Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Are you a Buddhist?

I often get asked this question, and I usually go through a song and dance with caveats and qualifications. I am reminded of Larry Rosenberg in this way. Once after giving a long preamble, his wife said to him, "why not just say yes?" In 1985, I took the Bodhisattva vows from His Holiness the Dalai Lama. By doing so, I vowed to attained enlightenment for the benefit of all sentient beings. This sounds fairly Buddhist. But my rational, empirical, and skeptical self brings up objections. What about rebirth? I don't believe in that. As a skeptic, I would need to see evidence. What about karma? Again, show me the evidence. There is much in Buddhism that is prescientific, as one would expect about a set of teachings that are 2500 years old. His Holiness recently gave the keynote address at the annual neuroscience meeting . See the Washington Post article here.

""What relation could there be between Buddhism, an ancient Indian philosophical and spiritual tradition, and modern science?" he said. His answer was that the scientific empirical approach and the Buddhist exploration of the mind and world have many similarities."

When asked what he would do if science contradicted Buddhist belief, he said he would alter his Buddhist beliefs. This is a striking statement for a religious leader to make, and I can think of no other who would dare to make such a statement. In his case, it is not just a statement; he walks to the talk. For more on the relationship between Buddhism and science see his memoir on science:

But I digress. From his Holiness's example, we see a compatibility between science and Buddhism, and this makes me feel more comfortable. At a practical level, I endeavor to live my life in accordance with Buddhist ideals and principles such as do no harm (trying, but not always successful) and cultivating the mind through meditation. From the outside perspective, it certainly looks as though I am a Buddhist.

Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche, author of What Makes You Not a Buddhist provides four criteria to consider. To be a Buddhist, one must believe in all four of these tenets or seals. These are: 1) all compounded things are impermanent, 2) all emotions are pain, 3) all things have no inherent existence, and 4) nirvana is beyond all concepts.

Do I qualify on these grounds? Let's take a look at these criteria one by one. "All compounded things are impermanent." Show me something that is permanent? All things seem to be changing; what stays the same? Things are constantly changing; much of life is comprised of rhythms such as breathing, eating, digesting, sleeping and waking. We're never done. Things never stay clean or organized. Everything moves towards disorganization and decay unless we leverage energy against it. Even in the big picture, the universe is not static. It's expanding at at some future time will cease to exist. This sounds pretty impermanent, so I'd have to agree with Rinpoche on this point. Next: "all emotions are pain." I'll take this up in a future blog entry. Stay tuned!

To learn more about Dongsar Khyentse Rinpoche, please visit his website Siddhartha's Intent.

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