(Sometimes you have to put your money where your mouth is so to speak. This essay is in response to an earlier essay I wrote entitled “Talking About God,” where I suggested we bring God into the conversation.)
The church and I had a falling out in my late teens. It got to the point where it was impossible for me to meld the teachings of Christianity with the behavior of those who called themselves Christians. The band Crosby, Stills, and Nash sum up my conflict with Christianity neatly in the song “Cathedral”: ”Too many people have lied in the name of Christ for anyone to heed the call. Too many people have died in the name of Christ that I can’t believe at all.”
Still, without any kind of religious tradition on which to hang my hat, I spent several years feeling unmoored and spiritually unsatisfied. Then, after the birth of my second child, when I was struggling with control issues triggered by the chaos that a newborn and busy toddler can bring to a household, I read an article that described the tenets of Buddhism. Something about this ancient philosophy struck a chord within me, and I took a long dive into the study of everything Buddhist. Over time, I have attempted to gain a deeper understanding of The Four Noble Truths, the four basic ideas laid down by Buddha over 2500 years ago.
The Four Noble Truths
1. Life means suffering.
2. The origin of suffering is attachment.
3. The cessation of suffering is attainable.
4. There is a path to end suffering.
These four tenets were completely foreign to my way of thinking, and it has taken me almost a decade to develop my own interpretation of these ideas and make them part of my life philosophy. This is my take on the Four Noble Truths, which I call “How It Is.”
How It Is
1. Life is full of ups and downs, good and bad. There are happy, joyous miracles, and fear-inducing disappointments and tragedies. Even though it may seem like it, no one is immune to this reality.
2. You will make yourself miserable by trying to either hold on to the happy, joyous miracles or avoid the fear-inducing disappointments and tragedies.
3. Great news! You don’t have to make yourself miserable! It is entirely up to you!
4. (This is the tricky one.) If you want to flow through your days with a sense of calm and peace, all you need to do is let go of the idea that you can control the world. To help yourself accomplish this small feat, meditate daily, strive to be mindful of each moment, and practice lovingkindness towards all living beings including yourself.
Now that is a lot to hold in my brain all at once so I had to find a shortcut. For me, The Four Noble Truths are summed up nicely in The Serenity Prayer, which was penned by Reinhold Niebuhr in the early 1940s. (The authorship is somewhat controversial, but most sources attribute this popular prayer to Niebuhr.) The version I use goes like this and basically encompasses everything Buddha was trying to convey: ”God, grant me the Serenity to accept the things I cannot change, Courage to change the things I can, and the Wisdom to know the difference.”
By the way, Niebuhr was a prominent Protestant theologian, which illustrates nicely what I like most about Buddhism. There is no mission within the Buddhist tradition to hustle up converts. As a matter of fact, as more and more Westerners embrace the ideas of Buddha, the prominent leaders within Buddhism, notably The Dalai Lama and Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh, encourage new followers to incorporate ideas such as The Four Noble Truths within their religion of origin. They say there is no need to abandon one for the other, but that Buddhism can complement any religion.
I find this reassuring because the reality is that I don’t want to give up my childhood religious tradition. Even though I question the Christian church, I don’t have a problem with Jesus. I think that Christ, Son of God or not, had some pretty amazing ideas about how to go about treating others and living a compassionate, full life. I like Jesus, I just don’t want to be told how to like Jesus.
In a funny way, Buddhism led me back to God and Jesus. I read about the Buddhist practice of lovingkindness and remember learning as a child the Golden Rule to “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” as delivered by Jesus at the Sermon on the Mount. Sometimes conservative Christians see Eastern meditations practices as a pagan threat, but I find the daily practice of sitting in silence to be a time where I most feel the presence of a universal force. As it is said in Psalm 46:10, “Be still, and know that I am God.”
One of the best-known passages attributed to Buddha is “Be a lamp unto yourself.” I think this to be the most encouraging tenet of Buddhism. I think, unlike many organized religions, Buddha was suggesting that only you can save yourself and that all your answers lie within. Only you can choose to follow in the footsteps of Jesus and act with kindness and compassion. Only you can make the time to sit in quiet contemplation and be near God. As encouraged in Matthew 5:16, find your light and let it shine. Any way you can.