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Three Myths about Buddhism that Drive People away in Droves
Submitted by Lawrence Grecco on Fri, 6/28/2013, 12:22pm
There's a lot of misinformation out there about what Buddhism is and what it isn't, which is very unfortunate since it's an incredible spiritual system that teaches us how to work with our minds so that we can develop a clarity, confidence, and lasting sense of peace and happiness.
Here are the top three myths about Buddhism that keep a lot of people away from the practice:
1. Buddhists believe that "life is suffering."
I cringe whenever I hear someone repeat this misinterpretation of the First Noble Truth. The Buddha did begin by teaching about the truth of dukkha, a Sanskrit word for which there is no direct English translation. Literally translated, in Sanskrit it meant “stuck or binding axle” as my teacher often reminds his students. If you were to ride in a cart with a stuck or binding axle, your ride would be less than smooth and comfortable -- it would in fact be quite bumpy. Life is often bumpy. Another way to define dukkha is to look at its opposite, sukkha -- which means “sweet” or “blissful.” So what we feel a good deal of the time is the opposite of “sweet,” but it isn’t accurate to call that “suffering” necessarily.
I define dukkha as a sense of “offness,” a feeling that things are not quite right and need adjusting. This could range from my wishing it were a bit cooler right now or that I have to do something to immediately rid myself of my extreme anguish over the death of a loved one.
“Unsatisfactoriness” is the most accurate way to define dukkha since this word encompasses the full range of difficulties we face in this life: anxiety, stress, a sense of “off-ness,” and yes, suffering.
The reason the Buddha began by talking about our human tendency to experience dukkha or unsatisfactoriness was not to suggest that we’d just better get used to it, or as some people understand it, “Life’s a bitch and then you die.” He taught about our tendency to feel like things were somehow off or unsatisfactory so that we could understand that this sense of dissatisfaction begins and ends in our minds alone. Nothing has an intrinsically good or bad quality, and nothing has the inherent capacity to cause us to feel happy or to suffer. It’s what we make of everything we experience that determines whether we feel happy or miserable.
So the Buddha invites us to look at the sources of our anguish, understand its causes (see the Second Noble Truth) and by doing so liberate ourselves from dukkha so that we can live with sanity, clarity of mind, and a true, lasting happiness.
2. Karma is a bitch
Because of the way in which we’ve been so incorrectly conditioned to think in terms of black and white, heaven and hell, or good and evil, many think that karma is a divine form of punishment or retribution. If you slip on a banana peel and fall down on your face, it’s because you insulted me last night. If someone is poor or disabled or otherwise disenfranchised in this life, it means that somewhere along the cosmic line, they did something bad and now they deserve whatever difficult circumstances they find themselves in.
I think that’s bullshit.
Simply labeling someone’s difficult circumstances as “ their karma” doesn’t let us off the hook and give us the green light to be indifferent, cold, or judgmental. When we see someone in an unfortunate situation and shrug our shoulders, thinking, “that must be her karma,” we give ourselves and others permission to ignore their suffering. We rationalize it as their punishment for doing something wrong at some point or another, thinking they must deserve it on some level, so why the hell bother helping them out? Perhaps that person begging for change on the street was Hitler in a past life, we speculate, so it serves them right. Instead of trying to assess what may or may not have brought about someone else’s current situation, we’d be wise to consider the consequences of how we choose to respond to their current situation.
Viewing karma as an excuse to indulge in harmful behavior is lazy
Karma is not just an unchangeable and negative result but rather a complex and interdependent series of intentions, actions, and results. Each moment offers us the opportunity to apply some awareness and intentionality to our thoughts and behaviors that have an impact on our current circumstances as well as what we will experience later. We aren’t simply “stuck” with our situation, we can actually work with it. We can’t always choose for things to be different than they are right now, but we can make the best possible use of whatever we have right now in a way that is productive rather than self-defeating.
We can look at a wealthy person and label their fortunate circumstances as “good karma.” We can see a paraplegic as suffering from “bad karma.” However, millionaires can be miserable, and physically challenged people can be happy. Someone with heaps of money can be stingy both emotionally and materially, while a wheelchair-bound person can have a highly developed sense of compassion and caring for others based on their alleged disability. So who is suffering from “bad” karma and who is reaping the “good?”
In the end, ideas of good and bad originate in our minds alone, and getting fixated on words like these have a way of encouraging narrow judgments instead of compassionate action.
Karma is simply the process of action and result. If I carelessly build a stack of bricks, that pile may fall sooner rather than later because I didn’t take care to place one brick squarely on top of the other. If I start off by paying attention, carefully placing one brick neatly on top of the other, this will be more likely to ensure a tall pile of bricks that can stand on its own for quite some time. However, should an intense storm come about (and one always does) the pile is going to fall anyway because that’s simply the nature of things and not necessarily “my fault”.
3. Buddhists don’t believe in God or prayer
Buddhism is a non-theistic spiritual system in that we don’t really discuss a higher being or personal God that’s distinguishable from humans, animals, or any other aspect of nature. As I see it, it’s impossible to prove or disprove the existence of a God as traditionally described, so why should anyone spend time arguing over this? And when people of different spiritual backgrounds engage in heated and often angry debates about whose version of God is the correct version, they’re turning God into something petty and divisive.
The way some people talk about God, you’d think he must be a real dick. But this is only because too many people feel the need to separate, make opposites, and cling to their small views about what God really is or isn’t.
Whether there’s a God or not, most would hopefully agree that we’re all called upon to treat each other with respect, love, and compassion.
Some think that Buddhists worship the Buddha the way a Christian worships God or Jesus Christ, but this is incorrect for the most part. We do see the Buddha as a wonderful example of how lasting happiness and peace of mind is possible here and now on this earth while we’re alive, and not just in some abstract afterlife that can only be believed in and not fully experienced. But most do not petition the Buddha (who is long dead by the way) to intervene in human affairs or to grant us wishes bases on our narrow and shortsighted desires. But this doesn’t mean that we don’t find any use for prayer -- in fact one of the grand rockstars of Buddhism, Thich Nhat Hanh, wrote a book on the subject. So we approach prayer as a means of planting a seed of intention within our own hearts that can grow naturally and have an impact on others around us.
When people ask me whether or not I believe in God, I never say no. However, my understanding of God has evolved to the point where it doesn’t even feel appropriate to use the “G” word because this puts too small a frame around the whole matter. It’s too limiting, and our human brains aren’t fully capable of understanding the vastness of who or what it is that ties us all together.
I think that Taoism does the best job of tackling this issue, particularly the Tao Te Ching.
As Buddhists, our main concern is this very life we're in and how we can develop a clear mind so that we can act with love and compassion towards ourselves and all others. We’re not so preoccupied with what happens once we die because we can’t help other people here on earth when we’re dead -- but we can certainly help them right here and right now.
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