Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Fundamentalist Buddhism

As soon as the Bodhisattva was born, he stood firmly with his feet on the ground; then he took seven steps northwards and, with a white sunshade over him, he surveyed each quarter. He spoke the words of the Leader of the Herd: “I am the Highest in the world, I am the Best in the world, I am the Foremost in the world; this is my last birth; now there is no more renewal of being in future lives.”

(Majjhima Nikaya 123 & Digha Nikaya 14)

Wow, what a fantastic tale: a new born babe able to walk unaided…and speak meaningful words, describing himself in such grandiose terms. Even the infant Christ couldn’t do that! And, which bodhisattva is being portrayed here? It is the Bodhisattva, of course; the Buddha, who’s birth story is apparently being recited to him by his faithful companion Ananda, much to the former’s approval. Are these miraculous events literally true, however, and are Buddhists expected to believe them as historical facts that actually took place?

In the same parts of Buddhist scripture as the above quotations are taken, further revelations are revealed to the pious believer: a ‘measureless light’ pervaded all the world, including those places where the sun & moon cannot reach; deities attended the birth; no blood or other bodily fluids were on his ‘pure body’; and, he did not touch the earth upon being born, but kind of hovered above it, so not to become soiled. Are these amazing events fact or fiction?

If factual, then the birth of the Blessed One was truly a supernatural occurrence, beyond the understanding of the human mind, and fitting, no doubt, for the founder of a world religion. If fiction, what is their purpose? To glorify the Buddha in the eyes of the world, as a myth that would inspire millions to believe in his extraordinary status as the Enlightened One, perhaps? Maybe, in the world of the religious, wondrous occurrences sell. That is, if Buddhism wanted to flourish – or even survive – in a country dominated by miraculous holy figures and events, it needed to incorporate amazing elements into its accounts of the Buddha’s life.

Earlier, Christ was mentioned, and for many of his followers every word found in the Bible is true, and beyond doubt. So-called Christian fundamentalists are well known for their literal interpretation of both the Old & New Testaments, from Genesis to Revelation. No mythology, no symbolism, but solid historical facts to be believed as central parts of their religious faith. Literal interpretations of the Koran have recently come to light also, as certain Islamists assert their understanding of that book in various ways, sometimes peaceful and sometimes violent.

Buddhists do not generally, if ever, use scripture to support acts of violence or intolerance, however, most likely because there are no sources of such justification therein. Nevertheless, from the viewpoint of presenting Buddhism to the modern world, with its emphasis on scientific facts and empirical knowledge, the continued reference to marvelous and magical happenings isn’t likely to engage the ‘enlightened’ world. A Buddhist dialogue with modernity which is centered on the verifiable benefits of morality & meditation, including the central experience of not-self, would appear more important than clinging to ancient cosmologies and beliefs that may well ‘turn-off’ society at large.

Throughout Buddhist scripture, there are uncountable accounts of marvelous incidents, involving not only the Buddha, but many of his senior, and not so senior, disciples. Oftentimes, Buddhists speak as though we are a breed of fundamentalist, also, quoting the Tripitaka as if it were the infallible word of the Buddha. Does such a thing as infallibility exist in Buddhism, or are the events in the life of the Buddha and his disciples symbolic of the Buddhist Path? Is making such a distinction even important to walking and sharing this Way? What do you think, dear reader?

Footnote: In exploring the above issues, the writer may inadvertently offend a reader; that is not his intent, and he humbly asks for the reader’s understanding of this. May we grow together in exploration of the Dharma.


They call him James Ure said...

I agree with the theory you mentioned that some people in ancient days wouldn't understand the importance of Buddha and more importantly his teachings without the "miraculous" happenings found in the "scriptures."

I find it odd to read the Tipitaka as a Biblical equivalent. I see it more as historical fiction with some excellent stories that point to invaluable teachings. I think they are valuable but not literal.

Since people were less educated in those days it was only natural that they would try to explain amazing events with superstition and supernatualism.

Now that we know more through science I think we can do away with some of these superstitions but that's my belief.

I'm not saying people MUST give up their beliefs in such things. After all, who am I to tell others how to practice and believe? It's just that I am one of those who thinks they aren't literal and as important as say no-self and the eight-fold path.

G said...

It has struck me that every time a Buddhist says, "The Buddha taught that..." there's implicit the assumption that the speaker actually knows for sure exactly what the Buddha did or didn't say. For instance, I've heard monks justify their literal interpretation of certain unverifiable claims in the Pali Tripitaka as true because they are recorded in those scriptures. But how do we know the scriptures are entirely true in the first place?

Perhaps people are speaking in short hand when they say such things, and really mean "It is said in the Tripitaka that the Buddha taught..." (which is a bit long-winded of course). In that case, it might be more accurate to say, "Buddhism teaches..." rather than "The Buddha taught that..."

Some might wonder, why the fuss? Well, once it is assumed that the Tripitaka is 'perfect', 'holy', 'unquestionable' etc. it does become just like the Bible or Koran for fundamentalists of the Christian & Muslim religions. It can then become a block to emancipation rather than a guidebook to it. Everything therein becomes a dogma to cling to rather than something to use as way to loosen the ties that bond us to delusion-created suffering.

I tend to agree with your assertions, James. The Eightfold Path & the fact of no-self - it is a verifiable fact, both subjectively & objectively - are of utmost importance in cultivating the Buddhist Way. Fusing Buddhist practice with scientific discoveries about those Buddhist practices, and its discoveries about everything else for that matter, seems to be the way forward. Clinging to literal interpretations of stories and dogmas not corroborated by experience nor experiment does not.

Be well in the Dharma,

Barry said...

Nice new look!

As for this story of the Buddha's precocious beginnings . . . Zen Master Yun Men said that, "If I had been there at that time, I would have killed the Buddha with my Zen stick and fed the corpse to a hungry dog. That would have saved the world a lot of trouble!"

I'll go with Yun Men...

G said...

And here's me trying to be sensitive to people's beliefs regarding the Buddha! (Personally, I'd beat Yun Men & the Buddha to death!) :)

Thanks for the uplifting comments, Barry.

Anonymous said...

Once in a conversation with a group of fellow meditators I casually mentioned how I saw Theravada teachings as the more fundamental when compared with those of other schools. My remarks were met with hostility from one person who made the instant connection between fundamental Buddhist teachings and fundamentalist Christianity.

Can it be true that the Buddha sprang forth as described? Not likely. And whether one believes it or not is not important, because it has nothing to do with what the Buddha taught (or what the Tipitaka says the Buddha taught): suffering and the end of suffering.

On the other hand, in a book I read several years ago (I think it was "The Door of Liberation" by Geshe Wangyal, but I can't be certain at the moment) the author described a number of miraculous events. He also said these events must be believed in order for one to be a Buddhist. But that, as Donovan sang, "...is one man's opinion of moonlight."

Belief has nothing whatsoever to do with truth. And I can only laugh at myself for making such a statement, because I believe it to be true.


JD said...


I admit that I'm a little on the fundamentalist side but I don't believe everything to be literal in the Canon. As for the science thing...I don't think science has ever disproven rebirth, other realms or other beings so I haven't dropped that in my own practice. This doesn't mean that I expect everyone else to be like me, it's just what works for me and it's not something i'm uncomfortable with.

I grew up in a home where science was hardly mentioned and belief in ghosts and fairies was considered a possibility. I believe i have seen ghosts before, one time my mom and I both saw something unexplainable at the same time so I do fully believe in spirits. Is it relavant to Buddhism? Probably not, but for me ghosts are something I believe I've seen and they are supported in the Canon as exisiting so I don't feel uncomfortable in that belief.

Perhaps presenting Buddhism in ways that are non threatening to the science crowd is the best bet, although we both disagree on the science issue to some extent so I won't keep getting into it.

Maybe there are many ways to practice Buddhism and it's not really my place to tell someone that a belief in devas and heavens is essential since it probably isn't. As for me, I take the Canon and the teachings of the forest Masters more seriously then science because I'm not looking for answers about Buddhism from people who think the whole truth can be discerned through math and physics. If I want to know the speed of light I look to physics but if I want to learn the Customs of the Noble ones I look to the Canon or people like Ajahn Chah/Ajahn Mun since they have experience with that. Two different kind of truths and both can only go so far. The Buddha said his truth takes one to the end of suffering and the round of rebirth, science is looking for the end of suffering in materialism and tries to discredit rebirth.

I get a feeling I don't jive with a lot of western Buddhists since I am not really approaching the teachings the way many of them do. Either way, even if I do rub someone the wrong way it's not because I think I'm better then them or wish to trash them it's just that I have an approach that turns the more rational minded off sometimes. Also, that and I'm not really prone to trying to be too politically correct since if I don't agree I don't agree and can't seem to change my mind. As always Gary, nice discussion and be well.

G said...

Suffering & the end of suffering are indeed the heart of the Buddhadharma, Paul.

Ajahn Sumedho has said that even if it were proven that the Buddha never existed, it wouldn't negate the value of Buddhism, for the proof of the pudding is in the eating...and the Dharma is most delicious! So, taking everything in the Pali Canon as literally true does not seem the wisest thing to do.

That you believe that belief has nothing to do with truth is one thing, Paul, but, via scientific investigation it can be proven that belief has nothing to do with truth as so many of our beliefs are unprovable or even disprovable. (If someone believes that they can fly, but then in extensive experiments fails to do so, their belief has been disproved.) Have a little more faith in your convictions! ;)

Justin, I think that we agree on the fundamentals of this issue, that the Pali Canon is not an infallible document - how can it be as everything in life is unsatisfactory? Regarding suffering & the end of suffering, it does contain many important & profound insights, plus methods to develop them. This has been illustrated subjectively over the centuries by many, many enlightened Buddhists, and science is also in the early stages of objectively confirming the efficacy of practices such as mindfulness & meditation as we speak.

Perhaps it is a strength of Buddhism that there are different views on issues such as this, Justin, for as you indicate in your comments, we cannot all conform to exactly the same interpretation & application of the teachings.

May we all end suffering,

JD said...

Even the venerable and well respected Ajahn Mun said that not everything within the Canon was really the Dhamma even though he took it as his guide in following the customs of the Noble Ones.

Ajahn Geoff has an article on the Canon on the Access To Insight webpage called When you know for yourselves....the authenticity of the pali suttas. http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/thanissaro/authenticity.html
It comes up with pretty much what Ajahn Sumedho says about it being beyond the point whether the Buddha was a real man or not since the teachings within the Canon actually have led to Enlightenment and peace in the heart for many throughout the last 2500 +years.

G said...

I hadn't read that about Ajahn Mun: thanks for that. I'll check out the Ajahn Geoff article, Justin; sounds interesting. To some extent or another, we all can vouch for the efficacy of the Buddhist Path, can't we? The Dharma is to be realized here & now, after all, isn't it?

Your friend in the Dharma,

The Geezers said...

I'm more conversant in the Mahayana tradition, and since the Tibetan folk tradition is so intricately entwined with that branch, it's never struck me as a problem to acknowledge that much of Buddhism, like Christianity, speaks mythological truth rather than literal. Very few modern Mahayanists see it any other way.

I have always viewed fable and mythology as being more "true" in many ways than literal narrative, so it seems like no problem at all to read the Tipitaka as legend rather than history.

G said...

Viewing much of Buddhism as mythological in nature seems a wise approach, Mercurious.

I found the following statement intriguing:

"I have always viewed fable and mythology as being more "true" in many ways than literal narrative..."

Truer in what ways, Mercurious?

Be well,

hen said...

I find that when I am studying a buddhist text, whether it be ancient or contemporary, I am only interested in one thing: the effect it has on my mind.

If it's a story about the birthday of a Buddha and it is full of extra ordinary events and wonder, so what? We can never know if its absolute truth so why waste our time trying to figure that out. Why not just allow our minds to honestly digest the information offered and see what effect it has on our practice. It's all a matter of personal perception and experience.


G said...

Observing the effect that reading a particular text has on the mind is surely a wise approach, Hen. This same mindfulness can be applied to everything that is read or experienced, of course. It is arguably the very heart of Buddhist practice.

A central element of this discussion is not focused only on the personal & subjective results of practice, however; there is also the issue of how the Buddhdharma is presented to the world at large, which, I would suggest, is an important part of being Buddhist.

In this light, I don't entirely agree, Hen, that, "It's all a matter of personal perception and experience." Personal perceptions can be misleading, and when shared with others, misleading to them as well. Combining subjective and objective evaluations of the efficacy of the Path seems a more complete & convincing approach to the validity of any claim made by Buddhists. It is my view that scientific investigation of Buddhism can be of great assistance in this endeavor, but that blind acceptance that whatever appears in the Tripitaka is true cannot.

Thanks for the stimulating comments,

hen said...

People will always tweak things to suit how they perceive they should be. The many different ways Buddhism is offered to the World is not of my concern as I have no doubt there will be something for everyone should they care to look for it. If there isn't, at some point I've no doubt there will be. An example is how Buddhism is developing in the west and historically how it developed in Tibet and China.

I think that I should perhaps quantify my comment about perception.

Yes, personal preconceptions can be misleading and consistently are. I practice in order to free myself from perceptions that prevent me from being happy.

However as far as 'I am', I am only what my perception allows. How can I be anything else at the moment?

I edge ever closer to moulding my perception to the outcome I am hoping for - Freedom from the notion that I have to try.

My tools are meditation, teachings by people I 'trust' to be closer to this freedom than I am (I normally rely on the lineage system) and the ability to test these teachings myself.

If I am able to connect with what I study, I edge closer, if I don't connect I move on to another teaching. Throughout I practice mindfulness and meditation.

I am what I am and I'm trying not to be. When I am no longer those things or when I accept I am those things, then perhaps I'll be free!


G said...

As you write, Hen, mindfulness & meditation are so important to the practice of Buddhism.

Compassion & kindness are equally important, I would venture, and naturally arise from mindful practice. Indeed, any freedom that an individual experiences is incomplete if it is a freedom centered on the one 'here' to the exclusion of all those 'there'. Here and there merge in the practice of the Buddha Way, don't they?

Be well in the Buddhadharma, Hen,

They call him James Ure said...

It can then become a block to emancipation rather than a guidebook to it. Everything therein becomes a dogma to cling to rather than something to use as way to loosen the ties that bond us to delusion-created suffering.

Well said and I especially agree with the bold section.

I don't think science and Buddhism have to be antithetical to each other. If everything is interconnected then of course science has something to offer to Buddhism. As does Buddhism to science.

As you said, the canon is a good guidebook but in the end we have to do the work. We have to decide what to do and what not to do. A lot of this too is based on our karma in my view.

G said...

It seems to me that dogmatism can never be part of our awakening, James. By its very nature it is something that is clung to, and therefore bars us from letting go into enlightenment.

"We have to decide what to do and what not to do. A lot of this too is based on our karma in my view."

Agreed - and well put! We are all individuals that need to approach the truth of existence from where we are, not where someone else is or has been. A point worth plenty of reflection, James. :)


Anonymous said...

The important thing is to realize that the Buddha's teachings only exist to bring people to liberation from suffering. The Buddha ultimately taught that everything we see is of the nature of a dreamlike illusion. And that ultimately includes his teachings. The teachings are the raft to reach the other shore. Once the shore is reached, even the teachings are transcended.

So why create doubt in yourself where none is necessary? Or if you are going to doubt, why not start with your own perceptions?

Instead, in following the spirit of the Buddha's teaching, these things can all be used skillfully to see through our own limitations we impose upon what we believe is possible. We can start by believing that the Buddha's skillful means of reaching us through the teachings are a reliable refuge, while our own assertions about what is or is not possible are not necessarily useful at all. This is why we take refuge in the Buddha. Without refuge, samsara cannot be transcended

Unless we are already enlightened, all of our beliefs in what is true are based upon illusory misperceptions. So we can skillfully use our illusion to create doubt in the Buddha's teachings or to create faith in the limitless compassion and skillful means of the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. Faith is the fuel of our practice, while doubt can keep us from even attempting to see what practices will help us to realize the truth.
Simply because miracles or certain teaching do not speak to you doesn't mean you need to create the negative karma of saying they aren't true. As ignorant beings who are you or I to say what is and is not possible in terms of the Buddha's skillful means of bringing us his teachings?

What I'm suggesting is that possibly discussions like there are a waste of energy at best. Maybe you're right about miracles and the veracity of the teachings, maybe you're wrong. There is in fact no way of knowing. But either way, to speak negatively of the teachings likely does no good. Westerners have enough trouble with the FAITH necessary to propel us along the path. Perhaps doubt in our own beliefs and opinions, rather than in the teachings and the skillful means of the Buddha, would be a more skillful use of intellectual discernment.

SARVA MANGALAM! May you and all beings reach supreme unsurpassed enlightenment.

G said...

Thank you Anonymous for your stimulating comments.
Your point about the Buddha's reference to the Buddha Dharma as a raft to help us to the 'Other Shore' is a crucial one to this discussion.

Perhaps for some, it is skillful to use the teachings as literal and historical fact, but at the same time others may have a more modern approach. This is essentially how it seems to work here in Thailand, with some Thai Buddhists clearly taking everything found in the Tripitaka as 'absolute truth,' whilst others have a more considered view of the vast amount of material contained therein.

Is this kind of discussion "a waste of energy at best"? Possibly for some, Anonymous. But, reflecting on the teachings and seeing which ones can help us develop - both as individuals and societies - is surely a productive endeavour. (And your participation in this discussion is much appreciated, by the way!)

Using the teachings skillfully is the most important point here, and by bringing our attention to this, you do us all a great servive. Thanks once again.

Unknown said...


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G said...

Thank you for the comments, Camilyn and Namo.

We can be 'fundamentalist' about such things as mind power and positive thinking also. Are these two concepts that you're promoting infallible, or are they too subject to the three characteristics of existence; that they are impermanent, unsatisfactory, and not self?
If we reflect upon these concepts, as with other such grand ideas,we can see that they are indeed impermanent, unsatisfactory, and not self; not merely through some philosophical process, but through actually seeing them as they are, and not as we would like them to be.
Seeing all things and processes as they really are leaves us with one place to discover: the No-thing that lies at the heart of our being. Is this too impermanent, unsatisfactory, and not self?

Well, it certainly isn't a self, so that much is true. But, is it impermanent? Well, gazing back into this Void, it has no limits, either in time or space, so it surely is not impermanent: it just is, forever now. Is it unsatisfactory? As I peer into its unfathomable depths, 'I' am transcended in its infinite capacity, which surely is the most satisfying spacious potentiality that there could be. Now that's 'Mind' power and positive thinking for you!