You may have a couple friends leading an exemplary life that feel no need for God. They are highly educated, scientific and technically savvy. They even have philosophic depth, and delight in Sci-Fi blockbusters.
You may have gone into deep conversation in matters of ultimate concern, finding them very uncomfortable with conventional, organized religion, but with a soft spot for Buddha. “You know, if I had to pick any religion, it would definitely be Buddhism.”
How could Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, 2,500 years ago, be so adept at addressing the sensibilities of contemporary people, such as the brilliant American philosopher, Ken Wilbur?
In recent decades, no one denomination can claim to be the fastest growing, whether Christian, Jewish or Muslim. You can be Orthodox, Conservative or Reformed. You can be ultra-liberal, such as the Universalist-Unitarians, patron of many of our best authors. It doesn’t matter.
A new generation is emerging with Millennials increasingly dropping out from church, mosque or synagogue. They do this, not out of any kind of spite, but simply because they don’t find this form of religion very relevant to being spiritual or attaining ultimate realization. They would more readily look to psychoactive drugs and meditation.
The numbers suggest that 20% of our youth don’t go to any kind of religious institution on a regular basis. Yet only one-third are atheists. What about the rest? They are “spiritual, but not religious.” They put a higher value on spirituality than most people in pews. They can now go to Google, iTunes or YouTube to seek enlightenment. Here they have instant access to Eastern Philosophy and Religion.
Five hundred years before Christ, Buddha actually beat Socrates in placing supreme value on knowing yourself. It didn’t matter what your caste was in India, whether you were male or female, you had a right to know the truth. Let the gods be the gods, but WHO AM I?
It is said that Buddha instantly saw the highest potential in this incarnation of everyone he met. Having awoken to who he truly was, he devoted his entire life to making that experientially accessible to whomever he met. He started a global movement that has yet to see its limit.
Think of the Dalai Lama. Buddhism is a way of being.
You didn’t need to learn rituals, recite authoritative scriptures or master the intricacies of theology. You just needed to tune into your experience, observe your mind until you transcended it and come to the realization that you are one with it all, that you are the space, or context, out of which everything occurs.
Buddha was a crown prince with an overprotective father who shielded him from the ugly side of life. Siddhartha wined and dined with a profusion of dancing girls. Anything he wanted, he got instantly. Yet he was still not satisfied. One day, he came across a sick man, then an old decrepit man, and finally a dead corpse being carried off. Siddhartha came to the shocking realization that everything he was taught to believe in was phony.
Siddhartha chose to drop out, leaving his lovely wife and newborn son in the night, knowing they would be well cared for. He had to find the truth at any price, hinted at by the sannyasins he had met earlier who had dropped out, and told him of another way.
Accordingly, Siddhartha followed the path of asceticism until he became skin and bones, and yet he still couldn’t arrive at the truth. Being a genius and very well-educated, he wandered off from his companions, took food from a maiden and sat under a banyan tree until he would find both the truth about suffering, and the end of suffering.
As a would be king, Siddhartha dreamt of a society in which enlightenment was everyone’s birthright. To do this, he would need to awaken, himself, and then find a way to catalyze that awakening in others. Not only that, Siddhartha would need to teach a generation of Indians so well that they would, in turn, teach others.
Siddhartha took anyone who wanted to follow him as a beggar. They simply needed to shave their hair and put on an ochre robe. They would follow and listen, forever asking questions. They would consider, not only what he said, but how he said it, and to whom. They would even reach toward the possibility of a silent, wordless transmission, as found in Zen.
The Buddha had the good fortune to be accompanied by men with flawless minds who remembered what he said in intricate detail. He created a mission statement upon his deathbed: Suffering, and the end of suffering. He kept it simple in the Four Noble Truths, and the Eightfold Path. All of us can count to at least ten. In doing this, he set the stage for the world’s first universal “religion.”
The institution of enlightenment within India had a profound impact upon South Asian civilization, ultimately transforming East Asia, and to a considerable extent, all the world. This process was accelerated by a young emperor, Ashoka, who, sick of the futility of conquest, decided to take up Buddhism for himself and institutionalize its principles.
Ashoka sent out missionaries to Sri Lanka, Southeast Asia, China and even the Mediterranean, which had become relevant after Alexander the Great’s attempted invasion. Buddhism had started as a dialogue and most of the sutras are in dialogue form, which makes them easier to remember. Truth is always anchored in experience. The ideal emerged to be “omniperspectival,” to recognize and honor every point of view.
Centuries later, Nalanda, in North India, was built as a major university where people all over the known world, including China, would come to learn. It would last from the 400’s C.E. to the 1200’s C.E. People learned the dialectic, very similar to that of Socrates, to an exquisitely fine degree. They would polish their expertise with vigorous debates as a public spectacle, competing for actual prizes.
The great Anglo-American philosopher, Alan Watts, who popularized Zen Buddhism, taught that Buddhism stripped Hinduism down to its bare essentials. It could then be understood by anyone, and transcend the borders of the Indus River Valley civilization.
You will hear of karma, dharma and reincarnation. However, Buddha redefined them in broader terms that might apply to anyone. Karma simply met you create what is happening. Dharma went beyond caste to your personal mission or destiny. Reincarnation was no longer dreaded, but something that could be transcended in a single lifetime.
Buddhism readily adapted to wherever it went, starting with China and Southeast Asia, Tibet and Japan and finally America. Each country and civilization got its essentials and reinterpreted it within its own cultural framework. When you realize that Buddhism is really an educational system for enlightenment, this makes sense.
When we look at the great religious traditions, we find that Buddhism has inspired less wars, armed conflict or violence than almost any other faith. Granted, we recently see exceptions, such as in Sri Lanka and Myanmar. However, the long-term trend since Ashoka threw down his sword has been peace, noninjury, a recognition that all life is sacred and every human incarnation an incomparable opportunity.
The key lies in Buddha’s focus on suffering, and the means to alleviate it. Buddha never promised to eliminate physical pain. Rather, he focused on the mental and spiritual discomfort which make pain all the worse.
For example, a mother threw her dead son at Buddha’s feet, asking him to raise him from the dead. Buddha turned to her and asked her to go to every house in her village and find a family that hadn’t lost a member. She did, and of course, ended up following him.
Buddhism delivers peace in a way that could profit the Abrahamic religions, which all use “Peace” as their greeting. This has to do with its methodology to have people effectively deal with their monkey minds.
When the mind is still, you become peaceful with a powerful presence. You need not resort to violence. To the enlightened mind, violence, itself, is actually a form of weakness.
Siddhartha encouraged his followers to continuously question him as a way of learning. They were not to take his word as authority. They were not to “believe” in anything he said. They were encouraged to experientially prove their path to the very end of their lives.
Buddha was not born in the priestly class, but rather as a warrior and ruler. He had a very practical edge keener than most any other spiritual master. He made careful observations at a very deep level. He early on saw the interrelatedness of all things, which Thich Nhat Hanh calls INTERBEING. He thereby anticipated systems theory and quantum physics.
The Dalai Lama, in The Universe within an Atom, maintained that if a Buddhist tenet conflicts with contemporary science, it should be rejected. However, he also suggested that Buddhism, itself, is an inner science that perfectly complements the West’s empirical tradition. As I learned from Werner Erhard, deeply influenced by Zen, “Allow that which is to BE.”
You may be either Theistic, or Nontheistic in your orientation. You may prefer a personalized view of reality, or an impersonal view. You may prefer to think of “God” in the first, second or third person: “I,” “You,” or “It.” This will depend to a large degree on whichever faith tradition you were brought up.
In any case, we are all talking about the same God, our Source, the Supreme Self.
NONES, agnostics and atheists resonate to Buddhism because of its experiential, nondogmatic, pragmatic character. Why try to believe in God when you can immediately experience “It”? For many people, meditation is the fastest way to a direct hit. While psychoactive drugs have their uses, they are better as a means of opening up to the Transcendent than a means to sustain the experience.
Buddhism goes with any religion, because, at heart, it is profoundly educational and therapeutic. It shows you in very elegant terms how to go within and make contact. You can do this as a Christian, Muslim, Jewish Person or humanist.
It needn’t destroy your faith. Rather, it can illuminate your own tradition and make it real in a way it never was before. Very often, Westerners who go into Eastern philosophy and religion go back to their own Abrahamic tradition… only transformed. For example, I am a Universalist who finds my “home” on the interfaith map as a Christian / Hindu, or Hindu / Christian. While I have implicit faith in the Person of Christ, I am convinced that India has by far the best map of reality.
Youth may also resonate with Buddha, because he never claimed to be a god. He dedicated his life to empowering you to come to the same realization as he did. He laid it all out step-by-step. He was a learner, just as we are learners. Siddhartha Gautama didn’t become the Buddha (The Awoken One) to separate himself from us, but so that we could become one with him.
You will find great delight in studying Buddhism, either through courses, books and lectures, or through actual meditation and spiritual community, the Buddhist sangha’s. Have no fear. If your faith is well-grounded, it will never disappear. Rather, it will become a much deeper part of you and be immeasurably enriched by your personal encounter with Buddha.