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Explain Buddhism (Part I)
By Dr. Martin Verhoeven
Let me start first off by saying it is my own personal reflection that it isn’t Buddhism that needs to be decoded, it’s the other way around: it is the world that needs to be decoded. Why? Because the world as it presents itself to us doesn’t make a great deal of sense, unless you have insights that I don’t have. Have any of you had this feeling or know what I’m talking about?
Did anything intrinsically occur to you perhaps when you were young where you said to yourself:
“Not only does the world not make sense, but what everyone is telling me doesn’t make sense either!”?
If you have these thoughts, impressions, and pursue them, they are bound to get you in trouble, (or enlightened). If and when you foolishly start to ask questions like “Why?” or “What’s the point?,” this irritates, stirs things up.
As soon as you start poking and probing people will start to say “Because” and you say “Why?” and they say “Because, that’s the way it is. . . because I said so.” And if you have the audacity to question those replies, you soon get swept up into this escalating and unsatisfying back-and-forth until someone finally tells you to “Shut up” or makes you sit in the back of the classroom. If some of this rings true, you are not alone. In fact, I would argue, you are in good company.
So, I’m proposing that at least for me, and perhaps some of you, at some point in one’s development, things start to make less and less sense, politically, socially, personally, and, where I once thought it would, or should, make the most sense— religiously. And the more I thought about it, the less sense it made until it all grew into something of a crisis. It is not that one tries to be difficult; rather, it comes about through a very natural observing of things as they are. Just taking an honest look at things leads to doubt and questioning. One enters into a crisis of faith, or crisis of reason, sometimes called an existential dilemma, where you feel like a stranger living in a strange world, or as one writer put it:
“I am a stranger and afraid in a world I never made.”
Buddhism, in fact, also finds the world as it presents itself to us, or life as we meet it raw and unexamined, as strange, problematic, unsatisfactory. Buddhism arose from a crisis. And this existential dire strait is ever-present in the human condition. We are wedged between birth and death, separated by only a brief interval. That is why I argue that it is not Buddhism that needs to be decoded, or Buddhism that needs to be “relevant” to the twenty-first century. It is the way the world works that needs to be decoded. And the alienation we experience from the ways we interact with this “world” that drives our increasingly search for relevance—that hasn’t changed a bit from ancient times to the present. It is not for sure that we as a people are “progressing” as we gain more knowledge, material ease, and seeming control over nature. In fact, when measured from another index such as our levels of anxiety and stress and happiness, we are actually exponentially getting worse as we “advance” and modernize. This is one of the persistent paradoxes of modern life. I do not think my grandparents could have anticipated that their grandchildren could live in a world with so many conveniences and luxuries, yet be so fundamentally unhappy, stressed-out and ill-at-ease. Buddhism, however, not only anticipates this, but predicts it.
“The world as it presents itself to us doesn’t make a great deal of sense.”
So, I’m going to present the Buddha’s life story as a metaphor for our life story. Not as a tale told long ago, but as a relevant and insightful metaphor for our time, our shared dilemma or fate.
The Buddha, as the story goes, was born into a rich, well-to-do upper middle class family in Northern India. He was blessed with a very favorable and comfortable life. By all accounts, he had it made. No material worries, no health problems, no family dysfunction, no social tensions, or personal inadequacies. Nonetheless, problems started to arise.
Anyone know what the problems were?
(Audience suggests, “The birth and death thing.”)
Oh, yeah, that birth and death thing! [laughter] That—decline, decay, mortality—starts to intrude into this near-utopia he lives in. So the story goes. And because he is bright, sensitive, observant, reflective, his parents think, actually fear, that he may react to the way things actually are and become “spiritually inclined,” God forbid!
The prince Siddharta is a questioning type; he’s naturally, even preternaturally, curious. Already as a child he showed a deep and inquiring mind; a tendency to ponder and probe. His parents and teachers knew that if he probed into certain areas of convention and the “received wisdom” of his society, it would disturb his heart, trouble his mind, and cause problems. He wouldn’t want to take over as monarch, get married, lead an army, surround himself with concubines and the like. He actually “got into the face” of his father. According to Ashvaghosha’s Buddhacarita (Life of the Buddha), Siddhartha having ventured from the palace for the first time in his life, was profoundly shocked by the unfamiliar sight of sickness, old age, and death. “How strong and powerful must be your mind,” the young prince responded to the reproaches of his father’s counselor, “that in the fleeting pleasures of the senses you find substance! You cling to sense objects among the most frightful dangers, even while you cannot help seeing all creation on the way to death. By contrast I become frightened and greatly alarmed when I reflect on the dangers of old age. death and disease. I find neither peace nor contentment and enjoyment is quite out of the question, for the world looks to me as if ablaze with an all-consuming fire.”
In our terms, he probably won’t want to get his MBA, be a CEO, or a powerful senator.
All these things—power and privilege— that are avidly sought and coveted on the ladder of success might start to look pale and empty.
So, his parents, like all well-meaning parents, attempt to insulate their children from the hardships and disappointments of life by mapping out their future. They assume worldly security and material success solves most, if not all problems. They themselves often do not really understand, or more likely wish to deny , that not only is such insulation from disappointment and disaffection impossible, but that the very way they set about to do this (by urging their children to seek and secure power, fame, and wealth) often makes things worse. In the Lotus Sutra, the Buddha calls this numbing frantic activity “wandering from one blind state to another . . . trying to eliminate suffering through suffering.” In any event, the protective bubble of luxury and security (this ultimate “gated community”) might work for a while, when children are young, naïve, well-behaved and inexperienced. It did for the early years in the Buddha’s life, until the prince was in his late teens.
His crisis began as he started to wonder what lay beyond the insular, managed almost make-believe world that was created for him. He wanted to know what was behind the curtains, or more precisely what and why, his parents did not want him to know. He wanted to see what people did not want him to see; and to know why they did not want him to see.
As a metaphor, you might think “This doesn’t apply to me, I don’t live in a palace. I’m not a prince, etc...”
But imagine how your life looks to someone who lives in an underdeveloped country. Food, clothing, shelter, medical care, clean drinking water, flushing toilets, shiny schools - all these things are so readily available to us that we give them little thought. We get our crooked teeth straightened, our hair coiffed, order out or matter-of-factly flip a coin to see if we want to eat Thai, Mexican, pizza, or vegan tonight, where over 80% of the rest of the world lives on less than $2 a day, and struggles to find even a glass of drinkable water. One of every ten people in the world today go hungry—not just having the “munchies”—but actually starving. My point is not to make you feel guilty, but simply to point out that if you want to insulate yourself from the kind of things that the Buddha’s parents insulated him from, it is relatively easy to do. In fact, many young people in the so-called “developed” (over-developed?) modern world live like little Siddhartas. So, we can with a little effort and sympathetic imagination identify with this attempted escape from reality, and perhaps with the gnawing sense of disquiet and longing that it invariably produces.
Now, what I find funny is that people think going to a monastery is an escape from reality. But honestly, if you want to escape from reality, this monastery is the last place you should want to go. You’d be much better off staying at home watching TV and playing video games. In a monastery, you are as the word “monos” implies “alone.” But “alone” doesn’t mean cut off or out-of-touch, but rather alone and apart from diversions and free from artificial distractions. In this sense, you are confronting reality much more directly—unfiltered, un-hyped, as it is. In fact, that is one of the primary meanings of Dharma—the nature of reality; things as they truly are.
Ironically, here, you are closer to reality than what most people would call the “real world.” Maybe a sign could be hung at the front door of the monastery reading: “Enter. Get Real.”
The “reality” one encounters in the so-called “real world” is actually quite unreal, verging on surreal. And even when we claim we are living in the “real world,” a good deal of our time is spent blotting it out: iPods, headsets, alcohol, “recreational” drugs, food, sex, gambling, fantasizing. . . the list of toys we can use to “escape reality” is seemingly endless, and totally legal and socially sanctioned. For sure, modern technology will come up with more and more. How did T. S. Eliot put it, we are “distracted from distraction by distraction/ filled with fancies and empty of meaning.” We can drown out any intrusions into our bubble of oblivion at the push of a finger, or a sniff of the nose. Siddhartha has nothing on us in that regard.
Artificial reality (AR) was one of the Buddha’s early insights: that the manufactured reality of the senses, the reality-escaping mechanism acts like a drug to keeps us drunk and confused. We become like a fish in water—so immersed in the water, so dependent and utterly surrounded by water, that the fish is unaware of the water. The fish can’t see or feel it, unless, of course, it is pulled out of the water and allowed to experience “reality” from another perspective. So, by changing your perspective in a monastic environment, you can for a moment so to speak, get your head above the water to see what’s really going on. And then you can either enter, or not enter, reality from a different perspective. This is what Buddhism calls freedom; or as the texts call it vimuttirasa “a taste of freedom.” This freedom, really, is the essence of Buddhism. As the Buddha himself put it, ““Just as in the great ocean there is but one taste, the taste of salt, so in this Teachings there is but one taste, the taste of liberation.”
Freedom isn’t an escape from reality, but the result of a deep and genuine facing of reality.
In fact, reality cannot be escaped by definition, or it wouldn’t be reality. Whatever we alter, disguise, sleep through, deny, or divert from is not liberating. It is the opposite—restricting, oppressive, stressful and deeply annoying. One of the Buddha’s key discoveries was that only mastery of one’s own mind and nature, coming to terms with the real conditions of existence, gives you liberty.
A similar situation exists for most everyone in this room: a high level of material comfort insulating us to one degree or another from a larger reality, and often even alienating us from our own selves. So, in a genuine effort to stand face-to-face with reality, Siddharta starts to go out into the larger world beyond the walled palatial fairyland, to observe life outside the bubble. And what does he encounter when he ventures forth…?
(Audience answers, “Sickness.”)
Right, he encounters a sick person. Sickness was not something he had been exposed to, at least not sickness so undisguised and in-your-face. Seeing sickness up close, and more importantly, as something he himself would invariably be overtaken by, and with increasing frequency as his body declined in youth and vigor rattled him. The reality of this undeniable sign of vulnerability, weakness, and loss of control brought him up against the existential truth: nothing lasts, nothing stays. It shook him out of the artificial state he had been floating along in. Something as real and immediate as illness when examined, when thought about a little, can quickly bring one to a troubling unsettledness. So too with the young prince.
This can easily happen to you, or to someone close to you like your sister or brother. You go to the doctor, but sometimes there’s not much anyone can do about it: it’s really hard to cure, and their skin changes complexion, their moods change. You know what your state of mind is when you’re sick?
It’s almost like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde – it’s a whole different thing. Reality suddenly takes on a whole different hue. Even music, food, TV, reading, going for a walk, can’t change it, or make it go away. Wow this sickness is powerful stuff !
When the Prince takes this all in, he initially feels relief as he thinks he is free of this malady. But his attendant informs him that sickness is an unavoidable aspect of the human condition His attendant says “No, sickness happens to every living being. It will also happen to you.” This is an example of the saying, “everything is speaking the Dharma.” It is right within this very world, our everyday experience that we awaken or just muddle along drunk and dreaming. That is why the great Master, Huineng, said:
The Buddha Dharma is right here in the world,
There is no awakening apart from this world.
To search for Bodhi somewhere beyond this world,
Is like looking for a rabbit with antlers.
So the Buddha has his first realization, which might have gone down like this: “Wow, I’m going to get sick. And even with the best medicine, some sickness cannot be cured. There is no life without pain and sickness; good health is a fragile and fleeting thing”. He goes out again and what does he encounter the second time?
(Audience calls out, “Aging.”)
Aging! That’s right.
I was talking to Dharma Master Heng Ch’ih about my mother. My mother is 87 and going deaf. Her eyes are weaker so she can’t read much anymore; TV is hard to make sense of even when she has it up full blast; her tired legs no longer support her; her only pleasure is eating. Her mind has gone to a place which is almost like a three-year-old. She can no longer manage her affairs, most of her friends are gone, passed away. This aging thing, sometimes called “the golden years” is actually a bittersweet experience, mostly bitter.
When the Buddha encounters an old, feeble person along the road, he realizes that not only will he age, but that he is aging. We don’t think of aging as something that is happening to us here and now, but rather as some distant, future state. But we know biologically that, right now, aging is occurring. In a way, the moment we are conceived, the process of aging begins.
There is a photographer in Brazil who, every day, got up and had his family pose for a photo; everyday, for forty years. And then he took all of the photos, linked them together, and played them as one continuous phenomenon. He ran them fast-forward, so that the changes that occur over a process of years now could be viewed in a matter of minutes. The result was numbing. You could watch an entire family arise, wax, and wane right before your eyes. All the changes time brings to the luster of hair and skin, svelte muscle, bright gaze, and stature pass in a blink.
When we shower, that gunk that is left, or flows down the drain with the dirty water, or is scrubbed off and wiped away: all that was once vibrant, living cells that were part of you. They age, shrivel up, and are discarded just like dead batteries, or as many old people in these old folks homes. As we talk, part of you is aging, fading away. Everything is speaking Dharma of the “four marks”—things arise, dwell, decline, and disappear, from galaxies to molecules, planets and people.
(addressing the audience) The next realization?
It was the “death thing.”
My time in India let me experience death in a way I never have in America or Europe. India, unlike Canada, most of Europe and the US, doesn’t seem so concerned with hiding death and dying. Partly, I suppose, the widespread poverty and over-crowding leaves no choice but to see, smell, hear the human drama up close. When someone gets sick and on the verge of dying, in America they usually go to the hospital. If they die, they are quietly taken by the back elevator down to the morgue to be autopsied, and then sent to a “mortuary” “funeral home.” I have never understood why such a place is called a “home” as home by definition is a place where one lives. But calling it a ‘home’ and the hole in the ground a “final resting place,” all fits in with our denial of the reality of mortality. At the “home,” the corpse, another ill-chosen word, maybe the “dearly departed” or “loved one” is embalmed, powdered and perfumed for “viewing.” Then everyone can see them and say “Oh doesn’t she look great? So natural; just like when alive.” And that’s the point of course: to make death look like life, to deny its radical finality.
There is in this culture a whole sanitary erasure approach to death and dying, where you never actually encounter death close up, even though it is everywhere and never-ending. Hospitals, assisted living, nursing homes, mortuaries, and cemeteries themselves with names like “forest lawn” “grand view” “mountain grove” “pleasant valley’” or “sleepy hollow” all serve the same purpose: to pretend. Even our wars and battlefields are hidden away from view; the dead brought home in zipped up body bags, delivered to remote airfields out of sight, out of mind.
In India it is different. You often witness death and dying first-hand. It was not unusual for us to run into a water buffalo dead and decaying along the side of the road; the jackals and vultures were tearing it apart. Sometimes we encountered human corpses in the same way. Cremation generally occurs outdoors, in the open and publicly viewed. Half-cremated bodies or parts of bodies floating in the Ganges near Varanassi. We also saw “sky burials'' where the corpse is placed on a mountain top exposed to the elements to be eaten by scavenging animals. And “charnal grounds”, an above-ground site for the putrefaction of bodies, generally human, where formerly living tissue is left to decompose uncovered. And so on. . . you get the picture.
For me, the first time [I encountered death] was as an orderly in a general hospital during the time I was working my way through college. Orderlies often would sit with people through the night as they died; we called it “the death watch.” Nurses would bring us strong tea to keep us awake as we sat and kept vigil by the bedside through the long night. For a 19-year-old kid from a small town this was mind-shattering to watch and listen and smell as the body fell apart, the mind scattered, the breath stopped, and then nothing. When the doctor confirmed the patient was dead, it was our job to undress them, tag them, put them in a body bag, and take them down to the morgue. My first time, I made the mistake of putting the body bag on the cart and going down the main elevator, instead of the old service elevator in the back of the hospital.
People coming to visit patients would come in, with flowers and get-well balloons, and here was this corpse in the elevator. I would smile and say “Hello!” as their faces dropped and their eyes quickly averted.
The nursing supervisor reprimanded me and told me very clearly to use the service elevator because the hospital administration didn’t want people to see this. I guess it was bad for business. In any event, when I was nineteen and involved with this, the utter reality and power of death really hit me.
For the Buddha, this first direct encounter with death stopped him in his tracks and spurred him on a spiritual quest—but maybe many of you have never had this experience? You will…
The young prince asked his attendant Chandaka,
“What’s wrong with that person? They’re not moving. They’re not breathing. Their vibrant color is totally faded to gray. What is this?”
The attendant said “That is death.”
Buddha said “Why does that person have to have that experience?”
The attendant said “All people will undergo that experience.”
“Yes, even you, great Prince.”
I believe this was a turning point in the Buddha’s development. Sickness and aging are one thing; they are slow, intermittent and often relieved by recoveries or rebounds. But death is brutally final, irreversible, and brings home like nothing else the fact that life is transient and short. A brief interval between the cradle and grave inexorably ends here—always and for everyone,
Death is often the issue that marks the beginning of a serious spiritual undertaking in all religions. But it is most essential in Buddhism, where it is referred to as “the one great matter.”
So when the cumulative effect of all these three experiences hits the Buddha something shifts inside. He starts asking lots of questions.
“Is that all there is?” “What’s the point?” “What makes life meaningful?”
“If we are only born to die, what meaning does the brief interval in between hold, if any? Why would you go after anything—power, wealth, fame and fortune—if everything just fades and slips away? And even if we acquire these trophies, who lives on to enjoy them; even the ‘I’ must perish?”
Thinking people across the spread of time, across the spectrum of cultures have all come to this point and then begins the real serious encounter with life. Read Tolstoy’s Confessions, or the Sonnets of Shakespeare, John Donne. Zhuangzi, Kierkegaard, Mark Twain, Martin Luther, Rumi, Emily Dickinson or the modern poet Mary Oliver—all are brought up against and wrestle with the same question.
So, a buddha, a sage, is born of difficulty. The “causes and conditions of this one great matter” is the very ground of awakening. The Buddha wasn’t born a Buddha. His parents didn’t say “Come to the temple with me and bow, and when you grow up, we want you to be a Buddha.” In fact, his parents emphatically did not want him to grow up to become a monk, a spiritual seeker. Siddhartha was anything but a dutiful son. The existential difficulty he was struggling with internally was compounded by the social difficulty he had to overcome externally—home, family, career.
His parents were actually quite unhappy. They didn’t want him to become a Buddha, or even any religious person whatsoever.
And yet, he couldn’t help but do it—so unsatisfying and empty was the world and its illusory promises and pleasures. Once he opened his eyes and took a good look at the world, he only saw one genuine option: cultivate the Way.