Posts Tagged ‘Buddhism’

Jo Durden Smith: The Essence of Buddhism

November 20, 2022

     Recently, some of my reading on matters spiritual has suggested that there is a certain overlap between some Buddhist beliefs and practices and those of Quakers; I have been seeking a basic introduction to Buddhism, about which I know almost nothing, with a view to exploring this further, and had high hopes when I found this book. However, I was to be disappointed.

The connections I wanted to explore were around one’s spiritual journey being an individual path and one requiring tolerance of others and their beliefs. The book’s opening chapter offered a clear history, both in terms of the people and the social context of the origins of Buddhism, insofar as these can be known with any certainty after two and a half millennia. Life is characterised by suffering; we need to become seekers after truth; the truth cannot be taught, only experienced. The idea of the ‘middle way’ made a good deal of sense.

In the following chapter some aspects were explained in more detail. The book then developed into a history of Buddhism and its various flavours across the oriental world, and a rather tortuous path through doctrinal disagreements and a certain amount of infighting, myriad debates about orthodoxy and so forth, most of which made no sense at all to a novice explorer. This came as a great surprise to me, and reminded me of what I am so much more familiar with from my own origins and background, namely the shocking history of Christianity and its move away from what it seemed originally to have been. And then I realised that perhaps I should not have been so shocked: is this not what happens with any large-scale spiritual or political movement: those who follow after the initial birth of a movement inevitably become embroiled in struggles for power and influence, and for determining the ‘original’ message and for preserving its ‘purity’ ie orthodoxy, expelling heretics and so on…

This depressed me greatly, and I realise that trying to develop an understanding of some of the key tenets of Buddhism will perhaps involve just as much care and wading through treacle as any attempt to understand any religion. I do feel a little defeated, having, perhaps naively, had a picture of Buddhism as a peaceful faith. I shall persist for a while in my attempts to understand, and would welcome any suggestion from my readers of books which may be helpful: it’s the principles I’m interested in, not the history and the arguments…

Hermann Hesse: Siddhartha

October 13, 2020

     I’m not sure what exactly it is that occasionally but regularly draws me back to a couple of Hermann Hesse’s novels. It’s probably the idea that the whole of life is a quest for meaning and understanding. Hesse was a very popular writer in my student and hippy days – oh so long ago now! – and I acquired almost all of his novels and short stories, most of which have sat untouched on the shelves since then. Only Narziss and Goldmund, and yesterday again, Siddhartha are the ones I return to. And in some way, I find them both very hard to read, not in the story sense, but because they confront me so forcefully with my own life and yearnings and search for understanding…

Siddhartha is short, readable at a sitting, and there is also a good librivox recording I’ve listened to a couple of times whilst on my travels. As the title suggests, it focuses on the Buddha and his followers, but with the focus on the spiritual quest of a single individual. As I read this time, I tried to plot out what he actually derived from his different life experiences.

He starts out with everything a young person could wish for: beauty, popularity, intellect but these are not enough: he rejects these, along with his father’s expectations of him. Already he has inklings that ultimately the answer to one’s yearnings must lie within oneself. He flees from his self, denying it and following the path of asceticism. He becomes suspicious of teachers: he has realised the importance of seeking one’s own enlightenment, not someone else’s. The parting from his lifetime friend Govinda, who makes a different choice, is painful to read, and yet the importance of fidelity to oneself is emerging. Alone-ness of the self, the utter aloneness of one’s individuality, is scary, and yet cannot be avoided.

He tries the worldly path of material success, wealth and beautiful women: self-gratification is shown to be both incredibly pleasurable and highly seductive, capable of permanently diverting one away from the quest. It is not the solution, for pursued to its end, even what you had previously learned will be lost. Finally, realising that this is happening to him, he walks away from it all. Indulging the self had repulsed him.

Water, a river becomes a metaphor, as he returns to a ferry crossing he used many years before, and attaches himself as an apprentice ferryman for the remainder of this existence, realising that time does not have to exist, and that the long search which has occupied his life in different ways, is actually an ongoing and unending preparation of the soul…

Or, that is what this novel said to me this time around. I hope I have another call to read it one day.

Alexandra David-Neel: With Mystics and Magicians in Tibet

June 18, 2018

41JaZMmXl6L._AC_US218_It was a bit of a surprise to come across and eighty year-old cerise Penguin that clearly hadn’t ever been read: there were some uncut pages near the beginning. I’ve come across quite a few references to Alexandra David-Neel, who travelled widely in the far east and Tibet a century or so ago, and was greatly interested in Buddhism of all kinds, in various travel journals I’ve read, and so was quite looking forward to reading something by her. But this was the wrong book: there is another, which is more generally about her travels, and which I haven’t acquired yet, whereas this was about all sorts of esoteric aspects of Buddhist practice, which (a) I’m not wildly interested in and (b) I found incredibly far-fetched, as well as tedious.

I was mildly interested in how an educated Westerner could come to understand and practise such arcane aspects of the religion, and I was impressed by her genuine interest, curiosity and commitment to further knowledge through lengthy learning and practice.

But I did also find myself wondering if there were ever a traveller from an Eastern land to the West, who had been wowed, for instance, by the Catholic Church, its ceremonies, rites and rituals, monasteries and cathedrals, and the city of Rome itself in such a way… or is this a very early example of a Westerner seeking enlightenment in the East having not found it at home, finding a lack of meaning in Christianity, an emptiness? In which case, what is it that Christianity lacks, that, for instance, Buddhism offers? The book didn’t offer anything here.

A picture of the great primitiveness of Tibet at that time – relatively speaking – comes across in the few passages where she writes about her travels through northern India, the Chinese borderlands, and Tibet itself. Her experiences of various meditation techniques and practices were very interesting, but I’m afraid that much of her description of rites and rituals did make a good deal of Buddhist practice seem pointless, meaningless, even irrational, in the same way that an outsider viewing much of Catholic ritual might fail to see the point. It’s not that I’m anti-religion, for I’m not, but I’m interested in seeing behind the superficial, and understanding what people are really looking for, and have the impression that ritual gets in the way, or obscures. A frustrating skim-read in the end, though I will still look out for her other book.

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