Buddhism Offers Freedom From Cycles of Rebirth, Desire

By MARTIN DeAGOSTINO / South Bend Tribune Friday 25 Sept 1998

SOUTH BEND – Ontology, cosmology, theology. These are the great concerns of most of the world’s religions, whether monotheistic or polytheistic.

But not of classical Buddhism, which posits no theories of being (ontology), of universal origins (cosmology) or of the nature and actions of the divine (theology).

What Buddhism offers instead is a set of simple ethical precepts predicated on this essential teaching—that the seemingly inescapable sufferings of life are caused by desire and can only be cured by overcoming desire.

So taught Siddhartha Gautama, a charismatic religious leader who lived in northern India in the sixth century B.C. His contemporaries named him Buddha—a Sanskrit word meaning the Enlightened One—based on their belief that the one-time sybarite and ascetic had attained perfect knowledge.

In the centuries since then, the Buddha’s adherents have amplified, clarified and modified his original teachings, often by incorporating pre-Buddhist religious ideas of their cultures. Those modifications are such that Buddhism today is expressed in many ways in many cultures, from the simple meditational practices of Zen Buddhism to the elaborate devotional rituals of Tibetan Buddhism.

Differing in myriad ways, each strain of Buddhism nonetheless holds to the Buddha’s essential teachings, called the Four Noble Truths and Noble Eightfold Path. And like the Buddha himself, most contemporary Buddhists seek an enlightenment that will free them from life’s existential sufferings.

“Classical Buddhism is entirely dedicated and focused on curing an illness,” says Tom Brown, a South Bend practitioner of Zen Buddhism, “and the illness that all humans share is having a desire for things beyond what we need… We don’t know when enough is enough.”

For the past nine years. Brown has led a weekly Zen meditation service that draws a small and often changing cast of meditators. Brown calls the service “sitting,” and compares it to prayer in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Unlike conventional prayer, however, sitting Zen does not involve the recitation of established or spontaneous meditations. Rather, it encourages the disciplined awareness of each moment, uncluttered by extraneous thoughts.

“Talking about it doesn’t give the flavor of it at all,” Brown says, although he does not disagree with explanatory phrases such as “practicing mindfulness” or the once-common 1960s bromide, “be here now.”

“It’s a wonderful thing to say,” Brown says, “but it’s a hard thing to do.”

Brown, 53, has been interested in Buddhism since reading about it while growing up as a middle-class Methodist in Huntington, Ind. But it was not until the late 1960s, while he was living in Chicago, that he had access to a Zen Buddhist temple where he could immerse himself in Buddhist teachings and practices.

“I spent every minute I could over there,” he says. “I found the deepest pool, and the deepest end of the pool I could find, and I jumped in.”

As a meditation-focused religion, Brown’s brand of zazen—sitting Zen—does not require gatherings of people or specific ritual practices. But Brown has always encouraged others to join his sangha—a community or assemblage of believers—and he employs simple rituals such as incense lighting and chanting to invest a sense of the sacred in each sitting.
But unlike Christian evangelists or Islamic proselytes, Brown—and Buddhism in general — see no need to promote Buddhism to the world or present it as the sole true religion. “I’ll sit, and I’ll advertise that I’m sitting and just wait for people to show up,” Brown says. ‘That’s missionary zeal in Zen.”

According to Jan Nattier, associate professor of religious studies at Indiana University, between 1 million and 2 million Americans consider themselves practicing Buddhists.

Broadly speaking, Nattier divides them into three groups: “ethnic Buddhists” who were born into the religion as Asians or Asian Americans; “evangelical Buddhists” who encountered the faith through Asian-based organizations with American missions; and “elite Buddhists” who discovered the religion during self-initiated searches for religious meaning.

The South Bend Zen Group exemplifies the latter, at least in broad terms. “People come because they’re looking for something else,” Brown says.

According to group participants, “something else” includes spirituality in its broadest sense; a deep connection with nature that is rarely expressed in the Judeo-Christian tradition; and a belief that Zen meditation has practical value.

“What is important to me is, I find more meaning in my life with this type of spirituality,” Paul Goettlich says.

Lev Levenson, another long-time participant in the South Bend Zen Group, says Buddhism illuminates the human condition more deeply and clearly than other religions. “For me, Buddhism is a kind of expertamential existentialism,” he says.

Americans have long thought of Buddhism as more practical than supernatural religion, Nattier says, despite its history in many Asian cultures as a highly devotional religion with complex mythologies and exotic rituals. Yet Nattier says the American take on Buddhism is not inconsistent with core Buddhist traditions, which encourage people to pursue those practices that advance their enlightenment and ignore the ones that don’t.

“That allows a lot of room for adapting, with a good conscience, to a new culture,” Nattier says.

No one in the South Bend Zen Group believes in reincarnation, for example, although the Buddhist term “samsara” refers to the endless cycle of rebirth, and the Dalai Lama—perhaps the world’s most famous Buddhist—is believed to be the 14th incarnation of the heavenly deity of compassion and mercy.

The issue is so contentious in America, in fact, that the Buddhist magazine Tricycle devoted its Summer 1997 edition to the debate.

Brown’s calm response to all such questions is adaptive. Buddhism does not require a belief in any particular thing, he says; it only encourages spiritual inquiry through rational means.

“I like to call it a secular religion,” he says, “but in fact it’s not secular. It is a religion.”

For some people in the South Bend Zen Group, the adaptationist approach not only allows them to pursue a secular-like Buddhism, but also to incorporate it into their previous religious frameworks without apparent conflict.

John Sniegocki, a doctoral student in Christian social ethics at the University of Notre Dame, says Zen’s lack of doctrinal claims and its sound ethical precepts allow Roman Catholics like him to simultaneously practice both religions.

Ditto, says Margaret Pfeil, another Catholic Notre Dame doctoral student. “This is a way to call forth the strengths of my own tradition,” she says.

Even Brown, who has been sitting for most of his adult life, still describes himself as Buddhist and Christian, without contradiction. “Buddhism is not a religion that causes conflict,” he says. “It just does not.”

Yet there are conflicts within Buddhism, just as there are in other religions. Writing in the Fall 1995 edition of Tricycle, Nattier says elite Buddhists “have redefined Buddhism as synonymous with the practice of meditation.” Other groups, notably a missionary Buddhist group called Soka Gakkai, teach that authentic Buddhism must involve a particular ritual chant. And ethnic Buddhists combine language, traditional festivals and even foods into their orbit of Buddhism.

“In American Buddhism today,” Nattier writes, “some of us—perhaps most of us—are unwittingly engaged in the practice of defining large groups of our fellow Buddhists out of existence.”

The South Bend Zen Group deflects all such questions as irrelevant. The meditators meet in their own way, for their own purposes, while remaining mindful of the larger world of Buddhism.

“It’s a living tradition; we’re part of it,” Marsha Carmichael says.

Brown’s own litmus test for the authenticity of his group’s approach to Buddhism is simple.

“My answer is sit, sit, sit,” he says, “and find out if it is authentic.”

An explanation by Paul Goettlich:
Tom was a dear friend of mine who was taken from us in 2012 by Pancreatic cancer. He was literally there one day and gone the next for me. I called him on the prior day and he sounded fine, the normal relaxed, good-natured person I’d always known. He’d helped me through a lot. At one point in our conversation, he hinted that something was different. I asked him what was going on and he told me in his calm, unassuming manner that he was dying from pancreatic cancer, that he had little time left on Earth. Just like that, he told me he was dying and had but a day or two left. A couple months prior, he felt ill and visited an MD. He thought he had more time. But he was talking to me now from hospice care. He told me he was completely at peace with the process and that the staff was keeping him comfortable. I let him go and promised to call back the next day. When I did, the line never answered. My last conversation with him was on 8 March 2012. Here it is, more than 20 years later — 18 June 2022 — and he’s still on my mind. He was indeed one of the extremely few beautiful people. And I feel extremely fortunate to have been close to him.

Thomas Eugene Brown Obituary
Nov. 14, 1946 – March 9, 2012

Tom and his daughter at Lake Michigan abt 1997 (Photo: Paul Goettlich)

SOUTH BEND – Thomas E. Brown, 65, passed away at 9:35 p.m. on Friday, March 9, 2012, at his home with his wife and daughter at his side. Tom was born on November 14, 1946, in Huntington, IN, to the late Thomas Edwin and Mary Waneta (Schweickhardt) Brown. He had lived in South Bend since 1966. On August 15, 1982, in South Bend, he married Janice L. Root who survives.

Tom is survived by his wife, Jan, and his daughter, Mary Katherine Brown of South Bend. Also surviving are his brothers-in-law, sisters-in-law, nieces and nephews, great-nieces and nephews who were all special to him. Tom was preceded in death by an infant daughter, Mary Annakatherine Brown, and his sister, Barbara Preston.

He was the valedictorian of his graduating class at Warren High School and attended DePauw University for two years before leaving school to move to South Bend with friends to play music. While doing so (and working other jobs) he earned a B.A. in Psychology at IUSB in 1971.

Tom became active in the anti-war movement and with other volunteers formed the Rap Center that offered free substance abuse counseling, and supported conscience objectors as well as draft resisters. When the Rap Center became part of the Mental Health Center, Tom cut off his pony tail, traded his corduroys for 3-piece suits, parked his bike and drove his Pinto to the office.

He met Jan when she joined the then Madison Center as a social worker. After a year of marriage, Tom decided to make a change in his career direction and enrolled in IV Tech where he graduated with an Associate Degree in Computer Programming in 1985.

During this time he continued to play music and joined Denny Snyder and Ron Monsma to form Southside Denny and the Skintones. They worked professionally for 5 years, performing locally, around the Midwest and in Canada.

In 1990 Tom returned to his computer work as the Computer Tutor. He taught people to use their computer hardware and software and worked as a consultant for small businesses Tom was proud to be an at-home dad for Mary Kate during her elementary school years while running his at-home business. During this time, he continued to play music locally with the Foggy Knights. Tom gave up his home business when he was hired as the part-time IT Specialist for River Bend Hose Specialty in South Bend. He has always worked part-time with the support and encouragement of Jan and Mary Kate so that he could participate in volunteer endeavors that were meaningful to him and the community.

He organized and led the South Bend Zen Meditation group for many years. He was a member of the St. Joseph Valley Greens supporting local and state candidates for public office. In 2007 he ran for Mayor of South Bend as a write-in Green Candidate. He also taped, edited and archived 100 video tapes for Green TV. The tapes are now being re-mastered at the University of New Mexico for archival purposes and re-use.

Tom was a member of the Michiana Linux Users Group and was passionate about the open source software movement. He was instrumental in organizing Free Geek Michiana, a group that seeks donations of used computers, rehabs them, installs non-proprietary (free) software and gives the PCs and laptops away to individuals or families who complete a designated number of volunteer or training hours.

Tom was often called upon by not-for-profit groups to help with computer and networking problems. He gladly provided this service as part of his commitment to the community.

A celebration of Tom’s life will be held at 3:00 p.m. on Sunday, March 18, 2012, at the Prince of Peace Church of the Brethren, 53105 N. Ironwood Drive, South Bend, IN. Rev. David Hendricks will officiate. Friends may visit with the family one hour prior to services at the church. A private burial will be held at Southlawn Cemetery, South Bend. Palmer Funeral Home-Guisinger Chapel, South Bend, is assisting with funeral arrangements. In lieu of flowers, contributions in memory of Thomas E. Brown may be donated to The Center for Hospice, WVPE Public Radio or to the Prince of Peace Church of the Brethren.

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