By Victor Langheld (alias Bodhangkur Mahathero)
There are two reasons for developing an interest in Buddhism.
The 1st is that one wishes to become a Buddhist, that is to say, to join any one of a wide variety of Buddhist belief systems because doing so one hopes to is reduce and then eliminate pain (Pali: dukkha = emotional distress). Joining a Buddhist Path (or a tennis or darts club) and then practicing its self-calming and self-changing exercises keeps one out of mischief and so reduces self-harm and the pain that results therefrom.
The 2nd is that one seeks to understand whether or not the basic propositions of the Buddhist belief system amount to a bean or a string of beans. That is to say, whether or not Buddhist beliefs gel with observable natural facts and are not merely socially and personally useful fictions (like the belief in Santa Claus).
To join up one takes refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha and buys wholly into one’s Buddhist teacher’s personal opinion thereby becomeing a Buddhist, more or less perfect.
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In the second case one takes refuge not in the Buddha but in Bodhi (meaning primary knowledge), as indeed the Shakyamuni did before he achieved complete understanding (i.e. samma-sambodhi). Then one focusses on the discrete details of Buddhism’s first principles so far as they can be distilled from the mountain of hearsay opinion, and all Buddhist sutras are hearsay opinion (each sutra commencing with the phrase ‘Thus if have heard’), that has been generated over the 2500 years since the Buddha (to wit, Siddartha, the Shakyamuni) is said to have lived. If and when the Buddha lived is highly uncertain. Nor is it certain where he lived and preached.
That requires that one bypasses the current set of teachers (this is what the Buddha did) and begins to actually read the most ancient available texts (or sutras), thereafter making up one’s own mind and deciding ‘one’s own salvation’. Getting to the nub of the problem and deciding its personal usefulness was first recommended by the Shakyamuni (translated as the Scythian recluse) himself in his infamous sermon to the Kalamas. By understanding Buddhism’s first principles wholly one becomes a Buddha, more or less perfect. Saving the world was not the goal of early Buddhism. Saving oneself was.
If one wants to join up there are available a wide variety of options from which one can choose one that suitable to one’s needs (for comfort).
To become a Buddha (i.e. a Knowledgeable One), that is to say, to unravel the mystery of life and then accommodate oneself to it with the intention of reducing one’s pain, is hard and unpleasant work. To do that one can either unravel and so fully comprehend the ancient Buddha’s solutions to the problem of life as dynamic system. Or one can observe nature, i.e. the dynamism of life, directly, as he eventually did, and then draw one’s own conclusion. In both cases the solution, or truth, is unpalatable for the emotionally immature or those attached to life.