01 November 2007

Shaolin Ch'an Buddhism: Universally Accepted?

There are a lot of religions out there. I mean, a LOT. And there are a lot of people out there, too. And I'm totally not kidding about that... look it up if you don't believe me. A lot of people (in fact most, if not all) have their own opinion about religion. Some were born into their religion, and haven't been told about others. On the opposite end of the spectrum, some were born with no religion at all, and don't care to find one. And in between those two extremes, there are certainly many different combinations, ad infinitum.

There are also a lot of philosophies out there, which can either be a part of a religion, or completely devoid of any religious aspects. As far as the former is concerned, examples of this can be the difference(s) in ideologies between the Catholic and the Protestant churches, or the difference(s) in ideologies between Theravada Buddhism and Mahayana Buddhism. As for the latter, perhaps the difference(s) between Existentialism and Agnosticism can best describe this phenomenon. Or to combine the two, take for example the differences between Agnosticism and Christianity as a whole.

As you can see, there are perhaps endless possibilities for human religious beliefs/philosophical ideas and whatnot. So, how could anybody possibly think that any one religion/philosophy could sit well on EVERYBODY'S spiritual palette?

Well, it would have to be an idea that is not based on any deity(-ies), nor can it neither condemn nor condone a person's personal belief in any particular deity(-ies). Because, as we all know, nothing repels a believer in/worshipper of a deity more than any mention of the existence of other deities (as a general rule, which there are certainly exceptions to)!

Shaolin Ch'an Buddhism is a philosophy that not only fits that mold, but also has the added benefit of being able to enhance/build on/attach to other philosophies.

Take Christianity, for example. Christians believe that by following the word of their God (I.E., the Bible), they will be allowed to live in peace and happiness in a place called Heaven, where pain and suffering do not exist, for all eternity, starting when they die. Shaolin Ch'an Buddhism offers a way to live your life without suffering, which basically means that it is possible to live in Heaven before you die! Obviously, it is still possible to experience pain while you are alive. However, practicing Shaolin Gung Fu/Qigong can help you to live a more pain-free existence as well, through the conditioning of your body, mind, and spirit.

It is possible to be a Shaolin Ch'an Buddhist and still maintain your honest faith/belief in any religion/philosophy. Converting to Shaolin Ch'an Buddhism does not ask nor require you to denounce your previously-held religious beliefs, nor does it ask nor require you to start believing in any religion/deity(-ies). In fact, all that is required of a practitioner of Shaolin Ch'an Buddhism is to do their best to understand and practice the "Eightfold Path." The Eightfold Path is simply a list of ways to live your life, akin to Christianity's "Ten Commandments."

The Eightfold Path was originally described by Shakyamuni Buddha. Shakyamuni Buddha was a prince in ancient India who had been pampered and kept ignorant of the world outside of the palace he lived in by his parents. One day, he decided to leave his palace to explore his kingdom. What he saw shocked him. He saw suffering, which was new to him. He had everything he ever wanted or needed in his palace, and was never told about the peasants or the lives they lead outside of the palace. The suffering he saw affected him so much that he meditated for a long time under a tree, until he became "enlightened" (attained "Buddhahood") as to how to end human suffering.

What he came to realize is now known as The Four Noble Truths:
1. There is suffering in the world;
2. Suffering is caused by desire, including desire for love, wealth, fame, and even life itself;
3. Suffering can be eliminated in the individual through the elimination of desire; and
4. The way to eliminate desire is through destruction of the ego, via the Eightfold Path and eventual enlightenment.
He then described the Eightfold Path. The Shaolin interpretation of the Eightfold Path (according to The Order of Shaolin Ch'an, as described in their publication "The Grandmasters' Text: History, Philosophy, and Gung Fu of Shaolin Ch'an," Copyright 2004, 2006 by The Order Of Shaolin Ch'an) is as follows:

(Disclaimer: The following is a verbatim description of "the Eightfold Path," taken wholly from the aforementioned publication, with only a few -minor- tweaks of my own. My reason for using this, instead of coming up with my own interpretation of the Shaolin interpretation of the Eightfold Path is for the purpose of clarity. Obviously, there is a lot to explain, so it is a long quotation. I am not pretending that what follows is my own intellectual thought, nor will I make any claims that it is. You will know when the quotation ends and where my own "intellectual" thoughts resume.)
1. Right views. When you ask yourself "Why do I do what I do?", what answers do you have? By right views, the Buddha meant your motives and your goals. Do you seek to become a politician for the fame and power, or through a genuine desire to help others? No action in your life should be mindless; a spiritual person knows why she acts. A right action leads to a well-defined goal that moves you towards your spiritual enlightenment. This does not mean that every move must be grand; in fact, most journeys are made up of myriad tiny steps. Right views will help you determine if you are on the right path. Right views also ask you to study and understand the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path. Eventually, right views lead to meditation and the acceptance that all things are interconnected as part of a whole. Much of this explanation also fits into the section on right action. You will note that most of these concepts are overlapping and not at all exclusive.

2. Right resolve. Are you prepared for the task at hand? What are your preparations of thought, speech, and motivation? Is the task at hand worthy of your time and effort? Rightness in resolve means two things. First, is the activity worthy of your effort? Does it contribute to bettering life for any fellow creatures (harmlessness and good will), or help even one other being move towards enlightenment? If the answer is yes, then next ask if you are the person to make a contribution towards achieving that goal. Your motivation must be unselfish, with no thought of fame or reward (renunciation). You must have the knowledge or special skills needed to make your contribution. Only when you can merge these two factors harmoniously do you have right resolve. (The three classical elements of right resolve-renunciation, good will, and harmlessness-are highlighted by parenthetical remarks.)

3. Right speech. Words are powerful, which is why the sages and shamans of so many cultures believe they have magical power. We all know how careless words may hurt others and open you to attack. Nobody likes a gossip or a liar. The U.S. Navy was quite serious when, in World War II, it placed posters on ships and on bases warning sailors that "loose lips sink ships." Buddhists are aware of the power of words and the thought-entities they can evoke.

Buddhists also acknowledge that words cannot be recalled, and once uttered will stay with a person depending on their tone and content. Something said in fury may stay with a person for a lifetime-even though the words were said in the heat of the moment and later recanted. (Recent neuroscience research indicates that social snubs register just like visceral pain to the brain.) The mere fact that such words can be uttered means that a person is capable of thinking such vitriol, and that acts as a corrosive between relationships. Buddhists believe very strongly in the power of words: words can move us to tears or anger, tenderness or contemplation, passion or boredom. A Buddhist tries always to "say what you mean and mean what you say."

4. Right action. Once you decide on a task, is your procedure well thought-out, or is it haphazard? If you wish to become an M.D., you must gain admittance to a medical school. Each step leading to that end must be precise. One does not normally enter medical school directly from a driver's position at a pizza parlor (but a pizza delivery driver may become an M.D., if he takes the right actions).

Right action is not simply about doing the "right" thing, but about taking the necessary steps for you to get from point "A" to point "B." If preparation is a cornerstone of Buddhism, then it is an entire foundation to Shaolin. Our training is not about being perfect, but about being competent. We may not perform the "best" action in a crisis, but we shall perform an acceptable action, and without being inhibited by fear or other distractions. Meditation prepares our nerves for crisis, and our other preparations come from our overall training and career preparedness.

Most Buddhists adhere to a limited number of guidelines regarding right action. These include avoiding the harming of other living beings, being sincere, abstaining from illicit sex, and avoiding drugs and any substance that may deprive the mind from maintaining control. Right action also dictates the use of Shaolin martial skills. Actions that gratify the ego-such as winning in tournaments-are seen as highly contradictory to this goal. You will not see genuine Shaolin masters engaged in any gratuitous competitions.

5. Right livelihood. Buddhists believe that work is a manifestion of spiritual development. Enlightenment is difficult to achieve if you are in the wrong occupation for you; e.g., a vegetarian may find extreme difficulty working as a butcher. The choice of career is important, and Buddhists believe that the choice must come from within, not from "following in the family footsteps"-that is, unless you truly find fulfillment in that business. To a Buddhist, profession is an expression of intention. In American society, it is common to hear poeple say of themselves: "I am my job." If you ask someone to tell you about herself, she will typically start by saying something such as "I am a writer," or "I design books." So linked with our sense of identity is the way we make our living that a poor match almost always causes grief and suffering. Finding right livelihood is especially important in walking the spiritual path.

It is easy to read this definition into a statement supporting a strengthening of the ego, e.g., "I am only a writer." Such a view is indeed going to reinforce ego. But a person who is writing is a writer when engaged in writing. Later, the same person will become a cook when preparing the family dinner, and a dishwasher later. Any livelihood is honorable, so long as it is moral and avoids cruelty.

From the Shaolin perspective, right livelihood is both a very economic and a very ecological notion. You get everything that you need to survive from "the world." What do you return to your community in exchange? A great part of right livelihood is finding and truly understanding your niche in the world.

6. Right effort. Having embarked on a path, are you giving the journey the logistical and emotional support it needs to be accomplished? Buddhism frowns on half-hearted efforts. "Do or do not" is a Buddhist doctrine borrowed from "Star Wars'" "Master Yoda." ("Star Wars" creator, George Lucas, found considerable inspiration for his space fantasy from Asian philosophies that were popularized by his friend, the notable scholar Joseph Campbell. Buddhism and Taoism permeate Campbell's work and the "Star Wars" saga.) The most important things we do in life cannot be achieved without the full strength of our hearts and minds-the concentration of our ch'i.

According to the sutras, right effort also importantly means ceasing to possess intentions that result in the accumulation of karma. One way of thinking about this is that a person successfully exercising right effort possesses a well-calibrated "internal compass." For instance, such an individual does not merely abstain from stealing; stealing does not even enter his mind as an intention. The Shaolin interpretation of right effort is supremely practical when compared to this more classical notion of right effort, yet they are inextricable. You cannot give your full effort, in a practical sense, if your intentions are sabotaged by the ego.

7. Right attention. Are you giving enough conscious attention to yourself, to guage your moods and relationships to be sure you are still on the right path for you? If you cannot hear yourself, how well can you hear others? Do you focus on the important or the trivial matters in your life? In short, are you able to make decisions about what does and does not seem to fit into, or integrate well with, your life? Right attention requires enough self-awareness to be knowledgeable about whom you are in the deepest sense those words represent. This self-awareness includes both deep self-reflection and daily mindfulness. Be mindful of your thoughts and experiences in following the path.

8. Right meditation. Have you the discipline to fully focus on the task at hand? ("Yoda's" comment in "The Empire Strikes Back" about "Luke Skywalker": "Never his mind on where he is!" is appropriate.) You need not be single-minded; life is, after all, made of many experiences and relationships. But the task at hand deserves your full mindfulness, or it is unimportant. Can you tell which? Right meditation is about simply being where you are, doing what you are doing. Since we are strong advocates of moving meditations (not simply Gung Fu-one patriarch famously achieved enlightenment while washing dishes!), we do not interpret right meditation to refer solely to specialized, seated meditations such as zazen.
(This concludes the verbatim explanation taken from the aforementioned publication.)

Did anybody catch anything about deities or religion in the Eightfold Path? I know I didn't and believe me, it took quite a while to type all that stuff up! I think I might have noticed something about believing in gods in there, if it were, while I was copying it! But I didn't, so you can ease your mind now.

If you have taken the time to read and fully comprehend my brief descriptions of Shaolin Ch'an Buddhism and the Eightfold Path, not only will I give you a cookie (just kidding), but I'm sure that you will see that Shaolin Ch'an Buddhism is truly a universally-acceptable philosophy. Don't be afraid to look deeper into this. It might just make the world a better place, at least for you and the people around you.

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