Saturday, April 23, 2011


I’m amazed that I ever got interested in Buddhism in high school and college.  
I was scarred by a difficult childhood. Although I tried to appear confident, intelligent, and happy, a cursory glance would see right through my façade. Just below the surface and almost to the core, I was anxious, insecure, and depressed.
Luckily, I had the good fortune to grow up in Palo Alto where I would occasionally see statues of The Laughing Buddha (a Chinese folkloric figure, Budai, Hotei in Japanese). 
I had read Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse in high school English class. Hesse’s Buddha didn’t hold much interest for me. I thought perhaps that Hesse’s novel was somehow tangential to actual Buddhism. I had heard names like Gautama and Shakyamuni, too. Were these all the same guy? Were they all different?
I wasn’t sure. Concentration wasn’t my strong suit.
I confused Hotei for Gautama Buddha. That is akin to confusing Santa for Jesus, but I was desperate to find a way out of my depression. 
What gifts did this subtropical Santa, this Laughing Buddha offer me?
Opening the encyclopedia I saw that Buddhism’s basic teaching is the Four Noble Truths. The first two are: 
The Truth of Suffering
The Truth of the Causes of Suffering
Seeing suffering mentioned twice so early on had the effect on me of seeing images of the Crucifixion. Get me out of here! I’m suffering enough already.
My interest in Buddhism almost died right there. My reaction was probably not unusual. I know people who see Buddhism as a religion for dark and depressed people. 
A few years later, going beyond the encyclopedia, I read a pamphlet published in 1975 by the Fellowship of Reconciliation called the Miracle of Being Awake by a Vietnamese Zen monk named Thich Nhat Hahn who seemed able to enjoy life in ways that escaped me. He seemed to have some of the Laughing Buddha's wisdom in him. I began studying Buddhism in earnest there.
Thirty six years later, I’m reading another book by Thich Nhat Hahn, The Heart of the Buddha's Teachings. In Chapter Eight he suggests a reformulation of the Four Noble Truths, reworded here by yours truly. 
Begin with the benefit of Buddhist practice: Well-Being
First Noble Truth: 
Second Noble Truth: 
The Eightfold Path to Well Being
Wise View
Wise Intention
Wise Speech
Wise Action
Wise Livelihood
Wise Effort
Wise Mindfulness
Wise Concentration
Third Noble Truth: Ill-Being
Fourth Noble Truth: The Eightfold Path to Ill-Being
Wrong View
Wrong Intention
Wrong Speech
Wrong Action
Wrong Livelihood
Wrong Effort
Wrong Mindfulness
Wrong Concentration

Set forth like this, we'd see that Buddhist practices are aimed at creating happiness and well-being for us and for everyone we know. Having walked this path as well as I can, I know these teachings to be efficacious.
Perhaps if the Shakyamuni were alive today he’d see that for many of us our suffering is so intense that we are not willing to lookeven briefly—at our suffering. Perhaps he’d change the order of his Four Noble Truths along the lines Thay suggests.

Hotei, Budai

Gautama Buddha

Heart of the Buddha's Teaching


Paul C said...

I appreciate this distillation of the key perspectives. There is a simplicity of the steps, yet a complexity to understanding them.

Dan Gurney said...

Hi Paul, yes, and it's even more of a challenge to practice the path.

George said...

A wonderful and enlightening post, Dan, and, as you can appreciate, a timely one for me. I think that some of the issues we discussed in the comments on my recent posting were generated by the fact that I have read many books on Buddhism and each has its own emphasis and commentary on the Four Noble Truths. I like the reformulation of those truths recommended by Thich Nhat Hahn and summarized by you. However these truths are formulated and interpreted, they offer the most practical guidance to a peaceful life that I have ever found. Other traditions may be more mystical, which will always have its appeal to me, but Buddhism is undeniably practical and effective.

Dan Gurney said...

Thank you, George. The recent discussion on your blog about posting about our struggles was a seed for this post and flavored the way I chose to present it. I will post something soon about how expressing our struggles bonds us to one another.

I actually like the Buddha's formulation for the 4NT. When we reflect that he grew up in the lap of luxury as a prince in Northern India. it seems all the more amazing that he starts off his teaching as he does.

Buddhism does offer practical methods and tools to refrain from needless suffering. Though it is a religion as it is practiced in much of Asia, Buddhist practices can also be used non-religiously as a path to peace.

steven said...

dan would you say that there's an inevitability about your becoming a kindergarten teacher and a buddhist. almost as if it was necessary!!! i'm so glad it all came together. steven

Dan Gurney said...

Hi steven, I don't know. It often feels to me as if I was called to teach, drawn in to the work of teaching as if by some unseen force. It's been my life's work and I've never seriously thought I should do or should have done anything else with this life. As for the Buddhism part of my life, I certainly feel very fortunate to have come across these teachings because they have helped me so much.

Tracy said...

love this. so much of language is more of a net we get caught in than a communication vehicle. Buddhism has transformed every seconds of my own cyclic existence into something that I want to give to other people and this "re-framing" does go a long way to translating without any long explanation being required.

spldbch said...

Good insight. You have to start with a person wherever they are. If they aren't ready to look at their suffering then they should start wherever they can.

Reya Mellicker said...

One way or another I'm certain you would have found your way to this path, whether or not you grew up in Palo Alto. A lovely place to grow up!

So glad that you did find your way to a path of peace and open heartedness. Shalom.

Dan Gurney said...

Tracy, I agree. I am so grateful for the "road map" that Buddhism offered me. The fact that the teachings have been passed along from generation to generation for 2500 years is a testament to their power and value. I know I've benefitted from them.

Dan Gurney said...

splbch, I agree too. that's the genius of TNH's reformulation: it makes these practices available to those who might not be drawn in because of the word 'suffering" appearing twice so early in the game. I mean it would be hard to sell a car if the first thing you said about it was, "Well, you know, this car you're about to buy will in all likelihood be recycled in 20 years."

Dan Gurney said...

Reya, yes!!! The problem with disclosing the obstacles and difficulties of childhood is that doing so obscures the blessings and eases of childhood. My childhood most definitely had both. I had the exact perfect dose of suffering to be drawn to the study of Buddhism. I am deeply grateful for everything. The universe offered me exactly what I needed for this lifetime.