Thursday, January 20, 2011

Buddhist Kindergarten (for Adults)

Dharmachari (Dharma-teacher) Seven
Bhutanese art: the Buddha in one of the most splendid temples in Bodhgaya, where he attained enlightenment, Bihar state, India. (Photographs by Y. Awanohara/

I was asked by a learned monk who combines Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism to teach at a new Buddhist temple he built in Los Angeles. Because I was writing a book on the Factors of Enlightenment, I proposed an eight-week class on that subject. It was advertised in the Los Angeles Times and elsewhere.

Sixty-one Americans attended the first Sunday. Forty of them stayed for all eight weeks, two hours every Sunday, capped off with meditation in the main hall. It was so well received -- with people saying they had never heard of such Dharma topics, Buddhist meditation instructions, or explanations from the oldest sutras -- that I was asked to teach at another much older and much more traditional temple.

This time the focus was on their own lay devotees. Although they were born Buddhists and exceedingly devotional, they did not understand many concepts and details concerning the vast range of Dharma taught by the Buddha, to say nothing of the teachings of other religions. These were the seven main topics we covered in a class I called:

"Buddhist Kindergarten (for Adults)"
I. BUDDHISM: Since Buddhism places such great emphasis on personal understanding and effort, rather than blind faith, it is often asked: Is Buddhism a "religion"? The combination of wisdom and compassion results in enlightenment (bodhi). Buddhism invites skeptical inquiry, questioning authority, and the development of both rational and intuitive insight. Does spirituality trump religion

II. KARMA Why do bad things happen to good people? Deeds (karma) produce mental-resultants as well as bearing fruit in this and future lives. Personal choice leads to future responsibility as we by our deeds design our "fate" and destiny, albeit often inadvertently.

III. HAPPINESS We crave only pleasure, joy, and satisfaction. But we meet with pain, frustration, and sorrow. What's going wrong? Why do even the most privileged among us feel dissatisfied? We will examine contentment, rapture, bliss, and nirvana in our search for happiness.

IV. DEATH There may be no death, yet we must often comfort the bereaved, deal with our own mourning, and assist those who have passed on. But how can we do any of these of the topic is taboo in polite society? We will discuss the transition from one transient state of existence to another in stark detail: Who or what passes away? What is the special value of human life? How does our (death-proximate) consciousness condition our next rebirth? Why?

V. REBIRTH What determines rebirth? Wonderful, woeful, and human rebirths -- plus discussion of angels, animals, and anatomically-incorrect realms. The divinities (brahmas) are neither male nor female, but the deities (devas) are as active and mischievous as daytime soap stars. Craving, aversion, and delusion are the root causes of rebirth in unfortunate destinations, whereas opposite impulses bring about exponentially greater results. Within this Cyclical Round of Birth and Death (samsara), there is no "being," only becoming and again-becoming. What is freedom from rebirth?

VI. GOD "God" in Buddhist perspective will surprise most Buddhists because Buddhism is non-theistic not atheistic. Are the gods creators meting out rewards and punishments, or merely as well-born beings? Many views prevalent in ancient India and modern America will be considered to show how they are not all that different even as adherents fight to the death to advocate their views: pantheism, polytheism, monotheism, atheism, and that rare form of non-theism the Buddha endorsed will be discussed as well as the G.O.D. in us all.

VII. ENLIGHTENMENT How long does it take to become enlightened? There is no darkness like the darkness of ignorance, no enemy like the enemy of hate, no trap like the trap of desire. This being so, how will we ever develop the light of wisdom to realize the liberating Truth for ourselves, and can it be done in this very life? When does the marriage of wisdom and compassion that transforms greed, hatred, delusion take place? Who are the noble individuals in the world and why?

Under the sprawling Bodhi tree, I saw you, I saw me, and there was no one to be seen

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