The What and How of Buddhism

Photo on 9-14-13 at 10.11 PMSo I’m sitting here in Calgary at the home of Kayla de Both who arranged my trip here with Turbo the dog and Karma the cat. I’m supposed to meet Heather, my ride to Edmonton, some time this morning. But for now I’m just hanging out.

I left Tassajara with a cold that had been making its way around the monastery. It was still pretty bad when I arrived in Canada and it made my experience of the retreat yesterday a little less comfortable than it would have been otherwise. Still, it was a great little retreat. I’m glad I came.

Yesterday Tim Sampson, a Zen teacher here in Calgary who I met in Tassajara last month, brought up the question of which question was more important; What is Buddhism? or How do I embody the principles of Buddhism?

I think they’re both important. I agree that the “how” question is more urgent in a lot of ways. But I also think we need to find a way to make clear just what Buddhism is. Otherwise why would we want to embody its principles?

Often Buddhism is lumped in with the so-called “Great Religions of the World.” These are usually thought of as Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism. There are other religions that are unaffiliated with these four, of course, but these are by far the biggest in terms of adherents. Christianity and Islam stem from Judaism. And while some would say that Buddhism is an offshoot of Hinduism, that’s not really correct. Buddha was often responding to Hindu ideas because that was the major religion in India of his day. But he was not a believer in Hinduism the way Jesus was a Jew and Mohammed was a believer in the Jewish tradition and its concept of God.

Some say Buddhism is more of a philosophy than a religion. But Gautama Buddha predates the time when the category of philosophy became clearly separate from that of religion. There definitely are religious aspects to Buddhism that are not present in most of what we categorize as philosophy. There are rituals, practices, temples, priests, and so on.

I do not consider myself a religious person. I do not consider myself to be a member of clergy. And yet I am a Zen Buddhist monk/priest. I went through an ordination process that was similar in many ways to what Christian ministers go through. Yet in other ways it was fundamentally different.

I was never indoctrinated into a system of belief, which I think is a huge difference. Gudo Nishijima said that the object of worship in Buddhism is reality. The Dalai Lama said that if science contradicts Buddhist belief we should side with science. This is very different from what most religions teach.

I think it’s important to clarify what Buddhism is because it helps to explain why we would want to follow its practices. For example, Buddhism has a code of moral behavior expressed as the Ten Precepts. These sound like the Judeo/Christian/Islamic Ten Commandments. We’re told in both sets of rules not to kill, steal, lie and so on. But the Mosaic Commandments are backed up by the threat of punishment by God if we break them. The Ten Precepts are not.

Of course some Buddhists say that we’ll incur “bad karma” if we break the precepts. And sometimes that sounds a bit supernatural, like some kind of force within the universe is tallying up our good and bad deeds much the way God is said to do. But that’s a simplistic view.

The precepts are less like rules from Almighty God and more like recommendations about how to have a better life. If you follow them you create less trouble for yourself and others and so are able to have a more peaceful and stable life. Life is actually more enjoyable when you do. It’s not that God punishes you for disobeying his orders. It’s more that you screw things up for yourself.

Someone asked yesterday if Buddhism wasn’t fundamentally a selfish practice. We sit and stare at walls in order to make ourselves feel better, but what do we do for the world? How do we help others? In fact, sitting and staring at walls to make ourselves feel better is how we help.

One of the four Bodhisattva Vows is to save all beings. It sounds ridiculous. Even Superman and Jesus Christ can’t save all beings. How can we possibly hope to?

But my friend Rob Robbins said it this way, “I vow to save all beings… from myself.” We recognize that we can’t go and single handedly stop the wars in Somalia or the floods in Colorado. But we can take steps to insure that we, ourselves, don’t add unnecessarily to the miseries of the world. If we don’t understand ourselves, our efforts to help others can become confused and end up doing more harm than good. So we make the effort to save all beings from our own selfishness, greed and stupidity by trying to understand ourselves clearly. It’s like Jesus said; how can you see clearly to remove a speck from your brother’s eye when there’s a big old beam in your own eye?

If we understand what Buddhism is, we can establish reasons why to practice. Then the question of how to practice follows naturally.

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I’ll be speaking on the radio in Edmonton on Tuesday 7-8 p.m., MST, CJSR Radio, 88.5 FM in Edmonton, cjsr.com worldwide. People can phone in at 780.492.2577, ext 1 to comment or question. Or email tinybubblesradio@gmail.com, or tweet @bubblesradio.

On Wednesday there will be a talk and book signing. 7-8.30 p.m., Centennial Room, Stanley Milner Library, 7 Winston Churchill Square Edmonton, Alberta. Tickets $20 at the door or pre-buy by emailing kvitsh@gmail.com.

Also, be sure to sign up for the 3-day Zen retreat I will lead at Mt. Baldy Zen Center November 8-10. The info is all at this link!

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31 Responses

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  1. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote September 16, 2013 at 11:04 am | |

    The what and how of reality is more than it seems:

    http://www.themeasuringsystemofthegods.com/holographicuniverse.pdf

  2. revitjedi
    revitjedi September 16, 2013 at 11:15 am | |

    Edmonton isn’t on your “Event” web page.
    Going anywhere else while your in Canada?

  3. Heather
    Heather September 16, 2013 at 11:20 am | |

    Phone number for the radio show is:

    780.492.2577, ext. 1

  4. Amiga-Freak
    Amiga-Freak September 16, 2013 at 2:05 pm | |

    I often thought about the question whether Buddhism should be called a philosophy or a religion.

    In my opinion it’s more a philosophy than a religion. At least when you look back to it’s beginning.
    The “theory” of (Zen-)Buddhism which I encountered in various books, e.g. that there is no self and all things are essentially “empty”, etc., is IMHO nothing more than a set of philosophical beliefs. And you find actually a lot of them from other (western) philosophers. The matter of the self you can find with David Hume. And the idea that all things are “empty” you can find in the position of Nominalism regarding the “problem of universals”.

    If you call Buddhism a religion, then you have to call Stoicism and Pythagoreanism religions, too (actually Pythagoreanists even beliefed in a “wheel of rebirth” and wanted to escape it).
    But usually these movements are regarded as philosophical systems and Pythagoras is known as a mathematician and not as a founder of a religion.

    Also quite interesting:
    “Buddhism as Philosophy” , Mark Siderits, ISBN-10: 0872208737

  5. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote September 16, 2013 at 2:53 pm | |

    “The thing is, Mark, that any seemingly extraneous mental activity- thinking, daydreaming, planning etc- that may go on during zazen is actually doing something, right? These thoughts may come out of nowhere, but for them to be sustained we have to give them some kind of energy. So to truly do nothing we have to at least stop engaging those thoughts. Whether one chooses to take that energy to focus on something to return to, or just remove it from the pursuit of thought, is a matter of technique.” – Buddy

    I guess what I’m trying to say is, if you justify doing something, doing anything in any way, shape or form, Elvis has left the building.

    I’m not saying there’s no such thing as practice; as one of the ancestors said, it’s not that there is no practice, it’s that practice is undefiled. What does that mean?- it means that it’s not what I do, it’s what happens involuntarily. Nishijima speaks of a balancing of the two aspects of the autonomic nervous system; by definition this is the nervous system that operates outside of volition, outside of conscious control. So how do you balance that?-

    My say has been that there is a necessity in the relaxed movement of breath, there is a person of no rank going in and out of the holes in your face. That necessity brings aspects of being, physical and mental, to mind. You give yourself too much credit if you think you can do anything one way or the other. You don’t do yourself justice if you don’t allow yourself to experience your own necessity.

    Something I wrote not long ago:

    “Only the spontaneous occurrence of consciousness, impact, and feeling in response to the necessity of the current circumstance develops the stretch in existence as a function of well-being.

    Because the occurrence of consciousness, impact, and feeling is in the nature of beings, everyone realizes selfless activity in the course of their daily lives; because well-being depends in part on the stretch that is in existence as consciousness takes place, the activities and postures that lend themselves to the experience of stretch find their way into our lives.”

    I appreciate the opportunity to express myself, and thanks to our host. Glad you’re feeling better, Brad.

  6. buddy
    buddy September 16, 2013 at 5:26 pm | |

    Mark, I guess I find it ironic that you’re such a proponent of ‘do nothing’ Zen because- with all due respect- your descriptions of what goes on when you sit are the most convoluted that I’ve ever read. It seems like there’s an awful lot of doing-thinking-considering going on there.

  7. Fred
    Fred September 16, 2013 at 6:17 pm | |

    With all due respect Buddy, you’re the jackass looking in the well at the reflection of the moon.

  8. buddy
    buddy September 16, 2013 at 6:21 pm | |

    Ah good old Fred, wish I could say I missed you around these parts. Maybe your non-Self should mind its own business, huh?

  9. Fred
    Fred September 16, 2013 at 6:24 pm | |

    Maybe your non-Self should get on with saving the world and shut up.

  10. buddy
    buddy September 16, 2013 at 6:34 pm | |

    I’m done engaging you, Fred. From now on I’ll just skim past any comments you leave. At least you’ve abandoned your autistic Awakened Being façade and are speaking plainly from your heart.

  11. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote September 16, 2013 at 9:21 pm | |

    You’d be right about that, Buddy; the idea in my mind is to express the relationships I’m experiencing as plainly and as accurately as I can. It happens that some of the relationships require a certain level of complexity to describe accurately, or at least that’s how it’s been for me. I am teaching myself how to sit the lotus, because nobody else could.

    But I would have you bear in mind what Shunryu Suzuki said to Blanche Hartman, when she told him that she could now continue in mindfulness of her breath all day long: “Only zazen can sit zazen.”

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kxZ4MLZAziA

  12. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote September 16, 2013 at 9:24 pm | |

    Thanks, Fred, I am practicing as you and I agreed (because I have to, Buddy).

  13. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote September 17, 2013 at 8:22 am | |

    And thanks, Buddy, for calling our practice into question; my feet are to the fire this morning, and it feels good!

    “When you finally arrive at towering up like a wall miles-high, you will realize there are not so many things.” Yuanwu, in “Zen Letters”

  14. Fred
    Fred September 17, 2013 at 11:48 am | |

    Only the non-self can sit the non-self. Everything else is the ego masturbating.

    1. sri_barence
      sri_barence September 17, 2013 at 1:36 pm | |

      When the ego masturbates, what kind of porn does it watch? Enlightenment porn, of course!

  15. chongo
    chongo September 17, 2013 at 11:49 am | |

    Three points:

    1. Siddartha was unquestionably hindu. He was a member of the Brahmin caste and cast his cosmology/philosophy directly from hindu teachings. He was at was as least as “hindu” as Jesus was “Jewish” and to state otherwise is extremely disingenuous. In fact, it is basically posting hinduism as an inferior philosophy. and covering the roots of Buddhism.Not very Buddhist now, is it?

    2.” Life is actually more enjoyable when you do. It’s not that God punishes you for disobeying his orders. It’s more that you screw things up for yourself.”

    That’s just the same thing said with different words.

    3.”“I vow to save all beings… from myself.” That’s about as self centered as it gets. Anyway, is there any evidence that practicing zazen makes one a “better” person than, say volunteering with orphaned children?Or painting? Using this criteria, volunteering, painting, or agitating for political change are at least equal to sitting on your ass and staring at a wall, unless you are implying that people who practice zazen are superior to those who don’t. Sounds like a bog-standard religion to me.

  16. Fred
    Fred September 17, 2013 at 12:16 pm | |

    “Anyway, is there any evidence that practicing zazen makes one a “better” person than, say volunteering with orphaned children?Or painting?”

    Making oneself a better self is your criteria for sitting or doing tasks.

    It is not the reason for goaless sitting.

  17. chongo
    chongo September 17, 2013 at 1:15 pm | |

    “Making oneself a better self is your criteria for sitting or doing tasks.

    It is not the reason for goaless sitting.’

    According to Brad’s post, it is. In fact, it makes one “better” than any other religious practice and most other pursuits.

  18. sri_barence
    sri_barence September 17, 2013 at 1:43 pm | |

    Sometimes Ken Kessel JDPSN writes little poems for people who came to interviews during a retreat. Here’s the latest one he wrote for me. It seems to apply here.

    Bottom of ocean
    Top of sky
    Too vast!
    Too vast!
    Try the tip
    Of the toothbrush bristle.
    Ahh!

  19. koderken
    koderken September 17, 2013 at 2:11 pm | |

    Zazen doesn’t just show you meaninglessness, it moderates behavior. Every hour that you spend sitting and staring at a wall is an hour that you are not out robbing, raping, or killing somebody else. So, there is some morality to it.

  20. buddy
    buddy September 17, 2013 at 7:00 pm | |

    ‘…the idea in my mind is to express the relationships I’m experiencing as plainly and as accurately as I can. It happens that some of the relationships require a certain level of complexity to describe accurately, or at least that’s how it’s been for me. ‘ Fair enough. What goes on when i sit: a dog barks, my breath is tight in my belly, thoughts about my girlfriend come and go, my head goes in and out of balance over my ass, a car drives by, my neck gets stiffer then releases. I suppose if i wanted to i could make something out of all that, but I’d rather just experience it as pure sensation. The ‘usual cosmic jazz’, as Watts would say.

    As for sitting making someone a ‘better person’, I think it does come down to end-gaining. If you have goals and expectations in zazen, then either you will think you haven’t reached them and become frustrated and depressed, or think that you have and become an arrogant, pontificating douchbag. If you just sit for the sake of sitting, then you will begin to appreciate the wonder of simply being alive, and naturally become more pleasant, generous and even maybe helpful to your fellow beings.

  21. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote September 17, 2013 at 9:25 pm | |

    What do you experience about 30-35 minutes into the sitting?

  22. Harlan
    Harlan September 17, 2013 at 10:56 pm | |

    Not so sure I have the ego thing all figured out yet..

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3a7cHPy04s8

  23. buddy
    buddy September 17, 2013 at 11:17 pm | |

    I get up and do something else! My teacher and affiliated groups usually just sit for 30 minutes at a time, with regular periods in a week where there will be 2 or 3 sittings in a row with 10 minutes of walking meditation in between. Same with sesshins- there will be multiple blocks of these 30 minute sittings/10 minute walks throughout the day. I think the idea is, since deep samadhi is not the goal, it’s good to prevent mental and physical stagnation by not sitting for extended periods at a time. How long do you sit for, and what happens at the 30-35 minute mark??

  24. Aruna
    Aruna September 18, 2013 at 3:33 am | |

    “I vow to save all beings… from myself.” That’s about as self centered as it gets. Anyway, is there any evidence that practicing zazen makes one a “better” person than, say volunteering with orphaned children?Or painting? Using this criteria, volunteering, painting, or agitating for political change are at least equal to sitting on your ass and staring at a wall, unless you are implying that people who practice zazen are superior to those who don’t. Sounds like a bog-standard religion to me.”

    Aren’t any and all activities self-centered if the motivation is self-improvement. Meditation included. The motivation is key, and also meaningless. I doubt the orphaned children care why you are volunteering to help them, as long as they are being helped (poor example, but effective).

    I sit because I sit. There is a bit of self centered motivation there (it makes me feel better), there is a bit of altruism there (I’m less likely to snap at my partner or a sigh when the cashier gets the change wrong), but even on days when I do snap or sigh, I still sit.

  25. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote September 18, 2013 at 9:06 am | |

    Wow, I just had a post go into limbo. If it shows up later, forgive the dupe.

    Buddy, that sounds good, 30 minutes maybe several times with a group.

    I sit at home, and I just sit until I get up. Maybe 40 minutes in the morning and 20-30 before I go to bed.

    Over the years, my breath in the posture has taught me a number of things, and they return to me out of necessity in breath. One thing my breath has taught me is that there is a necessity for freedom in where awareness takes place; now how do you practice that!

    It’s been very helpful to me to witness a relationship between the sense of place, freedom of awareness, and relaxation.

    A lot of the most interesting stuff for me takes place just before the end of the sitting, and that’s about 30-35 minutes into it for me. Would that be Soto, Rinzai, or Sanbo Kyodan that sits several thirty-minute intervals?- you didn’t mention any koan study, but I always think of 30 minute sittings as associated with Rinzai.

  26. buddy
    buddy September 18, 2013 at 12:07 pm | |

    ‘One thing my breath has taught me is that there is a necessity for freedom in where awareness takes place’ By that do you mean allowing awareness to arise of its own, without directing what you’re aware of?

    My tradition is basically in the Maezumi lineage, which is mostly Soto with a little bit of Rinzai thrown in. I haven’t worked with koans except for the basic ‘Who?’. Most of the Soto groups I’m familiar with do the 30 minute interval thing, except for the crazies at Antaiji. As much as I ‘ve learned from Sawaki and Uchiyama, it does seem to be an abandonment of the middle way for asceticism to sit for that long at a time for so many periods. But whatever gets you through the night.

  27. wbtphdjd
    wbtphdjd September 18, 2013 at 10:25 pm | |

    In terms of Buddhism as philosophy, I came to the conclusion that Buddhism resembles the branch of 20th century European philosophy called phenomenology, which focuses on the individual as knowing subject. I ran this past a friend who is Buddhist and has a Ph.D. in philosophy, and he said he had had the same thought. He ran it past his rinpoche (he’s vajrayana), who laughed and wondered why anyone would bother with such a comparison. There is a very thick volume under the title _Buddhism and Phenomenology_ that I have not read much of, that begins with an extended discussion the phenomenology of Husserl, who is widely regarded as the originator of the concept. Martin Heidegger was at base a phenomenologist, as, in my opinion, is Michel Foucault.

  28. RandomStu
    RandomStu September 29, 2013 at 2:53 pm | |

    > we need to find a way to make clear just what Buddhism is.
    > Otherwise why would we want to embody its principles?

    What I’m interested in is strongly and sincerely asking the big questions: What am I? Why am I alive? How can I help others?

    “Buddhism” is a word people use. It’s a name that can refer to this life-direction (i.e., keeping a clear, questioning mind moment-to-moment, and using that mind to benefit everyone).

    The name can refer to certain special practices (like formal sitting) that can be tools to clarify the mind. There are many different tools of this sort in the Buddhist tradition, and like different medicines, each tool may be useful for different people and situations.

    The intention and effort are worth trying. But “Buddhism” is just a name.

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