Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who said it, no matter if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense. -- Buddha
IntroductionWhen I left Orthodoxy, I spent some time reading up on other religions. Buddhism, coming from an entirely different tradition, taught me a lot of stuff I hadn't really thought about before. It's particularly appealing to me as a skeptic and an atheist because, although there are many dogmatic Buddhists, there has been an anti-dogmatic aspect to Buddhism since the beginning. Buddhism, or at least the kind of Buddhism I'm attracted to, is empirical, albeit not as formally as science. Additionally, as a Western Jew, I am under no societal or familial pressure to accept Eastern claims which conflict with science, so I may comfortably pick and choose among Buddhism's ideas. Interestingly, so many American Jews are drawn to Buddhism that a term, "Ju-Bu," has been coined to describe them. I suspect that this happens because Buddhism contains values -- like iconoclasm, liberalism, and a reluctance towards violence -- that many American Jews share and find lacking in the stricter forms of Judaism in America.
A Note on Buddhism and SkepticismBeing a skeptic, an atheist, and an empiricist, I cannot simply believe in far-out claims like reincarnation, chi, and spiritual karma without evidence. However, I have found that many Eastern ideas, when viewed metaphorically, make enough sense to be useful.
DisclaimerI am not a Buddhist. This post is about my experience of Buddhism and Yoga and probably does not accurately represent the views of actual Buddhists and Yogis.
The Practice is the PhilosophyBuddhism has its sacred texts, which I have so far ignored, but it also has a number of practices with which you can learn simply by doing. The fundamental practice of Zen, a kind of Buddhism, is meditation.
How to MeditateHere's what I do. Sit or lie comfortably. Be aware of your breath. Watch as thoughts arise in your brain. Don't get lost in them. Realize that "you" are not your thoughts. Your thoughts arise by themselves. Watch as emotions arise. Realize that "you" are not your emotions. This is more or less mindfulness meditation. There are many other kinds of meditation.
No SelfOne of the most important ideas of Buddhism is that the self is an illusion, that we are all part of the Divine. I am you is the rock are God. It is from our false belief that we are individuals that arises all of our suffering. Because we think we are separate, we grasp. Because we grasp, we are always unsatisfied. We want a bigger house, a beautiful object, or a smile from a loved one. When we sit in meditation, we come to realize that "we" are not our wants.
This idea of "no-self" meshes interestingly with science. Empirically, it appears that what we consider "I" is an emergent phenomenon of the complexity of neural interactions in the brain. Fundamentally, we are made of the same stuff as a rock or a star. Furthermore, experiments show that decisions are made in our brains before we are conscious of making a decision, casting doubt on the very existence of free will. The Buddhist idea of "no-self," at this point, cannot be said to be definitively true, but it also cannot be disproved. You might think that I would object to the notion of the Divine, as an atheist, but I believe that the Divine in Buddhism is more-or-less equivalent to "the universe" or "existence" in Western thought. It's commonly believed that many Buddhists can be reasonably called atheists as well.
What I Have Learned from BuddhismI have learned about the importance of being present. Once you get a taste for meditation, it can affect how you relate to the world. When I am present, I experience heightened sensation, a deep calm, and positive emotions towards all Beings. (It's difficult to talk about spirituality without being cheesy or using cliches. However, anybody may try meditation and see for themselves. No God and no faith are required.) When I am present, I am less likely to engage in hurtful behavior like overeating, arguing too much online, procrastinating, or otherwise distracting myself from life. I enjoy having things not going my way more while being mindful than I do having things go my way when I'm not being mindful. As an example, waiting in line while being mindful is more enjoyable than eating great food while not paying attention.
I have also learned to see that people who do great destruction often do so because they fall to this grasping that Buddhism teaches about. I always wondered why millionaires like Ken Lay, the CEO of Enron, would engage in illegal and unethical behavior simply to make more money he couldn't possibly need. The answer is that people who think of themselves as totally separate always think they need more and that they can take it at the expense of other people. He probably thinks that if he can just make another $100 million, he'll be happy. I can see him as a lost, sad human being rather than just as a caricature of evil. People numb themselves (which is the opposite of being mindfully present) to the damage they are doing to themselves and others.
ResourcesBuddhism, Taoism, and Yoga touch on many of the same ideas. I recommend learning about any of them.
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle maintenance was my introduction to Zen Buddhism, as it is for so many young Westerners. It's not really about Buddhism, but it's very readable and is likely to whet your appetite, particularly if you tend to intellectualize.
Wherever You Go, There You Are : Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life, by Jon Kabat-Zinn, who runs the very well-respected Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.
Guided Mindfulness Meditation is a great 4-CD secular introduction to meditation also from Jon Kabat-Zinn.
A.M. and P.M. Yoga for Beginners is a great introduction to the practice of yoga, which is another form of meditation. I also recommend Crunch: The Perfect Yoga Workout.
Mindfulness In Plain English is a free, online book.
Tara Brach has some very interesting speeches available online for free. I also recommend her book, Radical Acceptance : Embracing Your Life with the Heart of a Buddha.
Infinite Smile is an intellectual Buddhist podcast.
Meditations from the Mat is a deep book by a former college football player, Army Ranger, and recovered addict. My Christian readers might want to start with this, since the author is a devout Christian. I think it's great and I've read it at least twice, a couple of pages a day.
The Book : On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are is an amazing blow-your-mind experience from the British scholar Alan Watts. Many of Watts's speeches are available online if you look around.