A response to a student beginning “Discovering the Heart of Buddhism”,
a home-study course designed by Lama Shenpen Hookham,
the central teaching of her Awakened Heart Sangha.
STUDENT: At first sight I don’t see how this course is Buddhist, or teaching the standard Buddhist principles. Am I missing something?
Isn’t this interesting? As a European student (not from a Buddhist culture), you don’t see the course as starting from the well-known Buddhist principles taught elsewhere. This is certainly the wonder of this exploration! It is purposely designed to meet students like yourself exactly where you are, regardless of any Buddhist knowledge — or none at all.
You’ll notice that the course is called “Discovering the Heart of Buddhism” – and not “Teaching the Facts of Buddhism”. There are plenty of courses which do that, and if your aim is to become a professor of Buddhist Studies then that’s what you need. But if you’re interested in Awakening to your True Nature – what “Buddhism” is actually about – then a process of personal discovery is much more effective.
you’re a Buddha at heart
And of course, Siddhartha Gautama himself was not taught the principles of Buddhism, he discovered them for himself – and furthermore was quite clear that for each and every one of us wanting to realise the Awakening he found, we need to discover it personally for ourselves. There is nothing you can tell someone else which enlightens them. If only!
So rather than starting with Buddhist “tenets” or rules, the course begins with exploring our own awareness – as the Buddha did – and from that to realise for ourselves the truths which underlie the stated “principles”. We need to know these truths experientially, rather than to trust someone else’s word or to “know” these things superficially as parroted facts.
it’s not about accepting suffering
The difficulty we face in approaching such personal realisation is that we need to challenge, and to see through, everything we take for granted. For example, it’s almost universally assumed that the way to deal with suffering of any kind, such as experiences we don’t like or lacking the comforts we would like, is to change our external circumstances. We either put up with such things or we “do something about it” by changing the world or people around us. What else is there to do?
Many people see Buddhism itself as meditating to become impervious to suffering, to become mentally content in unpleasant situations. There may be some ground to be gained by that approach as opposed to exaggerating our plight, but that is not the Buddha’s wisdom which produces enlightenment.
We also take for granted that we are a separate self, existing in a world of what is not us. This seems obvious and is the basis for the above attitude of manipulating the world to better suit that self. What is the real truth of this? That is no simple matter – but it does repay sustained examination: there is something extremely valuable to discover there. And of course it is something which has to be experienced, not anything you can be told.
The above two paragraphs point in plain English to things we can explore for ourselves without mention of any academic principles — although this requires trustworthy guidance. However, they are also what the Buddha taught in his first two teachings: the four Noble truths, and the Discourse on the Not-self Characteristic (Anatta-lakkhana Sutta). We can find the principles of Buddhism within ourselves, and if we don’t do that, we are simply mugging up theory.
teaching fish about water
The other key thing which we take for granted requires much deeper penetration, and highly specific guidance such as the Awakened Heart Sangha provides along with this course. Put briefly, this is the nature and qualities of our awareness itself. This has been described by Lama Shenpen as being like trying to teach fish about water. We have never known anything else, yet we see everything “through” this awareness, like not realising you have eyes – we take our eyes for granted, we just see.
So we need to reveal our false assumptions – like realising we are wearing tinted glasses; and we need to distinguish also what is ultimately true – like realising our awareness itself has qualities and is actually what we most truly are.
I’m happy if you’re happy
When we begin to discover these qualities as inherent to our very being, we find for instance, the quality of Sensitivity (pointed out more fully in the course), and a deep longing in our heart to be at happy and at peace. Why this constant urge towards happiness? Why can’t we be truly content while others suffer? We find for ourselves that we simply already are, and always have been, of a nature which is taught academically as “Mahayana Buddhism”. How much more powerful to discover this in ourselves as the core of what we are, than to try to take on some rule of universal compassion as if from outside!
I hope you now see that this is a unique and tremendously valuable opportunity to progress from experience to deep understanding, rather than hoping that academic understanding will produce the personal transformation which is the true fruit of Buddhism.