The Path Unlike Any Other, How and why I came to follow Jain Philosophy

 

By Gabriel E. Figueroa, E-Mail : vegangf@aol.com

 

Almost everyone has experienced a moment of incredible clarity and insight wherein everything makes sense and seems to fall into place. Usually, these moments are instantaneous and go as quickly as they come. I experienced such a moment of great clarity and tremendous insight the first time I encountered Jain philosophy. The difference was that this clarity and insight have continued to be a part of my life as I have learned more about Jainism.

I was raised in a Catholic family. We were never particularly religious. I did go through the motions of the Catholic Sacraments, but my heart was not really in it. Part of me always felt that Catholicism was not spiritually fulfilling. I really didn't look into other faiths right away, but I gradually withdrew from attending Mass and church functions.

At the age of 18, I was in my senior year of high school and I became friends with an Existentialist. He really opened my eyes though our conclusions were somewhat different. He would ask me these really thought-provoking questions. I would answer them. He would then question my answer. And I would answer his question. Of course, he would question this answer. I would get so frustrated thinking that nothing was able to be answered in absolute terms. My friend would always find a question. My mind had always been very logical, and this sent me searching for answers that were not so easily reduced. Simultaneously, I had a spiritual void that also needed to be filled.

My search led me to look at some different religious traditions. For me, the most fascinating, devotional, and logical were the Indian religions. At that time I had no idea that what I liked about the Indian religions were all contributions of Jainism. I began considering notions of karma and reincarnation, non-violence, and respect for all living beings. I thought about vegetarianism and began to feel a sense of guilt about eating meat. Everything seemed to be pointing me in the direction of Ahinsa, and finally one day I knew I could no longer eat an animal and so I stopped. In my first year of vegetarianism, I learned as much as I could about vegetarian principles. I started to realize the cruelty to animals in all animal products and promptly made a move from ovo-lacto vegetarian to vegan. I quit using eggs (which I had taken reluctantly anyway), dairy products, honey, leather, wool, silk, etc. Also, I remember reading about Jainism in a book about vegetarianism and feeling a strong attraction to Jain ideals. The small blurb made me hungry to learn more about this truly beautiful spiritual path. It was from this time that I remember the feeling of insight and great clarity.

I began reading everything I could find about Jainism. Unfortunately, there was not much available. Most of what I did read was written by misinformed westerners who viewed Jainism as some sort of offshoot brand of Hinduism. There were great distortions about the origins, teachings, and practices of Jainism. I did manage to get some accurate information from some fine Jain organizations as well as get to know some Jains personally, so I began to learn more. The more I learned, the more I started to realize that I had been fortunate enough to have found the True Path. Not only did I find it logically appealing, but intuitively I felt as if I were already aware of the truths of Jainism but that they were harbored deep within me.

After studying Jain philosophy for a few years, I found that I wanted to practice it more in daily life. I knew there were Jain rituals but did not understand what they or their significance were exactly. I also had never been to a Jain temple. Though I have always considered true practice more important than ritual, I wanted to learn more. This was very difficult. I found that many Jains whom I met were unfamiliar with the meaning behind the rituals. I had the opportunity to stay with a nice Jain family in Houston. They were very hospitable and also quite knowledgeable about different Jain rituals. I went to the Jain Center in Houston and attended the YJA Southwest Regional Conference in 1996. This made a tremendous difference in my understanding by allowing me to see how others practiced Jainism.

I found that like any other path, there were many who were uncertain about their faith. There was also confusion among younger people as to whether Jain concepts were truly practical in this society at this time. I met many who possessed incredible knowledge about Jainism but admitted their practice was not always as it should be. I was amazed that there were a number of non-vegetarians. I was disillusioned to find that Jainism was taken for granted by many of those who had been born into it. How could the True Path be ignored?

In thinking about it, I came to realize that I was dealing with a phenomenon that happens in all religious traditions. It had happened to me; I had not accepted my own religious upbringing and had questioned much of what my elders told me was the "right" thing to do. If I had simply accepted it all, I would have never been exposed to Jainism (or for that matter many other interesting and beautiful philosophies). How else could one ever really know if Jainism was the True Path? I began to realize that unless one had really done some self-examination or already had a strong inner knowing, then there would probably always be a level of doubt about this or any path. On top of that, we live in a society where we are inundated with marketing that encourages us to live our lives as the corporate giants see fit. At every turn, there is a McDonald's or KFC fast food restaurant. Even schools encourage us to eat and behave in ways that are contrary to the teachings of Jainism. Following a code of Ahinsa may appear impossible when we are strongly urged to do things that violate it and are surrounded by those who contradict it constantly.

No wonder there was so much confusion among Jains living in North America. I had felt the same confusion about Catholicism, though I had not had quite the same struggle between the rules of Catholicism and the standards of society. My confusion had led me into a search for true spirituality that resulted in tremendous growth for me. I never returned to Catholicism but did come to appreciate it more as a result of my quest. I was truly lucky because I had examined other religions before coming to find Jainism; thus I was able to see the essential differences and saw that Jainism had some characteristics that were very unique. These unique characteristics made me realize that Jainism was a path unlike any other. In my heart and mind, I knew that Jainism was the True Path. I only had to look within to realize this. I will explain some of what really had an impact on me.

Jainism recognizes that we alone are responsible for our destiny. This is both frightening and liberating. It is frightening to those who have been conditioned to believe that by worshipping the proper god in the proper religion their ultimate goal will be achieved. These worshippers rely on an external agent rather than on their own soul. It is also frightening to those who engage in activities that violate the sanctity of the soul, because they realize that they will have to experience the consequences of their actions. It is liberating because we realize that we hold the key to the ultimate goal. We can do it, and we have instructions on how to do it. No one else can do it for us. Those who achieved the goal of liberation were humans too. We can transform ourselves to be like they are, step by step. No matter how many wrong actions we have committed in the past, we can begin the path to self-realization from today. It is up to us. Help is around us in the form of teachings and teachers, but only we can put forth the effort. Responsibility can be our jailer or our liberator – WE decide.

Ahinsa is found to a certain extent in most religious traditions, but only in Jainism is it given paramount importance. The Tirthankaras recognized that all beings' souls are the same regardless of the body they inhabit. Underneath the karmic matter is a pure soul whether one is a grasshopper or a human being. Most of the time we confuse the body for the soul. But Jain philosophy teaches us that soul is primary and all souls are important. Simply because one soul inhabits the body of a chicken does not make that soul less important. It is better to strive to help other souls and not hurt them. Vegetarianism is a small but effective step that helps us to minimize violence towards other beings. It is a great place to start, but Jain philosophy teaches us that if we are to realize our souls we need to go further. We need to purify our thoughts towards ourselves and others. We need to realize that when we harm another, we harm ourselves. There are many things we can do or refrain from doing that will truly help us and ultimately help others through example.

Everything in Jainism ties into the idea that we are independent beings that are responsible for our own destiny through our thoughts and actions. So we can understand why it is important to be nonviolent. The Jain code of conduct is based on nonviolence totally, because this is the only way to begin on the path to liberation. For instance, why is it important to be truthful? Through lies, we hurt others with our words and then we hurt ourselves. Why should we not steal? Isn't stealing also a form of violence? What about wrong thinking? What if we think we are better than others? These are forms of violence in and of themselves, and they lead to greater forms of violence in our actions. Anekantavada helps us to act nonviolently towards others by allowing us to see things from a different perspective. All religious paths give us rules, and most attribute them to a higher power. Generally that is as far as they go. The teachings of Jainism don't just give us empty rules to follow. We learn to see the consequences of our actions. Then we see that there are legitimate reasons for following the truths of Jainism. If we do so, the reward is the highest goal of Moksha.

In my heart, I knew from the beginning that Jainism was the True Path. Once I realized that only Jainism was so thorough in providing us with a path to liberation and ultimate happiness, I knew in my mind it was the True Path. I still am inspired by other religions and study them to learn more about them. They help me to be able to relate to others and gain additional viewpoints. They enrich me, but I personally find that Jainism is so much deeper in all respects.

Some think that Jainism is not practical in this society or in modern times. I believe that now Jainism is more crucial than ever. We live in a society that abounds in material and worldly temptations. It is very easy to ignore our soul. But the more we ignore our soul, the more we suffer. Suffering takes place on a grand scale. Violence surrounds us and threatens to destroy our spirit. There are opportunities to become wealthy by ignoring our soul. We pretend we don't notice, but we are souls. So how can we help but notice?

For me, Jainism is extremely practical. Jain meditation has had tremendous power in my life. It has a cleansing quality that bathes my soul. It allows me to see the potential God in all living beings. I find that I am able to remove negative thoughts and emotions. I feel happier in my daily life. I still have challenges, but I view them in a different light. I know when I ignore my soul, I suffer. I have realized that when I neglect meditation or somehow break any of the principles of Jainism, the consequences tend to show themselves very quickly. It can be a struggle at times doing what we know is right, but it is also very rewarding. In any case, Jainism allows us to realize that everything is a choice. This is a very powerful idea that can and will transform our lives if we remember and practice it.

Following Ahinsa in daily life is an inspiration to those who still engage in all forms of violence. We can eliminate so much of the violence in the world by being truly nonviolent. A little over fifty years ago, Gandhi showed the world that nonviolence is stronger than violence. It is certainly more difficult at times, but in the long run it prevails.

We can try to get happiness from the world, or we can look within for the truth about happiness. The Jinas out of their compassion for all beings made the path of true happiness clear for all. They let go of everything and reached the state of keval-gyan. There was nothing for them to gain personally by sharing their message. Yet they left their teachings for our benefit. It is up to us to decide whether or not we will follow these teachings. They are there for us. It is up to us individually whether or not we will be liberated. We are fortunate in that we have available to us the ingredients to a truly happy life and the means to experiencing the qualities of the Perfect Soul.

 

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