Archive for the ‘buddhism’ Category

Growing the Dharma: the History of the Sasana

October 12, 2013

You are reading a serialization of the ebook Growing the Dharma: Buddhism’s Religious Spadework. In the last chapters we have looked at the factors articulated in early Buddhism that define the Sasana, Buddhism in its social context. In this chapter we look at the subsequent history of Buddhism.

Chapter 6. Propogation and Evolution of the Sasana (1/2)

During one of his discourses the Buddha once sneezed1. The monks present called out,

“Bless you!”

This was a conventional idiom in Buddha’s India and the Buddha’s response should have been,

“Bless you too.”

But instead he posed a question, something like,

“Wait a minute. Do you think that saying that will influence my future well-being?”

The monks replied, “Well, no, actually.”

“Then you are not to say it!”

And thereby a new rule circulated that monks were expected to follow. However, lay people began to complain about how unmannerly all the monks had suddenly become, something like,

“I blessed a perfectly good monk who sneezed and he didn’t even bless me back!”

“How rude! The impudent cad”

When this was reported back to the Buddha he rescinded the rule that he had earlier proclaimed.

“Monks, householders need blessings. When someone says, ‘Bless you’, I permit you to answer, ‘Bless you too’.”

This little story is indicative of the Buddha’s willingness to adapt to druthers. The Buddha thereby gave us a Buddhism that would be subject to and tolerate embellishment. Perhaps this is part of the reason that it gained a place as the first world religion as it simply passed peacefully from one land to another.

Moreover, Buddhism after the Buddha’s death (parinibbāna) was open to evolution because it lacked a central authority to impose orthodoxy or orthopraxis, with the integrity of the Dharma entrusted independently to each local monastic sangha. It was open to evolution because its Great Standards (mahāpadesa) made the Dharma effectively extensible on functional grounds. It was susceptible to local mutation because the Buddha asked that the texts be taught in local vernaculars rather than more widely understood lingua francas.2 And indeed the flower of Buddhism would changed with time and place, sometimes developing wider leaves or deeper roots, sometimes developing a shorter stem or requiring more sun or less water, but in in most places remaining a flower that still produced from time to time a dazzling blossom and propagating itself still further.

A Whirlwind History of the Sasana after Buddha

Let’s get historical. Just as organisms change from generation to generation, Buddhism has changed to produce many varieties, and continues to change. The metaphor here is genetic. We can talk of three kinds of processes that have together created the diversity of today’s Sasana:

Propagation is the process whereby any particular Buddhist tradition extends itself into new regions or populations.

Evolution is the mutative process of change, generally in response to regional or cultural preferences.

Cross-fertilization is the process of borrowing traits from one tradition (Buddhist or non-Buddhist) into a distinct Buddhist tradition.

Propagation. As Buddhism spread geographically through India and into neighboring lands it began differentiating itself along geographical lines, in small ways, much as linguistic dialects tend distinguish themselves over time until eventually they will become mutually unintelligible yet functionally similar languages. There also seems to have been an occasional schism, or a split in a local sangha whereby one group of monks went off in a huff and would no longer deal with the remaining monks, probably with much the same result as geographical dispersion.3 For instance, the early Sarvastivadin sect apparently developed around Kashmir and into Central Asia and much of Northwest India and was active for almost a thousand years. The Dharmaguptaka sect arose in Gandhara, the Mahasangika was scattered around in northwest and western India, including Mathura, the Theravada took hold in Sri Lanka and is active there and in Southeast Asia, to which it spread, to this day. Each sect typically introduced some new elements or interpretations that differentiated it from others. Now and then a particular sect would commit its heretofore orally preserved teachings to written form in one language or another. The Dharmaguptaka scriptures, for instance, were recorded in Gandhari and Sanskrit,4 the Sarvastivadin in Sanskrit, the Theravadin in Pali and so on.

The propagation of Buddhism was reportedly given its first really big boost through the very early missionary zeal of Emperor Ashoka (304–232 BCE),5 who sent missions to various places within and beyond his empire – to Sri Lanka, to Kashmir, to Persia and as far as the Mediterranean. With time Buddhism spread westward across what is now northern Pakistan and Afghanistan into Persia and Central Asia, southward and eastward through Southeast Asia and island-hopping as far as Java. From Central Asia it spread in both directions along the Silk Road, eastern into China in the first century CE, from whence it with time it would gain the bulk of its adherents in East Asia. There is some tenuous speculation of the influence of Buddhism on early Christianity at the far Western end of the Silk Road.6 In the eighth century Buddhism become firmly established in Tibet through Kashmir, where Buddhism had come under the crossbreeding influence of Tantric Hinduism. In recent years Buddhism has spread over much of the world outside Asia from almost every sect as local ethnic communities have established temples. The growth in literacy and communications in recent times has sometimes allowed Buddhism to precede qualified sandals-on-the-ground Buddhist teachers in extending the influence of Buddhist philosophy and life into uncharted lands.

The great variety of people from the most diverse regions traveling hither and fro along the Silk Road and producing an ample trickle of Buddhists at the eastern end, made China heir to almost every sect or later movement or philosophical school of Buddhism active in India or elsewhere, such that the early sects no longer retained their individual identities except to inject their own characteristic scriptural teachings into the Chinese mix. For instance, the Vinaya of the Dharmaguptaka sect became standard for Chinese monastic practice, but probably the Sarvastivadin had the greatest doctrinal influence. As history marches on the West is now experiencing a repeat of this process as virtually every form of Buddhism found in Asia is adding its characteristic heritage to the Western mix.

Buddhism has largely died out in India, in the regions west of India and in Indonesia and Malaysia, where it has been largely supplanted by Islam and Hinduism. The only early (that is, pre-Mahayana) sect that has retained its early identity is the Theravada of Southern Asia.

Evolution. The combination of variation and selection has produced over many centuries many varieties of Buddhism. Variation arises at other times by adopting alternative understandings – at worst erroneous interpretations of traditional teachings, and at best insightful products of great minds – able to shape a Buddhism more effective in a regional culture, or to streamline certain practices or understandings. Desirable features have been selected due to the pressures of human nature, of local cultural and environmental factors and occasionally of external intervention, such as governmental decrees.

Early differences in interpretation are found in the varying codifications of a formalization of Buddhist philosophy called the Abhidharma (Sanskrit, or Abhidhamma in Pali) which developed rather independently but in parallel in many of the early sects after the time of Emperor Ashoka. For instance, the Buddha’s subtle teaching of non-self (Pali, anatta or Sanskrit, anatman) gave rise to differing ontological stances on ultimate existence. The Abhidharma projects sometimes became highly speculative and other early sects abstained from theAbhidhamma project, rejecting any such extension beyond the early discourses. Most notable among the latter is the Sautrantika subsect of Sarvastivada, whose name refers to their rather strict reliance on the suttas.

Starting in the first century BCE or the first century CE and continuing for a few centuries thereafter monks in India and later in Central Asia began composing texts that were most often based on the model of the early discourses but generally longer and mythically fortified. Examples were the apocryphal Prajnaparamita Sutras, Lotus Sutra, Flower Ornament Sutra and so on. This was the beginning of the Mahayana movement, whose scriptures generally developed and then echoed a number of common doctrinal themes. As if this were not enough, the first millennium CE in northern India seems also to have been an era of very liberal thinking, of free Buddhist inquiry, the era of the great scholar-monks, Nagarjuna, Shantideva, Vasubandu, and so on, and the era of the great Buddhist monastic universities where they lived, studied and taught, most famously Nalanda, which brought thousands of students and teachers together in one place or another to discuss and debate the whole spectrum of Buddhist thought both orthodox and modern. I picture this era as much like what developed much later in the Western post-Enlightenment intellectual milieu or in beatnik coffee shops of the 1950’s, in which almost any philosophical proposition was worthy of discussion or debate.

In China Buddhism was suddenly propelled into a radically different culture that placed selective evolutionary pressures on its shape, much as if flower seeds were propagated by wind or defecating birds to a region of distinctive conditions of wind, soil or water, or, for that matter, if a flock of penguins were to come into contact a colony of Eskimos for many generations: the tradition would either evolve or perish. With much colder weather, clothing and housing, the basic requisites of monks, would have to be more substantial. In a land whose cultural life was largely rooted in Confucianism and Taoism, included a very strong ethical code governing every aspect of life from the behavior of the emperor to familial relations, had a basis of high literacy and intellectual astuteness, and appreciated the cycles and beauty of nature. Here the family was valued highly and there was no previous tradition of wandering mendicants. The Chinese way of thinking has been called syncretic where the Indian is analytic. The emperors were divine. There was much more social mobility than in India; a farmer’s son could through passing government examinations become employed in the government system and eventually be promoted to eventually become a minister to the emperor.

China was culturally about as far from India as possible. And in China Buddhism evolved under these influences. First, the Chinese popularized those scriptures and philosophical treatises appearing at the mouth of the Silk Road that most appealed to Chinese tastes, giving Chinese Buddhism a distinctive quality simply through the process of natural selection. For instance, the long obscure Pure Land Sutras from India seem to have gone viral in China. China developed its own schools and ordination lineages, such as Chan and T’ien Tai (Zen and Tendai in Japan), each generally on the basis of a particular transmitted Mahayana scripture. Then China’s own scriptural corpus developed, such as the rather unique poetry and koan collections found in the Zen school that bear a much clearer affinity to Taoist literature than to anything found in Indian Buddhism. We will have occasion to look at some of these Chinese adaptations as our discussion progresses.

Throughout its newly gained range Buddhism came under a variety of pressures that tended to bend and reshape Buddhism in various ways. Among these pressures are cultural taboos, different culturally conditioned ways of conceptualizing the content of Buddhism and the blending of indigenous folk religions or folk beliefs into Buddhism. Also important in this regard is the way in which seemingly universal religious proclivities, for instance, toward worship, toward the need for consolation and toward supernatural embellishment exerted selective pressures on Buddhism.

Cross-fertilization. Innovations once introduced into individual traditions often spread laterally from one tradition to another, much as a dance craze or a disease, such as the Jitterbug, the Macarena or the Spanish flu, readily jumps over national borders. The Jataka tales, stories of the previous lives of the Buddha, originated (with a couple of exceptions) in the centuries after the Buddha, perhaps already under the cross-breeding influence of non-Buddhist traditions, walzing through Buddhist traditions so widely that they can be regarded as part of the common heritage of all of Buddhism.

Similarly, the Mahayana Jitterbug spread readily from pre-Mahayana sect to another, scholars now agree. As a result, within a single Sarvastivada or even early Theravada monastery some monks would take to this new craze and others would not. This apparently entailed little discord, since the Vinaya, historically much less susceptible to the effects of cross-fertilization or evolution than the Dharma, tended to ensure harmonious relations within sanghas. However, the incipient craze may have been nipped in the bud in Sri Lanka through the intervention of King Voharikatissa in the early third century.7 But throughout much of the Buddhist world this was a craze that was here to stay and gradually some devotees began to self-identify as Mahayanists, even though a self-identified Mahayana monastery would not exist in India until relatively late, and the earliest inscriptions that make use of the word “Mahayana” date from the sixth century CE.8

With the Mahayana movement and with the rise of scholarship at large monastic institutions, Sanskrit by default became the common language of Buddhism in northern India in support of a broader dissemination and livelier interchange of ideas. Meanwhile the southern lands of Sri Lanka and adjacent areas of Southern India, somewhat removed from this rich intellectual world of Northern India geographically and linguistically, had fewer opportunities for cross-fertilization.

As China seems to have fallen heir much of what was published in Northern India in the first millennium CE, the Chinese took a particular selective interest in the Mahayana teachings and much of the philosophical thought that continuing to flow out of the Indian universities. In spite of the tenuous communication between India and China, Chinese Buddhists, anxious to gain access to additional Buddhist texts, dispatched a series of pilgrims, fifty-four that we know about from the third to the eleventh century, to make the perilous journey over the Silk Road back into India to learn Indian languages, to acquire texts and to have a look around.9 In China major translation projects were set up to make these texts accessible, often headed by Indian or Central Asian scholar-monks who had ventured into Chinese territory. From China a Sinicized Buddhism would penetrate the remaining chopstick-wielding world: Korea, Japan and Vietnam.

What of the fragile flower that once thrived on the slopes of the lush Ganges Valley in ancient times? How have its descendents fared in the thin soil on the Steppes of Central Asia? Have they endured the harsh winters of northern China or Mongolia? Do they still blossom as brightly? Or has the whirlwind of Buddhist history scattered away their pedals and uprooted them? Has the Sasana survived in its full integrity and authenticity? I only raise the question for now.

The History of the Buddha Gem

Among the most distinct changes as the flower of the Sasana evolved from its early stages was an increased requirement for sunlight, an enhancement of the first gem and refuge. The attitude toward the Buddha and the very concept of the Buddha experienced embellishment and elaboration in almost all of Asia that would in turn trigger further doctrinal changes. I speculate that the primary driving force was the seemingly universal human proclivity of latching onto objects of veneration and making them bigger than life, as is found in most of the world’s religions and in modern celebrity worship.

We have seen that the Buddha endorsed during his life veneration of his himself, his qualities, the example of his life and his Awakening and his teachings. The function of such veneration is inspiration, the opening of hearts to his influence. The practice of veneration of the Buddha was defined in terms of quite modest conventional cultural means of respect, through recitation of the qualities of the Buddha, through future pilgrimage to four sites associated with his life, through the distribution of his relics among various lay communities for future veneration.

The Buddha recognized that he had attained rare qualities and put himself forward as someone to emulate, not as a deity or a messenger of God, but as an Awakened human. It should be borne in mind that in India people rather casually attributed divinity to that which is venerated: to brahmins, to famous ascetics, to cows, sometimes to trees and to the fires in people’s hearths,10 but the Buddha never claimed this honor for himself. Nonetheless he must frequently have been regarded as divine even during his life and have been accorded the supernatural powers that are, in fact, mentioned in the early discourses, powers like jumping up and touching the sun.11

The physical mainstay of this veneration from the earliest days is anjali, a ubiquitous expression of respect or greeting in Indian culture often taking the form of prostrations, applied from earliest times to venerate the living Buddha and also the Sangha. Remarkably this Indian gesture was subsequently carried into every land I am aware of in which Buddhism has taken root. No culture that I am aware of having chosen either to abandon it according to local custom or to substitute for it an indigenous expression, such as a wave, a salute, a nod or a hearty hand clasp. Its adoption in Christian prayer speaks faintly of some not yet fully understood ancient instance of cross-breeding in distant lands.12

An early enhancement of this practice of veneration concerns the burial mounds (stupas), used to inter the Buddha’s relics after his death. These became a primary symbol of the Buddha and were venerated as such in the early centuries, a practice further encouraged by Emperor Ashoka when he reportedly redistributed the original relics to thousands of locations throughout his empire. Stupas of increasingly imposing design and size were constructed, sometimes even by embedding an older stupa within a newer, to produce the cetiyas of South Asia and eventually the pagodas of East Asia. Along with the proliferation of stupas came an endorsed means of increasing the availability of relics through creating replicas that “count as” genuine relics of the Buddha, and of supplementing these with relics of conveniently deceased arahants.

Starting in the first century BCE, statuary representations of the Buddha in South Asia, but with possibly Greek roots, gave a more personal and portable object toward which to direct one’s veneration for the First Gem. Such statues have almost invariably striking in the inspiring calm they exude, leading one to experience what it might have been like to sit in the presence of the living Buddha. As if personally to enact befriending the Buddha, adherents began to make offerings to such statues of light, water, incense, flowers and/or food, then to bow to such statues, a practice that would ruffle the feathers of early European explorers to no end, who would see in it idol worship of graven images pure and simple. A further step in the long process of elaboration was reached in the actual attribution of miraculous properties, such as bringing protection or good fortune, to the Buddha statue, to the stupa/pagoda or to the relics. It is common among Burmese Buddhists today, for instance, to attribute such properties to the “power of the Buddha” that inheres in such an object once it is properly consecrated by monks so as to “count as” the Buddha.

Beginning apparently in the early Mahasanghika sect, then in the Sarvastivadin sect and taking off among the Mahayanists, the Buddha himself became larger that life. The Jataka stories from the centuries after the death of the Buddha traced his previous lives as a bodhisattva, one who has vowed to become a buddha in a future life. The view arose of the Buddha living out a prearranged mission on earth, through an early vow to someday become a buddha. It was said the he was born in his final life with the marks of a great man, such as webbed toes and fingers, and that he was in fact stepping into the footprints of buddhas who preceded him, who realized the same things and who taught the same Dharma.

In an influential Mahayana sutra the Buddha is presented as a cosmic being who had came to earth as a kind of cosmic ruse to instruct mankind in the form of a man:

In all the worlds the heavenly and human beings and asuras all believe that the present Shakyamuni Buddha, after leaving the palace of the Shakyas, seated himself in the place of practice not far from the city of Gaya and there attained annuttara-samyak-sambodhi. But good men, it has been immeasurable, boundless hundreds, thousands, ten thousands, millions of nayutas of kalpas since I in fact attained Buddhahood.13

In fact he has been teaching and training disciples, bodhisattvas, for many eons and continues doing so presently, only pretending to be born and die as a human for a brief period.14 The discerning reader will have surmised that the person of the Buddha is becoming step by step more exalted.

With his new level of exaltation came a greater level of Awakening, now qualitatively different from that of the mere arahants. In the Mahayana movement bodhisattvas became those who like the Buddha in his previous lives aspired to buddhahood rather than to mere arahantship. Such bodhisattvas began to appear and sometimes reappear as major characters in the Mahayana sutras, each typically embodying one particular outstanding character trait or another, for instance, Avalokiteshvara of many arms to represent compassion, Manjushri wielding a sword to cut through delusion to represent wisdom, Samantabhadra atop his multitusked elephant to representing virtuous action, and Maitreya with an appointment to become the next Buddha on earth. The Buddha now gained companions with whom to share altars and pagodas; sometimes these companions even displaced him in the zeal of adherents. In China Avalokiteshvara became Guan Yin, a female figure, and Maitreya was identified with an historical chubby monk and became the Happy Buddha (-to-be). In Tibet Avalokiteshvara came to be regarded as the person of the Dalai Lama returning life after life.

Transcendent thinking did not end there. Many buddhas were envisioned of similar disposition to ours, dispersed over many realms throughout the universe. Once the Shakyamuni Buddha became disassociated from his human embodiment, then it seemed that one exalted buddha could pretty much be swapped with another. In China Shakyamuni was largely displaced in Pure Land Buddhism by Amitabha Buddha, the chief resident of a non-earthly realm (the Pure Land), who makes space for those on earth who aspire to join him in their next life. Meanwhile back on earth, monks were apparently living rightly because the world was not empty of awakened ones. In the Mahayana lands these were often referred to as buddhas in their own right rather than simply as arahants.

It should be noted that although veneration of the Buddha Gem took on radical new forms, some of which are capable for various reasons of raising skeptical modern eyebrows two by two, the function of this veneration seems seldom to have been violated, and may often have been enhanced. The function of such veneration is inspiration, the opening of hearts to the influence of the Buddha.

1This retelling is based on an account in the Vinaya, II, 139.

2Vinaya, Cullavagga, Fifth Khandika.

3See, for instance, Dutt 1978.

4Gandhari fragments, incidentally, are the oldest known surviving Buddhist manuscripts, dating from the 1st Century BCE.

5Strong, 1983.

6Consider the resemblance of the Christian prayer mudra, apparently not of Jewish origin, to the Buddhist mudra of respect or veneration.

7Williams (2008), p. 5.

8Williams (2008), p. 29.

9Foltz, 2010, pp. 53-56.

10Williams, 2008, p.174

11People in ancient India, not possessed of a modern understanding of what jumping up and touching the sun would entail, seem to have thought this would be fun.

12Wherever an archaic cultural artifact plays a critical functional role in Buddhism it seems almost always to be retained in any new cultures even in which this artifact is foreign. I speculate that this conservatism results from the lack of central authority in the institutional Sangha, needed to institute a swap with an indigenous form. Gruber and Kersten (1995) speculate on the Buddhist-Christian connection with some compelling but sometimes overstated evidence.

13Kato, et al. (1975), Chapter 16.

14Kato, et al. (1975), Chapter 15.



Growing the Dharma: the Rest of the Buddhist Community

October 4, 2013

You are reading a serialization of the ebook Growing the Dharma: Buddhism’s Religious Spadework. In this chapter we look at the Buddhist community as it is constituted in the earliest texts and generally lived to this day. Last week we began discussion of the ten-point mission statement of the monastic sangha as spoken by the Buddha and how it is implemented. For illustration I have been drawing parallels with the discipline of the modern scientific community. Let’s conclude our enumeration of these ten points, then look at the lay role in the Buddhist community.

Chapter 5. The Buddhist Community (2/2).

The arousing of faith in the faithless” and “The increase of the faithful.” Where there are Noble Ones trust will be inspired, for they display first-hand the peace and happiness, wisdom and compassion that result from complete immersion in the Buddhist life. The Noble Ones are close at hand, they teach, they inspire with their deportment, their good works and their knowledge. They inspire self-reflection concerning one’s own life and tend to curtail samsaric tendencies. They are the adepts, consulted as authorities to which folk Buddhists will defer when Dharmic questions arise. They thereby constrain popular speculative views of Dharma with a firm anchor in the practice and understanding of the Noble Ones.

Although most people do not have first-hand access to scientists, the volume and continuous production of results gives Science much of its reputation and influence in the world, most particularly in the production of technology, including the wonderful gadgets that now fill our homes, cars and pockets, along with broad published outreach in popular media. Scientists are popularly regarded as the experts to whom others defer, thereby providing popular speculative views of science with an anchor in scientific research before they devolve into pure fantasy.

The establishment of the true Dharma.” Buddhism has been noted as the first world religion. It has proved remarkable in its robustness, especially considering that no other religion has been able to penetrate foreign cultures without military conquest as naturally as Buddhism. This has been possible because the integrity of the authentic Dharma is preserved in an excellent community that enjoys insularity, is strong in its practice, is sustained by the laity and is actively involved in its own education. Something as refined as Buddhism might otherwise easily degrade into superstition, pop psychology or religious intolerance, even in its native culture, but the anchor of the Sangha is difficult to budge. This theme will be developed further in Chapters Seven and Eight.

The integrity of scientific results is similarly preserved in an excellent community that enjoys insularity, does strong collaborative work, is well supported and that is actively involved in its own education. Something as refined as Science might otherwise easily degrade into superstition, magic or wild speculation from which it arose in the first place, but it doesn’t, even though the oddest notions about the domain of science are rampant outside of the firmly planted scientific community.

The fostering of Discipline.” Monastic discipline is probably the most archaic element of Buddhism. While scriptures vary throughout the Buddhist world, particularly with the proliferation of the later Mahayana Sutras, the Vinaya in slightly varying versions is almost a constant throughout Buddhist Asia.1 The discipline is preserved by those who maintain the discipline and ordain nuns and monks who will maintain the discipline. As long as the discipline is maintained there will be arahants in the world, as well as the lesser Noble Ones. As long as there are Noble Ones in the world the Dharma also will not go too far astray.

Imagine by way of illustration that the Buddhist Sangha as a whole decided that from now on the support of a monk will depend on his popularity among the laity, perhaps in terms of how many students he attracts, how many people read books or listen to his Dharma talks, how well he avoids that most disquieting of words “renunciation.” Such a change would compromise the comfort of the Sangha, because it would put its essential functions under outside less adept influence. It would also compromise the restraint of effluents, because it would force the monk into the self-centered and perhaps competitive behavior of actively seeking approval of others as a matter of livelihood.

Imagine additionally that members of the Sangha were self-qualified simply by hanging up their shingle, “Venerable Siegfried,” with no commitment to the renunciate life. This would compromise the excellence of the community. It is easy to imagine how Buddhism would dissolve in a quick flash of unprecedented popularity. Influence over casual seekers would grow for a time, but fewer and fewer people would be inspired or guided into deep practice and study of the Dharma. Fostering of discipline is critical.

The discipline of the scientific community is perhaps its most archaic element. Interestingly it is not preserved in a uniform document and not so deliberately studied as the Buddhist Vinaya is. Yet working scientists and university administrators seem to have an implicit sense of what discipline entails and how to regulate it, and are very sensitive to any assault on its integrity as a community. These various elements of scientific discipline are for the most part very old, implicitly understood by working scientists, and show every sign of enduring into the future.

Imagine, for instance, that the scientific community as a whole decided that from now on the merit, publication or funding of research will depend on the popularity of the researcher or his research, perhaps in terms of how many students he attracts or how many people read his research results, or if he can write a best-selling book. This would compromise the comfort of the scientific community, because it would put its critical functions under less adept outside influence: popular opinion. It would also compromise the restraint of mistaken notions, because it would eliminate the guidance of peer review in favor of a much less expert process of review.

Imagine additionally that researchers are self-qualified, simply by hanging up their shingles, “Professor Himmelgruber, BA.” This would compromise the excellence of the community. It is easy to see how serious science would dissolve in a short flash of unprecedented popularity. Scientific understanding would also be compromised when unqualified researchers publish results with little feedback from perhaps better qualified members of the scientific community, and when they ignore the important but mundane or complex work of research in favor of what sells. In the end science would be largely discredited. Luckily this scenario is unlikely to play itself out fully, because scientists have a sense of the discipline their community requires.

I have written of the Sangha in ideal terms and limited discussion to the early Sangha, but I realize that it like all human institutions to date, including the scientific, it is faulty and inevitably subject to falling short of its own standards, and yet the Sangha always recovers. It is easy to be cynical about institutions and governance in general, and about the Sangha in particular because the latter is expected to uphold pristine standards indeed. Yet institutions at the same time are necessary to coordinate and preserve. Dismissing institutions or governance out of hand is like the tsunami survivor proclaiming, “That’s it, I’ve had it with water!” or the tornado survivor gasping, “No more air for me.” Like institutions water or air can get unruly, but without them what would you drink or breathe? In fact the Vinaya is a massive attempt to correct as a matter of training even the smallest unruliness or tiniest impropriety as far at the Buddha could discern it. The Buddha was raised a prince and likely trained in politics and even warfare; he would have had some insight into such matters. In fact he produced the institution with the best track record ever to date, the one that has endured the longest.

The Shape of the Lay Community.

The Third Gem has a distinct advantage over Gem One and Gem Two: immediate living presence. It ennobles the Community to have monks, nuns and particularly Noble Ones in its midst. These are the Sangha, under both inclusive and exclusive definitions, those disciples of the Buddha who root their lives entirely in the Dharma.

The Noble Ones in particular are the most qualified teachers, the adepts, the most admirable friends who impart the Dharma both verbally and bodily, through explanation and by example. What they explain is very deep, very sophisticated and very difficult to grasp without equally deep practice. Sangha members individually gain reputations for their teaching or humanitarian work, for their inspiring meditation practice or for their scrupulous observance of monastic discipline. There has generally been the assumption that the Sangha stands apart qualitatively. This is the excellence it should try to maintain.

Relatively few in the general population will have the time, energy or inclination to enter the Dharma deeply. Indeed the understanding of the typical lay Buddhist has been very limited, it has often been subject to misunderstandings, it has generally regarded Nirvana as a place and monks as wielders of magical powers. This is much the same with science: Relatively few people develop deep scientific knowledge, the armchair scientists are subject to misunderstandings, they wonder how rocket ships avoid bumping into all the orbits out there and why it is cold at the North Pole, the highest point on earth and therefore closest to the sun. It has generally been a working assumption that the laity is also much more concerned than monastics with the more excessive devotional practices. The Buddha, for instance, before his death when asked by Ananda what to do with his body, replied that it was no concern for the monks,

“For there are, Ananda, wise nobles, wise brahmans, and wise householders who are devoted to the Tathagata, and it is they who will render the honor to the body of the Tathagata.”2

Nonetheless, the Buddha stated that the Dharma is not held in a tight fist; there is nothing esoteric in the teachings; they are open to all. As the laity opens its heart to the Third Gem and rubs shoulders with individual adepts, the teachings flow in more freely. The lay Buddhist benefits as the adepts clarify and correct his views upon request, or proactively when greed, hate and delusion become manifest. Adepts are great to have around. If the lay devotee should find the time, energy and aspiration to go deeply, to begin to ascend the stem that reaches toward Nirvana, there are kind and friendly helping hands available to explain the meaning of the Buddha’s life and Awakening in detail and to clarify step by step the highly sophisticated teachings to lead the instructling toward and up the Path toward Awakening. With work the lay devotee can become quite adept himself but will likely avail himself of the ever-present opportunity to join the Sangha in order to pursue the Path more fully with the full and enthusiastic support of his generous neighbors.

Most immediately the Sangha provides a constant breathing example of what it is to live a Buddhist life. It members are walking science experiments, demonstrating with every word and gesture what happens when one lets go, when one renounces everything that common sense says is necessary for felicity, for fun, for fulfillment: they end up being the most joyfully contented people in the village! The Noble Ones serve as a reality check for folk people as they make life’s decisions, and a subversively civilizing influence on the whole Community.

The wholesome practice of veneration extends particularly easily to the living Gem and dovetails with the project of satisfying their material needs, which becomes an expression of both veneration and affection. The needs of the monastics are modest but constant, and in fact, according to the Buddha’s regulations, somewhat artificially constant. This puts the devout layperson right at the center of the wholesome practice of generosity (Pali, dāna), which becomes the lifeblood of the Buddhist Community, producing an economy of gifts. The monastics are not allowed to participate in the exchange economy in any case, are sustained entirely from gifts and are at liberty to give immaterial gifts freely. The early communal life centered around the monastics, and later around the monasteries as they commonly become at the same time community centers for the Community.

Through their support of the Sangha as well as the rest of the Buddhist Community folk Buddhists develop the joyful feeling of doing their share, of participating fully in bringing the civilizing influence of the Noble Ones into the Community and in upholding the Sasana to preserve Buddhism in its pristine purity for future generations. The relationship between the Sangha and lay Community is one of complementary roles in partnership. The Sangha upholds the teachings, spins off Noble Ones and thereby serves the Community. The Noble Ones are 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 Buddhist Community supports the Sangha’s material needs. Generosity on both sides binds the two together.

It is important to recognize that there is little here in the way of hierarchy. What authority the Sangha holds arises from its own attainments, teachings and conduct. The Sangha has no coercive power beyond the layperson’s willingness to accept advice or admonition or to view the monastic as a role model. The laity actually has more coercive power: Dissatisfaction with the Monastic Sangha can turn into withdrawal of support, a constant external check on the integrity of the institutional Sangha.

Because generosity is such a joyful condition, monasteries3 can be very happy places in which to practice fundamental Buddhist values, along with selfless veneration. Monasteries encourage community involvement, require no sophisticated knowledge of Dharma and provids a wholesome environment into which to bring the kids. They also opens into an opportunity to rub shoulders with Noble Ones, benefit from their wisdom and advice and begin to learn and practice the Path to Awakening. The Buddhist Community provides an oasis of sanity in a world otherwise perpetually spinning crazily out of kilter, out of control.

1The most notable exception is Japan, long subject to government interference. See Jaffe (2001).

2Mahaparinibbana Sutta, DN 16.

3… like the one I am very fortunate to live in …

Growing the Dharma: the Buddhist Community

September 27, 2013

You are reading a serialization of the ebook Growing the Dharma: Buddhism’s Religious Spadework. In this chapter we look at the Buddhist community as it is constituted in the earliest texts and generally lived to this day. The primary source of the Buddha’s teachings on community is the Vinaya, the monastic code. Next week we will conclude with those aspects of the monastic code that represent the monastic obligation to the Sasana and the role of the laity.

Chapter 5. The Buddhist Community (1/2).

When the Buddha returned to visit his princely home after his alms-financed Awakening, he continued his rounds in the streets of Kapilavastu much to the distress of his aristocratic father. The alms round was for the Buddha a key feature of the monastic life. Even when food was close at hand, the alms round was not to be disregarded. For the Buddha the alms round was not simply a way to feed the monks and nuns: it had a social role to play in realigning the values of both monastic and lay.

A monastic is like a house pet: helpless on his own, absolutely and vulnerably dependent on the kind hand that feeds him, but at the same time of therapeutic value to that same hand (not to mention cute as a puppy in his fluffy robes and with his bald head). Like a house pet, a monastic lives a simple life, needs and possesses little: He does not have a motorboat on the lake, nor a puppy he is working to put through college. He is a deliberate renunciate with a lifestyle that leaves almost no channels for the pursuit of sensual pleasures, the accumulation of stuff, the quest for personal advantage, nor the intractable issues that accompany these. The effect is that he settles, if the mind remains steady, into a state of quiet contentment, a fertile field of practice.

Accepting the generosity of the lay graciously, having no resources at all of one’s own that are not donated, puts the monastic in an uncommon frame of reference, but does the same for the lay donor as well. Remarkably, every time the monastic accepts something the lay donor receives a gift. This is paradoxical to the Western observer, but if you look again, you cannot mistake the sugar plums dancing in the donor’s eyes. Every time the lay person accepts a teaching or benefits from a social or pastoral service the monastic receives a gift. The relationship is unlike what one finds in conventional human affairs. This is an economy of gifts1 that provides much of the context of the most fundamental Buddhist value and practice, that of dana, generosity.

The Buddha imagines a Buddhist Community of laity and monastics and he brought this community to light by organizing the Monastic Sangha. His idea seems to have been that the presence of the Monastic Sangha would shape the entire community, the laity taking on its roles voluntarily without formal obligations enforced by some kind of command structure or threats of excommunication.

The Monastic Sangha

Whereas we find the sublime in the Dharma, we find in the Buddha’s institutional teachings nuts and bolts pragmatism. The Sangha (in this chapter taken to mean, unless otherwise specified, the monastic order) is an institution. The fundamental purpose of this institution is to produce Noble Ones, saints, the finest in admirable friends, now and in the years to come. Its founding charter provides the optimal training conditions for the practice that produces Noble Ones, it also sustains a wholesome and inspiring influence on the broader Buddhist Community, and it ensures the future integrity of the Sasana.

The Sangha has striking parallels with science as an institution, the disciplined community of scientists organized largely within universities and research institutions. Each, the monastic community and the scientific community, is a complex system responsible for many things: for training its members, for authorizing its teachers, for maintaining the integrity of its tradition against many misguided and popular notions, for upholding pure standards whereby its results can be assessed, for encouraging the growth, prosperity and longevity of its functions, for rewarding patience where results are not immediately forthcoming, for maintaining harmony among its members, for nurturing a positive perception in the public eye. Just as scientific discipline is intrinsic to the practice and perpetuation of science, and science as we know it would collapse without it, Vinaya is intrinsic to the practice and perpetuation of the Buddha-Sasana, and Buddhism in all its depth would collapse without it or something quite like it. Both institutions are conservative exhibiting little change over the centuries. From these parallels I will draw helpful analogies to better understand the function of the Sangha in terms of that of the perhaps more familiar scientific institution.

It is not often enough pointed that the founding of the Sangha was a truly monumental achievement. Consider this observation:

The Buddhist Sangha is likely the world’s oldest human organization in continual existence on the planet!2

What is more, the Sangha is still entirely recognizable in terms of attire, life-style, practice and function after 100 generations! It was there as great empires, the Roman, Mongolian, Arab, Lithuanian and British, arose and grew, it was still there as each of those empires collapsed. From India it extended its civilizing reach to Ceylon and Southeast Asia and into Indonesia, into Central Asia where it followed the Silk Road eastward into China and East Asia and westward as far as the Mediterranean. In modern times it has begun to board airplanes and to sprinkle down on North America, Europe, Australia, South America and even Africa. Buddhism has never penetrated new lands nor established itself without a Sangha.

Yet in spite of its robustness the Sangha is delicate. Without any centralized authority or substantial hierarchy, its governance is based on the consensus of local communities (sanghas) of monks and nuns, its regulations are enforced through an honor system and its support is completely entrusted to the good-will of others. The Buddha could have set up a hierarchy something like Pope and bishops and a range of severe punishments for transgressing authority, but he did not. Who would have thought it would last? This amazing institution is the product of one genius, who cobbled it together from diverse elements present in ascetic practices, gave it a mission and a charter and released it into the world. And this genius is the very same person who revealed the Dharma, among the most sophisticated and skillfully expounded philosophical, psychological and religious products of the human mind, and the very same person who attained complete Awakening without a teacher to light the way, the threefold genius we call the Buddha.

The Functions of the Discipline

The Buddha most consistently called the body of his teachings not “Dharma,” not “Sasana,” and certainly not “Buddhism,” but rather “Dharma-Vinaya,” the Teachings and Discipline. On his deathbed the Buddha refused to appoint a successor, saying to the surrounding monks,

“Whatever Dharma and Vinaya I have pointed out and formulated for you, that will be your Teacher when I am gone,”3

The Vinaya is fundamentally about community and about the monastic life style, the life in accord with the Dharma and thereby the most direct path to attainment. The Vinaya is addressed indeed to monks and nuns, but throughout it emphasizes their responsibility to the Buddhist lay community. The Buddha’s teachings on community provide the mechanism through which the light of the Buddha’s teachings burns brightly, through which it spreads to attract new adherents and through which it retains its integrity as it is passed on to new generations.

Here is how the Buddha describes the mission of the Vinaya in ten points:4

“The excellence of the Sangha,
The comfort of the Sangha,
The curbing of the impudent,
The comfort of well-behaved monastics,
The restraint of effluents related to the present life,
The prevention of effluents related to the next life,
The arousing of faith in the faithless,
The increase of the faithful,
The establishment of the true Dharma,and
The fostering of Discipline.”

The following is a brief overview of the main features of the Discipline organized according to the aims they respectively support.

The excellence of the Sangha.” The Sangha must be excellent because it sustains something quite sophisticated and precious, the Dharma, the teachings of the Buddha. The nuns and monks are the designated full-time caretakers of the Dharma. The Vinaya ensures the conditions for deep practice and study and for harmony within the Sangha.

Excellence of the Sangha entails that its membership is exclusive. This is a critical point. Its members become exclusive through their vows, through the willingness to take on very simple lives of renunciation, a lifestyle fully in accord with Dharma but beyond the consideration of most people. Initially to become a member is quite easy, but sustained membership requires enormous trust in the Dharma, recognition of the disadvantages of samsaric life and oodles of personal discipline. In most cases it entails rigorous training in Dharma, meditation and Vinaya. Concentrated in this life among the renunciates, the Dharma burns most brightly.5

By way of analogy the scientific community must be excellent because it sustains something sophisticated and productive of rapid progress in understanding the nature of our universe. Science concentrates people of exceptional training into a persistent stimulating and highly cooperative if not always harmonious community. Excellence also entails that its membership be exclusive, in this case ensured through years of intense education, evaluation and training, culminating in apprenticeship under a senior research scientist to qualify as competent to conduct independent research.

The comfort of the Sangha.” The Sangha appears planned as the ideal society writ small. The excellence of the Sangha makes that feasible. Internally the Sangha as envisioned by the Buddha observes no class distinctions, provides an exemplary level of gender equality,6 is regulated in a way to avoid conflicts and maintain harmony, observes procedures to negotiate disagreements should these arise, is democratic and only minimally hierarchical.

At the same time the Sangha is embedded in and dependent on a greater society whose values may be often contrary but with which it must harmonize. Accordingly it takes care to conform, or at least provide the perception of conforming to the expectations of the wider society and certainly its standards of etiquette. It is worth noting that many rules observed by Buddhist monks and nuns early on were recommended or inspired by lay people discontented with monastic behavior.7 Some regulations seem to be symbolic and I suspect purely for public perception and not reflective of the values of the ideal society (for instance, nuns pay respects to monks but not vice versa). The uniform appearance of the Buddhist Sangha is specifically in order not to be confused with ascetics of other traditions who may observe other standards, and under no circumstances with the laity who have a distinct role.

As an ascetic renunciate community, monks and nuns receive complete material support from the lay community. This affords them the leisure of practice, study and good works. Remarkably the Buddha not only makes receipt of this support mandatory (they cannot for instance grow their own food or live off their own resources) but then sharpens this dependence by limiting the monastic’s right to retain offerings, especially food for which the ownership expires at noon on the day it is offered!8 Monastics are not allowed to engage in exchange, such as Dharma talks for food. This provides a high degree of insularity from the concerns and influences of the outside world, including from the need for livelihood, ensuring among other things that the Dharma will not become a commercial product, manipulated for popular appeal. It also means that monastics can engage patiently in long-term practice toward profound but long-term attainment without the pressure to produce identifiable results.

The scientific community similarly receives material support, through professorships, research grants, etc, from the broader society, both to sustain its (much higher) living standards and to offset the costs of research equipment, publication, travel and so forth that its functions entail. This permits its members engage in nearly full-time research, training and teaching, fulfilling the functions of the community. The assumption of academic freedom and the institution of tenure gives the scientific community a high degree of insularity from the prevailing concerns of the outside world, unbiased by politics, religion, superstition, other popular notions, practical applications or benefits or profitability. It also means scientists can engage patiently in long-term research with no pressure to produce identifiable results.

The curbing of the impudent” and “The comfort of well-behaved monastics.” The Sangha maintains high standards of behavior to ensure ethical conduct, conduct befitting the role of renunciate: celibacy, a nominal personal footprint, harmony of the Sangha, harmony between Sangha and laity, preservation of the reputation of the Sangha, reaching group decisions and restraint of self-gratifying behavior.

Regulations are enforced primarily through simple personal acknowledgment of infractions with the intention to do better next time. The Sangha has no forms of corporal punishment and implements justice largely on an honor system. More serious matters are enforced through peer pressure, through expulsion or moving impudent members to the uneasy fringes of the community for periods of time, but only upon admission of guilt. For a very small set of very serious offenses the wayward monk or nun is from that very instant no longer of the Sangha. If one manages to hide such an offense one is simply a berobed lay person successfully impersonating a monk or nun. Those on the other hand whose behavior is unblemished garner a great deal of respect.

Scientific communities also maintain high ethical standards, albeit in quite different realms having to do with potential falsification of data and plagiarism, disharmonious and unproductive discourse and debate and with productive evaluation of results and theoretical proposals, scientific standards and methods and peer evaluation. Such communities are largely self-regulating, generally at the institutional level with relatively little centralization of authority. Governance is often in a local university administration, but similar standards of professional conduct are generally recognized and enforced throughout the world scientific community. Institutions share common practices for expelling members or to move them to the fringes of communal activities through hiring, funding and tenure decisions. Pursuit of professional reputation is typically a strong determinant of the behavior of scientists.

The restraint of effluents related to the present life” and “The prevention of effluents related to the next life.” These two aims alone among the ten refer to the results of actual practice toward Awakening. Effluents are unwholesome tendencies and views, the taints from which the human character is purified on the Path. The Sangha functions in this regard by securing for itself the life most conducive to upholding Buddhist principles, a life so barren of any opportunity for personal advantage that a self can scarcely find root. Into its stead flow wisdom and compassion. Liberated from the tyranny of personal neediness these burst here and there into various stages of Awakening. In this way the Sangha, as long as it follows the discipline faithfully, so effectively produces Noble Ones from among its ranks.

Monastics are allowed by their vows to do almost nothing for themselves. They are permitted no livelihood, nor trade and are isolated from the conventional exchange economy. Their material needs are offered entirely by the laity. Monastics are proscribed except in exceptional circumstances from asking for anything, they do not beg, contrary to folk opinion, but only offer the opportunity to give. On alms rounds they are not to prefer one house (the wealthy one or the home of the French chef) over another. They are not even allowed to endear themselves through charm and wit to families with the intent of garnering better or greater offerings, nor are they allowed to show off any special psychic powers nor talk about attainments to gain in reputation. They can build themselves a dwelling or sew robes for themselves, but if they do so these must be limited in size and quality. They also curtail frivolous speech, shows and entertainments and self-beautification, observe limits on what they can own or store, and do not eat after noon. Of course curtailing sexual activity is foundational to monasticism, obviating the most direct route to entanglement in Samsara.

On the other hand there are almost no restrictions on what a monastic can do for others: on teaching, pastoral care, good works, advice, even physical labor, as long as it is not compensated. Interestingly the restrictions on the monastics’ aid to others bear, in the Buddha’s teachings, on traditionally priestly functions, such as predicting the future, healing or appealing to the mercy of deities. The Buddha created an order of renunciates, role models and teachers, not of priests.

Virtually all of the progress one (lay or monastic) is likely to make on the Buddhist Path will be directly correlated with what is given up, physically or mentally: the physical trappings of life, relations and obligations like debt and car ownership, behaviors like partying flirtatiously or imbibing liberally, needy emotions of lust, greed, envy, pride, avarice, aversive emotions of anger, hatred, fear, jealousy, denial and confusion, the distortion of self-view and having to be somebody. The Buddhist Path entails a long process of disentanglement strand by strand from soap-operatic existence, of renunciation. The power of the monastic life is in setting high standards of physical renunciation and offering virtually no channel for the practical expression of the afflictive mental factors that refuse to let go and generally assault for a time even the most dedicated monastic heart. Within the monastic container meditation and study quickly develop ripe and plump fruit.

The analogous discipline of science develops a different kind of quality in its practitioners: talent for research. It implements policies that provide very high standards for assessing its quality, for publicizing results and for allocating research funding and employment where future results prove most promising. Through continuous discourse at conferences, in published journals and in informal contexts, research results are continually refined and reevaluated cooperatively within the community to improve their quality. Peer review, and standards for hiring professors, granting tenure, awarding research grants, etc. also provide other forms of constraint and encouragement.

1Thanissaro (1997, 1999).

2Gombrich (2009), p. 2, makes this claim.

3Mahaparanibbana Sutta, DN 16.

4Vinaya III.20; A v 70. Horner …, Thanissaro (2007, p. 5).

5Conze (1959, p. 53) writes in stronger terms that, “The monks are the Buddhist elite. They are the only Buddhists in the proper sense of the word. The life of a householder is almost incompatible with the higher levels of spiritual life. This has been a conviction common to all Buddhists at all times.”

6I’ll will consider later why historically the Sangha has often failed to uphold this ideal.

7The origin stories of individual rules found in the Vinaya reveal this.

8Ariyesako (1999) provides an accessible overview of the monastic regulations.


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.