By Sensei Ken Madden
Rather than talk about Buddhism, let’s start by talking about you.
Why are you here? Curious? Want to become a monk, giving up all material goods, pleasures, and separating yourself from your relationships? Perhaps you are working on your PhD and want to translate ancient texts into modern English?
Do you want to be a better Buddhist? Perhaps you are like most of the people I have met so far on this path, where these examples may be a little extreme—at least to start. Often, like me, you are living a life and just want to see if this is one way to make it a little better. You don’t have a starting goal of being a better Buddhist; you want to live a better life.
Let’s talk about life in general. Is it always great? Sometimes difficult? Often difficult? It changes and that change is sometimes something that we aren’t well equipped to deal with from our past experiences. So how do we come to grips with the changes we encounter? Or perhaps we have experienced hard emotions and wish to lessen their difficulty, to work towards finding peace in our lives, to increase in kindness or participation in this world that we find ourselves in.
Well, I have also asked these questions, and I have found that a life informed by the Buddhist worldview and practices and people has been an enormous change for me for the better. So, where to start? I like metaphors.
If we were learning to play baseball, we would start by learning the rules. So that is what I will try to share with you today—not all the rules, but enough to see how the games is played. Perhaps once you see that, you will want to try it out, sort of like sandlot baseball when you were a kid. If you want to play professional baseball later, you can make that decision at that time, it doesn’t need to be made now. This is sometimes a difficulty when people come to Buddhism: people who are teaching are enthusiastic and knowledgeable and want to share it with you. I am also, but I think we can start at the beginning parts.
So here are some of the basic “rules,” or better, worldviews, that make up the system that is called Buddhism.
Let’s come back to you: tell me what you know: truly know. Not what you have been told. Not what has happened in the past, and which memory of events is filtered by your senses and your experiences and your mind? What do you know?
If we think deeply about this, all that we know is our experience of this present moment. The past is done and is an imperfect memory at best of what happened. Your senses told you about something but you don’t have all the information even though you were there. The future hasn’t happened and while you might have a good belief about what might happen, the future remains unwritten.
So what about this present moment? What are its characteristics? It too is filtered by our senses. Our hearing might be older and we don’t hear as well as a younger person, or our eyesight, our sense of smell. What about our state of consciousness? Does that change our experience of this moment? All of these do.
So am I saying that even this moment is unknowable? It is indeed. But there are certain characteristics of this moment which can be known, and that is a good place to start. We know that this moment is impermanent. It changes from this moment to another. It came from a moment beforehand—always becoming and never staying the same. Change is part of this moment.
We also know that this moment is interdependent with everything else. Again, it came from the previous moment and it becomes the next one. They depend on each other.
We know that we are part of this moment and not separate from it. We observe it as it changes and are part of it interdependently. There is no provable part of what we think of as ourselves that is separate from all that is. Think about this: where do I begin and where do I end? Am I just my body? What about the light that bounces off objects and interacts with my eyes and brain to become sense impressions and thoughts? What does my body need to live? If I were cut off from air, what would happen? When I breathe, the oxygen becomes a part of what I think of as my blood, and yet it is inside my body, so is it not now a part of what I think of as me?
Do I live forever? Does my body change? What about my thoughts, my emotions, my senses, my mind? They all change? They interact with each other and with what I think of as the outside world. I am part of all this: I am impermanent. I am interdependent. I am not separate in any way from this world—this universe. My very body is made of it, and will return to it once my time here has passed.
These three things in Buddhism are what is called the Three Marks of Existence.
Let’s talk about you and I a bit more: what makes up what I think of as me? I alluded to them before: if you think about it, we have what we think of as our body. We have emotions that arise from thoughts that arise from experiences that we find through our senses and occur in our minds. These five things have come together for a time to make up a pattern that I might call “Ken” but are not separate from everything else, and are each constantly changing. We are change itself. In Buddhism, these are called The Five Skandhas.
This worldview of who I am—a series of impermanent and interdependent things that is part of the world—has implications for how we might view our lives.
What about those lives? Well, I asked about your life before: is it always good? If you are like the rest of us, you know that your life is really a bit of a bumpy road. It can be difficult at times, and unsatisfactory. It can be great at other times, but if we think about these times, we realize that the great and bad times always change. They too, are impermanent.
What causes the good and the bad times? Us. Our perceptions are what make these times “good” or “bad” labels. They are good when we get something that we want and bad when we want something and do not get that. They become really difficult when we want something a lot. We are the cause of our own perceptions of a great life or a bad life. We want something badly or we want to stay away from something badly.
In Buddhist terms we call these attachments or aversions.
Is there a way to change our perceptions then so that things aren’t always a bumpy road? So that these attachments and aversions no longer cause me to hurt so much? Can I find peace? If I do find peace, what might happen to me, what could arise? Perhaps our true nature of joy and gratitude and kindness will find room to arise when our perceptions are allowed to no longer be caught up in these.
How do we learn to change ourselves to no longer find difficulty in things that we want or that we don’t want? There is a way: this is called The Eightfold Path. I will tell you about it now, but it is basically a breakdown of all the things that we could obsess over. From there, we can teach ourselves to pay attention to them. Experience over many years has shown that when we learn to pay attention to the items listed in The Eightfold Path, and we can teach ourselves to build more useful habits around them.
These four insights about the nature of our lives: that life is a difficult, that our perceptions, wants and aversions cause this difficulty, that there is a way out, and the actual way to view these (The Eightfold Path) is known in Buddhist terms as the Four Noble Truths and were the first of the Buddha’s teachings.
The Buddha is the Awakened One who had these special insights into the human condition and how to relieve the difficulties that we encounter. As a foundation, learning to pay attention is called meditation. There are various practices and ways to do this with different teachers, approaches and meanings. In Buddhist terms, these are our supports: the Dharma.
Returning to my earlier baseball metaphor, it is like learning to throw the ball, hit the ball with bat and run the bases. These are all very useful practices when wanting to play baseball. But to truly play, there is another aspect to experience: play as team. In Buddhist terms, this is known as our Sangha.
Our coach, the one with insight and teachings, can be called the Buddha. The teachings or dharma tell us how to pay attention, because of a way we want to play the game in our world. Our team is called the Sangha, which is those who support me in this game. In Buddhist terms, these are called the Three Jewels. These are equal guides to how we apply the teachings and practices: Sangha, who we practice with, who we have in our lives as influences, are as important as the insights and the teachings and practices themselves.
This is an introduction to how Buddhists think about their lives and relationships within the world. They lead to various ways to play the game of our life in this world in a better way.
This answers the Most Important Question of any spiritual path: So What?
I have personal experience that my own life is better having adopted this worldview and continuing the practices that the Buddha’s insight left us to work with and even develop.
Buddhism of the Heart by Sensei Jeff Wilson
Read the original sources
Sensei Ken was ordained in Kyoto and joins us after teaching for over a decade at a local Buddhist Temple. He is the University of Calgary Buddhist Chaplain and actively works for Interfaith harmony. He created and has run The Circle Sangha: their mindful practices of emotional intelligence align with Calgary Buddhist Meditation. His approach is non-sectarian and practical, and he is delighted when Buddhist understanding aligns with science. Oh! and this life can be joyful and fun and kind when we allow our difficulties to drift away!
Editor: Dana Gornall