Jesuits and others who follow Ignatian spirituality typically use the term “discern” as a synonym for “decide”. Should our province open a new school? Should this scholastic be approved for ordination? In what ministry will I be most effective? In each case, discernment amounts to decision-making about a significant matter.
Whether the discernment is done by an individual, a community, apostolic work, or province, our objective is to discern the right thing to do — that which we believe God wills and desires for us, the church, and the world.
Buddhists look to their faith to learn the ‘right thing to do when navigating life’s choices.
At first glance, this would seem to be meaningless to Buddhists, for Buddhism denies the existence of God in the sense of an omniscient creator. It is atheistic or, rather, non-theistic, in the Abrahamic sense of theism. There is no divine will guiding the virtuous or judging the wicked. Nonetheless, Buddhists look to their faith to learn the ‘right thing to do when navigating life’s choices. [This happens at two levels, the commonplace and the profound.]
There are enormous differences in the worldview and religious practices of the two great schools of Buddhism — Theravada and Mahayana. One encounters even more diversity when looking at Buddhist beliefs and practices in the various Asian countries in which it has flourished. Despite these differences, we can trace certain commonalities.
At the lay level of Buddhism, particularly in many of the Mahayana’s sub-schools, prognostication rituals are quite common. In Tibetan Buddhism, there is a great reliance on monks and lamas for practical guidance based on divination rites. In effect, it is “fortune-telling”. To focus on these folk practices, however, would be to misrepresent Buddhism. In every religion, including Christianity, one finds popular religious practices that have their roots more in the local culture than in the scriptures or formal theology of that faith.
It is good to remind ourselves that what the word discern really means is to recognize, to perceive, or to see. When re-framed this way it becomes very clear that Buddhism values discernment highly. Many Buddhist teachers would assert that the goal of all its practices and teachings is to see or discern reality without hindrances. In Buddhist scriptures, one regularly encounters the phrase to see things “as they are”… yatha bhutam.
The Buddhist understanding of the human condition is that certain inborn imperfections are hindrances to insight, which in turn blocks the path to liberation.
In Indian religious thought, the context from which the Buddha emerged, the word dharma implies a meaningful order and proper pattern to the universe, and to the lives of all living beings. Being a description of the way things truly are, it also provides a prescription for the way we should live and act in the world. To say that this or that is one’s dharma is to say that it is something which we should do, as part of the natural order of things.
A great deal of both Hindu and Buddhist philosophy, and the scriptures which crystalize those teachings, are concerned with how we can determine what is proper dharma for ourselves and for the larger society. The Buddha developed this concept by making ethical action central, de-emphasizing or rejecting other elements of dharma, such as the obligation to perform ritual action or to follow practices determined by one’s place in the caste system. Core Buddhist teachings, for all branches of the tradition, are summarized in what are basically catechetical formulae: the 4 Noble Truths, the 3 Characteristics of Existence, the 5 Precepts, and so on. Guidance in moral development, and in progress toward enlightenment and liberation, is encapsulated in the 8-fold Path, which includes eight practices such as right speech, right conduct, right livelihood, and so on.
The Buddhist understanding of the human condition is that certain inborn imperfections are hindrances to insight, which in turn blocks the path to liberation. Faults such as inordinate sensory desires, hostility, resentment, and fear are some of the hindrances. Attaining freedom from these is what allows the person to see the world clearly. It is significant that, for all Buddhists, the natural fruits of “seeing things as they are” are equanimity and compassion. From this flows an ability to make life choices, and important decisions confidently. In turn, it explains why the Buddhist faithful seek out accomplished practitioners of the faith — typically monks, and occasionally nuns — for guidance.
In Buddhism seeing reality clearly, without the distortions of adverse emotions or selfish concerns, becomes a way of being that opens up the possibility of habitual ‘right action’.
Buddhism differs from Christianity significantly in that discernment does not have a specific goal, such as determining whether to open a school or to enter religious life. Yet, in a more fundamental way, there is a convergence or resonance. In Buddhism seeing reality clearly, without the distortions of adverse emotions or selfish concerns, becomes a way of being that opens up the possibility of habitual ‘right action’.
This can serve as a reminder to us that, for discernment to be genuine, it cannot be an exercise in which we engage as needed. Instead, it must be rooted in a prayerful way of life that seeks constantly to be in line with what we believe God desires for the world.