The Buddha

Seeing the teaching: scholarship of the Buddha

“Whoever sees me,” the Buddha was reputed to say, “sees the teaching, and whoever sees the teaching sees me.” Kevin Trainor, professor and chair of religion, has his own way of seeing and understanding Buddhism, through the lens of a scholar, examining the tradition through time and place, relics and ritual. His expertise led well known documentary filmmaker David Grubin to seek Trainor as an academic advisor and commentator for his new work, The Buddha, airing on PBS April 7 at 8 p.m.

“When I teach Buddhism I teach about it as a scholar of religion,” says Trainor, “and so my perspective is not that of a practitioner. I’m trying to, as accurately as I can, understand its different historical and cultural forms. I take the history very seriously, and I think it sets limits on what we can say with confidence about the historical Buddha.”

Trainor and the film’s narration both speak of Buddhism as a story, one that rose out of oral tradition. Pared to the core, Siddhartha Gautama, son of a king, is believed to have renounced society at age 29, gone into the forest seeking truth, practicing intensive meditation and extreme asceticism, both of which he left behind before he finally understood the true nature of the problem of existence. In that, he achieved enlightenment, only then becoming Buddha, “awakened one.”

The thorny problem, as Trainor explains it, is the endless cycle of birth and death, the repetition of human suffering in all of its forms. After living countless lives, the Buddha is said to have ended his own cycle by putting an end to attachment, to desire, those things he viewed to be the fundamental human failing.

“If your sense of wellbeing and happiness,” says Trainor, explaining the Buddha’s message, “is dependent upon attaining something and grasping on to it in the expectation that it won’t change, you ultimately will be miserable. Everything changes. There is absolutely no escape for that. So the alternative is to be focused on the present, pay attention to it, value it in its own right, in this time and this place.”

Meditation on religion

Trainor’s academic study leads him to findings that might discomfit 21st century American converts (distinguished from devout immigrant communities), many of whom he sees as practicing a “pop” version of Buddhism. As a scholar, not a theologian, he steers away from moral judgments, but he brings an informed perspective to ideas about the movement as a spiritual way of being, even a rejection of religion, with a focus on the philosophical and meditational side of Buddhism.

“One of the most historically problematic views,” says Trainor, “is that Buddhism is self-realization. It’s realizing your true potential. It’s living well. I’m not saying that’s wrong, but I am saying that’s an interesting development that’s not particularly characteristic of the way it functioned in ancient India.”

In The Buddha, in fact, Trainor discusses Siddhartha’s experience with meditation along his journey to enlightenment, which proved a distraction from his goal.

“He ascends to these very rarified states of consciousness,” Trainor says in the film, “but it’s not permanent, and it does not bring penetrating truth into the nature of reality. So these become a temporary escape from the problem of existence, but they don’t solve the problem.”

Trainor acknowledges Buddhist meditation as a useful alternative to a consumer culture organized around creating desires that can only be met through purchasing things. But traditional Buddhism is closely associated with renunciation and a monastic life that is generally inconsistent with modern Western interests.

As a renowned expert in relic veneration and as a student of the archeology of ancient India and the cultural milieu that allowed for the Buddha’s rise, Trainor wants to send the message that Buddhism, both historically and as it is practiced in Asia today, is anything but hostile to religious ritual and materiality. The documentary, in fact, received a joint grant from the National Endowment for the Arts with the Asia Society in New York City, whose museum is running a complementary exhibition, “Pilgrimage and Buddhist Art,” now through June 20.

Veneration, pilgrimages and relics

“In terms of my own commitments to teaching about religion,” says Trainor, “I think it is important to understand how Buddhism is inculturated, how it is in the ground, how it’s about relics and veneration and has very much to do with practices, not just meditation but veneration.”

The pilgrimage, traveling to a sacred place as an act of religious devotion, is deeply embedded in Buddhism — the Buddha himself discussed how his remains should be transported and enshrined after he died, reportedly saying that people would go and, “their hearts will be serenely enlightened.”

“It’s very much about stupas, relics, places with religious significance marked out across Asia,” says Trainor, “places that are magnets that draw people.”

The film, which Trainor calls artfully created, is largely biographical with narration by Richard Gere, footage shot in India, illustrations depicting the more mythological scenes, and commentary from scholars and others. Are Trainor’s points about object veneration part of the film?

“They’re in the documentary,” he says. “I think they can also be ignored, and I think many people will. I think they’ll find much more compelling the statements by psychologists and poets saying, ‘You are the Buddha.'”

Trainor, though, who tends to focus on Theravada, among the many, many schools of thought within Buddhism, can be poetic as well.

“In a sense,” Trainor says, “the Buddha is not the ultimate Buddha. The ultimate Buddha is Buddha-ness. It’s everywhere. It’s always there.”

[via University of Vermont]
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Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “Take the first step in faith. You don’t have to see the whole staircase…”

man climbing a cliff face

“Take the first step in faith. You don’t have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step,” said Martin Luther King.

Some years ago, two friends took me rock-climbing in Colorado. I’d only ever climbed with ropes once before, and that had been many years before, so really I was a complete beginner. And nervous.

I found myself suspended half-way up a cliff, in a state of panic, with my friends shouting encouragement from below. My breathing was tight, my heart was pounding, and my limbs felt weak and shaky, but I didn’t have time to think much about that. I was holding on to a narrow ledge that ran horizontally across the rock face — really it was more like a crease. The toes of my climbing shoes were precariously holding on to a couple of tiny nubbins that barely projected from the surface. It seemed like a miracle that I was able to hang on at all.

I looked up, and as far as I could see there was nothing but smooth rock all the way to the top. All I could see above me was a featureless expanse of cliff, with no hand- or toe-holds. I was only about a third of the way up, and it didn’t seem as if there was any way forward.

If I hadn’t decided to change something I’d have remained stuck

My pride wouldn’t let me give up. I took a few deep breaths to steady my nerves and give myself time to think. I looked around, and realized that the only way I could move was sideways. That wasn’t going to take me closer to the top, but at least it was movement, and I’d rather move than stay frozen in fear and indecision. I decided to go for it, rather than remain in my paralyzed state. So I found another nubbin to dig my toes into, and began to inch my way to the left, my fingertips barely keeping a grip on the ledge.

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Since moving sideways was all I could do, I did it. And once I moved and took another look at my situation, I could see a handhold above me that hadn’t been visible before. I reached for it, and managed to get a toe-hold so that I could boost myself up. Above me was another hand-hold, and another, and another, and soon there was a clear way to climb to the top of the cliff, which I did, “Like a rat up a drainpipe,” as one friend put it. It was hard to believe that this was the same rock-face that just a few minutes before seemed utterly unscalable.

And here’s the thing: if I hadn’t made that one earlier change in my position, my perspective would never have shifted and I’d never have been able to move forwards. If I hadn’t decided to change something — even though I doubted that what I was doing was going to help in any way — I’d have remained stuck.

Faith, meaning blind faith, meaning to believe in something even in the absence of any supporting evidence, is not part of what I do as a Buddhist.

Sometimes, even if the way isn’t clear, you simply have to change something — almost anything — in order to see things from a different perspective. When we’re experiencing a “stuck” emotion, like despair, hopelessness, fear, or depression — those emotions that freeze us in place, unable to go forwards or back — sometimes we just have to try something new. We need to have the faith to take the first step.

And that means having faith in ourselves. And faith in the possibility that change is possible.

Faith, meaning blind faith, meaning to believe in something even in the absence of any supporting evidence, and often in the face of considerable evidence to the contrary. This is not part of what I do as a Buddhist. And that’s quite proper.

Buddhism is not a “faith” in the sense that you have to assent to various unprovable claims. It’s quite the opposite, in fact. The Buddha suggested that we test his words as a goldsmith would test the purity of his metal. That’s the attitude we should adopt if we are to follow the Buddha — not believe his words but to test the method that his words were attempting to communicate.

Once the Buddha was talking to a clan who were very confused about religious practice. The tribe — called the Kalamas — were in a similar situation to many of us in the West today. They were surrounded by competing religious and philosophical traditions. Due to the discovery of iron, society had been changing. The old religions — which said that the structure of society, with the priests at the top, naturally, was ordained by the gods — were on the defensive because the structure of society had changed, with the emergence of a powerful new class of merchants. Those same merchants had more time for leisure and for asking what life was really all about. And increasingly, new religious movements were taking root, often in the forests, where renunciates would cut themselves off from society in order to explore meditation and other practices (sometimes extreme ascetic ones).

The Buddha suggested that we test his words as a goldsmith would test the purity of his metal.

So the Kalamas were faced with trying to make sense of the competing claims of dozens of religious and philosophical teachings. Some said that adherence to the old ways of the god was the right thing to do — keep paying the priests to mutter mantras and the crops would grow and you’ll be blessed with many children. Others said that all comfort should be renounced. Yet others said that sensory pleasure was the highest good and that no opportunity for gratification should be passed up. And there were many other traditions, advocating ethical codes, worship practices, meditative exercises, and belief systems.

So when the Buddha was passing through, they took the opportunity to ask him some tough questions about how to decide which teachings were true and which false. The Buddha’s answer was extensive and involved some Socratic dialog, but the most important part was this:

Do not go upon what has been acquired by repeated hearing; nor upon tradition; nor upon rumor; nor upon what is in a scripture; nor upon surmise; nor upon an axiom; nor upon specious reasoning; nor upon a bias toward a notion that has been pondered over; nor upon another’s seeming ability; nor upon the consideration, ‘The monk is our teacher.’ Kalamas, when you yourselves know: ‘These things are good; these things are not blamable; these things are praised by the wise; undertaken and observed, these things lead to benefit and happiness,’ enter on and abide in them.

The Buddha wasn’t saying we should automatically reject tradition, scriptures, intuition, logic, etc. But he was saying that we need to submit these things to two tests:

1. Do teachings, when put into practice, lead to happiness and well-being. This doesn’t mean that we have to try out every teaching, because we can learn by observing others. But the important thing is to see whether or not teachings work in practice as tools for alleviating suffering, and for reducing craving, hatred, and delusion.

2. Are these teachings and practices praised by “the wise.” Now this is a tricky one, because who are the wise? Again, this comes back to experience. Who, in our observation, can generally be relied upon to give good advice? Who, in our experience, is generally reliable, trustworthy, and “walks the talk”?

In this teaching faith isn’t something that comes seems to come first. First is observation, reflection and practice (in short, experience), and then faith follows. We have to take the first step in order to get a sense whether the staircase actually leads anywhere. But in fact we need faith at the very beginning, even before we take the first step. When I was climbing, and found myself stuck, I had to have confidence that there was a possibility of climbing that cliff, and confidence that I could do it. In the absence of a clear way forward, I had to be open to seeing things from a new perspective, and that involved letting go of the handholds I had so that I could move on. In moving into the unknown there’s always a leap of faith.

Enlightenment may seem a long way off when we’re starting out, but it’s not as far as we might think.

I’ve often thought of the Buddha’s teaching as being like a map. He outlines a spiritual journey, and of course without having trodden the path all the way to the end we can’t say for sure whether the map actually matches the territory. But if we’ve explored the lower reaches of the path and found that the map corresponds to our experience, then we start to have some confidence that the rest of the map might be accurate too.

In the beginning we may simply have some trust in the people who are teaching us meditation and speaking from their experience, while at the same time asking ourselves whether what we’re hearing rings true. But then we need to test things out for ourselves. And fairly quickly we can discover for ourselves that, yes, if we pay attention to the breath the mind settles down and we’re happier; yes, Buddhist ethical principles do make daily life more harmonious and satisfying; yes, there are five hindrances and the techniques for overcoming them do work; yes, there are meditative states that are focused, peaceful, and deeply refreshing, just as described in the texts and by our teachers.

And what about Awakening, Enlightenment? That may seem a long way off when we’re starting out, but it’s not as far as we might think. When I had my first experience of non-self I was amazed by how easy and natural it was. There was no struggling for a breakthrough, just the gentle slipping away of a veil of delusion. I think if I’d realized how easy it was going to be it might have happened years earlier.

In many ways we’re conditioned to think of spiritual goals as being far off and almost beyond reach, and some later Buddhist teachings even suggest that it might take countless lifetimes to reach the end of the path. But in the earliest Buddhist scriptures people seemed to get awakened at the drop of a hat. Perhaps they were unburdened by expectations of how hard it was going to be. Perhaps they simply made a small shift in the way they were seeing things and found themselves with a new perspective — one that allowed them to go all the way to the top.

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Dharma on zero dollars a day

Brass buddha statue

In a time of global financial meltdown, it may be wise to consider that many of the best things in life are indeed free, including self-awareness, happiness, and the freedom to explore one’s own experience. Bodhipaksa shares some reflections from a former monk.

“Rise before dawn and bow three times to the Buddha within you. Bow three times to whatever Buddha image you may already have. If you have no Buddha image, trace the outline of a footprint or a circle on the wall and bow to that. Bow three times to anyone else who may be doing this practice at this very moment, to those who have done it in the past, and to those who may yet come to this practice in the future. When you have thus performed your prostrations, fold your blanket into a square and be seated on the floor.

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“Next, begin the practice of Buddhism on No Dollars a Day. Maintaining awareness of your breathing in as you are breathing in, breathe in. Maintaining awareness of your breathing out as you are breathing out, breathe out. As thoughts arise, make note of them. As physical sensations arise, do the same. From moment to moment, follow only the breath. Do not follow anything other than the breath.

At all times maintain a firm conviction that the dharma will manifest itself without dollars

“Note carefully when thoughts or impulses arise in regard to purchasing the dharma: the impulse to buy incense or a cushion, to pay membership dues, to purchase dharma teachings in the form of books or tapes or initiations. At the very moment that these thoughts or impulses arise, unbind yourself from them and return to the practice of Buddhism on No Dollars a Day.

“At the end of your meditation session, replace the blanket and proceed about your ordinary business, at all times maintaining a firm conviction that the dharma will manifest itself without dollars. Be especially mindful of advertisements for dharma products and of catalogs or stores where such products may be displayed. To enter such an establishment or touch such products, or to gaze longingly upon images of such products, is an impure act requiring confession before another practitioner of Buddhism on No Dollars a Day within a period of one month.

As you fall asleep, reflect on the precepts and the fact that no dollars need be spent to keep them.

“When you have returned from work, and have taken your evening meal, meditate once more on your folded blanket in the prescribed manner. Afterward, reflect on the quality of your behavior throughout the day. Did your acts in any way contribute to the idea that the dharma was for sale? Did you engage in rootless discussions on the merits of teachers who live in faraway places? Did you do or say anything to imply that the dharma was unavailable to yourself or another at the present place and time? Stated more positively, what did you do to encourage yourself and others in the belief that the dharma can manifest itself right here and now without consumption of any kind?

“As you retire, in the moments before you fall asleep, reflect on the precepts and the fact that no dollars need be spent to keep them. Reflect on the Four Noble Truths of Buddha and the fact that no dollars need be spent to understand them or to take them to heart.

“Once a week, go to your public library and read books on Buddhism (all kinds). Be mindful that these books may or may not have been written by someone who understands and follows the practice of Buddhism on No Dollars a Day. Take that which comes without a price tag and cherish it as a holy text.

Walker Douglas is a former Tibetan Buddhist monk.

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True heroism is to practice love

Buddha and his protector, Vajrapani

Life as a battle is a common metaphor — even in Buddhist teachings. Bodhipaksa shows how the Buddha subverted the language of violence so that true heroism was to practice love.

If you look closely at life you’ll probably see that in at least some respects you see it as a battle.

Sometimes we say we “struggle” to keep up with our responsibilities. At times it seems we’re in “competition” with others for approval, status, or power. We talk about “fighting off” a cold. We say that “forewarned is forearmed.” We say that we made a suggestion, only to have it “shot down.” Doctors are constantly searching for new “weapons” to fight disease. Law enforcement workers “fight crime.” Advertisers “target” us with ad “campaigns.” The language of battle is a part of everyday life, as are the emotional attitudes that come with competition.

And we often see success in terms of how many victories we have, how well we’ve protected or expanded our turf, and how successful we’ve been in fighting our way to the top. Power, and its trappings — money, possessions, and the deference of others — are our society’s measure of success.

This verse from the Dhammapada —

If one should conquer thousands in battle,
and if another should conquer only himself,
his indeed is the greatest victory.

— is a reminder that there are other kinds of attainment.

These words are also powerful example of an instructive device that the Buddha often employed, where he takes an externally-performed action that is highly valued and shows that it gains even greater value when turned inwards.

The Buddha lived in a world that to us would seem superstitious and even barbaric. Society was in the grip of a rigid social system where people were judged not on their intelligence, capability, or attainments but on their birth origins. The way to happiness involved fulfilling without question the duties of one’s caste. One of the main religious practices was to slaughter animals in order to propitiate the gods. In order to purify oneself from ethical lapses it was believed that all one had to do was to bathe in rivers — even if the rivers were literally polluted. And war was not only common but brutal, and warriors believed that if killed in the heat of battle they would be lifted directly to heaven.

And in the midst of this madness was the supreme sanity of the Buddha.

According to the Buddha:

  • The true “Brahmin” (religious person) is not someone born into a certain family but someone who acts in an ethical manner. Anyone can become a holy person, irrespective of birth.
  • The true outcast is not someone born into a lowly family but someone who neglects his or her human potential and acts ignobly, by speaking or acting in a selfish or violent manner.
  • The way to happiness does not consist of following externally-imposed duties, but of following an inner path of cultivating wisdom and compassion.
  • True sacrifice doesn’t involve slaughtering animals but practicing generosity and renouncing our addiction to violence.
  • Purification comes not through external rituals but through living ethically and by observing the mind in meditation.

Over and over again the Buddha attempted to subvert the common understandings of his time. This was a subtle and intelligent approach to take. Rather than directly oppose those who saw things in a deluded way, and thus giving rise to resistance, he tapped into their concerns. He suggested, for example, not just that battle was cruel and destructive, but that you could become a greater warrior by seeing that there is a higher form of battle — an inner struggle against destructiveness, selfishness, and delusion.

And sometimes, just as the outer world can seen as combative, so too the inner world can seem like a battleground. There are times when we are involved in a struggle with ourselves, when our thoughts seem to be assailing us and when we are trying to fend them off.

Martial metaphors are in fact common in Buddhist teachings on meditation, with Shantideva encouraging us to pick up our mindfulness as swiftly as we would pick up a sword dropped in battle, the meditator being compared to a fletcher straightening an arrow, and the Buddha’s monks being compared to warriors battling sensual distraction.

But we have to be careful with these martial metaphors, perhaps even more so than with other figures of speech, although there are dangers in all forms of literalism. We do have to do inner work, and sometimes that work will seem to be hard and unrewarding — or to be a “struggle.” We do need qualities that are traditionally associated with the warrior spirit, qualities such as courage, clarity, steadfastness, loyalty to a cause, and the ability to handle discomfort.

But we need to be careful not to bring attitudes of ill will into our meditation practice. In meditation it’s ourselves we are struggling with, and in a battle where we regard ourselves as the enemy we can’t win. Elsewhere in the Dhammapada the Buddha says:

Hatred is never overcome by hatred.
It is overcome by love – this is eternally true.

Ultimately we need to love the thoughts and feelings that assault us in meditation. We do need to overcome our selfishness, our ill-will, and our delusion, but we can’t meet them on their own level. We need to meet them with love and compassion. And when we experience victory over ourselves in this way, we have a happiness greater and more lasting than any external victory can bring.

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The Buddha as warrior

Manjushri bodhisattva with sword

It might seem strange to think of the Buddha as a “warrior” when he is rightly seen as above all a figure of peace. Lieutenant (jg) Jeanette Shin, the US military’s first Buddhist chaplain, looks at the Buddha’s martial background.

The Buddha never advocated the killing or destruction of “infidels” of any religion or doctrine, and always recommended the path of nonviolence.

However, Shakyamuni’s life and teachings reveal a person raised to be a heroic warrior invested in honor. While he renounced the life planned for him by his parents, as a secular warrior-king, he used the language of warriors to convey the Dharma, so he could stress that following the path of Dharma required similar virtues possessed by warriors.

Terms like charioteer, sword and shield, war elephants, banners, fortress, archers, arrows, poisoned arrows, are all used in expressing the struggle to overcome one’s delusions

Siddhartha Gautama (his birth name) was born into the kshatriya varna, or caste, of ancient India/Nepal. This was the caste of the warriors, the rulers and aristocrats of ancient India. A typical upbringing of a kshatriya male included study of the Vedas (the earliest religious texts of India) and the study of archery, swordsmanship, horsemanship, etc.

Although the Buddha’s early life may sound very pampered, with his three palaces and entourage of entertainers and harem (the ancient Indian equivalent of MTV’s My Sweet Sixteen! Which would also inspire one to renounce the world), it would have been very unlikely that Siddhartha’s father, King Suddhodhana, would have neglected to provide this rigorous training for the presumptive heir of a small, regional power (and he did not become a world-renouncer until he was about age 29).

We may see evidence of this in the language that the Buddha used in expressing Dharma: martial imagery and terms like “charioteer”, “sword and shield,” “war elephants”, “banners,” “fortress,” “archers”, “arrows”, “poisoned arrows,” are all used in expressing the struggle to overcome one’s delusions and the oppositions of others.

The Buddha’s Enlightenment was described as a “battle” between himself and Mara, the embodiment of death and evil:

“King Mara, at the head of a great army of one hundred thousand, swooped down on the prince from four sides. The gods who up to that time had surrounded the prince and had sung his praises fled in fear. Now there was no one who could save the prince. But the prince thought to himself, “The Ten Precepts that I have practiced for a long period of time are my mighty army; they are the jeweled sword and the stalwart shield that guard my being. Carrying the virtuous practice of these Ten Precepts in my hand, I shall annihilate the army of demons… Instead of living in defeat, it is far better to do battle and die! But should they go to defeat to Mara’s armies even once, mendicants and sages alike will be unable to recognize, know, or practice the path of the virtuous ones. Mara, riding atop a huge elephant, you came leading a whole army. Come, do battle! I shall emerge victorious. You will not throw me into disorder. Although the human and celestial worlds were both unable to destroy your army, I shall defeat your army as a rock destroys tree leaves.” (Lalitavistara)

The ancient texts emphasize the need for determination, sacrifice, and courage for Buddhists to follow the path of Buddha-dharma, to bear up under hardships in order to achieve the highest goal a human being can attain: to conquer death, fear, ignorance, evil, and thereby attain liberation. The qualities of a good warrior are exactly the qualities needed for a serious Buddhist practitioner.

As a kshatriya, the Buddha had many advantages in getting others to listen to his message, rather than if he had been born as a shudra (peasant) vaisya (merchant) or even a brahmin (priests); it is also said that the future Buddha, as a bodhisattva, was able to chose the time and society of his birth. The religious atmosphere of the time (5th-6th BCE) witnessed a resurgence of people of this caste re-examining and questioning the authority of the brahmins, so the Buddha’s teachings became popular with them, as did the teachings of his contemporary, the Jain teacher Mahavira. Other kshatriyas also likely recognized him as such (perhaps similar to the idea of “Once a Marine, always a Marine”?), possibly one reason why he was readily accepted (and protected) by the local rulers such as King Bimbisara, and which may also explain a curious story that occurs near the end of the Buddha’s life.

As a kshatriya, the Buddha had many advantages in getting others to listen to his message

King Virudhaka declared war against the Buddha’s own clan, the Shakyas, and marched against them. The Buddha stood in his way three times. Each time King Virudhaka dismounted, paid his respects, remounted and retreated, but he kept coming back every day. By the fourth day, the Buddha did not stand in his way, and the Sakyas were defeated.

This story is very puzzling by contemporary standards: it would have been much easier for this king to simply shoot the Buddha with an arrow the first time! If he wasn’t threatened, why should the Buddha not have stood there, every day, to prevent war? This story is presented as a cautionary tale on the reality of karma. At our most idealistic moments, we may like to imagine that a simple and polite expounding of the Buddha-dharma to violent and ignorant persons can end conflict, but even the Buddha himself was unable to convince everyone he met to renounce violence, or even to accept the validity of the Buddha-dharma. This teaching infers then that not even the Buddha could prevent war; War, like other acts, results from the working of karma within the realm of samsara. If the karma is present, then we may commit any sort of act, whether or not we had even planned to do it, according to Shinran Shonin. As Plato said, “Only the dead do not know war.” This is something to keep in mind when considering the importance of the role of the armed forces and our place within it.

Even given the reality of war, we should also keep in mind that the Buddha cautions against the glorification and worship of war and violence for its own sake. As is stated in the Dhammapada:

Victory breeds hatred
The defeated live in pain,
Happily the peaceful live,
Giving up victory and defeat.

There is no Buddhist version of ‘Valhalla.’ Everyone is responsible for his or her own karma, and should be mindful of what our present and future actions may entail, which is the causing of death and death for ourselves in battle. Preferably, people should consider this before enlisting! Even though we have voluntarily accepted this path, we should also be prepared to accept the karmic results, and also know that, like any career, our own military path will end one way or another.

Even the Buddha himself was unable to convince everyone he met to renounce violence

The military life is not for everyone. As service-members, especially those in leadership positions and those who have been in for awhile, we know that some are simply not cut out for military service, whether it is because, on one end, they are whiners, “dirtbags” (I’m sure many people in the military have heard this word before) and outright criminals, or others who, although not bad people, simply can’t adjust to the military lifestyle.

I’m sure many of us have encountered these individuals, and also knew that the best thing for all concerned was for them to get out and go home (preferably as quickly as possible). But we’ve also known others who become very successful, who take to the military life and deployments like fish to water, look out for their people, and thrive on the warrior lifestyle, hardships and all. Chaplains see this all the time. Therefore, there are many different teachings in the Buddhist canon concerning the use of force and conflict, just as counseling is different for different individuals, just as not all wars are alike.

The Buddha must have encountered many similar situations in talking to people from different castes and professions, some he may never have associated with before, like barbers and shopkeepers; we also know that he included kings and their warriors in his audiences. We do know that he admitted them to his presence, and talked to them, advising some to renounce the life of a warrior, others he would not admit in the Sangha until after they had completed their military service. He did not shun them because of their profession. He had been one of them.

Namo Amida Butsu

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True wealth…

Gold lily

Although the Buddha encouraged his householder disciples to create wealth, he also repeatedly pointed out the relative worth of outer and inner riches. This short teaching outlines seven sources of inner abundance.

Then Ugga, the king’s chief minister, approached the Blessed One and, on arrival, having bowed down, sat to one side. As he was sitting there, he said to the Blessed One: “It’s amazing, lord, & awesome, how prosperous Migara Rohaneyya is, how great his treasures, how great his resources!”

[Then the Buddha said:] “But what is his property, Ugga? What are his great treasures and great resources?”

“One hundred thousand pieces of gold, lord, to say nothing of his silver.”

“That is treasure, Ugga. I don’t say that it’s not. And that treasure is open to fire, floods, kings, thieves, and hateful heirs. But these seven treasures are not open to fire, flood, kings, thieves, or hateful heirs. Which seven? The treasure of conviction, the treasure of virtue, the treasure of conscience, the treasure of concern, the treasure of listening, the treasure of generosity, the treasure of discernment. These, Ugga, are the seven treasures that are not open to fire, flood, kings, thieves, or hateful heirs.

The treasure of faith (saddha),
the treasure of virtue (sila),
the treasure of conscience and concern (hirī & ottappa).
The treasure of listening (suta), generosity (cāga),
and wisdom (paññā) as the seventh treasure.
Whoever, man or woman, has these treasures,
has great treasure in the world
that no human or divine being can excel.
So faith and ethical conduct, confidence (pasāda) and insight into the Dhamma
should be cultivated by the wise,
remembering the Buddhas’ instruction.

The Ugga Sutta, from the Anguttara Nikaya of the Pali canon.

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Krishnamurti: “It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.”

Jiddu Krishnamurti

I once had a disturbed young man come to a meditation class I was teaching in Edinburgh. As we’d gathered and during the meditation instruction I’d noticed that he was unusually intense and that he had noticeably poor personal hygiene, but in most ways he seemed like a fairly typical young man.

In the discussion following, however, his conversation started to veer off into more bizarre areas. He’d had “cosmic” experiences during the meditation session — experiences whose details I no longer recall but which sounded very off-balance. His girlfriend was apparently an Iranian princess. He was being shadowed by various security forces. Later still, as we were winding up and preparing to leave, and he was able to talk to me more or less alone, his conversation became more delusional still. He had developed special powers through his spiritual practice and could make things happen in the world around him. As we talked a housefly smacked noisily into the glass door we were standing beside. “See!” he said, excitedly. “I made that happen.”

He was obviously ill and suffering, and I experienced that pang of knowing that there was little or nothing I could do to help.

I’m no mental health professional, but his behaviors reminded me of what little I knew about schizophrenia and so I suggested as kindly as I could that he might be misinterpreting his experiences and that he might want to talk to a doctor about what was going on. He was clearly having problems with his mental health, but here’s the thing: according to the Buddha, so were the rest of us. “All worldlings are mad,” he said.*

“Worldling” is a translation of “putthujana,” which is simply anyone who isn’t enlightened. That’s me, and you. The Buddha had his own ideas about what constitutes mental health, and by his definition anyone who isn’t well on the way to Enlightenment is insane. Quite how literally he meant it when he said “All worldlings are mad” is hard to say, but when he looked at ordinary people like us going about their daily business he saw a world out of balance — and a world that by necessity is out of balance, because it is composed of those same off-kilter individuals.

He had a term for this imbalance, which was viparyasa in Sanskrit, although the less-well-known Pali equivalent vipallasa is a bit easier on the tongue and the eye. Vipallasa means “inversion,” “perversion,” or “derangement.” Specifically, in using this term the Buddha was talking about the ways in which we misunderstand the world we live in, and the ways in which we misunderstand ourselves. Just at the young man at my meditation class was constantly misinterpreting what was happening (“See! I made that happen”) so too do the rest of us live in a virtual reality of delusion, confusion, and distortion.

What’s more, we largely share the same delusions, which means that we don’t even realize that our minds are disturbed. And thus, as Krishnamurti suggests, it’s possible to think that we’re spiritually and mentally healthy because we share our mistaken values and understandings with those around us. Collectively, our ill minds create a society that is itself ill, and we consider ourselves healthy because we see our values reflected in our fellow worldlings.

When I think of the vipallasas in modern life I’m overwhelmed by examples, but the one that springs most to mind is to materialism. We keep thinking that the answer to our sense of existential dissatisfaction is to buy more stuff: more stuff, and better stuff. I guess I notice this most with gadgets, but for other people it’s houses, furniture, shoes, clothes, or cars — none of which I care about at all. I get a new gadget — the shiny MacBook Pro I’m writing this article on, for example — and I feel a sense of pleasure just looking at it. It’s better, faster, prettier than any computer I’ve had before. But then what happens over time? Newer, better, faster, prettier computers come on the market, and I start comparing my machine unfavorably with them. My gadget starts to look a bit old-fashioned (after only six months!), less cool, less capable. It feels less fast. And I’m no longer so happy with it. I now start to hanker after something new.

And I’ve been through all this craziness before. (Don’t they say that insanity is doing the same time over and over and expecting a different result?) Even knowing that I’m on a materialistic treadmill doesn’t entirely blunt the craving for a new computer, although to give myself credit I live without a television and rarely make impulse purchases. But on some level I really believe that the answer to the discomfort of my cravings will arrive in a box carried by a UPS truck.

I work with these cravings in my meditation and in my daily life, because the Buddha suggested that there was a better answer to the problem of craving. His advice was that we need to look deeply at our craving itself, and to realize the many levels of delusion that come packaged with it. The new gadget (or pair of shoes, or that lovely sweater, or sexy car) doesn’t contain a magical ingredient that will make us happy. The object of our craving is impermanent and therefore incapable of giving lasting satisfaction.

Our craving itself is impermanent! We can watch cravings arise and pass. As we watch them come and go, choosing not to act on them, they begin to develop an unreal appearance. As we start increasingly to see through them we no longer take them so seriously, and they become weaker and less frequent. And in the end we come to see what the Buddha himself saw, which is that the answer to the problem of our cravings is not acquiring the object of our cravings but letting go of craving itself.

It’s through abandoning craving that we will finally find peace, that we’ll come back to our senses, stop seeing things in a distorted way, and find true health and wellbeing. And having done that, to whatever degree, we can look around at the imbalance that surrounds us — really seeing it — and then compassionately reach out to others so that we can help them bring about their own healing.


* I’ve since learned that this quotation is not from the Buddha, but is ultimately from the commentator Buddhaghosa. You can read more here.

Also the quote, “It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society,” seems to be a condensation of something Krishnamurti said in his “Commentaries on Living, Series 3” (1960): “Is society healthy, that an individual should return to it? Has not society itself helped to make the individual unhealthy? Of course, the unhealthy must be made healthy, that goes without saying; but why should the individual adjust himself to an unhealthy society? If he is healthy, he will not be a part of it. Without first questioning the health of society, what is the good of helping misfits to conform to society?” Thanks to reader George Coyne for supplying the full quotation.

The condensed form used in the title of this article seems to have first been attributed to Krishnamurti by Mark Vonnegut in “The Eden Express” (1975). Misattributed or inaccurate quotes abound on the internet.

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“Exploring Karma and Rebirth,” by Nagapriya

Exploring karma and rebirth, Nagapriya

Available from Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk

The Dalai Lama, has a great interest in science and believes that both the scientific method and Buddhism are attempts to discover how things really are. He has even gone so far as to say that when science and traditional Buddhist teachings part company, it is Buddhism that has to change.

In some cases these adjustments have already been made: people 2,500 years ago in India may have thought that Mount Meru was the center of the world and that there were four continents, but there are no contemporary Buddhist fundamentalists crying out for school text books to carry disclaimers stating that geography is “only a theory.” We’ve let that one slide.

See also:

It’s relatively easy to recognize in the face of modern scientific findings that a cosmological model has outlived its usefulness, but there are a number of trickier areas where science and traditional Buddhist perspectives do not mesh, and an exploration of these areas is perhaps overdue and important.

Two of those areas are the related fields of karma and rebirth, and an examination of these is important because they are – unlike the Ancients’ conception of geography – central to Buddhist teachings, not just as concepts but as the underpinning for Buddhist practice.

Nagapriya‘s book has, I confess, been languishing on my shelf for too long, and deserves to have been reviewed much earlier because it represents an important step forward in examining the relevance and usefulness of the concepts of karma and rebirth to modern, western Buddhists. It is a text I think all practitioners would benefit from reading.

Nagapriya begins by putting the theory of karma into its historical context, showing that the concept existed prior to Buddhism but was reinvented in a Buddhist way. Karma, for example, moved from being seen by the Brahminical tradition as ritual actions aimed at placating the gods to being seen by Buddhism as ethical or unethical actions: the difference between the two kinds of actions being the state of mind underlying them. He shows how non-Buddhist understandings of karma have crept into the Buddhist tradition and caused confusion, and also how the concept has come to be understood differently at different times.

He also places karma in the wider context of the Buddhist teaching of conditioned coexistence, showing that it is a specific instance of a more general teaching about how phenomena come into being.

To be brief, it’s as important to say what karma is not as it is to say what it is, and Nagapriya does both with a convincing clarity and elegance.

Nagapriya goes on to critically examine the teaching of karma. He teases out what is useful in our specific historical context, drawing on the Buddhist scriptures, examples from fiction, and his own experience. In this examination he manages to express the teaching in a way that is easily comprehensible to the modern mind and also profoundly useful. Consider the following admirably clear way of expressing the essence of the teaching, for example:

Karma rests on two important assumptions about human character. The first assumption is that human character is not fixed, and so it may be modified. The second is that willed actions are the means by which character is modified.

He goes on to take a similar approach to the concept of rebirth, looking at what Buddhism says lies beyond the “undiscovered country” that is death, examining what is said to be reborn, looking at the traditional Buddhist teaching of the six realms of rebirth, and taking us on a quick tour of some differing historical perspectives on what (if anything) lies between death and rebirth.

Nagapriya concludes his examination of rebirth by looking critically at some of the evidence for life after life and by speculating that rebirth may be a less tidy affair – one consciousness dying and then coasting into a new body – than is generally understood. His discussion here is highly stimulating but too detailed for me to recount.

Much of the value of this book comes from the fact that Nagapriya’s approach is critical – meaning not that he is hostile to traditional Buddhist teachings (he’s not) but that he bears in mind at all times (or almost all times) Buddhism’s central purpose of addressing the problem of human suffering, and that he constantly attempts to examine whether traditional teachings are useful in that regard.

He is also very rational, in the sense that he does not gloss over contradictions in the tradition but takes those contradictions as an incentive to think more deeply. For example, he rightly questions a Tibetan Rinpoche’s outrageous assertion that those who were exterminated in the Nazi death camps “must have done something very bad in earlier lives.” This kind of teaching is common in certain Buddhist circles, but Nagapriya strongly questions the spiritual usefulness of this kind of “blame the victim” mentality as well as its validity (it’s a pretty absurd belief when you start to really think about it) and its orthodoxy (it directly contradicts the Buddha’s own teachings).

I had the feeling throughout reading this book that I was in a seminar with a highly intelligent, inquisitive, mind, and one that has above all an abundance of intellectual integrity.

The book is not perfect, but then, none of them are. There are a few minor errors of fact (Leonard Shelby in the movie “Memento” had problems making new long-term memories and hadn’t “lost his short-term memory”) and a number of cases where I thought the wrong word had been used (surely he meant to talk about the “culpability” of the Nazis and not their “liability”). There were also a few times when I wished he’d made connections that were absent (he often fails to connect the Buddha’s teachings on karma with the ultimate purpose of Buddhism, which is to address our suffering), and he dismisses the concept of the dharma-niyama as “not clear” when I think he has the capacity to bring a great deal of clarity to the subject. But often these “flaws” are actually a good sign – Nagapriya’s book has got me thinking and making connections, just as a good seminar should.

Available from Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk

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Buddhism Without Beliefs: A Contemporary Guide to Awakening, by Stephen Batchelor

Stephen Batchelor was formerly a Tibetan monk, a monk in the Korean Zen tradition, a respected translator (of Shantideva’s “Guide to the Buddhist Path”), and a student of existentialist philosophy. He’s now a determinedly freelance Buddhist practitioner and thinker, and “Buddhism Without Beliefs” is an uncompromising guide to his existentialist, stripped-to-the-basics, agnostic Buddhist practice.

As such I found the book both irritating and deeply inspiring, although on balance I was more inspired than annoyed. Batchelor got me thinking — which is very much his aim — about the way in which a well-lived life should be conducted and, if this doesn’t sound too grand, about the nature of reality.

Batchelor is a deep thinker, and he guides us step-by-step into an appreciation of “emptiness”, the Buddhist teaching that all things are “interactive processes rather than aggregates of discrete things”, and how an experience of emptiness necessarily results in the experience of compassion. It’s hard to convey in writing the effect this has, but ordinary things cease to look so ordinary, and begin to have an aura or wonder. It’s the depths of experience to which Batchelor leads us that I found particularly inspiring, as well as the freshness of his thinking and of his writing.

The irritability? Well, on occasion I got the impression that Batchelor thinks he has “got” what the Buddha taught, while just about everyone else is just “doing religion” — saying the words without understanding or practicing them. In fact he comes across as being rather dismissive (and unfairly so) of traditional Buddhism. Does this mar an otherwise excellent book? To me it does, and yet I found it worthwhile to breathe deeply and to let go of my irritation and delve joyfully into the many insights that Batchelor presents.

On balance, I found this to be a deeply satisfying and practice-provoking book.

Available at Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk

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“In the Buddha’s Words: An Anthology of Verses from the Pali Canon,” Edited by Bhikkhu Bodhi

In the Buddha's Words, by Bhikkhu Bodhi

Available from Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk.

Bhikkhu Bodhi stands as one of the foremost and most prolific modern translators of the Pali canon. He has translated The Connected Discourses of the Buddha (the Samyutta Nikaya) and revised Bhikkhu Ñānamoli’s translation of the Majjhima Nikaya (Middle Length Sayings). Both are published by Wisdom Publications, as is the volume under review.

Bhikkhu Bodhi’s latest tour de force is this indispensible anthology — thematically arranged — of key teachings from each of the five sections, or nikayas, of the Pali discourses. The selected teachings are organized into ten themes such as The Human Condition, The Path to Liberation, and Shining the Light of Wisdom. This arrangement has the advantage of giving a more balanced view of the Buddha’s teaching than would be gained by randomly dipping into the Buddhist scriptures, due to the fact that Buddhist teachings for lay people tend to be under-represented in relation to those intended for monastics, and the fact that some important teachings, like flecks of gold on a stream bed, appear infrequently in the canonical texts.

The Pali teachings are vast in scope — the Pali Text Society’s translations would fill several shelves, for example — and moreover tend to be dry and repetitive. This anthology does an excellent job of making the Pali teachings more accessible by eliding much of the repetition that is characteristic of the orally-transmitted Pali tradition, and this volume is therefore remarkably readable. Bodhi, himself a westerner, has also done an excellent job of selecting those parts of the Pali teachings that are likely to have an appeal for Westerners and for Buddhists living in modern societies anywhere in the world. The anthology includes a greater proportion of teachings addressing the existential issues at the heart of the human condition, and a greater proportion of teachings that address social issues than are found in the canon as a whole.

A highlight of the book is Bhikkhu Bodhi’s insightful introduction and chapter introductions. These passages supply useful contextual, historical, philological, and even spiritual background to the teachings, and would make an interesting and substantial book in their own right.

Any anthology represents a subjective evaluation by the editor or translator. It could be argued, for example, that Bhikkhu Bodhi’s selection over-represents the scant social teachings in the Pali canon, or that teachings given in verse (such as the Dhammapada) are underrepresented. There is of course no way to take a small percentage of a vast body of teachings and to satisfy all readers that the texts selected are a truly representative sampling of those teaching. But this anthology most certainly works, due, it must be said, to the mastery that the translator has of his field. This collection may be subjectively made, but it is made with an unparalleled depth and breadth of knowledge of its subject matter. Anyone seriously interested in gaining a better understanding of the full range of early Buddhist teachings should purchase this book.

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