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It is tempting to think that we understand religion because it is so ingrained in our cultural outlook. However, it's useful to contemplate and reflect on the true aim, goal or purpose of religion.
Sometimes people regard religion as belief in God or gods, so religion becomes identified with the theistic attitude of a particular religious form or convention. Often Buddhism is regarded by theistic religions as an atheistic form, or not even a religi on at all. It's seen as a philosophy or psychology, because Buddhism doesn't come from a theistic position. It's not based on a metaphysical or doctrinal position, but on an existential experience common to all humanity - the experience of suffering. The Buddhist premise is that by reflecting, by contemplating, and by understanding that common human experience, we can transcend all mental delusions that create human suffering.
The word religion comes from the Latin word religio, which means a bond. It suggests a binding to the divine, which engulfs one's whole being. To be truly religious means you must bind yourself to the divine, or to the ultimate reality, and engage yo ur whole being in that bond, to the point where an ultimate realisation is possible. All religions have words like "liberation" and "salvation." Words of this nature convey freedom from delusion, complete and utter freedom, and total understanding of ulti mate reality. In Buddhism we call this enlightenment.
Understanding the Nature of Suffering
The Buddhist approach is to reflect on the experience of suffering, because this is what all human beings share in common. Suffering doesn't necessarily mean a great tragedy or a terrible misfortune. It just means the type of discontentment, unhappiness , and disappointment that all human beings experience at various times in their lives. Suffering is common to men and women, common to rich and poor. Whatever our race or nationality, it is the common bond.
So in Buddhism, suffering is called a noble truth. It is not an ultimate truth. When the Buddha taught suffering as a noble truth, it was not his intention for us to bind ourselves to suffering and believe in it blindly, as an ultimate truth. Instead, h e taught us to use suffering as a noble truth for reflection. We contemplate: what is suffering, what is its nature, why do I suffer, what is suffering about? An understanding of the nature of suffering is an important insight. Now contemplate this in your experience of life. How much of your life is spent trying to avoid or get away from anything that is unpleasant, unwanted? How much of our society is dedica ted to happiness and pleasure, trying to get away from anything unpleasant and unwanted? We can have instant happiness, instant absorption, something that we call "non-suffering"; excitement, romance, adventure, sensual pleasures, eating, listening to mus ic, or whatever. But all this is an attempt to get away from our own fears, discontentments, anxiety, and worry, things that haunt the human mind until it is enlightened. Humanity will always be haunted and frightened by life as long as human beings remai n ignorant and don't put forth effort to look at and understand the nature of suffering.
To understand suffering means that we must accept suffering rather than just try to get rid of it and deny it, or blame somebody else for it. We can notice that suffering is caused, that it is dependent upon certain conditions: the conditions of the mind that we've created or that have been instilled into us through our culture and family. Our experience of life, and that conditioning process, start from the day we are born. The family, the group that we live with, our education, all instill into our min d various prejudices, biases and opinions, some good, some not so good.
Now, if we don't really look at these conditions of the mind and examine them for what they truly are, then of course they cause us to interpret our life's experience from certain biases. But if we look into the very nature of suffering, then we begin to examine things like fear and desire, and then we discover that our true nature is not desire, is not fear. Our true nature is not conditioned by anything at all.
The Conditioned, The Unconditioned, and Consciousness
Religions always point to the relationship of the mortal, or the conditioned, with the Unconditioned. That is, if you strip any religion down to its very basic essence, you will find that it is pointing to where the mortal, the conditioned and time-bound , ceases. In that cessation is the realisation and the understanding of the Unconditioned. In Buddhist terminology, it is said that "there is the Unconditioned; and if there were not the Unconditioned, there could not be the conditioned." The conditioned arises and ceases in the Unconditioned, and therefore we can point to the relationship between the conditioned and the Unconditioned. Having been born into a human body we have to live a lifetime under the limitations and conditions of the sensory world. Birth implies that we come forth out of the Unconditioned and manifest in a separate, conditioned form. And this human from implies consciousness. Consciousness always defines a relationship between subject and object, and in Buddhism consciousness is regarded as a discriminative function of the mind. So contemplate this right now. You are sitting there paying attention to these words. This is the experience of consciousness. You can feel the heat in the room, you can see your surroundings, you can hea r the sounds. All this implies that you have been born in a human body and for the rest of your life, as long as this body lives, it will have feelings, and consciousness will be arising. This consciousness always creates the impression of a subject and an object, so that when we do not investigate, do not look into the true nature of things, then we become bound to the dualistic view of "I am my body, I am my feelings, I am my consciousness."
Thus, a dualistic attitude arises from consciousness. And then, from our ability to conceive and remember and perceive with our minds, we create a personality. Sometimes we enjoy this personality. Other times we have irrational fears, wrong views, and an xieties about it.
Aspiration of the Human Mind
At the present time, for any society in the materialistic world, much of the human anguish and despair arises from the fact that we don't usually relate ourselves to anything higher than the planet we live on and to our human body. So the aspiration of t he human mind towards an ultimate realisation, towards enlightenment, is not really promoted or encouraged in modern society. In fact it often seems to be discouraged.
Without this relationship with the higher Truth, our lives become meaningless. We cannot relate to anything beyond the experiences of a human body on a planet, in a mysterious universe, all our life really amounts to is putting in time from birth to deat h. Then, of course, what is the purpose, what is the meaning of it? And why do we care? Why do we need a purpose? Why must there be a meaning to life? Why do we want life to be meaningful? Why do we have words, concepts, and religions? Why do we have that longing or that aspiration in our minds if all there ever is, or all there ever can be, is this experience based on the view of self? Can it be that this human body, with its conditioning process, simply lands on us fortuitously in a universal system tha t is beyond our control?
We live in a universe that is a mystery to us. We can only wonder about it. We can intuit and gaze at the universe, but we cannot put it into a little capsule. We cannot make it into something in our mind. Therefore, materialistic tendencies in our minds encourage us not to even ask those questions. Or else these tendencies make us interpret all life's experience in the realm of logic or reason, based on the values of materialism and empirical science.
The Awakening Experience
Buddhism points to the universal or common experience of all sentient beings, that of suffering. It also makes a statement about the way out of suffering. Suffering is the awakening experience. When we suffer we begin to ask the questions. We tend to look, investigate, wonder, try to find out.
In the story of Prince Siddhattha (the name of the Buddha before he was enlightened) we hear of his life as a prince in an environment where there was only pleasure, beauty, comfort, social advantages - all the best life could offer. Then, as the legend goes, at the age of 29, Siddhattha left the palace to look outside, and he became aware of the messengers of old age, sickness and death.
Now one might say that he must have known about old age, sickness and death before the age of 29. In our way of thinking, it is quite obvious to us from an early age that everyone gets old, gets sick, and dies. However, this was something that the prince was merely aware of as a fact. It was something that did not awaken his mind until he reached the age of 29.
Similarly, we can live our lives, here in England, and we can assume that everything is all right, and even the unhappiness or the disappointments that we might normally experience may not necessarily awaken us. We may wonder about them a bit, but there are so many opportunities to not look at it, to not notice. It's easy to blame our unhappiness on others, isn't it? We can blame it on the government, on our mother and father, on friends or enemies, on external forces. But the awakening of the mind to ol d age, sickness and death happens when we realise that it is going to happen to us. And that realisation comes not just as an abstract idea but as a real gut feeling, a real insight that this is what happens to all human beings. What is born gets old, deg enerates, and dies.
The fourth messenger that the Buddha saw was a samana. A samana is a monk, or a religious seeker, someone who is devoted solely to the pursuit of the ultimate reality, the truth. The samana, as portrayed in the legend, was a shaven-headed monk wearing a robe.
These are the four messengers in Buddhist symbolism: old age, sickness, death, and the samana. They signify the awakening of the human mind to a religious goal, to that aspiration of the human heart towards realising the ultimate reality, which is freedo m from all delusion and suffering.
Sometimes modern attitudes towards Buddhist meditation tend to portray it as leaving the world and developing a very concentrated state of mind dependent upon carefully controlled conditions. So in the United States and in other countries where Buddhist meditation is becoming increasingly popular, people tend to develop strong views about it being a concentrated state of mind in which technique and control are very important.
This type of technique is all well and good, but if you begin to develop the reflective capacities of your mind then it is not always necessary, not even advisable to spend your time trying to refine your mind to where anything coarse or unpleasant is su ppressed. It's better to open the mind to its full capacity, to full sensitivity, in order to know that in this present moment the conditions that you are aware of, what you are feeling, seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching, thinking, are impermanent.
Impermanence is a characteristic common to all phenomena, whether it is a belief in God or a memory of the past; whether it's an angry thought, or a loving thought; whether it's high, low, coarse, refined, good, bad, pleasurable or painful. Whatever its quality might be, you are looking at it as an object. All that arises, ceases. It is impermanent.
Now what this opening of the mind does, as a way of practice and reflection on life, is allow you to have some perspective on your emotions and ideas, on the nature of your own body, as well as the objects of the senses.
Getting back to consciousness itself: modern science, empirical science, considers the real world to be the material world that we see and hear and feel, as an object to our senses. So the objective world is called reality. We can see the material world, agree to what it is, hear it, smell it, taste it, touch it or even agree on a perception or a name for it. But that perception is still an object, isn't it? Because consciousness creates the impression of a subject and an object, we believe that we are o bserving something that is separate from us.
The Buddha, by his teaching, took the subject-object relationship to the ultimate point. He taught that all perceptions, all conditions that go through our minds, all emotions, all feelings, all material-world objects that we see and hear, are impermanen t. About all of it, he said, "What arises, ceases." And this the Buddha kept pointing out over and over again in his teachings: this is a very important insight that frees us from all kinds of delusions. What arises, ceases.
Consciousness can also be defined as our ability to know, the experience of knowing. The subject knowing the object. When we look at objects and name them, we think we know them. We think we know this person or that person because we have a name or a mem ory of them. We think we know all kinds of things because we remember them. Our ability to know, sometimes, is of the conditioned sort, knowing about, rather than knowing directly.
The Buddhist practice is to abide in a pure mindfulness in which there is what we call insight knowing, or direct knowledge. It is a knowledge that isn't based on perception, an idea, a position, or a doctrine: and this knowledge can only be possible through mindfulness. What we mean by mindfulness is the ability to not attach to any object, either in the material realm or mental realm. When there is no attachment, then the mind is in its pure state of awareness, intelligence, and clarity. That is min dfulness. The mind is pure and receptive, sensitive to the existing conditions. It is no longer a conditioned mind that just reacts to pleasure and pain, praise and blame, happiness and suffering.
For example, if you get angry, right now, you can follow the anger. You can believe it, and go on and on creating that particular emotion, or you can suppress the anger and try to stop it out of fear or aversion. However, instead of doing any of these, y ou can reflect on the anger, because it is something that we can observe. Now if anger were our true self, we wouldn't be able to observe it, this is what I mean by reflection. What is it that can observe and reflect on the feeling of anger? What is it that can watch and investigate the feeling, the heat in the body, or the mental state. That which observes and investigates is what we call a reflective mind. The human mind is a reflective mind.
The Revelation of Truth Common to All Religions
We can ask questions: Who am I? Why was I born? What is life about? What happens when I die? Is there meaning to life or purpose? But because we tend to think other people know and we don't, we often seek the answers from others rather than opening the m ind and watching through patient alertness for truth to be revealed. Through mindfulness and through awareness, revelation is possible. This revelation of truth, or ultimate reality is what the religious experience really amounts to. When we bind ourselv es to the divine, and engage our whole being in that bond, we allow this revelation of truth, which we call insight, profound and true insight, into the nature of things. And revelation is ineffable too. Words are not quite capable of expressing it. That is why revelations can be very different. How they are stated, how they are produced through speech, can be infinitely variable.
So Buddhists' revelations sound very Buddhist and Christians' revelations sound very Christian, and that's fair enough. There's nothing wrong with that. But we need to recognise the limitation of the convention of language. We need to understand that lan guage is not ultimately true or ultimately real; it is the attempt to communicate the ineffable reality to someone else. It's interesting to see the number of people who now seek a religious goal. A country like England is predominantly Christian but now has many religions. There are many inter-faith meetings and attempts within this country to try and understand each others' religions. We can stay at a simple level and just know that the Muslims believe in Allah and the Christians believe in Christ and the Buddhists believe in Buddha. But what I'm interested in is getting beyond the conventions to a true understanding, to that profound understanding of Truth. This is a Buddhist way of speaking.
We have now, in a country like England, an opportunity to work toward a common truth among all religions, because we can all begin to help each other. It's no longer a time when converting people or trying to compete with each other seems to be of any us e or value. Rather than the attempt to convert others, religion is the opportunity to awaken to our true nature, to true freedom, to love and compassion. It's a way of living in full sensitivity, with full receptivity, so we can take delight and open ours elves to the mystery and wonder of the universe.
Venerable Ajahn Sumedho
Source: Forest Sangha Newsletter, http://www.abm.ndirect.co.uk/fsn/
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