What is Buddhism? Part Two – Bill Cunningham

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

All religions describe a universal human problem and prescribe a solution to it. Here’s how Buddhists see it. We all have ups and downs. Sometimes things go as we wish and sometimes they don’t. When things go as we wish, we are pleased. And when they don’t often we become pissed off.

We inherit this pattern from infancy: we want something when we want it; waiting is intolerable; and no body else’s wishes are relevant. Later we develop a repertoire of skills and even give some regard to wishes of others. But our infantile, short-fused egotism continues to pop up. Consider the following examples.

We’re waiting to make a left turn safely, and some other driver impatiently punishes us with a long loud horn, followed by a shaken fist or other manual gesture. We may not shout or mutter, but somewhere in our gut we feel a fire warming for action.

Or, we have planned an outdoor picnic with family and friends, but it rains all day. With great disappointment or rising anger, we may harbor very unpleasant thoughts and desires, even if we keep it quietly bottled inside us. Perilous portent!

Or, again, a dear loved one becomes seriously ill, or is struck by a truck and is airlifted to a hospital trauma center, or dies after a long and painful illness. Enormous sadness seizes us, threatening to keep us locked in despair forever. Eventually we may supplement grief and sadness with anger at the cosmos for this turn of events.

Certainly, life is not always bad. But for all the good times we have, this is not likely anyone’s dream of a wholly satisfactory life.

How is it that this infantile drive often control us? It often controls us, because we often do not adequately monitor our emotions, habits, and reasoning. Often we drift along, as if we are moral paragons who usually do everything right. We seem not to understand that our actions
are driven by our thoughts and feelings, by our mind or heart, as Bill Stauffer reminded us recently. When we think or feel anger, hatred, indifference, toward other people, we are likely to speak and act in angry, hateful, or indifferent ways. But, of course, we could as easily practice and form other habits that make us into caring, compassionate persons.

This, very briefly, is part of the Buddhist description of our universal human problem. Put simply, we want to be happy without suffering, and
life isn’t that way. This examination of our situation continues in Part III.

By Bill Cunningham

Note: This is the second 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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