Draft of a Very Brief Introduction to Buddhism

-- Gerald Grow

Draft of a Very Brief Introduction to Buddhism
Circulated for review and comment
Gerald Grow (ggrow@freenet.scri.fsu.edu)

Buddhism and Protestantism

European history was deeply changed when Protestantism arose in 1517 in rebellion against the abuses of the Catholocism of its day. In a similar way, Buddhism arose on the northern border of India around 500 B.C. in response to the Hinduism of its day. Like medieval Catholocism, ancient Hinduism was a religion of rituals, with an elite priesthood who administered a complex theology. It supported a society in which people were rigidly divided into a system of caste, role, and power.

Like Martin Luther, Buddha proposed radical alternatives to the religion of his day--some of which resemble the ideas of the Protestant reformation. Buddha advocated individual effort, plain language and simple means. His approach emphasized direct experience rather than relying on priests or theology. In his vision, all people (including women and the poor) were equal before the Infinite and equally capable of spiritual development.

Although some sects later considered him divine, Buddha spoke of himself only as "one who is awake." Original Buddhism was less like a religion than it was like a set of psychological practices--exercises to do with your mind until you no longer need them--like a raft discarded after you cross the stream.

The core of Buddhism spread to India, China, Korea, Japan, and Tibet--where it combined with the native traditions of each place to produce results as different as Zen in Japan--with its starkness and piercing beauty--and the colorful cheerfulness of Tibetan monks.

Starting in the 1950s, Zen attracted the interest of several prominent American artists, such as Allen Ginsberg and John Cage. But Buddhism first became widely known here after a wave of Tibetan lamas (driven out by the Chinese invasion of 1956) arrived in America the 1970s, established centers like the Naropa and Nyingma Institutes, set up schools and publishing houses, and began teaching on a wide scale. Buddhism began to appear in popular culture, as in the film, "What's Love Got to Do With It?" Though many Americans seem to have been puzzled by Bertolucci's 1994 film, "Little Buddha," it spoke to a growing interest in this country in the spiritual teachings of other cultures.

The Message of the Buddha

Buddha described his message in simple terms that are somewhat difficult to pin down -- because they do not refer to ideas so much as to experience.

Life is suffering.

No one gets out alive: All suffer pain, sickness, decay and death. But "suffering" in Buddhism also refers to larger, more pervasive condition. I understand it like this: Instead of experiencing life directly, we create a worldview and experience it. That worldview serves to protect us through a system of explanations; but it also separates us from nature, from real experience, from spirituality, and from one another--causing all experience to be distorted and "out of joint," and ourselves to suffer from living at one remove from life. We are outsiders to the world and to ourselves.

Suffering is caused by craving.

"Craving" in Buddhism extends far beyond the sense of "greed" to something closer to what the Christian tradition would call "pride"--a self-centered isolation, the separate selfhood, "ego" in the worst sense. This selfhood acts upon others and the world as if they were forever separate from oneself, generating what author Charlene Spretnak described as "the continuous chain reaction of craving, jealousy, ill will, indifference, fear, and anxiety that fills the mind." This is a deep, pervasive, but normal kind of alienation--one seemingly built into the nature of the human nervous system.

The most significant form of self-centered suffering takes place as we project upon everyday experience a huge burden of extraneous interpretations associations, fantasies, emotions, painful memories, and diversions. Instead of seeing each moment as it is, we react to each moment from our past pain and frustration; then we react to the pain and frustration; then we react to that reaction; and so on and on. In this way a special form of mental torment is created that consists of seemingly endless layers of pain, negative emotion, self-doubt and self-justification--known in Buddhism as "samsara." It is what, in honest moments, many people might call "normality."

If we could be released from craving, we would be released from suffering.

This I understand to be the central belief of Buddhism: When we fully face, accept, and lighten the self-amplified sufferings of our lives; when we begin to experience life beyond our delusions and confusions, beyond self, beyond culture, beyond knowledge--what we find is not a meaningless universe of alien forces, but our true home. Life is real. Reality is good. Goodness, gratitude, love and joy are the natural state of the awakened mind.

When people begin to feel released from their self-sustained sufferings, they experience life more fully, they become more cheerful and compassionate. The ultimate release into reality manifests as a cosmic experience known as "nirvana," or in glimpses of it that in Zen are called "satori."

The way out of suffering is through the Eightfold path.

Buddha taught a method to lead away from self-sustained suffering toward a more enlightened and compassionate life--through the pursuit of morality, meditation, and wisdom, described under eight headings: right speech, right action, right livelihood, right concentration, right mindfulness, right effort, right understanding and right thought. Because it avoids the extremes of asceticism and indulgence in favor of a life of moderation, nonviolence and compassion, this approach is known as the "Middle Way."

Buddhist Meditation

Though Buddhist meditation probably cannot be learned in any depth without direct instruction from a teacher, the external practice is simple and easy to begin. In meditation, Buddhists do not remove themselves from the world as some other schools of meditation do; rather, Buddhists practice a kind of awareness that enables them to be more fully present in the world.

Original Buddhist practices (known as "vipassana2 or "insight meditation") are somewhat austere. They require years of daily sitting in silent meditation. In several cultures, such as Tibet, Buddhism developed into a multifaceted religion ("Mahayana") which adds singing, movement, temples, ceremony, priests, scriptures, art, and other "religious" activities, so that it appeals to a greater variety of people. Still, vipassana meditation remains the underlying mental technology upon which Buddhism rests.

The Buddhist view of the world

A few Buddhists concepts seem strange to the modern mind. Buddha inherited the Indian belief in reincarnation: Each person has lived before, and past lives influence how you experience this one.

More strange, Buddha said that, although people reincarnate, they have no souls. In part, this seems to be a reaction to the ancient Hindu belief in an immutable, eternal soul (atman) that migrates through many lifetimes. In part, though, Buddha arrived at this conclusion by his radical method of awareness. Buddhism invites you to look unwaveringly at every experience and ask, "Is it solid, unchanging, whole?" The answer, Buddhists say, is always, "No"--even when asked of the soul. Everything changes. Everything is impermanent.

The Buddhist view of the universe resembles the view developed by 20th-century physics. Except for the mental categories we impose upon experience, we find nothing in experience that is immutable. There is no constant but our own misconceptions. Every "thing" is actually a process--it arises, develops, flourishes, declines, and dissipates. All nouns are still-photos from the movie of life--which is made up of verbs. All that we see around and inside us is the result of trillions of simultaneous processes, arising and declining in different overlapping stages at once. All that appears solid in this cosmos is in reality a shimmering dance of energy in flux.

But where physics leaves us adrift like meaningless specks in an incomprehensible void, Buddhism envisions a reality beyond meaning and meaninglessness, beyond knowing, beyond self, beyond duality, beyond suffering--a dance of all things, in which we can become enlightened, interconnected, and compassionate dancers.

According to Buddhism as I understand it (and I am not a Buddhist, only an interested onlooker) this dance is what is ultimately real; and we are born with the potential for knowing it directly--and most directly in the most ordinary moments of our daily lives.


For further reading


Gerald Grow is a professor of journalism at Florida A&M University in Tallahassee. (ggrow@freenet.scri.fsu.edu)