What does Buddhism have to do with me?

Very many people in modern life experience a sense of pointlessness, alienation and frustration with their lot. We spend our lives getting up, going to work, watching TV, eating, drinking, looking for diversion in various forms and going to bed - and this is repeated day after day, month after month, year after year. We try to look for some kind of meaning in the things we do, and, more often than not, we fail. Why does this happen? Well, according to Buddhism, we experience the difficulties that we do in life because we are looking for happiness in things that by their nature are unable to provide it - we have all had the experience that, no matter how exciting and wonderful a new purchase, a new job or a new relationship might be at first, after a while the excitement goes, the satisfaction we feel for a time goes with it, and we have to look for something else to fill the gap in our lives - to assuage that sense of inner lack.

One of the teachings at the heart of Buddhism is that we are responsible for our own suffering by virtue of the way we act. We crave satisfaction from things that can't provide it and reject and push away those things (which often tend to be other people!) that seem to be getting in the way of our happiness - all the while dwelling in ignorance of the real problem, which is that craving and aversion in themselves are guaranteed to cause us to suffer.

Buddhists seeks to address this issue by radically transforming the way they normally go about looking for happiness. In recognition of the fact that it is ignorance, craving and aversion, with their attendant selfishness, that cause them to suffer, they try instead to cultivate qualities of awareness, contentment, love, generosity and compassion. Traditional ways of doing this include the observance of ethical precepts, meditation, devotional ritual, study and spiritual friendship. All of these are elements of what we offer in the Triratna Buddhist Community.


Why ethics?

Ethics is the starting point of any meaningful spiritual development. The central idea of Buddhist ethics is that of karma, the principle according to which willed actions have consequences that depend on the state of mind in which they are committed. Actions performed on the basis of negative volitions, such as anger, aversion, greed and spiritual ignorance, will at some point have a negative effect on the person committing them - and other people with whom that person comes into contact - causing suffering to all concerned. Conversely, actions performed on the basis of positive mental states, such as love, compassion and generosity, have a positive effect, resulting in states of happiness for the doer and others.

This has important implications. What it means, first and foremost, is that ethics is not dictated to us from outside by some kind of higher authority. There is no creator God in Buddhism, no external agency to punish us if we transgress; we are responsible for our own happiness and our own suffering. It also means that we can learn to be more ethical - Buddhism uses the term "skilful" to denote actions performed on the basis of wholesome states of mind, and "unskilful" for the opposite - and develop our capacity for ethics right up to the point of eliminating unskilfulness altogether. Positive mental states give rise to happiness, which in turn naturally gives rise to more positive mental states: a "virtuous circle" which results in ever happier and ever more skilful states of mind - with absolutely no limit.

A Buddha is incapable of acting unethically. The Enlightened mind is totally free of hatred, anger, greed and confusion. The natural expression of such a mind is compassionate action, and it is a mind that we too can cultivate. But we can't just spontaneously do this, which is why Buddhism suggests certain training principles, all of which are based on love:


To refrain from causing harm to living beings
To refrain from taking that which is not given
To refrain from sexual activity which is harmful to ourselves and others
To refrain from telling untruths, speaking harshly, indulging in slander and gossip
To refrain from taking intoxicants which cloud the mind



We won't get it right all the time. But that is the point of training principles - we can practise and improve our "skill" in ethics. Buddhism maintains that it is possible to perfect one's ethics, something which makes it a profoundly hopeful spiritual path.


Why meditation?

People come to meditation for very many reasons: to de-stress, address anxiety or calm or declutter their minds, to name just a few. The meditations we teach, however, are concerned with the development of integration, clarity and positive mental states. The two principle techniques are the mindfulness of breathing and the metta bhavana: the former is a technique which involves using direct experience of the breath to develop clarity of awareness, and the latter involves the cultivation of metta, or loving-kindness. For more information on these you can click here to visit the website of the London Buddhist Centre, which also features recorded guided meditations covering both practices. It is, however, always better to receive instruction from a teacher and meditate with others: please feel free to drop in any Wednesday evening for an introduction to these meditations.


Why ritual?

Buddhism isn't just a philosophy or a set of good ideas for living one's life, although it does have elements of these. The Buddhist path is instead concerned with a fundamental transformation of one's being at all levels, intellectual, emotional and volitional. The problem for many people in the modern world is that they are predominantly intellect-driven; a purely intellectual approach to Buddhism, however, won't get you very far. If one is to make real progress, the emotions have to be involved - and transformed. As our teacher Sangharakshita has famously put it, what we need are "emotional equivalents to our intellectual understanding". In other words, we need to find ways to engage the heart as well as the mind. Devotion to the Three Jewels - the opening up of the heart to that which is of ultimate value - is one way to do this.

In the Triratna Buddhist Community we often make use of the Sevenfold Puja, an inspiring text taken from a work by Shantideva, an eighth century Indian monk, known as the Bodhicaryavatara, or "Guide to the Bodhisattva's way of life". The puja consists of seven verses, designed to lead us through various devotional moods, plus mantras which evoke particular qualities of the Enlightened mind. For the full text of the puja, click here.


Why study?

Although, as we have seen, the intellect isn't sufficient on its own for a true understanding of Buddhism, there is nonetheless quite a lot - in fact, an awful lot - of conceptual concept. Buddhism is comprised of a staggeringly large amount of texts and teachings from different schools; all of them, however, go back to the fundamental truths uncovered by the Buddha concerning suffering, its origin, the possibility of putting an end to it and the path we can traverse to get there. Study helps us put our spiritual quest into context, giving us tools for negotiating the spiritual path. Some people, to reverse Sangharakshita's dictum, also need "intellectual equivalents to their emotional understanding": it isn't always enough just to have a strongly emotional response without a conceptual background.

Studying the Dharma, if you are a Buddhist, also entails reading, hearing and thinking about the truth: the things that matter more than anything else in life. This has a very uplifting effect on the mind; study can be a way of developing the clarity and positive emotion that is otherwise associated with meditation.

In our sangha evenings we engage with study on a regular basis. We also offer introductory and follow-up courses for newcomers. Have a look at the "What's coming up?" page for further detail.


Why friendship?

The Buddha once said to his cousin and attendant, Ananda, that "spiritual friendship is the whole of the spiritual life". Spiritual friendship, or kalyana mitrata, is one of the central pillars of the Triratna Buddhist Community. The Buddhist path can be difficult: it can lead through difficult places and take many twists and turns. In such cases we all need like-minded practitioners and friends to support us as we go along. But friendship doesn't just have instrumental value - it is a virtue and a practice in its own right. The ideal spiritual community would consist of individuals associating freely on the basis of values, encouraging and supporting each other in their development: a place of positive emotion and harmonious communication. This is what we in the Triratna Buddhist Group in Shrewsbury, Shropshire, aspire to be. We're a friendly bunch - why not come along and find out?


To find out more about the Buddha, click here.

To find out about the Buddha's teachings - the Dharma - click here.

To find out about the Buddhist spiritual community - the Sangha - click here.