What is Buddhism? Part Three – By Bill Cunningham

In part three of his five part series, Bill Cunningham explores the meaning of Buddhism to 21st Century practitioners.

In Part Two we saw that, according to Buddhism, our basic problem is that we want to be happy without suffering, but life isn’t that way. Let me clarify why this is so.

Obviously, we cannot be happy at the same moment that we are sad, angry, or hateful. So, what causes us to become sad, angry, or hateful? It is NOT the car horn, the car parking ahead of us, the hand gesture, the rain, or the illness or death that causes our sadness, anger, or hatefulness. As Andrew Olendski noted (in his superb presentation of the picnic example), if we liked rainy picnics, or didn’t care about rain, we would not become angry when it rains on picnic day. We become angry because we don’t want rain! We want sunshine, and perhaps a comfortable breeze. It’s the conflict between how we our wish reality to be and actual reality that causes our anger.

We don’t want to be separated from the beautiful weather on picnic day; or to be separated from people we love or admire. But we are. We also don’t want to be in the company of people who annoy us. But here they are, as if glued to us. We act as if we hold a secret confidence in the belief: “I exist.” “I am real and deserving of something better than what I now receive.” “Who ordered this truck load of dung?” (as Ajahn Brahm asks ). “Take away this unwanted state of affairs and bring me what I desire and deserve. Now!”

Underlying our desire for things to last longer than they do is our tacit assumption that we will live forever, or at least we ought to. We may know better. We may deny the assumption. But we act as if we are counting on it. Whatever I am, whatever you are, it’s not a lump of some kind of eternal
and unchangeable stuff. Whatever we are is more like a process that began at some time and it will end at some time. Our belief or desire that we are something eternal and immutable is a fraud, a scam, based solely upon our craving for more life than we will have.

The message so far is this: We want enduring happiness but we act in ways that prevent us and others from achieving it. We act unwisely because of
our inappropriate, unwholesome thoughts and feelings. We seem to sleepwalk through life, habitually repeating the same ineffective actions, and perhaps cursing the cosmos when our repeated misguided efforts fail to improve anything.

This — is — a – nightmare!

But the nightmare is not real life. It’s not the heart of the Buddhist message. It’s a kind of back story. The heart of Buddhism is the topic of the
next part of this series.

By Bill Cunningham

Note: This is the third of five parts of a serialized version composed of about half of an address to the Philadelphia Buddhist Association, Sunday, September 9, 2012.

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