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A Buddhist Without a History

A Buddhist Without a History
  • A Chanting Guide (by )
  • Outlines of Mahayâna Buddhism (by )
  • The Lotus Gospel : Or, Mahayana Buddhism... (by )
  • Buddhism (by )
  • Fundamentals of Vipassana Meditation 
  • Primitive Buddhism, its origin and teach... (by )
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To an outsider, Buddhism might appear too old and convoluted to tap into. Under its three main schools of thought, Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana there are many subsets according to the different cultures and times that adopted it throughout its 2500-plus years of existence. Some argue for comprehensive studies, building an entire framework for Buddhism by tracing its history. Lama Anagarika Govinda writes in his essay “From Theravada to Zen,” "In order to understand the sacred scriptures of Buddhism, we must ... be familiar with the living stream of tradition, as it has come down to us from the days of the Buddha, in an unbroken continuity."

Even so, there remain accessible keys to unlocking the door of Buddhism. 

Mindfulness teacher Jon Kabat-Zinn wrote, "When I was a buddhist [sic], it drove my family and friends crazy. But when I am the Buddha, no one is upset." In this sentiment, Kabat-Zinn eschews the "ists" and the "isms" that drive many people away from most formalized belief systems. These suffixes denote—perhaps especially to modern metropolitan and Western sensibilities—the rigidity of rules and tradition over agency and critical thinking. Furthermore, all the changing and contradicting "isms," "ists," and “eologies” throughout time altogether burden some newcomers who seek more simplistic gateways into Buddhist practice.

Much of the Western approach to mindfulness springs from contemporary renderings of Theravada tradition, which is the oldest form of Buddhism. While Theravada teaches the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path like all other Buddhist schools, most of its branches emphasize reaching—which binary Western thought often insists is dogmatic—through mindfulness meditation, or Vipassana. It is believed that, through meditation, humans might also achieve enlightenment, just as Buddha himself did meditating under the bodhi tree. For more on Vipassana practice, read Fundamentals of Vipassana Meditation by Mahasi Sayadow. 

History can over-complicate a simple idea. The Buddha's teachings mean to free people of their ties to the illusions of the world, the things within, and the suffering tied to our perceptions of each. Theravada encourages meditation as the gateway to this bedrock teaching. In light of these deeply human and undogmatic ideas, all the rest is supplemental.

By Thad Higa

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