Monday, December 27, 2010

The Buddha: A Compelling Documentary On a Spiritual Giant

Having just watched "The Buddha" :

I can vouch for it being one of the finest documentaries ever on a great spiritual leader, one who predated Christ by nearly 500 years. This fantastic film by David Grubin makes one realize just how amazing Siddhartha Buddha was and the enormity of the insights (true insights, not poppycock) he shared with mankind.

“Pay attention! This life and this moment are it…they're all there is! THIS IS NIRVANA!”

SO said the Buddha after his meditations under the Boddhi Tree, as brought out in the excellent PBS documentary. The problem is that most humans are trapped in the illusion of suffering and separation. They believe that some “Savior” is destined to come and make everything right, or save them from themselves or their "sins". The most extremist of this lot picture the world as a stage of perpetual warfare- of "good vs. evil." But the Buddha showed this is illusion since everything is connected, inseparable and there is no ‘other’ – than in the mind. Thus, it is the mind itself which imposes "demons", suffering and all the other woes we've inherited. Control the mind and the "demons of desire" and you have a chance at Buddhahood. (Indeed, even an atheist can aspire to Buddhahood, since no religious beliefs or associations are needed).

The Buddha’s teachings were embodied in the dharma, the fundamental laws of how things operate in the world. Buddhism is –unlike many other religions – not about being special but being ordinary. When one lives intently and consciously in this moment, he effectively become a Buddha. He could be driving to work, teaching, writing or just meditating. The point is to be in the moment- fully attending to what one is doing- and not distracted.

When one lives on autopilot or according to the will of others (imposed by ancient books or special authorities) then one experiences dukkha or suffering. In addition, this suffering is driven by desire.

In ‘the wheel of the dharma’ – Buddha’s message was brought into the world for the first time. It was not based on dogma but his own experiences in the world. In “the Middle way’ he taught everything is to be balanced – as between asceticism and sensuality, or happiness and melancholy. He used the example of the Indian instrument known as the sitar: if the string is too slack there is no music, if too tight, the music is off- the notes not right. Only the Middle way works.

Buddhism’s interest lay in the problem of human suffering and the solution to it. The 4 noble truths are:

1) There is suffering (dukkha) in the world
2) The mind causes it
3) The central problem in the mind is desire- how to control it toward constructive ends
4) Cultivation of mindfulness is the best path toward peace of mind and Buddhahood

The three poisons are: Greed, anger and ignorance

However, these poisons can be trasnmutated into their opposites or virtues: when the poisons are neutralized and inverted. Then we get:

Generosity (instead of greed)

Compassion (instead of anger)

Wisdom (instead of ignorance)

As an example, the compassionate person extends and enhances life for all. He is incapable of hateful or destructive thoughts or beliefs toward others. On the other hand, the angry person entertains hate and vicious beliefs, including that his beliefs are superior to all others and indeed, that if others don't cooperate with them they will suffer grievous future harm - perhaps in a "next life". To the Buddha, this sort of thinking exemplified the epitome of desire turned inward toward spiritual arrogance and pride. By contrast, a person with Buddha nature comforts others and encourages them in whatever spiritual direction they pursue - provided it is for the constructive benefit of others.

Burning is a prevalent theme in Buddhism: Everyone is burning all the time with desire fueled by the ‘three poisons’. Again, the way to deal with this fire is to dilute and control the poisons, as noted above. Meditation is one excellent way to do this because it brings self-conscious reflection to the point of action and personal initiative. This is important and the Buddha natured person soon learns the first principle of existence: the violence in the exterior world can never be controlled until one first controls it within himself. So long as he harbors vicious and violent thoughts and punishments, the world outside will reflect them.

An important aspect brought out in the film is that The Buddha encouraged people to challenge his teachings not just accept them without question. He wanted disciples to investigate based on reason. To accept without question was to perpetuate ignorance, one of the 3 poisons.
The Buddha constantly reminded his followers that the great field of knowledge is as tiny to the whole as the Earth is to the whole universe. Thus, to believe or accept one thing is next to nothing. There is much more we don’t know than what we do, so to grasp at any one tiny subset as the truth is to instill ignorance in one’s mind.

Buddhism is also a practical religion in that it doesn’t argue with or try to remake reality: It fully recognizes the constant potential for incredible positives or negatives. One has the chance, by choice, to make the world of Nirvana nature (full of Buddhas) or to make it a hell, if Buddha nature is suppressed by way of authoritarian ignorance.

A story told in the film was of Buddha's inability to perform a miracle to save his friends who suffered as collateral damage from a war. (Unlike the made up "miracle" stories in the Christian New Testament.) But, we are like the Buddha because we're limited beings and we tend to fail too. The point is to keep trying to reduce the total amount of dukkha in the world via self-knowledge, as opposed to anger and greed.

Just before the Buddha died at the age of 80 (of spoiled food offered to him, which he knew he could not refuse) his disciples mourned and asked “What are we to do”?

The Buddha looked up from his bed and regarded his followers, saying in a low whisper:
I am not your authority, be your OWN light!”

The Buddha thus had no hang ups about his authority or trying to pass it on, nor did his disciples find the need to turn him into a demigod or God-man. In that sense, their tradition was more mature than that of the West - replete with god-Men, from Horus to Mithra to Christ. The Buddhist disciples, meanwhile, realized that for a religion to be vibrant it had to live in reality not a world of delusional nonsense.

For this reason, as a Buddhist friend in Barbados often told me, Buddhism is the religion closest to atheism – because no specific belief is mandated. As he pointed out to me:

We’ve turned this world into a painful place but does not have to be such. If we pursue our Buddha nature and enlightenment we can make this a Buddha world engendering compassion, wisdom and generosity instead of anger, ignorance and greed

Very true, and I encourage readers to watch the documentary to see how Buddha developed into the spiritual being he eventually became. The point is, we can all attain the same Buddha nature.

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