I’m with Brad Warner on this one: Buddhism isn’t a religion, it’s a philosophy of action. Religions are filled with musts and gods, they talk of the ‘other’ world and generally ask for agreement amongst the adherents. Art, on the other hand, is something practiced, something we believe makes our lives more beautiful, though not necessarily easier; art, from both the perspective of the creator and the one who enjoys it, brings us into the present moment and strongly suggests we take note. We don’t really get better at our art, but it does change in our making and changes us as well.
Folks often think Buddhism nihilistic too, that it teaches that life is valueless (the art is quite the opposite) and dwells on suffering. While that’s not quite true (Buddhists definitely do not go around all like “life stinks dude”), the awareness that WE suffer is of central import; in fact, it makes up two of the four noble truths: in life we suffer and there’s a way out. And that, friends is not nihilism, which simply states that, yup, life in fact does suck/ is meaningless and tough tooties for you. Buddhism, on the other hand, takes a really optimistic view that’s more like, yeah, things suck sometimes, but that’s largely because you see it that way and, hey hey, you can practice an art that will fix that!
Folks aren’t wrong, however, when they say that Buddhism is kind of like psychology, because it really is about the way we see things, our perceptions. So, we suffer, quite simply, because we spend so much frigging time and energy either wanting what we don’t have (that chick, that job, that cool new carbon bike, those big quads, more money, a trip to the ocean, better grades) or not wanting we do have (this moment). We complain about not having this and wanting that instead and, poof, we SUFFER, MAAAAN. This is not to be misread for pain though – some things really do suck: broken legs, broken hearts, dying friends and family, getting fired, your house burning down, war and famine and all that other horrible shit. However, while something may hurt (pain), you aren’t suffering until you start to dwell on wanting it to go away (or wanting to feel another way); and THAT’S something you can help.
It sounds stupid, but you manage suffering by sitting with it. Yup, the art is just this: sit on a cushion and breath, let the thoughts come and go, don’t hold onto them, acknowledge them, say hi, shake the demon’s hand, and come back to the breath. Not every itch, physical or psychological, needs to be scratched. You learn that on the cushion. In your discomfort, thinking you should be doing something else, while your foot goes to sleep – you come back to the breath, be in the moment, and watch suffering separate from pain and then evaporate.
The bike is the same. I love me some trainer rides – where there’s no pretty landscape, no cool conversations with your homies, no dogs to outride, no coffee stops, just you and your bike and a whole lot of pain and sweat and heavy breathing. Honestly, it really is meditation on a different cushion – I close my eyes and focus on the body, listen to my heart, discern pain from suffering. I remember that I’m there by choice; I don’t want to be elsewhere, I don’t want this to stop, even though it does kinda suck. Suffering is something I am investigating – I paint with it, sing along, write stories with it.
And when I get off the bike, like when I stand from the cushion, I’m just a little better at being human. Just a little more kind and compassionate towards myself and others and this because I understand suffering just a tad more. Yeah man, Buddha woulda rode a bike.