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Buddhism: The Middle Way
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Divinity Is Within All Of Us
I used to think I was an Agnostic, since I do believe there is some kind of energy that drives the Universe. I just do not know what it is. The Seven Hermetic Laws refer to this energy as The All. Everything is part of The All, and The All is part of everything. So we all have a spark of divinity within us. But I love nature too, and am feeling more like a Pagan these days. I have studied several religions during my life, but have never been able to commit to one.
I read the whole Christian Bible several years ago, and concluded that no intelligent person could ever accept these writings as true. This is said not to insult people who believe this religion, but only my opinion after considering what I read and pondered. There is much wisdom and beauty in it. But I cannot understand how anyone living in our day and age could possibly believe some of the stories, and worship what seemed to me, a mean spirited, jealous, and petty God. I also think that much of what Jesus said has been misinterpreted or badly translated, though I do respect his message and believe he was a great man. It also seems there are some people who do not understand that many of the Biblical stories are Myths, which have only a small basis in fact. There is a vast storage of true and valid information that the Earth is more than 6,000 years old.
Philosophies of East Meet Those of the West
But I am interested in philosophy and beliefs, and recently began reading books and essays by Alan Watts. I remember hearing radio lectures from him when I was in my early 20’s, although he passed on in 1973, and his work is still very popular. At that time, he sounded nutty and perhaps like he was on drugs. But I have since learned that he was a respected scholar born in England, who attended a Theological Seminary in the US, and later became an Episcopalian Minister. As time passed, he realized many of his parishioners did not believe the Bible, and that he did not either. He got tired of preaching to a congregation that was bored and did not believe in the message.
He openly admits that Christianity is a very hard faith to believe, and that many belonging to this Church struggle with this fact. This led Alan Watts on a journey of his own, where he became a sort of counter-culture celebrity/philosopher in the 1960’s. After earning a Master’s degree from Sea-bury Western Theological Seminary in IL, and a Doctorate of Divinity from the University of VT, he became a philosopher and commentator who explored and tried to define the differences in outlook of East and West. He challenged readers and listeners to question Western culture’s religious traditions, and to open doors of thought to others who did not wish to be bound by the demands of a religion that does not make sense.
Religion As Defined
What makes a religion? The word translates from the Latin religare, to bind. So the believer has to be “bound” to a certain way of life. The creed is the doctrine that must be believed. The code is the way of life the person adopts. A religion needs a group of people to worship a deity, or cult. Buddhism has no creed, code, or cult. Nothing binds them, and there is nothing specific that the person must believe. Buddhists have ideas of certain moral and ethical behavior, but they do not consider them as that of following a divine will. You just make a pledge to yourself. Buddhism is not a philosophy either, because this entails certain theories or ideas about the nature of the Universe, man, or nature. Buddhism is not concerned with elaborating about ideas. The Dharma is Buddhas doctrine, and Sangha are followers of Buddha. They take the four vows, the view being, "However innumerable sentient beings are, I vow to liberate them all." It would seem there is no end to that pledge. But to a Buddha, everyone is liberated, even if they do not know it.
The closest thing in our American culture to Buddhism is probably psychotherapy. This is because it is more a way of feeling. In our culture, when we feel unhappy, anxious or depressed, we go for psychotherapy to find a way to change our outlook, or to change our state of consciousness. And Buddhism envisions a transformation or sense of liberation in the way people feel themselves and the world around them. We feel lonely, or separate, locked up in our skin, and alienated from the world. But in Buddhism, one is supposed to realize they do not have a separate self, or fixed self, or ego. When people think they have a permanent and eternal self, Buddha taught the other extreme doctrine, there is no fixed self or ego. But there is always The Middle Way, neither duhkha or suhkha, not atman (self) nor anatman (nonself).
Samsara, The Circle of Existence, Suffering, Death, and Rebirth
Human beings crave pleasure, and do not want to cause themselves too much pain from birth to death. As these attitudes control them, they perpetuate the cycle of existence and suffering, or in Sanskrit, Samsara, and produce the causes and conditions of the next rebirth after death. This process keeps repeating in each incarnation, during which Buddhists strive to end these causes and conditions, applying the methods taught by the Buddha and other Buddhas. When we think of our lives, we often automatically define ourselves with things that happened in our past. Buddhism is a consciousness where there is no past, or future, only the present. The only real you is who you are now. But we only know ourselves through the echoes of our own memories and of those who know us. Buddhism says what you really are is indefinable.
Buddha is not an old man with a fat belly or idol, it simply means “one who woke up” or “awakened one.” Before he woke up to his Buddah nature, Gautama Siddhartha practiced different disciplines that were offered in the Hinduism of his time. One must remember that Buddhism is the form of Hinduism that is taken out of India. Siddhartha did not like the asceticism, which forced a person to endure as much pain as possible. It was believed that if one learned not to feel fear of pain, it would be better for them. There is truth to that. But then he decided that if a person is still fighting pain, he is still afraid of it, so asceticism would not be right. So then Hedonism, the opposite, where all one does is pursue pleasure, would not work either.
Thus Buddha devised the Middle Way. So perhaps Buddha should be considered the first psychotherapist. His prescription is “the Four Noble Truths”, with titles in Sanskrit. The first Noble Truth is the disease from which humans are suffering. This is called duhkha, or anguish. Life as we know it leads to suffering, or uneasiness in one way or another. Other English words describing this disease are affliction, dissatisfaction, anxiety and disquietude. One feels this because we view the world as made up of all separate things, instead of related ones. We think pleasure is opposite of pain, or hot is opposite of cold, but these are the same, they are just different degrees of polarity in the Seven Hermetic Laws. There is no cold without hot, love without hate, strength without weakness, and so on. Trying to orient ourselves towards a life with impossible ideals causes our frustrations with it. The opposite of duhkha is sukkha, things that are sweet and delightful. If people try to make their life's goal sukkha, Buddha said "a wrong taught life is miserable."
Buddha subdivided this First Noble Truth into The Three Signs of Being. The first as we know is duhkha, or frustration. The Second is anitya, or impermanence, because everything in life is impermanent. Our quest to try to make things permanent is a cause of our frustration, because it presents us with an impossible problem we cannot solve. The Third Sign of Being is anatman. Atman means "self." Anatman means "nonself." The idea of the ego is a social institution with no physical reality. Your ego is just your symbol of yourself and the role you play.
Trishna, Thirst, Grasping, or Desire
The cause of the disease is called Trishna, translated to thirst, clutching, grasping, or desire. No matter how solid life seems to be, it is a constantly developing process and in a state of flux. The world does not consist of things, but of processes and patterns that are constantly changing. We fail to see everything is alive because it flows, and we try too hard to hold onto things. When we try to possess people or things, this is the Trishna. People are constantly upset by trying to hold onto a world that is basically a changing pattern. Everything in the Universe is a swirling orbit of energy, everything is always moving. We have this idea of a world that is made of stuff underneath all the changing forms of orbiting actions. Suffering is often felt because we cling to a particular sense of existence, to self, or to things we think cause happiness. Craving is negative too, as we sometimes crave states of affairs that do not exist. We have to accept life for what it is, and just go with the flow of it. Alan Watts decscribed Trishna as a "hang-up." Trishna is based on avidya. Avidya is ignorance, and it means to overlook or to ignore. We only notice the things we think are noteworthy, so ignore all kinds of things that are important. Avidya is the state of restricted consciousness, or restricted attention.
A Buddhism idea is that one should never cling to an idea for spiritual security. Buddhism has no idea or concept of God, and is not interested in concepts, only with direct experience. As long as you hold onto something, you have no religion. There is no need for religious statues, rosaries, Buddhas, in this path. When one understands these trappings are not necessary, they can learn to get rid of ideas that are used to cling to life. You are only really there when you let go of everything and stop depending on fixed ideas or beliefs for happiness. You cannot believe an idea, it's just a thought. Although some forms of Buddhism do not believe in reincarnation, most do. Many Buddhists agree that the ideal person is a bodhisattva, someone who has become an enlightened one, but went back into the world (a reincarnation) out of compassion, to help others become awakened.
Nirvana, The Elimination of Delusion, Not A State of Bliss
We must realize that we are not cut off or separate from the World, we are all part of it, as it is part of all of us. We are all actions and deeds. Clinging to the world is like trying to hold your breath, you can’t do it for long. When our separateness disappears, we experience nirvana. We cannot experience pain or pleasure all the time, there is always both, the law of polarity again. You must let out your breath, and live “the blown out life.” This is the life of Nirvana. In Sanskrit, it simply means “blow out.” If you try to keep holding your breath, you won’t let yourself go.
You must to experience Nirvana. Many think Nirvana is a blissful state of being, but this is untrue. Suffering ends when craving ends. This works by eliminating delusion, so one can reach a liberated state. Nirvana means cessation, and is applied to the awakened, or enlightened. Or think of life as breath. If you hold it for too long, you will lose your life. "He who would save his life must lose it", said Jesus. So Nirvana is to breathe out, a great sigh of relief. Let the breath of life go because it will come back to you if you do. A person in the state of Nirvana is in a state of exhalation. Let go, don't cling, and you will be in Nirvana.
So this means that in the West, we view religion or spirituality as something outside ourselves, like going to church on Sunday, or meditation on your schedule. Buddhism does not separate the spirituality and person from the Earth, we are all part of everything. It's a difficult concept to understand in our Western culture.
Manga, The Middle Way Leading to Awakening
The path that leads to awakening, or Manga, is what Buddha called “The Middle Way.” This is misunderstood as compromise. It is not moderation between extremes, like intense pleasure seeking followed by lying on a bed of nails. It is more of living a balanced life, avoiding falling into one extreme or another. When you follow the Middle Way, you live an upright life, because you will not fall to either side. What if we try to resist fear? Then we will be afraid of fear, and this leads to worry. Worry is only being afraid of being afraid, a total waste of time. (I understand that it is still not easy to stop worrying, even when we try very hard)! If we use the Middle Way, stop fighting things, try to relax and be ourselves, this neutralizes the fear, and the feeling that we are suffering. We need to stop trying to resist things too much. When you accept yourself instead of fighting yourself, you are in control. When you have ended craving, and eliminated delusion, you have reach an enlightened state of awareness.
Reaching this liberated state is achieved by following the path laid out by the Buddha. So the ultimate expression of Buddhism is to come together with ourselves again. People in the West feel constant conflict between themselves and their feelings. It is OK to have negative feelings, you do not have to act on them. A person divided against themselves lives in constant frustration. The ultimate experience of Buddhism is when we come back together with ourselves, to find we are together with everything. We are not cut off from the Universe, the whole Universe is our self. We learn we are not separate, cut off from the world, but have divinity within ourselves, we are all gods, and all part of the Universe. This is an introduction to Buddhism as taught by contemporary teachers such as the Dalai Lama.
© 2011 Jean Bakula