WHO IS A BUDDHIST? – NON-PERCEPTION OF SELF-DECEPTION
© Godwin Wijesinghe
Eight years ago, after I accepted the Teaching of the Buddha, I would have preferred to not refer to it as Buddhism. But I have realized that this term has become engraved in the minds of people for so long that there is no possibility of changing that now.
Perhaps, the sound of ‘Buddhasasana’, which was a word used in the early spread of the Teaching, might have been difficult to wrap around the tongue of some western people when they encountered it. So, the name of its teacher became associated with this Teaching in the mistaken western understanding that it was a philosophy. Today, it is commonly referred to as Buddhism and its adherents as Buddhists.
The Buddha referred to his Teaching as Dhamma-Vinaya. This provided an appropriate description of its knowledge, insight, and wisdom, which is Dhamma; and Vinaya, which referred to the training and discipline required to realize it.
If one is not born a Buddhist how do you become so? To be born a Buddhist is to be born to parents who are practicing Buddhists. But, here is a problem of definition. Is Buddhism a religion? To the Buddhist, if asked: “What is your religion”, the right answer should be “none”. But that will be like marking a census questionnaire confronted with multiple answers. How then can the rituals practiced by many Buddhists, which may vary depending on their differing practices, and seem religious, be explained?
So, what is my belief? What is the Buddhist belief? The word belief might need to be modified by reference to the need to ‘come and see’, ehi-passika, which is for the destruction of defilement for one who knows and sees. Or, “when you yourself know”.
The description of a Buddhist monk or bhikkhu is relevant here. These monks are not like the officiating priests in other religions. To be accepted into the order, he has to follow a code of rigorous training rules. Buddhist monks give up all the pleasures of ‘householder life’ and have to become ‘homeless’ and ‘alms seekers’. They have become monks so “they may make an end of suffering”, as Buddha invited them to so. Their conduct has to be exemplary. They are expected to serve both, the interests of new adherents to their community, Sangha, and also the laity. But unlike for these monks living in a community of monks, there are no rigid rules for the lay followers of the Teaching of the Buddha.
Because anyone can acquire a knowledge of Buddhism, what is it that happens when one becomes a Buddhist? Does one have a sudden awakening or does it happen gradually? I think the answer lies in how one acts upon acquiring the knowledge and how this causes a change in the life of the person concerned. In my case, when I first became aware of this Teaching, it astonished me that I experienced its impact immediately. It influenced me right away. Naturally, this made me learn more about it and my understanding increased.
Initially, my knowledge of Christianity and my practice as an Anglican, for 65 years, became the counterpoint for a comparison with Buddhism.
Early in life, my mother, who was a devout Christian throughout her life, had encouraged me to adopt a rather simple code. This code was based on three things in life. First, she said, comes God; secondly, others; and I came last. But, I have not always been able to live in the strict observance of this hierarchy suggested by my mother.
Tied into my early upbringing, I had a deep connection with Christianity and a sense of the spirituality that I thought was its result. I had the kind of thinking and feeling that my ‘inward life’ contained the existence and possible attainment of purity in God. Such purity might be likened to what Henry D.Thoreau says in ‘Letters to a Spiritual Seeker’: “In the religion of all nations a purity is hinted at, which I fear, men never attain to”.
But if Buddhism is assumed to be tied into a spiritual and religious nature in us, then Buddhism is nothing like that. Although the practices of the Buddhists in various parts of the world may give one the idea that Buddhism is no different from any other religion, because there are symbolic rituals and other rites, yet, Buddhism should not be defined in this manner. Nor is there a direct connection to those outside the fold of accepted religions, such as ‘new age spiritual movements’, including those who follow ideals of ‘individual freedom’.
Rather than describing our complicated modern life it may be easier to define how life is defined in Buddhism. The bare truth of our lives is essentially what Buddhism is. Such a comparison will be helped if one were able, for this purpose, to set aside one’s view of the world and all its accoutrements of life. Such a delineation will also help us de-link an understanding of Buddhism from ethical concepts and such conflicts as are popular in our culture, especially those in our political sphere. Looked at critically in this manner, surprisingly, Buddhism is as applicable today as it was 2500 years ago.
Many Suttas, which are the ancient documentation of the Teaching of the Buddha, have referred to several persons embracing Buddhism immediately upon hearing it. The culture and civilization of the people of the time may have helped in this happening. But this may not happen now because, although our actual physical life form has not changed during the last 2500 years of Buddhism, our entrenched ways of living have changed rather dramatically – we are now so highly sophisticated.
Also, we are now lulled into an illusive idea of happiness entrenched as we are in our thinking that our advanced and growing technology will help us control every aspect of our lives. And, the misreading of the level of our busy-ness in our everyday lives may be subverting our sense of meaning in our lives. In a world such as this it is therefore not easy to make sense of Buddhism.
But for Buddhism, as its ultimate goal is ‘seeing things as they are’, it should not be difficult to make the connection between Buddhism and what might be, as mentioned earlier, be the bare truth of our lives. Yet, right view as explained by Buddha may not be easy to accept in the context of what we already have taken as reality.
Buddhism arose in India where spiritual and religious thinking was commonplace as it is even now. According to accounts of the early life of Buddha, initially, he was interested in finding out the cause of human misery – its suffering, illness, old age, and death. The masters of theology, philosophy and thinkers of his time, under whose instruction he studied, were not able to provide answers for the questions he sought. He later underwent the rigors of an ascetic life with serious deprivation and austerity hoping that such actions would provide the answers he sought. But abandoning such practices, he finally, on his own, arrived at what is referred to as his Enlightenment.
Buddhist belief is based on Teaching of the Buddha following his Enlightenment. The question of self is fundamental to this Teaching. In India in early times, as elsewhere in the world, this question became wrapped up in the metaphysical concepts of the soul in whichever way it was defined earlier. But according to Buddha, everything we think and do is based on a false perception of self and therefore a misunderstanding of this idea of our self, an ever-changing composite of aggregates.
Buddha, in his Teaching has described in detail the structure of this self to enable us to see this phenomenon as it really is. Such acceptance of this understanding of self is central to Buddhism. It is essential to the realization of the Noble Path that Buddha showed is the way to perfection as human beings, which unlike others, he has said, is achievable in our own lives.
This analysis of self lays down the basic elements of life, its form, perceptions, feelings, its mental formations, and consciousness. All these elements the Buddha has said, are impermanent. The understanding of the impermanence of these constituents is critical in determining the nature of our self. A lack of right understanding is what leads us to a basic conceit or delusion about our self.
With impermanence as its core value, Buddha asks of our elements, “is what is impermanent, suffering, and subject to change, fit to be regarded thus: ‘ This is mine, this am I, this is my self?’ “.
Without such understanding we seem unable to let go of perpetuating the perception of our self, even into the realms of immortality itself. This is our self deception. But in the midst of our daily mundane experiences, it seems easy to imagine the possibility of some other, even mystical, state. This is what Buddhist belief would avoid. Such self-perception is the prelude to detachment.
In the Madhupindika Sutta, a description of our goal as a Buddhist may be found if we study the reply of Buddha to the query, “what is your doctrine”. Buddha replies that:
This is a confirmation, if any is required, of the unique features of the Teaching. Bias that underlie sense perceptions are extinct as the Buddha is concerned, and he has no conflict with anyone who may have dogmatic theories or concepts.
There is a connection and relationship between our craving and conceit with the non-perception of this delusion of self. This, Buddha said, is our misconception regarding existence. To Kaccayana, Buddha explained it this way: “Now, Kaccayana, to one who with right wisdom sees the arising of the world as it is, the view of non-existence regarding the world does not occur. And to one who with right wisdom sees the cessation of the world as it really is, the view of existence regarding the world does not occur.” By rejecting both extremes, Buddha leads us to a knowledge without concepts by which the world identifies itself. This is detachment without grasping or clinging to any position and avoids substituting one wrong view with another. One then has no views because he no longer has to contend with ‘ I ‘ and ‘mine’.
This is a basic belief of Buddhists in what Buddha says, that what arises is just suffering and what ceases is just suffering. “The world, Kaccayana, for the most part, is given to approaching, grasping, entering into and getting entangled as regards views. Whoever does not approach, grasp, and take his stand upon that proclivity towards approaching and grasping, that mental standpoint, namely the idea, ‘this is my soul’, he knows that what arises is just suffering and what ceases is just suffering. Thus, he is not in doubt, is not perplexed, and herein he has knowledge that he is not dependent on another. Thus far, Kaccayana, he has right view.”
This is the Buddhist belief that all things are not-self, sabbe dhamma anatta. This avoids any delusion in the idea or conditions of self as a belief.
Suffering, dukkha, its arising, its cause, and its cessation, need then to be addressed. The First Noble Truth of suffering is all inclusive. Birth is dukkha; death is dukkha. Sorrow, pain, and despair are all dukkha. In terms of this Teaching, all our experiences are dukkha. It is aptly described in the expression, sabbe sankhara dukkha, namely, that all conditions are suffering. It means that any analysis of dukkha will result in coming back to dukkha yet again. It has to be seen ‘in the nature of things’, that it is not-self – not, seen as a thing – ‘this, my self’; ‘this is mine’.
Another way to understand this is to refer to the analysis by Buddha of impermanence through his explanation of our delusion. The recognition that all conditions are impermanent, referred to sabbe sankhara anicca, leads to a fundamental belief of Buddhists that the root cause of dukkha is craving which results from attachment, upadana. Detachment that comes from right view is what will result in the renunciation or cessation of dukkha. Flowing from such detachment is liberation, nibbana.
This is the Teaching – an understanding of our lives and the cessation of this suffering. It is “within this fathom-long body…the path leading to the cessation of the world”.
For all adherents (Buddhists) to have knowledge of the Path he had realized, Buddha suggested his way be only used as a Teaching. As Buddha said, it should be used as “a raft for crossing over” and not for carrying it on one’s shoulder when it has served its purpose. That is where all delusion stops, when there is realization.
But how may perplexity end? How else but in one’s mind? The examination of consciousness or the mind’s awareness of itself is what Buddhists hold, as Buddha explained, that this mind is the forerunner of all states both, good and evil.
When one considers the exhortation by Buddha that one should dwell in the mental states of goodwill, free from hate, metta, compassion, karuna, joy in the success of another, muditha, and equanimity, upekha, it follows that a Buddhist would reference this to what Buddha has said: “monks, by defilement of the mind are beings defiled. By purification of the mind are beings purified”. Purity and impurity depend on oneself.
The purity of the mind that Buddha wished his followers to realize is clear from his statement that, “even if bandits brutally severed him limb from limb with a two-handled saw, he who entertained hate in his heart on that account would not be one who followed my Teaching”. Buddhists who follow this Teaching would understand that a noble disciple, an arahant, should not experience mental pain if bandits were to cause harm in the manner described.
As the Buddha has explained:
“This mind, monks, is luminous, but it is defiled by extraneous defilements. That, the uninstructed ordinary man does not understand as it is. Therefore, there is no mind development for the ordinary man, I declare. This mind is luminous, but it is released from extraneous defilements. That, the instructed noble disciple understands as it is. Therefore, there is mind development for the instructed noble disciple, I declare.”
The arahants understood that all assets in the world are empty, and that it is only by the conceit of ‘am’ that the world is measured. The training suggested by Buddha would enable one to “construct a staircase to mount up into the upper storey of a palace, at the foot of the palace itself… here is the very palace itself!”