Is there a Soul? Is there a God? Is there something eternal, unchanging and resilient to the vicissitudes of the body and mind? Is everything subject to the law of impermanence? This is something that bothered me every now and then until I found an answer that helped me move on. In Buddha’s denial of the soul and his deflection towards practical aspects, I found a rhythm to my thinking, a new rhythm to my life and its scenarios.
Buddha simply said he would not bother trying to respond to metaphysical questions and would instead focus on the origins of dukkha (suffering), its causes and techniques to overcome it. I found this startling and yet, most endearing. When most philosophers would die to be asked this question – Is there a soul? Is there God? – there is this person who simply said it did not matter (while it is also known that Buddha clearly denied the existence of the soul) whether there was God. What mattered, he said, was whether we could come out of our patterns of suffering and create a method to our lives that infused goodness and virtue. His teachings are among the most practical, simple language teachings that I have ever come across.
Being in denial of the Vedas as the ultimate source of knowledge, Buddha stood himself apart from common beliefs of the day. He allowed a freshness to come in. He made it possible for the common man to approach spirituality independently of the Vedas. His technique – Vipassana – is accessible to all and sundry. It is hard and extremely practical, but it is democratic. It is enlightening, but it does not rely on chants, sacrifices or obeisance for relief. It demonstrates that the person alone is responsible for his life. If he would need a change in his pattern, he would need to work hard for it. He would need to sweat it out to come out of his suffering. There is no person looking at us from somewhere trying to protect or further our interests. Similarly, there is no one somewhere trying to punish us either.
This clarity in teaching helped me come away from several shackles I had tied myself to. While I have tended towards assuming responsibility for my life, the old ‘complaining’ me would creep up and create stories and circumstances involving others and their role in my troubles. With the help of the society around me that easily fueled such confusion with customs of worship, astrology, sacrifice and other non-essential distractions, I found myself looking for answers in places where there were none. From trying to resolve thoughts/words/actions and their impact on my life, I would sway into doing activities to please someone or a deity or some unrelated activity. Of course, any such activity creates a moment of de-stress as it distracts from the effort and creates a façade. My experience with Buddha’s teaching made it firmly clear to me that I alone do the actions that result in my life. Today is a result of the days that I have lived in this life and earlier lives. If tomorrow needs to change, I need to change my today, and my today is in my hands. I can continue to sleep through my life and continue to complain and go with the general rot in the society; or I can just decide to wake up and go about my life with a more awareness to try and understand where I am and how I can help myself be better.
As I made these decisions and started practicing Vipassana and Yoga, on a fine morning I got this thought “Is there a soul? Is there a God?”. I was surprised when I found I could let the thought die like I would let a thought of “I want to drink tea” die, just as another distracting thought. I could observe that thoughts and reactions to those only created more confusion and my mind self-led itself to delusion and useless obsessive thinking. I was able to stand back and tell myself “Hey, forget that, what about the more important problem that you are facing? Do you want to think about that?” As soon as this happened, I was back to my rhythm and able to let go of thoughts that would have no impact to me on a practical level. I could get back to slowing my thoughts, to neutralizing my obsessive thinking and to simply sit there and enjoy the breeze on my face. When I am in the zone, I can deepen my awareness and slow down the flow of thoughts and only create those that I feel are useful at some level. Buddha brought me back to the moment with a technique that he shared 2500 years ago. He saved me from trying to run after answers to useless questions and rather focus on what is at hand and practical. He also saved me from depending on someone else for my truth – be it God or my own Soul; both of which I have not seen. Whatever my life is, it is. Whatever it is not, it is not.
I bow to the man who stood at the cross-roads of everything and never got swayed by anything. He stood outside the Vedas, denied the soul, ignored the concept of God, taught people to be compassionate and caring, enabled people to take control of their lives and possibly produced the most number of enlightened individuals. Yet, he denied he was a spiritual leader. He maintained that he only wanted to heal. What a human! I thank the Buddha for being the Buddha. Without him, I feel I would be lost in the madness of the religion-filled world with everyone trying to be one-up on another and forget that I have this one moment to change my life for the better, one step at a time.