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How Buddhism Has Changed and Why We Should or Shouldn't Care

by Fleda BrownJuly 18, 2011

Our meditation group’s sitting last night included three fans and flapping vertical blinds. It was very hot in the un-airconditioned building, and the heat is expected to last for a few more days. We had a really good discussion, though, after we turned the fans on low. We’re finishing up Chapter 2 of Joseph Goldstein’s One Dharma, “The Early History.” This chapter tells in short form the story of how the Buddha’s remembered words, set down many years later, evolved into a number of different ways of understanding the practice. As you can imagine, in different regions, with different languages, even, the practice began to have many different flavors.

By the third Great Assembly, Goldstein notes that the monks were beginning to change the emphasis from the Buddha as an exceptional human being to the Buddhas and Bodhissattvas as archetypal figures who transcend time and history. (Bodhissattvas, unlike arhants, choose to delay their final release from samsara in order to stay around and help others wake up.)

One of the group members, Charlie, mentioned that all religious traditions evolve toward a more metaphorical interpretation, and that there is a “mystical” strain also in every religion. There are those who retreat from their culture and devote their lives to their spiritual practice. He said he thinks that’s an innate “calling” in some people. I said I agree, but we all are influenced by the opportunities we have—a particular teacher comes along, a teaching presents itself to us at the right time, and we follow that. Who knows why this happens?

Karen, another group member, said that the differences in Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism, for one example, are not as important as the bedrock of the practice, the Four Noble Truths:

1. Suffering does exist

2. Suffering arises from attachment to desires

3. Suffering ceases when attachment to desire ceases

4. Freedom from suffering is possible by practicing the Eightfold Path

Each of these can be (and have been) mightily misunderstood, which is a good reason, I’d say, to do a bit of reading. I was taking a walk with a friend recently who said, “I tried meditating, but I couldn’t stop my mind.” THAT’s why we need to read, and why we could use a good teacher. She doesn’t understand what needs to be done, or why. And then, we need to understand the meaning of the word “suffering,”—an exact meaning as related to our practice, not a popular knee-jerk definition.

We ended our discussion talking about a quote from Mu Song’s The Diamond Sutra. He describes the early “psychological” stage of Buddhism; the latter phase being “visionary” Buddhism. Some of the group members helped explain the psychological part: We study our minds, we watch our consciousness, to see what it’s doing. The visionary we got a little tangled in. Clearly the visionary takes us beyond what there are words for, into the ineffable. Maybe that’s enough to know, but we’ll start with that next time.


Poet and writer Fleda Brown reflects on the gatherings of her weekly meditation group, speaking to you as one who has long practiced meditation but still comes to the practice with a learner’s mind.

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