Friend Mary Ewell recently lent me Buddhism: A Way of Life and Thought by Nancy Wilson Ross. It's a highly-readable historical overview of what may be the least religious of religions, the least mysterious of mysteries. As Ross describes it in the first chapter ("The Buddha's Life Story and Basic Teachings"):
What sets apart the Buddha's Enlightenment from the experiences of other religious figures in world history is the absence of any divine intervention, or transcendent illumination from some higher-than-human sphere. The truth to which the Buddha came was entirely a discovery made by a human being, brought about by his own efforts. The one way to man's peace, fulfillment and release lay through the calm control of his own mind and senses. Even the original Buddhist goal of nirvana (or "salvation," if one wishes to use a Western term) was the realization that life's meaning lay in the here-and-now and not in some remote realm or celestial state far beyond one's present existence.
Ross's discussion of Zen Buddhism is particularly provocative. She concludes:
In summation, what can one finally say about Zen? It is not easy, it may in fact be impossible. One can only try. First, perhaps, it should be reaffirmed that there is in truth no goal to be attained. Even satori, enlightenment, is not to be imagined as something achieved after arduous effort. Arduous effort may be involved, to be sure, but it is not the real meaning. The real meaning, the real enlightenment, happens in the way a ripe fruit falls from a tree. All the effort of the seed struggling up through the soil, the tree putting down roots and putting out branches, leaves, blossoms, its patient endurance of the many opposing natural forces—all in the end produce the fruit which, when fully ripe, silently, easily falls. Yet, this whole process of fruition was a process, not a goal and the seed itself was as much the goal, the reality, as the fruit itself. The seed as seed is eternal; an apple seed is eternally an apple seed, and given the chance it will become an apple tree producing more apple seed. As Dögen said, wood is wood and ashes are ashes. Wood has its own past, present and future, as also do ashes. Enlightenment is, then, to live in accordance with one's true nature. That is what Buddha did. That is how he was "Enlightened."
(cf. SenseOfWhereYouAre (1999-06-04), EngineeringEnlightenment (1999-10-09), FoamOnTheOcean (2000-07-23), My Religion (2000-11-06), MostImportant (2002-05-16), MyOb (2002-08-18), LightMind (2002-08-22), EatTheOrange (2004-11-28), Sunrise Service at Seneca Creek (2008-03-24), The Meaning of Life (2008-07-24), ...) - ^z - 2008-09-30