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The Buddha

Buddhism is not more popular, one suspects, because it is a big gobbet of hard truths. People apparently do not much want hard truths from their religion. They want to believe in a comforting sky daddy who is going to make everything okay.

Buddhism tells us that there is no sky daddy. There is only the laws of nature, which require no further explanation or justification, one of which is the law of karma. The law of karma, or cause and effect, makes us all responsible for ourselves, who we are and where we are, in a mix of causes and conditions that we cannot control.

We usually have a pretty good idea of who we are. If we don’t, then it typically indicates some degree of mental illness. A friend who worked in the state mental hospital for a while reports the client she had who tried to hide under the furniture because he was convinced he was an insect and worried his family members would try to step on him in order to kill him. That is extreme, of course. More common is just big disappointments that cause moments of confusion, and possibly depression, leading to a need to reassess.

Our sense of individual identity is usually bound up with some story about where we came from and where we see ourselves as going. At any given moment, however, we tend to reify and solidify our identities into fixed entities.

The Buddha pointed out that our identities are really more processes that continue throughout our lives. We dislike thinking about death, possibly fear death, because it is the end of the story and we are never ready for the story to end.

Unless we are enlightened. Then we realize that our identities are just stories we are telling ourselves that take us away from our present experience at any given moment. Fully enlightened people realize that their next death will be the ultimate end of the story. Before enlightenment, each death is just another in the long round of deaths and rebirths that make up samsara. Exiting from samsara is what enlightenment is all about.

The bad news is that all is impermanence and that nothing you accomplish in any of your lifetimes is going to last forever.

But that might also be the good news. Depending on your personal story, you can now give up the pressure to come up with some world changing invention that will last forever after you die. Not gonna happen, and there’s nothing you can do about it. Eventually, you’re going to disappear, as is everything you can perceive right now.

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Written by

Uppity gay, Buddhist, author, historian.

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