What the heck is Buddhism Anyway?
Hello and welcome to the gurumojo podcast number seven! I’m your host, Kenny Jenkins, and it is my job to bring you the wisdom and insights that I have discovered along my path to becoming a happier, more compassionate person.
On this episode, I want to give you a basic rundown of what Buddhism is. For me, the Buddhist teachings have been the main practice, the main influence that have helped me to grow as a more compassionate, a more centered and loving person. And before I knew what Buddhism was, you know, I didn’t know. It was off my radar. But then as I was starting my spiritual path, in my early 20’s, I came across the basic teachings and they just spoke to me. The Buddhist concepts just resonated with me as something that I already believed without having already put it into words for myself.
So here’s the basic rundown, it surprisingly simple, call it Buddhism 101, or Buddhism At A Glance. And let me offer this disclaimer: I’m not a trained teacher, I’ve studied and practiced mostly on my own for around 20 years. I like the idea that a second grader can teach a first grader, I’m just sharing what I’ve found. And let me also say that I’m not trying to be a guru, gurumojo is the concept that we can all be our own spiritual guides. Follow our own paths and find what works for us.
So what is Buddhism?
Well, let me tell you. Or rather, let me tell you what I think it is. Does it really work that way? I think so. To start off with, I don’t think Buddhism is a religion. It’s more of a philosophy. Buddhism is a philosophy that describes the ultimate nature of our human existence. Yes! This is going to be one of those talks! (Like, “oh brother, here he goes again about the ultimate naure of our human existence!”) Yeah… Buddhism lays out a system for living the happiest life possible. It includes a code of ethics. But there’s no god to pray to or worship. There’s no dogma to subscribe to. In fact the Buddha famously said often that you should not take his word on it, but rather discover for yourself what you believe to be true. And who is this Buddha character? I should probably start there. I’ll just give you the nutshell version and you can take it from there if you want to know more.
Before he became the Buddha, his name was Sidhartha, and he was an Indian prince who was born back in 623bc. He led such a completely sheltered life in his royal palace that when he was a young man, he ventured outside of the palace and for the first time encountered sickness, old age, and death. He had literally never seen a sick person, an old person, or a dead body up until then. Seriously… It hit him like a ton of bricks! Like, “What is all this suffering? What is death?” Well, he left the palace and gave up his royal life and became a wandering holy man in search of the answers to his questions about suffering and the human condition. So to make a long story short, he came up with the answer. He cracked the code. He had what could be described as a moment of ultimate realization. An epiphany. An awakening to the true nature of reality, also known as an enlightenment. What he came up with is known as, “The Four Noble Truths.” This is the basis of Buddhism. And here they are….
The first noble truth is The truth of suffering, as in “to live is to suffer.” As we all know, the deal with having a human body is that for all the joys and happiness, you will suffer. You will hurt, you will experience mental anguish, you will get sick and eventually die. Period. To live is to suffer. Got it.
The second noble truth is the truth of the causes of suffering. And this is huge. The cause of suffering is rooted in our expectations and our emotional clinging to the outcomes of our expectations. We think things are going to be a certain way and when it turns out different, we suffer. We get upset at each other, we get down on ourselves, we resent the universe for the crappy day we’re having. We experience mental anguish. If someone is rude to you, it upsets you because you were carrying an expectation that people would treat you with respect. If you truly expected that person to be rude to you when you saw them coming, it would not upset you, or even more accurately, if you were not clinging to the expectation of being treated a certain way, it wouldn’t upset you when that expectation was not met. See? We suffer because of our expectations. Ever hear that old pessimist quote, “Expect nothing and you will never be disappointed?” They’re on to something…. It’s just when they say it it has that crunchy little eh- “Expect nothing and you’ll never be disappointed…. Eh…” That’s the truth of the causes of suffering.
The third noble truth is the truth of the cessation of suffering. It is the truth that says there can be an end to the suffering. Glad to hear that! Check.
The fourth noble truth is the truth of the path to cessation. It is the method to be used to end all that suffering. This is the big one! This is what we’ve all been waiting for even if we didn’t know it! Good lord, do you have any idea what in the world could possibly end suffering of all humanity?! If you’re a listener of this podcast you might not be surprised to hear that it is, you guessed it. Meditation! That’s right, good ol’ meditation! Holy Moly Guacamole! Is that what this is all about? Is that why I’ve been pushing this stuff on everybody who will listen? Ah, yes… The end of suffering for all beings? That’s it. That’s my jam. Meditation…….. And what is meditation? Simply enough, meditation is placing your attention on a single object and focusing on that one thing for a while. Could be an image, a word, a concept, or most simply, your breath. Breath meditation is what I practice most. Anyone can do it, and here’s how, real quick. You find a place to sit quietly for ten, twenty, or thirty minutes. Close your eyes and notice your breath going in and out. Don’t try to breathe a certain way, just observe the breath. You can focus on how it feels when it goes in and out of your nostrils, or the feeling of your belly rising and falling. You will notice immediately that thoughts spring up and distract you and all of a sudden you’re thinking about what you’re going to do after you meditate, or tomorrow, or remembering something that happened to you. The instruction is to just notice that you’ve been distracted and simply note to yourself, “thinking” and go back to watching your breath. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking, “Oh, meditation is not for me, I have too many thoughts.” We all have too many thoughts, that’s the point, notice them and note them to yourself and gently place your attention back on the breath. Begin again. And again. After a while you’ll notice that it takes less time to realize that you’ve been distracted by a thought, and that you start to get distracted by them a little less frequently. That’s meditation.
The Buddha teaches us that when we quiet our minds and go within, we learn to loosen the grip our mind has on our expectations. We learn to realize the moment we start the cycle of being upset by something and are able to take the time to observe those feelings and let them go because there is no reason to allow ourselves to get caught up in afflictive emotions thereby increasing our suffering. Even worse, when we suffer like that, we will usually inflict suffering on someone else by either lashing out or turning away from someone, or just moping around. There’s a million ways we spread our suffering around to others. Misery loves company? You betcha! And so often we are so self-centered that we don’t even realize that we are doing it.
So, yeah, meditation is the key. A consistent meditation practice allows one to move more freely through the world. You’re more able to take things as they come and accept your reality. It’s the serenity prayer, “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I can’t change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” It’s about having that serenity to accept the things we can’t change. And good lord aren’t there a lot of those things?! And like the Buddha said, don’t take my word on it. Try it for yourself and see if you find it helpful. That was so refreshing to me as a young man in my early 20’s, after, in my late teens, having drifted away from the Christian dogma that I had been presented with as a kid. Which is normal at that age, I later discovered, to question such things, and now I realize of course, that Christ’s teachings are wonderful and beautiful, and full of truth. But to hear that the Buddha said, “Don’t take my word for it…” was something I had never heard at my Southern Baptist church growing up in Jacksonville, Florida. There it was literally, “If you don’t believe what we’re telling you, you will burn, burn, burn, for all of eternity. Burning. Don’t ask questions. We don’t do questions here. Believe or burn.” I’m 100% sure Jesus did not mean for it to be that way, but that’s another story for another time. Turns out that questioning and debate are a big part of Buddhism. They actually have a tradition of debate among the monks and masters over the details of the different philosophies.
Ok. Four Noble Truths, check… What else is Buddhism besides the Four Noble Truths?
How ‘bout The practice of “doing no harm.” That’s a good one. There’s the concept that says if you can not help someone, then at least you should do them no harm. Sometimes for me that could mean that if I don’t agree with someone and I think they are being unreasonable, instead of trying to force them to see things my way, instead of throwing it in their face about how wrong they are, I just let it go. And I can never really know for sure if maybe I’m not the one who’s wrong and being unreasonable. And what’s the harm anyway of who’s right about whatever we’re arguing about. I mean unless we’re arguing about which wire to cut to disarm the bomb in some mission impossible scenario. I mean that’s an argument that’s probably worth having! But what are we really so upset about? Help others if you can, if you can not, then do no harm. For heaven sakes, we’re all suffering enough already as it is!
Then there’s reincarnation. Ooooh, boy…. That’s big one. It took me a while to warm up to this one. And I’m not here to persuade you that reincarnation is real. You don’t have to believe in reincarnation to benefit from a daily meditation practice and the wisdom of the Four Noble Truths. And really who can be sure? The real deal is that we all get to find out when we die. So really, it’s neither here nor there, but it is a Buddhist belief that I want to touch on here while I’m trying to demystify Buddhism. I was finally won over on this concept by an eloquent and scientific explanation of reincarnation by the Dalai Lama in one of his books. But the essential line of reasoning is this: We can observe through meditation that we are not our bodies. We have human bodies, but that is not who or what we are, since we can observe our bodies, we are not that. We are not what can be observed. We can also discern that we are not our thoughts. Again through meditation, we can see that our thoughts spring up sporadically. We can’t control them, we can either cling to them or not, but we can observe our thoughts, so again, we are not what can be observed. We are not our bodies, we are not our thoughts, what are we? We are pure awareness. We are that which observes. Quietly, peacefully, watching the movie that is our lives as it springs to life right before our very eyes. This awareness has also been referred to as “the witness.” As it simply witnesses everything without judgement. Pure awareness. And this awareness is part of a continuum. Every moment of this awareness depends on its previous state, it is created out of and depends upon its own previous state. Now follow me on this. That previous moment of awareness depends on its previous moment, and so on. A continuum of previous states. In that way, our awareness is timeless, it stretches endlessly back in time and in the same way, it goes forward, endlessly. It can have no birth if every moment is dependent upon the previous moment. And at this particular moment it has taken up residence inside your human body. We don’t know how or why, but it has. And when this body dies, the pure awareness will continue, and it will continue to find its way into another form, another birth, and do it all over again, just as it has already done countless times.
A really beautiful concept relating to reincarnation says that we have all been reborn so many countless times, that everyone you meet, at one time or another, was your mother, (and you have also been their mother) and by that notion, every person deserves your love and compassion and respect as your mother does for having loved you and cared for you. (They go on to say that even if you don’t have a great relationship with your mother, that at the very least, she loved and cared for you enough to make sure that you were born and cared for properly because you couldn’t have made it this far otherwise.) So, love everybody.
And there’s the concept that we are reborn through the whole gamut of lesser animals so that when you finally achieve a human birth, this is your big chance to become enlightened, so don’t screw it up! Other animals don’t have that chance.
So yeah, reincarnation. Take it or leave it. It either is or it isn’t.
Then there’s karma. Ohhhhhh, karma. So misunderstood. The word Karma literally means action, and that’s physical or mental action. And all the actions we take leave a sort of a mark on our soul if you will, a residue that has come to be known as karma. We accumulate of karma, both good and bad, based on our thoughts and actions. Karma is like your spiritual credit report. If you’ve ever checked your credit report online, which of course you have, (or else what are you doing with your life?! Check your credit report!) If you’ve ever checked your credit report, some sites have like a little gas gauge that has colors on it red to yellow to green. I wish you could check your Karma report online! On second thought maybe I wouldn’t want to see it. Anyway…
There are three components to how karma is created. The one most people are familiar with is the physical action. When you do something, either good or bad, it creates karma. Whether you’re robbing a bank or helping an old lady across the street, you’re accumulating karma.
The second aspect is your intention. Whether or not you did something on purpose or by accident, whether or not you just had the intention but did not follow through, also influences the old karma-meter. Like if you had the idea of robbing the bank, but didn’t actually go through with it, you will still get some karmatic residue built up depending on if it was just a passing thought, “Oh, I might want to rob a bank someday,” or if you spent months planning it and obsessing over every detail only to chicken out at the last minute. That has an influence. So that old saying about the road to hell being paved with good intentions? Not true. It sounds cool and snarky, but having good intentions is very important.
The third aspect of karma is how you felt after you did the act. If you did rob that bank, but deeply regretted it afterwards, you would incur slightly less bad karma than if you robbed that bank and were super stoked about it afterwards. And I’m oversimplifying to illustrate, and for sure, I don’t mean to belittle any bank robbers out there who may be listening. I know it’s tough out there, and things are complicated, but at least you’ve found this podcast and maybe that’s a good thing. So there’s intention, action, and then how you felt about it afterwards. The actual Buddhist teachers say that the effects of karma are reflected through many, many lifetimes, and that “instant karma” is not a thing. Like if you’re walking down the street and you say something mean to your girlfriend and immediately trip over something. That’s not a thing, but I don’t know, it seems to happen all the time, doesn’t it? Or is that just me?
It is believed that your karma influences you next birth and what kind of life you may be born into. Like if you were greedy and self-centered in this lifetime, you may be destined to be very poor in the next. I’m really simplifying it of course, it’s not just some cosmic cookie cutter stamping out lifetimes, but who am I to say?
Then there’s Enlightenment. Now we’re talking! What is enlightenment? The term “Buddha” means “the awakened one” When the Buddha had his realization about suffering and the human condition and the Four Noble Truths, that is considered to have been his enlightenment. But it goes deeper than that. Included in that realization is the fact that we are all one. We are not only interconnected socially, but we are truly one, not separate. It’s the concept that we are not our bodies, we are not our thoughts, we are pure awareness, and that pure awareness is one thing, we are not all separate pure awarenesses. I’ve heard it described this way. Picture a bright light, like a bare light bulb, and imagine you’re holding a piece of cardboard in front of it blocking the light. Then imagine that there are a bunch of tiny pinholes in the board letting through little beams of light. We are like those little beams, appearing to be separate, but we all come from the same source, in fact we are all the same light, only appearing to be separate. It is the concept of nonduality, and it pertains to every single thing we can perceive. We are not separate from anything or anyone. A beautiful concept that I love is that when you are lying to someone, you are disrespecting that person by pretending that you are separate from them, so really what’s the point. You are really only lying to yourself. And because of this concept, I’ve long held the idea that if you lie to someone, they know they are being lied to. They may not call you out on it, and they might not be sure of it themselves, but on some level, they know. So stop lying everybody! Sheesh… And speaking of being one with everything, I’ve heard Jack Kornfield quote Alice Walker so many times, “But one day when I was sitting quiet and feeling like a motherless child, which I was, it come to me: that feeling of being part of everything, not separate at all. I knew that if I cut a tree, my arm would bleed. And I laughed and I cried and I run all around the house. I knew just what it was. In fact, when it happen, you can’t miss it.” Yes. That really is it! We are all one thing. And there’s also the joke about the Buddhist monk ordering a hot dog and he says, “Make me one with everything.” Yep, a buddhist dad-joke. Who knew?
Now, Speaking of Enlightenment leads us to Nirvana. Nirvana is the release from the cycle of reincarnation. They say that after you finally awaken to the true nature of reality, that when you die, instead of being reincarnated once again, you instead return to the source of pure awareness. That’s Nirvana. Now there is the option of becoming a Bhodisattva. Not to muddy the waters too much, a Bhodisattva is someone who has taken a vow that upon their death, they will refuse Nirvana and instead choose to be reborn so that they may return to help others become enlightened, over and over again until all beings have been awakened. That’s a lot. There’s many different versions of the Bhodisattva vow, but it is basically something like, “Beings are numerous, I vow to save them all.” Funny part about that is, as Jack Kornfield like to point out, you pretty quickly realize that they don’t want to be saved! Especially your family and friends! It’s so true, the best you can really do is to work on yourself and be kind to people, be compassionate and available, and that helps them. If you can ease anyone’s suffering even a little, that helps. That’s why I’m doing this podcast.
Another remarkable thing about the Buddha, is that he was able to teach for so many years. While we don’t have exact dates, it is generally agreed that he started teaching around age 29, and died in his eighties. So right around 50 years of teaching, which is remarkable when you think that Jesus was only able to teach for a few years before he was killed.
Also, it is believed that there are and have been many buddhas, and that this particular buddha just happened to be the one that brought the teachings this time around. And as I like to say, since a Buddha is an awakened being, that Jesus is one of my favorite Buddhas. Likewise, having said that Buddhism is more philosophy than religion, it just so happens that a meditation practice and an understanding of the Four Noble Truths will not interfere with any other religion you may already practice. The Dalai Lama says to stick with your own religion, it is important. You can still benefit from a meditation practice without being a Buddhist, and “do no harm” is pretty universal.
And as a side note, since I’m trying to demystify Buddhism, I should clarify who the Dalai Lama is. You hear it all over the place and I’ve made a couple of references to him on this podcast . The Dalai Lama is basically the head-Buddhist monk of the Tibetan people who have a very rich Buddhist history, he is their spiritual leader. He has written a lot of great books that I recommend to anyone.
It is also said that says achieving Buddhahood is often mistaken for gaining something that you do not already have, because actually, you already have Buddha-awareness, you have always had it, you just haven’t realized it yet. In meditation, you can shift your awareness to what I like to call, “resting in the witness.” Sometimes I’ll use a mental cue and say to myself, “May I rest in the witness.” Or simply note the word, “resting”. There you can be with your own buddha nature, which is pure awareness, you merge with it. The trick of it is that it turns out to be simple to achieve, even if just for a short time. A meditation practice helps you get there and to sustain it for longer. You can sometimes try real hard and never get there, but then you can relax and all of a sudden kind of fall into it, or notice it, and realize that it was always there, always available, ever-present. The more you experience this vast expanse of awareness, the more you let go of things that are much less important. Like somebody cutting you off in traffic. That person is suffering, let’s get out of their way and do them no harm. They’re having quite a day. The more you experience your true nature, the more available you can be for your friends and family and coworkers who are also suffering. If you can be a calm presence for them, just that can help sometimes.
If any of this resonates with you, it’s because you already know it to be true. So often when I’m typing out what I want to say on these podcasts, I realize that I’m really trying to remind myself of these truths. We need constant reminders of these things or they tend to fall by the wayside, forgotten, replaced by the constant demands of our daily lives. There has been for me a cycle of finding these truths and living them every day, studying, practicing, and for years, it slowly slips away and the books gather dust on the shelves, and I forget. But as I was told early on in this journey, you always come back. And I have, over and over again. So keep that in mind if you find you have drifted as well. And gently remind yourself that it’s ok, this is all part of a cycle. You come back, you begin again, and again. In this lifetime as in all the previous lifetimes. And perhaps in the next.
All of these teachings I have received from great teachers and any of the mistakes I’ve made in relating them to you are my own. Please take from this what you know to be true, and leave the rest. I like to end these podcasts with the word, Namaste. It simply means, “the spirit in me recognizes the spirit in you.” Thank you so much for your generous attention.
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