Sunday, February 13, 2011

10 Myths About Buddhism

Greta Christina at AlterNet got me thinking a bit with her piece on 10 Myths and Truths About Atheism.  As a Buddhist, I sometimes get to field the odd question and assumption, and some of them are sometimes a bit off base.  I don't pretend to be a historian, but I wanted to tackle the subject as an exercise in understanding.

1:   Buddhism is a Pagan religion.
There are a lot of gods in many Buddhist practices.  In part, because Buddhism doesn't replace native beliefs where it finds itself.  Siddhartha is a revered figure, but the Buddha is the Enlightened one, and while revered, he considered himself a teacher, and encouraged those who set upon the Eightfold Path to reject anyone's infallibility, including his own.  One of the features of Buddhism, is that it need not take the place of native beliefs, it is a philosophy that seeks to place itself in context with where it finds root. Gods have a place in Buddhist teachings, in a dualistic fashion.  If anything, gods have a place as guideposts, and even as warning signs.

Gods tend to have specific purposes and duties.  They are often locked into those roles.  While revered figures, they are likewise unable to break from those roles.  Gods, despite their divinity, are unable to become truly Enlightened, and in some ways, locked into those roles, by their own conception, they are to be pitied.  They are locked into their roles in Celestial order.  Protectors perhaps, guides perhaps, but ultimately as locked into the cycles of death and rebirth as anyone else, albeit, with different roles to play. It is in those roles that they are locked, and unable to break free of those roles, they are figures that can be revered, but ultimately, they are forces to respect, that are lessons in the dangers of acceptance of the cycles of suffering and rebirth.

2:   All Buddhists believe in reincarnation.
While many sects place an emphasis on the cycle of birth and rebirth, that is hardly representative of all Buddhists. Shin Buddhists tend to concentrate on the now, as opposed to the next existence.  Buddhism has had 2500 years or so of development and divergence in practice.  Look at the profusion of ministries of Christianity, and add half a millennium of teachings, and you have an idea of how disparate the many schools of Buddhist thought can be. Reincarnation is an important part of many teachings, but that is likewise in context to actions that are preformed now.  What Buddhists do all share is the universal truth of impermanence and the interconnectedness of all beings. As you awaken to that truth, so can we exercise our awareness and compassion. Compassion in the realization that no being is higher or lower, but the same and interconnected with ourselves. Reincarnation doesn't affect that basic connectedness.

3:  All Buddhists are vegetarians.
While many monks maintain a vegetarian diet, anyone who has known a Tibetan Buddhist can tell you, that while vegetarian diet is revered, it also isn't always possible.  Theravada teachings highlight that the Buddha accepted any food offered as alms, including meat.  The prohibition against meat comes from actively seeking animals to be slaughtered for your consumption. It also comes from the concept of Right livlihood--to not engage in trades or occupations which, directly or indirectly, result in the harm of other living beings.  The business of weapons, trafficking of human beings, meat, intoxicants, and poison are all considered to be harmful.  Mahayana practice is much more strict on the point--in some cases, depending on the Sutras taught, some reject the idea that the Buddha ate meat or permitted it.  Some attribute that to the rise of Chinese monasteries--such institutions meant food prepared specifically for consumption of the monks, and that would mean that animals would be brought in specifically for slaughter.  The Vajrayana traditions sometimes allow followers to consume alcohol and meat, and the Ganachakra prescribe both.  While the Dalai Lama himself promotes a vegetarian diet, he himself partakes meat when offered.  The Japanese schools likewise have de-emphasized vegetarianism as well.

4:  Buddhists are pessimists with all that suffering.
The Four Nobles Truths can be interpreted by many to be dang pessimistic.

1: Life mans suffering
2: The origin of suffering is attachment.
3: The cessation of suffering is attainable.
4: There is a path to the cessation of suffering.

You will note, that "suffering" is in all four of those things.  That, on the surface, seems to be a LOT of emphasis on suffering and pain.

Yet, in that, we have a path from that. The First Noble Truth is that we all suffer. Pain is an inevitable part of life. Pain, sickness, heartache, frustration, disappointment.  While we seek to supplant that pain--and all living things do that--those remedies for pain are impermanent in nature.  Be that sex, be that relationships, be that drugs, be that eating, be that satisfaction in our trade, all those moments of pleasure are transient.

The Second Noble Truth refers to our attachment to these impermanent things as a remedy for pain. Often that very search leads to more pain, with craving and clinging to these impermanent things, whose loss is inevitable, including our attachment to the illusion of the self.  One of my teachers explained it simply: expectation leads to disappointment.  Our attachments and expectations can lead us down a path to pain.

The Third Noble Truth is where things get away from the heaviness of suffering.  There is hope to unshackle yourself from cycles of pain and suffering, some of your own making, some of the general nature of existence. By unmaking those attachments, and reliance on the transient and impermanent, we can overcome thhe causes of suffering. Free of worries and cares, we can detach from the impermanent.

The Fourth Noble Truth lays down the path to the end of suffering, between the extremes of hedonism and self mortification, we can free ourselves from those cycles of suffering. It takes work, it takes dedication, it takes practice, but we are ultimately responsible for our own path, and we can choose to do that.  In the end, our path is our choice.  It's a very empowering sort of statement, and one that is sometimes equally scary and hopeful at the same time.

5:  Buddhists are all pacifists.
Yes, Buddhism holds a deep regard for all life. Murder, violence, war, all things to be rejected. Yet, Buddhists have fought in many conflicts over the centuries. In 621 CE, the monks of Shaolin fought to help establish the Tang Dynasty. Tibetan Buddhists formed strategies with the Mongols to assist in their victories. Zen Buddhists in Japan colluded with the samurai culture to dominate the nation. and was certainly involved in the rise of militarism in the 1930s to the rise of the Japanese prior to WWII, not just excusing the killing, but raising funds for manufacture of weapons and tools of war.

Dhammananda wrote: Buddhists should not be the aggressors even in protecting their religion or anything else. They must try their best to avoid any kind of violent act. Sometimes they may be forced to go to war by others who do not respect the concept of the brotherhood of humans as taught by the Buddha.  They may be called upon to defend their country from external aggression, and as long as they have not renounced the worldly life, they are duty-bound to join the the struggle for peace and freedom. Under these circumstances, they cannot be blamed for becoming soldiers or being involved in defence. However, if everyone were to follow the advice of the Buddha, there would be no reason for war to take place in this world. It is the duty of every cultured person to find all possible ways and means to settle disputes in a peaceful manner, without declaring war to kill his or her fellow human beings.

There is the story of bandits killed by rinpoche who realized the intent to pirate and slay others, who were killed to prevent not just to protect those under his charge, but to prevent the pirate from going on to bring torment to others and his own self for those acts.

While the teachings of Buddhism hold deep regard for life, out of compassion for all things, it is like any other religion, and there are those who have used its teachings to justify a lot of things over the years, including war and violence.  Ultimately, that decision has more to do with those who choose to do so. As a bouncer, I justified my actions in putting folks down hard to protecting folks from harm. It was my decision, and it's still a struggle.  In preventing harm, and keeping others from harming others, I feel that I did right not only by my patrons, but by those who would harm them.  In stopping things before they could get ugly, or uglier, I served a greater purpose.  Justification and self delusion?  Possibly, and that is the struggle to walk the Middle Path.  While many Buddhists hold that violence is never an option, there are those who hold that their actions can prevent greater harm.

6:  Buddhists are above sex and scandals.

Buddhist monks and nuns have been involved in all sorts of scandals and escapades, pretty much since the beginning of monastic practice.  While the concepts of "Do not engage in sexual misconduct" is strong in teaching and practice, there have historically been LOTS of folks who tossed that right out the window.  Even the concept of Buddhist monks being forbidden to marry is hardly universal--Pure Land Buddhist in particular in Japan--as the founder of the Jodo Shinshu school married, and authorized priests to marry as well.  Celibacy in the monastic orders is hardly universal.

In modern times, across China, Japan, Tibet, Thailand, and even in America, Buddhists have been involved in scandals involving sex.  People are people, and people often do dumb things.  Buddhists are no different in that.  There have been monks who have abused nuns in monastaries. There have been monks who have abused lay people--men and women.  Charges of gross misogyny can be leveled against many temples and priests, not just in Asia, and not just in ancient history. The recent revelation of Eido Shimano's misconduct with students is hardly the first such scandal.  Monasteries in China and Japan both have been guilty of prostituting nuns, and covered up, or excused.  The lack of response by those in a leadership role in those monasteries is just as damning as the lack of response and dodging of the Vatican in response to charges of sexual misconduct by their own priests.  Much as folks like to brush these things under the rug, they have occurred, and it is something that is still a danger.  Buddhists are far from perfect, and the idea that Buddhists are above such things by dint of the nature of the practice and teachings is dangerous.  Dangerous to the folks who leave themselves open to coercion, dangerous to the practices and temples where such things occur, and dangerous to those who want to ignore such misconduct.  That thinking involves giving credence to an illusion that Buddhism is above such things, and illusions are something that Buddhists try to strip away from themselves.  As in any practice or teaching situation, there are those who will try to use their position for personal gain, and for personal gratification.  Even those who cloak themselves in respectability as teachers and priests. Buddhists are not above such things, and shedding light on these scandals brings the antiseptic of truth to ugliness that some would prefer be swept under the rug.

7: Buddhist are serious and can't enjoy life.
Hotei sort of dispels that. Hotei is the chubby, laughing monk that is popularized with lots of statues that are often mislabeled as The Laughing Buddha.  Hotei was a monk from the ninth century in China, from the Chen school--the precursor to Zen--and has been venerated and commemorated as a popular figure of the zest that Buddhists can have for life.

While Buddhist practice does discourage extremes, one of the enduring facets is the humor of nearly all my teachers over the years. The Buddha himself was often depicted as smiling and and cheerful.  Open heart and kindness are virtues to be celebrated in nearly every culture, and Buddhism is no different. Humor is a great tool, for pricking self delusion, and exhibiting compassion.  Buddhists can drone on and on, but the greatest of teachers keep a zest for life, and instilling calm and comfort to those around them.  Laughter and joy are to be shared, and its importance can be found in the Patisambhidamagga:

Those who are filled with smiles and laughter will perfect the virtues. That is smiling wisdom. Those who are filled with smiles and laughter will attain the path and the direct knowledges, and they will quickly realize the ultimate meaning, Nirvana.

Compassion, as a virtue, means to feel the pain of others. To realize that we are all connected and one. That leads not just to wanting to alleviate their pain, but liking others. Understanding others.  Seeking to increase their happiness and welfare. Laughter and sharing it is one great way to do so.  Yes, Buddhists can natter on about suffering and responsibility and duties, but at heart, you learn to like people more. Like yourself, like others, and that spills out in lots of ways beyond giving alms to the poor.

8:  Buddhists don't believe anything truly exists.
Maya, illusion, is an important concept in Buddhist thought. We cling to many illusions, build entire scaffolds of reason to defend many illusions, and there are many schools of thought to the underlying nature of reality.  Perception of reality are based on preconceptions and many of the tools that Buddhist bring to contemplation are designed to strip our preconceptions away.

I like how the Dalai Lama puts the answer to the question of Do Objects Exist?

"Analysis does not contradict the mere existence of the object. Phenomena do indeed exist, but not in the way we think.

The underpinnings of reality are a debate within oneself, on understanding the nature of conventional truth, and ultimate truth. It's a conversation that involves your own understanding, and is part of the journey we take to understand ourselves, our place in things, and how we relate to that place. In the end, that's something we need to look at, and reason out ourselves.

9:  Buddhist teachers and priests are final arbiters of what is right.
While teachers and many figures have arisen to help show folks the way, the Buddha himself had a simple thought on this.

Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it. Do not believe in anything simply because it is spoken and rumored by many. Do not believe in anything simply because it is found written  in your religious books. Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders. Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations. But after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it.

Ultimately, every Buddhist is the arbiter of their own path. While others can show you what has worked for them, and understand the hurdles that confront you, it is up to you to make your own leaps, and your own path.  Teachers can help, priests can give you tools that have worked for them, and others, but in the end, it is up to you to figure out how to use them best. Teachers are resources, respected, but in the end, you have to make that journey on your own. You are the final arbiter in your path, and what works for you, may not work for everyone else, or visa versa. You are the final arbiter of what is right, and you have that responsibility to forge that on your own.

10: Karma is the cosmic balancing force.
Karma's root in Sanskrit is simple. Action. Karma as a concept is often misinterpreted as a way for the Universe to balance good and evil.  You earn good karma or bad karma.  That is an interpretation that has led to a lot of justifications over the years.  In India and China, it is used as a justification to not help those who are less fortunate, because of the belief that their actions in a previous life got them to their current straits, and it would be meddling with the Wheel's purpose to assist them.  That the Universe doles out suffering and pain in this life to correct your past mistakes.  That bad things happen to you because of past misdeeds.

Karma is simpler than that. Karma is simply action. Cause and effect. Actions have reactions. All our actions ripple out with reactions, and those reactions ripple out further.  You own your actions. You are responsible for them.  You are responsible for your intentions and motivations as well.  The Golden Rule to not do things that you wouldn't want done to yourself is hardly a concept that is specific to Buddhism. Every mainstream religion teaches that your actions have consequences. They differ sometimes on how those actions can reverberate, but in Buddhism, karma is an often misunderstood concept of cosmic balancing.

While many get caught up in the "good" and "bad" concepts of karma, ultimately karma is a simple concept. You are responsible for your actions. You should understand how your actions will impact others. Your own motivations for those actions are important. Saving  a woman from drowning can be seen by many as a good act, but if you did it so you could grope her, less so good on you.  Ultimately, karma is simply a concept that your actions have weight and consequence, and if you are responsible, you will bring awareness to your actions, and be aware of your motivations. Whether or not those are for good or ill, that is dependent on you.  How those actions affect others, that is something to consider.  Not just because you want only good things for yourself, but for others as well.  Karma can get all knotted up with interpretations on their impact on your path, but it is less about how it will affect your next life, than how it affects others, now.  Actions that help others radiate out.  Good will shown can help others find compassion.  Saving a man who is starving helps them now, and can help him realize that he can help others later.  Harming others now, or simply annoying the crap out of them in traffic ripples out as well.

While there is a huge amount of teaching on the concept of karma and reincarnation, those teachings pale to the very simple concept that your actions have consequence, and being mindful of your actions, and motivations is important now, and to others.  Those discussions are important for many, but getting lost in them can detract from simple practice of mindfulness and responsibility.  Actions are important. Actions have consequence.  Be mindful of them, and the rest is a lot easier to sift through.

Cross posted to The Motley Moose

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