Detached Engagment

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When I first began studying Buddhism I had a very difficult time understanding the concept of non-attachment.  I could easily see how attachment to wealth, power, status, etc. all lead to ultimate frustration because all things are impermanent.  There is nothing permanent in the world that we can latch onto. Our futile efforts to do so lead us to false views as we cling to that which will eventually be no more.  At the same time, however, it is equally clear that certain attachments bring us happiness.  Our family relationships.  Our interest in philosophy.  A scientific curiosity about how the world works.  Was the Buddha suggesting that we eschew *all* attachments; even our attachment to the very concepts of happiness or peace itself?

Over the past several years, due to my experience with lay Buddhist practitioners, speaking with various monks and nuns, and by participating in Buddhist services, I have come to realize that my understanding of attachment was deeply flawed.  The Buddha was not advocating a Sangha wherein monks, nuns, and laypersons purged all sense perceptions or feelings of happiness and sadness.  Nor did he teach that personal relationships be sterile and unfeeling.  Rather, the Buddha understood and acknowledged the reality of the human condition.  We feel.  We form relationships.  We ultimately pass on.  So detachment is not to eschew the very nature of the human condition — as if somehow this abject reality could be overcome.  Rather, detachment means to fully engage life pursuing wisdom as outlined in the Noble Eight-fold Path.  All the while understanding that all is impermanent.  That nothing we do can prevent the realities of misfortune, poverty, sickness, and death.  

Such a view is not fatalistic.  It is liberating and reinforces the notion that today — this very moment — is an opportunity to experience the joys and sorrows of living.  We can do so unwillingly of course; kicking and screaming along the way in an attempt to make permanent that which ultimately fades away.  But, even our attempts to prolong moments of great joy will eventually prove futile; creating within us a sense of disappointment and frustration.  Rather than cling to that which cannot be held, grasped, or put under our control, we should engage the world in wisdom.  With an understanding that it is possible to embrace the realities of human experience — both good and bad — while remaining detached from any notion of control.  

Addicted to Disputation

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The Brahmajala Sutta, a part of the traditional Buddhist Pali Canon, is a discourse on the Dharma, its virtues, and culmination.  It is also largely a discourse of negation.  That is, in addition to affirming certain doctrines, the Buddha spends considerable time in laying out views that are incorrect and do not align with a proper understanding of the Dharma. The text itself bears the marks of an oral tradition with verses and phrases repeated, compounded, and then repeated again.  In this form the sutta was passed on by members of the Sangha long-before being written down.

Throughout this lengthy discourse the Buddha explores both metaphysics and the mundane; touching on practices, viewpoints, and behaviors that the Buddha, because of his understanding and wisdom, eschews.  The focus is on negating many of the things we may believe make us holy/wise/worthy/righteous etc…  This is not to say reality, wisdom, and holiness themselves are negated.  Rather, the concept that holding these views in themselves is somehow meritorious.  The Buddha (Tathagata) assures his listeners that while he does indeed hold certain metaphysical and moral views:

These viewpoints thus grasped and adhered to will lead to such-and-such distinctions in another world.  This the Tathagata knows, and more, but he is not attached to that knowledge.  And being the unattached he has experienced for himself perfect peace, and having truly understood the arising and passing away of feelings, their attraction and peril and the deliverance from them, the Tathagata is liberated without remainder.

To the Buddha, any view held in the abstract is of no value and as such, he felt no need to defend his direct experience.  He didn’t believe anything.  He knew it by experience.  His teaching was that all were capable of “knowing for [themselves] perfect peace, [truly understanding] the arising and passing away of feelings” on the path to liberation.

In my view, such spiritual self-confidence comes as a result of faith.  Not faith in abstraction, but in one’s own divine experience.  When we feel confident in our own views, there is little need to “defend” them because ultimately, there is nothing to defend.  If I place my hand over a flame, I understand heat from experience and no argument or quibbling over theory can detract from that direct knowledge of flame/heat.

Yet when it comes to spiritual matters we often find ourselves becoming defensive and protective of our beliefs in the abstract.  As if we are trying to convince others — and perhaps ourselves — that some abstract notion is indeed accurate or “true.”  There is nothing inherently problematic with discussing diverse views.  However, there is always the temptation to engage these discussions as if they were some sort of sport or competition.  Again, believing that if we can establish the rational, theoretical, or philosophical superiority of our particular beliefs, we have accomplished something of value.  The entire notion is absurd.  But we persist in passionately advocating for things which are ultimately of little importance.  Of us, the Buddha said:

Whereas some ascetics and Brahmins remain addicted to disputation such as: ‘You don’t understand this doctrine and discipline — I do!’  ‘How could you understand this doctrine and discipline?’  ‘Your way is all wrong — mine is right’ ‘I am consistent — you aren’t.’  ‘You said last what you should have said first, and you said first what you should have said last!’  ‘What you took so long to think up has been refuted!’  ‘Your argument has been overthrown, you’re defeated!’ ‘Go on, save your doctrine — get out of that if you can!’ the ascetic Gotama refrains from such disputation.

Wisdom, I think, is to be found in refraining from “addictive disputation” as we focus on the underlying, real, and substantive reasons and motivations behind our spiritual or religious practice.  Arguments over and contention caused by disparate views serve only to distract us from exercising real faith and engaging the substance of our spiritual lives.


Sects vs. Schools

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Casual observers in the West tend to have a romanticized view of Buddhism.  The popular notion is that Buddhism is an easy-going religion with a focus on mediation, karma, and reincarnation.  All of these things are true, of course.  But this is a grossly simplistic view that ignores the more nuanced and/or controversial aspects of the faith.  There are, for example, Buddhist fundamentalists in Sri Lanka who persecute Muslims.  20th-century Japanese militarism was given both support and social credibility by certain influential Zen priests.  There have been periods in Chinese history where certain Buddhist leaders exerted political influence to harass and persecute rival monks or teachers.  My point, of course, is not that Buddhism is “bad” or somehow flawed.  Quite the contrary.  Rather, that Buddhism does not somehow make its adherents magically moral, unselfish, and non-violent.  One must put the tenets of the faith into practice in order to cultivate a compassionate mindset and nature.  The same is true of any religious faith.

Even recognizing that Buddhism — in the abstract — is not some cure-all for spiritual malaise, I do believe that there are some aspects of Buddhist thought that are potentially instructive for Western religionists.  One aspect worth pondering is the general Buddhist approach to mediating opposing views.  There is no central authority in Buddhism and while some forms of Buddhism — most notably Tibetan Buddhism whose spiritual leader is the Dalai Llama — emphasize the role of clergy-as-authority, Buddhist thought is generaly anathema to any strident commitment to abstract belief and notions of authority.  This lack of central control has two primary effects.  First, it creates an environment where the fundamentals of Buddhist thought (the Four Noble Truths, Eightfold Path, Dependent Origination, etc.) can be molded an adapted to fit both culture and time without losing or diluting any core aspects of the ideas themselves.  As a result, Buddhism has been incredibly successful and popular across diverse cultures.  When the first Indian Buddhists brought the religion to China it was not simply picked up wholesale by new Chinese adherents.  Rather, the fundamental ideas of Buddhism were adopted and modified to complement existing Chinese social mores and religious attitudes.  

The second effect arising from a lack of central authority is what I would describe — quite broadly — as a level of respect and acceptance even in the face of serious doctrinal disagreement.  Such respect is reflected in the plethora of Buddhist schools.  Differing positions within the Sangha on the meaning of the Buddha’s teachings began even before the Buddha’s death.  And, in the simplest terms, when those positions diverged sufficiently, new schools emerged.  The most significant division within Buddhist thought is reflected in the differing of the Theravada and Mahayana traditions.  Theravada is the first of all Buddhist schools and keepers of the Pali Canon, the oldest Buddhist scriptures.  Not surprisingly, Theravada Buddhism is more conservative and more philosophically dualistic than is Mahayana.  Mahayana came much later than Theravada and was an attempt to demonstrate that despite their surface differences, Mahayana (the great vehicle) and Theravada (Hinayana, or lesser vehicle) teach the same fundamental Dharma.  

This isn’t to say that differing Buddhist schools are not critical of one another.  The very name of “lesser vehicle” Mahayana Buddhists applied to Theravada is itself a critique, albeit delivered politely.  One of my favorite Buddhist scholars is a Western-born Theravada monk.  In this monk’s writings — especially when commenting on the Pali Canon — arguments for the correctness of Theravada views are confidently put forward.  And while other Buddhist traditions are not mentioned by name is is quite obvious that this monk takes exception to broad Mahayana views of enlightenment and especially Japanese Zen-inspired metaphysics.  He does not condemn these views but instead demonstrates his position that certain doctrines are well-supported by the Pali Canon while other — and generally later — views are not.  Such differences go well beyond mere semantics. The difference in metaphysical outlook could not be more stark between some of the largest and most well-known Buddhist traditions.

But when we refer to our fellow religionists as beloning to a separate “school” as opposed to a competing “sect” we communicate both respect and an acknowledgment of legitimacy.  Neither of which imply agreement.  Of course, in the Eastern traditions such an approach is made easier by the foundational cosmology and the near-complete absence of eschatology.  But at the same time, the disagreements between Christians — disagreements so severe as to cause schisms and animosity even to the point of violence — tend to be about issues considered central to the Christian faith much the same way as fundamental disagreements give rise to various Buddhist schools.  And yet in the West, our impulse is to divide and delegitimize — as if our preferred view is the only acceptable one.  How arrogant!  How insulting to the very idea of an emenent God.  

Of course, in Protestantism sects are generally considered “schools” by other Protestants.  The Methodists, for example, fully accept Anglicans as fellow Christians.  Baptists accept the Assemblies of God.  Only the most radical of Protestants would claim Catholics are not real Christians.  Just as only the most radical — and I would argue completely misguided — Buddhists persecute Muslims.  

I just can’t help but think that religious dialogue in the West could be improved by simply dropping the idea of sects and embracing the notion of schools.