One of the main topics during my talk yesterday was around the question why we came to Buddhism and became a practitioner in the first place. This is important because it points to our motivation in taking up the practice. What are our motivations?
For Thai people, this question may a bit sound strange. Since most of Thais are born into the Buddhist world, there does not seem to be a question of the motivation in coming to Buddhism. The religion pervades all aspects of the culture, so in a way one actually “comes” to Buddhism once one is born into a Buddhist Thai family.
This does not mean, however, that every child born in such a family immediately knows what there is to be known about Buddhism. Otherwise everybody would then become an arahat, and there would be no need to engage in the practice or to teach the Dharma. Furthermore, most Thais nowadays are caught up with works and daily living that they somehow ignore Buddhism. They come to get in touch with it only through rituals and ceremonies like making merits when they got a new house, a new position, or when they go to funerals. Rituals gradually lose their meanings.
This is why there is the growing phenomenon of Thai people coming “back” to Buddhism. I say “back” because Buddhism is pervasive as I have said, but somehow they have lost touch with it and due to some emerging circumstances they are realizing the value of Buddhism in their lives.
Many come to Buddhism this way because they suffer. Either they lost their loved ones, or have problems with their jobs, and so on. They believe that the Buddha’s teachings can provide a relief and a cure for their ills. This is perhaps the main motivation.
This is a good beginning. One has to realize the value of something before embarking upon it. Practicing Buddhism is a serious thing to do. One has to dedicate one’s whole life to it. It is not something that can gratify you in a short time. Nyima Dakpa Rinpoche once said that Buddhism had one big disadvantage over the other pain or suffering relievers such as Prazac or surfing the Net in that these provide instant gratification or relief. But it is short term, whereas if one succeeds in following the Buddha’s guidelines, then one achieves real, lasting relief, not only for this present life, of course, but forever.
The motivation for relieving one’s suffering, while a good beginning, is not nearly enough, however. Those who come to Buddhism because they have personal problems usually don’t go very far in their practice, simply because they are not really committed in devoting their lives into the practice. They want easy fixes, not unlike Prozac, something you pop up and voila, the pain is gone. But as we have seen Buddhism does not work like that.
This may be due to the fact that people are different. One kind of teaching is suitable to one kind of persons, but not others. But in any case in order to get anything substantial from the Buddha’s teaching, one has to go all the way. There may be some small benefits here and there if one practices only a little (even a little practice is better than no practice at all), but the real benefit is possible. And this is something most people do not realize.
Thais are brought up to believe that the lasting happiness, nirvana, is far away, forever out of their reach. So they are content with lesser aims. But when the lesser aims fail (which they very often do), they become disillusioned with the Buddha’s teachings. This is a pity, for the lasting happiness is there within their grasp. They just have to take a bit more effort.
So the reason why we practice is that we would like to attain the goal that the Buddha talked about and spent his entire working life teaching us to attain. No other aim, such as going to heaven, is not ultimately satisfactory. The point is that once one really understands some aspect of the teaching at the beginning, one is well on the Path toward the eventual Liberation. One just needs to continue further.
And of course there is the further goal of attaining Buddhahood for the benefits of beings. But more on that later…