7 says:

Delightful to the worthy
are the places where others
find no joy.
Being free of the pull of passions,
the worthy rejoice anywhere
precisely because
they seek no delight.

That verse means something to me because I’ve read it about a million times. And it was, perhaps, the 999,998th time that it really started to mean something to me. It is now a quite common experience for me to reread something in the Buddhist canon that I’ve already reread, maybe hundreds of times, only to discover that it had either completely gone over my head or hadn’t even entered it before.

I keep mentioning my deficits, not because I want people to think how “humble” I am, but rather because it’s so scary to write about these topics because I am not a monastic, monastic scholar, or initiate. Also, as someone who has always loved words, and was an English major in college, I’ve learned, through my studies, and as a result of my meditation practice, that words are all but useless. The Buddha told his followers NOT to believe what he said because he said it, but rather to believe it because they’d EXPERIENCED it. Now,  that’s  humility. But it’s also true. We will not attain nibbana (nirvana) by reading “just the right book,” and even the Buddha, himself, if he still walked this Earth, could  not  grant or give us nibbana (nirvana) with a magical wave of his hand. As he directed us, we must be our own saviors:

“Monks, be islands unto yourselves,[1] be your own refuge, having no other; let the Dhamma be an island and a refuge to you, having no other. Those who are islands unto themselves… should investigate to the very heart of things:[2] ‘What is the source of sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief and despair? How do they arise?’ [What is their origin?] — from the Attadiipaa Sutta: An Island to Oneself. translated from the Pali by Maurice O’Connell Walshe

I must say, here, that I am so fascinated by this directive to be islands unto ourselves. Prior to this, as any good English major, I’d always quoted the great poet, John Donne:

“No man is an island…”

Mr. Donne was very right — and very wrong…

It’s very different “knowing” something because someone (even a reputable someone) has told us something, and knowing it because we’ve experienced  it. This is why someone could tell us the ultimate “secret to happiness,” but their words might mean nothing to us because we are either not ready to “hear” or “see” it, or simply because they are simply not the right words for us.

“Eureka moments” are usually quite personal and uniquely fashioned.

Namaste.

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A Matter of Life and Death

One of the most difficult transitions I’ve ever experienced, as an ex-Christian, was that of learning to think of “death” in the Buddhist sense. Mind you, I use the term “sense,” quite loosely because there is no one, perfect Buddhist definition for people like me (unenlightened). That said, there are some interesting differences, as well as similarities, in the ways that Buddhists and Christians view life and death.

Regarding “life,” Buddhists view it as never-ending (and never having “begun”), except for respites of varied and indeterminable lengths in between, with “extinction” (death, once and for all) as a happy goal (except if they elect a Bodhisattva existence, which allows them to return, again and again, at will). Conversely, Christians view life as impermanent with “everlasting life” as a happy goal and reward for living the one and only perishable life they believe they’re given, to the best of their abilities, and therefore enabling them to escape the eternal, irreversible, living-death of hell fire. Another way of saying this is that for Buddhists, there’s always the next life (and not necessarily a human one); but for Christians, this is, essentially, “it.”

One of the most fundamental differences between Christianity and Buddhism, which eventually freed me to become a Buddhist, was what I call each system’s “prime motivation.” When Christians proselytize, if nothing else works, the “threat” of burning in hell for “not believing,” convinces many people to profess some type of faith “just in case.” I mean, ya’ never know; this whole ‘burning in hell for eternity’ thing could be true… On the other hand, The Buddha Shakyamuni exhorted us ‘not to simply take his word,’ but to “test” what he said, and only proceed if we found his words to be true. This might seem like an insignificant ‘difference’ to some, particularly to Christians who already find “God’s Word” to be “true,” but for me, the freedom to weigh “the truth” against practical experience made all the difference in this world, for me (and I realize that Christians would also say they’ve arrived at the same determination in the same way).

Nonetheless, it always seemed strange to me that certain Buddhist practitioners would live their lives with the ‘goal’ of “extinction” (not returning for another life). Having been raised in the Christian faith, and taught that if I didn’t get my “one chance” right, I’d spend eternity burning in hell; the opportunity to return and try again (and again), as opposed to “Don’t pass Go; don’t collect $200; go straight to Hell” (I hope that’s right; I’ve never played Monopoly in my life), sounded pretty good to me – even if all those subsequent lives would be miserably weighed down with the fruits of negative karma. Subsequently, this seeming Buddhist fixation with “extinction,” never to return (though never really going away because you were never really born – ah, Buddhism, ya’ gotta love it…) seemed positively unnatural to me because who wants to die?!?

Here’s what I discovered. And mind you, this could make perfect sense to you, or mean nothing at all because it’s all a matter of timing, the right words, or no words at all. Additionally, I am not wise or all-knowing, and I cry every time I think of how someone, somehow, sometime, helped me get this through my thick skull:

Question: Why is being extinguished “good?”
[My]Answer:

  1. Being extinguished is neither “good” nor “bad” because we do not “exist”;
  2. it is not “we” who are extinguished, but rather, our delusions (e.g., concepts of “self,” ‘permanence,’ ‘independence’/‘separate-ness’); so, ultimately,
  3. when these delusions are gone, so is the “we” that doesn’t truly exist.

If this makes no sense to you, it isn’t because you’re stupid and I’m so smart. It isn’t even because I’m right and you’re wrong, or vice versa. All I can say is that even though it doesn’t look like much, it’s all I’ve got – and it’s the world to me.

Though the Buddha conveyed part of his wisdom through his teachings, much of it he conveyed silently, to those who were ‘ready to receive.’ The name of the Buddha, Shakyamuni, is interpreted as “silent one of the Shakya clan.” This is because he chose the life not of a contentious academic, or a street preacher, but of a ‘contemplative.’ As was the case with Jesus of Nazareth, who neither coined the term “Christianity,” nor called himself or anyone else, “Christian,” the Buddha neither coined the term “Buddhism,” called himself or anyone else a “Buddhist,” nor even talked half as much as Jesus, who was not a contemplative. All of the Buddhist sutras/suttas and the fact that there have been many “Buddhas,” only makes it seem like Buddha Shakyamuni was his own best corporate PR firm and publishing house. Unlike the Buddha, I can neither teach with or without words. I am not qualified. I can only share of my own experience, hoping to both learn from others, as well as daily increase in my own mindfulness and discernment.

And I continually review the first chapter of the Tao Te Ching, an ancient Chinese text. The following is an excerpt, available in its entirety in PDF format, online, titled “Tao Te Ching: A Modern Interpretation of Lao Tzu Perpetrated by Ron Hogan,” ©2002, 2004.
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“If you can talk about it,
it ain’t Tao.
If it has a name,
it’s just another thing.

Tao doesn’t have a name.
Names are for ordinary things….”
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