I’ve always balked at the question, “Are you religious?” because it’s such a loaded question and because the word religion has connotations in the English language limited to its Latin root. Nor have I liked the term “spiritual” because it too has negative connotations (as in New Age, fruit loop, etc.). But this experience has been the thing I’ve done so far in my life that has felt the most true, the closest to my heart, that I’m rethinking how I would answer the question. In Burma, people just assume I’m Buddhist, so they skip the question and instead ask “Is your family also Buddhist?”
Before leaving the US, I asserted that probably I’d never call myself a Buddhist since I could never adopt the cultural component of the religion. This was before I lived and practiced in a Buddhist country. Meditation in the West is made available to people as an independent thing, something that can be integrated with other faiths and belief systems. But after observing eight of the 227 precepts that monks in the Buddhist tradition practice (what nuns and lay people in a monastic setting observe) and understanding the value of morality in committing to a spiritual life; and after reflecting on just how much faith I had to have in the Dhamma in order to end up here, as well as to really build the foundation for earnest meditation practice, I feel differently.
Since I’ve been interested in the Buddha’s teachings, I’ve always been skeptical about an academic or purely intellectual approach. This brought on a nearly existential crisis during the creation of my undergraduate thesis (re the Enlightenment experience and the ability to convey the ineffable through words…). It’s quite astounding that it’s taken so long for my practice to get started, given how very convinced I was that the Four Noble Truths and the systematic teachings that have persisted over 2,500 years, if directly understood and experienced by the practitioner, could lead us out of suffering. But here I am, nearly 20 years later and a total beginner. It’s been utterly humbling to come to Burma.
So, I suppose I am Christian by birth and Buddhist by choice. How my quasi-religious parents produced a Jew, a complete non-believer, and a Buddhist is beyond me. For me, I no longer believe that meditation can be incorporated into my life apart from its belief system. I see how very important saddha, confidence or faith, is in this practice. This is not blind faith, but the kind of faith that develops from seeing the benefits in one’s own life, and a belief in the teachings through one’s own experiential learning process. After going to Episcopal summer camp and boarding school, I’m pretty averse to rites and rituals, but now I happily chant in Burmese and bow to the Buddha – not out of fear, superstition or obligation, but out of a deep reverence and gratitude to this person that taught for nearly 50 years so that he could help others discover the truths that he did. I bow to my teacher, and to his teacher, and all those before them because they have – through direct transmission – shared these teachings with me and countless others so that we too may be liberated. I observe the precepts because I can’t imagine not observing them (The first 4 at least – the moral ones, and the 5th – abstaining from intoxicants which makes you less vulnerable to breaking the others. The other 3 support the practice and the development of wisdom through the weakening of defilement.), and because I know I will suffer if I don’t; not because I feel that I should or because I wouldn’t want to get caught, but because the mind is complicated and there are consequences to all actions – that’s why we can beat ourselves up over something that we said 10 years ago. This is the real meaning of kamma. There is cause for every effect.
Meditation then becomes a way of living, of being; which is something I’ve understood for a long time conceptually, but only through immersing myself in a daily mindfulness practice here for this time have I really begun to know. So much knowledge we depend on has no basis in direct experience and yet we hold onto it so strongly in our beliefs and opinions, separating ourselves from others who hold different views and blinding ourselves from the truth. If everyone took a peek inside, they’d see that the best teacher, the best book we have is the mind itself. And yours and mine, they’re all the same. Maybe a little bit different conditioning depending on where you were born, etc., but all full of the same challenging tendencies rooted in greed, hatred, and delusion.
So, as I learn about the mind and build confidence in this religious tradition by so doing, I will point you to some of the core aspects of the teachings here in case you’re interested. The Buddha taught to people of varying levels of education and understanding and he understood that people learn differently, but he always used lists that people could easily come back to. I’ve only just skimmed the surface and have a lot more reading to do, but here are some basics:
-The Four Noble Truths (and an alternative here)
-The Noble Eightfold Path
-Dependent Origination (Four Noble Truths expanded)
-The Five Aggregates (pañca khandha)
-The Five Hindrances (pañca nīvaraṇāni)
-The Five Spiritual Faculties (pañca indriya)
-The Four Foundations of Mindfulness / Frames of Reference (satipaṭṭhāna)
-The Ten Fetters PDF (saṃyojana)
–The Seven Factors of Enlightenment (satta sambojjhaṅgā)
-The Spiritual Perfections (pāramīs)
– The Divine Abidings (bramivihāras)
I’ve tried to link to reasonably good brief definitions for each of the above terms, however, not all are available in pithy form and since there are many different philosophical variations it’s tough to find just the right description. For detailed explanations, probably Access to Insight would be the best resource.
Also, it is purely by accident that I named this blog what I did but I found this excerpt, which happens to be called “The Precipice”, from the Samyutta Nikaya in Bhikkhu Bodhi’s book In the Buddha’s Words which seems appropriate to share at this time.
On one occasion the Blessed One was dwelling at Rajagaha on Mount Vulture Peak. Then the Blessed One addressed the monks thus: “Come, monks, let us go to Inspiration Peak for the day’s abiding.”
“Yes, venerable sir,” those monks replied. Then the Blessed One, together with a number of monks, went to Inspiration Peak. A certain monk saw the steep precipice off Inspiration Peak and said to the Blessed One: “That precipice is indeed steep, venerable sir; that precipice is extremely frightful. But is there, venerable sir, a precipice steeper and more frightful than that one?”
“Those ascetics and brahmins, monk, who do not understand as it really is: ‘This is suffering. This is the origin of suffering. This is the cessation of suffering. This is the way leading the cessation of suffering’—they delight in volitional formations that lead to birth, aging, and death; they delight in volitional formations that lead to sorrow, lamentation, pain, dejection, and despair. Delighting in such volitional formations, they generate volitional formations that lead to birth, aging, and death; they generate volitional formations that lead to sorrow, lamentation, pain, dejection, and despair. Having generated such volitional formations, they tumble down the precipice of birth, aging, and death; they tumble down the precipice of sorrow, lamentation, pain, dejection, and despair. They are not freed from birth, aging, and death; not freed from sorrow, lamentation, pain, dejection, and despair; not freed from suffering, I say.
“But, monk, those ascetics and brahmins who understand as it really is: ‘This is suffering. This is the origin of suffering. This is the cessation of suffering. This is the way leading the cessation of suffering’—they do not delight in volitional formations that lead to birth, aging, and death; they do not delight in volitional formations that lead to sorrow, lamentation, pain, dejection, and despair; they do not generate volitional formations that lead to birth, aging, and death; they do not generate volitional formations that lead to sorrow, lamentation, pain, dejection, and despair. Not having generated such volitional formations, they do not tumble down the precipice of birth, aging, and death; they do not tumble down the precipice of sorrow, lamentation, pain, dejection, and despair. They are freed from birth, aging, and death; freed from sorrow, lamentation, pain, dejection, and despair; freed from suffering, I say.
“Therefore, monks, an exertion should be made to understand: ‘This is suffering.’ An exertion should be made to understand: ‘This is the origin of suffering.’ An exertion should be made to understand: ‘This is the cessation of suffering.’ An exertion should be made to understand: ‘This is the way leading the cessation of suffering.’