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Japan: Early Buddhism

"Japan: Early Buddhism" Continued...

Issue: "Troops hunt for weapons," June 14, 2003

The second Buddhist story concerns a monk, Katayana, who walked through a forest, saw a man, a woman, and a baby joyfully eating lunch, and burst out laughing at the deluded family values of the diners: Katayana told his disciples, "They're eating a fish that they caught from the lake. That fish was the grandfather in a former life. The dog who is now barking and begging for the fish was the grandmother. The baby the mother is holding to her breast was the husband's enemy, a man he had killed for assaulting his wife." Early Buddhist wisdom says our attachments are foolish, and that if we get rid of them we will control our emotions and avoid creating additional suffering for us in this life and future ones.

Some Buddhist handbooks teach the principle of nonattachment (to anyone as well as to anything) by recounting the life of the Buddha himself: He "renounced his family, wealth, and power and fled to the mountains to meditate upon the way of truth." They stress that the way to beat attachment is through meditation. For example, a strong attachment to a girlfriend's appearance can be beaten by looking deeper into her body, into what it's made of. Buddhists are to look past the skin and visualize the veins, organs, bacteria, and so on. Similarly, a Thai abbot stated, "Lust should be balanced by contemplation of loathsomeness.... Examine the body as a corpse and see the process of decay or think of the parts of the body such as the lungs, spleen, fat, feces, and so forth."

That animosity toward the body is frequent in Buddhism. One popular webpage asks, "What is the body really? What more is it than a skin bag filled with bones, flesh, disgusting organs, and fluids?" That view doesn't note that we are fearfully and wonderfully made, but much of Buddhism misses trees and emphasizes gloom about the forest. One of Christianity's most famous catechism answers is Westminster No. 1, which notes that man's chief purpose is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever. The Buddha's "noble truths" have nothing about accentuating that positive; they are about suffering and how to eliminate the negative.

The Noble Eightfold Path apparently laid out by Buddha as a way to eliminate suffering includes some wonderful elements: Right Speech (telling the truth in love), Right Action (saying no to wrong behavior such as killing, stealing, or fornicating), Right Livelihood (saying no to work that causes harm to others), and Right Mindfulness (being aware of surroundings). But its other aspects suggest an escape from reason: Right Meditation (developing deep mental calm through techniques that concentrate the mind), Right View (accepting the Buddhist worldview), Right Resolve (committing to total attitude adjustment), and Right Effort (the activities designed to bring about personality change).

Since early Buddhism does not hold that people need to be changed by God, it is full of tips on the effort needed to change ourselves. Breathing exercises can settle the mind-I've seen them work during the delivery of three of my children-and that's where Buddhists often begin. Many claim this can lead to great things: "Feel the air coming in and going out. Visualize the air as a sort of bluish incense smoke. You are creating a diversion, turning the attraction or attention of your mind to something other than" attachment to life-such as constructing in your mind a bridge.

Many would-be Buddhists find such techniques do not work, but Buddhist leaders emphasize perseverance: "If doing it once doesn't work, you can do it 21 times. You can build 21 bridges. And if you have all the time in the world, build 100 bridges." Serious Buddhists realize they must build thousands of bridges, and may make time by dropping out of other activities. The pursuit of tranquility can become agitated, because the individual's destiny is entirely his own responsibility.

If the individual does stabilize his emotions through such breathing exercises, analytical meditation can begin: Each person in a sense argues himself into believing that the ego is the enemy. Such meditation for conventional Buddhists is parallel to Bible reading for Jews and Christians, except that the process in Buddhism is internal, while for Bible readers it involves having an external message act upon the individual. Many Buddhists turn inward by repeating mantras-combinations of sounds and words-that they believe raise good vibrations within a person and open up his deeper consciousness. They say that reciting the same chants day after day produces not boredom but wholesome karma.

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