I had a wake up call recently. After being, or at least calling myself a Buddhist for many years, I had given very little thought to my understanding of Buddhism as opposed to the understanding of Buddhism within the tradition I practice. Certainly there were minor differences but nothing to cause serious questioning. I had seen a big change from the first Sangha I encountered over 30 years ago ( which I didn't feel comfortable with and therefore left ) and the second Sangha I belonged to in very recent times and only left because of my relocation to Scotland. My view of the second Sangha was wholly positive.
I am now involved in helping to build what was a very small and scattered Sangha, and we are making good progress. However a minor disagreement over what is and what is not appropriate within this tradition has lead me to question my beliefs. What is it I actually believe and is it compatible with the Sangha I am helping to build?
Firstly I believe that although we need a core system of practice ( especially for those who wish to know about Buddhism and maybe start practising ) we should not allow ourselves to be confined by narrow dogma. Our tradition after all draws on other different traditions does it not? We should be open and able to explore our own individual understanding of The Dharma. Buddhism has changed with each different country to which it spread and will continue to do so. There are many references and exhortations within The Dharma to be prepared to question and test everything that is presented to us. Consider the following quotes:
1. From The Kalama Sutra. Do not believe just because wise men say so. Do not believe just because it has always been that way. Do not believe just because others may believe so. Examine and experience your self.
2. From TheMahaparinibbana sutra. Hold fast to the truth as a lamp. Look not for a refuge in anyone besides yourselves.
3. The Parable of The raft from theMajjhima Nikaya.The Buddha says use the Dharma as a raft for crossing the river after which it should not be carried.
This is I believe is a strength of Buddhism. It does not demand blind faith.
Then there is the question of religion. Is Buddhism a religion or a philosophy? Undoubtedly many do regard it as a religion. I do not. For me it is a very profound philosophy to live by.
What about Reincarnation and Karma? What do I believe about that? Is it necessary to believe in these two things to be a Buddhist? Well I can't say I believe in Reincarnation and Karma as regards to past or future lives but neither do I close myself to the possibility that this belief may be true. So my position is to regard this belief as a metaphor for this our present life. A metaphor to guide us to be aware that actions have a consequence in this life ( who could possibly doubt this ) and that we therefore are continuously creating Karma. Naturally as Buddhists we try to create good Karma and the consequences certainly manifest in this life time regardless to whether we believe that we are creating Karma in a future life or not! As for Reincarnation could this not be regarded as the attainment of a higher state of consciousness and therefore could be regarded as a sort of rebirth in this lifetime? So I would say that for me I would not let an agnostic position to future existence stop anyone becoming a practising Buddhist. In any case there is the deeper question as to what it is exactly that is reborn! A subject to revisit perhaps?
The big question for me is " Does Buddhism have a relevance in the twenty first century and can we still learn from it? The answer is yes, absolutely but we need to remember that some aspects of the doctrines are very much a product of the time and place in which Buddhism was first practised.
The basic doctrines The Four Noble Truths and The Noble Eightfold Path, Impermanence and so on are as relevant today as they ever were. They show a way to overcome existential suffering in a way that does not use the modern palliatives of avoidance but confronts the issues head on.
Meditation is of couse one way of examining these profound doctrines deeply and here I do take issue with those who say we should adhere to certain meditation techniques. I very strongly believe that once core meditation is well established meditation becomes a very personal and creative vehicle. To limit this to a certain method or technique is to risk getting stuck in a rather mechanical and sterile ritual.
This brings me to ritual in Buddhism. Some traditions such as Tibetan Buddhism have an extraordinary richness of ritual and place great store on it. Other traditions notably Zen are more austere, believing in meditation above everything. Nothing is right and nothing is wrong. If ritual, Puja, chanting or visualisations lead to understanding then that is fine. If just meditation is the right vehicle then that is fine too. If Dharma study works, all well and good. Most people like a combination of these things. My view is all these things are a means to an end and we must be careful not to let the means become a trap. After all we are trying to go beyond!
Part 2. To follow.