During the last few years I’ve been studying buddhism with increasing curiosity. And for the last two years I’ve also applied many buddhist concepts in my day to day life. Looking back, I realize that the most profound changes in my life were more or less influenced by these practices.
What follows is a very short list of some key concepts in buddhism, as I understand and apply them today. The main goal of this article is to share something that worked for me. And also to give guidance to those who are interested in learning more about this discipline.
Before diving in, I want to clarify a few things. Buddhism is a very complex and diverse phenomenon. On a very simplified approach, it comprises 3 main areas: the philosophy, the lay practice and the monastic practice. I’m not going to talk about the monastic practice, because I’m not interested in it. What attracted me was the philosophy, or the way Buddhism describes what we call “reality”. It’s important to understand the difference between the philosophy and the monastic practice. One can agree with all the Buddhism concepts and not engage in a monastic practice, while still implementing the key concepts. That’s a fundamental difference between Buddhism and other religious or systems.
1. Karma Is Compulsion
I’ve been traversing many definitions and understandings of karma in my life. The most common, I guess, was the “fate karma”: it’s been written somewhere in the stars, so it must happen. Another one was that we carry inside us something that we cannot modify and we are subject to that burden no matter what.
But now I understand that karma is simply the compulsion to do something or act in a certain way. That compulsion, or the inability to resist the urge, is at the core of karma. The fact that we feel compelled to do it.
We’re built in such a way that we tend to multiply or to repeat the actions that yield results. And one of the results we’re seeking in this life is pleasure, or satisfaction. The more satisfaction we get form something, the more we want to do it.
That’s how karma works. It’s a circle of attachment. We do something, we get satisfaction and the urge for repeating that thing is born. And next time we feel compelled to do the same thing, we’re actually subject to karma. The moment we understand this and we focus towards the compulsion, we start to break free from the karma.
Enjoying life and getting satisfaction is not bad at all. On the contrary, I think this is one of the things we should seek in this existence. But clinging to it, becoming prisoners of our own compulsive patterns, that is destructive. It makes us lose control and creates an upward spiraling circle of consequences that will end up making us the prisoners of a limited time-space continuum (also known as “samsara”).
2. We Operate On Limited Hardware
One of the consequences of being prisoners to karma is that we operate on a limited hardware. It’s our body. It’s going to end at some point and it’s also very, very limited in terms of performance.
I like the comparison of our body with the hardware of a computer because it describes very well the difference between the subject who is experiencing life, and the tools that he or she uses. It’s like a computer: it needs hardware to function, but without software, it’s completely useless. It doesn’t really exist, without software. The mind continuum that drives our body is like the software in a computer.
Our continuous clinging to things that are giving us transitory pleasure creates a limited hardware. Because of the karmic compulsion, we’re always looking for the next stimuli and so our hardware is wired to look up and experience only that kind of stimuli.
When we think of “reaching Nirvana” or becoming “illuminate” we project our own internal representations of these concepts, based on what we learned to consider pleasurable. But the truth is that reaching Nirvana or becoming illuminated is just overcoming a limited hardware.
If you will ask me how this will look and feel, well, I have no idea. I’m still operating on the same level like you. With the only probable difference that now I understand my own limitations and the possibility of overcoming them.
3. Everything Depends On Something Else
Nothing is set in stone. Nothing exists in and by itself. This is one of the biggest illusions we’re constantly creating with our minds. Everything has a cause for its existence, whether or not we’re aware of it.
For instance, this blog post depends on the device that you’re using right now for reading. Otherwise you couldn’t read it. It wouldn’t exist without this cause. Another cause will be the fact that there is a server that serves my blog content right now. And that server depends on electricity. And it also depends on silicon or germanium and complex technological processes to assemble its board.
We carry around an illusion of stability because of our limited hardware. We don’t have the ability to process everything and to have an immediate and complete understanding of our environment (I suspect having this understanding comes also as a perk of becoming illuminated) so we stack static images of reality on top of each other. And we call this reality.
But this reality is subject to causes and it changes constantly. I think it’s ok to create snapshots of reality in order to understand some processes, but what is not ok is to cling on these snapshots as being eternal and unchangeable.
4. Everything Has Consequences
As everything depends on causes, also every action we perform we’ll have consequences. Every action. I repeat: every single action.
Try to combine this with the constant changes based on previous causes and conditions and you get a pretty hot soup. We live in this hot soup. It’s a very uncomfortable place.
But the fact that everything has consequences is also very powerful. If we understand this and we are ready to embrace this, we can influence the outcome. The consequences are neutral, they are just consequences. But we have insight and we can drive the consequences of our actions in the direction we want.
But be aware that just the bare understanding of this won’t change the soup. It will still be hot. What changes the soup is action. Because consequences are rooted in actions. If we understand that a giant rock is rolling towards us, but we don’t take any action, the understanding won’t prevent us from being crushed.
5. You’re Te Only One Responsible
Like many western civilizations citizens, I come from a cultural background where an external actor was always empowered. Being it a redemption giver, like Jesus, or a judge that will impart justice, there was always somebody “outside”. It’s so engrained in our culture that it gets buried deep down in our subconscious from a very early age.
It was difficult for me to internalize the fact that I am the only one responsible for what happens to me. It’s not that Jesus didn’t exist, or that a conventional justice can’t exist. But these are external factors, and external factors are always changing. Even more, we cannot control the actions of other people, hence, we can’t influence the consequences of their actions.
The only thing we can influence is our reactions to what happens to us. And from those reactions we create the causes for what will happen in the future. Hence, we are the only ones responsible for our lives.
6. Reality Changes With You
That’s both freaking awesome and terrifying. When you start to practice the insights above and when you start seeing the links between your actions and the consequences of them, when you get enough self-control to dodge the karma compulsions (like Neo dodging bullets in Matrix) well, something fabulous will happen: reality, the very fabric of reality, will change with you.
I’m not talking about serendipituous encounters, or about lucky shots. I’m talking about consistent changing of your entire surroundings. For instance, if you start to control your compulsion for bad health habits (like smoking or eating bad) you’re not only become healthier yourself, but you’ll be surrounded by more health: people around you will be healthy, the surroundings will be less polluted, and so on.
And here comes the terrifying part: if you don’t dodge the bullets of karma, there is 100% chance that you will be hit. For instance, if you can’t control your anger, the very fabric of reality will rearrange in some way that you will be surrounded by angry people, by anger generating contexts or by frustrating activities.
Both are coming from you.
7. Meditation Works
As with karma, I had many understandings of mediation along the way. Some understandings were about “stopping the mind”. Others were about “relaxing the body”.
Right now I see meditation like a tool for the mind. I know that I am 100% responsible for what happens to me. But I don’t always have the presence, the awareness, the mindfulness to control my reactions for creating better causes for me. And that’s because I still operate on past causes. I still have past karmic behaviors or urges.
And that’s where meditation helps. Meditation is training for the mind. It trains my mind so when some destructive urge appears, the mind will be prepared and will dodge it (again, like Neo dodging bullets). That’s the main purpose of meditation and that’s why meditation should contain thoughts and concepts (it’s not emptying your mind and chanting things you don’t understand). If you constantly train your mind with these concepts, it will eventually internalize them and the destructive autopilot behavior will be gradually replaced with the constructive autopilot behavior.
And yes, meditation, in this form, really works. The more you train the mind, the easier it becomes.
8. Discipline Is Fundamental
And the last thing I want to share about my experience studying Buddhism is that discipline, bare discipline, is fundamental.
Discipline means doing things you planned to do even if you don’t like doing them in the moment. Of course you may not like doing that thing anymore. Things are constantly changing so it may feel more appealing to go out and have a drink than being of service to the persons you committed to. That’s the nature of our limited hardware and ever changing reality called “samsara”. It changes, it’s unstable, it’s fleeting.
So, the bare discipline of training is fundamental. You can’t relay on external conditions to improve your life. You are the only one responsible.
So, if you understood that there is a giant rock rolling towards you, and that giant rock is getting closer second by second, you’d better hone your discipline skills and learn how to run faster than the rock, or at least learn how to avoid it until you become stronger than it.
So, that was it. If you want to know more about Buddhism there are many resources on the web, but not all of them are updated, correct or well intended (depending on your karmic seeds, so to speak, you will encounter many of these).
What seemed to work best for me when it comes about studying Buddhism is a place called http://studybuddhism.com. Formerly known as berzinarchives.com this is a site maintained by professor Alexander Berzin. I had the opportunity to meet professor Berzin face to face and to host a real event with him, so all my assumptions are already verified. He is a very reliable source, has a huge experience (spent 29 years in India studying Buddhism) and, coming from a linguistic expertise, has a very clear way of explaining complex concepts.
Please take your time to read through and don’t believe me.
I’m not responsible for your life.
But you are.