Monday, July 23, 2012

The Passing Show

Westerners look at Buddhism and see two things.  The Buddha's teachings and what has been made of them.  He taught 2500 years ago so I only know what I read of his teachings but all (the secondary in-English) sources seem to agree on his basic principles, The Four Noble Truths:
  • Life is suffering
  • Suffering comes from craving
  • It is possible to stop craving
  • There are eight areas that must be tended to stop craving
In the time since the Buddha's life, all sorts of modifications and additions have been made.  Most seem to me to relate to basic fears of death and oblivion.  When Western Christians look at his teachings, they see what looks like a psychology, not a religion.  Religions for us tend to relate to being good and upright, and perhaps attaining salvation and eternal life as a reward for being good.

The Buddhist-related authors I read emphasize the continuous change in and around us, even though the transitory nature of the world is not explicitly mentioned in the basic four. The Buddha's main tool for seeing one's craving, which almost always relates to changing the past or controlling the future, is meditation.

Meditation increases one's ability to watch what goes through the mind.  You don't have to sit in the traditional cross-legged position to be aware of the stream of thoughts that go floating or zipping through.  Food, money, duties, failures, hopes, memories and other figments that may or may not be welcome, helpful or irritating can all show up, often in a single space of ten minutes.  There are times when a comparison of thoughts and urges that are quite close in time is actually funny.  My mind can send me a picture of myself at my strongest, another of me too old, I'm prosperous, I'm sinking, I'm healthy, I'm not.  

I was going to be clever and urge viewing of one's inner show on the grounds that there are no ads.  Then, I realized that it is all ads!  Want this, don't want that, want more, want less, want again, never want again.  The show itself can be amusing and interesting.  Brings to mind my wife's bumper sticker: Don't believe everything you think!

It can be tempting to aggressively take a vow to have no more desires, since they lead to trouble.  Guess what?  Desires are both the food and the spice of life. You are going to want air, food, drink, love, and air conditioning, plus lots more.  Mark Epstein remembers being a young psychiatrist interested in applying Buddhist principles to his life.  He and others like him sat around wanting to go to a restaurant to enjoy food and each other's company but since all were working at no desires, no one dared to suggest a place to go.  The bumper sticker approach of seeing the desire, tolerating its arrival, but taking a few minutes or weeks to let it arise again, to consider it, to accept or reject it, is more likely to be helpful.

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