New Textbook: Buddhist Life/Buddhist Path

May 2, 2017


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

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

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

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

The book can now be downloaded as a pdf HERE. Copyright restrictions are under Creative Commons as noted on page iv.  Print copies will be available in a couple of weeks, as soon as my daughter, Kymrie, finishes tinkering with the cover art.

Sandals on the Ground in America

January 12, 2017

by Bhikkhu Cintita and Dr. Win Bo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Trump Presidency Need Not Be the End Times

November 10, 2016

Buddhist Global Relief

Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi

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

Trump’s presidential campaign challenged each of the ethical…

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Harmony (6/6)

July 7, 2016

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

Practicing Harmony

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further Reading

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

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

Harmony (5/6)

July 1, 2016

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

The Ideal Society

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Harmony (4/6)

June 26, 2016

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

Social responsibilites

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Harmony (3/6)

June 16, 2016

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Harmony (2/6)

June 11, 2016

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

The error of retribution

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

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

The Dhammapāda wisely states in this regard:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Harmony (1/6)

June 3, 2016

pdf_24x18Herewith I begin a series on the topic of interpersonal and social harmony. This is a serialization of a chapter to appear in the next draft of the text I have been progressively improving as I teach a semiannual introductory course in Buddhism. Those eager to read to the end to see how it comes out can click on the pdf link for the whole chapter. Incidentally, the following book on this topic is scheduled to appear in November:

The Buddha’s Teachings on Social and Communal Harmony: An Anthology of Discourses from the Pali Canon, Bhikkhu Bodhi (editor), 2016, Wisdom Publications.


“… although they wish to live without hate, harming, hostility or malignity, and in peace, they yet live in hate, harming one another, hostile and malign …”  (DN 21)

We are a social species; we live in relationship to others, occupy social roles and obligations and are in constant negotiation with one another. But our interpersonal and communal lives are all too often marked by discord, ruffled feathers, infighting, argument, insult, exploitation, violence and war.

Still, it is substantially within the realm of interpersonal and communal relations that the practices of generosity, harmlessness and purity of mind that we have discussed in previous chapters play out. As we perfect our generosity, our harmlessness and our purity, our relationship with our fellow social beings improves. We treat them with more kindness and compassion, we take care not to step on their toes nor harm or insult them in other ways, and we do what we can to help them rather than to exploit them. Imagine what the world would be like if everyone developed in this way!

Nonetheless the interpersonal/communal realm has its own peculiarities and pitfalls that most of us are slow to master. Fortunately the Buddha has given us provided abundant wise advice about these. That is the topic of this chapter.

Be careful of what you say

A primary conditioning factor of interpersonal and communal harmony or disharmony is how skillfully we wield the instrument of speech. The Buddha has a lot to say about this skill; we will see later that one of the eight factors of the Buddhist Path (the topic of Book Two) is Right Speech, which in particular censures false, harsh, divisive and frivolous speech. Here are the primary requisites for speaking skillfully in a nutshell:

“Bhikkhus, possessing five factors, speech is well spoken, not badly spoken; it is blameless and beyond reproach by the wise. What five?

1. It is spoken at the proper time;
2. what is said is true;
3. it is spoken gently;
4. what is said is beneficial;
5. it is spoken with a mind of loving-kindness.

Possessing these five factors speech is well spoken, not badly spoken; it is blameless and beyond reproach by the wise.” (AN 5.198, enumeration mine)

We notice all three systems of ethics intersect here; avoiding harm, producing beneficial consequences and a checking the purity of one’s intentions come into play. Furthermore, finding the right time and speaking gently harmonize with the sensitive nature of human receptivity.

For instance, a common, and one of the most awkward social situations, arises when there is need to reproach someone for doing something felt to be inappropriate or harmful – someone is stepping on your foot, for example, or failing to complete an agreed task –, without causing offense and in such away that the proffered advice is actually usefully accepted. Considering the right time takes note, for instance, of whether the person to be admonished is now in a good or receptive mood. Sometimes a bit of friendly small-talk will serve to set the mood before the more topic is broached, “It’s good to see a familiar face. By the way, can I give you some friendly advice on that project you are doing?”

Nonetheless, most people are difficult to admonish, easily offended and some fly off the handle no matter how skillfully we present the situation. If no benefit is likely to accrue, then discretion suggests saying nothing, thereby cutting our losses and preserving harmony. Incidentally, the monastic code includes a rather important precept that prohibits monks or nuns from being difficult to admonish, for instance, from being argumentative or conjuring up counter-admonitions, as many people do by nature. Our practice typically makes us more thick-skinned, such that our egos are not so easily bruised, so that we begin to see admonishment as advice, which may be either useful or useless, but which demands no emotional response.

One of the greatest dangers to communal harmony that the Buddha warns us about is speaking divisively. Rather than attempting to admonish someone for his perceived errors, this person speaks about them to others, generally in his absence. Unfortunately such speech is often repeated by others and may even go viral.

Having heard something here, he repeats it elsewhere in order to divide [those people] from these; or having heard something elsewhere he repeats it to these people in order to divide [them] from these Thus he is one who divides those who are united, a creator of divisions, one who enjoys factions, delights in factions, a speaker of words that create factions. (AN 10.176)

Divisive speech may target individual people or entire groups of people. It can occur quite frivolously, often as an attempt at humor or wit. Or it can be used as a way of building countervailing group solidarity. Many people routinely speak ill of others in an attempt to build self-esteem or to reassure themselves of their own righteousness. Increasingly, particularly with the rise of mass communications, it arises deliberately and with great precision as a way of controlling populations. Consider that racism and ethnic cleansing begin with divisive speech and colonial empires could not have been built without the policy of “divide and conquer.” Divisive speech is poison to both large societies and small communities. It undermines our trust in the targeted people and populations and ultimately our trust in each other. We should take great care not to divide with our speech, nor to repeat divisive speech we have heard elsewhere.

Next Week: Harmony (2/6), the Error of Retribution.


Name-and-Form (5/5)

May 27, 2016

Name and Form:  nāmarūpa in the suttas

pdf_24x18  Please click here for a pdf of the entire five-part essay, especially if you would like to read footnotes and references.

Name-and-form as cognition or as biology?

We have understood name-and-form as a factor implicated in cognition, that is, in how we conceptually construct the world, and have found that this understanding is coherent and that it makes sense of a wide variety of otherwise quite obscure teachings found throughout the discourses. It remains to acknowledge that many Buddhist traditions see name-and-form quite differently, identifying it with the psychophysical organism, that which is conceived, grows as a fetus, is born, lives, ages and dies. The strongest scriptural source for this is the following passage in the Mahānidāna Sutta:

(47)    “If consciousness were not to descend into the mother’s womb, would name-and-form take shape in the womb?” “No, Lord.”

“If the consciousness of a young boy or girl were to be cut off, would name-and-form grow up, develop and reach maturity?” “No, Lord.” (DN 15)

It should be noted that an equivalent passage is found in the Chinese Agamas (MA 97)1, as well as in the Pali Canon, making it hard to dismiss this passage as a later addition,as I was tempted to do at one time. We also note that much of the support cited here for name-and-form as a factor of cognition comes from this same key discourse, but also that his particular passage does not serve to define name-and-form, only to provide an illustration of the dependence of name-and-form on consciousness. This suggests that a proper understanding of name-and-form must be general enough to encompass both its cognitive and its biological roles such that the discussion can shift fluidly between the cognitive and biological realm as it seems to in this sutta. Notice that the interlocutors in this discourse, the Buddha and Ānanda, seem to presuppose such an understanding, that the relationship between this biological example and the broader cognitive implications of name-and-form seems to require no further elaboration. What is perhaps troubling is that this relation should seem so obscure to us now. In short, our task will be to try to discover a root understanding of name-and-form that accounts for its biological as well as cognitive implications.

Bhikkhu Bodhi, in his book on the discourse in question,2 attempts to do the same thing. His view is that the traditional biological interpretation of name-and-form provides the basic meaning. But then he observes that some passages – in particular (18) above, which mentions “external name-and-form” –  seem to extend the meaning to “the entire experiential situation, from the psycho-physical organism to the objective sense spheres.” My view is similar, but that the entire experiential situation is the core interpretation and the experience of the psycho-physical organism and instance.

The biological understanding of name-and-form. The biological interpretation generally is such that name-and-form is the psycho-physical organism, that the sixfold-sphere are the sense organs that grow in the organism in the womb and that consciousness is a prerequisite for the existence of the organism.

(48)     ignorance → fabrications→ consciousness →
name-and-form →  sixfold-sphere → contact →

In the biological account, the psycho-physical organism arises from, and then is sustained by, consciousness, and without the psycho-physical organism there are no senses and therefore no sixfold-sphere. Contact can only arise on the basis of the sixfold-sphere. This is simple and compelling, and easier to comprehend than the account offered above (albeit not as far-reaching). Consciousness is itself conditioned by ignorance and fabrications.

Furthermore, what became the dominant interpretation assumes more specifically that this is a description of conception and the development of the fetus in the womb such that ignorance and fabrications belong to a previous life whose effects are transmitted by consciousness. This is called the “three lives” model of dependent co-arising in which two births occur in the standard chain of dependent co-arising, one at consciousness and the other at,uh, birth.

Although the “three lives model” is quite distinct from what I have described here, this interpretation should not be dismissed lightly. As points out,3 this interpretation aside from being dominant in the Theravada school – where it is found in the Abhidhamma Vibhaṅga as well as in Buddhaghosa’s Visuddhimagga (chapter 27) – is also found in the early Sarvastivādin and Mahāsanghika schools and even in Nāgārjuna’s Mūlamadhyamakakārikā (Chapter 26).

As a relatively orthodox Buddhist, I feel put in an awkward position here, though I am not alone. On the one hand, the biological/three-life interpretation of name-and-form has a lot of weight behind it: It is compelling and it has been represented and upheld by a variety of Buddhist traditions and wise Buddhist teachers throughout the history of the Sāsana. On the other hand, the biological/three-life interpretation cannot possibly be right in itself, for these reasons:

  • The biological interpretation displaces the role of cognition in the chain of dependent co-arising.
  • The biological interpretation is speculative and rather uninteresting in itself, which is incongruent with the alleged profundity of dependent co-arising.
  • The biological interpretation provides no basis for practice or insight.

I realize this a a bold statement, but I’ll be darned if I can find a way around it. I am open to any counterarguments.

Dependent co-arising is intended to be comprehensive, it is equated with the Dharma. It is alleged to be profound and difficult to understand. The Dharma tells us repeatedly that delusion underlies the human dilemma, that that self-view is particularly implicated, and that insight and wisdom cut through delusion. And, consistent with this,  the standard chain begins with ignorance. Moreover, the account of name-and-form in cognitive terms described here shows how name-and-form is implicated in the arising of the subject-object duality, in how this provides space for these sense of self to take root and in how the affective factors, like craving, depend on the consequential cognitive structures. The biological interpretation, on the other hand, eviscerates this cognitive account within dependent co-arising and leaves many of the statements that we have analyzed here concerning name-and-form along with the first few links of the standard chain, unintelligible.

If dependent co-arising is so succinct and profound, why would the Buddha clutter it with a biological account of the conception of the human fetus?  Such an account tells us simply that something that relates to the cumulative karma of the previous life is necessary for conception and for the subsequent thriving of the psycho-physical organism. (It is however unclear that consciousness, given the way it is described in the early discourses, is the proper vehicle for that.) How does this account help us end suffering if we cannot observe it in day-to-day or meditative experience and if we can do nothing to disrupt this biological process?4 Why would the Buddha teach this, rather than simply give us,

(49)     ignorance → fabrications→ contact →

… thereby leaving out the biological factors altogether?

My argument here is, first, that the biological/three-life account of name-and-form makes little pedagogical sense in view of the general purpose and nature of the chain of dependent co-arising and, second, that it leaves gaps in our understanding of cognition. A number of scholars have likewise attacked the biological/three-life view in terms of internal inconsistency. I will not review these arguments here.5 It is astonishing to me that this view seems to have been seriously questioned only beginning in the twentieth century.

An alternative biological but non-three-life account goes back to early sources but has been largely eclipsed until recent decades. The Abhidhamma Vibhaṅga, for instance, states that (re)birth in dependent co-arising can be meaningfully interpreted, as an alternative, as the arising of any phenomenon in one moment. Dependent co-arising becomes an arising moment-to-moment. To some extent this addresses some of the concerns listed above. A modern example is the account of of the Thai scholar-monk Payutta,6 who describes how consciousness arises moment by moment in the six sense spheres,  as elsewhere understood in the suttas, but “consciousness → name-and-form” represents the influence of consciousness on the state of mind and body: “Body and mind, especially mental qualities, dependent on the instant of consciousness, will assume qualities harmonious with consciousness.”7  Notice that name-and-form here must stand not for the entire psycho-physical organism, since that is not what arises and falls dependent on instances of consciousness, but certain psycho-physical processes or states within the organism. Likewise “name-and-form → six-fold-sphere” is interpreted as the six sense spheres alerted by the state of body and mind.8

The alternative, biological/moment-to-moment interpretation gives a basis for practice and insight, since our psycho-physical responses arise in moment-to-moment experience. I have not made up my mind if it says anything particularly interesting, or how helpful it is to observe the consciousness-conditioned body preparing the eye for perception. Nonetheless it does, like the biological/three-life interpretation, leave a significant gap in the understanding of cognition in dependent co-arising, having little of interest to say about subject-object dualism and disease, about designation, about the arising of the world “out there,” about the cognitive conditions underlying a sense of self, etc., leaving dependent co-arising rather thin for a teaching that is said to encompass the entirety of the Dharma.

Reconciling the cognitive and the biological. This still leaves us with the question of how, in the passage (47), we have a seemingly biological illustration of what we have argued is fundamentally a cognitive factor: name-and-form.

Recall that the term name-and-form seems to have its origin in the Vedic and Upaniṣadic jātakarman ceremony, in which a father gives a name to his newly born son. What happens here is that the father has a conceptual sense experience of his son (who is a psycho-physical entity) resulting in objectification and naming, before which the son did not fully exist. Name-and-form as a Buddhist concept is simply a generalization of the jātakarman situation to any conceptual sense experience (not just of the son, or of a psycho-physical entity) by anyone (not just by a father) at any time (not just after the son’s birth). The illustration of consciousness descending into the mother’s womb is actually close to the jātakarman situation in that name-and-form is a conceptual sense experience of a psycho-physical entity, but this time at conceptualization rather than birth, and again at a later time in the growth and development of the psycho-physical entity. Therefore, (47) is no more than an illustration of name-and-form as we have described it here, with consciousness playing its accustomed objectification role.

As Ñāṇānanda puts it,9 “Consciousness established in the mother’s womb makes the concept of person valid.” The question naturally arises: Whose consciousness are we talking about? It is presumably not the father’s, since at the time of conception his mind is probably elsewhere. Presumably it is of the psycho-physical organism itself; it is self-awareness of itself as a psycho-physical being. And this self-awareness is necessary for the psycho-physical organism to take shape, to grow up, to develop and to reach maturity. This makes sense in terms of what happens before anything descends into the womb, that is, in the previous life, for there we have:

(50)    being →  birth

Without consciousness of oneself as a fully developed being, rebirth cannot occur.


Let’s end this essay with one of the most sweeping statements about the implications of name-and-form, and its constant companion consciousness.

(51)    “In so far only, Ānanda, can one be born, or grow old, or die, or pass away, or reappear, in so far only is there any pathway for verbal expression, in so far only is there any pathway for terminology, in so far only is there any pathway for designation, in so far only is the range of wisdom, in so far only is the round kept going for there to be a designation as the this-ness, that is to say: name-and-form together with consciousness.” (DN 15)

Name-and-form and consciousness set the parameters in which saṃsāra plays out. They give us our sense of self that ripens, via craving and attachment, in being. It is only through objectification of this self that there is something there to be born, to grow old, to die or to reappear. It is on the basis of designation and the role of name-and-form in designation that consciousness can conjure up a reality “out there.” Consciousness does the same with language as it objectifies experience.

We fabricate our own world, but divide it up into a kind of cognitive architecture, separating seer from seen, this-ness from that-ness, with levels of designation spanning raw sense data at one end to an elaborate imputed reality “out there.” We become enamored in what we have fabricated, and then become entangled in it.  Life becomes a problem, full of neediness, aversion and anguish. Untangling this is the range of wisdom. Until then we are stuck in the round of saṃsāric existence, due to name-and-form.