Uposatha Day, First Quarter Moon, March 19, 2013
I still owe one more chapter of Buddhist Religiosity. Meanwhile, I have been reworking the drafts of earlier chapters and wish to post today a new section of Chapter 2, on Core Buddhism. – BC
Imagine someone has made up and told an elaborate and original joke that was then retold many times. Sometimes the retellings made use of different words, sometimes even of different languages, sometimes added an embellishment or the stripped away minor details. Characters might have changed names or gender, settings might have varied. As we catalog the retellings we will find that some missed the point of the joke completely, but that others recounted the joke in the same skillful way as the original, keeping the story line functionally intact, introducing the relevant information at just the right time and culminating in a punch line that evoked the exact same response as the original.
What shines through in an authentic retelling is the core of the original story. But how has the core been lost in some cases yet preserved in some cases in spite of a long history of alterations, so much so that they are unmistakably recognizable as a manifestation of the same story? I suppose that authentic retellings have been transmitted by adept humorists who have understood the point of the joke and the art of telling it.
Let’s consider what is involved in the preservation of authenticity of Buddhism, the integrity of the core teachings of the Buddha. Buddhism is like a good joke. It has always shown an enormous capacity for tolerating change, producing innumerable manifestations, and yet protecting the integrity of its core message. There is, in other words, a Buddhism that shines through constantly through the various Buddhist traditions, a Buddhism visible first in the earliest scriptures and a common edifice behind the many often wild and perplexing guises appearing under the name “Buddhism.” Let’s call this “Core Buddhism.”
The original manifestation of Buddhism was taught literally by the Buddha. Scholars have a fairly good idea of what original Buddhism looked like before it began to undergo retelling. It consisted of two parts, the Dhamma and the Vinaya, the doctrine and the discipline. Roughly the Pali Suttas, particularly the Digha, Majjhima, Samyutta and Anguttara Nikayas as well as the Suttanipata and the Dhammapada of the Khuddhaka Nikaya along with the equivalent Chinese Agamas are acknowledged by scholars to constitute the most reliable evidence of the original Dhamma. The Vinaya, the monastic code, is available in several redactions.6 I should note that these ancient Suttas and the Vinaya are not entirely reliable texts, having passed through both oral and orthographic transmissions and suffering from faults of memory, embellishments, insertions, deletions and other edits along the way.
The Buddha and his early disciples seem to have anticipated that what he had taught would manifest in different and unpredictable ways and revealed his interest in preserving the functionality rather than the literal content of doctrine and discipline. First, a broadening of what constituted Dharma included whatever led to the same narrowly defined goals.
“As for the qualities of which you may know, ‘These qualities lead to utter disenchantment, to dispassion, to cessation, to calm, to direct knowledge, to self-awakening, to Unbinding’: You may categorically hold, ‘This is the Dhamma, this is the Vinaya, this is the Teacher’s instruction.’”7
So, Dhamma was not strictly confined to the words of the Buddha, but whatever had shared their function at the highest level.
Second, the Great Standards (Mahapadesa)8 generalized recognizable teachings to novel or uncertain circumstances. A particular view that suggests itself under such a circumstances can be tested by standing against the Dhamma and the Vinaya and if it accords then it can be accepted.
Third, the Vinaya provides support for applying the Great Standards to monastic rules by providing for every rule an origin story that reveals the function of the rule. For instance, there is an original rule that monks should not drive ox carts. The origin story reveals the function in avoiding the exhibition of extravagance. Applying this to modern circumstances entails that monks probably should not fly first-class, nor drive a Mercedes.
Finally, the Buddha anticipated that a level of adeptness in the Dhamma would be required for its preservation, who understand the point and can retell it correctly. This was a function of the monastic Sangha as we will discuss some chapters hence.
We can think of Core Buddhism as a kind of eau de Bouddhisme. It is the functional system that shines through in Original Buddhism, but stripped of its particular formulation and stripped of extraneous elements of the ancient texts that are irrelevant to that functional system. Core Buddhism avoid the literalism lurking in original texts to accord with the Great Standards, with the expanded meaning of Dharma, with the original functions revealed in the Vinaya origin stories and with the role of the adepts in retelling the authentic Dharma in a way that preserves its integrity..
This functional aspect can be also be helpful in interpreting the early texts themselves to recognize what is really core. It suggests that it might sometimes be more interesting and helpful to ask when confronted with a particular teaching not “Is this really true?” but rather “Why was this said?,” to lay bare the function of the teaching. For instance, there is constant reference to devas, godly beings, in the early texts. These are very old texts; of course they are going to have things that raise modern eyebrows! The question of whether devas really exist or whether as Buddhists we should believe in devas, is of little consequence. More revealing is the question, What role do these supernatural beings play in the texts? If they have no recognizable function, maybe they are not core teaching. In fact, devas in the texts generally pop in on the Buddha much like laypeople, bowing to the Buddha and listening to discourses. They certainly are not there to demand worship or sacrifices. Instead they venerate the Buddha and even the monks, and generally act as cheerleaders of the Dharma. Their role therefore seems to have been largely rhetorical; it would have impressed the ancient Indians that even the gods look up the the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sangha. The search for the functionality, if any, quickly reveals the relevance of an element of the teachings in Core Buddhism.
As mentioned, the ancient scriptures are often an unreliable result of ancient editing. However, seeking functionality can help the adept reader of the early scriptures interpret them properly. His task is like piecing together a jigsaw puzzle in which some pieces are gallingly missing and in which other pieces have been mixed in to the adept reader’s vexation from other jigsaw puzzles, but at some point nevertheless recognizes, “Oh, I get it: This is the Golden Gate Bridge!” A particular interpretation to shine forth. Although it cannot be proven decisively and still admits of debate, the convergence of evidence from many sources becomes so overwhelming to those who see what shines through that doubt disappears. And what shines forth in each case is a function system; the Buddha was a very systematic thinker.
The Buddhist adept accomplished in Buddhist practice is in a far better position to witness this shining through than the mere scholar because his own experience might provide decisively confirming evidence from direct experience. He is like the jigsaw enthusiast who has actually been on the Golden Gate Bridge, who is already familiar with its features and the contours of the land- and sea-scape around it. Once the Golden Gate Bridge has shined through it becomes the basis of interpreting the remaining unplaced pieces, and rejecting some altogether as intruders from other people’s jigsaw puzzles.
Nonetheless it can be exceedingly difficult to actually trace a functional feature of Core Buddhism from early Buddhism into a later manifestation, as found, for instance, in Chinese Mahayana or Tibetan Vajrayana, and to make the case that the later counterpart actually preserves the function of the original. The difficulty is compounded by the substitution for later texts for the earliest scriptures, which is endemic in the history of Buddhism. For instance, although many find Zen close to the Theravada forest tradition through experience in both traditions, there is little strictly textual basis for the comparison. Part of the genius of Zen language as compared to Indian is the former’s minimalism, its ability to focus on the one thing upon which everything else hinges, to describe that and let the rest fall into place. Because of such subtleties we must hope that the adepts, and ideally Noble Ones, were at work ensuring authenticity as these traditions developed historically.
By way of example, mindfulness practice is clearly a key functional element of original Buddhism, formulated in the lengthy Satipatthana Sutta in other early discourses. In Japanese Zen there is a method of meditation that was called Shikantaza by Dogen Zenji,9 which clearly has something to do mindfulness or awareness but is described by Dogen with very concise instructions that are textually quite distinct from the Satipatthana. It would therefore be very difficult to make a argument for functional equivalence that would satisfy the scholar. The term “shikantaza,” interestingly, is a kind of word play. Literally it means “just sitting” in the characters Dogen uses to represent it, and his instructions are almost entirely about sitting posture. However in Japanese “shikan” is pronounced the same as a Chinese phrase (“zhi-guan” in Chinese) written with different characters that mean “insight-serenity” or “vipassana-samatha,” used in the name of an early Chinese meditation manual.10 Dogen cleverly rolled both function and instruction into two syllables.
I have the fortunately personal distinction of having trained in shikantaza and then many years later of studying the Satipatthana Sutta and modern Vipassana techniques, which at least in this case give me something of an adepts insight into what shines through. I can definitively testify that there is an astonishing functional equivalence among these techniques. If my testimony can be taken as reliable, this is one example of a feature of Core Buddhism that has been carried historically through place and culture, evolving into a radically different manifestation, yet fully maintained its authenticity. This is the Genius of Buddhism.