When you hear the word “Buddhism,” what comes to mind? Some people think of meditation, the idea of karma, or of “enlightenment;” others picture a plump Asian man, sitting, smiling from ear to ear.
Because these are all common misconceptions of what Buddhism is about, it is understandable that there would be confusion about the subject. There is no single way to describe all of Buddhism, and that’s part of why the religion is so intriguing. In fact, no one is even sure if Buddhism should be called a religion or not!
When we think of religion, we most often think of Christianity, Judaism and Islam; ancient systems of belief, grounded in history, with specific practices and “laws,” given directly from the hand of God, Yahweh or Allah, that must be believed and strictly adhered to so that we can obtain everlasting life in Heaven.
Buddhists don’t believe in any Almighty God, they have no savior (such as Christianity’s Jesus Christ), and there is no concept of sin. Buddhists aren’t instructed to follow a strict path or code of conduct, such as the Ten Commandments, but are instead instructed to look inward and discover life’s truths through their own, personal experience.
The Buddha, who wasn’t a savior but rather a teacher, laid down a set of truths and a path, known as the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eight-fold Path respectively, which serve as general guidelines for living a righteous and compassionate life. The Buddha also passed down a set of practices that an individual can perform in order to improve his or her life and live more compassionately, the most important of which is meditation.
Norma Redman, one of the leaders of Millersville’s Society of Mindfulness Meditation and Buddhist Philosophy, which is the campus’ only spirituality group that isn’t Christian-based, described Buddhism as “a practice of meditation combined with an intellectual and philosophical study of the teachings of the Buddha. It is not a religion in the modern sense of the word.”
Rather than reciting and performing specific rituals regularly, such as a Catholic attending Mass each Sunday, Buddhists study the teachings of the Buddha, interpret them, and then attempt to apply them to their own lives. Meditation is the key method Buddhists use to put the teachings they learn in to practice.
Unlike the teachings of Jesus Christ, or Islam’s Muhammad, the teachings of the Buddha aren’t meant to be taken as the absolute truth: “The Buddha actually said not to take what he says as truth. Each person must listen, and make their own truth from what is presented in the teaching,” said Redman.
This seems to be part of why Buddhism is so hard to classify, because there is no single, universal doctrine. “No particular teaching is at the base of Buddhism, since no person is required to accept any teaching as true,” said Redman. “I see the practice as each person’s individual journey to their individual truth.”
Meditation is the primary way that Buddhists reach their own interpretation, and meditation is the most essential part of Buddhism, even more so than Buddha’s teachings. The famous philosopher Alan Watts, who interpreted much of Eastern thought and philosophy for Western society, said that “Buddhism is not a teaching, but its essence consists in a certain kind of experience,” that experience being meditation, and the personal interpretation of what the truth is.
Buddhism is more of a way of life than anything; you can be of any religious affiliation and still practice Buddhism, study its teachings and meditate. It is also very complex, and can be hard to grasp, even for experienced practitioners. The Society of Mindfulness Meditation and Buddhist Philosophy, which meets Thursdays at 8 pm in Byerly Hall, Room 231, understands that Buddhism can be daunting and aims to help people understand the teachings and apply them.
“Our goal is to allow people to have a place and a community of like-minded people where this individual truth discovery can develop,” said Redman, who leads the group’s meetings, and the group meditations at the end of each meeting. She also stresses that, even though beliefs at Millersville are very diverse, everyone is welcome to attend: “There was no such group, that incorporated meditation, on campus, so I saw that is was very important that it exist. Our group is not only for people who follow Buddhist philosophy.”
Although the group is still fairly new, created just last semester, and the group consists of people who are just beginning to discover the teachings of Buddhism, the group is very energetic and hopes to grow together and collectively improve their lives through the teachings of Buddhism throughout the coming semester and for years to come.