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 editation.” 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.”

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