Uposatha Day, Full Moon, Feburary 25, 2013
Chapter 6. Retooling Buddhism
Let’s get historical.
The Buddha gave us a Buddhism that would be subject to and tolerate retooling and embellishment. Perhaps this is why it gained a place as the first world religion as it simply passed peacefully from one land to another. It was subject to revision because it had no central authority to impose orthodoxy, since the integrity of the Dhamma was entrusted independently to each local monastic sangha. It was subject to revision because its Great Standards (mahapadesa) made the Dhamma effectively extensible by defining “the Buddha’s word” inductively to include what makes functional sense in terms of what is already understood. It was subject to revision because the Buddha asked that the texts be preserved in local vernaculars rather than more widely understood lingua francas. In most of the Mahayana lands adaptation has even generally been regarded as a virtue (Williams 2008, p. 3).
Let’s look at some consequences.
A Quite Brief History of Buddhism after Buddha
As Buddhism spread geographically through India and into neighboring lands it began differentiating itself along geographical lines, much as linguistic dialects tend distinguish themselves over time until eventually they become mutually unintelligible yet functionally similar languages. The dialects in this case are the sects (Pali, nikayas) of Buddhism. For instance, the Sarvastivadin Sect apparently developed around Kashmir and much of Northwest India and was active for almost a thousand years. The Dharmageluptaka Sect arise in Gandhara, the Mahasangika in Mathura, the Theravada took hold in Sri Lanka and is active to this day, and so on. Each typically introduced some new elements or interpretations that were characteristic of that sect and distinct from Original Buddhism. Now and then one would commit its heretofore strictly oral Dharma to a written form in one language or another. The Dharmageluptaka scriptures were recorded in Gandhari and Sanskrit (these include the oldest surviving fragments of Buddhist scriptures), the Sarvastivadin in Sanskrit, the Theravadin in Pali and so on.
The sects were pre-Mahayana, what we pejoratively know as Hinayana. But at one point a new literary movement began that would challenge each sect in turn. Starting in the first century BCE or the first century CE and continuing for a few centuries thereafter there were monks who undertook the composition of texts most often based on the model of the early discourses but longer and more colorful. Examples were the apocryphal Prajnaparamita Sutras, Lotus Sutra, Flower Ornament Sutra and so on. These generally developed common doctrinal themes that characterized this movement, but for the most part at least somewhat anticipated in the early suttas or in the early sects. This was the beginning of the Mahayana.
The Mahayana movement did not constitute a new sect, but rather spread quietly out over the foundations of the existing sects, much like a dance craze that readily jumps over national borders. For instance, within a Sarvastivada or Theravada monastery some monks would become fond of this new craze and others would not. But this was a craze that was here to stay. Gradually some devotees began to self-identify as Mahayanists though an institutional identity (for instance, supporters of Mahayana monasteries) would not exist until about the Fourth Century CE (Schopen). The Mahayana movement concerned doctrine and literary expression, but not Vinaya, and therefore caused no change in monastic discipline nor stress in monastic sanghas, although the incipient movement seems to have been nipped in the bud in Sri Lanka through interference by King Voharikatissa in the early Third Century.
As if the Mahayana craze were not enough, the first millennium CE in northern India seems to have been an era of very liberal thinking, of free Buddhist inquiry, the era of the great scholar-monks, Nagarjuna, Shantideva, Vasubandu, and so on, and the era of the great Buddhist monastic universities where they lived, like Nalanda, which brought students and teachers together in one place to discuss and debate the whole spectrum of Buddhist thought both orthodox and modern. I picture this situation as much like what developed much later in the Western post-Enlightenment intellectual milieu. Sanskrit became the common language of Buddhism in northern India providing wider dissemination of ideas. Meanwhile the southern lands of Sri Lanka and adjacent areas of Southern India, somewhat removed from this rich intellectual world of Northern India geographically and linguistically, were less influenced by it.
In the meantime, Buddhism was spreading. Its dissemination was first given a huge boost through the very early missionary zeal of Emperor Asoka a couple of centuries after the Buddha, who sent missions as far as the Mediterranean. In the early part of the first millennium CE Buddhism spread westward across what is now northern Pakistan and Afghanistan into Persia and Central Asia, southward and eastward through Southwest Asia and island hopping as far as Java. From Central Asia it spread eastward and westward along the Silk Road. What would become historically its most significant arm extended eastward along the Silk Road into China beginning in the First Century CE, where Buddhism would gain the bulk of its population, particularly as Buddhism eventually waned in India, in the Western regions and in Indonesia and Malaysia, where it was largely supplanted by Islam. Not until the Eighth Century did Buddhism become firmly established in Tibet through Kashmir, where Buddhism had come under the influence of Tantric Hinduism.
If the Mahayana is the first great innovative movement in Buddhism, Buddhism’s success in China would be the second, for there Buddhism entered a radically remakingly different culture. With much colder weather, clothing and housing, basic requisites of monks, would have to be more substantial. The religious life was largely based in Confucianism and Taoism, the former with a very strong ethical code governing every aspect of life from the behavior of the emperor to familial relations. The family was valued highly and there was no previous tradition of wandering mendicants. China enjoyed a rich intellectual life and was highly literate. The Chinese way of thinking has been called syncretic where Indian is analytic. The emperors were divine. There was much social mobility; a farmer’s son could through passing government examinations become employed in the government system and eventually be promoted to be a minister to the emperor. China was culturally about as far from India as possible.
China seems to have become heir to much that was going on or was available in Northern India in the First Millennium CE, though the Chinese took a particular interest in the Mahayana teachings and much of the philosophical thought that was continuing to come out of the Indian universities. In spite of the tenuous communication between India and China, Chinese Buddhists were anxious to gain access to Buddhist texts, dispatching a series of pilgrims to make the perilous journey over the Silk Road back into India to learn Indian languages, acquire texts and have a look around. In China major translation projects were set up to make these texts accessible, often headed by Indian or Central Asian scholar-monks who had ventured into Chinese territory. From China a Sinicized Buddhism would penetrate the remaining chopstick-wielding world: Korea, Japan and Vietnam.
As Buddhism spread in this way it came under different pressures in different places that tended to bend and reshape Buddhism in various ways. Among these pressures are cultural taboos, different culturally conditioned ways of conceptualizing the content of Buddhism and the blending of indigenous folk religions or folk beliefs into Buddhism. Also important in this regard is the way in which seemingly universal religious proclivities, for instance, toward worship, toward the need for for consolation and toward supernatural embellishment would (re-)asserted themselves in Buddhism.
The Evolution of the Buddha Gem
Undoubtedly the most profound revisions in Buddhist thought as early Buddhism receded into history was in the understanding of and attitudes toward the Buddha Gem. These would become quite embellished and elaborate in much of Asia and would trigger further doctrinal changes.
Notably the Buddha recommended during his life veneration of the Buddha through conventional cultural means of respect, through recitation of the qualities of the Buddha, through future pilgrimage to four sites associated with his life through the distribution of his relics among various lay communities for future veneration. The Buddha recognized that he has attained rare qualities and put himself forward as someone to emulate, not as a deity or a messenger of God, but as an Awakened human. In India people do rather casually attribute divinity to that which is venerated, to brahmins, to famous ascetics, to cows, sometimes to trees and to the fires in people’s hearths (Williams, p.174), so it would have been inevitable that an Awakened human would also be accorded this honor. Similarly he would have been accorded supernatural powers, in fact mentioned in the early discourses, like being able to jump up and touch the sun (people in ancient India, not possessed of a modern understanding of what this would entail, seem to have thought this would be fun).
It was mentioned earlier that anjali, 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. Because the practice of veneration continued in all Buddhist lands, anjali has was carried into every land in which Buddhism took root. No culture that I am aware of has chosen 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 some yet unrecognized ancient connection between these two great traditions. I note in passing that wherever an archaic cultural artifact is crucial in Core Buddhism it seems almost always to be retained in any new cultures even in which this artifact is foreign. I speculate that this conservatism results from the lack of central authority in Buddhism, needed to institute a swap with an indigenous form.
An early enhancement of the Buddha Gem concerns the burial mounds, stupas, used to inter the Buddha’s relics after his death. These became a primary representation of the Buddha and objects of veneration in the first centuries, a practiced encouraged by Emperor Ashoka when he redistributed the original relics to thousands of locations throughout his empire. Stupas were constructed of increasingly imposing design and size, sometimes even by embedding an older stupa within an newer, to produce the cetiyas of Southern Asia and the pagodas of Eastern. Along with the proliferation of stupas came an endorsed means of increasing the availability of relics through creating replicas that “count as” genuine relics of the Buddha, and of supplementing these with relics of conveniently deceased arahants.
Starting in the 1st century BCE, statuary representations of the Buddha gave a more personal and portable object toward which to direct one’s veneration for the First Gem. A practice of veneration that became widespread throughout Asia is to make offerings to the Buddha statue of light, water, incense, flowers and/or food, then bowing to the statue, a practice that ruffled early European explorers who saw in it worship of graven images pure and simple. A further step in the long process of elaboration was reached in the actually attribution of miraculous properties to the Buddha statue, to the stupa/pagoda or to relics. It is common among Burmese Buddhists today, for instance, to attribute such properties to the “power of the Buddha” that inheres in such an object once it is properly consecrated by monks to “count as” the Buddha.
The Buddha was a man, but it became common to see him as a man with a mission, playing out some transcendent plan. It was said the he was already born with the marks of a great man, such as webbed toes and fingers, and that he was in fact stepping into the footprints of buddhas who preceded him, who realized the same things and who taught the same Dhamma. Jataka stories began appearing in the centuries after the death of the Buddha that traced his previous lives as a bodhisattva, one who has vowed to become a buddha in a future life. The discerning reader will have surmised that regard for the Buddha is moving step by step from veneration toward worship.
The Buddha was a man who awakened on his own, who taught the Dhamma and who founded the Sangha. His Original Awakening was roughly matched by others who attain Awakening, the arahants, at least according to Original Buddhism. However, as these things happen, an alternative view emerged, initially in the Mahasanghika sect, then in the Sarvastivadin sect, and then with a vengeance as a tenet of the Mahayana movement. This was the view that the Buddha is rather a higher being who, much like the later Jesus, had came to earth as a kind of cosmic ruse to instruct mankind in the form of a man. Often we learn from those that hold this view that the Buddha did not really eat or sleep, he pretended to eat and sleep and that he did not really die, that was also pretense: He is still around somewhere watching over us. His attained state of Awakening was accordingly something far and away in excess of that of the mere human arahants.
This does not mean that the cosmic Buddha did not start out much as we, nor that he did not develop over innumerable lifetimes as a bodhisattva with aspirations toward buddhahood to attain his ennobled state. In fact many such current bodhisattvas appear in the Mahayana sutras, generally embodying one particular outstanding character trait or another, Avalokiteshvara of many arms for compassion, Manjushri wielding a sword to cut through delusion for wisdom, Samantabhadra atop his multitusked elephant for noble action, Maitreyya with an appointment to become the next Buddha on earth, and so on. With the Mahayana bodhisattvas the Buddha had companions with which to share altars and pagodas, who sometimes even displaced him in their zeal. In China Avalokiteshvara became Guan Yin, a female figure, and Maitreyya was identified with an historical chubby monk and became the Happy Buddha (-to-be). In Tibet Avalokiteshvara was demythologized into the person of the Dalai Lama returning life after life.
Transcendent thinking did not end there. Many buddhas were envisioned of similar disposition to ours, dispersed over many realms throughout the universe. Once the Shakyamuni Buddha became disassociated from his human embodiment, then it seemed that one buddha could pretty much be swapped with another. In China Shakyamuni Buddha was displaced in Pure Land Buddhism by Amitabha Buddha, resident of an non-earthly realm (the Pure Land) yet making space for those on earth who aspire to join him in their next life.
Meanwhile back on earth, monks were apparently living rightly because the world was not empty of awakened ones. In the Mahayana lands these were often referred to as buddhas in their own right rather than simply as arahants. A number of great teachers became quite exalted and their teachings given scriptural status on the level of those attributed to the Buddha.
The Evolution of the Dhamma Gem
If it seems that the object of the Buddha Gem became historically something of a moving target, this is even more the case for the Dhamma Gem.
In the earliest centuries the Second Gem was preserved orally. Lest the Dhamma be forgotten as the less organized Jains had forgotten theirs in the early years, monastics gave much attention to memorizing texts, distributing the effort communally over many monks or monasteries, each specializing in a certain tract. The Theravadins decided to preserve the texts in Pali, the Indic language in which they had come to Sri Lanka and widely regarded as the original language of the Buddha, rather than in a local vernacular. The Vedas had been preserved for centuries in Sanskrit in this way and in spite of some literacy by the time of the Buddha the degree of attention given in memorization honored the texts and has continued to some degree in many traditions, particularly in the Burmese, in spite of the availability of books.
The communal effort of oral presentation of texts seems to have quite successful, such that the early discourses eventually preserved in Chinese or Tibetan match reasonably well those preserved in Pali. In communal recitations it is more difficult to slip in edits and mistakes than it is in privately transcribing a book, where a slip of the pen can transform “celebrate” to “celibate” for all posterity. If entirely new texts that were purported to be original were added it was often in association with an origin story that clarified why no one seemed to have known about the text earlier.
The dance craze of the Mahayana was preceded by that of the Abhidharma (Pali, Abhidhamma) a mere couple of hundred years after the Buddha, perhaps Abhidharma’s Fox Trot to Mahayana’s Jitterbug. This was not so much a text that gained wide popularity but rather a project that infected various sects of composing, within each sect that was so moved, a highly systematic, philosophical and often speculative analysis of the Buddha’s teachings as represented in the early discourses. Although the very beginnings of the Abhidhamma are very early, scholars place the real effort in each case after the time of Emperor Ashoka. The culmination of the project was inclusion of the result into the respective canon. Although the Theravadin Abhidhamma makes no reference to its own origin, the later commentarial tradition attributes it directly to the Buddha. Disconcertingly there are strong disagreements among the resulting Abhidharmas and some sects refused to participate in the project altogether, including a Sautantrika (Sutta Only) sect that branched off of the Sarvastivada.
The greatest change in the canonical corpi came with the Mahayana movement as new Sutras came on line. Gombrich (1990) suggests that this was facilitated by the circumstance that Buddhist texts were now appearing commonly in hardcopy rather than oral form, which offered opportunities for new or obscure texts to “go viral,” in modern parlance, unfettered by the editorial influence of communal recitation, though “viral” here would describe, given the technology we are referring to, dissemination in a matter of centuries rather than of hours or days.
Although the Mahayana sutras were new, that does not mean they were not authentic. Many of them developed and clarified very sophisticated and subtle Core themes originally introduced by the Buddha, with great skill. Furthermore their mythical bodhisattvas and fantastic imagery provided many with a good read. Although the original discourses of the Buddha were available in Chinese translation, the study of the Mahayana sutras in the land of the chopstick largely eclipsed that of the original discourses.
The variety of the vast scriptural corpus to which the Chinese were heir must have bewildered the early Buddhists, who would have had little notion of what was original and what was apocryphal. Distinct schools formed around favorite sutras. Of the four major schools in China, the foundational scripture of the Hua Yen School was the voluminous Flower Ornament Sutra, that of the T’ien Tai School was the Lotus Sutra, that of the Ching T’u (Pure Land) School was the Amitabha Sutra, and the Ch’an (Japanese, Zen) school couldn’t make up its mind, apparently vacillating initially between the Lankavatara Sutra and the Diamond Sutra, then declaring itself “a transmission beyond words and letters.” The Diamond Sutra incidentally was the first book ever to be mechanically printed.
The Mahayana movement brought with it an enhanced appreciation of many of the elements of we have grouped under religiosity, in particular devotional practices of veneration or worship along with good works and the assimilation of indigenous religious practices, became more highly respected parts of Buddhist life. Some describe this as laicizing Buddhism and the bodhisattva path provided a doctrinal basis for this. It is important not to regard the Mahayana as anti-monastic however. First, the monastic Sangha thrived within Mahayana. Second, scholars agree that the Mahayana movement and the composition of the sutras were probably exclusively the work of monks (see, for instance, Skilton 1990, pp. 96-7; Williams p. 26), though this work may partially have been inspired by elitist attitudes on the part of some monastics. The Ch’an school, ever out of step, more thoroughly emphasized the “monastic” practices of the Path, even naming itself the “Meditation School”: Sanskrit Dyana ‘meditation’ became Chinese Ch’anna, then reduced to Ch’an, which became Zen in Japan.
The negotiation between Core Buddhism and an indigenous culture can assume some creative forms. A noteworthy adaptation in China concerns mindfulness. Mindfulness is a Core practice in Buddhism, in fact it is the seventh factor of the Noble Eightfold Path. The ritualization of everyday activities — there is a proper way to do almost anything — is a core aspect of Confucianism and characteristic of East Asian culture in general. It turns out that the latter is a wonderful resource in support of the former and was refined in China to sharpen the practice of mindfulness in all daily activities. From a Western outsider’s perspective this tastes of religiosity — it is ritualized behavior — but has actually become in this case a practice directly associated with the Path.
Another example: Virtue is a Core practice in Buddhism, in fact occupying three factors of the Noble Eightfold Path. Virtue is a core aspect of Confucianism — there is proper way to behave toward your spouse, toward you children, toward your employees, toward your emperor, and so on. It turns out the the latter, already well established in Chinese culture before the arrival of Buddhism, tended to render the former redundant. But from an outsider’s perspective East Asian Buddhists seemed to neglect teachings on virtue.
The Evolution of Sangha Gem
The monastic Sangha has been a remarkably stable element in Buddhism, a target that has barely moved in spite of the predilections of its sister gems.
A common change however throughout the Buddhist world is the assumption by monastics of priestly functions, roughly mediation with deities or mysterious forces through rites and rituals. It is very common for monastics to offer blessings, spells of protection, or good luck, to dispel ghosts or evil spirits or to work miracles in most traditions, even though the Buddha clearly intended that such things be left to the Brahmin priests. For instance, in the Theravada tradition, which is tamer than most, monastics wield the eleven verses of protection (parittas), each one intended to target a different unfortunate eventuality.
The Buddha himself seems to have opened the door to this a crack to priestly functions, through which a crowd of human demands subsequently forced its way. After a monk once died from a snake bite the Buddha had explained that if he had recited a certain verse expressing kindness toward snakes the snake would not have bitten him. This is the only paritta the Buddha seems to have endorsed in the early scriptures. On another occasion the Buddha sneezed (Vin ii.139) during a discourse. The monks present shouted,
The Buddha’s response should have been,
“Bless you too.”
But instead he asked something like,
“Wait a minute. Do you think that saying that will determine if I live or die?”
The monks replied, “Well, no, actually.”
“Then don’t say it!”
And thereby a new rule circulated that monks were expected to follow. The problem was that lay people began to complain about how rude all the monks had suddenly become, something like,
“I blessed a perfectly good monk who sneezed and he didn’t even bless me back!”
“How rude! The impudent cad”
When this was reported back to the Buddha the Buddha rescinded the rule that he had established.
“Monks, householders need blessings. When someone says, ‘Bless you’, I permit you to say answer with ‘Bless you too’ .”
This little story is indicative of the Buddha’s tolerance and willingness to adapt to common preferences. But give an inch and they take a mile. However blessings still tend to be a rather secondary function throughout most of Asia.
China provided some direct challenges to monastic practice that required adaptations. Monastics in India were home-leavers by definition, yet family and home was at the very center of Chinese social norms. The monastic Sangha seems to have deflected social criticism on this point through the expedient of the ordination lineage, which provided a public analogy between the layperson’s parental relations and the monastic’s relationship his or her preceptor/teacher. With a little fudging and creative imagination family trees all the way back to the Buddha were drafted, spanning far more generations than almost any indigenous Chinese family history. The Sangha, now organized by ordination lineage, became in effect a really big family, such that a new monk or nun not so much left family as switched family. This seemed to appease otherwise bruised Chinese familial sensitivities. Perhaps as a consequence of the emphasis on family lineage, monks seem to have developed closer relationships with their preceptors, traveling less freely from monastery. Teachers began to protect their students from the influence of other teachers, introducing strong sectarianism at a microscopic level.
Furthermore, monastics in India and in the Vinaya lived on alms, yet beggars in China were pariahs. As a result, it seems, monks and nuns became more self-sufficient, relying more on large donations than on small daily alms, often in the form of land grants through which monasteries could earn wealth through renting land to farmers. Often monastics became farmers themselves, forcing modifications of the otherwise cumbersome monastic robes, or of their abandonment in certain situations in favor of monastically appropriate work clothing. On the other hand, because monastics became more self-sufficient, monastic discipline was actually tightened in others ways: monastics, freer to choose their own diet, stopped eating meat altogether in China, and fifty-eight additional precepts were undertaken in a supplementary ordination, the Bohdisattva Precepts.
The governance of the monastic Sangha in India and in the Vinaya was designed as a consensual democracy operating at the monastery level with relative freedom from outside interference in mind, yet the government in China habitually interfered in the governance of any nongovernmental organization and took them in as part of the authoritarian hierarchy. As monasteries became more integrated into the prevailing hierarchy of authority, seniority within the Sangha became more pronounced and became reflected in the color, design or quality of clothing of senior monks.
The Sangha has remained remarkably archaic right up to the present day. Consider attire for instance. It might make rational sense for modern Buddhist monks to wear uniform modern attire — for instance, saffron-colored suits with sleeves and zippers, maybe little epaulettes with Dhamma wheels — and still retain the function of distinguish monastics from laity or from the clergy of other faiths, and thus avoid the mortification of being millennia out-of-fashion. Although adaptations to attire occurred in colder climates, the traditional robe was retained everywhere. Again the lack of central authority in the Sangha probably played a role in this conservatism. A small local sangha would be disinclined to make such the change because no one would know what the new uniform meant unless many sanghas made the same change at the same time.
The Sangha has a degree of authority as the holder of the unblemished Dhamma. However in a few instances that role has been assumed by others. There have occasionally appeared outstanding lay teachers, for instance, in recent times Dipa Ma, a laywoman famed as a meditation instructor. In Tibet an academic degree conferred along with the title geshe created a new class of authorities. This degree is traditionally only conferred to monks, but a monk who disrobes continues to hold the degree. Sometime tulkus, reborn lamas, chose not to enter the Sangha yet retain some authority from their previous lives as teachers and monks. In modern times academic degrees carry a degree of authority. So far in the West virtually all Buddhist teachers are non-monastics. I will consider in the final chapter whether in this case the target of Sangha has moved, or whether is has simply all but disappeared.
In Japan through different stages of government interference and changes in the monastic tradition within specific schools, the Sangha has been almost completely replaced by a priesthood, a non-renunciate clergy largely occupied with rites and rituals. This process of deviation, established initially in the Jodo Shinshu many centuries ago, accelerated in the remaining schools over the Twentieth Century, even in the once particularly monastically oriented Zen school. This also effected Korea to a limited extent during Japanese colonial rule. Richard Jaffe’s book Neither Monk nor Layman provides a gripping account of this development.
The Evolution of the Goal
Original Buddhism embeds the life of the practitioner into a greater epic story, a path toward personal awakening, becoming an arahant, that spans many lives. Within the Mahayana the storyline changed to a path toward becoming a buddha, an even more exalted state. Entering the path toward buddhahood one becomes a bodhisattva, which is what the Buddha is called in his previous lives as represented in the early Jataka stories. As a bodhisattva ones primary concern is the well-being of others to the extent of working for the Awakening of others as much as for the Awakening of oneself. As a bodhisattva one is not necessarily a monk or nun — most of the previous lives of the Buddha did not involve ordination — but is on the bodhisattva path as long as one holds firm to the aspiration toward buddhahood. This is no way disparages the value of monastics, who have thrived in the Mahayana tradition and were the authors of the Mahayana, but works to dispel notion that as a layperson one is basically sitting this life out as far as progress on the path goes, and to dispel the self-centeredness of those more directed toward the goal of Awakening.
In fact to the extend one develops kindness and compassion one has always been making progress toward Awakening, and to the extend there is self-centeredness in the idea of Awakening one is failing to progress toward Awakening. In other words the bodhisattva path does not differ in practical terms from the path of the arahant, but it does provide a nice way of talking about the Path.
Unity and Integrity in the Traditions
With all of the changes sweeping back and forth through Buddhism — the swapping out of old scriptures and swapping in of new, the expanding levels of devotion to a founder increasingly deified then sometimes displaced, the blending in of folk culture and folk religion, preoccupation with an elaborate mythology, priests running around blessing people — one might expect Buddhism variously to morph into paganism, witchcraft, devil worship, a force in the battle of Good vs. Evil, philosophical speculation or New Age, and certainly not to be capable of uphold the sophisticated and therefore fragile teachings and high standards at the Core of Buddhism. How far has Buddhism bent? Far enough to break?
On investigation the picture emerges of a Buddhism that in spite of this has proven itself remarkably flexible yet resilient, able to absorb the wacky along with the sublime, yet maintain its standards and integrity. Notably each part of the flower of Buddhism has remained intact without loss of its original functionality in almost every tradition. Each of these authentic traditions seems to have provided the support needed to produce Noble Ones, even leading some to full Awakening. Each has retained the Noble Eightfold Path or its equivalent, with its training in Virtue, Cultivation of Mind and penetrating Wisdom. Each has upheld the Buddhist community with its monastic Sangha. Opening of hearts and minds to the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sangha has been upheld, veneration often even greatly enhanced in the case of the Buddha, bending minds in the direction of Nibbana and inspiring lives of great merit and transcendent value beyond this fathom-length body and few decades of life. How can this be?
I personally have been ordained in two traditions, Japanese Zen and Theravada, representing Mahayana and “Theravada” respectively. Each is taught quite differently, Zen literature based on perplexing and playful koans with little reference to the early discourses, Zen far more formal and ritualized, Zen recommending on the other hand “just sitting” with the mind like the open sky in lieu of much more systematic TheravadaVipassana. Japanese Zen with the almost complete loss of the Japanese Sangha is one of those traditions that has lost, but only in recent years, the integrity of the full flower of Buddhism. And yet in terms of practice experience I can report Zen still remains extremely close to the Theravada Forest tradition, even though these two great traditions are about as far removed historically as any two traditions. How can this be?
The answer has to do with the corrective influence of the adapts. Each Buddhist tradition is like a ship navigating an ocean of possibilities and obstructions: human needs, cultural conventions, biases, misdirected zeal, properly directed zeal, deceit and misunderstanding. Fortunately each ship has adept crew, captain and navigator and even compliant passengers. Recall that preserving the integrity of Buddhism is a responsibility given by the Buddha to the amazingly resilient Bhikkhu-Sangha, which has the Noble Ones and even an occasional arahant at its head. Because it is venerated the Sangha is regarded as an authority on matters Dharmic for the rest of the Buddhist community. As a Buddhist community develops, as fads and fashions come and go, counter-Buddhist trends are noticed and admonished. The Sangha serves as a rudder for the ship of community steering by the gentle pressure of its example and the clarity of its teachings.
In fact the Sangha has succeeded remarkably well in guiding the historical evolution of Buddhism, often through stormy seas, as the Buddha foresaw, ensuring both flexibility and cultural adaptability along with firm resilience. The principle is simple. This is the genius of the Buddha:
“And if these monks, Subaddha, live rightly, the world will not be empty of arahants.” – DN 16.
And as long as there are arahants in the world, Awakened ones, or failing that, Noble Ones venerated by the community, the ship of the Buddha’s community will have a firm rudder, an adept crew and compliant passengers, in spite of their culture, language, nationality or folk beliefs.
In the next chapter we will look at the corrective influence of the adepts more closely, particularly how it serves to shape but not perfect the popular understanding of Buddhism.