The fundamental teachings of Gautama (Buddha), as it is n(JW being made plain to us by study oforiginal sources, is clear and simple and in the closest harmony with modem ideas. It is beyond all dispute the achieve-ment ofone of the most penetrating intelligences the world has ever known.
- H. G. Wells, British historian and writer
During the introduction to the fIrst Buddhist course I attended, the teacher said, “The Buddha instructed his disciples, ‘Do not accept my teachings merely out of re-spect for me, but analyze and check them the way that a goldsmith analyzes gold, by rubbing, cutting and melting it.’ You are intelligent people and should think about what you hear during this course. Don’t accept it blind-ly.”
I relaxed. “Good,” I thought, “No one will pressure me to believe anything or ostracize me if I don’t.”
During the course, we were encouraged to discuss and debate the topics. I appreciated this approach, for it ac-corded with my propensity to analyze and explore issues from various viewpoints.
This is the Buddhist approach. Our intelligence is re-spected and encouraged. There is no dogma to follow blindly. In fact, we are free to choose whichever of the Buddha’s teachings suit us now, and leave the rest aside for the time being, without criticizing them. The Bud-dha’s teachings are similar to a huge buffet dinner. We may like one dish, someone else may enjoy another. There is no obligation to eat everything, nor must we choose what our friend chooses.
Likewise, one subject or meditation technique in the Buddha’s teachings may appeal to us, while another may be important to our friend. We should learn and practice according to our own ability at the present moment, so that we improve the quality of our lives. In this way, we’ll gradually come to understand and appreciate teachings that seemed difficult or unimportant to us ini-tially.
This open approach is possible because the Buddha de-scribed our human experience and how to improve it. He didn’t create our situation, nor did he invent the path to enlightenment. He discussed our experience, the work-ings of our minds, and realistic and practical ways to deal with daily problems. Describing our difficulties and their causes, the Buddha also explained the way to elim-inate them. He told of our great human potential and how to develop it. It’s up to us to ascertain through logic and our own experience the truth of what he taught. In this way, our beliefs will be well-founded and stable.
Buddhism centers not so much upon the Buddha as a person, or his followers, the Sangha, as upon the Dhar-ma, the teachings and realizations. Shakyamuni Bud-dha, who lived 2,500 years ago in India, wasn’t always a fully enlightened being. He was once an ordinary person like us, with the same problems and doubts we have. By following the path to enlightenment, he became a Bud-dha.
Similarly, each of us has the ability to become fully com-passionate, wise and skillful. The gap between the Bud-dha and us isn’t unbridgeable, for we too can become Buddhas. When we create the causes ofenlightenment by accumulating positive potential and wisdom, then we’ll automatically become enlightened. Many beings have al-ready done this. Although we often speak of the Buddha, referring to Shakyamuni Buddha, in fact there are many enlightened beings.
Shakyamuni Buddha is respected because he purified his mindstream of every obscuration and developed his good qual-ities to their fullest extent. The Buddha has done what we aspire to do, and his teachings, as outlined in this book, show us the path to overcome our limitations and develop our full potential. He has offered his wisdom to us and we are free to accept it or not. The Buddha doesn’t demand our faith and allegiance, nor are we con-demned if we hold different views.
The Buddha advised us to be very practical and to the point, without getting distracted by useless speculation. He gave the example of a man wounded by a poisoned arrow. If, before consenting to have the arrow removed, the man insisted on knowing the name and occupation of the person who shot it, the brand of the arrow, the site where it was manufactured and what type of bow was used, he would die before learning the answers. The cru-cial thing for him is to treat the present wound and pre-vent further complications.
Similarly, while we’re entangled in the cycle of our phys-ical and mental problems, if we get side-tracked by use-less intellectual speculation about irrelevant subjects that we can’t possibly answer now, we’re foolish. It’s far wiser to get on with what’s important.
To overcome our limitations and develop our inner beau-ty, there is a step-by-step process to follow. First we lis-ten or read in order to learn a subject. Then we reflect and think about it. We use logic to analyze it, and exam-ine how it corresponds with our own experiences in life and with what we see in the lives of people around us. Finally, we integrate this new understanding into our being, so that it becomes part of us.
The essence of Buddha’s teachings is simple and can be practiced in our daily lives: we should help others as much as possible, and when that isn’t possible, we should avoid harming them.
This is compassion and wisdom. This is common sense. It’s not mystical or magical, nor is it irrational or dog-matic. All of the Buddha’s teachings are geared to enable us to develop wisdom and compassion and integrate them into our daily lives. Common sense isn’t just dis-cussed intellectually, it’s lived.
The Buddha’s teachings are called “the middle way” be-caue they are free from extremes. Just as self-indulgence is an extreme, so is self-mortification. The purpose of the Dharma is to help us relax and enjoy life, although this isn’t in the usual sense of sleeping and going to parties. We learn how to relax destructive emotions and atti-tudes that prevent us from being happy. We understand how to enjoy life without clinging, obsession and worry.
There is an old idea that to be religious or “holy” we must deny ourselves happiness. That is incorrect. Every-one wants to be happy, and it would be wonderful if we all were. But, it’s helpful ifwe understand what happi-ness is and what it isn’t.
In Buddhism we learn about the various types of happi-ness we’re capable of experiencing. We then search for the causes of true happiness, so we can ensure that our efforts will bring the result we desire. Finally, we create the causes for happiness. Happiness - and misery as well - don’t come our way by chance or by accident, nor are they due to our placating some higher being. As does everything in the universe, happiness arises due to spe-cific causes. If we create the causes for happiness, the resultant happiness will come. This is a systematic pro-cess of cause and effect that will be explained in later chapters.
The goal in Buddhism is simplicity, clarity and spontane-ity. A person with these qualities is extraordinary. With simplicity, we leave behind hypocrisy and selfishness, thus letting impartial love and compassion grow in our minds. With clarity we abandon the confusion of igno-rance, replacing it with direct perception of reality. With spontaneity, we no longer are influenced by impulsive thoughts, but naturally know the most appropriate and effective ways to benefit others in any situation.
By developing wisdom and compassion, we’ll be more content and will know what’s important in our lives. In-stead of battling the world with a dissatisfied mind that continually wants more and better, we’ll transform our attitude so that whatever environment we’re in, we’ll be happy and will be able to make our lives meaningful.
Some people think that Buddhism teaches passivity and withdrawal from other people. This is not the correct under-standing of the Buddha’s teachings. Although it’s advantageous to distance ourselves from wrong concep-tions and misdirected emotions, that doesn’t mean we live without energy and purpose. In fact, it’s the oppo-site! Free from confusion, we’ll be brighter and more alert. We’ll genuinely care about others. Although we’ll be able to accept whatever situations we encounter, we’ll actively work to benefit those around us.
Three faulty pots
The Buddha used the analogy of three faulty pots to ex-plain how to remove obstructions to learning. The first pot is upsidedown. Nothing can be poured inside it. This is analogous to reading Dharma books while watching television. We’re so distracted that very little of what we read goes inside our minds. The second faulty pot has a hole in the bottom. Something may go inside, but it doesn’t stay there. We may read the book with attention, but if a friend later asks us what the chapter was about, we can’t remember. The third defective pot is dirty. Even if we pour fresh clean milk inside and it stays there, it becomes undrinkable. This is similar to fIltering what we read through our own preconceptions and ideas. We won’t understand the subject correctly because it has been polluted with our misinterpretations.
It may be difficult to set aside our preconceptions, be-cause sometimes we aren’t aware that our ideas are prejudiced. One suggestion is to try to understand each topic in its own context, without re-interpreting it so it fits into another system we’ve already learned. In this way, we’ll view it freshly, with an open mind. When we have understood the Dharma well in its own context, then we’ll be more successful in seeing how it corre-sponds with psychology, science, or another philosophy or religion.
This book isn’t written by a scholar for a group of intel-lectuals, but as one person sharing with another. We’ll explore not only what the Buddha taught but also how it applies to our lives. To do this, we needn’t call ourselves “Buddhists,” for the search for happiness through living a meaningful life is universal. We’ll try to look at our liv~s with common sense and clarity, as human beings seeking happiness and wisdom. This is the Buddhist ap-proach.