Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Buddhism 101

My wife has been studying the teaching of the Dalai lama. This has sparked my interest in his teachings and in Buddhism. The Dalai Lama, in my opinion is pretty smart and deserves some respect. He represents a tradition of supposedly reincarnated buddhist masters that goes back hundreds of years. When the existing dalai lama dies a search is initiated to find his successor. This search involves buddhist monks scouring Tibet with relics from the dead dalai lama. When they find a young boy who recognizes these relics, they assume that the dalai lama's soul has passed into this young boy and that he is the successor. In the past when more than one boy recognized the relics there was a lottery where the names were put into a bowl and the winner was drawn and named the next dalai lama. The existing dalai lama wants to change the system and choose his successor while he is still alive. I am not sure if this is a good idea or not, although I accept the existing dalai lama's thought on the matter.

The Dalai Lama teaches Buddhism. Buddhism is not considered a religion. It is a philosophy of life. There is not much discussion of God and its principles are very basic. What is interesting to me is that there are thousands of books and billions of words written about Buddhism or by Buddhists explaining the teaching when the ideas can be simply stated in a few paragraphs.

The first main idea is expressed in the Four Noble Truths. 1- Life is suffering. 2- Suffering is caused by unfulfilled desire-we don't always get what we want. 3-There is a possibility to overcome suffering and become happy. 4-The way to do this is through the eightfold path which involves doing the right things. The right things are those that don't harm yourself or other people.

A second main idea is that there are two truths. The first truth is conventional truth and the second truth is ultimate truth. Conventional truth is what we need to get through everyday life and communicate with each other. Ultimate truth is the deeper meaning of life which can be arrived at through study, prayer, and meditation. It is obvious that there is a conventional truth or we would not be able to describe the world or meet our basic needs.

It is less obvious that there is an ultimate truth. The only way we can know for sure whether there is one or not is if we discover it. If we do discover it we can't communicate what it is because it is beyond words. The only way the one who is hearing about it can know if its true if he or she discovers it for him or herself. No amount of communication or words can describe the ultimate truth. Because we cannot know for sure whether there is an ultimate truth or not we need to be very cautious in assuming that we know anything beyond conventional truth. This viewpoint is very healthy and fosters compassion, tolerance, and kindness in our relations. These are fundamental Buddhist values.

There have never been any wars fought over Buddhism. Buddhists have never invaded any countries, gone on any crusades or jihads, and in general have been pretty peaceful in their approach to life. There is a lot to be said for there track record and their teachings. I still am more attracted to the image and personality of Jesus than I am to Buddha. I believe that if they were together in the same room, they would be probably be great friends and agree on almost everything. Their goals are definitely the same. I believe they are both serving the same boss. What is different is what makes one person like Pepsi and the other like Coke. We are different in our inclinations and in the types of things that attract us. There is no reason to fight over what ideas attract us or how we choose to approach our understanding of the meaning and purpose of our lives. We really need to learn this lesson, and quickly.

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