What is Believable? (3/6)

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We have seen that certain Buddhist teachings are unbelievable for many moderns. Today we consider the practical consequences of simply rejecting them while accepting the less problematic teachings.

How to reject a teaching

The method here is “balderdash!” It is recommended only in limited circumstances. It looks like one of the following:

Figure10Faltering on unbelievability, or on unbelief

Thomas Bowdler published a version of Shakespeare in 1807 which expurgated whatever original material was considered offensive or otherwise unsuitable for women and children in his sensitive age, once even removing an entire morally unsatisfactory character from one of the bard’s plays. With what degree of skill are we bowdlerizing Buddhism? Some argue that Buddhism has repeatedly been adapted (and proved itself adaptable!) in every new culture it has entered in its long history; we therefore have the right to adapt it to modern standards of believability with as loud a “Balderdash!” as we like. Others, including this writer, express dismay over the watering down of Buddhism or over its potential loss with the bathwater through overzealous bowdlerization.

It is one thing to expunge a minor character, but how could the story line possibility hold together without Hamlet? The point is that before we expunge anything we do well to ask, “At what cost?” That is, we should have a clear idea to what extent  the integrity of the Dharma as something we live, practice and develop around, would be sacrificed. For minor characters the cost might not be so great. Major characters we are ill-advised indeed to dismiss out of hand without careful consideration of the alternative strategies that I will describe in this essay for coming to terms with the teaching, namely, contextualization, reconsideration and upgrade. Otherwise we may end up like the new landowner who discovers an overgrown but still potentially productive corn field on his property and who, with limited understanding of both corn and weed, dauntlessly hacks away with a machete only to destroy half of the corn and to leave half of the undergrowth. Or like Hollywood producers who undertake to film Hamlet with a rollicking happy ending. The Dharma is much too sophisticated a product of the human mind to treat in such a crude way.

Why did the Buddha teach this? This is the key test. This is what we must repeatedly ask. This question will help us to understand what the cost of dismissing a teaching would be, and at the same time what aspects of that teaching are most critical to its function. We know that the Buddha was parsimonious in his teachings, generally scrupulously avoiding any kind of metaphysical speculation. He points this out himself on the occasion of his famous handful-of-leaves simile:

“Appamattakaṃ akkhātaṃ. Kasmā cetaṃ bhikkhave, mayā anakkhātaṃ? Na hetaṃ bhikkhave, atthasaṃhitaṃ nādibrahmacariyakaṃ na nibbidāya na virāgāya na nirodhāya na upasamāya nābhiññāya na sambodhāya na nibbānāya saṃvattati, tasmā taṃ mayā anakkhātaṃ.”

“What I have revealed to you is only a little. And why, monks, have I not revealed more? Because, monks, it is not related to the goal, it is not fundamental to the holy life, does not conduce to disenchantment, dispassion, cessation, tranquility, higher knowledge, enlightenment or Nibbana. That is why I have not revealed it.”

If his teachings are as a result seldom without point, their dismissal will seldom be without cost. A recurrent and well-expounded thesis is therefore very likely to play a significant role in the Buddha’s stage production. If one seems to fall short of modern standards of believability, we should not be hasty in its dismissal.

Expunging minor characters. Among the teachings found in Buddhist scripture are undoubtedly casual references to concepts or ways of thinking that would have made popular sense in the Buddha’s day, but which are incidental to the intent of the passages or which are meaningful only in the cultural context of his time. Let’s look at a couple of examples.

Wordly dieties. In many of the discourses the Buddha is visited by various deities, both famous and obscure. This passage from the oft-recited Mangala Sutta is representative:

Atha kho aññatarā devatā abhikkantāya rattiyā abhik-kanta-vaṇṇā kevalakappaṃ Jetavanaṃ obhāsetvā yena Bhagavā ten-upasaṅkami upasaṅkamitvā Bhagavantaṃ abhivādetvā ekamantaṃ aṭṭhāsi.

Now when the night was far spent, a certain deity, whose surpassing splendor illuminated the entire Jeta Grove, came to the presence of the Exalted One, and, drawing near, respectfully venerated Him and stood to one side.

In this case the deity has come to ask a question, “What is the highest blesssing?” that evokes the Buddha’s thirty-eight checkpoint list of many greatest blessings. So, why did the Buddha teach about visiting deities?

I personally find these passages delightful, but have never, even in my weaker moments, ever even considered taking a passage like this as literally describing an actual event, though I realize many Buddhists do. At what cost comes such disbelief?

In this case, it seems, at very little: Worship of deities, or calling upon their aid, is not the point in Buddhist teachings. On the contrary, deities are routinely portrayed as venerating the Buddha, through bows, circumambulation, sitting to one side, and then asking for teachings, just as in this passage. The faith they illustrate is worth noting, but their substantive existence is beside the point. It might additionally be noted, from a text-analytical point of view, that most references to such visits are also not spoken by the Buddha, that is, not Buddha-vacana, but occur in the opening description before the Buddha speaks. Deities also appear as the inmates of realms of potential rebirth, with somewhat more significance which I will not discuss at this point.

Supernormal powers. The Buddha speaks in many places of supernormal powers (iddhi), such as replicating oneself at will,  disappearing and reappearing, walking through walls and even mountains, diving into the earth as if it were water and walking on water as if it were earth, flying through the air while sitting cross-legged, jumping up and touching the sun or moon, seeing and hearing from afar, reading minds, recollecting past lives, comprehending the karmically driven process of rebirth in others, and ending the effluents.ii  These powers seem to be a natural consequences of the development of concentration, manifest in some much more markedly than in others (for instance, among the Buddha’s chief disciples, more prominently in Moggallāna than Sariputta), and are not generally necessary for realizing attainments of stream entry and beyond, except to the extend that these are themselves supernormal powers of a sort. The Buddha did not allow monastics to display these powers to laypeople, and pointed out the dangers of the pride that often adheres to these powers. So, why did the Buddha teach about these powers in detail, and what is the cost of dismissing them?

Many monks seemed to be obsessed with such powers; they do seem pretty cool. Given this, it seems to me that the function of the Buddha’s teachings about such powers is to keep their development skillfully on track, that is, to avoid turning them into distractions or sources of pride. This has an interesting corollary: these teachings are not of particular relevance to those who disbelieve in such powers, which excludes those who have actually experienced such powers. So, the cost of expungement is small wherever expungement is possible, while the teachings are important, and possibly often critical, for believers.

While dismissal comes at no cost for those inclined to dismiss such powers as balderdash, there are dangers in overly strident rejection: First, if one later, though progress in concentration practice, begins to manifest such powers, the previously strident nay-sayer may for a time deny one’s own experiences. Second, the strident expunger may try to impose one’s disbelief on others, that is, he may try to convince others that their experiences are not real. The foolishness of the second danger becomes clear when we consider that many non-meditators deny the consciousness-shifting or even mystical experiences reported quite routinely by meditators. My brother once tried to argue that whatever I experienced in meditation could be achieved more pleasantly by watching soap operas. Nothing I said from the position of greater experience could dispel his utter foolishness. It was like trying to convince a deaf person that music really exists. It also becomes clear when you consider that the descriptions of these powers might not fully capture their experience. For instance, these powers might not manifest physically as we at first imagine, but perhaps are entirely mental experiences, or something akin to out-of-body experiences, invisible to outside observers. The descriptions can be interpreted figuratively in a range of ways.

A perspective of non-strident skepticism can benefit Buddhism in distilling the teachings down to their functional core and skimming off as a byproduct the full range of possible interpretations consistent with the Buddha’s intent. This helps others avoid literalism or calcified understandings that may have persisted unquestioned for many centuries in certain traditions. In many cases it helps us understand when the Buddha was speaking figuratively, where he was spinning a myth and where he was having fun with others’ firmly held viewpoints.

The cost of expunging major characters. For many teachings, on investigation, the cost of their complete rejection would be huge; because they serve critical functions in the body of the Buddha’s teachings their loss would significantly compromise the integrity of the Dharma. Unfortunately, the critical importance of these teachings is often apparent only to those of advanced understanding and practice. Let’s look at a couple of examples.

The monastic institution. Common victims of modern expungment are monastics (like me, for instance), robed shavelings who dare to renounce worldly soap-operatic life, and the institution to which we belong. That we serve some useful service in the scheme of things seems to some unbelievable, to those who see us as irrelevant in the modern context, as undemocratic as well as hopelessly out of fashion. Yet, there is little doubt that the Buddha constituted the monastic Sangha shortly after his Awakening, then gave it a mission and carefully tinkered with its operating procedures over many years. The Buddha consistently referred to the body of his teachings as the Dharma-Vinaya, the latter with reference to the guidelines for monastic discipline. So, why did the Buddha teach the value of monasticism?

Briefly, the Monastic Sangha, aside from providing a context optimized for progress on the Buddhist path, is responsible, by the Buddha’s authority, for preserving the integrity of the Dharma, for maintaining the authentic adept understanding. Buddhaghosa’s fifth century commentary on the Vinaya, asserts that,

If the Vinaya endures, the Sasana [the teaching of the Buddha] will endure; if the Vinaya disappears, the Sasana will disappear.

The Buddha himself stated that,

“If … the monks would live the life to perfection, the world would not lack for  Arahants.”

The cost of dismissing this institution – unless it is replaced with something functionally equivalent of as yet unknown constitution – is dear.

My purpose here is not to argue this point, or the next, in any detail, but to illustrate the existence of teachings that often seem to moderns, at least at first sight, indefensible, but on closer examination are critical to the functional integrity of the Buddha’s teachings, and as such were clearly articulated by the Buddha.

Rebirth. Also commonly regarded as particularly expunge-worthy is the very idea of rebirth, that is, the perpetuation of karmic conditioning right past the death of the body and into a new life. Moderns actually seem to have widely varying views about rebirth, but there is a strong contingent that finds the notion entirely unbelievable, period. Again, the question for us at this point is not to establish its objective truth or untruth, but rather to assess to the cost of its expungement from Buddhist understanding and practice, by asking, Why did the Buddha teach rebirth?

Rebirth is a critical part of the Buddha’s Middle Way between the alternatives of annihilationism and eternalism, both of which the Buddha rejected as unbeneficial to human well-being, that is, on ethical grounds. It is noteworthy that, although the Buddha attested to his own recollection of previous lives, he never seems to have argued against the opposing view on objective or factual grounds, but rather recommended that disbelievers, apparently common in the Buddha’s day as in our own, accept rebirth as a kind of working assumption, a strategy which falls under what I later call contextualization. Moderns who reject rebirth are generally left with annihilationism, since moderns will generally reject eternalism even more readily than rebirth, which is to say that at death the fruits of these modern’s lifetime of practice are zeroed out, as if one had never practiced at all. Buddhist practice becomes about achieving a well-being limited to these few decades of life. The upshot is described by Bhikkhu Bodhi as follows:

…, to downplay the doctrine of rebirth and explain the entire import of the Dhamma as the amelioration of mental suffering through enhanced self-awareness is to deprive the Dhamma of those wider perspectives from which it derives its full breadth and profundity. By doing so one seriously risks reducing it in the end to little more than a sophisticated ancient system of humanistic psychotherapy.

Rebirth in Buddhism serves to open up a transcendent dimension of Buddhist practice to make it bigger-than-life consequential, an epic struggle over destiny with endless consequences, whose import dwarfs any this-worldly concern. A Buddhism limited to this-worldly well-being makes it a mere alternative to many other ways we can envision to bring more comfort into these few decades of life, from ballroom dancing to an adequate stock portfolio.

Notice that in the case of rebirth we are dealing with a broad conceptual context in which to frame our everyday practice. If this belief is to have any efficacy, it requires much more than reluctant endorsement, but rather the deep integration of rebirth into one’s world view, as a reality in which one’s life is firmly embedded. This can be quite challenging to the alternative strategies of contextualization, reconsideration and upgrade, which we will take up later.

Summary. The purpose of this section has been to give one pause before one declares something as unbelievable. It is not so much to convince one that one thereby suffers from false views, as that what is at stake should be fully recognized before one’s views are fully formed. This may bring one to an impasse in which disbelief is suspended even for a number of years. It may take one, particularly the inexperienced Buddhist, almost that long to fully appreciate the initially obscure functional role of a particular teaching. Once one sees that a teaching has a critical function, one should try every practical means to accept that teaching into one’s understanding. We now turn to those means.

In the following three posts we cover the stategies of contextualization, reconsideration and upgrade as the promised recourse for rescuing teachings from being written out of the story line.

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