My friend Gesshin Greenwood wrote a great article in the current issue of Buddhadharma magazine. It’s the cover story! Do you know how many times I’ve gotten the cover story in one of the Buddhist magazines? Let me go through my files and count. OK. Here you go… never. Not once. But am I bitter? NO! Because I am above all bitterness! I am that f—ing enlightened!
Gesshin’s story is all about whether one can strip away the cultural forms of Buddhism and get to its real essence. Regular readers will know that this is one of my favorite pet themes.
The Mindfulness™ movement takes the stance that yes, we can strip away the forms of Buddhism and toss them aside while only dealing with the important essentials. Sam Harris says, “Most people who teach mindfulness are still in the religion business. If you are declaring yourself a Buddhist you are part of the problem of religious sectarianism that has needlessly shattered our world. And I think we have to get out of the religion business.”
In her article, Gesshin gives us her teacher’s metaphor of Buddhism as wheel where the essence is at the center and the forms are at the rim. The wheel can’t move forward without its rim. She also talks about this common image of “stripping away” the forms of Buddhism to find the naked truth inside and says maybe we should get to know each other a little better before we get naked.
The way I see the history of Buddhism is that our man Siddhartha or Gautama, the historical Buddha, tried out various religious approaches to the problem of what life was and how to live it and found them wanting. So he looked deeply within himself and found another way. He also found that rituals are very useful in making what is merely intellectual into something that involves the body as well as the mind. When you wear a special costume, you tend to embody the spirit of that costume. When you put on a bunny outfit you feel like a bunny. When you put on Buddhist robes you feel like embodying the essence of Buddhism.
Sam Harris also says, “It just so happens Buddhism almost uniquely has given us a language and a methodology to do this (turn consciousness upon itself and thereby discover truth) that is really well designed for export into secular culture because you can get to the core truths of Buddhism — the truth of selflessness, the ceaseless impermanence of mental phenomena, the intrinsic unsatisfactoriness of experience. These features of our minds can be fully tested and understood without believing in anything on insufficient evidence. So it’s true to say that despite all the spooky metaphysics and unjustified claims of Buddhism you can get to the core of it without any faith claim and without being intellectually dishonest.”
Now here he is not talking just about trashing the bowing and incense lighting and chanting and funny clothes and haircuts. He’s saying we can also dump pretty much all of what my teacher called “Buddhist philosophy” too. I don’t feel like either of these is a very good idea, because if you do so it’s like trying to reinvent physics because you don’t like Einstein’s ideas about mustache grooming or Stephen Hawking’s preference for the far inferior Star Trek: The Next Generation over the much better Star Trek: The Original Series.
It’s true that people hear talk about karma or the Four Noble Truths or the Buddhist Precepts, or hear ideas about rebirth and about Bodhisattvas who can offer us help although they are either long dead people or entirely made up beings; they hear those things and assume they are spooky metaphysics or unjustified claims that must be accepted on faith. Unfortunately sometimes Buddhism really is taught that mistaken way. In his book Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist Stephen Batchelor says that’s how Tibetan Buddhism was presented to him, as a set of untestable doctrines that must be believed.
That’s the wrong way to understand Buddhist philosophy.
The right way to understand all that stuff is like this. For thousands of years across a variety of cultures, people who meditate have tried to put their experiences into words that they hoped others who did not meditate would get. Because our entire way of understanding life, the universe, and everything is fundamentally wrong, these teachers were forced to speak in metaphors. But all of the best Buddhist teachers said this quite explicitly. Quoting the historical Buddha, Dogen said, “Our Highest Ancestor in India, Shakyamuni Buddha, once said, ‘The snowcapped Himalayas are a metaphor for the great nirvana.’ When he uses the term ‘snow-capped Himalayas’, he is using the actual snowcapped Himalayas as a metaphor, just as when he uses the term ‘great nirvana’, he is using the actual great nirvana as a metaphor.” So even “great nirvana” is just as much of a metaphor as “snow-capped Himalayas.” This is only a single example. There are thousands more throughout all of Buddhist philosophy.
What these teachers have left for us is far too often treated as if it is Holy Scripture. But it’s not. Like all supposed “Holy Scripture” it is the words of people like us trying to convey an experience that is, in some ways, holy but also very human. As Chung-La said, “Before Buddhas were enlightened they were the same as we. Enlightened people of today are exactly as those of old.” If we learn to read the words of ancient Buddhist teachers in that spirit, we no longer see them as doctrines that must be accepted on faith alone but as attempts to tell us about an experience that is not easy to put in words.
It’s a kind of cultural arrogance to think that we can figure out what’s truly important in Buddhism better than the people who’ve been practicing it for centuries. I myself spent years believing that I understood Buddhism much better than those stuffy old Buddhists of ancient Asia. So I get it. But I never really understood what the forms of Buddhism actually were until I started doing them, and I never really understood what the so-called “doctrines” of Buddhism were until I actually started working with them.
So maybe try working with the tradition a little bit before you dismiss it all as useless baggage.
August 14-16, 2015 Munich, Germany 3 DAY ZEN RETREAT
August 19, 2015 Munich, Germany LECTURE
August 24-29, 2015 Felsentor, Switzerland 5-DAY RETREAT AT STIFTUNG FELSENTOR
August 30-September 4, 2015 Holzkirchen, Germany 5-DAY RETREAT AT BENEDIKTUSHOF MONASTERY
September 4, 2015 Hamburg, Germany LECTURE
September 6, 2015 Hamburg, Germany ZEN DAY
September 10-13, 2015 Finland 4-DAY RETREAT
September 16-19, 20015 Hebden Bridge, England 4-DAY RETREAT
September 20, 2015 London, England THE ART OF SITTING DOWN & SHUTTING UP
September 21-25, 2015 Belfast, Northern Ireland SPECIFIC DATES TO BE DETERMINED
September 26-27, 2015 Glastonbury, England 2-DAY RETREAT
October 26-27 Cincinnati, Ohio Concert:Nova
November 6-8, 2015 Mt. Baldy, CA 3-DAY RETREAT
April 23, 2016 Long Island, New York Molloy College “Spring Awakening 2016”
Every Monday at 8pm there’s zazen at Silverlake Yoga Studio 2 located at 2810 Glendale Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA 90039. All are welcome!
Every Saturday at 9:30 there’s zazen at the Veteran’s Memorial Complex located at 4117 Overland Blvd., Culver City, CA 90230. All are welcome!
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