Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

The Case of the Missing Sangha

September 19, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

dhammavinay- 274

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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










September 15, 2017

This essay is updated from the chapter “The Buddhist Community” in my book A pdf_24x18Culture of Awakening: the life and times of the Buddha-Sasana.

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

IMG_1240A monastic is like a house pet: helpless on his own, absolutely and vulnerably dependent on the kind hand that feeds him, but at the same time of therapeutic value to that same hand (not to mention cute as a kitten in his fluffy robes and with his bald head). Like a house pet, a monastic lives a simple life, needs and possesses little: He does not have a motorboat on the lake, nor a puppy he is working to put through college. He is a deliberate renunciate with a lifestyle that leaves almost no channels for the pursuit of sensual pleasures, the accumulation of stuff, the quest for personal advantage, nor the intractable issues that accompany these. The effect is that he settles, if the mind remains steady, into a state of quiet contentment, a fertile field of practice indeed.

Accepting the generosity of the lay graciously, having no resources at all of one’s own that are not donated, puts the monastic in an uncommon frame of reference, but does the same for the lay donor as well. Remarkably, every time the monastic accepts something, the lay donor receives a gift. This is paradoxical to the Western observer, but if you look again, you cannot mistake the sugar plums dancing in the donor’s eyes. Every time the lay person accepts a teaching or benefits from a social or pastoral service, the monastic receives a gift. The relationship is unlike what one finds in conventional human affairs. This is an economy of gifts,[1] one that provides much of the context of the most fundamental Buddhist value and practice, that of dāna, Pali for generosity.

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

The Monastic Sangha

Whereas we find the sublime in the Dharma, we find in the Buddha’s institutional teachings nuts and bolts pragmatism. The Sangha is an institution. The fundamental purpose of this institution is to produce Noble Ones now and in the years to come.[2] Its founding charter provides the optimal training conditions for the practice that produces Noble Ones, it also sustains a wholesome and inspiring influence on the broader Buddhist community, and, as we will see, it ensures the future authenticity of the Sasana.[3]

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

It is not often enough stated that the founding of the Sangha was a truly monu-mental achievement. Although there were ascetics in India before the Buddha, “… among all of the bodies of renouncers it was only the Buddhists who in-vented monastic life,”[4] that is who provided an organized institution capable of sustaining its teachings. Consider this observation:

The Buddhist Sangha is likely the world’s oldest human organization in continual existence on the planet![5]

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

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

The Functions of the Discipline

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

“… what I have taught and explained to you as Dharma and discipline will, at my passing, be your teacher,”[6]

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

Here is the Buddha‘s mission statement for the Sangha in ten points:[7]

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

Let’s try to understand the functions of monastic discipline point by point in terms of this mission statement, and to recognize, as a means of further elucidation, their close counterparts in the discipline of science.

“The excellence of the Sangha”

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

Excellence of the Sangha entails that its membership is exclusive. This is a critical point. Although membership is an opportunity offered in principle to all, its members become exclusive through their vows, through the willingness to take on very simple lives of renunciation, a lifestyle fully in accord with Dharma but beyond the consideration of most people. Initially to become a member is quite easy, but sustained membership requires enormous trust in the Dharma, recognition of the disadvantages of samsaric life and oodles of personal discipline. In most cases it entails rigorous training in Dharma, meditation and Vinaya. Concentrated in this life among the renunciates, the Dharma burns most brightly.[8]

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

“The comfort of the Sangha”

The Sangha appears to have been planned as the ideal society writ small. The excellence of the Sangha makes that feasible. Internally the Sangha as envisioned by the Buddha observes no class distinctions, provides an exemplary level of gender equality,[9] is regulated in a way to avoid conflicts and maintain harmony, observes procedures to negotiate disagreements should these arise, is democratic and only minimally hierarchical.

At the same time, the Sangha is embedded in, and dependent on, a greater society, whose values may be often contrary but with which it must harmonize. Accordingly it takes care to conform, or at least provide the perception of conforming to the expectations of the wider society and certainly its standards of etiquette. It is worth noting that many, perhaps most, rules observed by Buddhist monks and nuns early on were recommended or inspired by lay people discontented in one way or another with the behavior of some monastics.[10] Some regulations seem to be symbolic and I suspect purely for public perception, that is, not necessarily reflective of the values of the ideal society (for instance, laypeople pay respects to monastics but not vice versa). The uniform appearance of the Buddhist Sangha serves to distinguish them from ascetics of other traditions who may observe other standards, and from the laity, who have a distinct role.

As an ascetic renunciate community, monks and nuns depend completely on material support from the lay community. This affords them the leisure of practice, study and good works. Remarkably the Buddha not only makes receipt of this support mandatory (monastics cannot, for instance, grow their own food or live off their own resources) but then redoubles this dependence by limiting the monastic’s right to retain offerings, especially of food, for which ownership expires at noon on the day it is offered![11] Monastics are not allowed to engage in exchange, such as Dharma talks for food or blessings for money. This provides a high degree of insularity from the concerns and influences of the outside world, including from the need for livelihood, ensuring among other things that the Dharma will not become a commercial product, tweaked for popular appeal. It also means that monastics can engage patiently in long-term practice toward profound but long-term attainment without the pressure to produce identifiable results.

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

“The curbing of the impudent” / “The comfort of well-behaved monastics”

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

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

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

“The restraint of effluents related to the present life” / “The prevention of effluents … to the next life”

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

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

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

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

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

“The arousing of faith in the faithless” / “The increase of the faithful”

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

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

“The establishment of the true Dharma”

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

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

“The fostering of Discipline”

Monastic discipline is probably the most archaic element of Buddhism. While scriptures vary throughout the Buddhist world, particularly with the proliferation of the later Mahayana Sutras, the regulations of the Vinaya are nearly a constant throughout Buddhist Asia.[12] The discipline is preserved by those who maintain the discipline and who ordain nuns and monks who will maintain the discipline. As long as the discipline is maintained there will be arahants in the world, as well as the lesser Noble Ones. As long as there are Noble Ones in the world the Dharma also will not go too far astray.

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

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

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

Imagine, for instance, that the scientific community as a whole decided that, from now on, salary and the ability to publish or fund research will depend entirely on the popularity of the researcher or his research, perhaps measured in terms of how many students he attracts or how many people read his results, with special credit for writing a best-selling book. This would compromise the comfort of the scientific community, because it would put its critical functions under less-than-adept, outside influence: popular opinion. It would also compromise the restraint of mistaken notions, because it would eliminate the guidance of peer review in favor of a much less expert process of review. It would represent a race to the bottom.

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


Ariyesako, Bhikkhu, 1999, “The Bhikkhus’ Rules: a Guide for Laypeople,” on-line at

Cintita, Bhikkhu Dinsmore, 2012, “What Did the Buddha Think of Women?,” essay available on-line at

Conze, Edward, 1959, Buddhism: its Essence and Development, Harper.

Gombrich, Richard, 2006, Theravada Buddhism, Routledge.

Gombrich, Richard, 2009, What the Buddha Taught, Equinox.

Horner, I.B., 2006, Book of the Discipline, Part I, Pali Text Society: Lancaster.

Jaffe, Richard, 2001, Neither Monk nor Layman: Clerical Marriage in Modern Japanese Buddhism, Princeton University Press.

Thanissaro Bhikkhu, 1997, “The Economy of Gifts,” on line essay at

Thanissaro Bhikkhu, 2007, The Buddhist Monastic Code I, II, Metta Forest Monastery.

Walshe, Maurice, 1996, The Long Discourses of the Buddha (= DN), Wisdom Publications: Boston.


  1. Thanissaro (1997, 2009).

2. Noble Ones (ariya) have attained at least the first level of awakening, stream entry.

3. The Sasana is the playing out of the Buddha’s teaching in time and space, that is, from an historical and social perspective.

4. Gombrich (2006), p. 19.

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

6. Mahāparinibbāna Sutta, DN 16, Walshe (1996), p. 260.

7. Translation is by Thanissaro (2007), p. 5. See also Horner (2006) , pp.37-8.

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

9 .See Cintita (2012). Historically the Sangha has often failed to uphold this ideal.

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

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

12. The most notable exception is Japan, long subject to government interference. See Jaffe (2001) and the discussion in later chapters.

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

August 18, 2017

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

The Value of an Open Mind

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Organized religion, hierarchy, bah!”

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

“Religious imagery, sacred objects, twaddle!”

“Rituals, bows, balderdash!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Clergy. Salespeople (or maybe game show hosts).

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

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

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

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

Take Seriously but Hold Loosely: perspectives on Secular Buddhism (2/3)

July 25, 2017

pdf_24x18The previous episode (1/4) demonstrated that the teachings of Buddhism provide a support for practice and have no other function, in particular, no function in terms of philosophical or scientific speculation. When a teaching is taken seriously, its practice function has the potential to be realized and its benefits to be attained. Is taking a teaching seriously the same as believing it? Let’s see.

Holding the teachings loosely

In this section I show how the teachings fall short of belief, but are rather to be held loosely or provisionally. This, in fact, is often important for a teaching to become meaningful and acceptable by a particular practitioner, who can experiment with different personal interpretations to make the teaching his own.

Working assumptions. In the Caṅki Sutta we learn that anything ac­cepted through faith, approval, oral tra­dition, reasoning or ponder­ing may or may not turn out to be true. At this the young brahmin Caṅki asks how, then, truth is to be pre­served:

If a person has faith, his statement, “This is my faith,” preserves the truth. But he doesn’t yet come to the definite conclusion, “Only this is true; anything else is worth­less.” To this extent, Bharadvaja, there is the preservation of the truth. To this extent one preserves the truth. I de­scribe this as the preservation of the truth. But it is not yet a discovery of the truth. (MN 95)

The Buddha then repeats this formula with appropriate substitutions to make it about each of faith, approval, oral tra­dition, reasoning and ponder­ing. Notice that this is a similar list of conditions to those for belief that the Buddha rejected in the Kālāma Sutta.

What this says is that noth­ing is to be simply believed unconditionally, because no matter what, even if the wisest teacher swears on a stack of Nikāyas that it is true, it might just turn out to be false. At no point can we with certainty state, “Only this is true; anything else is worthless.” This would be belief, something fixed or timeless, something we tend to put on the shelf, not to be further questioned, a definite conclusion. Most of us have at least at least some such beliefs, about science, about politics, about religion, about football players, about fashion. The Buddha cautions us that the only thing we might be certain about is that we think certain things are true as a matter of experience, never that they are true. Fixed, immutable belief has no place in the Buddha’s thinking.

Nonetheless, until a teaching is directly realized and fully understood in one’s experience, it can at best be taken as provisionally true, a kind of working assumption as a matter of faith, approval, oral tradition, reasoning or pondering. The truth of the teaching is only later discovered through direct experience. At that point, the teaching itself becomes without further function, a mere propositional approximation of what one has discovered and experienced directly for oneself. Teachings, therefore, at all stages, stop short of belief. They are accepted only conditionally and are ultimately expendable. In these senses, teachings, even while taken seriously, are to be held loosely.

Malleability and reinterpretation. The practical advantage of taking a teachings as working assumptions rather than as a belief is, in fact, exemplified in the truths of suffering and of the cause of suffering in the four noble truths. As we learned, the practice functions of these truths are the understanding and ultimate relinquishment of suffering and craving as factors of of our own experience. It would be a mistake to try to crystallize these truths from the beginning into a belief, precisely because we do not yet understand what suffering and craving are at that point. Any belief about them would have slim propositional content, and would be unlikely even to approximate the understanding that ultimately arises from the practice these truths give rise to. Belief would just get in the way and inhibit the investigation our practice requires. As we investigate something like suffering or craving, we are likely to make a series of distinct intermediate working assumptions before we come to recognize, perhaps after many years of practice, what the Buddha was asking us to see directly for ourselves. We give up even our final working assumptions once these truths are understood, because there is nothing like seeing directly for ourselves. We see that working assumptions are malleable and subject to reinterpretation and modification in a way beliefs are not. This is good, because their malleability allows us to make them ours, to wrap out minds around them, to make them meaningful and acceptable in our own way. Hold teachings loosely is important for the process of discovery, which is the practice task associated with the first noble truth.

Moreover, a particular teaching may similarly be critical at one point of practice, and lose its importance, or even its coherence, at a later stage. This explains why the Buddha always adjusted his teachings to his audience and why the early discourses are careful to clarify to whom they are spoken. Consider the teaching that I am the heir of my own deeds, which has to do with karma and the fruits of karma, whose practice function we already discussed above. Although this teaching plays a critical role in the practice function of establishing ethical conduct at the early stages of Buddhist practice, it actually makes less and less sense at later stages of practice, in which the agent of those deeds is recognized as a mere mental construct. In fact, it is taught that karma itself disappears in the fully awakened. At the early stages of practice virtue comes significantly with overriding one’s greed, hate and delusion associated with the agent of karma, in favor of what is really of ultimate benefit for self and other. At the later stages it comes primarily from the almost complete absence of greed, hate and delusion once these are cognitively disassociated from that agent.

In summary, teachings are to be held loosely, such that they make sense to us at the right level at the right time, but but remain malleable, subject to individual reinterpretation and modification within the limits of their practice functions. As we hold teachings loosely, we can turn them this way and that, try to generalize them, test if they maybe apply in a more specific way than first thought, conceptualize them in different ways, all the while deepening our understanding of the various texts that present these teachings. As we approach suffering, what exactly is meant? Is any hint of anxiety or stress an instance of suffering? Are we suffering when we are not aware that we are suffering? As we approach the teaching that we are heirs of our own deed, can we find examples in our own experience, or counterexamples? Is it precisely true in every instance, only an approximate generalization? Does it imply mysterious underlying mechanisms, or is there a natural explanation for why this generalization would be true? In these ways we develop insight, relate the teachings to direct experience and make of the teachings an increasingly powerful influence in our practice. Working assumptions are a lot more work than beliefs, which is perhaps why they are called “working” assumptions, but much more workable.

The skeptic’s choice. As we reflect on the teachings in this way, sometimes we may balk nonetheless. The Buddha gives us an example in the Apaṇṇaka Sutta:

There are some contemplatives and brahmans who hold this doc­trine, hold this view: “There is nothing given, nothing offered, nothing sac­rificed. There is no fruit or re­sult of good or bad actions. There is no this world, no next world, no mother, no father, no spontaneously re­born be­ings; no brahmins or contemplatives who, faring rightly and practicing rightly, proclaim this world and the next af­ter having di­rectly known and realized it for themselves.” (MN 60)

These views deny what the Buddha teaches about karma and rebirth, as well as about responsibilities to parents. Passages like this suggest that his teachings were not without some controversy even in the Buddha’s time. Significantly, the Buddha does not argue that these contrary views are factually wrong, for instance, by citing research on memories of young children of past lives, even though he elsewhere states that he has himself directly experienced the truth of karma and rebirth. Instead, he argues entirely from the perspective of practice function, that is, from how these views are likely to condition the be­havior of such contemplatives and brah­mins:

It can be expected that … they will adopt and practice these three un­skillful activities: bad bodily conduct, bad verbal conduct, bad mental conduct. Why is that? Because those venerable contemplatives and brahmins do not see, in unskillful activities, the drawbacks, the degradation, and the defilement; nor in skillful activities the benefit of renunciation, as cleansing. (MN 60)

In other words, these views would have a negative practice function. Here is the kicker: people of these contrary views cannot win, whether or not their contrary view turns out to be factually true in the end:

Assume there is no other world, regardless of the true statement of those venerable contemplatives and brah­mins. This good person is still criticized in the here and now by the observant as a person of bad habits and wrong view: one who holds to a doctrine of non-existence. If there really is a next world, then this venerable person has made a bad throw twice: in that he is criticized by the ob­servant here and now, and in that with the breakup of the body, after death he will reappear in a plane of depriva­tion, a bad destination, a lower realm, hell. Thus this in­controvertable teaching, when poorly grasped and poorly adopted by him, covers one side. He gives up the skillful op­tion. (MN 60)

This describes a purely pragmatic basis for accepting one of two alternative theses on the basis of a kind of cost-benefit analysis, or a means of covering one’s bets that by it­self justifies its acceptance as a kind of loosely held working assumption. The positive thesis should therefore be taken seriously, because it has a positive practice function, taken seriously regardless of one’s skepticism. Our job is to put aside our skepticism, and make the positive thesis our working assumption. The Buddha makes a similar argument at the end of the Kālāma Sutta (AN 3.65) with regard to realizing the fruits of karma in the next life. It is clear that he recommends that the teachings of karma and rebirth be taken seriously and therefore accepted as working assumptions even by the skeptical. We have already discussed the practice function of these teachings above, and will discuss their content a bit more below.

I think that some writers and teachers take the advice to skeptics in the Kālāma Sutta in the wrong way. It is important to pause and reflect here, because it seems clear, at least to me, that the Buddha is providing us with a subtle middle way between two extremes, belief and disbelief. Batchelor, for instance, concludes correctly from the Kālāma Sutta that the Buddha does not require belief in rebirth. But then from this he infers that rebirth need not be taken seriously, and in his later works even feels justified in disbelieving rebirth. However, if the Buddha intended that inference, he would not have made the pragmatic case for accepting rebirth on the part of the skeptic. Batchelor’s detractors, on the other hand, also miss the point of this passage when they state that one must believe in rebirth, sometimes even adding that one is not really a Buddhist if one does not believe in rebirth. The mistake here is that both sides conflate belief with taking seriously, where the Buddha in fact opens a middle way by distinguishing taking seriously from holding loosely. One can follow the Buddha’s teachings fully without believing in rebirth, but one who wants to follow the Buddha’s teachings fully will take the teachings around rebirth seriously, for the loss of rebirth’s practice function is likely to hinder the benefits of practice. The salty flavor of nirvana might be lost without the practice function of rebirth, just as the wonderful flavor of pesto would be lost by leaving out the basil.

This leads to a question that the Buddha does not seem directly to answer: What if we simply cannot accept a teaching, even as a working assumption, as hard as we try, either because it conflicts with some tightly held fixed beliefs that we are not willing to give up, or because it seems otherwise nonsensical, irrational or contrary to observable experience? How can we be expected take such a teaching seriously? Specific examples will be taken up in more detail in the context of adapting teachings to modernity, for this is a common experience for skeptical modern people. But let it suffice for the moment to point out that people, in fact, have a remarkable capacity for accepting inconsistent or strange assumptions, and even the most rational of us do so all the time.

B.F. Skinner, for instance, was a strong advocate of behaviorism in psychology in the middle of the last century, which involves the view that things like thinking, emotion, free will, perception, etc. are illusions that play no role in physical behavior. This once lead me to wonder if Skinner had children – Yes: According to Wikipedia he had two daughters. – and how he handled the various desires, fears, upsets and excitements that children have on a daily basis, once he returned from work where his interactions were no longer primarily with pigeons. Somehow I doubt that he, as a father, was indifferent to his daughters’ emotional states, nor that he tried to convince them they were illusory: “It’s OK, Julie. The bee sting was real, but your distress is not. So we are going to ignore that.” Each of us lives in an objective world and in a subjective world, even if we are convinced philosophically that only one or the other of these worlds is real. We have no choice.

Even physicists are adept of moving from one irreconcilable model of physical reality to another, from the Newtonian world to the world of relativity and back again, when it is convenient. And string theorists, I imagine, inhabit the same world of naive physics the rest of inhabit do when they are driving their cars, fending off an aggressive Chihuahua or eating a sandwich. There are, of course, practitioners of the hard sciences who believe in God, yet never consider the possibility that a NASA space craft might run into God’s nose. We all keep multiple frames of reference neatly separate. Moreover, much of our everyday reality is entirely fabricated, yet we take what is contained therein quite seriously even when we understand it is fabricated. Money and football are striking examples, which exist and become meaningful (quite often hugely meaningful) only to the extent that we agree to pretend that they exist and are meaningful. Holding things loosely, even the craziest things, has abundant precedent and often serves very practical functions.

Vagueness in the teachings. Many teachings do not lend themselves to a single interpretation. The Buddha made use of many rhetorical devices: myth, metaphor, allegory, symbolism, sometimes even literalism. This often leads us to entertain multiple interpretations and may leave us, and must have left the ancients as well, wondering how one is supposed to interpret such teachings. If we hold teachings loosely, this need not concern us, for a range of interpretations commonly fulfills the same practice function. Let’s take Māra as an example.

The in­famous Māra appears in the early discourses as a kind of fallen deity who is always ready to tempt, discourage, seduce and disarm, to do any­thing to bring the Buddhist practitioner away from what is wholesome, from what leads to nib­bāna or supports the Sāsana. He shows up frequently as a physical being, but generally in disguise, with remarkable persis­tence given that his rate of suc­cess seems quite low in the early texts. In each case, he then typically disappears as soon as he is recognized for who he is.

Now, what might be the practice function of these repeated accounts of encounters with Māra? These accounts suggest it is important to recognize Māra when he is trying to disrupt our practice, for when we do, he goes away and we can return to our practice. I know of no practitioner who has yet encountered Māra in the flesh, but I know many practitioners who apply this advice metaphorically when mental hindrances arise in their practice; they acknowledge the hindrance and let it go. The metaphor is quite apt, because often it actually seems like there is an obscure unconscious part of our mind whose interests often seem to run counter to our own and who seems to be very clever in realizing his interests and hindering our own.

Do we interpret Māra as myth or reality? In terms of practice function it does not seem to matter much, since we are unlikely to encounter him in the flesh, but he does nonetheless teach us a lesson we can put to use in our practice. Karen Armstrong points out that the question of myth or reality is a modern question, of little concern even in the West before modernity. Premoderns were, in this sense, in a better position to hold this teaching loosely. Some modern scholars of religion point out that mythology has traditionally provided a means of talking about psychology. In fact, the Buddha was a pioneer in the use of psychological language, with some precedent in the early Upanishads. Rupert Gethin points to what he calls the principle of the equivalence of cosmology and psy­chology in early Buddhism whereby heavenly realms, etc. actually correspond to subjective states, for instance realized in meditation.

In fact, alongside many passages referring to a flesh-and-blood Māra, we find this passage:

Where the eye exists, Samiddhi, where visible forms, eye consciousness and dhammas cognizable by the eye exist, there Māra or the manifestation of Māra exists. (SN 35.65)

Here Māra clearly becomes a psychological entity, something that arises in subjective experience, not in the objective world. Notice, however, that Māra keeps his name, still giving the impression of independence and contrariness within the subjective domain.

The point is that individually we may interpret Māra as a real physical entity, as a myth about such an entity, as an aspect of our own minds, or – least problematically – as “yeah, whatever.” “Yeah, whatever” is best, since it simply puts aside any particular view on the matter. The Buddha does not seem to have been too concerned about precision in this case. Some of us will prefer one interpretation or another, and this choice will often be culturally determined. Unfortunately, it is difficult particularly in the modern culture to accept “yeah, whatever” as a view. But we might note that even if we interpret Māra in psychological terms, we will have a strong impulse to anthropomorphize our own interpretation, to spin a myth around about that disruptive aspect of our own minds, sometimes even giving it a name as in “Little Timmy is at it again” or “Be gone, little Timmy!” Myth, reality, literal and metaphorical seem cognitively not so distant from one another, even though they may be ontologically quite distinct. In the end, we need not be so precise in the way we conceptualize things, as long as we preserve the proper functional response to potential disruptions of our practice. This is to hold a teaching loosely.

Misunderstanding the teachings. Individually we are likely to misunderstand many teachings at some point or another as we try to wrap our minds around them in various specific ways, and this may lead to harm as we attempt to put them into practice. We rely on our teachers and on our ongoing studies and practice to correct these misunderstandings. More worrisome is when misunderstandings become entrenched in a particular Buddhist tradition and become part of how the teachings are conveyed, even by one’s own teachers, sometimes for untold generations. Alas, this is not uncommon. However, the transmission of Buddhism to the West affords a valuable opportunity for correcting many of those traditional misunderstandings, since we tend to see the Buddha’s teachings with new eyes, and with a healthy degree of skepticism. Let me offer an example.

We have seen that I am the heir of my own deeds, that is, I experience harm or benefit as results of the ethical qualities of my deeds. It does not follow logically that all harm or benefit I experience results from my previous deeds, for some of these may result from non-karmic causes. Nonetheless, this inverse assumption is a common misunderstanding in many Asian traditions. For example, if lightning strikes my house and it burns down, I must have done something harmful to someone in the past, possibly in a previous life.

In fact, this inverse proposition is explicitly denied by the Buddha, in the somewhat obscure Sīvaka Sutta (SN 36.21). Even if we overlook the Sīvaka Sutta ourselves, we nonetheless have an adequate basis for recognizing this inverse proposition as a misunderstanding, not through pondering underlying mechanisms, but purely on the basis of practice function, for the inverse assumption would likely result in inhibiting the practice of compassion. In brief, if someone else suffers a misfortune – his house burns down, for instance – it is his own karmic fault, and if we provide him relief, we would only postpone his inevitable payment of his karmic debt. Furthermore, if we choose to do something harmful to him, he must have deserved it, so we are helping him pay off his karmic debt. Even if infallible cosmic retributive mechanisms are firmly entrenched in our interpretation of karma, practice function must trump that interpretation. Sometimes it is necessary to loosen up calcified interpretations.



Take Seriously but Hold Loosely: perspectives on Secular Buddhism (1/3)

July 17, 2017

pdf_24x18Recently someone compared my writing to that of Stephen Batchelor, the most prominent and perhaps most articulate proponent of the new Secular Buddhism movement. I had to think, at first, what the similarities and differences might be, because I don’t identify myself as a Secular Buddhist – largely because I feel the distinctions between “religious” and “secular” or “traditional” and “modern” are spuriously applied to Buddhism. In fact, I hope that this essay might serve as a middle way between extremes that seem to be forming within Buddhism around these distinctions. Nonetheless, I admit to sharing two fundamental premises which Batchelor has clearly articulated, and which are also, I understand, mainstays, perhaps the two most important mainstays, of Secular Buddhism. These premises are:

(1) The Dharma is about practice, not belief.

The title of Batchelor’s well thumbed-through and dog-eared book Buddhism without Beliefs reflects this premise. Buddhism is something we do, not something we believe. This is by no means to say that the Buddha did not provide a doctrinal framework: he gave us the Dharma, which consists of a large system of interrelated teachings. However, the Dharma falls short of a “belief system,” and instead serves exclusively as a critical support for practice, as I hope to show in my own way in what follows. For this reason, I will submit that the Buddha’s teachings are to be taken seriously, because each one will have an important practical function, or practice function, to be realized as beneficial results. At the same time, they are to be held loosely, as less fixed than belief, because a teaching needs to be meaningful and acceptable by the particular practitioner in support of its practice function. It is the practitioner’s task to make the teaching his own.

(2) The Dharma will inevitably be adapted to modern sensibilities.

The teachings are always going to be interpreted by individuals through the filter of their own culture as well as in idiosyncratic ways. For instance, Buddhists from an animist culture will tend to see behind the teachings intelligent but invisible underlying mechanisms, where Buddhists from a modern culture will look for verifiable physical or mental processes. This is how cultures have kept Buddhism meaningful and acceptable as it has entered new lands, and this is unlikely to cease in the West. Moreover, if we hold Buddha’s teachings loosely, we have license to understand them in ways that are meaningful and acceptable to us. At the same time, if we take the teachings seriously, we will not lose sight of their practice functions, and will thereby tend to preserve the integrity of the Dharma. After all, we expect the Dhamma to shape the cultures of new lands in beneficial ways.

The point of bringing Buddhism into a new culture is not to introduce yet another belief system to take its place alongside alternative understandings of science, philosophy and religion, but to produce an all-too-rare kind of human character, one that lives, acts and thinks something like a buddha. Buddhism has retained its functional integrity remarkably well even as it has been repeatedly reinterpreted in different cultural environments. If we take care, it will do so in ours.

A third similarity between my approach and Batchelor’s is that both of us have currently a primary interest in early Buddhism, the teachings that were articulated before sectarian differences arose historically. I personally have a great respect for most later traditions as they have developed in Asia, but the very earliest stratum of Buddhism gives us a well defined form of Buddhism from which to draw examples, the one closest to the Buddha and the least adulterated by extraneous cultural and religious influences.
I will now motivate these two mainstays of Secular Buddhism in more detail. I will develop the first premise first in terms of practice function or doing (taking seriously), and then in terms of not believing (holding loosely), and will show that this first premise is clearly motivated in the Buddha’s teaching itself. I will then show that the second premise makes sense in terms of the first, look at some general issues of modern interpretation, and assess the overall position of “Secular Buddhism.”

Taking the teachings seriously

In this section we demonstrate that the range of teachings is consistently justified as supports for practice, what we actually do in our lives and the benefits that thereby accrue. We take the teachings seriously because each has a practical function, or practice function, that makes a difference in our lives. Famously, in the Simsapa Sutta (SN 56.31) the Buddha, holding a handful of leaves, declared that if the leaves of the forest represent what he might teach, the leaves in his hand represent what he does teach, for he teaches only suffering and the end of suffering:

And why have I taught these things? Because they are connected with the goal, relate to the rudiments of the holy life, and lead to disenchantment, to dispassion, to cessation, to calm, to direct knowledge, to self-awakening, to nirvana. (SN 56.31)

The Buddha was not interested in teaching speculative philosophy, or what we would not call science, nor in metaphysics, but only in the practice that leads ultimately to awakening. He was very practical.

Four noble truths. Batchelor frequently illustrates the point that the function of Dharma is in support of practice particularly with regard to the four noble truths, that most central teaching of Buddhism. He points out that the presentation of the four noble truths in the Buddha’s very first discourse, known as the Turning of the Wheel Sutta, and elsewhere explicitly incorporates instructions for practice. The four noble truths are:

  • The truth of suffering, which is to be understood,
  • The truth of the origin of suffering, which is craving, and which is to be abandoned,
  • The truth of the cessation of suffering, which is the cessa­tion of crav­ing, and which is to be realized,
  • The truth of the path of practice leading to the cessation of suffering, which is right view, right in­tention, right action, right speech, right livelihood, right effort, right, mindfulness and right concentration, and which is to be developed. (paraphrase from SN 56.11)

A significant point about the four noble truths, aside from their highlighting of a conditional relation between suffering and craving, is that they merge fact and value, that is, “is” and “ought.” Stated in their most concise form, they appear to be four empirical propositions subject to verifica­tion, and are in fact referred to as “truths” in the early discourses. Yet, we are given an explicit practice for each of the truths: under­standing, abandoning, realizing and developing, respectively. The truths are justified for their practical value, that is, for their practice function. It has been pointed out that the truths are like a doctor’s evaluation, in which the truths would represent, respectively, symptom, diagnosis, prognosis and cure, and we note that a doctor’s evaluation also merges “is” and “ought” and is justified for its practice function, that of curing the patient. The path of practice referred to here is the noble eightfold path, eight bullet-points of more detailed practice to be developed.

This is hardly an obscure passage, yet Batchelor is right that at least some later traditions often highlight the propositional content, as if our primary task is to believe, not to understand, abandon, realize and develop. Not all Dharmic teachings make their practice function this explicit, but my experience is that a practice function is always present at least implicitly for any teaching, even if the practice function is not at first obvious. Belief by itself gives us no reason to take a teaching seriously, its practice function gives us every reason. The Buddha was very practical.

These things lead to bene­fit and hap­piness. These points about the priority of practice over belief form the topic of the Kālāma Sutta, which warns us against arriving at fixed viewpoints, no matter their source, but instead to verify teachings in terms of the benefits accrued through embracing them, which is to say. in terms of their practice function:

Come, Kālāmas. Do not go upon what has been acquired by repeated hearing, nor upon tradition, nor upon repeti­tion, nor upon what is in a scripture, nor as a result of thought; nor upon an axiom, nor upon careful reasoning, nor out of delight in speculation, nor upon an­other’s seem­ing ability, nor upon the thought, “The monk is our venera­ble teacher.” Kālāmas, when you yourselves know: “These things are good, these things are not blamable, these things are praised by the wise, undertaken as a whole these things lead to bene­fit and hap­piness,” then enter on and abide in them. (AN 3.65)

In the passage, the ultimate criterion for evaluating a teaching is practical, that is, whether what we do on the basis of the teaching is of benefit. It is because the teachings have a practice function that we take them seriously; together they make a huge difference in our lives. We eschew intellectual achievements, whether these seem like “common sense” or result from higher scholarly reasoning and speculation, in favor of what is of benefit in our lives.

Faith. So, the four noble truths are about practice; they give us something to do. I should point out at the outset that they are also about faith. Faith is often mistakenly put in opposition to reason, but, in fact, the very reasonable four noble truths give us nothing to do, absolutely nothing, if we do not have faith that they are giving us good advice. Why would we take them seriously if we don’t assume that the Buddha knew what he was talking about, that his doctrine is reliable and that our modern teachers are representing it properly? Without these assumptions the four noble truths are useless in our lives. This is not to say they are not verifiable: If we understand suffering, we will see that it is the shadow side of craving. If we follow the path of practice, we will realize the end of suffering. But we can only verify the four noble truths after we have practiced on the basis of them, generally for many years (if not lifetimes). Until then, our practice is based in faith, faith in the efficacy of the four noble truths for our practice. As one of my Zen teachers, Shohaku Okumura Roshi, once said of Zen meditation, “Zazen takes a lot of faith. Otherwise nobody would do something [that looks] so stupid.”

What we accept on faith is virtually always, in Buddhism, subject to verification. This explains why the Buddha says the Dhamma is “personally experienced by the wise,” not by everyone, only by those who have developed wisdom through practice. This is why the Buddha invites us “to come and see” the Dharma: When he says “come,” he is shouting down to us flatlanders from the moun­taintop. To arrive at his vantage point we need to scramble up hills, struggle through brambles and ford creeks, with the faith that the Buddha is up there telling us to see is worth our while. When he says “see,” we need to focus our eyes intently in the right direction to barely make out what the Bud­dha sees with great clarity of vision, and, sure enough, we can verify it for ourselves, … in the end. Until then our effort is carried by faith.

However, this is not blind faith by a long shot, and it has little to do with belief. It is actually a commonplace faith that informs literally everything we do: cooking by following a recipe in a cookbook, following the directions for assembling a new vacuum cleaner, undertaking a course in chemistry, watching a movie on the recommendation of a friend, brushing our teeth. Ultimate verifiability stands behind this kind of faith, for even though we have yet to personally verify the efficacy of the teaching we are given, we can assume that others who have preceded us have verified it over and over again. Otherwise this teaching would not have survived to be transmitted to us. With practice experience, the Dharma establishes a kind of track record, and this pushes our faith even further.

The function of developing faith in Buddhism is fulfilled by the practice of refuge, the development of trust in the reliability of the three sources of Buddhist wisdom: the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha. The Buddha is our original teacher, the Dharma is the teachings themselves and the Sangha are the living teachers who are developed in understanding and in practicing the Dharma. This is not faith in a set of beliefs, such as in a catechism or in a fundamentalism not to be questioned. Refuge is itself a practice whose practice function is to bring ourselves to take the other teachings seriously. Refuge is thereby very practical. The practice of refuge is substantially to recall the track record of these sources of wisdom, but also to develop an emotional intimacy with these sources of wisdom in order to open up the heart and mind to their influence, that our practice might deepen. Simple physical practices like bowing were endorsed by the Buddha from the Buddha at the very beginning and have always been utilized as a support for refuge ever since, much like handshaking is a support for cordiality in Western culture.

The relationship of refuge to the four noble truths illustrates the way one practice function feeds into another in an integrated system of teachings. The four noble truths, when practiced, fulfill the function of ending suffering. The refuges, when practiced, fulfill the function of taking the four noble truths seriously, that is, of instilling life into the four noble truths, as well as into other teachings.

The diversity of teachings. To practice is to exercise the skill of life. It is useful to recognize the similarity between Buddhism and other skills, such as tennis, hang gliding, haute cuisine, ceramics, making a sales pitch, chess, bird-watching or solving non-linear equations. Each begins with teachings and faith in the teachings. For the aspiring master chef, for instance, these might be focused in a favorite cookbook, one that may have been recommended by a wiser cook than oneself, or by its strong track record acquired through repeated personal use. Each instruction in each recipe will serve a practical function, contributing something to the taste, texture or appearance of the food; if we leave anything out or make a mistake in the instruction, the result will generally be disappointing. The overall functionality of the instructions is revealed in the benefit attained, the bright faces, delighted smiles, smacking of lips and positive comments of the satiated. Belief in the instructions is not the point, but rather what we do on the basis of them. The proof of the pudding is in the eating. The teachings, practice and benefits in haute cuisine are of a different nature than those of Buddhism, or of any other kind of skill, but the analogy provides a useful perspective for understanding the function of Dharma.

The four noble truths are the core teachings of Buddhism, the teachings that lead to high spiritual attainments and eventually nirvana. Most of the Buddha’s significant teachings are elaborations of the four noble truths. However, everything arises in a context, and refuge is a significant part of the context of the practice of the four noble truths, as we have seen. Refuge is, in this sense, more foundational than the four noble truths. The context of the four noble truths is even further filled out by advice on how to interpret the teachings, which is substantially our concern in this essay. The Buddha seems to leave no stone unturned.

It is important to recognize that many of the teachings support not the specific individual’s practice, but instead the functions of the Buddhist community in which the individual practices. The Buddhist community itself functions to support the individual’s practice by providing role models and teachers, material support for those who want to dedicate themselves to spiritual development, and, ultimately, the means of propagating and preserving the integrity of the teachings for future generations. The teachings around the Buddhist community thereby have even an historical function. Moreover, it is within the community that the individual practices virtue and generosity and learns humility and harmony. The community ideally defines a culture of awakening that both pulls and pushes the individual toward nirvana, through inspiration of those further advanced in practice, and and through the encouragement of all, including those less advanced.

Monastic practice. It should be noted that the Buddha gave abundant attention to establishing the multi-functional monastic community, through an extensive set of teachings called the Vinaya, the discipline, or the monastic code of conduct. The Vinaya is based more directly in elaborate rules of practice or conduct with even less in the way of abstract conceptual content than the Dharma. The doctrine and discipline are related roughly the way science as a system of thought – that is, a set of paradigms, theories and empirical data – is related to science as a discipline – that is, an institution made up of rules of conduct such as not falsifying data or plagiarizing others’ results, standards for certifying the qualifications of researchers, professors, etc. and supported materially by the wider society. The quality of first in dependent on the quality of the second.

The teaching of monastic discipline fulfills a number of individual, community and historical functions at the same time. First, the monastic life affords the practitioner an ideal context for practicing the four noble truths and the noble eightfold path, because of its isolation from common pernicious worldly concerns. Second, the monastic community provides a space in which the Dharma and its practice burns brightest. This, in turn, (a) provides inspiration for the monastics themselves, as well as for the lay community, (b) provides a basis for teaching, learning and exchange of understanding and experiences, (c) spins off practitioners of great attainment who ennoble the entire community, (d) provides the vehicle by which teachings are preserved in their functional integrity and transmitted to future generations.

It is no exaggeration to say that these functions have been essential to the survival of Buddhism. Buddhism would not long endure without the monastic Sangha; it never has. An analogy with the discipline of science is again apt in this regard. Science would not long endure without its disciplined community; it never has. Undeniably there are amateur scientists of great attainment (a young Einstein was once one), just as there are Buddhist laypeople of great attainment, but these are never more than a couple of steps removed from the ordained or certified community in each case. In both cases, the institutional core is necessitated by the radical sophistication of the subject matter, and its consequential vulnerability to misunderstanding and distortion. In each case, sustaining its integrity requires a community of dedicated full-timers.

The Buddha was very aware of the critical function of the monastic Sangha. In fact, the Buddha consistently referred to the body of his teachings as the Dharma-Vinaya, that is, doctrine and discipline, expressive of the comparable weight he accorded the functions of the doctrine and of monastic discipline. Remarkably, the monastic Sangha, carefully constituted and let loose on the world by the Buddha, has endured longer than any other public human institution on the planet, yet another reflection of the Buddha’s genius. The Vinaya, like the Dharma, is about practice and fulfills well-defined practice functions.

Unessential teachings. When we look at the ancient discourses we are struck that some teachings are clearly highlighted as essential, while other notions appear here and there rather casually. These texts were delivered extemporaneously in everyday language, in a cultural context dissimilar to our own, so it is not surprising that much of their content is extraneous. In fact, certain content may be without a practice function at all, and therefore needs not to be taken seriously by the modern practitioner. Let me suggest an example: the appearance of deities walking (or flying) through the world, who often visit the Buddha, sometimes to offer advice, but more often to hear his teachings. I use the phrase “suggest an example” here deliberately because we have to take care that we are unaware of a practice function that is simply not apparent to us at the present time. We may often fail to recognize, over many years of study, the practice function of what reveals itself to be a very important teaching in the Buddha’s very elaborate system of teachings.

Concerning deities, we should first note that in India, now as well as in the time of the Buddha, people rather casually attribute divinity to brahmins, to famous ascetics, to cows, sometimes to trees and to the fires in people’s hearths, and to aristocrats. The latter are often addressed as “deva” (deity) when spoken to by commoners in the early discourses. Therefore, it would surprising if references to them were altogether absent, or they did not appear in the many allegories, similes or background stories to add a little color. Moreover, whereas in most religions deities function in practice as objects of worship, or as personalities that are appealed to for their power over the circumstances of people’s lives, nowhere does the Buddha recommend such practices with respect to deities to his disciples. On the contrary, when the deities do appear, they venerate the Buddha, and sometimes the other monastics, bowing to their feet and sitting respectfully to one side. If these references to deities have a practice function to them, it would seem to be merely rhetorical and quite minimal: they serve to illustrate the practice of refuge, on the part of even the most exalted of beings.

In short, the examination of the practice functions of teachings gives us a principled method of discerning what is really essential in the ancient texts and what is superfluous. But again, we must proceed cautiously, not to dismiss an important part of the Buddha’s message due to possible limitations in our current state of understanding. Doing so might otherwise just possibly end up like leaving salt out of a recipe, unless we know exactly what we are doing.

Karma and rebirth. Karma is another word for our practice. Karma is, by definition, simply intentional action, which is what our practice is. The Buddha, in giving us this definition, seems to have appropriated and reinterpreted a brahmanical conceptual scheme in which karma was understood as ritual action, which, when carefully performed, assured benefit for the one on whose behalf the ritual was performed. For the Buddha, every action brings potential benefit or harm to the agent of that action, and must therefore be taken as seriously as the brahmin takes his ritual. This is why we take the teachings seriously that make our practice skillful. Notice that the same analogy can be made for any skill. For instance, we take a recipe seriously in order to experience the delight of others in the products of our gastronomic efforts. The chef might well understand his effort as follows:

Whatever I do in the kitchen, whether skillfully or unskillfully, to that I will fall heir.

Buddhist practice is fundamentally rooted in ethics or virtue and is not limited to the kitchen, and so the equivalent principle becomes:

Whatever I do, for good or evil, to that I will fall heir. (AN 5.57)

In short, our karmic actions not only shape the world for others, but also shape our personal fortune. What we inherit personally is called the result or fruit of our deeds.

This simple teaching has a profound influence on our ethical behavior. The greatest difficulty in the practice of ethics for humans of all faiths and backgrounds, the reason people are not universally virtuous, is that self-interest and benefiting others come into repeated conflict. Yet, this teaching equates self-interest and benefiting others. It says that good deeds always work to our own bene­fit as well as to the benefit of others at the same time, even though we might not recognize this immediately. Bad deeds always work against our own benefit as well as against the benefit of others at the same time. This simple teaching, when taken seriously, therefore has a profound practice function, promoting virtue and almost every other aspect of our practice. For now we simply note the practice function of this teaching; we will consider how we come to have faith in this teaching in the course of the discussion below.

Although karma and its fruits generally play out in the present life, by introducing rebirth the Buddha greatly extends the scope of this teaching beyond a few decades of a single life, and therewith the scope and signific­ance of all of Buddhist prac­tice. The consequence of taking the teaching of rebirth seriously is that we fully take responsibility for the distant future as well as the near future. Rebirth thereby endows our practice with a meaning bigger than life (at least bigger than one life), endows it in the words of Bhikkhu Bodhi with “that panoramic perspec­tive from which we can survey our lives in their broader context and total net­work of relationships,” that comes from realizing that our lives and therefore our practices are woven inextricably into something far grander in scale, a rich and immense tapestry of human affairs. We see ourselves each engaged in an epic struggle with twisted karmic forces (ingrained greed, hatred and delusion) from the ancient past that will project karmic out­comes endlessly into the future … unless we intervene through our practice.

Our practice there­by has vastly more at stake than happiness and comfort in this present life and there­fore different incentives. From rebirth comes the urgency that impels us to deep practice, even giving up the comforts of conventional life on behalf of practice, and that thereby fully opens up the prospect of awakening. The practice function of the teaching of rebirth is profound in that it provides a means of framing our practice that lends it enormous gravity, effectively as a multiplier of the practice function of the teachings around karma. Once again, for now we are simply noting the practice function of this teaching; we will consider how we come to have faith in this teaching in the course of the discussion below. Also once again, the Buddha’s concern was practice, not belief.

The nuns’ Sangha update

June 14, 2017

A few years ago, I wrote an essay “What Did the Buddha Think of Women,” which has turned out to have had more hits than any other article I have posted on this blog. In this essay I propose that the Buddha’s intention from the beginning was to secure for women the same opportunities as men to live and practice as monastics and to progress toward awakening. The structurally unequal status of nuns in the early Sangha (exemplified, for instance, in the eight garudhammas)  is entirely accounted for as an expedient for coming close to realizing this goal in a patriarchal society that was not entirely sympathetic with this goal. The modern dilemma for us is that we live in a different society, one which has little sympathy for the structurally unequal status of nuns that has been carried along in the monastic rules since those early days.

Recently my weekly sutta discussion group, which meets Sunday afternoons at the Sitagu Buddha Vihara in Austin, TX USA, took up the discussion of women in Buddhism, beginning with my presentation of the thesis of my essay. The discussion was very fruitful and was recorded. Herewith I would like to share the recorded discussions with anyone who has an interest in these topics:


New Textbook: Buddhist Life/Buddhist Path

May 2, 2017


My introduction to Buddhism is finished and available for download. This has gone through a number of draft revisions which have been previously available, but with the completion of a subject index, I am officially declaring the work complete. Here is the blurb from the back cover:

Buddhism began with the Buddha, a towering figure who lived some hundred generations ago, taught for forty-five years, developed a huge following of ascetics and householders, kings and paupers, and left behind a vast corpus of teachings, astonishingly profound and comprehensive, consistent, brilliantly coherent and still intelligible today.

His teachings span not only the higher training of meditation, psychology and the path to awakening, but also practical advice on virtue, harmony, community and basic human values.

He left behind a culture of peace and awakening and a monastic community that persist to this day. This textbook, based on the earliest stratum of Buddhist texts, provides a holistic and proportionate account of the range of the Buddha’s Dharma, interpreted for the modern student.

The book can now be downloaded as a pdf HERE. Copyright restrictions are under Creative Commons as noted on page iv.  Print copies are available for the cost of printing HERE, or will be available for free in the Sitagu Buddha Vihara library.

Sandals on the Ground in America

January 12, 2017

by Bhikkhu Cintita and Dr. Win Bo

The following passages will appear in the forthcoming book, Teacher of the Moon: the Life and Times of Sitagu Sayadaw, by Bhikkhu Cintita Dinsmore and Dr. Tin Nyunt.

In 1988, Sitagu Sayadaw displeased elements of the military government of Burma by delivering his famous sermon on the responsibilities of kings in response to the brutal government suppression of the 8888 demonstrations. As the political situation worsened again in 1990 he quietly left the country into over two years of self-imposed exile, most of which he spend in Nashville, Tennessee, USA.

Not one to spend exile waiting idly around, Sitagu Sayadaw began to explore the possibility of establishing a monastery in the States. In part, he wanted a home-base for his travels to this part of the world and a locus for long-term fund-raising in the West for his growing number of projects in cash-starved Burma. Through discussions with his dear friend in Sagaing Ashin Mahomaha Pandita Sayadaw, he had begun to recognize the value of missionary activities in the West. Not only was there a growing Burmese diaspora, eager for the presence of monk and willing to cooperate in such an endeavor, but there was a growing interest in Buddhism among the ethnic Westerners.

Sitagu Sayadaw’s travels in the early months of 1992 took him to Houston, Texas, from where his sponsors suggested he might also want to visit Austin, the capital of Texas. A Burmese Austinite, Eric Mynn, got a call from Houston asking if could host a Burmese monk from Tennessee and he agreed to put the eminent monk up at his home for a few days. Another Burmese man, U Win Bo, agreed to fit some time into his schedule to act as a tour guide. U Win Bo had, in fact, met Sitagu Sayadaw some months before when he was staying with a Burmese friend in Ohio who decided to drive down to Tennessee to visit the Burmese monk he was told lived there. U Win Bo had been living in the States long enough not to have any notion of how famous this monk had become back in Myanmar.

Austin is a small city in the Texas Hill Country, a beautiful forested semi-arid area, in which many streams flowed into the Colorado River. Sitagu Sayadaw was quite impressed with Austin, for it reminded him of the Sagaing Hills back home. U Win Bo, showing Sitagu Sayadaw the many of beauties of Austin from behind the wheel of his car, mentioned once casually that it would be nice if Austin had a Burmese monastery. Sitagu Sayadaw did not reply, but in fact had already been discussing that very possibility with the Burmese community in Houston, without yet reaching a decision.

Later that year, Sitagu Sayadaw was back in Austin, this time staying at the house of U Win Bo, where he asked to meet with the few Burmese families in Austin as a group. He had clearly been doing his homework, for he proposed setting a non-profit religious organization in Texas to be called the Theravada Dhamma Society of America (TDSA). Discussions ensued around organization and officers were agreed upon for the fledgling society. Sitagu Sayadaw remained in Austin for about a month, hammering out the bylaws, designing a logo and a letterhead and finally overseeing the filing of the papers for incorporation, which was granted on October 15, 1992. This time of residence in Austin also gave Sitagu Sayadaw a chance to familiarize himself with the area that would become the center of his missionary efforts.

Although Sitagu Sayadaw would return to Burma that winter, he would include Austin in his international travels each year for the foreseeable future, each time advancing the development of TDSA one step further, encouraging application for federal tax exempt status, then state tax-exempt status and then to begin searching for a property on which to situate the monastery. He seemed to be better informed about the formal steps necessary than the local officers in these days before easy access to information on the Internet.
Sitagu Sayadaw dedicated the summer of 1995 to TDSA. A house was leased for that period as a residence for Sitagu Sayadaw. He and the local community published a newsletter, explored the area further and began looking for property. They found a wonderful four-acre lot in the town of Bastrop, about thirty miles east of Austin. Bastrop is at a higher elevation than Austin, a bit cooler in the Summer and covered primarily by pine forest, as was the lot in question, a peaceful site on the gentle incline of a hill. Sitagu Sayadaw was very pleased with the site.

It happened that the small Burmese group had stopped at a grocery on their way to view the site in order to procure something to drink, at which a woman was giving children coming and going helium filled balloons, for reasons that remain obscure. Seeing a large Theravada monk in burgundy robes emerge from a car in the parking lot must have momentarily confused her, for she also handed Sitagu Sayadaw a balloon as he passed by. Gratefully accepting the balloon, he carried it back to the car and, after the small party had reached the lot and re-emerged from the car, carried it to a clearing and could be heard ceremonially chanting something in Pali. He then released the balloon. However, the wind carried the balloon past a tree in which the string became entangled, halting the balloon’s ascent. “That’s a bad sign,” he told the others.

Indeed, after Sitagu Sayadaw had returned to Myanmar, U Win Bo returned to the lot in Bastrop and discovered some prohibitive issues. First, it had no electricity, water or phone lines. More importantly, it was under the auspices of a homeowners’ association that imposed strict requirements on what could be build on this lot. Bastrop is in rural Texas, not as cosmopolitan as Austin or Houston, and so he could anticipate great reluctance to accept a Buddhist monastery into their neighborhood.  TDSA would have to look elsewhere for its home.

Texas was in the wild west of the Buddhist world, a land where barely a handful Burmese pioneers from the heartland of the Buddhism on the other side of the globe had settled, determined to build a monastery on its rocky soil. Austin, Texas, in particular, had the ideal demographics for Buddhist missionary work. Studies indicate that American “convert” Buddhists are for the most part well-off financially, liberal or progressive politically and extremely well educated. Austin fits this profile exactly, as the capital city of Texas, the site of one of the biggest university campuses in the country, a major center for the high tech industry and one of the most educated cities in America.

Instrumental in the establishment of a Sitagu presence in Austin was Dr. Tin Than Myint, who worked at the veterans hospital in distant Big Springs, Texas, but who had family connections to Austin and counted as a close disciple of the Sayadaw. After the founding of the Theravada Dhamma Society of America during Sitagu Sayadaw’s visit, Dr. Tin Than Myint would often stop by the house of U Win Bo in Austin on Sundays and the two of them would drive around with a realtor in search of suitable property.

A sixteen-acre lot at 9001 Honeycomb Dr. just southwest of Austin, that they viewed early in 1996, had an old shed for keeping horses, a small rabbit warren, a dilapidated mobile home, as well as a well as a source of water and both phone and electric lines. The lot was covered with oak and cedar trees and thick underbrush, teaming with wildlife, from deer and foxes to wild turkeys and rattlesnakes. Dr. Myint was particularly impressed with the lot and TDSA decided to make an offer. The asking prices was $85,000, TDSA had $50,000 in the bank, but Dr. Myint would loan TDSA an additional $15,000 and the owner would agree to finance the rest. And so the deal was closed.

A work team from the Burmese community started showing up each weekend to make the mobile home habitable, to repair the well, to replace the toilet, carpets and wallpaper, to fix the plumbing and to repair the small decks at the front and rear of the mobile home. The unused shed was demolished and old furniture hauled away. The local community began almost immediately to host festival events on the grounds.

In the summer of 1998, Sitagu Sayadaw organized the sima ceremony for the monastery,. A sima is a consecrated area in which monks can legally perform certain ceremonies, such as the ordination of a new monk. A sima ceremony has to be done strictly by the book and the expert on such ceremony, the famous Burmese missionary monk Ashin Silananda from Daly City, California was asked to lead the ceremony. Eighteen Buddhist monks were invited to Austin for the ceremony, most of them put up in nearby hotels. The sima ground was marked with chalk powder as a rectangular shape and was then subdivided into smaller rectangles. Each monk has to recite pali stanzas to convert it into a block of sima ground. It took two days to conduct the ceremony. After the ceremony, the locations were staked to make sure the sima grounds were properly marked.

And so the Sitagu Buddha Vihara came to be. In the decades to come it would acquire a pagoda (placed directly over the existing sima, thereby avoiding the necessity of a new consecration), a Dhamma hall, a dedicated library building, a reception hall, a dining hall and thirty-six cabins for monks and resident yogis. It would become of thriving center of practice and learning not only for the Burmese community in Texas, but for many Westerners and people from other Buddhist lands.

A Trump Presidency Need Not Be the End Times

November 10, 2016

Buddhist Global Relief

Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi

It was with feelings of shock and dismay that early this morning I woke up to learn that Donald Trump had been elected president of the United States. Although, as a monk, I do not endorse political candidates or align myself with political parties, I feel that as a human being inhabiting this fragile planet, I have an obligation to stand up for policies that promote economic and social justice, respect for the innate dignity of all human beings, and preservation of the earth’s delicate biosphere. By the same token, I must oppose policies detrimental to these ideals. I see politics, not merely as a naked contest for power and domination, but as a stage where great ethical contests are being waged, contests that determine the destiny—for good or for ill—of everyone in this country and on this planet.

Trump’s presidential campaign challenged each of the ethical…

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Harmony (6/6)

July 7, 2016

Those eager to read to the end to see how it comes out can click here for the whole chapter as a pdf.

Practicing Harmony

The skill of harmonizing with others is developed on top of the skills of generosity, harmlessness and purity. It adds to these the specialized skill of dealing with the complexities of the common human personality as we interact with others, including respect for their humanness and acknowledgement of a conditioned complex of faults and virtues that we all possess (aside from the arahants). It also adds to these a handle on some of our most deeply rutted inclinations, for we commonly reserve a particularly pronounced capacity for harshness for our fellow humans.

As we practice harmony we may often be frustrated at the limits of our control over the consequences. Harmony is something shared by people in relationship or in community, and our practice, yet we exercise control over only one side of the relationship, and over one locus in the dynamics of a community. The best it can do is to uphold in our practice from our side the conditions conducive to harmony and leave the rest up to others, who may have entirely different understandings and intentions than our own. At least that way we do  not contribute to the disharmony when it does arise. Recall that our practice and its results are our own.

We must resist the urge to extend our control over the consequences by admonishing others, for unless done with great skill, as we have seen, this risks greater disharmony. There are ways, however, in which we do influence others in the direction of greater harmony. For one thing, others begin to realize that we consistently refuse to participate in the kinds of games that precipitate disharmony, such as responding to insult with insult. We become a kind of refuge from such behavior, a safe space in which they do not have to be so defensive. And soon, they begin to emulate our behaviors. We produce role models.
Also, within any culture certain people enjoy a degree of authority as wise advisors or teachers, either by social role or reputation. In the Sigovada sutta, parents, teachers and ascetics and brahmins may enjoy this status. Granting reverence or veneration to another is an act of trust or faith that opens others up to their advice. The Buddha, to take the primary example, certainly received that degree of venerations from his thousands of disciples and could freely admonish others all day long. It is only through granting this level of respect or trust to the wise that the Buddha’s sāsana has grown. Reverence or veneration in the Buddhist context is the topic of the next chapter.
As we interact with others a range of unskillful thoughts come up, involving anger, resentment, envy, arrogance, vanity, personal insult, conceit and so on. Our practice of purification is gradually to let go of our tendency toward such thoughts. But our first line of defense is not to act bodily or verbally on the basis of such thoughts. It is to remain harmless whatever the mind might be doing.  If we can do this, we are already to a degree accomplished in not contributing to disharmony. The speech precepts in particular – not speaking falsely, not speaking harshly, not speaking divisively and not speaking frivolously – take us far in this direction.

One of the most dangerous ways we can act on the basis of such thoughts is through divisive speech. It is helpful to guard against this with a further rule of thumb: Do not speak ill of others.vii There will be cases in which this rule of thumb cannot be sustained, for instance, where we need to warn others out of compassion of the angry man around the corner who is swearing and brandishing a knife. But consider: in general speaking ill of others it is a huge responsibility:

First, in the situation where it is likely to come up, we may well be speaking falsely; if there is anger involved, there is almost certainly some degree of misperception on our part.

Second, the consequences of our speech might easily get out of hand. Even if our intentions are relatively pure, how about the intentions of those we speak to, who are likely to repeat it to others, and so forth? Furthermore, if we are talking with someone who lacks familiarity with the person or group we speak ill of, what is said may produce is likely to color their impressions for a long time to come. The recipient of the disparagement may then repeat it much less skillfully than we will, and with quite impure intentions.

Third, it is difficult to maintain kindness in a mob: Even if we speak ill of another in all kindness for that person, others who agree with us may be of questionable kindness. Another rule of thumb: Never take sides in interpersonal disputes, even if you are friends with one party; don’t become part of a coalition set in opposition to some other person or group.
It is advisable to become familiar with, and participate in, the use of gestures of respect and general etiquette in whatever local Buddhist community you might belong to. It should be noted that although these go back to common Indian roots in virtually any Buddhist community, these have evolved into somewhat different forms through different Asian cultures. It is also wise to become skilled in the modern gestures and etiquette of the prevailing culture. Although these are generally different from those found in most Buddhist communities, they generally served much the same function.

Further Reading

The Buddha’s Teachings on Social and Communal Harmony: An Anthology of Discourses from the Pali Canon, Bhikkhu Bodhi (editor), 2016, Wisdom Publications. This is a systematic look at the Buddha’s teachings on harmony with valuable commentary by a renowned American monk and Pali scholar.

Working with Anger, Thubten Chodron, 2001, Snow Lion. This hightly regarded work, by an American nun, focuses on reconceptualizing situations that normally lead to the arising of anger. It is strongly based on the insights of the great eighth-century Indian monk and scholar Shantideva’s Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life.