Notes on Buddhism

Japanese Buddha. Photo by Maren Yumi Motomura, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Japanese Buddha. Photo by Maren Yumi Motomura, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Recently, my blogging buddy, Adam (Reviews and Ramblings), asked if I could recommend a good book on Buddhism, since the Dharma (as practitioners call Buddhist theory and practice) is so much a part of my outlook and what I write here. I’ll list some books at the end of this series of posts, but first I need to do some rambling of my own because…it’s complicated! What would you do if someone asked you to recommend a book on Christianity? Or U.S. History? Or writing young adult novels? Or anything you’ve studied in depth because it’s a passionate interest? You might say, “Well, it’s complicated.”

So here goes…

Who was Buddha?

Some 2600 years ago, Prince Siddhartha Gautama, the historical Buddha (there had been countless others before him) was born in northern India. According to legend, a prophecy said he would become either a great king or a great holy man. Hoping for the first outcome, Siddhartha’s father had him raised in a walled palace, where young and beautiful companions and servants saw to his every desire.

At age 29, the prince ordered a chariot driver to carry him outside the palace walls, where he saw an aged man, a sick man, and a corpse. The charioteer explained that aging, sickness, and death are the fate of all living beings. When the prince saw a yogi, and learned that he sought release from suffering, he determined to follow that path.

For six years, he practiced austerities with a group of forest ascetics, but realized that even the most exalted states of consciousness did not offer what he was looking for. He sat beneath a bodhi tree, resolving to stay there until he’d unravelled the mysteries of life and death. During the final night, he withstood assaults from Mara, the lord of illusion, and experienced full awakening in the morning. He wondered if it was possible to communicate this truth – the Dharma – to others. Legend says that Brahma, king of the gods, appeared and begged him to try, and he did so for the rest of his 80 years.

In Buddhist teaching there is always relative truth and ultimate truth, and the question, “Who was Buddha?” is no different. Anam Thubten, a Tibetan master describes “the ultimate Buddha” in these words:

“There is Buddha in each of us right now who can never be defeated by the force of inner darkness, the force of greed, hate, attachment, and delusion, and that Buddha has no form, no image. That Buddha, indeed, is residing in all of us as our pure, quintessential being. We must always turn our attention inward whenever we have the desire to seek divinity, the divine, or Buddha, God, or Brahma.”

Borobudur Temple, Java, 9th c. Creative Commons

Borobudur Temple, Java, 9th c. Creative Commons

What did Buddha teach?

Gautama Buddha gave different teachings to different audiences, and over time, widened the scope of his teachings. When they were carried to other countries, and ultimately to the west, some aspects were emphasized over others. What everyone agrees on is that Buddha taught the reality of suffering and the path to overcome it. Different schools teach different means to do so, but in general, three realizations are key:

Renunciation: This does not mean becoming monastic. It means letting go of the hope that we can ever find the permanent happiness we seek “out there,” in the world, where everything changes. In Tibetan, the word for Buddhist means, “one who lives within.”

Compassion or Boddhichitta: This is the determination to awaken in order to most effectively benefit other living beings who also suffer and desire happiness as much as we do. And as the Dalai Lama put it, “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”

Right View: This is the hardest to explain or grasp. Although in relative terms, the world appears real and solid, in ultimate terms, it is much like a dream, where nothing is solid or fixed. Beyond memory, the only thing that endures when a dream ends is the dreaming mind, which has no form, no shape, no color, and lies beyond the grasp of any conceptual thought – much like Anam Thubten’s description of the “Buddha within.”

One Tibetan lama said, “Our suffering is like a child dying in a dream.” Everyone knows what it’s like to have such a nightmare and then wake up. As I understand it, all Buddhist practice aims at waking up in the midst of the very life we are living.

One story says that soon after Buddha’s enlightenment, a man passed him on a road. Noticing something special about him, the man asked, “Are you a sage?” Buddha said “No.” “Are you an angel?” the man asked. “A man? A god?” To all of these inquiries, Buddha said no. Finally the man asked, “What are you?”

Buddha said, “I am awake.”


Many people think of Buddhism as negative, with it’s seeming emphasis on suffering. There’s more to it than that. Buddha began with this observation: most people spend most of the hours of most of their days with a greater or lesser degree of dissatisfaction. He went on to teach that there is a way beyond dissatisfaction and suffering. “I cannot bestow it upon you,” he said, “but I can show you the road to take.”

That is plenty for now. In my next post I’ll address two other questions whose answers are also not obvious: is Buddhism a religion and is it atheistic? And then finally (I promise) I’ll get around to listing several books and web links on the subject.



12 thoughts on “Notes on Buddhism

    • Glad you enjoyed the post. I forgot to mention in the post that during his lifetime, Buddha was known as “the happy one.” Makes sense, when you think of the Dalai Lama, who is smiling in almost every photograph. Perhaps for the followup post I’ll find one of those “laughing Buddhas” that show up in Japanese brush painting. Not as serious or reverent, but they make me smile as well. It’s been far too long since I’ve visited the Asian Art Museum in SF – maybe time to plan another trip!


  1. Perhaps I wasn’t thinking as much as I should have been when I asked my original question just how difficult it would be to answer.

    I find one of the easiest ways to learn about any complicated subject is to talk to someone who knows more about it than you do, and it makes it that much easier to start your own learning. It’s especially easy when the person you ask knows how to teach about the subject.

    I’ve enjoyed all of your posts about Buddhism and I’m really looking forward to the rest of these posts. Thank you again for taking the time to write these posts.


    • I’ve been thinking of writing these posts for some time, so your question gave me the prompt I needed, so it’s no trouble at all. On the contrary. If some of the written references whet your appetite, it’s great if you can find a local group with meetings for meditation and study to drop in on. There are various directories and I’ll try to include some. You never know what you’ll find and where. My first sesshin (intense period of Zen meditation, over several days) was held at a Sisters of Mercy retreat center and taught by a Catholic priest, who also bears the title of Roshi, which means master. I’m getting ahead of myself – that bears on the question of whether or not Buddhsim is a religion. The answer there too is – “it’s complicated.”


  2. Thank you for posting this, and I’ll look forward to the upcoming posts you mentioned! I’ve been interested in Buddhism lately because I know next to nothing about it, and it’s been hard to find descriptions that aren’t just confusing.


  3. Morgan, as a long time practicing Buddhist, I must say your post is both spot on and very informative. You have broken down some complex ideas in a way that is easy to grasp. Well done! I look forward to more of your posts.


    • Thanks, and as a practicing Buddhist, I appreciate your comment. Those posts were ones I’d wanted to write for some time, but the usual doubts got in the way – I don’t know enough, can I say this right, etc. I look forward to additional comments you make.


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