Buddhism in a Nutshell

by Kenneth Champeon, Apr 24, 2002 | Destinations: China / Beijing

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Review of Laurence-Khantipalo Mills' Buddhism Explained, Silkworm Books, 1999.

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We get sick, grow old, and die. Perhaps one day the white coats will find a way to make us perpetually healthy, young, and alive; and certainly there have been astonishing advances in that direction, though for much of humanity they remain out of reach. And for each disease conquered (smallpox), another seems to spring up (AIDS), as if Nature were gently reminding us that, for all our power, immortality and perfection are not our lot.

Of all animals only we seem to perceive our mortality. Religions have been invented largely to make this grim knowledge bearable. Thus Christianity promises everlasting life and many Eastern religions promise rebirth. These promises are not just consoling, but also help to enforce morality. Religions are also intended to make suffering bearable in this life. Christianity tells us that patience will be rewarded and Islam says that persecution in the name of the faith is glorious. We can endure anything, even our own extinction, so long as we have a reason to do so.

Buddhism also takes suffering for a fact. But while other religions offer a kind of reward for it - a pair of wings, an otherworldly harem - Buddhism proposes that suffering is entirely unnecessary. It does not offer a reward so much as a cure. And the cure is not an escape from suffering, but a bold confrontation with it. If religion is the opiate of the masses, Buddhism is a kind of castor oil.

Countless books purport to explain Buddhism to Western audiences, but many of them emphasize theory at the expense of practice, or vice versa. Thus many people can enumerate the Four Noble Truths or practice sitting meditation without knowing the connection between the two. Ideally one who is both scholar and practitioner should write a book on Buddhism, with, as it were, one foot each in the West and the East.

Buddhism Explained by Laurence-Khantipalo Mills fits the bill, as its Western author has spent many years studying Buddhism in Asia, and the book gives equal weight to the theoretical and the practical. Indeed, much of the book debunks Western misconceptions about Buddhism, particularly that it is a) fatalistic, b) pessimistic, c) atheistic, d) "selfish", and e) a supporter of reincarnation. Buddhism is causal, but not fatalistic. Like Catholicism, Buddhism holds that humans are endowed with the power of decision. But Buddhism emphasizes that once a decision is acted upon, the effects of that action are inescapable. They cannot be forestalled by the confessional, but will bear fruit in this life or one following.

As for pessimism, Buddhism does not counsel gloom so much as honesty. For example, Mills points out that "it is just not done in the best society to converse frankly about death" - because death is, of course, gloomy, as anyone who has ever attended a morbid Christian funeral can attest. "But in Buddhist lands," Mills continues, "like Thailand, death and disease are discussed quite openly" - because death, like it or not, is a fact. And facts are neither gloomy nor happy but thinking (or a funeral director) makes them so.

A common element of Buddhist training is to view things as they really are. A tasty slice of bacon, for example, is a charred strip of bloody flesh shaved from an animal fond of wallowing in poo. Behind the sweet face of that beautiful woman is a skull that would scare the wits out of you. Again, this is not a gloomy outlook, but a scientific one. If Buddhism is pessimistic, then so is science.

Buddhism is not monotheistic, but it is also not atheistic. One has to remember that Buddhism was an offshoot of Hinduism with its baffling pantheon of gods and that many of these gods are still worshipped in countries where Buddhism has taken root. Certainly a true Buddhist need not believe in these gods, just as a true Christian need only try to live like Christ.

In noting Buddhism's theistic elements, Mills is acknowledging fact. But he also seems to be on the defensive against those who would associate Buddhism with godless Communism. Mills does not like Communism. He says as much in the book. I wonder why. Perhaps it is that the book was originally written thirty years ago, when Communism threatened many a Buddhist land, and appeared to be more threatening than it actually was.

To the charge that Buddhism is selfish because it preaches self-reliance and self-help, Mills replies with the words of the Buddha: "How can one person stuck in the mud pull out another also stuck in the mud?" Put another way, a drowning man cannot rescue a drowning man. Only a strong swimmer can do that, and one becomes a strong swimmer not foremost by looking around for drowning people to rescue. Buddhism tells us to perfect ourselves first, to rid ourselves of the three sources of "all the various unwholesome states" - Greed, Aversion, and Delusion. (I capitalize only because Mills does.) Only then will our attempts at "doing good" actually do any good.

I am not alone in having said that Buddhists believe in reincarnation. Mills may be splitting hairs when he says that a better word would be "rebirth", as rebirth is part of reincarnation's dictionary definition. His point is that Buddhism does not view the self as integral and unchanging, like a hard seed passing from fruit to fruit, but as amorphous and mutable, like milk separating into skim and cream, cream becoming butter, and so on. Perhaps "reconstitution" is a better word? Buddhism's theories on the nature of the soul are among its most subtle and problematic. Thus Mills often talks about 'I' instead of plain old I, just as Sir Arthur Eddington might call a desk-as-atoms-and-the-void a 'desk.' It seems banal to repeat how feeble is our 26-letter alphabet in the face of our infinite universe, but partially this is what the Buddha was trying to do. Nonetheless, Mills accepts the reality of rebirth on pragmatic grounds. So, past lives explain why evils befall us (not 'us') for no apparent reason. Future lives encourage us to act well now.

The author also undertakes to correct a number of persistently mistranslated Buddhist terms. Dukkha, usually translated as "suffering," he translates as "unsatisfactoriness." The latter term is less strong, more clumsy, so though it is apparently more accurate Mills uses dukkha instead. (Might I suggest "dissatisfaction"?) Punya, or boon in Thai, is usually called "merit", and "making merit" describes the various ways in which Buddhists strive to become better Buddhists. Mills translates punya as "those actions which clean and purify the mind," which helps to explain why meditation, visiting a temple, giving alms, and reading Buddhist texts all qualify as punya.

A glaring fault of Mills' book is that its copy editor seems to have been sleeping on the job. Awkward and wholly ungrammatical constructions and typographical errors mar an otherwise worthy account of Buddhism as it is conceived and carried out. On the bright side, enduring such sloppiness is a perfect way to demonstrate patience, a Buddhist cardinal virtue.

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