Which Buddhist Teachings Might Be Most Helpful?
As many of you know, I write about Buddhism, not as a religion, but as a practical path for finding a measure of peace and contentment in life. Historically, the word “Buddhism” is a fairly recent label. It was the name given to the Buddha’s teachings in the 18th/19th centuries by British scholars and Christian missionaries when they traveled to the East. Along with the name “Buddhism,” came the designation “religion.” But the Buddha wasn’t a god; he was a human being like you and me.
People who want to learn about Buddhism often ask me what book they should buy. This is hard to answer because there is no one Buddhism: there’s Zen Buddhism, Tibetan Buddhism, Theravadin (my own original tradition), Nichiren, Pure Land, and a host of others. They developed in different parts of the world where they were influenced by local cultures and spiritual traditions. As a result, the beliefs and practices of one tradition can differ significantly from the those of another. So, how do you decide which teachings would be good for you to follow and practice?
The Kalama Sutta as a Guide
The written record of the Buddha’s oral teachings are often called suttas. In the KalamaSutta, the Buddha addressed the question of how to decide what to believe and what to practice. I’ve used this sutta as a guide for over twenty years. As the story goes, a group of people known as the Kalamas sought the Buddha’s advice because the doctrines that their various teachers were trying to get them to follow were in conflict. As a result, they were confused and didn’t know who or what to believe.
In a remarkable statement, the Buddha told them not to rely on knowledgeable people, or on tradition, or on scripture, or even on their own logical reasoning. He told them to investigate for themselves and rely on what was verifiable through their own observation and direct experience. He went on to say this:
This contemplation is your teacher: If your words and actions are likely to lead to harm and suffering, abandon them. If your words and actions are likely to lead to the welfare and benefit of all, cultivate them.
This is the criteria I use in deciding what teachings to follow and practice. Based on my own observation and direct experience, I look for which teachings are non-harmful and beneficial to all. I’ll use “past lives” as an example, but first want to state that if you’ve had a different experience with this doctrine than I have, that’s fine. People have to discover for themselves which teachings are consistent with the Buddha’s guidelines from theKalama Sutta.
Some scholars interpret past lives metaphorically rather than literally. Metaphorically, past lives can be seen as a reference to past identities, such as (for me) modern dancer, surfer, law professor. I find this interpretation to be beneficial because it’s a potent reminder of how clinging to identities that no longer apply to my life is a source of suffering and unhappiness for me.
By contrast, if I treat past lives as a literal doctrine (as I think most people assume Buddhists do), for me, it fails the test from the Kalama Sutta. First, I have no direct knowledge of past lives. Second, in my experience, the belief in past lives is often a source of suffering for people. I frequently write about chronic pain and illness. Because of this, I’ve received countless emails from people who are desperately searching for an explanation for why they’re not in good health.
Many of them believe that their health struggles are due to something they did in a past life—something terrible that they’re now being punished for. They’re trapped in painful feelings of guilt and shame over some imagined past act, even though they have no direct knowledge of it. This belief has become a profound source of suffering for them. Looking for answers, they contact me for help. I can only be honest with them, and so I say that I don’t believe in past lives because I have no direct experience of them.
Again, I want to emphasize that this is my view, based on my personal experience. Others may have direct recollection of past lives and may find this to be useful and beneficial. In my experience, it’s often a source of needless mental suffering for people. When I respond to their emails, I tell them that, in my view, they’re sick or in pain because they’re in bodies and bodies are subject to illness and injury and aging. That’s the essence of the Buddha’s first noble truth.
Which of the Buddha’s teachings and practices do I find to be non-harmful and beneficial? These in particular: cultivating what are called the brahma viharas (kindness, compassion, joy in the joy of others, and equanimity); meditating (even if only for twenty minutes…and always lying down!); practicing mindfulness (which keeps me from ruminating about the past and worrying about the future); practicing the precepts (ethical guidelines for living without harming); investigating the human condition (the ever-changing nature of experience—which makes my life so unpredictable and uncertain; the suffering and unhappiness that arise when I cling to the desire for things to be the way I want them to be instead of the way they are).
So long as you are committed to a path of non-harming and of trying to alleviate suffering in this world, it doesn’t matter if you follow Tibetan Buddhism, Zen, Theravadin Buddhism, or any of the other traditions. When I was first attracted to the Buddha’s teachings, I became fixated for several years on finding “the right tradition.” I skipped from one to another, not out of curiosity, but out of anxiety; I thought one tradition held the magic key to ever-lasting peace.
I hope you don’t follow my example. Instead, examine the teachings in light of yourunderstanding of what is harmful and leads to suffering, and what is beneficial and leads to peace and well-being. Today, I think of myself as an eclectic Buddhist, meaning that I study, practice, and write about whatever I think is beneficial and alleviates suffering, regardless of which tradition it comes from.
Buddhism is not a passive practice where you sit back and receive some kind of divine revelation. It’s an active practice. It takes effort to be mindful and to follow the precepts. It takes effort (and courage) to investigate the human condition. It takes effort to commit to inclining your mind toward kindness, compassion, empathetic joy, and equanimity.
It’s the work of a lifetime. For me, it’s the most valuable of endeavors because it points the way to compassion for myself and others, and because it holds the promise of finding peace and contentment with my life as it is.
Toni Bernhard J.D
Source: www.psychologytoday.com (Jun.16, 2015)