I used to think I understood Buddhism. Four of these, eight of those. It was easy. And good. I didn't always realize each item had an exact meaning.
It was when my religious studies professors and Buddhist friends (kalyana-mitras) started to point directly to sutras (discourses) that were used to make these handy lists that I realized there was a lot I might not know.
One day Seven, one of our editors, was vividly talking about Buddhism's "Dependent Origination." The rest of us thought that was a Buddhist explanation, or speculation, about the origin of the universe. First cause of this illusory separate-existence? Ignorance. Easy!
But that's not what the 12 links of the formula are actually about. It's not a treatise on a First Cause, prime mover, origin, prakriti, or nurturing birthing Goddess concept who gave rise to the universe.
There's actually a reason to meditate, to cultivate calm-and-insight. It's actually something personally verifiable, which in my book makes it better than physics. I don't have a Large Hadron Collider. I don't even have a small one.
I'll never know for sure if there's a "God particle," a boson, muon, gluon, or comicon, even if I had a degree from Atheist College. at NCHUM. Speaking of atheism, I always liked the Buddha for being an atheist. But he wasn't. I'm not. He was a nontheist. And that's what we've become around here. There is? There isn't? Doesn't matter to the attainment of enlightenment and liberation.
Even the "gods" and goddesses (devas and devis), Gods (brahmas), and other higher-order beings throughout space are trapped. Most do not have the Dharma, they certainly have no Sangha, or sufficient incentive to practice. They don't see disappointment (dukkha).
And without insight-wisdom to break free of the fetters and defilements that bind us all to rebirth, there is enlightenment for them. God, who is often credited with omniscience, is not enlightened. That's amazing. I would have thought that God was.
The Buddha was a "teacher of gods and men." But in the original wording, it's devas and humans. The Gods (brahmas) won't listen. They're proud, and jealous, wrathful, subject to defiled states like lower-order beings. They don't mind calling themselves the Ultimate, the beginning and end, the All. In fact, in Buddhist cosmology, which we're always talking about at Wisdom Quarterly, they're just very well placed in the grand scheme of things... for now. Nontheism freed me from worrying about it. Good for God. Good for devas. But humans might be luckiest of all.
That's the way it seems on the beach. In California. Under the Sun as summer begins and I've stopped watching MTV. I merge with the sea on a surfboard and practice the rest of the time on a skateboard. I just wish I looked better in a bathing suit after being tattooed. And meditated more regularly.