Growing the Dhamma: How the Religious Context Works

This is part 2/2 of the Second Chapter, “Buddhist Life and Practice,” and the fourth installment of the weekly serialization of Growing the Dharma: Buddhism’s Religious Spadework. This explains how the various parts of an organic Buddhism, including the Triple Gem and the two-part Buddhist community work together to the benefit of the sasana.

How the Religious Context Works

The choice of the botanical metaphor is intended to emphasize the physiology of Buddhism, the parts and the interrelatedness of the parts functioning together as an organic system. The dominant operating principle of the leaves, the roots, the nourishment of the Triple Gem and the Sasana is friendship! In particular admirable friendship (Pali, kalyanamittatā) is possible when Noble Ones walk among us to provide wise role models and instructors. The principle is to offer to all the opportunity to hang out with persons consummate in virtue, in generosity, in serenity and in wisdom. The following dialog expresses in a rather striking way the critical importance the Buddha attached to this simple principle:

“As he was sitting there, Ven. Ananda said to the Blessed One, ‘This is half of the holy life, lord: admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie.’

“’Don’t say that, Ananda. Don’t say that. Admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie is actually the whole of the holy life. When a monk has admirable people as friends, companions, & colleagues, he can be expected to develop & pursue the Noble Eightfold Path’.”1

Just as it benefits us to have artists and good plumbers among us, it ennobles us to have saints and sages, adepts and arahants in our midst, the more the better. These Noble Ones are the Sangha mentioned in the Triple Gem, disciples of the Buddha who root their lives entirely in the Dharma, have already been carried far aloft by the stem of the Path and are an inspiration and a resource for us all. It is through admirable friends that the meaning of the Buddha’s life and Awakening is revealed and through such admirable friends that the highly sophisticated teachings are clarified step by step to lead the instructling toward and up the Path toward Awakening. It is the Sangha, by recognizing the organic system that shines through the words that the core of authentic Buddhism is preserved in its full integrity. The Sangha is accordingly 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 Noble Sangha arises, like all things, from conditions and these conditions are secured by means of the Monastic Sangha. The Buddha expressed this,

And if these monks, Subaddha, live rightly, the world will not be empty of arahants.”2

The world will be even less be empty of the Noble Ones, many of whom are not yet arahants but nonetheless attained of lower levels of Awakening. The Monastic Sangha is both training ground and dwelling place for the Noble Sangha, much like a university is both a training ground and a dwelling place for scholars. We will see as the themes of this book develop how without Noble Ones Buddhism can hardly retain its integrity, and how Noble Ones will be very few indeed without a strong monastic community or something like it.

The Buddha lived in a very religious culture and simply made use of much of what he saw around him while dismissing what he felt was useless or harmful. He made use of a range of what we regard as religious elements in crafting his own system of thought, not only to define practice and understanding, but also to provide the proper context to inspire correct practice and understanding now and for generations to come. I hope the reader will gain an appreciation by about the middle of this book of just how rational, carefully conceived and well-articulated the system was that he crafted. Although the main concern of his teaching career was with the Path (and secondarily with monastic regulation!), theBuddha understood that a Stem does not stand by itself, that it exists in a broader context. He was concerned to create the most nurturing context.

So far our references are largely to early Buddhism with some hints of later historical changes in the BudThis explains how the various parts of dhist traditions. We will look at these later changes in detail in the later chapters because they contribute much to the modern Buddhist landscape. They also provide a further perspective on the mechanisms of religiosity that the Buddha put in place, particularly with regard to the resilience of Buddhism alongside its adaptability, its capacity for retaining its authenticity even while manifesting innovation. Let me prepare for further discussion by concluding this chapter on the issue of authenticity in Buddhism.


Imagine someone has made up an elaborate and original joke that was then retold many times. Sometimes the retellings have made use of different words, sometimes even of different languages, sometimes they have added an embellishment or stripped away minor details. Characters might have changed names or gender, settings might have varied, elephants might be replaced by hippos. As we catalog the retellings we will find that some missed the point of the joke completely, but that others have 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 has evoked almost the exact same response in the hearer as the original.

What shines through in an authentic retelling is the functional 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 in the former cases 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. Even if it is transmitted to them with some small error, they will know how to correct it to restore its functional integrity, because they get the joke.

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.”

The early manifestation of Buddhism derived from what was taught literally by the Buddha. Scholars have a fairly good idea of what early Buddhism looked like before it began to undergo retelling. It consisted of two parts, the Dharma 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 early Dharma. The Vinaya, the monastic code, is available in several redactions.3 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 or frozen 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.’”4

So, Dharma was not strictly confined to the words of the Buddha, but includes whatever shares their function at the highest level.

Second, the Great Standards (Pali, Mahāpadesa)5 generalized recognizable teachings to novel or uncertain circumstances. A particular view that suggests itself under such a circumstance can be tested by standing against the Dharma 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 early rule that monks should not drive ox carts. The origin story clearly reveals the intent of the rule in avoiding the exhibition of extravagance. Applying this to modern circumstances entails that monks probably should not fly first-class, nor drive a Mercedes, … but that ox carts are probably OK.

Finally, the Buddha anticipated that a level of adeptness in the Dharma would be required for its preservation, those 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 the core of authentic Buddhism as a kind of eau de Boudhisme. It is the functional system that shines through in early Buddhism, but stripped of this particular manifestation and stripped of extraneous elements of the ancient texts irrelevant to the functionality of that system. Authentic Buddhism thereby turns away from the allure toward literalism lurking in early texts, and toward the flexibility admitted by the Great Standards, by the expansive meaning of Dharma, by the early functions revealed in the Vinaya origin stories and with by the adepts in their role of retelling the authentic Dharma in a way that best preserves its integrity in a particular cultural context.

This functional aspect can also be helpful in interpreting the early texts themselves to recognize what is really authentic. 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 teachings. 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 sacrifice. 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 to the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha. The search for the functionality, if any, quickly reveals the relevance of an element of the teachings to authentic Buddhism.6

As mentioned, the ancient scriptures are often an unreliable victim 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 annoyingly 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!” At some point a particular interpretation of the whole shines forth that one cannot easily back out of. 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 functional 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 the former has his own experience as potentially confirming evidence. 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 shone 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 authentic Buddhism from early Buddhism into a later manifestation, as found, for instance, in Chinese Mahayana or Tibetan Vajrayana, in order to make the case that the later counterpart actually preserves the function of the original. The difficulty is compounded by the substitution of 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 connection. 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 find its place implicitly. Because of such subtleties we must hope that the adepts, and ideally the Noble Ones, have been ceaselessly at work ensuring authenticity as these traditions have developed historically.

By way of example, mindfulness practice is clearly a key functional element of early Buddhism, one formulated in the lengthy Satipatthana Sutta and in other early discourses. In Japanese Zen there is a method of meditation that was named shikantaza by Dogen Zenji,7 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, but it would be feasible for an experienced practitioner. I am fortunate personally to have trained in shikantaza and then many years later of studying the Satipatthana Sutta and modern vipassana techniques, which at least in this one case give me something of an adept’s insight into what shines through. I can definitively testify that there is an astonishing functional equivalence among these techniques. If my subjective testimony can be taken as reliable, this is one example of a feature of authentic Buddhism that has been carried historically through place and culture, evolving into a radically different manifestation, yet fully maintained its authenticity right down to the punch line. This is the genius of Buddhism.

1Upaddha Sutta, SN 45.2.

2DN 16.

3See, for instance, Pande (2006), pp. 1-16.

4AN 7.79.

5See AN 4.180 and a similar passage in the Mahaparinibbana Sutta, DN 16.

6I am putting aside for now the function of deva realms in early Buddhism as destinations of fortunate rebirth. I will take that up in a later chapter.

7See Fukanzazengi (universal recommendations for zazen). 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. (See Bielefeldt, 1990, pp. 71-72.) Dogen cleverly rolled both function and instruction into two syllables.

6 Responses to “Growing the Dhamma: How the Religious Context Works”

  1. kimmosley Says:

    I am fortunate personal to have trained in shikantaza and then many years later of studying the Satipatthana Sutta (did you mean “personally”)

  2. Chevita Says:

    We are lucky to have you as a noble friend, guiding us in our practice. Thank you.

  3. Luke Says:


    I am enjoying reading your writings, thanks again for sharing. In regards to authenticating a certain teaching, have you ever heard of the Four Reliances? Here is an excerpt from Bill Porter’s(Red Pine’s) translation of The Heart Sutra explaining this. “We are urged to rely on the teaching and not the author, the meaning and not the letter, the truth and not the convention, the knowledge and not the information.”

    • bhikkhucintita Says:


      Thanks for this. I think these criteria go back to the Buddha, but I will have to think what sutta they are found in.

      One of the remarkable things about the Buddha is that he provides the best guide for their own exegesis, as I think Richard Gombrich points out. He deals with issues of faith and evidence, with literalism and finding a teacher, and so on in his teachings. Most people are familiar with the “Kalama Sutta,” but there are many more suttas on “meta-dhamma.” I’ve been thinking of seeking all of these out and writing as essay to summarize them (but after the Rains Retreat).

  4. Luke Says:

    Also, is there any other time lay practioners can sit with the monks and nuns at the Vihara besides Sunday? Sundays are difficult for me to get to, as I work Sundays and share a vehicle.

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