Lessons from Buddhism

Delivered at the First Unitarian Church of Los Angeles
by Jennie Sykes Knight

When I studied Zen Buddhism briefly in college, one of our text books was called Zen mind, Beginner’s mind. The idea is that the goal is to cultivate the mind of a beginner, or, as my karate teacher used to say, “come with an empty cup.”

The world of Buddhism is vast, diverse and complex. I have only just begun to study about Buddhism this past month. I will be visiting different Buddhist temples throughout Southern California during this fall. I have visited one temple so far. I have much more to learn, but today I will share with you the basic truths about Buddhism that I have gleaned from my beginnings.

When I visited the International Buddhist Meditation Center, which is around the corner from this church on New Hampshire, I had just begun my readings about Buddhism. I sat down to talk with Rev. Kusala, a Buddhist monk at the center who some of you may remember from the talks he has given here.

Rev. Kusala’s first question for me was: Do Buddhists believe in God?

My response was: That’s not the point. The point of Buddhism is the end of suffering. As Rev. Kusala explained to me, a person who is content with her or his life may have no use for Buddhism. Buddhist practice is a labor-intensive process that is like a medicine from a doctor. It is for relief from suffering.

The Buddha told his followers that he had seen and understood an entire cosmology during his Awakening, but that was not the most important thing for him to teach. He taught how a person can attain Awakening and freedom from suffering. That is the most important teaching. Once they reach Awakening, they will learn the rest for themselves.

The Point of Buddhism is that we are responsible for achieving our own
Awakening and for freeing ourselves from suffering. Of course, we can help each other through guidance and kindness, but the ultimate responsibility lies with each person to free her or himself.

When Siddhartha Gautama sat down under a tree at sunset 2500 years ago, he did so at a particular moment in his life and in a cultural context. The story of the Buddha’s life was written in a mythic form, filling in the gaps from the earlier scriptures. The legend describes Siddhartha Gautama as a wealthy young man who had everything a person would need to be happy in life. As he reached maturity, however, he began to recognize that he was subject to aging and death.

During his life, great social and intellectual changes in the plain of the Ganges River in India took place. Sensitive people began to question traditional values and to be open to radically new ideas. People called “sramanas”, or “strivers,” began to separate from society and to live as ascetics and beggars in order to search for truth through meditation and reason.

Gautama became one of these people. After he began to question the meaning of life in the face of suffering, he left his family and all of his wealth at the age of 29 to strive for “the unaging, unailing, deathless, sorrow less, undefiled, unexcelled security from bondage, Nirvana”.

With several teachers, Gautama reached the same level of awareness as his teachers but recognized that their practice did not lead to nirvana. He then tried to attain enlightenment by himself, through mortification of his body. He held his breath even when it caused violent headaches, and he fasted until he was totally emaciated. He did this until the 6th year after his renunciation. Realizing that total mortification was not leading him to liberation, he tried to think of a better way.

He remembered a boyhood experience of absorption in the inner sense of his body. He was too weak to try this, so he allowed himself to be fed. This was the first step in his Middle Way to Awakening. He realized that liberation could not be reached through abstracted meditation or through total escape from the body through mortification. He recognized that “a healthy body is necessary for the development of discernment in order to understand the relationship between the body and the mind.”

Gautama then sat under a tree at sunset, facing east. The tree is called the “Bodhi Tree,” meaning “Tree of Awakening.” He resolved not to get up again until he had reached his goal.

The journey that he took that night led to his achievement of nirvana, or Enlightenment. What he learned through this journey was what he went on to teach to others so that they might also find release from suffering.

The first step on the journey was that Mara, the personification of death, delusion, and temptation, became alarmed that Gautama was so close to achieving his goal. He first planted doubts in Gautama’s mind and then attacked him with his ten armies: sensuality, discontent, hunger and thirst, craving, sloth and torpor, fear, doubt, hypocrisy, self-exaltation, and the desire for fame. The Bodhisattva (which means being who is about to be awakened) recognized the attacks for what they were and sent them away in defeat.

As the full moon rose, Gautama focused on his in-and-out breathing and ascended the four stages of meditative absorption. The fourth serves as a foundation for the six superknowledges: psychic powers (e.g. walking on water, levitation,) psychic hearing, knowledge of other’s minds, memory of one’s former lives, psychic vision, and the ending of the pollutants of the mind. The pollutants of the mind (or asravas) are: sensual desire, states of being, views, and ignorance.

It is these pollutants that lead to suffering through attachment.

Gautama’s progress through the night went like this:

* from dusk till ten p.m.: he acquired the fourth superknowledge, and knew his many thousands of previous lifetimes, seeing them one by one.

* from ten p.m. till 2 a.m., he acquired the fifth superknowledge, psychic vision. He saw the decease and rebirth of living beings everywhere. He saw that good karma leads to a happy rebirth, and evil karma to a miserable one.

* from 2 a.m. till dawn, he acquired the sixth superknowledge. He reached the ending of the asravas, the pollutants of the mind. He saw the pattern of how ignorance gives rise to personal suffering and to the experience of rebirth as a whole.

Gautama became the Buddha or “Awakened One” on that night.

Awakened to the cycles of birth and death that are caused by karma, he escaped from those cycles, He had 45 years of life left, though, because of karma he had earned in other lives. He did not create any more karma. Out of compassion for other beings, he decided to teach others the path to Enlightenment during his remaining 45 years.

So, what is Karma? I have heard about it but never understood exactly what it meant. Karma is defined as an intentional act, performed by body, speech, mind, which---in line with the intention it embodies- will result in happiness or suffering in this or a future rebirth. There is a bumper sticker that is a favorite of mine that may help you to understand this. It says, “ My karma ran over my dogma.”

Karma works within a complex cosmological system. There are six major destinies for rebirth. They are: hell, the level of hungry ghosts (those who wander around on earth and are never satisfied,) common animals, human beings, spirits, and Brahmas (gods). To be reborn in hell, as a hungry ghost or an animal, is the result of evil karma. To reborn as a human being, a spirit, or a god, is the result of good karma.

So, Buddhists do believe in gods, but even the status of a god is temporary.

Even the good karma that gets you into heaven runs out eventually. The bad karma that causes a rebirth in hell is also burned up in hell eventually. The human realm is the realm in which karma is worked out, for good or for bad. The radical change that the Buddha brought about was that of removing ethics from ritual practice. Intention in the mind is the place where ethics are worked out.

I spoke to Rev. Kusala about rebirth. I asked how there can be rebirth if Buddhist’s do not believe in a traditional understanding of soul. He explained that what is reborn is called gandhabbha. A term used for the rebirth-linking consciousness. The gandhabbha is made up of one’s intentions, speech and action, in other words karmic energy. It is a recognition that we are made up of processes. We are not static selves. It is the process that is reborn. It goes through the painful process of birth and death again and again. It is not a static self that is reincarnated, or reembodied.

When the Buddha achieved Enlightenment, he escaped from the cycle of rebirth. What does this mean? Buddhism is often perceived as nihilistic or depressing. The idea of nirvana and a lack of soul or self is seen as negative.

Nirvana literally means: the extinguishing of a fire, in the Pali language. It is not as nihilistic as it sounds to us, however. In the physics of the Buddha’s time, a fire was understood to be in a state of agitation, dependency, and entrapment, when it was burning. It was seen to grow calm, independent and released when it went out. When a fire was put out, it was “freed.”

The Buddha used ancient Vedic notions of fire, that said that a fire did not go out of existence when extinguished, but simply went into an indeterminate state.

This is the case with Nirvana. It defies all dualism of existent/ not-existent.
It can not be described by language, which is limited by conditions. It involves complete freedom from all attachments and all limitations.

Buddha called the Path to Nirvana the Noble Eightfold Path. It was his middle way. The eight parts of the Noble Eightfold Path are: right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration. Knowledge of the path factors comes from the Four Noble Truths that the Buddha recognized in his

Enlightenment and preached in his first sermon. They are:

* First, the truth of suffering. Suffering is involved in every aspect of conditioned existence.

* Second, the truth of the origination of suffering. Suffering is caused by our craving and striving for sensuality, for becoming and for holding on to what is.

* Third, the truth of the ending of suffering. Suffering ends through dispassion, renunciation, and nondependence.

* Fourth, the truth of the path leading to the end of suffering, the Noble
Eightfold Path.

So what do the Buddha’s experience and teachings have to say to those of us who are beginners? For myself, the basic awareness that all thing are impermanent leads to an understanding that I cause myself and others suffering when I try to clutch at something and control it to stop it from changing. It seems to be a pretty basic human trait to fear change, and yet, the Buddha teaches that change is a fundamental truth of all existence. If we can accept things as they come, appreciate them in the moment, and then let them pass by, we will cause a lot less suffering.

Buddhism teaches awareness and acceptance of change. Change is a fundamental reality of our conditioned existence.

The concept of not-self also has a profound lessons for all of us. Our Western understandings of self often keep us from living in right relationship with each other and with our environment. When we understand ourselves to be distinct, static selves, we keep ourselves from the awareness of how radically interconnected we are. We literally constitute each other. Our intentions, and not just our actions, have an impact upon everyone and everything around us. It is our responsibility to change them through a difficult process of change.

There is a difference between being interconnected and taking other into one’s own ego. With strong ego, and a sense of ourselves as separate, we tend to relate to other people as if we are taking them into are own ego.

We perceive them through our own preconceptions and we are not able to perceive them as they are. An awareness of interconnectedness leads to unconditional love and compassion, rather than a conditional love born out of the needs of a ravenous ego.

Buddhism teaches compassion, we are to love all sentient beings as if they were our own children, unconditionally. When we give, we need to give with right intention, not with a desire for the promotion of self. We promote separation and we cause suffering if we don not give out of an intention of compassion.

There are obviously many lessons in Buddhism for all of us. The doctor has prescribed medicine to end our suffering, and we can choose whether or not, or how, we will take it in.

The End