Monday, October 26, 2009

What Kind of Buddhist are You?

When change is uncontrollable, it has long been regarded in Buddhism as a form of suffering. Yet Buddhism has undergone remarkable changes over its history, up to the present. And in the face of change, Buddhist thinkers have struggled to control the meaning of the term Buddhism (and its often rough equivalents in Asian languages) and the meaning of the term Buddhist. As proponents of Buddhism have continued over the decades to expand what is encompassed by the term in order to accommodate various forms of science, it is perhaps useful at this point to pause briefly to consider the question of what makes a person, or an idea, “Buddhist.”

(P. 212, ‘Buddhism and Science: A Guide for the Perplexed’ by Donald S. Lopez Jr.)

In his intriguing book ‘Buddhism and Science: A Guide for the Perplexed’, Donald S. Lopez not only writes of the relationship between Buddhism and the sciences, but also touches on the nature of Buddhism itself, in an endeavour to be sure of his subject matter. In this process, he throws up some interesting topics for Buddhists to reflect upon, such as the consideration of what significance words like Buddhism and Buddhist actually have for us, if any. For example, with the diversity of sects, both extant and archaic, Buddhism has evolved into forms that seem to actually contradict one another. Pure Land Buddhism, as practiced for centuries in countries such as China & Japan, puts an emphasis on faith in the Buddha Amitabha, in the hope of rebirth in his heavenly realm. Zen Buddhism, in contrast, is a branch of Buddhism again found in China & Japan where the aspirant must find their own way to enlightenment, something Zen has in common with the widely-considered oldest living sect of Buddhism, Theravada.

To the untrained eye, this apparently fundamental difference between Pure Land and Zen forms of Buddhism may appear to indicate two different religions rather than two branches of the same tradition. However, if we delve deeper into the aims and methods of the two, we find that they both hold the Buddha’s ideal of Nirvana as the ultimate purpose of Buddhist practice. The follower of Amitabha Buddha needs to be reborn in the Pure Land first, where Amitabha will assist in the realization of enlightenment; in Zen, this spiritual awakening is to be achieved in this very life, however, without any ‘outside’ assistance. But, even this difference is blurred when it is considered that some Pure Landers claim that enlightenment can in fact be realized in this life by reciting his name, and that many Zen Buddhists consider that more than one life is necessary to achieve Nirvana.

The above brief discussion of some very basic differences between two sects of Buddhism practiced for hundreds of years side-by-side in the Orient illustrates the wide variety of teachings and practices found under the banner ‘Buddhism’. Who is right here, the Pure Lander, the Zennist, the Theravadin, the Tibetan Buddhist, or some other sectarian Buddhist? But, now, we come to the question of what do we mean by ‘right’, in the Buddhist context. Surely, we do not mean ‘orthodox’, in some kind of dogmatic clinging to one particular Buddhist tradition? Given the scarcity of proof that the Buddha actually taught anything found in any of the Buddhist scriptures - whether written in Pali, Chinese, Tibetan, Sanskrit or whatever – the thought arises that none of them can lay claim to such a thing as orthodoxy in the Buddhist sense, anyhow. Perhaps by ‘right’, we mean that a Buddhist is someone that practices one of a variety of lifestyles that share a broad set of criteria that enable them to be called ‘Buddhism’. And one well known entry point into Buddhism found in most if not all Buddhist sects is someone who ‘takes refuge’ in the so-called Triple Gem, of which Mr Lopez writes in his book:

A Buddhist is traditionally defined as a person who regards the three jewels—the Buddha, the dharma, and the sangha—as the true source of refuge from the sufferings of the world. The Buddha, the dharma, and the sangha (generally translated as “community”) are called jewels because they are difficult to encounter, and if encountered are of great value. But there are detailed commentaries on what constitutes each of the three jewels, with a range of opinion set forth concerning each of them.


So, even a basic element in Buddhist tradition as taking refuge in the Triple Gem is not without controversy, as definitions of the three jewels often differ between various branches of Buddhism. A contemporary example of this is the usage of the word ‘sangha’ as meaning the Buddhist community as a whole, as opposed to the traditional (original?) definition which includes fully-ordained monks & nuns only. This is a question discussed previously on Buddha Space, with some interesting insights contributed by some of this blog’s readership. (To read this article & its related comments, please click here.) Suffice to say, not all those who call themselves Buddhists share identical ideas on who constitutes the members of the Sangha.

Many modern-minded Buddhists view the older forms of Buddhism as being superstitious, ritualistic, and encumbered with much that is cultural in origin. Often such modernist movements replace the supernatural and mythological aspects of traditional Buddhist sects with science and scientific empirical methodology. In this approach to Buddhism, there is an emphasis on psychological interpretations of the teachings, sometimes incorporating the mythological and supernatural tales found in Buddhist lore. This fusion of the Buddha Dharma and science is the main focus of Lopez’s book, which he views with admiral detachment, neither endorsing it nor condemning it. (Perhaps this will be the focus of future reflections on Buddha Space.)

Of course, many traditionalists treat such modernist movements with some scorn, seeing them as not in complete agreement with ancient doctrines. Whatever one’s opinions on this subject, it is an opportunity to reflect on the nature of attachment to views, observing the mind’s reactions to teachings that are seen as agreeable or disagreeable. Part of the reason for this diversity of views is that Buddhism as a whole does not have one individual or group of individuals dictating its central tenets: it is as diverse as the many historical & contemporary cultures of those that have practiced it:

Buddhism, without a synod or a pope to declare what is orthodox and what is heterodox, became a tradition in which nothing is discarded, although something may be forgotten. New texts continued to be added, each claiming to be the word of the Buddha, with what was once definitive now being deemed provisional. All accretions were somehow accommodated. Yet the origins remain sufficiently occluded to make it possible to ask: is there only accretion?


This is a fair question when confronted with the sheer number of differing teachings & sects that are called ‘Buddhist’. Has the heart of Buddhism stopped beating under the sheer weight of two-and-a-half millennia of cultural, philosophical, ritualistic, and doctrinal accretions? To answer this question, we need to define what the ‘heart’ of Buddhism actually is. Well, this is enlightenment, of course, which is variously called Nirvana, Happiness, Cessation, Buddha-nature, and Emptiness, but to name a few. This awakening to the way-things-are (the Dharma) is not something to be gained, however, but something to be uncovered, hidden as it is by the three poisons of greed, hatred, & delusion. Meditation, practiced by a mind ripened for the task through living a moral & mindful life, is the doorway to enlightenment, but the latter is not the result of the former; it is revealed when the mental defilements that cover it over are completely washed away.

Now, what is left when the mind and all its delusions are let go of? Well, nothing. Or, to put it more accurately, perhaps: No-thing. That which lies at the heart of life, and is the ultimate goal of Buddhist practice is not a nihilist nothingness, as is often thought by those that haven’t experienced it and try to catch it with concepts, but neither is it any particular thing, hence, it may be named ‘No-thing’, rather than mere nothing. This No-thing is always here, whether noticed or not; but when noticed, it transforms experience, turning this world upside down & inside out, revealing the wordless meaning at the center of a previously meaningless universe.

If, then, the aim of a particular form of Buddhism includes basic teachings such the emptiness of all phenomena, and such practices as taking refuge in the Triple Gem, surely this is enough to classify system as ‘Buddhism’, and its adherents as ‘Buddhists’? What do you think of all this, dear reader? Is there only one true form of Buddhism, with all the other pretenders to the title nothing more than heresies? Is enlightenment the result of a specific system found in particular writings, or is it (as hinted at above) an innate aspect of life waiting to be discovered by those determined and skilled enough? Are the words ‘Buddhism’ and ‘Buddhist’ that important in the end? Sure, we need words to convey concepts and experiences that will help the unenlightened to awaken, but should these terms become fossilized in their meanings to the point of dogmatism? Please feel free to leave a comment by clicking the appropriate link below, remembering to retain the politeness & respect for others that Buddhists are famous for!


Was Once said...

I am curious at what point does Buddha Dhamma become a religion? Does it really need to take this form to really work? A formalized setting which which to help tests your own findings. I find Buddha Dhamma, regardless of the source, always having something to offer. But when religion takes over, it becomes more symbolic than real action oriented(the practice of putting dhamma to test along with meditation). That sounds too general but hopefully you understand my point/question.
What kind am I? The working and testing(on myself) kind, I guess. Not independent of a temple or group, but find leaning more towards Theravada's mindfulness.

G said...

In response to your first couple of questions, it depends what the word 'work' is defined as, doesn't it, 'Was Once'? If the meaning is to traverse the Eightfold Path to enlightenment, then it would seem that the religious aspects to Buddhism are superfluous. Yet, even here we should be careful, for religious rituals such as chanting can certainly help Buddhists to develop mindfulness, for example, which is an integral element in spiritual awakening.

If 'work' is used to mean helping people better themselves morally-speaking, which a large part of Buddhist teachings & practices are geared towards, then this may be done within the conventional framework of Buddhism as a religion, and still have genuine benefits. Also, the Buddha is said (in the Pali Canon & Mahayana Sutras) to have taught Buddha Dharma in different ways to different people, dependent upon their situation. He even taught a loving couple how to be reborn together in the next life, rather than teaching them how to transcend their clinging for one another. (Anguttara Nikaya 4:55)

As to your description of what kind of Buddhists you are, it sounds a good state of practice, 'Was Once': "The working and testing (on myself) kind, I guess." Putting an emphasis on mindfulness is a sure way to cultivate the Path of awakening, and I wish you well on it.

Was Once said...

Yes, any vehicle to make Buddha Dharma accessible to more people is welcome..put in these words.

Anonymous said...

I feel the need for definition comes out of the Western religious context which does not fit. The dharmic religions are a whole different type of religion than the semitics. Religion to both sides means different things. Semitics don't pray in each others temples but Dharmics do.

G said...

Very true, 'Anonymous', that the Western & Eastern religious traditions are different, and that there is a degree of mixing amongst some Dharmic religions that is unusual with followers of Abrahamic religions. (Unusual but not unknown - I once met some Iranian Muslims who went to pray in a cathedral in England, much to my surprise & pleasure at the time.)

The need to define things clearly is not only part of religious thinking, but also part of the Western psyche in general. And as a Western Buddhist, mainly communicating with other Western Buddhists, it seems appropriate & meaningful to ask defining questions about Buddhism.

Having written that, your central point with regards the nature of Dharmic religions is also well worth realizing, as it can help to explain some of the differences between the above and their Abrahamic opposites. It also gives a clue as to the mindset required to truly benefit from Buddhist practice, as a change in the relationship between the individual & the world is needed to bring alive the Buddhist teachings.

Sean Robsville said...

Can you be a Buddhist without ever having heard of the Buddha?

"Anyone who accepts these four seals, even independently of Buddha’s teachings, even never having heard the name Shakyamuni Buddha, can be considered to be on the same path as he."

G said...

Hi Sean.
This is a fascinating question. To be a Buddhist usually means to follow the Buddha, or in the tradition(s) that he set in motion, so on first glance it may seem nonsensical to say that someone can be a Buddhist without having heard of the Buddha. (Think how ridiculous it would be for someone to classed as Christian if they'd never heard of Jesus Christ.)

However, if someone does accept the four *seals, then it seems reasonable to consider he or she as either Buddhist, or at least Buddhist in spirit. Buddhism is not really about such labels, of course, and neither is it essentially about dogmas - it is about realizing enlightenment. And, enlightenment can be found - if you believe the different schools of Buddhism, that is - by a multitude of variations on the basic Buddha Path. To extend this principle beyond the concepts of 'Buddhist' & 'Buddhism' is at least a possibility, if we don't cling to set ideas.

*These 'seals' are not marine mammals by the way, readers, but the following teachings: All compounded things are impermanent. All emotions are pain. All things have no inherent existence. Nirvana is beyond concepts. See the link that Sean supplied for more details.

T said...

"In the same way I saw an ancient path, an ancient road, traveled by the Rightly Self-awakened Ones of former times. And what is that ancient path, that ancient road, traveled by the Rightly Self-awakened Ones of former times? Just this noble eightfold path: right view, right aspiration, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration. That is the ancient path, the ancient road, traveled by the Rightly Self-awakened Ones of former times. I followed that path. Following it, I came to direct knowledge of aging & death, direct knowledge of the origination of aging & death, direct knowledge of the cessation of aging & death, direct knowledge of the path leading to the cessation of aging & death. I followed that path. Following it, I came to direct knowledge of birth... becoming... clinging... craving... feeling... contact... the six sense media... name-&-form... consciousness, direct knowledge of the origination of consciousness, direct knowledge of the cessation of consciousness, direct knowledge of the path leading to the cessation of consciousness. I followed that path.

"Following it, I came to direct knowledge of fabrications, direct knowledge of the origination of fabrications, direct knowledge of the cessation of fabrications, direct knowledge of the path leading to the cessation of fabrications. Knowing that directly, I have revealed it to monks, nuns, male lay followers & female lay followers, so that this holy life has become powerful, rich, detailed, well-populated, wide-spread, proclaimed among celestial & human beings."

Nagara Sutta: The City

Fabrications = all types of mental habits, thoughts, ideas(self/nonself), opinions(rebirth/no rebirth), prejudices, compulsions, and decisions triggered by an object ie. mental concepts

G said...

Beautiful sutta/sutra, T. Thank you.