Archive for the ‘ritual’ Category

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 Bows to the Buddha and to the Sangha

April 17, 2013

Uposatha Day, First Quarter Moon, April 18, 2013

A handicap in being a Westerner or a child of the European Enlightenment is that it makes bowing problematic. I learned this first as a personal exemplar of this profile and second as a Buddhist teacher who has felt compelled to teach bowing to other exemplars. Even children beyond a certain age find bowing problematic. And yet anjali, the mudra of joined palms, often embellished with prostrations, was a ubiquitous expression of respect or greeting in Buddha’s India, and was accordingly used to venerate the living Buddha as well as the Sangha, and this practice of veneration, including veneration of images of the Buddha, has continued in all Buddhist lands in which Buddhism has taken root. No culture that I am aware of has chosen either to abandon it nor to substitute for it an indigenous expression, such a wave, a salute, a nod or a hearty hand clasp. Its adoption in Christian prayer speaks of its crossing over some yet to be fully understood ancient connection between two great traditions. Why is the bow so important in Buddhism?

Refuge and veneration are causal factors in attaining wholesome qualities of mine. Bowing and other expressions of veneration powerfully generate personal humility, they deflate the ego, knock it out of its privileged position in the universe by deferring to another. This seems to be a function of veneration or worship in all religions I am aware of, and I presume an essential function of God as an object of veneration in most. Prostration in particular seems also to be a natural embodiment or enactment with deep genetic roots; consider how lesser dogs instinctively make a similar gesture to express submission to our greater furry friends. This practice is an easy and profound antecedent to the gradual weakening, along the Path, of self-view. Expressions of veneration result in calm and the stilling of inflictive emotions as self-centeredness relaxes.

Bowing belongs to ritual conduct, as does shaking hands or wearing a tux to a formal dinner party. Robert Sharf writes, “Ritual habituation inscribes the self with a set of perceptual orientations, affective dispositions, automatic responses that are precognitive.” It begins by enacting these as if in play within an implicit frame of reference that one does not have to believe in or acquiesce to any more than one believes in the grammar of one’s mother tongue. To bow to the Buddha is to enact veneration for the Buddha, to enact veneration of the Buddha is to feel veneration for the Buddha, to feel veneration for the Buddha is to put aside one’s preconceptions and open one’s heart to the teachings of the Buddha. To do this is to align with the Buddha’s path. Any culture involves many such implicit frames of reference; consider how we carve out personal space, for instance: in the West a couple of square feet in front of you as you sit at a table is understood as “your space,” such that if someone puts something into that space it counts as “yours.” Most Asians make no such assumptions. Bowing invokes a frame of reference little known in the West; we must learn it.

In Burma children learn to bow before they can talk. They learn to bow to five kinds of people: to the Buddha (actually a representation thereof), to the Sangha, to parents, to teachers and to the elderly. Imagine the benefit of learning veneration for teachers! This is not a difficult practice if learned in a Buddhist temple environment in which bows and other ritual expressions of veneration are observed. It is a practice even easier and more pleasurable for kids than adults who have not learned its intricacies from childhood. The adult generally has the greater ego to complain. Either benefits enormously from the practice of bowing; one might even venture to state that Buddhist practice begins with bowing.

Let me recount my own personal experience, very much as a rationalized adult, in ritual expressions of veneration some fifteen years ago, from Through the Looking Glass:

My corporate job allowed me a certain amount of vacation time each year and I began to spend it all in sesshin [Zen meditation retreat], which meant a couple of long sesshins each year. The next spring I want to Green Gulch Farm above the ocean in Marin County, to sit a sesshin led by Rev. Norman Fischer. This was far more elaborate in form than anything I thought was possible. In fact I would suffer cultural shock for the next seven days.

Shortly after arrival, before the start of the sesshin in the evening, newbies were instructed in the fine art of oryoki. This involves a ritual process of receiving and eating meals, and of cleaning one’s bowls and utensils, all in the zendo, seated in meditation position. … This is not all: There were precise ways to enter the zendo (for instance, leading with the right foot, not with the left), to hold the hands as we walked, to bow toward those seated in our row then to those in the remaining rows, taking care to turn clockwise, then to sit backwards on our zafus and spin around to face the wall. For lecture we continued to sit cross-legged, not to raise our knees to our chins if we could stand it. I longed for the days when just not throwing spitballs nor passing messages got my by.

Service was a complex affair with many bows, led by Fischer Roshi, who offered incense initially with the help of an attendant and who also at precise points in the chants would make additional bows or approach the alter to offer additional incense. We, in the meantime, held our chant books in a certain way and were to chant with energy. Behavior outside the zendo was also similarly regulated. We did not break silence but bowed upon encountering each other, we could make ourselves tea, but had to sit while we drank it, and so on.

Of the minority with no robes,  I seemed to be the lone person in the sesshin who had not known to wear black or highly subdued colors. I wore things like green or blue., thankfully not yellow or orange Fortunately I was later relieved to see that, digging deeper into their suitcases during the week in search of a change of clothing, other participants came up with increasingly brighter colors eventually to rival or surpass my own.

This was all amazing to me. Why would people do all this? This was not at all like the Zen described, promised, so vividly and accurately by Alan Watts, not like real Zen. It wasn’t even cool and it entailed a lot of bother and stress. And this was on top of the agonizing pains in my knees and back from the unaccustomed long hours of sitting for seven days. I was already suffering from Zendo Stress Disorder.

In contemplating the challenge to my cultural sensibilities and natural inclination toward the casual, during the subsequent weeks I came up not so much with a resolution as with a way of arriving at one. The easiest response to my discomfort would have been,

“Balderdash! Ritual forms are nonsense, they are a perversion of real Buddhism, of real Zen, or … or else a cultural artifact of the East Asian cultures in which these ritual forms arose that are of little relevance in the critical-thinking West. Ha!”

With this response in hand I would have been free to seek out retreat centers that loosened up on this nonsense. I did not know at the time of the ubiquitousness of such Buddhist meditation centers, largely to satisfy the demands of the thriving “balderdash” community. But the “balderdash” response was not good enough: How would I know that the response is correct?
In what for me was an almost unprecedented display of good judgment, of smarts and wisdom, I chose the opposite response: I accepted as a working assumption that there is a purpose for all of these ritual forms and related nonsense that I simply had yet to fathom. How could something persist generation after generation with no purpose? Furthermore the only reasons I could think of not to participate in the ritual forms all had to do with ego, pride and self-image, things I knew I was supposed to let go of in any case. For these reasons I make the decision to begin sitting every week with … Flint Spark’s group at the Clear Spring Zendo, the group infamous for its bows and ritual forms that until then had inhibited my participation.

I did not yet know it, but this is the moment when I fully aligned myself with Buddhism, the moment when I acquired Buddhist “faith” and in return relinquished the arrogant assumption that I already knew what I was doing. I had already learned in my career as a scientist that there was little danger in such a leap of faith as long as one did not thereby relinquish wisdom and discernment as well. I had given myself over to Generative Grammar on a similar basis as a linguistics student, and in fact came eventually around to rejecting it rather soundly, yet in the meantime developed quickly into a scholar. If the ritual and bowing thing did not work out, I would simply give it up and be all the wiser for it. What I did now was to establish a general policy to accept with a degree of wholeheartedness whatever I was taught by respected Buddhist teachers or texts, at least until I got to the bottom of it in my own experience. This policy would serve me well in the years to come and sustain an explorer’s sense of curiosity throughout my career of training.

The reader might well be wondering, How did the leap of faith thing work out, especially all the bows? Reb Anderson once wrote,

By giving up our habitual personal styles of deportment and bringing our body, speech, and thought into accord with traditional forms and ceremonies, we merge in realization with buddha. We renounce our habit body and manifest the true dharma body.

A short time ago this would have been incomprehensible to me; now it made perfect sense.
I discovered that learning ritual forms had gone through stages.

The first was awkward. There was uncertainty whether I was doing a bow correctly or holding the incense properly. My self, Little Johnny, was manifestly embarrassed and hoping nobody was looking.

The second was smooth. I knew exactly how to do the bow, where to offer incense, when to ring the bell, how to walk, to hold the chant book, to open the oryoki bowls. Little Johnny was manifestly proud and hoping everybody was looking. (They were of course too busy being either embarrassed or proud themselves.)

The third stage was clear and serene. I knew to care for the form, to bring body and mind fully into accord. The last hint of Little Johnny dropped away, along with his agenda, along with his perpetual “what’s in it for me,” along with his resistance and anxiety on the one hand and with his pride on the other. For at least the moment I could experience what liberation must be like, complete perfect release from all the little self’s baggage. At that moment  a hammer struck emptiness, there was no actor, there was only the form and the awareness of body and mind following along. The form was doing me.

I had discovered a crucial Dharma gate that I had a short time been ready to dismiss on the basis of unexamined tacit assumptions.

Fundamentals of Buddhist Religiosity: Retooling

February 25, 2013

Uposatha Day, Full Moon, Feburary 25, 2013

Index to Series

Chapter 6. Retooling Buddhism

Let’s get historical.

The Buddha gave us a Buddhism that would be subject to and tolerate retooling and embellishment. Perhaps this is why it gained a place as the first world religion as it simply passed peacefully from one land to another. It was subject to revision because it had no central authority to impose orthodoxy, since the integrity of the Dhamma was entrusted independently to each local monastic sangha. It was subject to revision because its Great Standards (mahapadesa) made the Dhamma effectively extensible by defining “the Buddha’s word” inductively to include what makes functional sense in terms of what is already understood. It was subject to revision because the Buddha asked that the texts be preserved in local vernaculars rather than more widely understood lingua francas. In most of the Mahayana lands adaptation has even generally been regarded as a virtue (Williams 2008, p. 3).

Let’s look at some consequences.

A Quite Brief History of Buddhism after Buddha

RetoolingMapAs Buddhism spread geographically through India and into neighboring lands it began differentiating itself along geographical lines, much as linguistic dialects tend distinguish themselves over time until eventually they become mutually unintelligible yet functionally similar languages. The dialects in this case are the sects (Pali,  nikayas) of Buddhism. For instance, the Sarvastivadin Sect apparently developed around Kashmir and much of Northwest India and was active for almost a thousand years. The Dharmageluptaka Sect arise in Gandhara, the Mahasangika in Mathura, the Theravada took hold in Sri Lanka and is active to this day, and so on. Each typically introduced some new elements or  interpretations that were characteristic of that sect and distinct from Original Buddhism. Now and then one would commit its heretofore strictly oral Dharma to a written form in one language or another. The Dharmageluptaka scriptures were recorded in Gandhari and Sanskrit (these include the oldest surviving fragments of Buddhist scriptures), the Sarvastivadin in Sanskrit, the Theravadin in Pali and so on.

The sects were pre-Mahayana, what we pejoratively know as Hinayana. But at one point a new literary movement began that would challenge each sect in turn. Starting in the first century BCE or the first century CE and continuing for a few centuries thereafter there were monks who undertook the composition of texts most often based on the model of the early discourses but longer and more colorful. Examples were the apocryphal Prajnaparamita Sutras, Lotus Sutra, Flower Ornament Sutra and so on. These generally developed common doctrinal themes that characterized this movement, but for the most part at least somewhat anticipated in the early suttas or in the early sects. This was the beginning of the Mahayana.

The Mahayana movement did not constitute a new sect, but rather spread quietly out over the foundations of the existing sects, much like a dance craze that readily jumps over national borders. For instance, within a Sarvastivada or Theravada monastery some monks would become fond of this new craze and others would not. But this was a craze that was here to stay. Gradually some devotees began to self-identify as Mahayanists though an institutional identity (for instance, supporters of Mahayana monasteries) would not exist until about the Fourth Century CE (Schopen). The Mahayana movement concerned doctrine and literary expression, but not Vinaya, and therefore caused no change in monastic discipline nor stress in monastic sanghas, although the incipient movement seems to have been nipped in the bud in Sri Lanka through interference by King Voharikatissa in the early Third Century.

As if the Mahayana craze were not enough, the first millennium CE in northern India seems to have been an era of very liberal thinking, of free Buddhist inquiry, the era of the great scholar-monks, Nagarjuna, Shantideva, Vasubandu, and so on, and the era of the great Buddhist monastic universities where they lived, like Nalanda, which brought students and teachers together in one place to discuss and debate the whole spectrum of Buddhist thought both orthodox and modern. I picture this situation as much like what developed much later in the Western post-Enlightenment intellectual milieu.  Sanskrit became the common language of Buddhism in northern India providing wider dissemination of ideas.  Meanwhile the southern lands of Sri Lanka and adjacent areas of Southern India, somewhat removed from this rich intellectual world of Northern India geographically and linguistically, were less influenced by it.

In the meantime, Buddhism was spreading. Its dissemination was first given a huge boost through the very early missionary zeal of Emperor Asoka a couple of centuries after the Buddha, who sent missions as far as the Mediterranean. In the early part of the first millennium CE  Buddhism spread westward across what is now northern Pakistan and Afghanistan into Persia and Central Asia,  southward and eastward through Southwest Asia and island hopping as far as Java. From Central Asia it spread eastward and westward along the Silk Road. What would become historically its most significant arm extended eastward along the Silk Road into China beginning in the First Century CE, where Buddhism would gain the bulk of its population, particularly as Buddhism eventually waned in India, in the Western regions and in Indonesia and Malaysia, where it was largely supplanted by Islam. Not until the Eighth Century did Buddhism become firmly established in Tibet through Kashmir, where Buddhism had come under the influence of Tantric Hinduism.

If the Mahayana is the first great innovative movement in Buddhism, Buddhism’s success in China would be the second, for there Buddhism entered a radically remakingly different culture. With much colder weather, clothing and housing, basic requisites of monks, would have to be more substantial. The religious life was largely based in Confucianism  and Taoism, the former with a very strong ethical code governing every aspect of life from the behavior of the emperor to familial relations.  The family was valued highly and there was no previous tradition of wandering mendicants. China enjoyed a rich intellectual life and was highly literate. The Chinese way of thinking has been called syncretic where Indian is analytic. The emperors were divine. There was much social mobility; a farmer’s son could through passing government examinations become employed in the government system and eventually be promoted to be a minister to the emperor. China was culturally about as far from India as possible.

China seems to have become heir to much that was going on or was available in Northern India in the First Millennium CE, though the Chinese took a particular interest in the Mahayana teachings and much of the philosophical thought that was continuing to come out of the Indian universities. In spite of the tenuous communication between India and China, Chinese Buddhists were anxious to gain access to Buddhist texts, dispatching a series of pilgrims to make the perilous journey over the Silk Road back into India to learn Indian languages, acquire texts and have a look around. In China major translation projects were set up to make these texts accessible, often headed by Indian or Central Asian scholar-monks who had ventured into Chinese territory. From China a Sinicized Buddhism would penetrate the remaining chopstick-wielding world: Korea, Japan and Vietnam.

As Buddhism spread in this way it came under different pressures in different places that tended to bend and reshape Buddhism in various ways. Among these pressures are cultural taboos, different culturally conditioned ways of conceptualizing the content of Buddhism and the blending of indigenous folk religions or folk beliefs into Buddhism. Also important in this regard is the way in which seemingly universal religious proclivities, for instance, toward worship, toward the need for for consolation and toward supernatural embellishment would (re-)asserted themselves in Buddhism.

The Evolution of the Buddha Gem

Undoubtedly the most profound revisions in Buddhist thought as early Buddhism receded into history was in the understanding of and attitudes toward the Buddha Gem. These would become quite embellished and elaborate in much of Asia and would trigger further doctrinal changes.

Notably the Buddha recommended during his life veneration of the Buddha through conventional cultural means of respect, through recitation of the qualities of the Buddha, through future pilgrimage to four sites associated with his life through the distribution of  his relics among various lay communities for future veneration. The Buddha recognized that he has attained rare qualities and put himself forward as someone to emulate, not as a deity or a messenger of God, but as an Awakened human. In India people do rather casually attribute divinity to that which is venerated, to brahmins, to famous ascetics, to cows, sometimes to trees and to the fires in people’s hearths (Williams, p.174), so it would have been inevitable that an Awakened human would also be accorded this honor. Similarly he would have been accorded supernatural powers, in fact mentioned in the early discourses, like being able to jump up and touch the sun (people in ancient India, not possessed of a modern understanding of what this would entail, seem to have thought this would be fun).

It was mentioned earlier that anjali, often embellished with prostrations, was a ubiquitous expression of respect or greeting in Buddha’s India, and was accordingly used to venerate the living Buddha as well as the Sangha. Because the practice of veneration continued in all Buddhist lands, anjali has was carried into every land in which Buddhism took root. No culture that I am aware of has chosen to substitute for it an indigenous expression, such a wave, a salute, a nod or a hearty hand clasp. Its adoption in Christian prayer speaks of some yet unrecognized ancient connection between these two great traditions. I note in passing that wherever an archaic cultural artifact is crucial in Core Buddhism it seems almost always to be retained in any new cultures even in which this artifact is foreign. I speculate that this conservatism results from the lack of central authority in Buddhism, needed to institute a swap with an indigenous form.

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

Starting in the 1st century BCE, statuary representations of the Buddha gave a more personal and portable object toward which to direct one’s veneration for the First Gem. A practice of veneration that became widespread throughout Asia is to make offerings to the Buddha statue of light, water, incense, flowers and/or food, then bowing to the statue, a practice that ruffled early European explorers who saw in it worship of graven images pure and simple. A further step in the long process of elaboration was reached in the actually attribution of miraculous properties to the Buddha statue, to the stupa/pagoda or to relics. It is common among Burmese Buddhists today, for instance, to attribute such properties to the “power of the Buddha” that inheres in such an object once it is properly consecrated by monks to “count as” the Buddha.

The Buddha was a man, but it became common to see him as a man with a mission, playing out some transcendent plan. It was said the he was already born with the marks of a great man, such as webbed toes and fingers, and that he was in fact stepping into the footprints of buddhas who preceded him, who realized the same things and who taught the same Dhamma. Jataka stories began appearing in the centuries after the death of the Buddha that traced his previous lives as a bodhisattva, one who has vowed to become a buddha in a future life. The discerning reader will have surmised that regard for the Buddha is moving step by step from veneration toward worship.

The Buddha was a man who awakened on his own, who taught the Dhamma and who founded the Sangha. His Original Awakening was roughly matched by others who attain Awakening, the arahants, at least according to Original Buddhism. However, as these things happen, an alternative view emerged, initially in the Mahasanghika sect, then in the Sarvastivadin sect, and then with a vengeance as a tenet of the Mahayana movement. This was the view that the Buddha is rather a higher being who, much like the later Jesus, had came to earth as a kind of cosmic ruse to instruct mankind in the form of a man. Often we learn from those that hold this view that the Buddha did not really eat or sleep, he pretended to eat and sleep and that he did not really die, that was also pretense: He is still around somewhere watching over us.  His attained state of Awakening was accordingly something far and away in excess of that of the mere human arahants.

This does not mean that the cosmic Buddha did not start out much as we, nor that he did not develop over innumerable lifetimes as a bodhisattva with aspirations toward buddhahood to attain his ennobled state. In fact many such current bodhisattvas appear in the Mahayana sutras, generally embodying one particular outstanding character trait or another, Avalokiteshvara of many arms for compassion, Manjushri wielding a sword to cut through delusion for wisdom, Samantabhadra atop his multitusked elephant for noble action, Maitreyya with an appointment to become the next Buddha on earth, and so on. With the Mahayana bodhisattvas the Buddha had companions with which to share altars and pagodas, who sometimes even displaced him in their zeal. In China Avalokiteshvara became Guan Yin, a female figure, and Maitreyya was identified with an historical chubby monk and became the Happy Buddha (-to-be). In Tibet Avalokiteshvara was demythologized into the person of the Dalai Lama returning life after life.

Transcendent thinking did not end there. Many buddhas were envisioned of similar disposition to ours, dispersed over many realms throughout the universe. Once the Shakyamuni Buddha became disassociated from his human embodiment, then it seemed that one buddha could pretty much be swapped with another. In China Shakyamuni Buddha was displaced in Pure Land Buddhism by Amitabha Buddha, resident of an non-earthly realm (the Pure Land) yet making space for those on earth who aspire to join him in their next life.

Meanwhile back on earth, monks were apparently living rightly because the world was not empty of awakened ones. In the Mahayana lands these were often referred to as buddhas in their own right rather than simply as arahants. A number of great teachers became quite exalted and their teachings given scriptural status on the level of those attributed to the Buddha.

The Evolution of the Dhamma Gem

If it seems that the object of the Buddha Gem became historically something of a moving target, this is even more the case for the Dhamma Gem.

In the earliest centuries the Second Gem was preserved orally. Lest the Dhamma be forgotten as the less organized Jains had forgotten theirs in the early years, monastics gave much attention to memorizing texts, distributing the effort communally over many monks or monasteries, each specializing in a certain tract. The Theravadins decided to preserve the texts in Pali, the Indic language in which they had come to Sri Lanka and widely regarded as the original language of the Buddha, rather than in a local vernacular. The Vedas had been preserved for centuries in Sanskrit in this way and in spite of some literacy by the time of the Buddha the degree of attention given in memorization honored the texts and has continued to some degree in many traditions, particularly in the Burmese, in spite of the availability of books.

The communal effort of oral presentation of texts seems to have quite successful, such that the early discourses eventually preserved in Chinese or Tibetan match reasonably well those preserved in Pali. In communal recitations it is more difficult to slip in edits and mistakes than it is in privately transcribing a book, where a slip of the pen can transform “celebrate” to “celibate” for all posterity. If entirely new texts that were purported to be original were added it was often in association with an origin story that clarified why no one seemed to have known about the text earlier.

The dance craze of the Mahayana was preceded by that of the Abhidharma (Pali, Abhidhamma) a mere couple of hundred years after the Buddha, perhaps Abhidharma’s Fox Trot to Mahayana’s Jitterbug. This was not so much a text that gained wide popularity but rather a project that infected various sects of composing, within each sect that was so moved, a highly systematic, philosophical and often speculative analysis of the Buddha’s teachings as represented in the early discourses.  Although the very beginnings of the Abhidhamma are very early, scholars place the real effort in each case after the time of Emperor Ashoka. The culmination of the project was inclusion of the result into the respective canon. Although the Theravadin Abhidhamma makes no reference to its own origin, the later commentarial tradition attributes it directly to the Buddha. Disconcertingly there are strong disagreements among the resulting Abhidharmas and some sects refused to participate in the project altogether, including a Sautantrika (Sutta Only) sect that branched off of the Sarvastivada.

The greatest change in the canonical corpi came with the Mahayana movement as new Sutras came on line. Gombrich (1990) suggests that this was facilitated by the circumstance that Buddhist texts were now appearing commonly in hardcopy rather than oral form, which offered opportunities for new or obscure texts to “go viral,” in modern parlance, unfettered by the editorial influence of communal recitation, though “viral” here would describe, given the technology we are referring to, dissemination in a matter of centuries rather than of hours or days.

Although the Mahayana sutras were new, that does not mean they were not authentic. Many of them developed and clarified very sophisticated and subtle Core themes originally introduced by the Buddha, with great skill. Furthermore their mythical bodhisattvas and fantastic imagery provided many with a good read. Although the original discourses of the Buddha were available in Chinese translation, the study of the Mahayana sutras in the land of the chopstick largely eclipsed that of the original discourses.

The variety of the vast scriptural corpus to which the Chinese were heir must have bewildered the early Buddhists, who would have had little notion of what was original and what was apocryphal. Distinct schools formed around favorite sutras. Of the four major schools in China, the foundational scripture of the Hua Yen School was the voluminous Flower Ornament Sutra, that of the T’ien Tai School was the Lotus Sutra, that of the Ching T’u (Pure Land) School was the Amitabha Sutra, and the Ch’an (Japanese, Zen) school couldn’t make up its mind, apparently vacillating initially between the Lankavatara Sutra and the Diamond Sutra, then declaring itself “a transmission beyond words and letters.” The Diamond Sutra incidentally was the first book ever to be mechanically printed.

The Mahayana movement brought with it an enhanced appreciation of many of the elements of we have grouped under religiosity, in particular devotional practices of veneration or worship along with good works and the assimilation of indigenous religious practices, became more highly respected parts of Buddhist life. Some describe this as laicizing Buddhism and the bodhisattva path provided a doctrinal basis for this. It is important not to regard the Mahayana as anti-monastic however. First, the monastic Sangha thrived within Mahayana. Second, scholars agree that the Mahayana movement and the composition of the sutras were probably exclusively the work of monks (see, for instance, Skilton 1990, pp. 96-7; Williams p. 26), though this work may partially have been inspired by elitist attitudes on the part of some monastics. The Ch’an school, ever out of step, more thoroughly emphasized the “monastic” practices of the Path, even naming itself the “Meditation School”: Sanskrit Dyana ‘meditation’ became Chinese Ch’anna, then reduced to Ch’an, which became Zen in Japan.

The negotiation between Core Buddhism and an indigenous culture can assume some creative forms. A noteworthy adaptation in China concerns mindfulness. Mindfulness is a Core practice in Buddhism, in fact it is the seventh factor of the Noble Eightfold Path. The ritualization of everyday activities — there is a proper way to do almost anything — is a core aspect of Confucianism and characteristic of East Asian culture in general. It turns out that the latter is a wonderful resource in support of the former and was refined in China to sharpen the practice of mindfulness in all daily activities. From a Western outsider’s perspective this tastes of religiosity — it is ritualized behavior — but has actually become in this case a practice directly associated with the Path.

Another example: Virtue is a Core practice in Buddhism, in fact occupying three factors of the Noble Eightfold Path. Virtue is a core aspect of Confucianism — there is proper way to behave toward your spouse, toward you children, toward your employees, toward your emperor, and so on. It turns out the the latter, already well established in Chinese culture before the arrival of Buddhism, tended to render the former redundant. But from an outsider’s perspective East Asian Buddhists seemed to neglect teachings on virtue.

The Evolution of Sangha Gem

The monastic Sangha has been a remarkably stable element in Buddhism, a target that has barely moved in spite of the predilections of its sister gems.

A common change however throughout the Buddhist world is the assumption by monastics of priestly functions, roughly mediation with deities or mysterious forces through rites and rituals. It is very common for monastics to offer blessings, spells of protection, or good luck, to dispel ghosts or evil spirits or to work miracles in most traditions, even though the Buddha clearly intended that such things be left to the Brahmin priests. For instance, in the Theravada tradition, which is tamer than most, monastics wield the eleven verses of protection (parittas), each one intended to target a different unfortunate eventuality.

The Buddha himself seems to have opened the door to this a crack to priestly functions, through which a crowd of human demands subsequently forced its way. After a monk once died from a snake bite the Buddha had explained that if he had recited a certain verse expressing kindness toward snakes the snake would not have bitten him. This is the only paritta the Buddha seems to have endorsed in the early scriptures. On another occasion the Buddha sneezed (Vin ii.139) during a discourse. The monks present shouted,

“Bless you!”

The Buddha’s response should have been,

“Bless you too.”

But instead he asked something like,

“Wait a minute. Do you think that saying that will determine if I live or die?”

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

“Then don’t say it!”

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

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

“How rude! The impudent cad”

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

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

This little story is indicative of the Buddha’s tolerance and willingness to adapt to common preferences. But give an inch and they take a mile. However blessings still tend to be a rather secondary function throughout most of Asia.

China provided some direct challenges to monastic practice that required adaptations. Monastics in India were home-leavers by definition, yet family and home was at the very center of Chinese social norms. The monastic Sangha seems to have deflected social criticism on this point through the expedient of the ordination lineage, which provided a public analogy between the layperson’s parental relations and the monastic’s relationship his or her preceptor/teacher. With a little fudging and creative imagination family trees all the way back to the Buddha were drafted, spanning far more generations than almost any indigenous Chinese family history. The Sangha, now organized by ordination lineage, became in effect a really big family, such that a new monk or nun not so much left family as switched family. This seemed to appease otherwise bruised Chinese familial sensitivities. Perhaps as a consequence of the emphasis on family lineage, monks seem to have developed closer relationships with their preceptors, traveling less freely from monastery. Teachers began to protect their students from the influence of other teachers, introducing strong sectarianism at a microscopic level.

Furthermore, monastics in India and in the Vinaya lived on alms, yet beggars in China were pariahs. As a result, it seems, monks and nuns became more self-sufficient, relying more on large donations than on small daily alms, often in the form of land grants through which monasteries could earn wealth through renting land to farmers. Often monastics became farmers themselves, forcing modifications of the otherwise cumbersome monastic robes, or of their abandonment in certain situations in favor of monastically appropriate work clothing. On the other hand, because monastics became more self-sufficient, monastic discipline was actually tightened in others ways: monastics, freer to choose their own diet, stopped eating meat altogether in China, and fifty-eight additional precepts were undertaken in a supplementary ordination, the Bohdisattva Precepts.

The governance of the monastic Sangha in India and in the Vinaya was designed as a consensual democracy operating at the monastery level with relative freedom from outside interference in mind, yet the government in China habitually interfered in the governance of any nongovernmental organization and took them in as part of the authoritarian hierarchy. As monasteries became more integrated into the prevailing hierarchy of authority, seniority within the Sangha became more pronounced and became reflected in the color, design or quality of clothing of senior monks.

The Sangha has remained remarkably archaic right up to the present day. Consider attire for instance. It might make rational sense for modern Buddhist monks to wear uniform modern attire — for instance, saffron-colored suits with sleeves and zippers, maybe little epaulettes with Dhamma wheels — and still retain the function of distinguish monastics from laity or from the clergy of other faiths, and thus avoid the mortification of being millennia out-of-fashion. Although adaptations to attire occurred in colder climates, the traditional robe was retained everywhere.  Again the lack of central authority in the Sangha probably played a role in this conservatism. A small local sangha would be disinclined to make such the change because no one would know what the new uniform meant unless many sanghas made the same change at the same time.

The Sangha has a degree of authority as the holder of the unblemished Dhamma. However in a few instances that role has been assumed by others. There have occasionally appeared outstanding lay teachers, for instance, in recent times Dipa Ma, a laywoman famed as a meditation instructor. In Tibet an academic degree conferred along with the title geshe created a new class of authorities. This degree is traditionally only conferred to monks, but a monk who disrobes continues to hold the degree. Sometime tulkus, reborn lamas, chose not to enter the Sangha yet retain some authority from their previous lives as teachers and monks. In modern times academic degrees carry a degree of authority. So far in the West virtually all Buddhist teachers are non-monastics. I will consider in the final chapter whether in this case the target of Sangha has moved, or whether is has simply all but disappeared.

In Japan through different stages of government interference and changes in the monastic tradition within specific schools, the Sangha has been almost completely replaced by a priesthood, a non-renunciate clergy largely occupied with rites and rituals. This process of deviation, established initially in the Jodo Shinshu many centuries ago, accelerated in the remaining schools over the Twentieth Century, even in the once particularly monastically oriented Zen school. This also effected Korea to a limited extent during Japanese colonial rule. Richard Jaffe’s book Neither Monk nor Layman provides a gripping account of this development.

The Evolution of the Goal

Original Buddhism embeds the life of the practitioner into a greater epic story, a path toward personal awakening, becoming an arahant, that spans many lives. Within the Mahayana the storyline changed to a path toward becoming a buddha, an even more exalted state. Entering the path toward buddhahood one becomes a bodhisattva, which is what the Buddha is called in his previous lives as represented in the early Jataka stories. As a bodhisattva ones primary concern is the well-being of others to the extent of working for the Awakening of others as much as for the Awakening of oneself. As a bodhisattva one is not necessarily a monk or nun — most of the previous lives of the Buddha did not involve ordination — but is on the bodhisattva path as long as one holds firm to the aspiration toward buddhahood. This is no way disparages the value of monastics, who have thrived in the Mahayana tradition and were the authors of the Mahayana, but works to dispel notion that as a layperson one is basically sitting this life out as far as progress on the path goes, and to dispel the self-centeredness of those more directed toward the goal of Awakening.

In fact to the extend one develops kindness and compassion one has always been making progress toward Awakening, and to the extend there is self-centeredness in the idea of Awakening one is failing to progress toward Awakening. In other words the bodhisattva path does not differ in practical terms from the path of the arahant, but it does provide a nice way of talking about the Path.

Unity and Integrity in the Traditions

With all of the changes sweeping back and forth through Buddhism — the swapping out of old scriptures and swapping in of new, the expanding levels of devotion to a founder increasingly deified then sometimes displaced, the blending in of folk culture and folk religion, preoccupation with an elaborate mythology, priests running around blessing people — one might expect Buddhism variously to  morph into paganism, witchcraft, devil worship, a force in the battle of Good vs. Evil, philosophical speculation or New Age, and certainly not to be capable of uphold the sophisticated and therefore fragile teachings and high standards at the Core of Buddhism. How far has Buddhism bent? Far enough to break?

On investigation the picture emerges of a Buddhism that in spite of this has proven itself remarkably flexible yet resilient, able to absorb the wacky along with the sublime, yet maintain its standards and integrity. Notably each part of the flower of Buddhism has remained intact without loss of its original functionality in almost every tradition. Each of these authentic traditions seems to have provided the support needed to produce Noble Ones, even leading some to full Awakening. Each has retained the Noble Eightfold Path or its equivalent, with its training in Virtue, Cultivation of Mind and penetrating Wisdom. Each has upheld the Buddhist community with its monastic Sangha. Opening of hearts and minds to the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sangha has been upheld, veneration often even greatly enhanced in the case of the Buddha, bending minds in the direction of Nibbana and inspiring lives of great merit and transcendent value beyond this fathom-length body and few decades of life. How can this be?

I personally have been ordained in two traditions, Japanese Zen and Theravada, representing Mahayana and “Theravada” respectively. Each is taught quite differently, Zen literature based on perplexing and playful koans with little reference to the early discourses, Zen far more formal and ritualized, Zen recommending on the other hand “just sitting” with the mind like the open sky in lieu of much more systematic TheravadaVipassana. Japanese Zen with the almost complete loss of the Japanese Sangha is one of those traditions that has lost, but only in recent years, the integrity of the full flower of Buddhism. And yet in terms of practice experience I can report Zen still remains extremely close to the Theravada Forest tradition, even though these two great traditions are about as far removed historically as any two traditions. How can this be?

The answer has to do with the corrective influence of the adapts. Each Buddhist tradition is like a ship navigating an ocean of possibilities and obstructions: human needs, cultural conventions, biases, misdirected zeal, properly directed zeal, deceit and misunderstanding. Fortunately each ship has adept crew, captain and navigator and even compliant passengers. Recall that preserving the integrity of Buddhism is a responsibility given by the Buddha to the amazingly resilient Bhikkhu-Sangha, which has the Noble Ones and even an occasional arahant at its head. Because it is venerated the Sangha is regarded as an authority on matters Dharmic for the rest of the Buddhist community. As a Buddhist community develops, as fads and fashions come and go, counter-Buddhist trends are noticed and admonished. The Sangha serves as a rudder for the ship of community steering by the gentle pressure of its example and the clarity of its teachings.

In fact the Sangha has succeeded remarkably well in guiding the historical evolution of Buddhism, often through stormy seas, as the Buddha foresaw, ensuring both flexibility and cultural adaptability along with firm resilience. The principle is simple. This is the genius of the Buddha:

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

And as long as there are arahants in the world, Awakened ones, or failing that, Noble Ones venerated by the community, the ship of the Buddha’s community will have a firm rudder, an adept crew and compliant passengers, in spite of their culture, language, nationality or folk beliefs.

In the next chapter we will look at the corrective influence of the adepts more closely, particularly how it serves to shape but not perfect the popular understanding of Buddhism.

Fundamentals of Buddhist Religiosity: Introduction

January 18, 2013

Uposatha Day, First Quarter Moon, January 19, 2013

Index to this series

I have been reworking some of my previous writings into an eBook of maybe about 80 pages. This will include some things I posted under “Buddhist Religiosity,” “American Folk Buddhism,” etc. also with new content, assembled into an integrated whole. I intend to serialize it here as I finish each of the eight chapters. I hope my readership finds this helpful. This week: The Introduction.

Fundamentals of Buddhist Religiosity

Original Buddhism and its Cultural Adaptations

Bhikkhu Cintita Dinsmore

DRAFT, January, 2013

Chapter 1. Introduction

IntroBuddhaIs Buddhism a religion? Of course it depends on one’s definition. I see three options:

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

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

Many suggest Buddhism is not a religion because it is a way of life. It seems to me this is exactly what is expected of a religion when embraced fully.

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

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

The degree of family resemblance, or the elements that indicate family resemblance are what I will call “religiosity.” Surely Buddhism in all of its traditional forms seems to have something of religion about it, for instance, devotional, ritual, liturgical and institutional features, to supplement somewhat unique doctrinal aspects and a program of personal practice. Yet some have argued recently that Buddhist religiosity is entirely a product of cultural accretion that began after the Buddha and has little to do with the core message of the Buddha. This yields two kinds of questions:

(1) What is the degree of religiosity in the Buddha’s core message?

(2) What is the degree of religiosity for any particular Buddhist tradition?

My responses will be something of a middle way, that indeed elements of religiosity were an intrinsic part of the Buddha’s core message and that these same core elements are found in virtually every historic Buddhist tradition, but that through cultural adaptation in virtually every tradition the degree of religiosity has become more prominent, sometimes exceedingly more prominent. However this fortified religiosity may or may not be a diversion from the Buddha’s core message. A third question we will add to the mix is,

(3) In what ways is religiosity for any particular Buddhist tradition a hindrance or an asset to preserving the Buddha’s core message?

In this essay I will outline the important aspects of religiosity in core Buddhism and will illustrate its enhancement in a sample of later traditions. I will then turn to this process of cultural adaptation and its implications. Buddhism stands out in the following two ways: First, if it is a religion it is the earliest world religion, succeed only substantially by Christianity and Islam, which means that it has historically successfully adapted to often radically new cultures. Second, the integrity of the highly sophisticated core teachings of Buddhism have been remarkably well preserved through these cultural adaptations. I will locate the mechanism of this adaptation in core Buddhism, in fact in core Buddhist religiosity, and will illustrate this mechanism particularly with regard to current Western Buddhist adaptations and assess their implications.

Which Buddhism?

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

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

Much of the observed diversity reveals more about the observer than about the observed. Different people and different cultures come with different perspectives and different expectations, and cultural Westerners are no different. Alongside differences in doctrinal understanding, for instance, fixed culturally induced interpretations arise for what is simply be poorly understood about someone else’s tradition. Different options for individual practice within a unified core Buddhism or progressive stages of individual practice are interpreted as distinct Buddhisms, as are differences in understanding, ranging from sophisticated to naïve, among the adherents within a particular tradition. In response I will isolate a common core Buddhism that can be recognized in the various traditions underneath their supplementary cultural accretions, and then attempt to sort out the rest.

Religiosity in Buddhism

The reasons I focus on religiosity are twofold: First, these elements tend to be more implicit in Buddhist teachings rather than systematically developed and therefore their significance bears exploring. Second, they tend to be conditioned culturally far more than doctrinal and programmatic aspects, for instance, sometimes assuming highly embellished forms in many of the Buddhist traditions, and they are therefore disproportionally responsible for the sometimes wild variety observed among and within the various Buddhist traditions.

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

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

Two things bear pointing out. First, “religiosity” is completely a Western notion. I doubt the Buddha would have read through this list and seen in it any more than a set of arbitrary features. Nor would he have thought to constrain the scope of religiosity in his teachings. I make no further attempt to define “religiosity” than to provide this list. Why this issue assumes prominence in the Western mind is discussed in a few chapters.

Second, although these features characterize “religiosity,” all of these features, or their close counterparts, are found outside of religion, that is, in “secular” contexts. For instance, table manners and proper arrangements of cutlery and plates and glasses in a proper table setting exhibit a large number of these features. Sports events also involve ritual, ritual spaces, worship, chanting, group identity, and often a sense of tradition. Government functions and places of government exhibit every one of these features, by my count, with appropriate substitution of terms, elected officials for clergy, etc. Armies likewise exhibit most, maybe because they need to be equipped to deal with fundamental issues of life and death. Even Academia exhibits a lot of these features. No traditional school of Buddhism I am aware of fails to exhibit any one of them. I do not know of any movements to “secularize” any of the other realms.


I will begin with a statement of the common core system that shines through virtually all of the Buddhist traditions. This includes doctrinal and programmatic fundamentals as well as some aspects of religiosity as discussed above, the latter in a much more skeletal form in core Buddhism than found in almost any particular later tradition. This statement will show how these religious elements are integral and necessary to the proper function of the whole system; their justification is in their functional efficacy.

All aspects of this core system as I will lay it out belong to original Buddhism as attested in the earliest scriptures, and also are consistently retained in virtually all traditions of Buddhism independently of the variety of cultures in which these variants have arisen. Two particularly important aspects of core religiosity are Refuge and the structure of the Buddhist community, without which a full understanding of Buddhism as taught by the Buddha is impossible. Therefore I will discuss these two aspects in some detail.

Having established a common core for Buddhist traditions, I will then survey the ways in which particular traditions have embellished or retooled this common core. We will see that religiosity is often greatly enhanced with elements of local cultures, often mixing freely with elements of indigenous religions and commonly taking on consolatory elements, and also that doctrinal and programmatic aspects are often expressed in new and typically culturally-conditioned ways that for the most part retain their authenticity and sometimes enhance it. This will be an incomplete survey, pulling out a few hopefully representative examples of the range of variations found among the traditions.

Finally I consider how the forms of religiosity promote or demote core Buddhism. One of the most important sources of variation in Buddhism is often overlooked. Within any particular tradition an individual understanding of that tradition will vary greatly. At the one pole are the adepts, those that have devoted much of their lives to study and training in Buddhism and may have reached some level of attainment, occasionally even Awakening. At the other pole are the normal folk — almost always historically the vast majority of adherents — who have often only a vague understanding of the tradition or of core Buddhism garnered from family and friends. This produces the inevitable dichotomy between Adept Buddhism and Folk Buddhism (actually two poles of a continuum). While an Adept Buddhism will general preserve the common core, a Folk Buddhism will tend to be a mass of culturally-conditioned understandings and misunderstandings. While an Adept Buddhism will be centered generally in the shape of doctrine and the program of practice, a Folk Buddhism will be centered primarily in the elements of religiosity. This is important, for generally we identify our own tradition, if we have one, with its Adept Buddhism while we see in any other tradition only its Folk Buddhism. No wonder the forms of Buddhism seem to vary as wildly as they do.

After exemplifying Folk Buddhism with regard to a few Buddhist traditions, giving particular attention to how much Western Folk Buddhism is also culturally conditioned, I consider how it is that Buddhism has maintained its essence through many centuries and through transmission into vastly divergent cultures and in spite of its great accrued variance. This answer involves the ability of Adept Buddhism to to give shape to Folk Buddhism rather than the other way around, to keep it in line well enough that contradictions are relatively rare and one grades easily from one into the other. This in turn depends on Refuge and the structure of Buddhist communities. This property therefore lies within the scope of the particularities of core Buddhist Religiosity, as envisioned from the beginning by the Buddha!


Chapter 1. Core Buddhism

Chapter 2. Refuge

Chapter 3. A Buddhist Community

Chapter 4. Modifications and Retoolings of Buddhism.

Chapter 5. Folk Buddhism

Chapter 6. Modern Trends in Folk Buddhism

Chapter 7. Finding our Way in the West

American Folk Buddhism (17)

July 25, 2012

First Quarter Moon, Uposatha, July 26, 2012            Series Index

Conclusion to Series

This will be the last and concluding episode in this, uh, longish series on American Folk Buddhism.

In summary, I made a distinction between two kinds, or actually polarities, of Buddhism: Essential Buddhism and Folk Buddhism. The Refuges assure the authority of the former.

Essential Buddhism is what is understood and sustained by Buddhist adepts who are thoroughly engaged in the study and practice Buddhism to the extent of significant attainment. It is generally beyond the grasp of most Buddhists who are simply more casual in their engagement or busy doing other things. Essential Buddhism is also functionally equivalent to what the Buddha taught but manifests in various forms, often culturally determined; for instance in East Asia it picked up many highly ritualized practices as effective instruments of mindfulness. In a sense there are multiple Essential Buddhisms, but in another sense there are very nearly simply different manifestations of a single functionally integrated system.

Folk Buddhism is the popular understanding of Buddhism in a particular folk culture for which it provides accessibility to a much broader community, albeit with occasional loss of accuracy or sophistication. Folk Buddhisms are highly culturally determined and one Folk Buddhism is likely to appear incomprehensive to the adherents of another Folk Buddhism just as one culture will tend appear mysterious to the members of another. In the course of this series I have considered the Western cultural, and therefore non-Buddhist, sources of many prominent features of the emerging Western Folk Buddhism.

The Refuges, or Triple Gem, establish the authority of Essential Buddhism over Folk Buddhism as it expresses trust in the originator, the teachings and the living adepts of Essential Buddhism. The Triple Gem gives Buddhism as understood and practiced in the entire community the comet-like shape in which the tail of Folk Buddhism is oriented toward the head of Essential Buddhism, without which Folk Buddhism would eventually float off into space as an amorphous cultic cloud, Buddhist only in name.

Distinguishing between Essential and Folk Buddhism provides a framework for understanding and monitoring the process by which Buddhism is being assimilated into the Western cultural context. Ideally this process will:

(1)   maintain the functional integrity of Essential Buddhism at all costs,

(2)   establish the authority of Essential Buddhism over Folk Buddhism and

(3)    result in a wholesome Western Folk Buddhism.

The integrity of Essential Buddhism is threatened by the assumption common in Western circles that adapting Buddhism to the West is a matter of stripping Buddhism willy-nilly   of Asian cultural accretions in order to make it look more Western. This aesthetic would include, for instance, getting rid of rituals, robes, bowing, chanting (at least in foreign tongues), non-productive lifestyles and so on, not to mention renunciation. However, distinguishing between Essential and Folk Buddhisms highlights the danger of throwing out the baby with the bathwater, of hacking away at the corn when trying to remove the underbrush. Essential Buddhism is the baby, Folk Buddhism the bathwater. The functional role of any culturally arisen features of a transmitted Essential Buddhism is preserved only by leaving it intact or replaced by Western-looking counterparts. History seems to favor leaving such things intact, tending to lend Essential Buddhism an archaic flavor, for instance as retained in gestures of respect and in monastic garb.

Establishing the authority of the Triple Gem ensures that any particular person immersed in Folk Buddhism knows where to look to deepen his practice and understanding of Buddhism, and that that Folk Buddhism remains recognizably Buddhist. That Folk Buddhisms vary so widely should not be a source of alarm as long as each Folk Buddhism is so anchored in the authority of Essential Buddhism. Without that alarm each Folk Buddhism can be appreciated and respected in its own right as an effective intermediary between a relatively uniform Essential Buddhism and the respective cultural context.

A Western Folk Buddhism is wholesome or beneficial to the extent that it is friendly and not inimical toward Essential Buddhism. It is not necessary or desirable to preserve any particular Asian Folk Buddhism, which would be largely incomprehensible in a Western context in any case. It should be recognized that a pure Essential Buddhism goes “against the stream” in any cultural context and that the function of a Folk Buddhism is to carry the challenge of Buddhism into its cultural context, that is that it should make a real difference is people’s lives and attitudes in spite of the cultural context.

In the course of this series I have examined some prominent features of the emerging Western Folk Buddhism in terms of their consistency with Essential Buddhism. These features are resistance to authority, particular forms of understanding and revering the Triple Gem, individualism, gender equality, consumerism, social engagement and the intermediating influence of psychoanalysis on the Western understanding Buddhism. The picture that emerges ranges between total accord and significant discord. Western Folk Buddhism is still quite raw but the master chef of Essential Buddhism should cook it up nicely with time.

 I have tacitly assumed throughout this series that the integrity of Essential Buddhism itself has been successfully preserved through history and transmitted to us in the West. I would like to conclude by considering the role of Western Buddhism in making this assumption even more true than it actually is. Essential Buddhism is probably not currently preserved anywhere in its pristine purity. Tradition has a way of tugging out its own roots: understandings become calcified, shortcuts establish themselves, assumptions are not often enough revisited and questioned, the history of each tradition has often been rewritten. For instance I feel that the Theravada would do well to look more critically at the way eating meat and gender roles are understood even among most of the adepts. In the West Buddhism in all of its aspects will be seen with fresh eyes. Scholars are challenging the accounts traditions generally have of their own histories, practitioners question the why’s and wherefore’s of everything and are open to debating these things. Eventually I predict a renewed and stronger purer Essential Buddhism will emerge in the West, one that will go on to reinvigorate all of Buddhism East


Buddha’s Meditation and its Variants 19

March 22, 2012

New Moon Uposatha Day , March 22, 2012
      index to series


With this posting I conclude this longer than originally anticipated weekly series on meditation.

In episode #1 I expressed concern for the bewilderment, doubt and contention resulting from the daunting plethora meditation methods, along with differing reported experiences and lack of uniformity of vocabulary used to talk about meditation. Although I have discussed only a few of the methods I hope to have provided a basis for sorting these out so that potential gaps or special features of any particular method can be recognized and communication can be normalized.

Mostly I hope this is reassuring to the general practitioner that the method they are following is probably A-OK even if it has undergone a long historical evolution from the Buddha’s original teachings on meditation. This is because of the self-corrective nature of meditation techniques when they are applied and transmitted by sincere practicing yogis over many years.

The first several posts Buddha’s meditation, the natural standard for comparing and evaluating meditation techniques. My view, not shared by all, is that we have a very clear basis for understanding what the Buddha’s meditation was.

First, we have the scriptural sources in the Suttas and the Agamas, which though not perfectly are pretty darn reliable.

Second, we can piece together from these sources something that makes functional sense. In fact a coherent and comprehensive system emerges that is fully an expression of the remarkable genius of the Buddha that serves to gather and focus the rays of the entirety of Buddhist practice, in its conceptual, ethical and affective dimensions, and turn them ineluctably toward Nirvana.

Third, we have the direct experience of living breathing yogis to verify the efficacy of the many individual aspects of this system.

The fourth support for our understanding of what the Buddha taught I did not mention at the beginning of this series because it would not have made much sense at that time. This is to use a plausible historical account of the variants to affirm the correctness what we think the original is. For instance, in my exposition I described the Buddha’s method then tracing its historical evolution from that point I could account for the Zen variant as a simple adaptation of the Buddha’s meditation to Chinese cultural influences. And I could at the same time account for modern Vipassana in terms of an historical intrusion of a non-Buddhist technique. The simplicity of such accounts serves to affirm that the original description of Buddha’s method was correct.

I acknowledge that I have not developed any one of these four supports in as rigorous or insightful a way as some scholar-practitioners would be able to do, but I propose that even in my shaky hands the convergence of these supports in a single description of Buddha’s meditation means that we have at hand a very clear understanding indeed of the Buddha’s original system.

A rough outline of Buddha’s system is as follows (details were provided in the course of this series):

  • Buddha’s meditation that arises has Centered Samadhi at its core.
  • This samadhi arises from the combined application of Right Effort and Right Mindfulness, which jointly restrain the mind enough to induce the experience of samadhi.
  • Right Effort also serves to weave the strand of Virtue into meditation.
  • Right Mindfulness also serves to weave the strand of Wisdom.
  • Wisdom and Virtue will have been developed as prerequisites through exposure to the Dhamma and through following Precepts, practicing generosity and so on, primarily at the level of reason and action in accordance with the first five steps in the Noble Eightfold Path.
  • In samadhi virtue and wisdom, initially developed at a coarse level. are developed at a much more subtle level. This is where the qualities of samatha and vipassana come forth, and investigation continues in the furnace in which wisdom and virtue are melded, and the mind is able to attain its greatest purity, defilements are pacified and insight is achieved.

Right Samadhi is a resultant quality of mind, serene and keenly aware, that is, relaxed, calm, open, sensitive to, but unperturbed by, whatever arises. It is not fixed concentration or absorption in the meditation object, which could not sustain all of these functions.

Whatever meditation method you use does not have to look like Buddha’s meditation in its details. I propose that meditation is like language or like living organisms: They can evolve, yet retain their functionality. I hope to have demonstrated this in the cases of Zen meditation and Vipassana. The reason is that direct experience of living breathing yogis tends to correct whatever in the method may have been misunderstood or incorrectly transmitted.

Nonetheless, Buddha’s meditation can usefully serve to assess whatever meditation method you use. Does it have this logical structure? Is something missing? Is something extra? This may entail some investigation, since if something appears to be missing it may be made up for in some other way, and if something seems to be extra, it may still serve a useful purpose. For instance, one method may investigate impermanence, another emptiness. One method may make some use of fixed concentration to prepare the mind for centered concentration. This is OK.

At this critical juncture as Buddhism is being transmitted to the West this assessment is particularly pertinent because there is much opportunity for misinterpretation and mistransmission, often helped along by poorly qualified teachers, or qualified Asian teachers who do not understand the presuppositions of the culture they are transmitting from nor the peculiarities of the culture they are transmitting to. The student who is not cognizant of the role of meditation in the broader Buddhist Path might not have a sufficient basis for detecting errors in her own experience for many years.

Should you decide that whatever meditation method you are using is deficient, don’t despair: you probably have not been wasting your time; whatever training of the mind you have acquired will probably translate into a more efficacious method. For instance, if you have simply been following a fixed meditation regime, with no attention to threading wisdom or virtue into your samadhi, then yes, your method is deficient from a Buddhist perspective, but it will have provided you with a sound basis for developing quickly as a centered concentrator. (In fact this was my history; I spent almost eighteen years in fixed concentration before discovering Buddhist meditation, but have never regretted it.)

Let me conclude with the words of Twelfth Century Zen Master Hong Zhi:

“When silent illumination is fulfilled, the lotus blossoms, the dreamer awakens, A hundred streams flow into the ocean, a thousand ranges face the highest peak.”

Buddha’s Meditation and its Variants 18

March 15, 2012

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Theravada Meditation: Vipassana Jhanas
Last Quarter Moon Uposatha Day
, March 15, 2012
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Last Quarter Moon Uposatha Day index to series

The Twentieth Century and perhaps late Nineteenth Century saw the arising of a new plethora of meditation techniques in the Theravada world, most notably the methods of “Vipassana Meditation” that developed in Burma. These generally take the Visuddhimagga (which we discussed last week) as a primary influence, and particularly make use of the terminology of the Visuddhimagga, but whereas the Visuddhimagga presents two methods, Samatha and Vipassana meditation, the Vipassana schools highlight Vipassana (hence their name).

The most influential method in many Theravada countries and in America is that developed in Burma by Ven. Mahasi Sayadaw. I would like to focus specifically on this method today but only enough to compare it to Buddha’s meditation.

Prerequisites of Mahasi School Medititation.

Wisdom and Virtue. As for Buddha’s meditation, and in the Visuddhimagga.

Everyday Mindfulness. The basic method of noting, described below is recommended for all the yogi’s waking hours.

Methods of Mahasi School Meditation.

Removal of the hindrances. As in Buddha’s meditation.

Undistracted reflection on themes conducive to insight. Some vipassana methods use samatha practice to settle the mind to a certain point before undertaking vipassana per se. The Mahasi method is purely vipassana, that is, it does not make use of any preparatory samatha practice or fixed concentration.

The Mahasi method is a practice of noting which entails moment to moment awareness of impermanence. Noting here means mentally naming what has just arisen, “lifting, swallowing, listening, thinking, touching, intending.” Noting itself is an innovation not found as a continuous practice in Buddha’s meditation, but is much in his spirit of clear comprehension of whatever arises.

The Mahasi method, like Visuddhimagga, uses five aggregates of grasping (form, feeling, perception, formations and consciousness) as themes of meditation, and optionally makes use of following the breath as part of contemplation of body, with recommended focus on the feeling of the breath in the abdomen. For each theme of contemplation the qualities of impermanence, suffering and non-self are to be observed. The method differs only in details from the Buddha’s meditation.

The Experience of Mahasi School Meditation.

In Buddha’s meditation, samadhi (S-samadhi, Sutta-samadhi or S-jhana) is a primary experience of meditation. In the Visuddhimagga this experience is called “momentary concentration,” about which little is said. However, since the method in either case is close to the Buddha’s method we would expect the emergent experience to be similar.

Concentration is centered, not fixed. Mahasi Sayadaw describes the concentration (samadhi) that occurs during vipassana meditation in terms of the observing consciousness not wandering away from the task of noting whatever arises. This momentary concentration deepens as follows.

there arises tranquility of mind and along with it appears mental agility, etc. … body and mind are agile in functioning swiftly, they are pliant in being able to attend to any object desired for any length of time desired. … Insight penetrates objects with ease.

Clearly samatha (serenity) arises in vipassana. Mahasi Sayadaw’s disciple, Pandita Sayadaw describes this concentration experience that arises from the Mahasi method “vipassana jhana,” in contrast to “samatha jhana” (VM-jhana, Visuddhimagga-jhana) as follows:

Vipassana jhana allows the mind to move freely from object to object, staying focused on the characteristics of impermanence, suffering and absence of self that are common in all objects. … Rather than the tranquility and absorption which are the goal of samatha jhana practitioners, the most important results of vipassana jhana are insight and wisdom.

Pandita Sayadaw in fact analyzes vipassana jhana in precise Sutta terms, correlating this concentration with the specific factors and jhana stages described in the Suttas. Actually, we can anticipate this correlation since the method that gives rise to vipassana jhanas is close to the Buddha’s method that gives rise to S-jhanas.

Investigation continues in samadhi. VM-vipassana includes S-mindfulness and S-vipassana, all of which involve investigation. Vipassana jhanas arise from these and there is no indication that this samadhi shuts down investigation; investigation continues with a more subtle mind (which is S-vipassana). This is fully in accord with Buddha’s description of jhana.

The main conclusions in looking at Mahasi’s method are that it is largely equivalent to the Buddha’s method and results in the same kind of experience. The differences are largely terminological, but even this is corrected with the term vipassana jhana, related to the Buddha’s and Visuddhimagga’s terms as follows.

Vipassana jhana (= VM-momentary concentration) is S-jhana (= S-samadhi).

That is, vipassana jhana is the jhana or samadhi the Buddha had been talking about all along! Although samatha jhana doubtless arises in fixed concentration, and I speculate that it was something the Buddha was intimately familiar with from his early training, there is no indication at all that the Buddha was interested in teaching samatha jhana.

The lesson to be learned from the “discovery” of vipassana jhanas is that made at the beginning of the series on Buddha’s meditation and its variants, that meditative experience has a corrective influence on the textual tradition and its interpretation. The yogi’s practice is not based on texts alone, but also on the experiences that arise through practice. Given enough hints from the texts and an understanding of the goal of meditative practice in Buddhism the integrity of the teachings will be maintained or tend to be restored in practical terms if they have gone astray. (I speculate that where understanding goes astray is generally through a intellectual understanding not backed by practice. There is a curious natural pun in the Pali language: the word “ajjhayaka” has two meanings (1) non-meditator and (2) scholar.)

The Visuddhimagga does not contradict the Buddha’s method once the terminological correspondences are understood. However it does fail grievously to highlight and extoll the relevant sense of jhana or samadhi the way the Buddha does, in fact it marginalizes it. Although jhana is an emergent experience that arises through the method, highlighting it as something we return to over and over, as a place we dwell, does inspire us to think about practice in a particular way. Keep in mind that samadhi, equated with jhana, is one of the eight folds of the Noble Path. Recall also the many ways the Buddha extolls jhana/samadhi. (and clearly not samatha).

Sit jhana, bhikkhus!

When right samadhi does not exist, for one failing right samadhi, the proximate cause is destroyed for knowledge and vision of things as they really are. – A.V.4.9-11.

Bhikkhus, develop samadhi. A monk with samadhi understands in accordance with reality. – SN 22.5

The knowledges are for one with samadhi, not for one without samadhi. – AN 6.64

A monk who develops and makes much of the four jhanas slopes, flows and inclines toward Nibbana.

There is no jhana for one with no wisdom, no wisdom for one without jhana. But one with both jhana and discernment, he’s on the verge of nibbana. – Dhp 372

I say, bhikkhus, that the knowledge and vision of things as they really are too has a proximate cause; it does not lack a proximate cause. And what is the proximate cause for the knowledge and vision of things as they really are? It should be said: samadhi. – SN 12.23

You will probably find that if you substitute “momentary concentration” or “vipassana jhana” for each reference to “samadhi” or “jhana” above, the result is completely comprehensible, but nonetheless lacks sparkle and weight.

Buddha’s Meditation and its Variants 17

March 6, 2012

Theravada Meditation: Visuddhimagga Vipassana
Full Moon Uposatha Day
, March 7, 2012
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Last week I began discussing the Visuddhimagga, a massive meditation manual compiled almost a thousand years after the Buddha (and 1500 years before us), that itself claims to accurately represent the Buddha’s intention in the Suttas. The Visuddhimagga, though seldom followed exactly in the modern Theravada tradition, has had a great influence on it, and particularly, I hope to show, in creating the terminology used to talk about meditation.

Buddha - 4 Foundations Guy

As mentioned last week, Visuddhimagga provides two rather distinct methods of meditation, serenity (samatha) and insight (vipassana), where the Buddha presents a single method, albeit with a number of parts. Last week I used our handy template to compare samatha meditation to the Buddha’s meditation, and we found very limited correspondence. In particular the Visuddhimagga‘s application of fixed concentration seems to have no counterpart in the Buddha’s meditation. This week I undertake to compare vipassana meditation as presented in the Visuddhimagga using the same handy template with the Buddha’s meditation. Here the correspondence will turn out to be very close.

Last week I introduced the annoying prefixes “VM-” and “S-” and attached each to the term “jhana.” Quite simply, the word “jhana” as used in the Visuddhimagga does not have the same meaning as the word “jhana” as used by the Buddha. This is the first shift in meaning. “VM-jhana” refers to how the Visuddhimagga understands jhana, roughly as fixed concentration or absorption. “S-jhana” refers to how the Buddha understands jhana in the Suttas, roughly as centered concentration, unabsorbed but openly aware. I will extend the use of these prefixes today, particularly for the word “vipassana.”

Prerequisites of Visuddhimagga Vipassana Medititation.

The Visuddhimaga sees practice in stages, in which one stage feeds into the next. Vipassana meditation follows samatha meditation and therefore at least the same prerequisites are statisfied that I described last week, particularly the prerequisite virtue is described in great detail. Before Vipassana occurs also the intellectual understanding of wisdom. So both wisdom and virtue are woven into vipassana meditation, as in the Buddha’s meditation.

However samatha meditation, and with it VM-jhana, is itself is now an optional prerequisite for VM-vipassana. The serenity vehicle guy (samatha-yankika) is instructed to leave VM-jhana in order to pursue VM-vipassana meditation, thus keeping both methods distinct. VM-jhana is thereby only indirectly applicable to VM-vipassana meditation but is said to support it. However, peculiarity of samatha as a (optional) prerequisite to vipassana is that vipassana, as we will see momentarily, is generally identified with mindfulness practice and in the Buddha’s framework mindfulness precedes samadhi; consider for instance the traditional order of the Noble Eightfold Path. Also there is nothing in the Suttas about leaving jhana before practicing vipassana.

Methods of Visuddhimagga Vipassana Medititation.

Removal of the hindrances. These are much as in Buddha’s meditation.

Undistracted reflection on themes conducive to insight. These are differently formulated, but are largely equivalent to the themes discussed in the Four Foundations of Mindfulness. These themes are organized primarily around the khandhas (skandhas or aggregates): materiality, feeling, perception, volition and consciousness, whereas the Four Foundations of Mindfulness are body (materiality), feeling, consciousness and everything else. The technique is to examine a chose theme in particuar with regard to impermanence, suffering and insubstantiality. The method of Vipassana meditation does not seem to differ much from Right Mindfulness.

The Experience of Visuddhimagga Vipassana Medititation.

Pa Auk Sayadaw - Samatha Guy

Concentration is centered, not fixed. The Visuddhimagga refers to momentary concentration (khanika-samadhi) as a necessary component of penetration, that is of the arrival of insight. Unfortunately it says very little about momentary concentration. As its name suggests concentration fixes for at least a moment on a single thing, but otherwise is free to move about. These moments of concentration can form a continuity such that the term khanika-ekaggata, unification or centeredness of momentary concentration, is possible. The Paramathamanjusa, the Pali commentary to the Vissudhimagga, apparently makes an interesting observation, that the force of khanika-samadhi can be equivalent to full absorption in the jhanas.

Investigation continues in samadhi. Yes, or at least with momentary concentration. Given that momentary concentration in vipassana is the counterpart of S-jhana in the Buddha’s framework, it is surprising that Visuddhimagga gives so little attention to momentary concentration, Whereas the Buddha describes S-jhana in detail and then extols its virtues, admonishing practioners to abide in jhana, to return to it over and over, the Vissuddhamagga almost trivializes it, or its counterpart. This is not a difference in method or experience, but one in the way practice is inspired.

The upshot is that VM-Vipassana meditation seems to correspond to the Buddha’s meditation closely, differing in smaller details. This conclusion should be reassuring to the many modern vipassana practioners. However, a realignment of terminology seems to have occurred in the Visuddhimagga, plus the Visuddhimagga devotes considerable, in fact most, space and effort to the description of a method (VM-samatha) that has no counterpart in Buddha’s meditation.

Here is the way the terminology has been realigned:

VM-Samatha corresponds to nothing in the Suttas

VM-jhana (= VM-fixed concentration, uppana-samadhi) corresponds to nothing in the Suttas

VM-access concentration (upacara-samadhi) corresponds to nothing in the Suttas

VM-Vipassana encompasses S-mindfulness and S-vipassana

VM-momentary concentration corresponds to S-jhana (= S-samadhi)

VM-samadhi includes S-samadhi (S-jhana), but is much broader.

No wonder people talk past one another when they use any of the terms samatha, vipassana, jhana or samadhi in Theravada circles, which has widely adopted Visuddhimagga terminology alongside that of the Suttas.

Mahasi Sayadaw - Vipassana Guy

I speculate that this shift in terminology began historically — we have no way of knowing when — with the meaning of “jhana.” The Buddha seems to have appropriated this word and given it a specific role in his framework as S-jhana, much like he appropriated “kamma” (“karma”) with a specifically Buddhist definition. But just as Buddhists in the West have to defend the word “karma” against the intrusion of a more widely known Hindu understanding, the same word, “jhana” may have been similarly challenged in the early days. My speculation is that the defense was unsuccessful at some place and time in the tradition that produced the Visuddhimagga and that “jhana” lost the meaning the Buddha had given it as centered concentration,.

Once this happened “samatha” and especially “vipassana,” which were for the Buddha aspects of jhana, became free agents and broadened their meanings. However, in sustaining the Buddha’s framework in practice it was necessary to acknowledge types of concentration that were not fixed, and therefore the new terms “access concentration” and “momentary concentration” were introduced.

To do Visuddhimagga justice, I should stress that the entire practice of Buddha’s meditation seems to be upheld in the Visuddhimagga framework, in fact in Vipassana meditation alone, in spite of the realignment of terminology. An important question is how useful the rest of what the Vissuddhimagga offers is, namely samatha meditation. The Visuddhimagga certainly develops samatha meditation as a highly refined and sophisticated technique. It is perhaps telling that in modern Theravada, samatha meditation is an historical innovation that has for the most part been ignored or marginalized. However in recent years samatha meditation has been successfully reintroduced into the daunting plethora of meditation techniques by Pa Auk Sayadaw in Burma and abroad and has a growing number of strong practitioner-advocates. I will not pursue usefulness of samatha meditation beyond this within this series.

Also, given that the terminology used to describe meditation has shifted in the Theravada tradition from the Buddha’s usage, a practical question arises, Should we try to shift it back? Actually to do so might cause even more confusion, at least for a time. For instance, what is now commonly referred to as “Vipassana” meditation would more properly be called “Jhana” meditation! (“Go sit jhana, oh bhikkus.”). But in fact this is what the Zen people have always called what is in its essential details the same thing: “zazen,” “sitting jhana.”

Next week I will talk about modern Vipassana meditation and how it accords with the Buddha’s meditation, and thus will end this series on the Buddha’s Meditation and its Variants.

Buddha’s Meditation and its Variants 16

February 29, 2012

Theravada Meditation: Visuddhimagga Jhanas
First Quarter Moon Uposatha Day
, February 29, 2012
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In the Fifth Century AD in Sri Lanka, the Visuddhimagga (Path of Purification), was compiled by Ven. Buddhaghosa from previously existing materials and would prove to have lasting influence on the meditation methods of Theravada school of Buddhism. A number of things must have been striking to any new reader familiar with the Buddha’s meditation method described in the Suttas but encountering this huge, very detailed meditation manual for the first time. Primary among these is that the Visuddhimagga describes not one but two distinct methods of meditation, each to be cultivated independently for distinct purposes. These are called samatha- (serenity) and vipassana- (insight) meditation. Now the astute reader will recognize both terms, samatha and vipassana, from the previous discussions of Buddha’s meditation and its Zen variant, but in each of those cases these were aspects of of a single method that were brought into balance but worked together.

In order to compare the Visuddhimagga’s approach to the Buddha’s I will make use of the template we used to make the same comparison for Zen, however since we are now dealing with two methods I will apply it twice, this week for samatha meditation, and next week for vipassana.

Prerequisites of Visuddhimagga Samatha Medititation.

These are things cultivated prior to meditation, over years or minutes.

Wisdom and Virtue. Virtue and aesthetic practices are prerequisites to meditation. The latter, endorsed but not strongly by the Buddha, are intended to “cleanse” virtue by developing fewness of wishes and contentment. What differs from the Buddha’s program, following the Eightfold Noble Path is that samatha meditation is developed prior to the development of wisdom as a conceptual pursuit.

Methods of Visuddhimagga Samatha Medititation.

These are the mental actions that give rise to meditative experiences or allow them to be steered once they have arisen.

Removal of the hindrances. This is roughly as in Buddha’s meditation.

Undistracted reflection on themes conducive to insight? Forty alternative objects or themes of meditation are enumerated that substantially overlaps with the different themes of the buddha’s Four Foundations of Mindfulness which are not represented in the Suttas. Most remarkable is the inclusion of ten different kasinas, or artificial disks as meditation objects. Otherwise objects are included that one one expect to be, as in Buddha’s method, intended to support the investigating impermanence, suffering, insubstantiality and unattractiveness. However the experience of samatha meditation described below actually precludes their use in this way once jhana is attained. The choice of meditation object seems intended to match the meditator’s personality type rather than the development of a particular kind of meditation.

In general the method is to fix the mind on the object of meditation and as the mind settles a counterpoint sign (patibhaga nimitta) will arise, which is an idealized mental image, unblemished and unchanging, of the object itself in the mind’s eye. The mind fixes instead on the counterpoint image when this arises. Fixing on an image in this way is not mentioned in the Buddha’s meditation.

Encouragement of active factors. In the preparatory stages of meditation all of the jhana factors and the early factors of enlightenment including mindfulness, investigation, energy, delight and happiness are encouraged, much as in the Buddha’s meditation.

The Experience of Visuddhimagga Samatha Medititation.

As in Buddha’s meditation the experience of samatha meditation is concentration at varying levels. The Visuddhimagga describes a level of concentration called samadhi but actually prior to jhana, which the Suttas do not mention: Access concentration is close to jhana, is possible only when the hindrances are suppressed, involves clear undistracted awareness and a full range of mental experiences.

Concentration is centered, not fixed? In the Visuddhimagga jhana, also called fixed concentration, is so fixed on the counterpart sign that this is the entirety of experience. This means that all senses and awareness of the body are completely cut off. The jhana factors that define the different jhanas and that we are familiar with from Buddha’s meditation — thought and discourse, delight, pleasure and one-pointedness — are present, but they are functions for directing and maintaining concentration, awareness of these individual factors is possible only before and after leaving jhana.

We have seen that in the Buddha’s meditation concentration is centered, not fixed, there is broad awareness, particularly of the body and of many mental factors in every jhana, including the five jhana factors. Clearly jhana in the Visuddhimagga is a different experience than in the Suttas. Just to be clear, when I need to disambiguate these two kinds of jhana I will call them respectively VM-jhana and S-jhana, or Visuddhimagga-jhana and Sutta-jhana. Notice that S-jhana has more in common with access concentration than it does with VM-jhana.

Investigation continues in samadhi? No investigation or insight can occur in VM-jhana. This is clearly stated in the Visuddhimagga itself and must be the case because the counterpart sign is the entirety of experience and it is experienced as unchanging, without blemish. VM-jhana in this respect is quite distinct from S-jhana, which we have seen forms not only a basis, but the essential basis, for vipassana.

So, if samatha meditation is not a direct basis for insight, what is it used for? First, it provides a blissful abiding. Second, it provides a indirect support for insight meditation by developing qualities of mind that carry over after leaving jhana. Third it allows the development of supermundane powers such as walking through walls or touching the sun. Fourth, it can lead to rebirth in the Brahma World. Fifth, it provides the cessation of Nirvana here and now … temporarily.

The pre-jhanic access concentration can be used a a direct basis for insight. But insight is actually developed in vipassana meditation, not in samatha meditation. And in fact according to the Visuddhimagga VM-jhana is not even a necessary condition for the development of at all insight; it is optional. Vipassana does not require VM-jhana. A practioner who makes use of VM-jhanas is even specifically referred to as a samatha-yanika, a serenity vehicle guy. This contrasts with the suddha-vipassana-yanika, a pure vipassana vehicle guy, or a sukkha-vipassaka, a dry vipassana guy.

It should be clear that VM-jhana is quite different from S-jhana. First, the Buddha provides in the Suttas no comparable method to that of the Visuddhimagga to lead to jhana and no fixing on an object of concentration is described and the intermediary role of the nimittas in fixing concentration is completely absent. Second, the description of jhana in the Suttas reflect something in which many mental factors are active, for instance, in MN 111 the Buddha takes Sariputta as a model and says of him,

Whatever qualities there are in the first jhāna … he ferrets them out one by one. Known to him they remain, known to him they subside…

He then makes exactly the same statement but with regard to the “second jhana,” the “third jhana” and the “fourth jhana.” This and the next passage describe things that would not be possible in VM-jhana.

A monk in each jhana regards whatever phenomena connected with form, feelings, perceptions, fabrications and consciousness as inconstant, stressful, a disease, a cancer, an arrow, painful, an afflection, alian, a disintegration, a void, non-self … – AN 9.36

Third, jhana is described as necessary for insight in the Suttas, not optional. For instance:

There is no jhana for one with no wisdom, no wisdom for one without jhana. But one with both jhana and discernment, he’s on the verge of nibbana. – Dhp 372

In fact the idea that samadhi would be optional as a full fold of the Noble Eightfold Path seems on the surface absurd.

Fourth, there is no reference in the Suttas to coming out of jhana in order to practice insight, which is what is required for VM-jhanas. I have come across only one instance in the large number of suttas dealing with jhana and insight of coming out of jhana to practice insight, but it is the exception that proves the rule: In M.I.435.26 the meditator comes out of jhana in order to observe the impermanence of jhana itself. Bhante Gunaratana has written an paper available on line on this issue in which he concludes:

It is virtually impossible to find evidence in the Suttas that one should come out of jhana to practice vipassana.”

In summary, in the Visuddhimagga VM-jhana serves functions primarily different from the highest goal of final liberation, which requires insight, and for which jhana is helpful but optional. It only incidentally supports the development of insight. This is OK, since the Visuddhimagga provides a second form of meditation, which we will look at and assess next week.

What is a bit troubling is that the Visuddhimagga co-opts the Buddha’s terminology, “jhana” and “samadhi,” for its own ends. The Buddha had already co-opted “jhana” for his own ends, but it seems that in the Visuddhimagga it has reverted to what might have been its original non-Buddhist usage to refer to fixed concentration. What is a bit puzzling is the amount of attention given to VM-jhana, since it is not only optional for the highest goal and in fact rather outside of the logic of the Buddha’s system, but is also considered to be something few can actually attain. If any readers more familiar with the Visuddhimagga than I can explain away this trouble and puzzle I would appreciate it.


Buddha’s Meditation and its Variants 15

February 20, 2012

Theravada Meditation
New Moon Uposatha Day , February 21, 2012
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Buddhism spread from its home in Northern India in all directions, north, east and west. We have considered some of what happened to Buddhism in China and the rest of East Asia. Some two hundred years before reaching China Buddhism is purported to have arrived in Sri Lanka during the Second Century BC reign of Emperor Ashoka, possessor of the political will that made Buddhism perhaps the first world religion, that is, propelled Buddhism well beyond its boundaries from the land and culture of its origin. The traditional account has Emperor Ashoka’s son Ven. Mahinda, a Buddhist monk, first brought Buddhism to this southern island, along with a branch from which a Bodhi tree could be planted. Though Sri Lanka was isolated by water it was not so distant culturally as China for its culture and language were Indoeuropean.

Over the first centuries different schools of Buddhism came and went in Sri Lanka, but what emerged dominant is what we now know as the Theravada school, which would spread to Burma, Thailand, Cambodia and Laos, where it lives today. The Theravada school is often called the most orthodox school, or even “original Buddhism.” Indeed it is the one still existing school that does not fall into the reformist Mahayana camp. And indeed it has served more than any other school as the guardian of the original teachings, the Dharmavinaya, preserved in the Pali language as the early Suttas (discourses) and as the Vinaya (book of discipline).

Now, Theravada is not the only school to have inherited the Dharmavinaya — the Chinese have it too and the Tibetans most of it — but they are the primary guardians in at least two senses: First, the Theravada tradition preserves the Dharmavinaya in something close to the Buddha’s language or languages rather than in an unrelated language from with the original texts have been translated. For instance, if you wanted to find out in detail what the Christian Bible said about some esoteric point, you would prefer to look in the original Greek rather than the King James version. A similar higher degree of reliability falls to the Pali rather than to the Chinese. Second, the Theravada has devoted much more energy to the study of those texts than anyone else. These texts are chanted repeatedly in their original Pali. Pali scholars have discussed the meanings of words and phrases for centuries. These texts are actually read and even memorized.

I began this series by describing the Buddha’s meditation, based on the discourses. Although I relied almost exclusively on the Pali Suttas preserved in the Pali tradition, this does not mean that I was describing exclusively Theravada meditation. The Chinese Agamas seem, as far as I know, to say the same thing and outside of the last minute translation from Sanskrit to Chinese have as solid a pedigree as the Pali Suttas. What I presented seems to have been a part of the Buddha’s teaching in Northern India that defined the starting point for the evolution of each of the Buddhist schools, each of which introduced its own innovations. Buddha’s meditation is the root of both Zen meditation and of Theravada meditation, even though the Thervadins have the key right there on the shelf to unlock what the Buddha’s meditation was. In fact even as the primary guardian of these original teachings, the Theravada school underwent its own evolution, and was fully codified in Sri Lanka only in the Fifth Century AD in what is known as the Commentaries. This is a great body of texts that analyze the earlier canonical scriptures. Even though there is much debate about the reliability of the commentaries in every instance, the commentaries largely define the center of gravity in Theravada Buddhism. They are particularly highly regarded in Burma.

We will in fact be forced to plunge right into the Sutta/Commentary debate here, because it seems that meditation is handled quite differently in the Commentaries than in the Suttas. The commentarial Visuddhimagga (Path of Purification) is a huge, very detailed and very influential meditation manual from the Fifth Century AD, compiled by Ven. Buddhaghosa about the same time Tian-tai Master Zhiyi Zhi was writing his voluminous meditation manual, the Mohe Zhiguan (Great Serenity and Insight) in China (which I mentioned a couple of weeks ago).

For an ardent student of the Suttas, or failing that, for an ardent reader of the early part of this series on the Buddha’s meditation, a number of common claims about Theravada, particularly what is called Vipassana, meditation have to raise eyebrows through the roof:

“The Buddha taught two kinds of meditation: Samatha and Vipassana.”

“The Buddha taught following your breath where it touches your upper lip but otherwise there is no teaching from the Buddha on how to do samadhi.”

“Jhana is the mental absorption in a ‘counterpart image’ [nimitta].”

“Thinking stops and the senses shut down in jhana.”

“You have to come out of jhana to do vipassana.”

“Jhana/samadhi is not necessary for insight,” or “… for higher attainments, … for Liberation.”

None of these claims seems to have any support in the Suttas at all and many seem to flatly contradict the Suttas, what I have presented as Buddha’s meditation. Less importantly, none of these claims has any semblance whatever of Zen meditation.

What gives? Has Theravada meditation gone woefully astray, or did it decide at some point to abandon the old ways for a method more adequate than the Buddha’s method? It turns out, I think, that neither of these is true. This is what I will discuss in the next couple of weeks.