Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Why the Buddha taught.

Why the Buddha taught.


        In our modern world, it seems that every bad act, every crime and atrocity, every sorrowful thing that happens in our world is instantly reported all around the world.  Every now and then we will see a report of someone doing a compassionate act for other people but for the most part these things simply are not news news.  Certainly, reading and watching history has a tendency to instill a belief that the human race is irredeemable.  We have been slaughtering and killing each other as far back as our memory goes and that’s as far back as history goes. The depravity of humanity would seem intrinsic and without end, a part of our nature that seems to define us above all other things.

                Many if not most of the religions of the world have for all intents and purposes encouraged us to have no faith in humanity but to have faith in something else that will reach down from the heavens and redeem us and change our very nature, or at least forgive our nature. St. Augustine canonized this concept in what he called Original Sin.  And in many religions the belief that humans are fundamentally and irretrievably flawed is part of the teaching.  It’s certainly not hard after you’ve lived a few years to believe this to be the case.  That there is no possibility of man as a species resolving the issue of the depravity of his nature on his own.

                One of the things that separates Buddhism from most other religions is that it has not accepted the concept that man as a species or even that an individual person for that matter cannot change or improve their nature.   I recently put the phrase “why Buddha taught” into a major search engine on the Internet. I received absolutely no results for that inquiry, every single result that I received was entitled “what Buddha taught”. Unless these major search engines are flawed this will be the first essay available on the Internet about why Buddha taught.

              Embedded in several stories about Buddha’s original enlightenment are several short and curt sentences addressing the debate Buddha held with himself after he awakened.  In at least one of them he walks a few paces away from where he had been sitting under the bodhi tree and points to that spot and declares “this cannot be taught”.  In other stories of the Canon the gods themselves come down and plead with Buddha to teach what he has learned, I’ve read most of the Pali canon and the many Mahayana sutras but I have never seen the issue of why Buddha decided to spend his entire life teaching what he had learned to others. Just because I haven’t seen them doesn’t mean they don’t exist, but if they do exist there fairly well hid or considered of little interest.

 I’m going to make some simple deductions here since so little source material seems to address this issue in any depth at all. The very idea of a Buddha, and the man that we called the Buddha and his story demands that we believe that a human can become enlightened or awaken by means of his own human endeavor and his own human nature and intelligence.  If this idea is removed from the story of Buddha there simply would be no Buddha and there would be no Buddhism.  Clearly one of the things to which Buddha was awakened and observed was that a human being could through his or her own effort  overcome what all the other religions would call our Original Sin or intrinsically flawed nature.  That self redemption is possible.

In all of Buddhist teachings it is clear that skillful means are being provided by which each individual can change and improve those things that we despise in ourselves.  One of the very pillars upon which Buddhism stands is that each person with effort, study, and self-observation can move themselves closer to what we now call a Buddha.  In modern day terms, I think it would be clear to say that Buddha taught for over 50 years because he had faith in humanity.  It seems that one could call Buddha the first self-improvement guru, but I think that would be trivializing his teachings.  He framed his original sermon as a diagnosis and prescription for an illness, he certainly didn’t believe that illness was incurable.   The ocean of human suffering  in which he  and all other humans swim  was an illness  not a birth defect .

In our world as a child grows up and starts to seek spiritual awareness and an understanding of the world around them one of the first mistakes they seem to make is to believe it is other people’s responsibility to prove to them that humanity is and can be good. As mentioned above our own personal experience and the centuries of history which we have read shows us a great many people who were what almost any moral system would call bad.  We see centuries of killing and tormenting and torturing each other in what seems like an endless cycle of depravity. This creates a weight upon our soul and often slays our hope and faith for humanity.  Religions occur and reoccur implying that you must get permission from some higher power to be kind and compassionate and loving in your thought actions and words.

Perhaps one of the reasons that we find our present world so disheartening is that we especially in Zen have abandoned the ideas of karma and rebirth and only look at the present from which to take our cues.   It seems simple for the Westerner, the American teacher of Zen to cut these ideas away from their teachings seeing them as primitive superstition.  That in itself narrows their own view and  that of  their students  as to what is possible and what can be done.  In the end most of them conclude that nothing can be done, that one can only accept this horrible world in which we live.   I am Soto Zen and the man  who started the school of Buddhism was a brilliant  Buddhist scholar perhaps one of the most brilliant that has  ever lived.  Anyone who is read anything that he is written cannot honestly say that his teachings and writings can  be summed up into  parking your butt on a pillow and shutting down your mind .  Many of the things that he said were paradox in and of themselves,  if you can't work out that the greatest Buddhist scholar of his age and perhaps any other was speaking about  also relying upon studying the Buddhists teachings, that he didn't consider them to  be useless doesn't need to be teaching  anyone.

It is my hope one day that Zen will go back and begin to incorporate Buddhism in their teachings again and have less of this easy idea that there is nothing to be learned and nothing to be done and that self-improvement through meditation, learning and teaching is a delusion. It’s easy to sell an empty box or so it would seem from what I have observed in recent years.

Buddha thought that change starts with you, that it is entirely possible for you to rid yourself of the kind of thinking that has enslaved humanity into an endless cycle of suffering as far back as anyone can remember. This is why Buddha taught. This is why he spent his entire life from the moment of his awakening walking up and down the world teaching what he had learned. The only humanity you need to have faith in is yourself.  but never forget that you are humanity  in whole and in part .

Monday, February 20, 2017

The Heritage of Human Sorrow

     Somewhere around 567 BC a young prince named Siddhartha Gautama was born in Lumbini , Nepal.  He grew up shielded from all suffering or at least that’s what we’re told.  But on the birthday of his first son and after being exposed to things like disease , old age and death he ran away from home in search of an answer to life. The fact that Buddha lived, and taught, and died is proved by an overwhelming amount of evidence.   After about five years of searching he sat under a tree and contemplated everything that he had seen and heard and been taught. He considered the human condition and after about 50 days of setting under that tree he had an epiphany. Some people choose to call it his enlightenment the older texts indicate that he himself referred to it as his awakening.  Upon due consideration he gave a sermon. That sermon is often called the first turning of the wheel. It was written down later on in the form of a doctor’s diagnosis and prescription as it would have been given in the time that Siddhartha lived.  What we now call the four noble truths were his observations that he considered self-evident. They are listed below.
Four Noble Truths

   1. Suffering exists
   2. Suffering arises from attachment to desires
   3. Suffering ceases when attachment to desire ceases
   4. Freedom from suffering is possible by practicing the Eightfold Path

            What we call science presently estimates that the modern form of humanity has been on the earth for about 200,000 years.  All things considered that a young prince should notice 2584 years ago that the most striking thing about the human condition was the heritage of human sorrow is not an amazing thing in and of itself. But it cannot be denied that his turning of this wheel and the medicine which he prescribed for that heritage of suffering changed the world forever.

            His prescription for mitigating this sorrow and the suffering is now called the eightfold path.  Literally thousands upon thousands of Buddhist practitioners, scholars and yogis have written and contemplated and analyzed and re-analyzed those two paragraphs which Siddhartha  taught so many years ago. And of course with each application of each individuals perception and intellect and their own experience of suffering there has resulted an almost endless parade of interpretations of those few words Buddha taught on so many years ago. 

            Modern Zen practitioners for the most part have surgically removed the concepts of karma and rebirth from the teachings. But even with this dissection the truth of Buddha's  observations still hold fast to the human condition.  Anyone who says they have never suffered is lying to you or to themselves or to both. 

     Now comes a few simple questions. Has your practice of Zen reduce the amount of suffering that you have experienced since you started practicing Zen?  Since you started practicing Zen have you changed?  Has your teachers words had the effect of reducing your suffering.  Are you happier now that you have sat for hours meditating than you were before?  Has the obscurity of Zen and it’s amorphous paradoxes  helped you in any way?  When you set under the steely gaze of your Zen master and he says you can expect nothing from Zen what’s really going on in your mind? 

            I only ask that you be truthful with yourself on dealing with these questions. You can brush them aside and ignore their consequence or you can give them due consideration the choice is of course always yours.

            Long ago when I was practicing another form of Buddhism I was taught a fable.  In which the teachings and precepts of Buddhism were boiled down into a little story that even a child could understand.  The ancient teacher of Buddhist wisdom looked up at an all powerful king who had just asked him what the nature of Buddhist teachings were. He responded that:


1.      Do as little harm as you can.

2.      Do as much good as you can.

3.      Try to purify your heart.


I have looked down the tunnel of time and taken unto myself this heritage of sorrow that we all carry with us. I have lived and died and been reborn upon the rising of each sun. It’s useless to tell people to change because change is inevitable.  It’s useless to raise your fist at the sky and curse your fate.  It is however absolutely mandatory that we look within ourselves for the truth that lies within.

If I had but a couple of minutes left of breath, and I wished to tell you something            before I go, it would be:

1.  Do as little harm as you can.

2.      Do as much good as you can.

3.      Try to purify your heart.