Tushita diaries Chapter-2: The philosophy class

In chapter 1, I gave an introduction to Tushita, my first day there, and my routine from days 2 to 7. Here I want to go into some detail about the philosophy class..

I admit right off the bat that I went into retreat for the meditation. I did not have any interest in philosophy. But since this was my first time in retreat, I went with an open mind – eager to discover what this would turn out to be. I had no prior exposure to Buddhist philosophy whatsoever. The last time I felt anywhere near Buddhism was in Thailand which has huge statues of Buddha .. pretty much everywhere. I knew about the Dalai Lama and meeting him was on my to-do list since last year. (That’s been ticked off – I attended his teachings in September.) But even that had less to do with him being a Buddhist monk and more to do with him being a globally renowned moral authority on peaceful living. So, safe to say, I was totally green when it came to Buddhism.

We were given a booklet simply titled “Introduction to Buddhism” in the first class. If Tushita went through all that effort to develop a structured booklet specifically for this course, clearly they took the course pretty seriously! The course started with a discussion on the mind, its characteristics, and meditation. “Mind” or “consciousness” is at the heart of Buddhist theory and practice.  We had a discussion on the scientific research done till that date espousing the benefits of meditation such as how it leads to the creation of new branches in neurons, how it is an effective method of stress reduction (as used by the MBSR {mindfulness based stress reduction} program for example) and so on.*

The raison d’être of the class (as also the entire course) was to help us develop our minds in such a way that when we had curveballs thrown at us by life, we could deal with them with equanimity.

Most of the course was dedicated to the study of topics stemming from the first teaching of Buddha i.e. the four noble truths :

  1. The truth of suffering
  2. The truth of the causes of suffering
  3. The truth of the cessation of suffering
  4. The truth of the path that leads to the cessation of suffering

These truths are said to summarize the essence of the Buddha’s entire message. As can be seen, all the truths talked about suffering and Buddhism seemed like quite a depressing religion! The teacher acknowledged it and said, “It seems so but it’s actually about how to get rid of the suffering”. The question arose as to why did we even have to think about suffering? The teacher’s take, “Not talking about suffering doesn’t make it disappear. We all go through suffering such as getting ill or being stressed or constantly being dissatisfied. Buddhism just acknowledges it as a fact of human existence and teaches how to go beyond it”.

Suffering has broadly three types explained in the first noble truth. It has multiple underlying causes as explained in the second noble truth. Clearly, Buddha did a very deep analysis of suffering. It made me chuckle how Buddhism was like a high-level Ph.D. on suffering. But of course, the story had a happy twist – the Buddha got enlightened and got rid of all suffering. Enlightenment by its very definition means the elimination of every kind of suffering such as pain, sickness, fear, sadness, etc, and perfecting all beneficial qualities such as love, compassion, and wisdom. I had never before understood what enlightenment meant even though like most people in India, I knew the story of Buddha since childhood. That question was finally answered in this course.

The training of the mind has a central role in attaining the state of enlightenment. “Of course, enlightenment is a lofty goal,” our teacher explained, “but even if we don’t reach there, training the mind through different types of meditations has benefits that help us lead a healthy and productive life”.

While studying the second noble truth i.e. the causes of suffering, we learnt about different negative emotions that cause suffering such as anger, attachment, jealousy, laziness as well as about their antidotes. We also studied positive emotions such as compassion (starting with self-compassion) and love (and its stark difference with attachment). I had never studied emotions before in an academic setting either in school or college or thought about them in a deep, scientific way as to how they arose in the mind. I found these lessons enriching and felt they would be very useful if taught from a young age in schools. I had read about such interventions done in the West which had yielded good results.^ The Dalai Lama, in fact, endorses such an approach and promotes a course called “secular ethics” which teaches all these concepts without the trappings of religion.

Let me give an example of what studying emotions was like – when we studied anger, we talked about how anger exaggerates reality in such a way that we only see the negative aspects of it. (Attachment does the opposite as it exaggerates the positive aspects.) Also, how anger was a mental factor and can be gotten rid of by applying antidotes such as patience and loving-kindness. The more these antidotes are practised in meditation, the lesser anger arises in our minds when we are faced with an adverse situation.

We also learnt about karma as a cause of suffering. – if we do a negative action, it is bound to give us suffering in the future. We did a deep dive into karma and studied its properties, components of a karmic action, the types of karma, etc. As can be deduced,  Buddhism does a thorough X-ray analysis of each topic! I  was already a believer of the adage “what goes around comes around”. So studying karma in the context of Buddhism was fascinating.

Sometimes it used to strike me in the middle of the class as to how surreal the experience of discussing all these philosophical concepts was. I was filled with gratitude for such an opportunity. I had never been a part of something like this before in my life – learning and discussing religious philosophy.

Next, we studied the concept of rebirth (or reincarnation). Karma supposedly carries from one birth to another. The concept of reincarnation is there in Hinduism as well but it’s different from the Buddhist view. What I found fascinating was that Buddhists believe that you can choose your next rebirth if you become enlightened, unlike unenlightened people whose karma decides their next birth!  It’s not just a theoretical concept for them, Tibetan Buddhists have always had and continue to have many such highly venerated reincarnations in their midst to this day. For example, the Dalai Lama is in his 14th reincarnation on Earth. The first incarnation was born in 1391. Since then he has returned again and again to continue his work. (Supposedly, an enlightened being keeps coming back to Earth to help others attain enlightenment as well.) My mind was blown. What?? Could this be true? I am a hyper-rational person so I couldn’t wrap my head around it right away. But I was in the middle of such a sincere and profound course that I just couldn’t dismiss it outright. I was hooked. My mind was being pushed to challenge its worldview every day.

We discussed in detail about the preciousness of human life. We studied it in the context of karma – that being born as a human is a very good rebirth and we only get it after accumulating significant good karma in our previous lives. Also, according to Buddhism since human life is so precious, we shouldn’t waste even a moment of it. Buddhism also focuses on death- how it is certain but we do not know when it will come. Death is considered to be a motivation to live a fulfilling life, so we would be calm and satisfied when it comes for us (not to mention we could snag a good rebirth or reincarnate according to our wishes in case we manage to get enlightened!). I was still ambivalent about the concept of rebirth but I couldn’t refute the truth about death and, consequently, the preciousness of life. My mind wandered off to all the time I had spent on Netflix before I came for the course – watching a show about a dead dimwit model’s soul in an overweight lawyer’s body. I was looking forward to picking up where I left but all these teachings made me go,” Wow. I am never doing that again!” How long the resolve held up after coming home is another story. But as the Buddhists would say, the concept of “preciousness of life” has definitely lodged itself in my mindstream. I will take that as progress.

Over the 10 days, we were taken from being rank beginners to the deep end of Buddhist philosophy.

We went on to learn how to get rid of suffering in the third and fourth noble truths. A lot of concepts were introduced under these two truths such as renunciation, Bodhicitta (the aspiration to attain enlightenment to help all living beings), Boddhisatvva (a person who has such an aspiration) as well as two methods to develop Boddhicitta. We gradually inched towards the crown jewel of Buddhist philosophy – emptiness (shunyata in Sanskrit). I grasped these concepts to varying degrees but I loved the demeanor of the people-the monks and the nuns at Tushita – who practised these concepts. So, I felt I was learning some good things.

I thought about my own religion and realized I actually didn’t know much about its philosophy apart from some Geeta Saar. Sure I knew the stories of Ramayana and Mahabharata, but aside from the celebration of festivals, what is my philosophy as a Hindu? Right now being a Hindu is effectively just a label. My parents are not very religious and growing up, we didn’t really have discussions on religious philosophy at home. Even outside of home and leaving aside Hindu philosophy,  I have done my entire schooling from convent schools and despite that, my knowledge of Christian theology is also negligible.  My dad’s disdain for religion as a front for superstitions meant that I did not take religion seriously. His viewpoint wasn’t misplaced, but I realized it was like throwing the baby out with the bathwater. This leads me to think that every religion should host such retreats and make them open for all just like Buddhists had done at Tushita. It would be great for neophytes like me!

*Relevant book – The Science of Meditation  by Daniel Goleman and Richard J. Davidson

^Relevant book – Emotional intelligence by Daniel Goleman

TO BE CONTD… Chapter-3

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