Baloney Buddhism

Man, if I had a dollar for every time somebody’s said to me that “you have to be an intellectual to get Buddhism,” I’d have enough for a case of beer. I laugh in their face and point to myself — do I look like an intellectual to you? I used to be a farm hand, and broke my back doing 60-pound pours of corrosive resistant plastic at 550 degrees when I was a United Steelworker. The work was so hard and dangerous I joined the Marines to get away from it.

Fact is, it’s intellectualism that makes American institutional Buddhism the joke that it is. Overshadowed as it is with expensive Vajrayana temples situated in suburbs, “The Great White Sangha” is put to shame for its lack of social engagement by even the most podunk Baptist church. The Tibetans espouse pacifism, charge membership fees to belong to their temples, and pray to deities. None of that crap is Buddhism. If you like religious processions and guys parading around in funny hats, you can get that at the Episcopal cathedral, and you don’t have to sit on the floor.

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Studying Theravada at the feet of the masters, literally the feet of the masters, in Sri Lanka, I would not have even had to know how to read to gain the appreciation of dhamma that now drives my life. I’ve known my share of rice farmers and household servants and elephants mahouts who were lay masters themselves.

Even though I am a working writer, when I read almost any book about Buddhism I feel like a functional illiterate. Maybe I am. I probably own 25 different books about Buddhism, but the only two I’ve finished reading have been Walpola Rahula’s What the Buddha Taught and Karen Armstrong’s Buddha: A Biography. All the others have bookmarks in them. The closer the bookmark is to the front cover, the more stultifying I found the book. B-O-R-I-N-G.

You don’t learn Buddhism from reading about it. You learn Buddhism by living it.

Fact is, Mahayana Buddhism is based on a lie. Those who ascribe the Sutras to documents the Buddha himself dictated late in life to more “intelligent” (that is, Chinese) people, because the primitives who made up the early (Indian) Sangha weren’t sophisticated enough, i.e., too stupid, to appreciate them, believe in a lie. Buddha didn’t establish Mahayana Buddhism, but tyranny did.

Fuck you. Call me a Hinayana and I’ll grab your nipple and twist it real hard.

When the Buddhist missionaries spread the dhamma to much of the rest of Asia, they weren’t selling Buddhism to the masses, it was pitched to the nobility and bureaucrats. Many of the Sutras were written (and mythologized) to support the elites against the masses. Otherwise, where would “Pure Land” Buddhism have come from, a “heaven” promised to the suffering peasants much like the same malarky sold to European peasantry by the Church in the Middle Ages? Sutras supporting vegetarianism were written so elites could hoard animal protein.

The Sutras is the territory of the Buddhist intelligensia. By comparison the Pali suttas are easy to understand. The Buddha spoke in nouns and verbs, causes and effects. Sutra-fying seems to have reached its apotheosis in certain forms of Japanese Buddhism. The Sokka Gakai say that all you need to do is to repeat the chant “nam-myoho-renge-kyo” a bazillion times and good things will happen to you, like job promotions and finding true love. Sokka Gakai is based on the “Lotus” Sutra, in which the Buddha supposedly denied everything he’d been teaching for 40 years so some Tokyo housewife’s husband will pay more attention to her.

Why obfuscate simple truths? So you can make a congregation dependent upon the clergy to interpret it. Modern Buddhism doesn’t need monks or gurus. Keep it simple, stupid. You start with studying the Eightfold Path. Google and read. If it doesn’t make sense, then it’s bad intel. Start with Buddhism for Dudes: A Jarhead’s Field Guide to Mindfulness. If you can’t understand that book, you’re hopeless.

You know what drives these points home to me: the “After-Buddhists.” Two writers in this arena are Stephen Batchelor, one of the biggest names in Buddhist publishing, and Canada’s Stephen Schettini. Both of them went to India for years and years to become Tibetan monks and hang out in Dharmasala, where the Dalai Lama lives. During their tenures, they took vacations to Sri Lanka and sat with the Theravada monks. They then quit Dharmasala and took much more secular paths, and of course are atheists now. Like Buddhists are supposed to be.

And of course there are the various schools of Zen Buddhism, something I studied for four years with a Vietnamese monk. Zennies are cool, generally not nearly so institutional as the Dalai Lama set. Useful in bar fights, since a lot of them are also martial arts people.

I get along fine with Zennies, but I don’t read that stuff, either. They make their literature confusing on purpose.

We’re facing a tough century, and it seems that the forces of chaos, delusion, consumerism, capitalism, violence and demagoguery are the things we will all have to contend with. Buddhism, in its purest form, has the answers to the world’s problems, but the forces of ignorance and hate are momentous. America’s Buddhists could become a force for good, but hardly so when the richest and most powerful of them would rather pay homage to monks dead 700 years than hold a goddamn bake sale, organize a mission trip, or man a picket line.

Without social engagement, Buddhism is just so much mumbo-jumbo – authentic mumbo-jumbo, if you try to keep up with Tibetan chants. If you are a Buddhist, then you have duties you share with other Buddhists toward the alleviation of suffering in the world. People who take this seriously (especially if they meditate on the good they do), are more contented with their lives than people who are ignorant of this wellspring of happiness. This is a universal truth found in all religious doctrines and codes of ethics.

Do something that the world will benefit from, the people, or the environment. Planting a tree kills two birds with one stone. You’re not called upon to eradicate malaria, just checking on the old woman who lives in 34B is plenty. If you are a care-giver, and so many of us are, the child you picked up bleeding out of the mud on the soccer field, or the widowed parent you’ve brought into your home, bring merit to your life because you’re doing the right thing.

If you’re using Buddhism as an excuse to hang out with the Geshe and hide from the world, to avoid conflict because you’re “pacifist,” then you’re not fulfilling your obligations as a Buddhist. Then you’re a bad Buddhist. Or a coward.

If you hate people, go volunteer at the animal shelter.

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Soon will come the call for Ogichida, for tough guys to be diligent to protect helpless others from harm in these most precarious times

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The Tattooed Buddha

Blogger’s note: the following is the foreword I wrote to an anthology about parenting presently being assembled by the editor of the website The Tattooed Buddha, for whom I frequently write since they were kind enough to give me a column. You should check it out. http://www.thetattooedbuddha.com

In a little corner of the Buddho-sphere is a website not like any other. Inhabited by renegades from many menial, everyday walks of life, The Tattooed Buddha has become a home for writers caught up in lives centered by Dharma and Yoga and dealing with vicissitudes as different as competitive weight lifting to changing diapers and wiping snotty noses.

Avoiding for the most part the academic bent of so many Buddhist websites, TTB writers instead interpret the meaning of Dharma through their own experiences. Secular Buddhists, mystical Buddhists, anti-establishment Buddhists, and plenty of non-Buddhists and Yogans contribute to The Tattooed Buddha every week. It is a place for new writers to flex their muscles, and more established writers to let their hair down and write from the heart.

This fascinating anthology of parenting stories collected from The Tattooed Buddha would probably shock the helicopter-parenting crowd; no children were harmed during the writing of these stories because none of these parents think it is important for their children to go to expensive private schools. Parenting mistakes are admitted to, lessons learned. Life is messy, and a lot of TTB writers have messier than usual lives. Lots of single parents represented here, including single dads, and moms who have had to endure the loss of a child.

Author Krissy Pozatek states succinctly what TTB parenting is all about.

“A new goal that parents can aspire toward is not for their children to be happy,

but instead to be emotionally healthy.”

My parenting days are long over; I’ve settled into the distinct pleasure of being grandfather to three little girls, who all call me “Grumpy.” However, for the most part the writers of these essays are still active parents, and their wisdom has an immediacy to it. The title of Dana Gornall’s essays says it well: The Middle Way Between Free Range and Neurotic.

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This is me as a Simpson Buddha

Each story is quite different from the next, reflecting not only the differences in the perspectives of the women and men who wrote them, but also the differences in the children themselves.

But the wisdom contained in the anthology reflects its roots in the knowledge of the path to enlightenment, so, even if poop is seeping out the leg hole of the baby’s diapers and onto the dog, “skillful” parents can remind themselves of the Buddhist goal of equanimity, of evenness of temperament, you know, before hitting the wine box and taking both the dog and the baby into the back yard so they can be hosed down at the same time.

I think a true measure of parents is the uninhibited ease with which they can laugh with their children. And since I am significantly older than most of the essayists in this collection, let me tell you that it is just as satisfying to laugh out loud with your children when they’re middle aged as when they’re young.

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Strib’s Recipe for Sufferin’ Jarhead Punch

Oh God, it’s that time of year again. I am a notorious holiday basher.

I’m not sure why. I just don’t like this time of year. I like parties, and family get-togethers, the good will, the commercials, the decorations… the greed. Not the greed of nice people, except for greedy children who expect $400 toys every year. I have three little granddaughters, and it is always so much fun to watch them delight in Disney action figures, and anything with Minions on it.

I’ve been studying Minions for quite awhile, as my oldest granddaughter and I watch Despicable Me 2 almost every time we get together. Their language, if you listen closely, sounds like a combination of Russian and Italian. The big ice cream social (gelato!) they had while Gru was away, the singing and stamping and waving of tankards full of hot fudge sundaes, was obviously inspired by Verdi and Puccini operas.

It’s corporate greed, the Black Friday mentality, that gets me. The expectation of mass consumerism, kids going spastic when they score the game system they wanted. The worst are those awful Lexus commercials, and Kay Jewelry commercials. I’d like to find the guy that wrote the Lexus Christmas jingle… and tell him how irritating it is. Thank God for the mute button. I perfected its use during the recent elections.

But the worst part of suffering the holiday season is that I get my annual six weeks of writer’s block. I’ve come to expect it, and this year I’m just going to surrender to it, and do anything but write.

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Makes a great stocking stuffer

Buddhists like Christmas. I know Chinese Buddhists who live in Indonesia who celebrate Christmas with huge dinner parties and gift-giving. Buddhists don’t have a Christmas-type, Hanukkah-type holiday. But many have been happy to appropriate the American Christian celebration, right down to the baby Jesus.

Many Buddhist monks count Jesus as one of their own. His father was an Essene, a mystical branch of Judaism not nearly so powerful as the Pharisees and the Sadducees, and it is believed that the Essenes had contact with Buddhist missionaries out of northern India. Some of them say that the Three Wise Men were Buddhist monks. It is believed that Jesus was whisked away by the Buddhists at the age of 13, and studied with them and taught until he returned to Palestine to begin his ministry at the age of 30. That might have been a tactical error on his part.

And on the third day he arose, looking like crap, bleary-eyed and bloody. He poured a cup of coffee with shaking hands and said “God, I feel like I’ve been dead for three days.”*

And so he returned to Kashmir to live out his days far away from the Roman Empire, and is buried there in Esa’s Tomb. His corpse was laid out in a north-south orientation, and later a Muslim holy man was buried in the ground above Esa, but was oriented east-west. Both of their souls went to heaven and get to sit really near God whenever there is a banquet.

I can’t prove the last point, but there is ample evidence in various historical records that Jesus spent his missing years under the sponsorship of Buddhist monks, and he remained Buddhist for the rest of his life.

Christmas was never that big a deal when I was a kid. My parents never went to church. And we were pretty poor, a family of four who lived on the salary of an Army staff sergeant. Gifts were purchased at the PX. We lived in a huge apartment compound in Munich, walled like a Polish ghetto, where only the families of American soldiers lived.

Back in the day 6th graders didn’t have girlfriends, but there was a girl I liked to hang around with because she was an only child, and back in her room it was really quiet. Her name was Johnson, a tall, big-boned blonde who could kick home runs in kickball games. We played Parcheesi and worked on homework, listened to records, and talked a little, not much, not anything like the soul-searing conversations with idiots at Scout camp.

So in the winter of 1962 I bought her a Christmas present for 65 cents. It was a 45 RPM record of an obscure band we listened to out of Radio Luxembourg called the Beatles. “Good Golly Miss Molly” was on one side of the record. I can’t remember what was on the other side. She thanked me and gave me a hug. People didn’t hug in 1962, especially sixth graders. It was a short hug, but substantial—Johnson was the strongest girl in Mister Franzen’s class.

I have survived more than 60 Christmases, but one that really stands out is the one with the hug.

Back in 1971, even though I was only a PFC, my unit commander made me stand duty watch on Christmas day, because I wasn’t a Christian. Usually you had to be an NCO to stand Duty NCO, but for 24 hours I was the commander of a totally empty World War II-era wooden barracks. “The Duty” was mostly a firewatch thing. I was delighted to be alone for once, but later a married colleague and his wife brought me a home-cooked chicken dinner. That’s the only Christmas dinner that stands out in my mind. Every Christmas dinner from there on was at my mother-in-law’s. I think she switched from turkey to ham for Christmas dinner because I’m Jewish. I’m sick to death of it and would like sometime to make Christmas dinner myself. But she’s 91 and still bowls, drives, and does volunteer work.

By God, I want spaghetti for Christmas. And Italian cream cake. And a huge green salad. And Chianti.

I like the idea of a destination Christmas, but the destination has always been the suburbs of Louisville, Kentucky. I like the tropics, but my recently-retired and postmenopausal wife is not a fan of hot weather. I am, because I lived in the tropics for six months, and ever since, I’ve been cold. Freezing! Once I was a winter backpacker and cross-country skier. I scoffed at the cold. We’re talking Minnesota here, baby, not Ohio.

It is a good time to canoe in the Everglades, my daughter and I once found out. No mosquitoes. No gators. And no Burmese pythons. You say inhospitable, I say hospitable. In the day I used to be able to get away and go backpacking for a few days to clear my head during the holidays.

During cold weather I liked to hike and camp in the land that’s on the surface of Mammoth Cave National Park. It was OK in late fall and early spring, but way too ticky for summer hiking. So when I packed there in winter, I had 10,000 acres pretty much all to myself. I was back there with my son once, and a raccoon snatched the stocking cap right off his head one night when we were sleeping.

I have nice kids, and I think one of the reasons they’re both so successful (in the arts!) is because of the peril I put them through when they were little. Sometimes I took them places where a broken boot lace was as bad as a broken ankle.

If you want to make a really yummy, goes down too fast, majorly alcoholic holiday punch, combine one parts each of cheap pineapple, coconut and passionfruit rum to 1 1/2 – 2 parts grapefruit juice (this cuts through the sweetness, so add to taste). I invented it myself. It’s called a Suffering Jarhead. If you can’t find passionfruit rum, mango will do, but it’s better with passionfruit. If they’d have had fruit-flavored rum back in the Sixties, a lot more hippie chicks would have gotten knocked up.

I like hugs. The best ones are from women. But Marines hug a lot, too. I’ve been hugged by total strangers who were Marines. In Chicago recently I met a Buddho-Marine hero of mine, Frank Valdez, a former Force Recon scuba diver and Vietnam vet. He’s 70 years old, has his own business, and still dives commercially. He’s very fit and strong. Memorable hug.

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Like a number of “Special Forces” guys I know, he’s bellicose, belligerent, curses like a Marine, and he never shuts up. He’s just like me, only a lot more so. I love him.

I hate Christmas. After Halloween it just all goes downhill. I’ll have to go to the mall sometime in December and walk around stoned to get into the Christmas spirit. I buy presents on Amazon (I only have one person to buy for), but I’ll stop by Yankee Candle for some Midnight Jasmine votives. I love the smell of jasmine. It reminds me of home, uh, er, Sri Lanka.

And Yankee Candle has a veteran’s discount!

Merry frickin, dadgum Christmas.

*Credit goes to an unpublished Gary Larssen cartoon.

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My Enormous Ego

Egolessness is thought by many to be an objective of following Buddhist wisdom. Nothing could be further from the truth.

First off, the concept of “ego” was invented in the late 19th Century by Sigmund Freud, to label the sub-conscious sense of a person’s sense of self, or self-esteem. Ego is not an attribute, like humility, it is a thing that may or my not exist depending on which theories of psychology you subscribe to. Modern usage, of course, walks all over Freudian theory and uses “ego” with a negative connotation, like ego is a bad thing.

In the incorrect-usage sense, I have an enormous ego, which means that I have high self-esteem, and I don’t exactly hide it under a bushel. I am not a humble man. I’ve led a life rich with opportunity for accomplishment, and I have tried to take advantage of those opportunities. And all those opportunities were about doing what I love. I have never made more than $30,000 a year, but in a long career in human services I’ve helped hundreds of needful people improve their lives and circumstances. If that’s bragging, then I’m bragging. I’m not going to scrape the soles of my shoes on the floor and pretend “Aw, shucks, it wasn’t nothing.” It was hard work, and for 20 years I was the best case manager in Kentucky.

Which makes me a self-righteous son of a bitch, too.

I know how to help people build their lives. And I trained a lot of social workers along the way. Be pretty stupid to be humble about what I do and how I do it and not allow others to benefit from my experience, wouldn’t it?

I’m not going to fake anything. I have a best-selling book on the market. I am sincerely proud of myself, and even more proud of the impact my book has had on the lives of the people who’ve read it, people I don’t know, who write me all the time to tell me how much good my book did them. Apparently, for some people, it’s Prozac.

You wouldn’t believe half the shit I’ve done. It’s all about living life, baby.

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The Buddhists have a word, atta, which literally means “self,” and its opposite anatta, literally “no-self.” So, for those who casually run cross these concepts, and everybody else who just doesn’t get it, being a Buddhist is supposed to be about being meek, living small, avoiding conflict, living a contemplative, quiet existence. And humility. Most of all, be humble.

That’s not what anatta means. Anatta stretches into a realm I’m not very comfortable entering: metaphysics. But to understand anatta you have to look at it metaphysically.

Forget all the being-and-nothingness horse-shit espoused by gurus who have nothing better to do than to twist perfectly sound principles into drivel. The world exists. You exist. Your self, your atta, exists. Have you ever been shot at? Life is no delusion. Your sense of self, your self-esteem, you, all that is real. And it is not your job to extinguish your atta. Life will do that for you.

When Gautama Siddhartha became enlightened after meditating under the bodhi tree, he’d been chasing after spiritual butterflies, and doing really stupid things to himself, for six years, but he was never satisfied with the answers he came across.

Why? Because the standard religions of the time and the alternatives investigated by ascetics, and all the other religions since that time, except for Buddhism, was based on the survival of atta, of ego, of self. Souls, if you will, that move on to heaven or hell or rebirth or reincarnation. Or whatever.

The Buddha trashed that idea. Maybe something persists after death, and maybe it doesn’t, but whatever the answer to that question is, you’re not involved. Everything that can be associated with you dies when you die. You, Susan Mulligatawny, will one day come to an end. Whatever energy force that might leave you to inhabit another living thing, that’s not you. That’s not even vaguely you.

That’s what the “self” thing is all about, it has no bearing on whether you’re Mother Teresa or Bette Midler in this life.

Now there’s a big difference between a fathead like Donald Trump and a decent Buddhist man with an enormous ego like me. My sense of accomplishment comes from only one source, helping others. When my clients accomplished, I accomplished. I conquered aversion to enable myself to love some pretty unlovable people. I never felt better than when I was getting shit caked up to my elbows from reaching into the gutter to try to pull someone out.

And I was pretty good at it. I sublimated my atta to the needs of needful others, so that I could let my ego run free.

Don’t knock egos! If you have low esteem, it is because it’s delusional to discount your value as a human being. It’s not natural to do anything but love yourself. Don’t worry. Every once in awhile you get it right.

Just don’t be a fathead. Get some shit on your hands every once in a while.

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Tactical Buddhism: An Introduction

What follows is the introduction to my next book Tactical Buddhism: A Jarhead’s Field Guide to the Eightfold Path

My heart’s deliverance is unassailable. Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha

When I was nineteen and about to ship out for Marine basic training at the infamous Parris Island, South Carolina, Recruit Depot, I serendipitously ran into an old friend of my father’s who’d been a Marine during the Korean War.

I am not, nor was I ever, Marine material, though I actually ended up becoming a Marine. To give you an idea, in high school my 11th grade English teacher Miss Jasper Schlinker, a jasper if ever I met one, could never remember my name, and often referred to me as “The short little fat kid with the long black hair.”

A hopeless romantic, I had long surrendered any hope, and enlisted for an opportunity to be riddled with bullets and ground into dust. Then along came my father’s friend, Joe Encarnacao. I asked him a simple question: what advice do you have for me to get through boot camp? He thought a moment, and then said this:

“Two things. Number one, don’t offer up an excuse for anything, and number two, no matter what they do to you, they ain’t allowed to kill you.”

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That’s me on the right

The implication of those words stayed with me all my life, and guided me through several careers. Be an honest man, those words said. Be a mensch and take the blame, even if it didn’t belong to me. Above all, do the right thing, and suffer the consequences, over which I had no control.

I would petition for those two principles to be included as addendi to the Buddha’s central tenets and make them “The Noble Ten-fold Path.” But come to find out, they’re covered in the original eight.

The wisdom of the Buddha, his gift to us, could be looked at as a “how-to manual” for living a life that frees people from suffering. It doesn’t promise happiness, although that certainly can be a byproduct of following the “Eightfold Path”. It rather promises “the cessation of suffering.”

Fear is suffering. Does following the Path free you from fear? Yes, eventually, it does. Does that mean you won’t pee your pants and run off screaming like a little girl if you find a rattlesnake in your toilet? Probably not.

Buddhist knowledge offers the tools necessary to stop suffering and defeat fear, and it’s easy to be happy when you are not suffering and worrying about everything. The tools are surprisingly mundane and easy to understand, though the practice of them both requires, and develops, mental discipline. Once you’ve got the nomenclature, and maybe a few examples of their application in other people’s lives (stories!), you will begin to see how these things apply to your life. When that happens, your life begins to change. You can’t delete knowledge. When you begin to see the verification of this knowledge through your own personal experience, you will be drawn to learn and experience more. You don’t experience enlightenment, you sneak up on it.

Throughout this book the “Jarhead Strib” conventions used in my first book will be adhered to, i.e., economy and simplicity of language and most of the yucks stem from the illusion that I am writing primarily for men who’d much rather watch the NFL than read a book. Hell, I’d much rather watch the NFL than read a book. Most books about Buddhism are deathly boring anyway. I have a whole shelf of them. You can tell how boring they are from where the bookmarks are placed, as I have never finished any of them.

Buddhism progresses toward the secular, so you will also find no reference to divinity or metaphysics like karma and rebirth, or spooks or goblins or psychics (unless I’m mocking them), since I can only write about what I have actually experienced. You will find occasional references to the sociological concept of cognitive bias, as I believe that an awareness of your natural tendency to “think how others think” can be a vital part of your progress as a person imbued with personal insight. You think people are crazy now…

It is a mistake to equate comfort with happiness. Comfort is subject to the laws of impermanence, a trendy topic in Buddhism for about 2500 years. Happiness, on the other hand, is unassailable.

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What does it mean to be Buddhist?

A Buddhist would be someone who calls himself a Buddhist, studies Buddhist wisdom, and follows the Noble Eightfold Path. All Buddhists believe the same stuff. There are many variations on the basic themes (three major divisions and 1500 sects). But they all believe the same basic stuff.

There are many misguided Buddhists in the West who see Buddhism as a logical vehicle through which they can push leftist political or “New Age” agendas, and as a result there are many sincere Buddhist seekers who can find no “refuge” in brick-and-mortar American Buddhist centers. The hyper-intellectualized Western Buddhist press and publishing houses and websites don’t make things any easier, dominated as they are by Tibetan superstition and Zen “lineages”. They would have you “take the refuges” (kind of like the Boy Scout oath) so that you can become “officially” Buddhist, whereas more “root” Buddhist traditions basically say that you are a Buddhist when you decide to live a “pure” life.

Buddhism is a philosophy which states that everywhere you turn there will be suffering, but if you follow the Eightfold Path, then suffering turns into an option.

There is a lot of mysticism and metaphysics associated with Buddhism, which no one is obligated to buy into, though the Tibetans will charge you an arm and a leg to do so, if that’s what you want. The least delusional western Buddhists are the secular Buddhists, who tend to blow off metaphysics in favor of believing that following the Eightfold Path can achieve happiness and contentment in anyone’s life without the need for the promise of reincarnation. Like the Buddha himself, they just don’t go there. You can believe whatever you want, or you can believe in absolutely nothing. Buddhism is not a religion to believe in. It is more of a motus operandi.

Buddhism is something to enjoy, as following its dictates leads you to the very peak of Maslow’s Hierarchy, the rarefied atmosphere of “self-actualization” where courage and compassion intersect to make you an instrument of change. Find me a single “self-help” title in the library that doesn’t owe a debt of gratitude to the Eightfold Path! Effective living always boils down to the same points.

There are eight of them. They worked 2,600 years ago, and they’re still working today.

Let’s take “Right Intention” as a case in point, item number two on The Path. These are the Buddha’s words: “And What, sirs, is right intention? Intention toward renunciation, intention toward non-harmfulness, intention toward non-injury: this, sirs, is called right intention.”

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The Eight items interlace like the pudgy little fingers of 4-year-olds trying to learn “Here’s the church, here’s the steeple” at Sunday school. Right Intention (also known as Right Thought) comes from “Right View,” or “Right Understanding” of life based on the undeniability of the fact of suffering. So, like, your job here on earth is not to cause suffering, but to alleviate it. Number four on the hit parade is “Right Action.”

The Eightfold Path covers three essential aspects of life: knowledge and motivation, ethics, and mental development. The only faith mentioned with regard to Buddhist belief is the faith that the knowledge and following of the Eightfold Path leads to contentment and happiness in life, no matter what your situation or condition.

That’s a helluva claim. This is a simple Path to understand; it’s the application of this knowledge that’s hard. Perhaps, in light that so many people think that the shootings and the terrorism and the economic uncertainty of electing plutocrats to high public office signals the end of the world, I would contend that this knowledge (corroborated by the observations of modern psychology) is a recipe for sanity.

But personal gain isn’t enough, and unfortunately, this is where the system breaks down in the west. In rural Buddhist Asia, where everyone may be impoverished but everyone is Buddhist, Dharma is not just chosen and followed by individuals, it is the fabric that binds the community together. Compassion is the common commitment, and within a closed society like a jungle village in Sri Lanka (I lived in several), people cooperate and help each other out is if the village is a nuclear family.

After the December, 2004 tsunami I returned to Sri Lanka a month after the disaster, and immediately toured the “tent cities” aid agencies from different nations erected on the beaches. I arrived a month to the day after the wave scoured the east and southern coasts, killing 30,000 people. The stench of rotting flesh no longer pervaded the lowlands, but under the debris they were still finding skeletons inside the clothes the victims died in. It was an impossible scene. The land was so churned up it was almost impossible to walk on, the only things left standing on the strand were palm trees and Buddhist shrines.

I saw something phenomenal. Wounded families were re-combining before my eyes. Moms with kids who lost husbands found new husbands among those who’d lost wives and children. People who lost children found orphans to absorb into their lives, and older couples who lost adult children and grandchildren found new children to fill the holes left by all the death and destruction. Fractured families turned whole again, like a drop of mercury dropped on a plate, breaking up into dozens of little balls of mercury before coming back together into a cohesive whole.

Until you learn to appreciate the interconnectedness of everything, your responsibility to help, you can only pretend to be Buddhist. Leading an enlightened life is mostly about leading a responsible life.

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