If God Is Eternal: Why the Bible Is A Bad Place to Start Your Dharma Practice (Part 1 of a 13-Part Series)
Diligent readers of my blog (are any of you there?) may have noticed that with one exception the only commenter on my efforts to date is self-proclaimed “integral Christian” Scott MacPherson. For this contribution I am much indebted to Mr. MacPherson, though oddly enough I only recently got around to actually visiting his blog, whereupon I read the following:
I read something by a long-time Buddhist wherein he said that the Fourth Noble Truth of Buddhism is not found within Christianity. I assert that it can be found within Christianity… (from “The First and Second Noble Truths of Buddhism inside Christianity“).
Those are the opening lines of what eventually became eight separate posts asserting that and then some.
Now Mr. MacPherson’s first Buddhist related post appeared on April 22nd of 2011, and his first comment on my page arrived two days later. Subsequent comments by him lambasted me for my “tribal” mentality but, more to the point, argued that Christianity and Buddhism were really very similar, if not the same. He said:
I have read and marked up a great deal of the Long, Middle, and Connected Discourses, as well as the Dhammapada and the Platform, Heart, and Diamond Sutras. In every single one of those books I found the Bible. It’s there if you’re not tribal. The Zen monk Thict Nhat Hahn [sic] openly proclaims Christianity is true.
And it just so happens that I was in fact the author of the apparently controversial remark that Christianity lacked anything corresponding to the Eightfold Path. Specifically, I cited the Mahaparinibbana Sutta (D.15:5:27),
where [I am now quoting myself] the Buddha declares that the presence of the Eightfold Path is the necessary condition for any teaching to lead someone to liberation. Christianity, especially the Biblically based sort, lacks anything corresponding to the Eightfold Path and as such is incapable of guiding anyone to liberation (i.e. nibbana). It would thus be considered kanha dhamma, a “dark teaching.”
It appears then that I am the inspiration for Mr. MacPhersons’s outpouring on the subjects of Gospel and Dhamma. Inasmuch as my initial purpose in writing this blog was to stimulate and inform people concerning the Buddha’s Teaching, it would seem I have achieved my goal.
I am not a big reader of blogs (except my own), and even less a commenter. There are just too many opinions floating around and too few minutes in the day to worry about them. Mr. MacPherson’s opinions, though, since they were apparently voiced in direct opposition to my own, deserve some attention. My hope is that in expressing my thoughts on them I’ll offer constructive critiques, advice and information as opposed to knock-downs and retorts. Assuming Mr. MacPherson one day reads my response, hopefully he’ll come away feeling encouraged and informed as opposed to insulted and annoyed.
Anyone who wishes to continue with this discussion would be well advised to read first the comments Mr. MacPherson made on my own site, and then to read the Buddhist related posts on his site. Here they are in order:
He has written another post entitled “Understanding that what is true sometimes depends on one’s present level of growth,” but this does not come within the purview of my discussion.
Now, I am not sure how long Mr. MacPherson has been studying Buddhism, or what books he has read or teachers practiced with. But whether his experience is long or short, narrow or wide, he is, in his effort to grasp the Dhamma, up against a veritable intellectual cliff. I don’t think most people realize just how hard the Buddha’s teaching is to get intellectually, let alone experientially. So difficult is it that even years of language study, a Ph.D. and many publications, can still result in skewed interpretations laden with facts and terms but lacking any meaningful form that might guide one to the specific insights the Buddha pointed at. It is not a matter of intelligence, either. Geniuses come and go, with Nobel Prizes and Pulitzers dispensed, but how many of these doctors and pundits attain the Path? Instead, the masses live and die as “uninformed commoners”—assutava puthujjanas—and never know what they’ve missed.
Consider the following quotes:
Although a hundred years have elapsed since the scientific study of Buddhism has been initiated in Europe, we are nevertheless still in the dark about the fundamental teachings of this religion and its philosophy. Certainly no other religion has proved so refractory to clear formulation (T. Stcherbatsky, The Conception of Buddhist Nirvana , p. 1).
Anyone who is a puthujjana ought to find himself confronted with a difficulty when he considers the Buddha’s Teaching. The reason for this is quite simply that when a puthujjana does come to understand the Buddha’s Teaching he thereby ceases to be a puthujjana (Ñánavíra Thera, Clearing the Path , p. 247).
And this from the Master himself:
This Dhamma is profound, hard to see and hard to understand, peaceful and sublime, unattainable by mere reasoning, to be experienced by the wise (Aggivacchagota Sutta, M.72:18).
Consider my own case. I began studying Buddhism (and religion in general) at the age of 18. It took me ten years before I got, intellectually, what the Dhamma was about. I can say this with a degree of certainty because I had the good fortune to meet teachers (my ordination brother, for one) who were specifically stream enterers (sotapanna) or better upon whom I could vet my understanding. But it was another six years or so before the import of this understanding really took hold of my mind. Now another eleven years have gone by—in all 27 years of mulling over and on-again-off-again practice, interspersed by moments of great clarity and great confusion. No wonder the Buddha, in the weeks following his enlightenment, wondered if teaching was worth the effort.
All this is to say that anyone, regardless of background, is apt to find the Dhamma challenging because it is, to paraphrase the Buddha, “against the grain.” Some worldviews, however, are more problematic than others, and unfortunately for Mr. MacPherson, his philosophical background lies with those.
Judging by his self description, he is (much like myself early on) a dabbler in different paths, an eclectic. He seems of late to have settled on Eastern Orthodox Christianity, though also professes interest in Sufism and Buddhism, and so apparently has something of a mystical bent. From comments in his posts he most certainly believes Jesus was God, and believes in the God of the Bible. He appears also to be a Genesis fundamentalist to the extent he believes in Adam and Eve and the Fall. Ordinarily this last bit would be sufficient to send me into paroxysms, but in this case I will only say that a Biblically-based Weltanschauung renders the Dhamma well nigh incomprehensible.
Consider, for instance, the effort to grasp aniccata (“impermanence”) so long as you believe in an imperishable God or soul, or eternal states such as heaven and hell. Either the effort must be given up as futile, or God must be given up. You cannot have impermanence and God at the same time. “But I see impermanence all around me,” the putthujjana (theist or otherwise) will say. But the aniccata the Buddha speaks of is not simply the decay of one’s car or clothes or spouse’s face, for none of these require the Noble Ones’ ñanadassana, the “knowledge and vision” of the Path, to see. Aniccata is something more profound than that. Consider this from Ñanavira:
That the puthujjana does not see aniccata is evident from the fact that the formula, “Whatever has the nature of arising, all that has the nature of ceasing,” which is clearly enough the definition of aniccata, is used only in connection with the sotapanna’s attainment: “…the clear and stainless Eye of the Dhamma arose in him: ‘Whatever has the nature of arising, all that has the nature of ceasing’” (at, e.g., Sacca Samyutta 56.11). Aniccata is seen with the sotapanna’s dhammacakkhu, or eye of the dhamma… (Op cit, pp. 249-50).
This is direct insight to Dependent Arising (paticcasamuppada), perhaps the single most important concept in the Buddha’s Teaching and one of the most widely misunderstood. Its importance can be measured by the fact that the second and third Noble Truths stem directly from it, and the Buddha himself was quoted by Sariputta (at M.28:28) as saying: “He who sees dependent arising sees the Dhamma; he who sees the Dhamma sees dependent arising.” Impermanence and insight to the Dhamma cannot be separated, but such insight can’t even be considered so long as one holds anything as permanent.
In other words, attainment on the Buddhist path of awakening cannot occur without dispensing with notions that are fundamental to the Biblical worldview; these ways of seeing, in effect, cancel one another out. That views (ditthi) at odds with the Dhamma constitute a stumbling block for anyone approaching it is made clear on a number of occasions in the suttas. Consider this from the Nidanasamyutta (S.12:35):
If there is the view, “The soul and the body are the same,” there is no living of the holy life; if there is the view, “The soul is one thing, the body is another,” there is no living of the holy life. Without veering towards either of these extremes, the Tathagata teaches the Dhamma by the middle: “With birth as condition, aging-and-death…” etc.
The first view is that of materialism (ucchedavada), the second that of eternalism (sassatavada). Monotheism is predicated upon the latter.
The Buddha seems to be saying two things at once here: first, that if either of these views were true, the Dhamma as he teaches it would be impossible to realize; second, that adherence to either of these views makes practice and attainment of his Path problematic. The “right view” (sammaditthi) of the sotapanna, however, abrogates both extremes.
In one of his many conversations with the wanderer Vacchagotta (M.72:18), the Buddha comments directly on his interlocutor’s dilemma: “It is hard for you to understand [the Dhamma] when you hold another view, accept another teaching, approve of another teaching, pursue a different training, and follow a different teacher.” Fortunately, the Buddha did not treat Vacchagotta as a lost cause and Vacchagotta did not give up—he kept asking and asking, until finally he let go of what had been holding him back. Once he had done that,
before long, dwelling alone, withdrawn, diligent, ardent, and resolute, the venerable Vacchagotta, by realising for himself with direct knowledge, here and now entered upon and abided in that supreme goal of the holy life for the sake of which clansmen rightly go forth from the home life into homelessness. He directly knew: “Birth is destroyed, the holy life has been lived, what had to be done has been done, there is no more coming to any state of being.” And venerable Vacchagotta became one of the arahants” (M.73:26).
Passages like this fire me with enthusiasm! There is always hope.