Saturday, March 6, 2010

Finding Buddha Part 2

Ninety days into my Buddhist practice and I feel like it’s time to do some reflection, sum up how the beginnings of my practice are going.  I feel very good about where I am heading.  The path behind was seemingly always full of sorrows and unfulfilled expectations.  I feel like now I am beginning to understand why this is so and how to fix it for the future.

The first concept that really struck me is the concept of "being present"; being here in this moment with yourself.  Sounds like a bunch of psycho-babble but the more I understand the concept, the more it speaks ever so LOUDLY to me. 

The first steps in my meditation classes emphasized the concept of being present using the technique of shamatha, "calm abiding".  This is a meditation practice that teaches to have single pointed concentration.  Sounds easy, just concentrate, but you should try it.  As I practice (which is exactly what I do because I need lots of practice to do the technique correctly) I have found exactly how wild my mind can be.  It is really quite a feat to sit down and get your mind to relieve itself of all its random thoughts.  For me to really focus, I have learned that I must completely RELAX. Yes, relax my mind so it can just let go of the thoughts that arise, seemingly out of nowhere.  My mind likes to run full bore all the time - whether its worrying about paying bills or daydreaming about Georgia Tech winning March Madness -  it’s constantly doing something even though I never realized it before.  Learning to relax was crucial for me and remains foremost in my "calm abiding" practice.

"Being present" has a more significant meaning for me.  It has really increased my understanding of the importance of the Buddhist concept of impermanence.  Impermanence, from a Buddhist perspective, means that nothing in this world is fixed or permanent - everything is fleeting to some degree.  Our lives, our emotions, our relationships, leaves, rocks, fire, water, it all changes and decays at some point.  Everything is "here today, gone tomorrow".  So learning to be present in this very moment is indispensable in warding off the peaks and valleys of our busy lives.  By understanding this we can keep ourselves grounded in the middle, realizing the bad times will get better and the good times eventually result in a turn.

In addition to working on the development of a calm mind, I have been focused on understanding the basics of Buddhist philosophy.  These core concepts are known as the 4 Noble Truths.  They provide the basis for understanding all the concepts of Buddhist Philosophy and can be summed up as Lama Surya Das says with the following:

It is the nature of life that all beings will face difficulties; through enlightened living one can transcend these difficulties, ultimately becoming fulfilled, liberated, and free.

That really sounds like a no-brainer: life has problems and we can find a way to rise above them. But the application of the concept is the true importance of the teaching.  Each of the 4 Truths builds on the previous; together they explain in simple terms the essence of our existence.

The first Noble Truth is "The Truth of Suffering".  The word used in Buddhist scripture is dukkha (Most of the time that is translated as suffering.)  It is from that thought that leads the Bill Maher's of the world to declare Buddhism is a "life sucks and then you die" religion.  Yet that couldn't be farther from the truth.  Yes, the first Noble Truth says life is inherently full of suffering, but is that truly a revelation to any of us?  Maher, and those like him, misunderstands the point of the teaching which is a reaffirmation of a fact we all inherently understand, not a statement that "life sucks".  We all have difficulties in life, every sentient being.  Insects suffer at the hands of humans, humans suffer at the hand of other humans; every being must overcome some hardship. 

The second Noble Truth is "The Truth of the Origin of Suffering".  This truth explains that our human delusions and actions are the source of our suffering.  Our failure to accept or completely understand the nature of human existence results in our "sub-optimal" human condition.  Lama Surya Das explains this as "Life is difficult because of attachment, because we crave satisfaction in ways that are inherently dissatisfying".   This is simplifying the teaching a bit but for me it has really resonated.  Many of our largest problems in life are a result of our attachment to our own misconceptions.  We crave pleasure and when we receive it, we crave more, a never ending circle of wanting and craving.  We grasp our illusion of what happiness is. We think people or things can supply us with happiness when true happiness cannot be satisfied from outside ourselves.   This does not mean that we should not be passionate about our lives; on the contrary, we can understand the true nature of our desires by removing our deluded expectations of their results.

The third Noble Truth is "The Truth of Cessation".  This truth means that yes, we can escape from suffering,  that Nirvana, Enlightenment, Absolute Peace,  whatever you wish to call it does exist.  This state, where suffering has ceased and true understanding of the nature of existence in the universe is realized, is attainable.  We can attain this knowledge.  It is real.  This is the point of the third truth.

The final Noble Truth is "The Truth of the Path".  There is a way to attain Enlightenment.  It has been proven through time.  It can be taught; its teachings are available to all who choose to accept them.  It requires persistence and understanding but it can be obtained by all.  Understanding the path is a quest. When we understand the path, and follow it, we can attain Enlightenment.

So that is my understanding and it is certainly making a difference.  I can tell the difference as I try to practice the ideals of Buddhist practice.  I feel more secure and at ease with myself and my life.  I am sure my wife can see benefits of my practice, too.  Our life has been such a tumultuous mess for the last year but we are really connecting; I think much of that is due to the lessons I am learning by studying the Buddhists masters. 
I hope, in some way, my sharing these reflections on my own path to enlightenment has given some insight to each of your paths.