The Buddha and the Way
The teachings about the way things have
become do not become a force for full awakening
for someone who is infected with problematic desire. (Sn. 764)
Prince Gautama (Gotama in Pali language), who became known as The Buddha (the Awakened One), was born in Lumbini in the foothills of the Himalayas, on a full moon night around 563 BCE and died on a full moon night at the age of 80 years around 483 BCE. Asita, A hermit of the Kingdom, predicted that Gautama would either become a great sage or a great king. On a journey from Kapilavasthu, the capital of the Sakyan Kingdom, Gautama’s mother, Queen Maya Devi gave birth to Gautama under a sal tree. She died a week after his birth. Thus his father, King Suddodhana and his mother’s sister, Maha Pajapati, raised him.
Born into a noble family, Prince Gautama lived an existence wrapped up in cotton wool, so to speak. Hidden from the harsh realities of life, such as aging, sickness, and death, he spent his years in the comfort of palaces and gardens, and received dutiful, unquestioning attention from family and numerous servants, who attended to his personal needs. At the age of 29, the story goes that Gautama witnessed aging, sickness, death, and a wandering mendicant. He realized the acute vulnerability of the human condition since all humanity had to endure, without exception, aging, declining health, sickness, pain, and death. The impermanence of life left him deeply troubled.
Finding it pointless to go on living in his sheltered existence, Gautama decided to flee his responsibilities as prince, heir to the kingdom, husband and father of a week-old boy, named Rahula [whose name means "chains']. One of the old Buddhist texts states that Gautama found it so difficult to leave his wife and son that he could not face pulling back the bed sheet to reveal the face of his little boy. He mounted his horse and rode to the edge of the city where he dismounted, cut off his shoulder length hair, and set off on a spiritual search.
Gautama spent time practicing under the spiritual guidance of Alara Kalama who taught him how to achieve profound mystical states of consciousness and gain mastery over those states. Alara invited Gautama to teach with him to other disciples. Despite his depth of experience, Gautama felt dissatisfied and became instead a disciple of Udaka Ramaputta, reputed to be the most advanced teacher in the region. But, again, the former Prince felt dissatisfied.
Although he gained mastery over these spiritual experiences and could enter them at will, he would emerge from these states and have to deal with the responsibilities of his daily life. He then left the ashram of Udaka Ramaputta and travelled to Sarnath, where dedicated yogis lived in the forest about two hours walk from Varanasi, the world’s oldest city of pilgrimage.
In his search for truth and understanding, Gautama engaged there in intensely rigorous and self-punishing spiritual practices in a determined effort to free himself from his anguish and from all connection with his mortality. Eventually, he realized he felt no closer to the awakening and liberation that he sought, so he left the forest in Sarnath to find his own way. His journey took him to Bodh Gaya in Bihar, northern India, around 180 miles from Sarnath.
In the latter years of his life, Gautama recalled to his friends his awakening at the age of 35 in Bodh Gaya. He said that at the age of 12 years of age, he had sat under a tree watching King Suddhodhana, his father, ploughing the land in a ceremony to mark the start of the season for growing rice. While sitting under the tree, he felt a deep happiness, a concentration of mind, the capacity to reflect, and inner peace. In Bodh Gaya, he asked himself if this could be the way to awakening and liberation. He acknowledged the importance of this experience as a means to go deep within rather than putting intense pressure on himself.
Gautama then sat under a Bodhi tree on a night of the full moon. He recalled his past lives as father, son, prince, heir to the throne, husband, seeker, yogi—and perhaps earlier lives as well—and how these roles arose and passed. He also experienced meditation experiences at a variety of depths and gained access to various realms of consciousness. Most important of all, he woke up to the essential truths of life that human beings face, and he became “the awakened one”—the Buddha.
After the night of his awakening, he spent seven weeks engaged in sitting and walking meditation to give him time to reflect on the significance of what he had realized. Out of these realizations, insights, and reflections, he formed the body of his teachings called the Dharma. The Buddha then spent the next forty-five years (from the age of 35 to 80) teaching the Dharma in northern India. He encouraged men and women to leave the householders’ life for the homeless way of life, yet gave profound teachings both to householders and those who lived a nomadic way of life alike.
The Buddha took the Sanskrit word dharma (dhamma in Pali) from his orthodox religious background where dharma generally meant “duty.” The way he used it, it has a three-fold meaning:
literally “that which upholds or supports”
the teachings of the Buddha
The Theravada Tradition
Theravada is the oldest tradition of Buddhism, with more than 100 million followers today, mostly in Burma, Cambodia, Laos, Sri Lanka, and Thailand. Authority for the Theravada traditions rests with the monks. There is a tradition in Thailand of monks taking full ordination for a short period, such as a week, often to make merit or as a form of respect to a recently deceased relative. Others are ordained for months or years, or stay ordained for the rest of their lives. Many Theravada monks take care of monasteries and temples in cities, towns, and villages. Other monks teach in schools, or live in the forest or in monasteries devoted to Vipassana (insight meditation).
The Theravada tradition relies for its primary authority on around 5000 Pali discourses (suttas) believed to contain the teachings and practices that the Buddha offered. Oral tradition kept the teachings alive for 300 years after the death of the Buddha. Monks then wrote the teachings down. Western Pali translators in the Theravada tradition have translated all the discourses of the Buddha into contemporary English. They provide an invaluable resource for teaching and for practice. In Sri Lanka in the 5th century, CE, Venerable Buddhaghosa wrote lengthy commentaries on the Pali suttas. Other respected monks over the centuries wrote additional commentaries that further formed the Theravada tradition. These commentaries also included the Abhidhamma, an analytical interpretation of mind/body processes.
Theravada Buddhism certainly has all the hallmarks of a religion, since it features temples, rituals, ceremonies, chanting, merit making, and a belief in past and future lives. We might say that Theravada Buddhism, at its best, functions like the pod in a pod of peas. We dispense with the pod of the religion of Theravada Buddhism to gain access to the peas. At its worst, the religion of Theravada Buddhism becomes a distraction to the application of the Buddha Dharma that addresses every major area of our lives.
The Four Noble Truths
The foundation of the Buddha’s teachings is the Four Noble Truths, more accurately translated as “the Four Truths of the Noble Ones.” A practitioner of the Buddha Dharma becomes intimately familiar with the inquiry, reflection, and meditation upon the Four Truths of the Noble Ones, namely:
the arising of suffering
causes and conditions for the arising of suffering,
complete resolution, also referred to as nirvana or liberation
the way to the resolution.
The Buddha spoke in Pali. The Pali word for suffering is dukkha. Kha refers to the hole in the wheel. If the hole in the wheel is too big, the wheel is loose. If the hole is too small, the wheel endures friction and heat. Just as when a wheel is ill-fitting, so when we do not fit well into the nature of things, when we lack wisdom to move with events, we suffer in numerous ways, ranging from an unsettled mind to unhappiness and violent behaviour.
On the first truth: Suffering arises, said the Buddha, though not getting what we want, losing what we have, being separated from who or what we are attached to, and through clinging onto aspects of ourselves such as body, feelings, perceptions, thoughts, and consciousness. The Buddha never said, “life is suffering.” He would regard such a statement as a crude generalization that neglects the importance and the value of happiness, serenity, love, appreciative joy, and deep contentment.
On the second truth: He said that suffering arises only because there are causes and conditions for it to arise. Suffering does not arise through chance, a punishment from a God, or fate.
On the third truth: The Buddha said there was the complete resolution of human suffering through wisdom, realization, and the discovery of freedom, an authentic liberation through non-clinging.
On the fourth truth: The Buddha referred to the Way to realization as the Noble Eightfold Path.
The Way of Realization includes a deep examination of every truth of the Noble Path, and communicates a great concern for “right” living. In the Pali language, the word for right is samma. Samma carries the connotation of correct as opposed to incorrect, but samma also means “that which is fulfilling.” Practitioners of the Buddha’s Dharma live in accordance with the Way and the awakened ones live in accordance with the Way, a way that is fulfilling for us and beneficial for others and the world.
The eight links in the Path are:
Right Understanding or Right View
Right Meditative Concentration
These links are not sequential steps, like a ladder to spiritual attainment. Instead, spiritual growth is made when due attention is given to each of them as a person is ready and able. In more detail, these links facilitate our spiritual growth in the following ways:
1. Right Understanding, or Right View includes the contemplation of the Four Noble Truths in every arena of our daily lives. The first truth is to be understood. The second Truth involves letting go and changing conditions that give rise to suffering. The third Truth is to be fully realized, and the fourth Truth stresses emphasis on development of each on link in the eightfold path.
2. Right Intention: We learn to keep in touch with our intentions. We work upon intentions that cause stress and harm to ourselves or harm to others through body, speech, and acts of mind or acts of the will. Our intentions can carry a variety of feelings, thoughts, and memories that influence and give shape to our intentions. We find intentions in greed, anger, and fear, as well as in generosity, kindness, and fearlessness.
3. Right Speech: We take real notice of what we say and to whom we say it. Right speech requires vigilance and clarity. The Buddha said that on important matters we have to consider the right person, the right place, right time and the subject if we wish to communicate effectively with others.
4. Right Action: The principle of right action shows itself in the depth of clarity and love. We consider our intentions, actions, and results, and our relationship to them. Even noble actions do not guarantee that the results we pursue will emerge. We need the capacity to accommodate the results of actions due to a variety of conditions that we may not have perceived. At times, we have to trust in our intentions and actions even if the outcome is different from what we expected.
5. Right Livelihood: Work constitutes an important feature of many people’s daily lives. The Buddha advised against work that caused suffering, such as the manufacture of weapons, the making of poison, and slave labour. Right Livelihood considers others and ourselves, and requires a degree of maturity and a sense of responsibility. Right livelihood encourages us to question a career focused on position, status, making money, and the exploitation of people and resources. This feature of the Way includes inquiry into one’s lifestyle.
6. Right Effort. There are four aspects of right effort. What is worth developing? What is worth maintaining? What is worth overcoming? What is worth avoiding? For example, we see the value of developing and maintaining the Way. We see the value of overcoming addictions and avoiding people and situations that we know are unwise.
7. Right Mindfulness: Mindfulness gives protection. Absence of mindfulness leads to carelessness, ‘accidents,’ forgetfulness, and stress. Mindfulness contributes to peace of mind, connection with what is happening, and the capacity to respond. Mindfulness attends to the needs of the body, feelings, states of mind, and Dharma.
8. Meditative Concentration: Meditation is a key feature in the teachings of the Buddha. It offers inner depth, calmness, and insight. Through meditation, we becoming less demanding of others and the world. There are daily benefits also to meditative concentration: we can concentrate on what matters, and we have the capacity to focus our attention in the long term on a worthwhile vision.
The Teachings of the Buddha
The Buddha formulated his teachings into various groups or categories to make them easy to remember and to show the depth and breadth of his Dharma teachings. He made the teachings practical, down-to-earth, and free from religious rituals, rites, and ceremonies. He emphasized the importance of a ‘natural’ way of life free from the three poisons of the mind, namely greed, hate, and delusion. He refused to offer theories about how the world began or how it will end but kept his focus primarily on the immediacy of human experience and exploring ways to overcome the problems of the self.
The Buddha’s teachings address a wide variety of issues facing human existence. Of course, it is not possible to list them all in a short article such as this. Below are a few of the most important areas.
There is no kind of absolutism in the Dharma of the Buddha. The Buddha dropped the religious belief in God. Instead of claiming a God who created the world, or a First Cause, the Buddha proclaimed a teaching he called ‘dependent arising.’ Dependent arising is a core teaching of the Buddha. He proclaimed that only causes and conditions bring about life, sentient and insentient, and refuted claims of a Creator God or First Cause to produce existence. Causes have no independent existence since they depend on causes and conditions as well. Countless contingency factors enable the changing presence of the universe, the world, consciousness, atoms, the material world, past, present, future, life, death and all experiences, healthy or problematic. There is not a hand of God nor Devil nor divine force that shapes events nor any universal agency that dispenses rewards and punishment for beliefs or behaviour.
Nagarjuna, the 2nd century AD commentary on the Buddha’s teachings wrote in his classic text The Fundamentals of the Middle Way (Mulamadhyamaka-Karika in the first verse on causality
No ‘thing’ arises from nothing,
No ‘thing’ arises from itself.
No ‘thing’ arises from another self.
No ‘thing’ arises from both.
No ‘thing’ arises from a metaphysic (such as chance, accident, fate, destiny, random selection or the hand of God.
The Buddha showed the emptiness of any independent self-existence of any ‘thing.’ The Buddha said,
When there is this, that comes to be;
with the arising of this, that arises.
When there is not this, that does not come to be;
with the cessation of this, that ceases.’ Samyutta Nikaya 12.61
He referred to the All—namely senses and sense object, consciousness, and its objects. He said to claim anything outside of that as All is a theory. The Buddha pointed to the emptiness of self-existence. Again, it is an immense challenge to comprehend deeply the significance of the statement. He used the example of a chariot:
Is the chariot the wheels? No
Is the chariot, the stand for the driver? No.
Is the chariot the steering aid to control the horses? No.
If we take away all the parts of the chariot, then there is no chariot. The chariot lacks any self-existence. It is not some ‘thing.’ Examining the parts, we also see that the parts have no self-existence. The parts consist of numerous causes and conditions coming together. The Buddha Dharma emphasized realizing the emptiness of self-existence of any ‘thing.’ No ‘thing’ is worth grasping onto, including the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, namely the Noble Community of the Wise.
Whatever is dependently arising, such as the chariot, shows that no thing whatsoever ultimately exists, nor possesses any inherent nature or essence. Events and situations depend upon the conditions that allow them to be present and cease when those conditions drop away.
The Middle Way
It is not surprising that, soon after his awakening, the Buddha hesitated to offer such teachings. Belief in God or belief in materialism, or both, had such a grip on human consciousness that he felt that it would be ‘wearisome and a vexation” to teach a Dharma that would be difficult to explain since his teachings would neither advocate materialism nor God. Under the Tree of Awakening, he had realized the importance of the causes and conditions that give rise to events. He said human beings could not prove the existence of an interventionist God. Not far from the bodhi tree in Bodh Gaya, he met a Brahmin who strongly encouraged him to teach because the Brahmin knew there were human beings with a “little dust in their eyes.” The Buddha recognized the truth of what the Brahman said and then set off to Sarnath to offer teachings on what he called “the middle way.” He shared the four noble truths with his friends in Sarnath. Like himself, his friends were dedicated yogis who had practiced harsh and extreme methods to try to overcome the problem of the self, the ego.
His friends assumed at first that he had watered down his resolution for liberation until they realized the wisdom of the middle way. His five friends followed his teachings and began to travel with him. After this important meeting with his friends, the Buddha walked to Kapilavasthu, the capital, to see his wife, Yashodhara, and Rahula, his six-year-old son. Mother and son also recognized the profound significance of his wisdom. He intended to meet his two spiritual teachers to share with them his awakening but Gautama found that they had both passed away.
The Buddha emphasized a nomadic way of life for those who felt trapped in the role of the householder. Despite his initial reluctance to teach, he became the first teacher in history to call upon women to join the Sangha (the community of men and wisdom of noble wisdom). The Sangha lived a life of utter simplicity to find and know wisdom in daily life as well as the profound happiness of liberation. As the centuries went by, this nomadic way of life faded due to wars and famines that destroyed many monasteries.
When the Buddha spoke to the five yogis, he taught against living in extreme situations, referring to the morbid austerities they had previously practiced. He gave teachings to householders on the noble path to awakening and warned against maximizing interest in the pursuit of pleasurable sensations regardless of the cost to others, our environment, and ourselves. He showed that a lack of fulfilment contributed to the desire for self-gratification. He encouraged the development of each of the five senses to see objects clearly and free from projections problematic desire and aversion. We become beggars at the sense doors in our need to feel good about ourselves through making endless efforts to get what we want.
We can also slide easily into the other extreme, namely self-hate. We put ourselves down, and we have a low sense of self-worth. We feel we are not good enough in various areas of our life such as relationships, work, or levels of intelligence. Our daily lives can swing from the constant need to boost ourselves up to the other extreme of putting ourselves down. The Middle Way offers a different approach to life.
The Dharma addressed ethics as well. We develop ethics to live in integrity and to live in harmony with our deep values. Living ethically requires consistent reflection. We examine ourselves to recognize and determine the way we treat others, near and far. Ethics contributes to right action. In a small number of discourses, the Buddha explained the principles of ethics.
I undertake the training not to kill.
I undertake the training not to steal.
I undertake the training not to engage in sexual abuse.
I undertake the training not to tell lies.
I undertake training not to engage in activities that contribute to heedlessness (abuse of alcohol and drugs).
The principle of ethics means we treat others the same way as we wish to be treated. These principles and practices affect our values, lifestyle, as well as our whole being. Ethics matter far more than the
vested interests of the nation state
the desire for personal accumulation
satisfying sexual needs
distortion of truth due to the ego's need to get its own way
stimulating the mind that makes us act heedlessly
There are also important ethical issues in watching and transforming desire, aversion, and fear. It is an ethic to inquire into the nature of existence, to explore the heart, and to remain committed to realizing our infinite potential.
Reflection serves as another important feature for clear comprehension and insight into ourselves, others, and situations. We have the capacity to reflect on our experiences, uncover the process that puts together an experience, and learn from events. Reflection provides us with insights that support us in the present and future. Key to the awakening process, reflection contributes to an authentic sense of staying in touch with the unfolding processes of events, including our inner life. Excessive thinking confirms an underlying stress.
Meditation is an important feature of Dharma practice since it contributes to calmness of being, harmony of body and mind, inner peace, and equanimity. Meditation contributes to a direct understanding of the Dharma, as distinct from an intellectual one.
The Buddha Dharma also reveals itself as inquiry. Inquiry includes the development of our capacity to listen, ask questions, and respond to a senior in the Dharma. Seniors in the Dharma have nothing to do with age but with depth of experience, realizations, and their capacity in various ways to articulate their understanding. Inquiry reveals itself when we listen totally and attentively to a Dharma talk, ask important questions, and face important questions from another or from within. This inquiry requires a certain trust in the teacher or senior in the Dharma.
Inquiry into experience constitutes another feature of the Middle Way. One extreme means grasping onto experiences to build up the ego, and the other extreme is rejection of experiences. We engage in meditation, reflection, inquiry, and association with the wise. We regard the bringing together of all of this as an opportunity for an authentic transformation.
Mindfulness and meditative concentration, along with a variety of tools and techniques, enable us to work with our relationship to the body, feelings, states of mind, and the Dharma itself. Insights from our practice empower us to discover much through first-hand experience. It places much responsibility on our capacity to develop and realize truth. Yet, the practice does not slide into a kind of narcissistic view of self-interest through any introversion of meditation and inner reflection.
To put the point more simply, the Buddha Dharma does not convey that the truth is within you, nor in another, past or present, nor above, nor in the book, nor between any of those. Truth dependently arises; Insight and wisdom dependently arise.
It might appear that the Buddha has renounced the human being’s quest for the divine. Far from it. He has taken the concept of the divine and placed it firmly in the heart where we can realize it (realize means to make real) on a daily basis. He did not speak of love for the divine but rather stated that love is divine. Love includes deep friendship and loving kindness. There is no gap between love and the divine. He gives equal emphasis to the divine as compassion (the act of love to dissolve suffering), appreciative joy and equanimity—the capacity to stay steady and clear amidst the challenging dynamics that beset our lives—and life itself. Once again, the Buddha brings the divine down-to-earth, into the heart, rather than making the divine a religious, remote metaphysical being accessible to the few. There is neither rejection of the divine in the Dharma nor overreacting and grasping onto it as an absolute.
Authentic expressions of love, compassion, appreciative joy, and equanimity confirm the divine within us. Again, we do not have to take up the view that the divine is eternal, immortal, or a step toward something else.
As empowered human beings, we express the divine in the ordinary affairs of daily life, without fear or favour. The power of the divine transforms our way of looking at the world to the point that the fear of enemies, identification with the ambitions of the nation state, and rage against terror loses its validity. We live without enemies while engaging in direct action, loving, compassionate, appreciative, and equanimous about the outcome. The divine enables us to speak with clear conviction rather than trusting in verbal or physical violence or weapons.
Through the divine abiding, we know and express wisdom of the heart. Through insight and understanding, we find wisdom of the mind. Wisdom and the heart/mind points to an immediate and direct liberation with its loss of substance to the ego, the notion of 'I' and 'my.'
Readers might get impression that ethics and meditative concentration consist of practical tools to enable us to cope satisfactorily with our daily issues. While this is correct, the Buddha Dharma goes much deeper than that. The Dharma consists of wisdom teachings. With calmness and meditative concentration, we examine our relationship to roles and actions, to purpose and direction. There are extraordinarily deep layers within. Human beings have the capacity to open and expand consciousness, not only to uncover any dark unresolved forces within needing attention, but to discover the range of experiences that are profound, deep, subtle, and meaningful. The Buddha gave equal attention to worldly matters and spiritual matters.
The Noble Eightfold Path can be divided into three main sections: ethics, concentration, and wisdom. Wisdom is the third aspect of the threefold training. Wisdom means developing our capacity to understand ourselves, others, and situations. If we understand, it means that the situation stands under us—not oppressing our heart and mind, not consuming our thoughts, not tiring us or causing agitation. Wisdom also has the opportunity to arise through directly facing up to the difficult characteristics of existence rather than trying to paint a glossy picture of life on earth. We apply the power of ethics, meditative concentration, and wisdom to daily life.
Theravada Buddhists often place much emphasis on making merit for a better rebirth, as well as devotion to the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. This serves as a preliminary practice to help Buddhists experience faith and achieve a simple level of happiness. This approach is common in the Buddhist tradition but the Buddha placed his emphasis on immediate discovery of liberation through non-grasping. This liberation releases an authentic love, compassion, and wisdom .This is the heart of the Buddha’s teaching.
Spiritual Guidance in the Theravada Tradition
As much as the Buddha encouraged us to attend to our relationship to the world, he equally advocated access to the various depths within. The practitioner may feel quite uncertain about how to respond to these experiences. Senior practitioners in the Dharma offer guidance and wise advice.
It is at such times that the voice of the Dharma teacher matters. The teacher’s experience and wisdom stands as an external authority to support those new to the path or with less experience than the teacher over a similar or even longer length of time.
People become Dharma teachers through the invitation of a senior Dharma teacher who recognizes, usually over several years, the practitioner's wisdom and kindness. There is no history of a training course to be a Dharma teacher in the tradition of the East. The teacher, usually the abbot of a monastery of meditators, encourages a practitioner to join the teacher in checking the practice of other monks, nuns, and laypeople, facilitate groups, and giving Dharma talks from time to time. This mentorship approach works well, since it gives the new teacher responsibility while the Abbot takes overall responsibility for the Sangha of practitioners. The abbot then encourages the new teacher to move on and impart the Dharma to others as a fully independent teacher.
Dharma in the West
As the Buddha-Dharma travels from East to West, from the monastery to the home, office and factory, the teachings and practices find their application. While few Westerners wish to take ordination as Buddhist monks and nuns, increasing numbers of Westerners appreciate the application of Buddhist practices to their daily life. The media often states that the fastest growing religion or philosophy of life in the West is Buddhism.
The most common form of introduction to the Buddha Dharma in the West occurs in intensive meditation retreats in the growing number of Buddhist centres or rented facilities in numerous Western countries. Books, public talks and short workshops on Buddhist themes initiate people interested in the Buddha’s teachings in ethics, meditative concentration and wisdom. Introductory classes often serve as a useful stepping stone to retreats ranging in length from a weekend, to a week, three months and, for a few, three years.
Starting often around 5:30 AM and finishing around 10 PM, these retreats, conducted mostly in silence, include a daily Dharma talk, small group meetings with the Dharma teacher(s), one-to-one meetings with the teacher(s), as well as comprehensive meditation instructions and guided meditations. There is no conversion experience in the Buddha-Dharma. The Buddha referred to awakening, the Dharma and the Sangha (those committed to the Way) as the three jewels of existence. He said happiness is the true wealth of existence.
The experience of the intensive retreat in the West inspires many practitioners to practice the principles of mindfulness and insight, love and compassion, in daily life. Numerous small groups meet in countless cities, towns, and villages to sit together in meditation on a weekly basis, share together a Dharma theme, or listen to a recorded talk or DVD. Some practitioners travel to the Buddhist countries of the East or discover the Dharma while backpacking in the East.
The Theravada tradition relies largely on the commentaries, forms, and rituals of the tradition. A number of Asian and Western Dharma teachers have dropped the 5th century commentaries on the Buddha's teachings. Others draw upon books from the Theravada tradition itself. Developments from the Theravada tradition now being applied to life in the West include:
contemporary commentaries of the Buddha’s teachings
fresh applications of the Dharma to Western life
formal calm and insight meditation practices
inquiry into identity, self and non-self
integration with various traditions, Buddhist and otherwise
mindfulness courses for stress reduction
dialogue with philosophy, psychology, science
questioning of consumerism
reflection on ultimate and relative truth
revival of full ordination of women
Spiritual Issues Faced by Theravada Buddhists
The translation of Buddhism from its native Eastern context to its new home in the West has not always been easy, and some practitioners continue to struggle with religious and cultural aspects of Buddhism. Wise spiritual guides, sensitive to issues that Buddhists practicing in the West are struggling with, can help them overcome many difficult obstacles on their paths and can assist them in developing an effective and rewarding practice.
Many practitioners of Buddha Dharma are reluctant to call themselves “Buddhists.” They prefer to be free from such labels. Spiritual guides can help such people work through their difficulties with labels. Some may wish to stay free from the use of such a label as Buddhist” while others may wish to define themselves as “Buddhists.”
There is a debate in the West about giving full ordination to women. The number of fully ordained Western Buddhist nuns is very small. The situation is similar in the East. Spiritual guides can help Western Buddhists talk through their issues with the patriarchal structures in the religion, and can support them as they work for change. Some Buddhist women experience a painful journey. Spiritual guides can both hold their feelings in a sacred context and encourage them to develop their spiritual authority to make their voice heard.
There is an immense growth of interest in the application of mindfulness in the West. It has become a distinct branch of psychology. Teachers of mindfulness offer practitioners practical tools to develop calmness, reduce stress/pain levels, cultivate single-pointed attention and get to know themselves better. Clients and patients learn also how to develop warm relationships with others through loving kindness meditations. Mindfulness courses take place in hospitals, clinics, schools, prisons, charities and other various areas of the public sector. There are also mindfulness programmes in businesses and the largest corporations. Some long standing Buddhist teachers express concern the application of secular mindfulness in corporations fails to be explicit on ethics, depths of meditation, moderation of lifestyle, emptiness of self and full awakening. The teachers do invite enquiry into treatment of low paid workers, obsession with targets or the use of mindfulness practices to achieve the goals of the company. Certain religious Buddhists call for teachings on karma, past lives, rebirth, the heavenly, hells and human realms to comprehend the Buddha’s teachings. There are religious Buddhists, secular Buddhists and those who endeavour to develop a middle way between the two.
Monasteries served as the traditional resource for the preservation of the teachings over the past 2600 years. The West generates new centres for Dharma and meditation that far outnumber Western monasteries. This is a sign of the lay community coming of age. Spiritual guides can help direct Buddhists to go on retreats and give them any support required after attending retreats.
There are cultural differences between East and West. For example, many Westerners are not concerned with a belief in rebirth whereas most Asian Buddhists take rebirth for granted. Spiritual guides can help Westerners come to their own understanding about rebirth reminding Buddhists that the Buddha used a provisional language at times about rebirth. See the Kalama Sutta (Discourse) of the Buddha.
The Buddha described the Sangha as those men and women with deep realization. In the East, the Sangha refers almost exclusively to the Sangha of the ordained in monasteries. The West refers to the Sangha as all practitioners. Spiritual guides can help make clear the broad use of the concept Sangha in the West. Sangha literally means "Community or Gathering." There is a general view in the West that monks, nuns, and laypeople are equal partners in the Sangha.
Buddhists in Asia generally regard celibacy as part of Buddhist practice. The West generally treats intimate relationships and life as a single man or woman in much the same way. Spiritual guides can help show the development of the Western Dharma in this area. There is the opportunity for spiritual guides to show equal respect for those living a celibate life and those in an intimate relationship as offering equal opportunity for practice.
In the East, nearly all teachers are ordained monks. There are only a few exceptions in all the major Buddhist traditions. In the West, Dharma teachers are fairly equally distributed between men and women, lay people and ordained. Spiritual guides can help remind Buddhists that their practice includes listening to the voices of wisdom. The Buddha said there are four kinds of assemblies in the Sangha: monks, nuns (spiritual nomads) and householders, men and women. Practitioners need to check out voices of wisdom and compassion among, monks, nuns and householders.
In the Theravada tradition, there is a common view that one will take ordination if one is fully committed to Dharma practice. Western practitioners do not share this view. Spiritual guides can help Buddhists to be very clear about the importance of every aspect of the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path. Some householders experience a calling for ordination and follow through. Some monks and nuns experience a calling to return to the householders’ life and follow through.
Western practitioners have contact with other religious traditions and knowledge of various expressions of spirituality, lifestyle, and psychotherapy. These other traditions and disciplines are not readily available in Buddhist countries. Theravada tradition in Buddhist countries may know very little about Mahayana Buddhism or vice-versa. There is a more eclectic approach in the West to the Dharma than in the East. Spiritual guides can help make clear the distinctive features of the Buddha Dharma and the Theravada tradition while drawing on the wisdom of other teachings from other traditions and contemporary mind/body disciplines/institutions.
Some Western Dharma teachers regard their role as being similar to a priest or rabbi. Other Western teachers see their role as a good friend while applying their authority and wisdom only in certain situations. Spiritual guides can help Buddhists see their own priority in terms of finding a teacher. Some Buddhists benefit from contact with more than one teacher. Dharma practitioners need to keep in mind the essential reference point of ethics, meditation and wisdom.
There is often an attempt to place the Dharma into a Western category such as religion, philosophy, or psychology. The Dharma simply does not fit into such categories. Religion often holds belief in an absolute. Philosophy is the exploration of ideas, and psychology deals with mental wellbeing. Spiritual guides can help make distinctions clear between Dharma and the Western categories. There is much comparison and analysis between the Buddha Dharma and Western thought. Spiritual guides can remind Buddhists of the value of their first-hand experience to safeguard against getting lost in metaphysics.
Teachers of the Dharma and meditation encourage their practitioners to examine the range of joyful and painful experiences, worldly and spiritual. Spiritual guides can encourage meditators to “squeeze the honey”--to quote the Buddha--out of these experiences for insight and understanding. What is the essential message in the experience? What are the causes and conditions that brought about the experience? What is the outcome of the experience? What do you want to apply to daily life? A practitioner can explore equally the impacts of the range of joyful and painful experiences. Spiritual guides need to ask short, precise questions to contribute to the resolution and understanding of the Buddhist practitioner's situation.
Buddhists give a great deal of attention to the tendency to cling. Buddhists use the word "attachment.” Clinging and attachment have much the same meaning for many Buddhists. Attachment in Buddhism has a different meaning from the use of attachment in Western psychology where attachment of mother to her child is necessary and healthy. Pali word for attachment is “upadana,” and the word literally means “to fuel or inflame.” In Buddhism, non-attachment means not inflaming a situation within or outside of oneself. Spiritual guides can help Buddhists to see where they are fuelling a situation or clinging onto it.
There are a wide range of Buddhist practices and explorations to open consciousness. Some practitioners get lost in the supermarket of choices or are stuck with a single method. Spiritual guides can help to simplify the practices or expand the sense of practice.
A transformed life includes heart, mind, speech and body. Spiritual guides help the practitioner address all four of these areas. Meditation contributes to a transformed life expressing love and liberation. It is hard for some practitioners to make sense of important spiritual experiences. Spiritual guides can help to direct the practitioner to respected senior Dharma teachers. The guide needs to ensure she or he can speak the same language as the practitioner and not try to use another religious or spiritual language, as this often leads to the practitioner feeling misunderstood. Dharma teachings and practices recognize the profound value of communication, the equally profound value of meditative silences in the midst of communication so the right words can emerge from the deep.