So 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 firstname.lastname@example.org, 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 email@example.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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