Growing the Dhamma: Buddhist Life and Practice

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

Generosity,

Virtue,

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.

One Response to “Growing the Dhamma: Buddhist Life and Practice”

  1. Luke Says:

    The flower metaphor is great, an easily understood visualization.

    Like

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