So to these young Christians I can say, "Believe in Christ if you wish, but remember, Jesus never claimed divinity either." Yes, believe in a unitary God, too, if you wish, but cease your imploring, pleading for personal dispensations, health, wealth, relief from suffering. Study the Eightfold Path. Seek the insights and enlightenment that come through meditative learnings. And find out how to achieve for yourself what prayer and solicitation of forces beyond you are unable to accomplish.
There are many young people who believe that God answers their prayers. Does he? Is prayer-answering the purpose of a supreme being? A young man recently came to us asking for food and shelter. He was young, able-bodied, and, yes, intelligent. We received him, fed him and gave him a room for several days. When it became apparent that this fellow had no intention of ever leaving, we felt he should go off on his own. He was highly indignant! When he left we asked him if he intended to work and earn enough to take care of his own needs. He answered, "No, God will provide. If I follow his light, that is enough. He will take care of me!"
If there is a God, why should he take care of able-bodied young men simply because they have unreserved and total faith in him, when there are so many really unfortunate, desolate people who really need help? Did God provide for the millions of Jews in concentration camps who were slowly gassed to death en-masse, their agonies of asphyxiation often lasting a full half-hour, before they were incinerated in German ovens? Is he there offering respite each day to the millions who are dying of cancer and other agonizing diseases all over the universe? Does he provide for all the masses of people, victims of floods, disasters and earthquakes, who are homeless and starving daily throughout the world?
Yes, believe in a God, if you will, I tell them, but don't ask, ask and ask. Don't beg. Provide, as best you are able, for yourself first. Then fill your heart and mind with love, with metta, and help, to the fullest possible extent, in the relief of suffering among others. This is the answer I give them. But cease your petitioning, your constant solicitation for private preference.
A Jewish girl from Israel came to meditate. She felt happy and calm in meditation, but she was worried. She said, "I do not want to forget my heritage. I was born in Jerusalem and am steeped in Jewish tradition." I answered her: "No problem. When you finish meditating, say the 'Shmah'!" This is the ancient prayer of the Jews to be said each morning of their lives and on their deathbeds. It consists of the words, "Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one." This, to those of the Jewish faith, may be a solacing thought, one that may yield them comfort, I told her. There is nothing in Buddhism, as a matter of fact, denying the right to believe in God if you so wish. Yet it must be pointed out that Buddhism places deityship on quite a different plane than monotheistic and polytheistic religions do. Still, with all your beliefs intact, you can benefit from much that Buddhism teaches, for instance from Buddhist meditation. We are all inter-related in common suffering. Even the word religion, derived from Latin, means joined or linked. Just as the word yoga also means the same, united. Whether this is expressed through a belief in a deity or not is of less importance than the fact that we recognize and accept the wonder of our common interrelationship. Certainly, I told her, there is nothing in the practice of Judaism that denies man's common relationship. The young lady was satisfied. As far as I know she sill meditates daily and recites the "Shmah."
Sometimes it is said that the Buddhists worship idols. Why all the incense, oil lamps, flowers set before Buddha-images? You must understand, I tell these young people, that the Buddhists are merely expressing their reverence for a great man of overwhelming vision and insight, one of the wisest teachers that ever lived, a man who laid out a whole way of life an a means of alleviating sorrow, strife and suffering. When they bow to him with hands clasped before them they do so in reverence and worship. But the meaning they attach to "worship" is not that of Western religionists. They ask nothing for their separate selves, no intercession of gods, no personal favors. Why is that? Because the Buddhist, neither in his life practice nor his philosophy, believes himself to be a separate being, a singular self, apart from others. Therefore, lacking separate personhood, there is no one for whom preference is sought. For the Buddhist "worship," then mean praise, reverence, a desire to imitate and be like the Buddha, to follow his ways and show appreciation for his teachings. He offers them no dispensations or favors, only a body of wisdom contained in the Dhamma which, if they but apply it to themselves, amounts to self-dispensation. In essence this means dispensing with all vanity, clinging, attachments, greed and ignorance, which may yet hamper them from being like the Buddha and aspiring to the perfection of being, which he in his life attained when reaching Nibbana here and now!
The great American statesman Thomas Paine said, "My mind is my church." In this statement he reiterates the belief of the Buddha. Buddhists do not believe it is necessary to have a middleman intercede between them and the perfection of the Master they chose to emulate and be like. In Buddhism there is no need for priests, ministers and preachers to pray for them in churches or temples. The Buddhist monk teaches, not preaches. He teaches man to find his way. He teaches purity of mind, and compassion, and love for all beings. He does not perform marriage service, but devotes his life only to teaching and scholarship and study, and to continuing self-purification through meditation, so that he can be an example to others.
Who may become a Buddha? And how does one become one? These are questions frequently asked me. The answers are that one has to enroll or join nothing, sign no document, be initiated by no baptism, nor disavow any other belief. All he has to do is to begin to live as Buddhists live, to find inspiration in the Buddha, to like and reverence his teachings, to begin to try to follow his Eightfold Path and, through meditation, to seek to gain merit and purity. To aspire, in fact, to become a Buddha himself! For Buddhahood is not a limited society. It is open to all. Many have attained it. Even the Buddha himself, in previous lives (so goes one of the legends built around him) chose to deny himself release through Nibbana and chose rebirth so that he might stay on and teach others.
Now let us examine the Buddha's remedy for the ending of suffering. A friend of mine once said, with respect to this, "It is all very simple: practice right thought, right speech and right action! Very good and very important. However, not so fast, my friend! All of the Eightfold Path is necessary, not just the small part of it you mention. It is all beautifully interrelated. There must be right understanding with right speech. There must be right action. There must be right effort. And with the right effort must follow right livelihood. And for all of these steps to work, think of them as steps. You don't get very far just moving up one step and remaining there. You have to combine them, join them, link them, and finally, climax them with still one more step to reach the top. And that step is right mindfulness.
How beautifully all these hang together like pearls on a necklace. But now think for a moment about what is meant by "right": that is to say, the rightness of speech, thought, action. Few pause to think what "right" means within this context. Does it mean right as opposed to wrong? Perhaps it does. And then, again, perhaps it doesn't. How many of us are able to discriminate at every juncture of our lives what is right and what is wrong? Does right, then, mean appropriate? Appropriate action, appropriate speech, etc.? Appropriate means suitable, suitable for the occasion. Is that always so easy to determine? What, then, does the Buddha's use of the word right come down to? Does it not come down to the fact that he is pointing out that there is choice, and that we have choice, that we can go this way or go that way, and that it is up to us and not him, and no god or supreme being, to determine our way? Is he not saying that this choice or volition amounts to our own kamma? And that while a lot of it is predetermined through our past lives or genetically, however you want to think of it, we can still alter, correct, change, refine re-aim this kamma, change its course? We and nobody else! And does not all of this point back to such qualities of action, speech, and thought, as are characterized as greedy, selfish, hateful, hostile, hurtful? As opposed to such qualities as generousness, selflessness, lovingness, kindliness, helpfulness? Do you not see that the Buddha is telling us to look behind words and not to accept them for their face value but for their internal, shall we say nuclear, meanings?
So we return again to the question as to whether Buddhism is a religion. In the sense that it offers us a moral code helping to conjoin us in the living together of a better life, yes, it is a religion. For that is the inner or nuclear meaning of religion -- relinking, rejoining. But if Buddhism is taken to imply belief in a supreme being who rules the universe and can be bribed to alter his decisions by our prayers and solicitations for personal preference, it is not a religion. And this Buddhism does not do. Well, then, the Christian may argue, man without God, without conscience, without a ruler of the universe, will revert to bestiality. Is this not like saying a being can't exist without a taskmaster? Are we then children? So weak that we can't exist without being "told" what we can and cannot do? How can we justify this?
The answers should be obvious. Man can rely on himself. Man can train his mind to right thinking, not because thereby he will be saved by a righteous God, but because right thinking will lead him on to the path of final liberation from suffering, which consists of right moral conduct, right meditation and right wisdom.
Now look at Buddhism. Does it not look up to you rather than down to you, treat you as an adult rather than a child, not demand and command, but patiently teach and instruct what practically amounts to the same thing? The Buddha states that we are heirs to our kamma, that we make it, form it, and that what we do in this existence does affect our lives in the next one. However, in Buddhism, there is no need of beating our breasts and heeding authoritarian demands that we repent. We can rise up out of our sloth and torpor, out of evil and ugliness, by "following the path." If it were true that without a vengeful God man would be less than human, how do we justify the existence for thousands of years of Buddhists living in peace and love with each other?
Christ and Buddha were alike in many ways. It is not my intention to disparage anyone's belief in Christ. Christ said, "Love thy neighbor as thyself." Buddha said, "Show compassion and loving-kindness to all beings." God said to the Jews, "Do not unto others that which you would not do unto yourself." This is what Christ later said in reverse, positively, but with the same meaning. It was Moses who interpreted the words of God to his people, but for that reason they did not clothe him in divinity, nor did he do so himself. Where the Buddhists and Christians part company is the Christ's followers accorded him divinity, whereas Buddha's disciples accord him reverence as a great being.
Why Is There Suffering in the World?
Buddha had taught (and I refer to The Buddha, for there have been many and you, yourself, may have the aspiration to one day be one), that it is man's clinging to the idea of separate selfness which is the cause of his suffering. Implicit in separate selfhood is egotism and craving. This is illusion, the basic illusion. The man who "prays to God" expresses craving. He is a clinger. He wishes something for self, is egotistic. Even the idea of a God expresses the thought of an extension of his egotism into a future life -- in heaven or wherever. The prayer craves for a beautiful painfree future or continuation of the present. In return he promises his God to be of good behavior.
Buddha teaches that beauty is fleeting, life is impermanent and transitory, that pain and sorrow are an outcome of the craving egotistic self. That craving is our suffering. Craving implies cravenness. To be craven is to fear. Fearfulness is suffering. Life is fearful.
There is suffering in the world because the fearful, fearing self continues in its illusion of lonely separateness. The separate self clings to its fears, its self-seeking, its pleading, hoping, craving. "Give me," it implores its God, "help me." What is the Buddha's answer to this? Does he not say, "Cleanse yourself of the self-idea, of its greed, hatred, ignorance"? And what is this ignorance? Is it not our ignoring, our refusal to see the basic illusion of selfhood?
We finally return to meditation again, to why we meditate. Meditation is a way, the Buddha's way of self-cleansing, self-elimination, of freeing the mind of its attachments to the impermananent and illusory. Through meditation we learn to detach the self from its assumptions, to realize that ego is substance-less, to free our mind from its defilements and illusions; to approach, through wisdom and compassion, the ultimate cessation of suffering which comes with Nibbana, the utter abandonment of our selfhood. In this no eternity is sought, no endless continuity. And no annihilation. For, since there is no one, what is there to annihilate? Or to eternalize?
In a way of thinking, is not this a kind of sublime mysticism? A creed or belief that yields unseeking equanimity, quietude and the end of suffering? Since all being, in the end, is mystery; since trembling , transitory being is but an illusory drop of water in a depthless ocean, why not accept it as so?
Those who crave for and pray to gods often achieve thereby a kind of mental purification. Even the prayers of sceptics often achieve the same result. If prayer brings relief and quietude, remission of suffering, it cannot be bad. But what if the relief is unlasting? Apart from the notion that prayer implies a dependency on external or supernatural authority, which I have no reason to bring into question, it definitely is based on the idea of a self as opposed to an other, and of bringing the two together in a sort of bargaining process. But what if we can accept the idea that there is no self to begin with and therefore no one to do the bargaining? I am reminded, in conclusion, of a little story:
A Christian missionary found a Chinese priest chanting in a temple. When the Chinese had finished, the missionary asked him: "To whom were you praying?"
"To no one," replied the Chinese priest.
"Well, what were you praying for?" the missionary insisted.
"Nothing," said the Chinese,
The missionary turned away, baffled. As the was leaving the temple the Chinese added, kindly: "And there was no one praying, you know!"
I have learned that through meditation one comes to appreciate vistas of truth in no other way attainable; and that if one does not come to understand totally and unquestionably the fullest depths of meaning possible as to the causes of suffering, one does at least arrive by painful experience and mindfulness to comprehension of its imponderability and immensity. I see it in a personal way, in my seventh decade, in severe and frequent anginas, in arthritic pains which make sittings so difficult that I must frequently change positions during meditation, or do standing meditation. I see it in my deafened and daily worsening hearing, the dimming of my eyes and in the realization that in the course of minding my breath and giving consideration to the dissolution of every component of my body, anicca, impermanence, is the source out of which this suffering or dukkha flows. Out of this impermanence, too, I sense the vastness of the illusion that we possess anything life abiding, continuous and distinguishable selfhood and that the epitome of suffering arises from this basic illusion -- that there is a "one," a "self" which is suffering or sufferable.
The facts of suffering, its truth, and the facts of impermanence as well, are widely recognized by most religions. All accept the basic tragical quality of life. Where Buddhism goes forward from the rest is in the maintenance and espousal of the theme of no-self. Life, death, impermanence and suffering then become but a process in which, in an ultimate and fundamental sense, there is no personal participation. From this notion comes release, emancipation and enlightenment. As phenomena we may continue to go on until the ultimate collapse of our bodies and death overtakes us. But since no self is any longer engaged in the process, it becomes depersonalized. We are no longer subjects or even objects of calamity, despair, disease. Disturbance, dejection, worry, dread, anguish, decay, enfeeblement, senility, no longer concern us. Serenity and equanimity come with a new wisdom reflecting our detachment not alone from these negative emotions but also from the positive ones such as longing, craving, hoping, desiring, wishing, clinging. Because, whether we realize and attain the positive results or goals sought through these emotions, or do not, there is continued suffering. We suffer if we fail to attain them and there is disappointment. If we do attain them, they are impermanent, suffer their own kind of decay, and out of this loss we suffer as well.
The goal, in the end, becomes the even-minded depersonalized middle course wherein irritation, aversion, uncertainty vanish. Hate and animosity become impossible. One is neither submissive nor rebellious. We transcend the need for personal love or hate. Quietude comes to us. Release. These are the goals of insight or vipassana meditation, whose aim is release from suffering. How close we come to realizing them will depend on the quality of those we seek out to teach us and on our own assiduity in the mindfulness with which we seek, through our meditation, to arrive at the other shore.
For inspiration to write this little booklet I wish to thank my good friend and teacher, Anagarika Tibbotuwawa. I also wish to thank my husband for his kindly suggestions and excellent editing.
May all beings be well and happy!
Buddhist Publication Society
Bodhi Leaves BL 85
Copyright © 1980, 1988 Dorothy FigenFor free distribution only. You may print copies of this work for your personal use. You may re-format and redistribute this work for use on computer networks, provided that you make no substantive alterations to its contents and that you charge no fees for its distribution. Otherwise, all rights reserved.
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Dhamma and Non-Duality by Bhikkhu Bodhi