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..:: Buddhism ::..

By

Alan Schneider

                                                                                                                         

               Buddhism as an independent philosophy originated with Prince Siddhartha, who was born in the ancient Indian community of Lumbini, and later raised in Kapilavastu. His father was the regional King Suddhodana. Suddhodana was visited shortly after Siddhartha’s birth by a wise man who foretold that the infant Prince would either become a king himself, or a spiritual teacher – a sadhu. King Suddhodana did his best to bias the outcome of the wise man’s prediction in the direction of kingship by keeping Siddhartha sheltered within the palace walls, but, at age twenty nine, the young Prince observed four sights outside the palace that deeply effected him – an elderly man, an ill man, a decomposing corpse, and a religious esthetic – the Four Sights of Buddhism.  

             These sights set him on the path of spiritual investigation. He first conducted this enquiry through the practices of asceticism and austerity, as a wandering, begging mendicant, but later rejected these severe approaches in favor of the more moderate practice of meditation, which eventually came to be known in Buddhist philosophy as the Middle Path between selfish gluttony on one hand, and harsh renunciation on the other.  At age thirty five, he vowed to enter meditation and not release the condition until he had solved the riddle of human suffering. After forty nine days spent in seated meditation under a pipel tree, which subsequently became known as the Bodhi (or Wisdom) tree,  sustained only by an initial offering of a small bowl of rice from a local village girl, and becoming emaciated and nearly dying in the process, he achieved full Enlightenment and became known as Guatama Buddha. He subsequently accepted his Dharma as a spiritual teacher, and spent the remainder of his life offering his insights to others. He died at age eighty in India.  

            Although there eventually came to be a multitude of interpretations of the original philosophy of Gautama, Buddhist teachings can be summarized in a series of concepts that are generally accepted by all schools and traditions of the practice. The first, and foundational, belief of Buddhism is that all life is dukkha, or suffering. This is the First Noble Truth. This suffering has several origins – birth trauma, illness, old age, fear (including the primary fear of death), and temporary or permanent separation from what one loves caused by any number of things. The ultimate, root cause of suffering, however, apart from the surface factors just mentioned, is tanha, the condition of desire or craving for something. This is the Second Noble Truth.  Therefore, the way to end suffering is to end desire and attachment, the Third Noble Truth. This is no mean feat for the appetite-driven, ego-mediated ordinary personal consciousness, so, in response to this condition, Buddhism prescribes the Noble Eight Fold Path as the Fourth, and final, Noble Truth. 

            The Noble Eight Fold Path is the curative for ordinary consciousness, which is virtually enslaved to desire by the ego. These are eight steps toward Enlightenment as stipulated by Gautama himself. The first step is is Right Knowledge obtained by intensively studying the Four Noble Truths listed in the preceding paragraph as a means of deeply pondering and understanding their full significance. The second step is Right Thought – the positive, assertive decision to set one’s life on the correct moral path. The third step toward Enlightenment is Right Speech, practiced by refraining from lying, harsh language, unjust criticism, and gossip about others and their activities. The fourth step is Right Conduct, which is comprised of the Five Precepts – Do not kill, Do not steal, Do not lie, Do not fornicate, and Do not consume intoxicants. The fifth step is Right Livelihood – one must earn one’s living in a manner that does not cause harm to living things.  Right Effort, the sixth step, implies continuous effort to maintain and enhance good, positive thoughts and mental conditions, while eliminating all evil, negative thoughts and impulses. The seventh step, Right Mindfulness, involves becoming intensely aware of all states of manifestation in the body, emotions, and mind. Finally, the eight step, Right Concentration, entails practicing the deepest possible, ongoing meditation to develop higher consciousness and ultimately attain full Enlightenment. Additionally, The Noble Eight Fold Path is frequently summarized as Right Wisdom, steps one and two above, Right Morality, steps three and four above, and Right Concentration, seen in steps five through eight. Taken together as a system of living, these prescriptions are held to free the individual from suffering, ignorance, and desire. 

            The principles of Buddhist thought and philosophy can be traced to some of the earlier beliefs and practices of the Yoga tradition in India. Patanjali’s Eight Limbs of Yoga, the foundational doctrine of Indian asceticism, and in particular, the Yamas and Niyamas of Yoga, are very similar to many of the steps in the Noble Eight Fold Path. But there are several critical philosophical distinctions that separate the Buddhist from the Yogi. Gautama felt that the austerity of Yoga practice, including the severity of physical discipline required to attain the postures of both Kundalini and Hatha Yoga, was so extreme in and of itself that it was fundamentally imbalanced as a doctrine, and would tend to prevent the attainment of Enlightenment for just that reason. He was mirrored in this sentiment by the much more recent Bengali Avatar Ramakrishna, who also disavowed renunciation and austerity as sacred paths, along with several other gurus and pundits in contemporary Indian history.  Gautama was convinced that more relatively moderate measures represented the best route to spiritual freedom for most individuals. And Buddhism also does not officially idealize the highest human qualities into Gods and Goddesses, nor the lowest ones into Demons, as does Hinduism.  

            Buddhism is a set of practical measures designed to relieve human suffering at the source of that suffering – psychological attachment through ignorance to the twin problems of desire, as an ego-driven mental condition, and the objects of desire, as mental distractions that prevent the attainment of inner peace. These are the two horns of the human perceptual dilemma. Buddhism is not concerned with the religious definition of evil per se, nor with this or that God, or Name of God, or form of God, but with the direct elimination of suffering alone. In the words of the Native American ”If your philosophy doesn’t grow corn, I don’t want to hear about it!”  That which is of little or no practical consequence is of no interest to the Buddhist, who finds the self faced with the enormous task of deconditioning and retraining basic human nature away from its self-sustained mirage of gratification, and into a humble appreciation and acceptance of reality as it is. The sincere practice of Buddhism begins in the Heart Chakra with the attainment of humility and the practice of compassion for all living beings as they struggle through this frequently (inevitably?) difficult physical existence. For human beings, the focus of this struggle is customarily ego awareness.  

            We have evolved to be obsessive problem solvers, with the ego as the crowning achievement of that trend. The ego is always ready to laud its prodigious abilities as the provider of solutions to all problems, but always conceals its true nature as a problem creator, and the true nature of life as an endless series of lasting problems punctuated by transitory gratifications. Very few of us realize the folly of endless problem solving, and turn away from the hopeless dream of utopia to embrace the truth of living – that lasting happiness depends on realistic acceptance of life’s limitations.  We are by nature frustrated creatures doomed to suffer in ignorance, with the hope of releasing that suffering through the attainment of inner wisdom and Enlightenment. 

            Although the Noble Eight Fold Path is comprised of many techniques to relieve human suffering, I believe that it would ultimately be doomed to obscurity without the Eight step of Right Concentration – meditation.  The core Buddhist meditation technique is Mindfulness Meditation – essentially a process of self-hypnosis that uses the natural sequence of breathing to induce the required trance and state of deep relaxation. In order to utilize Mindfulness Meditation, one simply needs to: 1) assume a comfortable posture, 2) close the eyes, and 3) begin slow, deep breathing while maintaining attention on that breathing to the exclusion of other things. Clearly, the Buddha was not interested in complicating things in life! The entire thrust of the many Buddhist meditation, chanting, and visualization techniques is the de-emphasis of ego-driven “rational” thought. This supports the primary goal of inducing relaxation and relieving stress and other related suffering. Some techniques are pointedly, intentionally, and utterly irrational – many of the well-known Buddhist Temple Chants are often exactly what they first appear to be to the uninitiated – senseless mumbles that, however, have the very sensible purpose of aiding relaxation and supporting the attainment of inner peace through negation of the ego and its incessant demands to live in a comfortable, predictable world of logic and coherence. Only in meditation and related spiritual practices can inner peace be found, hopefully culminating with patience and practice in the attainment of Satori, the highest state of Enlightened consciousness attainable in the Buddhist paradigm. At the level of Satori all of the fundamentally egoistic distinctions of subject and object dissolve into the unified perception of non-dual consciousness – Oneness with the totality of existence experienced as the One – a profound submergence in the great ocean of existence-and-non-existence

            In its real-world focus on the relief of suffering, Buddhism does not necessarily deal with reincarnation any more than it deals with the existence of God. But, typical of the all-inclusive nature of this philosophy, to not deal with either God or reincarnation is to become egoistically attached to the concepts of not-God and not-reincarnated, something as unacceptable to the Buddhist as all other attachments. Thus, many schools of this tradition do allow for the existence of Divinity, the Soul, and reincarnation of the Soul.  This an example indicating why so much divergence has occurred in Buddhist development – if the ego is the root problem of human existence, it is also the root manifestation of physical human consciousness, and cannot be eliminated without the resultant disintegration of that consciousness into the pre-existing, non-rational field state that permits the illogical existence of simultaneously manifest opposites. Is there a God? Yes. Is there a God? No. Is there a God? Possibly. Is there a Soul? Yes, no, and maybe, but whatever and wherever it is can only be contacted in the Unified Field of Consciousness – the One beyond fragmented dualist perception!  

            Perhaps Buddhism is what happens when our sentience attempts to observe itself, and realizes that nothing is there but an empty mirror, devoid even of a background reflection. Perhaps the ultimate truth of Satori is that nothing exists once we suspend the desire for existence, or possibly that everything exists, but once we find true, lasting peace this no longer is of consequence to the self joyfully released from the bonds of desire and attachment. The student once asked the Buddhist Master “Master, what did you do before attaining Enlightenment?” the Master answered, “Chop wood and carry water.” The student then asked “And what do you do now that you have become Enlightened?” The answer came “Chop wood and carry water!”  without expectations, of course; the Master had become the wood, the water, the chopping, and the carrying.

            Buddhism is very probably the final destination of a biologically funded human consciousness that is fated to pass through a very brief interval of linear existence having an ill-defined beginning, turbulent expansion, and apparently terminating in another ill-defined conclusion. Even if all we can do for the term is manage our stress as effectively as possible, this is certainly a very worthwhile goal. The Buddhist philosophy and lifestyle provide one of the most effective stress management systems in the world, through the practice of enhanced self-observation and appetite redirection into wisdom and Enlightenment. I have nothing but reverence for it.

                                          - With Love, Alan -

                                  (CR2008, Alan Schneider)

 

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