“Real Buddhism is not really an “ism.” It’s a process, an awareness, an openness, a spirit of inquiry… It is more accurate to call it ‘the teaching of the awakened,’ or the buddha-dharma. – Roshi Steve Hagan, author of Buddhism: Plain and Simple
Here we are.
Though there is a religion that carries the name, Buddhism also can be understood as a philosophy, an approach to life, and here it can be helpful to realize that the Sanskrit root word “budh” means to awaken or gain consciousness. So, from this perspective, Buddhism can readily be seen as a personal and collective psychology handed down over the centuries, its purpose being the liberation, or awakening, of human beings out of the unnecessary pain and suffering we cause ourselves, each other, and the Natural World. Another term that is used for this philosophy is “buddha-dharma” which translates as awakened-path, dharma being a word that means the way of Nature or the Universe. It is also the path or teachings that awaken us into the Way or the secrets of the Universe, into what really is, not what we have been told, imagine, or believe. Unlike the Western religions, it is not made up of laws and dogma revealed by God through a prophet, but rather of teachings about the nature of life arrived upon through deep exploration of the human condition.
Before there was a religion called Buddhism, there was simply a brilliant analyst and teacher, Siddhartha Gotama, who became known as the Buddha, the “Awakened One,” who understood fully that the path to a sane and satisfying life is in breaking free of all dogma, whether it is religious, political, cultural, social, or personal. Unique among religions, Buddhism makes a particular emphasis on the teachings not being accepted or believed without bringing personal experience to bear as confirmation. In this way, what is often called a spiritual teaching is not what we conventionally understand as spiritual, or other worldly, but rather practical advice for living in a manner that brings us peace, wisdom, and a sense of belonging and connection within our day-to-day lives and within the infinite miracle that is the Universe.
Buddhism points us to experiencing our everyday lives with ever-deepening subtlety, clarity, and insight as unfolding within the unity, the connectedness and numinousness of all things in the truth of the here-and-now. In this way, these teachings are remarkably similar to what is attributed to Jesus when it is written in the Gospel of Thomas that “The Kingdom of Heaven is spread across the land,” and that “The Kingdom is inside you, and outside you. When you come to know yourselves, then you will be known, and you will realize it is you.” Buddhism recognizes, however, as did Jesus, that this is true only for those “with the eyes to see.” Buddhism then is about awakening our sleepy eyes so that they can see the creative, mystical, unifying dimension beneath our everyday lives. It points us to the realm of the Spiritual Universe, that dimension of infinitely wise and compassionate consciousness that underpins, pervades, connects, and gives rise to all things of the material universe.
Buddhism is, in fact then, about recognizing the realm of that which is not of the world of matter and form, of our bodies, our minds, our possessions, accomplishments, and circumstances, yet gives rise to and supports this world of matter and form. It is about recognizing the truth of who we are that transcends all stories we carry in our minds concerning our personal history or circumstance, our traumas, delights, failures, and victories, and resolves all contradictions into paradoxical unity. It is pointing us to the spiritual realm within and all around us, the mysterious unifying consciousness that beats our hearts, causes the miracle that is our bodies to function harmoniously just as the galaxies exist in perfect harmony.
This realm of pure consciousness is the true source of creativity and compassion, beneath the noisy mind, bringing us into harmonious flow with Life. It allows us to know love, the truth of connection. It allows us to know a loved one is in difficulty before we are told. It opens us to insights that we have no idea how we arrive upon, and whispers to us of the creative intelligent source of this Universe, and that somehow, we know Eternity as our true home. It is sometimes referred to as the realm of non-duality, or oneness, while duality is our ever-challenging experience of separateness in a difficult world made up of objects all regarded as useful, challenging, or irrelevant. Buddhism points us to the resolution of duality and opens the gate into non-duality or what can be called enlightenment, which is just a way of saying peaceful, insightful, compassionate existence within what is. But because our culture steeps us in duality-only consciousness, understanding non-duality, or enlightenment, can be a great challenge, a gate we cannot figure out how to open. To this quandary, Buddhism calls us to recognize that there is no gate, that we ARE the mystery embodied, that opening the gate is a matter of relaxing into basic truths.
As the mystery embodied, one way for us to understand non-duality is to give deep and subtle consideration to this human organism that we know to be ourselves. While we can recognize that we are a person, an organism, with a body and mind and social circumstances, with subtler consideration we can also recognize that we happen within larger collective human organisms known as families and affiliations, communities, societies, races, nations, and the human species. And so, too, we happen within still larger and larger communities of organisms and of the ecology of this planet Earth, an organism in itself, and beyond, on into the vastness of the Universe, all a unity of organization and balance. If we begin to think within the interconnections of biology rather than the material separateness of physics, we can begin approaching a subtler truth of who we are.
And to fully comprehend ourselves we must also turn our view from the macroscopic to the microscopic, realizing that we exist as a system of organs – of lungs, heart, stomach, brain, circulatory system, etc., all that have their individual form and function, yet exist codependently upon each other in supporting the larger entity. We also coexist and codepend with microbes, with bacteria, fungi, archaea, and viruses, and we are made up of trillions of cells, and deeper still, of molecules and atoms, and deeper still down into the sub-atomic realm, where we find ourselves in the undifferentiated unity of the quantum mystery. Beneath, above, and all around the seeming separateness of physical forms and the ideas of separateness we create in our minds about who we are, if we look keenly enough, we find the scientific truth that we are a system of interconnections and interdependence, Life and intelligence happening through all time and space, perfectly balanced and harmonious, unities within unities. This can well be understood as the meaning of dharma, the great what-is, the union, the non-duality within which duality happens. This is the realm that Buddhism, as well as mystical traditions within every culture and religion, including Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, along with aboriginal cultures, all understood. We are never separate, rather, we exist in connection, all as one.
In contemporary life, our culture ignores this larger perspective to existence and fails to give validation to it when experienced, as it is in circumstances sometimes referred to as “flow” or “zone,” “high,” “tuned in,” or “spiritual.” It happens through sports, the arts, our professional and recreational skills, relationships, and sometimes, spiritual experience – moments where the sense of separate self dissolves into a unity with the action, elements, and environment of the moment. Yet despite our culture’s denial, there is a growing pull to this perspective because it resonates within us as true, giving rise to another Buddhist principle, that of karma – conscious attention to the effects, harmonious and deleterious, to the natural unfolding, of actions and causes in our lives and in the world around us. Likewise, while more and more there is the experience that our society, culture and religions are failing because they feel shallow, conflicted, divisive, and false, there is a growing attraction to the ideas and experience that Buddhism and other non-Western spiritual traditions offer. There is growing understanding of the importance of ecology and cutting-edge physics that points to a world of unity manifesting as diversity, all underpinned with a brilliant intelligence, and laws that must be observed. We are beginning to awaken to the need for attending to our responsibility as agents of karma.
Buddhism gives us these teachings and then tells us we must take whatever intellectual understanding we have concerning them and always push further into actual experience. We are instructed that we must push through our lazy minds with meditation and mindfulness practices that train and refine our mental capacities for concentration, stability, and practical – as well as what gets called mystical or spiritual – insight. We are led to open the intuitive sense of “knowing,” generally neglected, if not scorned, in this culture that leads to understanding that which the limited dimension of thought can only barely represent.
This opening requires breaking free of what Buddhism refers to as egoic-delusion, the fictions we carry in our minds, conditioned into us by our social, cultural, and personal psychological influences that cause us to believe we are our neurotic stories in a chaotic world of competing separate entities that must struggle with each other to safeguard our psychological, social, and physical existence. This keeps our attention on the challenge of finding security outside ourselves by making more of “me,” and we fail to be in direct experience of Life as it unfolds moment to moment, where our life really happens. The term egoic-delusion brilliantly points us to the insight that living inside our sense of self as a completely separate physical and psychological entity in competitive and consuming relationship with a world of likewise separate entities is a psychologically destabilizing and unsatisfactory perspective. This small invention of a self fails to grasp the inherent dharmic and karmic realities of harmonious interconnection and interdependence, and that Buddhism uses the psychological term of “delusion,” meaning being caught in a false view that is akin to mental illness, points us to the basic psychological purpose of Buddhist teaching.
Buddhism then offers as prescription for this mental illness, teachings and practices aimed at establishing a healthy and stable mind and sense of self free of delusion and insecurity, attuned to reality, to what-is, to dharma and karma. No, this is not the usual kind of “ism” that instructs us in a set of beliefs to which we are to religiously dedicate ourselves. It is a call to awakening and sanity, unfolding one moment at a time. It is a call to living in that most elusive of Buddhist teaching tools, the koan – elusive because the koan is a call to enter into the heart of Life with all our senses and faculties to reveal our true nature and the nature of existence as it unfolds moment to moment. A most unusual kind of “ism.” Yes, Here we are. The Gate is swinging open.