Fresh Breeze of Buddhism
Buddhism, as a religion and philosophy, has been around for 2500 years, since the time of Shakyamuni Buddha. Prior to Shakyamuni and after him, there has been many other buddhas in human form. There has not been only one single buddha, but many. That there are many buddhas, can also be seen in the rich array of buddhist paths that teach the core principles of buddhism from their own unique perspectives. Also according to buddhism, there are buddhas and bodhisattvas in nonphysical form.
During the history of buddhism, there has been many phases in its expansion to new areas and lands, integration to new cultures, blossoming of the teaching, inevitable decomposition and again spreading to new areas. Many places where buddhism has once blossomed, have become deserted of the real meaning of dharma, leaving behind only its outer shell. This has been seen in Asian countries such as India, China, Tibet and Japan, where for one reason or the other, buddhism has lost its vitality. Nothing in this world lasts but having said that if old forms of buddhism lose their attraction and disappear, the core teachings need to be and are being revitalised so that dharma can keep benefiting sentient beings.
Buddhism has always been organic. It has been like a forest where new seedlings grow next to already grown trees, with natural expansion. Buddhism itself grew next to its elder sibling, hinduism, and both of them took influences from each other. Buddhism has renewed and remodeled itself throughout the history of buddhism and this, I feel, is one of the reasons it has survived over 2000 years. If these renewals hadn't been done over the centuries when buddhism has spread to new areas, it is likely that it wouldn't have succeeded.
To me personally, buddhism has never been a religious practice. To me, buddhism has never been a belief-based faith but rather a reasonable philosophical hypothesis that is and needs to be supported by various yogic practices, such as sitting and chanting of mantras and prayers. I was raised in Finland which is one of the most secular cultures in the world and was baptized in Eastern orthodox church. I never felt that belief-based religion had much to offer to me and honestly have hard time understanding why people choose faith-based religion because this seems to add to peoples' confusion, inequality and narrow-mindedness, rather than bringing about open-mindedness and harmony among people.
When I lived in temples in Japan, in 2004-2005, I was astonished to find out that some Japanese people practice buddhism in as religious way as christians do in my native country. Prior to meeting such people, it had never occurred to me that buddhism could also be seen that way. Later, I find out that this is actually very common all over Asia. Religious buddhists, knowingly or unknowingly, look at buddhism as a set of beliefs and rituals, rather than as a method that is used to illuminate one's minds. As old and deflated forms of Asian buddhism have spread to Western world, it is not uncommon to see Westerners who don't realise that the form of buddhism they exercise doesn't actually accumulate wisdom, or does so in minimal degree.
I think that one common problem why buddhist cultures are eventually destined to disintegrate, is that when the doctrine becomes too fixed in its ways and forms, distance is created between the followers and the teaching. Even texts, that over time become considered as root texts and classics, gather unnecessary baggage. (See Ken McLeod's article). When that happens, the teaching cannot be understood, the dharma cannot be realised and embodied. In other words, the meaning of dharma is lost.
If we look at the biographies of the great masters of buddhism, we can see that they all took up buddhist study and practice because they were existentialy confused. They took up buddhism to solve their problems and used it practically to transform their self-based confusion. Could they have accomplished that if they were taught religious beliefs and merely followed external forms? If the masters of the old had seen buddhist teaching as something high and holy, as something external and distant from them, they would have never become embodiments of wisdom and compassion, and beacons for other sentient beings.
Vast emptiness, nothing holy
(廓然無聖, Kakunen musho, from Bodhidharma)
Buddhism is for all people. I say this because all people have the same problem, that of self-based delusion which is the main cause for dissatisfaction (skt. dukkha). Confusion about one's existence can only be solved by seeing through the false sense of me-ness or entityness (skt. atman). This is the main principle of buddhist meditation or vipashyana, that can be practiced in three main ways: sutra, tantra and dzogchen. Regardless of which of these paths we follow, eventually our confusion is put to rest through realisation that all thoughts and other mind phenomena are empty (skt. sunyata, emptiness, 空-ku) and do not create a permanent self. This realisation happens in degrees and with each insight (j. 見性-kensho) we come to see the very same truth, ”Vast emptiness, nothing holy”, as Bodhidharma, the great Indian yogi, taught.
Bodhidharma is considered to be the 1st patriarch of Zen in China but actually this truth is universal to all buddhism because all buddhists seek liberation through the means of realising emptiness, be it through the means of relying on one's own efforts (j. jiriki) or through relying on the grace of the buddhas (j. tariki). Both approaches are perfectly valid and can be simultaneously used for better success, as is done in vajrayana buddhism.
To be continued.
Thank you for reading.
Namo Guru Rinpoche,
Founder and head teacher,
Open Heart Sangha, www.en.openheart.fi