So what the hell kind of Buddhist are you, anyway?
I recently had some email conversation with a person named Sophia. Although the issues we discussed were of great intrinsic interest, I cut off the conversation on account of my correspondent’s insistently aggressive snarkiness. It just got to be a little much. However, I would like to address some of those issues in more detail and hopefully clarify what I really think about them. While I can’t say this is for Sophia’s benefit, it may be of interest to some people or, if perhaps anyone else was thinking along the lines she was thinking, may head off future conflict or misunderstanding.
Perhaps the first matter to clarify is whether I am Mahayanist or Theravadan in orientation. A lot of the challenges and points she was making seemed to assume this dichotomy, and also seemed to assume I was the former over against the latter—this, no doubt, because I’ve been writing a lot recently about the bodhisattva ideal. I find this confusion puzzling since I’m pretty up front about my position in the “About Me” section of my blog: “Regarding Buddhism: my bias is towards the Pali suttas—no other texts can claim veracity as regards the historical Buddha…” The only caveat I can add to this is that the Mahayana and Vajrayana teachings and practices have certainly added worthy ideas and technologies to the Buddhist tradition. This stance should not, I think, be in any way controversial, given modern scholarship regarding the history of Buddhism.
What might be controversial (to some) is my decidedly secular approach to these teachings. That is to say I do not take a religious, fundamentalist, or absolutist view of anything in Buddhism (or anything else). I do not see anything “perfect,” “revelatory,” or “final” about the Buddha’s or Buddhist teachings. I do not accept anything just because “it is written.” I do not accept anything just because “so it is said” or because “this teacher said so.” (Think the Kalama Sutta.) I land where scholarship and actual testing in practice tells me I should land. Thus: the Jatakas are not the Buddha’s past lives—they are Indian folktales appropriated for didactic purposes by the Buddhist tradition. The Buddha did not teach the Abhidhamma to devas in Tavatimsa heaven—it is a later scholastic creation, often at odds doctrinally with the Suttas. And the Buddha was not omniscient—he actually said as much, and there is no doubting that many of his powers and achievements have been exaggerated. (I could say the same thing of Jesus or any other pre-modern miracle worker or saint.) It is also silly to say the Buddha was the “most enlightened, most perfect, peerless, ultimate teacher of gods and men to ever walk any world in any galaxy.” Maybe he was, probably he wasn’t. There is no way to know, and anyone who says this kind of thing is pretending to knowledge they obviously do not have and is speaking from nothing but faith—blind faith. (An equivalent assertion is the oft-repeated Christian dogma that Jesus rose from the dead or never sinned, etc. I find such wild presumptions of knowledge puzzling, not to mention grossly immature.) This position of mine in no way obviates the worth of the Buddhist tradition or the excellence of the Buddha as a teacher. I personally think the Buddha is the best teacher of whom we have a reasonably complete and reliable record, but this is just my opinion based upon my limited information; I should be—and am—always willing to change my opinion if I happen upon better evidence.
Getting back to the Theravada/Mahayana dilemma: I should point out that a lot of the Theravada incorporates beliefs and practices not found in the Suttas. Remember, the Theravada was and is a school—it is the not the Buddha’s Teaching per se. What might be the Buddha’s teaching, what holds the clearest claim to be such, is the Pali Canon, specifically the Vinaya and Sutta Pitakas, and then some of the texts in the Sutta Pitaka are clearly later and apocryphal, e.g. the Buddhavamsa, the Cariyapitaka, etc. One must tread with care determining what is what. Now, while determining what the Buddha actually taught is a fascinating historical and scholarly endeavor, for a contemplative practitioner it is a waste of time. The reason is because there are many ways to skin a cat. The phenomenon of human awakening—“enlightenment”—is not something dependent upon a particular set of practices or a particular tradition. One personality type will be most helped by this practice, another by that practice. Whether it is Advaita Vedanta or Vajrayana or Theravada is not important: what works is important. This is really the heart of what I mean by being “secular”—a practical, non-ideological approach is required. This way opens up the whole human contemplative endeavor to each one of us rather than shutting us off in separate schools, everyone claiming “Mine is best!”
If religious Buddhists find this stance offensive, that’s okay. They are welcome to their views. They can practice over there and I will practice over here. But even if we practice cheek-to-jowl they probably will never know I am “secular” because I have no problem bowing to statues, chanting precepts in Pali, observing Uposathas, etc. In other words, I do not eschew the forms—in fact, I love the forms. The forms help us and comfort us, they guide us, but they must not cage us. You might even say I am Buddhist because I find the forms of Buddhist practice the most comfortable to live and work with, as opposed, say, to Taoist or Hindu forms, not to mention Christian or others.
I hope the above clears up any doubts people might have about where I’m coming from; if it doesn’t, that’s okay too. I’m really not such an important person that you have to grok my Dharma—or should I say “Dhamma”?