Today is the Buddha’s birthday. I’m not sure exactly how old he’d be if he were alive today–around two thousand five hundred-odd years old, in which case he’d probably prefer to be dead. I sure would. Wouldn’t you? The multi-generation gap would be paralyzing, let alone the incorrigibly stiffened joints (barring one).
Although I’m far too much of a dilettante to shave my head, don a monk’s robe, move to an ashram, and cultivate hemorrhoids meditating for the rest of my life (memorrhoids?), I’ve been interested in Buddhism for a long time–even longer than I’ve been alive, in fact. My wife, as an evangelical Christian, can’t tolerate my embrace of Buddhist psychology (which is what it is far more than a religion–although not for all practitioners).
As for Jina (wife)’s disdain of the Buddha and consignment of the birthday boy to hell, I think he and Jesus were on the same page of the map, if you’ll allow the mixed metaphor. They both believed in putting others before yourself, letting go of attachments to unhealthy feelings and desires, above all those involving the wish to do harm to others or to oneself, and in behaving in a gentle, peaceful manner, reserving moments of anger for times when it’s genuinely called for–in other words, as a last resort, only (and I don’t think either of them meant resorting to anger in the way Barack Obama rationalized the “need” for war in his audacious Nobel “Peace” Prize acceptance speech; I know, these are Orwellian times: war is peace, love is hate, freedom is slavery, and ignorance is strength; the great English journalist and author is killing himself in his grave).
And so, if you’ll permit a watered-down interpretation of the Buddha’s gist from a Western slacker’s point of view, here are a few things that good dude has taught me:
1. Life is dukkha. Though usually translated as “suffering”, dukkha involves much more: unsatisfactoriness, dissatisfaction, incompleteness, angst, a vague feeling of unease, loneliness, annoyance, hurt feelings, second-guessing, jumping to conclusions, resentment, fear, doubt, hatred, regret, guilt–everything including a kitchen sink the size of an Olympic swimming pool where Mark Spitz and Greg Louganis preside as lifeguards. The American equivalent might be something like “life sucks, then you die.”
2. Dukkha is born of attachment. It’s not quite correct, according to Buddhist thinking, to say that “desire causes suffering”. Desires come and go all the time. I mean, come on–let’s face it: when are you not desiring something? Aversion, another thing Buddha warned people about, is just inverted desire–a desire to get away from something or someone. So what’s the catch? Getting attached. How to detach? Either shrug it off and accept your situation: “Yeah, life sucks–so what?” (instead of griping about it, my usual, impotent, strategy); or do what you have to do to let go, which might entail just looking at things differently, or else a more drastic course of action, like becoming an arahant (Buddhist monk, and possibly a typo).
3. “Transcendental meditation gives you peace of mind.” Stevie Wonder, “Jesus Children of America.” The nice thing about T. M. is that you don’t have to stop thinking–an impossible act to achieve of your own volition, as futile as trying to relax–and you don’t have to concentrate on anything. All you have to do is sit and breathe normally, in a chair if you like, close your eyes, and “try” not to fall asleep. But don’t beat yourself up if you finally do, or if you can’t stop thinking about all kinds of shit. That’s just the nature of the mind. It’s a feverish little devil we’ve all got living inside our heads. And most of what goes on in it (at least in my case) is sheer rubbish. To hell with the frickin’ thing!
4. Whether or not there is a God, a heaven, a hell, or life after death are all irrelevant matters. What’s important is what you do while you’re here, while life is still going on, before it’s too late. Buddhism is clarified by a lucid sense of urgency. But it allows room for a lot of humor and self-deprecation too. The main thing is that all the abstractions in the first sentence of this paragraph are unanswerable questions; hence Buddha would have said dwelling on them is a colossal waste of time. And so it is.
5. There is no abiding self. This is the hardest thing to get over, along with the attachment to sexual desire (sorry, but I don’t think I’ll be taking that vow of celibacy just yet, even though marriage turns out–ironically–to be celibacy in disguise). But once you can put the self in perspective, and realize that the identities we mistake for our true selves and the stories we repeat and memorize about who we are are susceptible to change, and certainly impermanent. There is likewise no soul in Buddhism, no immortal ghost that succeeds the body when it quits for that long, deep, and silent nap time.
6. The thing that Christians (and perhaps the other two major monotheistic faiths, Islam and Judaism) label as evil is more complicated than it sounds, and results more from unskillful behavior and thinking than it does from any inherent badness in all of us. Consider how much violence, destruction, chaos, war, and murder are born of hastiness, a refusal to ride things out, to hear the other side of an argument, to agree to disagree.
7. Since no one species has a monopoly on dukkha, all life forms are sacred. This means that despite the need to murder certain species of plants for foods, we should consider very carefully before slaying animals in order to eat them (and I don’t think the Buddha would have been too crazy about hunting either). I have to admit that I still consume all kinds of animal flesh, but I’m sure it’s a grave moral error. I would like to learn how to eat much less meat–preferably none–and not merely for health reasons, but so I could sleep better at night.
8. Apart from delusion, one of the three biggest pitfalls Buddha warned of (along with greed and aversion–in other words, hate), the insistence that things that no one can prove or provide evidence for are factual and true instead of antiquated superstitions that ought to be jettisoned or at least taken with a boulder of salt, and the hate that both engenders and is engendered by war, racism, and what Jesse Jackson would call “economic violence” (Martin Luther King called them the “triple evils in the world today”–and that was over forty years ago), along with misogyny, homophobia, and speciesism, what may be the worst and most dangerous of all is the unfettered, untrammeled, insatiable, profligate greed that threatens to drive not only civilization but everything we know of the natural world over a precipice. The climate is mutating, the earth is howling and snarling, the animals are scrambling to survive. Even the trees are moving north, little by little, year after year.
9. Although Buddhism and Taoism are in some ways apples and oranges, as Lao Tzu, author of the Tao te Ching (Way of Life) would say, “That which goes against nature cannot endure for long.”
10. But–and this isn’t the first time I’ve mentioned this quote–as George Harrison says in the song “Within You, Without You,” and as the Buddha might well agree, “With our love, we could save the world.”
Let’s hope so. Hell, it’s worth a shot anyway. Besides, we’ve got nothing to lose–excepting everything we know and love, including any kind of inhabitable future on this knockout of a planet.