Monday, June 30, 2008

The Spaz on Buddhism - The Basics in a Nutshell

It's time I talked a bit about my spirituality. :)


When I really discovered Buddhism less than a year ago something inside of me just clicked. It made sense to me in a way that no religion ever had. The teachings of the Buddha aren't based on mysticism, but on doing the right thing and making the right decisions in all aspects of life.

So I've decided to share my new interpretation of the basics of Buddhism here for any and all to read and maybe understand a little more about a way of life that has given me such a sense of peace.

First, a little history... The Buddha was born as Siddhartha Guatama around 500 B.C. He was born as a prince and lived a life of luxury. At some point in his young adulthood Siddhartha desired to understand the world around him and he left his privileged life. In his travels he saw an old man, a sick man, a dead man, and an ascetic. Seeing these sights led Siddhartha to the conclusion that all life included suffering. He decided to give up his royal life and searched the truth of the world. At the end of his travels, he sat beneath a bodhi tree to meditate. After a long period of time, Siddhartha's meditation led him to the answer to how to be free of suffering. This is what gave Siddhartha the title of the Buddha which means "Enlightened One." He spent the rest of his life teaching others how to become enlightened.

The Buddha is not a god. He was born a mortal man and died a mortal man at an old age from eating spoiled food. His followers do not worship him in the same sense that Christians worship God. Buddhists pay respect to the Buddha and express gratitude for his teachings.

There are two main components of Buddhism that the belief system is based upon; the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path.

The Four Noble Truths

1. Life includes suffering

There's just no way to get around it. All life includes suffering and we will all encounter suffering. We will stub our toes, we will get the flu, we will lose our grandparents and our parents and our pet cat. We will get picked on in middle school. It will happen because our world is not perfect and it is not permanent. Though there are plenty of good and happy moments in our lives, all of these moments will pass and be replaced by other moments - some "good" and some "bad".

2. Suffering is caused by attachment.

Because we fall in love with our new couch, because we desire so intensely to be rich or popular or beautiful, because we attach ourselves to these objects, people, and desires we continue to suffer. We attach ourselves to these transient things and we lose them. We gain 10 pounds, our best friend moves to Hong Kong and loses contact, someone breaks in and steals our priceless jewelry. We are attached to these things and ideas and they cause us suffering.

Side note - this part of the Four Noble Truths is difficult for me. In part I understand it but it also seems to me that some suffering is not cause by attachment. If I fall down a flight of stairs and break my leg I am suffering. I suppose I have attached myself to the idea that I should feel comfortable and I am suffering because I feel pain. I struggle with this.

3. It is possible to stop suffering.

Buddhists use a word called nirodha to describe the cessation of suffering. Wikipedia defines nirodha as "the remainderless fading away and cessation of that same craving, the giving up and relinquishing of it, freedom from it, nonreliance of it." Basically, this is obtained by giving up attachment. It is attained by curbing the intense desire for that new handbag at Neiman Marcus. Easier said than done. :)

4. There is a path to stop suffering.

This path is the "middle way" between extremes and is known as the Eightfold Path. It is the balance of hedonism and asceticism. This is a journey that may take lifetimes to complete so there's no point in trying to rush it. No one is going to be able to wake up tomorrow and be enlightened. It's gradual and takes focus. Heck, I've been working on it for a year and I'm not even close!

The Eightfold Path

There is no particular order for this. These are not steps along the journey that should be taken one at a time. The Eightfold Path is more like a guidebook and should be worked at all at once. The whole "path" description sort of muddies that up for us, I know. A lot of times the different parts sort of flow into one another and seem to fall back on one another.

1. Right View or Right Perception

Keeping an open mind and trying to perceive all of the aspects of the world around, without attaching ourselves to preconceived notions. Just because you were raised to believe that women shouldn't play football doesn't mean that your daughter wouldn't make a fantastic kicker. If she wants to try out, keep an open mind and encourage her. Know that you can't always see all the sides to a story and remember that.

This is always hard for me because I tend to jump to conclusions. For example - if I listen to my friend tell me how her boyfriend is being a complete jerk, not listening to her, not treating her right, I'm the first one to say "Scrap that butthead! You're worth so much MORE than that!" Unfortunately, I'm not opening my mind, am I? For all I know my friend has been grating on poor boyfriend's nerves for three weeks now and griping and moaning about every little thing that boyfriend hasn't gotten around to doing yet. Do I have the whole story? Absolutely not... and I need to realize that.

2. Right Intention or Right Thought

Buddha taught 3 types of right intentions which I will attempt to explain here.

*The intention of renunciation or the resistance to desire. This is in opposition to intention based on desire. The intention to make pineapple upside down cake on your mother in law's birthday because she loves it even though you think it's disgusting is right intention. Your desire may have been to make chocolate and maybe she would have been happy enough with the chocolate, but you did not make your choice based on your desire.

*The intention of good will, or the resistance to feelings of anger. This describes a sort of selfless love that the Buddha taught. Perhaps you have a co-worker that drives you crazy. Maybe she talks behind your back, sleeps with the boss, drinks your Diet Coke out of the office fridge, whatever. Expressing anger and ill will about your co-worker may make you feel better in the short term, but in the long run it breeds resentment and more anger. Teachers of Buddhism advise followers to try to picture someone they love to help dilute feelings of anger toward this person. Thinking positively dilutes the negative thoughts that come naturally in this type of situation. This can be tough to do and definitely takes practice. Buddhists define this sort of loving-kindness as metta.

*The intention of harmlessness, meaning not to think or act cruelly, violently, or aggressively, and to develop compassion. Sort of similar to the "turn the other cheek" mentality, this is based on making decisions and actions based on good will. If someone cuts you off in traffic and you're forced to slam on your brakes to avoid hitting him this can make you angry. I usually yell off some ridiculous insult like "DILLWEED!" when this happens to me and I'm half inclined to race up to where he's driving and flip him off. Occasionally I can check these feelings and think "Maybe he just made a mistake, maybe he didn't see me, or maybe he's just really had a hard day and his mind is elsewhere." It's those times that I'm so proud of myself for letting it go and feeding my intention of harmlessness. I can feel compassion for this person instead of anger.

3. Right Speech or Right Communication

Don't lie. Super simple, right? Sort of. This is about being honest with yourself and the world. No justifications, no rationalizations - just honesty.

We've all been in the situation where someone asks us a question and the truth hurts. Your best friend is trying on clothes and comes out of the dressing room and says "Do these jeans make me look fat?"

Our automatic friendly response is "No! You're not fat! You look great!"

In the back of your head you might be thinking "Gee Shelly, you have put on a few pounds over the past few months and you're sporting a major muffin top in those low rise designer jeans. Peel those babies off and we'll head over to Lane Bryant to grab you something with an elastic waist."

Ouch! The truth hurts. Fortunately, our language is just filled with awesome ways to say the same thing. :) "Those jeans aren't really flattering, Shelly. Why don't you let me get you another style?"

Right Speech applies to so many areas of our lives. Just say what you mean and mean what you say. If someone asks you how you're doing and you're feeling terrible, just say so! They didn't ask you to give them a detailed description of your ailments, but it's perfectly acceptable to say something like "I've had better days, how are you doing?" Just be honest. If someone asks you a question that you don't want to answer it's perfectly fine to tell them to mind their own business.

Another aspect of Right Speech is a common tactic of spouses everywhere. Tell me if you've done this lately when speaking to your hubby. "The car sure is a mess."

Hubby most likely agrees and goes on about his merry way. Little does he know that what you meant was "Please, darling husband of mine, our vehicle is in need of a cleaning. It would be ever so kind of you to take care of that for us."

So now you're irritated that he doesn't do anything and he's oblivious until you finally explode. "Clean the car out you lazy S.O.B!" Or something to that effect.

Now he's mad and you're mad and this could have all been avoided if you had just said what you meant in the beginning.

Say what you mean and mean what you say. Don't lie, don't mislead, don't exaggerate.

4. Right Action or Right Choice

Life is full of choices all the time and they're not always easy. Choices are always there. Sometimes the choices are all bad choices, but they're still there. Sometimes they're obvious choices, but you still take a choice. Sometimes choices are made for you by just not taking any action at all. For example if you choose to ignore your bills, your credit goes down the tubes. You chose to ignore the bills, you chose to have a 400 credit score.

This also applies to your beliefs, your opinions, everything. If you're backing Obama for this election is it because all your friends are backing Obama? Or is it because you really believe in what he has to say. Have you read his book? Do you understand what he believes in? Have you taken the time to make up your mind?

Here's another example: Say you have a party to go to next weekend. It's a funky retro party and you've found the perfect dress.

Rockabilly Red Rose Dress

I know, adorable, right? OK, so you have some cute little red sandals in your closet and you're really stretching your budget so you shouldn't spend another dime. You're walking out of the mall and you see these...

Red Peep Toe Pumps

They match perfectly! They're so cute! You really can't be expected to wear boring sandals with a dress like that, can you? I mean, you need these pumps and look at that, they're on sale and you've been so good with money lately so you deserve a little splurge, right?

Justification much? So no one is saying you shouldn't buy the shoes, but you definitely need to be honest about why you're buying them. You want them. That's it. It's not because you deserve a treat, it's not because they're such a great deal... you want them. That's why. Any other reason is just there to make you feel better about your decision to buy them, not the real reason. Be honest with yourself and allow yourself to practice Right Choice.

Make honest choices and take honest actions. Make the right choices because they're the right choices, not because you're going to get something in return. Your future is based on the choices you make so if you make the right choices your reward is inevitable.

5. Right Livelihood

This one is fairly simple. Everyone has to make a living but it's important that we choose a job or a career that is right for us. If you hate going to work, maybe it's time to rethink your career path. Perhaps you're making a good amount of money, but it's important to be sure it's worth it.

Of course you have to provide for your family. It's important, though, to make sure what you're doing is right for your family. I'm not saying you should quit your job as a high powered CEO to go flip burgers. However, if you're a high powered CEO at a company that is doing something that you don't agree with - maybe a change in focus would be good for you. Back to Right Choice with this one, it's all about making the right decision for you and your family. Sometimes it's not easy to make the right decision and sometimes the right decision isn't clear. Sometimes other people in your life will pressure you to make a decision that you're not sure is right for you. No one said it was a walk in the park, sister.

6. Right Effort

This is all about doing a good job in whatever you do. If you're going to do a job, do it to the best of your ability. We say this all the time to our kids, but we ourselves cut corners all the time. Buying McDonald's for dinner instead of cooking something healthy, speeding because we left the house late and are late to get to an appointment, procrastinating with work until we're so stressed we start snapping at everyone we love. If we just worked with Right Effort in the first place, we'd all live much calmer and more peaceful enjoyable lives.

This also pertains to Right Effort in following the Eightfold Path. :) Buddha taught Right Effort with four points: (Buddhism is all about lists, isn't it?)

*To avoid the arising of unwholesome states that have not yet arisen. In other words, avoiding situations which may steer you from the Eightfold Path. Maybe not going to the mall if you don't have any money so you aren't faced with a choice that may be difficult for you. That sort of thing.

*To abandon unholy states that have already arisen. Work on quitting smoking, losing weight, whatever it is that you feel is keeping you from following the path.

*To arouse wholesome states that have not yet arisen. Become involved in a cause you believe in, start going to the gym and training for a marathon, visit your aging parents more often.

*To maintain and perfect wholesome states that have already arisen. Keep up the good work, Sparky! I think you get the picture.

7. Right Awareness or Right Mindfulness

Be aware of your surroundings. If you're driving, pay attention to the road. If you're having a conversation, listen to the other person talking. It's hard to do this all the time. We're always multi-tasking, trying to get a billion things done at once, and we don't feel we have time to pay attention to one thing at a time. It's so simple to call our friend who we never have time to talk to on the 20 minute drive home because once we walk in the house we know that the kids will take over and we'll need to cook dinner or whatever. Is that the right choice, though? Do we have to stop paying attention to the road to find her number in your contact list? I know, I know... voice dialing. Whatever, you get what I'm saying.

Right Mindfulness is just about being aware of your surroundings and your life without attaching preconceived notions, taking in the whole environment and not becoming distracted by one thing.

Buddha taught that there were four foundations of Right Mindfulness:

*Body awareness - keeping in mind where your body is in your environment and how your body feels. Are you in someone else's personal space? Are you hungry? Are you tired?

*Emotional awareness - being aware of your emotional state at all times. Are you really angry? Are you really sad? When you are looking to accomplish a goal or make a decision it is important to be aware of whether your current emotions will negatively effect your result. If you're dealing with a terrible case of PMS, it might not be the time to decide to pack up the kids and walk out on your husband. Just sayin.

*Thought awareness - know what you're thinking and where your thoughts are leading you. Are you having negative thoughts? Are you letting your mind run away with you? Sometimes we let our minds wander and we lose focus of what we're trying to accomplish.

*Event awareness - keep in mind what is going on around you. What do you see, smell, hear, and feel?

Awareness can often be obtained through meditation. You don't have to sit in the lotus position chanting "ohm" to achieve meditation either, just quiet your mind and let the awareness flood in. You might find yourself amazed at what you perceive when you truly quiet your mind. Can you hear a bird chirping outside? Can you smell that the trash needs to be taken out? Can you feel the cushion underneath you mold itself to your form? All these things are senses we normally let pass us by. Right Awareness is all about letting those things in.

8. Right Concentration

Right Concentration is very centered on meditation in most Buddhist teachings. To me, it's sort of the opposite of Right Awareness in that Right Concentration is about focusing on one thing. It is about focusing on those wholesome thoughts and actions that make up the Eightfold Path. This concentration is developed through meditation.

Meditation, as I said before, does not always have to be done in front of an incense burner to be effective. A few minutes in the car before heading into the office can be effective. You may find some time on a park bench while waiting to pick up your child from baseball practice. I tend to find time in the bathtub at the end of the night. Calming the mind, focusing on the breath, letting go of all the worries and noise that constantly crowd our heads, and concentrating on those wholesome thoughts and actions is all that needs to be done.

I find that sometimes, if I find the time, a more "formal" meditation environment can help me. I have a simple set up with a statue of the Buddha, a candle, and an incense burner on a nice cabinet and I place my meditation cushions (called a Zafu and Zabuton - this is the store where I got mine and they are wonderful!) in front of the cabinet, light a soothing stick of incense and my candle and enjoy a long quiet meditation. I've found a great resource here about meditation that may help if anyone needs.

So that wraps up our lesson on Buddhism ala Domestic Spaz. Whew! That was a lot!

If you've got questions I'll do my best to answer them or point you in the direction of someone who can answer them. I hope you've enjoyed it. :)

Resources that have helped me along the way:
Buddha Mind
The Big View
Zen Guide
Palm Beach Dharma Center
Bad Buddhist Radio


Robin said...[Reply to comment]

That was fascinating, and very informative too. I really like the way you added the real life examples to illustrate the points you were making.

Drama said...[Reply to comment]

Wow...okay...thank you so much...I know I will have questions...I appreciate the way you broke it helpful...makes me realize even more that I may not be who/what I think I should be....make sense? Again, I appreciate it...keep an eye out for questions...I intend to do some research and I am sure I will be back!!!

Christy said...[Reply to comment]

Hi! I'm a RYT - Registered Yoga Therapist, LOL, so those are my credentials to comment on one thing you wrote.

About the suffering and attachment...

I think Buddha DID mean the obvious--being attached to your physical body's health and getting disappointed when you don't feel well and get injured, but I also think he was thinking of it in the very larger sense of lives after lives after lives of needing to learn things and finally being "over" it all.

Not being attached to a life at all anymore.

But as you know, talking about Buddhism is like talking about any philosophy, my opinion is just that.....mine and mine alone.

Not that I'm attached to it.....

Domestic Spaz said...[Reply to comment]

Thanks for commenting Christy! It's all new to me and I'm still struggling with so much of it. I imagine I will be for a long time. :)

Christy said...[Reply to comment]

It's a great path, and if you ever arrive, let me know how you got there, because that's quite a feat.

I try, TRY, to remember not to be attached to some outcome, like if I feel "enlightened", or something. It's hard though, not to feel proud of any "aha" moments you have.

I'm not a practicing Buddhist right now, btw. I guess I'm a very, very.....(add about a 1000 verys) liberal Christian.

But I love Buddhism.