Alfred North Whitehead said that Buddhism is not so much a religion as a philosophy. Here is its root teaching, the Four Noble Truths:
- Life is suffering.
- Suffering is caused by desire.
- To stop suffering, you must cut off desire.
- Desire can be cut off by following Buddhism’s Noble Eightfold Path: right intention, right resolve, right speech, right livelihood, right action, right effort, right mindfulness, and right meditation.
Notice there’s nothing about god here, or creation, or the fate of the soul, or life after death. There is only the nature of our life here, now.
Different schools of Buddhism have emphasized different aspects of the path. The Theravada emphasizes individual renunciation and monasticism. Mahayana believers say that we all need to help one another toward enlightenment. There is the Vajrayana of Tibet and Mongolia, which invokes the aid of spirits and gods, which are – after all – manifestations of our own minds. There is also Zen, whose practitioners defeat their own minds and end by living in the moment perfectly.
I love reading about Buddhism. I have a large collection of Buddhist texts: the Sutras, ancient and modern explanatory texts, collections of koans, translations of Tibetan scriptures. I can quote them endlessly, and I sound very wise and mysterious when I do.
But I’m a fraud.
A Bhutanese monk named Dzongsar Jamyang Khentse wrote a book a few years ago entitled “What Makes You Not A Buddhist.” He explains in great detail that Buddhism is not vegetarianism, or non-violence, or a method of interior decoration or flower arrangement. It is a way of life, a way of thought.
Well, sometimes I’m a Buddhist and sometimes I’m not.
I am sincerely sick and tired of the Wheel of Life and Death. I long for Nirvana, which is not extinction, and which is not not extinction. (See, I’ve read the Heart Sutra.)
But there is a special Buddhist condemnation for people like me, who read and quote, but who don’t follow the path. I paraphrase the following story (which I believe I read in “Zen Flesh, Zen Bones”:
In a monastery there was a monk named Bright Star. He was the most learned, and had read the most books of study and teaching, and the other monks were in awe of his erudition.
One day suddenly he died.
A few weeks later, the abbot saw a stirring in the garden outside his window. It was the spirit of Bright Star, moaning and suffering, begging for release from his punishment.
I understand. Reading is not Buddhism. Learning is not Buddhism.
But I’ve had glimmerings of understanding – what the Japanese call “kensho,” the lesser enlightenment. You know? Those quick moments in which you almost understand how the universe really works.
So maybe there is still hope for me.