Universal Translator

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Confessions of an Aspiring Buddhist

I am an idiot.  I think it is important to get that statement right out there, from the beginning, so that anybody reading what comes next understands how amazingly dumb I really am.

I started reading up on Buddhism for the same reason I tended to do anything when I was younger – for a girl.  Well, okay . . . for a woman.  I was desperately in love (unrequitedly) with a woman for whom Buddhism had become very, very important, and I decided to learn about Buddhism so that I could understand better what she was thinking about.

And it was an easy sell for me.  Ever since I was a child I have been fascinated with the idea of consciousness.  What does it mean to be self-aware? What does it mean to be sentient? Can we create artificial intelligences and, if we do so, will we recognize them when they speak to us? What does it mean to be human?

These are all heady questions, and yet the same basic ones we all have been asking for millennia.  We dress them up with code words like “epistemology,” “ontology,” and “consciousness,” and we give out degrees for stringing the correct words together in the correct way, but really they are the same questions that any reflective person asks as a child and for which we have yet to find a completely satisfactory answer.

In Buddhism I discovered an unbroken tradition – stretching back 2,500 years – devoted to thinking about these very things.  I was hooked!  I have spent more than a decade since studying and reading Buddhist teachings, and I am constantly amazed at the insights these teachings have about the nature of consciousness, reality, and perception.  I cannot think of a sutra that has not made me sit back and think, Whoa . . . . that’s a new way of thinking about it.

The thing is, I’m not a Buddhist myself.  One of my standard lines, whenever somebody is so gauche as to ask me about my religion, is to tell them that I am an “aspiring Buddhist.”  It is kind of a funny line, if you think about it, because in itself it indicates that the speaker recognizes the value of Buddhism, but also acknowledges that the speaker doesn’t quite think he is worthy of claiming the title.  It is like saying one is a “lapsed Catholic,” but in reverse.

Now, here’s the thing . . . it is impossible to study Buddhism strictly for the reasons I did.  (And I’m not talking, now, about the girl.)  Yes, Buddhism does have an unbroken tradition stretching back for millennia questioning the nature of consciousness.  But that isn’t Buddhism’s main concern.  It is impossible to read and study Buddhism without being powerfully affected by what it has to say about compassion.  Compassion is the center of Buddhist teaching, and it is the core of everything the religion/philosophy is about. 

I began by explaining that I am an idiot, but even I am not so idiotic as to fail to take away at least something from Buddhism about the compassion we owe each other.