Finding the Path

It’s been a longstanding joke among my friends that my religion is “bad Buddhism.” For quite a while, I have embraced this concept. This is because I am, in fact, a bad Buddhist. I’ll never be a good Buddhist, either. I believe I lack both the commitment and willpower (I REALLY like scotch, and meat, and cussing, after all). But, just because I can’t be a good Buddhist, doesn’t mean I can’t be a better Buddhist. And it seems like maybe that’s something to focus on coming into the new year and beyond. So we’ll try that. After all, that’s part of the Buddhist process in the end – not being perfect on the first shot, but improving upon each pass.

No commentary necessary

No commentary necessary

The year is ending. It’s been a tough year (a tough couple years, actually) for me personally, but also for us, as a people. Like, all of us. Humans. It seems like now is as good a time as any to look at this as a place to pivot and try to start doing better where I can, as much as I can. Those who’ve known me the longest know of my tumultuous relationship with religion. That’s probably being a bit generous, too. About 15 years ago, I started reading into Buddhism as I cycled through different philosophies and theologies, and something there clicked for me. Over the years, I’ve tried to at least keep one part of my mind on the principles, even if my general actions didn’t always show it. It found purchase in my mind, and I frequently returned to it when I needed a compass.

"Mercy is the mark of a great man." - Malcolm Reynolds, Firefly

“Mercy is the mark of a great man.” – Malcolm Reynolds, Firefly

The thing about Buddhism is, you try to be the best person you can be, and try the best you can to not be a dick to those around you no matter how hard they may try to break you. “Try” being the optimal word, since we’re only human, and the idea to Buddhists is that you work harder with each “attempt” and build on your experiences and glimpses of enlightenment from past lives. This clicked well for me. Not necessarily because I absolutely believe in reincarnation, but because I believe we are flawed creatures, and that the best we can do is just the best we can do. When you realize that, it’s incredibly powerful, not just for understanding yourself but for how it impacts your ability to see the goodness and potential in other people.

Regardless, I don’t think I’ve been the best person I can be of recent. I’ve let stress get to me, and I’ve allowed myself to too easily let my snark, sass, and sarcasm become the norm rather than the exception. This has the unfortunate side effect of coloring people’s first impression of me, something that’s very important to me. Negativity too easily feeds on itself, and I think it’s a mentality that has directly contributed to some of my recent health issues (issues improving now that I’m addressing the root causes). Mental stress and well-being has a well documented connection to one’s physical condition, and learning to be mindful and positive in times when it’s hardest can be a huge difference maker. That doesn’t make it easy. And I know between the time I started this post and now, I most certainly haven’t been as successful as I wish I could have been in retrospect. But I haven’t failed. Far from it, I think. Maybe more importantly, my commitment to ensuring this post’s completion is a testament to how I’m growing.

That’s still okay. It’s okay to know you haven’t been perfect, as long as you admit that, and try to use that as a means of keying into future mindfulness. You’re never too old to learn and grow. I plan on being on this planet for a lot more years yet, so in theory, I have a lot of time to make good on my plans. I recently started with some baby steps by scrubbing a lot of negativity from my Facebook news feed. Up until now, I always thought it was important to make sure I kept my feed and headspace open to all views, opposing or not. The reality is, there’s a lot of just plain noise out there, that regardless of the side it’s on, isn’t constructive and isn’t valuable to a conversation. So it’s gone. I still appreciate those people, and still respect their right to feel as they do (and will defend their right to be as they wish) – but none of that means they need a soapbox to feed mind with their noise. You have to pick your battles.

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The Byodo-In Temple, Valley of the Temples Memorial Park, Hawaii

In the spirit of Right Thought and Right Speech, I’m also trying to think long and hard before engaging too deeply with posts on Facebook (and elsewhere) that are equally just ignorant noise. It’s easy to get drawn into a cycle of baited discussion that really doesn’t build mindfulness, and puts both you and your opponent in a position where neither can help the other. Sometimes the best thing you can do, is nothing, I think. There are people out there that are happy living within the comforting pillows of ignorance. It’s important to try and work with people to see and understand the Truth behind what they say, but you have to know when and where the best places are to engage in that to improve your chances of successful results.

I’ve also been going back over a lot of dharma I used to read, and have been thinking about the lessons and meanings behind them. Trying to effectively understand the meaning of life is not an easy thing to do, believe it or not. A few days ago I wrote a little bit on the first two Noble Truths and how they applied to current events. The dharma of dukkha (say that three times fast) is perhaps the most important part of Buddhist studies, because it’s the foundation of everything that follows into the Eightfold Holy Path.

"But I believe that, as a species, human beings define their reality through suffering and misery." - Agent Smith, The Matrix

“But I believe that, as a species, human beings define their reality through suffering and misery.” – Agent Smith, The Matrix

I’m not as young as I used to be. I’m not old, either. But in my growth as a person, I feel these last couple years have taught me a great deal about dukkha and how important it is to us – whether physical or mental. To those that don’t understand it, dukkha is the principle that life is, at its foundation, based in feelings of pain and suffering, and that the reason that state exists is because we are bound by our nature to feelings of attachment, craving, greed, and other desires. When you desire, you have no choice but to revert to a state of suffering when the object (or person) of that desire is lost. Many Buddhists will tell you that understanding the Four Noble Truths and following the Eightfold Holy Path is the ultimate goal to eliminate suffering. I understand this principle. I’ve also learned that part of me disagrees with it, and in that, I understand better than ever many of the lessons the Buddha laid out. I disagree, because I think suffering comes in many forms, and eliminating it makes us less. When you know what makes you hurt, you know what’s important in life. You know the things that are important to you.

Included without commentary

Included without commentary

And I don’t want to say that in any way to disparage the far more devoted and arguably “better” Buddhists than myself that have done much better at eliminating suffering in their lives. I know my last statements probably sounded that way, and that’s not what I mean. In a weird way, I think we always maintain equilibrium in that area, when we are committed to the Noble Truths and the Path. Suffering and understanding why is just as important as moving beyond suffering and using that as a platform to help others. Because that’s really the goal of it all. To be better. To be good. Not for you. Not to get somewhere (heaven, nirvana, valhalla, etc). Instead, we do it just because being good to each other is all we have time for in this life, and it’s the legacy we leave. If you only behave because you want to get somewhere good in the afterlife, you’re still acting on a craving that can cause dukkha, because you are chasing something for yourself.

There’s so much bad in this world, and it’s so easy to access, that it makes me sad. In the last week I’ve watched people broken down by macro-scale events, and micro. People that certainly don’t deserve that, but their hearts are so open, they can’t stay out of the line of fire (seriously, no pun intended in the least, it’s just how the words landed). But just because bad is loud, and scary, and easy to access, and popular on news channels doesn’t make it the norm. It doesn’t give it power. Dukkha ultimately can have three effects on you. It can:

  1. Destroy you
  2. Define you
  3. Strengthen you

The advantage is, you have the power to pick which of those three it is. And there’s only one wrong choice, which makes it incredibly easy to avoid. Even in your darkest and weakest moments, that power belongs to you, and no one can take it away. Of course, I hope suffering makes you stronger. I hope through it you understand more of the world, and more of why it’s so important to try and be better to one another. And know that I’m here to help you get there, if it’s needed. We can strengthen each other. The best we can do is the best we can do.

Here’s to the lost. The hurting. The victims. And the observers. It gets better. I promise, it gets better.