Archive for the ‘Dharma’ Category

Dhammānupassanā

May 31, 2018

Seeing through the eyes of the Buddha

Samādhi (concentration) is the dominant factor of the higher training toward awakening in the early Buddhist texts (EBT), and yet it is lamentably misunderstood. It folds all of the energies of the previous seven path factors into a unified whole:

There are right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort and right mindfulness. The unification of mind equipped with these seven factors is called noble right concentration with its supports and accessories. (SN 45.28)

It then provides the incubator for that liberating knowledge that may burst forth into awakening.

Bhikkhus, develop concentration. A monk with concentrat­ion under­stands in accordance with reality. (SN 22.5)

Yet many have doubts that samādhi can possibly fulfill these functions. The problem seems to be that the tight integration of (1) Dhamma, of the contemplative disciplines of (2) mindfulness and (3) samādhi, and of (4) liberating knowledge, as put forward in the EBT, seems to have come apart, for many maintain that the Dhamma cannot reach the stillness of samādhi and that samādhi does not have the cognitive strength to produce liberating knowledge with any kind of meaningful content.

Dhammānupassanā (watching or observing of phenomena) is at the center of this issue. It is the practice of examining phenomenal experience in accordance with the categories of Dhamma – in this sense, seeing through the eyes of the Buddha – articulated most prominently as the fourth establishment of mindfulness (satipaṭṭhāna). But, as we will see, it functions almost entirely in samādhi, and leads to an array of liberating insights. It is here where the full integration of Dhamma, mindfulness, samādhi and liberating knowledge is realized.

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What is the Eye?

April 16, 2018

Dhammānupassanā Series

The eye seems like a commonplace enough and useful thing. Who would imagine that it would be so implicated in the human pathology, nor that understanding the eye would play such an important role in its resolution?

The Buddha attributes many, at first sight, puzzling properties to the eye in the Early Buddhist Texts (EBT), and equivalently to the other sense faculties – ear, nose, tongue, body and ofttimes mind. We learn that the eye is something that can be guarded or restrained, by not grasping signs and features of the forms it contacts, for Māra is constantly trying to gain access through the eye. More­over, “it is better for the eye faculty to be lacerated by a red-hot iron pin … than for one to grasp the features in a form cognizable through the eye” (SN 35.235). We learn that the eye is that by which one is “a perceiver of the world, a conceiver of the world” (SN 35.116). On the other hand, we learn that the eye is imperma­nent, and that its rise and fall can be discerned, and moreover reveals itself as impermanent with the devel­opment of concentration. Since the eye is im­permanent, it is suffering and cannot be a self.

We learn that “that sphere should be understood where the eye ceases and the perception of forms fades away” (SN 35.117). It is possible not to conceive the eye, in the eye, from the eye, or “this eye is mine,” and, as a result, it is possible to end conceptualizing and clinging. As we gain such direct knowledge of the eye, we are able to de­velop dispassion for the eye, revulsion for eye and thereby abandon the eye. Surprisingly, we also learn that the eye itself is old kamma, fashioned by volition and something to be experi­enced.

So, what is this eye the EBT speak of? And analogously, what are the ear, nose, tongue, body and ofttimes mind?

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Am I my five khaṅdhas?

February 21, 2018

Dhammānupassanā Series

pdficonOne day, the awakened nun Vajirā Bhikkhunī, having returned from Savatthi with her daily alms, having eaten and having set­tled down in the Blind Men’s Grove for the day’s abiding, was confronted by the infamous Māra, who tried to disrupt her samādhi by raising a thorny philosophical question: What is a liv­ing being (satta)? Her famous answer surprised and frustrated the Evil One:

Just as, with an assemblage of parts,
The word “chariot” is used,
So, when aggregates are present,
There’s the convention “a living being.” (SN 5.10)

chariotSeveral centuries later, as recorded in the Questions of Milinda, the wise Buddhist monk Nāgasena won his first debate with the Bactrian Greek king Milinda by drawing on Vajirā’s analysis, pointing out that just as the king’s chariot is nei­ther axle, nor wheels, nor chassis, nor reins, nor yoke, nor something apart from them, Nāgasena is neither nails, nor teeth, nor skin or nor other parts of the body, nor any of the aggregates, nor something apart from them. No chariot can be found, no Nāgasena can be found, yet by convention we say “chariot” and “Nāgasena.”

The five aggregates – in Pali khaṅdha or in Sanskrit skaṅdha – are form (rūpa), feeling (vedanā), perception (saññā), fabrications (saṅkhārā) and consciousness (viññāṇa), products of cognitive analysis, as we will see. In later Buddhist thought Vajirā’s and Nāgasena’s analysis of the unsubstantiality of concepts like “char­iot” and “living being” was taken, not as laying bare the unsub­stantiality of concepts, but as an attempt to define these very con­cepts. Even in modern discourse, the five khaṅdhas are more of­ten than not defined as the five constituents of the person or psychophysical organism and sometimes translated “the five per­sonality factors,” rather than “the five aggregates.”

And so I wish to consider herewith: Are you or I five aggregates? And if so, are we really the five aggregates, or only as a matter of linguistic convention?

What are the five khaṅdhas, exactly?

The five khaṅdhas, as a matter of doctrine, appear to have a precedent in no pre-Buddhist tradition.[1] However, tradition tells us that the Buddha referred to this concept in his very first dis­course, “The Turning of the Wheel,” in explaining the first noble truth as follows:

“Birth is painful, aging is painful, illness is painful, death is painful; sorrow, lamentation, physical pain, unhappiness and distress are painful; union with what is disliked is painful; separation from what is liked is painful; not to get what one wants is painful; in brief, the five aggregates of attachment.” (SN 56.11)

Its occurrence here must have been puzzling for anyone not al­ready familiar with the concept. I suspect that either the expres­sion actually was already in common discourse, or a later redac­tor projected what had later become a fundamental concept in the Buddha’s teachings back into this early discourse. What we can infer from this first mention is that the five aggregates seem to encompass a wide swath of human experience and that they be­come a problem when attachment to them arises.

Given the foregoing analogy of a being and a chariot, we might expect each of the khaṅdhas to be a thing, a concrete part like an axle, a wheel, a chassis or a yoke, that can be assembled together to produce “me.” Again, the khaṅdhas in English and Pali are:

aggregate, khaṅdha
form, rūpa
feeling, vedanā
perception, saññā
fabrications, saṅkhārā
consciousness, viññāṇa

The names indicate cognitive capabilities. This might suggest that maybe the khaṅdhas are an array of mental faculties, functional units charged with interpreting the world. However, keep in mind that a khaṅdha itself is an aggregate, that is, a heap, a collection, an assembly, a pile or a bundle. The word khaṅdha unambigu­ously expresses plurality. Perception, for instance, cannot be a single something that perceives, but must rather be the heap, or stream, of perceptions produced by such an alleged perceiver, each of which arises, undergoes change and ceases. This makes sense in terms of the way we are instructed to contemplate the khaṅdhas:

Whatever kinds of form[…] there is, whether past, future or present, internal or external, gross or subtle, inferior or superior, far and near, a bhikkhu inspects it, investigates it, and it would appear to him to be void, hollow, insub­stantial. (SN 22.95)

This passage is a pericope, a fixed formula repeated with slight variations. The suttas are full of pericopes. In this passage the same formula is then repeated four times, but each time replacing “form” with one of the other khaṅdhas. I will use the notation “form[…]” to indicate substitution of each of the five khaṅdhas in turn, starting with “form” in a pericope.

Consciousness, in particular, has been vulnerable in other con­texts to interpretation as a fixed functional thing, rather than as a stream of comings and goings. One day the Buddha summoned the monk Sāti, who was reported to have a pernicious view, and he states his view:

“As I understand the Dhamma taught by the Blessed One, it is this same consciousness that runs and wanders through the round of rebirths, not another.”
“What is that consciousness, Sāti?”
“Venerable sir, it is that which speaks and feels and experiences here and there the result of good and bad actions.”
“Misguided man, to whom have you ever known me to teach the Dhamma in that way? Misguided man, have I not stated in many ways consciousness to be de­pendently arisen, since without a condition there is no origination of consciousness? (MN 38)

Consciousness manifests contingently, not as a fixed thing. If we take up the khaṅdhas as topics of practice, it is important to be clear what we are supposed to look for; few teachers seem to do this. If we eat bread, we eat a morsel at a time, not all bread and not the bakery. It is in the morsel that we experience taste and texture. Likewise we experience perception and the rest one morsel at a time as phenomena that arise contingently. Let me try out, just for the time being, new names that avoid the ambiguity between mental faculties and their products inherent in the con­ventional name.

form, appearances
feeling, valuations
perception, features
fabrications, structures
consciousness, configurations

The khaṅdhas represent different facets of the world of increas­ing depth or complexity. Think of these as building layers of physical reality, unfolding progressively: colors and shapes, af­fective tones, things and qualities, structural relations among things and complex configurations of things and relations, as they arise in our experience interdependently. Let’s discuss each of these khaṅdhas briefly in turn:

form. The Pali word rūpa means “form,” “shape” or “experi­ence,” and therefore has to do with the physical world as it arises in experience.[2] “Body” or “matter” therefore would be a poor translation, though it is a common assumption by students of the Dhamma that form refers in this context to the physical body as part of the “personality.” However, this would give us no way to refer to the sensual facets of insentient objects in experience, such as our chariot, objects that are not our body or someone else’s body.[3] Moreover, as will soon be apparent, a body is consti­tuted of all the khaṅdhas.

feeling. This is defined as pleasant, unpleasant or neutral and can be thought of as interest. This is the single affective instance among the khaṅdhas. Although the other khaṅdhas most typi­cally are aspects of physicality, the valuation that tags appear­ances, characteristics, structures and configurations plays a criti­cal role in determining where in the experiential situation con­sciousness and the other factors arise.

perception. This manifests as specific colors, recognizable shapes and other features of physical objects, at the level of words or concepts. An appearance can manifest as a face, for in­stance, or as a tree or as a dog, or as my dog, or as a chariot. Ex­perientially it is here that the designation “chariot” or “living be­ing” arises. Here we begin to see its insubstantiality. For instance, “chariot” might arise quite readily from a perception of a sound or motion.

fabrications. Structures are composites, things made out of pieces. From the parts, the whole emerges, for instance, from eyes and mouth, a face emerges, from conditions and goal a plan emerges. From sound and motion a chariot emerges. From attach­ment identification arises. Fabrications represent choices of inter­pretation or execution, and so are volitional or karmic in nature. This lends particular importance to fabrications, since this is where we learn to make better choices. Other khaṅdhas are actu­ally kinds of structures at different levels of complexity.

consciousness. An arising of consciousness can be far reaching in its discernment, insight, imagination and abstraction, generally pointing to something complex far beyond itself – notice that we are always conscious of something –, painting a picture of a real­ity often bordering on fantasy. The Buddha compares conscious­ness to a magic show.[4] It can see entire objects when only a tail or a tail fin is visible to perception, or tell us that objects ob­served at different times from different angles are the same ob­ject. It arises as an objective world “out there,” consisting of things and people, and convinces us that it is all real. It can even take shapes and colors flashing on a video screen and transplant us into a world of the remote past, as in a western movie, or into the future,as in a science fiction move, and make that world seem real. None of the other khaṅdhas exists without consciousness[5] – we wouldn’t know about them if they did.

Our experience is composed from the khaṅdhas, which present an unfolding of the experienced world, accumulating different facets of reality, level by level, element by element. The Buddha de­scribes the process with a metaphor:

“Suppose, bhikkhus, an artist or a painter, using dye or lac or turmeric or indigo or crimson, would create the figure of a man or a woman complete in all its features on a well-polished plank or wall or canvas. So too, when the uninstructed worldling produces anything, it is only form that he produces, only feeling that he produces, only per­ception that he produces, only fabrications that he pro­duces, only consciousness that he produces.” (SN 22.100)

The objects that arise layer by layer are insubstantial and com­posed of insubstantial elements, and therefore the objects are in­substantial. The Buddha makes the following analogies:

form, foam
feeling, a bubble
perception, a mirage
fabrications, a plantain tree (with no discernible core)
consciousness, a magic show

brushstrokesFor each, he says, “it would appear to [the observer] to be void, hol­low, insubstantial.”[6] This is why a chariot or a living being, or person, are insubstantial, they are fabri­cated in our experiential world from insubstantial elements.

We live in two worlds, an internal (ajjhatta) subjective world of direct experience, and an external (bahiddhā) objective world world which we imagine to exist with or without us. Khaṅdhas pertain to the internal world and only to the internal world. When Ven. Varijā says, “When the aggregates are present, there’s the convention ‘a living being’,” she can only be referring to the composition of the being within internal experi­ence. When she breaks down the chariot into its component parts, she is speaking externally.[7]

It is critical that we recognize this distinction, for the Buddha pri­oritized the subjective world: It is the world in which suffering arises, it is the world in which we seek liberation; it is the world in which we immerse ourselves when we sit on the cushion, it is the world in which we awaken. Since this world is entirely of ex­perience, the question, “What exists?” does not apply, only the question “What arises under what circumstances?” Investigation of the external world is ontological, investigation of the internal is epistemological. The Buddha gives us alternative ways to view the world of experience, each highlighting different aspects. The main alternative is the sixfold (sense) sphere,[8] about which he spoke,

In the six the world has arisen,
In the six it holds concourse.
In the six it has woes. (SN 1.70)

How do we practice the five khaṅdhas?

A doctrine is only as good as the practices it supports. The doc­trine of the khaṅdhas concerns our world of experience and the factors that arise in experience, which is to say phenomena (dhammas).[9] It presents these as material for investigation and in­sight, on and off the cushion, specifically suited for the fourth foundation of mindfulness, dhammānupassanā, or contemplation of phenomena.

The qualities of our experiential world that come forward with the khaṅdhas are its constructedness and its insubstantiality, for it is a fragile reality fabricated in small cognitive increments, cogni­tive morsels. The Buddha applies a common formula to approach investigation of the khaṅdhas, that is, in terms of gratification, danger, and escape.

The gratification (assāda) of the khaṅdhas is the pleasure and joy dependent on khaṅdhas.

The danger (ādīnava) is that the khaṅdhas are imperma­nent, suffering and subject to change.

The escape (nissaraṇa) is the removal of desire and lust for the khaṅdhas.[10]

The first expresses where we begin in our practice, the second ex­amines how the first creates problems for us in terms of the salvific goals of practice, and the third is where we want to be in our practice. The Buddha stated with regard to this formula,

“So long as I did not directly know the gratification, the danger and the escape in the case of the five aggregates of attachment, I did not claim to have awakened.” (SN 22.27)

Let me take these up in order.

Gratification. Our job here is to examine how pleasure and joy tend to come up around the khaṅdhas and moreover how these lead to attachment (upādāna), which in turn involves identifica­tion, appropriation and even the arising of pernicious views with regard to the khaṅdhas. Because the khaṅdhas really represented an unfolding of the experienced world, an accrual of different facets of reality, we might notice in our practice at which point in an unfolding experiences we crave or attach. For instance, I may be attached to, and even identify with, my chariot. What aspects am I attached to, or do I identify with? If it is the shine of the chrome trimmings, my attachment centers on form; if the quality of the wooden parts, the length of the yoke or the diameter of the wheels then on perception; if the many uses I find in my chariot and the prestige I gain by appearing on the byways and cross­roads in it, then on consciousness. We may discover that all of these play a role.

One of the functions of bringing such contemplations onto the cushion is that, as the mind stills, the experienced world folds up again, in particular retreating from consciousness, fabrications, perception, and so on, and, with that, the craving, attachment, identification and appropriation that accompany them. We begin to notice as the mind stills, the world undergoes a noticeable shift. This highlights the unsubstantiality of the khaṅdhas.

An oft-repeated formula shows how identification or appropria­tion occur within attachment.

“The uninstructed worldling sees form[…] as self, self as possessing form[…], self as in form[…], self as in form […].” (SN 22.1, etc.)

Khaṅdhas evoke attachments. The intersection of attachment and the khaṅdhas is called the aggregates of attachment or aggregates subject to attachment (upādānak-khaṅdha), a very important con­cept in the Buddha’s teaching. The nun Dhammadinna equated identity (sakkāya), one’s sense of self, exactly with the five aggre­gates of attachment (MN 44). Basically, you are what you attach to. But moreover, it is from attachment that specific views about identity – such as, “this I am, this is mine, this is my self” – arise (SN 24.2).

Danger. Contemplating the five aggregates of attachment, we ask, What is the problem here? Well, to begin with, the five ag­gregates of attachment are misery (SN 22.31), “form is burning, feeling is burning, perception is burning, fabrications are burning, consciousness is burning” (SN 22.61). What we attach to we want to be permanent, so when we discover it is impermanent we have a problem.

“The uninstructed worldling regards form[…] thus: ‘this is mine, this I am, this is my self.’ That form[…] of his changes and alters. With the change and alteration of form […], there arise in him sorrow, lamentation, pain, displea­sure and despair.” (SN 22.8)

Impermanence is why craving leads to suffering. I often advice students that if they acquire a new chariot, the best thing they can do for themselves is to take out a hammer and put a few dents in it. Get it over with. Otherwise they will make themselves miser­able in anticipation before the first dent even occurs. Moreover, an uninstructed worldling who identifies with or appropriates forms, feeling, perceptions, fabrications or instances of con­sciousness is tethered to samsara, like a dog leashed to a pole. (SN 22.98)

Escape. The escape is renunciation, loosening the grip of attach­ment to me and mine. Just as kids lose their lust and desire for a sandcastle – also insubstantial and yet initially a locus of great significance and attachment – then destroy and scatter it, so we must destroy our lust and desire for the khaṅdhas and destroy and scatter what we have built (SN 23.2). This metaphor is directly en­acted by Tibetan monks who painstakingly construct a mandala of colored sand over many days, then sweep it away upon com­pletion. The scattering begins with the contemplation of the dan­ger of the aggregates:

mandala“Bhikkhus, a bhikkhu sees as impermanent form[…] which is actu­ally impermanent: that is his right view. See­ing rightly, he experi­ences revulsion. With the destruction of de­light comes the de­struction of lust; with the destruction of lust comes the destruction of delight. With the destruction of delight and lust the mind is liberated and is said to be well liberated.” (SN 22. 51)

Most of the practices of the Khaṅdhasamyutta involve prying up the identification with the khaṅdhas. These are recurring refrains:

“This is not mine, this I am not, this is not my self.”

“He does not consider form[…] as self, or self as possess­ing form […], or form[…] as in self, or self as in form[…].”

Sometimes it drills down into more detailed analyses:

“Bhikkhus, form[…] is nonself. For if, bhikkhus, form […] were self, this form[…] would not lead to affiction, and it would be possible to have it of form[…]: ‘Let my form […] be this; let my form[…] not be thus.’” (SN 22.59)

Understanding gratification, danger and escape, we hope for lib­eration:

“If, bhikkhus, a bhikkhu’s mind has become dispassionate towards form[…], it is liberated from the taints by non-at­tachment. By being liberated, it is steady; by being steady, it is content; by being content, he is not agitated. Being unagitated, he personally attains Nibbāna. He under­stands: ‘Destroyed is birth, the holy life has been lived, what had to be done has been done, there is no more for this state of being.’” (SN 22.45)

The practices around the khaṅdhas and the upādānak-khaṅdhas are clearly very important. We should note that there is no men­tion in the suttas of a practice of investigating the person by de­composing the person into five parts.[11] That is not the role of the khaṅdhas in the Buddha’s teaching. Quite the opposite: the prac­tice is to deny the relationship of the khaṅdhas to the self.

Am I my five khaṅdhas?

The quick answer is: Yes, But! … Let’s consider how a person, me, arises in your experiential world. First certain colors and shapes arise, largely maroon in color. A sense of foreboding en­sues. The features arise “monk,” “shaveling,” then the discern­ment “worthy of offerings” The features arise “wire-rimmed glasses,” “wry grin” and finally “Bhikkhu Cintita,” then the dis­cernment “maybe not so worthy of offerings.” At some point in this process you are convinced that I really exist out there in the external world, independent of your experience of me. In this way you fabricate me and furthermore take this insubstantial fab­rication as real. I am in your experiential world fabricated en­tirely of five khaṅdhas. However, I am no different in this sense from the book you left lying on your table, nor your chariot, for they are fabricated as well of five khandas. So there is no reason, so far, to call the khandas “personality factors”; they are “every­thing factors.”

nickleNonetheless, lest the reader be disappointed with this conclusion, there is another and very interesting way I might be my five khaṅdhas: I have a flip side, which your book and your car do not. You will discern that I am much like you, and that just as you live in an internal world of experience, I must similarly live in a internal world of experi­ence, compose of five khaṅdhas, in which ob­jects of my experience will arise, including you. Although once again they are not “personality fac­tors” per se, we can at least say that person­hood, as conventionally understood, relies on having a flip side born of khaṅdhas.

Rohitassa in a previous life had been a deva who could travel at astonishing speed. He had tried, by running for a hundred years, to reach the end of the world where he expected to encounter lib­eration, but without success. In this life he asked of the Buddha whether this quest was even possible. The Buddha replied,

“I say, friend, that by traveling one cannot know, see or reach that end of the world where one is not born, does not grow old and die, does not pass away and get reborn. Yet I say that without having reached the end of the world there is no making an end of suffering. It is in this fathom-long living body endowed with perception and mind that I proclaim the world, the origin of the world, the cessation of the world and the way leading to the cessation of the world.” (AN 4.45)

The Buddha’s enigmatic statement is resolved when we realize he has shifted his perspective from the conventional person to the flip-side of the person, where we have woes, where we practice and where we attain liberation.

The khaṅdhas answer the question, How do we experience? This is an epistemological question. The khaṅdhas provide insight into the constructed nature of the experiential world. We learn that if we imagine a personal identity this causes us problems, so our practice is to remind ourselves that the khaṅdhas are not our selves. Vajirā’s response to Māra was intended to emphasize the insubstantiality of that personal identity.

Early in Buddhist history the khaṅdhas were taken to answer an­other question, What is the person? The Buddha never attempted to answer this question.[12] Those who have, unfortunately, have generally been encouraged to offer an ontological answer in which the khaṅdhas are our selves. This resulted in a history of thorny metaphysical speculation,[13] eventuating in the idea of the “person” (S: pudgala, P: puggala) as a fully reified entity in the Pudgalavāda tradition.

As an afterthought, our understanding of the khaṅdhas allows us to gain insight into another puzzling issue. In the twelve links of dependent coarising, two of the early links are consciousness and name-and-form (nāma-rūpa) in a very tight relationship.[14] Now, the factors that constitute name-and-form (form, feeling, percep­tion, volition, contact, attention) plus consciousness come very close to the five khaṅdhas. Let us therefore take them as roughly equivalently as modeling our experiential world. Now, the puz­zling issue involves this passage:

“If consciousness were not to descend into the mother’s womb, would name-and-form take shape in the womb?” “No, Lord.”
“If the consciousness of a young boy or girl were to be cut off, would name-and-form grow up, develop and reach maturity?” “No, Lord.” (DN 15)

This passage has been use to justify a biological interpretation of a large segment of the twelve links for centuries, whereby name-and-form is equated with the person, or psychophysical organism, that acquires or sustains consciousness, much like the five khaṅdhas have generally been assumed to define the person dur­ing the same period.[15] However, there are several reasons why the biological interpretation cannot be right: First, the biological in­terpretation is speculative and rather uninteresting in itself, and provides no material for practice or insight. Second, the biologi­cal interpretation displaces a much more viable interpretation that lays bare the role of cognition in creating the subject-object dual­ity upon which craving depends, and that does provide material for practice and insight.[16] Finally, the role in biological concep­tion of consciousness makes consciousness into something sub­stantial that can move through space and enter the mother’s womb in order to run and wander through the round of rebirths, which seems suspiciously similar to Sāti’s pernicious view discussed earlier.[17]
The puzzle arises from confusing external and internal worlds. The person is clearly referred to twice in an objective sense, first as the occupant of the womb and then as the boy or girl. How­ever, the consciousness and the name-and-form, like the khaṅd­has, must refer to the flip side of the person, to the person’s inter­nal world, much as in the instructions to Rohitassa discussed above. This passage thereby serves to correlate processes in the internal world with external events as a means of demonstrating a causal relation between consciousness and name-and-form.

References

Bodhi, Bhikkhu, 1995 [1984], The Great Discourse on Causa­tion: the Mahānidāna Sutta and its commentaries, BPS.

Cintita, Bhikkhu, 2016, :Name and Form: nāmarūpa in the sut­tas,” online at

Gethin, Rupert, 1986, “The Five khaṅdhas: their treatment in the Nikāyas and Early Abhidhamma,” Journal of Indian Philosophy 14, 35-53.

Hamilton, Sue, 1996, Identity and Experience: the constitution of the human being according to early Buddhism, Luzac Oriental.

Hamilton, Sue, 2000, Early Buddhism: the I of the beholder, Routledge.

Ñāṇānanda, Ven. Katakurunde, 1974, The Magic of the Mind: an Exposition of the Kālakārāma Sutta, Buddhist Publication Soci­ety, also 2007, Dharma Grantha Mudrana Bharaya: Sri Lanka, also on-line.

Ñāṇānanda, Ven. Katakurunde, 2015, The Law of Dependent Arising: the Secret of Bondage and Release (draft), Vol. 1-4, Pathgulala Dharmagrantha Dharmasravana Mādhya Bhāraya (PDDMB), Sri Lanka.

Thanissaro, Bhikkhu, 2010, “The Five Aggregates: a study guide,” online at accesstoinsight.org.

 

Copyright 2018, Bhikkhu Cintita (John Dinsmore)
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

1. Hamilton (2000, 70).

2. Gethin (1986, 36).

3. Gethin (1985, 40).

4. Ñāṇānanda (1974), based on the Kālakārāma Sutta (SN 22.95), explores this metaphor.

5. See SN 22.53.

6. SN 22.95.

7. Hamilton (1996, 194) states, “There is no suggestion in the Sutta Pitaka that the Buddha had any concern for ontological matters. … We don’t find information concerning what we are comprised of, but only how we work.” Gethin (1986, 49) points out furthermore that this particular way of constituting the person as five khaṅdhas would have no particular psycho­logical or logical merit.

8. The main source for the six-fold sphere is The Saḷāyatana Sutta (MN 137), also the Saḷāyatanasaṃyutta (SN 35).

9. A phenomenon in western philosophy is an object as experienced by the senses, as opposed to a noumenon, which is an object as it exists indepen­dent of the senses.

10. This formula is repeated throughout the Khaṅdhasaṃyutta (SN 22), for in­stance in SN 22.26, and in MN 108.

11. There is, by way of analogy, a practice of contemplating the body as being composed of thirty-two parts found in many suttas, such as the Sati­paṭṭhāna Sutta (MN 10).

12. Thanissaro (2010).

13. ibid.

14. For instance, see Ñāṇānanda (2015, vol. 2, 31-35).

15. On the biological interpretation see Bodhi (1995, 18).

16. Ñāṇānanda (2015), Cintita (2016).

17. The word commonly translated as “descends” in this passage can also mean “arises.”

 

Theravāda and Mahāyāna Need Each Other (2/4)

February 12, 2018

Myth 2: Mahāyāna as higher teachings

Theravāda has been remarkably orthodox historically, although it did undergo some further development from the early Buddhist texts (hereafter EBT). This earliest layer of scriptures, as close as we know to what the Buddha himself taught, was supplementing very early on by the canonical Abhidhamma and, beginning around 500 CE, by voluminous Pali commentaries (atthakathā) on the EBT and on the Abhidhamma. Gombrich[12] notes that Theravāda has developed very little since the commentary days in the first millennium. It has been extremely conservative in its outlook, not participating in the fast pace of Indian Buddhism during that same period, nor the further developments in Mahāyāna lands. The conservationism Theravāda is probably a result of its geographical isolation in Sri Lanka during its early history and subsequently southwest Asia. Gombrich points out that the Tamil culture and language of Sri Lanka are also very conservative compared to the Tamil of southern India. Theravāda has also failed to produce the long line of brilliant and original thinkers that Mahāyāna has.

450px-cundi_bodhisattva_-_smallCharacteristic of Mahāyāna is a dramatic shift in the center of its scriptural basis from the EBT to the sometimes wildly original Mahāyāna sūtras and śāstras (treatises), which were unknown until the first millennium CE. Among the important themes expounded within the new Mahāyāna texts are the bodhisattva ideal, buddha nature, elaborations of cosmology including the attribution of superhuman status to the Buddha, emptiness, subject/object non-dualism and appeal to superhuman beings. Two main philosophical schools are generally held to have developed in Indian Mahāyāna: the Madhyamika and the Yogācāra. the first centered around emptiness and began with Prajñāpāramitā Sūtras, and followed by the scholarly work of Nagārjuna and others. The second centered around subject/object non-duality, began with the Samdhinirmocana Sutra and Lankavatara Sutra, followed by the works of Asanga and Vasubandhu and others in the Yogācāra or Mind-Only School. But the scope of doctrine found within Mahāyāna is much greater than this.

This very gradual (centuries-long), but in retrospect dramatic shift represented by Mahāyāna has been evaluated from two conflicting perspectives, one by Theravāda and one by Mahāyāna, which Bhikkhu Bodhi calls Theravāda purism and Mahāyāna elitism.[13] The tendency for Theravadins, and undoubtedly many in the early sects of yesteryear, has been to look at Mahāyāna sutras with some alarm as inauthentic aberrations from the Buddha’s teaching, instances illustrative of an unraveling of the Sāsana. The tendency for Mahāyānists, on the other hand, has been to regard their sutras with some enthusiasm as higher teachings, a further unfolding of the Sāsana.[14]

A familiar example of the Mahāyāna attitude is the famous Heart Sutra, part of the Prajñāpāramitā literature, which has the bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara, a mythical figure in Mahāyāna lore, lecturing on the Dharma condescendingly to the great Śāriputra (P: Sāriputta), an historical disciple and arahant at the time of the Buddha, known in the EBT for his great wisdom.

“Oh, Śāriputra, form does not differ From emptiness, and emptiness does not differ from form. Form is emptiness and emptiness is form. The same is true for feelings, perceptions, fabrications and consciousness.”

In the Tibetan rendition of this sutra, we learn that the Buddha has been quietly listening during this discourse and at the end approves of Avalokiteśvara’s words.

Mahāyāna sutras typically have the basic form of the EBT discourses, reporting on the composition of an audience and the delivery of a sermon by the Buddha. A myth that often accompanies them – prominent in the Lotus Sutra, for instance – is that these texts indeed originate with the Buddha, but that they were preserved secretly for hundreds of years until the world was ready for them.[15] So profound are they, that before these works manifested, the world had first to master an inferior doctrine (the Hīnayāna). These texts were quickly embraced by the Mahāyānists as they became available, but neglected by more orthodox Buddhists, as they are by the Theravādins to this day.

Virtually all scholars agree that Mahāyāna sutras are, in fact, of much later provenance, and of uncertain authorship; they certainly did not originate with, nor anywhere near the time of, the Buddha.[16] Although this seems to support the common Theravāda purist view regarding these texts, the value of many of these texts must be acknowledged, for many are quite brilliant and important for the doctrinal development of Buddhism. Moreover, from the Mahāyāna perspective we could just as well concede that the Buddha was only the first in a series of great Buddhist thinkers, that he turned the wheel of Dharma once but that a second and a third teacher turned it again and again.

Indeed, the first millennium CE, the period during which these texts arose, northern India seems to have experienced a vibrant intellectual and spiritual life, encouraged by the great Buddhist universities suc as Nālanda. It is significant that among the Buddhist sects, the Theravādins played little role in this intellectual fervor,[17] nor does it seem in its history to have produced minds of the stature of Nāgārjuna, nor Vasubandhu, nor of later thinkers beyond India like Tsongkhapa and Dōgen. It was instead creating line-by-line commentaries on the EBT and Abhidhamma during this period.

Later in this essay I will describe what I see as a process of doctinal decline and recovery that has characterized the Sāsana historically. For now I point out that Mahāyāna seems to have arisen at a period of doctrinal decline in many sects particularly in northern India. In fact, it is probably partly in response to that decline that Mahāyāna arose, as we will see. Framed in these terms it will be evident that much of the enthusiasm for Mahāyāna ideas came not from some inadequacy of the Buddha’s early teachings, but from doctrinal corruption in certain of the early sects in the first few centuries of the Sāsana by the time the Mahāyāna movement was under way. Particularly important to the Mahāyāna response were the teachings of the Sarvāstivāda sect dominant and intellectually active in northern India for many centuries, which had developed a highly speculative and substantialist Abhidharma, and the offshoot Sautantrika (sutta-only) sect.[18]

Unfortunately, seeing early Buddhism through the filter of later corruptions, then underscoring this by the myth of higher teachings, resulted in a failure in the Mahāyāna to study and recognize the brilliance and sophistication of the earliest teachings.[19] Hence the dismissive attitude toward poor Śāriputra in the Heart Sutra. It is by deprecating what they understood as early Buddhism as “Hīnayāna” that Mahāyāna cut itself off from its own past. This was a grave error, for much of the coherent and remarkably profound system of thought that constitutes the earliest Buddhist texts would significantly have to be re-invented.

Meanwhile, Theravāda has been the bearer of a this same priceless and luminous EBT jewel and the sole custodian of the Buddha’s full turning of the wheel. Verily, this early corpus has, almost in its entirety, long existed as a part of the Chinese canon, but it has lied there buried, disregarded and almost completely hidden under heaps of later texts. Not only has the Theravāda tradition kept these texts alive over all of these years, it has preserved these texts in the Pali language, close to the language the Buddha must have spoken, giving Theravāda valuable access to the subtleties of the original language of these texts. These ground the tradition in an authentic foundation.

This brings us to the topic of authenticity. Every tradition is obliged to justify its teachings, to ground its teachings in something in which adherents have unshakable trust, to establish norms for correct understanding. Generally a claim to represent the words of the Buddha (buddhavacana) is the primary criterion of authenticity. Theravada is grounded in the EBT, which is closely linked by tradition to the Buddha and modern scholarship substantially confirms its right to do this this.[20] The Theravāda commentary tradition purports to rest on the same foundation, which is to say, even where it might provide faulty interpretations, those interpretations can be challenged by matching them against the EBT. The canonical Theravada Abhidhamma represents a curious case. Scholars place it in the centuries after the Buddha, though it turns out to be quite consistent with the EBT. Nonetheless the canonical Abhidhamma is justified by means of a miraculous origin story in the commentary tradition, which involves the Buddha ascending to Tāvatiṃsa Heaven in order to preach to a group of deities, thereby establishing it as buddhavacana.

Authenticity is much more difficult to establish in Mahāyāna because Mahāyāna traditionally ignores or deprecates the EBT. At different times and places the clergy have been compelled to establish their own authority by advancing certain standards.[21] There are a number of ways Mahāyāna sutras and sastras are claimed to be authentic. The most common is to declare them to be words of the Buddha after all, purporting them to be authentic discourses of the Buddha as in the EBT, ones that even begin with Aananda’s words, “Thus have I heard.” Other sources indicate inspiration by contemporary buddhas dwelling in other-worldly realms or as revelations by deities, sometimes with books appearing in the hands of forest-dwelling ascetics, or found in caves.[22] Zen, for its part, describes itself as a teaching transmitted independently of words and letters from teacher to student going back all the way to the Buddha, the transmission of the lamp. Many Mahāyāna texts, such as the influential Treatise on Awakening of Mahāyāna Faith were probably not even composed in India, even while they are purported to have been.[23]

Presumably as a result of these discretionary standards, Mahāyāna scriptures are, as one prominent scholar has described it, “a shifting mass of teachings with little or no central core, many of which are incompatible with each other and within which we can sometimes detect mutual criticsm.”[24] Mahāyāna is perhaps best regarded as an umbrella for many schools of many shapes and sizes an it is hard to make generalizations about Mahāyāna as a whole. Yet as mentioned, Mahāyāna has produced many brilliant and innovative thinkers and viable schools within its mix, often able to overcome deficits in its pre-Mahāyāna history. How this was possible will be explored in the remainder of this essay.

In sum, Mahāyāna has been cut off from its past and Theravāda from its future. Mahāyāna has been cut off from the EBT in which it is historically rooted. Not understanding its own roots, Mahāyāna has diversified into a wide variety of schools that stretch the bounds of what constitutes Buddhism, each school having to invent its own history in order to justify its own authority. Properly, we cannot say that Mahāyāna teaches the various doctrines listed here, only that they are found within Mahāyāna. As a result Mahāyāna has no widely accepted standards for assessing its historical and existing variations. Theravāda, on the other hand, has been cut off from the later innovations of Mahāyāna. Theravada contains within itself, in principle, all it needs to know, but has little flair for reformation.

The need for reformation remains to be argued. I will now turn to the tendency of Buddhism toward both decline and recovery. Specifically, I will argue that Theravāda froze in early on a number of faulty interpretations of the EBT, while within Mahāyāna correct interpretations have either been preserved or rediscovered.

Next episode, Part 3: Tendencies toward decline

Footnotes

12. Gombrich (2006, 21-22).

13. Bodhi (2013).

14.Anālayo (2014) traces this view to Tarkajvāla (6th century) and points out that it was promoted by the Japanese delegation to the 1893 Chicago Parliament of Religions.

15. Kalupahana (2015, 4).

16. Williams (2008, 39): “However, source-critical and historical awareness has made it impossible for the modern scholar to accept this traditional account.”

17. Mahāyāna does seem to have made at least an appearance in Sri Lanka during the first millennium. See Williams (2008, 10).

18.Kalupahana (2015, 20-21). Interestingly the Sautantrika (sutta-only) sect, which also became prominent, split from the Sarvāstivādins in an attempt to distance itself from the Abhidharma, but failed to excise many concepts that in fact deviate from the Nikayas.

19. Kalupahana (2015, 5).

20. Sujato and Brahmali (2014) argue for the authenticity (as well aknowledge the limits) of the EBT according to a wide variety of criteria.

21. Sharf (2001, 14).

22. Williams (2008, 39-40).

23. Muller (1998).

24. Williams (2008, 3).

References

Anālayo, Bhikkhu, 2014, “The Hīnayāna Fallacy,” Journal of the Oxford Center for Buddhist Studies 6, 9-31.

Bodhi, Bhikkhu, 2013, “Arahants, Buddhas and Bodhisattvas,” In The Bodhisattva Ideal: essays on the emergence of Mahāyāna, Buddhist Publication Society, 1-30.

Cintita, Bhikkhu, 2014, A Cultural of Awakening: the life and times of the Buddha-Sāsana, Theravāda Dharma Society of America.

Connelly, 2016, Inside Vasubandhu’s Yogācāra, Wisdom Publications.

Gombrich, Richard, 1996, How Buddhism Began: the conditioned genesis of the early teachings, London & Atlantic Highlands: Athlone Press.

Gombrich, 2006[1988], Theravāda Buddhism: a socialhistory from ancient Benares to modern Colombo, Routledge.

Heirman, Anne, 2001, “Chinese Nuns and their Ordination in Fifth Century China,” Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 24:2.

Jaffe, Richard M., 2010, Neither Monk nor Layman: clerical marriage in modern Japanese Buddhism, University of Hawaii Press.

Kalupahana, David J., 2015, Mulamadhyamakarika of Nāgārjuna: the philosophy of the middle way, Motilal Danarsidass: Delhi.

Kalupahana, David J., 1992, The Principles of Buddhist Psychology, Sri Satguru Publications.

Muller, Charles, 1998, East Asian Apocryphal Scriptures: Their Origin and Role in the Development of Sinitic Buddhism, Bulletin of Toyo Gakuen University, vol. 6.

Nattier, Jan and Charles Prebish, “Mahāsaghika Origins: the beginnings of Buddhist sectarianism,” History of Religions 16:3, 237-272.

Nhat Hanh, Thich, 1974, Zen Keys, Doubleday.
Santina, Peter Della, 1997, The Tree of Enlightenment, Chico Dharma Study Foundation.

Sharf, Robert H., 2001, Coming to Terms with Chinese Buddhism, University of Hawaii Press.

Skilton, Andrew, 1994, A Concise History of Buddhism, Barnes and Noble.

Sujato, Bhikkhu and Bhikkhu Brahmali, 2014, The Authenticity of Early Buddhist Texts, Oxford Center for Buddhist Studies, also available on-line.

Williams, Paul, 2008, Mahāyāna Buddhism: the doctrinal foundations, Routledge.

 

Theravāda and Mahāyāna Need Each Other (1/4)

February 3, 2018

The gap in the Buddha-Sāsana (S: Śāsana)[i] between the Theravāda and Mahāyāna traditions began in India as doctrinal differences, but came to be India itself, for when the Sāsana died out in India, these two great traditions became substantially isolated from one another, Theravāda to the south and Mahāyāna to the north, remembering each other unkindly and mostly in lore. In this way, what began as doctrinal distinctions became a geographical and cultural divide. We now live in a globalized world in which these two great schools cannot fail to intersect; they are found in close proximity, living side by side in almost any major western city and in many Asian cities. Moreover, curiosity, along with the probing of modern scholarship, has broadened the dialog between the two sides. Yet Theravāda and Mahāyāna remain generally aloof from each other.

Chinese_JunkI have come to the view that there is much more that holds Buddhism together than that splits it apart, that the Sāsana is robust, tolerant of diversity, yet remarkably able to retain its core teachings, which it has – for the most part – on both sides of this divide. Nonetheless, because of the subtle sophistication of the Buddha’s teachings, the Sāsana has historically gone through cycles of decline and recovery. Moreover, geographical isolation has not only cut off Theravāda from Mahāyāna, it also disrupted the ability of each to recover from its respective faults. Mahāyāna became early on a tradition cut off from its past, and Theravāda a tradition cut off from its future.

I will begin by dispelling two historical myths that sustain the idea that the separation of these two traditions is irreconcilable, that Theravāda and Mahāyāna can do little to help each other. One has to do with monastic discipline and the other with doctrine. I then illustrate these processes of decline and then recovery and argue that healing the gap between these traditions will create a healthier Sāsana on both counts. Theravāda and Mahāyāna need each other.

Myth 1: schism as the origin of Mahāyāna

Sects or schools distinguish themselves spatially, doctrinally, and also formally at the saṅgha level. A common misconception is that the difference between Theravāda and Mahāyāna began at the saṅgha level with a schism. The saṅgha has been traditionally the heart of the Buddhist community since it is charged with preserving, propagating and living according to the teachings. Schism in the monastic community (P:saṅghabedha) was a serious concern of the Buddha, for a dispute in the saṅgha would effectively split the saṅgha in twain and carry the whole community with it. Luckily, formal schisms have been relatively rare in Buddhist history. However, it is a common belief that the Theravāda and Mahāyāna saṅghas can nevermore be in communion. This erroneous belief has had unfortunate consequences.

A little history: Even aside from formal schism, diversity in the Buddhist community began developing in the early centuries of the Sāsana because of geographical dispersal of the saṅgha, for distinctions in monastic behavior and doctrinal views began to develop among communities at significant distances from one another in South Asia, such that separate sects became recognizable, each of which preserved, orally in the early centuries, its own version of the early scriptures, generally in a distinct language, but at the same time the various sects were still largely in communion. At one time eighteen separate sects, almost entirely formed in this way, could be counted in the Buddhist area. The Theravāda sect was probably the most outlying, since it was transmitted to the island of Sri Lanka, apparently during the reign of Aśoka.

Nevertheless, there appears to have been a historical full-fledged formal schism in the early saṅgha, about one century after the Buddha’s parinirvana, a schism recorded in the later literature of many of these later sects. One side in this schism became known as the Mahāsāṃghika sect, and the other side, the Sthavira sect, both born of allegedly irreconcilable differences. It was Mahāsāṃghika that would later be identified with Mahāyāna. The Sthavira, for its part, would give rise to Theravāda, Sarvāstivādin, Dharmagelupka, and most other sects. Theravāda is the only one of these many sects that remains today, stranded on an island as Buddhism died out many centuries later in continental India, though it had in the meantime also spread to Southwest Asia.

Among the ancient sectarian reports of schism, there is very little agreement about its genesis.[ii] In some accounts it had to do with monastic discipline in others with doctrine. The Theravāda tradition reports that it had to do with the laxity of Mahāsāṃghika discipline; the Mahāsāṃghika tradition itself held that the schism has to do with the attempt by the the Sthaviriyans to impose stricter discipline. In neither case is a significant difference in the terms of the dispute reflected in its respective monastic code.

On the other hand, the Sarvāstivādin sources – also, like Theravāda, on the Sthaviriya side – attribute the dispute to five doctrinal issues all having to do with the status of the arahant. It was a later Chinese source,[iii] based on the Sarvāstivādin account, that seems to have first seen in the Mahāsāṃghika the precursor to the Mahāyāna, even claiming that the Mahāsāṃghika had tried to incorporate some of the Mahāyāna (as we now know, yet to be composed) sutras prior to the schism.[iv] In fact, some Mahasanghikas – not all – did espouse views that would, centuries later, come to characterize Mahāyāna, having to do with the supramundane nature of the Buddha and of bodhisattvas,[v] which may have led to this effort by some later Mahāyānists to identify themselves with Mahāsāṃghika.

The theory that the Mahāyāna and Theravāda monastic orders were rent asunder by this ancient schism is widely believed in both schools and has served to deepen the gap that persists to this day. But the schismatic account is false. This account of the origin of Mahāyāna cannot be correct, for reports of the famous Chinese pilgrims Faxian (early fifth century) and Xuanzang (seventh century) provide us with a clear picture of the process of Mahāyāna propagation. Both tell as that any given monastery in India commonly had monastics of Mahāyāna persuasion living quite happily together with non-Mahāyanists.[vi]

Instead, whereas the sects were largely geographically determined, Mahāyanist ideas seem to spread quietly over the entire Buddhist region from sect to sect, much like a dance craze might spread with little regard to national borders. As Gombrich concludes, “Mahāyāna … is not a sect but a current of opinion which cut across sects as properly defined.”vii The Mahāyāna craze even reached far-flung Theravāda Sri Lanka, at times with some success, but was finally suppressed by King Parakkama Bāhu I in the twelfth century as part of a purification program.[viii]

Whereas, before the Mahāyāna movement, doctrine in the various sects was centered on the discourses of the Buddha, the Mahāyāna movement centered a later doctrinal development that added a new scriptural corpus quietly and unevenly throughout the Sāsana, apparently with little drama, opposition or discord. In summary, there was no historical schism that rent Theravāda and its sister sects on the one side, and Mahāyāna on the other asunder. Technically, both saṅghas should still be properly in communion. In fact, I am aware of one ordination of Mahayana monks and nuns by a monastic quorum including Theravada monks, at the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas in California on August 9, 2013.

The story does not end here, for it remains to be shown a significant way in which the myth of schism has harmed the Theravāda saṅgha in particular. Buddhism took root in Central Asia and by the first century CE ventured along the Silk Road into China. This complex migration entailed the mingling of monks ordained in various sects but primarily from the southwestern regions of the Indian subcontinent, which were nearer the trade routes. Likewise, early scriptures were transmitted from various sects and in various languages, along with newer Mahāyāna sutras and scholarly writings. Most early missionaries to China seem to have been associated with Mahāyāna, but there was a dearth of Indian masters of significant influence.[ix]

The journey over the Silk Road was made by rough monks traveling with rough caravans led by rough traders through a very rough environment. But eventually an order of Chinese monks was established, around which Mahāyāna began to consolidate itself in China. Ultimately they would settle on the Vinaya from the Dharmaguptaka sect – a Sthirāvada sect historically close to Theravāda – of West India as the standard for monastic procedures throughout East Asia.

Because few women or nuns made the perilous journey over the Silk Road, the first Chinese nuns seem to have been ordained only in the fourth century, and even then they were ordained by monks, contrary to the convention prescribed in the Vinaya of ordination of nuns by nuns. Nonetheless, the nuns’ saṅgha was fully established with the ordination of three hundred Chinese nuns by foreign nuns in 433 CE. This was possible after a boat captain named Nan-t’i had brought the requisite number of fully ordained nuns from southern regions to Nan-ching to perform the ordination.x Significantly for our discussion, these nuns were brought from Sri Lanka, and so would certainly have belonged to the Theravāda tradition, in fact, probably to the nuns order established in Sri Lanka by Saṅghamitta Theri, the daughter of Emperor Aśoka of India.

Clearly alleged sectarian or schismatic divisions were not an issue in fifth century China; Vinaya was Vinaya, ordination was ordination, and potential doctrinal differences that might exist between the Sri Lankan and Chinese saṅghas were besides the point. The saṅghas were regarded as in communion, the Chinese women were ordained by the Theravāda nuns and the ordination was approved by Chinese monks, certainly largely of Mahāyāna doctrinal persuasion.

Subsequent Theravāda history has revealed one way in which Theravāda needs Mahāyāna: Theravāda at some point since this historic ordination in ancient China misplaced its own order of fully ordained nuns, in all of the Theravāda countries, in Sri Lanka and in most of the nations of Southeast Asia. It is believed this happened in the tenth or eleventh centuries due to war.[xi] The loss of the nuns’ sangha has created a situation that is a mirror image of that in China prior to 433 CE, that is, the absence of existing nuns to ordain new nuns. In the meantime, the order of nuns in China – originally transmitted, as we have seen, from Theravāda nuns from Sri Lanka – has flourished uninterrupted to the present day in Mahāyāna lands. If we, like the ancient Chinese, regard sectarian divisions as beside the point, as I have argued here, then a resolution to the Theravāda deficit is simple: Let Chinese Mahāyāna nuns ordain Theravāda nuns and bring back the order the Theravāda saṅgha had itself established to China. If, on the other hand, we adhere to the tradition that an ancient schism separates the two saṅgha irreparably, then Theravāda is cut off from its own future, and from the nun’s saṅgha it once spawned. This situation has resulted in controversy, but its outcome is secure.

In recent decades the Theravāda nuns’ order is, in fact, being restored in exactly this way: with the help of their Chinese, generally Taiwanese, Mahāyāna sisters who have kindly provided the necessary quorum of nuns to ordain new Theravāda nuns. And yet, the status of these ordinations is under challenge for various reasons including this myth of ancient schism. Nonetheless, I am happy to report that the numbers of Theravāda nuns is increasing, particularly with fully viable Theravāda nuns’ orders in Sri Lanka and recently also in California, large enough to provide a quorum for ordaining new Theravāda nuns. In this way Mahāyāna has helped the Theravāda tradition to restore the original intention of the Buddha, effectively recovering the future from which it was long cut off.

Next Week: Myth 2: Mahāyāna as higher teachings

Endnotes

i. This term for Buddhism as it plays out historically and socially is here given in two languages. The scriptural language of Theravāda is Pali, that of Indian Mahāyāna is Sanskrit. The two languages are closely related and often words are identical in both. Where I provide both terms I will use P for Pali and S for Sanskrit.
ii. Nattier and Prebish (1977).
iii. ibid.
iv. As we will see shortly, none of these Mahāyāna scriptures could have existed at this early time.
v. Nattier and Prebish (1977).
vi. Anālayo (2014).
vii. Gombrich (1988, 112).
viii. Skilton (1994, 150).
ix. Sharf (2001, 4-5). Sharf (2001, 7) also points out that it is uncertain whether this meant Mahāyāna was really popular in India and Central Asia at this early time or whether Mahāyāna monks felt themselves to be outcasts in their own lands.
x. Heirman (2001).
xi. Skilton (1994, 152).

References

Anālayo, Bhikkhu, 2014, “The Hīnayāna Fallacy,” Journal of the Oxford Center for Buddhist Studies 6, 9-31.

Bodhi, Bhikkhu, 2013, “Arahants, Buddhas and Bodhisattvas,” In The Bodhisattva Ideal: essays on the emergence of Mahāyāna, Buddhist Publication Society, 1-30.

Cintita, Bhikkhu, 2014, A Cultural of Awakening: the life and times of the Buddha-Sāsana, Theravāda Dharma Society of America.

Connelly, 2016, Inside Vasubandhu’s Yogācāra, Wisdom Publications.

Gombrich, Richard, 1996, How Buddhism Began: the conditioned genesis of the early teachings, London & Atlantic Highlands: Athlone Press.

Gombrich, 2006[1988], Theravāda Buddhism: a socialhistory from ancient Benares to modern Colombo, Routledge.

Heirman, Anne, 2001, “Chinese Nuns and their Ordination in Fifth Century China,” Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 24:2.

Jaffe, Richard M., 2010, Neither Monk nor Layman: clerical marriage in modern Japanese Buddhism, University of Hawaii Press.

Kalupahana, David J., 2015, Mulamadhyamakarika of Nāgārjuna: the philosophy of the middle way, Motilal Danarsidass: Delhi.

Kalupahana, David J., 1992, The Principles of Buddhist Psychology, Sri Satguru Publications.

Nattier, Jan and Charles Prebish, “Mahāsaghika Origins: the beginnings of Buddhist sectarianism,” History of Religions 16:3, 237-272.

Nhat Hanh, Thich, 1974, Zen Keys, Doubleday.

Santina, Peter Della, 1997, The Tree of Enlightenment, Chico Dharma Study Foundation.

Sharf, Robert H., 2001, Coming to Terms with Chinese Buddhism, University of Hawaii Press.

Skilton, Andrew, 1994, A Concise History of Buddhism, Barnes and Noble.

Sujato, Bhikkhu and Bhikkhu Brahmali, 2014, The Authenticity of Early Buddhist Texts, Oxford Center for Buddhist Studies, also available on-line.

Williams, Paul, 2008, Mahāyāna Buddhism: the doctrinal foundations, Routledge.

 

Buddhist-Rohingya Relief

December 14, 2017

I am soliticing donations on behalf of people recently displaced by violence in Rakhine State, Myanmar, and particularly the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees who have been forced to flee to Bangladesh and to other lands. Donations will be transferred to the International Rescue Committee, an agency that is active in the region, as they are throughout the world, and that has been given an A+ rating from Charity Watch.

rohingya5I am a Buddhist monk, American-born but Burmese-ordained, who has come to love the Burmese people and and their country, and who has based my life upon the wisdom of the Buddha. Unfortunately this people, this nation and this faith have been tarnished by this violence. I understand that the root causes of the tension in Rakhine State are deep and long – and have only marginally to do with religion! – but am sorry to see divisive narratives mixed with rumors, and the engagement of a brutal military force, without civilian oversight, prevail over voices of restraint, wisdom and reconciliation. There are many similar crisis situations in the world, but it is because what is close to my heart has been tainted in this way that I choose to support this particular cause at this time.

buddhaThe Buddha warned us of the danger of views, and never condoned violence under any circumstances … ever. Yet, we tend to find refuge in narratives – about nation, religion, race and the hidden motives of others – that we use to justify our own reactiveness. The international press is full of such narratives and they are rampant among the Burmese, often drowning out the many many voices of restraint, wisdom and reconciliation. We sometimes even believe these views to be true and, when they disavow the humanity of others, they give permission for unspeakable acts. I am not aware that any religion has ever succeed in eradicated the human propensity for such views among all of its claimed adherents, not Buddhism, not Islam and none of the others, much less so in lands undergoing rapid change. Forgiveness is in order.

Nonetheless, for the purest Buddhist the bottom line is human suffering and the allaying of human suffering. When families are losing their homes, villages are burned, people who just want to live decent lives and raise healthy children are assaulted or killed, deprived of livelihoods, forced to flee with no means of sustenance, no matter who these people are, all narratives become academic. Our urgent responsibility is to exercise compassion, to aid those in greatest need.

I would ask my readers to join me in helping to provide relief for the precious, suffering Rohingya refugees.

ircYou can donate to Buddhist-Rohingya Relief HERE. You can also go directly to International Rescue Committee HERE to donate directly, or to view their site. Direct donations seem to avoid some fees, but is harder for the other donors and me to track, though informing me of the donation might help.

Also, another way you can support this cause is to communicate this further by Facebook, Twitter, etc. Although I use email and this blog, I don’t use these other new-fangled forms of social media.

 

Those Self-Absorbed Buddhists

December 6, 2017

pdficonA few months ago I gave a talk to some seminary students who wanted to learn about Buddhism. After the talk, after the Q&A that followed, and as we were adjourning, one of the students approached and confided in me that he had in his younger days as a spiritual explorer visited a number of the Buddhist sitting and discussion groups that are common in the West, but that he was disappointed with what he found there. He said,

“People seemed so self-absorbed.”

Well, this was awkward. Although I had never belonged to another faith before taking refuge some twenty years ago, I have come to recognize that most people of faith, across many religious traditions, have a characteristic sense of humility that differs markedly from that found in secular contexts. Moreover, Buddhism is the only tradition that carries the virtue of humility as far as teaching anatta (non-self) and then systematically de-constructing the sense of being a self. In Buddhism, humility is the most reliable indicator of spiritual progress and renouncing personal neediness the most effective means of making it. So, how could it be that this result was not apparent in this seminarian’s experience?

Within a brief moment, I had to admit that he was right! I recognized his observation from my own early frequent and more recent occasional experience in such sitting and discussion groups, and I told him so. Although I pointed out that this does not generalize to all Buddhist communities, and certainly not to ethnically Asian communities, as a Buddhist teacher I could see that this young man was providing a valuable perspective on what was a serious deficit in the Western Sasana. I think my off-the-cuff explanation – for I had to say something positive after having conceded his point – involved the novelty of Western sitting and discussion groups in contrast with established churches attended by generations of family members.

I am myself a monk in a primarily Burmese monastery in Austin, Texas. The evening before I wrote the first draft of this post, as we had finished our routine evening recitation, two unexpected guests arrived: a Sri Lankan monk – the abbot of a local temple and known to us – and a Sri Lankan lay companion. All of our local monks stood up out of respect as the visiting senior monk entered and our own abbot gave up his own seat at the front and center, for our abbot was the junior of the two. All of our monks prostrated three times to our monastic guest, while his lay companion prostrated once to each of our monks in turn. This has been the way of Buddhist communities for 2500 years, each person aware of his seniority based entirely on ordination date, and no one wishes it otherwise, for this is the way established by the Buddha himself. In this simple rite, personal pride finds no place and humility finds its natural expression. Our Sri Lankan visitor at the front of the seniority is himself a gentle and kind individual who accepted the honor shown him without the slightest hint of pride, for he had lived as a monk for many decades. This would have been day and night from the seminarian’s experience.

So, how could I account for the future minister’s experience with Western sitting groups? I daresay I once brought my quota of self-centeredness into such sitting and discussion groups, so I had a degree of experience to draw on as I began to ponder this important question. I have been pondering since then on how I could best have answered my interlocutor on this fateful day:

I could have mentioned the across-the-board hyper-individualism[i] and hyper-consumerism[ii] that plague American culture that has contributed to a kind of spiritual marketplace which people enter quite easily with self-centered attitudes. Individualism is a part of the human pathology that Buddhism attempts to cure. Although this condition represents an serious assault on religious engagement and on spiritual development in modern culture (and increasingly in Asia), these influences apply across American culture and across other religious traditions alongside Buddhism. So individualism and consummerism cannot be the whole story.

I could have pointed out that the demographics of Buddhist sitting and discussion groups is quite distinct. These are for the most part highly educated and financially well-off people,[iii] and maybe this in itself brings a degree of hubris. They are also, for the most part, people who have become disenchanted with the religion of their upbringing and therefore experience a kind of wariness about religious engagement in general. From personal experience I know that many of these people also take the unconventional step of coming to Buddhism as an act of desperation, in great personal pain, often in the midst of a personal crisis, sometimes as a last resort, as a cry for help. Under these circumstances enhanced personal concern, at least during a period of healing, is quite understandable.

I should also have explained that Western Buddhist sitting and discussion groups are a new, untried kind of institution, as far as I know with little precedent in any ancient Buddhist tradition, but largely based on the model of secular meet-ups, in which like-minded people get together, with little ceremony, either to discuss stamp collecting, to practice salsa dancing, to meet other middle-aged singles or to talk shop with regard to some vocation or another, like knocking out Java code. Absent from this kind of structure is the Sangha, virtually always the core around which Buddhist communities have traditionally coalesced. On the other hand, there are larger Western Buddhist “centers” that provide more elements of the traditional Buddhist community context, such as many Zen centers and Shambhala centers, and these do seem to attract or produce more modest members.

I could have made the point that much of what is understood as Buddhist teachings among those with little adept knowledge has, in fact, more to do with the paradigm of European Romanticism and pop psychology[iv] than with Buddhism, and that these often seem to encourage a degree of self-absorption rather than to dispel it. European romanticism asks of me to be true to my inner self, to break through social convention in order to express my creative and spiritual core. Not only is this paradigm far too metaphysical to accord with the Buddha’s way of thinking, but it seems to highlight rather than to de-construct the self.

Finally, it would have been important to mention the role of meditation generally as the centerpiece of a sitting and discussion group, sometimes to the complete exclusion of traditional practices such as generosity, ethics, living harmoniously in community, refuge and developing purity of intention.[v] Buddhist meditation is an advanced practice, necessary for awakening or for complete de-construction of the self (which is the same thing), but it only succeeds with the development of a large range of prerequisite practices, including most of these more mundane practice just mentioned.[vi] As a consequence, there is a danger in practicing Buddhist meditation in the absence of these prerequisites: Since meditation is a practice that aims at individual attainment, it easily leads to conceit, in particular to the urge to compare self to others, which is particularly encouraged in open discussion contexts. As a result, a meet-up for Buddhist meditators might not be much more effective as a vehicle for developing humility than a meet-up for body-builders or for video game enthusiasts.

So, what do we do to correct the errors of the modern Sasana? We suffer some serious handicaps in western society that we need to put aside, including the above-mentioned individualism and also the Protestant attitude of the “spiritual but not religious.” This has led to a disregard for the importance of community in Buddhism, for the critical role of the Sangha in community and for the opportunities community affords in developing a range of practices that contribute to our spiritual development and provide the prerequisites for successful meditation.[vii] We have abundant precedents for overcoming the deficits in the western Sasana, in the teachings of the Buddha and in traditional Buddhist communities that have been living more-or-less according to those teachings for one hundred generations.

 

===================
i. See Robert Bellah, et al., Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life for more on individualism and spirituality in American life.
ii. See Richard King and Jeremy Carrette, Selling Spirituality: the silent takeover of religion for more on this.
iii. See James William Coleman, The New Buddhism : The Western Transformation of an Ancient Tradition for interesting demographic data of this type.
iv. See Thanissaro, “Romancing the Buddha,” available on-line, and David McMahan, The Making of Buddhist Modernism for more on modern influences on, and presentations of, Buddhism.
v. Berkeley scholar Robert Sharf writes particularly clearly about the danger of reducing Buddhism to a single practice and his concern for what gets lost. See, for instance, “Losing Our Religion,” in Tricycle Summer 2007.
vi. Right Concentration depends critically on the proper practice of each of the preceding factors of the noble eightfold path (S 45.28), that is, on right understanding, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort and right mindfulness. Buddha’s gradual instruction (for instance, Udana 5.3) tells us that undertaking the noble eightfold path presupposes significant development of generosity, virtue, purity of mind and refuge.
vii. I did not start writing this essay with the intention of plugging my introductory book Buddhist Life/Buddhist Path: foundations of Buddhism based on earliest sources, but it was conceived around the idea of providing a more organic overview of the Buddha’s teaching, in which ideally all prerequisites to the various aspects of practice are clearly articulated, than is generally presented in introductory texts.

The Case of the Missing Sangha

September 19, 2017

a selective review of Stephen Batchelor’s After Buddhism: Rethinking the Dharma for a Secular Age, 2017, Yale University Press.

pdf_24x18Other reviews of this work have missed what I think is the main arc of this book, its thoughts on the nature of the Buddhist community, on the fourfold assembly, on monasticism, on Buddhist institutions and on what a modern “secular” Buddhist community will look like. The scope of the book is, however, much broader: “truth” and “belief” and their relation to practice, the Buddha’s understanding of emptiness, ethics as the basis of Buddhist practice, the ins and outs of Buddhist psychology, and much more. Much of this discussion is worthwhile, particularly his discussion of the practical basis of Buddhist doctrine as opposed to view of it as a belief-system,[1] and his strong emphasis on ethics as foundational for Buddhist practice and understanding.

I will, in this review, focus on what he writes about the Buddhist community, which I find is also the weakest part of his exposition. For Batchelor, “after Buddhism” is achieved by going back to the early teachings of the Buddha, that is, “before Buddhism,” whose ancient teachings, astonishingly, resonate with modern ways of thinking. As Batchelor puts it,

“Paradoxically, to imagine what might emerge after Buddhism, we need to go back to the time before Buddhism began” (p.28).

In Batchelor’s account of early Buddhism he attempts to show that there was no organized monastic community within the Sāsana during the life of the Buddha. If this were true, it would remove the tag “organized religion” from “before Buddhism,” and place it on the doorstep of “Buddhism.” It would also removing the imperative from “after Buddhism” of establishing a modern organized monastic community.

The reliability of early Buddhist texts (EBT). His position on this issue forms the framework of Batchelor’s entire discussion of early Buddhism, so let’s begin here. Batchelor writes,

“The early canonical texts are a complex tapestry of linguistic and rhetorical styles, shot through with conflicting ideas, doctrines and images, all assembled and elaborated orally over about three or four centuries before being committed to writing. Given the chorus of voices, how are we to distinguish between what is likely to have been the Buddha’s word as opposed to a well-intentioned ‘clarification’ by a later editor or commentator? We are not yet–and may never be–at a point where such questions can be answered with certainty.”[2]

This is quite accurate as far as it goes, but I believe the Buddha’s voice can be heard much more clearly than one is likely to infer from this statement. This is an important issue, because throwing up our hands as saying, “We really don’t know what is authentic!” is an invitation to cherry-pick evidence for any particular interpretation of the EBT that we like, declare this evidence as authentic and dismiss any counter-evidence as the product of a later editor or commentator.

The level of authenticity of the EBT can be fairly reliably assessed because the same early corpus of texts was preserved separately from earliest times in many parallel early sects in diverse regions of the Buddhist world and in diverse languages. The Pali corpus of the early Theravada sect is the best known today, but only one of many of what constitute the EBT. Comparative studies of the existent redactions of the early Buddhist Texts give us a good tool for determining what has be altered and what is likely authentic. We find, for instance, that background stories found in the discourses can vary in details among redactions, but the words of the Buddha seem generally to be surprising close in content and remarkably uncontaminated by later doctrinal developments within the various sects. In general we can be confident – and this has been recognized since the nineteenth century – that these texts were preserved remarkably well given their complex history.[3]

Furthermore, once the adept Buddhist practitioner becomes thoroughly familiar with, and puts substantially into practice, the EBT in any one redaction (e.g., the Pali canon), he will appreciate how systematic these texts are and realize that they must be primarily the work of a single genius. His task is like piecing together a jigsaw puzzle in which some authentic pieces are missing, and in which other inauthentic pieces have been mixed in from other jigsaw puzzles. At some point he nevertheless recognizes in the unfinished puzzle, “Oh, I get it: This is the Golden Gate Bridge!” A systematic interpretation of the whole has shone forth that he cannot easily back out of.

Although any specific claim about the EBT cannot be proven decisively, and might still admit debate among scholars, the convergence of evidence from many sources can give the practitioner considerable confidence about what is authentic. In the long history of scholarship around these texts, I am not aware that anything fundamental that is repeated frequently in a range of texts has ever been overturned, certainly nothing as fundamental as the existence of an organized monastic community at the time of the Buddha.

Equality in the Buddhist community. One of Batchelor’s more puzzling statements is critical for the conclusions he wants eventually to make about modern secular Buddhism. It is the following:

“Gotama clearly envisaged a community in which all members – irrespective of their status as men or women, monastics (mendicants) or laity (adherents) – are entirely equal in the training they receive in the dharma, the practices they undertake to master and understand it, and the responsibility they have in communicating its message. Such an egalitarian community is a far cry from what is normative in many Buddhist traditions in Asia today.”[4]

A famous EBT passage he quotes from the Parinibbāna Sutta in defense of this states that the Buddha would not be ready to attain parinirvāna until there are trained and accomplished disciples who can take on teaching responsibilities in each of four categories: male and female monastic disciples and male and female lay disciples. However, his radically egalitarian conclusion does not follow even closely from the passage he cites, which does not state all members of these four groups have all of these qualities, only that some members of each group have all of these qualities. Moreover, Batchelor’s interpretation would make no sense, because not all members can possibly possess these qualities equally, for:

  1. Not everyone has equal access to training.
  2. Not everyone chooses equally to receive such training,
  3. Not everyone chooses to undertake the same practices,
  4. Monastic disciples and lay disciples already differ, by definition, in the nature of their practices; to say they are entirely equal in practices they undertake is analogous to saying meditators and non-meditators are entirely equal in their practice.
  5. Disciples, even if they have the same training and practices, will differ in opportunity, motivation and disposition, and will exhibit a markedly wide range of practice attainments, and therefore:
  6. Disciples will differ widely in their capacity for understanding or communicating the message of the Buddha.

Batchelor himself refers to the noble disciples as those distinguished from common members of the Buddhist community in their practice attainments. Noble disciples have reached at least the first level of awakening, called stream-entry, before which a disciple is considered, in the Buddha’s terminology, an ordinary person or a worldling (puthujjana). In short, the Buddhist community varies enormously in all the criteria Batchelor mentions.

Although the point that many noble disciples, whether monastics or lay, whether men or women, are strong in training, practice, attainment and teaching is well taken, the egalitarian community Batchelor describes makes as much sense as lumping all baseball players together, whether major league, minor league, little league or amateur and then claiming that they are equal in entirely equal in training and practice, and equally qualified to coach a major league team. We will see how Batchelor’s uses his weak egalitarian conclusions for early Buddhism to justify elements of his vision of “after Buddhism.”

The status of monastics. Batchelor makes another remarkable claim,[5] that no formal distinction between the monastics (bhikkhus and bhikkhunis) and the lay adherents (upāsakas and upāsikas) existed in early Buddhism. He offers no support whatever for this claim, a claim that would surprise any student or scholar even casually familiar with the early texts. Let me itemize some obvious problems with his claim:

First, the words bhikkhu and the feminine bhikkhuni seem to have been introduced by the Buddha and was not used for ascetics of other traditions, nor applied to Buddhist householders.[6]

Next, the Buddha’s earliest disciples, including himself, of other traditions; it was initially a movement among bhikkhus. One of the Buddha’s earliest disciples was a nobleman, Yassa, a young man who left home and showed up where the Buddha was staying, but with his father in hot pursuit. When the father arrived at the encampment, the Buddha sorted things out such that Yassa received permission from his father to become a bhikkhu and was ordained by the Buddha and remained with the Buddha as a trainee, while the father became a lay follower of the Buddha and returned home. It is clear that there is at this very early time a formal difference in the status of father and son in terms of the manner of commitment each has made, the younger leaving the household life to follow the Buddha and live, like the Buddha, as a renunciate.

Some of Yassa’s friends subsequently decided to follow his example, and are reported to have shaved their heads and beards, put on yellow robes and left home for homelessness. It is clear that the early monastic community had a “dress code” in the EBT that distinguished them from the mendicants of other schools as well as from Buddhist laity.

Requesting and granting monastic ordination occurs frequently in the EBT. This was a first accomplished by the Buddha with the words, “Come, bhikkhu!” but involved an increasingly elaborate procedure with time. Eventually the Buddha also authorized other monks to perform ordinations so that candidates would not have to make the ofttimes long journey to see the Buddha in person. It is also said that people were prohibited from monastic ordination as a means of avoiding social responsibilities such as debt, military service or punishment for a crime.

Throughout the discourses, new disciples most typically declare their conversion to the Buddha’s way by taking refuge in the Buddha, the dhamma and the bhikkhusangha, not simply the sangha. Clearly the bhikkhu community has a formal status even in the rite of becoming an adherent as a householder. Probably at about forty years of age, the Buddha founded the bhikkhuni-sangha, the nuns’ community, with new concerns reported around ordination.

The Buddha produced at least the core of the Vinaya, the disciplinary code, during his lifetime expressly for bhikkhus and bhikkhunis. The life of the bhikkhus was initially taught implicitly by example, but as the bhikkhu community began to grow and vary the Buddha laid down specific standards of discipline. The result was the quite extensive Vinaya, as far as we know, an entirely novel accomplishment for that time. As Richard Gombrich put it, “… among all of the bodies of renouncers it was only the Buddhists who invented monastic life.”[7] The Vinaya is the body of teachings that define the monastic what it is to be a monastic, as distinct from a householder.

That the Vinaya was conceived and developed – although not fully brought to its complete canonical form– during the life of the Buddha is clear in the Buddha’s frequent use of the term Vinaya in the discourses. In fact, the Buddha repeated refers to the body of his teachings as the Dhamma and Vinaya (Doctrine and Discipline), or simply as the dhamma-vinaya, highlighting the importance of the monastic code relative to the Dhamma. For instance, a Digital Pali Reader search over the four main discourse collections shows the following number of occurrences for only one of the expressions used to refer to the Doctrine and Discipline;

dhammavinay- 274

Moreover, all Buddhist traditions agree that the Vinaya was recited along with the discourses at the first council shortly after the Buddha’s death. Although Batchelor gives an account of the first council and of the recitation of the discourses by Ānanda, he makes no mention the recitation of the Vinaya, which was accomplished by Ven. Upāli.

All of this evidence overlooked by Batchelor when he makes his unsubstantiated claim that the monastics had no formal status in the EBT. Together it provides overwhelmingly evidence that there was a formally distinguished bhikkhu community during the life of the Buddha.

Following up on this claim, Batchelor maintains that designating someone as a monk or a nun would not be appropriate, in any case, until a later time in history, “when mendicants came to live apart in monasteries, functioned as priests, and depended on the laity to provide not only daily alms food but the upkeep and protection of their institutions.”[8] In fact , it is clear that most of these conditions were already in existence at the time of the Buddha. Although the Buddha continued to extol the mendicant life, there are many reports in the EBT of land being granted to the monastic community: The first was a park donated by King Bimbiasara of Magadha on the outskirts of Rājagaha shortly after the Buddha’s awakening. The best known was the Jeta grove donated by the wealth banker Anāthapindika near Sāvatthi the capital of Kosala. Often donors had residences and other structure build on the land, which the Buddha explicitly permitted monastics to accept, but not to request. Lamotte calculated twenty-nine monasteries explicitly mentioned at the time of the Buddha.[9] Monastics are reported to have built modest shelters on their own for temporary residence and the Buddha placed restrictions on how substantial these shelters could be. The Buddha also stipulated that monks and nuns should stay in residence in one place during three months of the rainy season each year. He also authorized the residents of monasteries to elect officers to handle the allocation of housing, the acceptance of robe donations to the community, etc.

Batchelor is, however, correct in his statement that the monastics only later took up priestly functions. That the Buddha could prohibit this also speaks of the existence of a distinct disciplined monastic community for whom this stipulation would apply.

The meaning of “sangha.” Batchelor defines the word the word sangha in a way that is poorly supported in the EBT.[10] Specifically, he defines it as the fourfold assembly of male and female, mendicants and adherents (monastics and householders). Now, in Western circles the word sangha indeed most generally refers to the entire Buddhist community, so Batchelor’s claim will make sense to the casual reader, but misleadingly so. In the EBT the fourfold assembly is almost always designated as catu-parisā in Pali, and in the Pali canon the word sangha is never used for the fourfold assembly.[11] In fact, I am unaware of any precedent for the common Western usage anywhere in pre-modern Buddhism (although I’ve noticed Thich Nhat Hanh often uses the word in this way, apparently in conformity with Western usage). Knowing that this usage is never found in current Asian Theravada Buddhism, I once asked the late scholar John McRae if sangha ever refers to the general Buddhist community anywhere in East Asian Buddhism, his area of expertise, and was told that this would be an “unusual and idiosyncratic” use of the term.

The base meaning of sangha is “group.” However, the word was used in a specific sense prior to the Buddha to refer (as Batchelor correctly points out[12]) to the clan-based governing bodies of the Indian republics at the time of the Buddha, generally in the compound gaṇa-sangha, “assembly of equals.”[13] In the EBT two compounds are commonly formed from –sangha: sāvaka-sangha and bhikkhu-sangha. We have already seen that bhikkhu-sangha (monastic sangha) is common in the formula for going for refuge. Sāvaka-sangha (community of disciples, or “hearers”) is generally used to refer specifically to the community of ariyas or noble disciples, that is, those who have attained at least the first level of awakening, steam entry. One might expect to see the term ariya-sangha as well in the place of sāvaka-sangha; although it would seem to mean the same thing, ariya-sangha is in fact very rare in the EBT.

So, it seems that sangha has two technical meanings in the EBT, one referring to the community of noble disciples and the other referring to the community of monks and nuns. Running the Digital Pali Reader on the four main collections of discourses yields the following numbers of occurrences:

bhikkhusangh- 270,
sāvakasangh- 61,
ariyasangh- 1.

There are no occurrences of upāsaka-sangha in the corpus, which would be the lay sangha if one existed. Batchelor’s further claim[14] that the monastic community only later monopolized the use of the term sangha is therefore belied by the EBT, in which the term refers almost always either to the monastics or to the noble disciples, with the monastic reference seeming to be more common.

Moreover, we are justified in inferring that the meaning of sangha in reference to the monastics is primary meaning of sangha in the Buddhist context, because of the origin of the term as the assembly of equals in the republics. First, as we will see, the early monastic sangha as described in the Vinaya was a non-hierarchical, non-autocratic democratic institution like the republican councils. Second, neither the lay community, nor the community of noble disciples was organized at all by the Buddha institutionally.[15] Finally, in a famous series of similes, the Buddha drew an explicit seven point-by-point comparison between the basis of welfare in the Vijjian Republic and the monastic Sangha,[16] suggestive of the close kinship of the monastic organization to the republican.

Moreover, taking the monastic community as the primary meaning of sangha explains the use of sāvaka-sangha as a derivative meaning. Whereas almost all of the early monastics quickly became noble disciples (ariyas) – in fact the first sixty are reported to have become arahants – as the number of householders began to grow, many lay disciples soon achieved high levels of attainment resembling expected monastic levels of attainment. Therefore, we can see how meaning of sangha in reference to noble disciples might easily arise as a way of grouping such householders with the monastics as adept upholders of the Dhamma. The term sāvaka-sangha (disciple, or “not necessarily a monk or nun,” sangha) thus makes sense, suggesting an extension of the bhikkhu-sangha. Ariya-sangha would be more precise, suggesting a group that only intersects with the bhikkhu-sangha, but appears not to be preferred in the EBT.

In summary, Batchelor seems to be falsely and without evidence projecting an apparently uniquely modern usage of the word sangha onto early Buddhism. The base technical meaning of sangha in the EBT is an organized monastic community, the secondary meaning is the community of noble disciples, and a meaning that includes the entire lay community is unknown. As far as I can determine, this has consistently been the usage in Asia until modern times.[17]

Batchelor’s origin story. Batchelor, in fact, attributes the creation of the monastic order to the senior monk Mahākassapa. Now, Kassapa is remembered in every Buddhist tradition for taking the lead in arranging the first Buddhist council shortly after the Buddha’s death, at which a group of arahants heard a recitation of the complete corpus of the Dharma-Vinaya to make sure that they were all on the same page. The Zen tradition would later compose the story about him in which the Buddha holds up a flower and Kassapa smiles, and then assign him second place after the Buddha in the fabricated early Zen lineage. Batchelor creates his own speculative tale about Kassapa that casts him in a less favorable light. This is apparently by way of attributing the monastic institution to the later “Buddhism” period under his guidance.

Batchelor’s is a tale of good monk/bad monk, in which Ānanda represents the former and Kassapa the latter. Batchelor describes Kassapa at the time at which he arrived at Kusināra to witness the Buddha’s funeral as,

“… a stern, intimidating ascetic who immediately imposes his authority on the proceedings. He seems to embody everything that Gotama warned against as he lay dying. He is ‘chief among those who expound the ascetic practices’ and does not hesitate to declare how enlightened he is and that he is the Buddha’s appointed successor. He is the very antithesis of Ānanda, but Ānanda seems powerless to resist him.”[18]

He states that Kassapa’s arrival at Kusināra marks the beginning of a struggle to determine the nature of orthodoxy and ecclesiastical authority.[19] He even calls Kassapa an “insufferable prig” at one point, suggests that the Buddha was trying to get away from Kassapa in traveling to Kusināra and smears him through a vague association with the evil monk Devadatta through a connection to King Ajātusattu of Magadha, who agreed to sponsor the first council.[20]

Let’s compare this with what we find in the EBT. First, there is nothing about Kassapa imposing his authority of the funeral proceedings. Anaruddha, the Buddha’s cousin and Ānanda’s half-brother, seems to have taken on a leadership role in this regard before Kassapa’s arrival. What is reported is that deities who were present, visible only to Anaruddha, would not allow the Buddha’s pyre to be lit until after Kassapa and his party of monks had arrived and paid respects, after which the pyre spontaneously burst into flames. This is clearly a later embellishment that attributes no active role to Kassapa at all, other than paying proper respect to the deceased Buddha.

Second, the Buddha is consistently reported to have had the highest regard for Kassapa, and in fact for his observance of very strict discipline, for his very simple contemplative life-style and for being content with whatever was offered to him. This is why the Buddha named him “chief among those who expound the ascetic practices.” There is no indication that the Buddha warned anybody about monks like Kassapa; quite the contrary.

Next, there is indeed a bit of evidence in the EBT that a tiff arose between Ānanda and Kassapa during this period. Apparently after the Buddha’s death and before the First Council, Kassapa admonished Ānanda for allowing a group of young bhikkhus, students of Ānanda, to run around in an undisciplined manner and called Ānanda a “youngster.”[21] There are parallels to this discourse in the Chinese canon, but I understand that none of them mention this tiff, which makes its authenticity suspect. Even if Kassapa did in fact call Ānanda a youngster, this actually makes sense as a means of admonishing Ānanda for behaving like a youngster in running around with undisciplined youngsters; monks are expected, according to the Vinaya, to admonish and accept admonition for infractions of discipline. The passage, if authentic at all, admits to even more alternative interpretations. For all we know, Kassapa and Ānanda were the best of friends and were in the habit of exchanging friendly barbs. Or, Kassapa, the arahant, was trying to shock Ānanda, the steam enterer, into taking his practice more seriously. In fact, the Zen tradition maintains that Kassapa became the teacher of Ānanda and succeeded in bringing him to full awakening where the Buddha had failed. In the Pali, Ānanda is said to have attained awakening just prior to the first council. In short, it is easy to read too much into a tiff.

Next, “does not hesitate to declare how enlightened he is” refers, apparently, to a (single) incident in which a bhikkhunii, Thullatissā, well known as a trouble-maker in the Vinaya, accuses Kassapa of being unqualified to teach bhikkhunīs. Kassapa, though of greater attainment, was apparently a less talented teacher than Ānanda, and had initially resisted Ānanda’s invitation to teach on this occasion. Kassapa defends himself from Thullatissā’s attack by recounting a circumstance in which the Buddha praised him rather effusively.[22] Although the phrasing of this discourse indeed makes Kassapa sound like something of a braggart to the modern reader, this kind of language is common in the discourses; in many passages the Buddha sounds like a braggart as well when he extols his own qualities. I suspect this impression is the product of a natural tendency toward embellishment during the generations of recitations of these texts, and toward normalizing the wording of similar passages taken from different contexts.

Finally, there is no mention in EBT of a “struggle to determine the nature of orthodoxy and ecclesiastical authority.” Batchelor does not tell us what the specific issue or result of this struggle might be, though he seems to suggest it was the creation of the monastic order, which, as we have already seen, occurred at an earlier time. He mentions[23] Kassapa’s vision of a top-down hierarchy, which is nowhere mentioned in the texts and which would be hard to reconcile with Kassapa’s personal dedication to a pure and simple ascetic lifestyle, or with the decidedly non-hierarchical structure of the early sangha as it is described in the early Vinaya and carried forth in the centuries after Kassapa.

What is reported in the EBT about Kassapa’s role during this period is very limited. The Buddha had just died. He as well as everyone else involved would clearly have been concerned about the survival of the Sāsana, including the integrity of the Dharma and the discipline of the monks. Since monks had undoubtedly been meeting for recitations of earlier discourses for many years to keep them in memory, it would have been quite natural to convene a group of very highly regarded, senior and therefore influential monks for however many months it would take to recite the Dhamma and the Vinaya in their entirety, in order to make sure that they remembered these accurately at this critical juncture and could each teach them to others accordingly. Ānanda was invited to recite the discourses, for he was renowned for his great memory and had been the Buddha’s constant companion for the last twenty-five years. Then Upāli was invited to recite the Vinaya. After a couple of disciplinary issues, the monks went on their way, and that was that.

Batchelor’s account is otherwise a fantasy. At no point is Kassapa known to have declared himself the successor of the Buddha. What might actually have happened at the council to trigger “Buddhism” is left entirely unclear in Batchelor’s account.

The need to organize Buddhism. Like-minded people tend to organize things at a social level. A group of stamp collectors are likely to organize a stamp club, with a regular venue and regular meeting times where people can get together to talk about stamps, or even organize stamp expositions or a local stamp convention. In the case of religion, at what point does such a thing become a problem? When I lived at the Austin Zen Center I would often point out to my grown daughter events that she might like to attend, to which she would generally say, “I don’t like organized religion.” However, if we held a potluck or anything involving food she would eagerly attend, even though, as I would point out, someone had to organize that. Why must the spiritual but not religious eschew organizing, if wine tasters, star gazers and tango dancers don’t?

This makes one curious about why Batchelor is so intent in arguing that the Buddha did not create the monastic institution. One of the great weaknesses of secular Buddhism as it has developed so far in the West is that it is seldom self-reflective with respect to its own orthodoxy. What it generally takes as common sense often has, in fact, a relatively recently history in Western thought, a history not shared in the early roots of Buddhism. Secularization for many, beginning with John Locke, who wrote in the wake of the Protestant Reformation, meant that religion became a private concern without an institutional presence in society, sometimes now described as being “spiritual but not religious.” For many, the role of God in the following centuries faded, particularly with the ascent of science. With the marginalization of God, particularly in European romanticism and psychotherapy, and among the hippies, some inner core within each of us became the source of spiritual energy as well as creativity, under constant threat by social convention and institutions. A product of all this has been a general suspicion of organized religion.[24] What does this have to do with Buddhism? Absolutely nothing, and that is the point. The Buddha would have hesitated to engage in organizing no more than star gazers or boomer singles.

Batchelor takes up what religion means early in the book,[25] distinguishing two primary definitions. First, religion is the “ultimate concern,” as Paul Tillich defined it. This is, in fact, the only reasonable definition I know of religion that would include Buddhism. Indeed, we might characterize both Buddhism and Christianity as the ultimate concern for their adherents. Second, religion is the “formal means” that enact these ultimate concerns. He lists as examples sacred texts, submission to the authority of monastics or priests, rites, rituals and spiritual retreats. “Formal means” is a bit vague –when I sit by myself to meditate, is that a formal means? – but the examples he provides suggests that by “formal means” he means “public means.” He points out that one can be religious in either sense without being religious in the other. He then states that a secular person can be religious in the first sense, which I would take to mean that a secular person cannot be religious in the second sense. Although this is all very orthodox from a secular point of view, a couple of pages later he promises not to fully expunge all of “religiosity” from his vision of modern secular Buddhism.

One would think he has a clear problem with institutionalization, but it is unclear to what extent. In Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist he writes,

“To reject organized religion in favor of a nebulous and eclectic ‘spirituality’ is not a satisfactory solution either. … As social animals we invariably organize ourselves into groups and communities.”[26]

In any case, as organizations go, the monastic sangha of the Vinaya is completely benign. Batchelor writes about hierarchy, power structures and uses terms like “ecclesiastical” evocative of the Catholic church in reference to whatever came after the Buddha, beginning with Kassapa. In fact, the early monastic sangha was not a church. It had no hierarchy nor individual power whatever. and provided no opportunities for consolidation of power. It was democratic and highly decentralized, upholding the standards the “assembly of equals” of the early Indian republics on which it was based.

Sociologists of religion generally distinguish two kinds of institutions, at least within Christianity, but this is also helpful here: churches and sects. Whereas churches tend to large and hierarchical, sects tend to be democratic meetings of like-minded people. Whereas a church generally aims at growth and political influence in the wider society, a sect generally tends to focus on the purity, spiritual growth and common values of its members as its primary concern. A sect represents a kind of counter-culture, a refuge away from the perceived depravity of the wider society or ofttimes of the church from which it once spun off. The Quaker Friends and the Amish are examples of long-enduring Christian sects, robust sects that have maintained their internal integrity and somewhat radical messages over a long time in spite of the perceived corrupting tendencies of the wider society. The monastic sangha is like this. It is interesting that Batchelor mentions the Quakers favorably in the context of envisioning a modern Buddhism.[27] It astonishes me that Batchelor, given his background, has so little understanding of what the traditional monastic sangha is, a sangha that persists in something remarkably close to its early form in most Buddhist countries to the present day.[28]

Conclusion. In Batchelor’s account of early Buddhism he attempts with considerable effort to show that there was no organized monastic community during the life of the Buddha. However, much of Batchelor’s account is hugely disappointing in that it relies on faulty or simply false interpretations of many of the passages he quotes, on many rather bold and dubious claims that he presents with no evidence, on neglect of abundant, well-known and uncontested evidence against the account he proposes, and on a highly speculative narrative about the the actors involved in shaping that community. This is a misdirected attempt to rewrite the history of the early Buddhist community.

References

Batchelor, Stephen, 2010, Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist, Spiegel and Grau.
Gombrich, Richard, 2006, Theravada Buddhism, Routledge.
Ling, Trevor, 2013 [1973], The Buddha: the Social-Revolutionary Potential of Buddhism, Pariyatti.
McMahan, David L., 2008, The Making of Buddhist Modernism, Oxford University Press.
Sujato, Bhikkhu & Bhikkhu Brahmali, 2014, The Authenticity of the Early Buddhist Texts, supplement to Volume 5 of the Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies.
Thapar, Romila, 2002, Early India: From the Origins to AD 1300, Penguin.
Wijayaratna, Mohan, 1990, Buddhist Monastic Life, according to the texts of the Theravada tradition, Cambridge University Press.

Footnotes

1. See my recent essay “Take Seriously But Hold Loosely,” posted at bhikkhucintita.wordpress.org, for more on this topic and its relation to secular Buddhism.
2. p. 21.
3. Sujato and Brahmali (2014) provide detailed criteria for assessing the authenticity within the EBT, which justifies a high degree of confidence in the general quality of these texts.
4. p. 12.
5. p. 47.
6. If anyone should know of an instance of these terms applied to ascetic of other traditions, please let me know.
7. Gombrich (2006), p. 19.
8. p. 47.
9. Wijayaratna (1990), p. 23.
10. p. 314.
11. E.g., Wijayratna (1990, 1) gleens that in the Pali texts lay people are never included in “sangha” in this way.
12. p. 314; see also Ling (2013), p. 68.
13. Thapar (2002), pp. 146-50.
14. p. 314.
15. Ling (2013) p.152 makes the same point.
16. DN 15.
17. In understand that the modern Japanese school Soka Gakai uses sangha to refer to the whole community, but they do not have a monastic component.
18. pp. 282-3.
19. p. 284.
20. pp. 184-6.
21. SN 16.11.
22. SN 16.1.
23. p. 315.
24. McMahan (2008) p. 220.
25. p. 15.
26. Batchelor (2010), pp.236-7.
27. p. 315.
28. This is not to say that the sangha has not also devolved in many places into church-like forms, or been embedded into (often significantly lay-based) church-like institutions.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Take Seriously but Hold Loosely: perspectives on Secular Buddhism (3/3)

August 18, 2017

pdf_24x18Sorry for the delay; I changed my mind a couple of times in writing this. So far, in parts 1 and 2, I have argued that the Buddha proposed a middle way between belief and practice function that gives us a lot of flexibility in our interpretation of Buddhist teachings insofar as we retain the functional integrity of the Dharma. I will now conclude with some examples of this process of interpretation. I will soon provide a link to the right → for a pdf of the entire essay, which will provide footnotes.

The Value of an Open Mind

We are a belief-centered culture. Modern culture has been fractured as long as it has been modern, with many internal contradictions along many fault lines – inter-religious, religious-secular, superstitious-rational, religious-scientific, spiritual-material, scientific-scientific and so on – each fault sustained by the dogmatic adherence of certain people to opposing beliefs, each holding the view “this is true and anything else is worthless.” We are at the same time a modernity in crisis, a modernity remarkable for its aggressiveness and acquisitiveness, a modernity suffering from a loss of human dignity, meaninglessness and spiritual malaise, a society in which appearance trumps substance, in which greed and fear are dominant themes and in which substance abuse, mental illness, suicide and violent crime are endemic.

Modernity has greeted Buddhism for the most part with a sense of relief. Buddhism has been widely greeted as kind, rational, unbiased, consistent with science, mystical, profoundly wise, serene, aesthetic. For some of us the entry of Buddhism into the modern space has felt like there is suddenly an adult in a room full of squabbling children. I don’t want to be unfair: there have been all along many adults in the room, but their voices had long been eclipsed by the perpetual squabbling all around them. Buddhism has entered as something apart, and many have been attracted to this charismatic new visitor. The voice of the Buddha tells us of an alternative way of being in the world, one rooted in kindness, harmony, simplicity, virtue and wisdom, a message that, if taken seriously, promises relief from the modern pathology. It is a radical voice, a voice that remains a challenge to most people even in traditionally Buddhist countries and all the more challenge to those in modern societies.

Unfortunately, these old fault lines continue to infect the thinking of many of us modern people even while we have embraced Buddhism, such that Buddhism itself is in danger, with time, of fracturing along these same fault lines, after which also the voice of the Buddha might end up eclipsed by the squabbling of children. We “convert” Buddhists – on the forefront of this epic encounter between an ancient tradition that has been transmitted through unfamiliar cultures, and modernity – must make wise decisions to get this encounter off on the right foot. “Off on the right foot” would mean that Buddhist teachings are made meaningful and accessible to moderns, at the same time that little of the transformative function of Buddhist practice, which has the potential to bring sanity to the world, is lost in the process.

In this section I attempt to provide some of this wisdom to inform our decisions on behalf of a thriving influential future modern Buddhism that makes a real difference in people’s lives and society.

A Principle of adaptation. There is a commodious space between practice function and belief. Practice function is the role of a teaching in upholding Buddhist practice. Belief, where it arises, collapses that space into a fixed view. The space itself represents the open mind, willing to take the teaching seriously, but holding loosely many possibilities of interpretation without insisting on a fixed view. The space comprises our wiggle room as we adapt Buddhism to modernity, as we make the teachings meaningful and accessible, as we make them our own. Belief comes from two significant sources: It may come from within a Buddhist tradition itself in which, over time, a fixed standard interpretation for any particular teaching may have been calcified. Or it may come from within modernity itself as an unquestioned presupposition often at one side of many of the fault lines running through modernity. Adapting Buddhist teachings to modernity may therefore require, at the same time, challenging the views of Buddhist tradition and challenging the views of modernity. It should be underscored that, at a minimum, Buddhism should challenge the presuppositions of modernity; otherwise why would we undertake the monumental task of bringing it here? At the same time this encounter with modernity will challenge, fortunately and at long last, whatever has become calcified in Buddhist traditions, perhaps not revisited for many centuries, to make Buddhism new and sparkling again.

As this is happening, it is fitting that we take each of the teachings seriously by default, at least until such time as we have a very good understanding of what its practice function might be. The alternative is to pare Buddhism down to the point of modern comfort when faced with a teaching we do not understand. This alternative challenges neither traditional Buddhism, nor modernity, and leaves us with a voice barely audible in the midst of the squabble over traditional fault lines. Unfortunately, this alternative has been chosen far too often by many of us “convert” Buddhists in recent years.

I hope this does not seem to theoretical. In the rest of this essay I will make this more concrete. I am a modern man, educated in science, without a religious upbringing, intellectual, by nature highly skeptical. At the same time, I have become a very devout Buddhist, and even a monk in an Asian tradition. Although I am still dealing with, and find myself right in the middle of, many of the challenges the encounter between Buddhism and modernity brings, through years of study, practice and teaching I have discovered the value of an open mind. This has provided a means to reconsider and gain valuable insight into what many of my Buddhist teachers have been telling me, and at the same time to better understand and question many of the Western presuppositions I brought with me at the beginning of this endeavor.

I would like, in this section, to take up a short list of teachings that have raised western eyebrows, teachings that westerners have been challenged to find meaningful or accessible. I do this not to put closure on these issues, but by way of illustration of how we might put our commodious wiggle-room to use to make these teachings our own while upholding their intended practice function. This list includes the usual suspects of karma, rebirth, rituals and monasticism, each of which at one time raised my eyebrows. This functional approach to the teachings – asking first, “What is its practice function?” than asking “How do I make sense if it?” – also forms the method behind my introductory textbook on early Buddhism, Buddhist Life/Buddhist Path.

The challenge of karma. Recall that karma is intentional action, but that we are the heirs of our own deeds, that is, our actions produce results or fruits that we experience, often after some time, in correspondence to the ethical quality of our deeds. The ethical quality, furthermore, is carried by the intention – for instance, kindness or hatred, greed or generosity – we bring to the deed. We have already seen above that this fundamental teaching has a profound practice function for ethical practice in equating, contrary to common sense, our own benefit with that of others.

Nonetheless, the teachings around karma are often a challenge for modern skeptics, who ask, “Is it really true?” In fact, if we look at these teachings simply as a generalization subject to empirical refutation or confirmation, we discover that this principle stands up remarkably well in our own experience:

First, if we are mindful, we find it feels good to act when our intentions are really pure, and there is, in contrast, at least a degree of stress or anxiety when we act out of greed or aversion.

Second, for those of us who habitually act with pure intentions, that purity becomes habituated, it becomes a mark of our character. Repeated generosity, for instance, makes us a generous person. As this happens, we develop, with time, an angelic glow and and uplifted spirit. Those who habitually act with impure intentions develop a furrowed brow and dejected mood. Repeated anger, for instance, makes an angry, unhappy person.

Consider Ebeneezer Scrooge, before and after. Although this is a fictional character, the reader should be able readily to find among acquaintances similar real-world examples. Habitual impure intentions even effect one’s physical health, and naturally result in being shunned socially or in retribution; no one wants the company of the the irate or of the dishonest. Scrooge (before) lived in a kind of hell realm right here on earth, trying to find solace in his wealth. On the other hand, habitual pure intentions improve one’s health, make one quite popular socially and result in others doing good in return.

Nonetheless, there are skeptics who question further, “What is the mechanism that makes all this work?” They might imagine some kind of cosmic accounting system to track when we’ve been naughty or nice and allocate future good or bad fortune accordingly, and, in fact, this seems to be a traditional interpretation of the principle of karmic results. But why assume a uniform mechanism? The last paragraph already describes a familiar set of processes that seem to conspire to produce these karmic results: human psychology, learning in human behavior, patterns of interpersonal responses and the mind-body connection. Psychologically we could say that virtue really is its own reward; it is not so much that good intentions bring happiness, rather that good intentions are happiness. This should suffice to establish abundant confidence in the principle of karmic results as a solid working assumption, and to enjoy the support that this gives our practice. We should acknowledge that cases are sometimes described in the EBT (Early Buddhist Texts) of a particular deed giving rise to an seemingly unrelated event, for instance, helping a stranger who is sick, then later winning the lottery a week later. However, these are actually extremely rare in the EBT and I see no reason to believe they are not entirely allegorical.

Going further, this principle of karmic results is often conceptualized as merit-making in EBT, earning merits for good deeds and demerits for bad deeds, which further encourages the image of an underlying accounting system, and which thereby adds to the confusion of modern people. Merit-making actually has a very familiar practice function. Suppose we take up some non-Buddhist practice, say, jogging. We normally will want to track how many miles we run each morning and how many mornings we run each week. Why? Because measuring keeps us consistent in our practice, it keeps us from backsliding. Similarly, if we take up a meditation practice, we will track how many hours we meditate each day or week and so on. This is all merit-making does. It is a crude estimation of karmic results, but it makes a big difference in our practice; we actually begin to search intently for opportunities to be of benefit to others and we are unlikely to backslide. Merit-making is a conceptual support that benefits our practice.

The challenge of rebirth. Rebirth often raises skeptical modern eyebrows through the roof. Our task is not to dismiss rebirth out of hand, but to find a way to interpret it, however loosely, that is meaningful and accessible to us. To dismiss the notion altogether is to lose the practice functions the Buddha attributed to rebirth, and therefore to corrode at least some of the integrity of the teachings. Nonetheless, not to dismiss rebirth is often a challenge in terms of prevailing modern presuppositions.

In his most recent work, Batchelor shows, quite impressively, how he has been doing the difficult work of turning the teaching of rebirth every way he can to make it more meaningful and accessible to his skeptical mind. He acknowledges, admirably, that its theoretical validity is subordinate to whatever practical benefit it might bring in cultures in which the notion is already widely accepted. He also refers to the scientific evidence of early child memories of previous lives collected in the work of Ian Stevenson and his colleagues, but correctly points out that this evidence still falls short of verifying the ubiquity of rebirth generally assumed in the EBT, and that it has yet to provide evidence that karmic results may be realized in the next life.

Most significantly, Batchelor observes that, “… all living beings are intimately connected to a complex series of causal conditions that preceded their existence as well as to a seemingly infinite unfolding of future consequences for which each was in some small way responsible. In providing a sense of humility, connectedness and responsibility, this world view encourages people to consider the significance of their existence in the selfless context of the immensity of life itself, not reduce it to the service of their egotistical greed and hatred.” He also recognizes how rebirth is a metaphor for hell, the condition of repetition, where our same old patterns of reactive behavior and our very existence play themselves out over and over again, seemingly endlessly.

Right on! This exemplifies how we can all go about exploring alternative interpretations of an age-old teaching, in spite of the fixed interpretations acquired in most Buddhist traditions, in order to make them meaningful and accessible to us. This goes a long way to provide the larger scheme of things the Buddha set for our practice. Although this account might still feel a bit remote to declare it our own, this shows how we hold a teaching loosely where our initial impulse might be to dismiss it altogether.

Rebirth is more obscure than most of the Buddha’s teachings in that there is little opportunity for verification in our own experience. However, a very fruitful source of rather direct evidence is often overlooked that I invite readers also to investigate. Any parent knows that children manifest well-articulated little charac­ters from the earliest age, and most of us can re­member our own pe­culiar qualities from toddlerhood. One child is terrified of thun­der storms, another of dark places. Paradoxically, infants seem in other re­spects to perfectly exemplify the fabled tabula rasa, hav­ing to discover, for in­stance, simplest laws of physics and the na­ture of their own bodies on their own. But this is misleading, be­cause right behind that come remarkably firmly es­tablished dispositions, a recognizable little character. One child seems particu­larly stingy, another freely generous at the very youngest age.

In a given circumstance, a child may follow a complex script, unique to that character, so precisely that it gives the impression of having been written then re­vised and rehearsed over countless years, centuries, millennia, and cer­tainly not composed anew by a child still not potty-trained and challenged to put his shoes on the right feet. Such dispositions, communicated to us somehow from the past, determine our responses to sensual stimulation, to irritation or insult, to fear; how we order our lives or array the things of the world, how we like to spend our time, what we value. In this life we continue to revise our dispositions, learning new ones, unlearning old ones or revising old ones to produce new; this is how our practice bears fruit.

Just as we have somehow in­herited dis­positions from past lives, it must be the case that we somehow serve as vehicles through which dispositions are transmitted to fu­ture lives. In this way, our lives are embedded in a rich and immense tapestry of human af­fairs, and “all living beings are intimately connected to a complex series of causal conditions that preceded their existence as well as to a seemingly infinite unfolding of future consequences for which each was in some small way responsible.” We can therefore observe this in our direct experience of our own evolving habit patterns.

The astute reader will notice that I have made a case not for the specifics of linear rebirth as it is generally understood in Buddhism, but what is important is that our interpretation fulfills the practice function of giving gravity and urgency to our practice, of making us accountable to the future, of making practice the overar­ching condition of our lives rather than of simply making it another thing we do in our lives.

The greatest danger for us in contemplating rebirth is to adhere dogmatically to a fixed belief: “There is no such thing as rebirth, period!” This closes the mind to the many possibilities it may be necessary to consider as we wrap out minds around this central teaching. Unfortunately, almost everybody in our culture seems to have fixed beliefs about many things. My fear is that Buddhism will shatter on these many fixed crystallized modern beliefs. However, almost as dangerous in this case might be to adhere to the opposite fixed belief whose source is in Buddhist tradition: “There is such thing as rebirth, period!” A prominent Western monk once said that if science ever demonstrates that there is no rebirth, he will disrobe. For him, the teaching of rebirth seems to be working to instill urgency and commitment to his practice, best realized through monastic practice. However, it seems to me, it makes his faith in the teachings rather fragile, making it contingent on external evidence, rather than simply fulfilling its practice function. If he were to hold this teaching more loosely, but rest in its practice function, it would be much more malleable.

Understanding our presuppositions: materialism. Rebirth is described in the EBT as a linear process, in which a death gives rise to a birth that preserves many mental factors, particularly habit patterns, in the process. Generally, as we consider this, many of us balk. It defies common sense. It is unscientific. Science allows no mechanism whereby this could happen. A little more explicitly: the mind is a product of brain function. If the body dies, the brain dies and >poof< the mind is gone. How can it be preserved for the next life?

Behind common sense are always a lot of presuppositions. Einstein is said to have stated that “common sense is nothing more than a deposit of prejudices laid down in the mind before age eighteen.” Presuppositions here are tacit assumptions, most commonly instilled at a young age before our faculty of dis­crimination has fully de­veloped, or so widely accepted in our society that we too have ac­cepted them without ever having examined or questioned them. They are, in other words, beliefs; they are, in fact, as instances of unexamined belief, examples of blind faith. This does not necessarily make them false, but certainly makes them subject to examination. In the present case, the presupposition at hand is that of materialism, that all of reality is physical; that what we consider mental, if it exists at all, is a byproduct of physical activity, an epiphenomenon, generally specifically attributed to brain function.

Materialism gives rise to a range of positions about the status of mind. We have seen that B.F. Skinner simply dismissed mind as illusory and not worthy of investigation. Others hold that mind has a kind of reality, albeit one that can ultimately be reduced to brain function, but is nonetheless worthy of investigation. Many of these hold that what appears in consciousness reflects accurately objective reality, aside from emotional responses, dreams, etc., but generally dismiss such things an altered consciousness and mystical states, etc. A large segment of the population seems to regard meditative states and spiritual attainments as just one step away from fairy dust, shape shifting and reading tea leaves.

Where we we stand on these issues is bound to effect how we interpret the Buddha’s teachings, because Buddhism is so much concerned with mind. Buddhist practitioners sit in the middle of their subjective experience in meditation, while right view points out what we will find there. Nonetheless, if we believe in materialism, then we may balk at rebirth; if we do not acknowledge mystical states, we will have trouble making sense of awakening; if we do not acknowledge altered consciousness, we will fail to see the value of meditation. There are such people and they will find little of Buddhism meaningful or accessible, and are not likely to show up a Buddhist temples or meditation group.

Recently I watched a video on-line of an address Sam Harris delivered to a conference of atheists on meditation. Sam Harris is as assertive in his atheism as the next guy, but has taken an interesting turn; he has developed an interest in Buddhist meditation (even writing a book the subject) and he wanted to convey to the audience that meditation can be cleanly distinguished from the horror of “religion” and is even beneficial. His audience would have none of it, responding with moans in many tones and by rolling its many eyes. It is clear that the presuppositions of a large segment of the modern population make meditation, and Buddhism generally, inaccessible. I don’t expect to have more success with this population than Sam Harris, but they provide an opportunity for understanding the kinds of presuppositions that modern people harbor.

What is generally misunderstood is that science makes a poor case for materialism. Materialism has never been presented as a scientific theory subject to rigorous empirical investigation. It is a metaphysical assumption that most scientists find appealing. Materialism has its origin in the mind-matter dualism of Descarte in which a non-material mind is the seat of consciousness, self-awareness and intelligence, clearly distinguished from matter, to which scientific investigation was to be limited. As it has happened, the success of science in investigating the material universe in the succeeding centuries has been astonishing, while relatively little is understood of the mind. Rather naturally, as science has begun to become more interested in subjective experience, the hope seems to have arisen that what has worked in the past will work in the future, that mind will yield to the paradigm of material investigation.

The logic of this has always reminded me of the man who drops his keys in the dark but searches for them under a street lamp where the light is better. So far this approach has failed to account for the mind. Although correlations have been discovered between brain activity and subjective experiences, causality is not established. Moreover, there is not even a viable theory on the table of how conscious experience can possibly arise from material processes. Furthermore, the observer effect witnessed in quantum theory suggests that mind intrudes as a causal factor into the material world at a very fundamental level. Some researchers are now even suggesting that matter is reducible to mind, not the other way around. Giving up or at least questioning the presupposition of materialism can open up many new possibilities for interpreting Buddhist teachings.

The challenge of monasticism. The Buddha was a monk. Virtually all the awakened of the EBT were either monks or nuns. Monastics have been responsible for transmitting Buddhist teachings from generation to generation, fulfilling the mission the Buddha assigned it. Entering monastic practice has been a kind of right upheld by Buddhist communities throughout Buddhist history open to those who want to dedicate themselves fully to Buddhist practice free from the corrupting influences of the world. Aside from promoting individual practice, monastic practice serves the Buddhist community in preserving and propagating the higher teachings, and providing the key determining factor in the dynamics of the Buddhist community. Moreover, the monastic sangha is the most enduring (and endearing) human institution on the planet; Buddhism has never succeeded without a monastic sangha, and where the monastic sangha is lost, as in the “New Buddhist” movements in Japan, Buddhism becomes unrecognizable.

So, why do so many modern people balk at the legitimacy of a monastic institution and some would do away with it altogether? Some even want to deny that the Buddha founded a monastic sangha, an argument that is exceedingly hard to make in the context of the EBT.

For one thing, institutions themselves are suspect, as they should be, for they easily move toward corruption and abuse. But a vehemence is reserved in this case that is not enjoyed by the local chapter of the Audubon Society, the corner Stop and Shop or the Social Security Administration. Like it or not, all aspects of society are facilitated by institutions. If you go out on a dinner date, you enter an institution, a restaurant, in which many people are working collaboratively in various roles to provide delicious food and a comfortable context for your amorous intent. If a like-minded group of stamp collectors wanted to organize their efforts, to facilitate access to or trading of stamps, they will probably organize a club. Why should we object to an institution in one case but not in the other?

In fact, as institutions go, the monastic sangha described in the EBT is strikingly amiable. Its primary function is, in contrast to how many think, to make the monks and nuns powerless with respect to society at large, to make them as helpless as kittens, for in this way their interest withdraws from the world, providing the seclusion conducive to practice. Internally, the monastic sangha has well-articulated means to ensure harmony, such that its members are “blending like milk and water, regarding each other with kind eyes” (SN 9.36). It is an institution with little hierarchy and no coercive power. Moreover, the Buddha designed it as a completely decentralized consensual democracy, following rules of governance and monastic behavior laid out in the monastic code of the Buddha. Membership in the monastic sangha was open as privilege to all adult members of the Buddhist community regardless of caste or gender (with some minor restrictions intended to prevent abuse of this privilege). It was designed to provide the ideal social context for Buddhist practice and cultivate a space in which the practice of Dharma can burn brightest. The monastic sangha’s authority lies purely in its role in maintaining, exemplifying, teaching and perpetuating the practice and understanding of Dharma for the benefit of the entire community. Ultimately the monastic community is under the full control of the lay community, for if the monastics fail inspire, the lay community can withdraw its support.

Naturally the monastic institution has suffered some corruption of its original intent here and there in its history. Historically this has resulted, as far as I can see, primarily from the support of governments and wealthy benefactors who demand concessions, or from government interference in the proper functioning of the sangha. It has also neglected to establish, maintain or restore the nuns’ sangha in the Theravada and Tibetan traditions. Nonetheless, throughout Asia – and I can speak of Myanmar from personal experience – it generally functions to this day in the various independent local monasteries, generally in small villages, in the way the Buddha intended. Moreover, these faults in the sangha will be quickly and naturally addressed as the monastic sangha grows in the West, particularly as we leave behind any traditional political arrangements, in the way that many calcified interpretations of Dharma sometimes found in Asian traditions will be reconsidered with fresh eyes in the West.

Understanding our presuppositions: religion. It seems that problem many have with monasticism is that in appearance it has not only “religion” but “religious hierarchy” written all over it. And so many balk, just as we do for rites and rituals, vows, liturgy, spells, mythology and sacred objects. After all, many say, Buddhism is rational (I hope this essay may have demonstrated that it is even more rational than many may have thought), not religious. People can often be quite fervent in their rationality:

“Organized religion, hierarchy, bah!”

“Religious authority, priests, monks, clerical garb, vows, humbug!”

“Religious imagery, sacred objects, twaddle!”

“Rituals, bows, balderdash!”

Once again, let’s try to understand our presuppositions. These kinds of reactions, in fact, have a long history in Western culture, particularly in Protestant cultures. Recall that the early “Protestants” represented a “protest” movement against the perceived corruption within the Catholic church, particularly against its hierarchical institutions which had become instruments for the consolidation of enormous temporal power, while reserving for itself a mediating role and complete dominance throughout Europe in people’s spiritual lives as the means to connect to God. Much of the priesthood had become corrupted by power, and even the monastic order was not immune. The Protestant reformation swept away this institutional presence from the lives of many, such that people could enjoy a direct relationship to God. This process was dramatized by years of social turmoil and thirty years of devastating warfare in Europe as landed aristocracy exploited the situation to “secularize” the power vacuum left in many regions by the dis-empowered church.

Secularization for many, beginning with John Locke, meant that religion became a private concern without an institutional presence in society, sometimes now describes as being “spiritual but not religious.” For many, the role of God in the following centuries faded, particularly with the ascent of science. With the marginalization of God, particularly in European romanticism and psychotherapy, and among the hippies, some inner core within each of us became the source of spiritual energy as well as creativity, under constant threat by social convention and institutions. A product of all this has been a general suspicion of religion. All this is the source of very strong presuppositions, rarely examined by those who carry them and very difficult to see as anything other than common sense.

What does this have to do with Buddhism? Absolutely nothing, and that is the point. The Buddha was born much to early and in the wrong part of the world to know anything about this history of Western ideas. Yet we project the narrative of the last paragraph on the situation in early Buddhist Asia, preferring to see the Buddha as the philosopher of the inner self, telling us how to push institutional life and social convention aside in order to free our inner spiritual energy, and leaving us imagining we’ve expunged religion from Buddhism. The simple and fragile decentralized monastic sangha thereby becomes equated with the monolithic Catholic Church.

Our presuppositions concern something called “religion,” which many find objectionable. “Religion” is not even a concept the Buddha would have been familiar with, for historically there had been no equivalent word in any Asian language before Western contact. Although it has defied definition by scholars, not only do we presume to know what religion is or how to recognize it when we see it, but we are willing to make bold claims about religion: That it is the opiate of the people, or that it is by nature violent, and so on.

The only reasonable definition I know of religion that would include Buddhism is that of Paul Tillich, that religion is the “ultimate concern.” Indeed, we might characterize both Buddhism and Christianity as the ultimate concern for their adherents, and we can acknowledge further that there are a common set of factors that typically adhere to the ultimate concern, which include mythology, ritual, institutional structure, clergy, robes, sacred objects, etc. But at what point does the ultimate concern of Buddhism become objectionable as these various factors adhere to it?

It is not that we object so strongly to organization, hierarchy or authority in general: we have plenty of this in government, in our schools, at work.

It is not that we object to attributing symbolic meaning to things: we do this to flags, military uniforms, corporate logos.

It is not that we object to archaic clothing: judges and college graduates wear robes.

It is not that we object to rites and rituals: the military or a children’s birthday party is full of them. Even the abundant bowing that characterizes Buddhism has its counterparts in shaking hands, in waving and in military salutes.

It is not that we object to vows and commitments. These drive most of our large undertakings, from marriage to getting a college degree.

For many in the modern West the ultimate concern is shopping and, sure enough, virtually all of these features that tend to adhere in “religion” can be found in the realm of shopping.

Liturgy. I still have advertising jingles playing in my head that I learned in childhood. Some Christian liturgy is co-opted during the peak Christmas season.

Mythology. Consumerist myths tend to center around celebrities, sublime beings who live problematic, operatic lives, but spend a lot of money and look great and act cool living them.

Sacred objects. These are even conveniently marked for how sacred.

Institutional presence. Shopping is largely driven by for-profit, limited-liability faceless corporations, which have many levels of hierarchy, are corrupt almost by definition and wield great power..

Clergy. Salespeople (or maybe game show hosts).

Ritual. The whole shopping experience is ritualized and customers become upset if the salespeople don’t satisfy their behavioral expectations.

Respect for the understandings of others. In this essay I have been calling for a radically open-minded way of approaching the Buddha’s teachings. Such an approach that seriously what is of value in these teachings, that is, how they support our lives of Buddhist practice. At the same time, such an approach holds loosely any particular way we might have of making these teachings meaningful and accessible to ourselves, that is, by avoiding getting caught up in fixed view or beliefs. We have seen that the Buddha himself lights this way (I am perpetually blown away by the depth and comprehensiveness of the Buddha’s thinking).

The Buddha’s teachings are very much experientially based, which means that most of us who have no qualms with the veracity of the subjective mind will find them meaningful and accessible without balking. Nonetheless, at certain points we will be challenged by certain teachings as we develop in our practice and understanding. Indeed, there is much in Buddhism to challenge us in many ways. If you find that you balk around rebirth, around bowing, around renunciation, or around any number of eyebrow-raisers, this does not mean you are a failure at Buddhism, or don’t get to call yourself a Buddhist. In fact, it will probably have little impact on your practice for the short-term: We are each, at any giving time, working with a subset of the Buddha’s teachings while many others are likely to be unfamiliar or obscure for many years before we succeed in making them our own. So, we have abundant material to work with. If we balk in one area of practice, we can always focus our attention on another.

We each at a given time have our own private Dharma, larger or smaller than another’s, overlapping in some ways and distinct in others. Our Dharma tends to become more comprehensive with time, as more and more teachings come to inform our practice. But there is also a larger Dharma, one that belongs not to any individual, but to the Buddhist community writ large. This larger Dharma is accessible to us as the need arises through books, through teachers, through Web searches and most importantly through admirable friends who simply exhibit the Dharma successfully in their lives. I want to close with an admonition: Don’t try to reduce the larger Dharma down to your private Dharma. Rather, respect and support the practice and understanding of those whose Dharma might differ from your own. If you don’t “get” rebirth or bows or why someone would become a monk, respect those who do, and never try to diminish their (hopefully loose) hold on those teachings. Someday – and this will surprise you – your understanding may comprehend what at one time seemed incomprehensible. This is how we preserve the integrity of the teachings, even while we adapt them to modern sensibilities.

What is Believable? (5/6)

April 2, 2015

After looking at the relative nature of truth as we accept a thesis, we trace the problem of finding a thesis unbelievable back to its source, to the tacit, unexamined beliefs that make a thesis seem unbelievable.

Series Index

How to reconsider your standards for believability

The method here is to open our minds to exotic beliefs through loosening up pernicious fixed preconceptions.

Have you noticed how each of has such a sparklingly clear view of the world that we wonder why no one else does, such effortless insight into right and wrong, into what is really the issue here, into what is viable and what is not, that it seems to us just common sense or a matter of clear, rational thinking, faculties with which we happen to be almost uniquely endowed? We wonder that others can be so dense. The reason we think this way, is sparkingly clear to me and to anyone else with common sense or with a faculty for rational thought: A foundational layer of views has been laid down at such an uncritical, unquestioning and unremembering age that we can no longer even wildly imagine that they might be mistaken. They were, in short, acquired like this:

Figure11Acceptance of a tacit view without evidence

Since their acceptance skipped the evaluation stage altogether, the tacit preconceptions that underly our extreme confidence in the rightness of our later views are themselves high on faith and low on reason. Whenever someone says with utmost confidence, “That’s just common sense,” or “I am just saying what is obviously true,” or “As anyone with eyes can plainly see …,” he is almost certainly presupposing tacit views that he has never thought to question or challenge, or that he might not even be aware he has. We acquire a lot of these views in childhood before our faculties for discernment have developed. They produce the illusion of a cartoon world that we don’t have to think too hard about, such that we wonder that others have such mistaken views about it.

Tacit views, for their part, tend to constrain what theses we then consider believable and later accept.

Figure12Tacit view as believability criterion

For instance, one might have tacitly acquired the view that free-market capitalism is good, efficient, conducive to human thriving. One might also have tacitly acquired the view that socialism is inimical to free-market capitalism. In this case, any proposal that seems socialist (or that someone in authority simply labels as socialist) will be rejected out of hand as unbelievable. The result is a misplaced skepticism, a strident skepticism based not in questioning but in already having the answers.

It is inevitable that we, as wide-eyed innocents, should acquire many such views at an early stage of our development. This gives parents a special responsibility to make sure children are exposed to healthy wholesome views, rather than sickly and pernicious views. Fundamental values are acquired this way, ethical standards, religious and political views, social and cultural norms and so on. It is much better if children grow up thinking, “A kind response is just common sense,” or “The need to respect the dignity of every individual is obviously true,” than that they grow up thinking, “As anyone with eyes can plainly see you need to take care of Numero Uno even if it means knocking a few heads together.” Belief in the authority of Buddha, Dharma and Sangha arises in this way for most Buddhists at an uncritical age, for those who are born Buddhist. Likewise, belief in the authority of science arises in the uncritical years of childhood, for those who are born modern.

Tacit views, though often wholesome, are also the stuff of delusion. Differences in tacit views easily give rise to interpersonal friction in which each party is astounded that the other cannot see what is obviously true. The Buddha advocated a rational examination of views. As B. Alan Wallace puts it:

The challenge that Buddhism presents is to develop a true spirit of skepticism toward our own unquestioned assumptions, for it is these – not the beliefs of others – that lie at the root of our suffering.

Our foundational views may differ from those of others around us, but in fact there are widespread commonalities within any particular culture. For instance, many moderns tend to believe in materialism without question, that is, in the reality of an entirely physical universe, and to harbor a particular distrust of organized religion. Behind any widespread view is generally a long causal history reaching back at least a few hundred years. I would like to focus on these two views in particular, because they give repeated rise to teaching-believability mismatch, and therefore deserve careful scrutiny in Buddhist circles. Reconsidering these views leads to greater openness toward a number of Buddhist teachings that are often dismissed as unbelievable.

Private religion. The Protestant Reformation, starting as a protest movement against the excesses of the Catholic Church, reshaped the scope and appropriate setting of religion. McMahan1 writes that in accord with the Protestant Reformation:

… each individual could have unmediated access to God and hence had no need for special places, priests, icons, or rituals. Sacredness began to withdraw from things … and to be pushed to two poles: God himself, beyond the world, and the individual in his or her own faith. This aspect … was then pushed further by scientific rationalism.

Religion became primarily a private relationship between the individual mind and God, or Jesus, whereas before it had a communal basis, rich in ritualized behaviors and relations, with a special role for robed priests, who not only oversaw ceremonies and education but also interceded personally between God and His children. Religious practice had previously been inseparable from other communal functions, even in the workplace and Protestant Christianity tended now to marginalize these communal aspects. To this day there is a profound suspicion of, and distaste for, the communal, institutional and ritual aspects of religion in Protestant lands. The force of this tacit view in the religious context is striking when one considers that there is little resistance to communal, institutional and ritual aspects of analogous areas of life, for instance, in the military, at sports events or in academic or political life. Consider flags, salutes, awards, uniforms and ranks, graduation ceremonies, homecoming ceremonies, cheerleading and group chanting, national anthems, the national spirit, and so on.

The doctrine of private religion is commonly misapplied to Buddhism; it rubs Buddhism the wrong way. First, Buddhism is at a very basic level a communal tradition itself, even while it extols as the highest ideal the individual renunciate who seeks seclusion in order to focus on the very private endeavor of attaining Awakening. The monastic Sangha, founded by the Buddha, is perhaps the oldest continual institution on the planet, and in that sense might be regarded as the most successful.

Second, Buddhism has a history that is quite distinct from the Catholic church and has never sparked protest on anything like the scale of the Protestant movement. Its communal structure has an entirely different basis, organized around a vulnerable monastic order, not around a hierarchical priesthood, that wields no coercive power and attains its authority only in its adherence to, and its role in imparting and inspiring, the teachings of the Buddha.

Third, the doctrine of private religion shows up in the believability standards which form the topic of this essay. The result is the common dismissal of many practices that characterize Buddhism, such as various rituals, incessant bowing, monastic discipline and the monastic/lay distinction. In A Culture of Awakening I argue that its communal structure has a critical function in Buddhism, that, in fact, it has played an essential historical role in the preservation of its functional integrity even as it has proved tolerant of cultural adaptations.

The point is that by understanding the conditioned history of the doctrine of private religion that is tacitly accepted as “just common sense,” one might just begin to question those presuppositions and thereby to become less constrained by them, and more willing to find those Buddhist teachings that conflict with those views believable. Many other tacit modern views that also rub Buddhism the wrong way have similar origins in European religious, cultural and intellectual history, particularly in Protestant Christianity, in the European Enlightenment and scientific rationalism, in Romanticism or in psychotherapy. McMahan’s Buddhism and Modernity provides an excellent catalog of the range of such view and their influence on modern practice and understanding of Buddhism.

This brings us to a critical function of the Triple Gem: To take refuge in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha is to accept the authority of these as primary sources of wisdom. This is not meant to discourage healthy skepticism and questioning around the teachings of Buddhism, but rather to encourage skepticism around tacit views, particularly those that seem contrary to Buddhist teachings. Refuge in the Triple Gem initiates the examination of our tacit assumptions.

The reduction of mind to brain. Scientific materialism, or simply materialism, is the view that universe is entirely physical, consisting of matter and energy. Psycho-physical reductionism, or simply reductionism in what follows, is the associated view that mind has a physical basis; it is generally assumed to emerge specifically in the functioning of the brain. Most biologists and psychologists and most educated lay folks accept these views pretty much without question.

Like private religion, materialism, rather than being simply something that is obviously true, has an historical basis, which in this case we can trace back to Descartes’ establishment of the dichotomy between mind and matter and his declaration that matter is the proper object of scientific investigation, with mind assuming something like a God’s eye view that makes the objective examination of matter possible. In the early nineteenth century, Laplace introduced the view of a deterministic universe, governed entirely by physical forces. In the middle of that century, Helmholtz formulated the law of the conservation of energy, which seemed to exclude non-physical and therefore external forces such as God from intervening in the world. It also thereby seemed to exclude intervention by mind. Once science became interested in human behavior and cognitive capabilities and discovered that brain impairments effected these, the reduction of of mind to brain function seemed viable, such that mind is now widely regarded as an epiphenomenon, an emergent reflection of purely physical cognitive processes.

Regardless of its value as science, materialism is hard to reconcile with Buddhism as bringing spiritual benefit. Buddhism is profoundly subjective in its method, primarily concerned with mental phenomena as they arise in human experience, and the causal relationships among these. Matter shows up as that which impinges on sense faculties, or else as illusory mental imputations on an imputed outer world. Our practice is focused on the development and purification of mind. Materialism and reductionism, on the other hand, marginalize the mind, leaving scant foothold for values, for moral responsibility, for meaning, for choice. They tend towards making some core teachings of the Buddha unbelievable.

As noted in our discussion of contextualization, few can live in a fully material world, even if they believe in it. The undesirable consequences of living in a material world is in itself is enough to expunge psycho-physical reductionism from Buddhist purview, independently of whether it is ultimately objectively true in a scientific sense, as unbeneficial. Materialism also entails annihilationism, the view that all mental factors, including karmic consequences, die with the body, which the Buddha explicitly dismissed for its detrimental ethical consequences in favor of the Middle Way. As Wallace (2012, 114) points out, the Buddha rejected any theory that undermines the sense of moral responsibility.

For materialism means that human well-being tends to be sought materially, in external conditions, or in ingestibles, because these have direct material effects. Contemplative practice seems of rather remote efficacy when a material measure is at hand. For many, meditation has become attractive only after neurological correlates have been discovered. It can then be understood as a matter of toning and building up neurons, much like physical fitness tones and builds up muscles. However, the efficacy of mediation for ethical purification of mind, for removing inclinations toward greed, hate and delusion then requires a long stretch of the imagination. Pill-popping seems, from a materialist perspective, a much more direct way of dealing with suffering than does a spiritual practice.

Regardless of its value as science, materialism is hard to reconcile with Buddhism as bringing spiritual benefit. Nonetheless, it also turns out that psycho-physical reductionism is almost certainly wrong from a purely scientific or scholarly perspective. I hear some audible gasps out there, but bear with me. The many difficulties of reductive materialism as a viable theory have been well articulated by others much more familiar with the evidence and its interpretation than I, so I will briefly summarize the three forms these arguments take, each one of which, it seems to me, would be decisive on its own.

The first argument against reductionism is from quantum physics, which in the twentieth century completely overturned what seemed by the late nineteenth-century a firm basis for materialism, and which has interesting things itself to reveal about the real nature of mind. Quantum physics has become foundational to physics; modern electronics and nuclear power depend on the quantum understanding, and yet popular understanding of physics and the training in physics that biologists and other physical scientists obtain is generally stuck in the pre-quantum nineteenth century, probably because quantum physics, while unerringly accurate in its predictions, is at the same time “woo-woo and way out there,” in the common parlance. Quantum physics is a response to observational data from which it has failed to remove mind and intention (free will) from the universe at the most fundamental level. Let’s see how briefly I can put this:

A physical thing – like an electron or an atom, but in principle also a bigger thing like a cat – does not have a definite location (or any other state), but exists as a superposition, which is a probability function, also called a wave function, over locations … until you look at it, then it assumes a definite location, called collapsing the wave function, at which time not only does the thing assume a definite location, but anything else that is entangled with it, that is, whose definite location is predicted from its definite location, also collapses its wave function. For example, object a exists in more than one place at the same time, until you look at it, then a exists at only a single place. If the position of object b is predictable from the position of object a, then when the wave function of object a collapses, so does the wave function of object b, and so on. What is more, it does not matter how far away a and b have gotten from one another, or even if b is an object that existed in the past! Observation, in other words, makes the universe real, and even makes past history real, before which it hasn’t made up its mind. Observation, for its part, requires conscious mind, which John von Neuman identified as entanglement with the ich (the word Freud used for ego) that decided to look.

An interesting philosophical question for us is, Where does the mind, or the ich come from? Were little ichs around all along, collapsing wave functions willy-nilly? Reductionism seems almost the most absurd option: If mind is reducible to brain, which is also a product of evolution, then evolution could not have happened in any determinate form until it indeterminately created an ich that could observe and start collapsing wave functions so that its own evolutionary development could become determinate and it could itself exist. What is more, the experimental data seems to confirm Descartes original dualism between mind and matter, for the encounter with something distinct from matter is needed to collapse wave functions.

The tangle of paradoxes that arise from this boggles the, uh, mind. It even once boggled Einstein’s, uh, mind, who referred to the causal relationship between a and b above as spukhaft (spooky). It is therefore almost impossible to arrive at definitive conclusions, but let me reflect some speculations anyway. First, mind is much more fundamental constituent of the universe than physical reductionism would ever acknowledge. Second, what we are seeing in this observational data is the finishing touches of the creation of physical reality by mind. Physical reality, in other words, seems to reduce to mind, rather than the other way around. Spooky, but it sure seems to cast serious doubt on the enterprise of reducing mind to brain.

Sir James Jeans stated in the 1930’s that, “The universe begins to look more like a great thought than like a great machine.” Max Planck, the primary originator of quantum theory, stated toward the end of his life in the 1940’s, “I regard consciousness as fundamental. I regard matter as derivative from consciousness. We cannot get behind consciousness.” Physicist Andrei Linde states, “I do not know any sense in which I could claim that the universe is here in the absence of observers. We are together, the universe and us, … I cannot imagine a consistent theory of everything that ignores consciousness” (quoted in Tucker, 2013, 168, 189). Eugene Wigner states, “It is not possible to formulate the laws of quantum mechanics in a fully consistent way without reference to consciousness.” (Rosenblum and Kuttner, 2011, 237).

If the brain does not produce mind, what does it do? The answer may have been recognized by William James over a century ago: the brain enables or transmits thoughts originating in a non-physical source. Interestingly models of brain function along these lines have been proposed by physicists, most notably by Henry Stapp and by Roger Penrose. These are highly speculative and controversial, but illustrate, for our purposes, how abandoning reductionism opens up a world of possible understandings of mind. As I understand it, these models propose that the brain is an organ specialized to maintain particular superposition states that are subject to collapse with specific physical effects under the influence of consciousness.ii They account, for instance, how the thought, “I think I will raise my arm,” can be followed by the physical rise of the arm. Quantum physics has laid the basis for modern electronics. It might likewise explain the purpose and operating principles of the brain in a way radically distinct from conventional understanding.

The second argument against reductionism is the complete absence, after over a century of research, of any viable theory of how mind could possibly arise from brain, along with compelling philosophical arguments that such a theory is in principle impossible. In contrast to the situation with mind, biological life processes, at one time also often regarded as irreducible, have been quite successfully reduced to biochemistry, as has biochemistry to chemistry, and chemistry to quantum physics, which is to say, we see physical and chemical laws working exactly as they should to fully account for life processes. There is no hint of an equivalent analysis of the arising of mental states in accordance with physical or biological principles, only the repeatedly stated tacit but enduring hope that someday one is forthcoming. At one time many researchers doubted life was reducible, convinced that some irreducible life force was required in order to account for it. There were shown to be wrong. At the present time some researchers analogously doubt that mind is reducible, convinced that something irreducible is needed to account for it. Every indication so far is that they are right.

Some progress has been made in computational models that emulate human reasoning and cognition. (I used to work in this field myself professionally.) Although many reductionists think of mind and brain as related as software to hardware, the practical success of computational models can be deceiving. One difficulty is the absence of an intrinsic semantics in computational models. Whereas a computer program might perform expert tasks, like medical diagnosis, quite impressively, the medical doctor understands how the diagnosis relates to real ailments of real patients, living real lives, whereas the artificial expert is merely manipulating symbols, and still relies on a human to relate the results of reasoning to the real world, to understand what the diagnosis means, just as a book relies on a human to interpret the knowledge it contains. This has been argued most persuasively by the philosopher John Searle, who (it should be stated in all fairness) nevertheless holds out hope for a reduction of mind to brain.

The philosopher David Chalmers (1996) focuses specifically on the phenomenology of human subjective experience, that is, consciousness, allowing that maybe there is some possibility of a computational theory that can account for much of human (subconscious) cognition. Each of us has subjective experience; in fact it is the only kind of direct experience we ever have. There is nothing more real. Accordingly, there is something it is like to be you, there is something it is like to taste an orange, or to look at an orange. In a thought experiment he asks us to imagine a world in which there is someone exactly like you with the same cognitive capabilities and behaviors manifesting the same physical processes, but in which there is no conscious experience, like a computer that is doing the correct calculations to emulate human capabilities. Your twin, whom Chalmers calls a zombie, has eyes, visual processing, representations of information, decision making processes, and so on, but simply lacks conscious experience. Carefully arguing from the coherence of the concept of zombies, he concludes that consciousness is not entailed by, and therefore cannot in principle be reduced to, matter, or brain function. Yet there is, as plain as day.

The philosopher Thomas Nagel (2012) is concerned that biological evolution, as normally understood, cannot account for the arising of mind from matter. First, it has enough difficulty accounting for the arising of life from dead matter and its subsequent evolution through mutation and natural selection, in terms of physical laws. Next, it has the even more challenging task of accounting for the arising of mental phenomena, in particular of consciousness, in association with certain life forms, in terms of the same kinds of laws. In this case physical elements must give rise to something non-physical and entirely without precedent in nature: consciousness. Finally, it has the even far more daunting task of explaining forms of human reasoning that can reliably conceptualize objective reality. Whereas an evolutionary account of perceptions and desires might make sense in terms of survivability, the evolution of purer forms of reasoning, such as recognition that there is a difference between appearance and reality, correction of expectations, or moral or prudential reasoning, would have to presuppose their validity. One need only consider, it seems to me, When and how, within the evolutionary process, did mathematics come into existence?

The third argument against reductionism is that mind is not strictly conditioned by brain. A primary argument for reducing mind to brain is that subjective mental experience correlates with observable brain activity. For instance, physical injuries to the brain, the ingesting of intoxicants and degenerative neural diseases, such as Alzheimer’s, clearly effect mental functions. However, the intimate correlation between mind and body is complex and works both ways. To take an obvious example of the way mind conditions matter, the thought arises, “I think I will raise my hand,” and my hand rises.

Problematic for reductionism are cases in which mind intervenes in a way that is quite independent of known physical mechanisms. Until late in the twentieth century such phenomena were widely dismissed as unbelievable in the scientific/medical community. One of the first of these phenomena to receive wide recognition is the placebo effect, as when an inert administered substance takes on the causal properties of another substance because of a mistaken belief about what is administered. The placebo effect is now so thoroughly accepted in medical research that accounting for it is obligatory in the testing of pharmaceuticals.

For the materialist, physical health is the proper function of physical bodily processes, and should proceed independent of mind. Yet stress or depression has an effect on the immune system and on other bodily functions. The state of mind, even the opportunity for affectionate contact with family or pets, can influence mortality rates. Both meditation and religious practice improve rates of recovery from illness or surgery. These effects were rarely acknowledged by doctors and researchers for many years, and the mechanisms by which they happen are still not understood.

A long list of similar effects have been documented but are often dismissed, even though they should not be any more unbelievable than the previous examples. They likewise represent intervention of mind into what are otherwise regarded a purely physical processes in the body and are therefore of similar type to the previous examples. In a vodoo death, the firm expectation of impending death, regardless of reasonably good health, results in death on schedule. In contrast, dying persons have been known to postpone death until Christmas or until they have seen family members one last time. In false pregnancy a woman begins showing symptoms such as enlarged belly and engorged breasts because she mistakenly thinks she is pregnant. In hysteria, a bodily function is lost without discernible neurological cause. In stigmata and related phenomena, physical effects corresponding either to imagined wounds or to previous bodily trauma relived many years later, manifest as blisters or wounds on the body, as if one has been burned or otherwise injured. In multiple personality disorder, sufferers exhibit different physiological conditions associated with different personalities, including differences in allergic reactions, eyesight, color blindness and right- or left-handedness. In extreme cases of bodily control, yogis are able to regulate bodily temperature or other body functions at will, and certain people are able to cause discoloration of the skin according to certain patterns. In maternal impressions, thoughts and experiences of a pregnant woman seem to manifest as birth marks or other abnormalities in the child. Kelly, et. al. (2006) is a huge compendium of the scientific/medical research on these topics and those listed in the following paragraph.

Most problematic for reductionism, but also least well documented in medical literature (but possibly precisely because they seem far too “woo woo and way out there” to record), are cases in which mind seems to function with a high degree of independence from the body. Examples of this include out-of-body experiences and near-death experiences, particularly memories from a period in which brain activity has ceased. Also among these are documented memories in children of verifiable past-life experiences. Although commonly dismissed, Kelly (2006, xxv), for one, declares that high quality evidence for basic phenomena of this sort has long been available beyond a reasonable doubt. Wallace (2012, 95) likens the common disregard for such evidence to the difficulty Galileo had in getting anyone to look through his telescope for fear of contradicting established beliefs.

In short, modernity’s encounter with materialism has been ill conceived. It has forced us into an unnaturally narrow view of mind that the practicing Buddhist does well to abandon. Doing so will open open up the full range of benefit from Buddhist practice and understanding in which mind is primary, like nothing else.

Conclusion. Giving up the sparklingly clear view of the world that accrues with one’s tacit unexamined presuppositions will feel like a sacrifice. Yet examining those views and discovering their weakness opens up a world of alternative understandings along with the capacity to engage the world as it is more completely. It also tends to clear away obstacles to accepting the otherwise least believable of the Buddha’s teachings.

In our final post in this series we will take up the last recourse to accepting the Buddha’s teachings. Having looked at the options of acceptance, rejection, contextualization, reconsideration, we take up upgrade, the most creative strategy of all.