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4 Buddhist Principles That Made My Life Completely Zen

Photo: Bricolage / Shutterstock
woman meditating

My life has changed drastically since I adopted an interest in Buddhist philosophy. A significant part of the peace, determination, and happiness I feel today can be traced back to the perspectives offered by Buddhism.

And Buddhism was not something I sought. I believe it came to me. I felt the calming presence of Buddhist monks for the first time when I visited Dharamshala. Attending Vipassana was when I was first introduced to these life-changing perspectives — and then I got hooked. Now, Buddhism has a hold on my heart that I could not let go of, even if I wanted to.

The word Buddha means one who has come home, and it is said that every man is born to become a Buddha. We’re all supposed to come home. Moreover, becoming a Buddha has nothing to do with becoming a Buddhist. It just means that we’re all supposed to liberate ourselves. Now, I don’t know what exactly becoming Buddha would require. But I’m excited to walk the path anyway — the path to becoming more Buddha-like. 

Honestly, it takes nothing more intimidating than following some basic principles. Allow me to share some of these principles with you in order to make the pursuit of becoming more Buddha-like a little more fun.

(Illustration by a friend, reprinted with permission)

Here are 4 Buddhist principles that made my life completely zen:

1. Abolish binary thinking

Three monks debate over a temple flag rippling in the wind. The first monk refers to the flag as a moving banner. While the second monk insists that they are not seeing the flag move but rather the wind blowing. They argue back and forth until finally, a third monk intervenes: “It is not the flag moving, not the wind blowing, but rather the movement of your minds.”

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The first two monks argued because they held their own opinions superior to others. In essence, that made them blind to other perspectives. However, the third monk saw their conflict for what it indeed was: a perceptual one. And that is what all conflicts in our lives are too. They’re all perceptual.

This makes way for an essential Buddhist principle: to abolish binary thinking. We sense the world objectively. However, we perceive it subjectively. Whatever opinions and beliefs we embody are a result of our individual experiences in life. Truth, then, does not exist. Only perspectives do.

The answer is never black or white — it’s always grey. The answers are always situational and perceptual. Your opinions and beliefs are not above others. They’re just yours. And other people’s opinions and beliefs are theirs. Understanding this may seem easy. However, it’s tough to apply it in real life.

We’re so determined to align other people’s perspectives with ours. We want others to agree with us and think like us. However, true nobility lies in accepting the fact that your perspective is only one of 7.8 billion, and it is in no way superior to others.

How to apply in real life:

The next time you argue with someone, take a deep breath and tell yourself that you’re not supposed to put your perspectives over others. Accept that people think in different ways and you don’t have to sway others to your way of thinking.

2. Stop trying to decipher everything

One day Chao-chou fell down in the snow, and called out, “Help me up! Help me up!” A monk came and lay down beside him. Chao-chou got up and went away.

I know what you’re thinking. I know that you just frowned because that story did not make any sense to you. And that tells us something very fundamental about human nature — that we’re always seeking explanations. However, for Buddhist monks, blindly seeking answers was a vice to overcome. The true path to enlightenment was to accept the mysteries of existence.

The micro-story I shared with you above is a Koan. Koans are intentionally incomprehensible philosophical thought experiments to help practice the monks stop seeking answers. Koans were used to teach the monks to learn to live with ambiguity and paradox.

In our lives, many instances occur that do not make sense to us. And that is what shakes us. We do not understand why something happened and we ask for explanations. However, Buddhism asks a different question: “Why do we need an explanation in the first place?”

How to apply in real life:

Humans have a tendency to seek answers. While that is what has led humanity to flourish beyond our wildest expectations, many times, life just does not make sense. On multiple occasions, life is resistant to simple explanations. In such moments, even with our mightiest attempts to decipher life, we fail to do so.

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And that is what raises a valid argument. Do we really need to decipher everything? Do we really need to make sense of everything? I believe if we can learn to let go of our inborn obsessive need to interpret everything, we’ll be able to handle our share of uncertainties better. Because while it’s comforting to believe that everything happens for a reason, the truth is that sometimes things don’t happen for a reason.

So when life does not make sense, calm down, and remind yourself that it’s not supposed to. Try to make your peace with the unsolvable puzzle that life is and learn to enjoy the ambiguity of life.

3. Live life the only way you truly can: presently

A man traveling across a field encountered a tiger. He fled the tiger after him. Coming to a precipice, he caught hold of the root of a wild vine and swung himself down over the edge. The tiger sniffed at him from above. Trembling, the man looked down to where, far below, another tiger was waiting to eat him. Only the vine sustained him.

Two mice, one white and one black, little by little started to gnaw away the vine. The man saw a luscious strawberry near him. Grasping the vine with one hand, he plucked the strawberry with the other. How sweet it tasted!

The tiger above represents our birth. The tiger below represents death. The two mice represent the fact that our days on this planet are diminishing one at a time. And the strawberry represents the present.

A regretful yet unchangeable past is behind us. An uncertain future and an unpredictable death await us. The hands of the clock chip away at our life. The only way we can truly live life is to live in the present.

How to apply in real life:

Let’s be honest. You’re sick of hearing to “live in the present”. I was too. It’s frustrating because while it’s good advice, it’s tough to manifest. And I want to share with you one way to do that — create a recipe that you can call a blissful day and try to live every day as close to that recipe as possible. Here are some elements of my current recipe.

  • Waking up before sunrise, followed by a cup of black coffee, a morning run, and 15 minutes of meditation.
  • Reading.
  • Writing 1000 words.
  • Work out in the evening.
  • Ending the day with some spiritual journaling, etc.

These are not things I have to do. These are things that I want to do. My day goes better when I do these things. However, I realized that I was not making enough effort to do all these things every day. And it raises an undeniable yet grossly overlooked question we need to ask ourselves often — How am I living today?

Think about it. How did you spend today? How did you spend last week? How did you spend this month? Did you make enough effort to spend your days like you would have wanted them to? Or did the hands of the clock chip away at them with nothing to show for it?

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Every now and then, we stop living our days as we should. We stop seizing the day. And that is a problem. So, create a recipe for your blissful day. Then, make enough effort to live every day as you’re supposed to: totally.

4. Practice indifference

The Buddha was once asked what real welfare is. He replied that the highest welfare is the ability to keep the balance of one’s mind in spite of all the vicissitudes, the ups, and downs, of life.

One of the core teachings of Buddhism is that all suffering stems from attachment. We suffer when we attach feelings of craving and aversion to various things in life. However, life is often going to hand us things that we resist and take away from us things that we crave — which is why we suffer.

Buddha, on the other hand, has no attachments. He is indifferent to all ups and downs of life, which is how he has liberated himself from the sufferings of existence. And if we learn to practice indifference, we too will create lesser suffering.

How to apply in real life:

Here’s an illustration to show you what we need to aim for.

(Illustration by a friend, reprinted with permission)

Indifference is the key to suffering less. And I’m not asking you to be indifferent to everything in life. But we can learn to practice indifference towards things that don’t matter. I believe we’ll create much less suffering if we do that. Because something that you’re not attached to, can’t bring you any suffering. Here are some things you can start practicing indifference to.

  • Things that won’t matter in five years.
  • Things that lie outside of your control.
  • Materialistic things.
  • Worldy matters that don’t concern you, etc.

The word Buddha means someone who has come home and the essence of Buddhism is to live mindfully. Here are four principles that, if practiced, can help you become more like Buddha.

  1. Abolish binary thinking. Accept that truth doesn’t exist, only perspectives do.

  2. Stop trying to decipher everything. Learn to enjoy the ambiguity and paradoxes of life.

  3. Live presently. One way to do that is to create a recipe for your blissful day and try to live your days as close to that as possible.

  4. Practice indifference. Stop getting attached to things that don’t matter in life. By practicing indifference, you’ll create lesser suffering.

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Akshad Singi, M.D. has been published in Better Humans, Mind Cafe, and more. 

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This article was originally published at Medium. Reprinted with permission from the author.