Thursday, October 27, 2016


Buddhism has always appealed to me from a psychological, not religious, perspective. I have read Buddhist literature from all parts of Asia over my 45 years of interest in the subject. Siddhartha Gautama, one name assigned to the historic character at the core of Buddhist thought, gave rise to a practice of self-actualization in a largely illiterate world more than five centuries before the Christian Era and a millennium before the Islamic Era. Few modern self-help methodologies are unaffected by Buddhism.

The core of Buddhist thought as we have inherited it is not religious, spiritual or moralistic. It is psychological. 

The intentional development of consciousness which comes from meditation, reflection and ethical non-aggressive behavior lies at the center of Buddhist practice. If you doubt this, read the Dhammapada, a collection of Sanskrit-sourced Buddhist verses allegedly transmitted over time by followers of Gautama. My favorite version, pictured above, is available here. I carry it with me often for subway and waiting-room reads. I read it and seldom quote it, because Buddhism is not about proselytizing. It is about individual choice to deepen the individual human experience.

Buddhism is about consciousness. But Buddhism is not about control. Let me explain.

In the West, we tend to conflate Buddhism with Zen, one specific formalized practice developed from core Buddhist ideas in a specific cultural context. Zen then gets conflated with martial arts in some media. And so on. I believe this clouds the simplicity of the Buddhist concept of consciousness, or awakening of the cleared mind. 

Buddhism, confused with culture-based religions by that name, is also placed in a basket with Abrahamic religions in popular media as well. This is particularly annoying to me as an atheist. Abrahamic religions are dogmatically prescriptive. They actually prescribe human behaviors with the promise in return of either salvation or a good life. Don't eat lobster. Cover your head. Don't covet neighbor's wife or goods. Blah, blah.

The core of Buddhism is personal, not prescriptive. The user of core Buddhist ideas sets out on a journey of internal discovery with the resulting effect on his/her perception of reality. This awakening to personal truth is the development of consciousness, through which all else is experienced.

This core Buddhist mindset is not about not being controlled by dogma. It is not about creating a personal illusion of control upon the environment, including other living beings. Its core goal is controlling one's own mind and actions. Its beauty, for me, is its caution from the beginning that this in itself may be impossible to achieve in the real world. This strikes me as brilliant in the context of Gautama's time. 

Shedding the mental pollution of Roman Catholicism has been hard for me. I was brainwashed as a child into believing that "goodness", defined by dogma's prescriptions, is its own reward. I have found that the human brain mishandles this conditioning readily into a sense of moralistic entitlement. This reads, "If I am good and holy, I will be blessed." Quid pro quo, in other words. Corrupt politics and business certainly work on this principle, but this has nothing to do with "goodness". On the contrary, the good-bad paradigm of religions is at the root of most of the evil and violence in human societies. 

Practicing consciousness development is its own point in core Buddhist thought. It is practice for practice's sake. It is polishing a lens through which all else is perceived, not controlled. It is learning to take in uncontrollable external reality to be processed by a clear mind. The clear mind is more prone to take non-aggressive, compassionate action or no action at all in response. Surrendering all polluted illusions of control over other people and events leads to developing a mind which can actually contribute more to the practitioner's environment. 

1 comment:

  1. This is a fine essay, and I read it several times, as well as several others. I look forward to going back through the archived entries as I get the opportunity. Jack