To be like Buddha. Be like Sherlock.
In this series of posts, I will explore different philosophies of life. I’m going to look at a whole variety of ideas. Some religious, some philosophical. Some ancient, some modern. In the hope that these ideas can they help us live better lives today in the 21st century.
In this post, I will delve into Buddhism. Although I’m an atheist, I still think there are plenty of things to be learnt from religious traditions. Stripped of their mysticism and dogma they are guidebooks for living fruitful lives.
Why Sherlock Holmes?
I’ve been thinking about how to simplify all of Buddhist teachings into a single metaphor.
What I’ve come up with is:
“Buddhism teaches us to be like Sherlock Holmes.”
What do I mean by that?
Sherlock Holmes investigates his surroundings in extreme detail to solve a murder mystery. He finds the small nuances that solve the case.
I think the fundamental aspect of Buddhism is using the same powers of investigation to investigate the mental world.
The Buddha believed that everyone must discover the nature of reality for himself or herself.
They should look within themselves and figure out what is actually happening in their minds on a moment to moment basis.
Meditation is how we can look into our minds and see what’s going on.
“No one saves us but ourselves. No one can and no one may. We ourselves must walk the path.” - Gautama Buddha
He believed that if they did this they would all discover the same essential truths about existence.
So what are those essential truths?
The mind is in constant change.
When you look within, all you can find are thoughts arising and then passing away.
You can’t pin down anything constant or solid. It’s all in constant flux.
Our bodies are the same. You are not the same person as you were 5 minutes ago let alone a year ago. Cells are constantly splitting, dying and moving through the body.
“It’s no use going back to yesterday, because I was a different person then.” - Lewis Carroll
If we’re in distress this truth of impermanence can be very helpful.
Even if the brain is totally obsessed by an anxious or depressed thought, at some point that obsession will come to an end.
We might be in the midst of all-consuming grief, loss or sorrow but we can console ourselves with this truth that it won’t last forever.
When you pay attention to the brain you realise there are constantly thoughts and feelings arising in the brain.
But looking deeper what are the contents of these thoughts?
Buddhism teaches that they are made up of two human impulses: Craving and Aversion.
Craving is when we want the world to be different. We become attached to this different state of the world and we spend our time thinking: “Why can’t I have the thing that I want”. This makes us suffer because while we don’t get what we want we spend all our time unhappily desiring it. And even when the things we desire come to pass we quickly become accustomed to them so they don’t actually make us any happier.
“Life contains but two tragedies. One is not to get your heart’s desire; the other is to get it.” - Socrates
The rest of the time we spend being aversive. We push away painful thoughts or states of being. We think that being in a particular state is so bad that we must do everything we can to escape it. Often like a man in quicksand when you fighting against these states pulls you further into them.
“Nothing can harm you as much as your own thoughts unguarded.”
Once we realise these are the patterns of your mind we can do something about it. We can be less drawn by the craving. Be happier with our lives as they are. We can learn to accept the negatives as part of the bigger picture.
“For, after all, the best thing one can do when it is raining is let it rain.” - Henry Longfellow
No Self Anatta
This is the idea that the self does not exist. When we investigate our thoughts eventually we realise that there is no separate observer in the mind. All we can find are thoughts arising and falling. Nothing else. There’s isn’t another entity viewing the thoughts. For this reason, most Buddhists do not believe in the soul.
But how can this help?
If we realised that the “I” that we normally care so much about doesn’t actually exist. Then there is nothing to be egotistical about and a lot of our worldly cares can pass away.
I hope you’ve liked this intro to Buddhism!