A Brief Introduction to Buddhism

Adapted from a Sermon by Mark Gallagher Bell

Buddhism is a broad umbrella term for the wide variety of traditions which trace their origins in one way or another to the Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, who lived and taught in India in the sixth century BCE. Just as Christianity denotes everything from the Ugandan Roman Catholics to the Quakers to the Mormons, just so, Buddhism covers a lot of ground. With considerable trepidation, I will undertake to paint the Buddhist landscape using a very broad brush.

There are three main branches on the tree of worldwide Buddhism.

Theravada, the Way of the Elders, is the oldest and most cohesive of these, consisting of really one unified sect. Theravada employs an essentially medical model, asserting that a) There is a deep spiritual problem in our ordinary way of being. b) There is a cure. And c) It involves adopting the lifestyle and meditative discipline of a monk.

Theravada is predominantly found in southern Asia–Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, and Cambodia.

In the U.S. there is an emerging nonsectarian movement known as Vipassana or “Insight Meditation,” which focuses on the meditations and philosophy of the Theravada tradition, without concern for the organizational structure or rituals or folklore.

By far the largest branch of Buddhism in terms of adherents is the Mahayana, or “Great Vehicle,” so called because it originated in a rejection of the strict monastic emphasis of Theravada and pioneered approaches to Buddhism more geared toward lay persons in the midst of daily life.

Mahayana has presented itself as the “Great Vehicle” for the masses. And it often refers to Theravada somewhat disdainfully as “Hinayana” or the “Lesser Vehicle.”

Mahayana Buddhism has mutated into a great many varied denominations, ranging from the Pure Land sects, which emphasize chanting to enlist the aid of benevolent deities, to the austere discipline, irreverence, and paradox of the various Zen schools.

Mahayana is predominant in Northern Asia–China, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam.

The third branch of Buddhism is the Vajrayana or “Diamond” Tradition. It emanates from Tibet, and so is popularly known as Tibetan Buddhism. The Dalai Lama is the leading figure of this branch. And since the other branches, so far as I know, do not place nearly so much stock in individual leaders, the Dalai Lama emerges as the leading figure in world Buddhism, a status enhanced by the current Dalai Lama’s tremendous personal wisdom and magnetism.

Tibetan Buddhism is distinguished by its use of meditation upon elaborate visual patterns and archetypal deity images, as well as employing a deluge of sound to overwhelm the meditator’s sense and pave the way for breakthroughs. In the U.S., this branch of Buddhism is quite popular among people with a psychoanalytic or Jungian bent.

With that brief picture of the full scope of Buddhism, let me share with you something of my personal perspective.

My entree to Buddhism came in college, when I took a course on Buddhism, featuring a venerable professor with a great mane and beard of white, looking very much like God, going “The is-ness, the thus-ness, the one-ness, the Tao, the knowing, eh? eh?” as though he were enticing us to fall over the edge of understanding into something exquisitely subtle.

In the years that followed I did a fair amount of reading and reflecting on Buddhist themes, finding them increasingly relevant and helpful in my endeavor to make sense of reality.

Upon entering seminary, I was delighted to discover that my school was associated with the Berkeley Buddhist Institute, enabling me to register for graduate classes there, which I did, studying meditation, psychology, ethics, and history.

And here, in a nutshell, is my take on the essential Buddhist insight.

I see the Buddha as a human being who, by means of prodigious struggle and creativity, discovered and subsequently taught some profound truth about the human condition. Specifically, that we chronically misapprehend the nature of reality and especially ourselves–mistaking for enduring things what are really ever-changing phenomena.

As a result of this misapprehension, we not only want what we want, we rebel against the thwarting of our desire, or the temporariness of it’s satisfaction, as if that constituted some sort of cosmic problem. We tend to shake our fist at the unfolding of our lives and thereby create a real cosmic problem.

Living under this essential misapprehension is fundamentally out of whack. Even our pleasures are tainted by the spiritual problem of our attitude–insisting that these pleasures persist, when deep down inside we know they won’t.

This setting ourselves at odds with the way things really are is what in Buddhism is called dukkha, often translated suffering, but perhaps better termed, pervasive distress. It’s like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole and cursing the hole for not being square. We can fiddle with it and try to jam it in. We can stomp our feet and get all boiled up into a lather about how it should fit. But neither the peg nor the hole are adjusting to our preconception. Isn’t it our attitude which needs changing?

The good news is that we can lay down the peg. We can learn to perceive the situation more clearly and respond more skillfully, that is, in a way which does not generate so much distress. The teachings of Buddhism (the Dharma) are essentially guidance for learning to make that change in ourselves, through behaving in ways which conduce to a calm, clear mind (a clear conscience, in other words), and by devoting that clear mind to the direct observation of the stream of consciousness.

This observation, when it occurs under special circumstances, like sitting still and watching the breath, is called “meditation.” When it occurs during the course of daily life, it’s called “mindfulness.” This practice, over time can bring about changes in the habits of the mind. I perceive that it has been that way for me.

For instance, I recall a time when the following was a standard routine of my experiential life:

Something would happen contrary to my preference. I would immediately feel angry. Then I would lay blame on some one. Then I would make a case in my mind justifying that blame. Then I would judge the offender “guilty” and “bad.” Then I would harbor ill-will toward them and replay the whole thing in my mind over and over. All the while, I would, of course feel upset and miserable.

Over time, I have learned to, at least some of the time, adopt a different strategy. Frustration occurs. Feelings of frustration arise and are noted. Feelings of anger and the urge to blame arise and are noted. I observe that I am in distress. I become aware that my reaction is causing the distress, and out of compassion, I wish to be free of it. With this awareness the anger and blame may simply dissipate. Or if they persist, I simply observe them rather than revel in them. And they pass away in due time.

None of this, of course, precludes taking appropriate action to redress actual grievances, which I find is actually much easier when I’m not frothing at the mouth.

As a Unitarian Universalist, I find this pragmatic approach a very comfortable fit. At no point does it require blind belief, but it calls for an open mind and encourages direct inquiry. It deeply affects my actual daily life for the better–both my inward experience and my outward relationships.

And even when misery visits, it places that experience in a context of meaning and tempers the urge to panic.

With that, in a colossal display of self-restraint, I will simply leave off.

(The Reverend Mark Gallagher Bell earned his M.Div. at Starr King School for the Ministry in 1990. He currently serves as minister of the Michael Servetus Unitarian Fellowship in Vancouver, Washington.)