The Buddhist Approach
The fundamental teachings of Gautama (Buddha), as it is now being made plain to us by study of original sources, is clear and simple and in the closest harmony with modern ideas. It is beyond all dispute the achievement of one of the most penetrating intelligences the world has ever known.
H. G. Wells, British historian and writer
During the introduction to the first Buddhist course I attended, the teacher said, "The Buddha instructed his disciples, 'Do not accept my teachings merely out of respect for me, but analyze and check them the way that a goldsmith analyzes gold, by rubbing, cutting and melting it.' You are intelligent people and should think about what you hear during this course. Don't accept it blindly."
I relaxed. "Good," I thought, "No one will pressure me to believe anything or ostracize me if I don't." During the course, we were encouraged to discuss and debate the topics. I appreciated this approach, for it accorded with my propensity to analyze and explore issues from various viewpoints.
This is the Buddhist approach. Our intelligence is respected and encouraged. There is no dogma to follow blindly. In fact, we are free to choose whichever of the Buddha's teachings suit us now, and leave the rest aside for the time being, without criticizing them. The Buddha's teachings are similar to a huge buffet dinner. We may like one dish, someone else may enjoy another. There is no obligation to eat everything, nor must we choose what our friend chooses.
Likewise, one subject or meditation technique in the Buddha's teachings may appeal to us, while another may be important to our friend. We should learn and practice according to our own ability at the present moment, so that we improve the quality of our lives. In this way, we'll gradually come to understand and appreciate teachings that seemed difficult or unimportant to us initially.
This open approach is possible because the Buddha described our human experience and how to improve it. He didn't create our situation, nor did he invent the path to enlightenment. He discussed our experience, the workings of our minds, and realistic and practical ways to deal with daily problems. Describing our difficulties and their causes, the Buddha also explained the way to eliminate them. He told of our great human potential and how to develop it. It's up to us to ascertain through logic and our own experience the truth of what he taught. In this way, our beliefs will be well-founded and stable.
Buddhism centers not so much upon the Buddha as a person, or his followers, the Sangha, as upon the Dharma, the teachings and realizations. Shakyamuni Buddha, who lived 2,500 years ago in India, wasn't always a fully enlightened being. He was once an ordinary person like us, with the same problems and doubts we have. By following the path to enlightenment, he became a Buddha.
Similarly, each of us has the ability to become fully compassionate, wise and skillful. The gap between the Buddha and us isn't unbridgeable, for we too can become Buddhas. When we create the causes of enlightenment by accumulating positive potential and wisdom, then we'll automatically become enlightened. Many beings have already done this. Although we often speak of the Buddha, referring to Shakyamuni Buddha, in fact there are many enlightened beings.
Shakyamuni Buddha is respected because he purified his mindstream of every obscuration and developed his good qualities to their fullest extent. The Buddha has done what we aspire to do, and his teachings, as outlined in this book, show us the path to overcome our limitations and develop our full potential. He has offered his wisdom to us and we are free to accept it or not. The Buddha doesn't demand our faith and allegiance, nor are we condemned if we hold different views.
The Buddha advised us to be very practical and to the point, without getting distracted by useless speculation. He gave the example of a man wounded by a poisoned arrow. If, before consenting to have the arrow removed, the man insisted on knowing the name and occupation of the person who shot it, the brand of the arrow, the site where it was manufactured and what type of bow was used, he would die before learning the answers. The crucial thing for him is to treat the present wound and prevent further complications.
Similarly, while we're entangled in the cycle of our physical and mental problems, if we get side-tracked by useless intellectual speculation about irrelevant subjects that we can't possibly answer now, we're foolish. It's far wiser to get on with what's important.
To overcome our limitations and develop our inner beauty, there is a step-by-step process to follow. First we listen or read in order to learn a subject. Then we reflect and think about it. We use logic to analyze it, and examine how it corresponds with our own experiences in life and with what we see in the lives of people around us. Finally, we integrate this new understanding into our being, so that it becomes part of us.
The essence of Buddha's teachings is simple and can be practiced in our daily lives: we should help others as much as possible, and when that isn't possible, we should avoid harming them.
This is compassion and wisdom. This is common sense. It's not mystical or magical, nor is it irrational or dogmatic. All of the Buddha's teachings are geared to enable us to develop wisdom and compassion and integrate them into our daily lives. Common sense isn't just discussed intellectually, it's lived.
The Buddha's teachings are called "the middle way" becaue they are free from extremes. Just as self-indulgence is an extreme, so is self-mortification. The purpose of the Dharma is to help us relax and enjoy life, although this isn't in the usual sense of sleeping and going to parties. We learn how to relax destructive emotions and attitudes that prevent us from being happy. We understand how to enjoy life without clinging, obsession and worry.
There is an old idea that to be religious or "holy" we must deny ourselves happiness. That is incorrect. Everyone wants to be happy, and it would be wonderful if we all were. But, it's helpful if we understand what happiness is and what it isn't.
In Buddhism we learn about the various types of happiness we're capable of experiencing. We then search for the causes of true happiness, so we can ensure that our efforts will bring the result we desire. Finally, we create the causes for happiness. Happinessand misery as welldon't come our way by chance or by accident, nor are they due to our placating some higher being. As does everything in the universe, happiness arises due to specific causes. If we create the causes for happiness, the resultant happiness will come. This is a systematic process of cause and effect that will be explained in later chapters.
The goal in Buddhism is simplicity, clarity and spontaneity. A person with these qualities is extraordinary. With simplicity, we leave behind hypocrisy and selfishness, thus letting impartial love and compassion grow in our minds. With clarity we abandon the confusion of ignorance, replacing it with direct perception of reality. With spontaneity, we no longer are influenced by impulsive thoughts, but naturally know the most appropriate and effective ways to benefit others in any situation.
By developing wisdom and compassion, we'll be more content and will know what's important in our lives. Instead of battling the world with a dissatisfied mind that continually wants more and better, we'll transform our attitude so that whatever environment we're in, we'll be happy and will be able to make our lives meaningful.
Some people think that Buddhism teaches passivity and withdrawal from other people. This is not the correct understanding of the Buddha's teachings. Although it's advantageous to distance ourselves from wrong conceptions and misdirected emotions, that doesn't mean we live without energy and purpose. In fact, it's the opposite! Free from confusion, we'll be brighter and more alert. We'll genuinely care about others. Although we'll be able to accept whatever situations we encounter, we'll actively work to benefit those around us.
THREE FAULTY POTS
The Buddha used the analogy of three faulty pots to explain how to remove obstructions to learning. The first pot is upside-down. Nothing can be poured inside it. This is analogous to reading Dharma books while watching television. We're so distracted that very little of what we read goes inside our minds. The second faulty pot has a hole in the bottom. Something may go inside, but it doesn't stay there. We may read the book with attention, but if a friend later asks us what the chapter was about, we can't remember. The third defective pot is dirty. Even if we pour fresh clean milk inside and it stays there, it becomes undrinkable. This is similar to filtering what we read through our own preconceptions and ideas. We won't understand the subject correctly because it has been polluted with our misinterpretations.
It may be difficult to set aside our preconceptions, because sometimes we aren't aware that our ideas are prejudiced. One suggestion is to try to understand each topic in its own context, without re-interpreting it so it fits into another system we've already learned. In this way, we'll view it freshly, with an open mind. When we have understood the Dharma well in its own context, then we'll be more successful in seeing how it corresponds with psychology, science, or another philosophy or religion.
This book isn't written by a scholar for a group of intellectuals, but as one person sharing with another. We'll explore not only what the Buddha taught but also how it applies to our lives. To do this, we needn't call ourselves "Buddhists," for the search for happiness through living a meaningful life is universal. We'll try to look at our lives with common sense and clarity, as human beings seeking happiness and wisdom. This is the Buddhist approach.
1 Where Is Happiness:
Looking closely at our experience
Buddhism describes our problems and sufferings, their causes, the path to liberate ourselves from them, and the resultant state of bliss from having ceased all undesirable experiences. Buddhism is an approach to life that helps us to act effectively and compassionately. It contains practical techniques which can remedy our disturbing attitudes and daily problems.
In the course of one day, we experience many emotions. Some emotions, such as genuine love and compassion, are valuable. Others, attachment, anger, closed-mindedness, pride and jealousy, disturb our mental peace and make us act in ways that disturb others. The chapters in this section will examine these disturbing attitudes and explore some antidotes to pacify and transform them.
All disturbing attitudes are based upon the innate assumption that happiness and pain come from outside of us. It seems that other people and things make us happy or miserable. Thus, we rely on external objects that we contact through our five sensesseeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touchingto make us happy. We have the notion that happiness is located "out there," in that object, place or person. Consequently, we try to procure certain things and be near certain people. Similarly, we try to avoid all objects and people that make us unhappy, because it appears our unhappiness is coming from them.
The view that happiness and unhappiness come from external things and people puts us in a predicament, because we can never completely control the people and things around us. We try to obtain the possessions we want, but we never have enough. Continuously disappointed, we search for more and better of whatever it is we think will bring us happiness. But do we know one rich person who is totally satisfied? Do we know one person who is completely content with his friends and relatives?
Likewise, we think that whenever we have a problem, it's due to an external person or thing. We attribute our emotional problems to the way our parents treated us when we were young. We blame our present dissatisfaction on our employers, employees, relatives or teachers. We wish that the people around us would learn to treat us better. Others aren't what we want them to be, and we are constantly frustrated in our attempts to make them change.
Our lives can become very complicated as we try to make the world be what we want it to be. Unfortunately, the world doesn't cooperate! Our plans and dreams are only partially actualized, if at all. Although we may temporarily succeed in influencing others' actions, we can't dictate what they feel and think. When we do get what we want, we're ecstatic; when we don't, we're disappointed and depressed. Like emotional yo-yos, we go up and down according to whatever person or object we meet. We need only look at the number of moods we've had today to confirm this.
However, once we check our daily life experiences we'll find that happiness and goodness don't exist in external objects and people, nor do unhappiness and unpleasantness. If they did then all of us should perceive and react to things in the same way, since we'd be perceiving what is "out there," independent of ourselves.
But we don't all like the same people or things: one person likes pop music while another doesn't. Nor do we always enjoy something: as youngsters we liked comic books, but as adults we may find them boring. This shows that our experiences with people or things depend on our way of viewing and relating to them.
Thus, by changing our interpretations and the way in which we relate to things and people, we can change our experience of them. We can recognize our projections, over- and underestimations of things and people, and then correct these misconceptions. In this way we'll relate to things more realistically and will be more satisfied. By abandoning the misconceptions that lead to attachment, anger, closed-mindedness, pride and jealousy, we'll relate to other people and to possessions in a more balanced way.