Friday, December 18, 2009

Reflections: The Spirit of Buddhism

Having read random essays and snippets of books and quotes on Buddhism, this book marks my first formal entry into understanding Buddhism. The main reason for my being drawn to it is the emphasis it lays on the power of the human mind, in delving into its depths and conquering it, and in tapping the energy it holds to arrive at a state of clear discernment. The second reason is its philosophy in propagating compassion and all-embracing love towards everything within and outside of us, while continuing to stay detached from emotional entanglements. Sogyal Rinpoche's book is a collection of some of his essays and talks on the fundamentals of Buddhism and the qualms he has on its future adoption by the Western World.

Sogyal Rinpoche's concerns regarding the dilution of Buddhism to suit the practicality of the modern world are quite well-balanced. Both him and the Dalai Lama, admit that there are aspects to Buddhism that are tightly tied to the cultural parameters of the erstwhile era, and may not translate with much relevance to the current era. In Dalai Lama's words, "A new way of thinking has become the necessary condition for responsible living and acting. If we maintain obsolete values and beliefs, a fragmented consciousness and a self-centred spirit, we will continue to hold to outdated goals and behaviors". It always impresses me when spiritual leaders of a certain faith are open-minded to critique their own faith and admit that there are certain aspects of the tradition that need to be revised, whilst retaining the essence. I wholeheartedly agree that in this quest for revision it is easy to forgo the essence of the traditions by morphing it carelessly to suit our needs... the entire spiritual path gets lost in doing so. From my understanding, the true essence of Buddhism (or for that matter any religious/spiritual path) is in disciplining the mind to gather a fundamental grasp on the teachings and their implications, and to routinely implement and act on them in our everyday lives. It is said that the twin qualities required are deep appreciation and thorough integration of all principles, so that one may gather a holistic understanding. Most often people selectively apply principles without gaining any integrated insight on the overall philosophy, and this is one of the greatest dangers of diluting a tradition. Such people may be very pious and devoted to the tradition, but only in a superficial way that extends merely to certain rigid practises performed without any knowledge on their significance. Sogyal Rinpoche reinstates in almost every page that such superficial applications need to be reformed.

Sogyal Rinpoche also touches upon the kinds of physical and mental healing afforded by Buddhism. In Buddha's words,
We are what we think.
All that we are,
Arises with our thoughts.
With our thoughts we make the world
Speak or act with a pure mind-
And happiness will follow you.

The notion that physical and health-related impairments are mostly caused and influenced by the mind, is now widely acknowledged. Objective scientific research on biochemistry has validated these hypotheses. Negative energies on craving and desire, pride and closed-mindedness are linked to the deterioration of the body. Ignorance and Ego are chided as the primary causes for our suffering, physical and mental hurt and the impediment towards everlasting peace. Buddhism insists on meditation to calm the mind, gradually transcending to a state of healing of the body and mind. The exploration of positive energies and positive thoughts being linked to peace, is again the basic philosophy of Eastern Spirituality. And there are many (including me) to attest the power of meditation.

In line with holistic understanding, Buddhism also warns us against holding onto a wrong view and deepening our convictions by fabricating evidences to support our view, and thus being completely blind to the truth. I appreciate Sogyal Rinpoche's incorporation of meaningful psychological explanations to elucidate why and how people form wrong opinions, and continue to misconstrue the truth by sticking to their false beliefs. Our thoughts can create our own version of reality within our heads, leading to terrible Ignorance and a bloated Ego preventing any reformation or learning. But there is a subtle meaning that arises in this context - on the one hand, the author claims that constant doubts and questions are dangerous as they form a protective shield of defense, impenetrable to help or truth, but on the other hand, he insists that one must always be open to questioning and doubting their beliefs and views, for being closed-minded about a faith jeopardizes our consciousness and peace. In my understanding, one has to strike a balance especially when one enters a spiritual tradition, s/he needs to enter it with some basic implicit faith... constant skepticism will surely go against any learning. But it is pertinent that one is always open-minded to revise thoughts and views. I am reminded of Descartes' popular statement, "The only thing I am certainly sure of, is that I am thinking and doubting everything. Cogito Ergo Sum". Since last year I have firmly held onto it, but I don't know if I've passed onto the other extreme of skepticism, devoid of any faith. In the travails of a spiritual journey, perseverance and underlying faith are important to carry forward.

There are quite a few redundancies throughout the book, but perhaps this is just the author's way of reinstating the principles, or is a consequence of patching up different essays together. And needless to mention, many principles and underlying philosophies of Buddhism are in congruence with the essence of Hinduism. This book is a mere introduction, helping readers to merely dip their toes into the deep waters of Buddhism.


pema said...

Sorry to add a sour note -- but it is beyond doubt that none of the material in this book originated from Sogyal Lakar aka Rinpoche. He is a plagiarist with a talent for cherry picking other people's ideas, themes and insights, then incorporating them into lectures (I cannot bring myself to call them Buddhist teachings) which are assembled by his acolytes and which he reads from a script. Sogyal was never trained as a lama, is barely literate and did not write The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. He is a charlatan and a sadistic sexual predator.

Neeraja said...

Pema - I hardly know anything about Sogyal (Rinpoche) and have just begun to understand Buddhism, so I'm not qualified enough to disagree or agree with your views. Perhaps I started with the wrong book.