Falling for Buddhism

It’s not unusual to hear that Buddhism “isn’t a religion.” Secular Buddhists can be shy of its spiritual connotations, and it’s interesting to extract those elements of Buddhism that make of it a ‘philosophy,’ a ‘science’ or a ‘practice.’ It also reminds us that no one will ever have the last word, though some people certainly make more sense than others.

At the same time, around the world millions of people kneel in temples and pray to the Buddha for what they need, or to fix what ails them. Buddhism can be a religion as well, where followers look to leaders for support and consolation.

dharma is only really a path when
trampled by our personal footprint

In extreme cases Tibetan saints like Milarepa hole up in caves to dine on nettle soup and melted snow. Then there are those who commit themselves to the rigors of study and debate, while others pour scorn on the rational approach and teach no-mind.  Buddhism’s pretty much what you want it to be — like all religions.

The important thing is to not confuse Buddhism with dharma. The former consists of the various traditions of scripture, customs and culture that emerged since the Buddha died. There is no definitive Buddhism; there are only versions of it. All are interpretations and, like people, some make more sense than others.

On the other hand, dharma is a pursuit. In one sense we who pursue are on a common path; in another sense, it’s only really a path when trampled by our personal footprint. Buddhism is at its weakest when it’s generic. Being safe about it, deferring to authority, following the rules and holding the doctrines without testing them won’t get you anywhere.

those who refer to Buddhism as
The Dharma are trying to hijack reality

If you’re after peace of mind you can certainly find it in Buddhism. Some say fair enough, but it doesn’t seem fair to me. Those who securely refer to Buddhism as The Dharma are trying to hijack reality. There’s no call whatsoever to capitalize the word or prefix it with the definite article. It’s just dharma; sanctifying it is heresy in reverse.

Dharma is not an Asian trip. Nor is it modern, scientific or secular. It takes no particular adjective. It’s just the way things are: sometimes nasty and brutish, at other times bright and cheerful. In particular, pursuing dharma is coming to terms with what we are: contingent social animals with an insecure heart and a huge intellect. It’s a treacherous combination.

It makes dharma hard to appreciate, and yet that combination gives us infinitely more choice than other animals — ways to change our perception. To do that though, you must be willing to move out of your comfort zone. Buddhism is safe; dharma is unsettling.

Those of us who’ve pursued Buddhism have fallen for something: the stories, the philosophy, the short-term relief. It draws us in, and then we either snuggle up or we embark on a journey. If you put aside personal preferences and explore it sincerely, you’ll see that Buddhism is just the shell. Crack it, and out comes dharma.

Then what? You may put aside Buddhism by denouncing it, or you may stay in the fold with all your credentials and connections. However, they’ll no longer reassure you, and nor will they need to. Perhaps you’ll stick around to make sure the institutions don’t get too smug. People like that are rare and essential.

If there is to be a Buddhism, please let
it be engaged, thoughtful and seditious

Having fallen for it, you can come to your senses. Whether it’s Buddhism or any other account of why we’re here and what to do about it, all creeds, philosophies and systems are just loads of ideas, carefully wrought into dependable structures that belie the way things are; and yet, their contradictions sometimes help us find our own balance.

For all their relativity, ideas are far from worthless. We thrive on ideas. If there is to be a Buddhism, please let it be engaged, thoughtful and seditious.

Still, dharma is not an idea. It can’t be explained because explanations are ideas, abstract and volatile. They writhe with context and purpose and can never quite be pinned down. That’s why philosophers end up in knots. Ideas, like everything else, eventually prove unsatisfactory.

That’s dharma: the way things are. Take beliefs and systems with a grain of salt and they can be useful, but see them as a sacred trust to be defended and you’ll be disappointed. More importantly, you’ll miss the point.

Fortunately, disappointment’s a powerful motivator — if you let it in. It may be the only way to see the way things are because, lord knows, we love our illusions. That’s why the Buddha’s first suggestion is to look at dissatisfaction instead of turning away.

Life gives up its best rewards when we pursue it as an adventure, a matter of the heart. If you fall for that — if you can go with the way things are and not the way you want — you’ve gone beyond Buddhism. Out there is a big, wide world, free and in flux, effortlessly and endlessly revealing dharma.

It’s scary.


Author: Stephen Schettini

Host of The Naked Monk

13 thoughts on “Falling for Buddhism”

  1. Thank you, this was excellent and hits the nail on the head. I have not read a more succinct description of dharma and its relation to Buddhism as well put as this one.

  2. I look forward to you posts. This is one of your best. Simple and straightforward kernel of dharma.

    I guess what I fell for initially in buddhism was the “logic” of the 4 noble truths. It was so refreshing after wading through all the BS and mind control of other religions. But slowly I’m coming around to understand “the way things are”. I’ve got a long way to go but focusing on the physical breath and the mental concept of impermanence always helps.

  3. Seditious I think is a perfect word to describe the Dharma. Challenge what is real and what you are told to believe. It is not necessarily about overthrowing an establishment, but overthrowing the established “mind” and our perceptions. When we are free from the fetters of our mind we can see objectively and at the “real” world, not what we think of the real world. Moment’s of clarity reveal to us amazing things.

    I am currently unable to meditate due to the fact that I am on Prednisone. It has changed the topography of my very “soul.” In accepting that, I have been able to use the medication in ways I have never thought I could.

    During my high dosage I used the amping effect of Prednisone, to increase my work effort. Now that I am titrating down, I am using the exhaustion (adrenal) as a means of learning my limits. I used the insomnia to learn how to get relaxed on a physical level even though I could not rest my mind.

    The Prednisone, instead of fighting it, I used it. I am taking it for a rare condition known as Optic Neuritis which was causing vision loss.

    Why do I bring up this point. I bring it up because Dharma is around us at all times. It is life, it is ugly, it is beautiful, it is deadly, it is wondrous. Right now in my life, the Prednisone is my dharma. It is what I live with (or I would have to live with vision loss and blindness).

    I chose to become engaged. Instead of passive and reactive. I chose to embrace uncertainty, doubt and confusion. In it I found freedom. This is in part what Dharma is.

  4. More praise for a great piece. If there was a Gotama who taught us to “come and see,” he could do that because there was already something there to see. The legend is that his first words after awakening were that all people have the capacity to do the same. Dharma is the wisdom of embodied human experience; to the extent that Buddhism can help us recognize that wisdom it’s a good thing. But dharma is not the exclusive province of any flavor of Buddhism and if religious forms or doctrinal hang ups distract us from dharma then they are yet another hindrance.

  5. The Four Noble Truths are Buddhist dharma: they are the Buddha’s version of how things are. You’re supposed to try them out, if you like, and decide for yourself if they are useful. If suffering, however small, is not relieved, move on. Yes, they were not written down for hundred’s of years, but the oral tradition managed to pass them along intact.

  6. Stephen, you seem to be taking it pretty hard. It looks the long eight year membership of this “club” you call
    “Buddhist” monastic discipline did some real damage to you. And I admit any of those “Buddhist” places all over the world have hardly anything to with what Buddha taught.
    But I wonder what took you so long to realize this …eight years ? More disturbing is to read what you write ..mostly rants about how Buddhism is not Dharma. I hope you will be able to draw on your inner strength and start writing something more profound, peaceful; and less vindictive. I am not criticizing you, I just feel you can find and share lot more positive from your experience.

    1. Nikki: Of course you’re criticizing me. Why do it, and then deny it?

      I help my readers explore their cherished beliefs and their doubts, in part by provoking them. In the annals of Buddhism this is not new. My criticism of Buddhist institutions is deliberate. Some readers get defensive; for others it resonates.

      I could ‘share lot more positive’ as you say, but plenty of others are doing that. I serve on the periphery, to those approaching Buddhism from a cautious distance, and to those now distancing themselves from it. The first lot appreciates frank talk; the second lot craves it.


  7. Years ago, when in seminary, we had an elective class on prayer and healing.

    Our professor strongly advised us ever to be on the watch for our own control issues.

    She warned that one could easily mask fear or coercive instincts behind prayer on someone’s behalf.

    There was no ultimate way to know what is best for someone. Leave monasticism, return to monasticism.

    What is ultimately healing for someone?

    And not only the person — he or she is part of a chain of generations, a family, a network of friends, or needs to return to that community.

    We were advised always to exercise discernment of our own motives, never assume we knew what was best for someone, and in doubt, pray for what the person needed
    never for what we assumed the person needed.

    It becomes hazardous in the Buddhist traditions where one is taught to believe one
    ‘acquires/gains merit” or good karma toward an auspicious rebirth if one works
    on behalf of one’s lama or lineage or sect by praying for seemingly lost sheep or denies any fallibility on the part of one’s leaders or lineage holders.

    If one cannot imagine that a lineage or its system is potentially improvable because it is already the summit of human achievement, one has a static set up.

    The need to gain merit/good rebirth (or a place in heaven if one is from an Abrahamic faith) is a craving, a craving no different than that for conquest. Dogen Zenji warned of the dangers of “gaining mind”.

    And in his book, Devils of Loudon, Aldous Huxley wrote, (My paraphrase)

    “Whoremongers and money grubbers rarely feel proud of their activities.

    “But only the most perceptive theocentric mystics (substitute Dharma practitioners) are aware of the dangers when craving is exercised not on one’s own behalf, but vicariously, on behalf of a nation, a sect, or a person.”

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