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Why I Am a Buddhist

Anthony Billings

I would like to explain why, about fifteen years ago, I became interested in Buddhism and have continued to practice and study it since then. I am an American and was raised as a Roman Catholic. But by the time I was halfway through high school, I became disenchanted with Christianity and with all Western religions. Some years later in college, I was fortunate enough to come into contact with Buddhism and other philosophical religions from Asia, such as Hinduism and Taoism, as well as with the work of the modern British-Indian philosopher Krishnamurti. Though I can appreciate all of these schools of Eastern mysticism, I have found Buddhism to have the clearest, most systematic, and most profound theory and practice of spiritual transformation. Within Buddhism, I have practiced the Zen and Theravada tradition with American, Japanese, Thai, Burmese, and Vietnamese teachers. Although these two schools may have some differences, they nevertheless remain consistent with the basic teachings as taught by the Buddha in the Sixth Century, B.C. The Buddhist point of view has offered me an alternative to all theocentric (God-centered) religions because it is consistent with the findings of modern science and it offers a logical yet insightful teaching, one based upon experience and wisdom. I had to reject the theocentric religions because they are based on blind faith, superstitions, anthropomorphism, rituals, myths, and a rigid, dogmatic, and intolerant attitude towards the ideas of others.

The main problem I have with theocentric religions like Christianity is the belief in a personal God. Serious people turn to religion because they are looking for a foundation of morality, metaphysics, and psychology; that is, they want to explore the meaning of life, the best behavior, happiness, and questions about the natural world and the universe we live in. But what do theocentric religions offer us ? They offer a character who seems very much like a human being. In The Bible, the book of Hebrew literature where God is found, we can read about a God who gets angry, revengeful, jealous, and quite petty in many ways. He wants us to honor and obey him -- much like an insecure king. Then one reads that he created the universe in six days, created mankind, who committed sin in the Garden of Eden, and therefore God had to send his son to save us. If taken as myth, this story can be meaningful and entertaining. But believers in The Bible want us to take it literally. If one believes this, one cannot accept any of the standard findings of modern science, neither Darwin's science of biological evolution nor the theories of the evolution and nature of the universe coming from modern physics. The Bible presents us with the simplistic idea that a Creator God invented mankind and the universe all at once, and also that these three realms -- God, man and the universe -- are all separate. But if anything is infinite, can there be anything not included ? Can there be individual, distinct souls going to God ? It seems to me that modern science sees the universe as one, infinite process of change, and it is that process that is God. There can only be Oneness -- there cannot be anything outside of the Infinite. Man, God, and the Universe are all include in that Harmony. Buddhists and other mystics have taught this for thousands of years, and I will return to it later when I discuss Buddhism and modern physics.

Not only is the anthropomorphic God not believable, it is also a dangerous idea. Man made God in his own image, and that is why man thinks of God as his father. God is a gigantic projection of a father. He imposes salvation on us the way a father imposes good behavior on his children. People who believe that salvation is imposed on them by God then start to believe that they must impose salvation on others. Ever since God sent his son to save us, Christians have felt the need to send their soldiers and priests all over the world to save others. One only has to study some history to see that, on every continent, millions have been slaughtered and subjugated in the name of God. When God is believed to be a person, then he can have chosen people, he can help his favorites in holy wars, he can make corrupt popes infallible, and he can sponsor the modern totalitarian movements of religious fundamentalism. The modern movements of fundamentalism are the latest stages of the Inquisition, in which millions of people were persecuted, tortured, or killed for dangerous ideas which include the heresy that the earth goes around the sun. And it is unfortunate that some of these crimes against humanity are done in the name of Jesus, for in some parts of the Gospels, Jesus speaks like a truly enlightened person. That is why I have heard it said, "The last Christian died on the cross."

It was easy to reject religions which used myths and coercive gods, but this left myself and many of my contemporaries in a spiritual void in which we could only believe in materialism and nihilism. The idea that this universe and all in it is just an accident is just incredible as the anthropomorphic God-fantasy. We needed a philosophical religion that could probe deeply into mysteries of the universe while standing up to scientific analysis. We needed a religion that was based on observable events -- like science, and could -- like all good scientific theories -- have the power to explain nature, the universe, and the mind. We also needed a religion that could help us deepen the understanding of ourselves so that we could grow psychologically and spiritually. As Westerners, we knew about modern applied psychology, both psychoanalysis and behavior modification. But those methods were based on materialistic theories and only sought to change people in the direction of statistical normality, that is, towards what society judged to be normal. Western psychology at that time did not probe into metaphysics or spirituality. Luckily, at that time in the late 1960's and early 1970's, Eastern philosophy was being brought into our country. It was the time to learn about Taoism and its methods of tai chi and acupuncture. It was time to learn about Hinduism and yoga, Zen and Vipassana meditation and other Buddhist practices. And it was time to learn about modern thinkers like Krishnamurti and Alan Watts. Although some basic, common currents run through all of the above philosophies, I have found Buddhism to be the most comprehensive, practical, and profound. I will now describe some Buddhist ideas in order to demonstrate why I find Buddhism so valuable.

I will summarize the most basic of all Buddha's teachings, the very first sermon covering the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path.

Buddha begins with the practical and psychological aspects of human life but ends up in the realm of the metaphysical and spiritual. Like a good scientist, he formulates the problem, gathers data through observations and experiments, then tests and formulates his hypothesis. In doing so, he discovered a way for us to understand our own highest Essence, which is the same Essence of everything in the universe.

The First Noble Truth starts with the problem of suffering and unhappiness in life. There is sickness, decay, old age, death, separation from loved ones, horrific events such as war, and the constant process of not having desires fulfilled. It is true that we have many happy moments, but even these moments are transitory and constantly under attack by the threat of misfortune. Even more frustrating is the fact that once we get something we want, we want something else. Desire is like an itch which can never be stopped: Buddha sees human beings always wanting something they do not have and thus always suffering. No amount of money, will, prayers, or any device can stop the fundamental suffering of existence.

The Second Noble Truth states the fundamental cause of suffering. It is not that things are in this sorry state, but rather that we do not understand deeply that all phenomena are constantly changing. We try to resist the powerful flow of life and thereby become strongly attached to ideas, to people, to things, to our own bodies, to status, to power, or to escape and fantasy – such as the idea of God. We also cling to the idea that we have a permanent self or soul, and this further makes us self-centered. The whole idea of the ego, the sense of "I," is a fanatical attachment to nothing but a self-image, nothing but an illusion. Buddha claims that we are merely a group of psycho-physical components: matter, feeling, perception, mental states, and consciousness. Nowhere in this combination of energies is there anything corresponding to an individual self or soul. The self is another way to try to put the constantly changing world into fixed category. All of this resistance and attachment to ourselves and other things is summarized as craving, and it is the cause of suffering.

The Third Noble Truth is that we can end this vicious cycle of craving and frustration by diminishing that craving. The extinction of craving is not death or unconsciousness, but Enlightenment, also called Nirvana. Craving keeps us ignorant, and ignorance keeps us from waking up, and that is why Buddha means "Awakened." When craving is understood and made to cease, a new life is realized. Nirvana, which means extinction, is the end of suffering, of delusion, and was also described by Buddha as follows: "Verily, there is an Unborn, Unoriginated, Uncreated, Unformed. If there were not this Unborn, Unoriginated, Uncreated, Unformed, escape from the world of the born, the originated, the created, the formed, would not be possible." Our ignorance keeps us in the dark about the true Reality, about our "Unborn, Uncreated" Essence, which is Infinite. Buddha and the early Buddhists did not try to describe Enlightenment as it is inconceivable to the human mind. Later Buddhists, such as the Zen school, did elaborate on it more, as I will demonstrate later. Early Buddhism is more concerned with the practical work of deepening our understanding, and that leads to the Fourth Noble Truth, which is the Noble Eightfold Path. This is what a person must do to realize Enlightenment.

The Noble Eightfold Path is summarized as follows: (1) Right Understanding means that one sees things as they are, not as we want them to be; (2) Right Thoughts are thoughts by which we cultivate compassion, harmony, and peacefulness; (3) Right Speech is to avoid slander and lying; (4) Right Action is to avoid killing or hurting others; (5) Right Livelihood is not dealing in killing, such as weapons, or intoxicants; (6) Right Effort is to keep the mind energetic;(7) Right Mindfulness is to keep awareness to a high degree in all activities; and finally, (8) Right Meditation, which are the deeper practices that lead to the insight that we are Enlightened, that we are also Buddhas.

As one can see, Buddhism is based on personal experience, rationalism, practice, morality, and insight. There is no need to propitiate gods or priests, no blind adherence to useless dogmas, rituals, holy books, or myths. Although many magical stories have arisen in the popular practice of Buddhism, they are not essential to the practice. The idea of having to believe something is also foreign to Buddhism. For example, part of the Buddhist scheme is that the five groups of components that make an individual are combined according to laws of Karma, somewhat like genetics. Since everything is energy, and since energy cannot be destroyed, only transformed, it is only conceivable that a karmic life, the particular arrangement of matter, feeling, perception, mental states, and consciousness, could continue after death. This can be thought about scientifically, just as psychologists and geneticists try to explain human behavior by explaining genes, drives, traits, organic variables, memory, neurons, and parts of the brain. Most scientists will not venture into realms of spirituality, although modern physics does seem to approach such matters. The point is that I can work within Buddhism even if I say I cannot prove the law of Karma; no one will send me an Inquisitor. The true spirit of Buddhism was expressed by Buddha's directions to accept nothing, to find out for oneself, to treat his teaching as a boat needed to cross a river: When finished, leave the boat behind. A great Chinese Zen master, Rinzai, states it even more explicitly: "If on your way you meet the Buddha, kill him. ... O you disciples of the truth, make an effort to free yourself from every object. ... I say to you: No Buddha! No Teaching! No disciple! What are you ceaselessly looking for in your neighbor's house ?" The important thing is to practice and develop the mind, especially through meditation. Questions of life before birth and death can only be verified by an Awakened mind.

Later Buddhism, in the thousand years after Buddha's death, developed the ideas of Original Buddhism to a high degree, to such a high degree, in fact, that they predicted modern Quantum Physics. I will quote a scripture known as the Heart Sutra, which states: "Form (matter) is emptiness; emptiness is form. Form does not differ from emptiness; emptiness does not differ from form. The same is true for feeling, perception, mental states, and consciousness." Here we see Buddha's original analysis of the psycho-somatic organism, but the idea is carried further. Quantum Physics has discovered that matter is nothing but a form of energy. Sub-atomic particles are merely concentrations of a field of energy that constantly appear and disappear, losing their identity as they blend into the underlying field. Emptiness is a term (also called the Void) used by Buddhists to describe the source of life, and is what Buddha called the "Unborn, Unoriginated, Unformed." It gives birth to an infinite variety of forms in the universe, which it sustains and then reabsorbs. Everything -- our bodies, our minds, consciousness, nature -- is constantly being born and dying; everything is vibrations coming from the source. We are a temporary manifestation of the Void, or – in more traditiobal terms – we are the manifestation of the Absolute Principle. Our real nature is that of the Principle, but we identify ourselves with the appearance, with manifestation. That is why we suffer -- because we try to cling to phenomena that are impermanent. This is what Buddhists meditate on: We try to destroy the ignorance that makes us think that we are separate, substantial, autonomous beings living in a world of static, concrete entities. Thus the Heart Sutra reminds us that we must realize that the world of the senses and of our minds is only a bubble on the ocean: the Reality or Essence or Absolute Principle of the bubble is the ocean.

Thus Buddhism can keep pace with the latest findings in the fields of psychology, biology, and physics. It is supremely practical and profound at the same time. It has helped me to understand myself and the world around me and challenges me to grow spiritually. I have not found any philosophy or religion so pragmatic and comprehensive at the same time. That is why I am a Buddhist.

Anthony Billings
Alameda, California
April, 1998

For more information on Buddhism and Science, please see The Tao of Physics by Frijof Capra (Shambala Publications, Inc,); for Buddhism and Psychology, please see The Supreme Doctrine by Hubert Benoit (Viking Press, Inc.)

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