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Buddhism for Beginners: High Heels on the Eight Fold Path

Buddhism, like mehendi, yoga, and chai, seems to be one of those elements of “Eastern” culture that people in the West can’t get enough of. And when that happens, I tend to get very annoyed. Suddenly I find myself surrounded by chai tea lattes, lycra yoga pants, and henna tattoos. Every girl I see on the street this summer is wearing a pair of Rajasthani slippers – the kind my grandmother used to bring me from India when I was ten, but I was too embarrassed to wear to school.  “That’s my stuff!” I want to shout at them. “Give it back!”

(Two days later you can find me at Target stocking up on cheap knockoffs of those same Rajasthani slippers and chai-flavored lip balm – but I digress).

When the opportunity to write an article about incorporating Buddhist principles into the lives of modern women came up, I felt no sense of apprehension. Buddha himself was desi, right? Even though I was raised in a Hindu family, I figured Buddhism wouldn’t be too much of a leap. It seemed like a mellower version of Hinduism, with its blissful hours spent meditating, being kind to others, and attaining inner peace and enlightenment. It would be a piece of cake.

The first thing I did was raid my roommate’s bookshelf. He has a vast knowledge of world religions, as well as the full collection of Buddha Bar CDs, so I had a hunch I might find something relevant. Sure enough, sandwiched between The Book of Mormon and a Compendium of Psychoactive Substances was Buddhism for Beginners by Thubten Chodron, an American-born Tibetan Buddhist nun.

The essence of the Buddha’s teachings, Chodron writes, “is to avoid harming others and to help them as much as possible. Another way of expressing this is the oft-quoted verse: Abandon negative action; Create perfect virtue; Subdue your own mind. This is the teaching of the Buddha.”

How hard could it be? I mused. If Richard Gere can do it, I definitely can!

After doing a little more research, I discovered that the essence of practicing Buddhism lies in “the Noble Eight-fold Path,” which includes “right speech, right activity, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right Samadhi, right view, and right thought.” I decided to plunge right in by tackling these one at a time.

Right Speech

According to an “Introduction to Buddhist Ethics” website, “Speech must always be pure. Lying, ridiculing people (slander), swearing, abuse and gossip are all to be avoided by Buddhists as things which cause division and hatred amongst people. My first test appeared in the form of a phone call from my college alumni association, in an attempt to wheedle some money out of me.

“I was just calling to tell you about some of the great new changes taking place at the university,” the caller gushed. “Do you have a minute to find out more?”

Normally I would take that as an opportunity to feign an urgent appointment/meeting/bathroom emergency, but since I was no longer permitted to lie, I grudgingly let the caller continue. After about five minutes he got to the point.

“Did you know about the cuts to higher education made by the governor? We could really use your support today.”

“Listen, I think what the governor is doing is totally fu—” I stopped short. No swearing allowed. “I mean, as a teacher, I find it reprehensible. But I’m sorry, I really can’t give you any money right now.”

“I understand, but are you sure you can’t spare even fifty to a hundred dollars?”

“I’m sure,” I said, hoping to end the conversation, but he continued to ask me for money until I began to get aggravated. I was close calling him a pathetic idiot with a mind-sucking job; however, I didn’t think that was an acceptable Buddhist practice. So I just hung up.

Right Activity

The five precepts of “right activity” started off simply enough: “I undertake not to kill” (easy – I don’t even squish spiders), and “I undertake not to take what has not been given” (I was never one of those girls who had a “shoplifting phase”). Suddenly, I hit a roadblock: “I undertake not to engage in sexual misconduct.” Umm…for how long, exactly? If it’s not a threesome with Dick Cheney and Martha Stewart, does it count as misconduct?

For the sake of experimentation, I decide to engage in a few weeks of self-imposed celibacy. This does not go over well with my boyfriend, who complains that even Buddhists must have sex, not to mention sexual misconduct. “Look at the population of Thailand,” he says. “Sixty million people – they’re definitely up to something.”

Good point. I decide to move on to the next one, “I undertake not to lie.” This is where things get complicated, because if I do engage in sexual misconduct after promising not to, doesn’t that mean I’m lying to myself?

Yikes. Things are getting out of control, and I need a drink. Unfortunately, precept number five states, “I undertake to avoid things which will cloud the mind or lessen self-control.” Great. Attaining a blissful state of enlightenment seems difficult without vodka, or at least a few beers. Just then, a friend calls to invite me out for drinks at a bar downtown called the Bambuddha Lounge.

I figure it must be a sign, and rush right over.

Moving right along…

I decide I’ve got “Right Livelihood” covered, since I’m a teacher. What could be more Buddhist than that? I move on to “right effort,” “right mindfulness,” and “right Samadhi (being aware of one’s existence without thinking),” which are part of the meditation process. I have never before attempted to meditate, but from what I understand, it involves thinking deeply, clearing your mind, and focusing only on objects of virtue.

I take a seat on the hardwood floor of my living room, but after a few minutes, my legs start to cramp up. I try not to focus on it, and think only of peaceful forests and lush green meadows, kind of like the ones featured in Bollywood movies, where the two lovers dance their way across a Swiss hillside. I try to clear my mind, and concentrate on breathing deeply. It works for a bit, but then the pain in my legs starts to become unbearable, so I move up to the couch. The remote is just inches away, and I remember that I have an unwatched episode of “The Daily Show” on TiVo. Jon Stewart seems like an object of virtue to me, so I flip on the TV. I spy a bottle of red wine on the kitchen counter and pour myself a glass, figuring it will help keep me relaxed. Then my cell phone rings, but, wisely, I don’t answer it.

I am meditating, after all.

Right View, Right Thought

At this point, I am moving into the “higher training of wisdom.” Basically, this means accepting the concept of “emptiness.” According to the website of Lama Zopa Rinpoche, a Buddhist monk, emptiness is “the ultimate nature of phenomena—that things are empty, that things exist merely in name.” Rinpoche states that, until we understand emptiness, “[w]e have not discovered reality; we have not discovered the wisdom that cuts the root of all delusion and karma, the true cause of suffering, the cause of samsara. We have not eradicated ignorance, the unknowing mind. We have continually been creating ignorance, the root of samsara. Instead of meditating on emptiness, practicing mindfulness, we have been making our mind more and more ignorant. That’s why we continue to suffer.”

Wow. It turns out, I’m no better than those girls on the street with their henna tattoos and their chai tea lattes. In the end, I realize I would have a really hard time practicing Buddhism. We live in a world that exalts “convenience” over “compassion,” an idea that is modeled for us by both our media and government. Our society is built upon the concept of “things” – of cars, cell phones, televisions, clothes, bars, boyfriends – that we are told we need to make life bearable. And while, ideally, it would be wonderful to truly accept that all these things are fleeting, and that all we really have is our minds, I don’t know if I’d be able to do that.

I have a newfound respect for Siddhartha Gautama, the man who became the Buddha. He started out life as an Indian prince who could have anything he wanted, but relinquished it all for the sake of enlightenment. I can’t even give up TiVo. That’s not to say that I think Buddhism has no place in our society – quite the contrary, I think we’d all be better off if we focused less on material objects and more on being kind to others. The great thing about Buddhism is that, unlike some religions, you don’t have to call yourself a Buddhist nor incorporate all of its principles into your life.

“The purpose of the Buddha’s teachings is to benefit us,” states Buddhism for Beginners, “and if putting some of them into practice helps us live more peacefully with ourselves and others, that’s what’s important.” — Vandana Makker

5 thoughts on “Buddhism for Beginners: High Heels on the Eight Fold Path

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