Monday, May 3, 2010

Walking the Path (Buddhism: A Series, Part 4)

I have never been one to shy away from self-reflection, and Buddhism's emphasis on doing so appealed to me. I began reading Heart of the Buddha's Teachings by Thich Nhat Hanh to get a better idea of some of the more specific tenets of Buddhist beliefs. I had a vague sense of the overall structure and some of the core values, but I had yet to dive in too deeply. This book highlighted many of the fundamental ideas attributed to the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama. Some of these ideas included lists of attributes that are incorporated in anyone attempting to achieve bodhichitta, or an awakened mind.

While concretizing these ideas seemed on some level more prescriptive than necessary, I could understand the need for many to have a guide in their lives and in their practice of Buddhism. It was around this time that I made the conscious effort to begin experimenting with many of these ideas. I began reflecting more often on my own actions and views. I tried to identify what purpose they were serving. The biggest change was thinking about how my words and behaviors could be serving to create suffering, even unintentionally. I tried to think before speaking, particularly when I was angry or prideful (not terribly often for the former, more often than I would like to admit for the latter). Thay (a nickname given to Thich Nhat Hanh, meaning teacher) emphasized that by speaking to someone in a way that causes them to suffer, we are making things worse for them and others they interact with.

These changes made me think back to being in high school and early college. In those days I often found myself in heated political, religious, and social arguments in classes. I often would deliver biting critiques of other students' arguments. While these arguments took place in the context of a classroom, the tense feelings could last far beyond. I relished the sense of fear I put into some students as they came to realize they had little chance of coming out on top in any argument. Looking back now, I shake my head at my behavior then. My pride and arrogance likely impeded their learning and my own as well. I failed to see how it was likely their upbringing that led them to believe the way they did. My lashing out could never serve to rearrange their thinking and lived experiences in the course of a classroom discussion.

Now, to be clear, speaking up against injustice is something that everyone is responsible for. Silence is often confused with consent and letting injustices go unchallenged hurts us all. However, I know I could have been a more compassionate and, therefore, more convincing interlocutor if I had tried to understand why they believed what they did, instead of just cutting off the head of their argument.

This practice began to reap dividends as I found myself less stressed, slower to anger, and I was content in that I had made progress. When I found myself in interactions that would have previously caused anxiety, I was able to navigate them with a cooler head which often led to a more positive outcome than I would have expected. You would be surprised how appreciated a kind word or a smile can be, even to someone you don't know who is experiencing pain or anger.

I was surprised at how much I enjoyed grappling with the minutia of specific Buddhist ideas and was interested in diving deeper into more complex books. The next book I read was Each Moment is the Universe by Dainin Katagiri, which focused on Buddhist perspectives on time. As weeks flew by, I was beginning to see the value of my time more than ever before. I next plan to discuss the insights from that book and also some areas where I was beginning to see my prior ideas were matching up well with Buddhist beliefs.