When I was in graduate school I had a course in Social Foundations of Education, and was assigned to write a paper and give an oral report on the basics of Buddhism. That was 35 years ago. At the end of my comments to the class I said, “I think I’m a Buddhist.”
I’ve never lost that sense. Our Unitarian Universalist faith is akin to Buddhism, in the most important ways.
The Legend of the Buddha
Buddhism begins with a man, Siddhartha Gautauma, about whom there is a wonderful legend.
Gautauma is a prince. The story says that at his birth his father summoned fortune tellers to see what lies ahead for the boy. They say that he is destined for greatness. They say that if he remains involved in worldly things he will become a great political leader and be the first to unify India.
On the other hand, if he turns his back on worldly power he would become not a king but a world redeemer or savior.
His father, thinking he knew what was best for his son, spared no effort to keep the growing boy’s mind firmly attached to worldly things—he wanted him to be a great, powerful political leader.
Gautauma grew up surrounded by luxury, given every advantage, and he was kept from seeing the face of poverty, old age and illness and the reality of death.
Even when he went riding there were guards who would go before him to clear the road of these things.
One day, however, an old man was overlooked. Some versions of the story say that the old man was miraculously incarnated by the gods to provide the necessary teaching experience.
The prince saw a decrepit, toothless, gray-haired man, leaning on a staff and trembling. Siddhartha learned about old age.
The king doubled the guard, but despite all the efforts to protect the young prince he encountered a man wracked with pain and disease—another lesson.
Then one day Siddhartha saw a corpse—for the first time he looked into the face of death.
Finally, on another occasion, he saw a man with a beggar’s bowl, a shaven head and a yellow robe. On that fateful day the young prince learned about the possibility of withdrawal from the world—the religious life.
He returned to his palace, but the sweetness had gone from his pleasures. He found himself brooding. The music and the dancing girls were hollow. Even the foods prepared for him lost their flavor. He found pleasure in flowers, which he hadn’t noticed before; he was entranced by simple things—the melting snow in the mountains, the sound of flowing water and the brilliant colors of the setting sun.
Finally, in his 29th year, the prince made a decision to leave the protected confines of his palace. He ordered the gatekeeper to saddle his great white horse, he said a silent good-bye to his wife and son, and rode off toward the forest. At the edge of the forest he changed clothes with his servant, who returned to break the news to Siddhartha’s family.
Siddhartha was in search of enlightenment—he wanted, more than anything else, to learn the truth about his existence.
He spent much time in solitude. He sought out the most well-known Hindu masters of the day to discover the source of their spiritual wisdom.
He learned about raja yoga, gaining insight into its philosophical as well as physical truths.
Hindus to this day claim Siddhartha as one of their own, saying that his criticisms of Hinduism were in the order of reform—that he did not intend to completely break from Hinduism, but to improve it…that he didn’t intend to start a new religion.
When he learned all the yogis could teach him, he joined a band of ascetics, thinking that it may be his body that was preventing him from gaining the spiritual insights he longed for.
His diet consisted of a single bean a day; he grew so thin that his spine showed through his stomach, and finally he fainted from weakness and had to be nursed back to health by his companions.
This experience taught him the futility of asceticism. It had not brought on enlightenment. But this experience gave him the first plank in the platform he would build: the principle of the Middle Way—between the extremes of indulgence and self-denial.
Eventually Siddhartha found himself sitting under a fig tree feeling the first intimations of enlightenment, a kind of dawn breaking on a new day.
He determined to sit there in deep meditation until he achieved the enlightenment he had been seeking. The Evil One, fearing that this mortal was about to break through and enter His realm rushed in the distract him.
Mara, the Evil One first attacked in the form of Desire, bringing three beautiful, voluptuous goddesses to tempt him. He was unmoved, so the Evil One switched to the guise of Death, attempting to frighten him with hurricanes, flaming rocks and a great darkness. But Siddhartha was by then able to transform the flames into lotus petals.
Mara brought an army to face this man in meditation, challenging his right to be doing what he was doing. Gautauma simply touched his finger to the ground and the earth responded: “I bear you witness,” with first a thousand, then a hundred thousand roars. Mara and his army fled and the good gods descended from heaven to wait patiently for the Enlightened One to emerge from under the Bo tree, to flower him with garlands and perfumes.
Then the fig tree itself was transformed, raining red blossoms down on him under the May moon, and Gautama’s meditation deepened until at last it pierced the bubble of the universe and shattered it, revealing its true brilliance. Gautama’s entire being was transformed and he emerged from his meditation as the Buddha, the Enlightened One.
The story says: “The event was of cosmic importance. All created things filled the morning air with their rejoicings and the earth quaked six ways with wonder. Ten thousand galaxies shuddered in awe as lotuses bloomed on every tree, turning the entire universe into a bouquet of flowers sent whirling through the air.”
The Buddha sat transfixed, lost in bliss, for 49 days. Finally he emerged and Mara made one final effort, one last temptation: he appealed this time to reason. How, he said, could the Buddha possibly handle this experience; how could he possibly explain it in mere words; how could he possibly teach or reveal what he had learned? Mara told him it would be futile! He would appear the fool to all intelligent, thoughtful persons.
The Buddha was nearly won over by this tactic—Mara’s argument was very convincing. Finally, though, the Buddha said, simply, “There will be some who understand,” and Mara, the Evil One, was banished from the Buddha’s life forever.
For the next half-century the Buddha preached his ego-shattering, life-redeeming and affirming message.
He started an order of monks, challenged the deadness of Brahmin society, and he accepted the resentment and bewilderment with which he was confronted again and again.
“His daily routine was staggering: in addition to training monks, correcting breaches of discipline, and generally directing the affairs of the Order, he maintained an interminable schedule of public preaching and private counseling, advising the perplexed, encouraging the faithful and confronting the distressed.”
He was sustained, however, by a schedule of withdrawing and returning. Three times each day he withdrew, for a time of private reflection; each year he withdrew for three months during the summer, to return for nine months of intensive work.
The historian Arnold Toynbee suggested that this is always the pattern of creativity—withdraw and return.
After an arduous ministry of 45 years, at the age of 80, around the year 480 B. C., Buddha died. The story says he died at the home of a friend after eating some poisoned mushrooms that had gotten into a dish by accident.
Knowing that his host would feel guilty, he told his disciples, as his last command, to tell the man that of all the meals he had eaten in his lifetime there were two that stood out: the first was the meal that gave him strength to receive enlightenment, and the second was the meal that allowed him to enter the gates of Nirvana.
It is said that Buddha had a wonderful combination of warm compassion, on the one hand, and cool, rational logic on the other. He has been called ‘the greatest rationalist of all time.’
In his compassion he is compared to Jesus, in his logic he is compared to Socrates.
His royal upbringing allowed him to walk with kings and potentates with ease; his simple compassion gave him access to simple villagers, never looking down, never condescending.
“He had a simplicity before whom kings bowed.”
During his lifetime it is said that there was a great effort to turn him into a god; stories grew around him about a supernatural birth. But he insisted that he was completely human in every respect.
He confessed that if there had been another drive as powerful as sex he would not have been able to achieve enlightenment.
Basic Teachings of the Buddha
The basic teachings of the Buddha begin with the Four Noble Truths.
The first is that life is dukkha, which is usually translated as ‘suffering,’ or ‘pain.’
That sounds rather pessimistic, as an opener. But listen up: the question of pessimism or optimism does not have as much to do with one’s condition or situation as it has to do with the question of whether the situation or condition can be improved.
Buddha was a supreme optimist because he believed so strongly that we can, first of all, understand the human situation or condition, and that we can improve it—our own, and that of our human companions.
The first Noble Truth, that life is suffering or struggle, is indicated by the notion that it is somehow ‘out of joint,’ the way a hip or shoulder may get out of joint, which is painful.
The Buddha explained that all life is subject to several painful things, including:
- the trauma of birth
- aging and all that goes with it
- the fear of or anxiety around death
- being tied to what one abhors
- to be separated from what one loves
Suffering comes from the five skandas, which are body, sense, ideas, feelings and consciousness…in short, the sum total of what we are, as human beings.
The second Noble Truth is a statement of the cause of the suffering, which Buddha says is tanha.
Tanha is usually translated simply as desire.
But to let go of every single desire would be to die, which doesn’t solve the problem of living.
Indeed, there are some desires that the Buddha advocated: the desire for liberation, and the desire for the welfare of other beings.
Tanha is a specific kind of desire. It is the will to private fulfillment, desires that promote a kind of separateness, as if one exists outside of or separate from the existence of all life forms. It’s a kind of break in the interdependent web. It’s the idea that we can have fulfillment even at the expense of other life…selfish craving.
The Buddha’s idea is that all life is interconnected, that Life is One, and whatever tends to cause us to feel separated causes suffering. We need to understand others as extensions of ourselves.
Another aspect of, or way of describing tanha is the wish that things weren’t as they are…the inability to accept things as they are.
The third Noble Truth, which follows from the second as the second follows from the First—that is, if the cause of life’s suffering or dislocation is selfish craving, the cure lies in overcoming this craving.
“If we could be free form the narrow limits of self-interest into the vast expanse of universal life, we would be free of our torment.”
The fourth Noble Truth is the path, the solution, or the way out, which is the Eightfold Path.
The Eightfold Path is preceded, however, by a preliminary step, which is right association. We are influenced by those around us; we are encouraged, and discouraged.
Health is as contagious as disease, when it comes to one’s mental and spiritual condition.
That’s why our mothers paid attention to the people with whom we ‘hung out,’ or associated. She knew the value of this preliminary step: right association.
The Eightfold Path consists of these things:
Right knowledge; right aspiration; right speech; right behavior; right livelihood; right effort; right mindfulness; and right absorption.
Each step on the Eightfold Path requires at least some brief reflection.
The first, right knowledge, which involves beliefs, to some extent, since we can never by-pass them completely—we are what we believe. The knowledge required, from Buddha’s view, was the Four Noble Truths: that suffering abounds, that it is occasioned by the desire for separate existence and fulfillment, that it can be cured, and that the means to cure it are found in the Eightfold Path.
The second, right aspiration, is summed up in the proverb: “Be careful what you wish for, you might just get it.” Aspiration has to do with one’s ambition, a sense of purpose…it has to do with one’s Hopes, Dreams, Goals.
The third is right speech. Language does two things—it indicates our character, the way we think, and it can be used as a lever to change the way we think. In this way, language precedes thought.
The linguist, Roland Barths, asserts, “Language, as a form of human communication, is intended to avoid communication more than it is intended to communicate.”
We long for authentic connections with others; we long to be authentic…to be real, honest, open, free.
Authenticity is the essential human issue. We can use language to hide, or to reveal ourselves. We can use language to change the way we think.
The Buddha said that we need to pay attention to our speech, to hear ourselves so we can understand ourselves and so we can move toward charity…move away from that in us which is not charitable.
“Faith, hope and charity abide, but the greatest of these is charity.” Sound familiar?
The fourth spoke on the eight-fold path is right behavior. The Buddha listed five commandments: Do not kill; do not steal; do not lie; do not be unchaste; and do not drink intoxicants.
Some Buddhists are vegetarians, extending the proscription against killing to animals.
Buddhist monks take a vow of celibacy.
The fifth step on the Eightfold path is right livelihood, or right occupation…how one occupies ones time, how one gains a living or gets money.
The poet Sandburg said, “Whether one handles honey, tar or dung, some of it sticks to the fingers.”
For some, then, right livelihood means joining a monastic order and observing its disciplines. For the layman it means, simply, engaging in occupations that promote life rather than harm it.
Modern Buddhists say that if the Buddha were alive today he would be less concerned with specific occupations (he made a list of unacceptable ones in his day) than he would be concerned that modern man forgets that his work is not an end in itself, but a means to an end.
The sixth spoke is right effort. The will is strong. There are virtues to be developed and passions to be curbed, and evil in the mind to be transcended. You won’t overcome your prejudices unless you want to, you won’t get rid of your anger unless you try, you won’t achieve peace of mind unless you put your mind to it.
The seventh spoke is right mindfulness. No teacher has credited the mind with more influence over the person than did the Buddha. The best loved of Buddhist texts, the Dammapada, opens with the words: “All we are is the result of what we have thought.” Think about it. Pay attention to what’s going on in there! There is a direct connection between mind and body. It matters what we think.
Finally, the eighth step on the Eightfold path is right absorption. This is where things like meditation and yoga come into the Buddhist picture. The Buddha told a story about his childhood, when he first had the experience of being caught up and carried away in deep thought…lost in thought. He had been sitting, then, under the shade of an apple tree. He felt how desirable this was and wanted to learn how to go there when he wanted or needed to.
These are the basics about Buddhism—the bare bones.
There are hundreds of millions of people who call themselves Buddhists, with a very wide variety of practices and ideas.
There’s a very close kinship between basic Buddhist ideas and our own Unitarian Universalist approach to religion and spirituality.
We try to see the best in all the religions of the world—the worst is presented to us day after day as religious wars and religious motives for ongoing hatreds and animosities are all around us. Religion often divides families.
The stories, legends and myths of all the religions are about us. They were never meant to be taken literally. There’s an essential difference between mythos and logos, between connotation and denotation, between the literal and the figurative or metaphorical.
Unless you see yourself in the story you don’t ‘get it.’
Certainly we’re like Siddhartha’s father, trying to protect our children from life’s harsh realities.
We all lose our innocence, encountering the realities of old age, sickness and death. We learn about the need to withdraw, from time to time, to have time alone, to lick our wounds, or to reflect on experience. Then we return. Indeed, there’s a daily cycle of withdrawing and returning with sleep.
The Buddha, as the name says, is ‘one who woke up.’ He woke up to the deeper meanings, to the spiritual realities that balance the other aspects of life. To be awake, in this way, is simply to see that we’re all connected to all that is; to realize that eternity is not a big piece of time—it has nothing to do with time—it’s here, now.
We have moments when we realize that we’re part of the etnernal, little epiphanies, or insights, where we catch a glimpse of something beyond ourselves and realize that we are One, with All That Is.
Separateness is the necessary temporary illusion. But there are ‘moments,’ insights, and with the Buddha, we wake up.
The Buddha taught a religion devoid of speculation and the supernatural. He would not respond to questions about God and an after-life.
He taught a religion devoid of tradition, ritual and authority: “Be ye lamps unto yourselves,” he taught his disciples.
The religion of the Buddha was empirical—it did not set itself apart from scientific, pragmatic thinking, but it made a distinction between these two different and necessary aspects of life.
The religion of the Buddha was and is therapeutic—there are ways of thinking, meditating, exercising and so forth which are healing to the wounded psyche.
The religion of the Buddha was democratic. It did not set one group apart from another, the saved from the unsaved. It was directed to individuals: “Work out your own salvation with diligence,” the Buddha said. He taught a religion of intense self-effort.
The Buddha did not intend to start a new religion, any more than Jesus intended to initiate what became the religion of Christianity. Like Jesus, he would be amazed and often saddened to see what has been done in his name.
As Unitarian Universalists it is our task to search not only the books, Bibles, poetry and literature which might help inform us about religion, morality and ethics, but it is our task to search deep within ourselves. We have to find those little obstacles to peace and left-over guilt or prejudics that prevents true inner freedom.
“Don’t believe it because I said so. Don’t believe it because you read it in a book. Believe only what you’ve come to in your own mind, through your own experience.”
That’s not only a summary of the Buddha’s teachings, it’s the essence of our Unitarian Universalist approach to life.