buddhism

over the last four days, i’ve been going to the Intro to Buddhism class that i signed up for. class each day is from 8am to about 5pm. getting up each morning is so tough!! the class is taught by a buddhist nun named Rita. she’s originally from switzerland, but has been a nun for the last 14 years and she is a really really good teacher. we’ve learned an incredible amount of stuff in such a short amount of time. it’s really a lot to take in. class starts off with 45 minutes of meditation, followed by 2.5 hours of teaching, then an hour for lunch followed by 1 hour of group discussion, then 2 more hours of teaching and then 45 minutes of meditation.

buddhism is both a religion and a philosophy. part of it is about acheiving peace of mind and calmness in your daily life and also about showing compassion to others. that’s the part i’ve always been interested in and have always wondered if i could somehow incorporate into my own life. as far as the religion part, although i’m not shopping around for a new religion, i always find it inetresting to learn about the religion of other people. i think it definitely gives great insight into their culture etc. one of the main things that separates buddhism from most of the religions we have in the west, is that in buddhism, there is no “god”. no creator or anything like that. buddha was just a normal person like you and me who acheived enlightenment. something that apparently, others can do for themselves too and become a buddha themselves!

following is a ridiculously brief overview of what i’ve learned and some thougts about it:

Suffering and Attachments

one of the main thoughts in buddhism is that life is suffering. no matter what. you may think that your life is good, you’re happy most of the time, you have lots of friends, job security, blah, blah… but really your life is suffering. that may seem a bit bizarre when you first hear it, but here’s the line of reasoning: all the things that you value in life are impermanent, in other words they dont last. they may bring you temporary pleasure, but none of them will last and when they disappear, that gives you pain beacause of your attachment to them. pleasure is not the same as happiness. for instance, you may get all excited about your new car. you love it and treasure it. a week later, someone does a hit and run totaling your car. because of your attachment, you are now miserable for a long time. same thing goes for friends. you have a good friend. one day your friend decides that they hate you and never want to speak to you again. once again, you’re left feeling like crap.

basically, you just go through life picking up possessions and friends left and right, but it only brings you temporary pleasures. not real happiness. often times, these material things will end up not even giving you temporary pleasure even. so, what to do? well, you’re supposed to work on making yourself really happy, from the inside, by following the buddhist path instead of getting happiness form your attachments. you are supposed to eliminate desire from your life and that way, you will not feel depressed when these things disappear.

in some ways, i really agree with this. although i dont really think that life is suffering per se, i do think that a lot of sorrow in people’s lives come from unhealthy attachments. especially in the fast paced money-centric bay area, so many people are obssessed with getting that huge house, the shiny new car (or 2 or 3), the biggest stereo, the hottest new cellphone, etc etc. they’re constantly striving to get bigger and better and newer toys. and where does that leave them? usually misearble. they get sick of their toys so fast, and just end up wanting something else even newer. they begin to find their life empty. or, they lose their job and can no longer buy the toys they want and now they’re miserable. or they’re jealous of the fact that others have more than they do.

so much importance is put on material possessions. it’s absurd. and when i look around, it’s usually the people who have the least who are the happiest. in my own life, i must admit that i do love my toys. i was psyched to buy that new 40 gig mp3 player. and a new digital camera. but, at the same time, i’m not that *attached* to them. if i ended up not having these things, honestly i wouldnt care all that much. heh, maybe i’m good at this “not having attachments” thing. currently… i’m on the road and i own virtually nothing. all i have is a backpack, and it pretty much only has clothes. i have virtually nothing… and i want virtually nothing.

but, attachment is not necessarily only about things. in buddhism, it applies to people too. you can like people, and even love them, but your goal should be to keep from being “attached” so that way, if they leave you or die, you will not become unhappy. and that, i really disagree with. i think it’s important to miss people. in a way, missing people is a really beautiful thing because it just shows you how much they mean to you. in a previous post, i wrote that “i think people are lucky that we care enough about each other to feel such intense and strong emotions when someone passes away. people love each other and slowly form strong unbreakable bonds together and when those bonds are severed, severed by death, the only thing that can break the unbreakable, it is only right that our whole world should come crashing down on us. i think life would be horrible and ugly if we could just shrug off the death of a loved one and not care. it’s only when someone’s absence can really hurt you, that they mean the most.” and i really do still think that. sure, these attachments to people do cause suffering, but i dont necessarily think that’s a bad thing.

and last, the thing that most people are most attached to… is their own body. and thus, when it is time for them to die, and to lose that body, most people can hardly face it. but, that’s another topic altogether which i’ll mention below.

Meditation

so, let’s say you want to shrug off all of these attachments. you want to end the suffering and become happy. how do you do it? well, buddhists believe that everyone is born with a pure mind, or what is called a “buddha mind”. unfortunately, since that mind is stuck in a body, it’s perfection is clouded by all sorts of delusions (like attachments, anger, pride, etc) which keep you in the state of suffering. you need to slowly work on getting rid of these delusions to finally clear your mind, and maybe some day even attain enlightenment. this clearing of the mind is done by meditation.

over the last few days we’ve been meditating twice everyday and it is so hard!! you are supposed to sit still, crosslegged, with your back straight, and fixate on clearing your mind of all thought. first off, it’s uncomforatble. my back ends up hurting and since it’s *freezing* in the meditation hall, you’re often distracted by the cold. secondly, it’s virtually impossible to think about nothing. well, at least for more than two seconds. i’ll start off, clear my mind, and then two seconds later i start thinking something, which goes off on another tangent, and then another, and pretty soon all of a sudden i realize i’ve been thinking about stuff for like 5 minutes. crap!

so, i try to clear my mind again. i try to stop all thought. this lasts maybe another few seconds before i start thinking again. arggh! it’s *so* frustrating. practically impossible. one technique that is supposed to help is to concentrate on your breathing. you concentrate on yourself breathing in and out in and out in and out. this kind of helps because it keeps my mind still for a bit… but then my mind driftes again. i start to think what i’m going to write in my blog about meditation!! doh!!

all of this meditation slowly teaches you to control your mind and relax it. instead of havinga billion thoughts jumbling around as most people do, eventually your mind has complete discipline and it thinks about what *you* want it to think about instead of it deciding for itself. once you can control your thoughts, you can control whether you have attachments to material things. you can also control your anger. when something bad happens, instead of getting all angry, you can keep your mind in check and realize that anger is useless.

this really does seem like a great thing to do, and i would love to keep practicing this. maybe someday i’ll actually have a clear mind, free from worries, doubt, and other negative crap. but… here i find something that i have issues with too. the object of this controlled mind is to have a “calm peaceful mind”. this mind does not experience the wide crazy uncontrolled highs and lows. it is always in check and in a state of serenity. well, although i would love to have a mind that is free from all bad things, i dont think that i would want to have a mind that is kept from experiencing the highs of life. you are not supposed to experience passion in buddhism!! i dunno, but for me, i’d rather be able to get really really excited about things… even if this means that the ups will sometimes have equivalent downs.

Karma and Reincarnation

most people are familiar w/ the term karma, but i dont think most people have a full understanding about it. the basic principal here, is that every action has a reaction. it’s like physics… but instead of applying to physical objects, it applies to positive and negative deeds. basically, if you do something bad, it gives you bad karma, and eventually something bad will happen to you. if you do something good, the same principal works. now, this is something that’s a bit more difficult for me to believe. i guess i’ve learned too much science in my life and things that aren’t explained by physics are often hard for me to believe. how can i really know that if something good happens to me, that it happened because of something i did before?

but it gets even more tricky. buddhists believe in reincarnation. when your body dies, your mind lives on and gets reborn in another body… and your karma comes with it!! so if you do something really really bad, even if the bad thing doesnt return to you right away, it can come back and get you in another life! so, this kind of explains the “why do bad things happen to good people?” question. even if they have been really good in *this* life, they may still suffer the effects of bad karma from the previous one. thus, we are always responsible for our own suffering and for our own good fortunes, even though it may have been due to something we did in a previous life.

so we go through life building up karma, and when karma hits us back (in a negative or positive way) tha bit of karma dissipates. believe it or not, this is a great source of happiness for monks and other buddhists. if their life is horrible, for instance, if they are a tibetan stuck in prison and being tortured, they see that as a result of bad karma that they have acquired, and now since the bad karma is affecting them and dissipating, they now have less bad karma! so, their pain is a good thing!! they are actually on their way of getting rid of tons of bad karma. interesting way of looking at things, eh?

so, what are these deeds that give you good or bad karma? well, there’s a ton of different ones. bad karma is acquired by killing, lying, stealing, sexual misconduct, slander, etc etc. good karma is acquired when you give offerings to buddha, follow the buddhist practices, and also mainly when you do deeds of compassion. compassion plays a huge role in buddhism and it’s incredibly important to help others. i definitely think that’s one of the really good points of the religion. in fact, one of the main reasons for wanting enlightenment (which i’ll mention next), is not only for yourself, but because when you’re enlightened, you can help others more and help them acheive enlightenment!

Enlightenment and the Buddha

the main goal as you continue to practice buddhism, as you continue getting better and better karma and you keep strengthening your mind is that eventually you’ll acheive enlightenment, a state of awakening where you have pure bliss. you finally see the world as it really is, and your mind is no longer clouded with delusions. the state of nirvana. once you are enlightened, you become a buddha. this came as quite a shock to me. i though there was one and only one buddha, but it turns out that the buddha we always hear about (who started buddhism in 500 BC) was just one of many many buddhas. buddha just means “the awakened one”. apparently, any one of us can fulfill our “buddha potential” and become a buddha one day.

Death

there is a lot that the buddhist faith has to say abouty death. in buddhism, death is not altogether a bad thing. if you die, you just become reborn, so there really is no reason to be afraid of it. but, people dont want to die because of their attachments. they dont want to leave their possessions, they dont want to leave their friends and family, and they most definitely dont want to leave their most prized possession… their body. so, through meditation, you are supposed to try and decrease your attachments so when the time comes to die, it is not a sad thing.

the other cause for our fear of death is because we feel we are permanent. of course, we theoretically know we’ll die, but most people dont *really* accept it and always think of death as some far away thing that wont happen for ages. so beacuse of this denial, when death does occur, especially if it happens much earlier than we thought, we are terrified. so in buddhism, we’re supposed to concentrate on our own impermanence. that we may *not* live to be old. we dont know when we will die, and it may be soon. even tomorrow.. or even tonight. grim thought, huh?

our exercise for today was to spend our lunchtime thinking that this was our last hour of life. our last meal. how would this affect our emotions? would we enjoy our food more because we want to enjoy our last moments? or would we not want to bother to eat since, well, what’s the point? it was a rough exercise. everyone spent the hour of lunch moping around. for me personally, at first i tried to enjoy my food as much as i could. normally i may have thought it crap.. but hey, it’s my last meal!! all of a sudden it didnt taste so bad. but then i got really frustrated. this is my last hour!! why am i wasting it eating subpar food in this damn cafeteria. shouldnt i be out enjoying my last time on earth by having fun??

anyways, one of the points of the exercise was obviously, that anything you want to do.. do it now!! dont hold off. dont wait to do it cause you have plenty of time to live and do things later. maybe you dont. the buddhists would say to meditate and acquire good karma while you can. my own view.. would be to enjoy life all you can. have fun. live life to its fullest. dont settle for a crap job, or dont waste your time being bored. get out there. enjoy things. seize the day and all that cliched stuff. really.

the Silent Treatment

one of the rules of this class is that we’re supposed to not talk on our breaks or at lunch. at all. we have to remain silent. this is so we can think about the things we learned without chitchatting to others about them, or about other nonsense. lemme tell ya… it sucks!! i hate being silent. eating food and just sitting there. ugh. especially when you’re surrounded by all these people. i constantly want to ask people what they think of the course, or how they’re doing, or whatever… but i cant.. instead we all just sit there in silence. and it’s an uncomfortable silence. a room full of people just staring at each other w/ nothing to do but think. ugh!

so, i guess that’s it for now. that’s a rough synopsis of what i’ve learned. of course, i’ve really really simplified a lot of the concepts and left tons and tons out. but it’s some basics. it’s definitely some interesting stuff, and i’ve really been enjoying the classes. i’m eager also to see how much of this i can actually apply to my life.

in the mean time, the weather has become even worse. it’s been snowing and hailing on and off for the last few days. but it hasnt been cold enough so far, so the hail would just melt when it hit the ground. but tonght it’s below freezing. all the roads are covered w/ slushy ice. you walk around and stumble into muddy puddles hidden by the ice. the rain/hail comes down like crazy. and we’re soaked all the time. but i guess like buddha said, “life is suffering”!!

*v

4 thoughts on “buddhism”

  1. Vlad, kudos for a great post. Buddhism 101 :D.Since Hinduism has practically all the same concepts that you described over here, I will ask some questions which always spring up in my mind

    1. Why at all we do bad karmas?
    2. Is their a way to break this chain of reincarnations?
    3. Why must I suffer in this life to get a better life in the next incarnation?

    Great to read your honest account of trying Meditation and trying to keep your mind free of every thought.

    Pankaj

  2. well, i dont know *that* much about buddhism, but from what i’ve learned, here’s what i think are the answers to your questions:

    1)we do bad karmas because we are human and thus our “pure buddha mind” is clouded w/ human delusions such as anger, pride, attachment, etc. these delusions cause us to do bad things, like hurt people, steal, lie, etc and those actions give us bad karma.

    2)there’s definitely a way to break the chain. if you follow the buddhist path, show compassion to others, purify yourself, and slowly get rid of your delusions.. eventually (after many lifetimes) you will be able to clear your mind completely and become enlightened. at this point you will no longer be attached to your body, and thus will not reincarnate.

    3)actually, there’s nothing in buddhism that says you have to suffer. suffering is not necessarily a punsihment, but instead it’s just something that happens because you dont understand the world properly (due to delusions). people spend their life tyrying to acquire material wealth etc, but none of this brings real happiness. so, any suffering is really actually brought on by the person himself!

    heh, hopefully that made sense!! also,just curious, where did you find out about my blog?

    *v

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