So you heard about Buddhism, and you think might be something in it. You wonder if Buddhism might be something for you. Here are seven good reasons you might begin. And there’s a bonus – four bad reasons!
Seven good reasons to become a Buddhist – and four bad ones
- Life is depressing.
Is this mess really it? Or is there anything better?
This reason is classic. The “wheel of existence” goes on and on turning. Sure, life has good bits – wonderful bits – but if you’re honest, it’s pretty dreadful on the whole. According to Buddhism, feeling like this is not a mental illness. It’s not a clinical “depression” – it’s just realism. And what the teachings (the “dharma”) say is that if – and only if – you see how bad it is, then you can start to understand the real cure, and put it into practice.
- You are not depressed – in fact you’re happy enough. But it all seems very superficial.
On the other hand, you are almost allergic to the idea of God. You wonder if there is a spiritual side to things. You’re not even sure what that could mean, but you are sure that the God-botherers haven’t got it either.
Do Buddhists believe in God? The answer is a resounding “yes-and-no”.
Let’s start with the “no”. If, when you say “God”, you mean some kind of loving father who created everything, Buddhists will be among those who say the idea is both illogical and depressing.
As for the logic, this is not the place to chase down the ideas such as “if God made the world, then who made God”. They are well enough known.
As for “depressing”: when you look at the horrors that go on in the world, any super-person who was responsible for that would not be a person that most of us would want to get close to.
Looking at the “yes”, it is a fact that the majority of Buddhists believe in spiritual beings of various kinds, from little spirits who might help or hinder us in little ways, up to buddhas and bodhisattvas* living on a spiritual plane who can give us inspiration and blessing. Whether they are important to Buddhist practice is another question, but belief in them is widespread.
* Bodhisattvas are sort of “near-buddhas”. If search engines give you confusing explanations, look out for some explanations of key terms that will be coming here before long.
It is just possible that you might be able to squeeze some kind of practice out of some kinds of Buddhism that does not reference these beings, but my advice is this: whether or not you “believe” them, if you are not comfortable with those ideas, Buddhism may not be for you.
- You see that other people are unhappy and aimless, often in pain.
That hurts, too.
This is another classic, good reason. Wanting to stop the pain of others (compassion – you’ll come across this word a lot) is how ordinary people start to become bodhisattvas. The teachings describe a kind of “small enlightenment”, where somebody frees themselves from suffering*. Then again, there is the “great enlightenment” – when you’ve cured the cause of your own suffering, you can show the way to others.
* They become an “arhat”. Same comment as for “bodhisattvas” above.
- You’ve seen some Buddhist art and it’s blown you away
Art can speak to us on a very deep level.
Perhaps we don’t understand why a picture of a Buddha, Tara, perhaps, or a yogi like Milarepa, strikes such a deep, vibrant chord. But it leads us on to open up, to discover, to learn, and to be inspired. It’s a good reason, even if it’s not an intellectual one.
- You have met a teacher who has blown you away
Pictures, books, the Internet — these are all very well. But meeting someone who really lives the teachings can speak to us even more deeply.
This might be a famous person. It could even be the head of a Buddhist school — there are quite a lot of those, if the truth be told. Or it might be a small-time teacher, or even just another practitioner. If the personal connection is there, it can inspire you.
Admittedly (and this is a topic for another time) there really are such things as bad teachers — unethical, selfish, badly trained, and even totally fake. Some of them have a lot of charisma, and it’s only too easy to be bowled over, infatuated in effect, especially when we are new.
So this is an excellent reason, but it comes with this rider — be grown-up. Keep your head screwed on.
- You’ve done some sort of yoga or other spiritual practice.
It was nice enough. Maybe you did something exotic like “kundalini”, or maybe it was just based on mindfulness. Perhaps it even promised you “enlightenment”. So far, so good — but now you’re looking for the real deal.
Well — Buddhism is the real deal. (Did you expect me to say anything else?) It’s been around for 2 ½ thousand years, so there has been time for some of it to get flabby, institutionalised, or even corrupt. But if you dig deep, you will find gold.
- It could actually be a lot of fun.
And why not?
Buddhists, of course, include every kind of person. Buddhist centres, also of course, vary in their spirit as well as their size, their wealth, and their style of Buddhism. But sit down with a bunch of Buddhists, and the chances are you’ll have a good laugh and make some wonderful friends. Trust me on this one!
Not to mention those amazing, secret teachings…
And now for a few bad reasons to begin Buddhism…
- You heard that Buddhism is a scientific religion
That really is far too simple.
This idea was an invention of the late 19th/early 20th centuries. It was thought that certain privileged Western people could discern a pure, rational, scientific basis in what were believed to be the earliest Buddhist texts, and could present their purified Buddhism to other Westerners and even back to people who had been Buddhists for many tens of generations. It’s a pipe dream.
- You just KNOW it’s for you
A time for caution, maybe?
Technically, this could be a good reason. There are plenty of stories of children, even babies, who just “knew” that they were destined to follow the dharma, and who went on to become great scholars or meditators. But there are always stories. Some of them may even be true.
Be that as it may, there is a risk. Someone who “knows” that Buddhism is for them may feel that they “know” why it is for them, and that they “know” what it is. Later, the dharma will turn out not to be exactly what they expected. It takes an awful lot of learning and practice, and can be unexpected and challenging. Then the disappointment sets in.
Better to start out with a sense of cautious, optimistic curiosity than a sense of already knowing what you’re going to find.
- You’re looking for a religion that isn’t riddled with scandals.
In your dreams!
But I’m not going to talk about them in detail in this quick guide. It is, after all, a question of balance. Just don’t be too shocked!
- You hope Buddhism will take you beyond your troubles and fix everything.
Put that baldly, it sounds silly, doesn’t it?
But it’s a trap we can slip into, perhaps most easily when we are no longer a beginner. We can start to feel that if only we can immerse ourselves that bit more deeply in the practice, avoid feeling anything negative like anger or impatience, surround ourselves with the right decorations, then all our fear and hurt will melt away. For one aspect of this, you can Google “spiritual bypassing”.