Disclaimer: I am not an expert, scholar, or historian. This article is my own extrapolation on Buddhist theory and should be taken as an interpretation, not the final word.
Buddhism has come a long way from its beginnings in the sixth and fourth centuries B.C. Now, you may find remnants of its origin in a few trendy activities that have cropped up in recent years. Yoga, meditation, minimalism, and mindfulness are a few — all claiming that they will make your life better and healthier.
These practices are designed to enhance your understanding of Buddhist teachings, but recent whitewashing has separated them from their cultural context. After taking a class on Buddhism and Buddhist literature, I began to understand the origins of these popular movements and that they are so much more than an activity or a workout.
Early Indian Buddhism is based around the life of Siddhartha Gautama and his transition from an all-powerful king to an ascetic wanderer. He left his life of wealth after seeing for the first time the sufferings of human life: sickness, old age, and death. He then devoted himself to the goal of the Buddha, which is to save all living beings from suffering.
According to early Indian Buddhism, suffering is an unavoidable part of life born out of ignorance and craving. We tend to crave for more, like a better car or a better job, but we are never truly satisfied. In our busy lives, we tend to focus on the next thing and not rest on our accomplishments. Instead, we are continually asking ourselves, “What’s next?”
The problem is, even if you are happy momentarily, there will inevitably be suffering in the future. To end suffering, we must respond differently.
Craving only arises when there is an ego. To want something, you must want it because of the “I” figure inside of you. To end craving, you must be okay with the idea that yourself, the “I” inside of you, does not exist. Moreover, this impermanence doesn’t just apply to the self — it applies to all objects and all phenomena. A famous Sutra explains how our desire to label everything creates distinct objects and persons, when in reality there are none.
This concept is dense and probably can’t be explained in fewer than 700 words, but it cuts off the cycle of craving. When there is no “I,” there is no “I want.”
This might sound pessimistic, but in reality, this mindset can lead to something more like a subtle “okayness.” Imagine wanting a new car and the feeling of dissatisfaction over not having it. Now, imagine not caring about a new car and how content you would feel with what you already have.
This is the goal of enlightenment — and that of minimalism. Minimalism is known for its clean, organized aesthetic, but part of it is also realizing that you don’t need more.
Even though our society has all the material desires we could wish for, surveys show a decrease in happiness over time. Early Buddhism would say that our increased act of pursuing leads to more suffering.
“Zen” and “Chan” are two forms of Buddhism in Japan and China, which both emphasize meditation. Many people think of meditation as “not thinking,” but it is actually the opposite.
Meditation is a broad practice that also involves mindfulness. Because of the impermanence of all objects and phenomena, we must keep in mind what we know is true: the present. Therefore, when feelings and thoughts arise you must acknowledge them and then let them pass without dwelling on any one in particular.
Furthermore, in Chan Buddhism, language is seen as a way to establish conceptual thought — hence the emphasis on meditation which is inherently without words. If you realize that our minds are the center of all conceptual thought, and our thoughts constitute our reality, then our existence is as subjective as having a dream.
To think a thought about something is to immediately discriminate “this” from “that.” For example, if you think the weather outside is nice, that also implies the existence of bad weather.
By ending their reliance on conventional thought processes and bias about the world, practitioners of Chan Buddhism seek to be able to see the “true” nature of the world with clarity. This process is known as “letting go” of attachments to your conceived world.
When thinking of a car, you know it is a car because someone else has told you, but you also think of the social connotations of cars. They are really just pieces of metal, and these pieces of metal don’t have any meaning besides what we have ascribed to them.
You may think, “A nice car is better because it signifies having money, and that means I’m cool and smart!” Well, who says?
We must change our mindset about life — this is the basis of all Buddhist practices. Unfortunately, many people spend the latter half of their lives trying to undo previous biases that they have made. Buddhism has made me realize that we all have the power to construct our own reality.
We all are going to encounter suffering in our lives, and we should. Buddhism has taught me that our response to failure is what matters and that suffering and happiness are actually two sides of the same coin.
Reach contributing writer Phoebe Harris at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @phoebemh
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