I have a small statue of Buddha to my office. It’s not that visible: many visitors to my office do not notice it. On the other hand, now that you have heard about it, you will probably notice it right away if you come see me.
Some of the people who notice it think of it as a nice decoration. Others inquire whether I am a Buddhist. After all, Buddhism is a religion, and Buddha statues have been essentially used as religious artifacts.
But, for me, it is not a religion. Like many Westerners, I am less interested in the religion itself than in the Buddhist quest for mindfulness. For me, a statue of Buddha sitting in meditation is not necessarily a religious symbol. It is first and foremost an invitation to practice mindfulness.
Believe nothing, no matter where you read it or who has said it, not even if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense.
At its core, Buddhism is based on observation of reality and direct experience, as opposed to revealed truths about the nature of the world. Hence the emphasis in Buddhism for training people in ways they can observe and experience reality at a deeper level (e.g. meditation).
Like Western scientific thought, Buddhism emphasizes causality – expressed in the concepts of Karma and Samsara. The latter is the cycle of suffering and rebirth (or cause-and-effect), and Karma the energy that drives this cycle.
Wonderful, indeed, it is to subdue the mind, so difficult to subdue, ever swift, and wandering, wherever it desires. A tamed mind brings happiness.
Some people think of Nirvana as some sort of a promised land: the place where “good” people get to go, i.e. a place that is somewhat similar to the Western idea of Paradise as expressed in the popular culture. It helps to think of Nirvana as a state, as opposed to a place.
Nirvana means “cessation” and refers to the cessation of suffering. So “nirvana” is not about nothingness in a Western sense, but emptiness. Awakening (or enlightenment) means reaching the state of Nirvana. This what the Buddha did, and Buddhism offers people a path to reach such awakening.
Mindfulness is a way of being that is conducive to dealing with problems more effectively. The practice of mindfulness is about becoming more and more familiar with how our minds work. It is about noticing the constant chatter of thoughts and feelings, and becoming more and more able to not drown in it. It is about developing an increasing ability to stay still, solid and centered while facing this chaotic flow, including at times when strong emotions are evoked in us.
The calm, poised posture of the Buddha in the statue appears as an embodiment of this ability to stay still and solid, but not rigid, while noticing the chaotic flow.
It takes discipline to keep at it. But this is not discipline in the sense that “discipline” is enforced in a prison, where you simply don’t have the right to do certain things, and get punished if you do. The discipline of practicing mindfulness is one that comes from a deeper understanding of how we function, and an increasing sense of comfort with who we are (as opposed to censoring ourselves).
Meditation is not the only way to develop mindfulness. Self-awareness and emotional self-regulation are skillful means to strengthen our natural abilities for mindfulness.