Reflections on Western Interest in Buddhism by Peter Morrell
Reflections On Western Interest In Buddhism
by Peter Morrell
Regarding Buddhism, the first question one might ask is why a person today should wish to study such a subject: what has led them in this particular direction? Is it instinctual, or is it a product of some bitter life experiences? And what do they wish to get out of such study? Greater wisdom and knowledge, perhaps? Or maybe greater peace and equanimity? Do they want mere palliation, or the full cure? Is their interest chiefly grounded in their pathology, their suffering? Or is it rooted in a more genuine interest in self-improvement and gaining insights? All motivations are valid, but perhaps the best motivation is self-improvement, because various other ‘therapies’ might be more suitable for dealing solely with a pathological interest.
Having said that, however, one can achieve much self-healing through meditation, for in any case, some negative life experiences do become insightful when viewed with the right attitude, and tell us things about ourselves and mould our interests, and Buddhism does enrich our inner life, our self-awareness and instil inner peace. This enriches our understanding of who we are and how we came to be where we are today as people. It helps us come to grip with our self-identity.
Painful experiences in life and feeling bad about oneself in general, can undoubtedly lead one towards psychotherapy, philosophy or religions in general. And it would be foolish to deny that this is an important reason that motivates a good many people to study a religion. That is neither good nor bad in itself. It can be good because it means we have already come to know what suffering, death, loss and impermanence mean, what setbacks and failures are, and the lessons they teach us, and Buddhism is grounded upon a conceptual field that is richly dominated by these aspects of human life. Such features dominate the philosophy of Buddhism, which is central to it. In meditation we often wish to find answers for our own failings just as much as to cosmic questions.
We must also consider some of the underlying attitudes and beliefs that most Buddhists tend to subscribe to and how one might fit into or get along with such attitudes and beliefs; i.e. to what extent do we share them? For example, pacifism, non-violence and a gentleness of spirit one might expect to find, not only in most genuine Buddhists, but also in those people who are even remotely attracted to it. It does not tend to appeal to aggressive, grasping or competitive types of people as it does not validate or encourage such attitudes in its followers, or in anybody. It regards them as basically negative traits—‘mental stains’ to be worked upon and subdued.
Introverted, peaceful, reflective and contemplative people can easily become inclined towards Buddhism—they resonate with it, and it rewards them well, often richly. It also rewards those who have naturally experienced periods of tranquillity and bliss, or any type of religious feeling. Likewise, studious people who wish to read in greater depth the Buddhist scriptures and ancillary literature, or to integrate contemplation into their daily lives. It certainly rewards such study and close reading.
Most Buddhists also tend to be submissive to some degree, broadly accepting of the world as they find it, and themselves—as far as they can—and wish not so much to change the world or self to meet their own desires, or to dictate how it should be, but to adapt oneself better to it as it is, to find and live by its natural given rules, and to find ways to blend in more harmoniously with them, so as to achieve greater happiness, contentment, and equanimity, through adaptation to things as they are, through social camouflage and spiritual attunement, rather than through pre-doomed attempts to exert one’s will upon others, upon self or the world, like some rigid straitjacket. It prefers the narrow, peaceful path that runs between both extremes—between inaction on one side and fighting things on the other. Surrender and loss of control do not come easily to competitive and aggressive people, but they are key aspects of Buddhism.
All Buddhists believe in karma as a law that shows our actions and their inevitable results, thus forming a framework of the world and the life we have, which we are born into, and within which we very largely live. There is surprisingly little we can do to hastily change this structure of life, self, the world, others that we are born into, and to try to do so is, for many of us, the source of considerable pain, unhappiness and frustration; such is our suffering. Is it better to adapt and to learn to be happy with the relative riches we are already blessed with, than to spend all our days wishing and wanting and warring against what we do not or cannot have? Which path in truth creates more peace, joy and contentment? We have a straight choice in this matter. On the other hand, sitting back and meekly doing nothing about one’s life and accepting everything that comes along, no matter how painful, does not seem like a good option either.
Thus, Buddhists tend to be more like the more accepting and adaptable third or fourth child in a family who naturally wishes to blend in with a preformed situation they are born into, rather than the domineering first or second child, who often wishes to exert their will upon events, upon others and upon structures, rather than follow a given path of peaceful adaptation and harmonious coexistence.
Some interest in self-analysis, psychology, observing oneself, of achieving greater mindfulness, goodness, kindness, deep inner peace and contentment or equanimity, provides a sound basis for studying Buddhism. These are integral aspects that it richly validates and rewards. Wishing for self-improvement, to become a better person and to feel better about oneself; these are also useful ancillary aims that find validation in Buddhism and its teachings.
Regarding ego and possessions, Buddhism prefers that we work hard to subdue and demolish the former and live frugally with as few possessions as we can. In this way, we can at least learn greater detachment from people, and events, and also from sensations, pleasures, pains and possessions, for ultimately all these things must pass away and they often become sources of our inner suffering. All this comes under the general heading of moderation in all things, non-attachment or the Middle Path trod between the extremes of pleasure and pain.
Any person contemplating embarking upon an interest in Buddhism, or a deeper involvement in it, would do well to reflect upon all these factors to ascertain where they stand in relation to the whole. They can soon see if they are well-suited to this set of ideas, or not.
Regarding the types of Buddhism on offer as it were, then there are four types extant in the world today. First is the Theravada, second the Pure Land School, third Tibetan Buddhism and finally Zen. These need to be studied in some depth in order to find the one that suits one’s own temperament and requirements the closest.
Zen Buddhism can be seen as a prolonged exploration of the incomparable silence and stillness of being; an attunement in tranquillity to the essence of being; or maybe a big self-delusion. Is a cold and compassionless mental discipline of a severe type, meditation on tranquillity, resolutely excluding all emotions and all samsaric forms, really possible? This is the sound of one hand clapping; the world before it was created; your name before you were born; or the ultimate essence of everything. That is, nothingness, awareness and being without stain, blemish, name or colour, without feeling or sensation; without labels; a total immersion in pure being. Such is Zen meditation–-placing the mind in the Buddhist deep freeze.
Though Zen aims at a cool scientific appraisal of the nature of mind—and creates deep tranquillity experiences—yet, its Tibetan critique holds that it is not the route to enlightenment because samadhi—and its ensuing wisdom, deep insights—is only one part of Buddha’s enlightenment experience, which also requires the exhaustive cultivation of compassion and unfading bliss, caring for the infinite living beings, impulses which arguably cannot arise simply from calm-abiding meditation alone; it must be cultivated alongside. Thus, they regard Zen as a good Mahayana path.
The Pure Land School of Buddhism is a popular devotional form of Buddhism that holds that self-purification is most easily achieved through mantra repetition and positive thinking. This is held to comprise a simple way that suits everybody. It comprises simple devotional exercises which appeal to the masses who do not relish complex intellectual or monastic training, but who do wish better luck and success in life, good future lives and bad karma burned off. The Pure Land school claims to offer exactly this.
Pure Land is "a branch of mainstream Mahayana Buddhism and one of the most popular schools in the Far East…the main practice is the commemoration of Amida (Jap. nembutsu), either through contemplation, seeking a vision of him in this life, or through the chanting of his name in order to be reborn in his pure land at the time of death."
The Theravada School (path of elders, hearers or shravakas) employs simple meditation on breathing, and mindfulness, plus a strict ethical code, a simple frugal life, being good, and self-restraint as a path to arhatship, which is becoming a realised being after countless lifetimes. It emphasises patience, non-violence and calm plus the difficulty of adhering to a very long spiritual path that may take many aeons to complete. A simple and effective ethical life and mind training are deemed to lead to better future rebirths and gradual loss of bad karma. It aims at the objective of arhatship, a peaceful control of the passions.
Tibetan Buddhism claims to be a complete path that offers a path to full Buddhahood in one lifetime. This form of Buddhism is in very large part merely the late Mahayana Indian Buddhism, c.1100 transferred into Tibet by scholars and adepts, where it has been well-preserved. It is a very social and people-centred form of Buddhism. It is compassion-oriented, guru-devotion centred, highly ritualistic and symbolism oriented. Joy, compassion and colour predominate over mind control and meditation, which are pursued more in the retreat situation. Visualisation is also a key feature.
The final point seems to be that people will be drawn towards the form of Buddhism that suits them best, both in terms of what they perceive to be their predominant spiritual needs, and according to their personal disposition. Zen and Theravada will always tend to be especially attractive to those who do not enjoy ritual or philosophy, who crave an uncluttered simplicity of view and practice and who desire to obtain tranquillity and mind-training to enhance their peace of mind. Tibetan Buddhism, by contrast, will tend to appeal more to those who do love ritual, philosophy and symbolism as well as close personal instruction from a guru, and who stress the humane and compassionate aspects of Buddhist training as much as the rigorous mental discipline of meditation training.