Archive for the ‘buddhism’ Category

Calgary Kids

August 20, 2013

Last month I got back from three weeks in Calgary, Canada, where I was invited to teach a daily class on Buddhism to the Burmese kids. Here we are:

2013-07-10 2013-07-10 001 004After each class adults provided snacks, such as popcorn.

The great advantage I have in teaching kids, aside from being a father, is that the kids speak English better than they speak Burmese and are quite acculturated. Although the pressures of modern life allow the parents to spend less time with their kids than their counterparts in the homeland do, they pick up an abiding respect for Buddhism if not much understanding of it. Many of the questions they have about it are very familiar to me as a Westerner, like “Why all the bows?”

A short time before my departure a few of the boys in the class ordained as temporary novice monks and lived at the monastery for a few days.

SAM_4522rightThis is a traditional rite of passage for Burmese boys. I gives them an opportunity to experience what it like to be part of the Sangha, and receive respect (for a change) and offerings (which I guess they already get)  from their lay parents.

Growing the Dhamma: Buddhist Life and Practice

August 17, 2013

The third installment of the serialization of the book Growing the Dharma: Buddhism’s Religious Spadework is the first half of Chapter 2. A couple of commenters have expressed appreciation for serializing it in this way, as we can focus on and discuss each section as a group as we go along. The second half of chapter 2 will discuss more directly the functionality of the morphological system laid out here.

Chapter 2. Functional Elements of
Buddhist Life and Practice

Bo Bo was a typical young man born into a typical Buddhist family in a typical Buddhist land. He was taught even as an impish toddler to revere the Triple Gem, the nutriments of Buddhist practice and understanding. The Buddha for the youthful Bo Bo had exemplified certain values such as selflessness, virtue and serenity and the Dharma had been accessible primarily through a few aphorisms like “Happiness comes only from within” and “generosity creates great merit,” and maybe from hearing some stories of the previous lives of the Buddha. The Sangha of Noble Ones, with whom the had been in almost daily contact provided living examples of what it is to live deeply according to Buddhist principles, and of the joy and wisdom that emerges in such a life. Bo Bo had lived as a part of the Buddhist Community, devoutly supportive of the monks and nuns, and generally practicing generosity and virtue in an uplifting environment. He grew up with a mind bent toward Buddhist values and Buddhist aspirations.

The Buddha once said,

Those who have joyous confidence in the highest, the highest fruit will be theirs.1

Bo Bo noticed that people adopt any of a wide variety of ways of life. He himself for a time thought of marrying his cute neighbor, Yum Yum, and of raising a family, but not quick to make decisions he was reminded by the monks what a problem that soap-operatic life can be. He noticed that the Noble Ones were far more content and full of active goodwill than anyone else in spite of their utterly simple needs. After struggling with life’s vicissitudes for a number of years and contemplating suffering, Bo Bo’s understanding progressed to the point that conventional life makes little sense. Whereas before he thought that he had two options in life, the worldly life and the holy life, he now realized that for him there was only one way ahead: to forsake a personal footprint in favor of the selfless Path that blossoms in Nirvana. And so, Bo Bo joined the monastic order and began to study as the student of one of the neighborhood sages, and from that root began to climb the Path. Eventually he became one of the Noble Ones himself and began to make a big difference in the lives of others. With time and determination his practice would blossom one day into the fruit of arahantship.

A Functional Sketch of Buddhism.

Buddhism is like a flower, a system of integrated inter-functioning parts each of which helps sustain the whole. I choose a flower for this botanical metaphor rather than a berry bush or asparagus because we are all familiar with the whole plant. Here in a nutshell is how Buddhism in virtually all of its manifestations, early and traditional, maps onto the major parts of the flower:

  • The stem that supports the blossom is the Path, the instructions for practice and understanding, expressed in early Buddhism as the Noble Eightfold Path, and leading to Nirvana.
  • The leaves and roots are the the Buddhist Community. The roots are specifically the Monastic Sangha (Pali, bhikkhu-sagha), the order of ordained monks and nuns, actually a special role within the Community. The leaves and roots collect nourishment of sun, water and soil in order that the flower thrive.
  • The blossom of the flower is Nirvana.
  • The sun, water and soil that nourish the flower are the Triple Gem, respectively the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. They inspire and bend the mind toward wholesome development.

BuddhaFlowerNow, here is the same thing at a finer level detail:

Blossom. This is Nirvana (Pali, nibbāna), the highest attainment of human character, liberation from suffering, liberation from the taints, perfect wisdom, virtue, Enlightenment, Awakening, transcendence of the round of rebirths. Notice that most religions seem to have the goal of liberation or salvation, often pertaining to a life beyond this one. Nirvana therefore, simply by virtue of this, has an aspect of religiosity, though other religions would each understand salvation quite differently. The transcendent nature of Nirvana will be the subject of Chapter Four.

Stem. This is the Path (Pali, magga) of individual practice and understanding that leads to Nirvana. This is the most uniquely Buddhist part, and therefore, simply by virtue of this, the most distinct from religiosity. The underlying principle behind practice is loosening the entangling bonds of personal neediness, aversion and views. All the strands of the stem work together and, when taken up with conviction, energy and a sense of urgency, guarantee selfless progress. There is hardly anything like this in its practicality and sophistication in non-Buddhist religious spheres. Since this is the part of the flower that has the least to do with common religiosity it will be the one I write about the least, even though it is the part the Buddha spoke of the most. So I will summarize it here in sufficient detail while I have the chance.

One useful summary, called a gradual path, presents elements of the Path in the order in which each should be initially pursued:2



The heavens,3

The drawbacks, degradation and corruption of sensual passions,

The rewards of renunciation.

Then when the mind is ready, malleable, free from hindrances, elated and bright, the following should be taken up:

The Four Noble Truths.

The Fourth Noble Truth is the Eightfold Noble Path, the Path proper:

Wisdom Section:

Right View,

Right Resolve,

Virtue Section:

Right Speech,

Right Action,

Right Livelihood,

Samadhi Section:

Right Effort,

Right Mindfulness,

Right Samadhi.

If the Path is the Buddha-Dharma proper, the main focus of the Buddha’s teaching and what the individual of high aspiration devotes himself to fully, it nonetheless exists in some context; everything has a context. The individual’s motivation and trust is a prerequisite for entering the Path, certain social conditions give rise to the individual’s motivation and trust, and provide the resources in time and training to enable the individual to pursue the Path. How many of these nested contexts should be subsumed in the Buddha-Dharma as well? This is rather easily answered: Whatever the Buddha thought important enough to address.

Leaves and roots. This is the Community (Pali, parisā), including the life and activities of the community, which also tends to be the locus of religiosity. The Community was from the beginning divided into parts, lay and monastic, with clearly defined social roles, but a member of either can begin the long ascent up the stem.

Leaves. This is the Buddhist Community as a whole but its main component is the lay community. The main characteristic of the Buddhist lay community is that it is not explicitly organized nor regulated in any special way, nor under any higher command, but is rather inspired by the Triple Gem toward practice and understanding and toward a particular relationship with nuns and monks.

Roots. This is the Monastic or institutional Sangha, the community of monks and nuns. Its main characteristic is that it is organized in very specific way, inspires the support of the lay community and in this way is able to sustain a rare lifestyle that is most conducive to Buddhist study and practice. It serves to produce Noble Ones, who are the Sangha proper. The particular organization of the Monastic Sangha is a primary teaching of the Buddha, the topic of the massive Vinaya. The Monastic Sangha is an institution in some ways comparable to religious institutions, though the functions of its clergy are in many ways quite distinctive. In particular monks and nuns were not priests, at least in early Buddhism, that is, their role was not to act as an intermediary between the laity and supernatural forces, nor to perform rites and rituals on behalf of the laity.

The Buddha spoke in no uncertain terms of the dangers of rites and rituals (Pali, silabbata), even classifying attachment to these as the third of the ten fetters to be abandoned on the Path.4 One should be aware, however that he did not have in mind ritual or conventionalized expressions, which like words are means of communication, and which would encompass many things very familiar to us in the modern world, like shaking hands, unfolding one’s napkin onto one’s lap at a proper dinner or waving goodbye and saying “Ta-ta.” Certainly, as we will see, the Buddha fully endorsed bowing and other physical expressions of reverence. Where the Buddha saw an error is in the attribution of the efficacy of rites and rituals for the purification of one’s karma or future well-being, which can only come through virtuous actions.5 Likewise he did not want the monks and nuns to become priests and forbade such intermediary roles along with astrology, numerology or other means of predicting the future, as well as exhibiting paranormal powers such as levitation in the presence of the laity.6

Although the lay community is not explicitly organized, its behavior plays off that of the Monastic Sangha. We will look at this relationship along with the organization and functions of the Monastic Sangha in more detail in Chapter Five, on community.

Nourishment for the Flower. Refuge is the part of Buddhism that allows the roots and leaves to absorb the nourishment of the sun, water and soil. Devotion in Buddhism focuses on the Triple Gem of the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha. These nourish the entire practice, and in fact, taking Refuge in the Triple Gem generally constitutes the beginning of Buddhist practice, or the point of becoming a Buddhist. Although the devotion of expressing reverence for the Triple Gem gives Buddhism more than anything else its religious flavor, lending it something at least the flavor of worship, it should be noted that, at least in early Buddhism, devotion is not directed toward an otherworldly being or force, but toward things this-worldly: toward a remarkable person, albeit long deceased, toward a set of teachings for and by humans, and toward real people who happen to embody those teachings completely in their own lives.

The Buddha reached an advanced understanding, a level of insight and knowledge that he knew would be very difficult for others to achieve. As a teacher he had to consider the process whereby others can reach that understanding, and recognized that it requires a combination of trust in the teacher(s) and teachings, and direct experience of what these point to. Trust (Pali, saddha) is necessary simply to put aside accumulated faulty notions, mostly cultural in origin, in order to open oneself completely to the light of the Buddha’s insight. Veneration of the Triple Gem is an important psychological element in the development of that necessary trust. It is however nothing whatever like blind faith, but more like the trust a student of science puts into her teachers or a science graduate student puts into the specific paradigm her professor advocates. This is, in other words, a trust that is subject to personal verification as the attainment and understanding of the Buddhist develops and as such it is a trust that is replaced gradually with knowing from experience. Refuge in the Triple Gem will be the topic of Chapter 3.

Devotional aspects of Buddhism would proliferate in perhaps all of the later traditions but particularly in northern lands, as we will see in subsequent chapters. Often it became so pronounced that it recast the objects of devotion, particularly the Buddha himself, into something quite unanticipated.

The sun. This is the Buddha himself. Conviction in his Awakening inspires the Community’s commitment to deeper practice. The Buddha stands an an example to emulate, an admiral friend, vividly present at least in the accounts of his life and in the Dharma-Vinaya, his teachings, and in the deportment and understanding of those among us most shaped by his influence.

Water. This is the Dharma. The teachings of the truth that the Buddha directly experienced and the instructions for perfecting the human character constitute the pure water that flows into every aspect of our Buddhist life and practice, carried by the soil through the roots into leaves and up into the stem, to inform our practice at every level on our way to Nirvana.

Soil. This is the Sangha. This represents the adepts past present and future who have gone far in the practice, perhaps not attaining Nirvana but progressing at least as far as the first stage of Awakening, enough to discern Nirvana and to attain unshakable trust in the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha. The Sangha nourishes the Community through its visible example, its direct experience and its teaching. Now, the Sangha here is properly called the Noble Sangha, or synonymously the Noble Ones, who are much like saints, to distinguish it from the Monastic Sangha, the members of an institution designed to spin off Noble Ones. The roots are buried deep in the soil, the monks and nuns have Noble Sangha between their toes, a soil made rich by the many generations of Noble Ones.

This model of the flower of Buddhism will serve in the remaining chapters to put the elements of religiosity in their proper perspective. The stem, since it is rather unique to Buddhism, has little in common with non-Buddhist religions. If we consider that the Path represents the bulk of the Buddha’s teachings Buddhism thus appears rather secular in nature, but the complete context of the Path frames it in a fringe of religiosity. If on the other hand we consider that the great bulk of Buddhists through the centuries have lived in the leaves and been only incidentally concerned with the complete Path, Buddhism appears decidedly religious with the stem as a special opportunity for intense training.7

One last term has not been mentioned: The life of the flower itself is the Sasana (Pali, sāsana) or the Buddha-Sasana, which often translated into English as “dispensation,” but no one ever knows what “dispensation” means. The Sasana is Buddhism in all of its aspects, including its growth, propagation and perhaps eventual demise, its doctrinal evolution and its application and relevance for real live people and its accretion of religious elements and other elements of folk cultures. The Sasana might be called the living Dharma, for without the Sasana Buddhism would be dead doctrine and dead practices, for none of us would ever have heard of Buddhism nor enjoyed access to its teachings. Sasana is important because we have a debt to Buddhists past, a responsibility to Buddhists future and both to Buddhists current.

1AN 4.34.

2Ud 5.3.

3This can be understood metaphorically as standing for the accrued personal benefits of practice, or karma.

4SN 45.179, 45.180, DN 33.

5For example, see AN 5.175, AN 10.176, Thig 12.1, Sn 2.4 (Mangala Sutta).

6Kevatta Sutta, DN 11.

7The perspectives from the point of view of the teachings and from that of the typical Buddhist are what I will later call Adept Buddhism and Folk Buddhism respectively. Of the two, Folk Buddhism tends to be more recognizably religious.

Growing the Dharma: Introduction

August 10, 2013

This is the second serial installment of my recent ebook draft. I couple of people who posted comments to the first installment see value in focusing on one segment at a time as a readership community.  I encourage critical feedback and comments. I don’t expect what I write to be wildly popular; I wrote it precisely because it runs counter to dominant but improvident trends in Western Buddhism. The complete ebook is here.

Growing the Dharma: Buddhism’s Religious Spadework

Chapter 1. Introduction

Is Buddhism a religion? Of course the answer depends on one’s definition. I see three options:

  1. A religion involves worship of God. This works for the Abrahamic faiths familiar in the West. Clearly Buddhism fails this criterion.

  2. A religion is a way of life. That is, it informs our life choices at the most fundamental level, our ethical standards, our values, our attitudes, our aspirations. Clearly Buddhism satisfies this criterion.

Many suggest Buddhism is not a religion because it is rather a way of life. It seems to me this is exactly what is expected of any religion when embraced fully: it should be a way of life. But let’s go on:

  1. A religion is a matter of family resemblance,1 that is, if it looks like a duck it is.

This last seems at first like a sloppy criterion, but family resemblance underlies the better part of language; firm definitions are the exception, even for scientific terminology. Maybe to determine if Buddhism is a religion we should try for two out of three. This would make the family resemblance criterion the deciding factor.

The degree of this family resemblance, or the elements that indicate this family resemblance, are what I will call religiosity. Surely Buddhism in all of its traditional forms seems to have something of religion about it–for instance, devotional, ritual, liturgical and institutional features, to supplement what I will call Path elements–the somewhat unique and therefore more “secular” doctrinal aspects and program of personal practice. Yet some have argued recently that Buddhist religiosity is rather a product of cultural accretion that began after the Buddha and has little to do with the core message of the Buddha. Indeed, if we take the core message of the Buddha to be the Four Noble Truths, which includes the Noble Eightfold Path of practice, this view has some merit, as these indeed are rather short on elements one would be inclined to call “religious.” For instance, there is in the Noble Eightfold Path

  • No “Right Bowing,”
  • No “Right Robes,” and
  • No “Right Ecclesiastical Governance.”

My response to this will be something of a middle way. The evidence, which will be reviewed here, makes it undeniable that many elements of religiosity were an intrinsic and functional part of the early Buddhist message, albeit carefully circumscribed in many ways. However through cultural adaptation in virtually every tradition the degree of religiosity has grown more prominent, sometimes exceedingly more prominent. On the other hand, this fortified religiosity, I will maintain, seldom obscures the core message of early Buddhism, in spite of appearances.

In this book I will outline the important aspects of religiosity in early and authentic Buddhism and will illustrate its enhancement in a sample of later traditions. I will then turn to the process of cultural adaptation that shaped these historical traditions and its implications for modern Buddhism. Buddhism stands out in the following two ways: First, if it is a religion it is the earliest world religion, succeeded only substantially by Christianity and Islam, which means that it has historically successfully adapted to often radically new cultures. Second, the integrity of the highly sophisticated core teachings of Buddhism has been remarkably well preserved through these cultural adaptations. This combination of resilience and tolerance to adaptation is likely what made Buddhist the first world religion. I will locate the mechanism, as a matter of fact, outside of the Path elements, in the more religious elements.

Which Buddhism?

I count as one of those who see in Buddhism – in spite of all its doctrinal variants, sects, innovations, cultural manifestations and so on ̶ a common core, that is, a set of unifying features that allows us to talk of “Buddhism” in the singular. In fact, it seems to me that a remarkable aspect of Buddhism – in spite of exhibiting much more scriptural variation than most of the other major religions – is that it seems to have much more consistency of purpose and understanding than, say, Christianity. Somehow, transmitted through many centuries, through many traditions and cultures, and in spite of its accrued variety, Buddhism has managed to preserve the integrity of its early functionality throughout the Buddhist world in spite of enormous variation. The essential core preserved in the traditions includes, for instance, a more-or-less common understanding of liberation and of the Path of training toward liberation which focuses on virtue, wisdom and development of mind, and a recognition of greed, hatred and delusion as the primary qualities of mind to be relieved. It also includes placing trust in the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha, a prominent role for the monastic order and particular emphasis on the practices of generosity and virtue.

I realize that many people see in Buddhism exactly the opposite: They find it extremely fragmented, dispersed over an impossible range of doctrinal positions, beliefs, practices and rituals. For instance, any given Buddhist tradition considers itself almost invariably the almost unique heir of Buddhist authenticity. Yet in exploring other lands and other sects it is faced with peculiarity and anomaly in the practices and beliefs of the other laity, the garb of the other monastics, the style of other liturgy, the presence of unfamiliar figures in temple statuary, unfamiliar rites at temple altars, unknown scriptures on temple bookshelves, and hocus pocus all around. For many in the West who first come to Buddhism and survey the entire array of traditions, unbiased by any particular tradition, the variance is even more striking and it is easy to see how they might throw their hands up in despair and perhaps entertain the hope that Baha’i or Sufism is easier to sort out.

I hope to gain in this book a recognition and explanation of the great resilience of Buddhism in retaining the integrity and functionality of its authentic teachings that exists alongside a great tolerance for adaptation and change.

Religiosity in Buddhism

Religiosity seems to be a universal, found throughout the world. Scholars of comparative religion have looked at this in detail, but here are the recurring features that I observe in almost all religions and that contribute to the family resemblance of Buddhism and “religion”:

  • Ritual and ceremony. These are conventionalized actions and activities.
  • Ritual spaces. Certain places and spatial relations are made significant or sacred through ritual or placement at an elevation or naturally central location.
  • Ritual artifacts. A central or prominent altar is common. Sometimes clothing is an indicator of social role in religious activities. Incense, candles, flowers and sacred images are common.
  • Respect, devotion and worship. Certain rituals and gestures are used to express degrees of reverence or respect, either to designated people, to ritual artifacts, to abstractions or to otherworldly beings.
  • Scripture. Texts convey the basic doctrine or mythology of the religion and often go back to the founding of the religion. Scriptures are often regarded as ritual artifacts.
  • Tradition. Many of the rituals, artifacts, scripture and so on are archaic, that is, bespeak of an ancient time to give a sense of embeddedness in a long tradition.
  • Chanting. Typically this is a group activity and involves reciting scripture.
  • Community, and group identity. There is a sense of belonging to a community, often assuming a certain role in a community dynamics and interrelatedness, much like belonging to a family.
  • Common world view or conviction. This is faith in a certain set of doctrines, creeds or values or confidence in an authority.
  • Salvation. The ultimate goal is generally some form of transcendence of this one worldly life.
  • Clergy. There is often a class of professionals who dedicate themselves to understanding and practice of the religion, who generally conduct or lead the rituals and who take care of the community and sometimes enjoy the status of ritual artifacts themselves.
  • Institutions. The community is generally organized according to certain principles and this organization sustains the clergy, owns ritual spaces and objects and provides some degree of governance and authority.

A shorter list of topics I will focus on here is as follows:

  • Devotion.
  • Community.
  • Salvation.

I make no further attempt to define religiosity than to provide this list and its summary. The common statement, “I’m spiritual but not religious,” seems generally intended to sweep aside many of the elements on this list, particularly the more institutional elements. Why this list comes together as something requiring special attention, evoking even alarm, in the Western mind is discussed in a few chapters.

It is worth noting parenthetically that each of these features listed here to as characteristic of religion is nonetheless found also in what would normally be regarded as secular contexts, or at least their close counterparts are. For instance, table manners and proper arrangements of cutlery and plates and glasses in a proper table setting exhibit a large number of these features. Sports events also involve ritual, ritual spaces, worship, chanting, group identity, and typically a sense of tradition. Government functions and places of government exhibit almost every one of these features, by my count, with appropriate substitution of terms, elected officials for clergy, etc. Armies likewise exhibit most, with analogous substitutions, maybe because they need to be equipped to deal with fundamental issues of life and death. Even Academia exhibits a lot of these features. We are, in other words, far from a definitive definition of religion, but this characterization will suffice for our purposes.2

These elements in Buddhism that I collect under religiosity, or under devotion, community and salvation, we will see, have a unique flavor in Buddhism that doubtlessly originated with its founder. In their early manifestation they are functionally very rational, systematic and clearly articulated. The functions they serve are as follows:

  1. They provide methods of practice that help purify and develop the mind in wholesome ways, but that lend themselves to community, casual and even children’s practice.
  2. They provide a social infrastructure in support of off-the-deep-end types of intensive practice and study and for its propagation and transmission to future generations in its full integrity. That is, they support the Buddha-Sasana, lived Buddhism in all of its dimensions, including historical and social.
  3. They provide an attitudinal context that gives rise to individual aspirations to undertake the intensive practice and study that can culminate in Awakening.

To purge these religious elements across the board from one’s understanding is simply to miss the larger context in which the Path of practice is sustained; it is to fail to appreciate the past and to take responsibility for the future. If Buddhists of the past had purged religiosity from Buddhism in this way, had been consistently spiritual but not religious, there would be no baby left for us in the twenty-first century befuddlement to throw out with the bathwater.


My reasons for writing this book are as follows:

  • Buddhist elements of devotion, transcendence and community tend to be poorly comprehended and unappreciated in the West, producing a limited and lopsided system of understanding and practice. I hope this book will contribute to a more well-rounded practice and understanding within a still incipient Western Buddhist movement.
  • Religiosity is deeply implicated the sometimes wild culturally conditioned variations observed among and within the various Buddhist traditions. I hope that by bringing some order to these variations, I hope this book will provide a perspective that will make the Buddhist landscape easier to navigate.
  • The non-Path elements of devotion and community provide the mechanisms that underlie, as I will show, Buddhism’s remarkably tolerance of variation including its capacity for absorbing many elements of local cultures, alongside its amazing resilience with regard to maintain its authentic functions. I hope this book will serve to articulate this important yet rarely recognized aspect of the genius of Buddhism.

I will begin with religiosity in early Buddhist doctrine, drawing on early sources, particularly the Pali discourses and monastic code, to show the functional role of devotion, transcendence and community in early Buddhism. I will make use of a botanical metaphor, in particular its physiological aspect in order to bring out the functional interrelatedness among the various elements of practice and understanding. I will discuss how the religious elements are integrated into an organic whole in clear and rational roles.

I will I then seek to deepen our understanding of these roles progressively as I turn to historical, sociological and personal aspects of these religious elements. Just as we turn from botany to plant genetics in order to understand change and variation through time, we will turn from doctrine to history in order to see how Buddhist traditions have taken on many different forms, particularly embellishing under cultural pressures the religious elements that concern us, yet remarkably preserving for the most part the early physiology. Just as we turn from botany and genetics to hortoculture in order to understand the role of human intervention in the well-being of the plant and in the breeding of domestic variants with desirable features, we will turn from doctrine and history to the sociology of Buddhist communities in order to understand the role of an adept subcommunity in domesticating and maintaining an authentic Adept Buddhism, alongside which a wilder Folk Buddhism inevitably exists. This is the source of Buddhism’s resilience.

Finally, just as the gastronome must make choices among the great varieties of domestic and wild foods at hand in the culinary world, the would-be student and practitioner of Buddhism in the West must find his way among the great variety of Buddhisms, Eastern and Western, spiritual, religious and secular, early and traditional, Theravada and Mahayana, village and forest, folk and adept, in the modern landscape. Having brought the reader from the field almost to the dinner table, I will conclude with tips on navigating the Buddhist buffet counter.

1This term comes from Wittgenstein.

2See Tweed (2006) for a discussion of the many attempts to define religion, and a recent bold attempt at a new one.

Growing the Dharma: Preface

August 4, 2013

Hmmm, the hits to this blog are in sharp decline. This is certainly because I have rarely posted in recent weeks, and in fact intend to do no writing until after vassa (rains retreat). Lest this blog realize final liberation before the rest of us, I have come up with the idea of serializing my ebook, Growing the Dharma. So here begins my serialization in bite-size  perhaps weekly segments. Much of this material has appeared on this blog before, which will lead some loyal long-time readers on a walk down memory lane, though never in such a polished and integrated form as in its present re-embodiment.

Growing the Dharma: Buddhism’s Religious Spadework


I’m spiritual but not religious!”

We’ve all heard this statement, generally along with an off-hand dismissal of “organized religion.”

Westerners often see polarity between the personal and the social. We love the lone individualist, including the spiritual virtuoso who boldly takes the path less traveled. We love it when Buddhism exalts that spiritual virtuoso, the light unto himself, the one who retreats from city or village life to explore in solitude life’s questions, an ideal well represented in the life of Buddha himself, who after much travail shattered the constraints to which the common person is subject. We love these guys but we have trouble reconciling them with temple life, the chanting, the bows, the hierarchy, the postures, the robes.

I wrote this booklet because I have become convinced that we Westerners often have little sense of the relationship between the spiritual and the religious, and that we have been limping along in a kind of disembodied Buddhism as a result. In fact the Buddha was not only a great psychologist but also a great social thinker whose vision of the ideal society resulted in what has become the oldest human institution on the planet.

Our misunderstanding begins with a failure to appreciate just how radically different this lone individual who has broken free is from the rest of us. He has broken through not so much social constraints as his own human nature, bursting the limitations of hundreds of millions of years of evolution that have otherwise produced frightened, greedy, hateful and confused beings, and has instead entered the rationalized and ethicized awareness of the Noble Ones. In our misunderstanding we then fail to appreciate the critical importance of the social context necessary, both to produce the conditions in which Noble Ones might arise, and to carry their civilizing influence into the world at large, a social context born with the Awakening of the Buddha and taught by the Buddha, our great teacher, as the Sasana (roughly, Buddhist movement) that has carried the flame of what he discovered to light one hundred generations of Buddhism.

I wrote this little book in order to develop readers’ appreciation of the reach of the Buddha’s thought, to provide a more complete and organic view of what Buddhism subsumes, to describe the groundwork of Buddhism that is all too commonly dismissed in the West as “just religion” even while it is so intrinsic in the East that it hardly bears mentioning. At the same time I hope to develop tools for critically assessing Buddhist traditions, to see at what point the flames they carry begin to sputter, sometimes choked by the accretion of too much religiosity or by the incursion of many other popular notions.

It took me many years to come to the viewpoints represented in this book. As a Westerner, a former academic, not religiously trained as a child, I came to Buddhism initially in its Western manifestations with a rational secular mindset. The supernatural has never been a draw for me. Alan Watts and Stephen Batchelor were early influences on the Path. My early exposure to Western Soto Zen showed me a ritual world that initially made no sense to me at all.

In the end I was curious and open-minded enough to want to get to the experiential bottom of this ritual world, held my nose and jumped in bodily. I trained in the Suzuki Roshi tradition at the San Francisco Zen Center, lived at its monastery, Tassajara Mountain Center, was a founding member of its offshoot in Austin, Texas, where I subsequently ordained, learned almost all the ritual ins and outs and ceremonies, and came with time to appreciate the roles of these things in a particular form of Buddhist practice. Established as a Zen priest, very much concerned with the future of Buddhism in the West, my curiosity and modest reserve of open-mindedness extended to the many ethnically Asian temples found in Texas, California and elsewhere, which felt to me intriguingly different from Western centers.

Somehow innately interested almost from the beginning in monastic practice I also began studying the Vinaya, the traditional monastic code that goes back to the Buddha and a recognized pillar for Buddhism throughout Asia – except in Japan, in whose tradition I had ordained. I considered ordaining in a Vinaya tradition for many years but still clinging to worldly ways had many doubts about my own capacity for living a celibate life. The deciding straw arose after much study and contemplation with the realization that the Monastic Sangha is, by the Buddha’s design, the lynch pin of the Sasana. The conclusion seemed inescapable to me that without real monks and nuns practicing in the traditional way Buddhism was not going to make it in the West! It never has anywhere else, it will not here.

I resolved to myself, “It’s a clean job, but somebody has got to do it!”

I ordained as a bhikkhu (full monk) in Burma, lived there for over a year and have been living here at a Burmese monastery in Austin, Texas now for a number of years. Living embedded in a devoutly Buddhist Asian culture and one that is decidedly pre-modern, inhabiting a world full of magical forces and tree spirits, has given me an appreciation for Buddhism’s rare ability to blend with elements of folk culture, and yet at the same time retain its full integrity, particularly in the minds and lives of its most adept and respected representatives.

Were this an academic work I would at this point in the Preface thank the various foundations and institutions that have supported me during the process of research and composition. As a monastic that support is constantly there along with the freedom to structure my time and energy as I feel benefits the Sasana. Therefore I would like instead to thank the many donors and supporters of the Sitagu Buddha Vihara in Austin, Texas (USA), and of the Sitagu Dhamma Vihara in Maplewood, Minnesota (USA) and the Calgary Myanmar Temple (Alberta, Canada) and of the monks and nuns who have lived there. Your devotion inspires me. I want to thank Alan Cook and Kitty Johnson for proofreading and Prof. Tom Tweed for commenting on earlier draft and encouraging me to extend and consolidate certain metaphors.

Bhikkhu Cintita Dinsmore
Austin, Texas, USA
July, 2013

Anti-Muslim Monks

July 1, 2013

A lot of people ask me about reports of anti-Muslim violence in Myanmar, since I live at a Burmese monastery and they assume I might have special inside knowledge. With the appearance of a new cover story in Time magazine on this topic, let me say here what I can figure out about this.

As far as I can see the coverage in the Western press has been worse than deplorable, and at the same time violent incidents are real as is anti-Muslim sentiment in much of the Buddhist population of Myanmar. The involvement of Burmese monks is very small, yet it also does exist.

First, it is important to keep in mind that the phrases Buddhist extremist and Buddhist fundamentalist are meaningless in this context. Any expression of hatred for a group of people is simply unBuddhist. The Buddha never endorsed hatred or violence under any circumstances, ever, even in self-defense. He never condemned other faiths. There is simply nothing in Buddhism, even with the most assiduous cherry-picking, that one could be fundamentalist or extreme about and produce a justification for violence. The violence is entirely in spite of Buddhism, not because of it. Still, we are not all perfect Buddhists.

The social roots of the violence are complex. Many Burmese express surprise that the recent violence has erupted, since “Buddhists and Muslims have lived peacefully together for many years,” to quote an ethnic Mon monk I was talking to about this just today. Still I have heard derogatory comments about Muslims among Burmese since before the present violence. There are differences in the value systems of Islam and Buddhism which may are bound to make some people judgmental. For instance, Buddhists are protective of animal life so most butchers in Myanmar are Muslims. Buddhists purchase meat from the butchers, then look down on them for killing the meat.

Most of the violence has centered in Rakhain State directed against Rohingya Muslims who have immigrated from Bangladesh starting under British rule. It is hard to sort out the dynamics of this conflict, but it seems to involve immigration policy and competition for land resources in an already extremely poor population, particularly as more Rohingyas have entered Burma due to flooding in Bangladesh. It does not help that there are reports of oppression against the Buddhist minority on the Bangladeshi side of the border. Myanmar was marked by ethnic violence primarily as minorities have taken up arms against a brutal regime. Myanmar is also in a period of transition toward a more open society after years of brutal military rule. Many countries that have experienced such a transition seem to experience an abrupt bubbling up of long suppressed tensions. Yugoslavia is an example from the 90′s. In Rakhain State we find violence on both sides, generally following an old pattern of tit-for-tat, exaggerated by rumor, escalating until the majority party does something extreme.

The Western press has tended simply to ignore the social causes and attribute violence directly to Buddhist hatred of Muslims. I see this in story after story. When monks are brought into the stories it is almost always as instigators of violence. When the government is brought into the stories it is almost always as an indifferent or biased party. Rarely covered are the efforts of monks and the government to mitigate the violence or to protect the Muslim population from violence. This is more than inaccurate reporting; it contributes directly to the ignorance and rumors that lead to further violence, implicating the press itself in the violence in the next-to-worst way.

Of course any contribution of monks to hatred or violence is particularly disturbing, to Buddhists around the world, and to me personally as a monk ordained in the Burmese tradition. I know many Burmese monks, a few of which have sometimes to my alarm expressed anti-Muslim sentiments. However I have never heard one endorse violence in any way; consistently they deplore the violence, and many deplore anti-Muslim sentiment as well.

The Western press focuses repeatedly on this same monk, Ashin Wirathu, who appears on the new cover of Time magazine as the “face of Buddhist terror.” However I have never found in the Western stories anywhere where Ashin Wirathu has directly advocated violence against Muslims (let me know if you know of such a quote), rather his agenda seems to be a peaceful economic boycott against Muslim businesses. His rhetoric is clearly hateful, and he is reported for reasons I cannot make any logical sense of to call himself a Buddhist Osama bin Laden. But I don’t think this qualifies as terrorism. Incidentally, if a monk advocates an act of killing and thereby causes someone else to carry out that act, that monk has thereby just disrobed, according to the ancient monastic code. Ashin Wirathu certainly knows this.

I would like to highlight my own preceptor, Sitagu Sayadaw, as a more moderate, typical and influential monastic voice in Myanmar than Ashin Wirathu.  I have never seen Sitagu Sayadaw mentioned in the Western press with regard to this issue in spite of his eminence. The following are links to a press release that he issued concerning the violence, in somewhat imperfect English, and a story from the South China Morning Post in which he is quoted at the end of a story that gives voice to other sensible monks as well.

Communal Violence Condemned by Sitagu Sayadaw

Myanmar Monks Say Most Oppose Anti-Muslim Campaign

As Buddhists our primary task is the perfection of human character. We become mindful of every intention and seek to address any tendency toward greed, hatred or delusion. Except for the rare arahant, we fall short of the aspiration, but we keep trying in a very complex and ensnarling world. Part of this task is the perfection of kindness, at which point it shines on all without bias, even on those who might wish us harm.

Buddhist Religiosity, hot off the press

June 16, 2013

Cover334x477 I have completed a substantially good draft of the book I have been working on:

Foundations of Buddhist Religiosity:
Devotion, Community and Salvation and their Historical and Social Manifestations into the Twenty-First Century.

Please click on the cover to the left to download your own pdf (106 pages). I invite feedback.

I apologize for not posting to the blog in a while; I have been in another kind of writing mode.

The Buddhist Child and the Sangha

April 25, 2013

Uposatha Day, Full Moon, April 24, 2013

Traditionally Monastics have played a great and pervasive role in the way Buddhist kids are exposed to Buddhism. Of the three Gems the Sangha is the only that is a living breathing presence. The Sangha exemplifies and teaches and at the same time becomes an object of veneration, generosity and affection for the little Buddhist.

Most immediately the Sangha provides a constant breathing example of what it is to live a Buddhist life. They are walking science experiments, demonstrating with every word and gesture what happens when one lets go, when one renounces everything that common sense says is necessary for felicity, for fun, for fulfillment: they end up being the most joyfully contented people in the village! The Noble Ones serve as a reality check for folk people as they make life’s decisions, and a subversively civilizing influence on the whole community.

The wholesome practice of veneration extends particularly easily to the living Gem and dovetails with the project of satisfying their material needs, which becomes an expression of both veneration and affection. The needs of the monastics are modest but constant, and in fact, according to the Buddha’s regulations, somewhat artificially constant. This puts the devout layperson right at the center of the wholesome practice of generosity (dana), which becomes the lifeblood of the Buddhist community, producing an economy of gifts. The monastics are not allowed to participate in the exchange economy in any case, are sustained entirely from gifts and are at liberty to give immaterial gifts freely. The early communal life centered around the monastics, and later around the monasteries as they commonly become at the same time community centers for the laity.

Through their support of the Sangha as well as the rest of the Buddhist community folk Buddhists develop the joyful feeling of doing their share, of participating fully in bringing the civilizing influence of the Noble Ones into the community and in upholding the sasana to preserve Buddhism in its pristine purity for future generations. The relationship between the Sangha and lay community is one of complementary roles in partnership. The Sangha upholds the teachings, produces the adapts and thereby serves the community.  The Noble Ones are the soil that provides not only the nourishment of water and mineral but ensures that the entire practice, roots, leaves, stem and blossom, will not be carried away by the wind in the years to come. The community supports the Sangha’s material needs. Generosity on both sides binds the two together.

It is important to recognize that there is little here in the way of hierarchy. What authority the Sangha holds arises from its own attainments and is conveyed as wisdom or knowledge and conduct. The Sangha has no coercive power beyond  the layperson’s willingness to accept advice or admonition or to view the monastic as a role model. The laity actually has authority over the Sangha that carries more coercive power: Dissatisfaction with the monastic Sangha can turn into withdrawal of support, a constant external check on the integrity of the institutional Sangha.

Because generosity is such a joyful condition, monasteries are very happy places in which kids can learn this fundamental Buddhist value, along with selfless veneration. It encourages community involvement, requires no sophisticated knowledge of Dharma and provides a wholesome environment into which to bring the kids. It also opens into an opportunity to rub shoulders with Noble Ones, benefit from their wisdom and advice and begin to learn and practice the Path to Awakening. The Buddhist community provides an oasis of sanity in a world otherwise  perpetually spinning crazily out of kilter, out of control.

Lest my promotion of the Sangha be seen as impure horn-tooting mention that it comes not from representing that Gem but the other way around. In fact I considered ordaining in a Vinaya tradition for many years because my practice leaned me in that way. My name, “Cintita,” which means “good thinker,” was given to me because I thought about this very matter for so long. However, clinging to worldly ways I suffered from many doubts about my own capacity for living a celibate life or for representing the Sangha well. The deciding straw arose after much study and contemplation with the realization that the monastic sangha is, by the Buddha’s design, the lynchpin of the Sasana. This meant that without real monks and nuns practicing in the traditional way Buddhism was not going to make it in the West. It never has anywhere else. And so I resolved to myself, “It’s a clean job, but somebody has got to do it,” and finally ordained.

Now, we have a dilemma: How do we teach a child to venerate and befriend the Sangha, to learn from its way of life and from its teachings, when there is no Sangha at hand? I have a few suggestions:

1. The Sangha is in America, for one, hardly anywhere very far away. However it is mostly in culturally Asian temples. Visit some! Both language and culture may be challenges, but will make it a great experience for kids, like traveling the world with them in tow. Do not be alarmed if what passes for Buddhism does not look familiar; this is folk Buddhism, and will differ from Western folk Buddhism (seem my writings about folk Buddhism). The nuns or monks will almost certainly know a more sophisticated Buddhism, …  but might not speak English. Make contacts, see how it goes. You will learn a lot yourself.

2. Just as kids learn from the life of the Buddha, they can learn from the lives of monks and nuns. The Dalai Lama is a monk and movies have even been made about him. I played Kundun for a group of Burmese-American kids; there were fascinated by it. Zen about Dogen Zenji, or Spring, Summer, Autumn Winter about a fictional monk might also work.

3. Try to find Western monasteries and develop a long-distance relationship with one. Arrange so that your child can make a regular financial contribution; the amount is no issue. Make a project out of it, explain to your child what the money might be used for. Then make an occasional trip to the monastery, offer a meal or find an occasion where people make robe offerings to the monks. Do not be afraid to ask someone about etiquette. Generally there will be times when you can “pay respects” to a nun or monk and meet privately. Ask your child to formulate a question.

Most Western monasteries are not as generously supported as Asian monasteries since support of monks and nuns is not yet integral to our culture. However their needs are very modest; they don’t own boats, nor are they running a bar tab, nor are they trying to put a child through college. I would particularly recommend (all other things being equal) finding a nuns’ monastery to support at a distance. Generally nuns have a harder time of it than monks, not so much in the Far Eastern traditions as in the Tibetan and Theravadin. The unfortunate reason is that in some Asian lands monks are more readily supported than nuns and the Asian monasteries in the West on average more readily absorb Western monks than Western nuns. Certainly if you hear of a monk or nun without monastery affiliation, sometimes living in an apartment or house trailer someone has provided, seek them out and offer to help, even if just a little. The success of the monastic Sangha in the West will depend as much on lay support of monastics as it will depend monastic aspirations taking root in laity.

4. If you happen to live near Austin, Texas, you are in luck. There are two Western monks and many culturally Asian monasteries, including the two we live at. Come visit. Otherwise if you have trouble googling up a monastery near you let me know and I’ll give it a try.

5. Look at the comments below for other people’s ideas and experiences!

The Buddhist Child Bows to the Buddha and to the Sangha

April 17, 2013

Uposatha Day, First Quarter Moon, April 18, 2013

A handicap in being a Westerner or a child of the European Enlightenment is that it makes bowing problematic. I learned this first as a personal exemplar of this profile and second as a Buddhist teacher who has felt compelled to teach bowing to other exemplars. Even children beyond a certain age find bowing problematic. And yet anjali, the mudra of joined palms, often embellished with prostrations, was a ubiquitous expression of respect or greeting in Buddha’s India, and was accordingly used to venerate the living Buddha as well as the Sangha, and this practice of veneration, including veneration of images of the Buddha, has continued in all Buddhist lands in which Buddhism has taken root. No culture that I am aware of has chosen either to abandon it nor to substitute for it an indigenous expression, such a wave, a salute, a nod or a hearty hand clasp. Its adoption in Christian prayer speaks of its crossing over some yet to be fully understood ancient connection between two great traditions. Why is the bow so important in Buddhism?

Refuge and veneration are causal factors in attaining wholesome qualities of mine. Bowing and other expressions of veneration powerfully generate personal humility, they deflate the ego, knock it out of its privileged position in the universe by deferring to another. This seems to be a function of veneration or worship in all religions I am aware of, and I presume an essential function of God as an object of veneration in most. Prostration in particular seems also to be a natural embodiment or enactment with deep genetic roots; consider how lesser dogs instinctively make a similar gesture to express submission to our greater furry friends. This practice is an easy and profound antecedent to the gradual weakening, along the Path, of self-view. Expressions of veneration result in calm and the stilling of inflictive emotions as self-centeredness relaxes.

Bowing belongs to ritual conduct, as does shaking hands or wearing a tux to a formal dinner party. Robert Sharf writes, “Ritual habituation inscribes the self with a set of perceptual orientations, affective dispositions, automatic responses that are precognitive.” It begins by enacting these as if in play within an implicit frame of reference that one does not have to believe in or acquiesce to any more than one believes in the grammar of one’s mother tongue. To bow to the Buddha is to enact veneration for the Buddha, to enact veneration of the Buddha is to feel veneration for the Buddha, to feel veneration for the Buddha is to put aside one’s preconceptions and open one’s heart to the teachings of the Buddha. To do this is to align with the Buddha’s path. Any culture involves many such implicit frames of reference; consider how we carve out personal space, for instance: in the West a couple of square feet in front of you as you sit at a table is understood as “your space,” such that if someone puts something into that space it counts as “yours.” Most Asians make no such assumptions. Bowing invokes a frame of reference little known in the West; we must learn it.

In Burma children learn to bow before they can talk. They learn to bow to five kinds of people: to the Buddha (actually a representation thereof), to the Sangha, to parents, to teachers and to the elderly. Imagine the benefit of learning veneration for teachers! This is not a difficult practice if learned in a Buddhist temple environment in which bows and other ritual expressions of veneration are observed. It is a practice even easier and more pleasurable for kids than adults who have not learned its intricacies from childhood. The adult generally has the greater ego to complain. Either benefits enormously from the practice of bowing; one might even venture to state that Buddhist practice begins with bowing.

Let me recount my own personal experience, very much as a rationalized adult, in ritual expressions of veneration some fifteen years ago, from Through the Looking Glass:

My corporate job allowed me a certain amount of vacation time each year and I began to spend it all in sesshin [Zen meditation retreat], which meant a couple of long sesshins each year. The next spring I want to Green Gulch Farm above the ocean in Marin County, to sit a sesshin led by Rev. Norman Fischer. This was far more elaborate in form than anything I thought was possible. In fact I would suffer cultural shock for the next seven days.

Shortly after arrival, before the start of the sesshin in the evening, newbies were instructed in the fine art of oryoki. This involves a ritual process of receiving and eating meals, and of cleaning one’s bowls and utensils, all in the zendo, seated in meditation position. … This is not all: There were precise ways to enter the zendo (for instance, leading with the right foot, not with the left), to hold the hands as we walked, to bow toward those seated in our row then to those in the remaining rows, taking care to turn clockwise, then to sit backwards on our zafus and spin around to face the wall. For lecture we continued to sit cross-legged, not to raise our knees to our chins if we could stand it. I longed for the days when just not throwing spitballs nor passing messages got my by.

Service was a complex affair with many bows, led by Fischer Roshi, who offered incense initially with the help of an attendant and who also at precise points in the chants would make additional bows or approach the alter to offer additional incense. We, in the meantime, held our chant books in a certain way and were to chant with energy. Behavior outside the zendo was also similarly regulated. We did not break silence but bowed upon encountering each other, we could make ourselves tea, but had to sit while we drank it, and so on.

Of the minority with no robes,  I seemed to be the lone person in the sesshin who had not known to wear black or highly subdued colors. I wore things like green or blue., thankfully not yellow or orange Fortunately I was later relieved to see that, digging deeper into their suitcases during the week in search of a change of clothing, other participants came up with increasingly brighter colors eventually to rival or surpass my own.

This was all amazing to me. Why would people do all this? This was not at all like the Zen described, promised, so vividly and accurately by Alan Watts, not like real Zen. It wasn’t even cool and it entailed a lot of bother and stress. And this was on top of the agonizing pains in my knees and back from the unaccustomed long hours of sitting for seven days. I was already suffering from Zendo Stress Disorder.

In contemplating the challenge to my cultural sensibilities and natural inclination toward the casual, during the subsequent weeks I came up not so much with a resolution as with a way of arriving at one. The easiest response to my discomfort would have been,

“Balderdash! Ritual forms are nonsense, they are a perversion of real Buddhism, of real Zen, or … or else a cultural artifact of the East Asian cultures in which these ritual forms arose that are of little relevance in the critical-thinking West. Ha!”

With this response in hand I would have been free to seek out retreat centers that loosened up on this nonsense. I did not know at the time of the ubiquitousness of such Buddhist meditation centers, largely to satisfy the demands of the thriving “balderdash” community. But the “balderdash” response was not good enough: How would I know that the response is correct?
In what for me was an almost unprecedented display of good judgment, of smarts and wisdom, I chose the opposite response: I accepted as a working assumption that there is a purpose for all of these ritual forms and related nonsense that I simply had yet to fathom. How could something persist generation after generation with no purpose? Furthermore the only reasons I could think of not to participate in the ritual forms all had to do with ego, pride and self-image, things I knew I was supposed to let go of in any case. For these reasons I make the decision to begin sitting every week with … Flint Spark’s group at the Clear Spring Zendo, the group infamous for its bows and ritual forms that until then had inhibited my participation.

I did not yet know it, but this is the moment when I fully aligned myself with Buddhism, the moment when I acquired Buddhist “faith” and in return relinquished the arrogant assumption that I already knew what I was doing. I had already learned in my career as a scientist that there was little danger in such a leap of faith as long as one did not thereby relinquish wisdom and discernment as well. I had given myself over to Generative Grammar on a similar basis as a linguistics student, and in fact came eventually around to rejecting it rather soundly, yet in the meantime developed quickly into a scholar. If the ritual and bowing thing did not work out, I would simply give it up and be all the wiser for it. What I did now was to establish a general policy to accept with a degree of wholeheartedness whatever I was taught by respected Buddhist teachers or texts, at least until I got to the bottom of it in my own experience. This policy would serve me well in the years to come and sustain an explorer’s sense of curiosity throughout my career of training.

The reader might well be wondering, How did the leap of faith thing work out, especially all the bows? Reb Anderson once wrote,

By giving up our habitual personal styles of deportment and bringing our body, speech, and thought into accord with traditional forms and ceremonies, we merge in realization with buddha. We renounce our habit body and manifest the true dharma body.

A short time ago this would have been incomprehensible to me; now it made perfect sense.
I discovered that learning ritual forms had gone through stages.

The first was awkward. There was uncertainty whether I was doing a bow correctly or holding the incense properly. My self, Little Johnny, was manifestly embarrassed and hoping nobody was looking.

The second was smooth. I knew exactly how to do the bow, where to offer incense, when to ring the bell, how to walk, to hold the chant book, to open the oryoki bowls. Little Johnny was manifestly proud and hoping everybody was looking. (They were of course too busy being either embarrassed or proud themselves.)

The third stage was clear and serene. I knew to care for the form, to bring body and mind fully into accord. The last hint of Little Johnny dropped away, along with his agenda, along with his perpetual “what’s in it for me,” along with his resistance and anxiety on the one hand and with his pride on the other. For at least the moment I could experience what liberation must be like, complete perfect release from all the little self’s baggage. At that moment  a hammer struck emptiness, there was no actor, there was only the form and the awareness of body and mind following along. The form was doing me.

I had discovered a crucial Dharma gate that I had a short time been ready to dismiss on the basis of unexamined tacit assumptions.

The Buddhist Child and the Triple Gem

April 10, 2013

Uposatha Day, New Moon, April 10, 2013

Last week I brought up the topic of Buddhism for children. What do we teach them and how do we do it? I am glad that so many posted comments, which I take as indicative of the importance of this topic in many people’s lives. I proposed that we look at the following progression of practices or contemplations (I renamed a couple of them for clarity):

Refuge in the Triple Gem.
Development of generosity.
Development of virtue.
The higher prospects.
The drawbacks of samsara.
The rewards of renunciation.
The Four Noble Truths.
Right View, Right Resolve.
Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood.
Right Effort, Right Mindfulness,Right Samadhi.

Today I want to take up Refuge in the Triple Gem. This topic began with my ongoing project of writing about Buddhist religiosity. I discuss the Triple Gem HERE. One’s task as a parent is to instill awe in the little ones for that which is truly awesome.

Trust in the Triple Gem is essential for bending our minds around the Buddhism, not always an easy project to internalize. Until we understand what it is the Buddha realized, what it is the Buddha taught and what it is the Sangha has upheld for one hundred generations, we cannot be certain where this way of life and Path of practice will lead us. Until we have experienced deeply this way of life and traveled far on this Path of Practice we will not understand what the Buddha understood, taught and entrusted to the Sangha. Therefore, until we have experienced this way of life and traveled far on this path we require trust, ardent trust in the Triple Gem, to nourish our Buddhist aspirations and practice just as sun, water and soil nourish a flower. This is what first turns our heads toward virtue, wisdom and peace.

The Triple Gem is the basis of Buddhist faith or trust as we embark on the path. “Faith” is not a bad word as long as we are clear that his is not blind faith. As we progress we have every opportunity to test it and actually until we verify it for ourselves we have not made it our own. When we take Refuge in the Buddha we see in the enormity of this personality the highest qualities we might choose to emulate. Refuge in the Buddha is nonetheless an act of trust that such a personality is even possible. With our own progress on the Path that we will begin to see how his qualities of mind actually start to begin to commence starting to emerge gradually. Trust is necessary in the beginning until we see for ourselves,
veneration encourages trust, it opens up the heart and mind to the influence of the Buddha.

Children seem to be easily fascinated with the life of the Buddha and telling the Buddha’s story is an traditional way of instilling awe in this personality. There is a range of versions of this life, some very simple and unembellished, others full of magic, earth quakes, heavenly visitors. Kids take it all in, but how much mythology is introduced might be a matter of taste. Make use of modern media! There are a number of movies about the life of the Buddha and documentaries, many of them can be downloaded for free. Of course we all naturally develop reverence for personalities.

Unfortunately in modern culture we find a hard time finding personalities that are worthy of awe; so we worship celebrities. The movie “Little Buddha” actually features a very well-known celebrity actor playing the Buddha, so that might be a sneaky way to divert your kids’ energy in a more wholesome direction. Next week I will write about ritual and bows as traditional physical ways of expressing, and therefore developing, veneration.

Art is also a way to relate to the Buddha. There are many depictions of the Buddha that can be quite inspiring. When I teach Sunday school I print up some pages from the life of the Buddha for the little kids to color.

The Dharma, the teachings of the Buddha, is a bit more abstract for children, though adults who come to Buddhism generally start here. A unique quality of the Dharma is described by the Pali word “ehipassika,” verifiable, literally from “come-and-see-y.”  When the Buddha says “come” he is shouting down to us flatlanders from the mountaintop. To arrive at his vantage point we need to scramble up hills, struggle through brambles and ford rivers. When the Buddha says “see” we need to focus our eyes intently in the right direction to barely make out what the Buddha sees with great clarity of vision. In order to be willing to do any of this we have to establish from the beginning great trust that the Buddha knew what he was talking about. This is Refuge in the Dharma. What else would induce us to make the difficult climb up the mountain? Investigation and personal verification are necessary parts of following the Dhammic Path but they take time and effort before we can say, “I have come and now I see.” Until then trust is essential.

A traditional way to express reverence for the teachings is through chanting, though that might take some getting used to. Any exposure to the teachings is helpful. The Jataka stories, stories of the previous lives of the Buddha, are a media that children enjoy and that are good at conveying Buddhist values and can be used to promote discussion. Also the Dhammapada might work for older kids; it is full of short nuggets.

The Sangha is the living representatives of the Buddhist life. Living, breathing role models are found in every religious tradition, but in Buddhism these become primary objects of veneration and faith. This makes perfect sense since living breathing persons have the most immediate influence on our lives and are most likely to have brought us to Refuge in the Triple Gem in the first place. Unfortunately sometimes we often accord this privilege unknowingly to ruffians, scoundrels and celebrities rather than to admirable friends. In Buddhism the word Sangha is ambiguous: There is an Ariya-Sangha (Noble Community) and a Bhikkhu-Sangha (Monastic Community). The Ariya-Sangha is most worthy; these are people who have made great progress on the path, have reached at least the first level of Awakening. The Bhikkhu-Sangha is like a school that trains people to become Ariyans but actually lets in monks and nuns when they still have little attainment. It is actually the monks and nuns who are readily recognized as a Sangha thought their distinctive attire. As such the Bhikkhu-Sangha not only sustantially includes the Ariya-Sangha, but nuns and monks collectively or individually symbolize it, even if sometimes much as a piece of plaster sitting on a modern altar might symbolize the Buddha.

The Sangha is the easiest Gem to develop a relationship to … if you can find it! This is a big problem in the West, the Sangha (either kind) is pretty meager. However, this relationship is important for a number of reasons. First, the Sangha is a wonderful source of living breathing inspiration and teaching (the Buddha said that hanging out with admirable friends is the entirety of Buddhist practice since it inspires one to the rest). Second, their code of conduct actually defines the structure of the entire Buddhist community.

Next week I will talk about ritual and bows as means to develop awe. The week after that I would like make suggestions about how to find and cultivate connections with Sangha and Buddhist community in your area. In the meantime keep posting comments and questions.

The Buddhist Child in a Nutshell

April 2, 2013

Uposatha Day, Last Quarter Moon, April 3, 2013

threewalnutsLast week I outlined a gradual course of practice beginning with the Refuges and generosity and ending with samadhi, a course that gives a much broader and well-rounded perspective on practice than we are generally used to in the west, but most of which is much more familiar in Asia, and in any case comes directly from the horse’s mouth. After my post appeared an astute parent recognized the implications this course might have for Buddhist education for children and emailed asking if I might post something about teaching Buddhism to children. I would like to begin this topic herewith.

First I should mention an unsettling aspect of most of Western Buddhism: We don’t know how to involve our kids! Western centers are notoriously child-unfriendly. This should be astonishing because Buddhism over the last 100 generations has always involved children, ever since Rahula, the Buddha’s son, became a novice monk at age 7. How hard can it be to get a handle on this?

Sometimes it is a matter of attitude. I have heard some Buddhist parents say that their intention is to let their kids grow up so that then they can make up their own minds whether to become Buddhists or not. Personally this viewpoint puzzles me; it seems presuppose that we are each endowed with a degree of rationality and free-thinking that can be preserved in a pristine state through childhood and then let loose on the world. A free thought is in fact a rare thing; I am not sure I’ve had one for weeks. The success of the marketing industry makes clear how impressionable each of us is, suckers and chumps from toddlerhood  for the most irrational of influences.

The best any father or mother could wish for her or his child is that he or she be exposed to the healthiest, most wholesome influences possible, those that are maximally conducive to the development of personal happiness, of kindness and compassion toward others, and of wisdom all around. We as initially non-Buddhist adults are generally drawn to Buddhism because we recognize that it has exactly these qualities, and then we find we must persevere against our own upbringings to realize these qualities in ourselves. Our children are already such  easy marks for the many offensive influences running through our society that there is a certain urgency about making the values, world view and wisdom of the Buddha an integral part of their upbringing.

CoreFlowerI think this puzzling aspect of Western Buddhism arises from a far too narrow focus in our practice and understanding of Buddhism. This narrow focus not only shuts our children out of participation but inhibits our own development as well-rounded Buddhists as well. The realization of this is my reason for writing the series/ebooklet on “Buddhist Religiosity,” to try to instill a richer, more complete and holistic sense of what Buddhism is … without sacrificing a smidgen of rationality, free thinking or wisdom in the process. As I have described in this series, well rounded Buddhism is like a flower, while much of Western Buddhism is like the stem of a flower, or maybe just the upper third of the stem. The stem, the Path proper, culminating in meditation practice, is the most intense practice and tends not to be a draw for children. The rest is fun and more interpersonal, and provides a strong support for the more intense practice also for adults.

I propose that I go through the gradual path to discuss how each point in turn can be developed in the young, and even in adults. Recall that the steps are as follows:

Refuge in the Triple Gem.

Development of generosity.

Development of virtue.

MeditatorFlowerThe heavens, that is, an understanding of the transcendent dimension of our life and practice.

The drawbacks, degradation and corruption of sensual passions, that is, an understanding of the downside of samsara, the soap-operatic quality of conventional life.

The rewards of renunciation.

At this point the mind is already “ready, malleable, free from hindrances, elated and bright,” but we might continue with what Western Buddhists are most likely familiar with:

The Four Noble Truths.

Right View, Right Resolve.

Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood.

Right Effort, Right Mindfulness,Right Samadhi.

Next week I will write about children might develop awe for the awesome, for the Triple Gem, the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sangha. I hope as we go through these points that parents post comments with their own ideas and experiences or confusion in working with these areas. I hope to focus on practical tips.


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