- The Washington Times - Friday, October 9, 2009

The Dalai Lama’s visit this week to Washington to receive a human rights award is drawing considerable attention to one of Buddhism’s central ideas — the issue of human suffering. Buddhism seeks to offer the solution to human suffering by teaching that through Buddhist practice, one can overcome the sufferings involved with daily living, old age, sickness and death.

It helps one awaken his life force in such a way that he is not defeated through the sufferings of life. Instead, the believer can create value.

Buddhism started in India about 500 B.C. It is considered a religion by some and is based on the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama, who lived about 26 centuries ago in what is now Nepal and northeastern India. He came to be called “the Buddha,” which means “awakened one.” This title was not thrust upon him until after he experienced a profound realization of the nature of life, death and existence. In English, the Buddha was said to be enlightened, although in Sanskrit it is bodhi, “awakened.”

In the remaining years of his life, Buddha traveled and taught. However, he didn’t teach people what he realized when he became enlightened. Instead, he taught people how to realize enlightenment for themselves. He taught that awakening comes through one’s own direct experience, not through beliefs and dogmas.

In the centuries following the Buddha’s life, Buddhism spread throughout Asia to become one of the dominant religions of the continent. Estimates of the number of Buddhists in the world today vary widely — in part because many Asians observe more than one religion and because it is hard to know how many people are practicing Buddhism in Communist nations like China. The most common estimate is 350 million people. This large population makes Buddhism the fourth largest of the world’s religions.

Buddhism is so different from other religions that some people question whether it is a religion at all. For example, the central focus of most religions is God, or gods. But Buddhism is nontheistic. The Buddha taught that believing in gods was not useful for those seeking to realize enlightenment.

“Buddhism has spread from India to China, Japan to Southeast Asia,” said Bill Aiken, the U.S. vice general director of Soka Gakkai International. “It arrived in the United States in the late 19th century through the Asian immigrants who worked in the sugar cane and pineapple plantations of Hawaii, or on building the railroads in the West.

“Buddhism remained little known outside of those ethnic communities until the 1960s, when the laws restricting Asian immigration were finally lifted. After that act was passed, the door was opened for many Asians to come to America, and then larger numbers, many bringing with them their Buddhist religion,” he said.

Buddhism is a path to “waking up,” or being enlightened, to a reality that is not consciously perceived by most of us. In most schools of Buddhism, it is understood that enlightenment and nirvana (a profound state of peace and happiness) cannot be conceptualized or explained with words. They must be intimately experienced to be understood. Merely believing in enlightenment and nirvana is pointless.

In Buddhism, all doctrines are provisional and are judged by their skillfulness. The Sanskrit word for this is “upaya,” or “skillful means.” Any doctrine or practice that enables realization is a upaya. Whether the doctrine is factual or not is not the point.

The immigrant communities and many other Americans have found Buddhism to be a very valuable philosophy in life. They have found very good techniques to find stability as a person and open up compassion. It cultivates their inner lives. Mr. Aiken was attracted to Buddhism because of his desire to build up his inner self during the ‘60s. Buddhism is not distinct to any particular class or race. All classes and demographics practice this religion today.

Most think of it as one single religion; however, like Christianity, Buddhism is very diverse. Buddhists are similar, in that they also follow a number of different traditions.

“Just in the Washington metropolitan area, there are approximately 25 Buddhist centers that represent a wide [variety] of Buddhist denominations and Buddhist schools,” Mr. Aiken said.

Soka Gakkai International, or SGI, is a lay organization and has had a very strong appeal to blacks, Mr. Aiken said.

“There are many famous Buddhists in the SGI denomination. Folks like Herbie Hancock, Tina Turner, Orlando Cepeda and Wayne Shorter,” he said.

Mr. Aiken pointed out that although SGI does not keep statistics on race, at least 25 percent to 30 percent of the SGI membership in this area are black.

SGI, whose headquarters is in Japan, is practiced in 190 countries around the world.

“I was introduced to Buddhism first by reading about it while in college,” Mr. Aiken said. “I tried meditation in the Zen tradition, which is also very popular.” While he was doing that he ran into a young lady in Philadelphia in 1971 who invited him to an SGI meeting.

“I have friends who practice other Buddhist traditions,” he said, “but it is about a practice. It is not just a belief. It is not just going to church on Sunday. It’s about a practice, having a teacher you can learn from and grow, a particular school of practice becomes your reality.”

It is not very easy to switch from one denomination to another, since many of them are ethnically oriented. Many are Chinese based, and they may or may not have English services. Those temples are usually conducted for the people who come from that ethnic community.

The statue of the Buddha is a likeness of Gautama Siddhartha, the person generally referred to as Buddha. The statues of Buddha started appearing centuries after his death and can be found today in many temples. SGI does not have a Buddhist statue. SGI thinks it’s more important to learn the teaching and spirit of practice and not to be concerned so much about a particular image of the Buddha. They believe everybody has Buddha inside of them - men, women, black, white, African, Asian, etc., and their focus is not on any one individual Buddha, but on their behavior.

In SGI, adherents believe each person is a potential Buddha. This message comes from their core doctrine, Lotus Sutra, one of the most prominent Buddhist teachings. It emphasizes that all people, just as they are, possess the Buddha nature. With practice, they believe that each can eventually awaken the Buddha nature. This denomination does not pray to the statue of Buddha.

Tia Waller-Pride, a Buddhist for 35 years who lives in Capitol Hill, grew up Catholic with quite a different view. She saw herself as a sinner.

“Catholicism capitalizes on sin,” she said. “Buddhism teaches that every single person has an amazing life condition. They have wisdom, vitality and courage. The starting points are very different.”

Ms. Waller-Pride respects human life and says Buddhism has awakened her possibilities. It teaches people that they can expand and can achieve their dreams.

“We learn that we can change those things that need to be changed. We can manifest in this life,” she said.

“One thing I have to say about Buddhism that is consistent, I do not worry,” she said. “I know that my practice of chanting helps me to know that I can change anything. There is no problem I can’t solve. My chanting eliminates worry and concern.

“How we approach the challenges of life is not from fear. With my practice, I can change whatever is wrong. I can get through it. Life is not heavy,” Ms. Waller-Pride said.

Most people who do not chant are attracted to this practice because it teaches that people have the power to transform their lives. It does not blame anybody for anything. “For many,” Ms. Waller-Pride said, “that is a real attraction to Buddhism.”

Lyndia Grant is a writer living in Washington.

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