BootsnAll Travel Network

Buddhism, Doubt, and Community

Yesterday I went to visit my friend Pho Nguyen (formerly Kate), a Buddhist nun who ordained and lives at the Vietnamese Buddhist center where I studied for a year. Our conversation led me to new clarity about my “issues” with Buddhism. That’s what this blog entry is going to be about, so if the topic doesn’t interest you, feel free to stop now.

I understand that human life is easily mired in suffering and that it is possible (by means of meditation and years of practice) to diminish suffering. I can’t, however, say honestly that my primary goal in life is to end my suffering. That isn’t even on my list of priorities. I’m willing to accept that life is going to bring everyone some suffering. Suffering, if it doesn’t destroy us, becomes the ground for compassion and connection with other people. So does love, joy, and all the big human mind/body/emotion experiences–they are the ground of understanding by which we recognize each other’s humanness. They are what the “humanities” are all about. Ubuntu: we are human because we are part of the human community. Being human includes having a body and the senses and desires that come with it, making mistakes, failing to be loving enough or wise enough, and going on anyway, beginning anew each day, trying to be better.

My experience is that life INCLUDES suffering, but that’s not the whole picture. I am utterly opposed to unnecessary suffering (the kind we generate for ourselves in our minds). I work to eliminate unnecessary suffering resulting from unskillful habits of mind, such as craving and aversion, and I’m happy to encourage others to work on eliminating the suffering they cause themselves. But I’m much MORE interested in living consciously with gratitude, kindness, and awareness of the present moment than in transcending suffering. I’m more interested in being present for my own sufferings and those of other people than in transcending suffering. I am more interested in working for social justice and change to alleviate the suffering human beings cause on this planet, than in transcending suffering.

How could I be fully human if I transcended suffering? Who would I be if I were so spiritually evolved that I didn’t wince from migraines, that I didn’t suffer because my sister has cancer, that I didn’t cry when I watch the news of Iraq? I’m not in love with suffering, but it’s part of the human condition, and I don’t want to be superior to the human condition. Loving the world, doing no harm, and being present for other beings is a big enough order for me. This comes into focus because SuCo Dieu Thien’s particular spin on Buddhist practice is her insistence that we can only serve others when we have penetrated the “root” of our own personal suffering and have completely freed ourselves of suffering. Until then, according to her, our only business is to watch ourselves, know our suffering, and learn to deal with suffering as she imposes it (for purposes of practice). After a year of struggling with this form of practice, I decided it was not for me. Pho Nguyen decided it’s exactly right for her.

As I talked with Pho Nguyen yesterday, I began to wonder if I can continue to call myself a Buddhist. I adopted Buddhist practice and started calling myself a Buddhist when I was 13 years old, in Hawai’i, nearly 50 years ago. At several points in my life, I was certain that I wanted to be a Buddhist nun. Even now, I think of myself as a Buddhist nun. I live by the five basic Buddhist precepts and some of the monastic precepts, and to the extent possible I live by the Order of Interbeing’s Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings. This coming summer I’m visiting four communities, three of which are Buddhist, in search of a place to live for the rest of my life. But now I have to ask myself very deeply if it is accurate to call myself a Buddhist.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama makes it very simple. He says, “My religion is kindness.” I’m there. Totally. But Pho Nguyen asks me, “How do you know what kindness is, if you are still caught up in your own suffering? How do you know how to do no harm if your mind is clouded by your own suffering?” I pause, confused. Uncertain. I have inadvertently hurt others when I intended only kindness. That is true.

Pema Chodron writes, “Meditation is about seeing clearly the body that we have, the mind that we have, the domestic situation that we have, the job that we have, and the people who are in our lives. It’s about seeing how we react to all these things. It’s seeing our emotions and thoughts just as they are right now, in this very moment, in this very room, on this very seat. . . . The desire to change is fundamentally a form of aggression toward yourself. . . . Our neurosis and our wisdom are made out of the same material” (in The Wisdom of No Escape). Oh, balm and blessing, yes. She seems to say that it is a huge job just to pay attention, to be awake, to be here now; that it is a form of aggression toward ourselves to try to change ourselves into people who have conquered suffering. Or do I distort her words?

Thich Nhat Hanh, in one of the most battered and worn books I own, says, “If I had the Buddha’s eyes and could see through everything, I could discern the marks of worry and sorrow you leave in your footprints. . . Walk so that your footprints bear only the marks of peaceful joy and complete freedom. To do this, you have to learn to let go–let go of your sorrows, let go of your worries” (in A Guide to Walking Meditation). Yes. He says let go of your sorrows. He doesn’t say become a person who has no sorrows. Just learn to let go of them.

Preparing for my visit to Upaya Zen Center this coming summer, I have been reading Joan Halifax’s The Fruitful Darkness. In it she writes, “the Buddhist perspective shows us that there is no personal enlightenment, that awakening occurs in the activity of loving relationship.” Yes, yes. This is Buddhism as I know it. She continues, in the Epilogue to that book, “At our core, we are free from desire, hatred, and ignorance. The secretions of our minds. . . are what we work with in order for us to develop compassion. In fact, we need suffering in order to develop our ideal of compassion, for compassion arises from the darkness of human travail. It is the gift of our humanness, not to be denied but rather to be affirmed, to be sponsored, to be thoroughly understood.” I couldn’t have said it better myself.

I gather these teachings to my heart and say yes, I am a Buddhist because these people are Buddhists, and this is what they believe. I believe this. I believe that meditation is helpful to a person trying to live by these principles, and I am committed to meditation. In this life, I am not trying to reach enlightenment, if that means overcoming or transcending suffering. I am just trying to be a decent human being, down here in the mud next to other human beings, full of loving kindness for myself and others, awake, present. If that is enough to make me a Buddhist, then I am a Buddhist. If, in order to be a Buddhist, I have to be committed to reaching a point of spiritual development that makes me free of all suffering, then I am not a Buddhist.

I don’t usually invite comments to this blog, but if there is anyone reading this who wishes to comment, to chime in, or to clarify, feel free. Typically, in what I think is Buddhist spirit, I have no expectation that comments will arise. If they do, I will be glad of them. If they don’t, I will continue wondering, reading, listening, and gently turning over the questions while breathing.

Tags: ,

-2 responses to “Buddhism, Doubt, and Community”

  1. Noel says:

    With your blog of November 18 in mind, I respond to this invite with a Zen saying:

    “Break out from inside and your power is strong. Break in from outside, and your power is weak.”

    Find your strength from the inside out.

    Huineng (an illiterate) said: “Delusion is enlightenment”.

    Go figure. Your path is YOUR path!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *