On the surface, Buddhism is a nice religion that promotes compassion for all living beings — even cockroaches and Wall Street traders. Under the hood, however, it’s a seditious philosophy that undermines the very foundations of reason. It suggests that everything you experience is illusory — including Buddhism itself.
The upshot of this is that, although I became a Buddhist to transform my mind, that transformation didn’t begin to happen until I let go of my Buddhist beliefs.
I was about six years into my monkhood when I seriously asked myself why I believed — in reincarnation, in perfect happiness (Enlightenment) and in that whole tapestry of enchanting ideas. The answer was banal, but also a shock to my integrity: I believed because those beliefs brought me comfort:
- they provided a convenient framework to explain life and its purpose;
- they connected me to people who agreed with me, with whom I happily agreed in exchange;
- they enrolled me in a venerable, centuries-old institution that was beyond question.
The comfort was one of security and certainty. I was on a well-trodden path. I was saved.
‘Saved,’ of course, isn’t a Buddhist concept; it’s Christian — as I once was myself. I began to suspect that something of that remained. I may have rejected the rationalizations of my birth-religion, but its emotional triggers were part and parcel of my neural pathways. Changing my ideas hadn’t changed my habitual reactions.
Do you honestly believe you’ll come back as a bug?
I’d thought that Buddhism was different. It turned out that it was up to me to be different. And yet, the Buddha’s teachings helped me let go of Buddhism. He’d bypassed the question of whether life had any ultimate meaning, and suggested only that we find our way between the two fatal extremes of eternalism and nihilism (which plays out in the West today as fundamentalist theism versus radical atheism).
As a lowly monk, I had the freedom to ponder this dilemma in my own time. When I began teaching however, things got complicated. Even today, people listen eagerly to Tibetans talking about life after death, invisible demons and enlightened beings who know the past, present and future. Not being Asian, I faced questions that were too rude to put to a venerable old lama; questions such as, “Do you honestly believe you’ll come back as a bug?”
Honestly? My original question about why I believed now morphed into the dilemma of what to do with these beliefs held for such flimsy reasons. Relinquishing them meant giving up my role as a monk and the privileged lifestyle that went with it. It meant returning to the world and its harsh realities. It meant losing my support system. Still, if wanted to look myself in the eye each morning, it had to be done.
The one thing I held on to was the Buddha as role-model. Just as he gave up his worldly comforts, I gave up my spiritual ones. Like him, I preferred to live with no truth rather than with ersatz truths.
With time and experience, I was eventually ready to teach again — though not under the banner of Buddhism. Years had passed, and for me the Buddha and Buddhism were two very different things. Since real spiritual movement had begun for me with my own striving for honesty, I took that as my foundation. I coined the phrase, “Expose yourself to doubt.” I called myself “The Naked Monk.”
Mindful Reflection: The honesty to expose and uproot denial
It’s well known that the Buddha taught mindfulness; today it’s all the rage. It’s less well known that he taught it in the context of thoughtfulness. Too many people conceive of meditation as the stopping of thoughts and emptying of the mind. Mindfulness bears long-term fruit in the context of how we live and think when we’re off the cushion. I use to word ‘reflection’ to describe the rearrangement of thought into perspectives than enable letting-go — especially of untenable beliefs and views. The Buddha promoted economy of thought and, above all, the integrity to expose and uproot denial. I call his method Mindful Reflection.
I neither believe nor disbelieve in reincarnation and enlightenment. I really can’t say whether there’s any such thing as complete freedom from stress in this life. Opinions like this consume lots of energy, but don’t really lead anywhere. The point is: Here we are, what now? Life is stressful; what can we do about it?
Instinctively, we handle it with denial. That leads us to repeat our personal stories again and again (samsara). Mindfulness brings the momentum of our mental patterns (karma) into focus. Reflecting on life with intelligence and compassion leads us to change those patterns.
Intelligence and compassion are the two wings of practice. They help us deal with the uncertainty, pain and tragedy of life. They are what the Buddha taught, but are often buried in the myriad tenets and beliefs of the Buddhist religion that began the day he died. His last words weren’t about maintaining the organization or the teachings he’d established. They were simply encouragement for those he left behind:
“Struggle earnestly for your own freedom.”
‘Earnestly’ means honestly. So, what, and why, do you believe — honestly?
Here onTheNakedMonk.com, Stephen Schettini shares his understanding and practice of what the Buddha taught. Stephen is the author of The Novice, a memoir of his experiences as a Buddhist monk, and It Begins with Silence: The Art of Mindful Reflection. He also leads Quiet Mind Workshops, teaching the principles of Mindful Reflection™. In addition to his blog, you can also connect with Stephen on Twitter @TheNakedMonk and on Facebook.