Occasionally somebody who remembers that I was raised a white-bread Christian Lutheran will ask me, 'how in the world did you ever come to think of yourself as a Buddhist?'
The answer is pretty simple. Years ago, at a time in my life when I really, really needed a system of spiritual pursuit, I found that Buddhism offered an exceedingly logical and practical method. The fact that it was logical and practical, and moreover that it actually made me happier, was in striking contrast to Lutheranism's complete inability to help of guide me in any way. Christian philosophy simply made me steadily more unhappy.
It would have been crazy for me to stay there.
To newcomers, Buddhism can sometimes seem bewilderingly complex, full of numbered truths and numbered paths, and numbered virtues and numbered vices. But at heart, it is the most amazingly simple of philosophies. Its basis is that it seeks plain, old fashioned, genuine happiness, for each and every person.
Starting onto the Buddhist path really could not be simpler. It is summed up by four ideas that are usually called the Four Noble Truths. You can be a perfectly good Buddhist if you do nothing but think about these concepts on a regular basis.
#1: The truth of suffering.
This is the truth that sometimes earns Buddhism a reputation for pessimism. In truth, though, the Sanskrit word "dukka," which is usually translated as "suffering," is more accurately translated as "unsatisfying."
What this means, in other words, is that a genuine spiritual path can begin when you recognize that there is something inherently less than ideal about our normal way of existing in the world. It's not that we're constantly exposed to the agony of fire and brimstone, but that an honest self-evaluation shows us that we've lived a somewhat hollow life.
We find ourselves motivated to change, finally, so an awareness of dukka can, and should, be celebrated. A corporate executive that suddenly recognizes that he'd rather play with grandkids than take over yet another business is an ideal candidate for Buddhism.
#2: The causes of suffering.
Buddhism doesn't actually dictate to you what these causes are, but it does encourage you to nakedly examine your dukka, the unsatisfactory nature of your life, and study the causes.
The basis of this examination is the recognition of cause-and-effect. Karma, in other words. The understanding that all things happen in response to causes. As an example, the momentary euphoria of an alcohol-fueled celebration is, for most people, followed by quite unpleasant aftereffects. In a spiritual life, we look nakedly at the actual effects that follow from our actions; and we obey when common sense suggests that we should perhaps stop it.
After a long, long time studying in this way, my own experience is that the ultimate causes of suffering turn out to be very much what the Buddhist mystics say it is. Attachment to outcome, desire and aversion, the defense of a solid self in the face of ever-changing reality....these are the trends that underly most everything that has caused me grief over the years.
But Buddhism doesn't insist that you believe any certain way. It says that you should merely look at your experience openly and follow common sense.
#3: Suffering ends.
Magically, sometimes, we become aware that all our restlessness, our dissatisfaction, can simply vanish and be replaced by peace and contentment. The fact that we have all experienced these moments makes up the promise that relief is indeed possible. There would be no path at all if life was all suffering. Sometimes it's not, though, and that is the rainbow, the promise. The path is largely about simply recognizing these moments, looking for the causes, and nurturing them. The lack of suffering is known as "sukka," and a person who has left dukka for good is regarded as an enlightened one who has achieved nirvahna.
#4: The path to the end of suffering.
Once we've acknowledged our dukka, glimpsed a bit about the causes, recognized that there are moments when our suffering ends, we now simply look at the things that cause suffering, the things that cause peace ("sukka"). We then systematically choose not to feed the first, and to cultivate the second. And if we can help others do the same, so much the better.
Most of the Buddhist canon is nothing more than a series of exercises and practices aimed at reducing the grip of suffering while nurturing contentment. Its many "rules" aren't commandments for being somehow worthy of goodness. They are merely various different practices and calisthenics that you might find useful for being a happier person. It's this aspect of Buddhism that makes it quite unlike many other philosophies. It doesn't judge; it just tries to help.
The elegant simplicity of this approach is why I'm a Buddhist.