Archive for the ‘Western’ 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.









What is Believable? (5/6)

April 2, 2015

After looking at the relative nature of truth as we accept a thesis, we trace the problem of finding a thesis unbelievable back to its source, to the tacit, unexamined beliefs that make a thesis seem unbelievable.

Series Index

How to reconsider your standards for believability

The method here is to open our minds to exotic beliefs through loosening up pernicious fixed preconceptions.

Have you noticed how each of has such a sparklingly clear view of the world that we wonder why no one else does, such effortless insight into right and wrong, into what is really the issue here, into what is viable and what is not, that it seems to us just common sense or a matter of clear, rational thinking, faculties with which we happen to be almost uniquely endowed? We wonder that others can be so dense. The reason we think this way, is sparkingly clear to me and to anyone else with common sense or with a faculty for rational thought: A foundational layer of views has been laid down at such an uncritical, unquestioning and unremembering age that we can no longer even wildly imagine that they might be mistaken. They were, in short, acquired like this:

Figure11Acceptance of a tacit view without evidence

Since their acceptance skipped the evaluation stage altogether, the tacit preconceptions that underly our extreme confidence in the rightness of our later views are themselves high on faith and low on reason. Whenever someone says with utmost confidence, “That’s just common sense,” or “I am just saying what is obviously true,” or “As anyone with eyes can plainly see …,” he is almost certainly presupposing tacit views that he has never thought to question or challenge, or that he might not even be aware he has. We acquire a lot of these views in childhood before our faculties for discernment have developed. They produce the illusion of a cartoon world that we don’t have to think too hard about, such that we wonder that others have such mistaken views about it.

Tacit views, for their part, tend to constrain what theses we then consider believable and later accept.

Figure12Tacit view as believability criterion

For instance, one might have tacitly acquired the view that free-market capitalism is good, efficient, conducive to human thriving. One might also have tacitly acquired the view that socialism is inimical to free-market capitalism. In this case, any proposal that seems socialist (or that someone in authority simply labels as socialist) will be rejected out of hand as unbelievable. The result is a misplaced skepticism, a strident skepticism based not in questioning but in already having the answers.

It is inevitable that we, as wide-eyed innocents, should acquire many such views at an early stage of our development. This gives parents a special responsibility to make sure children are exposed to healthy wholesome views, rather than sickly and pernicious views. Fundamental values are acquired this way, ethical standards, religious and political views, social and cultural norms and so on. It is much better if children grow up thinking, “A kind response is just common sense,” or “The need to respect the dignity of every individual is obviously true,” than that they grow up thinking, “As anyone with eyes can plainly see you need to take care of Numero Uno even if it means knocking a few heads together.” Belief in the authority of Buddha, Dharma and Sangha arises in this way for most Buddhists at an uncritical age, for those who are born Buddhist. Likewise, belief in the authority of science arises in the uncritical years of childhood, for those who are born modern.

Tacit views, though often wholesome, are also the stuff of delusion. Differences in tacit views easily give rise to interpersonal friction in which each party is astounded that the other cannot see what is obviously true. The Buddha advocated a rational examination of views. As B. Alan Wallace puts it:

The challenge that Buddhism presents is to develop a true spirit of skepticism toward our own unquestioned assumptions, for it is these – not the beliefs of others – that lie at the root of our suffering.

Our foundational views may differ from those of others around us, but in fact there are widespread commonalities within any particular culture. For instance, many moderns tend to believe in materialism without question, that is, in the reality of an entirely physical universe, and to harbor a particular distrust of organized religion. Behind any widespread view is generally a long causal history reaching back at least a few hundred years. I would like to focus on these two views in particular, because they give repeated rise to teaching-believability mismatch, and therefore deserve careful scrutiny in Buddhist circles. Reconsidering these views leads to greater openness toward a number of Buddhist teachings that are often dismissed as unbelievable.

Private religion. The Protestant Reformation, starting as a protest movement against the excesses of the Catholic Church, reshaped the scope and appropriate setting of religion. McMahan1 writes that in accord with the Protestant Reformation:

… each individual could have unmediated access to God and hence had no need for special places, priests, icons, or rituals. Sacredness began to withdraw from things … and to be pushed to two poles: God himself, beyond the world, and the individual in his or her own faith. This aspect … was then pushed further by scientific rationalism.

Religion became primarily a private relationship between the individual mind and God, or Jesus, whereas before it had a communal basis, rich in ritualized behaviors and relations, with a special role for robed priests, who not only oversaw ceremonies and education but also interceded personally between God and His children. Religious practice had previously been inseparable from other communal functions, even in the workplace and Protestant Christianity tended now to marginalize these communal aspects. To this day there is a profound suspicion of, and distaste for, the communal, institutional and ritual aspects of religion in Protestant lands. The force of this tacit view in the religious context is striking when one considers that there is little resistance to communal, institutional and ritual aspects of analogous areas of life, for instance, in the military, at sports events or in academic or political life. Consider flags, salutes, awards, uniforms and ranks, graduation ceremonies, homecoming ceremonies, cheerleading and group chanting, national anthems, the national spirit, and so on.

The doctrine of private religion is commonly misapplied to Buddhism; it rubs Buddhism the wrong way. First, Buddhism is at a very basic level a communal tradition itself, even while it extols as the highest ideal the individual renunciate who seeks seclusion in order to focus on the very private endeavor of attaining Awakening. The monastic Sangha, founded by the Buddha, is perhaps the oldest continual institution on the planet, and in that sense might be regarded as the most successful.

Second, Buddhism has a history that is quite distinct from the Catholic church and has never sparked protest on anything like the scale of the Protestant movement. Its communal structure has an entirely different basis, organized around a vulnerable monastic order, not around a hierarchical priesthood, that wields no coercive power and attains its authority only in its adherence to, and its role in imparting and inspiring, the teachings of the Buddha.

Third, the doctrine of private religion shows up in the believability standards which form the topic of this essay. The result is the common dismissal of many practices that characterize Buddhism, such as various rituals, incessant bowing, monastic discipline and the monastic/lay distinction. In A Culture of Awakening I argue that its communal structure has a critical function in Buddhism, that, in fact, it has played an essential historical role in the preservation of its functional integrity even as it has proved tolerant of cultural adaptations.

The point is that by understanding the conditioned history of the doctrine of private religion that is tacitly accepted as “just common sense,” one might just begin to question those presuppositions and thereby to become less constrained by them, and more willing to find those Buddhist teachings that conflict with those views believable. Many other tacit modern views that also rub Buddhism the wrong way have similar origins in European religious, cultural and intellectual history, particularly in Protestant Christianity, in the European Enlightenment and scientific rationalism, in Romanticism or in psychotherapy. McMahan’s Buddhism and Modernity provides an excellent catalog of the range of such view and their influence on modern practice and understanding of Buddhism.

This brings us to a critical function of the Triple Gem: To take refuge in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha is to accept the authority of these as primary sources of wisdom. This is not meant to discourage healthy skepticism and questioning around the teachings of Buddhism, but rather to encourage skepticism around tacit views, particularly those that seem contrary to Buddhist teachings. Refuge in the Triple Gem initiates the examination of our tacit assumptions.

The reduction of mind to brain. Scientific materialism, or simply materialism, is the view that universe is entirely physical, consisting of matter and energy. Psycho-physical reductionism, or simply reductionism in what follows, is the associated view that mind has a physical basis; it is generally assumed to emerge specifically in the functioning of the brain. Most biologists and psychologists and most educated lay folks accept these views pretty much without question.

Like private religion, materialism, rather than being simply something that is obviously true, has an historical basis, which in this case we can trace back to Descartes’ establishment of the dichotomy between mind and matter and his declaration that matter is the proper object of scientific investigation, with mind assuming something like a God’s eye view that makes the objective examination of matter possible. In the early nineteenth century, Laplace introduced the view of a deterministic universe, governed entirely by physical forces. In the middle of that century, Helmholtz formulated the law of the conservation of energy, which seemed to exclude non-physical and therefore external forces such as God from intervening in the world. It also thereby seemed to exclude intervention by mind. Once science became interested in human behavior and cognitive capabilities and discovered that brain impairments effected these, the reduction of of mind to brain function seemed viable, such that mind is now widely regarded as an epiphenomenon, an emergent reflection of purely physical cognitive processes.

Regardless of its value as science, materialism is hard to reconcile with Buddhism as bringing spiritual benefit. Buddhism is profoundly subjective in its method, primarily concerned with mental phenomena as they arise in human experience, and the causal relationships among these. Matter shows up as that which impinges on sense faculties, or else as illusory mental imputations on an imputed outer world. Our practice is focused on the development and purification of mind. Materialism and reductionism, on the other hand, marginalize the mind, leaving scant foothold for values, for moral responsibility, for meaning, for choice. They tend towards making some core teachings of the Buddha unbelievable.

As noted in our discussion of contextualization, few can live in a fully material world, even if they believe in it. The undesirable consequences of living in a material world is in itself is enough to expunge psycho-physical reductionism from Buddhist purview, independently of whether it is ultimately objectively true in a scientific sense, as unbeneficial. Materialism also entails annihilationism, the view that all mental factors, including karmic consequences, die with the body, which the Buddha explicitly dismissed for its detrimental ethical consequences in favor of the Middle Way. As Wallace (2012, 114) points out, the Buddha rejected any theory that undermines the sense of moral responsibility.

For materialism means that human well-being tends to be sought materially, in external conditions, or in ingestibles, because these have direct material effects. Contemplative practice seems of rather remote efficacy when a material measure is at hand. For many, meditation has become attractive only after neurological correlates have been discovered. It can then be understood as a matter of toning and building up neurons, much like physical fitness tones and builds up muscles. However, the efficacy of mediation for ethical purification of mind, for removing inclinations toward greed, hate and delusion then requires a long stretch of the imagination. Pill-popping seems, from a materialist perspective, a much more direct way of dealing with suffering than does a spiritual practice.

Regardless of its value as science, materialism is hard to reconcile with Buddhism as bringing spiritual benefit. Nonetheless, it also turns out that psycho-physical reductionism is almost certainly wrong from a purely scientific or scholarly perspective. I hear some audible gasps out there, but bear with me. The many difficulties of reductive materialism as a viable theory have been well articulated by others much more familiar with the evidence and its interpretation than I, so I will briefly summarize the three forms these arguments take, each one of which, it seems to me, would be decisive on its own.

The first argument against reductionism is from quantum physics, which in the twentieth century completely overturned what seemed by the late nineteenth-century a firm basis for materialism, and which has interesting things itself to reveal about the real nature of mind. Quantum physics has become foundational to physics; modern electronics and nuclear power depend on the quantum understanding, and yet popular understanding of physics and the training in physics that biologists and other physical scientists obtain is generally stuck in the pre-quantum nineteenth century, probably because quantum physics, while unerringly accurate in its predictions, is at the same time “woo-woo and way out there,” in the common parlance. Quantum physics is a response to observational data from which it has failed to remove mind and intention (free will) from the universe at the most fundamental level. Let’s see how briefly I can put this:

A physical thing – like an electron or an atom, but in principle also a bigger thing like a cat – does not have a definite location (or any other state), but exists as a superposition, which is a probability function, also called a wave function, over locations … until you look at it, then it assumes a definite location, called collapsing the wave function, at which time not only does the thing assume a definite location, but anything else that is entangled with it, that is, whose definite location is predicted from its definite location, also collapses its wave function. For example, object a exists in more than one place at the same time, until you look at it, then a exists at only a single place. If the position of object b is predictable from the position of object a, then when the wave function of object a collapses, so does the wave function of object b, and so on. What is more, it does not matter how far away a and b have gotten from one another, or even if b is an object that existed in the past! Observation, in other words, makes the universe real, and even makes past history real, before which it hasn’t made up its mind. Observation, for its part, requires conscious mind, which John von Neuman identified as entanglement with the ich (the word Freud used for ego) that decided to look.

An interesting philosophical question for us is, Where does the mind, or the ich come from? Were little ichs around all along, collapsing wave functions willy-nilly? Reductionism seems almost the most absurd option: If mind is reducible to brain, which is also a product of evolution, then evolution could not have happened in any determinate form until it indeterminately created an ich that could observe and start collapsing wave functions so that its own evolutionary development could become determinate and it could itself exist. What is more, the experimental data seems to confirm Descartes original dualism between mind and matter, for the encounter with something distinct from matter is needed to collapse wave functions.

The tangle of paradoxes that arise from this boggles the, uh, mind. It even once boggled Einstein’s, uh, mind, who referred to the causal relationship between a and b above as spukhaft (spooky). It is therefore almost impossible to arrive at definitive conclusions, but let me reflect some speculations anyway. First, mind is much more fundamental constituent of the universe than physical reductionism would ever acknowledge. Second, what we are seeing in this observational data is the finishing touches of the creation of physical reality by mind. Physical reality, in other words, seems to reduce to mind, rather than the other way around. Spooky, but it sure seems to cast serious doubt on the enterprise of reducing mind to brain.

Sir James Jeans stated in the 1930’s that, “The universe begins to look more like a great thought than like a great machine.” Max Planck, the primary originator of quantum theory, stated toward the end of his life in the 1940’s, “I regard consciousness as fundamental. I regard matter as derivative from consciousness. We cannot get behind consciousness.” Physicist Andrei Linde states, “I do not know any sense in which I could claim that the universe is here in the absence of observers. We are together, the universe and us, … I cannot imagine a consistent theory of everything that ignores consciousness” (quoted in Tucker, 2013, 168, 189). Eugene Wigner states, “It is not possible to formulate the laws of quantum mechanics in a fully consistent way without reference to consciousness.” (Rosenblum and Kuttner, 2011, 237).

If the brain does not produce mind, what does it do? The answer may have been recognized by William James over a century ago: the brain enables or transmits thoughts originating in a non-physical source. Interestingly models of brain function along these lines have been proposed by physicists, most notably by Henry Stapp and by Roger Penrose. These are highly speculative and controversial, but illustrate, for our purposes, how abandoning reductionism opens up a world of possible understandings of mind. As I understand it, these models propose that the brain is an organ specialized to maintain particular superposition states that are subject to collapse with specific physical effects under the influence of consciousness.ii They account, for instance, how the thought, “I think I will raise my arm,” can be followed by the physical rise of the arm. Quantum physics has laid the basis for modern electronics. It might likewise explain the purpose and operating principles of the brain in a way radically distinct from conventional understanding.

The second argument against reductionism is the complete absence, after over a century of research, of any viable theory of how mind could possibly arise from brain, along with compelling philosophical arguments that such a theory is in principle impossible. In contrast to the situation with mind, biological life processes, at one time also often regarded as irreducible, have been quite successfully reduced to biochemistry, as has biochemistry to chemistry, and chemistry to quantum physics, which is to say, we see physical and chemical laws working exactly as they should to fully account for life processes. There is no hint of an equivalent analysis of the arising of mental states in accordance with physical or biological principles, only the repeatedly stated tacit but enduring hope that someday one is forthcoming. At one time many researchers doubted life was reducible, convinced that some irreducible life force was required in order to account for it. There were shown to be wrong. At the present time some researchers analogously doubt that mind is reducible, convinced that something irreducible is needed to account for it. Every indication so far is that they are right.

Some progress has been made in computational models that emulate human reasoning and cognition. (I used to work in this field myself professionally.) Although many reductionists think of mind and brain as related as software to hardware, the practical success of computational models can be deceiving. One difficulty is the absence of an intrinsic semantics in computational models. Whereas a computer program might perform expert tasks, like medical diagnosis, quite impressively, the medical doctor understands how the diagnosis relates to real ailments of real patients, living real lives, whereas the artificial expert is merely manipulating symbols, and still relies on a human to relate the results of reasoning to the real world, to understand what the diagnosis means, just as a book relies on a human to interpret the knowledge it contains. This has been argued most persuasively by the philosopher John Searle, who (it should be stated in all fairness) nevertheless holds out hope for a reduction of mind to brain.

The philosopher David Chalmers (1996) focuses specifically on the phenomenology of human subjective experience, that is, consciousness, allowing that maybe there is some possibility of a computational theory that can account for much of human (subconscious) cognition. Each of us has subjective experience; in fact it is the only kind of direct experience we ever have. There is nothing more real. Accordingly, there is something it is like to be you, there is something it is like to taste an orange, or to look at an orange. In a thought experiment he asks us to imagine a world in which there is someone exactly like you with the same cognitive capabilities and behaviors manifesting the same physical processes, but in which there is no conscious experience, like a computer that is doing the correct calculations to emulate human capabilities. Your twin, whom Chalmers calls a zombie, has eyes, visual processing, representations of information, decision making processes, and so on, but simply lacks conscious experience. Carefully arguing from the coherence of the concept of zombies, he concludes that consciousness is not entailed by, and therefore cannot in principle be reduced to, matter, or brain function. Yet there is, as plain as day.

The philosopher Thomas Nagel (2012) is concerned that biological evolution, as normally understood, cannot account for the arising of mind from matter. First, it has enough difficulty accounting for the arising of life from dead matter and its subsequent evolution through mutation and natural selection, in terms of physical laws. Next, it has the even more challenging task of accounting for the arising of mental phenomena, in particular of consciousness, in association with certain life forms, in terms of the same kinds of laws. In this case physical elements must give rise to something non-physical and entirely without precedent in nature: consciousness. Finally, it has the even far more daunting task of explaining forms of human reasoning that can reliably conceptualize objective reality. Whereas an evolutionary account of perceptions and desires might make sense in terms of survivability, the evolution of purer forms of reasoning, such as recognition that there is a difference between appearance and reality, correction of expectations, or moral or prudential reasoning, would have to presuppose their validity. One need only consider, it seems to me, When and how, within the evolutionary process, did mathematics come into existence?

The third argument against reductionism is that mind is not strictly conditioned by brain. A primary argument for reducing mind to brain is that subjective mental experience correlates with observable brain activity. For instance, physical injuries to the brain, the ingesting of intoxicants and degenerative neural diseases, such as Alzheimer’s, clearly effect mental functions. However, the intimate correlation between mind and body is complex and works both ways. To take an obvious example of the way mind conditions matter, the thought arises, “I think I will raise my hand,” and my hand rises.

Problematic for reductionism are cases in which mind intervenes in a way that is quite independent of known physical mechanisms. Until late in the twentieth century such phenomena were widely dismissed as unbelievable in the scientific/medical community. One of the first of these phenomena to receive wide recognition is the placebo effect, as when an inert administered substance takes on the causal properties of another substance because of a mistaken belief about what is administered. The placebo effect is now so thoroughly accepted in medical research that accounting for it is obligatory in the testing of pharmaceuticals.

For the materialist, physical health is the proper function of physical bodily processes, and should proceed independent of mind. Yet stress or depression has an effect on the immune system and on other bodily functions. The state of mind, even the opportunity for affectionate contact with family or pets, can influence mortality rates. Both meditation and religious practice improve rates of recovery from illness or surgery. These effects were rarely acknowledged by doctors and researchers for many years, and the mechanisms by which they happen are still not understood.

A long list of similar effects have been documented but are often dismissed, even though they should not be any more unbelievable than the previous examples. They likewise represent intervention of mind into what are otherwise regarded a purely physical processes in the body and are therefore of similar type to the previous examples. In a vodoo death, the firm expectation of impending death, regardless of reasonably good health, results in death on schedule. In contrast, dying persons have been known to postpone death until Christmas or until they have seen family members one last time. In false pregnancy a woman begins showing symptoms such as enlarged belly and engorged breasts because she mistakenly thinks she is pregnant. In hysteria, a bodily function is lost without discernible neurological cause. In stigmata and related phenomena, physical effects corresponding either to imagined wounds or to previous bodily trauma relived many years later, manifest as blisters or wounds on the body, as if one has been burned or otherwise injured. In multiple personality disorder, sufferers exhibit different physiological conditions associated with different personalities, including differences in allergic reactions, eyesight, color blindness and right- or left-handedness. In extreme cases of bodily control, yogis are able to regulate bodily temperature or other body functions at will, and certain people are able to cause discoloration of the skin according to certain patterns. In maternal impressions, thoughts and experiences of a pregnant woman seem to manifest as birth marks or other abnormalities in the child. Kelly, et. al. (2006) is a huge compendium of the scientific/medical research on these topics and those listed in the following paragraph.

Most problematic for reductionism, but also least well documented in medical literature (but possibly precisely because they seem far too “woo woo and way out there” to record), are cases in which mind seems to function with a high degree of independence from the body. Examples of this include out-of-body experiences and near-death experiences, particularly memories from a period in which brain activity has ceased. Also among these are documented memories in children of verifiable past-life experiences. Although commonly dismissed, Kelly (2006, xxv), for one, declares that high quality evidence for basic phenomena of this sort has long been available beyond a reasonable doubt. Wallace (2012, 95) likens the common disregard for such evidence to the difficulty Galileo had in getting anyone to look through his telescope for fear of contradicting established beliefs.

In short, modernity’s encounter with materialism has been ill conceived. It has forced us into an unnaturally narrow view of mind that the practicing Buddhist does well to abandon. Doing so will open open up the full range of benefit from Buddhist practice and understanding in which mind is primary, like nothing else.

Conclusion. Giving up the sparklingly clear view of the world that accrues with one’s tacit unexamined presuppositions will feel like a sacrifice. Yet examining those views and discovering their weakness opens up a world of alternative understandings along with the capacity to engage the world as it is more completely. It also tends to clear away obstacles to accepting the otherwise least believable of the Buddha’s teachings.

In our final post in this series we will take up the last recourse to accepting the Buddha’s teachings. Having looked at the options of acceptance, rejection, contextualization, reconsideration, we take up upgrade, the most creative strategy of all.

What is Believable? (4/6)

March 25, 2015

Series Index

Some Buddhist teachings are unbelievable to some Buddhists. This section discusses the first of three strategies for reconciling this eventuality, short of simply rejecting the teaching.

How to contextualize a teaching

The method here is “lighten up” with the realization that truth is relative, that there is no irrevocable commitment in “belief.”

Every statement has its context, which is why we add qualifiers like “scientifically speaking,” “from an ethical perspective,” “in the Lord o’ the Rings,” “according to Newtonian physics,” or “in baseball,” when its context is not otherwise clear. We humans are also quite adept at jumping from context to context, seeing “Sherlock Holmes was a smoker,” as an irrefutable truth one instant, and acknowledging that Sherlock Holmes never existed in the next, without contradiction. “According to the Buddha” is also another context.

Buddhism is not a creed; it is only indirectly about belief at all; rather it is about how we live our lives. At the same time, it includes teachings, with seemingly propositional content, that inform and shape our practice lives. Typically these are held loosely or somewhat tentatively, at least until higher stages of development where they may become known or awakened to (anubodha) on the basis of personal experience. Cognitively a belief is a complex thing and rarely absolute. Recognition of this tends to make our believability criteria much more permissive. (I focus here so much on belief because that is the level at which traditional teachings are sometimes regarded as unbelievable, the level at which the “Balderdash!” response arises.)

Perspectives. The eminent behavioral psychologist B.F. Skinner held firmly that mental states are imaginary, a kind of superstition. For him psychology was strictly the study of behavior insofar as it can be described in purely physical terms. Think about this: when he returned home from the university, with its pigeons and students, did he never delight in joyful moments spent with his wife and two daughters, worry when they felt sad? Did he never notice the arising of anger or notice that his own lust was a strong predictor of imminent mating behavior? A string theorist similarly lives by day in a world unfamiliar to the rest of us, yet by night and weekend doesn’t she live in the same world of potato salad and a car that stops when she presses on the brake that most of us do? Almost half of American scientists believe in God, who nonetheless virtually never appears as a factor in their published work. How do people do this, that is, live in two such conceptually distinct worlds at almost the same time?

Science and religion provide the most prominent example of divergent worlds in the public mind. In spite of its many successes, science fails to provide an account of the values, meanings and norms, of the ethics and aesthetics intrinsic to everyday human reality. (As far as I can see, it even fails to provide an account for how there can be something as hugely normative for science as mathematics.) In spite of its ubiquitous role in human culture, religion does not enjoy the reassurance that the scientific method gives science. When scientific push comes to religious shove, science generally wins in public discourse, religious scientists quickly admitting that much of their own religious belief is not literally true.

If this were not enough, critics of religion often expect religion to uphold the same empirical standards as science, a requirement not imposed on other realms of human culture. For instance, an artist is not expected to provide independent verification of his aesthetic choices, nor to reduce his art to a set of beliefs. Buddhists generally find answering the frequently posed question, “What do Buddhists believe?” quite awkward because it misses the point.

Interestingly, analogous tensions can be observed within science as we move from one competing paradigm or conceptual structure to another. For instance, Newtonian and quantum physics have conceptually distinct belief structures, yet the practicing physicist can be quite adept in jumping from one to another, as one is often more practical for a particular realm of analysis. When quantum push comes to Newtonian shove, quantum physics generally wins in scientific discourse and scientists admit that the Newtonian system is a simply a quick and dirty expedient in certain cases. This works as long as each is contextualized into a different realm in which their conceptual structures don’t need to contradict one another. Quantum physicists have furthermore lived with the dilemma of two irreconcilable conceptualizations of light and matter for over a century, treating these as waves or as particles according to context. Every context is an expedient of some kind.

Two conceptual structures that do not mix well are the Buddhist and that of mechanistic materialist view of the universe that developed in the nineteenth century and that, outside of physics, dominates scientific thinking and popular science to this day. Early in that century Laplace proposed, on the basis of the success of Newtonian physics, that the universe is entirely governed by physical forces and that it is thereby entirely deterministic. Helmholtz’ conservation of energy proposed in the middle of the century seemed to exclude all nonphysical causation. Determinism means that there is no free-will, no volition and therefore no karma, no practice and no results of practice. Materialism means there is no mind-made world; the mind cannot even be taken as real, much less as primary. Therefore Buddhism makes little sense in such a world.

If it is any consolation, almost nothing else humans do makes sense in such a world either –engineering, for instance – since we don’t really do anything there. This does not prove that such a world does not factually exist, but that humans spend little time in the context of such a world, even those who believe that it is the realest world. We simply do not know how to live in a mechanistic materialist world! This world and the world of mind and volition therefore belong in different contexts, just as science and religion generally do. (I’ll point out later, in the context of the reconsideration strategy, that case for mechanistic materialism in fact fell on its face in the twentieth century.) Even die-hard mechanistic materialists must make concessions to free will. As Isaac Bashevis Singer put it, “You have to believe in free will. You have no choice.”i Recall, once again, that the Buddha’s primary criterion for embracing a teaching is benefit, not objective truth. Benefit cannot be practiced without free will.

Fiction. The surprising thing about fiction is how powerfully real it can be for us. We sit in a movie theater (to see Rambo II, say) and become entirely immersed in the lives of the characters, their ups and downs, their frustrations and successes. We cry, we cringe, we share their pain, we leave the theater with our hair roots trying to stand on end. Often we learn moral lessons or develop attitudes that, for better or worse, we take with us into our own lives. And yet we know all the while it is fiction and should touch us only indirectly. Entertainment without our capacity to take it as real (within its proper context) would be very slim indeed.

I imagine that the primal source of fiction is play. Even puppies pretend to do mighty battle with one another, chewing one each others’ ears, swatting each others faces and leaping one upon the other. At the same time, they are mindful of their context, a context in which they are to do no real harm. They later grow into beasts that could easily dismember a human child, yet continue to engage in the same play with them as well, growling, gnashing their teeth, but drawing no blood, or chasing sticks as if in pursuit of prey. This is all expedient, for they take the results of play into their realer lives as they develop skills they can apply more violently in real fighting or real hunting. Human play is much the same: if children did not spend endless hours playing video games, where would the drone operators of the future come from?

Myths in the Buddhist or religious context make use of the ability of fiction to reach out from another reality and touch our realer lives. They can provide powerful teachings by analogy, inspire and their entertainment value makes them easier to assimilate for both young and old. In place of the remnants of doubt in the mind of the Bodhisattva, the demon Māra appears with his fearful hordes and temptress daughters attempting to dissuade the future Buddha from his rightful path as he sits under the bodhi tree, who then for his part touches the earth that it shake and rumble to bear witness to his determination. Each of us is a sucker for a good story. Although this myth was a later embellishment of the Buddha’s own account, the Buddha himself was a skillful myth maker. In the Aggañña Sutta (DN 27) the Buddha spins an origin story of the world, and it’s a whopper, yet serves a real function in providing an alternative to the Vedic origin story, particularly with regard to the origin of the caste system, for the benefit of two monks who were born brahmins and are now criticized by more traditional brahmins for abandoning the purity of their caste. Gombrich (2006, p. 85) considers this a satire on brahmanical ideas, even playing on the word ajjhānaka, which generally means “reciter (of the Vedas)” but can also mean “non-meditator.”

Counting as. A fiction can tell us something about, or train us for, a more solid reality. “Counting as” is like a fiction, but it is a running interpretation or narration overlain over a more solid reality. A primary example is a sports game, such as baseball. While there are physical actions going on, these actions have interpretations that are just made up and agreed on by convention to accompany the physical actions. Someone hits a ball with a stick and because of where it goes it counts as a home run. Someone touches someone else with a ball and it counts as being “out.” Three “outs” ends the half-inning, and the other team, who knows that, will come in from their dispersed position on the playing field to coalesce at one corner. One of them will then count as being “at bat.”

Money is another example of socially agreed counting-as. Historically money has had a physical counterpart, for instance, clams, cattle, silver, gold, then paper, for which a running interpretation as counting-for-something defined this as a medium of exchange. The physical part has largely gone by the wayside and the bulk of the money supply is something banks merely pretend to create at will simply by clicking some figures on a keyboard to entering it into someone’s account to count as money, then pretend mime-like to track its movements from bank to bank. A satirical news article imagines a scenario in which the economy grinds to a halt as “Nation Realizes Money Just a Symbolic, Mutually Shared Illusion.”

Although sports and money are a kind of fiction overlain on a more solid reality, they are for many people the most tangibly real things there are, matters of perpetual fascination. As real as sports and money are the many mysterious forces that mankind have habitually seen to underly observable events, the work of gods and demons, spells, forces of good or evil. The belief in such forces has been generally supplanted for moderns by scientific explanation, but persists in modern political and economic in which mysterious forces thrive: national interest, freedom fighters, terrorists, manifest destiny, chosen people (or exceptionalism), wealth creation, free markets, natural economic forces, our values as a nation, national security. Scientific theories actually seem to have much in common with the imputation of mysterious supernatural forces, except that they are much more principled and constrained and seek triangulation through independent verification. When one grows up with God, and develops a personal relationship with God, recognizing in God the central role in the universe, and in oneself a subservient role, interpreting all things of the world in relationship to God, then God becomes every bit as palpable as money or football.

Faith and Working Assumptions. Here the Buddha provides clear and abundant guidelines. In the Caṅki Sutta the Buddha remarks that anything accepted through faith, approval, oral tradition, reasoning or pondering may or may not turn out to be true. At this Caṅki asks how, then, truth is to be preserved:

Kittāvatā pana bho gotama, saccānurakkhanā hoti, kittāvatā saccamanurakkhati? Saccānurakkhanaṃ mayaṃ bhavantaṃ gotamaṃ pucchāmā’ti.

Saddhā cepi bhāradvāja, purisassa hoti, ‘evaṃ me saddhā’ti iti vadaṃ saccamanurakkhati, na tveva tāva ekaṃsena niṭṭhaṃ gacchati: ‘idameva saccaṃ moghamañña’nti. Ettāvatā kho bhāradvāja saccānurakkhanā hoti. Ettāvatā saccamanurakkhati. Ettāvatā ca mayaṃ saccānurakkhanaṃ paññāpema. Na tve tāva saccānubodho hoti.

“But to what extent, Master Gotama, is there the preservation of the truth? To what extent does one preserve the truth? We ask Master Gotama about the preservation of the truth.”

“If a person has faith, his statement, ‘This is my faith,’ preserves the truth. But he doesn’t yet come to the definite conclusion that ‘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.”

The Buddha then repeats this formula with regard to a person who approves something, who holds an oral tradition, who has reasoned something through analogy or who has views he has pondered out, just as with regard to a person who has faith. In our terms, when a thesis is accepted, it is not true absolutely by itself but is true relative to its context. The thesis along with the context preserves truth. The Buddha then shows how truth is discovered and then finally realized, the implication being that if a correct teaching is accepted as a working assumption, it will eventually be seen directly as one’s practice progresses.

This passage is a remarkable illustration of the care the Buddha accorded faith and other ways of accepting beliefs that fall short of realization in direct experience, that we not take these as conclusive, but rather keep their context, and thereby their provisional nature, in mind. Under these conditions we accept them.

The Appaṇṇaka (Incontrovertable) Sutta (MN 60) describes a purely pragmatic condition 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 working assumption.

santi gahapatayo eke samaṇabrāhmaṇā evaṃvādino evaṃdiṭṭhino: natthi dinnaṃ natthi yiṭṭhaṃ, natthi hutaṃ, natthi sukaṭadukkaṭānaṃ kammānaṃ phalaṃ vipāko, natthi ayaṃ loko, natthi paro loko, natthi mātā, natthi pitā, natthi sattā opapātikā, natthi loke samaṇabrāmhaṇā sammaggatā sammāpaṭipannā ye imañca lokaṃ parañca lokaṃ sayaṃ abhiññā sacchikatvā pavedentīti.

“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 brahmans or contemplatives who, faring rightly and practicing rightly, proclaim this world and the next after having directly known and realized it for themselves.’

He then points out that this view will condition the behavior of such contemplatives and brahmins:

Tesametaṃ pāṭikaṅkhaṃ: … yamidaṃ kāyaduccaritaṃ vacīduccaritaṃ manoduccaritaṃ, ime tayo akusale dhamme samādāya vattissanti. Taṃ kissa hetu: na hi te bhonto samaṇabrāhmaṇā passanti akusalānaṃ dhammānaṃ ādīnavaṃ okāraṃ saṅkilesaṃ. Kusalānaṃ dhammānaṃ nekkhamme ānisaṃsaṃ vodānapakkhaṃ

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 & brahmans do not see, in unskillful activities, the drawbacks, the degradation, and the defilement; nor in skillful activities the benefit of renunciation, as cleansing.

Here is the kicker: people of this view cannot win, whether or not their view turns out to be true:

Paro loko hotu nesaṃ bhavataṃ samaṇabrāhmaṇānaṃ saccaṃ vacanaṃ. Atha ca panā’yaṃ bhavaṃ purisapuggalo diṭṭheva dhamme viññūnaṃ gārayho: dussīlo purisapuggalo micchādiṭṭhi natthikavādoti. Sace kho attheva paro loko, evaṃ imassa bhoto purisapuggalassa ubhayattha kaliggaho: yañca diṭṭheva dhamme viññūnaṃ gārayho, yañca kāyassa bhedā parammaraṇā apāyaṃ duggatiṃ vinīpātaṃ nirayaṃ upapajjissati. Evamassā’yaṃ apaṇṇako dhammo dussamatto samādinno ekaṃsaṃ pharitvā tiṭṭhati. Riñcati kusalaṃ ṭhānaṃ.

Let there be no other world, regardless of the true statement of those venerable contemplatives and brahmans. 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.

The Buddha then contrasts these contemplatives and with those of exactly the opposite views, who thereby engage in good bodily, verbal and mental conduct as a result. He demonstrates that these cannot lose, whether or not their view turns out to be true. He repeats the equivalent argument for each of a variety of views: that good or bad actions do not produce merit or demerit, that beings become defiled or purified without cause, immaterial realms do not exist and there is no cessation of being. Although the Buddha at the same time maintains that the more skillful view is also true, in spite of what other contemplative and brahmins might think, his final recourse is to what view is most likely to bring benefit. In either case truth is preserved, according to the Caṅki Sutta, by keeping in mind the context in which the view arises.
The Kalama Sutta employs the same logic to justify the benefit of karma and rebirth even as a working assumption:

‘Suppose there is a hereafter and there is a fruit, result, of deeds done well or ill. Then it is possible that at the dissolution of the body after death, I shall arise in the heavenly world, which is possessed of the state of bliss.’ This is the first solace found by him. ‘Suppose there is no hereafter and there is no fruit, no result, of deeds done well or ill. Yet in this world, here and now, free from hatred, free from malice, safe and sound, and happy, I keep myself.’ This is the second solace found by him. ‘Suppose evil (results) befall an evil-doer. I, however, think of doing evil to no one. Then, how can ill (results) affect me who do no evil deed?’ This is the third solace found by him. ‘Suppose evil (results) do not befall an evil-doer. Then I see myself purified in any case.’ This is the fourth solace found by him.

In this way, belief in karma and rebirth can be accepted, at least in a sense, that is relative to a context.

Let’s back up for a moment to the Caṅki Sutta and ask what the role of scientific evidence might be in the acceptance of karma and rebirth, as a particular example. The Buddha recommends that karma and rebirth are accepted as a working assumption by the skeptical, but is confident that their truth, which he endorses, will eventually be discovered and finally realized in the diligent practitioner’s own experience. The evidence here is quite different from scientific evidence, which is dependent on reasoning and pondering, on careful argumentation that itself can turn out either way; nothing is proved conclusively in science. A consequence is that even if the scientific evidence overwhelmingly supports karma and rebirth, one has still not yet discovered (anubodha) and realized karma and rebirth, not until one has confirmed it in one’s own experience. It is still contextualized, as something like faith but with perhaps a lot of reassurance. The Buddha’s criteria are quite stringent.

Conclusions. By recognizing the relative nature of belief, more things become believable. We can believe in things that are fictional or mythological, conventionally or habitually imputed, accepted on faith or otherwise guessed at or accepted as working assumptions as the best bet for beneficial outcomes. We recognize that these things are not absolute truths and do not commit to them as such until we awaken to them. In the meantime, they make sense in their specific contexts. Nonetheless, these contextualized beliefs have a powerful influence in shaping our attitudes and behaviors, including the quality of our Buddhist practice.

Contextualization is likely to be useful for the agnostic temperament, for which the working assumption is likely to have appeal, since it is so noncommittal. It is less likely useful for the atheistic temperament that has already made up its mind. For this we will turn to the strategy of reconsideration as we navigate the space between acceptance and rejection of Buddhist teachings.

In this section we’ve explored a middle way between absolute belief and total rejection. Contextualization is one way to realize that middle way. Next we will look at the alternative of reconsideration, and following that, of update.

What is Believable? (3/6)

March 17, 2015

Series Index

We have seen that certain Buddhist teachings are unbelievable for many moderns. Today we consider the practical consequences of simply rejecting them while accepting the less problematic teachings.

How to reject a teaching

The method here is “balderdash!” It is recommended only in limited circumstances. It looks like one of the following:

Figure10Faltering on unbelievability, or on unbelief

Thomas Bowdler published a version of Shakespeare in 1807 which expurgated whatever original material was considered offensive or otherwise unsuitable for women and children in his sensitive age, once even removing an entire morally unsatisfactory character from one of the bard’s plays. With what degree of skill are we bowdlerizing Buddhism? Some argue that Buddhism has repeatedly been adapted (and proved itself adaptable!) in every new culture it has entered in its long history; we therefore have the right to adapt it to modern standards of believability with as loud a “Balderdash!” as we like. Others, including this writer, express dismay over the watering down of Buddhism or over its potential loss with the bathwater through overzealous bowdlerization.

It is one thing to expunge a minor character, but how could the story line possibility hold together without Hamlet? The point is that before we expunge anything we do well to ask, “At what cost?” That is, we should have a clear idea to what extent  the integrity of the Dharma as something we live, practice and develop around, would be sacrificed. For minor characters the cost might not be so great. Major characters we are ill-advised indeed to dismiss out of hand without careful consideration of the alternative strategies that I will describe in this essay for coming to terms with the teaching, namely, contextualization, reconsideration and upgrade. Otherwise we may end up like the new landowner who discovers an overgrown but still potentially productive corn field on his property and who, with limited understanding of both corn and weed, dauntlessly hacks away with a machete only to destroy half of the corn and to leave half of the undergrowth. Or like Hollywood producers who undertake to film Hamlet with a rollicking happy ending. The Dharma is much too sophisticated a product of the human mind to treat in such a crude way.

Why did the Buddha teach this? This is the key test. This is what we must repeatedly ask. This question will help us to understand what the cost of dismissing a teaching would be, and at the same time what aspects of that teaching are most critical to its function. We know that the Buddha was parsimonious in his teachings, generally scrupulously avoiding any kind of metaphysical speculation. He points this out himself on the occasion of his famous handful-of-leaves simile:

“Appamattakaṃ akkhātaṃ. Kasmā cetaṃ bhikkhave, mayā anakkhātaṃ? Na hetaṃ bhikkhave, atthasaṃhitaṃ nādibrahmacariyakaṃ na nibbidāya na virāgāya na nirodhāya na upasamāya nābhiññāya na sambodhāya na nibbānāya saṃvattati, tasmā taṃ mayā anakkhātaṃ.”

“What I have revealed to you is only a little. And why, monks, have I not revealed more? Because, monks, it is not related to the goal, it is not fundamental to the holy life, does not conduce to disenchantment, dispassion, cessation, tranquility, higher knowledge, enlightenment or Nibbana. That is why I have not revealed it.”

If his teachings are as a result seldom without point, their dismissal will seldom be without cost. A recurrent and well-expounded thesis is therefore very likely to play a significant role in the Buddha’s stage production. If one seems to fall short of modern standards of believability, we should not be hasty in its dismissal.

Expunging minor characters. Among the teachings found in Buddhist scripture are undoubtedly casual references to concepts or ways of thinking that would have made popular sense in the Buddha’s day, but which are incidental to the intent of the passages or which are meaningful only in the cultural context of his time. Let’s look at a couple of examples.

Wordly dieties. In many of the discourses the Buddha is visited by various deities, both famous and obscure. This passage from the oft-recited Mangala Sutta is representative:

Atha kho aññatarā devatā abhikkantāya rattiyā abhik-kanta-vaṇṇā kevalakappaṃ Jetavanaṃ obhāsetvā yena Bhagavā ten-upasaṅkami upasaṅkamitvā Bhagavantaṃ abhivādetvā ekamantaṃ aṭṭhāsi.

Now when the night was far spent, a certain deity, whose surpassing splendor illuminated the entire Jeta Grove, came to the presence of the Exalted One, and, drawing near, respectfully venerated Him and stood to one side.

In this case the deity has come to ask a question, “What is the highest blesssing?” that evokes the Buddha’s thirty-eight checkpoint list of many greatest blessings. So, why did the Buddha teach about visiting deities?

I personally find these passages delightful, but have never, even in my weaker moments, ever even considered taking a passage like this as literally describing an actual event, though I realize many Buddhists do. At what cost comes such disbelief?

In this case, it seems, at very little: Worship of deities, or calling upon their aid, is not the point in Buddhist teachings. On the contrary, deities are routinely portrayed as venerating the Buddha, through bows, circumambulation, sitting to one side, and then asking for teachings, just as in this passage. The faith they illustrate is worth noting, but their substantive existence is beside the point. It might additionally be noted, from a text-analytical point of view, that most references to such visits are also not spoken by the Buddha, that is, not Buddha-vacana, but occur in the opening description before the Buddha speaks. Deities also appear as the inmates of realms of potential rebirth, with somewhat more significance which I will not discuss at this point.

Supernormal powers. The Buddha speaks in many places of supernormal powers (iddhi), such as replicating oneself at will,  disappearing and reappearing, walking through walls and even mountains, diving into the earth as if it were water and walking on water as if it were earth, flying through the air while sitting cross-legged, jumping up and touching the sun or moon, seeing and hearing from afar, reading minds, recollecting past lives, comprehending the karmically driven process of rebirth in others, and ending the effluents.ii  These powers seem to be a natural consequences of the development of concentration, manifest in some much more markedly than in others (for instance, among the Buddha’s chief disciples, more prominently in Moggallāna than Sariputta), and are not generally necessary for realizing attainments of stream entry and beyond, except to the extend that these are themselves supernormal powers of a sort. The Buddha did not allow monastics to display these powers to laypeople, and pointed out the dangers of the pride that often adheres to these powers. So, why did the Buddha teach about these powers in detail, and what is the cost of dismissing them?

Many monks seemed to be obsessed with such powers; they do seem pretty cool. Given this, it seems to me that the function of the Buddha’s teachings about such powers is to keep their development skillfully on track, that is, to avoid turning them into distractions or sources of pride. This has an interesting corollary: these teachings are not of particular relevance to those who disbelieve in such powers, which excludes those who have actually experienced such powers. So, the cost of expungement is small wherever expungement is possible, while the teachings are important, and possibly often critical, for believers.

While dismissal comes at no cost for those inclined to dismiss such powers as balderdash, there are dangers in overly strident rejection: First, if one later, though progress in concentration practice, begins to manifest such powers, the previously strident nay-sayer may for a time deny one’s own experiences. Second, the strident expunger may try to impose one’s disbelief on others, that is, he may try to convince others that their experiences are not real. The foolishness of the second danger becomes clear when we consider that many non-meditators deny the consciousness-shifting or even mystical experiences reported quite routinely by meditators. My brother once tried to argue that whatever I experienced in meditation could be achieved more pleasantly by watching soap operas. Nothing I said from the position of greater experience could dispel his utter foolishness. It was like trying to convince a deaf person that music really exists. It also becomes clear when you consider that the descriptions of these powers might not fully capture their experience. For instance, these powers might not manifest physically as we at first imagine, but perhaps are entirely mental experiences, or something akin to out-of-body experiences, invisible to outside observers. The descriptions can be interpreted figuratively in a range of ways.

A perspective of non-strident skepticism can benefit Buddhism in distilling the teachings down to their functional core and skimming off as a byproduct the full range of possible interpretations consistent with the Buddha’s intent. This helps others avoid literalism or calcified understandings that may have persisted unquestioned for many centuries in certain traditions. In many cases it helps us understand when the Buddha was speaking figuratively, where he was spinning a myth and where he was having fun with others’ firmly held viewpoints.

The cost of expunging major characters. For many teachings, on investigation, the cost of their complete rejection would be huge; because they serve critical functions in the body of the Buddha’s teachings their loss would significantly compromise the integrity of the Dharma. Unfortunately, the critical importance of these teachings is often apparent only to those of advanced understanding and practice. Let’s look at a couple of examples.

The monastic institution. Common victims of modern expungment are monastics (like me, for instance), robed shavelings who dare to renounce worldly soap-operatic life, and the institution to which we belong. That we serve some useful service in the scheme of things seems to some unbelievable, to those who see us as irrelevant in the modern context, as undemocratic as well as hopelessly out of fashion. Yet, there is little doubt that the Buddha constituted the monastic Sangha shortly after his Awakening, then gave it a mission and carefully tinkered with its operating procedures over many years. The Buddha consistently referred to the body of his teachings as the Dharma-Vinaya, the latter with reference to the guidelines for monastic discipline. So, why did the Buddha teach the value of monasticism?

Briefly, the Monastic Sangha, aside from providing a context optimized for progress on the Buddhist path, is responsible, by the Buddha’s authority, for preserving the integrity of the Dharma, for maintaining the authentic adept understanding. Buddhaghosa’s fifth century commentary on the Vinaya, asserts that,

If the Vinaya endures, the Sasana [the teaching of the Buddha] will endure; if the Vinaya disappears, the Sasana will disappear.

The Buddha himself stated that,

“If … the monks would live the life to perfection, the world would not lack for  Arahants.”

The cost of dismissing this institution – unless it is replaced with something functionally equivalent of as yet unknown constitution – is dear.

My purpose here is not to argue this point, or the next, in any detail, but to illustrate the existence of teachings that often seem to moderns, at least at first sight, indefensible, but on closer examination are critical to the functional integrity of the Buddha’s teachings, and as such were clearly articulated by the Buddha.

Rebirth. Also commonly regarded as particularly expunge-worthy is the very idea of rebirth, that is, the perpetuation of karmic conditioning right past the death of the body and into a new life. Moderns actually seem to have widely varying views about rebirth, but there is a strong contingent that finds the notion entirely unbelievable, period. Again, the question for us at this point is not to establish its objective truth or untruth, but rather to assess to the cost of its expungement from Buddhist understanding and practice, by asking, Why did the Buddha teach rebirth?

Rebirth is a critical part of the Buddha’s Middle Way between the alternatives of annihilationism and eternalism, both of which the Buddha rejected as unbeneficial to human well-being, that is, on ethical grounds. It is noteworthy that, although the Buddha attested to his own recollection of previous lives, he never seems to have argued against the opposing view on objective or factual grounds, but rather recommended that disbelievers, apparently common in the Buddha’s day as in our own, accept rebirth as a kind of working assumption, a strategy which falls under what I later call contextualization. Moderns who reject rebirth are generally left with annihilationism, since moderns will generally reject eternalism even more readily than rebirth, which is to say that at death the fruits of these modern’s lifetime of practice are zeroed out, as if one had never practiced at all. Buddhist practice becomes about achieving a well-being limited to these few decades of life. The upshot is described by Bhikkhu Bodhi as follows:

…, to downplay the doctrine of rebirth and explain the entire import of the Dhamma as the amelioration of mental suffering through enhanced self-awareness is to deprive the Dhamma of those wider perspectives from which it derives its full breadth and profundity. By doing so one seriously risks reducing it in the end to little more than a sophisticated ancient system of humanistic psychotherapy.

Rebirth in Buddhism serves to open up a transcendent dimension of Buddhist practice to make it bigger-than-life consequential, an epic struggle over destiny with endless consequences, whose import dwarfs any this-worldly concern. A Buddhism limited to this-worldly well-being makes it a mere alternative to many other ways we can envision to bring more comfort into these few decades of life, from ballroom dancing to an adequate stock portfolio.

Notice that in the case of rebirth we are dealing with a broad conceptual context in which to frame our everyday practice. If this belief is to have any efficacy, it requires much more than reluctant endorsement, but rather the deep integration of rebirth into one’s world view, as a reality in which one’s life is firmly embedded. This can be quite challenging to the alternative strategies of contextualization, reconsideration and upgrade, which we will take up later.

Summary. The purpose of this section has been to give one pause before one declares something as unbelievable. It is not so much to convince one that one thereby suffers from false views, as that what is at stake should be fully recognized before one’s views are fully formed. This may bring one to an impasse in which disbelief is suspended even for a number of years. It may take one, particularly the inexperienced Buddhist, almost that long to fully appreciate the initially obscure functional role of a particular teaching. Once one sees that a teaching has a critical function, one should try every practical means to accept that teaching into one’s understanding. We now turn to those means.

In the following three posts we cover the stategies of contextualization, reconsideration and upgrade as the promised recourse for rescuing teachings from being written out of the story line.

Karmic Dividends (1/2)

August 31, 2014

I’ve been finishing up the series “All My Ancient Karma” more slowly than expected. In the meantime I offer:

Karmic Dividends

Generosity is the very first step in the Buddha’s gradual path. It is easily comprehended by all, including children, and brings great karmic benefit, that is, every act of generosity, when carried out with pure intentions, brings benefit that stays with the actor. The benefit starts immediately in the form of delight and a feeling of peace in the heart. Then affection and gratitude grow out of this transaction. And the future becomes brighter as every act of generosity nurtures one’s tendency to generosity, makes one kinder, more saintly, less self-centered and therefore of more peaceful and happier disposition. Perhaps paradoxically, a lifetime of generosity brings with it the liberal sense of abundance, in spite of one’s immediate material sacrifices. Moreover generosity benefits the recipient karmically as well as the donor since the recipient will experience gratitude which itself generally leads to an urge toward generosity.

In western culture, we tend to prefer the reciprocal exchange to the one-sided act of generosity. Although many people give generously to charities, or volunteer in civic projects and, indeed, generosity is upheld as a core value in our society (except maybe among readers of Ayn Rand). I think that in general we are poor receivers of generosity: We tend not to be gracious recipients of gifts, except of those from family members. We feel uncomfortable as recipients of charity, or if someone offers to pay for the meal we insist on paying and feel internally disgruntled when the other insists more convincingly. Self-sufficiency is also upheld as a core value in our society. This tends to close opportunities for others to practice generosity.

Aside from gift and exchange, there is one other way in which goods and services change hands: plunder. Stealing is not a step in the Buddha’s gradual path. It is easily comprehended by all, including children, but brings great karmic detriment, that is, every act of plunder, when carried out with tainted intentions, brings detriment that stays with the actor. The detriment starts immediately in the form of constriction and turmoil in the heart, then ill-will and animosity grow out of this transaction. And the future becomes darker as every act of plunder nurtures one’s tendency to plunder, makes one meaner, more exploitive, more self-centered and therefore of more violent and unhappy disposition. Perhaps paradoxically, a lifetime of plunder brings with it the stingy sense of lack, in spite of one’s immediate material gains. Moreover plunder tends to harm the victim karmically as well as the perpetrator since the victim will experience resentment which itself generally will lead to an urge for recompense.

In western culture we tend to be gracious recipients of plunder, with some reservations in the case of blatant illegality. Businesses love to “externalize costs,” merchants love to give their customers less than they paid for, advertisers love to sell customers a sexier new “you” when all customers actually get is a bar of soap, empires love their colonies, bankers love to fix the system to ensure a continuous inflow of plunder. Almost everyone loves to be able to put one over on the other fellow. Moreover, we tend to be forgiving of this behavior in others because we would do the same thing if we could.

We might discern, at least for exposition, three kinds of economy: an economy of exchange, an economy of gifts and an economy of plunder, although in practice these are inextricably intertwined. Often the three kinds of transactions involved even produce identical material results: If I give someone an A spontaneously out of generosity and that person later gives me a B out of generosity, this might have the same result as a fair exchange of A for B. Or if I steal a B from someone out of greed, while they are stealing an A from me also out of greed, this might also have the same result as the fair exchange of A for B. In any of these cases we might say that the economy is humming along. BUT there is a huge non-economic but spiritual difference in these three economies, the kind of karma that is generated in each case is quite dissimilar:

  • A transaction of fair exchange is in principle karmically neutral.
  • A transaction of generosity brings a karmic dividend.
  • A transaction of plunder carries a karmic forfeiture.

I should note that the ostensible exchange may hide plunder, or it may hide generosity. The first is the case, for instance, in fraud or deceit, the second, for instance, when someone values customers and takes pride in exceeding expectations. Intentions are what matter.

Note that the proportion of these three components vary in regional and global economies. For instance, anthropologists tell us that primitive societies, as well as those of our primitive ancestors, rely much more heavily on gifts than on exchange. The prevailing economy in a giving society have karmic consequences for their participants. We predict, on Buddhist principles, that the people who live in predominantly economies of gifts to have a high level of relative well-being, and that the people who live in predominantly economies of plunder will have a low level of relative well-being, as the populations busy themselves daily accumulating karmic dividends or forfeitures respectively.

With these differences in mind, we note that devout Buddhists are admonished not to participate in the plunder economy (at least as plunderers), for they are counseled to follow the precepts of not taking what is not freely given nor to say what is not true, and to choose a right livelihood, in which they are not allowed to profit from the suffering of others, nor use deceitful means in exchange. We also note that monastics are furthermore strictly disallowed from participation in the economy either of plunder or of exchange. They can have no business dealings, no trade (except in limited circumstances with other monks, like swapping otherwise ill-fitting robes), no handling of money. They practice generosity toward others, most notably by offering the Dharma, but can accept no tit-for-tat compensation for this. Monastics live as a matter of vow entirely in the economy of gifts. Monastics thereby gain a unique opportunity for spiritual progress.

A crucial point in these economic considerations is that the social context in which we live typically restricts the choices available to us, and therefore is a limiting factor on our practice, which, after all, consists of choices (karma). For instance, most of us would love to be able to walk to work each morning, but the social conditions may dictate that we commute for half an hour in heavy traffic. Likewise, we would love to have neighbors that are all generous farmers with whom we might share our own produce rather than having to sell it to distributors. We may need a job but cannot find a livelihood that does not involve deceiving customers or disadvantaging someone in some way. If we are in debt or under other social obligations our options become even more limited. Social context can force us from the economy of gifts increasingly into the economy of exchange, or from exchange into plunder, with inevitable dire consequences for our spiritual progress.

Therefore a crucial part of success in Buddhist practice is to optimize our social context, favoring the economy of gifts over the economy of exchange and the economy of exchange over the economy of plunder. I don’t expect readers to be inspired by these words to become activists in the cause of tearing down the system of global neo-liberal capitalism, which is certainly a system based as much in plunder as in exchange, but there are less daunting ways to negotiate the social landscape to optimize our individual or community social context. One is choice of livelihood, another is voluntary simplicity, another is choice of living place, rural rather than urban, for instance, or even Costa Rica rather than America. Migrate in the direction of happier people, because they are likely to live under a more favorable gift-to-plunder ratio.

A useful way to implement the Buddhist practice of generosity, beyond the occasional charitable contribution or favor to improve an otherwise mixed economic existence, is to be ever mindful, with every economic transaction, of what economy one is acting in right now. The economy of plunder is an insult to Buddhist practice. The economy of exchange is a world of wasted opportunities in which fair transactions are performed but with no karmic benefit. The economy of gifts is worlds apart. If one, like sincere monastics, can in one way or another spend all or most of one’s time in the economy of gifts, one’s spiritual progress will flourish. If one combines this practice either with a meditation practice or with unplugging oneself from media for the masses, it will soar. If one combines it with both, it will astonish.

Next week I would like to consider the opportunities Buddhist communities enjoy for nourishing an economy of gifts. It is significant that the Buddha was already on top of this issue.

Unplugging yourself from media for the masses

August 20, 2014

This adjustment to your life style may produce more benefit than any other aspect of a Buddhist life, for instance, more than an intensive daily meditation practice. Though little mentioned in the early discourses, in the modern context this is huge.

Modern culture was devastated by two parallel developments in the twentieth century that working together have magnified the power of government and corporations to shape the popular culture in harmful directions: mass media and the public relations/marketing industry. Supplementing print media at the turn of the century came radio, moving pictures and the gramophone, television, video games and home video, and all of the various forms of access and intrusion explosively afforded by the Internet. On the foundation of modern psychology around the turn of the century, which discovered the irrational underbelly of human motivation, came the public relations industry, successfully wielded in the interests of mass government propaganda in the United States to sell US involvement in World War One and in Germany to elicit support for the Nazi Party and its plans, all the while selling everywhere increasing numbers of the products of ever expanding industrial production. Today, children spend more time each day wired to the devises of mass media than they spend in school, certainly far more than they spend in interaction with their parents, and for parents, often of less leisure, it is not much better.

I call these developments devastating because they have overwhelmed the highest values and ideals of civilization and of the religious life, things like frugality and restraint, intellectual curiosity and kindness, to create efficient producers, consumers and supporters of the current corporate/state agenda. The means by which this has been done is particularly alarming from a Buddhist perspective, because of its unconscionable appeal to the basest human impulses of greed, hatred and delusion. Consumers of entertainment witness thousands of violent deaths each year and are vulnerable to tens of thousands of ads promoting junk food, unnecessary gadgets, useless cures and means of self-gratification and self-enhancement, all the while being sucked into a ruthlessly competitive and intolerant world in which they learn that violence is solution to every difficulty and stuff and wealth are the means of salvation. What is more, this system of mass manipulation is motivated itself primarily by greed for profits – Bitter seeds produce bitter fruits. – and overwhelms the quiet voices of wisdom and compassion – parents, village elders, the wise, teachers, clergy and monastics – that under other circumstances would be expected to uphold the purest values and ideals of the culture.

It is incumbent on all who wish to live a Buddhist life to live apart from these toxic influences of mass marketing/public relations. Here are some suggestions to adopt in whole or in part:

  • Never watch or read an ad. If you are watching TV and an ad comes on, mute the volume until the danger has passed. If an ad pops up on your computer hit the “back” button, quick. Be ready to take cover under a large cushion if all else fails.
  • Don’t own a TV, or if you do, use it very sparingly to watch commercial-free programs.
  • If you are a sports fan, go to games personally in your community, support the local high-school team, rather than catching professional sports between ads on TV.
  • Find reliable non-commercial news sources on the Internet (commercial sources are rarely reliable in any case). Find real journalism rather than hate- or greed inspired punditry.
  • View movies and other shows of social, spiritual or intellectual merit. Avoid mindless shows, such as those that convey celebrity gossip. Ask, does this entertainment option endorse anger or violence or class-consciousness, or does it promote kindness, open-mindedness, non-violence? What are its values? You will find at least 90% of the options lacking, but there are uplifting options out there. Documentaries are often good options.


The challenges of this regime are that most of us have media addictions and routines. Certain TV personalities become like personal friends or family, certain sports stars the same. We also expend a lot of time in front of the screen, often accustomed and deserved downtime, and the alternative ways of killing that time are less familiar or less enticing, alternatives like reading, conversation, star-gazing, macramé or board games. Also, adopting this regime generally requires the cooperation of family members or roommates. But, hey, we make sacrifices to maintain a consistent meditation practice as well.

Alms Round in America?

January 28, 2014

Adapted from my autobio for publication in our monastery newsletter.

When the Buddha returned to visit his princely home after his alms-financed Awakening, he continued his rounds in the streets of Kapilavatthu much to the distress of his aristocratic father. The alms round was for the Buddha a key feature of the monastic life and, even when food was close at hand, the alms round was not to be disregarded. For the alms round was not simply a  way to feed the monks and nuns but also to give layfolks the opportunity to make merit and learn Dhamma as the Sangha, dignified and mindful, passes silently from house to house to receive offerings, and also to promote the growth of the Sāsana. Ashin Dr. Paññasīha of the Sitagu center in Yangon takes this ancient obligation quite seriously and I used to join him in this remarkable practice, crossing over Bailey Bridge, down some stairs, past a small Burmese version of a strip mall (about five tiny abutting shops), across another busy road and into a small neighborhood of many closely packed dwellings and muddy alleys trafficked by bicycles, pedestrians and chickens and beslumbered by lazy mutts.

Once, as my departure from the Land of Pagodas neared, U Paññasīha admonished me, “When you go back to America you should continue alms rounds.”

“I don’t think you can do alms rounds in the States,” I replied, “Nobody will know what I am doing.”

“I did,” he responded.

Indeed, he had lived in America for one and a half years where he had attended Vanderbilt University in Nashville. He explained how he had been determined to walk for alms no matter where he lived, how he had printed up fliers and distributed them through his neighborhood in anticipation of people’s bewilderedness, and how he ended up with many American students eager to learn Buddhism.

“In a lot of places in America, including Austin,” I objected, “I could be arrested for ‘begging’!”

“I wouldn’t have minded getting arrested,” he retorted, “I would teach Buddhism in jail.”

Whew, this venerable argued an awfully strong case.

Within thirteen days of my arrival back in Austin, I found myself living for seven months at the Sitagu Dhamma Vihara near St. Paul, Minnesotta, a northern land peopled primarily by tall lumbering Vikings under baseball caps, fair of skin, hair and eyes, just like me (for I am also of tall lumbering nordic descent), but without the robes. Although my old alms bowl stood on my shelf to remind me of Ashin Paññasīha’s alms admonition, I had trouble picturing myself seeking alms on County Road C, walking along the edge of the road, dumbfounding the occupants of cars as they flashed past, gaining little notice from the neighbors (undoubtedly Lutheran Protestants), all of whose houses stood well back from the roadway. What I pictured seemed hardly promising of alms, nor even of significant human contact.

That is, unless I just happened to pass the right house at the right moment: Once, while on my long daily walk, a swift bicycle passed me from behind then screeched to a halt, ejecting a dark-haired woman who, with a sidewards toss of the bike, dropped to the ground and bowed at my feet. She was, as she explained, from Laos and was now married to an American. As she had been washing dishes in her kitchen, she happened to glance up to see the very last thing walk by that she had ever expected in rural Minnesota. She dashed out the door, jumped on her daughter’s bicycle and hastened after me. Had I instead been walking by with alms bowl in hand, I would certainly have attained to left-over waffles, bear mush or even better!

But no, I had by this time fastened on an alms plan that would leave little to chance. This was inspired by an American nun (named Ayya Thanasanti, and now a bhikkhuni), who, according to my sources, had started collecting alms in Colorado. Brilliantly, she performed her alms round at a farmer’s market! A farmer’s market provides the ideal set of circumstances under which even Nordic inhibition might be set aside in favor of an ancient rite that is over twice as old as Viking plunder: a wide variety of amiable people in a relaxed and interactive frame of mind, and food close at hand, available for purchase on a whim. I phoned the director of the nearest farmers’ market and easily obtained permission to walk barefoot, bowl in hand, robes formally adjusted over both shoulders, along the bustling row of booths.

I also invited the four monks from the local Karen monastery in St. Paul to join me, and a few members of our community to bring some food to offer, to prime the pump that would then suck up broader participation. The Karen monks, never having expected to go for alms in America, a bit apprehensive about the response they might invoke, and of less than Nordic stature, suggested we forgo the normal monastic custom of queuing up according to ordination date (for mine would be most recent) and, much like novices or ducklings, line up according to height … tallest first.

We had a number of glitches at first. The Burmese recruited to prime the pump were, as I should have anticipated, far too generous to provide a reasonable example for emulation, for they handed us what appeared to be entire grocery bags of food, which gave the row of monks the appearance of a kind of human shopping cart, already brimming and hardly in need of still further alms. Luckily, in subsequent weeks, with decreasing numbers of the Burmese community showing up, brim became less of an issue. Although many of the shoppers must still have wondered why grown bald men in dresses were playing choo-choo in the middle of their shopping experience, week after week more shoppers and vendors caught on. Once an apparent immigrant from Southwest Asia, who presumably had not seen an alms round in many years, was thrilled to be able to explain to her lanky grandson how to drop an offering into each of our bowls. Once a vendor gave each of us a little bottle of honey. Our alms practice finally ended with the end of the farmers’ market season as the chill of the northern winter approached.

Back in Austin, a small group of Burmese families has been considering purchasing and subdividing a lot adjacent to the monastery to build five houses. This would constitute a small village into which the Sitagu Sangha might venture, barefoot, bowls in hand, robes formally adjusted over both shoulders, along a short row of houses, to attain to rice, curry and more.

The Cushion or the World?

December 19, 2013

Bhikkhu Cintita Dinsmore

Alternative format: pdf_24x18

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Sasana Perspective

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

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

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

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

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


The Flower of the Sasana

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Comet of the Sasana

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

Traditionalists and Modernizers

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

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

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

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

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

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

Understanding and practicing the Four Noble Truths.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

1Kuṭṭhi Sutta, Udāna 5.3.

Growing the Dharma: Finding Your Way

November 21, 2013

You are reading a serialization of the ebook Growing the Dharma: Buddhism’s Religious Spadework. We now complete the last chapter and the ebook serialization. Recall that we I have described “Simply Uninformed” and “Stuck in the Familiar” as personality types that are recognized both at the buffet table and a the early stages of Buddhist practice.

Chapter 8. Navigating the Sasana (2/2)

More analytical than daring

“Religiosity” might well frighten you; it is the world of terrorists, hypocritical opportunists, pedophiles, blindly faithful suckers, and people who knock on your door to tell you stuff, won’t go away and keep coming back. These are scary things. “Religiosity” at the same time might remind me too closely of the root religion that you had managed to analyze my way out of. But saying, “I’ve had it with religiosity!” is a little like surviving an earthquake and declaring in a descending voice, “I’ve had it with ground!” Where will I stand?

Maybe you were initially attracted to Buddhism because it appeared refreshingly more rational than your root religion, much of it is almost scientific. It values personal investigation and seeing things as they are, and reasonably well avoids metaphysical speculation. It also mandates trust, and veneration, of the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sangha. Refuge might once have been too daring for you, placing far too much trust in uncertainties, and as a result you may have spent years thinking about becoming a Buddhist. I hope that I have shown in this book how rational many of these “religious” elements are in the context of the Sasana.

Perhaps you ran up and down along the shore for a time, while others plunged into the community, into Refuge, and into practice and study to emerge wiser, kinder and more equanimous on the other shore. Observing the positive results of their choices, you might eventually have reached your tipping point, and taken the plunge, as an act of discerning trust to bring you into the Buddha-Sasana, among the leaves, nourished from sun, water and soil.

Many have found it hard to reach that tipping point and have remained nominal Buddhists of no Refuge. They have kept their trust (generally without even realizing that trust is involved) in whatever culturally transmitted influences were alive in their lives before they were mature enough to fear uncertainty. With the preempting of trust in the Triple Gem, they refuse to listen to the voice from the mountaintop telling them of vistas they cannot already see with their own eyes. Instead, they imagine a Buddha in their own cultural image, a science-inspired rationalist, and Romanticism-inspired individualist and a humanistically-inspired secularist, standing down here on the flatlands. Representing an almost tidal Folk Buddhist movement in the West today, without Refuge these among the analytic but not daring are fated to drift off into a very large cultic bubble.

One quite remarkable but common manifestation of such timidity is the withholding of “indoctrination” in Buddhism from the next generation. Already excluded by adherents of the Path perspective by quickly tiring of meditation, the kiddies in this way should make up their own mind about religion when they reach adulthood. I suppose the logic is that the young ones will remain free-thinking blank slates completely untainted by rampant unwholesome cultural influences, if only parents refuse to instill the fundamental values and skills endorsed in something like Buddhism, such as generosity, kindness, serenity, mindfulness and discernment in one’s trust. However, the parents’ most fundamental duty, it seems to me, is to apply their own discernment in choosing their children’s influences, at least until the children develop their own discernment. I suspect by the same logic that the right to choose their own mother tongue is similarly reserved for the children until adulthood, though I have heard of no actual instances of this.

Grabbing something to eat

We are a consumer culture; we accumulate but do not let go. We clutter our houses with things and our lives with commitments: opera tickets, gym membership, psychotherapy sessions, automatic bill payments. Buddhism becomes another commitment, membership in a Buddhist center, where Grabbing commits his time to meditation on certain mornings or evenings and an occasional Dharma talk. The problem is that Buddhism never becomes foundational for him, but instead floats on the surface until it is buried under the next accretion of his busy life. Buddhism is most properly the foundation of the Buddhist life, not just another room or closet built on a growing domestic footprint.

Often Grabbing seeks depth by narrowly focusing on a single practice, because that is what he imagines he has time for. In Asia that would be most typically a devotional practice like nembutsu. Western culture has another dynamic going on: Many of us like to excel, even when we know we are overreaching. Get a gym membership and we imagine ourselves as Charles Atlas. Join a “sangha” and we imagine ourselves as Dogen Zenji. Meditation, the highest Path practice, naturally dominates, and with it an expectation of sudden Awakening. In spite of its benefits, this approach misses the breadth of Buddhist practice and understanding, and therefore cannot hope to reach the depth of Buddhist attainment. Missing are not only Sasana practices, like generosity, veneration and rubbing shoulders with admirable friends, but even most Path practices as well, like virtue and renunciation.

Eating but not helping with the cleanup

These are the spiritual but not religious among us. To the extent that they embrace the Buddhist Path, that is good; I certainly do not intend to discourage that. But from the Path perspective the view of the Sasana can be narrow. What they overlook is appreciation of, and responsibility to, the Sasana, for it is the Sasana that has sustained the Dharma these hundred generations, supported by countless adepts who have kept the flame of Dharma alive, supported institutionally and socially by the gratitude and generosity of normal folks, so that our lives might intersect with the teachings of the Buddha.

Losing the Sasana perspective represents not only a loss to society and the Buddhist community, it represents a loss to individual practice, and ultimately to the disappearance of the Dharma. The Sasana produces noble ones to serve as admirable friends, to inspire and inform us in our practice and understanding. The Sasana sustains a community whose lifeblood is generosity. The Sasana entails Refuge and veneration as a source of influence and also humility. The Sasana provides a family-friendly context in which even children can acquire healthy values and influences. And the Sasana supports special opportunities for higher practice for those of higher aspiration as they walk the Path.

Trying everything

Many are the picky eaters in the Land of the Fork. Even while we rarely fully escape our own cultural upbringing, we do not need to let it obscure the Sasana, nor much of the Path. We can be daring enough to try it all.

Bowing is a good place to start, precisely because it readily encounters both bewilderment and resistance in the Land of the Fork. Try standing bows, Zen or Theravada style bows n which you touch your head to the floor, and Tibetan bows in which you lie flat on your stomach with arms outstretched. Try chanting the praises of Amitabha Buddha or put on a mask and try to act spontaneously with the best of them. Try it all, because none of it is harmful and most of it is probably beneficial.

This willingness will open up much more than you can possibly make use of in your Buddhist life, but it will keep you from overlooking what is important out of self-image or cultural bias. What you ultimately embrace will become more discerning as you try to match your aspirations to your opportunities, but a willingness to try everything creates a larger space in which to make your choices.

My recommendations:

  • Take advantage of communal resources in your area, otherwise your Buddhist life will be limited to the Path with limited inspiration.
  • Identify the range of communities – temples, monasteries, centers and informal meeting groups, whether Western and Asian – in your area and begin visiting some (you might be pleasantly surprised how many there are). The primary question to bring with you on your visits is, Is the Sasana healthy and thriving here? Bring along a copy of the Flower of the Sasana sketch from Chapter Two to check what might be missing. As quicker check ask, Is this a generous community? and, Is this community child-friendly?
  • Assess the Folk Buddhism in each particular site you visit. In any community, Western or Asian, Folk Buddhist practices and understandings will dominate, and are perhaps all you will find. It is important to begin with a respect for all Folk Buddhism, no matter how exotic it may appear. Folk Buddhism virtually always provides a wholesome context for development, albeit on different cultural foundations.
  • Seek out admirable friendship or a source of teachings that will point you toward an adept understanding and practice. In particular, meet the Sangha or the teachers of the particular community, and with a sense of humility and respect. Try to find an adept who communicates well with you. With adept advice, begin life-style changes, a program of study and a meditation practice.
  • Support the Sasana as much as you can, that the living Dharma will survive for the welfare and happiness of the people and the benefit of the multitude. This in itself is probably the most immediately effective and satisfying forms of Buddhist practice.

You will find that your own language and culture are critical limiting factors in this exploration. In general, the health of the Sasana and the presence of adepts is far greater in the Asian communities, which are quite likely to match from blossom to soil. However, if you are a Westerner, the Folk Buddhism and teaching are likely far more compatible with your culture and language in the Western communities. An Asian Folk Buddhism will not serve you as well as it serves the cultural Asian, and you may not even share a language in common with the top Asian adept. This is a dilemma that most resolve by falling back into their own comfort zone: Asians join Asian communities, Westerners join Western communities. Here a little boldness may be in order. I’ve know Asians, for instance, who have joined Western communities because of the presence of an outstanding and very adept teacher.

The bold explorer open to trying everything is very rare.

“A rare bird indeed,” says Carol.

The Basic Buddhist Life

Ajahn Suwat from Thailand, leading a meditation retreat in the USA, once commented to his American host,

“I notice that when these people meditate they’re awfully grim.”

He quickly attributed this to the lack of preparation of the meditators in the other Buddhist teachings, in particular, in trust, in generosity and in virtue, which in Asia would generally precede training in meditation, and as Thanissaro Bhikkhu suggests, help develop a sense of spaciousness and happiness as an appropriate context for meditation.1

For a Western newcomer, Buddhism as a whole might appeared at first as a vexing tangle of bushes with a few edible berries, but with no clear path or order. A unified concept “Buddhism” might seem irretrievably lost to history, now broken up into Mahayana and Theravada, Eastern and Western, secular and religious, spiritual and religious, and all these regional ethnic forms. Scholars are also known to find it jaw-droppingly so, and some are even beginning to insist on “Buddhisms” as a plural.

The individual or collective Western response has often much like that of the new landowner who discovers an overgrown but still potentially productive corn field on his property and with limited understanding of both corn and non-corn, dauntlessly hacks away with a machete only to destroy half of the corn and to leave half of the undergrowth, then plants one row of Monsanto super-corn and row of squash to make it look right. It looks pretty good, so he calls it Western Buddhism and expects it to save Buddhism from centuries of Asian misunderstanding and cultural accretions. He, with all the hubris and discernment of a rowdy teenager, has created another Folk Buddhism and attributed to it authenticity.

I hope this book has provided a more orderly perspective on the diffuseness of Buddhism, one that shows the Sasana, much like a palm tree, both resiliently and tolerantly holding that diffuseness. It does indeed grow wild where it is most under the influence of the many diverse cultural factors, but it nonetheless holds firm in its Adept Buddhism with its adherence to a Path that culminates in the singular attainment of Awakening. Refuge is what keeps the tangle of the tail in rough alignment with the solidity of the head in that it recognizes the ultimate authority of the adepts and enforces some degree of consistency with what they teach. There is therefore a pattern in the great range of variance in Buddhist understanding and practice, even as the authenticity of the Sasana in all of its functional components is retained. Nonetheless, what we find in the West is the dominance of a Buddhism radically pruned back to a local Folk Buddhism.

“That’s what I mean by spaghetti,” exclaims Carol.

In the emerging Western Folk Buddhism, a single-minded focus on meditation is frequently regarded as the entirety of Buddhism. The cultural reasons for this can be found at the buffet table. For Simply Uninformed, meditation is recognizable; Western yogas have meditated for years and the Buddha almost always clearly sits in meditation posture. For Seeking T. Exotic, meditation is the most reliable source of peak experiences. For Stuck in the Familiar, something like meditation commonality to many religious traditions, at some level at at least similar to prayer and to other other contemplative practices. For More Analytical Than Daring, meditation has some solid science behind it, verifying certain beneficial qualities, physical as well as psychological, while direct benefits of other aspects of the Path and Sasana are often more difficult to quantify. For Grabbing Something To Eat, meditation fits well with the accrued composition of the Busy Life. For Not Helping, meditation is a solitary practice. For Trying Everything, meditation is a very sumptuous dish for an active fork but does not exhaust the opportunities for Buddhist practice by a long shot.

The common zeal for meditation is certainly a strength of Western Buddhism. The absence of complementary practices is a weakness. Indeed, generosity, veneration, humility and renunciation are rarely even recognized as fundamental Buddhist practices in the Land of the Fork, substantially simplifying one’s life receives little encouragement, the Refuges are poorly understood, and many centers have removed the perceived religiosity of altars, chanting and bowing completely. Even virtue and wisdom are woefully neglected as factors that will eventually arise out of meditation practice rather than embraced as a foundation of meditation. Many wonder why nuns and monks don’t just go out and get jobs.

“What’s left is marshmallow salad,” explains Carol.

If Aspiration should Get the Better of You, …

The option of ordination into the Sangha is something of a birthright wherever the Sasana is strong. Should you go off the deep end in your practice, that is, should your progress toward Awakening and all that that entails become the dominant concern of my life, then the monastic life is the ideal container for your aspirations. It is also the best way to support the Sasana, especially in the West where it is still so weak.

The institutional Sangha is the lynchpin of the Buddhist community and the mainstay of the Sasana:

  1. The Monastic Sangha ensures the existence of Noble Ones, saints, admirable friends and adepts. As long as monastics live rightly, there will be awakened people in the world.
  2. The Monastic Sangha is responsible for preserving the integrity of the Dharma, for maintaining the authentic adept understanding.
  3. The monastics are the visible symbol of the Third Gem in which we take Refuge, and the visible living representatives of Buddhism in the world who inspire, exemplify and instruct.
  4. Monastic discipline defines the life of the entire Buddhist community, particularly in that it provides a basis for the practice of generosity and the opportunity for intense practice and study for those whose aspirations are high.
  5. The monastic code, the Vinaya, is half of Dharma-Vinaya, the expression the Buddha consistently used in reference to the entirety of his teachings.

These functions together define the shape of both the flower and the comet of Buddhism and are therefore responsible for the Sasana’s characteristics of both resiliency and tolerance. Walpola Rahula, author of What the Buddha Taught, wrote:2

It is the members of the “Institutional Sangha,” the bhikkhus, who have been the custodians of the Dhamma, and have transmitted it throughout these twenty-five centuries for the perpetuation of the Sasana (Buddhism). It is the “Institutional Sangha” that can be established in a country as an organized, visible representative body of the Sangha of the Three Jewels. So those interested in the establishment and perpetuation of the Sasana in the West must be concerned with the establishment of the Bhikkhu-sangha there.

This simply restates an ancient sentiment. Venerable Mahamahinda, ordained son of Emperor Ashoka of Magadha, was asked if the Sasana could be considered established in Sri Lanka.

“The Dispensation, Great King, is established, but its roots have not yet descended deep.”

“When, Sir, will the roots have descended?”

“When, Great King, a youth born in the Island of [Sri Lanka], of parents belonging to the Island of [Sri Lanka], enters the Order in the Island of [Sri Lanka], learns the Vinaya in the Island of [Sri Lanka] itself and teaches it in the Island of [Sri Lanka], then indeed, will the roots of the Dispensation have descended.”3

The same text, Buddhaghosa’s fifth century Vinaya Commentary Samanta-Pāsādhikā makes the following rather remarkable assertion:4

The Vinaya is the life of the Sasana: if the Vinaya endures, the Sasana will endure; if the Vinaya disappears, the Sasana will disappear.

It also reports that the Vinaya was placed at the beginning of the canonical scriptures during the First Council after the death of the Buddha because of this key function. Going a bit farther, we could nearly say that there is no Buddhism without monastics; it would not long remain viable.

We may assume that Sasana has been established in the West, but the roots of the Sasana are just beginning to descend, for the institutional Sangha and the Vinaya are so far very slim indeed. Hopefully Buddhism is not experiencing in the West a flash of unprecedented popularity, as the Sasana indulges the most appealing and easily assimilated folk notions with no adept oversight over their authenticity. I am, on the other hand, encouraged that the Western monastic order is beginning in recent years to some into its own, here and there. I am also encouraged by the relatively high aspirations and pure standards exhibited by the Western Sangha.5

Although scholars and lay teachers probably still constitute the majority of the (hidden) adept community, I know of no alternative to the traditional Sangha for ensuring the viability of a Western Buddhism. As Edward Conze puts it, “The continuity of the monastic organization has been the only constant factor in Buddhist history.”6 There is no evidence that we have suddenly discovered a superior model in the West. Buddhism without the institutional Sangha would be like science without professional scientists. Certain individual amateurs do very good science, but as a whole science would fizzle, perhaps after a flash of unprecedented popularity.7

As we navigate the Buddhist buffet counter, with an eye either to individual development or to development of the Sasana, we should keep the Sangha in mind. The health of the Sangha results from a collaboration between lay and ordained. It does not exist without aspirants, nor does it exist without support. Its character depends on its members, and its members should have entered without mixed motivations. However, the purity of its membership depends on who the laity considers worthy of support. The practice of generosity typically begins in the context of supporting the Sangha, and proliferates from there. The Sangha represents admirable friends, who exemplify the Buddhist life and inspire others to enter the higher Path of practice and study. When the Sangha endures, the Sasana will endure to brighten any landscape with its civilizing influences.

In the discussion of the Second Annual Buddhist Banquet of the Springdale Buddhist Center, Skipper represented the Middle Way and prevailed. They decided as a group to provide a variety of dishes very similar to the Whole Buddhist Fare, from Embodiment to Realization, of the previous year (and again not to serve beer or any other spirits). In addition, they decided also to put effort into educating people beforehand about what they will find at the banquet. They hope that if they are steadfast in offering the same each year, maybe they will gradually become a community of non-picky eaters in the Land of the Fork.

“It’s going to be a long haul,” suggests Carol.

1 Thanissaro (1999), p. 7.

2 Quoted in Heine, 2003, p. 60.

3 Jayawickrama (1962).

4 Jayawickrama (1962).

5 The author may be an exception.

6 Conze (1959), p. 54.

7 This is not to say that the monastic Sangha will not have to adapt. A number of indicators from a quickly modernizing Asia speak to the need for adaptation. For instance, the disenfranchisement of the Sangha from traditional social roles as intelligentsia and educators by governments as they actively promote literacy and higher education speaks of the need for promoting higher education in the Sangha. (So far the Western Sangha seems to be extremely highly educated; this is not so in Asia.) That gender inequality is as intolerable among Western Buddhists as gender equality seems to have been in Buddha’s India, speaks of the need for promoting the status of women as monastics. Disruptive changes in general society seem to be bringing individuals with impure incentives into The Sangha. (This is not yet a problem in the West where there are rarely occasions for such mixed incentives.)



Growing the Dharma: Navigating the Sasana

November 13, 2013

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

Chapter 8. Navigating the Sasana (1/2)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The greatest common denominator,” Carol called it.

Picky Eaters in the Land of the Fork

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Simply uninformed

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

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

Stuck in the familiar

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seeking the exotic

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

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

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

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

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

… Continued next week.

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