Growing up in a very religious family I never gave my beliefs a second thought, after all, the religion I grew up with was the only one I knew so in my mind it was the only thing that existed in the world. Everyone in the world was Lutheran. My uncles were pastors. All of my relatives on my maternal side were devoted to the church in one way or another – pastors, the wife of a pastor, children of pastors.
Right on queue, I was baptized as an infant, weeks old. Enrolled into a Lutheran private school from pre-school through grade 7, followed by a private highschool. Confirmed at the age of 13. I went to church every Sunday. Taught vacation bible school (religious summer day camp for elementary level children). I lived the life of a “good” Christian child.
My mother “officially” wore the title of black sheep when she and my father were married. My mother, a French Canadian of Irish and German decent. My father, born Canadian of Japanese decent. The “black sheep” title was kicked up a notch when my parents divorced. I was 6. This was definitely frowned upon by my extended family, and the church. We all felt it. Afterall, my mother did marry a Japanese Canadian. My maternal (German) Grandfather’s very own words,”You should marry one of your own”! I loved him to death, but never could grasp those words … after all, how could you love me when I was a combination of all of the things you did not want to accept? Culturally I felt that I did not identify with any one race … was I “white”, was I “asian”. My life was a bit confusing to me.
When I enrolled in college I found myself in a public school system with public school system friends. My “religion” was no longer thought of morning, noon and night. I was now viewed as the “black sheep” of the family. I was not the daughter of a pastor. I skipped curfews, got caught experimenting with alcohol in my late teens, a tad rebelious I suppose. I had many friends that were of many different religions; Hindu, Jehovah, Catholic, Orthodox, Sikh, Atheists, Buddhists … the list goes on. What? How can these all exist? Afterall, there’s only one religion … Lutheran, right?
It can all be so overwhelming to people when they try to understand religion, or make sense of all of them. What I have found when trying to see where the common denominator was is that they are very common, more common that one would think. Religion and beliefs are everywhere. One commonality that I noticed was that most of the religions I heard of had a person/ God/ higher being who was the main focus. The next thing that followed were the rules you were to obey.
My spiritual journey led me to a faith that couldn’t be summed up in one title. Sure, I believed in a “God” or a higher being, but I didn’t know who I was referring to – God, Jesus, Allah, Buddha? … they all seemed similar to me and all of them were trying to better a person from their own points of view. I felt at “home” with the faith of my paternal Grandfather – the Buddhist faith. Now, when I refer to Buddhism I should clarify that I am by no means a monk. I am a married women. I drink wine and on occasion I eat non vegetarian meals. I am a mother with a beautiful son and one child on the way so clearly I have been intimate with my husband. The fundamental core of Buddhism, the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path, do not have any mention of any god(s) or any notion of worship of any deity. They are purely ethical and meditative guidelines based on the truths of psychological suffering due to human existence.
The Four Noble Truths
1. Life means suffering.
To live means to suffer, because the human nature is not perfect and neither is the world we live in. During our lifetime, we inevitably have to endure physical suffering such as pain, sickness, injury, tiredness, old age, and eventually death; and we have to endure psychological suffering like sadness, fear, frustration, disappointment, and depression. Although there are different degrees of suffering and there are also positive experiences in life that we perceive as the opposite of suffering, such as ease, comfort and happiness, life in its totality is imperfect and incomplete, because our world is subject to impermanence. This means we are never able to keep permanently what we strive for, and just as happy moments pass by, we ourselves and our loved ones will pass away one day, too.
The origin of suffering is attachment to transient things and the ignorance thereof. Transient things do not only include the physical objects that surround us, but also ideas, and in a greater sense all objects of our perception. Ignorance is the lack of understanding of how our mind is attached to impermanent things. The reasons for suffering are desire, passion, ardour, pursuit of wealth and prestige, striving for fame and popularity, or in short: craving and clinging. Because the objects of our attachment are transient, their loss is inevitable, thus suffering will necessarily follow. Objects of attachment also include the idea of a “self” which is a delusion, because there is no abiding self. What we call “self” is just an imagined entity, and we are merely a part of the ceaseless becoming of the universe.
The cessation of suffering can be attained through nirodha. Nirodha means the unmaking of sensual craving and conceptual attachment. The third noble truth expresses the idea that suffering can be ended by attaining dispassion. Nirodha extinguishes all forms of clinging and attachment. This means that suffering can be overcome through human activity, simply by removing the cause of suffering. Attaining and perfecting dispassion is a process of many levels that ultimately results in the state of Nirvana. Nirvana means freedom from all worries, troubles, complexes, fabrications and ideas. Nirvana is not comprehensible for those who have not attained it.
There is a path to the end of suffering – a gradual path of self-improvement, which is described more detailed in the Eightfold Path. It is the middle way between the two extremes of excessive self-indulgence (hedonism) and excessive self-mortification (asceticism); and it leads to the end of the cycle of rebirth. The latter quality discerns it from other paths which are merely “wandering on the wheel of becoming”, because these do not have a final object. The path to the end of suffering can extend over many lifetimes, throughout which every individual rebirth is subject to karmic conditioning. Craving, ignorance, delusions, and its effects will disappear gradually, as progress is made on the path.
The Noble Eightfold Path
The Noble Eightfold Path describes the way to the end of suffering, as it was laid out by Siddhartha Gautama. It is a practical guideline to ethical and mental development with the goal of freeing the individual from attachments and delusions; and it finally leads to understanding the truth about all things. Together with the Four Noble Truths it constitutes the gist of Buddhism. Great emphasis is put on the practical aspect, because it is only through practice that one can attain a higher level of existence and finally reach Nirvana. The eight aspects of the path are not to be understood as a sequence of single steps, instead they are highly interdependent principles that have to be seen in relationship with each other.
Right view is the beginning and the end of the path, it simply means to see and to understand things as they really are and to realise the Four Noble Truth. As such, right view is the cognitive aspect of wisdom. It means to see things through, to grasp the impermanent and imperfect nature of worldly objects and ideas, and to understand the law of karma and karmic conditioning. Right view is not necessarily an intellectual capacity, just as wisdom is not just a matter of intelligence. Instead, right view is attained, sustained, and enhanced through all capacities of mind. It begins with the intuitive insight that all beings are subject to suffering and it ends with complete understanding of the true nature of all things. Since our view of the world forms our thoughts and our actions, right view yields right thoughts and right actions.
While right view refers to the cognitive aspect of wisdom, right intention refers to the volitional aspect, i.e. the kind of mental energy that controls our actions. Right intention can be described best as commitment to ethical and mental self-improvement. Buddha distinguishes three types of right intentions: 1. the intention of renunciation, which means resistance to the pull of desire, 2. the intention of good will, meaning resistance to feelings of anger and aversion, and 3. the intention of harmlessness, meaning not to think or act cruelly, violently, or aggressively, and to develop compassion.
Right speech is the first principle of ethical conduct in the eightfold path. Ethical conduct is viewed as a guideline to moral discipline, which supports the other principles of the path. This aspect is not self-sufficient, however, essential, because mental purification can only be achieved through the cultivation of ethical conduct. The importance of speech in the context of Buddhist ethics is obvious: words can break or save lives, make enemies or friends, start war or create peace. Buddha explained right speech as follows: 1. to abstain from false speech, especially not to tell deliberate lies and not to speak deceitfully, 2. to abstain from slanderous speech and not to use words maliciously against others, 3. to abstain from harsh words that offend or hurt others, and 4. to abstain from idle chatter that lacks purpose or depth. Positively phrased, this means to tell the truth, to speak friendly, warm, and gently and to talk only when necessary.
The second ethical principle, right action, involves the body as natural means of expression, as it refers to deeds that involve bodily actions. Unwholesome actions lead to unsound states of mind, while wholesome actions lead to sound states of mind. Again, the principle is explained in terms of abstinence: right action means 1. to abstain from harming sentient beings, especially to abstain from taking life (including suicide) and doing harm intentionally or delinquently, 2. to abstain from taking what is not given, which includes stealing, robbery, fraud, deceitfulness, and dishonesty, and 3. to abstain from sexual misconduct. Positively formulated, right action means to act kindly and compassionately, to be honest, to respect the belongings of others, and to keep sexual relationships harmless to others. Further details regarding the concrete meaning of right action can be found in the Precepts.
Right livelihood means that one should earn one’s living in a righteous way and that wealth should be gained legally and peacefully. The Buddha mentions four specific activities that harm other beings and that one should avoid for this reason: 1. dealing in weapons, 2. dealing in living beings (including raising animals for slaughter as well as slave trade and prostitution), 3. working in meat production and butchery, and 4. selling intoxicants and poisons, such as alcohol and drugs. Furthermore any other occupation that would violate the principles of right speech and right action should be avoided.
Right effort can be seen as a prerequisite for the other principles of the path. Without effort, which is in itself an act of will, nothing can be achieved, whereas misguided effort distracts the mind from its task, and confusion will be the consequence. Mental energy is the force behind right effort; it can occur in either wholesome or unwholesome states. The same type of energy that fuels desire, envy, aggression, and violence can on the other side fuel self-discipline, honesty, benevolence, and kindness. Right effort is detailed in four types of endeavours that rank in ascending order of perfection: 1. to prevent the arising of unarisen unwholesome states, 2. to abandon unwholesome states that have already arisen, 3. to arouse wholesome states that have not yet arisen, and 4. to maintain and perfect wholesome states already arisen.
Right mindfulness is the controlled and perfected faculty of cognition. It is the mental ability to see things as they are, with clear consciousness. Usually, the cognitive process begins with an impression induced by perception, or by a thought, but then it does not stay with the mere impression. Instead, we almost always conceptualize sense impressions and thoughts immediately. We interpret them and set them in relation to other thoughts and experiences, which naturally go beyond the facticity of the original impression. The mind then posits concepts, joins concepts into constructs, and weaves those constructs into complex interpretative schemes. All this happens only half-consciously, and as a result we often see things obscured. Right mindfulness is anchored in clear perception and it penetrates impressions without getting carried away. Right mindfulness enables us to be aware of the process of conceptualization in a way that we actively observe and control the way our thoughts go. Buddha accounted for this as the four foundations of mindfulness: 1. contemplation of the body, 2. contemplation of feeling (repulsive, attractive, or neutral), 3. contemplation of the state of mind, and 4. contemplation of the phenomena.
The eighth principle of the path, right concentration, refers to the development of a mental force that occurs in natural consciousness, although at a relatively low-level of intensity, namely concentration. Concentration in this context is described as one-pointedness of mind, meaning a state where all mental faculties are unified and directed onto one particular object. Right concentration for the purpose of the eightfold path means wholesome concentration, i.e. concentration on wholesome thoughts and actions. The Buddhist method of choice to develop right concentration is through the practice of meditation. The meditating mind focuses on a selected object. It first directs itself onto it, then sustains concentration, and finally intensifies concentration step by step. Through this practice it becomes natural to apply elevated levels concentration also in everyday situations.
When I read the philosophies I see that it is based merely on moral concepts. Right versus wrong and the consequences of your actions, also known as karma. I am not forced to believe in a “god”, I am not forced to believe in a set of rules in which, if I disobey, I will thrown into the depths of hell. In my interpretation Buddhism is a “soft” religion … a gentle hand guiding me along a route that will ultimately bring much more emotional satisfaction to my life. Buddha was a simple man who strived to allow others to develop peace and love in their everyday life. Simply put, suggestions to for one in order to obtain and live a peaceful and beautiful way of life.
In a nutshell, I have bonded with the philosophies that this religion has exposed me to. I feel that I can identify with it. It is such an interesting guide and has many facets that allow me to believe in whatever I want or choose to become. Buddhism has guided me along by its “scriptures” but allowed me to make the final decisions in my day-to-day life. Ultimately, allowing me to be me – whoever that may be!