“Essentially, the Truth is very close to you; is it necessary then to run around in search of it?”
How to Raise an Ox: Zen Practice as Taught in Master Dogen’s Shobogenzo.
Congratulations. You’re a beginner. Buddhists like to maintain what we call “beginner’s mind.” There’s even a book called, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, by Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki. One way to understand the goal of Buddhism (if Buddhism has a goal, but we’ll get to that later) is that it strives to achieve perception and experience that is as little mediated by culture and habit as possible. In the expert’s mind, possibilities are few. In the beginner’s mind, they are many. That’s an old Buddhist saying. Buddhists try to minimize fixed beliefs and positions. The more you know, the more fixed beliefs and positions you have. Knowledge is helpful, but keep in mind that the real goal is wisdom, and sometimes, knowledge can get in the way of wisdom. Try to keep your beginner’s mind.
But wait! Maybe you’re not too sure about all of this. Maybe you’re perfectly happy being a Christian, or a Jew, or Muslim, or Hindu, or Zoroastrian, or Animist, or Pagan, or whatever you are. That’s okay. For one thing, it’s always a good idea to learn more about the world you live in, right? For another, Buddhists don’t care. Buddhists are not exclusive. We have nothing like the commandment, thou shalt have no other gods than me. Actually, Buddhists do not posit a god at all. Buddhist teachers refer to prophets and leaders from other religions all the time. There’s even a book called Living Buddha, Living Christ, by Vietnamese Zen Buddhist Thich Nhat Hanh.
If you keep reading, I strongly suspect that you will find nothing that offends your existing beliefs, and much that may confirm them, albeit from a slightly different perspective. Buddhism is relentlessly practical and oriented to the ordinary world we face on a daily basis. It undoubtedly varies depending on how you practice it, but to some extent, any religion that posits an unseen, omnipotent deity takes you to some extent away from what is right in front of your nose. If you believe doing that is necessary, and/or in your best interest, you may appreciate the fact that your religious beliefs take you away from your daily life and lived reality. But what I think you will find as you read about Buddhism is that it all makes enormous sense on its own terms and, as what many consider to be simply a description of human reality, it cannot very well conflict much with any existing belief system, insofar as those existing beliefs correspond at all well to human reality.
The one very concrete thing Buddhism does offer that can benefit anyone, regardless of religious belief, is meditation. I highly recommend the practice. You can learn to meditate and leave all the rest of the Buddhist stuff aside. I’ll never know, and it won’t bother me if you do. We’re each on our own path, and it is not my place to tell you what path to be on, or how to travel the path you’re on. In this sense, Buddhism is very American, in believing that each person should be free to make up her/his own mind about matters of conscience.
As the notion of beginner’s mind suggests, however, some aspects of Buddhist thought completely contradict the way most modern Americans think, so if some of what follows seems confusing, just relax and hang with it. For example, given the continuing influence of Puritanism in American culture, most Americans think one should remain busy at all times. Buddhists advocate sitting still and being quiet. The point of the koans of the Rinzai school of Zen Buddhism, one thing most Americans know about Buddhism (“what is the sound of one hand clapping?”) is to defeat the ordinary rational processes of the brain and provoke relatively unmediated experience. Also, Americans like expertise, so the idea of celebrating beginner’s mind may seem odd.
It is also the case that Buddhists like their paradoxes. This is consistent with the goal of getting past your everyday logic to achieve a less mediated experience of the world. By definition, a paradox is a combination of ideas or propositions that should not go together according to your experience of the world. An example is zombies. If you’re dead, you’re dead. You’re not supposed to come sort of back to life and wander around killing people. When you encounter a paradox, you have to stop and process to try to make sense out of the situation. In that moment, perception or experience may get past your filters more effectively than usual because your filters cannot organize the new information in the usual manner. I’ll try to mark any paradoxes I introduce as such so you’ll know you’re dealing with one and it’s not just you missing something. The quotation at the outset of this chapter states a favorite Buddhist paradox. We will refer repeatedly in what follows to a path, and to a very specific path, and rely heavily on the metaphor of traveling that path to describe and explain what Buddhists are up to. Indeed, the Buddha himself called the list of things one ought to do in order to emulate him the Noble Eightfold Path, which we will explore in depth later.
This can make it seem as if all Buddhists expect to travel a long distance, metaphorically if not literally, over a long period of time, to achieve their goal. The opening quotation, however, says that the truth is very close to you and asks rhetorically if there is any point in running around after it. This is actually a paradox that is very common, and once you start to think about it, you may start to notice it everywhere. It is by no means unique to Buddhism and it also gets stated in the form of the idea that, after long travel, one comes back to one’s self.
Regardless, please believe me when I tell you I’m not trying to be confusing in what follows. When you find something confusing, try just meditating on it and see if that helps. Regardless, if you find something confusing, that’s okay. You’re not stupid or wrong. I’ll try to be as clear as I can, but some of this just takes time to understand. Buddhism is different from modern America in not being too interested in speed and convenience. Buddhists often talk about “realizations,” things you suddenly, intuitively come to know as true with a certainty beyond anything you’ve ever known before. You likely have had the experience of having someone explain something to you that you initially found confusing, then suddenly came to understand through some unknown, internal process. Realizations are great things, but they take time and contemplation, so just relax. One of the best things about Buddhism is that it gives you a very concrete, specific practice that you can use to work through any problem, whether it comes up reading a book, or elsewhere in life, such as a major social embarrassment (may you be spared), a fight with a spouse or a boss or anyone else (may you be spared those as well), or just about anything.
One way to understand Buddhism is as a radical statement of your own responsibility for anything and everything you choose. I can’t tell you what to think or believe. That’s up to you. A good strategy to deepen your understanding of Buddhism will be to read books. Indeed, one of the great things about Buddhism is that you can accomplish a lot just by reading. At the same time, many of those other books will tell you different things than what I have written here. It’s a busy, complex world out there. I think you’ll find, however, that some things are true for all Buddhists, and it’s up to you to sort out how you understand Buddhism. The good news is that there really are not any wrong answers. One thing I have found to be consistently true of Buddhists is that we are not into dogma, or answers that you have to think are right because some authority figure said so. The Buddha specifically said only to accept propositions that are consistent with your own experience, so even the Buddha did not claim to tell people what to think or believe, and intent counts for a lot. You get points just for trying.
Also, Buddhism has established itself deeply in many cultures other than the Indian one where it originated. To some extent, it always takes on aspects of new cultures as its practitioners adapt it to their own reality. Tibetan Buddhism has obvious features that are distinctively Tibetan. Zen Buddhism is now distinctively Japanese as it has come to the United States. But, insofar as it retains a core set of principles that must remain the same in order for it to continue as Buddhism, and insofar as it grew out of the East Indian culture of 400 BCE, it is necessarily somewhat strange in many ways to modern Americans. I have already touched on some of the ways in which Buddhism takes exactly the opposite view of the world from modern Americans. It is also worth noting that the point of this book is to make Buddhism as accessible as possible to anyone who can read English and presumably has some interest in Buddhism, but likely knows pretty much nothing at all about it.
In my experience, Buddhists really are good people to hang out with, because they usually really are kind, compassionate, mostly happy people. They’re usually happy to have more people become Buddhist, although another way in which Buddhists tend to differ from most other modern Americans is that they are usually not much invested in trying to attract as many converts as possible. Like any experts, Buddhists can get a bit lost in their expertise and forget what it’s like not to know what they know. Most people who write books in English about Buddhism are either Asians who have come to the United States with their Asian cultural understandings and assumptions still more or less intact, or are among the first generation of people who traveled to Asia to study with Asian Buddhists. The point is that, while I encourage you to delve into the vast literature on Buddhism that is readily available (just pick up a copy of Shambhala Sun or Tricycle magazine and look at the ads), be forewarned that those books may not be as accessible as this blog is, or as I hope it is. Buddhists like to share the dharma, or the accumulated wisdom of the Buddhist tradition as it has accumulated over 2,600 years, and all sincere Buddhists in writing books will try to be as clear as possible, but many of them may not have fully mastered the American cultural idiom, and so inadvertently produce writing that seems abstruse or difficult. In contrast, I expect that, from this blog, you should accumulate a fund of readily comprehensible Buddhist concepts at your mental fingertips to help with translating any abstruse concepts you find in other books about Buddhism.
And yet it is also the case that, as one would expect, there is increasingly a distinctly identifiable American Buddhism afoot in the United States. Certain authors have become very popular here precisely because of their ability to translate Buddhist concepts into an idiom that makes sense to Americans. See the suggestions for further reading at the end of this book for specific recommendations. One thing Buddhists have in common with Americans is being relentlessly practical, so adapting Buddhism to the culture of the United States has not been terribly difficult.