By Romana 06/11/2012
Why did I want to be a Buddhist? What does it mean to struggle with ego? Any Freudian analogy is incorrect, since in Buddhism ego is as much a manifestation of reality, as it is of mind.
My journey was slow, starting in 1975 with Zen. I read a variety of texts and teachings, both official and unofficial, and I got a feeling for the religion. After moving back to Washington State in 1977, I waited until 1984, at age 42, after I had been married for while, before I truly began investigating Buddhism. This time it was Tibetan Buddhism in Seattle. My wife was a Mormon, and I was seeking a way to counteract the tensions that Mormon culture created for me.
My first erroneous reaction was that I already knew this stuff. My ignorance caused my introduction to Tibetan Buddhist meditation practice not to take, even though I had come to consider myself to be a Buddhist anyway. Since I was mildly autistic, I would have to wait until age sixty to gain the maturity level to begin exploring the nature of reality. Even then, I would have to wait for my metaphorical trip through hell, where I experienced true suffering.
I literally had a vision that that I was to become a philosopher, but I wanted to rise above ordinary dualistic philosophies that pitted science against religion, or were tied up with arguments of theism versus atheism. In my enhanced viewpoint, I consider Buddhism to be a religion, and I am no longer squeamish about being religious. Even though some insist Buddhism is a philosophy and not a religion, I call it a religion because the Buddha called his teachings religious. The Buddha said the purpose of religion was to help people, while the question of the existence or nonexistence of deities was philosophy. He did not say philosophy was not worthwhile, but that we needed to keep our priorities straight.
I know Buddhism can seem counter-intuitive and even strange, especially when it asserts that all the striving and attachment can never deliver the happiness and security that we seek, but I witness this all the time. Of course, there is the problem that any teachings can create far more questions than answers. This can all seem so heavy and serious, but I think built-in humor abounds. Without the Buddha, there would have been no Yoda and his clever aphorisms.
Buddhist teachings are now part of my life, and have more subtly entered many lives; people talk of karma all the time, though not necessarily accurately. I have seen the stamp of these teachings on postmodern philosophies, and even advanced physics. However, unlike many claims of New Age hype, I do not think Buddhist teachings can be used to prove scientific theories, and warnings abound that scientific theories and mystic teachings are in no way about to merge. Buddhism only claims to prove that meditation practice is the time-tested way to deal with our emotional excesses. There are, however, helpful guidelines for avoiding hells after death, just in case they are not quite as metaphorical as I think.
Unlike other religions that have a variety of paths to membership through various denominations, all Buddhist orders are united in asserting that I had to take the basic Refuge Vow to be a Buddhist. I took refuge in the Buddha, in the Dharma (the teachings of the Buddha,) and in the Sangha (the community of practitioners.) Thus I became a Buddhist and started my lifelong practice to become like the Buddha. This is coordinated by lineage holders, those who have transmitted the teaching in an unbroken chain since the time of the Buddha.
I attended Refuge Vow classes before I took my Refuge Vow. I felt it was time for me, considering all the recent changes in my life, but not everyone thought the time was right. There is a serious feeling that taking any Buddhist vows can severely impact one’s free time, but nearly all my time is technically free time, so it is just what I decide to do with it.
I do have a sense of renunciation, giving up formerly valuable attachments. I am not going to become celibate, since I feel having a female partner is an important part of my path. I am more than willing to renounce the crazy material and political nonsense of our modern world, especially the hate, aggression, anger, rudeness, and the obsession to cling to and to own things and ideas. This type of stuff is popular, so maybe I can box it up and sell it all on that tribute to materialistic gods called EBAY.
I now feel confident to understand, and even to explain what can’t be explained.
The primary symbol of Buddhism is the Dharmachakra, also know as the Wheel of Life or the Wheel of the Law. The Dharmachakra is a roadmap to samsaric or phenomenal existence, diagramming states of existence, including heavens and hells. To understand how real any states of existence are, I had to understand how Buddhism defines reality. All realities are governed by the Law of Karma, which simply says that every action generates a reaction or consequences. Karma is the underlying mechanism of phenomenal existence. While there is no external savior, there is external karma, which can create unfavorable situations beyond individual control.
I struggled with any concepts of reincarnation; in fact, the correct Buddhist term is rebirth. The term reincarnation, a Hindu concept, is incorrectly applied to Buddhism. Past lives did exist, and we can be linked to them through karma, but we have never owned any past lives. For ownership is just another type of ego-based attachment.
The teachings began with the Buddha, in what are termed the three Turnings of the Wheel. The first turning was the basics: the four noble truths, suffering, and all the causes and gyrations that lead to suffering. I took my Refuge Vow to personally deal with all the neuroses that create my problems. Many people, even some Buddhists, often refuse to even admit that they have these neuroses. I have become too aware of my neuroses, so I run the risk of being too attached to them. However, know there is no cure, so I want to transform my subjective excesses of anger, hate, and aggression into more useful emotions.
A basic tenet of Buddhism is that of anatman, or no soul. The creation of beings is a feature of phenomenal existence. Ego is the term applied to a sense of being, followed by the jaw-dropping pronouncement that ego does not actually exist; it is just a mental construct for animating living bodies. The point of Buddhism is to help ego discover its true nature through meditation.
There are many types of meditation, usually referred to as meditation practice. Various Buddhist orders have designed many types of meditation practice over the centuries. They are all relative in their nature, based on experience, and none have any derivation based on absolute principles. Anyone can meditate and experientially rediscover the nature of reality. There is nothing magical or supernatural here. My particular meditation path includes śamatha, dwelling in tranquility, andvipaśyanā, insight or clear seeing. Other types have brought tears to my eyes, as I tried to feel the suffering of others.
In my quest to transform myself, I will take many classes at my meditation center. I will receive instruction alongside other Sangha members. Except for certain adepts, solitary meditation practice is not recommended. As part of my practice, I hope to gain true compassion, not phony idiot compassion.
My meditation practice is to help transform my ego, not to defeat or empower it. There is a practical middle ground, between the extremes of nihilism and eternalism, or ego as all powerful. Again, there are three levels corresponding to the three turnings of the wheel. The first turning is the Theravada or Hinayana, which defines my goal to work on individual ego through liberation from attachments. This level has many paths of asceticism, though the Buddha never taught severe asceticism, such as inflicted pain or physical depravation. There is no salvation per se, though liberation can be viewed as personal salvation.
The second turning introduced the Mahayana, or liberation for all beings. Now I know that I can’t even save myself, and the basic teachings are illusory, just like my ego. The basic teachings have not been invalidated; I just need to avoid being attached to them.
The Mahayana brought the concept of the bodhisattva…of benevolent beings who forgo liberation to help others. In a few months, I expect to take my Bodhisattva Vow. While historically this never happened in my sequence, I want to do it because I fear the world is descending into harsh times.
Here, there is much talk of paradises and hells, but one thing has to be made clear: there is no safe haven from the ravages of birth, sickness, old age, and death. Hells and paradises, as creations of karma, are just as impermanent and illusory as any place else. It is, however, much better to be reborn in paradise than in hell.
The third turning of the wheel introduced the Vajrayana, or diamond vehicle. Here, I will attempt to realize my Buddha Nature, and see that all reality is nothing more than fabrications of my mind. This can’t be easy…what have I gotten myself into? This is called the dangerous path for a reason, since it engenders no kind of asceticism at all, and could make me lose all control. Maybe with a little trepidation, I can still follow the teachings and seek the middle way, but all my experiences will have to be considered to be ways to enlightenment. Haven’t I pushed on reality enough already? Maybe I don’t really have a profound understanding of the Hinayana and the Mahayana. I have to remember, that a master is a master because he or she went through rigorous training.
I found it curious, and worrisome, that the Vajrayana introduced me to deity meditation. Oh, whether or not advanced Celestial Buddhas actually exist is irrelevant…interesting. Some say they do exist, some say they are abstractions, others say they are just creations of our minds, but most say they are just convenient metaphors. For now, I will go with the metaphor theory, since I have just experienced more stages of suffering than I want to remember.
Even if Celestial Buddhas do exist, it behooves them to help us; otherwise, they would just degrade into worthless worldly gods, materialistically attached to their prized possessions and beliefs. Vajrayana meditations are thus very powerful. It needs to be emphasized that I have never been taught to or want to worship any persons or deities; however, individuals can always choose worship if they desire.
To recap, the Hinayana is basic Buddhism. The Law of Karma determines all relationships. Some adherents at this level seek no higher knowledge, and might find the Mahayana and Vajrayana to be somewhat terrifying, especially since they destroy all safe attachments; while others take and embrace what they want. Ego does not need to be defeated, but needs to discover its true nature, but without the trappings such as pride, power, ownership, hated, and aggression. If the wrong techniques are used to tame ego, they will instead feed ego.
The Mahayana labels all attachments, even the teachings of the Hinayana, as illusory. Helping others control ego is called liberation. This does not mean that reality does not exist; instead, it changes our perceptions of reality and our role in dealing with phenomenal existence.
The Vajrayana declares that all is Buddha Nature. We can live our lives in place, and ego can have a meaningful, though temporary, existence. Having hot, steamy sex in our bedrooms is not really the problem; failure to let go of attachments is the problem. By avoiding the extremes, our passions enhance our lives, and we avoid all the unnecessary fear, anger, hatred, and aggression, and help create a better world through example, not coercion. If we don’t do this, we will burden future generations with a legacy of unresolved karma.
Once I have taken my Bodhisattva Vow, I will be empowered to liberate others. The rules make such an undertaking very difficult, so maybe I need volunteers. In the meantime, don’t just stand there…sit.