By Peter D. Schaller
Buddhism is flexible, like bamboo.
One of the things I like best about Buddhism is that it can really be something completely different for each student or practitioner. Buddhism is no less than an internal journey to discover the divine peace within each of us. Since we each have very different landscapes in there, the trip is quite different for each individual.
Obviously, there is some basic reading and studying that must be done, in order to understand the essence of Buddhism, but from there, I like to think that there are an infinite number of paths that spread out before us.
As Mahatma Gandhi said “Truth is one, paths are many.”
There are many sutras to read, schools, lineages and teachers to analyze. But at the end of the day, Buddhism is about how we breathe, walk, talk, think, speak and act every minute of every day of our lives.
Many years ago, I discovered Thich Nhat Hanh’s concept of applied Buddhism. During the Vietnam War, he saw so much suffering around him, he realized that the true task of Buddhists was not merely to sit in their temples meditating, but to apply the most basic and essential precepts of Buddhism to the world around them. His work in promoting peace during the war earned him a nomination for a Nobel Peace Prize and the friendship and respect of Martin Luther King Jr.
I will probably keep reading some Buddhist writings and will continue to listen to teachings from Plum Village on my long drives into the mountains, but I have condensed all of my reading and study of Buddhism into five words:
One of the first steps on any path towards spiritual clarity and balance is the renouncing of the self. That is not easy to do in our contemporary culture that prioritizes feeding the ego. We live in an era of pleasure and gluttony, in which we are expected to do anything and everything to make ourselves feel good. Our culture and our economy revolve around consumption, and consumption is expected to bring us infinite pleasure. Every day, we are reminded about how much we should love ourselves, take care of ourselves, please and pamper ourselves, but there is little talk about service to others.
The truth is, such a fascination with the self is a detriment to spiritual discovery. In order to be free enough to experience the divine—in any tradition—we must diminish the ego to the degree possible. It’s not simple to let go of ourselves, but it allows us to see others more deeply and to recognize the interconnectedness of all beings. There is immense peace in progressing far enough to understand our very small place and importance in the grand scheme of the world.
In the Four Noble Truths, the Buddha also taught about eliminating desire, as it only leads us to suffering. Again, in a culture that teaches us to desire everything, desiring nothing is a formidable task. From infancy, we are taught to want more. This is the driving force in a culture of consumerism. However, the suppression of desire can be achieved through meditative practices of all types (sitting, eating, walking, working, creating, cooking…).
Meditation brings us, intimately, to the present.
If we can be fully aware and appreciative of the present, there is little need to desire other things or other people. In a world that values consumerism and pleasure above all else, this requires special effort. Contentment is contrary to economics, but it is an essential element of spiritual awakening.
By concentrating on subduing both ego and desire, a sense of detachment will follow naturally. All religions require this, to a certain extent, though Buddhism emphasizes it more clearly. Detachment from things, concepts, people, relationships, situations, possessions and beliefs allow us to focus fully on our spiritual nature. It leaves us, ultimately, free of prejudices and discrimination. Detachment is also a complicated process, but it opens us more completely to the presence of the divine, however we choose to perceive that graceful force in our lives. Detachment is liberation.
Humility is often underestimated. We tend to think of a humble person as someone who is friendly, unassuming and perhaps even generous. But the true definition of humility goes far beyond those simple traits. Humility, in the truest sense of the word, is the ability to recognize the inherent worth of all beings, not just humans. Through humility, we are able to empathize and truly appreciate the interdependence of all beings and elements—people, air, plants, water, animals, microorganisms, soil and so on.
Humility is the process of subtracting importance from ourselves and distributing it equally among all that surround us, in all forms. Humility is essential in the Buddhist perspective, because it is the culmination of the elimination of ego and desire, and detachment from obstacles and distractions.
Finally, I have come to believe that compassion is perhaps the highest aspiration for a person on any path of spiritual growth. It is the ultimate manifestation of faith, love, kindness, humility, respect, generosity and hope. Compassion is the essence of the teachings of all great spiritual teachers: the Buddha, Jesus Christ, Krishna, Muhammad, Mother Teresa, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King and so many others.
Like humility, compassion is a term that has perhaps been overused and undervalued. Compassion should manifest itself in every aspect of life. In fact the Eightfold Path, taught by the Buddha, could be viewed as a guide for compassionate living. We should manifest compassion in our view, attitude, speech, action, livelihood, diligence, awareness and general focus in life. Compassion is the way of the Bodhisattva—one who is willing to forego her or his own enlightenment for the benefit of others.
These five words work for me.
They have guided me through some pretty tough times and they have allowed me to learn and grow over the years. Since I work in human services, they have also helped me to develop invaluable professional skills. The study of Buddhism has contributed enormously to my life, my peace and my balance.
They may not be useful for everyone, but that is the beauty of Buddhism. It can bend in the wind, but is strong enough to edify a building.
Photo: Peter Schaller
Editor: Dana Gornall