Archive for the ‘buddhism’ Category

Growing the Dharma: Alternatives to Rebirth

September 20, 2013

You are reading a serialization of the ebook Growing the Dharma: Buddhism’s Religious Spadework. I have suggested that rebirth provides a the epic perspective that gives urgency and full meaning to Buddhist life and practice. I now consider from a functional viewpoint what range of understandings support this epic perspective.

Chapter 4. Transcendence (2/2)

Approximations to Rebirth

George Bailey in the classic movie It’s a Wonderful Life, becomes deeply bitter from not realizing his personal dreams of travel and adventure in this short life, and then pushed to the brink of suicide by business problems. However, Clarence the Angel is sent to rescue George by showing him a transcendent dimension to his life that he failed to see for what it was. Clarence takes George into the world as it would be if George had never been born to reveal that all along George’s good intentions had been playing out to the benefit to countless other people, benefit far beyond his wildest mundane dreams. In a sense he had been living a second, greater life and realizing this made all the difference in how he felt even about this one short life.

There is no doubt that our present lives are likewise woven as short threads into a rich and immense tapestry of human history, of family history, of evolutionary history, of cultural history, of political history, of religious history, of Buddhist history, of trends in art, technology and popular entertainments, of vast relentless configurations and recombinations of neediness, aversion, confusion, contentment, kindness and clarity. Our small life and therefore our practice is woven inextricably into something far grander in scale that in fact must lend it a transcendent meaning; it is simply up to us to recognize it. Rebirth is about developing gratitude for the past and taking responsibility for the future.

Our twisted karma is ancient because our present lives are woven as short threads in a rich and immense tapestry. Our present actions have been anticipated in the lives of our ancestors before us, in our culture, in our evolutionary history and in the rest, then flows to us through various fittings, only one of which, if someone insists, is a coupling directly from our “previous life.” In this way water flows into our pipe from various sources.

Since there is water flowing into our pipe there must be water flowing out. Notice that in this model karma can in principle flow out through multiple T- and Y-fittings precisely because in Buddhism karma does not have to be hung onto a personal identity. The karma that flows out is the legacy of the present life and it can make quite a splash. That is why our practice matters beyond this fathom long body and few decades of life. That is what gives our practice its transcendent meaning. We are each engaged in an epic struggle with hydraulic forces from the ancient past and outcomes that will reach endlessly into the future. Our practice has vastly more at stake than happiness and comfort in this present life. It has never been exclusively about this one present life. We are all like George Bailey, though what many of us have sloshed into the world around us has been of scuzzier blend.

Each element of this refined model can, I believe, be independently examined and verified; the fact is nowadays we know of many channels for interpersonal communication of karmic factors – genetic, behavioral, social, environmental, etc. – that would have been dimly understood at the time of the Buddha. The difference between the traditional model of rebirth and this refined model is that the former is much more linear. I will accordingly call these the coupled pipeline model and the pipeline network model respectively. For the coupled pipeline model pipes would be strung out serially end to end such that all of the water that flows out of one pipe flows directly into the next, our next life is exclusive heir to our present karma. The pipeline network model is more general than the traditional coupled pipeline model, that is, the traditional model is a special case of the pipeline network. Hopefully each is equipped with some kind of clean-out in case of excessive karmic sludge buildup.

But the coupled pipeline model is inadequate in itself, for we can observe the lateral transmission of at least some karma, for instance, from culture to individual, or, heck, from admirable friend to individual. Furthermore, the coupled pipeline model is difficult to examine and verify, though some evidence suggests that this kind of transmission does at least sometimes occur. In fact, just moving from dedication to personal practice (perhaps with benefits to be enjoyed only in this one life in mind) to dedication to the Buddha-Sasana (with benefits to be enjoyed by many deep into an indeterminate future) is to see how our practice bears fruits far beyond this fathom-long body and few decades of life. I think this is a common attitude among Buddhist teachers and certainly monastics. But it can be the mindset of any Buddhist. A Burmese layman who often comes by our monastery in Texas to donate meals and assistance to the monks once explained to me that as a layperson he does not have the time and energy to help sustain the Sasana directly the way the monks do, but that as long as he is helping to sustain the monks he is meeting his obligation to sustain the Sasana. Generosity is his primary practice. This is a beautifully selfless attitude that in a real way shifts the emphasis of practice, in whatever form it takes, from the fathom- and few-decades-long self to the ancient and ongoing Sasana, much as a scientist dedicates herself to science or an artist to art. This is also a view of transcendence that fits conveniently with the overarching theme of this book.

Now … the big question: In moving from the coupled pipeline to the pipeline network have we preserved functionality, that is, are we still within the scope of authentic Buddhism? In either case we realize a higher transcendental meaning of our practice, in either case this meaning involves a responsibility to the future, in an epic karmic struggle. There is a difference, however, in the perspective each provides of the gradual progression of our practice through stages of attainment culminating in Awakening. The coupled pipeline model provides a straight path, passing through many lives but serially, toward Nirvana. The pipeline network model provides in this life a greater potential for Awakening in the future, but with less certainty about who will exploit that potential in the future – often many will – and less sense of following a direct path. Ultimately “who?” is a moot question for the advanced Buddhist practitioner in any case. Interestingly the pipeline network model fits well with the bodhisattva ideal articulated in much later Mahayana Buddhism, whereby we practice “not for ourselves but for all beings.” I will come back to the bodhisattva ideal in a couple of chapters.

Still not satisfied? Well, consider adopting …

Rebirth as a Working Assumption

Very typically a higher meaning requires a correspondingly higher level of trust often in things unseen and possibly unknowable. The argument often raised against accepting things unseen and unknowable is that they are quite possibly not true. Do we really want to entrust our lives to something pretend? We will see that Buddhist transcendence might involve less pretense than, say, God, but just in case let’s look first at this pretense thing.

One of the outstanding characteristics of Buddhism is its relatively high degree of empiricism. This has two sources: First, Buddhism is concerned with developing a set of skills in order to perfect the human character behaviorally, affectively and cognitively. This is the topic of the stem of the flower, the Path toward Nirvana and is necessarily a nuts and bolts enterprise, requiring dealing intimately with real observable phenomena, just as the potter cannot learn his craft without learning the feel of clay between his fingers. Second, the Buddha was remarkably rigorous in avoiding philosophical speculation and unnecessary metaphysics. The two primary metaphysical assumptions of the Buddha seem to have been:

  1. “When this is, that is. From the arising of this comes the arising of that. When this isn’t, that isn’t. From the stopping of this comes the stopping of that.”1
  2. “I recollected my manifold past lives, i.e., one birth, two… five, ten… fifty, a hundred, a thousand, a hundred thousand, many eons of cosmic contraction, many eons of cosmic expansion, many eons of cosmic contraction & expansion: ‘There I had such a name, belonged to such a clan, had such an appearance. Such was my food, such my experience of pleasure & pain, such the end of my life. Passing away from that state, I re-arose there. There too I had such a name, belonged to such a clan, had such an appearance. Such was my food, such my experience of pleasure & pain, such the end of my life. Passing away from that state, I re-arose here.”2

The first is the metatheoretical assumption that things arise and fall dependent on conditions. It gives rigor to almost everything the Buddha taught, and is generally pleasing to the scientifically minded (though modern quantum physicists might raise objections even to this). The second cannot be verified or observed in the present life except by those of exceptional memory. This makes the second almost unique in the Buddha’s thinking. Why then did he say this?

The answer is in fact the point of the famous Kalama Sutta,3 in which the Buddha promoted rebirth for its efficacy. The Buddha argues in this sutta that the proper grounds for accepting a teaching are not epistemological but ethical. He itemizes every possible way short of direct experience that we might think we “know” something and tells the Kalamas not to go by those things. Rather we should ask, with the help of the wise, where the benefit is, where the harm is. For instance, some religions teach that everything that happens to you, for good or bad, is a karmic payback from your past actions, good or bad. Sometimes Buddhism is even taught that way … mistakenly.4 However, if you consider the logical implications of this teaching, regardless of whether it is true or not, you will have to conclude that this cannot be a Buddhist teaching: Kindness and compassion, following precepts, would bring no benefit to others!

The Buddha at the conclusion of the Kalama Sutta applies the same criterion to the teaching of rebirth, considering the case in which deeds of good or evil alternatively do or do not bear fruit in a future life and discovers that under no circumstances is there a downside to accepting the rebirth position. The lesson: accept rebirth, as a matter of pretense if necessary.

Pretense is well within the realm of human capability, and humans certainly have this capability for practical purposes. Consider that all of fiction, including theater, movies, novels, operas, and so on, is pretense. Entertainment without pretense would be pretty slim indeed. Most children’s play is pretense, and most mammals seem capable of play. Dogs pretend to fight with one another, to chase sticks as if they were chasing prey. This enables them to practice and develop skills prior to real fighting or real hunting. Play also underlies many ritual or ceremonial enactments in religion, whose benefit and rationale is not necessarily in the acts themselves but in their function in developing skills. Food offerings to Buddha statues are common and are recognized as pretense in the knowledge that the Buddha is not really going to eat what is offered. It’s play.

A baseball game, also a kind of play, is a pretense, even for spectators. While there are real physical actions going on, these actions have interpretations that are just made up, a running pretense that accompanies the physical actions, a counting-for-something. Someone hits a ball with a stick and because it goes somewhere it counts as a home run. Someone touches someone else with a ball and it counts as being “out.” Three “outs” and the other team comes up to bat. A sport, for many among the most tangible experiences in life, is pretense! Wars are fought under similar pretenses: One is willing to die for the flag (or even to prevent it physically from falling to the ground). The king dies and the war is over.

Myth, religious or otherwise, is pretense by definition, but can likewise shape one’s attitudes in many helpful ways. The Buddha seems to have been comfortable with the potentially mythical deity realms, as we have seen, yet seems to take care to keep them on a short leash by not drawing the conclusions that others around him drew of the necessity to appease or elicit help from deities. The West has its myths, for the most part unwholesome: Consider how the Western movie hero has shaped the American psyche; the typical John Wayne character could not ever have possibly existed.

There is a rich world of myth and symbolic enactments in any culture or any religion beyond the scope of what rational scientific and secular people are willing to acknowledge. We treat the deceased with great care, arrange their rotting remains to produce a pretense of peace and comfort. The meaning of such things may lie very deep in the human psyche; to ignore them for secular ideological reasons may have adverse consequences. Yet myths must be held loosely if they are not themselves to cause harm.

Money, such a huge factor in modern life and human consciousness, is another example of pretense, a socially agreed counting as, much on the same order as a game. Historically money has had a physical counterpart, for instance, clams, cattle, silver, gold, then paper, for which a running pretense of counting-for-something was critical, in this case having a certain recognized value in commercial exchange. The physical part has largely gone by the wayside and the bulk of the money supply is something banks pretend to create at will simply by clicking some figures on a keyboard to entering it into someone’s account, then pretend mime-like to track its movements from bank to bank. There is nothing more substantial there than 1’s and 0’s in computer memory; the rest is merely convention. A satirical news article imagines a scenario in which the economy grinds to a halt as “Nation Realizes Money Just a Symbolic, Mutually Shared Illusion.”5

Pretense is something we use privately all the time to loosen the constraints of our reality. A bashful young man about to ask someone on a first date will imagine himself much more suave than he actually is before dialing.6 Visualization techniques create realities that we then try to fit ourselves into. Athletes find such techniques improve their performance. They don’t have to be objectively “true.” To relax during a tense day we might imagine ourselves lying on a sunny beach in the Bahamas. Even Buddhism makes use of visualizations in certain forms of meditation.

Pretense is something we use to manipulate others as well as ourselves. As a precaution against nocturnal mischief some American children are told that the “Boogie Man” will “get” them if they get out of bed at night. A grownup is even more gullible: even knowing that the beautiful blonde in the car ad does not actually come with the car, he buys it anyway, … just in case. The divine rights of kings, the idea of a better life hereafter, the battle of good and evil, the promotion of “free markets” as an unquestioned force for good, and even an unnaturally strict interpretation of the Law of Karma whereby everyone deserves exactly what they have right now, are pretenses that have all been introduced as forms of social control.

If God is a pretense, He is a whopper. When one grows up with God, and develops a personal relationship with God, recognizing in God the central role in the universe, and in oneself a subservient role, interpreting all things of the world in relationship to God, then God becomes every bit as palpable as money or football. Pretense or not, God serves a number of beneficial functions, the most immediate of which, as I understand it, is to dethrone the self from the center of the universe. He may also sometimes, in some hands, with some understandings be abused in the service of harmful functions, in some cases, for instance, legitimizing Osama-like what no person could justify on his own. (This is perhaps a reason why benefit and harm above all are the criteria by which Buddhists should accept or deny teachings.) Many faithful hold many of their pretenses lightly, often regarding them as useful tools in negotiating life, much like money, but, when questioned, not literally true, for instance when scientific push comes to religious shove. Karen Armstrong maintains that most people in most lands throughout history have simply never thought about the difference between pretense or myth and truth, and would not particularly care.

Science itself is not immune from pretense, it just keeps it on a shorter leash. The quaint Nineteenth Century idea of purely objective truth has since given way to conceptual models that only approximate reality. Niels Bohr, who developed our model of the atom, stated about his own field of research, “There is no quantum world. There is only an abstract physical description. It is wrong to think that the task of physics is to find out how nature is. Physics concerns what we can say about nature…” Scientists are captives in the realm where they can only make things up, progressively more skillful pretenses which however inevitably in the end fail to live up to what is observable. Bohr also said, “A physicist is just an atom’s way of looking at itself.” Models of progressively greater clarity but less correspondence with finer empirical data, trail off into folk science, the science of the common layperson. Models of motion within a curved universe give way to models of mutual gravitational attraction of masses, which give way to sets of simple principles like, “things fall downward,” and “what goes up must come down.” What’s revealing is that the scientist himself certainly picks his model opportunistically, reverting past the level of relating acceleration to mass and force down to the level during his leisure time of, “Pressing the gas pedal sure makes the car go a lot more.”

As we move from realm to realm, for instance, from commerce to science, from science to sports, from sports to religion, and from one religion to another and back to sports, some pretenses come out of place, so we shift to new pretenses. We negotiate a world of often contradictory pretenses and social skill demands a particular capacity for tracking and accounting for the pretenses of others as well as of our own. Interfaith dialog requires perhaps the greatest skill in this regard and teaches us to hold our own doctrine convictions a little less tightly. But short of Awakening we all have them. Even the most “rational” of us lives largely in a world of pretense, in our play, in our entertainment, in our social relations, in our fundamental conceptualizations of reality. So, in which world do we practice?

Now, at least the assumption of rebirth – whether as a verifiable reality or as a pretense, a working assumption, a functioning myth – will put some pep in our step as we proceed down the Path of practice, it will help us develop a purified mind free of hate and malice. The “Kalama Sutta” reminds us of possible downsides, potential harm that results from this assumption. It concludes that there is none:

The disciple of the Noble Ones, Kalamas, who has such a hate-free mind, such a malice-free mind, such an undefiled mind, and such a purified mind, is one by whom four solaces are found here and now. ‘Suppose there is a hereafter and there is a fruit, result, of deeds done well or ill. Then it is possible that at the dissolution of the body after death, I shall arise in the heavenly world, which is possessed of the state of bliss.’ This is the first solace found by him. ‘Suppose there is no hereafter and there is no fruit, no result, of deeds done well or ill. Yet in this world, here and now, free from hatred, free from malice, safe and sound, and happy, I keep myself.’ This is the second solace found by him. ‘Suppose evil (results) befall an evil-doer. I, however, think of doing evil to no one. Then, how can ill (results) affect me who do no evil deed?’ This is the third solace found by him. ‘Suppose evil (results) do not befall an evil-doer. Then I see myself purified in any case.’ This is the fourth solace found by him. The disciple of the Noble Ones, Kalamas, who has such a hate-free mind, such a malice-free mind, such an undefiled mind, and such a purified mind, is one by whom, here and now, these four solaces are found.”

Transcendence in Buddhism

Heuman writes of Western Buddhism:7

“… for the first time in history, to suggest today in some Buddhist circles that the purpose of Buddhism is exactly what the traditional texts tell us it is—which is to say, that it is concerned with the transcendent—can be to come across sounding like a rube or to meet with condescension.”

Transcendent meaning for the Christian is attained through God. Higher meaning for the scientist is found in the forward march of human knowledge. Higher meaning for the artist is found in creation of the sublime. Transcendent meaning for the Buddhist is attained through “that panoramic perspective from which we can survey our lives in their broader context and total network of relationships”that comes from realizing that our lives and therefore our practices are woven inextricably into something far grander in scale,a rich and immense tapestry of human affairs. We realize that we are each engaged in an epic struggle with karmic forces from the ancient past and producing outcomes that will reach endlessly into the future. Our practice therefore has vastly more at stake than happiness and comfort in this present life. It has never been exclusively about this one present life. From this the urgency that impels us to deep practice develops that also opens up the prospect of Awakening.

The urgency that arises in the artist or scientist when a higher meaning transcends this fathom-long body and few decades of life gives rise to genius. The urgency that arises in the Buddhist when his epic struggle transcends this one life gives rise to Awakening. To recognize the epic nature of this struggle it suffices to acknowledge the certain prospect of endless future human greed and exploitation, hatred and violence, delusion and manipulation, and untold anguish but for our personal progress along the Path.

1AN 10.92.

2MN 36.

3AN 3.65.

4The Buddha dismisses this notion in SN 36.21.

5The Onion (2010).

6If he is unable to do this he will have trouble instilling that impression later on.

7Heuman (2012).

Growing the Dharma: Transcendence

September 13, 2013

You are reading a serialization of the ebook Growing the Dharma: Buddhism’s Religious Spadework. This chapter deals with the question, Why did the Buddha teach rebirth? This is a bit different aspect of what falls under Buddhist religiosity than the social concerns of the rest of the book, but is included for completeness. In short, this chapter, serialized in two parts, is really an independent essay.

Chapter 4. Transcendence (1/2)

The Great Cathedral in Cologne, Germany began construction in 1248 A.D. and was to be magnificent. It was completed in 1880, over six centuries later! This makes me think of the original founders of the Cathedral, marvel at what their motives might have been and try to imagine what it was like to start a project of this size such that they would not live to see past its earliest stages. This undertaking certainly required a great trust that others would be there to continue the work through the generations and centuries to come. It certainly required patience when progress must have seemed so snail-like in their lifetime. Along with patience it must have fostered a sense of urgency as the significance of this project dwarfed all other considerations in the lives of these founders. After all every decision they made was for an eager posterity, for untold generations to come, after the ephemeral gains, losses and fatigue of their small lives would have been long forgotten. The small lives of the founders would have acquired huge significance as instruments of this project. I imagine that sicknesses, deaths, births, droughts would have barely deterred the founders in their determination to see the work continue without interruption. This is a meaning that transcends this fathom-long body and these few decades of life.

This particular sample of selfless urgency and determination, of meaningfulness and zeal, comes out of a religious context, but similar examples are easily found in secular realms as well, for instance, in science or in art or among explorers, in which agents characteristically give themselves over completely to a project perceived as somehow dwarfing their own selves in magnificence. That greater context is often ill-defined: the glory of God, the march of human knowledge, lasting beauty, going down in history. Others die for their country, and still others dedicate themselves tirelessly so that others will not have to die for theirs. Even in secular contexts this kind of zeal is often recognized as “religious.” The alternative to this religious zeal is to think of science, art, or whatever, as a job, one that pays the bills until one retires after which one can devote oneself full-time to fly fishing. I speculate that only at the higher transcendent level of meaning will genius arise.

Without careful deliberation, our human life is tossed by the sea, blown by the wind, a plaything of circumstance. This is presumably how most animals live, simply responding to changing conditions one by one with predictable needs and fears. When this life presents the human with mere sensual pleasures it is still formless, arbitrary, directionless and existentially empty, until boredom, depression or despair catches up to its indulgences.1 With deliberation giving rise to determination and vow, the human life is quite different. The highest meaning however is not something the human adds to his life, but that into which he embeds his life, as if his life were a single scene, or maybe a cameo appearance, in a larger play. A life devoted to service of God, a life devoted to beauty, a life devoted to developing the conditions for Awakening, these exemplify one’s relationship to a higher meaning that transcends this present life, and at the same time adds satisfaction to this present life.

The aim of our practice is no less than the perfection of the human character, it is about making something no less magnificent than the Cologne Cathedral: a Buddha. If we fail to find that higher meaning in our practice we can instead easily see no further than making our present lives temporarily more comfortable until we die, at which point any progress along the path will disappear anyway, along with the entire human predicament that evoked it. Our practice will be like beginning construction on a village church, rather than a Cathedral, which we expect to occupy and preach in in this very life. The result might indeed be competent, but hardly magnificent, something more like common psychotherapy than the Path to Awakening. We will have failed to transcend a petty fathom-long body and few decades of life and thereby squandered the opportunity for an Awakening that might otherwise have been possible, even in this very life and body. I speculate that only at this higher level of meaning will Awakening arise.


I’m Saved!”

Buddhism is about salvation, it’s even about, uh, being born again. The soteriological aim of Buddhism is Nirvana, the Buddhist form of salvation. Rebirth is an integral component of the Buddha’s thought about this. Nirvana is achieved as the escape from Samsara, from the beginningless and heading-toward-endless round of birth and death.

The Buddha described the second of two knowledges realized prior to his Awakening:

“When the mind was thus concentrated, purified, bright, unblemished, rid of defilement, pliant, malleable, steady, and attained to imperturbability, I directed it to the knowledge of the passing away and reappearance of beings. … I discerned how they are inferior and superior, beautiful and ugly, fortunate and unfortunate in accordance with their kamma: ‘These beings — who were endowed with bad conduct of body, speech, and mind, who reviled the noble ones, held wrong views and undertook actions under the influence of wrong views — with the break-up of the body, after death, have re-appeared in the plane of deprivation, the bad destination, the lower realms, in hell. But these beings — who were endowed with good conduct of body, speech and mind, … have re-appeared in the good destinations, in the heavenly world.”2

As before, I suggest that the most important question with respect to Buddhist authenticity here is not “Is rebirth really true?” but rather the more functional “Why did the Buddha think it was important to teach rebirth?” In general he scrupulously avoided any kind of metaphysical speculation. For instance, in a famous passage he picks up a handful of leaves:

“‘What do you think, monks? Which are the more numerous, the few leaves I have here in my hand, or those up in the trees of the grove?’

“‘Lord, the Blessed One is holding only a few leaves: those up in the trees are far more numerous.’

“‘In the same way, monks, there are many more things that I have found out, but not revealed to you. What I have revealed to you is only a little. And why, monks, have I not revealed it? 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.’”3

The teaching of rebirth therefore must function to help attain the goal of the holy life. How can it do this?

Rebirth turns a narrowly circumscribed attempt at happiness and comfort within this single life into an epic struggle for salvation from a beginningless history of suffering with endless consequences for the future. Unless that struggle succeeds history will repeat itself ceaselessly into the future. This realization enhances the urgency of savega, horror at the predicament in which we all find ourselves. As the Buddha spoke,

“Which is greater, the tears you have shed while transmigrating & wandering this long, long time — crying & weeping from being joined with what is displeasing, being separated from what is pleasing — or the water in the four great oceans?… This is the greater: the tears you have shed…”4

He also talked about the blood spilled, the mountains of bones we have left behind, the cemeteries swelled. We need not succeed fully within this life in this struggle, but we can make great strides then continue in the next life and the next. This is the source of hope, pasāda, the calm trust that through diligent practice we are well on our way to winning the struggle to replace step by step the lot of the common being with something magnificent, with a Buddha. What’s at stake in this project dwarfs all other considerations in this life; after all every decision you make will be for a world eager to end suffering, long after the ephemeral gains, losses and fatigue of your small present life are long forgotten. This means you will continue to practice virtue, even under the pressure of bad times or of immediate gain, because it is your virtuous karma that will carry over into future. The fruits of the practice of this small life will acquire huge meaning in the context of this project. Sicknesses, deaths, births, falling stock prices will barely deter you in your determination to see the work continue without interruption. Even if rebirth should fail and bring our project to a halt at our deaths, we will have lived a life of great meaning.

The main alternative to rebirth is annihilationism (Pali, ucchedavāda), the view that all our efforts and progress, everything, comes to naught with the breakup of the body. At our death it will matter not one twittle whether we’ve practiced assiduously or just goofed off. The hapless annihilationist lacks the urgency that might otherwise propel him toward Awakening, even in this life, and the Buddha repeatedly reproved his viewpoint.

This former, deeper perspective is the function of rebirth in early Buddhism, and explains why the Buddha, otherwise so wary of philosophical speculation, took a clear and firm stand in this one case. What is really at stake, as with Refuge, is the attitude behind our practice. Bhikkhu Bodhi states more succinctly than I have:

“To take full cognizance of the principle of rebirth will give us that panoramic perspective from which we can survey our lives in their broader context and total network of relationships. This will spurus on in our own pursuit of the path and will reveal the profound significanceof the goal toward which our practice points …”

So, the primary function of rebirth is the perspective it lends to the pursuit of Nirvana, the final end of tears, blood, bones and cemeteries. A secondary is simply to provide intermediate resting places on the way that mark our progress or regression on the Path. Generally six kinds of realms are envisioned into which one might be reborn, Hell, Ghost, Asura, Animal, Human and Deva, depending on one’s practice. And within the human realm one might be born sickly, long-lived, ugly, beautiful, rich or poor. There are frequent references to this system in the early suttas, for instance,

Just as rust, iron’s impurity, eats the very iron from which it is born, so the deeds of one who lives slovenly lead him on to a bad destination.”5

By the same token, through one’s meritorious practice one accrues benefit, life becomes less of a problem. This happens within this very life, but all the more when one’s practice trajectory extends over many lives. In this way rebirth frames even the more immediate goal of practice in a way that inspires urgency.

This seems to be the function of rebirth, to frame our practice in greater-than-life terms and thereby to inspire urgency and meaningfulness. I am aware that rebirth raises skeptical eyebrows in much of the expectedly astute readership of this book because many of us tend to demand independent verification for religious (or religious-sounding) truths.6 However, if we assume the annihilationist position and reject rebirth outright we lose this function and we have therefore stepped beyond the scope of authentic or core Buddhism. Therefore it behooves us to ask, for the benefit of those who balk, and for the enrichment of understanding of those who do not, “How much wiggle room do we have for upholding these functions?” I certainly do not want this issue to become a deal breaker for anyone intent on the Path.

The secondary issue of realms of rebirth is easily put to rest. Assuming for the moment rebirth as a linear process that lines lives up front to back, realms of rebirth function to express that our practice or malpractice can save us from, or get us into, a heap of future trouble. Hell and deva realms in particular add vivid imagery to our success or failure. On the other hand, we hardly need to leave the human realm to experience heaven or hell; we already manage to do it right here! We might well be reborn over and over in the human realm into various circumstances of bliss or woe and we sacrifice no functionality and therefore no authenticity in our understanding. We can then just as well regard these realms as colorful and perhaps effective mythology, and leave it at that … or take them as real.

We have three optional views that define the wiggle room to retains the functionality of rebirth:

  1. Rebirth is literally true as described in early Buddhism. Probably this is the dominant view historically.

  2. Rebirth is an approximation for something more subtle, potentially verifiable, yet largely equivalent with regards to the functionality that authenticity demands. This is a view seldom considered.

  3. Rebirth as literally understood is a beneficial working assumption even if it is a pretense. This is the Buddha’s own recommendation, as we will see, for the skeptical.

The view that the Buddha never taught rebirth at all requires great imagination, that a ring of monks tainted with brahmanic views slipped heretical changes systematically into sutta after sutta shortly after the time of the Buddha and then managed to popularize these changes to such a degree that no contradictory suttas survived. It requires dismissing the drive for transcendent meaning in Buddhist practice that I have argued here is essential for the Path of Awakening. Let’s look at each of these three optional takes on rebirth.

Literal Truth of Rebirth

Consider this: If you know that water is flowing into one end of a pipe with only one inlet and only one outlet, you know that it must be flowing out the other end. The pipe in this metaphor is our present life and the water is (old) karma (Pali, kamma).7 Our old karma at any point in time is the content of our character, our impure habit patterns of body, speech and mind, our tainted views, our identities, our pleasures and our anguish, our skills, our strengths and faults. Karma is conditioned continually throughout our lives through our intentional actions (new karma), and also corresponds to the well-being we experience directly as the quality of our life. Let’s let the degree of purity of the water represent the quality of life or character (good or bad karma). A strong Buddhist practice should serve to turn scuzzy water flowing into the pipe into pure flowing out.

The crucial point is that there is water flowing into our pipe and that therefore it should not surprise us that there is water flowing out.8 Think, for example, about your habit patterns, your tendency to anger, for instance, or to indulgences, the way jealousy manifests, or envy, the way judgments arise. Where did all that come from? Why does it always seem that we are playing out an ancient script that we did not write, at least in this life? I know I am not smart enough to have come up with more than a few of the things that have arisen in my mind in my years (most of which are premonastic). And I was coming up with twisted actions almost from infancy. How about you? A chant of repentance used in a Zen tradition runs like this,

All my ancient twisted karma,
From beginningless greed, hate and delusion,
Born of body, speech and mind,
I now fully avow.”

There is something that rings true about the obscure antediluvian origins of our habits. We are each engaged in an epic struggle with karmic forces from the ancient past. And therefore, it follows, with outcomes that will reach endlessly into the future. For if water is flowing into the pipe of our life, water must be flowing out! It is hard to conceive that this ancient flow of water through many lives is capped with you. Why not with the life before?9 We are therefore largely conduits for karma with some opportunity for purifying it, scuzzifying it or eliminating it altogether in our lifetimes. For karmic water to have someplace to flow, there must be rebirth!

Before poking holes in this argument, let’s consider some verification. Rebirth and reincarnation are recognized in divergent cultures and religions throughout the world. Maybe many find consolation in this belief, though that is not its function in Buddhism, where ending rebirth is rather preferable to extending it. Second, the modern objection to the conventional model of rebirth is hardly decisive. It is that there is no material coupling known to science by which the water flowing at the outlet of one pipe would find its way to the inlet of the next pipe where physical death intervenes. That is, the answer to the question, how one’s karmic dispositions at one’s death could possibly find a home in a new life, requires a greater independence of mind and matter than many modernists and most scientists would be willing to concede. However the results of extensive recent research involving the memory by very young children of events and circumstances of previous lives10 that make a compelling case that such an elusive mechanism must exist, even if it has yet to be identified. Even so, this is far from verification of the entire model of rebirth nor of its ubiquity.

Even if one finds this literal model of rebirth compelling, it concerns me that people might stake their entire Buddhist practice on a model that they might potentially be dissuaded from, should additional scientific evidence turn against it. A well-known Western monk recently stated that if he were to learn there is no rebirth he would disrobe. Can this be unshakable trust in the Dharma? This alone makes it worthwhile how far an understanding that retains the functionality of rebirth might bend to the evidence.

1Victor Frankl (2006) attributes much of what is diagnosed as neurosis in fact to no more than the experience of meaninglessness. He describes how inmates of Nazi concentration camps pretty predictably gave up hope when they felt they had nothing to live for. For him personally, thoughts of reuniting with his family and reconstructing and publishing his research kept him going, even though he estimated at the time that his chances of survival were no better than 1 in 20. Yet as he attributes to Nietzsche, “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.”


3Simsapa Sutta, SN 56.31.

4Assu Sutta, SN 15.3.

5Dhammapada 240.

6For some reason our criteria seem often much less demanding when we feel we are safely beyond the scope of the religious.

7Actually if Awakening occurs in this present life then miraculously water flows in but not out, but this is the rare exception.

8Note that what enters into the pipe is not “you.” You are too chubby. But paradoxically it is the delusion of you that enables “your” pipe to empty into the next.

9This would actually be a kind of conceit. A similar mindset was satirically expressed in a series of ads for a local men’s clothing store, “You are the product of billions of years of evolution. Your suit is ready!”

10This compelling research is particularly due to Dr. Ian Stevenson (2000, etc.) and his colleagues at the University of Virginia. Frankly, I find it quite solid and astonishing.

Growing the Dharma: Refuge in Dharma and Sangha

September 6, 2013

You are reading a serialization of the ebook Growing the Dharma: Buddhism’s Religious Spadework. This concludes the chapter on Refuge in Buddha, Dharma and Sangha.

There has been some additional discussion over at here.

Refuge in the Dharma

“Well expounded is the teaching of the Buddha,
Directly visible, with immediate fruit,
Inviting investigation, leading onwards,
To be realized by the wise each for himself.”1

Most religions have some form of doctrine or belief system, generally providing a metaphysics, an account of the origin of the world, of mankind or of a particular tribe and so on. The Dharma stands out in its sophistication and its emphasis on the mind rather than on external forces. It deals with the human dilemma, existential crisis, anguish, suffering and dissatisfaction, delusion, harmfulness, meaninglessness and the rest, as human problems with human causes that arise in human minds, and require human solutions. It provides a program whereby the mind is tuned, honed, sharpened, tempered, straightened, turned and distilled into an instrument of virtue, serenity and wisdom. The Dharma itself is among the greatest products of the human mind, skillfully articulated by the Buddha. On the basis of trust in the Triple Gem we begin to study, practice, develop and gain insight through the teachings of the Buddha. As the Buddha states,

“He who has gone for refuge to the Buddha, the Teaching and his Order, penetrates with transcendental wisdom the Four Noble Truths — suffering, the cause of suffering, the cessation of suffering, and the Noble Eightfold Path leading to the cessation of suffering.”2

The Dharma also stands out in its empirical quality, “inviting investigation.” This phrase translates Pali ehipassiko, which is an adjective formed from “come” and “see.” The Dharma points almost entirely to what can be verified in our direct experience, or instructs us in ways to move the mind into certain experiences. Many in the West are inspired to trust in the Dharma in the first place upon learning of this refreshing quality of the Dharma.

Some caution is, however, in order lest one think this means that we should trust our own experience above all. In fact, for the Buddha the typical “uninstructed worldling” is actually astonishingly deluded and the Dharma quite “against the stream” from his perspective. We get hopelessly confused in trying to see or interpret our own experience. For this reason the Buddha in the famous but often misquoted Kalama Sutta warns us not to base one’s understanding on one’s own thinking:

“… don’t go … by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability …”3

In fact, when the Buddha says “Come” he is shouting down to us flatlanders from the mountaintop. To arrive at his vantage point we need to scramble up hills, struggle through brambles and ford rivers. When the Buddha says “See” we need to focus our eyes intently in the right direction to barely make out what the Buddha sees with great clarity of vision. In order to be willing to do any of this we have to establish from the beginning great trust that the Buddha knew what he was talking about. This is Refuge. What else would induce us to make the difficult climb up the mountain? Investigation and personal verification are necessary parts of following the Dharmic Path but they take time and effort before we can say, “I have come and now I see.” Until then trust is essential.

For instance, the Buddha taught that craving is the origin of suffering (the Second Noble Truth). At first this may seem at least to some an abstract proposition which we ponder and try our darnedest to match up with observation. The most likely early outcome is to dismiss this proposition as faulty. It seems pretty clear to us, for instance, that buying that snazzy shirt would make us exceedingly dashing and that that would lead to improved prospects for romance and other forms of social and perhaps even business success. Therefore, we conclude, craving clearly leads not to suffering but to happiness! Refuge entails instead that we decide to trust the Buddha before our own premature views about what we think we are experiencing. Eventually through years of examination on and off the cushion we might discover that the Second Noble Truth is not an abstraction at all; it is something that bites us on the nose over and over all day every day. As soon as the craving comes up the suffering is right there with it. As soon as we have to have that shirt there is stress and anxiety, unmistakenly. We would discover we had been living in a world of incessant suffering, a world aflame, all along and not noticing it!

Without Refuge in the Dharma we would never have scrambled to the mountaintop. We’ve already taken refuge implicitly in many faulty non-Buddhist ideas and habits taught to us from a young age or absorbed through too much TV, and we are bound to cling to those until we take Refuge in the Dharma, mistaking them for products of our own “free” thinking. As the contemplation at the beginning of this subchapter states, it is the wise who realize for themselves. The Japanese Zen master Shohaku Okumura in a similar vein once said of Zen meditation, “It takes a lot of faith to do zazen. Otherwise nobody would do something so stupid.”

Although the Buddha’s quite empirical methods seem generally to turn away from what we tend to think of as religiosity – the Buddha quite clearly had no sympathy for blind faith – I should in all fairness point out that his teachings are not entirely empirical. The ultimate criterion for Dharmic truth is not verification, but benefit! This again is made clear in the Kalama Sutta:

“Kalamas, when you yourselves know: ‘These things are bad; these things are blamable; these things are censured by the wise; undertaken and observed, these things lead to harm and ill,’ abandon them.”4

The Buddha goes on to argue how belief in rebirth, for instance, apparently as controversial in Buddha’s day as it is today, fits this criterion, as a working assumption for the unconvinced if need be. He does not argue for rebirth on the basis of objective verification but of ethics. This brings myth, or what many will interpret as myth, within the Buddha’s purview, even while it is rare that it is found in a core role. We will follow up on this in the next chapter.

Refuge in the Sangha

Of good conduct is the Sangha of disciples,
Of upright conduct is the Sangha of disciples,
Of wise conduct is the Sangha of disciples,
Of dutiful conduct is the Sangha of disciples,
Namely the four pairs of persons and the eight kinds of individuals,
Worthy of offerings, worthy of hospitality,
Worthy of gifts, worthy of reverential salutation,
An incomparable field of merits in the world.5

Living, breathing role models are found in every religious tradition, but in Buddhism these become primary objects of veneration and faith. This makes perfect sense since living breathing persons have the most immediate influence on our lives and are most likely to have brought us to Refuge in the Triple Gem in the first place. Unfortunately sometimes we accord this privilege unknowingly to ruffians and scoundrels rather than to admirable friends. For the Buddha the Noble Sangha is most worthy.

The line in the verse above, “Namely the four pairs of persons and the eight kinds of individuals,” refers to the four stages of Awakening, beginning with Stream Entry, and subdividing each of these by “path” and “fruit,” that define the Noble Sangha in terms of spiritual attainment. The subsequent lines refer to the practice of giving alms and veneration to monks and nuns, the Monastic Sangha. The idea is that the Sangha brings great benefit to the world but that their attainment and presence are enabled by those who sustain them and thereby share in bringing benefit to the world, often compared to sowing a fertile field. The generosity of alms is thereby the primary means of expressing veneration to the Third Gem. Both practices, veneration itself and generosity as a specific expression, are important elements of Buddhist religiosity in cultivating wholesome mental factors for the actor, which is what merit really is.

I’ve written a bit about the relationship of the Noble and Monastic Sanghas, the soil and the roots, in the last chapter, and will examine this in detail in the next chapter. Suffice it here to say here that there is an ambiguity between the two. Recall that the former are individuals of great attainment, the Noble Ones, and the latter the members of the monastic order, who individually may or may not be so Noble. Generally when we extol the virtues of the Sangha, as in the contemplation above we speak of the Noble Ones, yet the most common formula for first taking Refuge in the early discourses usually in the Buddha’s presence, explicitly refers to the Monastic Sangha. This gets confusing but the confusion seems to be deliberate. If we think of the Monastic Sangha as a school that trains people to become Noble Ones but actually includes some monks and nuns of little attainment, for instance, the newly ordained, we realize that offering alms to the Monastic Sangha is a necessary function for ensuring that there are Noble Ones in the world.

Moreover, the monks and nuns play an important ritual role as objects of veneration for it is they who are readily recognized as a Sangha through their (especially now atrociously) distinctive attire. As such the Monastic Sangha not only substantially includes the Noble Sangha, but nuns and monks collectively or individually symbolize it, even if sometimes much as a piece of plaster sitting on a modern altar might count as the Buddha, or in play a stick might count as a horse, or in battle the loss of the flag might count as defeat. Monks and nuns are particularly opportune ritual objects since they live and breathe (unlike Buddha statues), accept alms and actually eat them, and have a good shot at spiritual attainment.

In fact, the Vinaya requires that monks and nuns not offer teachings if their audience shows disrespect for them.6 It helps if the practice of giving alms is thought of not as the practice of giving to a particular Noble One or a particular nun or monk, but to the Sangha as a whole, undifferentiated, on behalf of which a particular nun or monk receives the alms. Accordingly the Buddha said,

An offering made to the monastic Sangha is incalculable, immeasurable. And, I say, that in no way does a gift to a person individually ever have a greater fruit than an offering made to the Sangha.”7

Although the Buddha included himself in the Sangha it is remarkable that the “person individually” referred to was specifically himself in the context of the discourse, the Noble One of the Noble Ones. For the Buddha the Refuge in the Sangha was huge.

Buddhism without Refuge?

The tyke born of a devout Buddhist family is likely to live out his life centered in religiosity; he will live in the roots and leaves, not in the stem. The little seedling will have been brought into the presence of Buddha altars, and of monks, nuns and Noble Ones, and will have been taught the forms of veneration. He will have learned to recite the Refuges. He begins to absorb a few Dharmic aphorisms and learns to recite five Precepts. With growing conviction he becomes increasingly involved in the community life, developing merit in taking care of the temple and the needs of the monastics, in chanting with gusto. He will someday become aware of the stem and may consider broadening his world to include the Path upward, perhaps ordain. A full encounter with savega would likely bring him to that decision. Regardless, he will be inclined support generously the aspirations of those who do make that choice, for he will understand the civilizing force of the Noble Ones.

Living in a devout Buddhist community seems in itself capable of inducing remarkable results. I see this in many Asian Buddhists I’ve known. I also see it in other religious traditions with similar forms of religiosity, which one way or another seem to produce some people of some attainment, even without a Noble Eightfold Path or anything resembling it! It has a remarkable capacity for generating confidence, zip and many wholesome mental factors in its adherents, and can produce centered, selfless, composed, kind and insightful people. One can thrive in the grass on the basis of devotional practice.

A totally different profile would be someone who has not grown up with a foundation in Buddhist religiosity. He might be reluctant to commit to the Refuges or Precepts, has not lived in a Buddhist community, knows nothing aboutNoble Ones, does not know what function nuns and monks could possibly serve or why they don’t go out to get jobs. He might have begun by reading about Buddhism, inspired perhaps bya vague sense that Buddhism is a good thing, maybe having seen the Dalai Lama on TV or inspired by Buddhism’s reputation as “peaceful,” or by reading Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse.


A Path without Religiosity.

In any case he has been moved to take up Buddhist practice, particularly meditation, much as he had when taking up working out in a gym the year before. Just as the gym membership had made his body stronger, he hopes that joining a “sangha” will make his mind stronger. He likes the idea of Awakening and might even expect to if he meditates ardently for a couple of years, but has no perspective beyond improving this one short life.

This chap lives in the world of the stem, as shown in the next illustration. Without deep veneration nor involvement in a Buddhist community he is nourished only by the experience of practice itself. He lives more accurately in something like mistletoe hanging off the stem which has grown from a seed (his initial intention) that had been deposited in a bird dropping. Mistletoe is a parasite that develops enough of a root to absorb water and minerals from the host plant. It has no sense of where this nourishment comes from nor responsibility for preserving it for future generations. It is unaware of the Sasana, the living flower. Accordingly it gazes down upon the grass with disdain, little comprehending the roots and soil and the spiritual growth that is happening down there. I know this profile well; it used to be mine. His practice is likely to be precarious for a time, but he might eventually gain some strength if he manages grow deep religious roots.

My sense is that people who grow up steeped in (perhaps Jewish or Catholic) religiosity have an easier time. They are like a graft rather than mistletoe. Much of the growth of the roots and leaves has already been experienced and is, probably with mixed degrees of success, translated into Buddhist religiosity.

1AN 10.92.

2Dhammapada, 190-191.

3AN 3.65.

4AN 3.65.

5AN 10.92.

6The Vinaya rules of etiquette (Pali, Sekhiyā) specify that a monk will not teach to one who is not sick yet carries an umbrella, club or weapon; wears sandals or shoes; is in a vehicle or on a bed; sits clasping the knees; wears a turban or other head covering; sits on a higher seat, sits while the monk is standing; walks preceding the monk or on a pathway while the monk walks off the path. These would have been disrespectful in the Buddha’s culture.

7MN 141.

Growing the Dharma: Refuge

August 31, 2013

Refuge in the Triple Gem (Buddha, Dharma and Sangha) is where Buddhist practice begins. Sometimes it is said that it is what makes a Buddhist. Notice its prominent role given to it last week as the nutrients that feed the flower of Sasana. Refuge is the locus of trust, faith, confidence, whatever you want to call it.

One way to underscore the importance of Refuge for the Western Buddhist convert is to acknowledge that we grow up with many tacit presuppositions, many unstated assumptions, values, conceptualizations, biases that we often don’t even know we have. When we attempt to understand Buddhism we generally start with our tacit presuppositions and then try to reconcile what we learn with them every step of the way. This is an almost impossible task. Refuge allows us to abandon those presuppositions, to start our exploration from the Buddha’s perspective, not our own.

You are reading a serialization of the ebook Growing the Dharma: Buddhism’s Religious Spadework. This chapter on Refuge will conclude next week, in which we will look at Dharma and Sangha.

Chapter 3. Refuge

The flood waters were rising and some of the huts at the river’s edge were beginning to be swept away. Villagers began to panic as they came face to face with the foolishness of having built their village against a sheer cliff at water’s edge. Many of them began running frantically back and then forth along the river bank, beside themselves with indecision, some of these overloaded with small children and belongings. Others backed away from the rushing waters up to the cliffs, looking helpless and forlorn. Still others went about their normal business as if this day had brought nothing new.

The chief, ever courageous, emerged from his hut, assessed the situation by scanning the length of the river with discerning eyes, grabbed up his youngest daughter in one hand and his exquisitely embellished staff of authority in the other, and shouted,

“Follow me, villagers!”

He had picked a point along the shore at which he plunged boldly and confidently into the water at a right angle headed directly for the opposite shore. He waded deeper and deeper as the water reached his waist, then his chest, but his determination remained unaltered. Many others followed immediately behind, holding belongings and frightened children over their heads, leading horses and dog-paddling beleashed dogs.

However, the more timid waited at the shore and watched the chief’s progress, while others, the more panic stricken, continued to run up and down the shore and others, the flood deniers, went about their normal business oblivious to the chief’s actions. Gradually the chief and his closest followers, having nearly disappeared below the waves, began to ascend as they approached the opposite river bank. But by this time the waters had risen even further, many of the trailing timid were tragically swept away in the raging waters for having hesitated, followed soon by the panicked and by the deniers. The chief had saved half of the villagers.


We live in a relentlessly uncertain world yet need to make decisions in that world. It is the rare decision indeed that comes with absolute certitude. Trust1 is that which bridges the gap between the little we actually know and the heap we would need to know in order to make a decision of predictable outcome. Trust belongs to the nuts and bolts of human cognition. We may try to bring as much discernment as possible into the decision but in the end we necessarily make a jump, big or little, into the unknown,

“[Gulp] Well, here goes!”

In this way we have entrusted ourselves for better or worse to our baby sitters, to our teachers, to our accountant, to TV pundits, to our dentist, to the authority of science, and for some of us to our national leaders.

We grow up trusting a mass of tacit and unexamined assumptions instilled at such a young age that we are scarcely aware of them and have no memory of when we started trusting them. Moreover, in this modern age of mass media and mass marketing values have become cheap, manufactured at will and instilled into us through the mass media, planted and cultivated by the marketers one year then overturned the next to grow something new. We worship celebrities for no good reason other than that they are celebrities, we celebrate greed, we obsess over hair and clothes, our cars and personal entertainment centers are shrines, we are taught from the youngest age that “good” is inevitably expressed through the barrel of a gun because that is all that “bad” understands. This implicit trust is unexamined and undiscerning.

Trust in the Triple Gem must be great enough to overcome our tacit and unexamined trust. We do best to start our practice of exploration from the perspective of the Buddha, not from that of Madison Avenue, John Wayne or Rupert Murdock. We do best to replace unsavory influences with savory. Since trust is unavoidable, replacing unexamined trust with discerning trust seems like a good idea. Trust in the Triple Gem is essential for bending our minds around Buddhism, not always an easy set of ideas and practices to internalize. Until we understand what it is the Buddha realized, what it is the Buddha taught and what it is the Sangha has upheld for one hundred generations, we cannot be certain where this way of life and Path of practice will lead us. Until we have experienced deeply this way of life and traveled far on this Path of practice we will not understand what the Buddha understood, taught and entrusted to the Sangha. Therefore, until we have experienced this way of life and traveled far on this path we require trust, ardent trust in the Triple Gem, to nourish our Buddhist aspirations and practice just as sun, water and soil nourish a flower. This is what first turns our heads toward virtue, wisdom and peace.

Many people trust in a rational mind that can keep their options open until certitude is realized. That is timidity. There is no more discernment in timidity than there is in denial, for in timidity we invariably fall back on our tacit unexamined assumptions. Timidity or denial is each a are both decisions based in misplaced trust to forgo making a more deliberate, informed and bolder decision. There is no getting around trust in an uncertain world. Life-altering decisions generally arise from a sense of urgency that demand big acts of trust and therefore enormous courage; they are way beyond the reach of the timid who cling fearfully to certitude and baby steps. This is the courage of the great explorers, of the hippies of yore on quest in India with nothing but a backpack, and more commonly of the betrothed or of the career bound, stirred by deep longing or by desperation. The Buddhist Path fully embraced by the one resolved to ascend the stem toward Nirvana will shake one’s life to the core and this will demand a particularly courageous trust.

Those born into Buddhist cultures and families learn that trust from infancy, others acquire it through sometimes accidental means. Sariputta, who would one day become the Buddha’s leading disciple in wisdom, gained it first simply by observing the deportment of one of the early Noble Ones on alms rounds. Many in the West who are not born Buddhists gain the initial trust through encounters with Buddhists, who often exhibit profound peace and kindness, or through the profundity that shines through the Buddha’s teachings even before we grasp more than a hint of their import. That trust will grow the deeper we progress.

There is great drama in these great decisions, initially urgency and fear, then reflection, then resolution, then outcome. Where trust is ongoing, devotion or reverence might follow. The resolution to trust is experienced as a sudden relief, almost as if it were already safety. The uncertainty behind the initial fear may not yet be eliminated but the urgency has been addressed and worry has been given over to fortune. The sense of ease is a refuge, a sense of entrusting oneself, much as we as children entrust our well-being to our parents.

The trust we place in the Triple Gem often arises from a sense of urgency as great as that of the villagers in the story above. This is called in Pali savega, a kind of horror at the realization of the full nature and depth of the human condition.2 It is said that the Buddha-to-be experienced savega when as a somewhat frivolous Nepalese playboy he learned to his dismay of sickness, of old age and of death, and thus began his quest to India. Savega arises when we lose our capacity for denial, which is likely to happen when frivolity ceases. The Buddha-to-be then recognized in the sight of a wandering ascetic an option that gave rise to the bold resolution to address his despair. It is said that he then experienced a sense of calm relief that in Pali is called pasada, the antidote to the distress of savega.

Underlying the metaphors of both Refuge and Gem is the property of protection or safety. A refuge at the Buddha’s time was understood as the protection provided by a mentor, patron or benefactor in return for a vow of allegiance.3 Gems were generally believed to have special protective properties. Refuge in the Triple Gem represents, particularly for those not born Buddhist, a bold decision to entrust oneself to a way of life, understanding and practice that will at first have all the uncertainty and mystery that virgin territory has to the explorer, a deep and dark cave has to the spelunker. Just as a plan of action is a refuge to relieve the panic of the castaway or the buried in rubble, entrusting oneself to a Path of practice toward Awakening provides refuge from savega.

But is it a trust that arises out of wise reflection and discernment?

Refuge in the Buddha

“Such indeed is the fortunate one, the worthy one, the supremely awakened one,
Endowed with knowledge and virtue, well-gone, knower of Worlds,
Peerless tamer and driver of the hearts of men, master of gods and men,
The awakened one, the exalted one.”4

Most religions worship some personality. Buddhism is striking in that the role of veneration is occupied primarily by a (now deceased) human being rather than a deity or supernatural being, albeit a person who attained some remarkable attributes. We already tend to venerate people with remarkable qualities, for instance, our favorite geniuses like Einstein or Mozart. The Buddha was a three-fold genius!

First, the Buddha became a supremely awakened one, a Buddha, worthy, exalted, with no one to light the Path for him. He thereby attained perfect mastery of the mind, achieving perfect wisdom, virtue and equanimity. This was his first form of genius.

Second, he was able to teach what he had attained, to lay out the Dharma, the proper understanding of reality and the means to tame, drive and master humans and whoever else wanted to travel the Path. This was his second form of genius.

Third, he organized the Buddhist Community, in particular the institution of the Sangha, to support, propagate and perpetuate the understanding and practice of his teachings. His third form of genius is rarely mentioned as such, but the reader should appreciate the immensity of this accomplishment in a couple of chapters. In short, the Buddha’s three-fold genius is directly tied to the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha.

When we take Refuge in the Buddha we see in this towering personality the highest qualities we might choose to emulate. Refuge in the Buddha is nonetheless an act of trust, trust that such a personality is even possible. It is only with deep practice and study, with our own progress on the Path that we begin to see how his qualities of mind might actually start to begin to commence starting to emerge gradually. Trust is necessary in the beginning until we see for ourselves: Veneration encourages trust, it opens up the heart and mind to the influence of the Buddha.

Veneration as a part of Refuge is a good place to begin our study of religiosity in Buddhism because it is clearly an affective, that is, emotional, quality of mind deliberately cultivated as a part of Buddhist practice. It is clearly recommended by the Buddha in the earliest teachings. Its expressions from the earliest times were clearly culturally conditioned, yet remained largely unembellished by any metaphysical or supernatural quality. Finally, its simple roots would grow with time into sometimes wildly embellished forms in some of the later traditions.

Let’s begin with the opportunities and expressions of veneration in early Buddhism. The living Buddha was venerated and he expected to be venerated according to the customs of the culture in which he lived. These included a number of physical expressions, most significantly anjali (in Sanskrit), produced by bringing the palms together before the chest or face. Anjali is a quite ubiquitous expression of respect or greeting in its land of origin. Buddhism would carry this originally culturally-conditioned form from India to every land I am aware of in which Buddhism has taken root regardless of how dissimilar the culture. We could theoretically replace anjali with waving, saluting or pulling one’s ear and perhaps retain the authentic function of veneration, but we don’t.

Veneration to the Buddha was also expressed early on through full prostrations sometimes touching the Buddha’s feet, by circumambulation while keeping the Buddha on one’s right, by covering one’s otherwise bare shoulder with one’s robe, by sitting on a lower seat than the Buddha, by standing when the Buddha entered the room, by walking behind the Buddha or not turning one’s back to the Buddha and by proper forms of address. In the early scriptures the Buddha occasionally actively chastised a visitor for not showing proper respect. And this in fact began with the Buddha’s re-encounter after his Awakening with the five ascetics to whom he delivered his first Dharma talk.5

Bowing belongs to ritual conduct, as does shaking hands or wearing a tux to a formal dinner party. Robert Sharf writes, “Ritual habituation inscribes the self with a set of perceptual orientations, affective dispositions, automatic responses that are precognitive.” It begins by enacting these as if in play within an implicit frame of reference that one does not have to believe in or acquiesce to any more than one believes in the grammar of one’s mother tongue. To bow to the Buddha is to enact veneration for the Buddha, to enact veneration of the Buddha is to feel veneration for the Buddha, to feel veneration for the Buddha is to put aside one’s preconceptions and open one’s heart to the teachings of the Buddha. To do this is to align with the Buddha’s path.6

There is however little indication that the Buddha intended to become the center of a personality cult. He discouraged some of the more extreme forms of reverence he received, once telling an awe-struck follower (in the most literal sense of follower),

“Why do you want to see this foul body? If you see the Dhamma you see me.”7

The early practice of veneration to the Buddha applied of course to a living being. Nearing his parinibbana he anticipated that his relics, the remains after his cremation, would become objects of veneration and accordingly specified, as described in the famous Parinibbana Sutta8 that they be divvied up and distributed to specified clans of lay devotees, so that they might build stupas over them. This became the primary physical symbol of the Buddha for purposes of veneration. The Buddha also recommended contemplations about himself for recitation such as the one that began this subchapter, alongside contemplations of the Dharma and Sangha.

The Buddha also specified four significant places from his life as destinations for pilgrimage after he would be gone.

“There are four places, Ananda, that a pious person should visit and look upon with feelings of reverence. What are the four? Here the Tathagata was born! This, Ananda, is a place that a pious person should visit and look upon with feelings of reverence. Here the Tathagata became fully enlightened in unsurpassed, supreme Enlightenment! … Here the Tathagata set rolling the unexcelled Wheel of the Dhamma! … Here the Tathagata passed away into the state of Nibbana in which no element of clinging remains! This, Ananda, is a place that a pious person should visit and look upon with feelings of reverence.”9

The way the Buddha set himself up, albeit in a modest way for the times, as an object of veneration had nothing to do with an “ego trip”; that would contradict all we know about the personality of the Buddha, about the doctrine and practices he espoused which were directed unambiguously toward selflessness, and with the trajectory of development dedicated disciples of the Buddha have experienced throughout history. Rather it must have had a functional basis related to Buddhist practice and understanding. Let’s turn to that. We Westerners tend to find scorn more natural than veneration, so this requires some examination.

First, veneration will spring forth of itself one way or another in most areas of human discourse. To try to strip it away is only to create something sterile, like trying to strip away hugging from procreation. This is not to say we are smart about who we venerate any more than we are smart about who we hug. Consider that the most common objects of veneration in our culture are celebrities, such as bad actors and robber barons, and consumer goods, such as iPods and whiter-than-white laundry detergent. We attribute to our celebrities fantastic wealth, sparkling charm and voluptuous sexuality much as the people of Buddha’s India attributed divinity to the great ascetics, brahmins and cows, and we attribute to our recent purchases the capacity to conjure up such wondrous attributes. Veneration, like trust, is unavoidable, but can be either discerning or stupid. We might choose, or be taught by our parents, to venerate genius and remarkable achievements: Mozart, Einstein or Gandhi. Or the Buddha. We tend toward becoming what we venerate.

Second, physical expressions of veneration are direct causal factors in attaining certain wholesome qualities of mind that we try to develop on the Path. In particular they powerfully and immediately generate personal humility, they deflate the ego, knock it out of its privileged position in the universe by deferring to another. This seems to be a function of veneration or worship in all religions I am aware of, and I presume an essential function of God as an object of veneration in most. Veneration is certainly similarly abused for social control – for instance, requisite veneration of superior officers, judges or the police – but again the watchword, as it always is in Buddhism, is discernment.

The astonishing power of veneration for cutting through the competitiveness that comes natural to us humans and through the need to compare oneself to others can only be experienced through entering this practice completely.10 In Buddhist terms humility, weakening of the craving for being somebody, relaxes suffering, and thereby creates an immediate sense of ease. As the Buddha states,

“When a noble disciple contemplates upon the Enlightened One, at that time his mind is not enwrapped in lust, nor in hatred, nor in delusion. … By cultivating this contemplation, many beings become purified.”11

Third, veneration opens the heart to the influence of worthy teachers and teachings, just as expressions of veneration open the heart to veneration. One cannot learn from someone one does not first hold in high regard. When we show proper respect to the elderly, school teachers, professors, piano teachers and good cooks, we take seriously what they have to impart and so learn more quickly. When someone exhibits real talent we are sometimes awe-struck and when we are awe-struck we are moved to make that person’s qualities our own.

In short, veneration when brought together with discernment is a powerful support for what we seek on the Buddhist Path. Although its expressions are inevitably culturally determined, its indispensable function in Buddhist life and practice has been a bedrock of Buddhism throughout time and space. It also lends to Buddhism much of its religiosity, its devotional part, and is the focal point of sometimes extensive embellishment in the later traditions. Whether this embellishment has been helpful or even healthy will be a major theme in this book.

1The Pali word that is meant here is saddha, alternately translated as “faith” or “confidence.” I have come to find ‘faith’ as most, uh, faithful to the Pali term. However it also carries misleading connotations when used in a religious context, often equated with “blind faith,” although that is something authentic Buddhism never asks of us.

2See AN 5.77, 5.78, 5.79 and 5.80.

3Thanissaro (1996), p. 1.

4AN 10.92.

5Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta, SN 56.11.

6See Sharf (2005).

7Vakkali Sutta, SN 22.87.

8Final Nirvana Sutta, DN 16.

9DN 16, Mahaparinibbana Sutta.

10Suzuki Roshi, shortly after arriving in San Francisco, was surprised to discover how much resistance his American students had to bows, particularly the three full prostrations that he asked of them in the early morning. He accordingly adapted this practice to the West: He required of his American students nine full prostrations, a custom that has now endured for nearly half a century at the San Francisco Zen Center and its affiliates.

11AN 6.25.

Growing the Dhamma: How the Religious Context Works

August 25, 2013

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.

Calgary Kids

August 20, 2013

Last month I got back from three weeks in Calgary, Canada, where I was invited to teach a daily class on Buddhism to the Burmese kids. Here we are:

2013-07-10 2013-07-10 001 004After each class adults provided snacks, such as popcorn.

The great advantage I have in teaching kids, aside from being a father, is that the kids speak English better than they speak Burmese and are quite acculturated. Although the pressures of modern life allow the parents to spend less time with their kids than their counterparts in the homeland do, they pick up an abiding respect for Buddhism if not much understanding of it. Many of the questions they have about it are very familiar to me as a Westerner, like “Why all the bows?”

A short time before my departure a few of the boys in the class ordained as temporary novice monks and lived at the monastery for a few days.

SAM_4522rightThis is a traditional rite of passage for Burmese boys. I gives them an opportunity to experience what it like to be part of the Sangha, and receive respect (for a change) and offerings (which I guess they already get)  from their lay parents.

Growing the Dhamma: Buddhist Life and Practice

August 17, 2013

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



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.

Growing the Dharma: Introduction

August 10, 2013

This is the second serial installment of my recent ebook draft. I couple of people who posted comments to the first installment see value in focusing on one segment at a time as a readership community.  I encourage critical feedback and comments. I don’t expect what I write to be wildly popular; I wrote it precisely because it runs counter to dominant but improvident trends in Western Buddhism. The complete ebook is here.

Growing the Dharma: Buddhism’s Religious Spadework

Chapter 1. Introduction

Is Buddhism a religion? Of course the answer depends on one’s definition. I see three options:

  1. A religion involves worship of God. This works for the Abrahamic faiths familiar in the West. Clearly Buddhism fails this criterion.

  2. A religion is a way of life. That is, it informs our life choices at the most fundamental level, our ethical standards, our values, our attitudes, our aspirations. Clearly Buddhism satisfies this criterion.

Many suggest Buddhism is not a religion because it is rather a way of life. It seems to me this is exactly what is expected of any religion when embraced fully: it should be a way of life. But let’s go on:

  1. A religion is a matter of family resemblance,1 that is, if it looks like a duck it is.

This last seems at first like a sloppy criterion, but family resemblance underlies the better part of language; firm definitions are the exception, even for scientific terminology. Maybe to determine if Buddhism is a religion we should try for two out of three. This would make the family resemblance criterion the deciding factor.

The degree of this family resemblance, or the elements that indicate this family resemblance, are what I will call religiosity. Surely Buddhism in all of its traditional forms seems to have something of religion about it–for instance, devotional, ritual, liturgical and institutional features, to supplement what I will call Path elements–the somewhat unique and therefore more “secular” doctrinal aspects and program of personal practice. Yet some have argued recently that Buddhist religiosity is rather a product of cultural accretion that began after the Buddha and has little to do with the core message of the Buddha. Indeed, if we take the core message of the Buddha to be the Four Noble Truths, which includes the Noble Eightfold Path of practice, this view has some merit, as these indeed are rather short on elements one would be inclined to call “religious.” For instance, there is in the Noble Eightfold Path

  • No “Right Bowing,”
  • No “Right Robes,” and
  • No “Right Ecclesiastical Governance.”

My response to this will be something of a middle way. The evidence, which will be reviewed here, makes it undeniable that many elements of religiosity were an intrinsic and functional part of the early Buddhist message, albeit carefully circumscribed in many ways. However through cultural adaptation in virtually every tradition the degree of religiosity has grown more prominent, sometimes exceedingly more prominent. On the other hand, this fortified religiosity, I will maintain, seldom obscures the core message of early Buddhism, in spite of appearances.

In this book I will outline the important aspects of religiosity in early and authentic Buddhism and will illustrate its enhancement in a sample of later traditions. I will then turn to the process of cultural adaptation that shaped these historical traditions and its implications for modern Buddhism. Buddhism stands out in the following two ways: First, if it is a religion it is the earliest world religion, succeeded only substantially by Christianity and Islam, which means that it has historically successfully adapted to often radically new cultures. Second, the integrity of the highly sophisticated core teachings of Buddhism has been remarkably well preserved through these cultural adaptations. This combination of resilience and tolerance to adaptation is likely what made Buddhist the first world religion. I will locate the mechanism, as a matter of fact, outside of the Path elements, in the more religious elements.

Which Buddhism?

I count as one of those who see in Buddhism – in spite of all its doctrinal variants, sects, innovations, cultural manifestations and so on ̶ a common core, that is, a set of unifying features that allows us to talk of “Buddhism” in the singular. In fact, it seems to me that a remarkable aspect of Buddhism – in spite of exhibiting much more scriptural variation than most of the other major religions – is that it seems to have much more consistency of purpose and understanding than, say, Christianity. Somehow, transmitted through many centuries, through many traditions and cultures, and in spite of its accrued variety, Buddhism has managed to preserve the integrity of its early functionality throughout the Buddhist world in spite of enormous variation. The essential core preserved in the traditions includes, for instance, a more-or-less common understanding of liberation and of the Path of training toward liberation which focuses on virtue, wisdom and development of mind, and a recognition of greed, hatred and delusion as the primary qualities of mind to be relieved. It also includes placing trust in the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha, a prominent role for the monastic order and particular emphasis on the practices of generosity and virtue.

I realize that many people see in Buddhism exactly the opposite: They find it extremely fragmented, dispersed over an impossible range of doctrinal positions, beliefs, practices and rituals. For instance, any given Buddhist tradition considers itself almost invariably the almost unique heir of Buddhist authenticity. Yet in exploring other lands and other sects it is faced with peculiarity and anomaly in the practices and beliefs of the other laity, the garb of the other monastics, the style of other liturgy, the presence of unfamiliar figures in temple statuary, unfamiliar rites at temple altars, unknown scriptures on temple bookshelves, and hocus pocus all around. For many in the West who first come to Buddhism and survey the entire array of traditions, unbiased by any particular tradition, the variance is even more striking and it is easy to see how they might throw their hands up in despair and perhaps entertain the hope that Baha’i or Sufism is easier to sort out.

I hope to gain in this book a recognition and explanation of the great resilience of Buddhism in retaining the integrity and functionality of its authentic teachings that exists alongside a great tolerance for adaptation and change.

Religiosity in Buddhism

Religiosity seems to be a universal, found throughout the world. Scholars of comparative religion have looked at this in detail, but here are the recurring features that I observe in almost all religions and that contribute to the family resemblance of Buddhism and “religion”:

  • Ritual and ceremony. These are conventionalized actions and activities.
  • Ritual spaces. Certain places and spatial relations are made significant or sacred through ritual or placement at an elevation or naturally central location.
  • Ritual artifacts. A central or prominent altar is common. Sometimes clothing is an indicator of social role in religious activities. Incense, candles, flowers and sacred images are common.
  • Respect, devotion and worship. Certain rituals and gestures are used to express degrees of reverence or respect, either to designated people, to ritual artifacts, to abstractions or to otherworldly beings.
  • Scripture. Texts convey the basic doctrine or mythology of the religion and often go back to the founding of the religion. Scriptures are often regarded as ritual artifacts.
  • Tradition. Many of the rituals, artifacts, scripture and so on are archaic, that is, bespeak of an ancient time to give a sense of embeddedness in a long tradition.
  • Chanting. Typically this is a group activity and involves reciting scripture.
  • Community, and group identity. There is a sense of belonging to a community, often assuming a certain role in a community dynamics and interrelatedness, much like belonging to a family.
  • Common world view or conviction. This is faith in a certain set of doctrines, creeds or values or confidence in an authority.
  • Salvation. The ultimate goal is generally some form of transcendence of this one worldly life.
  • Clergy. There is often a class of professionals who dedicate themselves to understanding and practice of the religion, who generally conduct or lead the rituals and who take care of the community and sometimes enjoy the status of ritual artifacts themselves.
  • Institutions. The community is generally organized according to certain principles and this organization sustains the clergy, owns ritual spaces and objects and provides some degree of governance and authority.

A shorter list of topics I will focus on here is as follows:

  • Devotion.
  • Community.
  • Salvation.

I make no further attempt to define religiosity than to provide this list and its summary. The common statement, “I’m spiritual but not religious,” seems generally intended to sweep aside many of the elements on this list, particularly the more institutional elements. Why this list comes together as something requiring special attention, evoking even alarm, in the Western mind is discussed in a few chapters.

It is worth noting parenthetically that each of these features listed here to as characteristic of religion is nonetheless found also in what would normally be regarded as secular contexts, or at least their close counterparts are. For instance, table manners and proper arrangements of cutlery and plates and glasses in a proper table setting exhibit a large number of these features. Sports events also involve ritual, ritual spaces, worship, chanting, group identity, and typically a sense of tradition. Government functions and places of government exhibit almost every one of these features, by my count, with appropriate substitution of terms, elected officials for clergy, etc. Armies likewise exhibit most, with analogous substitutions, maybe because they need to be equipped to deal with fundamental issues of life and death. Even Academia exhibits a lot of these features. We are, in other words, far from a definitive definition of religion, but this characterization will suffice for our purposes.2

These elements in Buddhism that I collect under religiosity, or under devotion, community and salvation, we will see, have a unique flavor in Buddhism that doubtlessly originated with its founder. In their early manifestation they are functionally very rational, systematic and clearly articulated. The functions they serve are as follows:

  1. They provide methods of practice that help purify and develop the mind in wholesome ways, but that lend themselves to community, casual and even children’s practice.
  2. They provide a social infrastructure in support of off-the-deep-end types of intensive practice and study and for its propagation and transmission to future generations in its full integrity. That is, they support the Buddha-Sasana, lived Buddhism in all of its dimensions, including historical and social.
  3. They provide an attitudinal context that gives rise to individual aspirations to undertake the intensive practice and study that can culminate in Awakening.

To purge these religious elements across the board from one’s understanding is simply to miss the larger context in which the Path of practice is sustained; it is to fail to appreciate the past and to take responsibility for the future. If Buddhists of the past had purged religiosity from Buddhism in this way, had been consistently spiritual but not religious, there would be no baby left for us in the twenty-first century befuddlement to throw out with the bathwater.


My reasons for writing this book are as follows:

  • Buddhist elements of devotion, transcendence and community tend to be poorly comprehended and unappreciated in the West, producing a limited and lopsided system of understanding and practice. I hope this book will contribute to a more well-rounded practice and understanding within a still incipient Western Buddhist movement.
  • Religiosity is deeply implicated the sometimes wild culturally conditioned variations observed among and within the various Buddhist traditions. I hope that by bringing some order to these variations, I hope this book will provide a perspective that will make the Buddhist landscape easier to navigate.
  • The non-Path elements of devotion and community provide the mechanisms that underlie, as I will show, Buddhism’s remarkably tolerance of variation including its capacity for absorbing many elements of local cultures, alongside its amazing resilience with regard to maintain its authentic functions. I hope this book will serve to articulate this important yet rarely recognized aspect of the genius of Buddhism.

I will begin with religiosity in early Buddhist doctrine, drawing on early sources, particularly the Pali discourses and monastic code, to show the functional role of devotion, transcendence and community in early Buddhism. I will make use of a botanical metaphor, in particular its physiological aspect in order to bring out the functional interrelatedness among the various elements of practice and understanding. I will discuss how the religious elements are integrated into an organic whole in clear and rational roles.

I will I then seek to deepen our understanding of these roles progressively as I turn to historical, sociological and personal aspects of these religious elements. Just as we turn from botany to plant genetics in order to understand change and variation through time, we will turn from doctrine to history in order to see how Buddhist traditions have taken on many different forms, particularly embellishing under cultural pressures the religious elements that concern us, yet remarkably preserving for the most part the early physiology. Just as we turn from botany and genetics to hortoculture in order to understand the role of human intervention in the well-being of the plant and in the breeding of domestic variants with desirable features, we will turn from doctrine and history to the sociology of Buddhist communities in order to understand the role of an adept subcommunity in domesticating and maintaining an authentic Adept Buddhism, alongside which a wilder Folk Buddhism inevitably exists. This is the source of Buddhism’s resilience.

Finally, just as the gastronome must make choices among the great varieties of domestic and wild foods at hand in the culinary world, the would-be student and practitioner of Buddhism in the West must find his way among the great variety of Buddhisms, Eastern and Western, spiritual, religious and secular, early and traditional, Theravada and Mahayana, village and forest, folk and adept, in the modern landscape. Having brought the reader from the field almost to the dinner table, I will conclude with tips on navigating the Buddhist buffet counter.

1This term comes from Wittgenstein.

2See Tweed (2006) for a discussion of the many attempts to define religion, and a recent bold attempt at a new one.

Growing the Dharma: Preface

August 4, 2013

Hmmm, the hits to this blog are in sharp decline. This is certainly because I have rarely posted in recent weeks, and in fact intend to do no writing until after vassa (rains retreat). Lest this blog realize final liberation before the rest of us, I have come up with the idea of serializing my ebook, Growing the Dharma. So here begins my serialization in bite-size  perhaps weekly segments. Much of this material has appeared on this blog before, which will lead some loyal long-time readers on a walk down memory lane, though never in such a polished and integrated form as in its present re-embodiment.

Growing the Dharma: Buddhism’s Religious Spadework


I’m spiritual but not religious!”

We’ve all heard this statement, generally along with an off-hand dismissal of “organized religion.”

Westerners often see polarity between the personal and the social. We love the lone individualist, including the spiritual virtuoso who boldly takes the path less traveled. We love it when Buddhism exalts that spiritual virtuoso, the light unto himself, the one who retreats from city or village life to explore in solitude life’s questions, an ideal well represented in the life of Buddha himself, who after much travail shattered the constraints to which the common person is subject. We love these guys but we have trouble reconciling them with temple life, the chanting, the bows, the hierarchy, the postures, the robes.

I wrote this booklet because I have become convinced that we Westerners often have little sense of the relationship between the spiritual and the religious, and that we have been limping along in a kind of disembodied Buddhism as a result. In fact the Buddha was not only a great psychologist but also a great social thinker whose vision of the ideal society resulted in what has become the oldest human institution on the planet.

Our misunderstanding begins with a failure to appreciate just how radically different this lone individual who has broken free is from the rest of us. He has broken through not so much social constraints as his own human nature, bursting the limitations of hundreds of millions of years of evolution that have otherwise produced frightened, greedy, hateful and confused beings, and has instead entered the rationalized and ethicized awareness of the Noble Ones. In our misunderstanding we then fail to appreciate the critical importance of the social context necessary, both to produce the conditions in which Noble Ones might arise, and to carry their civilizing influence into the world at large, a social context born with the Awakening of the Buddha and taught by the Buddha, our great teacher, as the Sasana (roughly, Buddhist movement) that has carried the flame of what he discovered to light one hundred generations of Buddhism.

I wrote this little book in order to develop readers’ appreciation of the reach of the Buddha’s thought, to provide a more complete and organic view of what Buddhism subsumes, to describe the groundwork of Buddhism that is all too commonly dismissed in the West as “just religion” even while it is so intrinsic in the East that it hardly bears mentioning. At the same time I hope to develop tools for critically assessing Buddhist traditions, to see at what point the flames they carry begin to sputter, sometimes choked by the accretion of too much religiosity or by the incursion of many other popular notions.

It took me many years to come to the viewpoints represented in this book. As a Westerner, a former academic, not religiously trained as a child, I came to Buddhism initially in its Western manifestations with a rational secular mindset. The supernatural has never been a draw for me. Alan Watts and Stephen Batchelor were early influences on the Path. My early exposure to Western Soto Zen showed me a ritual world that initially made no sense to me at all.

In the end I was curious and open-minded enough to want to get to the experiential bottom of this ritual world, held my nose and jumped in bodily. I trained in the Suzuki Roshi tradition at the San Francisco Zen Center, lived at its monastery, Tassajara Mountain Center, was a founding member of its offshoot in Austin, Texas, where I subsequently ordained, learned almost all the ritual ins and outs and ceremonies, and came with time to appreciate the roles of these things in a particular form of Buddhist practice. Established as a Zen priest, very much concerned with the future of Buddhism in the West, my curiosity and modest reserve of open-mindedness extended to the many ethnically Asian temples found in Texas, California and elsewhere, which felt to me intriguingly different from Western centers.

Somehow innately interested almost from the beginning in monastic practice I also began studying the Vinaya, the traditional monastic code that goes back to the Buddha and a recognized pillar for Buddhism throughout Asia – except in Japan, in whose tradition I had ordained. I considered ordaining in a Vinaya tradition for many years but still clinging to worldly ways had many doubts about my own capacity for living a celibate life. The deciding straw arose after much study and contemplation with the realization that the Monastic Sangha is, by the Buddha’s design, the lynch pin of the Sasana. The conclusion seemed inescapable to me that without real monks and nuns practicing in the traditional way Buddhism was not going to make it in the West! It never has anywhere else, it will not here.

I resolved to myself, “It’s a clean job, but somebody has got to do it!”

I ordained as a bhikkhu (full monk) in Burma, lived there for over a year and have been living here at a Burmese monastery in Austin, Texas now for a number of years. Living embedded in a devoutly Buddhist Asian culture and one that is decidedly pre-modern, inhabiting a world full of magical forces and tree spirits, has given me an appreciation for Buddhism’s rare ability to blend with elements of folk culture, and yet at the same time retain its full integrity, particularly in the minds and lives of its most adept and respected representatives.

Were this an academic work I would at this point in the Preface thank the various foundations and institutions that have supported me during the process of research and composition. As a monastic that support is constantly there along with the freedom to structure my time and energy as I feel benefits the Sasana. Therefore I would like instead to thank the many donors and supporters of the Sitagu Buddha Vihara in Austin, Texas (USA), and of the Sitagu Dhamma Vihara in Maplewood, Minnesota (USA) and the Calgary Myanmar Temple (Alberta, Canada) and of the monks and nuns who have lived there. Your devotion inspires me. I want to thank Alan Cook and Kitty Johnson for proofreading and Prof. Tom Tweed for commenting on earlier draft and encouraging me to extend and consolidate certain metaphors.

Bhikkhu Cintita Dinsmore
Austin, Texas, USA
July, 2013

Anti-Muslim Monks

July 1, 2013

A lot of people ask me about reports of anti-Muslim violence in Myanmar, since I live at a Burmese monastery and they assume I might have special inside knowledge. With the appearance of a new cover story in Time magazine on this topic, let me say here what I can figure out about this.

As far as I can see the coverage in the Western press has been worse than deplorable, and at the same time violent incidents are real as is anti-Muslim sentiment in much of the Buddhist population of Myanmar. The involvement of Burmese monks is very small, yet it also does exist.

First, it is important to keep in mind that the phrases Buddhist extremist and Buddhist fundamentalist are meaningless in this context. Any expression of hatred for a group of people is simply unBuddhist. The Buddha never endorsed hatred or violence under any circumstances, ever, even in self-defense. He never condemned other faiths. There is simply nothing in Buddhism, even with the most assiduous cherry-picking, that one could be fundamentalist or extreme about and produce a justification for violence. The violence is entirely in spite of Buddhism, not because of it. Still, we are not all perfect Buddhists.

The social roots of the violence are complex. Many Burmese express surprise that the recent violence has erupted, since “Buddhists and Muslims have lived peacefully together for many years,” to quote an ethnic Mon monk I was talking to about this just today. Still I have heard derogatory comments about Muslims among Burmese since before the present violence. There are differences in the value systems of Islam and Buddhism which may are bound to make some people judgmental. For instance, Buddhists are protective of animal life so most butchers in Myanmar are Muslims. Buddhists purchase meat from the butchers, then look down on them for killing the meat.

Most of the violence has centered in Rakhain State directed against Rohingya Muslims who have immigrated from Bangladesh starting under British rule. It is hard to sort out the dynamics of this conflict, but it seems to involve immigration policy and competition for land resources in an already extremely poor population, particularly as more Rohingyas have entered Burma due to flooding in Bangladesh. It does not help that there are reports of oppression against the Buddhist minority on the Bangladeshi side of the border. Myanmar was marked by ethnic violence primarily as minorities have taken up arms against a brutal regime. Myanmar is also in a period of transition toward a more open society after years of brutal military rule. Many countries that have experienced such a transition seem to experience an abrupt bubbling up of long suppressed tensions. Yugoslavia is an example from the 90’s. In Rakhain State we find violence on both sides, generally following an old pattern of tit-for-tat, exaggerated by rumor, escalating until the majority party does something extreme.

The Western press has tended simply to ignore the social causes and attribute violence directly to Buddhist hatred of Muslims. I see this in story after story. When monks are brought into the stories it is almost always as instigators of violence. When the government is brought into the stories it is almost always as an indifferent or biased party. Rarely covered are the efforts of monks and the government to mitigate the violence or to protect the Muslim population from violence. This is more than inaccurate reporting; it contributes directly to the ignorance and rumors that lead to further violence, implicating the press itself in the violence in the next-to-worst way.

Of course any contribution of monks to hatred or violence is particularly disturbing, to Buddhists around the world, and to me personally as a monk ordained in the Burmese tradition. I know many Burmese monks, a few of which have sometimes to my alarm expressed anti-Muslim sentiments. However I have never heard one endorse violence in any way; consistently they deplore the violence, and many deplore anti-Muslim sentiment as well.

The Western press focuses repeatedly on this same monk, Ashin Wirathu, who appears on the new cover of Time magazine as the “face of Buddhist terror.” However I have never found in the Western stories anywhere where Ashin Wirathu has directly advocated violence against Muslims (let me know if you know of such a quote), rather his agenda seems to be a peaceful economic boycott against Muslim businesses. His rhetoric is clearly hateful, and he is reported for reasons I cannot make any logical sense of to call himself a Buddhist Osama bin Laden. But I don’t think this qualifies as terrorism. Incidentally, if a monk advocates an act of killing and thereby causes someone else to carry out that act, that monk has thereby just disrobed, according to the ancient monastic code. Ashin Wirathu certainly knows this.

I would like to highlight my own preceptor, Sitagu Sayadaw, as a more moderate, typical and influential monastic voice in Myanmar than Ashin Wirathu.  I have never seen Sitagu Sayadaw mentioned in the Western press with regard to this issue in spite of his eminence. The following are links to a press release that he issued concerning the violence, in somewhat imperfect English, and a story from the South China Morning Post in which he is quoted at the end of a story that gives voice to other sensible monks as well.

Communal Violence Condemned by Sitagu Sayadaw

Myanmar Monks Say Most Oppose Anti-Muslim Campaign

As Buddhists our primary task is the perfection of human character. We become mindful of every intention and seek to address any tendency toward greed, hatred or delusion. Except for the rare arahant, we fall short of the aspiration, but we keep trying in a very complex and ensnarling world. Part of this task is the perfection of kindness, at which point it shines on all without bias, even on those who might wish us harm.


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