Archive for the ‘Monastic practice’ Category

Growing the Dharma: Navigating the Sasana

November 13, 2013

You are reading a serialization of the ebook Growing the Dharma: Buddhism’s Religious Spadework. We now begin the last chapter.

Chapter 8. Navigating the Sasana (1/2)

The Springdale Buddhist Center held a lavish banquet for its members, and offered the whole fare, from hors d’oeuvre to dessert. To their great dismay, few seemed to eat lavishly. The festival committee (Bob, Carol and Skipper) asked around and discovered that most guests who were failing to eat well were doing so for what they felt were unreasonable reasons, and as a result failed to benefit fully from what was offered.

“Is this the future shape of Buddhism in the Land of the Fork?” they thought collectively.

They identified the following feeding patterns, which they put up on a white-board, each with its own bullet:

Some guests were “●simply uninformed” about food. Some people, Bob observed, would ignore items simply because they did not recognize them or they misperceived them or they were unsure about the proper manner of eating them. They could have asked, but most of the people around them didn’t seem to know either.

Some guests were simply “stuck in the familiar.” Fish eggs or lychees, or octopus would make them cringe. These mostly ate rolls, cold cuts, and cole slaw.

Some guests exclusively “seek out the exotic.” One or two people, as Skipper identified, will not intend to stay long, but will maybe take some reindeer paté on a rice cracker or something likewise exotic or appealing. They could be heard sharing the recollection of their experiences with friends the following day.

Some guests seem “more analytical than daring” in their approach to eating. These people, Carol explained, are always quite informed of recent incidents of salmonella poisoning, tainted shellfish, misidentified mushrooms, typhoid. They know all about trichinosis, cancer, and how all of these relate to the food we eat. They also carefully calculate calories; fat, protein and carbohydrate levels; and the amounts they are getting of each vitamin and mineral. They eye unidentified foods with great suspicion. All of these people are terribly skinny.

Some guests can only stay long enough to “grab something to eat,” as Bob observed, generally a sandwich or couple of egg rolls because they have to rush to put in some overtime at work, or they are on their way to the opera or a lecture and have just come from a workout at the gym. Even in the buffet line they talk on their cell phones. These are busy people, people with lifestyles.

Some guests whether they eat a lot or not, nonetheless “eat but do not help with cleanup.” Some could be seen slinking past the wash area, others seemed to think they were at a restaurant with paid bus staff, in one case even imperiously asking another guest, who happened to be clearing some tables, to refill her coffee cup.

But then there were some guests who “try everything,” and even take great pleasure in the cleanup. Skipper pointed out, there are still rare individuals who come with big appetites, know their foods, have let go of all destructive preconceptions and are curious and daring about the what they’ve been invited to enjoy, capable of savoring the sublime and valuing the simple. Furthermore, these people generally give themselves ample time to enjoy food and company.

“They have a fork and they know how to use it,” Carol added with regard to the last group.

The following year the committee met to consider again holding a Second Annual Buddhist Banquet. There were different opinions about what to offer.

At one extreme was Bob’s suggestion. Bob’s proposal was to offer the Whole Buddhist Fare, from Embodiment to Realization, exactly as they had done last year. However, before the banquet they would send out abundant information on the various foods, along with detailed descriptions of how to eat lobster and some of the more difficult dishes, with photographs and diagrams. Guests would be asked to arrive by 5:00 pm, after which the doors would be locked from the outside and not reopened until all the food was eaten. Also pocket calculators, cell phones and other electronic gear would be collected at the door.

At the other extreme was Carol’s suggestion. The other two members of the committee could not determine if Carol was more forgiving than Bob or not. Her proposal was to offer spaghetti, marshmallow salad and dinner rolls. And beer.

“The greatest common denominator,” Carol called it.

Picky Eaters in the Land of the Fork

Let’s get personal: What does this all mean to me, as a navigator of the Buddha-Sasana? What choices do I make at the buffet?

For consistency with the running metaphor – which has served well in this book I’ve almost finished for explaining doctrinal, historical and sociological aspects of the Sasana – I would expect to personally encounter what has evolved, been cultivated, grown and harvested, in a flower shop, but the buffet counter is an even more familiar realm of personal attention, the gastronomic realm. However, for many in the West who first step up to Buddhism and survey the daunting range of options on the buffet table, it is easy to see how they might throw their hands up in despair and perhaps entertain the hope that the menu at a cafeteria or pizza restaurant might be easier to sort out.

An appropriate strategy for navigating any buffet table depends on my aspirations: taste, health, unique experiences, sharing with others, putting on or taking off weight. As I graze along the various counters I might look for the adept or the folksy, the Path dishes or the Sasana, for challenging or simple, foreign or native cuisine.

For a while, at least, I can anticipate that my understanding will be a rather folksy, blended with partial and mis-understandings, along with notions of no Buddhist pedigree whatever, but I might nonetheless align myself toward an adept understanding by taking Noble Ones, along with the Buddha and the Dharma, as my primary influences and the most reliable source of knowledge. I might also find hope in some defined folk tradition, trusting that it will develop in me wholesome qualities capable of taking me at least half-way toward becoming a Noble One myself. Almost any folk tradition is at least consistent with the understanding and practice of the Noble Ones. I might choose to seek anything from complete Awakening to pleasant abiding in relative psycho-therapeutic comfort.

The Path practices will be more challenging, like putting a lobster or an artichoke on my plate. Devotional practices like chanting nembutsu or mindfulness of the Buddha as a way of strengthening Refuge are more like pudding or chips. After reading this book, which has infused in me both gratitude and a sense of responsibility, I realize I fully determined to give appropriate attention to the non-Path dishes, to become a supporter of the Sasana.

I also now understand that it is a mistake to limit my grazing range on the basis of accustomed tastes, for even Adept Buddhisms have come through foreign cultural filters, but that others’ Folk Buddhisms might in their abstruseness serve little to improve my understanding. However, I might personally like exotic cultures for their own sake, or a particular culture, whose exploration can be as expansively illuminating for me as mastering foreign tongues. I think I’m willing to try anything at least once.

I am prepared to eat sumptuously but with discrimination, to consider the full Buddhist fare without upsetting the stomach. My personal accustomed feeding patterns may hinder or help me. Let’s review these:

Simply uninformed

I feel quite “in the know” at the samadhi counter, quickly picking out a couple alternative objects of meditation for my dinner plate and moving on. I have a bit of trouble telling a perception from a formation as I pass by the aggregates of clinging. But then I get to the area where I am to seek admiral friends, most of whose attire is mortifyingly out of fashion, and the alleged best of whom won’t even watch a football game with me, nor share celebrity gossip nor investment advice nor even a drink. Then I am supposed to take refuge in, and bow to them? Won’t they get lodged between my teeth or give me heartburn?

Living in the West I have an unprecedented quantity of information about Buddhism readily available, but it is lopsided. I understand that this book that I have almost finished, was written to correct this deficit. Most particularly, almost everything available in the West is about the narrower Path perspective, almost nothing about the broader Sasana perspective, with its leaves and roots, blossom and sources of nutriment: sun, water and soil. But without a strong basis in refuge and in community I will be ill-prepared and hardly inspired to take up the Path. With a strong basis in refuge and in community, I will develop many wholesome qualities, gradually, starting at a tender age and already long before even considering entering the Path; I will help to sustain and promote the Sasana, generously and for the benefit of many; and, hey, I will commune with Noble Ones of radical and subversive influence almost on a daily basis, who stand as a persistent reality check for all of my samsaric inclinations.

Stuck in the familiar

One morning the abbot of a Burmese monastery in Texas announced that the monks were to appease the tree spirits who had happily inhabited two trees until said trees had been cut down during an ongoing construction project. They were to chant a bit of Pali and then the abbot would talk to the spirits. It seems that the nats had been up to some mischief, since losing their homes, at the expense some members of our larger community. Your author, an American monk, had never heard of such a thing, but after several years in Burmese monasteries nothing surprised him. Nonetheless, a cloud of skepticism passed over his face on this particular occasion:

“When you talk to the nats, are you going to talk to them … in Burmese?”

“Yes.”

“Well, this is Texas. They are Texan tree spirits. How can they understand Burmese? They probably have names like Dusty, Clem and Pedro.”

“I think tree spirits can understand any language. But just in case, … you talk to them in English as well.”
I like dinner rolls, cold cuts and cole slaw. But then I live in a comfort zone, disinclined to step beyond the preconceptions, the views, values and patterns of thought and behavior I grew up with, into that realm where people are a bit weird an unable to think so freely as I. I find myself, as I scan the buffet, thinking things like, “Rules are for stupid people who don’t already know how to do the right thing,” or “There is no such thing as karma,” or “Buddhism is about discovering your true self so that you can act natural.” For I am a freethinker.

Generally we do not recognize that we are conditioned by our folk culture any more than we recognize that we speak with an accent. I don’t yet fully realize the tacit and undiscriminating trust I place in my own folk culture. Any culture has its gems of caprice waiting to be discovered. In ours we believe in an innermost heart that seeks to express itself unhindered by, uh, cultural constraints. In someone else’s they have equally equally fanciful notions. This mandates Refuge. Without grasping the lifeline of the Triple Gem I have almost no chance to reconsider the bias of my upbringing, to place my trust instead in the Buddha, in his teachings and in the Noble Ones. Trust in something is unavoidable. Discrimina-tion in my trust is nonetheless an option. Freethinking is, alas, very rare thing.1

My comfort zone is likely to be violated, I understand, in two ways. One is an almost inevitable result of deeper Buddhist practice. Once I enter the path with full determination, begin to explore the deep and previously unacknowledged regions of my own mind and experience, and discover that many of my most deeply held assumptions and habit patterns don’t hold water, the world becomes like a foreign land, much less substantial than I had thought. This can be scary, like the floor suddenly giving out under me. More than ever I will need the Noble Ones to hold me, the ones who warned me that this might happen.

But I’m not there yet. The other violation of my comfort zone is the encounter with those very exotic cultures that have been the caretakers of Buddhism in the course of the last one hundred generations, the cultures that have brought the peculiarity and anomaly to the practices and beliefs of the local traditions, to the garb of the monastics, to the style of the liturgy, to the presence of unfamiliar figures in temple statuary, to unfamiliar rites at temple altars, to unknown scriptures on temple bookshelves, ant to hocus pocus all around.

I did not intend to become Indiana Jones in pursuit of my spiritual aspirations, but the most worthwhile artifacts are to be found in exotic places, even on geographically Western soil. I think of the beatniks of San Francisco who first sought out “Zen Master” Shunryu Suzuki Roshi at the Sokoji Temple and were quick to peg him as “like, squaresville.” Fortunately they, at least some of them, revised their first impression and dared to place their trust beyond the familiar when they returned to the temple. I too will venture into Asian temples, because 99% of the world’s adepts are there and particularly because examples of a fully functional, sustainable Sasana are still extremely rare outside of Asian communities, the kind of place in which my kids, for instance, can play among the leaves and be nourished by sun, water and soil.

Nonetheless, it makes almost no sense whatever for me to learn someone else’s Folk Buddhism, unless I happen to be an anthropologist, since someone else’s Folk Buddhism is an attempt to harmonize with someone else’s folk culture, which cannot help me in mine. I need only to respect someone else’s Folk Buddhism, with all its cultural accretions, not to make it my own. On the other hand, while Adept Buddhism can seem remarkably modern, it always has culturally-conditioned factors of its own, such as anjali – present from the time of the Buddha – and the intensely ritualized conduct of Zen.

As someone stuck in the familiar, my first inclination is to try to expunge my Buddhism of all foreign cultural influences, but I see how this will unnecessarily and arbitrarily lead to to throwing out the Buddha with the bathwater. A bit of Indiana Jones’ daring is called for, at least a willingness to explore exotic places. Playfulness is also apt. My kids will love it.

Seeking the exotic

There are days in which I seem to swing in the opposite direction, to reach out for unfamiliar contexts and unique experiences, to eat of octopus or of mountain oysters, to sip of kop luwak coffee, or of bird’s nest soup, to seek mystical and peak experiences or simply, through Buddhism, to enter into exotic cultures.

Like many others I might in my relentless search for special experiences flit around from one opportunity to the next, attend a seminar one weekend in which an initial Awakening experience is promised in a comfortable group setting, and a Sufi dancing workshop the next, chanting nembutsu the weekend after that. Unfortunately, I am a bit of a sucker for snake oil.

What is in danger of being lost in the quest for experiences is the well-rounded development of my complete human character. The bread and butter of the gradual path taught by the Buddha do not come with peak experiences attached; they are more humdrum than that. I do best to begin with Refuge, generosity, kindness and renunciation and move on from there. Higher attainments, which do often involve uncommon experiences, are generally reserved those who work at it full time for many years, particular those who take advantage of the monastic path. Slow and steady wins the race. Lining up unintegrated peak experiences that do not have a history of working together will produce something like a centipede who is unable to coordinate its myriad feet. Wriggle as I might, I will make no progress along the Buddhist Path.

To make matters worse, I live in a consumer culture which markets not products and services but experiences. I do not simply buy an iThingy or a potato chip, but a special experience, one that will transform me into one of the gleeful smiling models in the ads. This is dangerous where it intersects with Buddhist practice. As noted, Folk Buddhist movements already have a bit of a history of extolling experience. With the help of modern marketing it is bound to create the kind of acquisitiveness that Buddhist practice is intended to overcome. Rather than renouncing one thread of samsaric life after another as we make progress along the Path, we end up adding one marketable product or service after another to an already karmically overburdened life.

What I will pursue is a middle-way between the familiar and the exotic, swinging too far neither to the one or the other extreme.

… Continued next week.

1 I think I may have experienced a brief free thought just last month, albeit the content of which I cannot seem to recall.

Growing the Dharma: Folk Buddhism

October 28, 2013

Let’s get sociological. You are reading a serialization of the ebook Growing the Dharma: Buddhism’s Religious Spadework. In this rather long installment we consider how there are always two kinds of Buddhism side by side, Adept and Folk.

Chapter 6. Folk Buddhism

Each weekend many people set out to conquer the mountain in the middle of the state park, a large and very mixed group of people of every age, state of health, type of footwear, size of backpack or picnic basket, degree of inebriation or caffeine fortification. The group that appears on any particular day will naturally spread itself out from the trail head just beyond the parking lot along the trails that weave and intersect throughout the park and that occasionally empty a weary hiker to the top of the mountain for the final ascent up its rocky peak.

The strongest, healthiest, be-hiking-booted, light-backpacked, boldest, most persistent and most enterprising make the best progress. These are recognizable even in the parking lot: They generally drive all-terrain vehicles with bicycle racks, are slim and fit and carry high-tech water bottles. They are recognizable later as the ones walking in the opposite direction with bright and open faces, inspiring others with their retelling of mountaintop experiences. Some of them, but not all, make that last climb up the abrupt final cliff.

In the middle range there is inevitably a mutually infatuated teenage couple that makes energetic progress in spurts, but keeps getting side-tracked and disappearing from the path and into the brush for periods of time. There are some chubby middle-aged people who huff and puff, sip frequently from canteens and eat sandwiches. And there are some relatively fit but ancient binoculared birdwatchers.

Falling way back are parents and their young kids who “cannot walk another step,” a couple of people sitting on a rock drinking beer, an elderly gentleman watching fire ants devour his cane that he had to abandon upright after it sank into a soft spot in the ground, and an alluringly attired young lady who broke a heel on the first rock past the parking lot.

The Buddhist Path is defined with the bicycle racks and cutting-edge water bottles in mind and the rest of us try our best to keep up but then straggle to varying degrees. We do what we can, and often the accomplishments of the leaders and tales of panoramic views from lofty heights inspire us to try a bit harder. The field guides, trail maps and high-tech hiking boots are primarily designed with these young and fit scalers of peaks and surveyors of views in mind, though those assets that carry the famous Mahayana® logo are, they say, a bit more middle-group- and way-back-group-friendly.

It is important to recognize that Buddhism is not a cookie-cutter enterprise. Most religions tend to be. That is, they define a set of practices or standards that all adherents are equally responsible for upholding, producing rather standardized norms of behavior and understanding. They do not put so much emphasis on the aspirations and needs of the hotshots and rocket scientists as Buddhism does. In fact, Buddhism cannot be a cookie-cutter enterprise because its standards are extraordinarily high: perfect purity in action and thought, penetrating insight and imperturbable serenity. Those adepts of highest attainment understand and live something extremely sophisticated and rare, beyond the reach of the more typical among us.

The other side of the story is that straggling is quite permissible in Buddhism. Nobody requires that we undertake five precepts, least of all God; it is our choice. No one requires that we drop anything into alms bowls, nor that we attend Dharma talks, nor that we cultivate the mind; we choose to, individually or as families. Buddhism provides choices at every level, hopefully with the support and advice provided through our communities to make these with due deliberation on the basis of Buddhist wisdom. We Buddhists spread ourselves out on the Path based on our choices, on our determination and on our aptitude. But the stragglers can rely on adepts for guidance and encouragement when they like. The scalers of peaks nonetheless inspire us all in a wholesome direction.

Adept Buddhism and Folk Buddhism

Let’s get sociological. Attainment and understanding, interest and commitment, time and energy, differentiate the more adept members of the Buddhist community from the more average members. Thereby, adepts tend to serve as the inspiration and the guides for those who have yet to excel and, adepts, taking the botanical metaphor one more step, tend to be the cultivators and breeders of authentic Buddhism beyond the full comprehension of much of the larger community. The adepts are the horticulturists who ensure that a well nourished and domesticated Sasana endures. A corollary is that in virtually any Buddhist society we can distinguish two kinds of Buddhist practice and understanding living side by side: Adept Buddhism, a Buddhism cultivated through artificial selection, and Folk Buddhism, a product of natural selection in the context of the prevailing folk culture. One flower is fragrant and produces a bright blossom, the other is scraggly. More accurately the two Buddhisms are ends of a continuum running thought adept, mostly adept, mostly folk and folk, just as domestication and wildness are ends of a continuum of more or less narrowly refined gene pools.

CometI find it helpful to visualize the community, of either plants or adherents, as 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, much as hikers intent on mountaintops.1 This is a demographic depiction of the Sasana, showing how the members of the community distribute themselves according to their influences. This metaphor is a way of looking at the social dynamics of a particular Buddhist community. I am not a sociologist, nor for that matter an historian, though I purport to know something about Buddhist doctrine. However I have found that sociological research on Buddhism consistently fails to make a distinction between Adept and Folk Buddhisms and thereby fails to account for how resiliency can exist alongside malleability, that is, how the integrity of authentic Buddhism tends to be preserved in spite of ongoing change. It even fails to explain what it means to preserve the integrity of authentic Buddhism in the midst of a multiplicity of understandings and misunderstandings, practices and malpractices. Research that fails to make these distinctions also fails to interpret the significance of different kinds of innovations and account for their varying effects on the historical evolution of Buddhism. I hope that this recognition will help resolve much of the interminable back-and-forth between Theravada and Mahayana, Eastern and Western, early and traditional, secular and religious and other dichotomies we tend to read into Buddhism.

Adept Buddhism

Consider how domesticated flowers and fruit trees that manifest those fragrant, colorful, sweet and plump traits so valued by humans, first arose and have been sustained over the centuries, even when propagated to different parts of the world: There has been an ongoing process of artificial selection, of deliberate human intervention into the evolutionary process, that has served continually to re-domesticate Buddhism, to preserve, to enhance or where necessary to restore Buddhism’s pristine functional authenticity that might otherwise quickly degrade in an environment where those qualities might otherwise count little toward survival. The result is an Adept Buddhism that runs counter to the prevailing expectation that something as sophisticated as Buddhism will run down under the influence of the embedding folk culture. Adept Buddhism is the authentic practice and understanding upheld through deliberate cultivation and breeding by members of the adept community. Adept Buddhism is what scholars have also sometimes named normative Buddhism or high Buddhism.

Who are these Adepts? Roughly they are the rocket scientists, the surveyors of views, the bearers of high-tech water bottles, those capable of comprehending and ensuring the authenticity of Buddhist practice and understanding even as Buddhism takes on new forms. Clearly those of the highest attainment and understanding are found in the Noble Sangha, the Noble Ones who have reached at least the first stage of Awakening, at which self-view and doubt have fallen away, who see clearly Nirvana and the Path that leads there. Those formally entrusted with the task of domesticating Buddhism are the Monastic Sangha, institutionally the guardians of the Sasana. The relevant parts of their mission statement are the last four points described in Chapter Four:

“The arousing of faith in the faithless,
The increase of the faithful,
The establishment of the true Dharma,and
The fostering of Discipline.”

It is the Monastic Sangha that also tends to spin off Noble Ones, so we can therefore regard the Vinaya as the basis of Adept Buddhism, along with the Path. But additionally there may be non-noble non-monastics who can be considered part of the adept complex, particularly dedicated lay scholars and practitioners who contribute their own peculiar expertise to the process of cultivation and breeding the Sasana. Therefore I prudently use the word “adept” rather than “Sangha” to name the adherent of Adept Buddhism.

In brief, this is the profile of Adept Buddhism:

Adept Buddhism

Adherents

2 Sanghas, specialists, “Adepts”

Basis

Vinaya (+Path)

Quality

Authentic

Content

Orthodox, limited fold adaptations

The content of Adept Buddhism tends to be relatively orthodox in that it is not nearly so subject to innovation and to culture-specific understandings, trends or fads as Folk Buddhism. This means also that Adept Buddhists are very likely to share most of their understandings and practices with the Adept Buddhists of other lands, cultures and traditions, and so to possess what is most universal about Buddhism. However Adept Buddhism itself is also over time shaped by the local culture as its adepts sometimes appropriate in a deliberate manner expressions of that culture into their adept understanding or practice. A primary example of a later cultural intrusion into Adept Buddhism comes from the Far East as the fashioning of formal and ritual elements under Confucian influence into the Buddhist practice of mindfulness.

It should be noted that adepts are typically conversant with a local Folk Buddhism, having been raised as folk Buddhists before becoming adepts. They are effectively bi-religious. When some of Suzuki Roshi’s American students traveled back to Japan with him they found him engaging with Japanese Folk Buddhists in a way that was quite distinct from what they were used to and in fact incomprehensible to them. Although he imparted Adept Buddhism in America he could also become a Japanese Folk Buddhist on demand, keeping the two Buddhisms separate in his mind alongside the two languages he used to engage them. Other adepts seem to have more trouble knowing where the Adept Buddhism stops and the Folk Buddhism begins, not really a problem as long as there is not contradiction, until one is required to teach Buddhism outside ones own culture. I suspect that the Asian masters who became successful teacher in the West are those able to keep their Buddhisms straight.

Although we all share democratic ideals, the idea of adepts in Buddhism should not puzzle or concern. Almost every area of human endeavor has its adepts. Many people can change the washer in a faucet, or turn off the main valve if there is a leak, but when something gets more difficult than that they call a plumber, because she is the expert. Even in routine things that almost everybody does, like driving or vacuuming, some people are more adept than others. As the depth of understanding and practice in particular fields gets very sophisticated, humankind inevitably sorts itself into adepts and regular folk. And the regular folk will, as needed, appeal to the authority of the adepts for advice, service or (should they desire to become adepts themselves) training. Consider art or music, birdwatching or hiking. The depth or sophistication of Buddhism is of the order, say, of a science, of music or of medicine, and Awakening is of the order of genius. Buddhism will (and must!) have its adepts.

The Example of Burmese Adept Buddhism

Burma is largely representative of most of Asia. Moreover, Burma is within the range of Indian cultural influence, and also has so far to no great extent suffered the flings and narrows of outrageous modernity, so its Buddhism is particularly archaic. Monks still fill the early morning Burmese streets, bowls in hand as they go for alms. Winston King describes the shape of the Buddha-Sasana in Burma as follows:

There is a traditionally orthodox centre represented literally by the scriptures, doctrinally by the conservative tradition expounded by the Sangha and the orthodox core of lay followers, and practically by the conventional Buddhist morality for laymen and meditational practice by the spiritually elite in both Sangha and lay ranks. Living cheek-by-jowl with orthodoxy, often frowned upon but never rigidly excluded, and hence become a nearly integral part of “Buddhism”, is the religion of folk-lore and the popular devotional cultus of adorational worship of the Buddha image and prudential reverence to the nats [tree spirits].2

This relationship between an orthodox center and the folklore cultus is typical of the Adepts and the Folks in traditional Buddhist lands. The particular strength of Adept Buddhism in Burma is evident in Burma in meditation practice, in the large proportion of monastics in the population, in the relatively high standards of monastic discipline and education and in the widespread study of the scriptures. A number of Burmese monks in recent years have been widely regarded as arahants and certainly Noble Ones are common. Monks and nuns are ubiquitous; everybody knows them and most in fact are related to some of them. Even the smallest village has a small monastery. Furthermore there are a number of prominent lay scholars and meditation teachers. The Sangha is the most respected segment of Burmese society and the locus of Dharmic authority. It would be improper to contradict a senior monk on Dharmic matters.

Doctrinally, the Burmese adepts, as Theravadins, have a high regard for the Pali Tipitaka, consisting of the Vinaya, the Suttas and the Abhidharma of very early origin preserved in a very early Indic dialect, giving the most direct access available to the early teachings of the Buddha. Scholarship for the Burmese adepts is largely based on memorization of these Pali texts, and competence in Pali is widespread; there are monks who can recite hundreds or even thousands of pages from memory. There is, on the other hand, almost no tradition of scholarly debate as we are used to in the West.

The Example of Western Adept Buddhism

In this formative period, the West is quite dissimilar to the Burmese case. I will write of “Western Buddhism” quite a bit in the rest of this book, so let me clarify that “Western” is a rather inadequate designation of a vaguely defined culture, not of a geographical area. Others have used “convert,” “modern” and “non-Asian” at least as inadequately and sometimes even more awkwardly, pairing these variously with “ethnic-,” “cradle-,” “traditional-” and “Asian-Buddhism.” “Western” can be variously correlated with physical presence in the geographical West, with the influence of the European Enlightenment, scientific rationalism and Romanticism, with car and iPhone ownership and, perhaps most reliably, with the use of forks as the primary eating utensil. When brought together with Buddhism it is further correlated with new “converts” (first-generation Buddhists), a very high level of education and social status. An Indian or Singaporean can be remarkably Western in all of these senses beyond the geographical.

In the West, the traditional Sangha is as yet almost completely absent! Very few Western Buddhists have direct contact with monks or nuns, or have ever even met one, and wouldn’t know what to feed it if they did. Nonetheless prominent monastic teachers and authors known at a distance through books and other media are highly influential and active in the West: Thich Nhat Hanh, the Dalai Lama, Pema Chodron, Bhante Gunaratana, Thubten Chodron, Bhikkhu Bodhi, Ajahn Sumedho, and so on. All of these are widely regarded as extraordinarily wise people, excellent resources for conveying the Dharma and exemplary role models, just not generally physically present.

At the local level, the role of adepts among Westerners is probably most closely represented variously by ordained priests in the Japanese or Korean Zen traditions, typically with some training in a monastic setting, by certified lay lamas in the Tibetan tradition, many of whom have lived in a cave for three years, by a number of ex-monastics, primarily trained in the Theravada countries of Asia, and by various Buddhist scholars who also practice Buddhism. Unfortunately, this does not constitute a set of adepts that is consistently recognized as such by the wider community, and in fact the value of any kind of clerical authority is dismissed by many in the West in any case. Moreover many in the Western Buddhist community 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.

The Third Gem, to muddle issues even more, has no particular referent for most Western Buddhists. It is widely assumed by default that “Sangha” applies to the community at large, contrary to any Asian usage I am aware of, for instance, lending this word to names for informal weekly meditation and discussion groups like “Sofa So Good Zen Sangha,” or “Muddy Lotus Sangha.”3 On the other hand, the Western Buddhist community as a whole enjoys, given the current demographics, extremely high levels of education and inclination toward study of Buddhist source texts and toward meditation practice as compared to their Asian counterparts. Adept knowledge, in short, is less intensely concentrated and more widely distributed than in the Asian context. It is as if in the opening scenario of this chapter very few indeed were to have the fortitude to scale the final peak, yet everyone would show up at the state park trailhead wearing cutting-edge shoes, so that young kids, for instance, can take another step, and so on.

Folk Buddhism

We are all physicists, at at least a naïve level, insofar as we must deal with the world of mass and motion, light and liquids, gravity and gyrations. Try asking some folk physicists things like: What keeps the moon and airplanes up but us down? Why is the back of the refrigerator so warm? How can radio waves carry sounds and pictures? What makes water freeze? … and you may receive in return an astonishingly imaginative array of folk understandings that trail off into total misunderstandings, superstition and “old wives’ tales,” alongside some sound guesses. Music, philosophy, art and engineering are other areas in which expert or adept knowledge or skill exists side by side with naïve or folk understandings. Buddhism, because of its extreme sophistication, is no different, never has been since the earliest days, and never will be.

Folk Buddhism is a wilder, less domesticated and more popular understanding of Buddhism than Adapt Buddhism that manifests in a particular social, cultural or regional context. Accordingly malleability is a prominent property of Folk Buddhism. Folk Buddhism includes many elements found also in Adept Buddhism but also a hefty admixture of folk beliefs, highly devotional practices, elements of non-Buddhist religious, ethical and philosophical traditions, many colorful elements from myth or popular entertainment, and many false understandings of Buddhist teachings.

Understand that Folk Buddhism overlaps Adept Buddhism. Its defining characteristic is its relative popularity among the general Buddhist population. For instance, the mass meditation movement in Burma counts as Folk Buddhism because of its wide popularity, far from majority appeal but way beyond adept circles. Meditation of exactly that sort is at the same time a basic Path practice, quite in line with Adept Buddhism and widely encouraged by the adepts. Understand also that Folk Buddhism is a necessary part of the Buddha-Sasana in order to make Buddhism comprehensible for most Buddhists and non-Buddhists. Its importances should not be discounted. It is Buddhism’s interface with the folk culture.

If Adept Buddhism is resilient and Folk Buddhism is malleable, what holds Buddhism together? Folk Buddhism is tethered to Adept Buddhism by Refuge! As Buddhists who have taken Refuge in the Triple Gem, those in the tail know in which direction the head is found and are open to the softening and shaping influence of Adept Buddhism. For this reason, Folk Buddhism is not Buddhism in decay, eaten at by the prevailing folk culture. Rather it is something suspended between countervailing forces, the domestication of Adept Buddhism and the wilds of the folk culture, and trying to reconcile itself with both. Refuge, veneration for the Buddha and the Dharma, and for the Sangha that represents them, keeps Folk Buddhism firmly under the influence of Adept Buddhism and lends authority to the word of the adepts. This does not make Folk Buddhism identical with Adept Buddhism but tends to make it consistent with it. As fads and fashions come and go, this relationship ensures that trends that run counter to Buddhist values are noticed, admonished and nipped in the bud.

This is much like the popular relationship to science. For instance, if I don’t have much of an understanding of how the weather works I might have some odd notions about it and even share these with other people. If someone disagrees with me we generally have a way to resolve the disagreement: look it up or ask an expert. If I refuse to be corrected by the experts, my understanding will degrade as it loses its mooring in science and floats off into supposition and superstition. It is more normal in our society to defer to scientists as authorities and thereby at least open ourselves to an improved understanding of science. Similarly, the Folk Buddhist will defer to adepts lest he float off in a wildly devotional cultic bubble. In short, the adepts have the soapbox.

Here is Folk Buddhism contrasted with Adept Buddhism

Adept Buddhism

Folk Buddhism

Adherents

2 Sanghas, specialists, “Adepts” General Buddhist Community, “Folks”

Basis

Vinaya (+Path) Refuges

Quality

Authentic Consistent

Content

Orthodox, limited fold adaptations Mix of Buddhist, folk-cultural elements

It is inevitable in Folk Buddhism that, along with some proper understandings of authentic teachings, there will also be naïve misunderstandings, for instance, that there is a soul or a fixed self that acquires merit through good deeds, and that Nirvana is a particularly felicitous realm where that self can be reborn and dwell forever. It is likewise common in Folk Buddhism to seek protection from outrageous fortune in amulets or in special chants or in the simple presence of monks or nuns. Folk Buddhism is highly conditioned by the embedding culture, as well as by universal human needs. Many Asian cultures have had strong animist and shamanic influences since before the advent of Buddhism ,and these have since become indistinguishable from Buddhism in the popular mind. In East Asia, for instance, ancestor worship is very much integrated into Folk Buddhism with its many traditional expressions, such as symbolic burning of money. Folk Buddhism serves as a middle way between Adept Buddhism and the general embedding folk culture, and is an enduring part of a healthy Sasana.

The Example of Burmese Folk Buddhism

A frequent Burmese visitor to the monastery in which I live in Texas, a laywoman who likes to come on weekends to prepare food for the monks, was up late one night and spotted a monk standing in the sky above one of the new buildings near where a new pagoda was about to begin construction. She called other people hither, also Burmese laypeople, who indeed verified the presence of this monk in the sky, only by this time he was sitting in meditation posture. It was generally agreed among the witnesses that this monk had teletransported from Burma. A couple of weeks later I heard the story retold by another layperson not an original witness to this event, and in the retelling that the monk in question was our own founder, who lives in Burma, undoubtedly checking out the new construction site. I personally often feel in many such circumstances like Clark Kent, who never happens to be present when Superman appears, never present for the occurrence of such miracles.

The average Burmese Buddhist knows maybe a little about meditation but does not practice it regularly, knows basic teachings of Buddhism largely from Jataka tales (primarily a Children’s literature), but is primarily informed by a vibrant Folk Buddhism. Burma is a land of pagodas, statues of the Buddha, and numerous monks and nuns, before all of which people bow, fully touching their foreheads to the ground in reverence. The average Burmese Buddhist also inhabits a world of tree spirits, miracles and magic, largely of pre-Buddhist origin but often blending in his mind seamlessly with Buddhist practices and doctrine. Appeasing tree spirits (nats) is a common duty of monks.

In Burma, blessings are routinely sought from monks. As in other Theravada countries, the chanting of any of the Parittas, a set of eleven suttas or composites from the suttas, by monks on one’s behalf is widely believed to be efficacious in protecting one’s welfare. This practice has parallels in many religions and other Buddhist traditions, including the use of talismans or amulets and bestowing blessings. A revealing study reports that in fact the vast majority of monks, all of whom provide this priestly service routinely believe such practices have no special power other than to produce self-confidence in the patient.4 I have often heard monks pointing this very thing out, but folk beliefs persist, as does the chanting of Parittas by the monks.

In Burma, many lay people have daily contact with monastics when they offer alms in the morning, rice and a little curry. People have a particular regard for monks who are accomplished meditators, have impeccable discipline or are recognized scholars. Although monks rarely mingle in social gatherings, alms rounds or visits to the monastery on quarter moon days provide the laity an opportunity to learn some Dharma or ask questions. Although all monks are respected, people learn of individual monks’ reputations as teachers. Moreover, in this electronic age many people listen to recordings of Dharma talks and Paritta chanting at home, featuring their favorite famous sayadaws (teachers), as routinely as Americans listen to talk shows.

Part of the Burmese system of veneration of the Buddha and of arahants involves relics, as the Buddha himself endorsed. In Burma these generally take on the form of crystals which are capable of spontaneously reproducing like bunnies: Left overnight, the next morning they will have increased in number and mass. A museum has been built in a temple in Burma where a local arahant had lived and died. Pictures in the museum reveal he had very intense eyes, which did not burn during his cremation but were found among the relics. I am not aware that the eyes have multiplied with time.

Relics, and also consecrated statues of the Buddha, have special powers.5 Kyaik Tiyo, the golden rock, is a huge boulder, maybe 40 or 50 feet in diameter, perched on top of a sheer cliff, at the very top of a tall mountain in southern Burma, in such a way that it has been just about to roll off for maybe the last several hundred thousand years or so. The story is told that some of the Buddha’s hairs are contained inside of the rock and that the rock remains in place by the unexplained “power of the Buddha.” Once upon a time, some non-Buddhists tried to push the rock off the cliff in order to undermine people’s trust in the Triple Gem, but they were turned into monkeys. In an inspiring, hopefully not foolhardy, display of faith, there is now a nunnery directly below the rock, exactly at the point of first bounce.

The Example of Pure Land Buddhism

How often does a particular school or regional variant of Buddhism lose it authenticity? If Buddhism loses its horticulture, its adepts, it cannot expect to be fully authentic. We will see some examples where this seems to have occurred, but I think we will find it is far less common than might be imagined. Buddhism has shown itself to be extremely resilient.

Let’s consider Pure Land Buddhism, which we encountered in the last chapter as a huge movement for the last many centuries in East Asia, but which is also widely criticized as promoting an inauthentic devotional path of practice, the nien-fo, the invocation of the name of Amitabha Buddha, with the promise of rebirth in the Western Pure Land as the primary goal. What sets off alarms is the appeal to an external power for salvation, bypassing the Buddha’s teaching of karma, that our own deeds determine our attainments. Pure Land’s appeal to a higher power has been compared the Abrahamic faiths and has provided a sitting duck for Theravadins seeking to disparage the Mahayana, for indeed it represents a large proportion of the entirety of Mahayana practice.

The point I want to make is that Pure Land is Folk Buddhism pure and simple, and therefore need not bear any claim to authenticity. What makes Pure Land distinct from other Folk Buddhist understandings and practices is its immense popularity and its organization as movement with an independent identity. On the one hand the Pure Land movement has the hallmarks of Folk Buddhism: Its single-focused practice, its devotional quality, its easy-answer, easily comprehended and implemented approach and its popular appeal. For much of its history in China it has been promoted through specifically lay organizations, often called White Lotus Societies, and grown through proselytizing among the laity.

On the other hand, the Pure Land movement does not seem to be a cultic bubble that has dislodged itself from Adept Buddhism. The Pure Land has historically almost never been a separate school but has rather taken hold within and across non-Pure Land schools that have sustained an Adept Buddhism alongside a Folk Buddhism. For instance, there is no recognized monastic lineage of Pure Land patriarchs analogous to that found in Ch’an, T’ien-T’ai or other major schools in East Asia, and any of the monastic names historically associated with Pure Land turn out to be affiliated with non-Pure Land schools. Even today the Ch’an/Pure Land syncretism is the norm for Chinese temples.6 In short, Pure Land is a Folk Buddhist practice almost always tethered to, and recognizing the authority of, a domesticated Adept Buddhism. Like many Folk Buddhist practices and understandings, Pure Land has been promoted within the various schools, even by and for monastic communities, as a part of a healthy Sasana. Its existence is no more evidence for the inauthenticity of some part of Mahayana Buddhism than the belief in forest spirits is for the inauthenticity of Burmese Buddhism or, for that matter, than a near majority belief in creationism in America is for the poor quality of American science. Nonetheless, we will see in the next chapter what happens when Pure Land in Japan cuts itself off from its adepts to become a truly separate school.

The Example of Western Folk Buddhism.

Buddhism has has by norms of Buddhist chronology only begun to blend with Western folk culture. Tweed (2000) examining the first wave of this process, ending some hundred years ago, identifies three types of early adherents, each with its own focus of interest: The esoterics were attracted to the occult metaphysical and experiential aspects of Buddhism, the rationalists to almost the opposite, to the discoursive, scientific and non-religious aspects, and the romantics to the exotic aspects of Buddhist cultures, to their art and architecture. Each of these had a distinct understanding of what Buddhism is all about, all found what they were looking for, and all of these are still with us. McMahan (2008) provides an excellent catalog of those many trends in current Western Buddhist practice and understanding that have clearly traceable Western cultural roots, roots generally in Protestant Christianity, in the European Enlightenment and scientific rationalism, in Romanticism or in psychotherapy. Let me take just one example of this kind.

A popular understanding in the West is that Buddhism is about freeing one’s authentic (innermost/true) self (nature/voice/heart), a self that has been suppressed by social conditioning and other unnatural factors, but when unleashed is the source of creativity, spirituality, virtue and wisdom. This authentic self is typically accorded the following qualities:

  • The authentic self exists independently of social roles, culture and conventions.

  • Social roles, culture and conventions are oppressive to the authentic self.

  • Creativity, spontaneity, goodness and art are external expressions that flow out from the authentic self. This is known as self-expression or being natural.

  • Spirituality adheres in the authentic self, while religion is found in external rules, conventions and dogma.7

  • We must learn to trust the inner experience and inner vision of the authentic self, that which comes naturally, that which is true to ourselves.

Although such statements have a long and venerable history, it has only a short Buddhist history. In fact, this authentic “self” is far more metaphysical than what Buddhism generally endorses. The idea of the authentic self does bear a kinship to practices of introspective examination in authentic Buddhism, but we would be hard pressed indeed to find any of the rather specific statements above represented in Buddhist literature of any tradition. For instance, where in the scriptures might one find an answer to a follow-up question like, “Is the authentic self capable of jealousy or vengeance?”

If the notion of the innermost heart does not have a Buddhist origin, where did it come from? The answer is: from European Romanticism and its later expressions.8 It is found in people like Rousseau, Schiller and Schliermacher, representing the idea of human thought free from social constraints, of morality and wisdom coming directly from the human heart, of naturalness. The outflow of the inner self is often taken up in the art of the Romantic era; Wordsworth, for instance, stated that “all good poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.”9 Such Romantic themes can be traced through the American Transcendentalist movement and through turn-of-the-last-century metaphysical movements, where they played a role in the early attempts to comprehend Buddhism in the West,10 then later entered the American countercultural movements of the middle twentieth century, which provided the fertile soil in which Buddhism began to take root in the West.11

The authentic self is probably useful in highlighting the importance of interior or introspective experience in pushing up and ascending the stem of the flower. The Path is in many ways a solitary one. I don’t want to dismiss its useful role in Western Folk Buddhist understanding. However, from the perspective of authentic Buddhism it has some problematic qualities as well. First, until one has reached a degree of attainment, the uninstructed worldling is generally assumed to be enormously deluded, mired in greed, hatred and delusion. Under this condition, trust in any inner voice would seem most ill-advised. Second, the authentic self does not seem particularly helpful in the project of deconstructing the self and in fact contains its own potential for self-centeredness. Third, the inner self would seem to dismiss the role of the Buddhist community and the importance of the Sasana as simply social constructs, inimical to the authentic self, and therefore irrelevant to “real” Buddhism.

In short, the authentic self, a pervasive and popular understanding in Western Folk Buddhism, lacks a firm basis in authentic Buddhism. To a great extent, the popular understanding of Buddhism in the West is a patchwork of many analogous understandings sewn in with some pieces of authentic Buddhist cloth.

A Western American Wanders into a Chinese Temple

How did it happen that Western Buddhists so quickly gained a monopoly on real Buddhism? We in the West certainly don’t seem to have gained much of a handle on Christianity over many centuries, and the average citizen of my country is pretty clueless about science, history, and almost everything else outside of popular entertainment. Yet we meditate and study Buddhist philosophy, while people in Asian temples burn money and appease spirits through elaborate rituals. How were we the ones to arrive at this precise understanding of something as sophisticated and refined as Buddhist thought and practice?

A culturally European American once walked into a culturally Asian Chinese temple. He had been reading books on Buddhism, primarily by Asian adepts, had been favorably impressed and wished to develop his personal experience in the matter. After entering, he was taken aback by the peculiarity and anomaly in the practices and beliefs of the laity he encountered, by the formal style and insistence on liturgy, by the presence of unfamiliar dramatic figures in temple statuary, by unfamiliar rites at temple altars, by chanting the name of some guy he had never heard of and by hocus pocus all around. The devout temple laity witnessed yet another dismayed European American run out the door and into the street yelling something about an “egregious corruption of the Dharma.” What gives?

It is not much different when a culturally Chinese walks into a culturally European Buddhist center and immediately encounters a laity intent on discovering their true selves, casual and disrespectful of demeanor, sitting in a circle expressing themselves openly and freely, with no visible clergy or leader present, before what seems to be an altar but on which a rock stands where the Buddha should be. He sees that the devotees are engaged in some kind of modern dance practice involving an exchange of papier-mâché masks constructed the previous week, which everyone is instructed to wear and then act “spontaneously.” These casual free spirits are about to witness yet another polite Asian American excuse himself respectfully and depart never to be seen again. What gives?

The physical center of a comet is not the head but somewhere in the tail. Wild flora outnumbers domesticated. When we encounter someone else’s Buddhism, we tend to see not its Adept Buddhism but its Folk Buddhism, since this is the most outwardly visible part of Buddhism, upheld by the most people. It is also generally the most overtly religious. On the other hand, when we regard our own Buddhism, we identify with its Adept Buddhism, because our own aspirations head in that direction. Even while we realize that Adept Buddhism preserves an understanding that our own cultural assumptions and faulty understandings makes obscure to us, that Adept Buddhism nonetheless belongs to us and is there when we need it. In this way, the impression arises of a Buddhism fragmented into East and West, Mahayana and Theravada, secular and religious, and beyond repair. Buddhism is more or less fine! The integrity of the authentic traditions has been retained with remarkable resilience, yet Buddhism has proven itself at the same time highly tolerant of cultural and regional diversity. Are we as tolerant?

1The adept scientists among my readership will appreciate that this simile depends on a folk scientist’s understanding of how a comet works.

2King, 1990, p. 67.

3I have not been able to pinpoint the origin of this generalized usage of the word sangha. During my onetime research of this very issue, the late scholar John McCrea, a specialist in East Asian Buddhism, emailed me, “I agree that the western usage of ‘sangha’ to include ordained and lay practitioners/believers is unusual, or idiosyncratic.”

4Spiro (1982) Ch. 6.

5Almost all monks, according to Spiro (1982) Ch. 6, agree that relics have special powers, though images of the Buddha do not.

6Sharf (2003) reviews this evidence for the historical dependence of Pure Land on other schools of Buddhism.

7That is, the authentic self is spiritual, not religious.

8McMahan (2008), pp. 76-87, also Thanissaro (2002).

9McMahan (2008), p. 82.

10Much as Taoism provided the lens through which Buddhism was interpreted in China almost two millenia earlier.

11McMahan (2008), p. 85.

Growing the Dharma: the Rest of the Buddhist Community

October 4, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Shape of the Lay Community.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Through their support of the Sangha as well as the rest of the Buddhist Community folk Buddhists develop the joyful feeling of doing their share, of participating fully in bringing the civilizing influence of the Noble Ones into the Community and in upholding the Sasana to preserve Buddhism in its pristine purity for future generations. The relationship between the Sangha and lay Community is one of complementary roles in partnership. The Sangha upholds the teachings, spins off Noble Ones and thereby serves the Community. The Noble Ones are the soil that provides not only the nourishment of water and mineral but ensures that the entire practice, roots, leaves, stem and blossom, will not be carried away by the wind in the years to come. The Buddhist Community supports the Sangha’s material needs. Generosity on both sides binds the two together.

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

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

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

2Mahaparinibbana Sutta, DN 16.

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

Growing the Dharma: the Buddhist Community

September 27, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Monastic Sangha

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Functions of the Discipline

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1Thanissaro (1997, 1999).

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

3Mahaparanibbana Sutta, DN 16.

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

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

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

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

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

 

Growing the Dhamma: How the Religious Context Works

August 25, 2013

This is part 2/2 of the Second Chapter, “Buddhist Life and Practice,” and the fourth installment of the weekly serialization of Growing the Dharma: Buddhism’s Religious Spadework. This explains how the various parts of an organic Buddhism, including the Triple Gem and the two-part Buddhist community work together to the benefit of the sasana.

How the Religious Context Works

The choice of the botanical metaphor is intended to emphasize the physiology of Buddhism, the parts and the interrelatedness of the parts functioning together as an organic system. The dominant operating principle of the leaves, the roots, the nourishment of the Triple Gem and the Sasana is friendship! In particular admirable friendship (Pali, kalyanamittatā) is possible when Noble Ones walk among us to provide wise role models and instructors. The principle is to offer to all the opportunity to hang out with persons consummate in virtue, in generosity, in serenity and in wisdom. The following dialog expresses in a rather striking way the critical importance the Buddha attached to this simple principle:

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

“’Don’t say that, Ananda. Don’t say that. Admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie is actually the whole of the holy life. When a monk has admirable people as friends, companions, & colleagues, he can be expected to develop & pursue the Noble Eightfold Path’.”1

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

The Noble Sangha arises, like all things, from conditions and these conditions are secured by means of the Monastic Sangha. The Buddha expressed this,

And if these monks, Subaddha, live rightly, the world will not be empty of arahants.”2

The world will be even less be empty of the Noble Ones, many of whom are not yet arahants but nonetheless attained of lower levels of Awakening. The Monastic Sangha is both training ground and dwelling place for the Noble Sangha, much like a university is both a training ground and a dwelling place for scholars. We will see as the themes of this book develop how without Noble Ones Buddhism can hardly retain its integrity, and how Noble Ones will be very few indeed without a strong monastic community or something like it.

The Buddha lived in a very religious culture and simply made use of much of what he saw around him while dismissing what he felt was useless or harmful. He made use of a range of what we regard as religious elements in crafting his own system of thought, not only to define practice and understanding, but also to provide the proper context to inspire correct practice and understanding now and for generations to come. I hope the reader will gain an appreciation by about the middle of this book of just how rational, carefully conceived and well-articulated the system was that he crafted. Although the main concern of his teaching career was with the Path (and secondarily with monastic regulation!), theBuddha understood that a Stem does not stand by itself, that it exists in a broader context. He was concerned to create the most nurturing context.

So far our references are largely to early Buddhism with some hints of later historical changes in the BudThis explains how the various parts of dhist traditions. We will look at these later changes in detail in the later chapters because they contribute much to the modern Buddhist landscape. They also provide a further perspective on the mechanisms of religiosity that the Buddha put in place, particularly with regard to the resilience of Buddhism alongside its adaptability, its capacity for retaining its authenticity even while manifesting innovation. Let me prepare for further discussion by concluding this chapter on the issue of authenticity in Buddhism.

Authenticity

Imagine someone has made up an elaborate and original joke that was then retold many times. Sometimes the retellings have made use of different words, sometimes even of different languages, sometimes they have added an embellishment or stripped away minor details. Characters might have changed names or gender, settings might have varied, elephants might be replaced by hippos. As we catalog the retellings we will find that some missed the point of the joke completely, but that others have recounted the joke in the same skillful way as the original, keeping the story line functionally intact, introducing the relevant information at just the right time and culminating in a punch line that has evoked almost the exact same response in the hearer as the original.

What shines through in an authentic retelling is the functional core of the original story. But how has the core been lost in some cases yet preserved in some cases in spite of a long history of alterations, so much so that they are unmistakably recognizable in the former cases as a manifestation of the same story? I suppose that authentic retellings have been transmitted by adept humorists who have understood the point of the joke and the art of telling it. Even if it is transmitted to them with some small error, they will know how to correct it to restore its functional integrity, because they get the joke.

Buddhism is like a good joke. It has always shown an enormous capacity for tolerating change, producing innumerable manifestations, and yet protecting the integrity of its core message. There is, in other words, a Buddhism that shines through constantly through the various Buddhist traditions, a Buddhism visible first in the earliest scriptures and a common edifice behind the many often wild and perplexing guises appearing under the name “Buddhism.”

The early manifestation of Buddhism derived from what was taught literally by the Buddha. Scholars have a fairly good idea of what early Buddhism looked like before it began to undergo retelling. It consisted of two parts, the Dharma and the Vinaya, the doctrine and the discipline. Roughly the Pali Suttas, particularly the Digha, Majjhima, Samyutta and Anguttara Nikayas as well as the Suttanipata and the Dhammapada of the Khuddhaka Nikaya along with the equivalent Chinese Agamas are acknowledged by scholars to constitute the most reliable evidence of the early Dharma. The Vinaya, the monastic code, is available in several redactions.3 I should note that these ancient Suttas and the Vinaya are not entirely reliable texts, having passed through both oral and orthographic transmissions and suffering from faults of memory, embellishments, insertions, deletions and other edits along the way.

The Buddha and his early disciples seem to have anticipated that what he had taught would manifest in different and unpredictable ways and revealed his interest in preserving the functionality rather than the literal or frozen content of doctrine and discipline. First, a broadening of what constituted Dharma included whatever led to the same narrowly defined goals.

“As for the qualities of which you may know, ‘These qualities lead to utter disenchantment, to dispassion, to cessation, to calm, to direct knowledge, to self-awakening, to Unbinding’: You may categorically hold, ‘This is the Dhamma, this is the Vinaya, this is the Teacher’s instruction.’”4

So, Dharma was not strictly confined to the words of the Buddha, but includes whatever shares their function at the highest level.

Second, the Great Standards (Pali, Mahāpadesa)5 generalized recognizable teachings to novel or uncertain circumstances. A particular view that suggests itself under such a circumstance can be tested by standing against the Dharma and the Vinaya and if it accords then it can be accepted.

Third, the Vinaya provides support for applying the Great Standards to monastic rules by providing for every rule an origin story that reveals the function of the rule. For instance, there is an early rule that monks should not drive ox carts. The origin story clearly reveals the intent of the rule in avoiding the exhibition of extravagance. Applying this to modern circumstances entails that monks probably should not fly first-class, nor drive a Mercedes, … but that ox carts are probably OK.

Finally, the Buddha anticipated that a level of adeptness in the Dharma would be required for its preservation, those who understand the point and can retell it correctly. This was a function of the Monastic Sangha as we will discuss some chapters hence.

We can think of the core of authentic Buddhism as a kind of eau de Boudhisme. It is the functional system that shines through in early Buddhism, but stripped of this particular manifestation and stripped of extraneous elements of the ancient texts irrelevant to the functionality of that system. Authentic Buddhism thereby turns away from the allure toward literalism lurking in early texts, and toward the flexibility admitted by the Great Standards, by the expansive meaning of Dharma, by the early functions revealed in the Vinaya origin stories and with by the adepts in their role of retelling the authentic Dharma in a way that best preserves its integrity in a particular cultural context.

This functional aspect can also be helpful in interpreting the early texts themselves to recognize what is really authentic. It suggests that it might sometimes be more interesting and helpful to ask when confronted with a particular teaching not “Is this really true?” but rather “Why was this said?,” to lay bare the function of the teaching. For instance, there is constant reference to devas, godly beings, in the early texts. These are very old texts; of course they are going to have things that raise modern eyebrows! The question of whether devas really exist or whether as Buddhists we should believe in devas, is of little consequence. More revealing is the question, What role do these supernatural beings play in the texts? If they have no recognizable function, maybe they are not core teachings. In fact, devas in the texts generally pop in on the Buddha much like laypeople, bowing to the Buddha and listening to discourses. They certainly are not there to demand worship or sacrifice. Instead they venerate the Buddha and even the monks, and generally act as cheerleaders of the Dharma. Their role therefore seems to have been largely rhetorical; it would have impressed the ancient Indians that even the gods look up to the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha. The search for the functionality, if any, quickly reveals the relevance of an element of the teachings to authentic Buddhism.6

As mentioned, the ancient scriptures are often an unreliable victim of ancient editing. However, seeking functionality can help the adept reader of the early scriptures interpret them properly. His task is like piecing together a jigsaw puzzle in which some pieces are annoyingly missing, and in which other pieces have been mixed in, to the adept reader’s vexation, from other jigsaw puzzles, but at some point nevertheless recognizes, “Oh, I get it: This is the Golden Gate Bridge!” At some point a particular interpretation of the whole shines forth that one cannot easily back out of. Although it cannot be proven decisively and still admits of debate, the convergence of evidence from many sources becomes so overwhelming to those who see what shines through, that doubt disappears. And what shines forth in each case is a functional system. The Buddha was a very systematic thinker.

The Buddhist adept accomplished in Buddhist practice is in a far better position to witness this shining through than the mere scholar because the former has his own experience as potentially confirming evidence. He is like the jigsaw enthusiast who has actually been on the Golden Gate Bridge, who is already familiar with its features and the contours of the land- and sea-scape around it. Once the Golden Gate Bridge has shone through it becomes the basis of interpreting the remaining unplaced pieces, and rejecting some altogether as intruders from other people’s jigsaw puzzles.

Nonetheless it can be exceedingly difficult to actually trace a functional feature of authentic Buddhism from early Buddhism into a later manifestation, as found, for instance, in Chinese Mahayana or Tibetan Vajrayana, in order to make the case that the later counterpart actually preserves the function of the original. The difficulty is compounded by the substitution of later texts for the earliest scriptures, which is endemic in the history of Buddhism. For instance, although many find Zen close to the Theravada forest tradition through experience in both traditions, there is little strictly textual basis for the connection. Part of the genius of Zen language as compared to Indian is the former’s minimalism, its ability to focus on the one thing upon which everything else hinges, to describe that and let the rest find its place implicitly. Because of such subtleties we must hope that the adepts, and ideally the Noble Ones, have been ceaselessly at work ensuring authenticity as these traditions have developed historically.

By way of example, mindfulness practice is clearly a key functional element of early Buddhism, one formulated in the lengthy Satipatthana Sutta and in other early discourses. In Japanese Zen there is a method of meditation that was named shikantaza by Dogen Zenji,7 which clearly has something to do mindfulness or awareness but is described by Dogen with very concise instructions that are textually quite distinct from the Satipatthana. It would therefore be very difficult to make a argument for functional equivalence that would satisfy the scholar, but it would be feasible for an experienced practitioner. I am fortunate personally to have trained in shikantaza and then many years later of studying the Satipatthana Sutta and modern vipassana techniques, which at least in this one case give me something of an adept’s insight into what shines through. I can definitively testify that there is an astonishing functional equivalence among these techniques. If my subjective testimony can be taken as reliable, this is one example of a feature of authentic Buddhism that has been carried historically through place and culture, evolving into a radically different manifestation, yet fully maintained its authenticity right down to the punch line. This is the genius of Buddhism.

1Upaddha Sutta, SN 45.2.

2DN 16.

3See, for instance, Pande (2006), pp. 1-16.

4AN 7.79.

5See AN 4.180 and a similar passage in the Mahaparinibbana Sutta, DN 16.

6I am putting aside for now the function of deva realms in early Buddhism as destinations of fortunate rebirth. I will take that up in a later chapter.

7See Fukanzazengi (universal recommendations for zazen). The term shikantaza, interestingly, is a kind of word play. Literally it means “just sitting” in the characters Dogen uses to represent it, and his instructions are almost entirely about sitting posture. However in Japanese shikan is pronounced the same as a Chinese phrase (zhi-guan in Chinese) written with different characters that mean “insight-serenity” or “vipassana-samatha,” used in the name of an early Chinese meditation manual. (See Bielefeldt, 1990, pp. 71-72.) Dogen cleverly rolled both function and instruction into two syllables.

Calgary Kids

August 20, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

Growing the Dhamma: Buddhist Life and Practice

August 17, 2013

The third installment of the serialization of the book Growing the Dharma: Buddhism’s Religious Spadework is the first half of Chapter 2. A couple of commenters have expressed appreciation for serializing it in this way, as we can focus on and discuss each section as a group as we go along. The second half of chapter 2 will discuss more directly the functionality of the morphological system laid out here.

Chapter 2. Functional Elements of
Buddhist Life and Practice

Bo Bo was a typical young man born into a typical Buddhist family in a typical Buddhist land. He was taught even as an impish toddler to revere the Triple Gem, the nutriments of Buddhist practice and understanding. The Buddha for the youthful Bo Bo had exemplified certain values such as selflessness, virtue and serenity and the Dharma had been accessible primarily through a few aphorisms like “Happiness comes only from within” and “generosity creates great merit,” and maybe from hearing some stories of the previous lives of the Buddha. The Sangha of Noble Ones, with whom the had been in almost daily contact provided living examples of what it is to live deeply according to Buddhist principles, and of the joy and wisdom that emerges in such a life. Bo Bo had lived as a part of the Buddhist Community, devoutly supportive of the monks and nuns, and generally practicing generosity and virtue in an uplifting environment. He grew up with a mind bent toward Buddhist values and Buddhist aspirations.

The Buddha once said,

Those who have joyous confidence in the highest, the highest fruit will be theirs.1

Bo Bo noticed that people adopt any of a wide variety of ways of life. He himself for a time thought of marrying his cute neighbor, Yum Yum, and of raising a family, but not quick to make decisions he was reminded by the monks what a problem that soap-operatic life can be. He noticed that the Noble Ones were far more content and full of active goodwill than anyone else in spite of their utterly simple needs. After struggling with life’s vicissitudes for a number of years and contemplating suffering, Bo Bo’s understanding progressed to the point that conventional life makes little sense. Whereas before he thought that he had two options in life, the worldly life and the holy life, he now realized that for him there was only one way ahead: to forsake a personal footprint in favor of the selfless Path that blossoms in Nirvana. And so, Bo Bo joined the monastic order and began to study as the student of one of the neighborhood sages, and from that root began to climb the Path. Eventually he became one of the Noble Ones himself and began to make a big difference in the lives of others. With time and determination his practice would blossom one day into the fruit of arahantship.

A Functional Sketch of Buddhism.

Buddhism is like a flower, a system of integrated inter-functioning parts each of which helps sustain the whole. I choose a flower for this botanical metaphor rather than a berry bush or asparagus because we are all familiar with the whole plant. Here in a nutshell is how Buddhism in virtually all of its manifestations, early and traditional, maps onto the major parts of the flower:

  • The stem that supports the blossom is the Path, the instructions for practice and understanding, expressed in early Buddhism as the Noble Eightfold Path, and leading to Nirvana.
  • The leaves and roots are the the Buddhist Community. The roots are specifically the Monastic Sangha (Pali, bhikkhu-sagha), the order of ordained monks and nuns, actually a special role within the Community. The leaves and roots collect nourishment of sun, water and soil in order that the flower thrive.
  • The blossom of the flower is Nirvana.
  • The sun, water and soil that nourish the flower are the Triple Gem, respectively the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. They inspire and bend the mind toward wholesome development.

BuddhaFlowerNow, here is the same thing at a finer level detail:

Blossom. This is Nirvana (Pali, nibbāna), the highest attainment of human character, liberation from suffering, liberation from the taints, perfect wisdom, virtue, Enlightenment, Awakening, transcendence of the round of rebirths. Notice that most religions seem to have the goal of liberation or salvation, often pertaining to a life beyond this one. Nirvana therefore, simply by virtue of this, has an aspect of religiosity, though other religions would each understand salvation quite differently. The transcendent nature of Nirvana will be the subject of Chapter Four.

Stem. This is the Path (Pali, magga) of individual practice and understanding that leads to Nirvana. This is the most uniquely Buddhist part, and therefore, simply by virtue of this, the most distinct from religiosity. The underlying principle behind practice is loosening the entangling bonds of personal neediness, aversion and views. All the strands of the stem work together and, when taken up with conviction, energy and a sense of urgency, guarantee selfless progress. There is hardly anything like this in its practicality and sophistication in non-Buddhist religious spheres. Since this is the part of the flower that has the least to do with common religiosity it will be the one I write about the least, even though it is the part the Buddha spoke of the most. So I will summarize it here in sufficient detail while I have the chance.

One useful summary, called a gradual path, presents elements of the Path in the order in which each should be initially pursued:2

Generosity,

Virtue,

The heavens,3

The drawbacks, degradation and corruption of sensual passions,

The rewards of renunciation.

Then when the mind is ready, malleable, free from hindrances, elated and bright, the following should be taken up:

The Four Noble Truths.

The Fourth Noble Truth is the Eightfold Noble Path, the Path proper:

Wisdom Section:

Right View,

Right Resolve,

Virtue Section:

Right Speech,

Right Action,

Right Livelihood,

Samadhi Section:

Right Effort,

Right Mindfulness,

Right Samadhi.

If the Path is the Buddha-Dharma proper, the main focus of the Buddha’s teaching and what the individual of high aspiration devotes himself to fully, it nonetheless exists in some context; everything has a context. The individual’s motivation and trust is a prerequisite for entering the Path, certain social conditions give rise to the individual’s motivation and trust, and provide the resources in time and training to enable the individual to pursue the Path. How many of these nested contexts should be subsumed in the Buddha-Dharma as well? This is rather easily answered: Whatever the Buddha thought important enough to address.

Leaves and roots. This is the Community (Pali, parisā), including the life and activities of the community, which also tends to be the locus of religiosity. The Community was from the beginning divided into parts, lay and monastic, with clearly defined social roles, but a member of either can begin the long ascent up the stem.

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

Roots. This is the Monastic or institutional Sangha, the community of monks and nuns. Its main characteristic is that it is organized in very specific way, inspires the support of the lay community and in this way is able to sustain a rare lifestyle that is most conducive to Buddhist study and practice. It serves to produce Noble Ones, who are the Sangha proper. The particular organization of the Monastic Sangha is a primary teaching of the Buddha, the topic of the massive Vinaya. The Monastic Sangha is an institution in some ways comparable to religious institutions, though the functions of its clergy are in many ways quite distinctive. In particular monks and nuns were not priests, at least in early Buddhism, that is, their role was not to act as an intermediary between the laity and supernatural forces, nor to perform rites and rituals on behalf of the laity.

The Buddha spoke in no uncertain terms of the dangers of rites and rituals (Pali, silabbata), even classifying attachment to these as the third of the ten fetters to be abandoned on the Path.4 One should be aware, however that he did not have in mind ritual or conventionalized expressions, which like words are means of communication, and which would encompass many things very familiar to us in the modern world, like shaking hands, unfolding one’s napkin onto one’s lap at a proper dinner or waving goodbye and saying “Ta-ta.” Certainly, as we will see, the Buddha fully endorsed bowing and other physical expressions of reverence. Where the Buddha saw an error is in the attribution of the efficacy of rites and rituals for the purification of one’s karma or future well-being, which can only come through virtuous actions.5 Likewise he did not want the monks and nuns to become priests and forbade such intermediary roles along with astrology, numerology or other means of predicting the future, as well as exhibiting paranormal powers such as levitation in the presence of the laity.6

Although the lay community is not explicitly organized, its behavior plays off that of the Monastic Sangha. We will look at this relationship along with the organization and functions of the Monastic Sangha in more detail in Chapter Five, on community.

Nourishment for the Flower. Refuge is the part of Buddhism that allows the roots and leaves to absorb the nourishment of the sun, water and soil. Devotion in Buddhism focuses on the Triple Gem of the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha. These nourish the entire practice, and in fact, taking Refuge in the Triple Gem generally constitutes the beginning of Buddhist practice, or the point of becoming a Buddhist. Although the devotion of expressing reverence for the Triple Gem gives Buddhism more than anything else its religious flavor, lending it something at least the flavor of worship, it should be noted that, at least in early Buddhism, devotion is not directed toward an otherworldly being or force, but toward things this-worldly: toward a remarkable person, albeit long deceased, toward a set of teachings for and by humans, and toward real people who happen to embody those teachings completely in their own lives.

The Buddha reached an advanced understanding, a level of insight and knowledge that he knew would be very difficult for others to achieve. As a teacher he had to consider the process whereby others can reach that understanding, and recognized that it requires a combination of trust in the teacher(s) and teachings, and direct experience of what these point to. Trust (Pali, saddha) is necessary simply to put aside accumulated faulty notions, mostly cultural in origin, in order to open oneself completely to the light of the Buddha’s insight. Veneration of the Triple Gem is an important psychological element in the development of that necessary trust. It is however nothing whatever like blind faith, but more like the trust a student of science puts into her teachers or a science graduate student puts into the specific paradigm her professor advocates. This is, in other words, a trust that is subject to personal verification as the attainment and understanding of the Buddhist develops and as such it is a trust that is replaced gradually with knowing from experience. Refuge in the Triple Gem will be the topic of Chapter 3.

Devotional aspects of Buddhism would proliferate in perhaps all of the later traditions but particularly in northern lands, as we will see in subsequent chapters. Often it became so pronounced that it recast the objects of devotion, particularly the Buddha himself, into something quite unanticipated.

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

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

Soil. This is the Sangha. This represents the adepts past present and future who have gone far in the practice, perhaps not attaining Nirvana but progressing at least as far as the first stage of Awakening, enough to discern Nirvana and to attain unshakable trust in the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha. The Sangha nourishes the Community through its visible example, its direct experience and its teaching. Now, the Sangha here is properly called the Noble Sangha, or synonymously the Noble Ones, who are much like saints, to distinguish it from the Monastic Sangha, the members of an institution designed to spin off Noble Ones. The roots are buried deep in the soil, the monks and nuns have Noble Sangha between their toes, a soil made rich by the many generations of Noble Ones.

This model of the flower of Buddhism will serve in the remaining chapters to put the elements of religiosity in their proper perspective. The stem, since it is rather unique to Buddhism, has little in common with non-Buddhist religions. If we consider that the Path represents the bulk of the Buddha’s teachings Buddhism thus appears rather secular in nature, but the complete context of the Path frames it in a fringe of religiosity. If on the other hand we consider that the great bulk of Buddhists through the centuries have lived in the leaves and been only incidentally concerned with the complete Path, Buddhism appears decidedly religious with the stem as a special opportunity for intense training.7

One last term has not been mentioned: The life of the flower itself is the Sasana (Pali, sāsana) or the Buddha-Sasana, which often translated into English as “dispensation,” but no one ever knows what “dispensation” means. The Sasana is Buddhism in all of its aspects, including its growth, propagation and perhaps eventual demise, its doctrinal evolution and its application and relevance for real live people and its accretion of religious elements and other elements of folk cultures. The Sasana might be called the living Dharma, for without the Sasana Buddhism would be dead doctrine and dead practices, for none of us would ever have heard of Buddhism nor enjoyed access to its teachings. Sasana is important because we have a debt to Buddhists past, a responsibility to Buddhists future and both to Buddhists current.

1AN 4.34.

2Ud 5.3.

3This can be understood metaphorically as standing for the accrued personal benefits of practice, or karma.

4SN 45.179, 45.180, DN 33.

5For example, see AN 5.175, AN 10.176, Thig 12.1, Sn 2.4 (Mangala Sutta).

6Kevatta Sutta, DN 11.

7The perspectives from the point of view of the teachings and from that of the typical Buddhist are what I will later call Adept Buddhism and Folk Buddhism respectively. Of the two, Folk Buddhism tends to be more recognizably religious.

Growing the Dharma: Preface

August 4, 2013

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

Growing the Dharma: Buddhism’s Religious Spadework

Preface

I’m spiritual but not religious!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bhikkhu Cintita Dinsmore
Austin, Texas, USA
July, 2013

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.

The Buddhist Child and the Sangha

April 25, 2013

Uposatha Day, Full Moon, April 24, 2013

Traditionally Monastics have played a great and pervasive role in the way Buddhist kids are exposed to Buddhism. Of the three Gems the Sangha is the only that is a living breathing presence. The Sangha exemplifies and teaches and at the same time becomes an object of veneration, generosity and affection for the little Buddhist.

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

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

Through their support of the Sangha as well as the rest of the Buddhist community folk Buddhists develop the joyful feeling of doing their share, of participating fully in bringing the civilizing influence of the Noble Ones into the community and in upholding the sasana to preserve Buddhism in its pristine purity for future generations. The relationship between the Sangha and lay community is one of complementary roles in partnership. The Sangha upholds the teachings, produces the adapts and thereby serves the community.  The Noble Ones are the soil that provides not only the nourishment of water and mineral but ensures that the entire practice, roots, leaves, stem and blossom, will not be carried away by the wind in the years to come. The community supports the Sangha’s material needs. Generosity on both sides binds the two together.

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

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

Lest my promotion of the Sangha be seen as impure horn-tooting mention that it comes not from representing that Gem but the other way around. In fact I considered ordaining in a Vinaya tradition for many years because my practice leaned me in that way. My name, “Cintita,” which means “good thinker,” was given to me because I thought about this very matter for so long. However, clinging to worldly ways I suffered from many doubts about my own capacity for living a celibate life or for representing the Sangha well. The deciding straw arose after much study and contemplation with the realization that the monastic sangha is, by the Buddha’s design, the lynchpin of the Sasana. This meant that without real monks and nuns practicing in the traditional way Buddhism was not going to make it in the West. It never has anywhere else. And so I resolved to myself, “It’s a clean job, but somebody has got to do it,” and finally ordained.

Now, we have a dilemma: How do we teach a child to venerate and befriend the Sangha, to learn from its way of life and from its teachings, when there is no Sangha at hand? I have a few suggestions:

1. The Sangha is in America, for one, hardly anywhere very far away. However it is mostly in culturally Asian temples. Visit some! Both language and culture may be challenges, but will make it a great experience for kids, like traveling the world with them in tow. Do not be alarmed if what passes for Buddhism does not look familiar; this is folk Buddhism, and will differ from Western folk Buddhism (seem my writings about folk Buddhism). The nuns or monks will almost certainly know a more sophisticated Buddhism, …  but might not speak English. Make contacts, see how it goes. You will learn a lot yourself.

2. Just as kids learn from the life of the Buddha, they can learn from the lives of monks and nuns. The Dalai Lama is a monk and movies have even been made about him. I played Kundun for a group of Burmese-American kids; there were fascinated by it. Zen about Dogen Zenji, or Spring, Summer, Autumn Winter about a fictional monk might also work.

3. Try to find Western monasteries and develop a long-distance relationship with one. Arrange so that your child can make a regular financial contribution; the amount is no issue. Make a project out of it, explain to your child what the money might be used for. Then make an occasional trip to the monastery, offer a meal or find an occasion where people make robe offerings to the monks. Do not be afraid to ask someone about etiquette. Generally there will be times when you can “pay respects” to a nun or monk and meet privately. Ask your child to formulate a question.

Most Western monasteries are not as generously supported as Asian monasteries since support of monks and nuns is not yet integral to our culture. However their needs are very modest; they don’t own boats, nor are they running a bar tab, nor are they trying to put a child through college. I would particularly recommend (all other things being equal) finding a nuns’ monastery to support at a distance. Generally nuns have a harder time of it than monks, not so much in the Far Eastern traditions as in the Tibetan and Theravadin. The unfortunate reason is that in some Asian lands monks are more readily supported than nuns and the Asian monasteries in the West on average more readily absorb Western monks than Western nuns. Certainly if you hear of a monk or nun without monastery affiliation, sometimes living in an apartment or house trailer someone has provided, seek them out and offer to help, even if just a little. The success of the monastic Sangha in the West will depend as much on lay support of monastics as it will depend monastic aspirations taking root in laity.

4. If you happen to live near Austin, Texas, you are in luck. There are two Western monks and many culturally Asian monasteries, including the two we live at. Come visit. Otherwise if you have trouble googling up a monastery near you let me know and I’ll give it a try.

5. Look at the comments below for other people’s ideas and experiences!