Buddhism: A Kelliefied Primer

April 6, 2010

Disclaimer:  I am still a Meditator Tot, not a nun or a high fallutin’ Lama.  I am also a skeptic.  What I believe in is the results I’ve obtained from the practice of Buddhist mindfulness.  Cause and effect is key. 

Feel free to skip through this for the parts you’re interested in. 

Today I was asked the following:  I’ve been studying up on world religions lately (from a philosophical viewpoint), and I’m having some difficulty with Buddhism. There doesn’t seem to be a defining text like most religions have…and that’s making it a bit difficult for me to direct my studies. Can you suggest a place/book/website for me to start studying? It really would help me out, as I’m a bit lost in the wealth of information out there. Thank you!

This is a great question and a common problem-at least it’s one I face daily as a fledgeling Buddhist. I’m going to give a little background I’ve gleaned and will recommend some books, one questioner to another.  I’ll list some books in the text and at the end. 

BACK STORY as I’ve gathered it:

Siddhartha Gautama lived some 500 years before Jesus.  His family was fairly successful, although his father was not a King as some writings claim. According to the Pali Canon he was probably more like a governor, and certainly did pretty well for himself and his family.  The name Siddhartha doesn’t show up until later writings, although the Gautama family name seems to be attached to the guy who would later become the Buddha from way back near the start. 

Legend has it that his Mom had a seer read his fortune, and it was determined that he would be either a great political or religious leader.  In that place and time to be a religious leader meant an austere life of self-sacrifice, living with a begging bowl and wearing tattered robes, so his Dad much preferred him to be a political leader.  He tried to protect him from exposure to life’s troubles like that whole pesky sickness and dying situation, but he went out with a servant, saw reality, left his cushy life and became an aescetic.  He wandered around starving for a few years, realized that starving didn’t explain anything, and went for what is known as the Middle Way, which is still recommended today.  A life of moderation.  The thing is, the whole king story was probably not exactly right, although everyone tells it as if it was the gospel.  No, wait, wrong religion.   

I found the following book very helpful in getting a grasp on what is probably as close to the Buddha story as we could possibly get:  Stephen Batchelor – Confession of a Buddhist Atheist.  He was a monk for many years as a young man, and then opted to leave for a life as a married lay Buddhist teacher.  He studied with many of the big names in Buddhism, and even had some time wtih the Dalai Lama. He writes about the Pali Canon and how he worked on sifting apart the fluff from what is likely to be authentic in those texts.  Like me, he questioned the Dalai’s tolerance of monks performing supernatural rituals and the treasuries of meaningful relics.  These seems to contradict a central tenet of Buddhist practice, that of letting go of attachments to things, to people, to outcomes in order to reduce suffering.


The central Buddhist idea is known as the Four Noble Truths.  This is what the Buddha supposedly figured out while sitting under the Bodhi Tree, and it only took him eleven hours.  (Do you detect a hint of sarcasm? I suspect he figured it out, and he said anyone could do it.  Whether it happened under that tree in eleven hours is open for debate in my view. It’s a legend.)

1.  There is suffering in life.  (There.  Someone finally said it.)

2. The cause of suffering is attachments and cravings.  

3.  There is a way to relieve suffering.

4.  The way is to release attachments. 


Basically, we spend our lives running after things we want and running away from things we don’t want, applying expectations to things outside ourselves and being upset when they don’t come out the way we ever-so-deeply wanted them to.  These things we run toward or from are what Buddhists refer to as attachments.  We worry about the decisions our kids make even though they are adults; we worry about the amount of stuff we have, hoarding objects or throwing away money to get more stuff; we worry that our parents will die and our cars will get old and that we might miss our favorite TV show or forget to record it.  We attach to all kinds of worry.  We get mad when people cut us off in traffic because we are attached to moving along unimpeded.  Everything that we suffer over has to do with one sort of attachment or another.

Getting your brain around that is a huge deal.  Because the next question is, inevitably, “Are you saying I should leave my spouse and kids, and spend my life meditating under a bridge?  Am I supposed to knock off all my plans and goals… like learning more or eating right and exercising or saving for retirement?”  The good news is, no, you don’t have to.  Some people do, but frankly, I’m not convinced that isn’t its own form of attachment to an identity.   

What we do very little of is being present and awake in the moment.  Paying attention to the look and taste and shape and temperature and texture of each bite of food instead of eating while watching TV or reading or driving and not even appreciating it. (This is why MacDonald’s is popular. Americans do not pay attention to what they are eating, so we don’t notice if it tastes good or not, and we don’t feel satisfied when we eat so we eat more.)  Paying full attention to your job without thinking about something else.  To sit on the porch and be aware of the birdsong and the rustling leaves rather than dragging the boom box out there to drown it out. 


So the central practice of Buddhism is meditation.  Formal meditation often takes place while sitting on a mat and pillow, or a chair or small bench.  It can also take place while walking.  But it also can take place in everyday life.  Meditation is not what it is surmised to be by the uninitated.  It is a practice to help you gain control of your mind and your life by being fully awake and aware in this moment here and now.  In my sangha (congregation) we perform sitting meditation for a while, then we walk for a while, then we sit again as the heart of each of our weekly gatherings.  The presentation that usually follows is brief and secondary to meditation.  We also have weekend retreats in which we participate in various arts or practice meditation, or both.     

This formal meditation is like the scales Ray Charles said were the staple of his daily piano playing.  He loved playing scales, throughout his life, long after he was famous, and up until he couldn’t do it any more.  He said it wasn’t a good day if he couldn’t do his scales.  Formal meditation is the equivalent of the scales of a mindful life. A regular practice is considered more important than long periods of meditation.  Five minutes a day is better than an hour of sitting every now and then. 


Buddhism is full of lists.  Some get a wee tad fussy for me, but the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path are biggies.  The Eightfold path is similar to the Ten Commandments except that they aren’t commanded by anyone… and there are only eight.  🙂  They are practices that will become part of your life naturally as you become more aware that every path leads to here and now, so you almost don’t even need to hear them, although why not take help when you can get it?  (I could get into a whole thing here about reincarnation, but I don’t consider that important, any more than I consider heaven and hell important.  I consider here and now important.  If I am awake and present, I make good choices that reduce my suffering and that of those around me.  I think attachments to a reincarnated life and to heaven and hell (and indeed hell can be an attachment in the sense that people are attached to avoiding it) are, after all, cravings that cause suffering.  If I live with awareness and it turns out reincarnation or heaven are in store for me, they’ll come.  I just prefer not to be attached to those concepts, both because they are attachments and attachments cause suffering, but also because they don’t match my experience of cause and effect. 

The Eightfold Path consists of ways to live a good life.  They are Right View, Right Intention, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, Right Concentration.  Here’s a link that explains them pretty nicely.  http://www.boloji.com/buddhism/00110.htm  . 


I don’t buy the supernatural in any religion, but I do think there are things we don’t understand and try to have an open mind in the here and now.  What drew me to Buddhism was the practice and the results I experience from practice.  There are Buddhists that are devoted to the supernatural.  From what I can tell at this stage in my study as a Buddhist they ignore the words of the original Buddha who said that if it doesn’t match your experience, don’t buy it, even if I (the Buddha himself) said it.  This convinces me that it is valid to be a Buddhist without all the beliefs in reincarnation, clairvoyance, and auspicious this and that. 

Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who said it, no matter if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense.     Buddha     


Like Christianity, Buddhism has a bunch of sects… even more than Christianity, probably.  After all, it’s had 500 more years to gear up.  Many of the sects claim a direct line to the Buddha, meaning that their teacher was taught by another teacher and another and another on back until one of the teachers was taught directly by the Buddha.  Just like the Church of Christ claims to be directly connected to the first century church Jesus started.  (At least they used to.)  I find this unlikely, but I’m okay with it in a philosophical sense, both for Christians and Buddhists. 

There are some good books that give overviews of the main schools, so I’ll let them tell you.  One suprisingly good book for an overview is The Idiots Guide to Buddhism.  Believe it or not.  The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Buddhism, 3rd Edition By: Gary Gach.


I belong to the Tibetan lineage, American-style, called Shambhala.  There is a lot of information on the Shambhala website:    http://www.shambhala.org/.  As I’ve said, I remain a skeptic, but have been supported in my skepticism by my fellow Shambhala Buddhists, so if something there doesn’t add up for you, don’t feel oblidged to buy it.  The Buddha wouldn’t. 


I took my refuge vows earlier this year, and when I had my interview with our Archrya (he’s an advanced teacher in our lineage and who is only here one time a year), he said that this refuge sticks even if I switch to another lineage, if I want it to.  I was given the Tibetan name, Shiwa Nyi-Tso, which means Peaceful Sun-Lake.   

It is not necessary to take refuge vows to practice the Buddhist ways, nor certainly to benefit from meditation and mindfulness.  Many members of Shambhala are not Buddhists at all.  They are Catholics and Jews and Atheists who have recognized the value of meditative practice and mindfulness.  When asked if one must give up their gods to become a Buddhist, Buddha replied, “You do not give up one good friend just because you have made another.”  Besides, the Buddha is not a god, and did not consider himself a god.  You might be surprised to hear that without digging deep because a lot of people really want him to be a god and make him into one. 

Buddhists take refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma and the sanga.  These are the Teacher, The teachings, and the Community of learners. 


For people raised in simple religions like the fundamentalist Christianity of my childhood, the iconography can be a bit much.  Even as a former Unitarian Universalist (who remains affiliated) I get a bit “attached” to avoiding the extravagant trappings.  (And it causes me suffering. Yikes!) The Zen lineage is actually probably more in alignment with my take on Buddhism than the Tibetan path, but I have found a family among my sangha. 


We don’t exactly worship as Buddhists, certainly not in the Western sense.  When we bow to our archrya when we take our refuge vows, we are not worshipping him, we are honoring him.  When we bow to a shrine, we are not worshipping it or anything on it, we are focusing our mindfulness on it.  This is an alien concept to most Americans.  Americans figure if you bow you are worshipping.  But this is eastern bowing, and it’s a sign of respect.  Why have a statue of the buddha on the altar?  Just to center our minds.  In fact, at our sangha, the altar contains bowls of things that symbolize the 5 natural senses.  No Buddha there at all, instead we honor our own sight, hearing, touch, tastes and smells. 


There is so much to read that your head swims.  I find I’ve had to focus my reading, and if I pick up a book that is too nutty, I put it back down pretty quickly.  Maybe later it won’t seem nutty and I’ll try again, but I feel no obligation to buy it just because a Buddhist said it was so.  I bought this one book called A Buddha From Brooklyn.  WAY too nutty.  Do not get it. 

An Accidental Buddhist by Dinty Moore.  This is an awesome book, a story of a guy who went out in search of Buddhism in America.  Not a deep intellectual read, but really worthwhile, I thought.

Accidental Buddhist by Emily Dickinson.  I just ordered it.  No idea if it is good!

The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Buddhism, 3rd Edition [Kindle Edition] By: Gary Gach  Surprisingly good. 

Confession of a Buddhist Atheist [Kindle Edition] By: Stephen Batchelor  Very worthwhile.  It tells the author’s story in an engaging way while giving a pretty in depth critique of some aspects of Buddhist practice. 

Buddhism Plain and Simple [Kindle Edition] By: Steve Hagen  I love this book.  It is well written, clean, and gets to the point of Buddhist practice. 

Meditation, Now or Never. For basic meditation instruction, this is a great book, also by Steve Hagen.  Instruction in meditation technique is very important and invaluable.  What most people think of as meditation, isn’t. 

Sit Down and Shut Up [Kindle Edition] By: Brad Warner Great read by a former punk rocker and Buddhist priest.  A very down-to-earth look at life as a Buddhist in the modern world.

Zen Wrapped in Karma Dipped in Chocolate: A Trip Through Death, Sex, Divorce, and Spiritual Celebrity in Search of the True Dharma [Kindle Edition] By: Brad Warner  Another cool Brad Warner book.

A lot of the books by the modern Buddhist leaders are kind of heady and … well … sometimes seem impractical.  Yet, once you’ve been practicing a while, even a little while like me, they start to make more sense.  Here are a list of books from the Shambhala lineage:


Some of the traditional texts… there are thousands of pages of traditional texts.


Pali Canon

Tibetan Book of the Dead


Maybe that was more than you wanted to know, certainly it was just one woman’s view, and it was from a rank beginner, so take it all with a grain of your own intellectual salt. 

Stay awake,

Shiwa Nyi-Tso,

Aka Aunt Kellie


6 Responses to “Buddhism: A Kelliefied Primer”

  1. gary gach Says:

    congratulations on your vows … shambhala is a vibrant vital community … may you find your practice of viable transformation …

    am (surprisingLy) happy to hear i have a reader … in aunt kellie … that’s always important to any author … no me without you and no you without me … & this is the proof … thank you for your life …

    if you know anyone in your corner of the universe interested in writing or blogging about buddhism please let me know thank you
    gary [dot] gach [at] gmail [dot] com …

    • Gary, I am interested in blogging about buddhism, but if I’m still “too beginner mind” I may know a few people in Shambhala. And I did love your book. I read it before I took my vows and it was influential in helping me make the decision. How wonderful of you to send a note to my blog. Thank you.

    • And you know what… I have read and been aided by several Idiots Guide books, so although I know why I wrote that… the Idiot’s Guide title… it’s really not warranted. If I’d had bad experiences with their books I, most likely, would not have read yours. So, here’s to Idiot’s Guides, buddhism, and … well … to finding surprisingly good information where ever it happens. And thanks to you, Gary, for writing what I needed to know.

  2. Susan Harper Says:

    Hi Kellie:

    A friend just wrote and told me you were attending rug camp next week and wanted to know if I knew where it is being held. I don’t, but in reading your Welcome Mat profile, I saw your reference to Buddha.

    INTERESTING. I am an active rug hooker and a toeing in student in Buddhism.

    I loved your post! Wow, I will have to print it out to carry it around and study, but it is just what I have been learning and answers some of my questions.

    You are right. There are a lot of Buddhists who hook. They just don’t know it.

    I am in Bedford, and one of my dearest friends is in Irving. We hook in Carrollton and Arlington with groups and would love to have you join us. The next gathering is this coming Saturday in Carrollton at the Nazarene church on Hebron Pkwy.

    Please email me, if you are interested. Or email me if you are not. I will subscribe to your blog!

    Susan Harper

    • Susan, this is so exciting! Teena Mills has invited me to hook with you guys, but my Saturdays are very full and so far I haven’t had a free one that coincided with your meetings. I really look forward to meeting all you Buddhist and semi-Buddhist hookers! I also belong to a Unitarian Church on Hebron in Carrollton, so I think I know where the Nazarene church is. Let’s definitely get together in Tyler! Who will be your instructor? I’m with Carrie Martin.

    • WHOOPS! I mis-wrote on the Mat- I’m not going to Lone Star Rug Camp… I’m going to Star of Texas in Tyler in May. Sorry!

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