The internet is full of debate regarding whether or not Buddhism is a religion or a philosophy. For the purposes of this blog, we will be examining the psychological/philosophical aspects of Buddhism. We will not be adding to the debate on the religious/theistic nature of Buddhism. This is to keep the conversation more open and expansive because a philosophical discussion is focused on a love of knowledge rather than following a set code or dogma.
Defining Buddhism is a bit tricky. The word didn’t appear in the West until the early to mid-1800s. In fact, there are many people out there who say that “Buddhism” isn’t really a specific belief system. This is like saying that “Christianity” isn’t a specific viewpoint because there are Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Protestant, and many others. There are also many “Buddhisms”. These include the Theravada tradition of Southeast Asia (Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Sri Lanka), and the Mahayana form, practiced primarily in Vietnam as well as in Central and East Asia (China, Tibet, Nepal, Bhutan, Korea, Taiwan and Japan). In addition, Mahayana subdivides into a unique Tibetan form as well as the Zen/Chan tradition (especially prominent in Japan and Korea). There are numerous modified manifestations of Western Buddhism, increasingly popular in Canada and the United States as well as in Europe. Regardless of its origin, the core focus of the Buddhism is to escape a cycle of “suffering” through self-knowledge. Suffering can be defined as pain or mental/emotional unhappiness caused by negative life events. According to ancient Buddhist scriptures, we experience suffering because we “turn away from reality”. This could be taken to mean we don’t suffer from these events but rather we suffer because we are not paying attention to them.
Buddhist philosophy is primarily focused on self-knowledge. This means finding out more about who you are, recognizing your choices, actions, thoughts, emotions, etc. This concept of self-knowledge is an expression of the age-old saying “Know Thyself”. Understand yourself is the catalyst for all of the transformative spiritual paths. These paths extend throughout time, and geography and all have determined self-knowledge as the cornerstone in authentic happiness.
Another element to Buddhist philosophy is that it is “Radical” meaning that it aims to challenge your beliefs and assumptions about the world and your experience in it. This is important to understand because it took many years to develop the mind each of us is living with today. As a result of making such a huge shift, the benefit of applying the psychological insights of the Buddha requires diligence, perseverance, and discernment as their application will naturally encounter the resistances and obstacles inherent in our conditioned nature.
The Six Perfections
What is the basis of the Buddhist way of viewing, and thus also understanding, the world? Buddhism presents a process to become a more understanding version of ourselves. This process is known as the “six perfections”. You can think of the word “perfection” to be similar to our use of the word “goal”. In other words, we should all strive toward these attributes.
The six perfections include:
- Perfection of Generosity
- Perfection of Morality
- Perfection of Patience
- Perfection of Energy
- Perfection of Meditation
- Perfection of Wisdom
If we are on a path that puts these six goals in play, we are much less likely to be distracted. Less distraction means less attachment to the material world and the ability to reach deeper meditative states. The six perfections help us pay more attention to the world around us.
Let’s take a look into each one of these six perfections.
Generosity. This means giving out of a genuine wish to benefit others. This cannot include a hope of reward or recognition. There must be no selfishness connected to this form of giving. Even charity work done to “feel good about yourself” cannot be included in this practice. The reason for this is simple. You will be distracted by the emotions stirred up by not being recognized and you cannot be peaceful and emotional at the same time.
Morality. When we speak of morality here, we are not talking about unquestioned obedience to a list of rules. When we look deeper into Buddhist morality, also known as precepts, we will find them to be like “training wheels”. This goal of morality, unlike that of following another’s dictates, teaches us to find our own balance. Once you have found yourself, you will not need any instructions anymore and you can just naturally “be yourself”. This will significantly reduce the amount of regret that you have in your life, thus decreasing any emotional distraction you may feel.
Patience. When we speak of patience we can also mean endurance or composure. When translated into English it literally means “able to withstand.” It embraces several forms of patience, including the ability to endure personal hardship; patience with others; and the acceptance of truth. Accepting truth means admitting difficult truths about ourselves, as well as accepting as fact the imagined nature of our existence. There is an old saying in China, a moment of patience can prevent a lifetime of regret. Being a more patient will help you have more clarity of mind as you will be less distracted by your emotions.
Energy. Virya, which is generally translated as “Energy”, is an ancient Indian-Iranian word that means “hero”. It is also the root of the English word “virile.” So, striving to be “energetic” in this case is about making a courageous & heroic effort to understand yourself. To practice it, we must first foster our own character and courage. We engage in physical & mental training. After gaining new knowledge, we devote fearless efforts to the benefit of others. This is a very strong and exciting motivator to develop and grow as a person.
Meditation. Meditation is a discipline intended to cultivate the mind. Meditation can also mean “concentration.” In this case, great concentration is directed to attain clarity of the mind, as well as heightened awareness. The Indo/Iranian word for meditation, Dhyana, is closely related to the word Samadhi, which also means “concentration”. But, Samadhi refers to a focused mental practice in which all sense of self starts to drop away. Both of these forms of mediation form the basis of gathering the final perfection, the goal of wisdom. Through practicing meditation we can build the parts of brain that help us stay on the path to any of the goals we have set. Many successful people are avid meditators, because it helps them focus on their goals, which we could also refer to as their own “perfections”.
Wisdom. Wisdom is the direct experience of sunyata or emptiness. Very simply, this is the teaching that all phenomena are hollow, meaning they are more space/energy than form/mass. Given our current understanding of the physics equation E=MC squared, we know that all phenomena are empty. If you have used a wireless device today, you have used the principle of E=MC squared. However, this understanding of the emptiness of the material world cannot be comprehended by intellect alone. We need to experience it. So how do we experience it? We directly experience it through the practice of the other perfections: generosity, morality, patience, energy, and meditation.
Using these ideas as a starting point you can begin to apply the philosophy of Buddhism to daily life. Obviously, this is easier said than done! But, these six simple steps can do a lot for your level of awareness and peace of mind. They can also help you become more of a hero in your own life!
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