It’s been a strange feeling, re-encountering pages written over a decade ago: a bit like dusting off a family photograph album, or bumping into an old flame. Did we really look like that? How could we think those clothes were stylish? Will we get on? How will we have changed?
As it happens, when it came to producing an eBook of What Do Buddhist Believe? (first published by Granta Books and, to my delight, translated into half a dozen languages) I still agree with what the younger me said – which is either worrying or reassuring. So the good people at Mud Pie took the decision to republish the book as it stands, changing fewer than a hundred words.
The core Buddhist tenets have stood the test of time, of course. Circumstances, however, have changed a lot. Since the book appeared, four people named in the text have died: Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden, Colonel Gadaffi and Leonard Cohen. It’s worth reflecting on which of them most enriched the world – and why.
It might also be worth looking again at the choice of title, which was – and remains – intentionally provocative. Buddhists come in all shapes and sizes, from all sorts of backgrounds and all parts of the world. Generalising about nearly half a billion people is a dangerous exercise! What I’ve tried to do, therefore, is give a sense of some of the most important and interesting facets of Buddhism – and suggest a few reasons why, in an age which seems increasingly disenchanted with organised religion, Buddhism appears to be thriving.
As to the question of Belief, here’s a short extract from the beginning of the book:
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The Buddha was once asked by an eager student what happens to us after we die. He deflected the question with a joke. But the earnest enquirer persisted. So the Buddha turned to him and said:
Listen – if you had just been shot by a poison-tipped arrow, you wouldn’t be standing there asking me, ‘Who fired it? What did they look like? Where did they come from?’ … You’d be saying: ‘Help! Get this arrow out! Quick!’
The point the Buddha wanted to make is that it is important to attend to what is urgent and a matter of fact, rather than getting distracted by speculations and theories. We must live in the here and now. Priorities matter.
This fundamentally pragmatic approach is what makes Buddhism so distinctive. It is also what makes the title of this book at first appear rather odd. For Buddhists aren’t primarily concerned with believing and thinking; their main interest is in beingand doing. Buddhists do what they do because they want to become wiser and happier. It is hard to think of any religion or philosophy that wouldn’t support the same aims, but few are as explicit about it. In the words of the Dalai Lama: ‘The very purpose of life is to seek happiness.’ What that means in Buddhist practice (as well as theory) is the subject of this book.
There is only one way to find out whether Buddhism works or not: by testing the teachings in daily life. Of course it is important to listen to what other people have to say and to read and study the scriptures (which are voluminous); but there is no substitute for direct, actual, personal experience. In the words of the Buddha: ‘That which you affirm [must be] that which you have realised, seen, known for yourself.’
The Buddha was emphatic about this. Every proposition should be tested rigorously before being accepted or rejected. Belief based on theory was one thing, knowledge grounded in personal experience another. The Buddha might not altogether have approved of the title of this book therefore.
Perhaps a better question would be: ‘Does Buddhism work? Does it make your life more meaningful?’ The answer to this would be a resounding and unequivocal ‘Yes’. There aren’t many questions to which nearly four hundred million people, living in all corners of the world, would respond unanimously, so this in itself is highly significant.
And the question gets more interesting the more it is explored. ‘Meaningfulness’ can be understood on a number of levels:
Philosophically: why are we born?
Historically: how did we get here?
Psychologically: who are we?
Morally: how should we behave?
Politically: what action should we take?
Cosmically: where are we going?
This book attempts to offer some answers to all of these questions, and I hope several more.
Finally, how much has Buddhism changed over the years? Is being a Buddhist now any different from being a Buddhist in the past? Two hundred years ago there were virtually no Buddhists in the West. Now there are over a million in Europe and approximately five million in the United States. Two millennia ago there were very few Buddhists outside India and hundreds of thousands in it. Now they represent only a tiny minority of that subcontinent’s population (though, interestingly, there is great interest among the so-called Untouchables or Dalits) whilst elsewhere in the world their numbers are expanding rapidly.
The increasing popularity of Buddhism across very different cultures and at a time of increased secularism and suspicion of ‘organised religion’ is interesting in itself. Why are more and more people in the West taking up Buddhism? What is it that they think Buddhism has to offer that other belief systems don’t? Is Buddhism becoming more popular because it answers some of the pressing questions posed by living in the twenty-first century? Or has the definition of ‘Buddhism’ become so flexible as to be effectively useless?
It is clear, for example, that people who call themselves Buddhist vote in many different ways (or don’t, or aren’t allowed to vote), so there can’t be such a thing as a monolithic ‘Buddhist view’ of politics. Similarly, not all Buddhists are vegetarians, or agree about the role of women in society, or the causes of poverty and its alleviation, or the best way to raise children or prevent war. Buddhists even seem to disagree about some apparently very basic ‘theological’ questions, like which is the most important of the Buddha’s teachings, what precisely it means to be enlightened, or whether or not belief in rebirth is essential. Some commentators feel we should talk about ‘Buddhisms’ in the plural and focus on its practitioners rather than searching for a set of core, universal premises.
How often or how intensely Buddhists ask themselves about their identity and their belief system will obviously depend on who they are and on their circumstances. To be born into a Buddhist family, in a culture where Buddhists predominate and where its outward signs – temples, statues, robed monks – are everywhere to be seen, is very different from being a first generation ‘convert’ in a culture where Buddhists are in a tiny minority. One is the inherited norm, the other an explicit choice.
Which brings us back to the question raised at the beginning: what Buddhists say and do – how people act meaningfully on their beliefs. The two things don’t follow necessarily. I often wonder whether, if he were to come back today, the Buddha would recognise many of the things which are being said and done in his name – just as I wonder whether Christ or Mohammed would be horrified by some of the causes for which their support is invoked. There are misguided zealots and hypocrites in all cultures. But it would be interesting to know, at the very least, whyBuddhists agree that being a Buddhist makes their lives more meaningful and how they feel – or possibly even believe– it affects the way they live.
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And now for that Invitation I mentioned …
In this book I’ve highlighted the wide variety of Buddhist practices, and tried to convey a sense of what people find works best for them. To that end, I’ve interviewed a number of practising Buddhists from different traditions and asked: ‘What difference do you believe your practice makes in your daily life?’ You can see what they have to say here.
This is where the Invitation comes in. I’d love to find out what YOU think. Do, please, take up the opportunity to let me know what you do and what difference you’ve experienced. Simply click here and fill in the box.
After you’ve bought the eBook of course!