the buddha today

100-reclining-buddha-in-isurumuniya-vihara-anuradhapuraOLD NOTEBOOKS: The images of Gautama the Buddha we have today portray him as a person from the educated class, someone we might recognize as not unlike many of us who have the ability to see ordinary life at a distance, without any immediate financial concern about things in general because we live in a society that takes care of itself (as it was for Gautama before he left the palace). Or maybe we’re desperadoes, adventurers with a special genius and exceptional skill and energy that creates equanimity in times of brinkmanship and it’s the sheer confidence in our ability that allows us to see this truth; the suffering of the ordinary worldling is caused by wanting things to be different from (other than) what they are, and never managing to reach the desired state.

There is another a form of Buddhism that reaches the ordinary people of India through the Ambedkar conversion from the socially oppressed Dalit caste to Buddhist, in the hope of a better life. This has become a political issue and some would say the Buddha was an activist attempting to create social change – I think most would agree that, sadly the politics of the situation has confused the Buddha’s original teaching. The Ambedkar Buddhists are the fifth largest religion in India. The Dalit Buddhists I have met, those with  university degrees at doctorate level, are actively searching for a way of integrating those parts of the Buddha’s original teaching.

In the West, people have to structure their lives around employment. Their innate ability to be happy is exploited by commercial strategies and a fleeting, temporary happiness has come to be built-in to the system. People can’t escape from that unless they step out of the social momentum they’re in and this means there’s the risk of losing everything. So they’re trapped in the system.

As Pankaj Mishra says: “Buddhism has always attracted the elite of whatever society it has traveled to, partly because you need to have traveled through a certain experience of materialism in order to arrive at the sense that there is something problematic about desire and longing, how they don’t lead to happiness, and more often than not lead to unhappiness. If you are still struggling to fulfill your fantasies of wealth, power, status, Buddhism is less likely to appeal to you.” [‘An End to Suffering’ Pankaj Mishra‘]

Maybe we are seeing some similarities here reading this while stretched out on the sofa with an iPad at this very moment, giving some thought to the situation of Gautama leaving his comfortable home and stepping into the unknown, in search of a spiritual life. In Thailand there’s the option of living in the monastery for a period of time in order to follow the spiritual path. In fact you can spend your whole life there. This kind of choice is held in high regard by Thai society. In the West we are in one way or another committed to our earning capacity. There is virtually no spiritual option of this kind in the system – other than self-study and the support from nearby Buddhist monasteries. A Google search for Theravada monasteries in USA and other parts of the world will explain that anyone is welcome to share in the one meal of the day, free of charge, the activities, Dhamma talks in the monastery and accommodation can be arranged.

“You should live as islands unto yourselves, being your own refuge, seeking no other refuge; with the dharma as an island, with the dharma as your refuge, seeking no other refuge.” [selected from the Buddha’s final words]


Note: some parts of an earlier post included here:

22 thoughts on “the buddha today

  1. The countless ways that we arrive at the moment of questioning our basic assumptions are always interesting to me. The uniqueness of our paths, and the way they also have some deep commonality to them, is humbling. Whether we had material wealth or we didn’t, or we experienced terrible loss or we didn’t, or we reached our goals or we didn’t, eventually we feel that gravity at the center of our being. That one breath that shattered our suppositions and proposed to take us with it, to everywhere else. And then we try to find our way back to that breath, not realizing the next one is the very same…


    • Wow! A blaze of colour and it’s a shower of Michaels. Great to hear from you again. All paths lead to the same end, easily said but always looking for a way to understand it better than this. For those who rarely have time to consider it, it could be as near as the very next breath. And that’s how amazing it is! There are others in more complex circumstances who need to find their way through the tunnels they’ve inherited. Maybe it’s for them that the Buddha provided a Path. For others too, but for those in difficulty; the word is suffering. Today it’s a new way of seeing things (sounds like a line from a musical) but also some attention needed to see how we fall back into the way we were before discovering the Path and how to get out of it again. The Buddha gave us a map; the 8-fold Path. It’s enough for many people to see that as you say it’s as close as the very next breath.
      Hope to continue the discussion as things develop

  2. I do find this true: “People can’t escape from that unless they step out of the social momentum they’re in and this means there’s the risk of losing everything. So they’re trapped in the system.”

    • They’re trapped in the sysystem and don’t know it. If you click on the Pankaj Mishra link in the post and scroll down in there, you find a couple of interesting observations on present day society. Here’s an excerpt from that NY Times article: “Buddhism, Mishra recognizes, is ‘not easily practiced in the modern world,’ where almost everything is ‘predicated on the growth and multiplication of desire, exactly the thing that the Buddha had warned against.”‘

  3. that’s a powerful mirror you hold up to me tiramit. A lot of good observations which I can relate to. The wish in me to be able to practice more is almost immediately met by thoughts of worry and doubts; how am I find sustenance without income. The system I’m in is an island too. If you leave, you’ll have to face the consequence of possible exclusion out of the society.
    thanks for this post, very insightful and a good perspective!

    • Hi Pieter, I know how you feel believe me. The thing to do is visit a Theravada monastery near where you are, and your private goal is to see if there’s an individual monk you could maybe make friends with the long term. Take it slowly, visit the monastery whenever you can and take their advice about your own practice, fit that into your schedule in the most comfortable way, along with visits to the monastery – find a nice place for everything. Meanwhile make a point of saying hello to your monk friend everytime you go there and after a while you can start asking serious questions about the practice, feeling your way into it. That kind of thing…

  4. Interesting discussion (incl comments & replies).

    I was always taught to structure my life around ‘education’, ’employment’ and ‘success’ (being success with rise in employment to the top of your field, and success in terms of material and financial acquisition).
    Unfortunately I never followed my Parents (and teachers) idea of success. And I’ve been floundering for some 20-30 years because I was labelled eccentric and a bit weird (in not conforming with the western way of life). I never wanted the best car, or big house, or the biggest or best holidays or material possessions and it has led to a lot of misunderstandings and conflict in both work and social life. I pretended to go along with the crowd because that’s what one did in my family and social set.

    I always felt trapped in my working life. Now I can’t work (due to ill-health), I have the freedom to be Me, but being Me is not quite the answer either.

    I live my day Mindfully, because that’s what my health dictates, but in the background there’s always a little voice whispering in my ear, but I can’t quite hear the message.

    Maybe I need a ‘hearing aid’.

    • That’s a good one: ‘maybe I need a hearing aid’, maybe WE ALL NEED TO SPEAK LOUDER. I think it depends on what the whispering is about. You have the freedom to be ‘Me’ and you have the freedom to deconstruct that Me. There’s nothing there, just the sense of weight maybe, physical snsations the eye contacts objects but really there are no ‘objects’… everything I see is ‘Me’ the inside is the same as the outside there’s just the body and sensations.
      Yes interesting discussion (incl comments & replies). I think we all were trained to structure ourselves around things of importance, we have the ability to structure things because we are a construct anyway, a living moving construct that’s useful most of the time but in itself it doen’t amoutnt to much. In your case the fascination with plants and photography is great but outside of that is a universe. It’s all benign, kind, that’s how it works…

  5. Interesting observations. Thanks for sharing.
    I agree with this :
    “In the West, people have to structure their lives around employment. Their innate ability to be happy is exploited by commercial strategies and a fleeting, temporary happiness has come to be built-in to the system. People can’t escape from that unless they step out of the social momentum they’re in and this means there’s the risk of losing everything. So they’re trapped in the system.”
    In the West, material success has a high value. So it is more difficult to go into a monastery. But it is possible if there is enough commitment.

    You wrote in the reply to Michael above
    “All paths lead to the same end, easily said but always looking for a way to understand it better than this.” Therefore, I would like give some examples here.
    There are many paths, not only Buddhism. Christian monks and nuns manage to become enlightened, too.
    Bernadette Roberts was a Catholic nun, then left the monastery, got married, got 4 children. Her ego fell away, later her sense of a separate self fell away, even though (or maybe because) she was living life in the marketplace, being a mother of 4 kids and working.
    And there are other paths, not of an organized religion. There is the hardcore seeker in the ‘non-duality department’. There are those who think of themselves as lightworkers. And there are many individual paths which don’t belong even to the non-duality department or the lightworker scene.
    I find it highly interesting to see the variety of the different paths and see the differences and commonalities. I frequently wonder about how they compare. Often I tink of them as in the story of the five blind men trying to describe an elephant when one touches the ear and the other the tail. And they end up arguing about who has got it right. None of them has the whole truth, but everyone thinks he is the only one who has the whole truth.
    But no matter with what belief system they begin with, no matter what kind of lingo they use, no matter what rule set for behavior they prescribe, eventually, if they travel on this path far enough, they end up with the loss of the sense of being a separate self. That is stunning.
    To me, it seems that the important thing is not which techniques or rules of behavior are used, but it is more the desire to find truth, the desire to find God, the desire to be free. This inner urge and drive which makes the spiritual journey the absolute number one priority in life. If that is the case, people will find a way of being supported.

    • I was very influenced by Pankaj Mishra when I wrote this. You should take a look his reactions to seeing the West for the first time after revisiting his past in the land of the buddha. In the West we’re trapped in the system but it is possible to follow a spiritual path if there is enough motivation. Or you can be motivated in a smaller way by the heroic acts of others. Thanks for the story of Bernadette Roberts, truly inspiring – these are the ones we can feel motivated by
      In the West, material success has a high value but it comes to nothing in the end. The Path is what life is about – finding the Path is the Path; Christian monks and nuns of course it could be any ‘thing’. I hear various voices in the background but don’t find I’m paying much attention to them right now. The story of the five blind men trying to describe an elephant by touching the different parts. This is how it is at the present time. Maybe there’ll be some more coherent agreement and dialogue sometime soon that ‘I’ would be inclined to engage in.
      I agree completely with what it comes down to in the end is there’s not the sense of being a separate self. Some caution with language here: ‘the desire to find truth, the desire to find God, the desire to be free.’ The word ‘desire’ can be a stumbling block. I think all the quiet times we have just watching the mind, also the times of social engements, are an opportunity to release that ‘desire’. Ease that ‘wanting’ to find the truth. Maybe it’s the act of finding relief from this inner urge and drive which is constantly in the mind. Anyway, it all contributes to making the spiritual journey the absolute number one priority in life. I’d be inclined to say it’s a subjective thing, people will find a way inside themselves and it’ll spread like that from one to the other. Thanks Karin for a really interesting comment…

      • Thanks for your reply.
        The word desire can be a stumbling block. Yes. Especially when in discussion with someone from a Buddhist background.
        Other traditions or enlightened ones have no problem with desire. Of course, there is a problem to fill the void inside of us with material things and status. But when the seeker’s virus hits us, then this can be a very strong urge inside, a desire. And other traditions have no problem with this.
        “He who seeks, let him not cease seeking until he finds;” The Christian tradition does not say “if you find yourself seeking enlightenment, then try to detach from that wanting.”
        And another quote by some Jeshua channeling comes to my mind, where he said that once the ego is gone or put to rest, there are still desires. And what fuels them is the inner voice of Source. And how stupid we would be to dismiss this desire just because it is a desire and we have been taught that desire is always bad. But Source moves us, and this is felt as a deep desire. Maybe it is a desire to share the teaching in order to alleviate suffering. Maybe it is the desire to help somewhere. But it is a desire.
        I have come to see the remaining desire as the root of the creative process. Only if I desire something, I can manifest it. On the other hand, I always detach with an attitude of “it really is not that important. I don’t care whether it happens” , then there will not be opportunities.

      • Wow Karin, really powerful. I agree completely the desire arising from the inner voice of Source. I’m so pleased to read this, it stirs up something, what is it? A celtic sense of Source, something for me long forgotten here in the years of Asia. Yep, I needed that one Karin thanks.

      • Glad to hear you agree with this that the inner desire arising is the voice of Source. I am not so familiar with Buddhism and am frequently, really VERY frequently, wondering how you guys see the world. Is it really all just about breathing and stilling the mind and observing thoughts and detaching from everything? With adding a heavy dose of compassion, of course. I am always wondering.
        This subject is intriguing me so much that a post is growing inside my mind. Some retold tale about the biblical story of Jonah and whale. What if Jonah had become Buddhist? “No, thank you, Lord. I just converted to Buddhism, and they say that a voice inside my head is makyo. I just breathe and observe this voice of yours and tell myself that it is all just happening in awareness and this is what I am. And besides, I have been told that ‘He who knows, does not speak. He who speaks, does not know.’ Therefore, I figure, I’d rather not go to Nineveh, since my speaking would be a sign that I do not know.”

        Why am I writing all this? I am really passionate about it. Maybe I also want to tell you, if you find a desire inside of you , a really strong desire to get well again, then I hope you don’t go into detachment. Because the desire to be healed might be from Source.

      • Wow, Karin, just the picture of poor little Jonah sitting there, inside the belly of the whale with folded legs, straight back, gentle smiling face and slowly being ingested by the stomach processes, sucked away in the intestines. Yuk!
        So you’re wondering how us guys see the world? Well I speak for myself here of course. It’s about knowing when to respond to the right kind of desire of course, So you eventually come down to this: which is which? You spend most of your life not responding to the WRONG kind of desires and I hope you don’t want me to list the WRONG kind of desires, just use your imagination! Everybody knows what responding to those kinds of desires does, it just sharpens the appetite for more and more.

        There is such a thing as a quiet mind and it’s not all theory it’s applied in all sorts of really very awkward and difficult situations, The monasteries I’ve stayed in comprise groups of very large men frustrated beyond belief trying not to yell at each other. REALLY all the way through, it’s hard work, not passive or placid. These are very big and scary guys with shaven heads and fearsome faces quivering with pent up rage, just on the edge of breaking your arm SNAP! So you can imagine how it is for someone like me who’s likely to react in the same way but have no robe no status no experience of what it’s like to suffer like this for 20 years or more and still come out on top with a gentle smile in all kinds of seriously difficult situations.

        Why do they do it? Because they’re passionate about learning how the mind works in all kinds of situations, particularly the first Noble Truth which is Suffering and that’s caused by the second Noble Truth which is DESIRE… and it’s eating your brains out sometimes so you go to the gym do weights go on very long marathon walks with no food just standing in some small English village with a begging bowl like an idiot hoping somebody will come along and put in a packet of crisps or something, then you go walking for another 20 or 30 miles on your packet of crisps and sleep in the rain somewhere and next day stand there in bedraggled wet robe with your bowl and somebody like a little old lady who doesn’t know what this is about, thinks you might like a small tube of fruity sweets?

        Okay I might be exaggerating here but I’ve heard some stories of the long enduring hardships and coming out of it physically strong and with a mind that’s as cold and sharp and alert it’s like a razor blade, so that if THE OPPORTUNITY arose they’d go for it in a flash, there’d just be a cloud of dust left.

        So, I can’t do it like that of course, but my wife Jiab is on a meditation week in Thailand right now, where they don’t speak for a week, meditate all day and get up at 4 o’clock in the morning do chores, cook food and eat only one meal per day. She does this every year in January when it’s cold in the North of Thailand. If she thought I was dealing with my illness like the kind of wimpy half-witted buddhist you’re describing, we’d have been divorced years ago! As it is, we survived nearly 30 years together. Anyway, it’s pretty fearsome and scary at times, and that’s enough said, so thanks Karin, there are gentle nice things too of course…

      • Thanks for your detailed response. That gives me a better idea of what monasteries are about. So, they are looking for the peace of mind in all circumstances and one way to achieve this is to deliberately set up hardships and then go through this and try to find the still mind or the peace beyond understanding.That sounds interesting. Thanks a lot for taking the time to educate me about Buddhism here.

      • Thanks Karin. This is Theravada Buddhism in the lineage of Ajahn Chah. It’s not supposed to be easy, and I have to say also things are pretty difficult for me now so I’m looking at the Ajahn Chah teaching for support…

    • Thanks Val, I have to raise my voice just to be heard, and then what do I have to say because maybe I’m one of those gentle buddhists who never allow any desire to be acted upon. The fact is though, I wouldn’t be writing this if I were that kind of person – and you would know Val, being Scottish like myself… when the blood is raised then who knows what could happen! But it’s also the Middle Way isn’t it? Hmmm maybe that’s a real downer for a lot of people with inspiration rising, well there’s no ‘maybe’ about it, it is a downer. Yep well, just kinda soliliquizing here (is that how you spell it?) Not a word I often use
      Thanks for your input Val, choosing the right words is a skill…

  6. I love this, especially that quote at the end. It makes me sad for all those who still cling to those material things but it’s so hard to let go of – I need to be travelling to fully realise the folly of western ways. Still, we keep fighting against the tide and that must count for something.

    • ‘The folly of Western Ways’ sounds like a really good title for a chapter or a song. Yes it is sad that people can’t see that they are stuck in the system and not able to see there is actually a way out. You just have to think about it and do something to escape from the trap of desire/suffering..

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