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Buddhism, Dissed and Ditched

Understanding Buddhism involves studying its texts, which range from bizarre or outdated to intense, poetic, profound and silly; looking at it’s transformation as it traveled throughout Asia and to the West; considering how teachings have withstood 2500 years of interpretation, translation and the gradual, but dramatic shift in the human mind and environs in that time. Most importantly, understanding Buddhism involves practicing it, which means meditating.

One does not need to understand all of Buddhism to practice, but one must practice to understand anything about Buddhism.

A very generalized way of describing meditation might be - a series of practices that utilize concentration and consciousness which often help the practitioner to become more familiar with her mind thus more familiar with her neurosis, delusions, bodily sensations and general experience in the present moment. Meditation is a practice that happens in the present and allows us to engage in experimenting to see if the Buddhist teachings hold any truth. By investigating his mind using meditation techniques, the practitioner gains a glimpse of how his mind works.

I was recently shown an article called Why I Ditched Buddhism, by a very intelligent writer who took a meditation and Buddhist study course while in search of a new religion. The writer did a lot of research about Buddhism by engaging with and reading “intellectuals sympathetic to Buddhism”. I assume he also meditated, but he does not mention his experience in the article, in which he debunks the concepts he extracted from his research.

The writer begins by noting that Buddhism's popularity may be because it seems compatible with our “scientifically oriented culture” and it’s “de-emphasis of supernatural notions”. It seems that because Buddhism has this reputation for some that the writer took it on as an intellectual project. Certainly it is a worthwhile and interesting project.

The Buddha instructed students to trust their intuition:

“Do not go by oral tradition, by lineage of teaching, by hearsay, by a collection of scriptures, by logical reasoning, by inferential reasoning, by a reflection on reasons, by the acceptance of a view after pondering it, by the seeming competence of a speaker, or because you think, ‘The ascetic is our teacher’. But when you know for yourself, ‘These things are wholesome, these things are blameless; these things are praised by the wise; these things, if undertaken and practised, lead to welfare and happiness’, then you should engage in them.”

The Kalama Sutta

Buddhism is "rational" in that it asks you to look at cause and effect very closely and draw conclusions. To do this, one meditates in order to slow down the process of one thought causing another thought, leading to an action. I can see for instance how often the thought “check your cell phone” occurs. A lot. As I sit, without indulging this seemingly innocent yet compulsive instinct, I start to notice that every time “check your cell phone” happens and I choose not to indulge, there is an anxious boredom with the moment that I am trying to escape. When this happens, it is challenging. This writer mentions that “meditation can even exacerbate depression, anxiety, and other negative emotions in certain people”. The technique of not indulging thought and returning to the present moment (usually to the feeling of breath in the body) can be very intense. I begin to notice a lot of anxiety that normally I channel by making a phone call or knowing what time it is. (It is generally agreed upon that if one is suffering from chronic anxiety or depression, meditation is best used with a teacher or specialist who can assist the practitioner with specific practices.)

Do I benefit from this practice? Yes. Why? We have nothing to gain by ignoring difficult emotions. We work through them. In meditation this practice means sitting with feelings, rather than avoiding them. The scientific investigation here is the looking. As we sit with a difficult feeling, we come to understand it. We begin to see how the feeling works. This is the practice. Practice for what? For life. Contrary to this writer’s idea that Buddhism would have us shut out the world, this technique helps me to better deal with strong emotions when they arise in my life. I am less likely to react impulsively or to avoid neurotically. I can take a breath and continue. This would be moving in the direction of ‘right action’. I am also more capable of handling the anxiety of others, in fact I want to be helpful when others are having a difficult time. Often this help comes in the form of just listening or not becoming angry when someone is worked up.

"But what troubles me most about Buddhism is its implication that detachment from ordinary life is the surest route to salvation..” The Shambhala vision of enlightened society may be interesting for anyone who believes that Buddhist salvation is to abandon our lives. 

Our investigation of reality and our minds, using the same technique taught by the historical Buddha propel us into the world as we are, drawing our own conclusions and relying on those that are worthy of trust. There are so many examples of engaged Buddhists, many can be found here on this blog, many others are simply practicing compassion in their everyday lives. We retreat at times so that we may act with more skill and love when we return.

"Much more dubious is Buddhism's claim that perceiving yourself as in some sense unreal will make you happier and more compassionate." Anata or non-self is not "perceiving yourself as unreal". It is seeing what we refer to as self as fluid, not fixed. “We are here. DUH!” said  the Buddhist nun Venerable Robina Cortin, as she slapped herself in the arm. The practice is more like not taking yourself too seriously rather than perceiving yourself as unreal. Both are perceptions. Both come from thought.

The article was written in 2003 and since then, a slew of scientific research has been conducted that credit meditation’s positive affects on the brain. This kind of research is fantastic, but only in the world of science and “proof”, the combat that we like to engage in. My proof is in my practice and the results of the practice of others, like for instance The Venerable Pannavati Karuna or Ethan Nichtern, the founder of The Interdependence Project, author of One City.

I hope readers will consider trying meditation along with study. Be practitioners! Let me know how it goes.

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