Buddha in the Distance

Refraining from all evil,
not clinging to birth and death,
working in deep compassion
for all sentient beings,
respecting those over you
and pitying those below you,
without any detesting or desiring,
worrying or lamentation —
this is what is called Buddha.
Do not search beyond it.

~ Dogen ~

That admonition is rich with wisdom and, as far as any of us know, truth. But few of us embrace the advice and take it for our own personal guidance. We search beyond acceptance and compassion, looking for something that we are sure is missing; something we cannot define. Yet I think the missing piece is the Buddha within us, buried beneath layer upon layer of the detestation and desire we’re taught to nurture almost from the moment we were born.

I am not a Buddhist. I do not believe in reincarnation, nor do I subscribe to the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path. But I think the teachings of Siddharta Gautama, the Buddha, hold valuable lessons for every human being, if only they would accept their fundamental application to the real world. Like many others, I know so-called Buddhists who are BNOs (Buddhists in Name Only…clever, huh?); people who pretend to subscribe to Buddhist teachings but who are, in their hearts, self-centered beasts who would not know the Buddha if he stood in front of them, glowing like kryptonite.  But if one shoves those dissemblers and charlatans aside, real “Buddhists,” whether “believers” in Buddhism or not, seem utterly calm; yet extraordinarily passionate about the possibility that humankind can achieve peace.

For years, I’ve felt an urge to explore Buddhism more deeply. Not for its “religious” aspects but as a source of serenity. Several years ago, a friend and I discussed spending a few days at an ashram in East Texas, with the objectives of cleansing our minds of the clutter of day-to-day life and replacing that confusion with serenity and order. I found it amusing that the reason we never pursued it beyond discussion was the fact that she was perpetually too busy. I could have gone alone, but at the time I was nervous about exposing my uneducated self to the already-initiated…without some sort of mental and emotional support. In other words, I was embarrassed by my own ignorance. Instead of doing something about replacing that ignorance with knowledge, I have spent the intervening years since she and I discussed it just “wishing” I had done something about it. Madness on steroids. That, I think, is one of the things Buddhism can help one address. Or maybe not. I don’t have the experience to say; yet I say it anyway. I recognize my lack of wisdom, but I feed it with nutrients comprised of ignorance. Empty calories, in a sense, but they make me feel and look full like a balloon.

It would surprise everyone but myself if one day I simply abandoned the life I’ve lived for the past 67 years in favor of immersion in a Buddhists educational experience designed to enable the participant to follow the Eightfold Path. Just writing that over-long sentence was frightening. Could I ever just walk away from it all? Just relinquish all my material possessions—at least for a year or two—in favor of the life of an ascetic. Asceticism, I think, opens one up to seeing reality more clearly and understanding it more completely. God, I’m writing as if I’m a mystic. I’m not. And I find mysticism more than a little irritating. I am so bloody mixed up. Like a Bloody Mary and a Screwdriver poured into a food processor, along with cake mix and pico de gallo.

I’ve written enough. I’m getting more and more distant from the Buddha that Dogen described.

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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