Monday, May 10, 2010


I frequently rant about religious doctrine and institutions. Why then am I soft on Buddhism?

A few days ago I spent two (enjoyable) hours watching a new movie called “The Buddha.” Every day I receive and read a “Glimpse of the Day” email from Rigpa, a Buddhist website. Three feet away from me is a framed leaf I plucked from the bodhi tree under which Buddha sat when he attained enlightenment. (Bodh Gaya, where I went in 1963, was a quiet out-of-the-way village in those days. Now it is overflowing with pilgrims and tourists.) Buddhist statues and artifacts are welcome guests in my house.

I’ve visited Sarnath where Buddha did his first teaching. I’ve had wonderful experiences in predominantly Buddhist countries – Bhutan, Myanmar, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Sri Lanka. So what is it about the way of the Buddhists that tempers my disdain?

It’s not Buddhist mythology. Their supernatural narrative is fun to read, but I don’t believe a word of it. The life demanded of Buddhist monks and nuns – chastity and poverty – has no appeal. Their formal practices – chanting, meditating, pilgrimages, offerings – aren’t for me. And yet, there is something that strikes a chord.

Here are a few candidates for my consideration:

Buddhism is not about a relationship with a supreme being, some deity who created it all and demands that we behave in certain ways. It’s about self-improvement. The Buddha offers teaching and a path, but it’s up to us to follow or not. As they say, we all are (or can be) Buddha.

There is not the formal hierarchy common in other religions. To be sure there are leaders – the Dalai Lama is the most obvious – but they don’t serve as a conduit to or a barrier between the average person and some divine being. And it’s not my way or the highway. There seems to be much more tolerance of other points of view.

Buddhists aren’t trying to organize or change the world as it is. They accept that we are all living in this reality, that we are all human and thus subject to human strength and weakness.

When I look beyond the surface and into the details of Buddhist philosophy and doctrine, it is overwhelming. There are countless texts, schools, disciples, teachers, ordinations, stages, practices, disciplines, paths, powers, deeds, precepts, truths, and finally Three Jewels. But even with all this stuff I am left with a gentle feeling that at the core of it all is basic humanity. That’s enough to keep me in the conversation.


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