October 7th, 2011

Common Sense Buddhism: A Compelling Life Philosophy for Everyone

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Big smiling buddha

Only by stripping away irrelevant cultural and social values will we see the full spectrum of what this wisdom is in its naked form and what it has to offer our modern cultures.
-Dzogchen Ponlop, Rebel Buddha: A Guide to a Revolution of Mind

Whether you are a religious Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, Jew, or non-religious Atheist, Agnostic, or Freethinker, the original teachings of Buddhism provide a compelling life philosophy. The teachings are not in conflict with your beliefs or non-beliefs, with a few exceptions. There are several supernatural, cultural, and religious aspects of Buddhism can make it hard for everyone to stomach. Fortunately, recent Buddhist authors have broken apart these cultural and non-scientific aspects of Buddhism. What remains is a common sense life philosophy.

How Buddhism Started

Buddhism started in present day Nepal with the birth of the Buddha Siddhartha Gautama. Siddhartha was a prince who gave up his position in search of the truth. He was deeply moved by the suffering he saw all around him and resolved to find a key to human happiness. The story of the Buddha can be found in detail on Wikipedia. Over time, Buddhism spread to Central, East, and Southeast Asia. Buddhism evolved into three main traditions- Theravada or Southern tradition, Mahayana or Northern tradition and Vajrayana or Tibetan tradition. Different traditions adapted to each culture and give varying emphasis to different aspects of the teaching and practices.

Is Buddhism A Religion or Life Philosophy?

It can be either, depending on the individual. The original teachings of the Buddha seem to be more of a life philosophy or way of life. But over time, as Buddhism spread across Asia, it evolved to each culture, and sometimes became more of a religion.

Why Buddhism is A Good Fit For Everyone

Buddhism is Agnostic. It does not require a belief in a god, making it attractive for both religious and non-religious, the believer and non-believer. The Buddha explained that he was not a god, and that believing in gods was not useful for those seeking enlightenment. While it is common for people in Asia pray to the Buddha, many consider this a corruption of the original teachings of the Buddha.

Common Sense Buddhism: The Original Teachings of the Buddha

The original teachings and basic philosophy of the Buddha (The Four Noble Truths) provide a common sense life philosophy for everyone. They don’t require a “leap of faith” or belief in the supernatural. The Four Noble Truths are taught in all three traditions of Buddhism:

1. The nature of suffering

Birth is suffering, aging is suffering, illness is suffering, death is suffering; sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief and despair are suffering; union with what is displeasing is suffering; separation from what is pleasing is suffering; not to get what one wants is suffering; in brief, the five aggregates subject to clinging are suffering.

2. Suffering arises from attachment to desires

It is this craving which leads to renewed existence, accompanied by delight and lust, seeking delight here and there, that is, craving for sensual pleasures, craving for existence, craving for extermination.

3. Suffering ceases when attachment to desire ceases

It is the remainderless fading away and cessation of that same craving, the giving up and relinquishing of it, freedom from it, nonreliance on it.

4. Freedom from suffering is possible by practicing the eightfold path

The Noble eightfold path (summarized) is being moral through what we say, do and our livelihood, focusing the mind on being fully aware of our thoughts and actions, by developing compassion for others and by developing wisdom by understanding the Four Noble Truths.

Sources: Wikipedia, Buddhist Studies

According to the Buddha, these four noble truths can be tested and proven by anyone. During his lifetime, the Buddha was a strong proponent of skepticism and critical thinking:

Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it. Do not believe in anything because it is spoken and rumored by many. Do not believe in anything simply because it is found written in your religious books. Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders. Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations. But after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it.
-Buddha

Taking the Nonscientific Aspects Out of Buddhism

While The Four Noble Truths do not conflict with science, there are two Buddhist beliefs that do: Karma and Rebirth. In addition, there are some New Age philosophies we need to watch out for as they can confuse us by linking their philosophies with Buddhism.

Karma: The Buddhist belief that every action brings about a result in this life or in a future life. Similar to the saying “What goes around comes around.” There is no way to scientifically prove karma, and so skeptics must discard this aspect of Buddhism as a life philosophy.

Stephen T. Asma PhD offers an interesting re-interpretation of karma in his book:

But the only really compelling interpretation of karma-one that doesn’t conflict with science-is the radical reinterpretation that asks us to think about karma as a psychological fact rather than a metaphysical one. For example, it is possible to say that one’s early lack of mental control and discipline results in a later batch of suffering-perhaps I never disciplined my cravings for fast food as a young man, and now I’m an obese older man who lives like a slave to French-fries. Or my younger taste for drama and negative attention has resulted in a later relationship pattern wherein I only try to date married women. This more naturalized version of karma is the only one that seems reasonably defensible.
-Stephen T. Asma PhD, Why I Am a Buddhist: No-Nonsense Buddhism with Red Meat and Whiskey

Rebirth: The Buddhist belief that upon death, a stream of consciousness flows from the deceased into a new person. Again, this (and the afterlife in general) cannot be proved, so cannot be accepted by a skeptic. During his lifetime, the Buddha himself even encouraged skepticism of the afterlife and karma:

“Suppose there is no hereafter and there is no fruit of deeds done well or ill. Yet in this world, here and now, free from hatred, free from malice, safe and sound, and happy, I keep myself.”
-Buddha, Kalama Sutta

In his book, Stephen Batchelor makes a good point about the power of believing in death’s finality:

It made me realize that belief in rebirth was a denial of death. And by removing death’s finality, you deprive it of its greatest power to affect your life here and now.
-Stephen Batchelor, Confession of a Buddhist Atheist

New Age “Magical Thinking” to Look Out For: Popular New Age philosophies are often linked with Buddhism, which can be confusing for those seeking the truth. As a wrote about previously in my post How Does the Law of Attraction Explain The Holocaust?, recent “magical thinking” presented in movies such as The Secret (2007) is harmful, and sometimes promotes a blame-the-victim mentality.

Stephen T. Asma PhD explains the problem with this modern day “magical thinking” that has become a part of popular culture:

… The more recent The Da Vinci Code phenomenon (2003), or the New Age variations such as The Celestine Prophecy (1993), The Secret (2007) and so on. Most of these worldviews share a common conviction that “positive thinking” and/or secret knowledge can, by itself, rearrange the universe to your liking. I believe The Celestine Prophecy and other such magical philosophies are popular for one reason: they indulge all our infantile desires to control the world. This is Freud’s famous critique of magical thinking, and I find myself in agreement. We all have these infantile desires to control the world through magical means… It is juvenile to expect the world to bend to my will.
-Stephen T. Asma PhD, Why I Am a Buddhist: No-Nonsense Buddhism with Red Meat and Whiskey

Stephen provides a second example of quantum mysticism, which has also become part of popular culture:

The purveyors of quantum mysticism include Fritjof Capra (the author of The Tao of Physics), Deepak Chopra (author of Quantum Healing), and the makers of the film What the Bleep Do We Know! (Ramtha’s School of Enlightenment). One of the things they are all trying to sell is the idea that there’s some deep, ancient agreement on the other side of the planet that we should reject our rationality. And the second major plank in the quantum mysticism campaign is that the conscious mind can and does make reality.
-Stephen T. Asma PhD, Why I Am a Buddhist: No-Nonsense Buddhism with Red Meat and Whiskey

What Remains: Common Sense Buddhism

Having read several books on Buddhism, I came across “common sense” themes and words of wisdom that expanded on The Four Noble Truths. None of these themes require a belief in karma or rebirth. If you are interested in learning more about Buddhism, any of the books quoted below are a good place to start. My favorites were Rebel Buddha: A Guide to a Revolution of Mind
and Why I Am a Buddhist: No-Nonsense Buddhism with Red Meat and Whiskey.

The Nature of Suffering (Noble Truth 1)

There are many types of suffering, but there’s one that’s worth contemplating above all others: nothing lasts. Life is short, the clock never stops ticking, and the time of your death will be a surprise.
-Dzogchen Ponlop, Rebel Buddha: A Guide to a Revolution of Mind

Suffering’s Origin: Cravings and Attachments (Noble Truth 2)

When you start to study your mind, you begin to see how mind works. You discover the principle of cause and effect; you see that certain actions produce suffering and others produce happiness. Once you make that discovery, you understand that by working with suffering’s causes, you can overcome suffering itself. You also begin to see, in the contents of mind, a clearer picture of your own psychological profile. That is, you begin to see the patterns of thought and feeling that repeat over and over. You see how predictable you are in your relationships and interactions with the world. You come to see, too, how ephemeral the contents of mind are. At a certain point, you begin to glimpse the total space of mind, the brilliant awareness that is the source of your fleeting thoughts and emotions. This is your first look at mind’s true nature; it’s a milestone on your path and an experience of personal freedom.
-Dzogchen Ponlop, Rebel Buddha: A Guide to a Revolution of Mind

Whatever our desires may be, getting the object of our desire is not the same thing as contentment, which comes from within. In the end, we’ll never find complete contentment, a perfect sense of peace, if our mind isn’t content and at peace.
Dzogchen Ponlop, Rebel Buddha: A Guide to a Revolution of Mind

No matter how much freedom we have, there’s still a sense of struggle. We always seem to be fighting for more freedom or a different kind of freedom, and therefore the suffering is endless.
-Dzogchen Ponlop, Rebel Buddha: A Guide to a Revolution of Mind

Activities themselves, whether they be helping old ladies across the street or selling your body for money, are neither good nor bad. They are inherently value-neutral, they just are. The activity becomes “bad” only if you become attached to it, only if you find yourself “needing” it and obsessing about it and not being able to be content without it. Even helping old ladies across the street can become “bad” if you become sanctimoniously righteous about it and stake out cross-walks to get your pious “fix.” So, too, sex for money is problematic when either the sex or the money becomes an addiction, but not before that. This means that there is no commandment list of absolutely wrong things in Buddhism, and while sexual desire and drugs and greed might trap you in this world of suffering, so might rigid religiosity and moral righteousness.
-Stephen T. Asma PhD, Why I Am a Buddhist: No-Nonsense Buddhism with Red Meat and Whiskey

If I simply cannot help myself from gawking at a stunning model on the street, then I have overturned a division of labor inside myself. I have become the servant of my desire, rather than being the master of my desire. I am being led, rather than leading.
-Stephen T. Asma PhD, Why I Am a Buddhist: No-Nonsense Buddhism with Red Meat and Whiskey

We cling to our bodies because we are all craving for immortality. In doing so, we make the error of thinking that an inherently impermanent thing will last-a philosophical mistake in thinking. And we succumb to an unhealthy fantasy-a craving that we will live forever.
-Stephen T. Asma PhD, Why I Am a Buddhist: No-Nonsense Buddhism with Red Meat and Whiskey

…Without attachment, we can think clearly about whether we want to eat the cake, and if we decide to, we can eat it peacefully, tasting and enjoying every bite without craving for more or being dissatisfied because it isn’t as good as we expected.
-Thubten Chodron, Buddhism for Beginners

Meditating on impermanence and seeing the transient nature of things helps us to let go of attachment and to set our priorities wisely. Imagining getting all the things we are attached to and then asking ourselves, “Now am I forever happy?” enables us to stop obsessing about the things and people we are attached to. As we let go of the attachment, our fear of not having or of losing these objects of attachment will naturally dissipate.
-Thubten Chodron, Buddhism for Beginners

When we are attached to others, we don’t see them for who they are and thereby develop many expectations of them, thinking they should be like this and they should do that. Then, when they don’t live up to what we thought they were or should be, we feel hurt, disillusioned, and angry.
-Thubten Chodron, Buddhism for Beginners

The causes of our problems lie not in the external environment and those inhabiting it, but in our own mind. The disturbing attitudes and negative emotions, such as clinging attachment, anger, and ignorance are the real source of our unhappiness. Since these are based on misconceptions about the nature of reality, they can be removed from our mindstream.
-Thubten Chodron, Buddhism for Beginners

Though a man conquer a thousand thousand men in battle, a greater conqueror still is he who conquers himself.
—Udanavarga

He whose mind is subdued and perfectly controlled is happy.
—Udanavarga

Death is not an event among other events, something that will just happen one day like anything else, but an ever-present possibility that quivers inside us each moment.
-Stephen Batchelor, Confession of a Buddhist Atheist

Freedom From Suffering, Giving Up Craving (Noble Truth 3)

Freedom can happen swiftly. One moment, we’re bound by something, the sum total of our life—our concepts about who we are, our position in the world, the force and weight of our relationships to people and places; we’re caught in the fabric of all that. Then, at another moment, it’s gone. There is nothing obstructing us. We’re free to walk out the door. In fact, our prison dissolves around us, and there’s nothing to escape from. What has changed is our mind. The self that was caught, trapped, is freed the minute that the mind changes and perceives space instead of a prison. If there is no prison, then there can be no prisoner. In fact, there never was a prison except in our mind, in the concepts that became the brick and mortar of our confinement.
-Dzogchen Ponlop, Rebel Buddha: A Guide to a Revolution of Mind

Compassion, Helping Others, Being Kind and Giving (Noble Truth 4)

The essence of the Buddha’s teaching is to avoid harming others and to help them as much as possible.
-Thubten Chodron, Buddhism for Beginners

When you wake up in the morning, try to make your first thought, “Today, I don’t want to harm anyone. I’m going to help others as much as possible. May all my actions be directed toward the long-term goal of becoming a Buddha to benefit others.” After you get up, meditate for a while to get in touch with your inner calm, to learn about yourself, and to set a good motivation for the day.
-Thubten Chodron, Buddhism for Beginners

What is a true gift? One for which nothing is expected in return.
-Prasnottaramalika

If we consider ourselves part of the same organism of all sentient life, we will reach out to others as if they were us. That is the type of compassion we try to develop through practice.
-Thubten Chodron, Buddhism for Beginners

Hear ye all this moral maxim, and having heard it keep it well: Whatsoever is displeasing to yourselves never do to another.
-Bstanhgyur

By abandoning negative actions, such as hurting others, and destructive motivations, such as anger, attachment, and closed-mindedness, we stop harming ourselves and others.
-Thubten Chodron, Buddhism for Beginners

Meditation means habituating ourselves to constructive, realistic, and beneficial emotions and attitudes. It builds up good habits of the mind. Meditation is used to transform our thoughts and views so that they are more compassionate and correspond to reality.
-Thubten Chodron, Buddhism for Beginners

Breaking Bad Habits (Noble Truth 4)

We are creatures of habit and need to put effort into pulling ourselves out of habitual judgments, emotional responses, and behaviors towards others. Each moment of our life is a new one with the opportunity to experiment and do things differently. Each time we meet someone we have an opportunity to connect, to give and exchange kindness.
-Thubten Chodron, Buddhism for Beginners

These are precisely the things from which we work to free ourselves on the Buddhist path: the habitual patterns that dominate our life and make it hard to see the awakened state of mind.
-Dzogchen Ponlop, Rebel Buddha: A Guide to a Revolution of Mind

Handling Stress and Difficult People (Noble Truth 4)

Our stress is often due to not accepting the reality of a situation. We want it to be different or we want ourselves or others to be different. However, what is happening at the moment is what exists. Instead of rejecting the situation, which causes us more anxiety, we can accept it and work with it. Accepting whatever is happening isn’t being fatalistic; it’s being realistic. Having accepted the reality of the situation for what it presently is, we can still try to improve it in the future while remaining realistic about what is possible.
-Thubten Chodron, Buddhism for Beginners

When we’re stopped at a light or stuck in traffic, we can look around and think, “All these people around me want to be happy and to avoid problems just as I do. Because we live in an interdependent society, I receive benefit from the different jobs these people do, even though I don’t know them personally.” It’s also very helpful to think like this when someone cuts us off!
-Thubten Chodron, Buddhism for Beginners

I once saw Vietnamese monkihich Nhat Hanh, at a lecture, offer a helpful metaphor for handling difficult people. When you plant lettuce, he said, you don’t blame the lettuce if it doesn’t grow well. Instead, you look for reasons why it is not doing well. The plant may need more sun, or fertilizer, or water, or whatever. It would be odd to blame the lettuce. So, too, when people are hostile to you, you should try to understand what circumstances have led them to this unfortunate state.
-Stephen T. Asma PhD, Why I Am a Buddhist: No-Nonsense Buddhism with Red Meat and Whiskey

Living in the Present (Noble Truth 4)

When we don’t pay attention, the conceptual world takes over our whole being. That’s a pretty sad thing. We can’t even enjoy a beautiful sunny day, watching leaves blowing in the wind. We have to label it all so that we live in a concept of sun, a concept of wind, and a concept of moving leaves. If we could leave it there, it wouldn’t be too bad, but that never happens. Then it’s “Oh yeah, it’s good to be here. It’s beautiful, but it would be better if the sun were shining from another angle.”
-Dzogchen Ponlop, Rebel Buddha: A Guide to a Revolution of Mind

As the external world is reduced to a conceptual world, we not only lose a wholesome part of our being, we lose all the beautiful things in the natural world: forests, flowers, birds, lakes. Nothing can bring us any genuine experience. Then our emotions come into play, supercharging our thoughts with their energy; we find there are “good” things that bring “good” emotions, and there are “bad” things that bring “bad” emotions. When we live our life like this every day, it becomes very tiresome; we begin to feel a sense of exhaustion and heaviness. We may think that our exhaustion comes from our job or our family, but in many cases, it’s not the job or family itself—it’s our mind. What’s exhausting us is how we relate to our life conceptually and emotionally. We risk becoming so stuck in the realm of concepts that nothing we do feels fresh, inspired, or natural.
-Dzogchen Ponlop, Rebel Buddha: A Guide to a Revolution of Mind

For many of us, work is the time we spend waiting to live. But if you can sink down and be more present in your activity, then you will discover the subtle joys of quality labor and the oblique happiness that comes from accomplishing something with excellence.
-Stephen T. Asma PhD, Why I Am a Buddhist: No-Nonsense Buddhism with Red Meat and Whiskey

Creative Commons License photo credit: pelican

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