The dharma talk today detailed the parable of the White Path, as taught by Shao-tao. It is somewhat lengthy, so I've included the link. It is basically about reaching the place of enlightenment via a narrow path that separates two rivers, a river of fire and a river of water, and connects the east bank, which is our world of samsara, or suffering, and the west bank, the Pure Land, or afterlife. The river of fire represents our anger and resentment, and the river of water represents our unceasing human desire, which continues our suffering (as the Buddhists teach that desire is the source of human suffering). The character in the parable is urged along the path by two voices, that of Shakyamuni Buddha, the historical Buddha, calling from within the river and telling him not to fear, and that of Amida Buddha, from the West Bank, urging him forward. From the East Bank, there are bandits and wild beasts pursuing the character in the parable, from which he is trying to escape. These bandits and beasts represent essentially the elements of what we call "self".
This parable is described to represent our movement through this life towards enlightenment. I think it also serves as a good metaphor for recovery. You have to get through the anger and resentment and the desire for things to be different than they really are in order to reach the place of serenity. The path is narrow but can be traversed if you approach it with purpose.
I take a lot of comfort in Buddhism, a tradition that I am just beginning to learn about. I was raised a Christian, but eventually I realized that it doesn't feel true to me in my mind or in my heart. Still, I am a spiritual person, as I think most people are in some sense.
Buddhism isn't a theistic tradition and many would say it isn't even a religion. Buddha isn't a god. In fact, Buddha simply means "awake" or "enlightened". It is said that upon his enlightenment, Siddhartha, the prince who became the Buddha, was asked if he was a man, and he replied "no". He was then asked if he was a god, and he again replied "no". Then he was asked, "What are you?" And he replied, "I am awake." Hence he became known as Buddha, and he has a few other names: Shakyamuni Buddha, and Gautama Buddha are a few of them. He is not worshiped, but rather his example is followed and his teachings are studied in order to learn how to live this life and attain enlightenment. This sounds much more lofty than I think it is in practice. In reality, the Buddhists I have read and met seek simply to live without increasing or causing suffering in anyone, and to follow the teachings, which are fairly common-sense and practical.
The temple we go to is the only one in Spokane, and it is in the Jodo Shinshu tradition of Buddhism. There are so many different schools and traditions in Buddhism that I haven't even begun to understand the exact workings even of the one we attend, but the one difference I do know is that Jodo Shinshu discarded the monastic tradition. They do not have any monks; all lay people have direct access to all the teachings. The beliefs that tie all Buddhists together are the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path. These are the things that all Buddhists agree upon.
This year has presented me with some tremendous challenges, and many of those I think are spiritual challenges. I have been trying to meet these with a spiritual tradition that feels honest and practical to me. In all Twelve Step programs, they speak of "the God of our understanding." This can be a real stumbling block to those of us who consider ourselves atheist, or agnostic, or are just turned off by religion. But one thing they teach is that it doesn't matter what that "God" is or even if it is a "God", just that you acknowledge that there is something outside of yourself that can restore you to sanity. To me, that is the Universe. Reading about these teachings and hearing the simple, profound Dharma at the temple really helps me to focus and strive to see the world outside of myself and my seemingly important problems that really are just a part of this world of samsara.