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The resurrection of my late lamented website (mostly) on spiritual matters.

The Influence of Buddhism

How a 2,500-Year-Old Teaching Changed My Life

[This essay was originally posted to]

The Condensed Version

While retaining my Neo-Perennialist, universalist [2023: I would now add humanist] tendencies, I often express these in metaphors embedded in the Buddhist tradition. In this essay, I examine how I came to this wonderful worldview (or how it came to me), and I end with a list of the Buddhist ideas I find most compelling.

Me and the Buddha

[Note: down to the stars * * * * * * * * this article is identical to "The Influence of Joseph Campbell."]

To understand the point of view expressed in the Realize! pages, you must understand two of the most important influences on my thinking. One of these is the work of Joseph Campbell; the other is my studies in Buddhism.

Until my divorce in 1990, I was pretty much a "Western Civ" kind of guy, interested in Greek philosophy, Medieval scholasticism, and British literature. My majors in university were English and philosophy, and-- as I was in those days an "Evangelical Christian"-- I used these disciplines to explore (and ultimately justify) my belief in the Bible as THE WORD OF GOD.

All this changed when my wife left and everything I knew was cut loose from its moorings.

Unlike some, who find that such experiences strengthen their faith, I found mine shattered. The "faith community" that my wife and I had been a part of failed me utterly, and I started searching for something...more.

* * * * * * * *

As mentioned above, this search led me initially to the writings of Joseph Campbell. But, as useful as his thinking has been for me, it is still not a living "wisdom tradition" (though I hope it might become one some day). As my thinking continued to develop, I found myself, in the mid-'90s, craving a more cohesive way of seeing the world. And some of the same people who had led me to Joseph Campbell were also deeply interested in Buddhism (and in Native American beliefs--a story told in the Joseph Campbell essay).

And so I read and discussed this completely "alien" tradition sporadically with friends I trusted throughout the early and mid-90s, little realizing that my life was soon to take a serious turn to the East.

In late 1996 I found myself for various reasons without meaningful employment. Scanning the want-ads one day, I saw this notice: "Teach English in Japan. AEON Corporation," followed by a phone number. I called the number, which led to applications and interviews and--long story short--found myself on a plane on February 22, 1997, winging my way to the Land of the Rising Sun.

Let's be clear: I was not on a quest for enlightenment when I went to Japan. I was just fulfilling a job contract.

Or was I? Because once I got there, something was "awakened" in me (in the usual sense, not the technical Buddhist one) and I began to learn things I had never imagined.

Almost five years later, I had studied with a lama, and befriended several monks. I had completed the four largest pilgrimages in Japan, numbering 188 temples (read details of some of those pilgrimages here). I had visited literally hundreds of Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines. I had chanted numerous Buddhist prayers, and had sat Zazen. I had also picked the brains of many friends, gaijin and Japanese, including priests of various Buddhist schools. I had lit more sticks of incense, venerated more statues, and devoured more books than I can count.

And still my knowledge of what the Buddha really taught was deficient. I had gained a great deal of experiential knowledge, but somehow there hadn't been a "click."

After nearly five years, I returned to the U.S. and made an astounding discovery. I had ended my time in Japan with a ten-week journey that had stripped me down to a bundle of raw emotions. Now, back in the States, I was undergoing reverse culture shock--a bit like Post Traumatic Stress. I was casting about for a way to deepen and broaden the experience gained during my sojourn in Japan, to link up my knowledge of temples and pilgrimages with authentic Buddhist teachings, while making my re-entry into an America that was radically different from the one I had left (this was, after all, just three months after September 11, 2001).

And to my surprise, in my own home town of Rosemead, California, on the very street where my family had bought land and built a house in the late 40s (a house where my aunt was still living in early 2002), there was a Buddhist university, now called the University of the West, operated by a vital, living monastic community--and they offered a Ph.D. for a mere $1,000US a semester.

So I took a job as an administrator in an ESL school, and in September of 2002 I went back to school.

By December of 2003 I had completed all of the coursework for a Doctor of Philosophy in the study of religions--and there I stopped, due largely to my departure to China. I lack the dissertation and the language requirement (Sanskrit, Pali, classical Chinese, or Tibetan)--and I may never complete it.

And I don't care.

Because what I learned gave me enough to give the rest of my sojourn in this world a shape and a direction.

Meanwhile, to round out my formal studies, I left the ESL school and went to work full time at Hsi Lai Temple, the Chinese Buddhist temple which had sponsored the university, and said at the time to be the largest Buddhist temple in the Western hemisphere. As a tour guide, editor, and ESL teacher to the staff (including monks and nuns), I learned as much in six months at the temple as I did in a year and a half at the university. These two experiences--the university and the temple--gave me the sort of balanced exposure I needed to continue my studies and practice on my own. Melding them with my previous Christian studies and the universalism I had acquired through Joseph Campbell and my other studies, this experience helped me arrive at the Neo-Perennialist viewpoint I now espouse. (Follow my devotional tour of Hsi Lai Temple here, to learn more about what the temple and the university taught me.)

Living in South China, on the Hong Kong border--in Shenzhen, to be exact, where I lived for 11 years--also helped tremendously in consolidating my appreciation and understanding of Buddhism. You see, there is little "pure Buddhism" in China; rather, it is blended with Taoism, Confucianism, and folk traditions into a world view that is based, not on doctrine, but on "what works." By examining the ideas that underlie these various traditions, the conclusions I reached have been expanded and reinforced. It was a truly remarkable opportunity.

Lessons of Buddhism

And what, exactly, has Buddhism brought to me?

Foremost is my sense that Buddhism is not so much a religion as a psychological system. My teachers from Sri Lanka (home of what might be called "Fundamentalist Buddhism") showed me that the Buddha never claimed to be more than a man--an enlightened man, to be sure, but a man nonetheless. And the techniques that he espoused had mostly to do with controlling the mind, and never with "calling on the gods for help."

The Buddha was extremely rational. He never asked for faith: The Kalama Sutra makes the Buddha's attitude toward experience (vs. authority) quite clear:

Do not go upon what has been acquired by repeated hearing; nor upon tradition; nor upon rumor; nor upon what is in a scripture; nor upon surmise; nor upon an axiom; nor upon specious reasoning; nor upon a bias towards a notion that has been pondered over; nor upon another's seeming ability; nor upon the consideration, 'The monk [i.e. the Buddha] is our teacher.' Kalamas, when you yourselves know: 'These things are bad; these things are blamable; these things are censured by the wise; undertaken and observed, these things lead to harm and ill,' abandon them.

Likewise, later, after repeating the first part of this speech, the Buddha ended it with:

Kalamas, when you yourselves know: 'These things are good; these things are not blamable; these things are praised by the wise; undertaken and observed, these things lead to benefit and happiness,' enter on and abide in them.

"When you yourselves know...": a reasonable criterion.

He also said that the teaching was subservient to the goal. In the well-known "Raft Simile," the Buddha indicated that we must grasp his teachings lightly, and not struggle to keep them beyond their usefulness:

The Blessed One said: "Suppose a man were traveling along a path. He would see a great expanse of water, with the near shore dubious and risky, the further shore secure and free from risk, but with neither a ferryboat nor a bridge going from this shore to the other. The thought would occur to him, 'Here is this great expanse of water, with the near shore dubious and risky, the further shore secure and free from risk, but with neither a ferryboat nor a bridge going from this shore to the other. What if I were to gather grass, twigs, branches, and leaves and, having bound them together to make a raft, were to cross over to safety on the other shore in dependence on the raft, making an effort with my hands and feet?' Then the man, having gathered grass, twigs, branches, and leaves, having bound them together to make a raft, would cross over to safety on the other shore in dependence on the raft, making an effort with his hands and feet. Having crossed over to the further shore, he might think, 'How useful this raft has been to me! For it was in dependence on this raft that, making an effort with my hands and feet, I have crossed over to safety on the further shore. Why don't I, having hoisted it on my head or carrying on my back, go wherever I like?' What do you think, monks: Would the man, in doing that, be doing what should be done with the raft?"

"No, lord."

"And what should the man do in order to be doing what should be done with the raft? There is the case where the man, having crossed over, would think, 'How useful this raft has been to me! For it was in dependence on this raft that, making an effort with my hands and feet, I have crossed over to safety on the further shore. Why don't I, having dragged it on dry land or sinking it in the water, go wherever I like?' In doing this, he would be doing what should be done with the raft. In the same way, monks, I have taught the Dhamma [the Buddha's teachings] compared to a raft, for the purpose of crossing over, not for the purpose of holding onto. Understanding the Dhamma as taught compared to a raft, you should let go even of Dhammas, to say nothing of non-Dhammas."

--from the Alagaddupama Sutta

Though we must grasp the Dharma lightly, this does not mean that we can take the Dharma lightly. In the same sutra, he warned in the Water-Snake simile that when we do grasp the Dharma, we must grasp it correctly, like a man grasping a water-snake--by the neck, not by the tail!

While the early teachings of the Buddha make it clear that there is nothing "supernatural" in his teachings, and that the goal of enlightenment is far more important than the things that he said, it must be noted that there is something in the human that cries out for something to worship. And so, as the Mahayana tradition developed in India and later migrated to China and points east, it incorporated opportunities for veneration, prayer, and the other trappings of theism. Many Buddhists light incense and make other offerings, and even prostrate themselves, before images of the Buddha.

And so there are two main "paths" in Buddhism: psychological exercise, or religious practice. The Japanese call the first jiriki (่‡ชๅŠ›, Chinese zili), "self-power," where one's efforts save one. This is sometimes called "The Way of the Monkey," whose baby clings with his own strength to his mother as she flies to safety. They call the other tariki (ไป–ๅŠ›, Chinese tali), "other power," where one is saved by calling on supernatural aid. This is "The Way of the Kitten," who is carried to safety in his mother's mouth.

In Buddhist practice, you can have it both ways.

And so, although I have never actually "become a Buddhist"* (in the Chinese tradition, this is done by "Taking Refuge in the Triple Gem" of the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha), I do recite prayers every day (almost), and attempt to put into practice many of the wise teachings, as outlined below. I have even acquired a large wooden statue of the Buddha, and this summer hope to develop and decorate a "Joss Room" in my spare bedroom where I can sit and chant. [I did.]

*But see my essay, "Are You a Buddhist?" in my Temple Tales Newsletter, where I describe my casual "initiation."

The following is a partial list of Buddhist ideas (in no particular order) that have been important in my development. Many of them are discussed from time to time in The Journal [now my blog], and further essays will be developed as time goes by. (See a more complete list at Buddhism 101.)

  • Buddhahood and Buddha Nature
  • The Dharma as a teaching which reflects universal laws
  • Emptiness (which results from Dependent Origination, the idea that something exists only in its relation to all other things)
  • Hence, Interconnectedness, "Indra's Net of Gems"
  • Impermanence
  • Mindfulness: Prerequisite to any understanding of the Dharma, it is a lifetime's practice unto itself
  • Veracity: Huston Smith's word for "seeing things as they really are"
  • Cause and effect
  • The simplest ethical precepts I ever heard: "Avoid Evil, Do Good, and Purify the Heart"
  • The importance of moral behavior before the mind can be tamed
  • Upaya, or "Skillful means"--the idea of adjusting the means of teaching to fit the student
  • Karma and Merit
  • The Vows of the Bodhisattva
  • Wisdom and Compassion
  • Two Truths: The conventional truths by which we operate in the world, and the Absolute Truth of "that world"; important here is the idea that sometimes we must operate according to one kind of truth, and sometimes by the other
  • The Three Poisons: (1) greed or desire, (2) anger or hatred, and (3) ignorance or delusion
  • The Four Noble Truths, which include the crucial idea that "All life is suffering" because "Suffering is caused by desire," and if we could control our desires we would stop suffering
  • The Five Precepts: "I undertake to observe the precept to abstain from: (1) harming living beings, (2) taking things not freely given (stealing), (3) sexual misconduct, (4) false speech (lying), (5) intoxicating drinks and drugs causing carelessness."
  • The Six Perfections: (1) giving or charity (practice of compassion), (2) morality, (3) patience, (4) vigor or diligence, (5) meditation, and (6) wisdom
  • The Noble Eightfold Path: Two for Wisdom: (1) Right View and (2) Right Intention; Three for Ethical Conduct: (3) Right Speech, (4) Right Action, and (5) Right Livelihood; and Three for Mental Development: (6) Right Effort, (7) Right Mindfulness, and (8) Right Concentration

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