Buddhism Is Not What You Think

I suppose a lot of people who follow PJ already know I’m a Buddhist, and have been for almost 50 years — a “devout Buddhist” if you like. I’ve written about it occasionally on PJ, going back to my first or second piece, when PJ was still in its pajamas. I’ve also written quite a lot about Buddhism on my moribund personal blog, Explorations.


Over the holidays, I decided to collect some of that writing, and add to it to put together a book on Buddhism with the working title Undecorated Buddha (or maybe Undocumented Buddha — I’m open to suggestions.) As I did with my 13 Weeks experiment, I’ve set up a Facebook page where people are invited to come and keep me honest.

At about the same time, Dave Swindle co-incidentally (or was it? Insert Twilight Zone music here) mentioned to me that he wanted more stuff on Eastern spirituality in PJ Lifestyle. We rapidly agreed on my writing a weekly Undecorated Buddha piece.

I hope you’re feeling better, Dave; I didn’t mean to trample you like that.

Now, you might ask “who the hell are you to write about Buddhism?” After all, I don’t have “Transmission”, no accredited teacher has given me the certificate.

About two thousand years ago, an Emperor of China asked the same question of an Indian guy we call Bodhidharma.

He answered, “Nobody special.”

Nobody special.

Of course, the Emperor responded, “Would someone throw this bum out? I thought you had a Great Teacher for me. Who’s booking the entertainment in this palace?”

So, yeah, I’m nobody special. But then, that’s the core of Buddhism: it’s nothing special. It’s all common sense, and once you see it, it’s the simplest thing in the world.

Read the essays for enjoyment and interest, like you’d read a comic book; I’ll try to be entertaining and interesting. Just remember one of the greatest pieces of advice the Buddha gave:


Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who said it, no matter if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense.

(Oh, okay, that’s a very free translation of something from the Kamala Sutra, but just roll with me, okay? Buddha said something like that.)

If it’s nothing special, though, why write a book? My reason is that I think Buddhism in the West has been loaded up with a lot of mystical crap. A lot of it was introduced by the original Victorian translators, who were often Theosophists, and London-club mystics, and generally people who wanted it to be mysterious and different and therefore something that was Not Quite Proper. Victorian hippies. What “native” Buddhism there was, was either Chinese, with lots of red and gold and fireworks and dragons and stuff, or Japanese Shin, which is less flashy but just as alien. Then Zen got picked up by the Beats, and we had the Dharma Bums, and Jack Kerouac, and William S. Burroughs Jr., and Allen Ginsberg. Then Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche showed up, bringing Tibet’s own style of Buddhism, and Zen centers like Tassajara opened up in the 60’s and 70’s, and it was off to the races.

Don’t get me wrong, by the way: I think Allen Ginsberg may have been the greatest American poet of the 20th century; Trungpa Rinpoche (Rinpoche is a title that roughly means “treasured”) was a great teacher, and a helluva lot more fun at parties than most preachers. The chants, and ritual, and paintings, and the general fol-der-ol he imported from Tibet is fun, and moving, and peculiarly beautiful to my eyes. But it’s something added to original Buddhism. It’s ornamentation. And I think it gets in the way for a lot of people who aren’t by nature Orientalists, as I am.


But then if Buddhism is not the gorgeous ceremonies and saffron robes and incense — or samurai, and seppuku, and Japanese calligraphy — then what is it?

I can’t tell you. It’s something you have to find out for yourself.

I can, however, begin to show you where to look. Watch this video. As it suggests, I want you to watch very carefully and to count the number of times the team in white passes the basketball. Now, watch carefully, as there is a quiz right after the page break.

Here’s the pop quiz: who saw the moonwalking bear?

It’s a trick of sorts, of course. By asking you to be aware of the white team passing the basketballs, I led you away from whatever else was going on. (And yes, some of you didn’t get caught and some of you have seen this before.) But it shows you how what we’re thinking affects what we see. When we’re caught up in a thought, we’re missing things.

Buddhism at its heart is a way to escape from what we think, and a collection of techniques that help us make our escape.

Gautama Siddhartha, the man who first saw through to how to see things as they are, spent six years doing every kind of yoga and ascetic denial he could find, hoping to find The Answer. After giving up on that, and having a bath and lunch, he sat down to figure it out. And did. And it’s a good thing, or I’d have nothing to write about. But the story goes that he was walking down the road and ran into someone who saw him, happy and serene and completely untroubled. This person asked “Are you a God?”


Siddhartha said, “No, I’m not a God.”

“Are you a saint?”

“No, I’m no saint.”

“But there’s something special about you — what is it?”

Siddhartha thought about it for a moment, and answered, “I am awake.” The root in Sanskrit for “to awaken” is budh– — so he’s known now as the Buddha: the guy who woke up.


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