Reflections on Western interest in
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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."
[Pure Land Buddhism,
Virtual Library; http://www.pitaka.ch/vlpl.htm; accessed 4-2-04]
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.
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.