Ebert enlightens: Buddhism talk dispels misconceptions

By Peter Farrell, Manitou Messenger Contributing Writer, April 15, 2005

St Olaf, Minnesota (USA) -- A rural town in southeastern Minnesota is an unlikely place to find a Buddhist meditation center, but then again, Northfield is hardly an average rural town. Lisa Ebert, a practicing Buddhist and active member of the Northfield Buddhist Meditation Center (NBMC), came to St. Olaf Monday to lecture on the history, practices and philosophical underpinnings of her faith.

Ebert?s lecture, aptly entitled Buddhism, began with a qualification; she has only been active in the Buddhist community for three years. A former Christian theologian of sorts, Ebert found herself drawn to the pragmatic philosophical method of the Buddhist faith. The NBMC provided an outlet for her religious curiosity and spiritual growth.

"Buddhism is amicable to many world views and religions and is a growing phenomenon in the Western world," Ebert said. Asian western migration, coupled with society?s increased willingness to consider Eastern culture, values and ideas, has encouraged many Americans to take an active interest in Buddhism. Ebert went on to cite the fact that active Buddhists now outnumber registered Episcopalians in Minneapolis.

As a result of that growth Ebert believes more and more people have developed distorted perceptions of the Buddhist faith. Ebert sought to clear up some common misconceptions about the practice of Buddhism, as well as to provide some brief historical background.

According to scholars, the Buddha lived sometime between 500-400 B.C.E. The Buddha ? otherwise known as Prince Siddharta Gautama ? was an anomaly amongst Indian nobility. The young prince desperately desired contact with the outside world; in fact, he demanded it. Upon meeting a poor person in his travels, Siddharta Gautama was exposed to suffering for the first time. He determined he could not ascend the throne until he knew more about the world and the suffering within it, and set off on a path of spiritual reflection.

"The Buddha finally found his enlightenment under a tree," Ebert said, noting that the former prince resolved his spiritual crisis after he entered a deep state of meditation near the ancient sacred forests of Uruvela in northern India.

Ebert explained that the Buddha?s spiritual Awakening revealed the Four Noble Truths ? distinct categories of awareness from which individual experience should be constructed.

Ebert told the group that to achieve enlightenment, the aware individual must understand there is suffering. Then, the individual must understand there is a cause of suffering in the world? craving, or tanha ? but also that the suffering of the world can cease. The cessation of suffering is contingent upon a spiritual practice known as the Noble Eightfold Path of right view, right resolve, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration.

"We spend so much of our time wishing for something different," Ebert said. "The Noble Eightfold Path emphasizes the here and now, and encourages the individual to nurture a sense of presence, awareness, and satisfaction." Ebert went on to explain that by pursuing such spiritual practices as meditation and the Noble Eightfold Path, the individual stands to "transcend the self" and to improve his or her life, the life of others and the lives he or she will live when reincarnated.

Some students were bothered by Buddhism?s perceived focus on the individual. One audience member asked how a practicing Buddhist would be affected by the devastation of the recent tsunami in Asia and the ensuing suffering.

Ebert told the group that the Buddhist recognition of suffering is all-encompassing; there is no distinction between "levels" of suffering. However, Ebert maintained that by acknowledging the existence and pervasive nature of suffering, the Buddhist was even more capable of responding to a disaster such as the tsunami. "Furthermore," Ebert said, "the Buddhist recognizes the relationship between the cosmos and the individual, and realizes that he or she must act in a way that benefits the cosmos as a whole."