new age spirituality

Buddhism for Busy People

Review of David Michie's introduction to Tibetan Buddhism

Buddhism for Busy People

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Buddhism is rapidly gaining interest in the West among those seeking an antidote to rampant materialism who remain unsatisfied by the answers of the orthodox Christian churches. In Buddhism for Busy People David Michie shares with us his discovery of Buddhism interspersed with his own progress from high-powered but stressed out P.R. executive to published novelist to coping with rejection by publishers.

One of the strongest features to emerge is the non-dogmatic nature of Buddhism. Buddhism consists of many teachings of which we are free to adopt those that feel right for us at the time. Our evolution has already taken an eternity so there's no need to achieve perfection, or Nirvana, overnight.

Michie begins by telling how a stress related allergy led him to meditation classes at the Glebe Street Gompa, a school of Buddhism in the heart of London.

Human dissatisfaction stems from three errors of thinking. Attachment is the (false) belief that happiness comes from externalities such as possessions, jobs, people… Aversion is the myth that unhappiness is also caused by external things. Ignorance, or wrong view is the illusion that things are intrinsically good or bad, when in reality all that's good or bad is our perception of things.

The false belief that things out there make us happy or unhappy is described as the superstition of materialism. The key to overcoming this superstition is to gain mastery over our hearts and minds (the true source of happiness) through the practice of meditation.

Michie provides detailed guidelines on preparing for meditation, along with a number of specific meditative exercises. Focusing on the breath is recommended as a starting point for beginners. Simply breathe in and out, counting the breaths and keeping your attention on the breath and nothing else.

Two obstacles to successful meditation are agitation and dullness. Agitation is the tendency of the mind to go off in all directions except the object of meditation - the so-called mad monkey of the mind. Dullness is the tendency to fall asleep.

"If one was to videotape for a day a Buddhist behaving in accordance with dharma teachings, a Christian acting consistently with the Scriptures and a Muslim observing the Koran, at the end of the day an impartial observer wouldn't be able to tell one adherent from another."
David Michie; Buddhism for Busy People

Karma, one of the most widely known Buddhist concepts, is introduced through the story of the author's friend who was diagnosed with and subsequently recovered from cancer. Karma is the law of cause and effect. In the words of St Paul: "What a man sows, this he will reap." But karma isn't something we must passively accept. We constantly make our own karma with every action, every day.

Existence is an endless cycle of birth and rebirth, known as samsara. Michie describes how enlightened masters are able to control this process, remaining in meditative state for several days after bodily death. Such masters are able to determine not only the circumstances of their rebirth but also how they will become known to former followers. As an example Michie quotes the case of Lama Yeshe who passed away in 1984 and was reincarnated in Spain in 1985.

Interestingly, Michie reminds us that reincarnation was an established part of Christian doctrine until being expunged by Emperor Justinian in the sixth century.

Bodhichitta, true compassion, is the desire to release all sentient beings from the suffering of samsara. We should not expect to achieve this extremely ambitious goal overnight, or even in a single lifetime. But we can make a start.

Emphasis is placed not only on what we do, but also our motivation for doing it. Even in the simplest of acts, such as picking up a piece of litter, we can practice bodhichitta by dedicating the act as a cause for all living beings to attain enlightenment.

The concept of beginningless time teaches that we have all lived countless previous lives, in which we have in some way been related to every other currently living being. Thus familiar concepts of friend, stranger and enemy are not absolute, they are in fact meaningless.

Dependent arising is described as the subtlest and mot revolutionary of Buddha's teachings. Buddhism seeks a "middle way" between the extremes of nihilism (all that exists is matter or energy, there is no soul) and eternalism (the belief we possess a distinct and eternal soul).

All phenomena are dependent on causes, parts, and mental projection. The existence of everything is dependent on other things (causes). All things consist of component parts. Things have no intrinsic qualities other than what the observer projects onto them (mental projection).

"Enlightenment is the moment the wave realises it is water"
Thich Nhat Hanh

Dependent arising doesn't mean we are without soul. But neither do we have a distinct and independent soul. Rather we are "boundless awareness", at one with the universe, existing on a journey towards this realization as a mindstream driven by karma.

Michie concludes with advice on choosing and working with a teacher.

Buddhism for Busy People is an absorbing and highly readable introduction to Buddhism. It will both satisfy the curious and also serve as an inspiration to those who want to go further.

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