What Does It Mean to be a Buddhist?

I have the good fortune of knowing someone who is Buddhist – not something I ever anticipated when I was still a fundie. Anyway. Ryan was kind enough to answer some questions for me and told me I could quote him here, so I shall. He’s done extensive research on Buddhism, so I appreciate his willingness to share his knowledge. My questions will be in italics.

Interview:

There are three main branches of Buddhism. The first, Theravada, is the oldest branch that adheres to the historical Buddha’s teachings. The second, Mahayana, includes most other forms of Buddhism: Zen, Pure Land, Nichiren, etc. They adhere to many of the Buddha’s teachings but added some deities and new beliefs. The third, Vajrayana, is a form of Mahayana but is often considered a third branch because it’s fairly different. It’s highly ritualized with lots of deities. The Dalai Lama follows Vajrayana. I’m most interested in Theravada. 

The Buddha was born a wealthy prince around 2,500 BCE. He experienced only pleasure and didn’t learn about death until he was an adult. He left the palace on a chariot ride and saw ill, old and dead people. This troubled him. He also saw an ascetic. Later, he became concerned with death and disillusioned with sensual pleasures. At 29, he left his wife and child to become an ascetic. For six years he starved himself, slept on sharp things, hurt his body, etc. Lots of people were doing that at the time. Then he realized this self deprivation was futile and sat down under a tree and resolved to end suffering.

What was his answer to suffering?

It’s a bit convoluted but it makes sense ha ha. Here you go. He became enlightened and realized that beings are reincarnated, how karma works, and the four noble truths. Theravada Buddhists strive to become enlightened to escape suffering in this life and to escape being reincarnated. Unenlightened beings are reborn and suffer again and again. The gist of the four noble truths are: Suffering exists, suffering has an origin and can be eliminated, and the eightfold path. Suffering exists primarily because people become attached to things that are impermanent. People also suffer because they identify with the “five aggregates.” The Buddha alleges no “self” or unchanging identity exists. Instead, we are all composed of five aggregates that people identify with and suffer as a result. The five aggregates are form, sensation, perception, mental formation and consciousness. 

To become enlightened and transcend desire and thereby escape suffering and rebirth, one must follow the eightfold path. The path consists of skillful view, intention, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness and concentration. Part of the path is meditation. Theravada Buddhists meditate to cultivate sufficient mindfulness. It increases one’s ability to pay attention and makes the mind still. They use this mindfulness to observe the “three marks of existence.” These are impermanence (nothing is permanent), suffering (this impermanence causes suffering) and no-self (none of your five aggregates are an actual self). With mindfulness, one can see deeply into these truths and use them to cultivate dispassion and kill desire. The path is essentially extinguishing desire and realizing that no self exists. And behaving ethically.That’s the essence of Theravada. Other forms are quite different, sort of.

What are your personal beliefs in relation to Buddhism? 

I like Theravada. It makes intuitive sense to me. It’s a way to overcome the impulses that push people around and find peace, I feel.

Do you consider buddhism to be a religion, a philosophy, or some of both?

I consider Theravada a religion, despite having no deities, because it attempts to answer metaphysical questions about what happens after death and proposes karma to give some order to how the world operates. This is supernatural stuff. Other forms of Buddhism are even more religious. They venerate deities, pray to people, etc. The rest of Theravada is more like psychology than philosophy, I think. It attempts to explain what the mind is and instructs one how to perceive one’s own thoughts, feelings, etc. It’s like a form of cognitive therapy, really. That’s my take on it.

Are there any tenets of buddhism you don’t believe/follow? What is your favorite aspect of Buddhism? what drew you to it/how did you discover it?

I first read about it in an eastern religion class at Purdue in 2005. I don’t believe in reincarnation or karma. I’m too skeptical for that. I like the concept of cultivating dispassion to transcend desire though. I also like the notion that we have no permanent, unchanging self with which to identify. It blew my mind when I realized that “self” is just a word and doesn’t refer to any actual thing. When you realize this, it becomes easy to take life less seriously and not get hung up on trivial matters. I think I’m drawn to it because it speaks to working with one’s own mind and overcoming innate impulses that result in suffering. Instead of being pushed around by our desires to pursue and avoid things, we can just relax instead if we know how.

If there is no “self” then what do we have?

There’s just an awareness. This consciousness. There’s no actual “self,” as is conventionally understood. It’s an important distinction. People get really hung up on self. When you realize there is no self, you stop feeling compelled to identify with your thoughts, feelings, perceptions. You quit worrying so much about your body and reputation, in a good way though. You take things less seriously and suffer less as a result. It doesn’t mean you’re unmotivated or lazy though. It isn’t meant to inspire apathy or nihilism, as some people claim. It’s supposed to be liberating and help one escape trivial sufferings.

If you’d like to read more about Buddhism (do they worship those smiling statues?), I suggest this Five Minute Guide to Buddhism.

Blogs to check out:
American Buddhist Perspective
The Dalai Lama – I have a lot of respect and admiration for the current Dalai Lama. I’ve seen the interview    Pierce Morgan did with the Dalai Lama several times and highly recommend it.
The Buddhist Blog
Chronic Meditator
Digital Dharma
The Middle Way
Open Sky Zen
Rebel Buddha
The Worst Horse

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