Archive for the ‘enlightenment’ Category

The Cushion or the World?

December 19, 2013

Bhikkhu Cintita Dinsmore

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There is a pervasive disagreement in Western Buddhism. Those whom we can call the traditionalists see virtue in adhering rather strictly to Buddhist practices as they have been transmitted by our Asian teachers, particularly focusing on stringent meditation practice. Those whom we can call the modernists feel the necessity of integrating into their practice new features more relevant to their modern daily household and professional lives, to their relationships, to their jobs, and to their social engagement, generally by mixing in everything from psychotherapy to performance art. These two factions sometimes exchange epithets like “stuck in the mud,” “stuffed robe,” “patriarchal,” “new-agey,” “touchy-feely” and “watered down.”

I’ve observed this disagreement in the Zen centers of America. The traditionalists – including me at one time – follow a rather strict and orthodox regimen of zazen, enter the zendo each morning just before 5:30, often in robes, make appropriate bows, sit two periods with intervening walking meditation, chant, often in Sino-Japanese, perform silent temple cleaning, then go off mindfully to work. The modernists are more likely to arrive evenings or on weekends, already chatting, for seminars, classes and group discussions about family relations, mental health, dancing, job performance, creativity, sexuality, parenting, and so on. The latter group sometimes experiences a facilitated kensho experience in a comfortable discursive group setting, sometimes to the alarm of the former.

Gleig (2013) observes this same discord in the American vipassana movement, even identifying a nest of traditionalists on the East Coast at IMS in Barre, MA, and discovering a hotbed of modernism on the West Coast base at Spirit Rock in Woodacre, CA. Jack Kornfield, a West Coast modernist, for instance, calls for an “embodied enlightenment” that integrates meditation with the insights of western psychology and the humanistic values of the European Enlightenment with the challenges of daily household life, offering a “wider stream” of practices beyond meditation. Meanwhile Joseph Goldstein and Sharon Salzburg, Kornfield’s friends and colleagues on the East Coast, are enamored with the teachings of Pandita Sayadaw, a Burmese monk “renowned for his strict and rigorous style, encouraging a commitment to meditation practice without ‘thought for body or life’.”

On the traditionalist side, Goldstein laments that the singular goal of liberation from suffering is displaced in modernism by more humanistic concerns. As Gleig quotes him, “I see a tendency to let go of that goal and become satisfied with something less: doing good in the world, having more harmonious relationships, seeking a happier life. That’s all beautiful but in my view it misses the essential point. ” In fact, taking this a step further, Kornfield’s expression “embodied enlightenment” would seem to redefine the goal of enlightenment, from something that requires renunciation of the everyday world, to something that affirms everyday life and makes it relevant to contemporary Westerners.

This disagreement gets scrappier than this. Prothero (2001) writes (albeit as an informed outsider to Buddhism), “What seems to be lost on the new Buddhists [on “Boomer Buddhism”] … is the possibility that it may be America’s destiny not to make Buddhism perfect but to make it banal.” and “Instead of preserving Buddhism, Americans seem intent on co-opting and commercializing it, dissolving a religion deeply suspicious of the self into an engine of self-absorption.” Prothero concludes that it is the still small but dedicated Western monastic community, whose teachings and writings are all but ignored, that deserves center stage as the guardians of authenticity. In fact, the American monk Thanissaro Bhikkhu, whom Prothero refers to as a shining example, has argued that Buddhist modernists represent European Romanticism as much as they represent Buddhism (2002). More exhaustively, McMahan (2008) attributes much of Modernism to the incursion of Protestant Christianity, scientific rationalism and psychoanalysis as well as Romanticism.

On the modernist side, many point out that Western Buddhists are primarily laypeople, who have jobs, relations, families and endless responsibilities, who like to go to parties, flirt and enjoy sensual pleasures. Meditation is fine, insofar as one has the time, and one does not need to give up altogether the essential point, the aspiration for the higher attainments that meditation secures. One just needs a wider path. We cannot all be monks. One needs practices and advice that one can make use of in the world and off the cushion, something more directly relevant to one’s life. Moreover, Buddhism has always adapted to new cultural circumstances. Zen, for instance, is a product of blending Buddhism with indigenous Taoism in China. The reshaping of Buddhism to Western needs and predilections is an inevitability, in fact, it’s a right.

It seems that we in the West are stuck with two alternatives: a traditional Buddhism, narrow and austere, but authentic, and a modern Buddhism, wide and welcoming, but adulterated. The choice seems to be between a time-honored Buddhism on the cushion and a dubious Buddhism in the world. Which way do we go? If we step back we will find, in fact, that we have boxed ourselves into two viable but deficient alternatives, naively and needlessly.

The Sasana Perspective

To fully evaluate the two alternatives – cushion or world –, we need to step back, to take in a broader perspective of just what Buddhism is than we are used to in the West, a perspective that has been poorly communicated by our Asian teachers, probably precisely because it is as implicit and ubiquitous as air in the Buddhist cultures of Asia. What we will discover is that Buddhism is, and has always been, a much wider umbrella than we tend to envision, broad enough to take in both cushion and world as viable and useful options. Stepping back gives us the sasana perspective that I describe in more detail in a recent on-line book, Sasana: the blossoming the Dharma (Cintita, 2013). I will be brief here.

Sāsana is a Pali expression that means literally teaching, but that is widely used, particularly when expanded as Buddha-Sāsana, to refer to living Dharma, that is, to Buddhism in its personal, communal, cultural, social and historical dimensions. The Sasana is something organic that can be located in time and space, that can grow, thrive, propagate or wither and disappear, that can uphold the authenticity of the Dharma in the very midst of change, or degrade. “Sasana” has been variously translated into English as “the Buddha’s dispensation,” as “the Buddhist religion,” simply as “Buddhism” or even as “the Buddhist church.”

What is interesting about the sasana, for our purposes, is that has fairly consistently had a certain physiology, that its structure is unique, that it was propounded in every detail in the early teachings of the Buddha, that it has preserved this physiology with remarkable resilience through a hundred generations of Buddhist history, and that it has, at the same time, been exceedingly malleable in adapting to new circumstances, particularly to new cultures. It is a living organism that knows how to self-regulate, to adapt, to propagate and to brighten any landscape with its civilizing influence. A healthy Sasana forms a culture of awakening.

Most readers will probably be unfamiliar with these statements about sasana, and for three reasons: First, Westerners generally approach Buddhism from the perspective of the lone spiritual seeker, the “spiritual but not religious,” and give inadequate attention to the community or institutional structures that have preserved it. Second, the monastic order is still weak, and so its various roles in holding the shape of the sasana go under-appreciated. Third – this follows from the first two –, the traditional sasana is poorly instantiated in Western Buddhist communities, and therefore our members encounter few if any living examples of a healthy sasana first-hand. The sasana perspective is the understanding of resources and roles available or performed in a Buddhist community, and is the perspective that those born into Buddhist communities are first aware of, long before they consider, if they ever do, dedicating themselves wholeheartedly to the Buddhist path.

The perspective that dominates Western Buddhism is, essentially, the Eightfold Noble Path. The sasana includes the path perspective, because the path, the inspiration to pursue the path and the guidance and even material support for pursuing the path, are all available as resources in a healthy Buddhist community. The inspiration and guidance both come by way of the Triple Gem, that is, from the Buddha, the original teacher, from the Dhamma, the teachings that lead to the extremely singular attainment of awakening, and from the Sangha, the noble ones, or sages, among us that have succeeded in following the path themselves to reach at a minimum the first level of awakening (often called stream entry). The presence of noble ones is particularly important in a culture of awakening and so the Sasana provides institutional support those of highest aspiration who might one day become noble ones. This institutional support is the monastic order, which can be viewed as a kind of school that produces noble ones from among its ranks, much as a university is a school that produces scholars. The opportunity for monastic training is a gift from the members of the community to those of high aspiration.


The Flower of the Sasana

A flower metaphor highlights these resources and roles and their functional interrelatedness and also underscores that we are talking about an organic self-regulating system. Here is is how the Sasana as I’ve just described it maps onto the parts of the flower:

  • The stem that supports the blossom is the Path, which leads to Awakening.
  • The leaves and roots are the the Buddhist community.
  • The roots are specifically the monastic order (also known as the monastic or institutional sangha, as distinct from the noble sangha).
  • The leaves and roots collect nourishment of sun, water and soil in order that the flower thrive. This is the function of refuge in the Triple Gem.
  • The blossom of the flower is awakening.
  • The sun, water and soil that nourish the flower are the Triple Gem, respectively the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. They inspire and bend the mind toward wholesome development.

The dominant operating principles of the sasana are those of the Vinaya (monastic code), generosity, refuge in the Triple Gem and friendship. The Vinaya defines the conduct of the monastic, and thereby gives rise to the symbiotic relationship with the laity that arises as the latter responds to its presence in a spirit of generosity. The Vinaya also defines a context of renunciation that is optimal for progress on the path, from which most noble ones emerge. It is the role of the most adept in this scheme, particularly the noble ones, to understand and preserve the subtle and sophisticated Dharma within the community in its full integrity for future generations. Refuge is critical in that it opens the heart to the three trustworthy sources of knowledge, training and inspiration in understanding and practice.

Admirable friendship (Pali, kalyanamittatā) supplements the third refuge, when noble ones walk among us to provide wise and discerning role models and guides, consummate in virtue, in generosity, in serenity and in wisdom. Just as it benefits us to have artists and good plumbers among us, it ennobles and civilizes us when we have saints and sages, adepts and arahants, and those under the influence of such people, in our midst. The Buddha describes it this way:

“And what does it mean to have admirable people as friends? There is the case where a lay person, in whatever town or village he may dwell, spends time with householders or householders’ sons, young or old, who are advanced in virtue. He talks with them, engages them in discussions. He emulates consummate conviction in those who are consummate in conviction, consummate virtue in those who are consummate in virtue, consummate generosity in those who are consummate in generosity, and consummate discernment in those who are consummate in discernment. This is called having admirable people as friends…” – AN 8.54

Notice how the monastic institution is a lynchpin of the sasana: It is the role of the monastic order to produce noble ones. The monastic order provides the optimal opportunity to develop on the path and to live as a noble one or an aspiring noble one in accordance with the Dharma. The monastic order enters into a symbiotic relationship with the lay community that infuses generosity into the Sasana as its lifeblood. The monastic order provides a locus of training, practice and knowledge that ensures that the Dharma will burn bright for future generations. This explains why the Buddha gave so much attention to the Vinaya, the code of monastic discipline, and referred to the body of his teachings, not simply as the Dharma, but as the Dharma-Vinaya. The health of the sasana has traditionally been equated with the health of its monastic order.

By way of example, consider anecdotally the case of Bo Bo, a typical young man born into a typical Buddhist family in a typical Buddhist land. The sasana had been his first view of Buddhism: He had been taught, even as an impish toddler, to take refuge in the Triple Gem, the nutriments of Buddhist practice and understanding. The Buddha, for the youthful Bo Bo, had exemplified certain values such as selflessness, virtue and serenity, and the Dharma had been accessible primarily through a few aphorisms like “Happiness comes only from within” and “generosity creates great merit,” and maybe from hearing some stories of the previous lives of the Buddha. The Sangha of noble ones, with whom he had been in almost daily contact, had provided living examples of what it is to live deeply according to Buddhist principles, and of the joy and wisdom that emerges in such a life. Bo Bo had lived as a part of the Buddhist community, devoutly supportive of the monks and nuns, and generally practicing generosity and virtue in an uplifting environment. His generosity had focused on supporting the Sangha, which in turn had guided the community dharmically and taken care of its pastoral needs, but had effortlessly spread beyond that relationship as a part of the lifeblood of a very caring community. He had, in short, grown up with a mind bent toward Buddhist values and Buddhist aspirations in a culture of awakening, primed for devoting himself to the path toward awakening, should he so choose.

As he got older, Bo Bo noticed that people in his community adopted any of a wide variety of ways of life. He himself for a time thought of marrying his cute neighbor, Yum Yum, and of raising a family, but he was also reminded by the contrasting example of the monks what an entangling problem life can be. He noticed that the noble ones were far more content and full of active goodwill than anyone else, in spite of their utterly simple renunciate needs. After struggling with life’s vicissitudes for a number of years and contemplating the nature of suffering, Bo Bo’s understanding progressed to the point that conventional life no longer made much sense. And so, Bo Bo joined the monastic order, already fully prepared with a grateful and generous heart, trusting in the Buddhist path and supported and encouraged by a generous community. He began to study as the student of one of the neighborhood sages, and on that basis began to ascend the Path. Eventually he became one of the noble Ones himself, and found himself beginning to make an ennobling difference in the lives of others. With time and determination his practice blossomed one day into the fruit of full awakening.

Now, historically the sasana has preserved this system of roles, relationships and functions astonishingly well. Buddhism has, for instance, never established itself in a new land without its monastic order, and this order, in fact, counts as perhaps the oldest defined human institution on the planet, and one that would still be recognized by the Buddha, after one hundred generations, as his monastic order. The opportunity for awakening, the presence and veneration of noble ones and the lifeblood of generosity, have characterized Buddhist communities throughout Asia. At the same time the sasana has been remarkably malleable, accommodating a range of understandings and practices and adapting to a variety of folk cultures.

Limits on the malleability of the sasana are constrained by this physiology. But notice that this physiology is oriented toward a culture of awakening, defined by a singular goal that relatively few attain, and toward preserving the Dharma, a sophisticated and radical system of understanding and practice that relatively few master. The demographics of the sasana is democratic in that each member is given the same opportunities for study and practice, but not fully democratic in that its members will inevitably differ in accepting that opportunity, in attainment, practices and understanding, in interest and commitment, in time and energy put into study and practice.

Since the benchmark attainment is awakening, what do those of less aspiration or opportunity expect to attain and what practices to they pursue to do it? This is not so clearly fixed and has been answered in a great many ways, and, in fact, this is the primary locus of Buddhist malleability. In effect, in any healthy Sasana we can distinguish two kinds of Buddhisms living side by side: The first is adept Buddhism, a complete and authentic understanding and practice aimed at the singular attainment of Awakening. This is what the noble ones understand and live, and the rest of the monastic sangha along with many very committed laypeople tries to master. Adept Buddhism is by nature orthodox, sophisticated and challenging to, and radical in, any culture.

The second is folk Buddhism, which includes any popular understanding and practice of Budhism. These understandings and practices may be simplified, compromised, misunderstood or adapted to the prevailing folk culture or other human dispositions, but may also overlap with adept practices and understandings. Folk Buddhists may expect peace, happiness or mental health in this life, or good fortune in the next. They may engage in generosity, devotional practices, chanting, service to the sasana or single-minded meditation. They may seek blessings or the favor of supernatural beings and forces. They may believe in a cosmic buddha and a pantheon of protective bodhisattvas. Their understandings and practices may blend non-Buddhist elements, from folk religions and beliefs to modern psychotherapy. Folk Buddhism is by nature liberal and this liberality allows the sasana to integrate into a broader folk society by softening the radical message of adept Buddhism.

Although the sasana offers this big umbrella. the varieties of folk practices and understandings that fit under it in a healthy sasana are nevertheless bounded. Folk Buddhism is generally under the sway of adept Buddhism. Refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha entails trust in these three as ever-present sources of improved understanding and training to which one turns as authorities when needed and accepts their admonitions when offered, just as most of us accept the advice of scholars and their writings as more expert than ourselves. At a minimum any folk practice or understanding of wide circulation is likely to be consistent with adept Buddhism; we don’t generally find things like animal sacrifice, for instance, in folk Buddhism, nor loss of a refuge, nor loss of the recognition of awakening as the highest aspiration. But, even while under the sway of adept Buddhism, folk Buddhism is also highly susceptible to the influence of the prevailing folk culture.


The Comet of the Sasana

I find it helpful to visualize the demographics of the sasana as taking the form of a comet, all of us oriented in the same direction but with some clustered closer to the head and others trailing out along in the tail in different directions. Distance from the head represents the relative proportion of adept and folk cultural influences on understanding and practice, and direction from the head represents choice among the array of practices and understandings found in folk Buddhism. The comet captures also that the difference between the “two” Buddhisms is actually one of degree.

Traditionalists and Modernizers

As I was saying, it seems that we in the West are stuck with two alternatives, or some blend of them: a traditional Buddhism, narrow and austere, but authentic, and a modern Buddhism, wide and welcoming, but adulterated. The choice seems to be between a time-honored Buddhism on the cushion and a dubious Buddhism in the world. Which way do we go? If we step back, we find that the sasana perspective is much more open than any of this.

Choosing one of the alternatives is not so problematic as it sounds, for both proposals fit comfortably under the Buddhist umbrella. Each is a form of folk Buddhism, is reasonably consistent, as far as I can see, with adept Buddhism, and is therefore also potentially welcome in a healthy sasana. Each can be safely encouraged as wholesome and beneficial for one’s spiritual well-being, even while each positions itself differently with respect to the other. However, it should be acknowledged that each is also no more than a form of folk Buddhism, in itself incomplete as for producing the singular attainment of awakening toward which adept Buddhism is directed.

The Cushion. For the typical member of the Western traditionalist wing, Buddhism is meditation, which is to say, vipassana, zazen, tonglen, or whatever, depending on tradition. The authenticity of each of these in the path function of mental development is not the question here, but rather its priority over all other path or sasana factors in this faction of Western folk Buddhism. Although at least lip service is generally paid to these other factors, meditation and related mindfulness practices tend to be pursued with a single-minded dedication that is consistent but woefully incomplete as a path to awakening by adept standards.

To see the incompleteness of Western traditionalism, consider that the Buddha advocates a gradual path1, that he describes as beginning with the following prerequisites:

Development of generosity, development of virtue, contemplation of the heavens (i.e., understanding karma), investigation of the drawbacks, degradation and corruption of sensual passions, understanding the rewards of renunciation.

When, from the pursuit of the foregoing, the mind is ready, malleable, free from hindrances, elated and bright, the following should be taken up:

Understanding and practicing the Four Noble Truths.

This includes the practice of the Eightfold Noble Path, the path itself:

Wisdom section: Right View, Right Resolve; Virtue section: Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood; Meditation Section: Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, Right Samadhi.

Notice that if there were a healthy sasana in the West the prerequisites would be at least partially supported, simply through participation in that sasana. Generosity is the lifeblood of the sasana. Virtue, the understanding of the drawbacks of passions and the rewards of renunciation are exemplified in the lives of the noble ones one encounters. The heavens (or karma) are generally the dominant narrative of a Buddhist community. Moreover, notice that meditation comprises only the last three of the factors of the Eightfold Noble Path, for the Buddha also makes it clear that the first seven factors are preconditions for the eighth, and each of these generally requires many years (or lifetimes) of sustained repetition and rehearsal. Elsewhere (AN 5.254, 257) the Buddha declares that stream entry is impossible for the stingy.

This does not mean that single-minded emphasis on meditation is misguided, only that it is not a full path to awakening unless progress in all of these other factors happens to have been acquired through some other means. In fact, popular meditation movements of this nature have occurred before in Asia. For instance, a movement of this kind was associated with the Lin-Chi (Rinzai) Ch’an (Zen) monk Ta Hui Tsung Kao (1089-1163), who promoted a method for his lay students that we now call koan introspection, most typically known in association with the koan Mu. The Western vipassana movement began as a mass meditation movement in Burma in the early twentieth century, making Burma perhaps the meditatingest country in the world, now more than ever. More common than folk meditation movements in Asia are single-minded devotional practices associated with the sasana function of refuge. Also beneficial, these can have often become quite embellished historically, ranging from the stupa (and ultimately pagoda) cult, chanting or copying scriptures, or even the names of scriptures and lavishing unneeded offerings on itinerant ascetic monks of great accomplishment.

Unfortunately, Westerners are at a distinct disadvantage compared to their Asian counterparts in pursuing meditation single-mindedly. The Burmese who takes up vipassana practice will have at least partially satisfied the prerequisite practices through a lifetime of immersion in sasana. In addition, East Asians will have significantly satisfied the path practices in the virtue section through a lifetime of immersion in a Confucian culture that regulates every aspect of her interpersonal relations. Such influences are generally absent in the Western context. For those of limited time and energy there will in any case have to be a trade-off between the depth and the breadth of practice. Single-minded practices sacrifice breadth for depth and thereby in the end limit depth as well. One of the functions of the monastic order, a seldom considered opportunity in the West, is to offer anyone of high aspiration the otherwise elusive leisure to sustain both breadth and depth at the same time.

Yet, there is a special allure in the context of Western folk culture for the single-minded practice of meditation. Meditation is recognizablly orthodox;.Western yogas have already meditated for years and the Buddha almost always clearly sits in meditation posture. Meditation is the most reliable source of peak or mystical experiences; we seem to be obsessed with experience, as the marketing industry knows well. Meditation has some solid science behind it, verifying certain beneficial qualities, physical as well as psychological. Meditation fits into time-honored consumer habits of layering one thing upon another – gym membership, opera tickets, massage, … – onto an already busy life without having to reconsider or reorder anything else in that life. Meditation is a solitary practice suited to the spiritual but not religious. Perhaps these are the reasons Western Buddhists have so much energy for meditation practice.

The World. There was bound to be a backlash to the traditionalist Western practice on the cushion. It is narrow, it is not easy or quick, nor is it warm and fuzzy. It does not satisfy communal needs, nor invite family participation. A relentless quest for awakening on the cushion does not integrate in any obvious way with life in the world, with its jobs, relations, families, civic responsibilities, stresses, anxieties, purchases, parties and pursuit of pleasure, except through the blanket admonition to do all of this mindfully. And so there is a natural demand for a “wider stream,” a practice in the world aspiring instead toward “embodied enlightenment.” This wider stream is achieved typically by working outward from the narrow traditionalist core and to accrete innovations as needed. These seem based for the most part in Western traditions more than on Asian, but psychotherapy has been a particularly prominent influence perhaps because Buddhist understandings of mind at the same time influence psychotherapy.

Notice that if the context of our practice were a traditional and healthy Buddha-sasana, the concerns that motivate modernizing Buddhism in these ways would be far less acute. We would already live in a supportive community with a sense of appreciation and devotion, under the subtle influence of sages as living examples of the rational and wholesome life, before we even began to think consciously about higher practices on the path. We would already have all the warmth and fuzz we could handle in a culture of awakening. Nevertheless, we would still live in a modern world, with its modern demands and stresses, and in a modern culture quite distinct from any traditional Asian culture, with its own values and understandings. A degree of popular demand for adaption would therefore arise even within the context of a traditional and healthy sasana.

It is the role of folk Buddhism to absorb popular demands for adaptation. We will and must develop a Western folk Buddhism in the West, one that finds a compromise between essential Buddhist values and the cultural predilections of the modern West. It is also the role of folk Buddhism, to soften the sharp edges of adept Buddhism, since it is so radical and against the stream even in Buddhist cultures, and make it intelligible to the broader folk culture. We will and must develop our own folk Buddhism also because it generally does little good to import an Asian folk Buddhism the way we import adept Buddhism. Someone else’s folk Buddhism will be adapted to someone else’s culture. This means we will not burn money for our dead ancestors, nor appease irritable forest sprites in our folk Buddhism. Nor will we have to accept the gender inequality common in much of Buddhist Asia. We are off the hook. Rather, our folk Buddhism is free to develop, for better or worse, under the influence of the European Romanticism, the Protestant Christianity, the scientific rationalism, the psychotherapy, the humanism and the consumerism endemic in our culture.

The danger of innovation is that it become uncontrolled and result in something markedly non-Buddhist or even anti-Buddhist, for instance, that Buddhism will go the way of fast food, pill popping and televangelism. How can a radical Buddhism, one that teaches the way of renunciation and restraint, and challenges the most fundamental assumptions of the folk culture, avoid becoming commodified, mixed and matched and accommodated into something that has little in common with the Buddhist understanding and practice of the adepts? If we had a healthy sasana the many shapes of folk Buddhism would be constrained through a pervasive bias in favor of adept Buddhism. Folks would tend to move toward the head of the comet, because they would take refuge in the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sangha, its primary representatives, and because we would fall under the influence of the noble ones walking among us.

In all fairness, these constraints are at work in the Western sasana to some extent, insofar as some of this innovation is guided, and even inspired by, adepts in response to popular demands. The “wider stream” of Jack Kornfield is probably an prime example that is unlikely to go far astray because of the depth of practice and understanding of its originator. However, elsewhere folk Buddhism easily escapes the sway of adept Buddhism as it results from people simply “doing their own thing.”

The Sasana. Sasana is the third choice, for in the healthy traditional sasana, disagreement between cushion or world – traditionalism or modernism – vanishes, along with the significance of many other apparent dichotomies, such as Western and Eastern Buddhisms. They all fit as folk practices and understandings under the firm and broad umbrella of sasana, where they fall under the corrective sway of adept Buddhism. For this reason we should all be eager to establish a healthy sasana in the West according to the Buddha’s model.

Now, for practice on the cushion and practice in the world to both fall under the sway of adept Buddhism requires, first, that there be adepts, and, second, that these adepts have authority or influence over the direction of folk practices and understandings. Let’s assess the status of these two conditions in the West, briefly:

First, we do have adepts in the West. These are probably most commonly found among people with traditional training of some kind in addition to meditation retreat experience: ordained priests in the Japanese or Korean Zen traditions (typically having some training in a monastic setting), certified lay lamas in the Tibetan tradition (many of whom have lived in a cave for three years), ex-monastics (primarily trained in the Theravada countries of Asia), and Buddhist scholars who also practice Buddhism. Moreover, Buddhist texts are abundant and readily accessible to the less-than-adept Western Buddhist community, who as a whole also enjoys unprecedented levels of education and a willingness to read Buddhists texts. (High education level is a demographic peculiarity that will, unfortunately, certainly be lost as Buddhism grows.) Meditation is strong. The traditional monastic order is still very limited, and also more integrated into the Asian sasana than into the Western. The age of mass communication has nonetheless expanded the range of adept influence, producing a kind of a celebrity Sangha with eminent members like Ven. Pema Chodron. and Western-friendly Asians like the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh.

Nonetheless, the influence of these adepts is limited in the West. What adepts there are, are not generally recognized nor venerated as such, and they therefore have limited sway over the folk community. Although Westerners are familiar with the Triple Gem, it is rarely understood that Sangha is intended to signify the adept community, not the folk community. It is common for Westerners to dismiss, under our peculiar cultural influences, any kind of external authority altogether in favor of the guidance of some imagined but infallible “inner voice.” Moreover, many who would like to place themselves in the sway of an adept teacher are confused by the conflicting standards concerning teacher qualifications, by the only rough conformity among the views and methods of the teachers trained in diverse Asian traditions, and by the strong admixture of charismatic but totally self-qualified lay teachers, popular bloggers and even self-certified arahants.

In summary, without a strong and healthy sasana in the West, the disagreement between Buddhism on the cushion and Buddhism in the world will persist. Traditionalists will continue to cling to single-minded meditation and view it as a complete and time-honored path to full awakening. Modernists will be unhindered in embracing an ever widening stream that will become coopted, commercialized and eventually banal and self-absorbed, to satisfy popular demands for adaptation. With a strong and healthy sasana, we can have both the cushion and the world, as it will provide a firm and broad umbrella under which a wide variety of practices and understandings will fit comfortably and remain comfortably under the sway of adept Buddhism.

Two distinctive qualities of the traditional Buddha-Sasana are its resilience and its malleability, qualities that once made Buddhism the first world religion able to leap cultural boundaries without coercion. It is these qualities that must be replicated in the Western context through a strong and healthy sasana.


Cintita Dinsmore, Bhikkhu, 2013, Sasana: the blossoming of the Dharma, download from

Gleig , Ann, 2013, “From Theravada to Tantra: the making of an American Tantric Buddhism?,” Contemporary Buddhism, Vol. 14, No. 2, 221–238 .

McMahan, David, 2008, The Making of Buddhist Modernism, Oxford University Press.

Stephen Prothero, 2001, “Boomer Buddhism,”, Feb 26, 2001.

Thanissaro Bhikkhu, 2002, “Romancing the Buddha,” Tricycle Magazine, Winter 2002.

1Kuṭṭhi Sutta, Udāna 5.3.

Buddhist Religiosity, hot off the press

June 16, 2013

Cover334x477 I have completed a substantially good draft of the book I have been working on:

Foundations of Buddhist Religiosity:
Devotion, Community and Salvation and their Historical and Social Manifestations into the Twenty-First Century.

Please click on the cover to the left to download your own pdf (106 pages). I invite feedback.

I apologize for not posting to the blog in a while; I have been in another kind of writing mode.

Fundamentals of Buddhist Religiosity: Transcendence

February 18, 2013

Uposatha Day, February 18, 2013

Index to this series

Chapter 4. Transcendence

TranscendenceFlower“I’m Saved!”

Buddhism is about salvation, it’s even about, uh, being born again. The soteriological aim of Buddhism is Nibbana, the Buddhist form of salvation. Nibbana is achieved by Awakening, but it given a particularly lofty scope in Original Buddhism, the escape from samsara, from the beginningless and heading-toward endless round of birth and death.

I am aware that rebirth, not to mention escape from rebirth, raises skeptical eyebrows in much of the expectedly astute readership of this treatise because of the metaphysical issues it also raises. In order to determine what is Core in this mechanism, it will be far more useful to begin with its function, which is, briefly, to inspire the urgency without which Awakening is not possible, rather than with its specific formulation in Original Buddhism, then to parameterize a range of authentic options for fulfilling that function.

Higher Meaning

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

This particular sample of selfless urgency and determination, of meaningfulness and zeal, comes out of a religious context, but similar examples are actually found in secular realms as well, for instance, in science or in art or among explorers, in which agents characteristically give themselves over completely to a project perceived as somehow dwarfing themselves in magnificence. That greater context is often ill-defined: the glory of God, the march of human knowledge, lasting beauty, going down in history. Even secular contexts this kind of zeal is often considered “religious.” I speculate that it is only this level of higher meaning that can produce genius. The aim of our practice is no less than the perfection of the human character, it is about making something no less magnificent than the Cologne Cathedral: a Buddha. It is only this level of higher meaning that can produce Awakening.

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

Without deliberation our human life is tossed by the sea, blown by the the wind, an plaything of circumstance. This is presumably how most animals live, simply responding to changing conditions one by one with predictable needs and fears. Even when this life presents the human with for sensual pleasures it is still is formless, arbitrary, directionless and existentially empty, until boredom, depression or despair catches up to its indulgences. Victor Frankl (2006), for instance, attributes much of what is diagnosed as neurosis in fact no more than the experience of meaninglessness.

With deliberation and vow the human life can take on new form in the form of purpose, as found, for instance, in career and family. Frankl relates how inmates of Nazi concentration camps pretty predictably gave up hope when they felt they had nothing to live for. For him personally, thoughts of reuniting with his family and reconstructing and publishing his research kept him going, even though he estimated at the time that his chances of survival were no better than 1 in 20. Yet as he attributes to Nietzsche, “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.”

The highest meaning however is not something the human adds to his life, but that into which he embeds his life, as if his life were a single scene in a larger play. Frankl calls this “super-meaning.” If meaning seems better than meaninglessness, super-meaning should be better than normal meaning. A life devoted to service of God, a life devoted to beauty, a life devoted to developing the conditions for Awakening, these exemplify one’s relationship to a higher meaning that transcends this present life, and at the same time brings satisfaction to this present life.

Pretense in Human Affairs.

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

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

  1. When this is, that is. From the arising of this comes the arising of that. When this isn’t, that isn’t. From the stopping of this comes the stopping of that. — AN 10.92
  2. I recollected my manifold past lives, i.e., one birth, two… five, ten… fifty, a hundred, a thousand, a hundred thousand, many eons of cosmic contraction, many eons of cosmic expansion, many eons of cosmic contraction & expansion: ‘There I had such a name, belonged to such a clan, had such an appearance. Such was my food, such my experience of pleasure & pain, such the end of my life. Passing away from that state, I re-arose there. There too I had such a name, belonged to such a clan, had such an appearance. Such was my food, such my experience of pleasure & pain, such the end of my life. Passing away from that state, I re-arose here.’ – MN 36

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

The answer is in fact the point of the famous “Kalama Sutta”: the Buddha promoted rebirth for its efficacy. The Buddha argues in this sutta that the proper grounds for accepting a teaching are not epistemological but ethical. He itemizes every possible way short of direct experience that we might think we “know” something and tells the Kalamas not to go by those things. Rather we should ask, with the help of the wise, where the benefit is, where the harm is.  For instance, suppose the Flubovian scriptures tell them that God has given the land of Fredonia to them regardless of who happens to occupy Fredonia at the time (the Fredonians, as it turns out). Should this teaching be accepted? No, because it would cause harm. Even if the scriptures are as true as the Flubovians firmly believe, it would not be countenanced by the good dhammic Flubovian. It is important to recognize what this is an exceedingly strict criterion, often overlooked in the world’s religions.

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

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

A baseball game, also a kind of play, is a pretense, even for spectators. While there are real physical actions going on, these actions have interpretations that are just made up, a running pretense that accompanies the physical actions, a counting-for-something. Someone hits a ball with a stick and because it goes somewhere it counts as a home run. Someone touches someone else with a ball and it counts as being “out.” Three “outs” and the other team comes up to bat. A sport, for many among the most tangible experiences in life, is pretense! Myth, religious or otherwise, is pretense by definition, but can likewise shape one’s attitudes in many helpful ways.

Nothing I know of illustrates the usefulness, and at the same time the palpability, of pretense as well as money. Money, such a huge factor in modern life and human consciousness, does not even exist! Historically money has had a physical counterpart, for instance, clams, cattle, silver, gold, then paper, for which a running pretense of counting-for-something was critical, in this case having a certain recognized value in commercial exchange. The physical part has since gone almost completely by the wayside, the physical money we carry in our pockets (actually not in mine) is now a very small portion of the money supply. The rest is entirely pretense: Banks pretend to create it at will simply by clicking some figures on a keyboard to enter it into someone’s account, then pretend mime-like to track its movements from bank to bank. There is nothing more substantial there than 1’s and 0’s in computer memory.  An satirical news article in The Onion imagines a scenario in which the economy grinds to a halt as “Nation Realizes Money Just a Symbolic, Mutually Shared Illusion.”

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

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

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

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

As we move from realm to realm, for instance, from commerce to science, from science to sports, from sports to religion, and from one religion to another, some pretenses become out of place, so we shift to new pretenses. We negotiate a world of often contradictory pretenses and social skill demands a particular capacity for tracking and accounting for the pretenses of others as well as of our own.  Interfaith dialog requires perhaps the greatest skill in this regard and teaches to hold our own doctrine convictions a little less tightly. But short of Awakening we all have them. We live in a world of pretense, so why not one more if it brings higher meaning into our life.


When the mind was thus concentrated, purified, bright, unblemished, rid of defilement, pliant, malleable, steady, and attained to imperturbability, I directed it to the knowledge of the passing away and reappearance of beings. … I discerned how they are inferior and superior, beautiful and ugly, fortunate and unfortunate in accordance with their kamma: ‘These beings — who were endowed with bad conduct of body, speech, and mind, who reviled the noble ones, held wrong views and undertook actions under the influence of wrong views — with the break-up of the body, after death, have re-appeared in the plane of deprivation, the bad destination, the lower realms, in hell. But these beings — who were endowed with good conduct of body, speech and mind, … have re-appeared in the good destinations, in the heavenly world.’  – MN36, the Buddha reporting the second knowledge gained just prior to his Awakening.

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

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

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

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

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

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

For those well disposed to religious skepticism and well practiced in the raising of eyebrows rebirth is regrettably sometimes a deal breaker. Given the well considered importance the Buddha attributed to rebirth it is important not to dismiss it lightly. Actually we have five well placed options in how to think about rebirth:

  1. Rebirth is literally true as described in Original Buddhism. Probably this is the dominant view historically.
  2. Rebirth is a beneficial working assumption even as a pretense. As we have seen, the Buddha recommends this remedy for the the skeptical.
  3. Rebirth is an approximation for something more refined. Aha, I hadn’t mentioned this option yet, but will take it up presently.
  4. Rebirth is a humbug. Why, the “Buddha’s” teachings on rebirth might well have been slipped into sutta after sutta later by monks tainted with brahmanic views.

Having hopefully mitigated the resistance to the pretentiousness of option 2, I will weigh in in favor of option 3, since 3 subsumes 1, is much more satisfying than 2, avoids recourse to the unfortunate option 4 and might have, as I will show, a sound scientific basis bound to appeal to the most skeptical of eyebrows.

There is no doubt that our present lives are woven as short threads into a rich and immense tapestry of human history, of family history, of evolutionary history, of cultural history, of political history, of religious history, of Buddhist history of trends in art, technology and popular entertainments, of relentless patterns and recombinations of neediness, aversion, confusion, contentment, kindness and clarity. Our life and therefore our practice is woven inextricably into something far grander in scale that in fact lends it its higher meaning.

Consider this: If you know that water is flowing into one end of a pipe you know that it must be flowing out the other end. The pipe in this metaphor is our present life and the water is (old) karma (Pali, kamma). (Actually if Awakening occurs in this present life then miraculously water flows in but not out, but that neither here nor there.) Our old karma at any point in time is the content of our character, our deeply rutted and shallow habit patterns of body, speech and mind, our views, our identities, our pleasures and our anguish, our skills, our strengths and faults. It is conditioned continually throughout our lives through out intentional actions (new karma), and also corresponds to the quality of our life.

Let’s let the degree of purity of the water represent the quality of life or character (good or bad karma). A strong Buddhist practice should serve to turn scuzzy water flowing into the pipe into pure flowing out.
(Incidentally in a quote above “inferior and superior, beautiful and ugly, fortunate and unfortunate,” “plane of deprivation, the bad destination, the lower realms, in hell,”  and “good destinations, in the heavenly world” functionally express quality of life at the beginning of a new life; they need not really require the existence of supernatural realms, since we are perfectly capable of creating and experiencing heaven and hell right here.)

The main point is that there is water flowing into our pipe. Think, for example, about your habit patterns, your tendency to anger, for instance, or to indulgences, the way jealousy manifests, or envy, the way judgments arise. Where did all that come from? I know I am not smart enough to have come up with half of the things that have arisen in my mind in my (uh, pre-monastic) years. This is called our “ancient twisted karma,” referring its obscure antediluvian origins. Our twisted karma is ancient because  our present lives are woven as short threads in a rich and immense tapestry. Our present actions have been anticipated in the lives of our ancestors before us, in our culture, in our evolutionary history and in the rest, then transmitted to us through various channels, even, if you insist, directly from our “previous life.” This is the water that  flows into our pipe.

Since there is water flowing into our pipe there must be water flowing out. Notice that in this model karma can flow out through multiple channels because in Buddhism it does not have to hang on to a personal identity. The karma that flows out is the legacy of the present life. That is why our practice matters beyond this fathom long body and few decades of life. That is what gives our practice its transcendent meaning. We are each engaged in an epic struggle with karmic forces from the ancient past and outcomes that will reach endlessly into the future. Our practice has vastly more at stake than happiness and comfort in this present life. It has never been exclusively about this one present life.

Each element of this refined model can, I believe, be independently examined and verified; the fact is nowadays we know of many channels for interpersonal communication of karmic factors — genetic, behavioral, social, environmental, etc. — that would have been dimly understood at the time of the Buddha. The difference between this refined model and the traditional model of rebirth is that the latter is much more linear. I will accordingly call these the reticulated model and the serial model respectively.

For the serial model pipes would be laid serially end to end such that all of the water that flows out of one pipe flows directly into the next, our next life is heir to our present karma. The reticulated model is more general than the traditional serial model; the traditional model is a special case of the reticulated. But the serial model is (1) inadequate in itself — We can observe the lateral transmission of at least some karma, for instance, from culture to individual, or heck from kalyanamitta (admirable friend) to individual — and (2) difficult to examine and verify — though very compelling research, particularly of Dr. Ian Stevenson and his colleagues at the University of Virginia, suggests that this kind of transmission does at least sometimes occur.

Now … the big question: In moving from the serial to the reticulated have we preserved functionality, that is, are we still within the scope of Core Buddhism? In either case we realize a higher transcendental meaning of our practice as desired, in either case it is found in a responsibility to the future, in producing purity, not scuzz, in this life. There is a difference, however, in the perspective each provides of the gradual progression of our practice through stages of attainment culminating in Awakening. The linear model provides a straight path, passing through many lives but serially, toward Nibbana. The reticulated model provides in this life a greater potential for Awakening in the future, but with less certainty about who will exploit that potential in the future — often many — and less sense of following a direct path. Interestingly the reticulated model fits well with the bodhisattva ideal articulated in much later Mahayana Buddhism, whereby we practice “not for ourselves but for all beings.” I will come back to the bodhisattva ideal in a couple of chapters.

In Sum

Dedicating one’s life to a higher meaning is a condition that in the arts and sciences can produce genius. Dedicating one’s life to a higher meaning is a condition that in Buddhism can produce Awakening. In either case it will produce a fulfilling present life, one of purpose.

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

Serial rebirth is the model the Buddha provides to help us find our way into this panoramic perspective. Features of this model are difficult to verify and many modern people have difficulty with their assumption and have demonstrated an unwillingness to accept it even as a working assumption in the absence of better evidence. I have explored a way in this model can be generalized in a way that makes these features unnecessary yet nearly preserves the essential functionality of the Original model.

Fundamentals of Buddhist Religiosity: Core Buddhism

January 25, 2013

Uposatha Day, Full Moon, January 26, 2013

Index to this series

Chapter 2. Core Buddhism

CoreFlowerThere is a Buddhism that shines through constantly through the various Buddhist traditions, a Buddhism visible first in the earliest scriptures and a common edifice behind the many often wild and perplexing guises appearing under the name “Buddhism.” In order to make sense of this, I am going to distinguish three related terms “Original Buddhism,” “Core Buddhism” and “Authentic Buddhism.” Imagine someone made up and told a story that was then retold many times, with different words and much retooling and embellishment of details, but keeping the basic story intact right down to the response to the punch line, we might say the “core” of the “original” story is preserved in any “authentic” retelling.

Original Buddhism is Buddhism as taught by the Buddha, and as formulated by the Buddha. It consists of two parts, the Dhamma and the Vinaya, the doctrine and the discipline. Generally the Pali Suttas, particularly the Digha, Majjhima, Samyutta and Anguttara Nikayas as well as the Suttanipata of the Khuddhaka Nikaya along with the equivalent Chinese Agamas are generally agreed by scholars to constitute the most reliable evidence of the original Dhamma. The Vinaya, the monastic code, is available in several traditions, the Pali Vinaya being the most easily available in English. Many will quibble endlessly about what is actually original, particularly since there are many contradictions and alternative interpretations in the texts transmitted to us, and clearly alterations. I have argued elsewhere that the resolution of these quibbles requires a recognition of the system that shines through when enough of the pieces are assembled, a recognition beyond the competence of pure scholars of Buddhism, but available to those who have entered deep into the path of practice to begin to see the Dhamma experientially.

Core Buddhism is a significant abstraction from Original Buddhism, a kind of eau de Buddhime. It is the system that shines through in Original Buddhism, but stripped of its particular formulation and stripped of extraneous elements of the ancient texts that are irrelevant to that system. This term serves as way to eschew the literalism lurking in original texts.

For instance it is safe to say that some form of mindfulness practice is a key functional element of Core Buddhism. This is formulated as the Four Foundations of Mindfulness in Original Buddhism, but the the quite distinctly formulated Zen method of meditation called Shikantaza in Japanese along with a set of off-the-cushion practices retain (I would argue, based on personal experience) its functionality. I therefore say both formulations maintain the same functional element of Core Buddhism and Zen is at least in this regard authentic Buddhism.

Also Original Buddhism was taught in a certain cultural context so it is inevitable that it will mention many elements that are not actually integral to Buddhism as a functional system. My own sense, for instance, is that the many devas, godly beings, who drop in on the Buddha in the early scriptures are such elements. Of course what it or is not Core Buddhism is subject to quibble at least as much as what is or is not Original Buddhism. For the most part I will describe Core Buddhism in terms of its intersection with Original Buddhism, but implicitly intend the qualification, “… or equivalent” at each step.

Finally, I refer to an Authentic Buddhism as any formulation of Buddhism that retains or even extends Core Buddhism, and thereby preserves the functionality or intention of Original Buddhism. A new authentic form of Buddhism might arise as Buddhism enters a new cultural space in which new ways of teaching are necessary to reach new ways of thinking. Naturally Original Buddhism is also the Original Authentic Buddhism. Other Authentic Buddhisms retool or extend Core elements of Original Buddhism or simply accrue extra elements, most particularly elements of religiosity. I hope this makes sense; these distinctions will be useful in coming chapters.

A Metaphor for Core Buddhism.

Buddhism is a flower. It is a system of interrelated inter-functioning parts that is much greater than the sum of the individual parts. Each part has a function and, regardless of whether or not you recognize at first what that function is, the whole flower would die if it were missing any major part. Here is in a nutshell how Core Buddhism would map onto the major parts of the flower:

  • The blossom of the flower is Nibbana (I will prefer Pali here, this is Nirvana in Sanskrit).
  • The stem that supports the blossom is Magga, the path, the instructions for practice and understanding, originally expressed as the Noble Eightfold Path, and leading to Nibbana.
  • The leaves androots are the Parisa, the Buddhist community, the roots are the Bhikkhu-Sangha, the monastic order of monks and nuns, actually a special role within the Parisa. They collect nourishment of sun, water and soil in order that the flower thrive.
  • The sun, water and soil that nourish the flower are the Triple Gem, respectively the Buddha, the Dhamma (Dharma), and the Sangha. They inspire and bend the mind in the proper direction.

Now, here is the same thing in more detail:


Blossom. This is Nibbana, the highest attainment of human character, liberation from suffering, liberation from the taints, perfect wisdom, virtue, enlightenment, awakening, all those good things. Notice that most religions seem to have the goal of liberation or salvation, often pertaining to a life beyond this one. Nibbana itself therefore has an aspect of religiosity, though other religions would understand salvation differently.

Stem. This is the Path of individual practice and understanding that leads to Nibbana. This is the most uniquely Buddhist part, and therefore the most distinct from religiosity. The stem is made of three strands, which are called Wisdom, Virtue and Mental Cultivation, each of which bundles two or three smaller strands. The underlying principle behind practice is loosening the entangling bonds of personal neediness, aversion and views. All the strands work together and, when taken up with conviction, energy and a sense of urgency, guarantee selfless progress. There is hardly anything like this in its practicality and sophistication in non-Buddhist religious traditions. Since this is the part of the flower that has the least to do with religiosity it will be the one I write about the least, even though it is the part the Buddha spoke of the most.

Leaves and roots. This is the community context, the community itself and community activities and also the locus of religiosity. The community is divided into to parts, lay and monastic, with clearly defined social roles, but a member of either can begin to ascend the stem.

Leaves. This is the Parisa,the Buddhist community, and its main component is the lay community. The main characteristic of the Buddhist lay community is that it is not explicitly organized nor commanded in any special way, but is rather inspired by the Triple Gem toward practice and understanding and toward a particular relationship with nuns and monks.

Roots. This is the Bhikkhusangha, the community of monks and nuns. Its main characteristic is that it is organized in very specific way, inspires the support of the lay community and in this way is able to sustain a rare lifestyle that is most conducive to Buddhist study and practice. It serves to produce Nobel Ones. The particular organization of the Bhikkhusangha is a primary teaching of the Buddha, the topic of the massive Vinaya. Although the lay community is not explicitly organized its behavior plays off of that of the Bhikkhusangha.

Nourishment for the Flower. Refuge is the part of Buddhist religiosity that allow the roots and leaves to absorb the nourishment of the sun, water and soil. Conviction focuses on the Triple Gem of the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha. These nourish the entire practice, and in fact the beginning of Buddhist practice is generally considered to be Refuge in the Triple Gem.

The Buddha reached an advanced understanding, a level of insight and knowledge that he knew would be very difficult for others to achieve. As a teacher he had to consider the process whereby others can reach that understanding, and recognized that it requires a combination of confidence in the teacher and teachings, and direct experience of what these are pointing out. Faith or trust (Pali saddha) is necessary put aside accumulated faulty notions and to open oneself completely to the light of the Buddha’s insight and its current embodiment. Veneration of the Triple Gem is an important psychological element in the development of the necessary trust.

The sun. This is the Buddha himself. Conviction in the Enlightenment inspires the community’s commitment to deeper practice. The Buddha stands an an example to emulate, an admiral friend, present at least in the accounts of his life and in the Dharma-Vinaya, his teachings and in those most shaped by his influence.

Water. This is the Dhamma, the teachings of the truth that the Buddha directly experienced and the instructions for perfecting the human character constitute the clean water that flows into every aspect of our Buddhist life and practice, carried by the soil through the roots into leaves and up into the stem, to inform our practice at every level on our way to Nirvana.

Soil. This is the Sangha. This represents the adepts, past present and future, who have gone far in the practice, perhaps not reaching Nibbana, but progressing at least far enough to discern it and to attain unshakable trust in the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sangha. The Sangha nourishes the community through its visible example, its direct experience and its teaching. Notice that the Sangha here is properly called the “Ariyasangha,” the Noble Ones, to distinguish it from the Bhikkhusangha, the institution that spins off Nobel Ones. The roots are buried deep in the soil, the monks and nuns have Sangha between their toes, and the soil is made rich by the many generations of roots, of leaves, of stems and of blossoms.

The Religiosity the Buddha Did Not Teach

The Buddha lived in a very religious culture, made use of much of what he saw around him and dismissed what he felt was useless or harmful. He made use of a range of such religious elements in crafting his own system of thought, not only to produce practice and understanding, but also to providing the proper context to inspire correct practice and understanding now and for generations to come. I hope the reader will gain a new appreciation by the end of this essay of what a carefully conceived and well-articulated system he crafted. Let us look for now at what he pared down.

In expressing reverence the Triple Gem Core Buddhism acquires something at least like worship. However it is not veneration toward an otherworldly being or force, but of things this-wordly: a remarkable person long deceased, of a set of teachings for and by humans and of real people who happen to embody those teachings completely in their own lives. Actually there may be irony intended in the frequent appearance of such otherworldly beings in the ancient discourses. Even higher deities, rather than demanding reverence for themselves, instead venerate those same things the good Buddhist does as higher than themselves, bowing before the Buddha and even the monks. The Buddha did on many occasions expect of others that they show proper respect for him, and actually required that monks and nuns not offer teachings if their audience shows disrespect for them. However there is little indication that the Buddha intended to become the center of a personality cult. He discouraged some of the more extreme forms of reverence he received, once telling an awe-struck follower (in the most literal sense of follower),

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

Nonetheless the Buddha did specify four significant places from his life as destinations for pilgrimage after he is gone.

The Buddha also advocated veneration for parents, teachers, the elderly and even monastics of other traditions, yet eschewed the prevailing caste system. Reverence was clearly part of his thinking.

Likewise limited ritual practices are current in Original Buddhism. Bowing is frequent as a gesture of veneration, as is circumambulation, for instance, “keeping the Tathagatha to his right.” Notice however these are no more than expressions. In contrast the Buddha spoke in no uncertain terms of the dangers of rites and rituals (silabbata), even classifying these as the third of the ten fetters to be abandoned on the Path. He did not have in mind ritual or conventionalized expressions, which like words are means of communication, and which would encompass many things very familiar to us in the modern world, like shaking hands or waving goodbye and saying “Ta-ta.”

Indeed what is absent from Core Buddhism is the attribution of some special hidden efficacy to rites and rituals, for instance making a sacrifice to to gain the good favor of a deity or asking a priest to make an incantation to produce some kind of future good luck or a favorable rebirth. This way of using of rites and rituals was rife in the Brahmanism of the Buddha’s day and did not gain the Buddha’s endorsement. Specifically he did not want the monks and nuns to become priests and forbade such intermediary roles along with astrology, numerology or other means of predicting the future, as well, by the way, of exhibiting paranormal powers such as levitation in the presence of the laity.

Trust or faith has a prominent role in Core Buddhism. Refuge in the Triple Gem is the immediate example, a trust in the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sangha. However this is far from blind faith and in fact much like the trust a student of science puts into her teachers, a science graduate student puts into the paradigm her teacher represents. This is, in other words, a trust that is subject to personal verification as the attainment and understanding of the Buddhist develops and as such it is a faith that is replaced gradually with knowing. It is helpful in this regard that the Buddha was very parsimonious in his teachings, giving nothing as an object of convictionor investigation that did not have a function in the Path.

Another feature of Original Buddhism that bears mentioning is that there are virtually no special practices or teachings of consolation as found in other religions, beyond perhaps the peace of mind that comes with Refuge. There is no appeal to an outside power or metaphysical view that makes everything OK, old age, sickness and death and the rest. There is a notion of salvation, Nibbana, but its attainment is a matter of mental development.

How Buddhist Religiosity Works

The operating principle of the leaves, the roots and the nourishment of the Triple Gem is … friendship! In particular it is admirable friendship (kalyanamittata in Pali), that which is possible from having Noble Ones among us to provide wise role models and instructors. The principle is to have the opportunity to hang with persons consummate in virtue, in generosity and in wisdom. The following dialog expresses in a rather striking way the critical importance the Buddha attached to this simple principle:

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

Don’t say that, Ananda. Don’t say that. Admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie is actually the whole of the holy life. When a monk has admirable people as friends, companions, & colleagues, he can be expected to develop & pursue the Noble Eightfold Path. (SN 45.2)

Just as it benefits us to have artists and good plumbers among us it ennobles us to have saints and sages, adepts and arahants in our midst, the more the better. These Noble Ones are the Sangha mentioned in the Triple Gem, disciples of the Buddha who root their lives entirely in the Dhamma, have already been carried far aloft by the stem of the Path and are an inspiration and a resource for us all. It is through admirable friends that the meaning of the Buddha’s life and Awakening is revealed and through such admirable friends that the highly sophisticated teachings are clarified step by step to lead the instructling toward and up the Path toward Awakening. It is the Sangha, by recognizing what shines through the words, that the core of Buddhism is preserved in its full integrity. The Sangha is therefore the soil that provides not only the nourishment of water and mineral but ensures that the entire practice, roots, leaves, stem and blossom, will not be carried away by the wind in the years to come.

The Ariya-Sangha arises from conditions and these conditions are secured by means of the Bhikkhu-Sangha. This is expressed approximately as follows,

And if these monks, Subaddha, live rightly, the world will not be empty of arahants.” – DN 16.

The world will be even less be empty of the Noble Ones, many of whom are not yet arahants, of sages and of admirable friendship. The Bhikkhu-Sangha is both a training ground and a dwelling place for the Ariya-Sangha, much like a university is both a training ground and a dwelling place for scholars. Without Noble Ones Buddhism cannot retain its integrity, and Noble Ones will be very few indeed without nuns and monks in the Buddhist community … or equivalent.

Let’s see how this works out for a young man, Aung Myint, born into a Buddhist family in a Buddhist community. First he will be taught even as a toddler to revere the Triple Gem, the sun, water and soil that sustains the Buddhist flower. The Buddha for him will exemplify certain values such as selflessness, virtue and serenity. The Dhamma is likely not to be readily accessible until he is moved to personal investigation outside of a few aphorisms like “Happiness comes only from within.” The Sangha, with which Aung Myint could well be in daily contact, will provide living examples of what it is to live deeply according to Buddhist principles, and of the joy and wisdom that emerges in such a life. Aung Myint lives among the leaves, as a part of the Buddhist community and supportive of the monks and nuns. He grows up with a mind bent toward Buddhist values and Buddhist aspirations. The Buddha once said,

Those who have joyous confidence in the highest, the highest fruit will be theirs. (AN 4.34)

He has noticed that people adopt a wide varieties of ways of life. He himself for a time thinks of marrying his cute neighbor Su Su and raising a family. But he learns what a problem life can be with no easy answers. He notices that the Noble Ones are more content and full of active goodwill than anyone else in spite of their utterly simple lives. This inspires him to follow the wise into the holy life, to forsake a personal footprint in favor of the selfless Path that blossoms in Nibbana. Aung Myint joins the monastic order and begins to study as a student of one of the sages, and from the root begins his ascent upward. Eventually he becomes one of the Noble Ones, in fact an arahant (to ensure this tale a happy ending).


This has been a brief sketch of the religious infrastructure implemented by the Buddha and its functions. In the next two chapters I will go into more detail concerning the two main components of this system, Refuge, including trust and admirable friendship, and Community, including its organized and unorganized components. After that I will discuss the ways in which this religious system has been modified in the many later Buddhist traditions, including through the incursion of features that the Buddha originally wanted to keep in check. However I will finally consider the ways in which the Buddha foresaw that the presence of Noble Ones, the adapts, the Sangha, would serve to preserve the integrity of Core Buddhism yet tolerate the many pressures toward variation within those traditions.

The Self Collapses, Concluding this Series.

April 25, 2011

Uposatha Day, Last Quarter Moon, April 26, 2011

In the many weeks past we have seen that the self is a fabrication that begins with a single faulty thought but which acquires a whole architecture as it extends its scope and influence and develops layers of protection. We begin by staking a greatest claim in Me, the Self. And this becomes, naturally, the source of our greatest delusions, our greatest suffering and our greatest misguided efforts. The claims then extends to those things that the Self identifies itself with: this body, this mind, this intellect, this sparkling personality, this style of attire. This grows to the things the Self thinks it possesses, that is, the external things the Self stakes a claim to: this spouse, this car, this bank account, these power tools, this power. We not only think of the self as a separate thing, we begin to separation to the entire world into two parts, into Good and Evil, based on the self’s concerns, based on Me, what is Mine and what I want and despise. And our behaviors become marked with self-interest, by manipulating the world for personal advantage, exploiting its resources and protecting from its danger. The whole emotional tenor of our lives shifts away from the simple joy of being alive toward greater levels of pain and suffering. Furthermore we find ourselves increasingly mired in a world of our own making but that seems to be swallowing us up. The Buddha has pointed to the source of the problem and given us a path for its undoing.

Having a self is like taking a new roommate into your apartment, who may initially present himself as a nice guy but who turns out to be a jerk. After a month you can list all of his faults in detail, which he is invariably totally clueless about. After two months you are ready to throw him out. The problem is that the more stuff he has, the more bills he has been paying, the more signatures he has placed on leases and contracts and accounts, the more people he has given the apartment phone number to, the harder it is to throw him out. You need to find an alternative for paying the bills, to sort through and haggle over the CDs, to let his friends know he cannot be reached here, and so on.

What is more, in the case of the self, the roommate is you! You just hadn’t noticed your faults before, even though you had already been living with you all your life. You will now understand why you have always been so miserable and why everyone else seems to think you are a jerk: You have been just living with a jerky roommate: You. So your task is to kick you out. And that is the heart of Buddhist practice: kicking you out of your apartment. The apartment will be fine on its own, for …

Mere suffering exists, no sufferer is found; The deeds are, but no doer of the deeds is there; Nibbāna is, but not the man that enters it; The path is, but no traveler on it is seen. (VisuddhiMagga XVI)

I have been making use of the metaphor of the self as having an architecture, in fact of the self as a wooden bridge that cannot be destroyed at any single structural point but must be weakened at various points at once until the entire thing comes crashing down. In this regard I have unleashed termites that stand for the various parts of the path of practice the Buddha has given us, the Noble Eightfold Path. In this concluding episode we get to watch the bridge collapse into the abyss below.

Through Virtue we transform our behavior in the world directly. In the self-centered life our speech, our actions and our livelihood are beams and rafters that support and reinforce the self. The Buddha’s practices of Right Speech, Right Action and Right Livelihood are termites that eat away at those beams and rafters.

Through Cultivation of Mind we transform our emotive impulses. In the self-centered life our thoughts tend toward lust and anger, our intentions are impulsive and rooted in greed, hate and delusion, and our minds are feverish and endlessly disturbed. The Buddha’s practices of Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration are termites that eat away at those beams and rafters. Of course termites are social insects; they nourish each other back at the mound, and the energy, focus and clear awareness provided by the termites of cultivation makes a big difference in the work of all of the other termites.

Through Wisdom we transform our conceptualizations and perceptions. The self-centered life began with a faulty fabrication and proceeded to fabricate a complex and biased model of reality and our place in it. The Buddha’s practices of Right View and Right Resolve are termites that eat away at those beams and rafters. This is where the wood is hardest and is generally the last point at which the bridge breaks when the rest is already collapsing. In the Fabricated World that we take as reality things exist in and of themselves, and if not permanently, then at least with a lifespan. You, your Self, has a life span, you are born, you live and you die. When you see through that Empty world there is only continuous change everywhere, you are hard put to find something that behaves with a well-defined birth, lifespan and death. There is no Self that can be pointed to that abides so long, there is similarly no birth, only an evolution from whatever preceded and no death, only an evolution to whatever follows. The reality recognized when this last part of the collapsing bridge is carried away is therefore sometimes known as the Deathless.

The self gets a bad rap in Buddhist circles and I want to conclude with a few mixed words on its behalf. First, the fabrication of a self clearly has a function in our survivability as a species and in the evolutionary scheme of things, as I pointed out some weeks ago. It is not an accident of nature. Moreover, it must have a continuing function in the simple survival of the arahant. The arahant will not have the intentionality of common folks, her activities will be driven by mere functionality on behalf of kindness and compassion rather than on self-interest, yet if she is to be a teacher and an inspiration to others and a factor in perpetuating the sasana, she has to eat, she has to avoid getting run over by a truck, she has to continue to have some loosely working but not domineering concept of a self as circumstances require. After all, our whole ability to reason and deal with a complex and uncertain world is based in our capacity for fabrication.

Second, for most of us it is the self the brings us into Buddhist practice in the first place. The self suffers; contentment and happiness are elusive to the self. The self in its quest to manipulate the situation on its own behalf often begins to look outside the box of raw impulse and recognizes in Buddhist practice a resource to be used to get the happiness it seeks. As it enters into Buddhist practice it is encouraged to actually find a new sense of well-being. Practice then becomes a struggle between the self’s new path of Self-improvement and its more ingrained and impulsive patterns of thought and behavior. We can in fact travel a long way down the path with a firm idea of Self-improvement in mind. Ultimately, though, the self is playing a cruel hoax on itself. This is that when the path nears its end, the self will not have improved itself, nor acquired any special characteristics at all; it will simply be absent, its last remnants lost in the bridge’s resounding Kafwump! We start out thinking we are practicing for ourselves but that is O.K., because in the end we discover we have been practicing in spite or ourselves all along. And yet benefit has accrued.

Buddhism is about looking outside the box with the eye of wisdom. It is about seeing how our rich emotional lives, though providing good material for Italian opera, keep us constantly on edge, perpetually dissatisfied and trapped inwardly in a drama from which we cannot get free, all the while thrashing about outwardly in a world of our own fabrication in horribly harmful ways. It is about transforming this unbounded insanity that we all seem to be endowed with and to live in the midst of, and instead to live worthwhile, satisfying and harmless lives, by liberating our actions from our basest emotions, by developing skill in our actions, turning away from our untutored emotional reactiveness. This is growing up fully, to let go of the tyranny of the fabricated self, which is, after all, hardly more real than a donut hole, a shadow, a cloud or a lump of foam.

From Thought to Destiny: the eBook

January 10, 2011

From Thought to Destiny

Traditional and Modern Understandings of Kamma

click to download PDF

Religiosity in Buddhism (Part 2 of 2)

January 4, 2011

Uposatha, New Moon, January 4

Last week I described religiosity as having an integral role in Buddhism, as the leaves and roots of the flower of Buddhism that thrive nurtured by the sun of Buddha, the water of Dharma and the Soil of Sangha, producing the strength to sustain the stem of Buddhist practice stretching upwards toward the blossom of Nirvana. If you are new to this discussion, please read last week’s episode here before proceeding.

This week I would like to flesh out the role of religiosity in Buddhism in quite practical terms. First, we will see, following a specific example, the development of selflessness, how it contributes to higher attainments along the Noble Eightfold Path by inclining the mind already in a beneficial direction. Second, we will see how religiosity provides the most effective entry for the individual into Buddhist practice through the generation of conviction and energy.

Working Together. Religiosity is one part of the Buddhist whole. Usually when something has multiple parts it is so that the parts can work together and performance diminishes or is lost altogether with the loss of any one part. For instance, you have two feet for walking; with one foot you could not even walk half as fast. The engine of your car has many parts. Remove a spark plug and performance will degrade noticeably, remove the fuel pump and it will fail altogether. Your washing machine is also something like that. A flower has many parts. Remove the leaves and roots and the flower would have no way to acquire nourishment, in fact I’m not sure what would hold the stem up. To understand how the various parts of Buddhism work together, let’s consider how they conspire to cultivate one quality, selflessness, or the realization of anattā, an essential attainment on the Buddhist path.

First let’s begin with nutriment, the Triple Gem, the sun, water and soil that sustains the Buddhist flower. The Buddha exemplifies selflessness in his virtue, and inspires emulation thereof, in that his attainment represents the complete relinquishment of any sense of self. The Dharma teaches the philosophical basis of anattā and how to work with it in practice. The Sangha provides living examples of anattā in that it exhibits, or follows vows that restrict, self-serving behaviors. It is also the vehicle through which the teachings of anattā, and all other Buddhist teachings, have been successfully conveyed and taught through the hundred generations of Buddhist history to the present day.

Entering the roots and leaves, that is, religiosity itself, confidence in the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha opens the Buddhist to the teachings of anattā and inspires him to develop its qualities as a part of dedicated Buddhist practice destined to blossom in Nirvana.

Those who have joyous confidence in the highest, the highest fruit will be theirs. (AN 4.34)

In addition, many practices running through all religiosity, including Buddhist, are physical expressions of selflessness, including bowing, which seems to be a natural embodiment or enactment with deep roots (consider that lesser dogs make a similar gesture to express submission), and including the various expressions of respect or veneration. The degree of resistance many Westerners new to Buddhist religiosity initially have to bowing is in fact clear evidence for its capacity to confront self-centered attitudes.

When a noble disciple contemplates upon the Enlightened One, at that time his mind is not enwrapped in lust, nor in hatred, nor in delusion. … By cultivating this contemplation, many beings become purified. AN 6.25

The Buddhist community has generosity in its veins and for the member of that community the need to protect personal interests wanes. All of these things serve to weaken that entrenched sense of self. We have seen the capacity of religiosity to encourage wholesome mental factors such as kindness and tranquility. This is the beginning of qualities further developed in the Noble Eightfold Path, which will itself as a whole further develop selflessness.

Ascending the stem, we enter the Noble Eightfold Path along which the mind is tuned, honed, sharpened, tempered, straightened, turned and distilled into an instrument of Virtue, Serenity and Wisdom. The sense of self, tweaked, twisted, thinned, stretched, readjusted and spun, does not make it through to the end of the Path. This is the ultimate triumph of selflessness.

The Growth of a Buddhist. A flower, out metaphor for the entirety of Buddhism, is one kind of plant and it grows in a certain way. We can compare it to three other kinds of plants that grow differently.

The flower grows from a seed that finds itself in soil. With exposure to water and soil, roots grow into the ground, and leaves sprout above the surface and begin to absorb sun. Pretty soon the flower, thriving with confidence and energy, pushes a stem upward, ultimately to bloom.

Grass also grows from a seed that finds itself in soil. With exposure to water and soil, roots grow into the ground and blades sprout above the surface and begin to absorb sun. Pretty soon the grass thrives with confidence and energy, but produces no stem and does not bloom.

The tyke born of a devout Buddhist family will likely become either a flower or grass. In either case, his spiritual growth will begin the same way. The little seedling is brought into the presence of the Buddha, and monks and nuns and taught the forms of respect. He is exposed to the feel of a Buddhist community, and begins to absorb some Dharma. With growing conviction he becomes increasingly involved in the community life, developing merit in taking care of the temple and the monastics, in chanting vigorously, and such things. Maybe he takes refuge and begins to follow the precepts. Now, the prospect of advanced personal development in the Buddha’s way may or may not start to seem appealing as he reaches a critical decision point. If he undertakes meditation practice, study of the teachings and continues to deepen the practice of virtue, he will find himself firmly on the Path, and reaching upward toward Nibbāna. In this case he has become a flower, otherwise he will remain grass, nonetheless green and healthy.

Mistletoe grows from a seed that is deposited in a bird dropping on a branch, stem or trunk of an existing plant. It develops enough of a root to absorb water and minerals from the host plant, but sprouts leaves and even flowers. It is a parasite.

A graft is a branch or stem that is through human intervention cut from its original stock and attached to a lower part of another plant. Like mistletoe it absorbs water and minerals from the new stock, can sprout leaves, produce fruit and flower. It is a transplant.

For the chap who comes to Buddhism later in life, spiritual development is commonly, but not necessarily, like that of mistletoe or of a graft rather than like that of a flower or of grass. Typically a Buddhist-to-be begins by reading about Buddhism, inspired perhaps by a vague sense that Buddhism is a good thing, maybe having seen the Dalai Lama on T.V. and thinking that was pretty cool, or inspired by celebrity Buddhists, or Buddhism’s reputation as “peaceful,” or by reading “Siddhartha” by Hermann Hesse.

Now, this chap may or may not come from a previous religious tradition, possibly with a rich religiosity. The graft characterizes the first case. For instance, many who come to Buddhism have a degree of development in religiosity in the Jewish or Catholic tradition. Much of the growth of the roots and leaves has already been experienced and is, probably with mixed degrees of success, translated into Buddhist religiosity.

The chap without a strong religious background, on the other hand, once my own case, is mistletoe. I suspect secular Buddhists are are almost always such chaps. As a result little attention has been given to the roots and leaves. Now, mistletoe grows slowly and does not really thrive the way the host plant would were the mistletoe not attached (this is a guess on my part—I’m not much of a botanist—but it supports the metaphor). Yet it can potentially bloom. In the meantime it gazes down upon the grass with disdain, little comprehending the roots and soil and the spiritual growth that is happening down there. It is common for Western hubris to see little value in Asian religiosity, little realizing how mistletoe is nourished through the roots and leaves of another, just as religiosity has sustained Buddhism for all of these years so that we can be nourished by its highest teachings. It is difficult, but that is where mistletoe needs to put down roots if conviction and zip are flow freely into practice.

Most Buddhists world-wide are centered in religiosity, in the roots and leaves, not in the stem. They are aware of the stem, consider the Path upward, maybe make forays in that direction, and — this is almost uniquely significant in Buddhist religiosity — support generously the aspirations of the many who dedicate themselves completely to the path. However Buddhist religiosity alone — and this is probably true of most forms of religiosity — seems capable of achieving remarkable results. I see this in most Asian Buddhists I’ve known. I also see it in other religious traditions, which one way or another seem to produce some people of great attainment, even without a Noble Eightfold Path or anything resembling it! Admittedly there arises sometimes a dark side in religiosity; it can move toward exclusion, fundamentalism and superstition; I don’t want to discount that. But it also has a remarkable capacity for generating confidence, zip and many wholesome mental factors in its adherents, and can produce centered, composed, kind and insightful people, and do that all alone.

Conclusion.The Noble Eightfold Path is the Buddha’s own checklist for personal practice. Secular Buddhists are right when they see in this teaching something way beyond common religiosity, in fact one of the most remarkable achievements in human religious, psychological and philosophical thought.*  However that personal practice exists in a human, a communal, an historical context in which religiosity has always played an indispensable role. A good part of the Buddha’s genius is found in how he shaped that religiosity to ensure that Buddhist practice would thrive, maintain its integrity and be transmitted to future generations. We have all been its beneficiaries.  Buddhist religiosity is the ideal platform from which to develop smoothly and decisively according to the Buddha’s instructions, along the Noble Eightfold Path toward the attainment of Nirvana.

* I won’t address some of the very narrow modern checklists which seem to missing whole flagstones in the Path of individual practice.

Religiosity in Buddhism (Part 1 of 2).

December 28, 2010

Uposatha Teaching, Last Quarter Moon, December 29

One common tendency of Western Buddhism is that we pick and choose: “I think meditation is useful, but I don’t believe in karma. I like the Buddha and all, but I don’t know why we need to bow at him all the time. I’ll wait ’til I’m enlightened, then I’ll worry about virtue. I practice in the real world, not on a cushion. Right Speech is, like, so dualistic, man.” We can call this Checklist Buddhism. At the beginning of Buddhist practice, many years ago, I admittedly started by drawing up just such a checklist, a long list, on paper! For more on Checklist Buddhism see my essay, “Picky Eaters in the Land of the Fork.”

A particular kind of checklist defines what has been called “Secular Buddhism,” “Buddhism without the religion part,” or “Non-Devotional Buddhism,” often with the implicit or explicit assumption that Buddhism has been somehow tainted by devotional and ritual practices that make it look appallingly like (other) religions, and sometimes, further, that this is somehow a corruption or the Buddha’s original pure intention. In fact, I know of no convincing evidence that the Buddha promoted anything like a Secular Buddhism, nor that there has ever been such a thing until recent Western times. I want to make the point here, having long since thrown away my own rather naïve checklist, that such a thing would not, in fact, be a rational adaptation of Buddhism.

Religiosity. I think what the proponents of secular Buddhism are getting at is a rejection of what I will call religiosity. In terms of religiosity Buddhism does indeed not stand all too far apart from most other religions. The fact is, religiosity seems to be a universal, found throughout the world. Scholars of comparative religion have probably looked at this in detail, but here are the recurring features I observe in almost all religions:

  • Ritual and Ceremony. These are conventionalized actions and activities.
  • Ritual spaces. Certain places and spatial relations are made significant through ritual or placement at an elevation or naturally central location.
  • Ritual artifacts. A central or prominent altar is common. Sometimes clothing is an indicator of social role in religious activities. Incense, candles, flowers and images are common.
  • Respect, Devotion and Worship. Certain rituals and gestures are used to express degrees of reverence or respect, either to designated people, to ritual artifacts, to abstractions or to otherworldly beings.
  • Scripture. Texts convey the basic doctrine or mythology of the religion and often go back to the founding of the religion.
  • Tradition. Many of the rituals, artifacts, scripture and so on are archaic, that is, bespeak of an ancient time to give a sense of embeddedness in a long tradition.
  • Chanting. Typically this is a group activity and involves reciting scripture.
  • Community, and Group Identity. There is a sense of belonging to a community, often assuming a certain role in a community dynamics and interrelatedness, much like belonging to a family.
  • Common world view or conviction. This is faith in a certain set of doctrines, creeds or values.

Notice that, although I group them under “religiosity,” most of these features are not limited to religion. For instance, table manners and proper arrangements of cutlery and plates and glasses in a proper table setting exhibit a large number of these features. Sports events also involve ritual, ritual spaces, worship, chanting, group identity, and often a sense of tradition. Government functions and places of government exhibit every one of these features, by my count. Armies exhibit most. Even Academia exhibits a lot of these features. And no traditional school of Buddhism I am aware of fails to exhibit any one of them.

In terms of function, religiosity seems to cultivate certain positive states of mind, to define a realm of significance outside one’s own body, to relate oneself to a large community, and people find safety, and comfort in that, and lose their own identity in favor of something other. It also secures social harmony within the religious community (outside can sometimes be problematic). This embeddedness in something greater than ourselves is almost anathema to the individualistic Westerner when he realizes what he is doing. Religiosity can, however, induce strong wholesome feelings of security, stability and calm.

The secularist might find some valid objections to parts of religiosity, however none of them apply across the board. Religiosity clearly involves features of universal meaning and appeal. The contentedly religious person has no more obligation to explain or rationalize participation in them than the secularist has to explain or rationalize why he jumps up and down when excited or rolls his eyes when frustrated, even though all of these are very interesting questions. What appear as objective acts and artifacts in religiosity are in fact a reflection of something deep in the subjective human psyche.

But let me play devil’s advocate for a couple of paragraphs. A feature I left out in the list above, which is fairly common in religiosity, is the attribution of special efficacy to the ritual aspects of this list, particularly powers of healing or control over natural phenomena, or magic. This is sometimes even among the most basic functions or expectations of religiosity. The secularist or rationalist might indeed have a basis not only for challenging this efficacy, where it is asserted, but also for arguing further that belief in it actually causes harm by creating false expectations. On the other hand certain healing powers, in any case, can be accounted for in a modern understanding of the relationship of mental health and physical health, taken together with the sense of safety and calm that religiosity tends to induce.

More generally, since a particular system of religiosity most often also includes some doctrinal assumptions, the secularist has a basis for challenging, for that particular case, the veracity of those assumptions. However, the contentedly religious person needs simply to point out that it is not the function of religion to do good science, and she would be right. Mythology has a remarkable capacity for fulfilling religious functions, and even non-religious functions. Besides, hardly any area of human interest does science wellscience does not always do science wellso why should religion? The desperately religious person, on the other hand, is likely to argue back, ill-advisedly, in favor of the veracity of doctrinal assumptions, which would be a lucky break for the secularist intent on debate. I discuss the question of religious truth in more detail in “Buddhism with Beliefs.

Religiosity in Buddhism. Buddhism is a flower. The problem with Checklist Buddhism is that a flower is an organic whole, a system of interrelated inter-functioning parts that is much greater than the sum of the individual parts. Each part has a function and, regardless of whether or not you recognize at first what that function is, the whole flower would die if it were missing just one major part. To complete the metaphor, here is how Buddhism would map onto the major parts of the flower:

  • The blossom of the flower is Nibbāna.
  • The stem that supports the blossom is the practice of the Noble Eightfold Path, the basis of Buddhist practice and understanding.
  • The leaves and roots that collect nourishment of sun, water and soil in order for the flower to thrive, constitute religiosity.
  • The sun, water and soil that nourish the flower are the Triple Gem, the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha.

Now, here is the same thing in more detail:

Blossom. This is the highest attainment of human character, liberation from suffering, perfect wisdom, virtue, enlightenment, awakening, all those good things.

Stem. This is the most uniquely Buddhist part. The Buddha drew on many elements of the religiosity of his day and combined this with a astonishingly sophisticated, surprisingly modern, understanding of the human psychology and the human condition, to craft the training defined in the Nobel Eightfold Path, what someone has called a technology of enlightenment, that systematically moves the practitioner toward the perfection of human character in its aspects of serenity, virtue and wisdom, toward what the Buddha himself attained. The stem is made of three strands, which are Paññā, Sīla, Samādhi, that is, the training in wisdom, the training in virtue and the training in meditation, each of which bundles two or three smaller strands to give the eight folds. All the strands work together and, when taken up with conviction, energy and a sense of urgency, guarantee growth. There is nothing like this in its practicality and sophistication in almost any other religious tradition.

An easy way to identify religiosity as a separate level in Buddhism is to ask, What aspects of Buddhism cannot be categorized easily under one of the folds of the Noble Eightfold Path? I used to wonder myself why many aspects of Buddhism did not fit into the Eightfolds. The answer seems to be a set very close to what I described above as the universal of religiosity. From the perspective of the stem, religiosity is a kind of launch pad, a preliminary stage that brings confidence and other qualities of mind together in preparation for the ascent up the Noble Eightfold Path.

Leaves and roots. This is the religiosity of Buddhism, ritual, devotion and conviction, entangled in a community context. In its particular case it includes placing the hands together as a gesture of respect, circumambulating burial mounds, prostrating to images of the Buddha, sometimes to mythical figures and to adapts (roughly monastics and trained lay teachers), recitation and often memorization of ancient texts, confidence in the efficacy of Buddhist practice, that is, the stem of the Noble Eightfold Path and in those that have progressed far, commitment to codes of ethical conduct, a community life driven by generosity and close and repeated association with adepts.

The stuff of religiosity was amply present in the Buddha’s India, he as a teacher had only to tap into that energy and shape it a bit to support the program of training he advocated to progress toward Nibbāna. His teachings do not dwell exhaustively on religiosity, but he was at points very critical of some of the excesses of the religiosity he found around him and at others very interested in slanting in a healthier direction. He pruned and staked where he saw fit. Here are some hallmarks of the Buddha’s take on religiosity.

  • Admirable friendship (kalyanamittatā). Hang with persons consummate in virtue, in generosity or in wisdom, or in all three, if you can find them. The following dialog expresses the critical importance the Buddha attached to this:

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

“Don’t say that, Ananda. Don’t say that. Admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie is actually the whole of the holy life. When a monk has admirable people as friends, companions, & colleagues, he can be expected to develop & pursue the Noble Eightfold Path. – SN 45.2.

The Buddha originally required of monastics that they be in daily contact with laypeople as a means of securing a reserve of admirable friends for the laity, and asked that they be, “worthy of gifts, worthy of hospitality, worthy of offerings, worthy of respect.”

  • Respect. The Buddha advocated respect for parents, teachers, the elderly and monastics, even monastics of other traditions, expressed through the range of ritual gestures of respect. One way he enforced this in the case of monastics is to stipulate in the discipline that monastics not teach in the presence of someone who is acting disrespectfully. Within the monastic community the Buddha completely eliminated the prevailing caste system in terms of a hierarchy of respect based entirely, and somewhat arbitrarily, on ordination date. The importance of respect is not only in opening oneself to the influence of admirable friends, but also in the wholesome mental factors that arise in the very exercise of respect.
  • Generosity (dāna). This is the fundamental social value in the Buddha’s thought and is almost everywhere the lifeblood of the Buddhist community. This is partially enforced in the discipline by taking monastics entirely out of the exchange economy, leaving them vulnerable and unable to live in the absence of the freely offered generosity of others, but free to practice generosity themselves in their deeds and words. Generosity on this basis becomes pervasive throughout the Buddhist community, which becomes a kind of economy of gifts, this in contrast to the brahmanical tradition of paying for the enactment of rituals.
  • Discouragement of magic and special powers. It is however significant that the Buddha downplayed the magic or efficacious side of religiosity, while by no means abandoning it. The magic tends to creep back at least a bit in probably every Buddhist tradition, to surprising degrees in some, occasionally triggering revisionist movements, for instance, that led in Thailand in the Twentieth Century by Ven. Buddhadāsa, to restore the rational basis Buddhism. In general the Buddha did not want monastics to predict the future, exhibit extraordinary powers, heal the sick. While not denying that such powers exist (every indication in the scriptures is that he believed they did), he put them outside the Buddhist life and considered their cultivation a distraction from the real practice.

It is important to note that much of religious ritual involves enactments that lend themselves in the West to paranormal interpretation, but in Buddhist are merely enactments for their symbolic value. In the West we tend to look for objective interpretations, whereas the value of virtually everything in Buddhism is found in the subjective world. For instance, food offerings to a representation of a Buddha, or in some schools to mythical bodhisattvas, are very common, but there is generally no understanding in Buddhism that someone is actually accepting the offering and eating the food; it is play, but play that does make a difference in the practitioner’s state of mind. We do the same when we put flowers on the grave of a dear departed.

  • Confidence and investigation. The Buddha reached an advanced understanding, a level of insight and knowledge that he knew would be very difficult for others to achieve. As a teacher he had to consider the process whereby others can reach that understanding, and recognized that it requires a combination of confidence (saddhā) in the teacher and teachings, and direct experience of what these are pointing out. Faith is necessary to open oneself completely to a network of direct understandings, unblemished by competing notions one is likely to have accrued. But confidence, for the Buddha, was useless in itself, unless it is backed up by personal investigation. Confidence is a natural product of religiosity, prior to thorough investigation, ready to be put to use in the Noble Eightfold Path. It is significant the Buddha was very parsimonious in his teachings, giving nothing as an object of conviction or investigation that did not have a function in the Path.

Nourishment. Conviction is the part of religiosity that allow the roots and leaves to absorb the nourishment of the sun, water and soil. Conviction focuses on the Triple Gem of the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha. These nourish our entire practice, and in fact the beginning of Buddhist practice is generally considered to be refuge in the Triple Gem.

  • The sun is the Buddha. Conviction in the Enlightenment inspires our deeper practice. The Buddha stands an an example to emulate, an admiral friend, alive in accounts of his life and in the Dharma-Vinaya, his teachings.
  • Water is the Dharma. The teachings of the truth that the Buddha directly experienced and the instructions for perfecting the human character constitute the water that flows into every aspect of our Buddhist life and practice, into the roots and leaves and up into the stem, to inform us what to embrace and what to reject on our way to Nibbāna.
  • Soil is the Sangha. This is the contemporary community of adepts, whose task it is to understand and develop personally along the path, and to accurately interpret and convey and embody the teachings, thus serving as admirable friends to the Buddhist community. The Sangha is alternately identified with the visible monastic community (bhikkhusangha), or with the Noble Ones (ariyasangha), more difficult to identify but individually more precisely qualified in having reached a certain minimal level of attainment on the Path. They are the soil that transports the water and ensures that the entire practice, roots, leaves, stem and blossom, will not blow away in years to come.

In short, the stem and blossom of the Buddhist flower nourish the roots and leaves, and the roots and leaves nourish the stem and blossom. The Buddha presupposed a culture of religiosity, but adjusted it in many ways. In particular, ritual, scripture, devotion, world view and the rest all point actually toward the higher practice represented by the stem and blossom, not to some kind of external agent or force. This is probably also uncommon in world religiosity.

To be continued. Thus ends the first part in this two part series on Religiosity in Buddhism. Next week we will look at some examples of how religiosity works together with the other parts of Buddhism for optimal results and a variety of scenarios for establishing conviction and where that takes our practice, and thereby will gain hopefully an increasingly practical appreciation of the importance of religiosity in Buddhism.

I would like to invite readers to raise questions about religiosity, particularly from a secularist viewpoint. This is a blog, after all, albeit a very civilized blog. I realize that many are attracted to Buddhism precisely because they perceive it as lacking religiosity, even while others are attracted to it precisely because of its rich religiosity. I do not want religiosity to be a stumbling block or deal breaker that inhibits anyone from higher attainment. I am probably aware of the range of viewpoints on this and can anticipate issues that can be raised, from indoctrination of children to opiates and inter-religious violence and am completely willing to discuss these.

Part Two

From Thought to Destiny: Conclusion

December 21, 2010

Uposatha Teaching: Full Moon, December 21, 2010.

Index to Current Series
Thought – Act – HabitCharacterDestiny

Sow a thought,
and you reap an act;
Sow an act,
and you reap a habit;
Sow a habit,
and you reap a character;
Sow a character, and you reap a destiny.”

We now conclude this series of Uposatha (Quarter Moon) Day teachings on Karma.

We humans are thinking acting creatures potentially with a broad array of free will options in every conscious moment. This enables new karma whereby thoughts give rise to acts, or just remain thoughts. Our acts play out in the world and their consequences run deep, in fact continue indefinitely into the future, where they mingle with all the other chains of cause and effect to make the world what it is. At the same time each new karmic thought or act leaves a residue in the mind, and the accumulation of this residue make us who we are. We are what we do. The karmic residue, the old karma, begins to harden into walls and byways that tend to fix our future acts and thoughts into habit patterns, into mounds then mountains that become our world view, fixed opinions, values and aspirations. This landscape, whether pleasant or craggy, becomes the world we inhabit and the best predictor of our future thoughts and acts, the future new karma that will then leave further karmic residue. Our inner world thus formed can become heaven or hell, a human realm of both pain and pleasure, a place of limitless craving and fear, a ghostly realm of perpetual dissatisfaction or a world of rage and competition. Our outer influences can be for harm or benefit, and the outer world we help create around us as we produce new karma in turn produces conditions that trigger our responses in the form of more new karma, just as our acts trigger karmic responses in others.

Unfortunately left to our own devices, with neither skillful reflection nor wise guidance, we rarely achieve the control over our own karma necessary to shape either our outer or our inner world in a healthy direction. We most naturally fall into service of impulses to seek personal advantage, to exploit for ourselves what we think the world might offer and to protect ourselves from the dangers we think the world might harbor. Alongside these is a desire to be of benefit to others, to treat others with kindness, especially those closest to us. But we struggle with an incessant feeling of lack and a sense of dissatisfaction when we actually manage to acquire what we seek, which then just becomes another need. One need leads to another and our behaviors rather than benefiting begin to harm, for which we fashion clever justifications, even as they harm ourselves. The reactions of those we harm create new needs. We wonder why happiness is so elusive as our karma accumulates. We end up inhabiting, disappointed and confused, an unsatisfactory or even frightening world of our own making, with no better notion of what went so dreadfully askew than to try harder at whatever we were doing before, no longer even considering alternatives to the well-worn byways and walls and the rest of the craggy landscape we’ve formed.

With wise guidance and skillful reflection we are able to take control of our karma. First, we see how our impulses that seek personal advantage lead us astray in increasing lack not decreasing it, in leading to more dissatisfaction not less, in leading to harm for others and unhappiness for ourselves, in enmeshing us further and further in our struggles with the world. Second, with sufficient discipline, energy and sense of urgency, we sort out what is skillful and unskillful in our our thoughts and actions. Immediately we become a force for benefit in the world and gradually we begin, by choosing our thoughts and actions with due deliberation and in spite of established patterns of habit and view, to break through the old karmic walls to create new byways, to create a new more habitable and pleasing karmic landscape. Thereby we begin to loosen the compelling hold of greed, aversion and fixed views, and develop in their stead renunciation, kindness and compassion. We are on our way to the attainment of Nirvana.

Unfortunately we tend to have a small view of the scope of the Buddhist project, we tend to think all the benefit of practice as confined to this one solitary life, limited in time and space, where it competes with all the other temporal attractions that promise happiness, such as physical workouts, dieting, the ideal hair style, wind surfing, executive moving and shaking, and opera tickets. The problem with the limited temporal view is that, since all accomplishment on the Buddhist path will be dissipated at the death of the physical body anyway, the reserve of discipline, energy and sense of urgency otherwise available will be dissipated right now, in favor of potentially more pleasant paths to happiness. The fact is, however, that our unskillful karma propagates and perpetuates itself, if not serially projecting into subsequent lives, then at least laterally through imitation, through the responses of others as consequences of our actions, through adoption into the popular culture. Our karma slops over and spills on others so that large parts of our pleasing or craggy karmic landscape are replicated over and over in the lives of others, in our children, in our colleagues and friends and in all who bear the consequences of our deeds. They carry aspects of ourself, we at the minimum are reborn in bits and pieces. And their potential for attaining Nirvana will, to that extent, look like ours.

Our entire Buddhist practice consists in how we meet this moment, and the next, and the next, …, in Thought and Act. We can meet it skillfully or unskillfully. The teachings on karma tell us how important that Thought and that Act are. While profoundly and eternally conditioning the outer world for harm or benefit, they add their imprint on our Habits, on our Character and in the end on our Destiny. Practice is forever.

From Thought to Destiny: The Pragmatics of Destiny

December 14, 2010

Uposatha Teaching: First Quarter, December 14, 2010.

Index to Current Series
Thought – Act – HabitCharacterDestiny

Nirvana is both the beginning and end of Buddhist practice. We begin with accepting the truth of the Buddha’s enlightenment. Even before we have an understanding of what this is, we accept that the Buddha gained some special quality that we too can with time achieve in Buddhist practice. We end with Nirvana. We practice in between, gaining confidence in the Buddha’s enlightenment as we observe elements of our own character fall into place and gain glimpses of the ultimate goal.

Nirvana, along with its companion, Rebirth, forms a context for Buddhist practice. Keep in mind though that practice is simply about skillful intentional action, that is, Karma. We have added the layers Habit, Character and Destiny to Thought and Act merely to explore the consequences of our intentional action, so that we better understand what it is to be skillful and why its cultivation is so imperative. As with the understanding of Rebirth the understanding of the goal of Nirvana is not without pitfalls.

The Goal. Goals themselves are often put to unskillful uses. They quickly become objects of desire, clinging and obsession, and thus foster unskillful states of mind. “I gotta have that NOW! Oh, I can’t wait, I can’t wait.” Sugarplums are painful things to have dancing in your head. Nirvana can do that as well. Once achieved goals accordingly create an equivalent fear of losing what has been accomplished, or dissatisfaction in it. Don’t worry, you will not have achieved Nirvana in the first place if you have this level of clinging. How do you have a goal skillfully?

It is important to hold skills lightly. Think of them as the North Star, guiding your path, but not something you need to actually reach (in fact the North Star is more and more out of reach the further you travel toward it; it ends up overhead). If you are learning a language, you just follow a fixed daily routine of practice, otherwise you will make yourself miserable striving to speak as a native and will eventually give up. Consider Gandhi’s life task; he just followed the daily practice of non-violent non-participation along with encouraging others to join him; he never would have endured his half-century campaign had he been obsessed constantly with driving the British out of India. Consider the misery of dieting to get slim, the repeated sacrifice of what needs to be renounced in the painful effort to be slim, then the disappointment after you abandon the discipline that you had barely been able to sustain, only to return to your former pleasingly plump condition. The goal can skillfully form a background context to occasionally consult to ensure you are headed in the right direction.

The ways in which the goal of Nirvana has been framed seems to have played an important role in Buddhist thought. In China the notion of Sudden Enlightenment became very prominent. This is the idea that within this very life it is very feasible that one can attain Nirvana, without plotting out a path of development spanning many lifetimes. Zen literature is full of references to people who through practice and skillful instruction suddenly realize in a single instant Enlightenment, often with little preparation beforehand. These stories in a sense mirror the stories of the early Suttas of disciples of the Buddha who realize the final goal during a single discourse of the Buddha. However in the Suttas the presupposition is almost always present that these are people “with little dust in their eyes,” people who have already lived as recluses perhaps for many lifetimes, practiced meditation, developed virtue, reflected deeply on the nature of existence, and only needed the wisdom of the Buddha’s teaching to pull it all together. Within Zen even while embracing Sudden Enlightenment the contrasting notion that one should practice without a goal, simply practice. The notion that “We are already enlightened” encourages this. This is particularly evident in the teachings of Japanese Master Dogen (1200-1253), whose view was essentially that Enlightenment is not something you achieve, it is something you do, or fail to do, moment by moment. After all, the only way we shape Habit, Character and Destiny, or in fact anything else in the world, is through our intentional actions. Isn’t it enough just to get our intentional actions right, that is, to face each moment with a calm mind, virtue in the heart, and clarity about what is going on, and then act skillfully? Similarly, for the chubby person is it not enough just to face each day moderate eating habits? In either case the goal takes care of itself.

It is important to distinguish striving for a goal from effort. Effort does not require clinging, which is painful, only discipline, which can be quite joyful. What we would call an awakened being, and arahant, someone who has attained the goal of Nirvana gets intentional actions right naturally and without effort, which is why we don’t even think of them as intentional or karmic any more, and would not know what else to do. The rest of us must meet each moment while being hammered by the typhoons and eruptions of impulse and obsession, assaulted by the flames and avalanches of passion and rage, so we must be able to put all that aside then act with a calm mind, virtue in the heart, and clarity about what is going on, and to enact Enlightenment. So effort does not vanish with the notion that we are already all enlightened. We still need to act like it.

I suspect that, like much of Buddhist doctrine, the various ways of treating the goal of Nirvana are pragmatic adaptations of the Buddha’s teachings to differing cultural circumstances. It has been suggested that the idea of Sudden Enlightenment is related to the existence of greater social mobility in China than in India. In India there was not much expectation that one’s lot in life would change significantly within this lifetime, life required extreme patience, and many lifetimes to make progress. In China one might be born a peasant and die an advisor to the emperor, quick results could be expected in this lifetime. I doubt that the Chinese actually developed a way to become enlightened faster, they just framed to process in a more appealing, less frustrating way. For those that might have doubts about the veracity of Rebirth, which recall brings with it a sense of urgency in practice, the prospect of Sudden Enlightenment might also inspire to urgency in practice. The downside of all this is that the prospect of Sudden Enlightenment encourages clinging to the ultimate goal. This would explain the common accompanying theme of practicing with no goal as a wise defense against this clinging.

Now let’s consider Western culture. We tend to be acquisitive, we tend to expect instant click-of-a-button gratification, we tend to interpret things as personal goals. These things require that we be extremely careful with Nirvana, Enlightenment and the other synonyms. Already these have become marketing tools for Buddhist products, including teachings, accompanied by promises of fast results. I recommend that people steer clear of such appeals. I personally like to teach in terms of Gradual Enlightenment but Steady Progress in order to mitigate greed and encourage patience. I teach in terms of Perfection of Character or Virtue rather than Ending of Suffering, or Eternal Bliss, because it is less about personal advantage, it suggests something you do for everyone rather than just for yourself. I tried teaching in terms of Responsibility for a while, but students seemed to think that was a bummer. (It is perhaps an advantage of being a monastic that I do not have to try to sell anything, like seminars, books and retreats; I don’t depend on teaching as a livelihood, I have no livelihood. This leaves me free to teach what is most skillful, like renunciation and disenchantment, rather than what appeals to the naive and commercially influenced understanding.) Most importantly is to settle into a well-defined daily practice routine, disciplined but not striving. The book will get written if you write a certain number of pages a day, competence will develop if you learn something new each day. Just take care of the day, the moment, the intention behind the action and the rest will take care of itself.

Rebirth and Nirvana together give a broader meaning to the Buddhist path that extends beyond the confines of this one life. Although Nirvana is a distant goal for most, it is one toward which noticeable progress, along with occasional glimpses of its waiting arms, can be witnessed in this one life, and sometimes some recluse will actually attain this lofty goal of perfection of character. For most of us Nirvana simply provides a cathedral-like framework to contain our daily practice or aspirations.

Greater than the One Life. The focus on this one life gives a limited view of the Buddhist path. Another analogy is perhaps in order.

The focus of corporate capitalism tends to be limited to quarterly profits. Sometimes the executive vision is a bit more far-sighted as certain long-term perspectives are able to raise stock prices for the short term, but the performance of executives are by and large judged on the basis of quarterly profitability. This means that the global view is largely lacking; where will we be, say, one hundred years from now? The characteristic myopic decisions of individual corporations exemplifies what in Artificial Intelligence is known as Hill Climbing. The logic of Hill Climbing is that if you want to get to the top of the mountain in the fog, just keep walking up hill. The decision-making process is thus driven by a local metric, the contours beneath your feet. The weakness of hill climbing is that you almost always get stuck at the top of a foot hill and miss the top of the mountain altogether because you lack the global perspective. This is the problem of scrambling for short-term, measurable gain. Since corporations by and large can not sustain a long-term perspective, other human institutions are required that can. The scientific and technological research communities can afford a long-term view because at their purest they are generally not required to show quarterly results or any particular practical results. Their practitioners, sustained by job security (tenure and so on) provided generally through government funding, have the leisure to work on projects with very long-term goals, or simply advance human understanding of certain principles, like computability. They become a resource for future long-term corporate profitability, at little corporate expense. They also potentially provide a social conscience in corporate decision-making. (Unfortunately a great weakness of the corporate system is that more often than not warnings that would conflict with quarterly profits tend not only to be ignored actually suppressed through corporate control of media and through corporate lobbying of government agencies responsible for allocating funds for scientific and technological research.)

Our individual spiritual focus tends to be similarly limited to quarterly results. Sometimes we are motivated to sustain a meditation practice through the inspiration of others, but generally we waste time scrambling for short-term measurable gain, wealth, reputation, fun, a new romance, kids off drugs and in school, the neighbor’s dog not barking all night, getting the upper hand in the battle of the bulge, finding the best cell phone service provider for the family, looking busy at work and so on. With so many petty concerns it is easy to lose sight of Nirvana, the overarching goal of the Buddhist life, the lofty peak that may lie many lives in the future, and instead get stuck at the top, or even half way up, a little hill. As a matter of fact, since Buddhists by and large can not easily, in the bustle of samsara, sustain a long-term perspective, another human institution is required to hold to that perspective as a constant reminder. This is a traditional role in Buddhism of the monastic Sangha. Its practitioners, sustained by lay donations, and at the purest giving up all temporal concerns that might distract them from the higher goal, have the leisure to work on something much bigger than their single lives. They become the conscience of the Buddhist, keeping him pointed toward the higher goal. On a quarterly basis the elements of Buddhist practice may not seem so urgent, but those periods on the cushion, meeting situations with kindness and insight, keeping life simple and peaceful, make an incalculably huge difference in the Destiny of the world.