What type of person practices Buddhism? Even if your first mental
picture of a Buddhist is of a robed monk on a hilltop or a hippie-type
student on a college campus, neither picture is close to the best
answer to the question about the typical Buddhist. Or maybe you've
known one of those annoying people who pride themselves on being
able to recite all the nearly-impossible-to-pronounce Indian terms
and who would like you to believe that they know all the answers
to questions of Universal Truth. But none of these characterize
what it really means to be a Buddhist.
To answer the questions of who practices Buddhism and why, we should
go to the roots of Buddhism. Buddhism's whole purpose was and is
nothing other than eliminating human suffering. Shakyamuni Buddha
categorized the suffering he saw into four categories: suffering
associated with being born, with sickness, with aging, and with
death (or more specifically, fear of death). Since these are so-called
universal truths about life, they pertain to all life. So in looking
at yourself, you should ask, 'do I suffer?' If your answer is 'yes'
then you are the type of person Buddhism was developed for. You
are the type of person who should practice Buddhism. And the answer
to the question of why you should practice Buddhism is equally clear:
to eliminate your suffering.
But just because you suffer and are aware of it, you're not necessarily
a Buddhist. A true Buddhist is a person who has a strong desire
and has made a 'stake my whole life on it' determination to seek
out the answers to why suffering exists and how to eradicate it.
This is what characterized Shakyamuni Buddha. And although he went
through many different practices and developed many different teachings
that, plainly put, didn't work to eliminate suffering, he eventually,
by virtue of his strong determination and compassion, discovered
that it really is possible to eliminate all suffering and attain
enlightenment. So later on, toward the end of his lifetime, he taught
the Lotus Sutra, wherein he came out and told everyone to disregard
all of his earlier teachings and focus on the eternal nature of
their lives. He did this in the Life Span chapter of the Lotus Sutra.
It wasn't until much later that a Buddha named Nichiren specified
the practice by which people really could focus on that eternal
nature within life. Nichiren didn't re-invent Buddhism; he simply
carried on with Shakyamuni's grand experiment and struggled throughout
his lifetime in order to see what worked and what didn't to overcome
suffering. And what he established in his life that worked was a
meditation based on chanting the phrase Namu-Myoho-Renge-Kyo.
Despite what you may have heard, neither Buddha had their enlightenment
appear to them in a flash of light or insight. Nor were either of
them born as Buddhas. Both struggled with the solution to this problem
of overcoming human suffering. Both poured themselves into the task.
Neither were Gods. Their lives would be less relevant if they were.
They chose to spend their lives, actually "offered" their
lives, searching for the answers. We can imagine their logic went
something like this: "Everyone is struggling with suffering
imposed upon them throughout their lives
then they die. I'm
going to choose to struggle with every ounce of effort and intellect
I can muster, and I'm going to impose my life on human suffering
instead of the other way around."
If you choose to become a Buddha, and have the courage and compassion
to follow through with your decision, you will discover what it
takes to become enlightened (free from suffering) too. And you will
place yourself among the lineage of those who have become Buddhas
and who have given their all for the sake of humanity. But this
requires development in your life, development of your life at its
deepest and purest level. So what does this mean?
There is no need to change personality, diet, or abide by any specific
set of rules or codes of conduct. You don't need to look or dress
any differently than anyone else. You only need to concern yourself
with one thing: eliminating suffering - from your own and from others'
lives. Appearances are only superficial. It is what's in a person's
heart, mind and character that defines them. And compassion (deep
caring for another) sets the whole elimination of suffering process
in motion and is the definition of what it means to be a Buddha.
You can become a Buddha in this lifetime. That is the reason people
practice Buddhism. And the more people there are that become Buddhas,
the less suffering there will be in the world. That is the reason
you should practice Buddhism - just as you are, right where you
are, right now.
So you find yourself in a war zone now. Looking around when you
awaken from sleep you may have a moment or two when you're looking
in amazement at your surroundings and thinking, "how in the
hell did I get here?" Buddhism answers this question by pointing
out that people "get here" (anywhere, really) because
of the choices they've made so far in their lives. This, in Buddhist
terms, is your karma, or, more precisely, the karmic chain of causation.
Simply put, you made decisions in your life that have resulted in
your being precisely where you are. Most of these decisions were
strongly influenced by the many personal factors that have "surrounded
you." Your family, your personality, your intelligence, your
physical stature and appearance, and very importantly, the beliefs
you've been taught, all have influenced your decisions. These factors,
and others, still do influence your thoughts and decisions. You're
still linked to the karmic chain of causation that got you where
you are in your life. And when you leave these surroundings, that
chain of causation will still be with you...unless you 'break the
chain' and develop a new basis for your life's decisions - a.k.a.
become a Buddha. Breaking the chain of
karmic impediments is why you should practice Buddhism.
Here's something that very few people can believe (even those who
already claim to practice Buddhism): You really can change your
life and break the karmic chains of causation that led to your present
suffering - right where you are. You can be a Buddha in a war zone.
But we're not talking about superficial change here. 'Surface level'
changes, like trying to have a more positive attitude, smiling more,
being kind to others, being generous to people in need, are all
simply superficial changes. They do not affect the level of your
life that you need to affect in order to eliminate your suffering.
The only thing that has been proven time and again to affect a person's
life at the deep level necessary to change karma is the practice
of Buddhism. See? I told you that people can't believe it. And right
now you too are probably full of doubt and questions. But that's
ok. You see, Buddhism is not something you have to accept blindly.
You can try it on an experimental basis and prove or disprove its
efficacy to yourself.
If you couldn't change your karma and eliminate your suffering,
there would be no point to Buddhism. We'd all be stuck suffering
the consequences of poor choices we've made in life, both as a species
and as individuals. But doing this requires that you start thinking
about and inquiring about your life in a much deeper way than you
have so far. And the changes we see - and you definitely will see
changes right from the very early stages of your Buddhist practice
- are going to happen in ways you wouldn't expect. But the changes
we're talking about only occur when you begin your practice of Buddhism.
Or another way of saying it is that when you decide to reach the
deepest levels of your life and make fundamental changes that will
bring about an end to your own suffering and the suffering of all
others, you have become a Buddhist. My hope is that every reader
of this has already decided, at this point, to become a Buddhist.
Your life as a Buddha is your life as you have never seen it before.