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To the Westerner raised in a theocentric religious faith, Buddhism is striking for its not speaking of a personal god. Because it does not, many Westerners have mistakenly called Buddhism an atheistic philosophy rather than a religion. Doing so misses the essentially religious nature of Buddhism, the fact that it exists not for men and women to think about the nature of life, but for men and women to transform their lives into lives lived spiritually. Buddhism, like every other religious tradition, calls men and women to become faith-full. The main question, then, is not whether Buddhism is a religion, but what characteristics define its particular pattern of faith.
The central characteristics are surprisingly simple, although living out one's life as a Buddhist is hardly simple. Buddhists take their cue from the life of the Buddha, who described himself as the one who "woke up," who became enlightened. What did he wake up to, and what, in turn, are all of us encouraged to wake up to? The answer has to do first with understanding life as being askew, as full of suffering, as putting all of us in turmoil by there being constant change. Nothing is permanent-no matter how hard we try to create permanence.
From this seemingly pessimistic view of life as it really is, there is one conclusion to derive, namely, that we should not put our hopes in striving to live our lives the way we normally do, that is, in terms of our own selfish goals and desires. Doing so will only perpetuate the suffering.
At this point in the discussion, Buddhism changes from being pessimistic to being optimistic, to giving hope to all those who would follow. There is hope, says Buddhism, because there is Truth or Dharma. Amid all the impermanence and all the suffering, Dharma remains constant, and if we tap into Dharma, discover, and, most important, live according to Dharma, we will escape the sorry aspects of this world, escape the confines of our own little egos, and discover true happiness. Buddhists believe this not simply as a promise made but as a promise delivered, an experiment that has already been carried out and found to be true, as seen in the life of the Buddha.
But what, we may ask, does it mean to live a life according to the Truth, according to Dharma? Is this just another legalistic religion, one that calls us not to live lives passionately but to live lives anxiously and in fear of breaking this or that rule? The answer is, "Not at all."
The cosmic truth pointed to in the concept of Dharma is indeed about morality but not of a legalistic kind. Dharma is about the moral dimension of reality-the moral law that is written into the very fabric of existence and, as such, predates the Buddha and Buddhism. That moral dimension dictates that we focus our energies not on being righteous but on being compassionate, and on freeing ourselves from our petty goals and desires in order to unite with not only our fellow humans but with all of life. There is, then, an essentially mystical core to Buddhism, one not unlike the mystical core of Christianity, as many have observed. To live a Buddhist way of life is, then, to live a compassionate life, one that is committed to overcoming self-centeredness in order to dissolve the boundaries of the self that separate us from the world, and that are, in the final analysis, illusory. We are, say the Buddhists, separate selves in the sense that we have bodies and individual thoughts and feelings. But this is not the main point. The main point is that we are connected or, to be more precise, interconnected- so much so that what we take to be our definite and individual selves are, in fact, reflections of interconnectedness.