Buddhism is a new age phenomenon in America. Its practice of mindfulness meditation has been corroborated by science and a great deal of research is being done to find out its efficacy in healing and changing the mind. Following is a brief summary.
Who was Buddha?
Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, was born into a royal family in present-day Nepal over 2500 years ago. Buddhism came out of his personal search for an understanding of life and the nature of reality.
Depending on how you look at it, Buddhism is a religion, a philosophy, or search for reality. Buddhism does not believe in a personal god. Rather, Buddhism is focused on spiritual development and the attainment of a deep insight into the true nature of life. Buddhists believe in reincarnation (rebirth) and seek to reach the state of enlightenment (Nirvana) and liberate oneself from the constant state of craving (for a healthy, disease-free body, youth, love, money) that cannot be satisfied because nothing is fixed or permanent and everything is subject to decay in changing universe. Impermanence, change and decay cause anxiety and the suffering.
Conversion to Religion
Buddhism does not seek to preach or convert. Buddhist monks were trained to help the community.
The path to Enlightenment is through the practice and development of compassion (helping others), meditation (to calm the ego, the passions and greed and develop self-control) and an understanding of life. From mindfulness meditation the brain learns to stay calm and focused and become an observer of the people around you while grasping the reality, i.e. change, impermanence, and the normal human condition. This leads to compassion.
Buddhism as discussed in the novel Asoka. It shows the inner-conflict in Asoka’s heart after the war before he becomes a Buddhist.
” Upagupta was the Revered Elder, fourth patriarch saint of the Buddhist Sangha. Thirty-five, tall and thin with a pointed nose, he was the son of a Mathura perfume merchant. Clad in a saffron robe, he greeted the King, offered him a tiger skin, and sat cross-legged opposite him on a white cotton rug. Asoka folded his hands. ‘Revered One,’ he said with sadness, ‘I’ve lost my faith. I’ve lost my peace.’
Upagupta studied the King’s gaunt face. ‘Great King,’ he said gently, ‘power and wealth do not bring peace. Peace comes from within.’
‘I don’t even know if there is a God,’ lamented Asoka,
‘In a changing physical universe, an unchanging God cannot exist. Under the laws of our universe, God can make no revelations, and the dead cannot rise from the grave.’
‘Can’t God exist outside the universe?’
Upagupta smiled. ‘God can! But that God would be unknowable. We cannot know if He is cruel, indifferent or kind. Nor can we know about His incarnations, His prophets and sons. No scripture can speak for Him. Authority comes not from speculation but from knowledge and experience. That is why Buddha denounced all religious authority.’
Asoka’s eyebrows arched. ‘What did Buddha say?’
‘When asked about God, Buddha became silent. He himself did not claim to be a prophet, the son of god, or God’s incarnation. He claimed no revelation from God. Buddha said, “You must be lamps unto yourselves. Hold fast to the truth as a lamp, seek salvation in truth alone.” He did not ask people to abandon their religious creed, only to watch their thoughts and deeds, and to harmonize their faith with their deeds.’
Asoka flushed. ‘And I wasted years reading the Vedic scriptures!’
Upagupta said, ‘Don’t blame yourself. Everyone does it.’
Upagupta’s eyes fell upon something. He reached down and picked up a slithering, shiny pink slug. ‘If this slug did not exist, can a description of it in a book create it?’
‘So it is with God. To talk about it, we have to know it.’
‘What is the proof there is no God?’
‘Hasn’t the universe been working fine for eons without outside help?’
Asoka took a deep breath. ‘Can God be worshipped?’
‘If you have love and longing in your heart, then by all means worship God. Even sing inspirational hymns. But pray in a quiet place where you can gather your thoughts and feel close to God. God is a spiritual experience, not a pill you can swallow. You need no prophets or priests for the experience. Remember, every doctrine fragments God. Every doctrine distances us from God.’
‘What about the soul?’
Upagupta stroked his chin. ‘If there is no God, there is no soul. And if God exists outside the universe, the soul still has to live in a mortal body. No immortal substance can live in the body. We are dynamic organisms of sensations, perceptions, impulses, emotions, memories and volitional acts of consciousness, and all these perish with the body. Nothing survives– not consciousness, not God-consciousness. Not soul.’
He continued. ‘If soul is life force or energy that escapes death, that energy lives on in the universe, but not in the form of “I.” Even energy keeps changing under the laws of the universe. But religions have created elaborate belief systems– soul, heaven. Why? To comfort man, to keep their hold on him. These beliefs are nothing but religious hallucinogens.’
Asoka frowned. ‘If there is no soul, why does Buddha believe in reincarnation?’
‘Good question! Buddha believed that a moral universe parallels the physical universe. The laws of this moral universe, or “karma”, determine rebirth. So this moral universe already exists within us. Buddha believed that when we die, energy escapes us and our “karma” attaches to that energy. This birth-death cycle can last for eons. But if we release ourselves from the cravings, desires and attachments that bind us to the narrow “I”, we reach “Nirvana”. Nirvana is our expanded self — the self that is in harmony with the universe. It can only be experienced, but not described.’
Asoka seemed disconcerted. ‘It all comes down to beliefs. So what’s wrong with soul?’
Upagupta shook his head. ‘If heaven is for real, why do we dread death? Intelligent men want real answers, not fairy tales. Man’s courage lies in looking his destiny in the face. Doesn’t the flower bloom in the desert in the face of its death? Running after illusory happiness– saving soul and visions of heaven– cannot make us happy. Happiness comes from connecting to living beings.’
Asoka stared into the distance. ‘No God! No soul! What is real?’
‘Nothing in this universe is permanent and independent. Nothing! So this universe can’t be real. Keep peeling it away, and you discover a universe that is empty at the core. “Emptiness” is the reality of the universe.’
Asoka touched his arms and shoulders. ‘Strange, this emptiness! This body, the oceans, the mountains– all seem so real!’
‘Things are not what they seem, King. The word “emptiness” comes from the Sanskrit word “shunya” which means “relating to swollen”, or appearing substantial from outside, but hollow inside. You know a swollen head is an empty head.’
Asoka threw his hands in air. ‘God is Unknowable. There is no soul. The universe is empty! So life has no purpose.’
‘Don’t jump to conclusions, Asoka. Can opium, hashish, an imaginary soul, or a hollow heaven give your life purpose? No. Life is life’s purpose. Look at how religion encourages irresponsibility. It asks us to put more faith in prayers than in effort. Renounce all doctrines and dogmas, and focus on life. Only life can feel for life, only caring for life can give purpose to our life.’
‘But isn’t Buddhism a religion?’
‘Not in the traditional sense. It is a system of spirituality based on moral behavior. It helps us grow through reflection and self-examination. Buddha rejected blind faith. He asked us to investigate all beliefs in the light of our intellect, knowledge and experience. And he went even further. “You need not accept all Buddhist beliefs, only those you agree with.”’
‘But how can we grow if life is suffering?’
Upagupta’s voice rose passionately. ‘Suffering is not the opposite of pleasure, King! Some men keep sucking at the honey jar even as they hurtle towards the abyss. Suffering is rooted in the nature of life. We desire permanent youth, love, and good health. And what does life offer? Decay, disease, old age, dejection, disillusionment. And anxiety of existence.
‘Buddha asked only that we follow a middle path between sensuality and asceticism–a life of contemplation. To affirm our humanity, our mortality, our common nature, he asked us to practice compassion and generosity. By pitting the narrow “I” against other human beings, we deny our humanity. By expanding this “I”, we reach the state of mind called happiness.’
Asoka was bewildered. ‘If there is no God, how can morality be there?’
Upagupta shook his head. ‘Where did God come from? The idea of God is not God. In some religions, gods seek revenge, brag, even perform miracles to impress us like magicians. But these same gods do nothing about oppression, war, hunger, or pestilence. Are these moral gods?’
‘And the priests? Many are good men. Others may love God but do not love man. Self-righteous, full of moral indignation, they disown all responsibility for human suffering–even that inflicted by them– by attributing it to bad karma or God’s will. Every social injustice has been sanctioned, if not incited, by the priests. Various sins have been created by scriptures to vest power in the priests. What mortal can resist such power? Addicted to it, clinging to the past, averse to any change, these priests want to retard our thinking. But the aim of religion is to make man moral, not a moron!’
‘The truth is, religion and morality are two different things. Morality cuts across all religions, morality is about social justice. A religious man is not necessarily a moral man. If men are moral– and not all are– it is because man has intelligence. Man can think. Man has eyes and ears. Most humans are conscious that under the skin, all men are the same, and they all meet the same end. Religious dogmas distort and disdain this truth of our common humanity. Should God have preferences?’
Asoka returned home dazed and contemplative. Suffering has so many faces: the passing away of love, living without love, living with body decay and disease, and so many calamities that keep coming our way. We also suffer because others suffer. And we suffer more when we are the cause of it.
He brooded on his own life. Anesthetized by religion, I neither saw nor felt others’ pain. And yet, to think there may be nothing after death. Am I strong enough to live in a God-less world?
An indescribable sadness gripped him: I am all alone in this universe.
An inner voice said: This is our common fate.