Saturday, November 2, 2013

Buddhist FAQs: My views and experiences

Since I have started following the Buddhist Path, people have asked me questions about being Buddhist, and about Buddhists in general. These questions are interesting to me because they seem to reveal a set of expectations/generalizations people have about Buddhists, but often also indicate genuine interest and curiosity. Below I try to list some of the questions I (and others like me) have encountered, and give the best answer I can. Feel free to read my answers to the questions that interest you, and post your thoughts- and additional questions- in the comments below. 

How long do you meditate?
For me, not very long- about 10 minutes. Despite my best efforts, sitting for long periods of time causes pain. However, the good news for me and others who find sitting difficult is that there are many ways to meditate. Meditation can also be done sitting in a chair, lying down, and during activities like walking, cooking, and eating. Personally I enjoy walking meditation, and have benefited from alternating mindful contemplation with mindful walking and awareness during my long strolls. But one of the best answers to this question I have heard was from a monk named Venerable Sik Ji Xing, who, when asked said, "I meditate for 24 hours a day". This means that on and off the cushion, he makes a constant effort to be mindful, every minute of every day. Rather than worrying how long we can sit, I think this is truly a beautiful aspiration.

How often do you meditate?
I do sitting and walking meditation almost every day. As noted above, the key to meditation is being mindful and in the present moment wherever you are and whatever you're doing.

Aren't you vegetarian/vegan?
Nope. But my simple answer belies my complex thoughts on the matter. Looking for guidance in the Five Moral Precepts, Buddhists know that the very first one is clearly stated as "Refrain from killing."

But what is not clear is the prevailing view of the Buddhist community. For example, most Buddhist sects have no problem with laypeople eating meat. The kitchen of the Dalai Lama's residence at Dharmasala, India is vegetarian, but while abroad the Dalai Lama XIV has been known to eat meat. The Buddha himself was not a vegetarian, and when challenged to make all monks vegetarian, the Buddha refused. This I believe has a strong connection to the fact that all Bhikkus (Pali for monks) were to beg for alms each day, and therefore must accept the food given to them, whatever the source (indeed, the root meaning for the word Bhikku is 'to beg'). The main instruction the Buddha gave was to laypeople, that under no circumstances is an animal to be slaughtered for the benefit of a monk. This is likely linked to the Buddha's banning of animal sacrifice, a common practice in the Hindu community during his time.

How does all this relate to me? Well, for the most part, I eat a plant-based diet, but not exclusively. I feel the desire to eat meat less and less, and think this trend will continue. However, my goal is that even if I were to willingly stop eating meat, I would also not want to develop aversion towards it, so that I could still be grateful and gracious guest if someone were to serve me a meat-based meal.

Do you consume alcohol?
Yes, if you're talking about wine. As a family doctor once told my mother- "Wine is food!". The fifth of the Five Moral Precepts advises that one should refrain from the consumption of intoxicants that cause heedlessness. In my view, wine and beer can be consumed in moderation when enjoyed with other foods, without being a dire threat to mindfulness. However, I do believe that it is more difficult to consume 'hard' liquors in moderation, and almost impossible to do so for psychoactive drugs. I have never taken the latter type of intoxicants, but instinctively feel they would annihilate mindfulness.

Of course, please keep in mind that as far as my opinion about drinking wine and (small amounts of) spirits are concerned, other Buddhists may adamantly disagree with me. Alcohol is also off-limits to those on retreat and pursuing a monastic lifestyle, so please be aware that my thoughts about consuming alcohol relate to myself only. 

You think everything is suffering, right? How is that working out for you?
Well geez, if you put it that way . . . ! Actually, it's working out just fine, because it seems that many who are unfamiliar with Buddhism are put off by the First Noble Truth due to a misunderstanding of the Buddhist definition of suffering.

Yes, there is suffering, but the Pali word dukkha that we translate as 'suffering' actually has a much more complex meaning. Dukkha encompasses all suffering, from minor discomfort to extreme misery. It also refers to the unsatisfactoriness of all things, which directly relates to impermanence. But the beauty of the Four Noble Truths is that they read like the directions from a good doctor. There is a problem (dukkha, or suffering/unsatisfactoriness), there is a cause (tanha, or selfish craving), there is a cure, and that cure is following the Noble Eightfold Path. Suddenly- and thankfully- that suffering doesn't sound so bad. That is because not only is there a cure, but although it's not easy, realizing that cure is entirely within our control.   
Buddhists don't believe in God, right?
Those who have some background in Buddhism may have learned that the Buddha was not a god (although he may be worshipped as such in different traditions), but he was a human being as mortal as you and me. The difference is that Siddartha Guatama, a prince afflicted with worldly desires, overcame all suffering by becoming enlightened as a Buddha, who came to know the true nature of all things. His teachings are profound and universal, yet do not depend upon an omnipotent deity.

However, many misinterpret this as all Buddhists being atheists. While some are, Buddhism itself is most correctly described as non-theist. That means that to believe what Buddhists believe, and to live a pious life, a deity or god is not required- but is also not explicitly prohibited.

What do I think? Well, since starting on the Buddhist path, I grew to no longer see 'god' as some mysterious entity watching over us, consumed with the minutia of our daily 'virtue' and 'sin'. Instead I view God as a profound force of goodness and peace that is all around us. I often feel this great force when I walk within Nature. However, in making these statements, I am aware that people may agree or disagree.

What do you think happens, you know, after we die?
Frankly, I think it is fair to say that I simply don't know, and that I doubt that there are many out there who do. But I guess that if I can't say what people know, then I can summarize what I have read on the subject- at least as I understand it.

In the Abrahamic traditions, there is the concept of the everlasting soul. It goes on forever, unchanging, through one single lifespan and continuing long after the body's death. In Hinduism, there is also a concept of an unchanging, everlasting soul. This is known as Atman, or the realization of one's true self, which can span the duration of many earthly lives. In contrast, while Buddhists also believe their 'souls' are capable of inhabiting many different forms over vast expanses of time, they maintain that this 'soul' (often referred to consciousness or 'mindstream' in Buddhist terms) is constantly changing. Though they share the fundamental view that realization of the true nature of all things (including this 'thing' called 'self') leads to Nirvana, this ever-changing mindstream is one philosophical difference between Buddhism and Hinduism. In addition, through the Bardo Thodol (Tibetan book of the dead) Tibetan Buddhism has contributed extensively to possible explanations of what happens to our consciousness between death and the next rebirth.

However, though these different ideas are extremely interesting, I believe that if asked, I would not like to engage in a debate about this topic, simply because I do not (and may never) understand the truth. As far as I'm concerned, the important thing is how we use our current life to become a better person and benefit others.

I hope you enjoyed this post. Are these questions you have come across as a Buddhist, or as a member of another faith/worldview? Do you have any questions to add? As always, I would love to hear your thoughts.

May all beings be happy!