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Take Seriously but Hold Loosely: perspectives on Secular Buddhism (1/4)

July 17, 2017

Recently 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.

Harmony (5/6)

July 1, 2016

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

The Ideal Society

An important conditioning factor in communal harmony or disharmony that goes beyond individual interactions and relations is certainly governance or the institutional structures of the society. This also was not beyond the Buddha’s purview, for the Buddha was the architect of a community, the  Saṅgha of monks and nuns. It is instructive to see what kinds of choices the Buddha made to form this ideal society writ small.

In Gotama’s time, the Gangetic plain encompassed a number of small kingdoms and republics. The two dominant kingdoms of the region were Magadha and Kosala. The republics were largely lined up along the northern edge of the Gangetic plain in the foothills of the Himalayan mountains, which were coming increasingly under the dominance of the kingdoms. The westernmost of these was the Sakyan Republic where the Buddha-to-be was grew up. These republics were generally governed by an unelected assembly of elders from the khattiya or warrior/administrative caste. It is likely that the Buddha, as a khattiya, was familiar with matters of governance. This was also a patriarchal society that would become more patriarchal with time, such that spiritual practice and education were widely (though not entirely) considered masculine pursuits and women were generally subject in all stages of life to masculine authority.

Although there were ascetics in India before the Buddha, “… among all of the bodies of renouncers it was only the Buddhists who invented monastic life,”iv  that is, who provided an organized institution capable of sustaining its practice and teachings. The Buddha never attempted to organize the lay community except indirectly by putting the monastic community in their midst and letting them sort out what to do about it. The monastic Saṅgha is a multi-functional institution, defined in the Vinaya with a mission statement, a code of conduct, rules of governance, guidelines for handling grievances and many other features.v

Some of the notable hallmarks of the Saṅgha as conceived by the Buddha are as follows: The Saṅgha observes no class distinctions and an exemplary level of gender It is regulated in a way to avoid conflicts and maintain harmony, and observes procedures to negotiate disagreements should these arise. It rules by consensus of all monastics in a local community and, as such, is only minimally hierarchical. For instance, there is no system of pope and bishops, so that although monastics live under the code of the Vinaya, they are not subject to any distant centralized authority. Serious transgressions of the monastic code entail no corporal punishments, but rather sanctions, none more severe than expulsion from the local community. Rectifying transgressions is much dependent of acknowledgement of guilt. Committing one of the most serious offenses, for instance killing another person, is simply by definition no longer to be a monastic; if one hides the offense, one is impersonating a monastic. Aside from limited coercive control over each other, monastics have no coercive power whatever over the laity. There is, for instance, nothing like excommunication. Their authority derives entirely from the respect they receive as teachers and role models for those committed to the Dhammic life. In fact, the laity has significant coercive power over the Saṅgha, since a displeased laity can at any time withdraw the support on which the Saṅgha depends.

The constitution of the Saṅgha embodies so many social ideals that it might seem rather pie-in-the sky. But keep in mind it has outlived every other system of governance in existence at its birth,  and almost every one that has arisen since. It has seen great empires come and go and persists to this day. This in evidence of the practical understanding with which the Buddha carefully constituted the monastic Saṅgha. It just keeps going.

The Buddha did not actively champion the similar reformation of civil society, but did have a bit to say about responsibilities of kings toward their subjects, sometimes describing the righteous or wheel-turning king as a kind of ideal. In DN 26 he even recommended that such a king seek ethical guidance from wise monastics:

“Whatever ascetics and brahmins in your kingdom have renounced the life of sensual infatuation and are devoted to forbearance and gentleness, each one taming himself, each one calming himself and each one striving for the end of craving, from time to time you should go to them and consult them as to what is wholesome and what is unwholesome, what is blameworthy and what is blameless, what is to be followed and what is not to followed and what action will in the long run lead to harm and sorrow, and what to welfare and happiness. Having listened to them, you should avoid evil and do what is good.”

This passage is significant in view of the common understanding that monastics should not get involved in political or social matters, and are perhaps ill-equipped to do so. It clearly opens a nonpartisan role for them as moral advisors. In DN 5 the Buddha describes a chaplain offering wise advice to a king concerning the relationship of crime, poverty and general prosperity:

“Your Majesty’s country is beset by thieves, it is ravaged, villages and towns are being destroyed, the countryside is infested with brigands. … Suppose Your Majesty were to think: ‘I will get rid of this plague of robbers by executions and imprisonment, or by confiscation, threats and banishment’, the plague would not be properly ended. Those who survived would later harm Your Majesty’s realm. However, with this plan you can completely eliminate the plague: To those in the kingdom who are engaged in cultivating crops and raising cattle, let Your Majesty distribute grain and fodder; to those in trade, give capital; to those in government service assign proper living wages. Then those people, being intent on their own occupations, will not harm the kingdom. Your Majesty’s revenues will be great, the land will be tranquil and not beset by thieves, and the people, with joy in their hearts, will play with their children, and will dwell in unlocked houses.”

We do well to note here and elsewhere a characteristic feature of the Buddha’s method of ethical scrutiny: its uncommon tolerance and forgiveness. He thereby maintains unwavering kindness for all common participants in human society, even thieves and brigands, whose worldly actions he sees as almost unavoidably conditioned by circumstances and as controllable to the extent that conditions can be changed, at least by kings. The advice to the king here is also an instance of the practice of appropriate attention (yoniso manasikāra), literally, “thinking from the origin”), a hugely important practice in early Buddhism which we will encounter a number of times in this textbook. The plague addressed in this passage arises directly from observable social conditions, not from some unseen unconditioned evil of thieves and brigands, which would be a more commonplace assumption, but one that would lead to a counterproductive and hateful response.

Harmony (4/6)

June 26, 2016

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

Social responsibilites

Two other conditions of harmony in the Buddha’s thought is how we fulfill our social roles and what we expect of others concerning their social roles. Where fulfillment and expectation are in accord, harmony results. Reading further in the Sigalovada Sutta, we find that each of the six quarters actually corresponds to two reciprocal roles, each of which carries five responsibilities, except for six responsibilities in the last case.

“In five ways … a child should minister to his parents as the East:

 (i) Having supported me I shall support them,
(ii) I shall do their duties,
(iii) I shall keep the family tradition,
(iv) I shall make myself worthy of my inheritance,
(v) furthermore I shall offer alms in honor of my departed relatives.

“In five ways … the parents thus ministered to as the East by their children, show their compassion:

(i) they restrain them from evil,
(ii) they encourage them to do good,
(iii) they train them for a profession,
(iv) they arrange a suitable marriage,
(v) at the proper time they hand over their inheritance to them.

“In these five ways do children minister to their parents as the East and the parents show their compassion to their children. Thus is the East covered by them and made safe and secure.

“In five ways … a pupil should minister to a teacher as the South:

        (i) by rising from the seat in salutation,
(ii) by attending on him,
(iii) by eagerness to learn,
(iv) by personal service,
(v) by respectful attention while receiving instructions.

“In five ways … do teachers thus ministered to as the South by their pupils, show their compassion:

        (i) they train them in the best discipline,
(ii) they see that they grasp their lessons well,
(iii) they instruct them in the arts and sciences,
(iv) they introduce them to their friends and associates,
(v) they provide for their safety in every quarter.

“The teachers thus ministered to as the South by their pupils, show their compassion towards them in these five ways. Thus is the South covered by them and made safe and secure.

“In five ways … should a wife as the West be ministered to by a husband:

(i) by being courteous to her,
(ii) by not despising her,
(iii) by being faithful to her,
(iv) by handing over authority to her,
(v) by providing her with adornments.

“The wife thus ministered to as the West by her husband shows her compassion to her husband in five ways:

(i) she performs her duties well,
(ii) she is hospitable to relations and attendants,
(iii) she is faithful,
(iv) she protects what he brings,
(v) she is skilled and industrious in discharging her duties.

“In these five ways does the wife show her compassion to her husband who ministers to her as the West. Thus is the West covered by him and made safe and secure.

“In five ways … should a clansman minister to his friends and associates as the North:

(i) by liberality,
(ii) by courteous speech,
(iii) by being helpful,
(iv) by being impartial,
(v) by sincerity.

“The friends and associates thus ministered to as the North by a clansman show compassion to him in five ways:

(i) they protect him when he is heedless,
(ii) they protect his property when he is heedless,
(iii) they become a refuge when he is in danger,
(iv) they do not forsake him in his troubles,
(v) they show consideration for his family.

“The friends and associates thus ministered to as the North by a clansman show their compassion towards him in these five ways. Thus is the North covered by him and made safe and secure.

“In five ways should a master minister to his servants and employees as the Nadir:

(i) by assigning them work according to their ability,
(ii) by supplying them with food and with wages,
(iii) by tending them in sickness,
(iv) by sharing with them any delicacies,
(v) by granting them leave at times.

“The servants and employees thus ministered to as the Nadir by their master show their compassion to him in five ways:

(i) they rise before him,
(ii) they go to sleep after him,
(iii) they take only what is given,
(iv) they perform their duties well,
(v) they uphold his good name and fame.

“The servants and employees thus ministered to as the Nadir show their compassion towards him in these five ways. Thus is the Nadir covered by him and made safe and secure.

“In five ways … should a householder minister to ascetics and brahmans as the Zenith:

(i) by lovable deeds,
(ii) by lovable words,
(iii) by lovable thoughts,
(iv) by keeping open house to them,
(v) by supplying their material needs.

“The ascetics and brahmans thus ministered to as the Zenith by a householder show their compassion towards him in six ways:

(i) they restrain him from evil,
(ii) they persuade him to do good,
(iii) they love him with a kind heart,
(iv) they make him hear what he has not heard,
(v) they clarify what he has already heard,
(vi) they point out the path to a heavenly state.

“In these six ways do ascetics and brahmans show their compassion towards a householder who ministers to them as the Zenith. Thus is the Zenith covered by him and made safe and secure.” (DN 31)

I quote this at length because of the importance of this teaching. It provides what we could consider a fourth system of ethics alongside generosity, precepts and purity. Although elements of all three of these are found in this itemization of responsibilities, this is, like precepts, a kind of duty ethics, a code of obligations. However, like the Confucian code, its focus is on the harmonizing or ordering of human affairs. This code is often referred to as a lay Vinaya, corresponding to the monastic code of conduct.

We can note a few qualities of this itemization. First, it is balanced, allocating equal responsibilities to each side of each reciprocal relation. In this way, it is not exploitive as long as all adhere to their own responsibilities. I think the point is that if the reciprocal relation is out of balance, as when slaves or wives are simply treated as property, harmony suffers. Second, this itemization focuses on responsibilities, not on rights. A common modern tendency is to see the social landscape in terms of my rights but their responsibilities. Finally, although the specifics might require some adaptation to modern cultural circumstances, this  allocation of responsibilities speaks remarkably well, and very critically, to our modern circumstances.

Harmony (3/6)

June 16, 2016

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


Another condition for harmony in the Buddha’s thought is respect (gārava). The larger ascetic tradition to which the Buddha and Buddhism belonged in ancient India, quite readily rejected prevailing cultural norms, as often did the Buddha. The ascetic tradition was generally also characteristically raucous and disrespectful.iii  The Buddha was different: he placed great emphasis on the social lubricants of courtesy, etiquette and respect. The Saṅgha met with mutual respect, was expected to meet “in concord, with mutual appreciation, without disputing, blending like milk and water, viewing each other with kindly eyes,” (MN 31) and to adjourn in harmony. A large part of the monastic code consists of rules of etiquette. The attention Buddhist monastics characteristically give to proper attire and grooming, in contrast to matted-hair ascetics, is a further example.

Respect has two aspects: a mental attitude and a physical or verbal expression. As an attitude it is most essentially to regard something or someone as mattering, to keep in mind the value of something or somebody. Literally the English word respect means “see again.” It is what we do when we refuse to dehumanize or demonize someone who annoys us. There is wisdom in respect. We don’t have to agree with someone, or find them agreeable, to respect them as a human, someone who is in the most essential respects just like us. It is easy to appreciate that respect can contribute to harmony. And, as a matter of fact, as we practice non-harming and develop qualities of kindness towards living beings, we find we naturally come to respect them increasingly. As we respect them more, it becomes harder for us to harm them, feel anger toward them or speak divisively about them. In fact, respect puts to rest the dehumanizing quality of anger discussed above.
The most basic physical expression of respect in India was, and still is, placing one’s palms together in añjali (in Pali or Sanskrit), much like the Christian prayer posture. The fact that añjali has been preserved in all the diverse Asian cultures into which Buddhism has been transmitted indicates the importance accorded respect. Just as practicing ethically toward living beings encourages respect for them, acknowledging people and even things in this way encourages respect for them. This coming together of attitude and expression is not unfamiliar to us in the West, though perhaps not so ubiquitous as in Indian or Buddhist culture: a handshake, a hug or a wave is an expression of attitude.

The famous Sigalovada Sutta (DN 31) tells of a young man, Sigala, the son of a householder, who rises early in the morning, leaves town with wet clothes and wet hair, and then bows to the East, the South, the West, the North, up and down. Then the Buddha comes along with a valuable lesson for young Sigala.

Then the Exalted One, having robed himself in the forenoon took bowl and robe, and entered Rājagaha for alms. Now he saw young Sigala worshipping thus and spoke to him as follows:

“Wherefore do you, young householder, rising early in the morning, departing from Rājagaha, with wet clothes and wet hair, worship with joined hands these various quarters — the East, the South, the West, the North, the Nadir, and the Zenith?”

“My father, Lord, while dying, said to me: ‘The six quarters, dear son, you shall worship’. And I, Lord, respecting, revering, revering and honoring my father’s word, rise early in the morning, and leaving Rājagaha, with wet clothes and wet hair, worship with joined hands, these six quarters.”

“It is not thus, young householder, the six quarters should be worshipped in the discipline of the noble.”

“How then, Lord, should the six quarters be worshipped in the discipline of the noble? It is well, Lord, if the Exalted One would teach the doctrine to me showing how the six quarters should be worshiped in the discipline of the noble.”

“The following should be looked upon as the six quarters.

    The parents should be looked upon as the East,
teachers as the South,
wife and children as the West,
friends and associates as the North,
servants and employees as the Nadir,
ascetics and brahmans as the Zenith.” (DN 31)

Now, although Sigala’s practice was motivated by respect for his father and involved a lot of bowing, the six quarters toward which Sigala was bowing had no particular significance for him. The Buddha’s reply is a primary example of the Buddha giving a non-Buddhist conceptual scheme a Buddhist interpretation, in this case turning of what to Sigala was an empty ritual into a valuable teaching about living harmoniously and responsibly in the world. The Buddha provided an interpretation of each of the six quarters as a distinct social relation that would, or at least should, matter to him. And the Buddha did not stop there, as we will see momentarily.

Respect is the primary of an escalating series of attitudes that honor others in one way or another which includes deference, reverence, homage, veneration and worship. We find veneration for the Buddha himself clearly expressed physically in the early sources through full prostrations sometimes touching the Buddha’s feet, by circumambulation while keeping the Buddha on one’s right, by covering one’s otherwise bare shoulder with one’s robe, by sitting on a lower seat than the Buddha, by standing when the Buddha would enter the room, by walking behind the Buddha or not turning one’s back to the Buddha and by proper forms of address. He also asked that monastics refuse to teach lay people who do not express a sufficient degree of deference.

It seems that these honoring attitudes have a harmonizing role in two ways: Externally we thereby make ourselves subject to the influence of another. We cannot learn from a teacher, for example, that we do not respect, and we learn all the more quickly from a teacher that we revere or venerate. Internally we thereby develop humility, with the higher attitudes even knocking the ego out of its accustomed position at center of the universe. (In fact this might be a basic function of the worship of God in many religions.) We will have more to say about reverence and veneration in the context of refuge later.

Harmony (2/6)

June 11, 2016

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

The error of retribution

Much of natural human behavior is based on reciprocation. Friendship is reciprocated, our economy is based on the principle of mutually agreeable exchange. It is not surprising that our natural response when someone harms us is retaliation. “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth,” is a pervasive ethic to this day. Much of American criminal justice, not to mention foreign policy, is based on retaliation.

Nonetheless, Buddhist ethics is different. Recall that generosity is not pure if some kind of payback is expected, and an equal exchange is two missed opportunities for merit-making. Harmlessness is practiced toward all living things across the board, just as mental qualities of of renunciation and kindness are not selective.ii We don’t exclude some as not deserving of our practice. This makes our practice simple: our job is to embody generosity, harmlessness and kindness toward others in all circumstances, regardless of how they behave. Their practice is their own, ours is our own; we cannot do it for them.

The Dhammapāda wisely states in this regard:

Hatred is never appeased by hatred in this world.
By kindness alone is hatred appeased.
This is a law eternal. (Dhammapāda 5)

Hatred is both cause and result of abuse. Where hatred is alive, bringing more hatred to bear only adds fuel to the fire. Yet foolish people think and behave this way. Kindness is that which seeks benefit and is therefore most capable of correcting disharmony.

He practices for the welfare of both,
His own and the other’s,
When, knowing that his foe is angry,
He mindfully maintains his peace. (SN 11.4, SN 7.2)

The famous simile of the saw presents one of the strikingly gruesome of the Buddha’s images. Through this vivid image the Buddha challenges us to give up the error of retribution even under almost impossible circumstances.

“Monks, even if bandits were to sever you savagely limb by limb with a two-handled saw, he who gave rise to a mind of hate towards them would not be carrying out my teaching.” (MN 21)

We should, in brief, bend over backwards in our effort to maintain harmony even in the most adverse conditions.

Anger, a kind of hatred, is our great retributive emotion and one of the primary and most immediate conditions of disharmony. Anger has no wisdom; it knows only one thing. Yet many of us are so afflicted by anger that ridding ourselves of its grip becomes a primary focus of our practice. In one of the Buddha’s discourses he describes three kinds of persons: The first is like a line etched in stone; he gets angry and anger persists for a long time. The second is like a line etched in the ground; he gets angry, but his anger erodes quickly. The third – and this is what we should aspire to be – is like a line etched in water; even if spoken to harshly he does not anger, but “remains on friendly terms with, mingles with and greets,” the one who would make the first two types of people angry. (AN 3.132) The last has a mind most conducive to harmony.

We reserve our most virulent anger for fellow humans. We do not, for instance, generally get angry at gravity or rain, no matter how implicated these may be in our personal hardships. Yet even a hint of disregard or an unskillful word from a human can put us into an instant rage. Anger also has a tipping point, past which the object of our vexation becomes dehumanized, demonized, becomes – at least temporarily, for this same person might, paradoxically, at other times be one of our dearest friends – a source of irremediable evil, rather than a conditioned complex of pleasing virtues and vexing faults like the rest us. This is the great delusion anger evokes.

Anger is a conditioned response that can be unlearned as a part of purification of mind. However, there are also a number of reflections or thought experiments that many find useful in this regard. The Buddha suggests that we put ourselves in the shoes of others (SN 55.7), fully recognizing our common humanity, our suffering, our desire for happiness. He also points out, in view of anger’s kammic implications, that in responding by anger we are doing to ourselves just what our most ill-intentioned foe would want for us (AN 7.64).

In the end, we should be able to echo Sāriputta’s lion’s roar, spoken to the Buddha:

Just as they throw pure and impure things on the earth – feces, urine, spittle, pus and blood – yet the earth is not repelled, humiliated or disgusted because of this; so too, Bhante, I dwell with a mind like earth, vast exalted, and measureless, without emnity and ill will. (AN 9.11)

This is how we learn to harmonize in a disharmonious world.