By Gerald “Strib” Stribling
A Buddhist would be someone who calls himself a Buddhist, studies Buddhist wisdom and follows the Noble Eightfold Path.
All Buddhists believe the same stuff. There are many variations on the basic themes (three major divisions and 1500 sects), but they all believe the same basic stuff.
Buddhism is a philosophy which states that everywhere you turn there will be suffering, but if you follow the Eightfold Path, then suffering turns into an option. There is a lot of mysticism and metaphysics associated with Buddhism, which no one is obligated to buy into.
The least delusional western Buddhists are the secular Buddhists, who tend to blow off metaphysics in favor of believing that following the Eightfold Path can achieve happiness and contentment in anyone’s life without the need for the promise of life after death. Like the Buddha himself, they just don’t go there. You can believe whatever you want, or you can believe in absolutely nothing. Buddhism is not a religion to believe in, it is more of a motus operandi.
Buddhism is something to enjoy, as following its dictates can lead one to the very peak of Maslow’s Hierarchy—the rarefied atmosphere of “self-actualization” where courage and compassion intersect to make you an instrument of change. Find me a single “self-help” title in the library that doesn’t owe a debt of gratitude to the Eightfold Path!
Effective living always boils down to the same points. There are eight of them; they worked 2,600 years ago, and they’re still working today.
Let’s take “Right Intention” as a case in point, item number two on The Path (between Right View and Right Speech). These are the Buddha’s words:
And what, sirs, is right intention? Intention toward renunciation, intention toward non-harmfulness, intention toward non-injury: this, sirs, is called right intention.
The Eight items interlace like the pudgy little fingers of 4-year-olds trying to learn “Here’s the church, here’s the steeple” at Sunday school. Right Intention (also known as Right Thought) comes from “Right View,” or “Right Understanding” of life based on the undeniability of the fact of suffering. So, like, your job here on earth is not to cause suffering, but to alleviate it. Number four on the hit parade is “Right Action.”
The Eightfold Path covers three essential aspects of life: knowledge and motivation, ethics, and mental development. The only faith mentioned with regard to Buddhist belief is the faith that the knowledge and following of the Eightfold Path leads to contentment and happiness in life, no matter what your situation or condition.
That’s a helluva claim.
This is a simple path to understand; it’s the application of this knowledge that’s hard. Perhaps, in light that so many people think that the shootings and the terrorism and the economic uncertainty of electing plutocrats to high public office signals the end of the world, I would contend that this knowledge (corroborated by the observations of modern psychology) is a recipe for sanity.
But personal gain isn’t enough, and unfortunately, this is where the system breaks down in the west.
In rural Buddhist Asia, where everyone may be impoverished but everyone is Buddhist, Dharma is not just chosen and followed by individuals, it is the fabric that binds the community together. Compassion is the common commitment, and within a closed society like a jungle village in Sri Lanka (I lived in several), people cooperate and help each other out as if the village is a nuclear family.
After the tsunami in December of 2004, I returned to Sri Lanka a month after the disaster, and immediately toured the “tent cities”—aid agencies from different nations erected on the beaches. I arrived a month to the day after the wave scoured the east and southern coasts, killing 30,000 people. The stench of rotting flesh no longer pervaded the lowlands, but under the debris they were still finding skeletons inside the clothes the victims had died in. It was a horrendous scene. The land was so churned up it was almost impossible to walk on; the only things left standing on the strand were palm trees and Buddhist shrines.
I saw something phenomenal. Wounded families were re-combining before my eyes. Moms with kids who lost husbands found new husbands among those who’d lost wives and children. People who lost children found orphans to absorb into their lives, and older couples who lost adult children and grandchildren found new children to fill the holes left by all the death and destruction. Fractured families turned whole again, like a blob of mercury dropped on a plate, breaking up into dozens of little balls of mercury, before coming back together into a cohesive whole.
Until you learn to appreciate the interconnectedness of everything and your responsibility to help, you can only pretend to be Buddhist.
Leading an enlightened life is mostly about leading a responsible life.
How do you define compassion? Send us your story: email@example.com
Editor: Dana Gornall