Thursday, December 2, 2010

Geting it right, Buddhist-style

"It is a painful thing to look at your own trouble
 and know that you yourself and no one else made it."
                                     —Sophocles


My Crisis drove me to seek answers in Buddhist practice, and although I am still in the infant stage of this process, I have found some practical tools for rooting out the source of why I had this Crisis in the first place. That's the real beauty of Buddhism, it asks you to dig deep and literally root out the problem. Not just cover it up and tamp it down, but spend time contemplating the heart of the matter. Buddhism also provides a process for this mindful cultivation based on the Buddhist sense of afterlife.

Unlike Catholicism, Buddhism doesn't allow for a heaven or hell. In Buddhism, if you transgress in this life, there will be another life, but it may not be a pleasant one. Remember that little thing called karma? Well, as it turns out it's not synonymous with luck. Karma is defined as intentional action, which leaves an imprint on our mindstream, or eternal spirit (you could call it a soul, but that dredges up a lot of Christian connotation that doesn't really apply here, so don't call it that.) And those imprints endure from one life to the next. So if you're a hideous sociopath in this life, your karmic imprint will be rendered unto you in the next life and you'll probably come back as a cockroach. That's not good, because only sentient beings (creatures with the power of perception) can attain enlightenment, so coming back as anything less is a very bad rebirth, and it will take a lot longer to get back to human form to get another shot at the Big E. (Think Chutes and Ladders)

I like the sense of do-over in Buddhism. I'm in do-over mode right now, so it's very appealing to me. Of course, to have a fortunate do-over, you have to figure out what you have done wrong and stop doing it, and that's not as easy as it sounds. Humans are creatures of habit. We acquire our habits throughout our lives and they form patterns. Some of them are helpful, others are down right disastrous. But once you realize what your patterns are, and dig deep to understand why you keep doing these potentially harmful things, you can stop and make atonement, or purify, yourself.

Don't get nervous. Purification doesn't involve walking on hot coals—although the process is not exactly painless either.

In Catholicism, we called this confession. But in Buddhism you don't go to the Lama and pour out your sins in exchange for a couple of Hail Marys and a few Our Fathers. In Buddhism, because there is no God to forgive you, it's all up to you. The good news is, once you realize you've done some misdeed, or created a negative imprint, you can purify yourself in four easy steps (and doesn't that sound like a service article just waiting to be written for Ladies Home Journal?) Well, these four steps are not that easy, but they are straightforward and I believe they work. As with many things in life, the first step is always the most difficult.

Step 1. Regret. Sounds simple enough, but coming to the place of regret can take months or years because you have to truly understand what you did and why it is causing you and/or others suffering. Sometimes it's not that evident. Sometimes we just don't want to see our faults. This is where the deep digging comes in. Regret is not the same as guilt, which Thubten Chodron describes as useless and keeps us bound up in anxiety. With sincere regret we acknowledge our mistake and regret having made it. 

Step 2. Determination to not do the action again. This step requires strong resolve and mindfulness. It is so easy to fall back into that harmful pattern so it may be best to make changes in one's behaviors and undo certain habits that allow for that behavior to occur. (And if this is sounding a bit like the 10 Step program, that's no mistake, because AA makes good use of this step.) It's easy to say I will not do that again. It's harder to keep from doing it when the habit is instilled so deep. You have to become very careful and conscious about why you are reacting in certain ways to specific situations or people to prevent the pattern from recurring.

Step 3. Seeking refuge. In Buddhist practice we say a Refuge Prayer and it's lovely: In the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha, I seek refuge until becoming Enlightened. Hmmm, Catholics, doesn't that sound familiar? In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit...(And I assure you, I'm not the first to make this comparison.) In Buddhism this Holy Trinity, this tower of power, is called the Three Jewels. The Buddha (you know him), the Dharma (Buddha's teachings) and the Sangha (the Buddhist community) provide the support and guidance necessary to uphold the good work you've done in realizing Step 1 and enacting Step 2. When we say the Refuge Prayer we remind ourselves that we are not alone. There is good and compassion in this world. We seek to surround ourselves with that unconditional love, and when you are seeking that kind of guidance, it's harder to misstep.

Step 4. Making actions of remedial practice. Don't get stumped by the phrasing here, just do good deeds! Yes, you can meditate and pray about it, but better to get out there an do some good in the world, preferably something selfless. Remedial practice can also mean going to Buddhist temple to listen to teachings or studying the Dharma, but I rather like the idea of replacing my misdeeds with good deeds, and going to Buddhist service always seems more of a treat to me than a punishment.

So there you have it! Karma is cause and effect. Purification causes good effects, and helps negate the bad ones. Try it. Go ahead. I dare you. I promise, it worked for me.

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