One thing for certain when people begin their interest in Buddhism their mind is full of all manner of misconceptions about what Buddhism is and what it teaches. This is natural and there isn’t anything wrong with it. We all enter into this thing called Buddhism with our own life experiences, which are unique to us. This is all that we have to base our preconceptions upon. We are all looking to do things the right way. In fact one of the concepts that we bring with us is right and wrong. We in the west have a very rigid black and white idea of right and wrong that is often tied up with another concept, good and evil. As hard as it may be to believe, good and evil do not exist in Buddhism, well at least the way most of us understand the meaning of these words.
We (in the west) see right and wrong and good and evil relative to some set of commandments from an all-powerful being. If you do something against the will of the all-powerful being you are doing something bad or evil and therefore have to face some sort of punishment in this or the next life that will administered by them. There isn’t an all-powerful being (God) in Buddhism which is why when you look for books on Buddhism at a book store you will often find them in the Philosophy section instead of the Religion section. J So if you do something that is (in your mind) bad or evil what are the commandments you are breaking? Who is it that will be dolling out your punishment?
So what is it that the Buddha referred to as “Right action” or Right Thought”? What about the precepts? Aren’t these an example of right vs wrong? Well yes but again not in the sense that we think of it. In Buddhism what is right is anything that is conducive to your Buddhist practice and that which promotes the welfare of other sentient beings so that they may also get the opportunity to experience Buddhist practice. What is wrong or evil in Buddhism is that which stops, interferes, works against, your Buddhist practice and that which harms another sentient being and/or impedes them from realizing their true nature.
One very important thing that I realized is that Buddhist practice is a teaching in and of itself. That may seem sort of obvious that you are being taught a particular Buddhist practice so therefore it is a teaching, but that is not what I mean. What I am saying is that Buddhist practices all point to other Buddhist teachings. All of the Buddha’s teachings (Dharma) are interrelated and support each other. They are not a bunch of disconnected teachings.
Often when we begin our Buddhist journey we tend to see many of the Buddha’s teachings as suggesting that something we currently do is bad or that we should deny ourselves something. The truth is that these things are not bad or evil. In Buddhism we are avoiding certain things because they will interfere with our progression in our practice, that is all. What is the goal of all Buddhist practice? To see reality as it is, to see our true nature, to understand this thing we call our “self”.
Let’s take the practice of Buddhist meditation as an example. What is the purpose of Buddhist meditation? To control our mind? To have mystical experiences? To obtain Physic abilities? I am sure you may have thought one or more of these things. What is the most common goal that you hear you are supposed to accomplish in meditation? Well usually it is stopping (Denying) your thoughts. Having thoughts is in some way “bad” and we need to stop it! That is what I thought when I had my first experiences meditating.
When I first sat Zazen at Chuo-ji in Sapporo Japan that is exactly what my preconception was and what I set out to do. How hard could it be? Well it is very difficult, in fact it is impossible and not what we should be doing when we practice Buddhist meditation. I did not know or understand this at the time so I preceded to sit and stop my thoughts. For anyone who has tried this you quickly see that this is beyond difficult. In fact the more you try to suppress each thought that comes up the more and faster the new thoughts seem to arise. I couldn’t do it! I became very distraught and felt that I was a failure! How could something that sounds so simple be so difficult? Maybe I just wasn’t cut out to be a Buddhist!
To my great fortune I read a book by Uchiyama Roshi called “Opening the hand of thought”. There was one section of this book that explains that we cannot “stop” our thoughts by our will. It is our nature as human beings to have thoughts and us willing to stop them goes against our nature. So thoughts are not bad after all! J Instead of trying to stop our thoughts Uchiyama Roshi gave an analogy. It is like you are sitting outside by a bridge. When a car passes over the bridge it wouldn’t be wise to jump out in front of the cars to try to stop it from passing over the bridge now would it? 😉 What we are supposed to do is to just observe the car without attaching ourselves to it. If a red car goes by just notice that it is a red car and then as it passes by let it go on it’s way. Don’t become attached to it. Our normal way would be to notice the red car and then think, theres a red car, It looks like a Ford, I had a Ford once, It was a Fairlane, it was Blue though not red, I like blue better, I wonder where they are going, They are probably going out to eat, I sure am hungry, I can stop at that new pizza place on the way home……..etc.
When we observe the thought and then just let it go without becoming attached we do not have this rambling string of follow on thoughts. What happens is that when we are neither trying to stop the thoughts or becoming attached to them our minds quiet down naturally. When our mind is quiet we get our “self” out of the way and get a glimpse of our natural state, our Buddha nature (True Self). So thoughts or our attachment to them are not evil or bad. They just prevent or hinder us from coming to a understanding of our True “Self”.
Likewise drinking alcohol is not evil. The reason there is a precept against drinking or becoming intoxicated is that it impedes our Buddhist practice, that is all. You won’t go to hell if you have a drink! If you read my blog on the Precepts I show how their purpose is, once again, to teach one of the Buddha’s main teachings, that of Anatta (Not-self). This is very important to understand. I am not suggesting to take the precepts lightly or that they don’t have any real importance. Our most critical task as Buddhist is to understand our True Self and get beyond our notion of our small “self”. Anything that gets in the way of this is “bad” in the Buddhist sense.
So as you go through your Buddhist practice don’t go through it in a rote fashion. Look for the underlying teachings that each practice points to. From lighting a Candle, to taking the Bodhisattva vow, to meditation, all these practices are infused with the Buddha Dharma. All we have to do is be aware and notice.