Several times over the past week, friends and acquaintances have wished or started to wish me a happy Easter, then felt it necessary to qualify it somehow: “if you celebrate it,” “I don’t know how you feel about it, but…” and so forth.
I find this touching, but at the same time a bit appalling. Touching because my friends want to share the good wishes of their holiday with me, and appalling, not because it calls my beliefs into question (although that was implicit in a couple of cases) but because it demonstrates how little people actually know about one of history’s great thinkers and his teachings. It also demonstrates the unfortunate lack of information about other beliefs in general for which Americans, in particular, are well-known. That, however, is probably best left for another time. For the moment, let’s stick to the Buddha, his teachings, and Jesus.
Please note that I feel no compunction to capitalize “his,” for one thing, although Buddha, when used in reference to Siddhartha Gautama, is customarily capitalized to distinguish him from other buddhas — a convenience, and nothing more. Siddartha would be the first to tell you that he was only a man, not any kind of deity or godling. In fact, he did so on many occasions. Some of his latter-day followers, like some followers of other spiritual leaders, have forced deity upon him, as it were, but he would cheerfully repudiate the claim today, as he did 2,600 years ago.
The historical Buddha didn’t even set that much store by his own words. He admonished his followers to believe nothing, even what he was saying, unless it made sense to them. He taught a way of life that, if followed with reasonable diligence, was likely to lead to happiness. He did not teach that it would lead to rebirth, an afterlife, nothing, having the good sense to know that he had no answers to those questions.
In essence, Buddhism encompasses the following: we are unhappy because of wanting things that we do not need and — in most cases — cannot have (at least not permanently); and that living according to certain guidelines will minimize these cravings and lead to a more sensible outlook on the world and a happier life. He referred to these things as attachments (or close enough) and taught that losing these attachments would keep us from being unhappy.
Many people seem to think that means Buddhists have to give up “the things of this world.” That is not the case. Followers of the Buddha are expected to live good lives, just as followers of Jesus are, but they are not expected to live lives of austerity or asceticism. The whole point is to realize that things, while convenient, are only temporary and to recognize that attachment to them brings only unhappiness when we contemplate their eventual loss. When we truly understand that everything is temporary, that we can keep nothing, then we can learn to enjoy our lives in the present moment and not obsess over eventualities over which we do not and will never have control.
Siddhartha taught that we should practice:
Proper understanding and proper intent (develop wisdom)
Right speech, right action, and proper livelihood (live ethically)
Proper effort, and proper mindfulness (develop our minds and potential)
In addition to these guidelines for living (the Noble Eightfold Path) most practicing Buddhists take vows to refrain from killing, stealing, lying, slandering, gossiping and spreading rumors, sexual misconduct, and taking intoxicants to the degree that they interfere with clarity of mind, generally referred to as the Five Precepts.
So, when you get right down to it, Buddhist teaching is simply common sense. The word “buddha” means, as closely as it can be easily be translated, “one who is enlightened,” with a strong flavor of “one who sees reality.” There have been many buddhas throughout history, and there are many alive today — just as there will be many more in the future. Understanding that, one can also see that there is nothing in these ideas to prevent a “Buddhist” from also being a good Catholic, Southern Baptist or Atheist, for none of the beliefs associated with those things are at odds with Siddartha’s guides for living.
Even those who profess no alignment with religion at all will readily accept the idea that under these definitions, Jesus was unquestionably a buddha. Look at the things he taught:
- That we should remain “poor in spirit,” unattached.
- That we should understand that grief is necessary, and that our pain will eventually be relieved (the other side of this coin is the need to show empathy).
- That we should be unassuming, living our own lives and not forcing our ideas on others.
- That we should seek justice for all.
- That we should be compassionate.
- That we should behave ethically.
- That we should live peacefully, and seek to promote understanding of others.
- That we should not be afraid to speak truth to power, even at the risk of our own well-being.
While some may have problems with the way some “Christians” choose to implement their teacher’s ideas, Buddhists have no problem at all with Jesus, his teachings, or the kind of church that he obviously had in mind. The shamans who followed him — both closely and distantly — have in many cases so perverted his teachings that they are unrecognizable, but that is the nature of power-seekers in all ages and all places, no fault of the Nazarene.
And so, my friends and loved ones, I welcome your wishes for a Happy Easter, take them as intended, and wish you the same — and many, many more.
Namasté (the buddha in me honors the buddha in you)