Since arriving in Sri Lanka, I have been fortunate enough to meet a lot of locals who are into the Buddhist faith and more specifically vipassana meditation. The more I learn about Buddhist philosophy, the more I realize it aligns so much with my study of psychology.

The basic ideas behind it are the four noble truths.
1. Dukkha – “Life is suffering.” This essentially means that life is always going to be full of ups and downs and instability. Nothing is permanent. The word “suffering” isn’t really a great translation but there is no English equivalent word.
2. Sumudaya – The arising of dukkha is through desire, greed and craving.
3. Nirodha – The cessation of dukkha is possible. This is were the term Nirvana comes from or Nibbana in Pali (the ancient language used in Sri Lanka). Nirvana literally means “the extinction of thirst”. It is believed that once all craving and attachment is stopped one will reach enlightenment or Nirvana. Thus, the cycle of Samsara (birth and rebirth) will be escaped.
4. Magga – “The Path”. The way to achieve the cessation of suffering is by following the noble eightfold path which includes right understanding, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right consciousness and right mindfulness. Following a path of moderation in all things is encouraged.

The Buddha himself achieved enlightenment by following the middle path. Siddharta (the Buddha) was born a prince and lived a life of luxury until one day he left the palace and saw suffering for the first time in the forms of an old man, a sick man and a dying man. After this at the age of 29, he left his family in order to pursue greater spiritual understanding through the ways of the Hindu ascetic. For six years, he starved himself and deprived himself of all external worldly pleasures to no avail. A young girl came by, took pity on him, and feed him. When eating this meal, he began to wonder what all this deprivation was for. He started to take better care of himself and follow a more moderate path.

“In the town of Bodh Gaya, Siddhartha decided that he would sit under a certain fig tree as long as it would take for the answers to the problem of suffering to come. He sat there for many days, first in deep concentration to clear his mind of all distractions, then in mindfulness meditation, opening himself up to the truth. He began, they say, to recall all his previous lives, and to see everything that was going on in the entire universe. On the full moon of May, with the rising of the morning star, Siddhartha finally understood the answer to the question of suffering and became the Buddha, which means “he who is awake.” ” (taken from http://webspace.ship.edu/cgboer/siddhartha.html)

Buddhism isn’t so much a religion in the traditional sense as a way of life and a philosophy. There is no set date for worship or organized community as such. Ironically, my Sri Lankan friends say that many young people long for more structure and a greater sense of community which is why some are choosing to convert to Christianity. Just as in the west many people are not happy with how Christianity has been practiced the same is true of Buddhism in the east. The principles often get lost in human interpretation and ego-driven agendas.

In the case of Buddhism, there are many examples of this. Firstly, traces of the Hindu caste system still find there way in modern culture here in Sri Lanka. The idea of karma is one that has been historically misconstrued. It is believed that your birth is this lifetime is determined by karma in a previous lifetime. Thus, if you are born disabled or in poverty it is because you have not accumulated as much good karma in previous lifetimes than others born into more privileged lives. You can see how this thinking can be dangerous.

In modern Sri Lanka, this becomes manifested through clearly defined work and home roles. Everyone has a specific job and they are not to go outside of this job description. This has an obvious advantage but for a westerner trying to fit into a role can be difficult. At my host families home, they have a servant who does the cleaning. When I would get up and do my dishes after eating, this actually had a negative impact. It meant that I was taking work away from him and my actions could even be interpreted that I didn’t think he was doing his job properly.

Sometimes people forget the basics of what the Buddha taught and only focus on the devotional practice. These individuals are caught up in the rituals and offerings rather than the journey of discovery it is meant to be. These same individuals may focus only on the literal aspect that bad karma causes misfortune in people’s lives and for this reason they deserve it. However, they would be disregarding the Buddha’s teachings. He taught that anyone can turn his or her life around regardless of what they have done in the past, and that individuals in difficult circumstances deserve more love and compassion so that they can be helped to find the way to the noble eightfold path.

At the core all religions share the same central truth. They even have their own version of the golden rule. Some examples are below.

“You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
Judaism and Christianity. Bible, Leviticus 19.18

“Not one of you is a believer until he loves for his brother what he loves for himself.”
Islam. Forty Hadith of an-Nawawi 13

“One should not behave towards others in a way which is disagreeable to oneself. This is the essence of morality. All other activities are due to selfish desire.”
Hinduism. Mahabharata, Anusasana Parva 113.8

“Comparing oneself to others in such terms as “Just as I am so are they, just as they are so am I,” he should neither kill nor cause others to kill.|
Buddhism. Sutta Nipata 705

“One going to take a pointed stick to pinch a baby bird should first try it on himself to feel how it hurts.”
African Traditional Religions. Yoruba Proverb (Nigeria)

How’s that for a crash course on Buddhism and promotional bit on world peace? This entry is really getting deep.

To continue my own study, I’ve decided to escape the busy city life this weekend and go to a meditation centre for 3 days of guided meditation and yoga. It is located in the Hill Country and should be cooler weather. I hope to learn more for myself about the Buddhist principles and work on quieting my mind. Now if I could just get the song “All my Life” by KC and JoJo out of my head, I would be on the right track.

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