My take on the essence of Buddhism

What I make of the essential meaning of Buddhism, influenced by the controversial scholars Joseph Campbell and Alan Watts.

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Hinduism and Buddhism both are about direct experience of reality through a transformation of consciousness. As I understand it, and I may be wrong but I don't think so, this IS the essence of Buddhism. The four noble truths and the noble eightfold path of Buddhism are a METHOD to transform one's mode of thought to transcend thought and thereby experience reality directly, without words or other concepts getting in the way: beyond thought, beyond feelings, DEEPER than that to our ground of being, experiencing the awareness of being to the point where there is no difference between the experiencer and the experience, where the experiencer and the experience are one.

The late philosopher/entertainer Alan Watts said many times that Buddhism can be thought of as a reform of Hinduism, or Hinduism “stripped for export.” In other words, when one takes out the parts of Hinduism that cannot be exported to other cultures, what is left is essentially Buddhism (Out of Your Mind CD 11, The World as Emptiness, part 1).

I was introduced to the mythologies of Hinduism and Buddhism about ten years ago by some of the videos of Joseph Campbell shown on PBS. I only started serious study of Hinduism, Buddhism and Taoism about three years ago, mainly by repeatedly listening to audio files of many hours of seminars by the late spiritual entertainer Alan Watts as he explained these eastern philosophies to Western audiences. Things I've learned have been like lightning flashes of realization, not just light bulbs going off over my head.

I know many people criticize the interpretations of Joseph Campbell or Alan Watts on spiritual matters. Some Christians really don't like the books and videos of Joseph Campbell because he makes non-Christian mythologies sound like they make a lot of sense, and he puts a different spin on Christian mythology than you will hear from most pulpits. In a like manner, some Buddhists insist that Alan Watts didn't teach Buddhism: he taught Alan Watts. However, even if I am getting it all wrong according to anyone else's knowledge or opinion of these matters, the point is that I am making connections between ideas and more importantly, BEYOND ideas.

What surprises me the most is how LITTLE I had known of what these eastern philosophies were all about, even though I am very well-read. It is so easy to look at all the multi-armed statues of gods and goddesses in Hindu mythology, or at the big golden statues of Buddha, and think that these are about idolatry. They are NOT, let me repeat most emphatically, NOT about idolatry. Oh they can become idols, by simple-minded people who need something material to focus on, but these statues are meant to help you transcend the symbol and pass to the ultimate reality.

Now at the LOCAL level, ordinary Hindus and Buddhists who live IN those cultures probably DON'T have the understanding of the mystical theology I'm talking about, just as most ordinary Christians haven't studied much of the theology of their own church. Joseph Campbell pointed out that at the local level, the priesthoods of all religions all over the world function pretty much the same. They tie the message of their church to basic human needs and wants, and the money flows in. These needs and wants are not usually about craving a mystical realization. For the most part, ordinary people are worried about health, wealth or progeny.

Ever notice that sometimes when you study a foreign language, more than learning the other language what happens is you end up understanding your OWN language better (it's happened to me at least). Well, in a like manner, studying other cultures and beliefs can't help but help one understand one's own culture and beliefs better. For example, when viewing a physical object if you look at it from another angle it may bring out details you were previously unaware of, helping you get a clearer and more complete picture than your earlier point of view. The Blind Men and the Elephant, a famous poem of the nineteenth century that is based on a much older Buddhist story, illustrates the problems of having only one point of view.

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is that the very structure of the language you think in, its grammar, etc. shapes your world view and the culture of your society to an extent most people are unaware of. Alan Watts pointed out that this is because people are totally immersed in their culture, like a fish in water, and “presumably a fish doesn't know it is in the water.” This idea has been played with many times in many novels, perhaps the most famous example being the Newspeak language in 's Nineteen Eighty-Four. The extreme form of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis has been discredited, but the influence of one's language upon one's world view probably does occur to some degree.