It’s not typical of me to read more than one book at a time but with the rate that it’s been taking me to get through one book lately, I’ve decided to make my life harder by trying to read more than one book at a time. I’ve started reading non-fiction during the day when I’m feeling all inquisitive and intelligent and fiction at night when I just want to relax and have a good laugh.
I suppose I could just read the one book all day but so far this is working for me because now I get to read the latest Spellman Files book, The Spellmans Strike Again by Lisa Lutz, a great new book on food and dieting that is so not typical of books on that subject (Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat by Michelle May) and The Naked Buddha by Adrienne Howley all at the same time which is such a fun mixture and I’m actually enjoying all three books equally which is always a nice treat.
Anyway, I expect to have a lot to say about all three books when I eventually review them – but I just picked up The Naked Buddha today and started reading it at the coffee shop while BB and I had a light snack while MM was at the Y – and it just immediately made me sit up straight and take notice. I’ve been interested in Buddhism for a couple years now in so far as, “Buddhism sounds like it must be neat but I don’t really know anything about it.”
If you know me, you likely know that although religion interests me, organized religion tends to get under my skin. I had a good go of it with a Unitarian Universalist Church back in New England but felt a bit lack luster about the local one here and in general decided that I didn’t have the energy at the time to continue going to church every week. I knew that I wasn’t there for a religious reason so much as for intellectual stimulation and I decided to continue my intellectual pursuits in private. I’ve always felt that any idea of religion or spirituality is a personal, private matter when you get down to it, and also that there are better uses of my time. Agree with me or disagree with me as you will, I’m not looking to spark a debate, just laying the ground work for how I came to pick up this book which I can now explain in two parts:
The first part, is that the “minister” of the UU church in New England happened to also be Buddhist. That was the cool thing about that church – the followers came from all walks of life and few of them agreed about religion – some were atheists, others Christians or Jews – and even Buddhists. How do they all manage to get along within one church and why do they go anyway? Well they all agreed that “religions” were all basically the same at the root of it all and that the purpose for a church should be for people to get together and spread the idea of living a decent, ethical life and helping the community and world around them in any way they can. And when I heard that our “minster” was Buddhist I thought – how very cool. If we’d stayed in the area longer, I no doubt would have asked her more about it, but we moved less than a year after finding them.
Then, a month ago or so, I started to finally read Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert – a book which has sat on my bookshelf for a long, long, embarrassingly long time – but I finally read it (and loooooved it to pieces) and there it was again, that Buddhism thing. And again I thought, “I really need to find out what Buddhism is all about.” Because I had this feeling, this hunch, that there was something there for me. So after my husband refused to let me spend money to buy a book about it, my interests tending to lean towards fleeting and my bookshelf tending to lean towards collapsing at any second due to the sheer volume of books I’m asking it to hold; I went to the library last week and picked up two books on the subject – actually one on Buddhism and one just on meditation. The Naked Buddha being the first.
(Man can I ramble on or what? I am really sorry if this is confusing you.)
So – yes – I picked up the book and although I’m only 28 pages into it, I already have stuff I want to mention here, get written down on cyber paper before I forget it. Because Dan isn’t home for me to go OMG to and prattle on, I thought I’d prattle on to you and pretend to be very clever and well written while doing so. And so for anyone still reading, who hasn’t bored of this very, very lengthy introduction or maybe skipped down to get to the good bits because you, too, have a vague interest in Buddhism, let’s begin:
Quotes and Commentary and Stuff on the First 28 pages of The Naked Buddha by Adrienne Howlet:
What I find most interesting about Buddhism is that the Buddha taught for forty years and then invited his followers not to believe a word he had told them until they investigated it for themselves. He did not demand unquestioned obedience and devotion, unlike many who set themselves up as teachers of Buddhism today. He taught alertness, constant investigation and clear-sightedness, among other things. – from the Introduction (page XIII)
She goes on to mention that Buddha never claimed to be a God, a child of God, or even a prophet. He did not set about to create a religion in any sense of the word, but simply to enlighten people on how to best deal with and understand suffering in the world. And I like that he emphasizes that people who listen to what he has to say should then investigate it for themselves and make up their own mind. This was perhaps the first thing I read in this book that made me think, “ah ha.” I firmly believe in thinking for yourself – and I’m sure I’m not alone in that.
Although I can’t say for certain, having not actually been around when he was alive, it seems to me that Buddha never intended his teachings to be religious in the typical sense of the word at all – he seemed to be much more focused on the here and now than the afterlife. Howlet writes on page 16:
He consistently refused to contend with his questioners on any subject of a metaphysical nature. He neither agreed nor disagreed, telling such questioners that imaginative speculation on certain subjects was useless.
She goes on to say on page 18:
… that whatever opinion one might have about the questions asked [about the afterlife], there still remained the very real problems of birth, old age, decay, death, sorrow, pain, grief and distress… To explain these matters, he said, was useful and helpful in avoiding unskillful behavior and gaining nonattachment, tranquility and full realization.
On page 25 she really sums it up best with:
For the Buddha, everything outside the range of experience was speculation. If people believed that countless reincarnations were necessary for enlightenment and spent time in speculation on this, they were wasting time. For those who sought enlightenment in this life, time was more precious.
So, I can only assume that whether the Buddha was at all religious or not, that had little to do with what he was aiming to teach. If Howlet is correct, I’d imagine that the Buddha and I would agree that dwelling on the afterlife seems rather … unimportant … when there is still the here and now to contend with.
And you know I don’t claim to have all the answers, having read my hefty 28 pages or so on Buddhism. I am just giddily quoting to you the stuff I thought was kind of awesome, that I sort of think I might agree with. I can’t help but marvel that twenty five hundred years ago some really smart guy named Siddhartha might have felt what I feel and thought what I think, at least to an extent. And he’s legendary, you know?
Anyway, I know you are probably getting antsy but I do have one more topic I wanted to mention. Howlet also briefly explained the Buddhist views on vegetarianism – a topic which also interests me. We’ve been eating a largely pescetarian diet for awhile now ever since I got a little too upset about the meat industry and how animals are treated in slaughterhouses and so forth. We kept seafood in our diet because it seemed fairly easy to get a hold of wild caught seafood but even now, as easy as it is, I find I miss some meats.
And it isn’t just the eating of the animal that bothers me, although it makes me a bit sad or maybe just compassionate, it’s really the life that animal led up until it got on my plate that bothers me. Howlet writes on page 19 that:
If there is anything close to a commandment, it is this – THINK. Think about what you are doing, why you are doing it and what could be some of the most likely outcomes. In this respect, Buddhists attempt to act skillfully rather than unskillfully to avoid extremes of behavior. They attempt to follow what Buddhists call the middle way.
That bit about the middle way immediately caught my attention because I tend to be a really moderate person – you know those personality quizzes where you rate yourself on a 1 to 10 and find out what political persuasion or religion or romantic type you are? Yeah, I’m almost always FIVES. The middle. Anyway, she continues…
Naturally, you can do only the best you can. Vegetarianism is easy in countries where fruits and vegetables are easily grown. Where extensive raising of vegetables for food is not part of the culture, such as in Tibet or Mongolia, meat is a necessary part of the diet. In China and Japan, fish and soybean products provide necessary protein. Fowl, eggs and fish do this in other cultures.
…If it is ever necessary to kill to eat, the Buddhist does so with compassion. Thanking the bird or animal sharpens the awareness that this animal is a suffering sentient being, just as you are. Responsibility for your actions always lies with yourself in Buddhism.
This really made me think. She also mentions that when the nuns and monks were begging for food that the Buddha advised them to eat whatever was given – and to never ask that anything be killed for them. This was more about being gracious for what was offered and not being picky. But I like the idea of simply being practical and compassionate. And that nothing has to be extreme or all or nothing. Do what makes sense today is what I take from this and I like that.
We actually talked about the whole meat or no meat thing recently and agreed that we’re planning to continue not buying meat at home – mostly because it’s easier to prep and clean up a vegetarian dish and it’s a little bit cheaper and often times healthier. But if we find ourself with access to farm raised (non corn-fed, etc.) meat or we are at a nice restaurant, we might treat ourselves (or really I might treat my husband who, god bless him, is mostly just doing this for me). This might sound like a cop out to you, but to me, it’s just sensible and knowing that all I’m asking of myself is to be compassionate and aware is enough for me.
I am not an Extreme and the world is not black and white. I am capable of thinking and changing and growing and making my own decisions today and tomorrow, doing what works best for me, my family and the situation. Make of that what you will.
Anyway, I think that’s enough babbling for today. To anyone who read all of this – you’re basically a rock star and deserve an Ultimate Bloggy Buddy Badge of Honor. Unfortunately I’m fresh out of those right now, so I’ll have to get back to you on that. ;o)