|Paris, March 2016|
The main reason I signed up for the four-week course is because the good friend I wrote about a few weeks ago has been a Buddhist for more than 20 years. He hasn't had anything that resembles a traditional job (with hours of work and a wage) for quite a long time, and has spent a total of about two years on and off at a 'retreat' in Spain. I have struggled to come to terms with this lifestyle (not that it's any of my business), and concluded that the answer must lie within Buddhism. So I want to know more about Buddhism, and the course takes place very conveniently about 2 miles from my home.
Each session starts with a short meditation focusing on the physical body, then a bit of chat about what we'll talk about later, then a longer (different) meditation, then a tea break. I like the tea break. Then there's a bit about Buddhism and its practice and another meditation session to end.
I don't mind meditation - sitting quiet and still is rather nice, but my mind dances off all the time and I have to put some effort into bringing it back. The leader describes this as 'flapping like a fish out of water', and this is indeed how it feels. The bit about Buddhism is sometimes done in small groups, which I prefer to discussions with the whole room, and has given me the chance to clarify a few things.
Obviously after just four sessions I'm only scratching the surface, but the main messages I've taken away are:
- Buddhism is not a theist religion. The Buddha is not a god or a prophet, but a man who came up with some good ideas that made him into a rather special person. By emulating his methods, a person should be able to reach their fullest potential. The word 'enlightenment' was used along with lots of other words that are difficult to pin down (I have to let most of the words go past otherwise I'd be challenging something every two minutes). You can be an atheist Buddhist, in fact if you commit yourself to Buddhism it would be difficult not to be atheist. I have no problem with this, I like a religion that doesn't believe in gods.
- The principles of Buddhism as I understand them so far (after a whole eight hours of learning, six hours of which were silent meditation) are about contributing the most possible to oneself, one's community and society, and I suppose the wider world as well. Although the group leader deliberately avoided labelling principles or actions as good' or 'bad', in lay terms it's about being a 'good' person both in isolation and in interactions with others. The group leader described being able to do anything that you want to do - there are no specific rules - but understanding that your deeds have consequences and you must take responsibility for them. I have no problem with this either, I have long been reflecting on my personality and actions, committing to change for the better, and trying to fulfil my potential.
What I've been trying to elicit, therefore, is what the role of Buddhism is exactly. I'm happy not to believe in God, prepared to believe that Buddha was a good sort with some useful ideas, and that not hurting yourself or others is a sensible course in life. Anyone can do meditation, and behave in the best way they can, and try to be a vegan, and live the best life possible for themselves and others without being a Buddhist. Why do we need Buddhism?
I think the answer is the same for Buddhism as I have decided it is for other religions - probably all religions, although I only have personal experience of a couple. Here's the answer in brief: it's much harder to be a good person on your own. If you can adopt a set of pre-prepared guidelines alongside others who are happy with the same guidelines, you get loads of help from a ready-made extended family when life is difficult, which it often is. You get some answers to difficult questions (why is there cruelty in the world? what is consciousness? what happens after we die?) and if it's a religion that's worth anything there will be someone prepared to look after you when you are ill, disabled or old if you don't happen to have taken precautions by having children and bringing them up properly.
Many people deal with the difficult questions by using words like 'spirituality', and many religions expect you to accept as truth their theories about unprovable concepts (gods, angels, miracles, what happens after death). I don't have a spiritual atom in any of the molecules that comprise my corporeal body. I am made of physics, which results in chemistry, which leads to biology. I know there are many things we do not yet know (what is consciousness?) and many things we cannot know (what happens after we die?) and I'm happy to agree that there is probably more to life than we can know or touch. What I'm not prepared to believe is that anyone else knows the answers, so unfortunately most religions won't work for me.
I know that many people take comfort in the notion that someone or something they believe in is looking out for them - I am lucky enough not to need this notion, given that I don't believe there is anything out there. Buddhism seems to take a more practical line, that the people looking out for you are those around you within your own community. So that's good.
The two types of meditation we learned were mindfulness of breathing, which involves trying to focus on your breathing and determinedly bringing your attention back when it inevitably wanders, and 'metta bhavana' which is about fostering a positive attitude towards yourself and others. I've been more or less successful at doing these within the sessions and a few times at home, and I like the approach. The leaders of the group declare that there is some sort of emotional or spiritual benefit that emerges from successful meditation, but I can't say I've experienced much, although perhaps I managed a little glimpse of something on one occasion before my mind sped off down the road and I had to catch it up and drag it back to the matter in hand.
The group continues to meet on a Tuesday night and all are welcome; I don't know whether I'll be joining them or not. I like the meditation but I'm much less keen on the Buddhism, because despite being sympathetic to the concepts expounded so far I still find it a bit too much like organised religion. There are bits that have been hinted at but not discussed, including a brief reference to 'puja' which is a bit like worship although it might be more like paying your respects. I am being fairly vague about my intentions because I thought after I'd run 5km, and then 10km, that I'd stop running, but I'm still doing it and even enjoying it. So it might be the same with Buddhism. I'll keep you posted.