By Dov Alberstone
When I sat down to write this article, I couldn’t quite find where to start. I wracked my brain trying to find a way to introduce something as foreign as Buddhism while trying to stay relatable to a mainly Jewish readership. I felt simplicity would be the surest path, and suddenly, like an epiphany, three words flowed out onto the page with such ease. It was as if they typed themselves. These three themes encapsulate exactly what I find most meaningful about Buddhism and succinctly capture what attracted me to Buddhist philosophy:
Long ago, according to Buddhist mythology, a prince named Siddhartha Gautama was bothered by the nature of existence. He recognized that every human life is in an endless cyclical pursuit of desire. We are hungry, so we eat. We rest, and then we are hungry again. We work. We make money. We spend the money, and then we work more, determined to make even more money. The driving force in so much of what we do is the need to fulfill a craving. But the truth is, we can never fill it. We will always want more. Simply put, we suffer because we are grasping at smoke, and the more smoke we think we attain, the more discouraged we feel when it dissipates.
Siddhartha felt tormented by this knowledge, and he ached to find refuge for himself from this destiny of suffering. He wandered for six years, trying every religious practice available to himself, but to no avail. Finally, dejected and disillusioned, he sat beneath a tree, vowed not to move until he had solved his problem, and began to meditate. When he arose forty-nine days later, he had found a path out from suffering. He left the tree and preached his philosophy to anyone that would listen.
Or so the story goes.
Is it true? Who cares? Like every story, its truth lies in what we can learn from it. Personally, I have my own story, and at least mine is true. I was similarly troubled by suffering, but rather than the existential crisis the Buddha endured, my feet and back were killing me during the all-night marches my IDF unit did during training. Serendipitously, I came across the Buddhist understanding that suffering flows from cravings, and to free myself from suffering, I only had to relinquish the feeling of craving. “Why not give it a shot?” I thought. The next time I felt an ache in my foot after hours of walking, I would just “let go” of the craving for relief.
About midway through the next masa we were on, my body started to ache. I focused on the feeling of pain and separated it in my mind from the longing for the pain to end. What came over me was a deep sense of relief – like I had stumbled upon a new, more peaceful reality. I can’t make my pain go away, but I don’t have to allow it to reign over my mind. When you detach from desire, you regain your independence. You cannot change the facts of your life, but you — and only you — can change how they affect you.
Buddhism puts a tremendous emphasis on seeing existence as it truly is. When we recognize the true nature of things, we break through our clouded and corrupted perception of reality and see things clearly. Every moment, no matter how beautiful, is fleeting. Every summer crawls into fall and winter eventually melts into spring again. Not one thing in existence today will remain forever.
When we recognize the inherent impermanence in all things, all our delusions about ourselves, how we see others, how we see the world and the material, simply dissipate like a smoke screen. Quite suddenly, you feel serene in knowing that nothing in the world has real power over you, but for the power you give over to it. The true nature of the world isn’t the false identity which we assign to it, it simply is. Embracing the truth of the universe and of our own impermanence only helps to free us from the shackles keeping us from flying high and feeling good.
It’s not so difficult to detach from the things which cause you pain or to understand for a brief moment that the world as we know it is really just an illusion. But Buddhism stresses another layer beyond that, namely, mindfulness. This is the practice of being ever present in the moment you are in—to the fullest degree. If we go through life haphazardly, without contemplating our actions and being present in every moment in our day, we are subject to fall into traps of attachment and delusion. If we don’t stay present and attentive, we are incapable of dodging the hurdles life throws at us. However, by taking a stand and refusing to sink into unhealthy attachment and self-delusion, we safeguard ourselves from experiencing the suffering inherent in existence, and we achieve true independence, freedom, and serenity.
The best part about it? It’s not even so hard. Take ten minutes a day to sit, breathe, calm the flow of your mind, and just detach for a little. Meditation and contemplation help maintain a constant focus on the ephemeral nature of existence, and reinforce the will to keep suffering and dissatisfaction at a distance. I think this is what people, and I certainly include myself, find most inviting about Buddhist philosophy; it teaches us something so valuable and shows us such an easy way to attain it—for no one’s sake but our own.