Buddhist Books Blog

Readings and writings on Buddhism, yoga, and contemplative science

Archive for the category “Christianity and Buddhism”

A Buddhist Answer to Craig’s God: Part 2 of A Critique of William Lane Craig’s Debate With Sam Harris

In the first part of this essay I tried to show how postulating God–any god or gods–as the source of morality is so beset by problems as to offer no refuge for the man or woman in the world who asks, in all seriousness, the ethical question What shall I do?  That there is an answer to this question I am certain, and the best answer I have found, the most complete and rigorously defined, lies in the teachings of the historical Buddha.

I say “historical” to delimit my source materials.  My interest here is in what Gotama’s answer to this question was, not what later followers and elaborators said he said.  For this we have as source the sutta pitaka, the “basket of discourses” found in the Pali Canon of the Theravada school and the only documents that can claim any meaningful direct link with Buddhism’s founder.  This is in no way to denigrate the later Mahayana and Vajrayana schools of Buddhism which have added substantitively to Buddhist technologies of liberation.  Simply, I have not the expertise (not to mention the time) to be all-encompassing; indeed, this discussion of the Buddha’s ethics will be at best preliminary, indicating possible answers to the questions addressed in the Craig-Harris debate.

In fact, I have already written on this subject.  Here is a quote from my “Ten Questions” essay in response to Daryl E. Wittmer:

What then is the purpose of ethical behavior?  The Buddha discusses this specific question innumerable times throughout the suttas.  In brief, one adopts sila (ethical precepts) specifically for the purpose of eliminating mental, verbal and physical actions that give rise to negative mental states, relationships and consequences that hinder mental culture (bhavana).  Also, we try to behave generously, graciously, and compassionately because such modes of deportment foster good mental states both within ourselves and others.  In other words, depending on what we think, say and do we have the power to increase or decrease suffering in ourselves and others.  Since the Buddha’s teaching is concerned entirely with the elimination of suffering (i.e. existential angst), ethical behavior is the bedrock upon which everything else must be built.  Without it, the attainment of higher states leading to [nirvana] is out of the question.

This really is the gist of it.  Ethics begin with a person confronting their vulnerable position in this world.  They are alone, even with others, for nobody can tell them how to live their life.  Even if others try (as they inevitably do), in the end it is their life.  They alone suffer the consequences and enjoy the fruit of what they have done.  They are responsible.  How, then, can they know what they should do, what is right and what is wrong?

Clearly this is not a question for simpletons or those endlessly lost in distractions.  I cannot ask my cat this question and expect him to hesitate next time he encounters a mouse.  Intelligence is required, maturity, reflection.  One must look and see what one has thought, said and done.  One must observe consequences, not only in one’s own life, but in the lives of others, living and dead.  Responsibility must be exercised.  Eventually, if one reaches out with the heart–this is what is called “compassion”–one understands, one feels, that the suffering and joy of others is in fact no different than one’s own.  One sees that thoughts, words, and actions are things that, once produced, live beyond you, but almost inevitably revisit you.  This is karma–the conditioning of one’s mind, body and life by the actions one has taken.

There is nothing mysterious or magical about this.  You think, you speak, you act.  These behaviors affect the world.  They affect others.  They affect you.  That influence in turn conditions your next thought, word or action.  Here we have, quite clearly, inescapably, cause and effect.  If you regularly ring the bell while eating, you will salivate at the bell, even in the absence of food.  You will have formed and shaped your own mind, thereby limiting or expanding your experience and possibilities.

What is the best way to live?  Which actions give rise to the greatest well being for the greatest number of beings?  (Note: this argument, as you can see if you’ve read the transcript, is quite close to Harris’, who has almost certainly been influenced by Buddhist thinking on this subject.)  A Stalin or Mao will never ask this question, or, if they do, will never reference anything beyond their immediate, self-absorbed concerns.  For more than intelligence is required.  Sensitivity, too, is paramount–hence the innumerable Buddhist trainings that are meant to open the heart to friendliness, sympathetic joy, and the suffering of others.  Only when these modalities are sufficiently mature can karma, in its broadest sense, mean anything to a person, thereby affecting the choices they make.

Ultimately, the Buddhist path converges on a total transformation of the human heart and mind.  It is transpersonal, transcendent, yet at the same time immanent, for the awakened one never loses sight of the fact that he or she is still in the world, related to other beings.  From an ethical standpoint, the selfless mind, the mind that has realized bodhi or anatta and undergone permanent transformation as a result, is the true source and ground of ethics.  Ethics converge on self-transcendence.  For where there is self, there is other, there is separation and division and conflict.  Ethics begin with an orientation toward non-duality or egolessness; they are  consummated and completed in the permanent realization of that state.

It should by now be obvious that Buddhist ethics differ radically from William Lane Craig’s definition of ethics.  In Craig’s view, morality is really just another word for obedience–if we obey God’s commands, we are judged ethical; if we do not, we are unethical.  It’s that simple.  In addition to the problems elaborated in the first part of this essay, it should be noted that ethics in Craig’s scenario are quite malleable.  If God says it is good to slaughter the heathens–and in some passages in the Old Testament he does–then murder is a virtue.  If he says “Love thy neighbor as thyself” then self-sacrifice and generosity are judged moral actions.  Morality is thus held hostage to the changing whims of a god through time.  The Spaniards were not in a position to criticize human sacrifice by the Aztecs on the basis of scripture.

I finish with one last quote from my “Ten Questions” essay:

But what if God tells a person to love their neighbor, to give to the poor, and to turn the other cheek?  And what if he or she does it?  Certainly they will be considered moral, perhaps even saintly.  And that is all well and good; it would be wonderful if more people followed such advice.  But I wonder: does such a person understand the purpose of ethics any better than, say, a puppy understands why its master wants it to sit, fetch or play dead?  I think not.  Ultimately, “doing God’s will” is a substitute for thinking and comprehension; it is simple obedience.  The person of faith may enthusiastically fulfill the commandments or do so grudgingly.  Either way, they will be fulfilled, but not because the person comprehends the purpose of ethical behavior.

True ethics, I posit, are not simply a matter of doing good.  More importantly, ethics must concern being good.  This is a totally different propostion, one that requires much more than simple obedience.  It requires intelligence, consideration, awareness and the long view.  Craig’s position cannot offer this.  The Buddha’s can.

Advertisements

A Letter To Christian-Buddhists (the pdf)

If you enjoyed reading my series of thirteen posts inspired by Scott MacPherson’s critique of my post “Thoughts On Christian-Buddhism“–or even if you didn’t–I’ve collected and edited them all to form a single document in pdf format.  Here it is, for free distribution

A LETTER TO CHRISTIAN-BUDDHISTS

Common Ground: The Contemplative Conversation (Part 13 of a 13-Part Series)

I have now written more than twenty thousand words on why Christian-Buddhism is a bad idea.  More to the point, I’ve rebutted—quite successfully, I think—any notion that you can derive the Buddha’s teaching from the Bible.  Notice, however, that I’ve limited my argument all along to the Bible—that is, I’ve stuck to the Old and New Testaments and made no attempt to draw in the Christian contemplative tradition.  There is a good reason for that. 

As noted, Christian-Buddhists are invariably mystical in orientation, even if they’ve never practiced meditation for even fifteen minutes.  This is inevitable because the mystical experience transcends orthodoxy; all contemplative schools share certain characteristics and practices—e.g., their focus on solitude, silence, ethical purity, development of concentration and the like.  The human brain, being what it is, responds to like stimuli in like ways, and so you would expect that practices pursued in, say, a convent in France, would give similar results when tried in a cave in the Himalayas.  And indeed, it is so.  

I would like now to offer some suggestions for the exploration of common traits between Christian and Buddhist contemplative traditions.  These suggestions are offered especially to those who come from a Christian background, and so may not feel inclined to dispense with Christianity even though genuinely interested in Buddhism—in other words, to self-described Christian Buddhists. 

First, if you’re going to study Buddhism, take it for what it is, not for what you want it to be.  In other words, start with as few assumptions as possible and never assume you understand.  You probably don’t. 

Second: don’t mix the various Buddhist schools.  They are very different, have different aims, methods, and views.  This is not to say they are necessarily at odds with each other all the time, but you need to know their differences and why those differences exist. 

Third: a good understanding of Buddhist history is important.  Try to understand origins, and how things developed.  For example, the only texts that can possibly lay claim to representing the historical Buddha’s teachings are the Pali Suttas and Vinaya, though every school claims legitimacy as a matter of course.  In this day, with education and scholarship what they are, nobody has any business pretending the Lotus Sutra represents the historical Buddha’s teaching.  It doesn’t. 

Fourth: practice meditation.  If you’ve not done at least several retreats you are ill placed to make any kind of a judgment about anything.  The Buddha’s teaching is not a belief system, it is an applied psychology.  So do your best to apply it. 

Finally, if you want to understand how all this relates to Christianity, and discover whether there really is any overlap between your tradition and the Buddha’s, don’t bother with the Bible or even Jesus.  I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the Bible is not useful as a guide to contemplative practice, and Jesus, whatever he was, has not left much behind that is contemplative either.  This may not be his fault; perhaps the early Church worked it this way through the suppression of more revealing texts (e.g. the Gospel of Thomas).  I don’t know.  That’s for Christians to ponder.  

Christianity though, to repeat myself yet again, has an extremely rich contemplative tradition, and it seems to me a study of the methods and attainments of its practitioners would be a very worthwhile endeavor.  Interestingly, the Eastern Orthodox tradition is actually more open to the mystical elements of the religious life than is the Catholic or Protestant, though the names of its saints will not be as familiar to most readers.  Explorers of this terrain would do well to become familiar with notable texts of the various saints and mystics—not so much with their theology, but with their methods and results, specifically their meditation practices and the states obtained thereby.  In other words, an empirical and phenomenological bias is called for if a comparison with other traditions—in this case Buddhism—is going to be made. 

What I’m suggesting here is hardly novel or original.  There are many classic texts comparing traditions, for example Mysticism East and West by Rudolph Otto, who compared Meister Eckhart with the Hindu sage Shankara.  Also, D.T. Suzuki, the famous Zen proponent, wrote Mysticism: Christian and Buddhist.  Of course, Ken Wilber has created a veritable cottage industry out of comparing mystical traditions, though his approach is extremely ideological—he clearly subscribes to the Hindu Advaita Vedanta tradition (Atman=Brahman) over everything else, and completely misconstrues Theravadan Buddhism.  Still, his remarks on Christian contemplatives may help illuminate the path for some.  

A far better approach is that taken by Jeffery Martin of Harvard whose research is in the area of spiritual transformation.  He directs the Center for the Study of Non-Symbolic Consciousness, which has interviewed hundreds of people who claim to have undergone significant changes in their everyday experience of consciousness and its relationship to thought and self.  This is an exciting line of research, one I’m following closely.  See here and here for his interview on Buddhist Geeks.  Finally, I would also recommend Dharma Overground, where people from all traditions share their meditative experiences and discuss practices for spiritual development.  The approach taken on the site is via empirical reportage, and is strictly non-ideological.  

So if one is going to pursue this comparison of traditions, Christian and Buddhist, it is important to recognize where the “gold” is—in the first hand accounts of contemplatives, not in the writings of the Biblical Prophets and Apostles—and then to dig deeply.  Get to know that material very well, then do the same for the Buddhist tradition.  I’d say you have at least five to ten years of reading ahead of you, depending on how fast you are.  Happy trails!

THE END

P.S. If you’d like an edited pdf of this series of posts, it is now available here.

Doublethink As the Door to Christian-Buddhism (Part 12 of a 13-Part Series)

Doublethink means the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them….  To tell deliberate lies while genuinely believing in them, to forget any fact that has become inconvenient, and then, when it becomes necessary again, to draw it back from oblivion for just so long as it is needed, to deny the existence of objective reality and all the while to take account of the reality which one denies… (George Orwell, 1984, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1949, pp. 176-7). 

To know and not to know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies, to hold simultaneously two opinions which cancelled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them, to use logic against logic, to repudiate morality while laying claim to it… (Ibid, p. 32). 

No, this is not a psychological profile of the younger George Bush; these are the sins of the true believer, the ideologue for whom faith is reality. 

Nobody has described the ideological mind better than George Orwell, and the above applies equally well to religious beliefs as political.  Consider how many assumptions underlying Christianity are directly contradicted by those in Buddhism; the Christian-Buddhist must either embrace all the essential tenets of both religions—resulting in cognitive dissonance and doublethink—or arbitrarily reject multiple beliefs of one or the other, to the point where their understanding of Buddhism and/or Christianity loses touch with reality and they devolve into terminal cases of intellectual dishonesty.  The following table offers examples of the Christian-Buddhist conundrum: 

Christian Article of Faith

Buddhist Response

There is only one God (Isaiah 43:10; 44:6, 8; John 17:3; 1 Corinthians 8:5-6; Galatians 4:8-9). The worldview of the Buddha and his contemporaries was polytheistic.  The most powerful god (Brahma) is even mocked when he believes he is the “only,” the “highest,” the “first.”  See the Kevaddha Sutta (D.11:80ff).
God is omniscient or “knows all things” (Acts 15:18; 1 John 3:20). In M.71:5 the Buddha denies his own omniscience, and says at M.90:8 that simultaneous knowing and seeing of everything is impossible.
God is omnipotent or “all powerful” (Psalm 115:3; Revelation 19:6). If God exists and is conscious he is subject to the moral law of karma; ipso facto he is not “all powerful.”  Also, I have written extensively on the moral conundrum that arises with this claim; an all-powerful and all-knowing God cannot, by definition, be good.  See here.
God is immutable. He does not change (James 1:17; Malachi 3:6; Isaiah 46:9-10). Sabbe sankhara anicca (Dh. 277).  “All formations are impermanent.”  In other words, all things that are supported by (sankhata) or support (sankhara) something else are impermanent.  God, as an agent in the world, cannot escape this law.  Its abrogation for the sake of God is a classic case of Christian-Buddhist doublethink.  The doublethink charge applies to mainstream Christians as well: God is sometimes angry, sometimes loving, sometimes jealous, does this and then that—in other words, gives every sign of being subject to shifting moods and thoughts.  What, pray tell, is immutable or changeless about that?
Jesus was sinless (1 Peter 2:22; Hebrews 4:15). (1) The only way this could be true was if he was an arhant, but the Gospel displays no knowledge of dependent arising, the insight knowledges, nibbana, or the Path stages.  (2) Jesus claimed to be the God of the Old Testament, whose behavior makes the randy and quarrelsome Olympian gods look like a bunch of saints.  (3) As it stands this statement is nothing more than a gratuitous assertion of faith, especially when you consider we only have a three or four year record of his thirty-three year life.  Asserting, for example, that he didn’t jerk off as a teenager is to indulge in a religious fantasy.
Jesus Christ is God (John 1:1, 14, 10:30-33, 20:28; Colossians 2:9; Philippians 2:5-8; Hebrews 1:8). Was Jesus then Brahma?  Or perhaps Sakka?  The statement is not only meaningless in the Buddhist context, but in fact lowers Jesus since devas (the gods) were in general less advanced than human arhants, not to mention the Buddha.
Jesus is the only way to God the Father (John 14:6; Matthew 11:27; Luke 10:22). The Buddha also taught the path to Brahma, the mightiest of the heavenly deities (D.13:40ff), but described it as a lesser goal.  Cf. M.97:38 where the Buddha actually scolds Sariputta for having taught the brahmin Dhananjani only the path to the Brahma world when he could have done more (i.e. could have led him to nibbana).  The “only way” to get there is the Eightfold Path (M.11:2).
Those who accept Jesus Christ, after they die, will live for eternity with Him (John 11:25, 26; 2 Corinthians 5:6). Two problems here: (1) the notion that a belief (ditthi) by itself can purify one is a view given up upon attainment of first path—sotapatti, and (2) again, the notion of some permanent state of existence (in this case heaven), directly contradicts the universal characteristic of anicca.
Those who reject Jesus Christ, after they die, will go to hell forever (Revelation 20:11-15, 21:8). Ditto above
Hell is eternal (Matthew 25:46). Ditto above

These examples could easily be multiplied many times over. 

The point I want to drive home is that to simultaneously give assent to Christian tenets and Buddhist ways of thinking is to dabble in doublethink.  It is an act of self-deception maintained either through insufficient understanding of the traditions or through their selective and idiosyncratic reinterpretation.  In both cases the self-deception is an effort to avoid cognitive dissonance, for a full and clear-eyed embrace of either tradition would render the other unpalatable or incoherent.  Needless to say, a person who maintains contradictory beliefs in this way is always hiding not only from the facts, but from himself.  The stress endured on this account can be considerable, and when people finally confront the lies they’ve been telling themselves (or have been told by others), a psycho-spiritual crisis is the usual result.  (I went through something very much like this at age 18, and know others who have experienced the same, so I’m not speaking from theory.)  Sometimes the crisis results in a breakthrough to greater depth and understanding, sometimes it results in a further flight to fantasy.  Read Leon Festinger’s classic work on cognitive dissonance, When Prophecy Fails, for a case study of the latter.  

The correct and healthy resolution to this situation is not usually the accumulation of more facts (though that can help, and did in my case) or even the exercise of logic and reason—which are typically hijacked to support the pre-existing belief system—but the development of a kind of meta-cognition, the ability to step out of oneself, to view one’s thought processes objectively and in a disinterested fashion.  Many otherwise average people—commonly known as “born skeptics”—possess this ability while even very intelligent and successful people do not; it is not a skill predicated on intellectual “processing power.”  Interestingly, it is precisely this nascent self-skepticism cum self-awareness that the Buddha enjoined his disciples to cultivate—in conjunction, of course, with a desire to test and find out for themselves.  The Dhamma, in fact, is the only major philosophy in history the very goal of which is to supersede and dispense with itself: 

In the same way, monks, I have taught the Dhamma compared to a raft, for the purpose of crossing over, not for the purpose of holding onto. Understanding the Dhamma as compared to a raft, you should let go even of Dhammas, to say nothing of non-Dhammas (M.22:13).

So Why Are We Having This Conversation Anyway? Christian-Buddhists As Religious Chimeras (Part 11 of a 13-Part Series)

I would like now to reflect on why, contrary to all evidence, so many people are addicted to this notion that the Gospel and Dhamma are simply two ways of saying the same thing.  Specifically, I’d like to discuss what I call the phenomenon of the “religious chimera.” 

As told by Homer in the Iliad (VI: 213-15), the chimera was a 

grim monster sprung of the gods, nothing human,

all lion in front, all snake behind, all goat between,

terrible, blasting lethal fire at every breath! 

In other words, the ultimate concoction of unlikely parts, a quite unnatural fantasy.  And that is exactly how a “Christian-Buddhist” or “Theistic Buddhist” or, for that matter, a Pro-gun/Pro-lifer or Creation Scientist, appears to me.  All are combinations of disparate, even contradictory parts.  Like, how do you stick a goat on the back of a lion?  And, how can you happily shoot to kill and say you value life?  I am sure George Orwell would have something to say about this.  (Doublethink, anyone?) 

It is possible some readers will find the following two posts inflammatory, even insulting.  I want to assure those of you who incline toward such feelings that that is not my intent.  I really am puzzled when something that appears so blatantly, so obviously wrong to me, is yet embraced so wholeheartedly by someone else and defended as perfectly reasonable.  In most cases I can brush it off as due to the muddy aspect of reality; it is difficult for anyone to see everything, especially when few (myself included) are truly expert in anything.  

But as regards Buddhism I feel I have gotten to a certain point where if something is flagrantly wrong I’ll know it, which is why I’ve bothered writing almost seventeen thousand words to date arguing against Christian-Buddhism.  (And this is not including my much earlier posts, not part of this series.)  The question then is, assuming I am correct and people like Mr. MacPherson wrong, why are they wrong?  What are the mental errors they persist in that defeat their best efforts at insight into a subject they claim to respect and understand?  

I’ve read quite a few Christian-Buddhist essays and posts and so feel I have a reasonable sense of their arguments; I even had a friend who subscribed to this position.  With no disrespect intended, I can honestly say though that in every case—that is, in every essay I’ve read, in every argument heard and defense considered—I’ve seen a repeated pattern, which is to say, every proponent of Christian or Theistic Buddhism suffers from the following ailments to one degree or another: 

  1. lack of familiarity with source texts (specifically the Pali suttas)
  2. lack of understanding of these texts even when they have read them
  3. lack of significant practice of meditation or results from meditation
  4. lack of acquaintance with friends and teachers who have attained some stage of the path
  5. excessive attachment to their “home” tradition (i.e. Christianity)
  6. (mis)interpretation of that home tradition as fundamentally “mystical” or “contemplative” 

In other words, their errors lie on both sides of the equation, though far more on the Buddhist as opposed to Christian side.  Note, however, that not everyone suffers in equal degrees from all of these ailments.  It is even possible, for example, that someone could be quite advanced in meditation (especially the jhanas) and yet still be possessed of numerous wrong views.  Let’s, however, take a brief look at each of these points. 

  1. Lack of familiarity with source texts (specifically the Pali suttas).  Going by what he’s written about himself, Mr. MacPherson does not seem to suffer from this ailment.  I do have the sense though that he has not well “digested” what he’s read, for supporting references to the Pali suttas are almost entirely absent from his posts.  (I think there was one, maybe two.)  But with other people this has always been the case; usually if they are familiar with anything it is the Mahayana scriptures which, with their mystical, substantialist metaphysics, can be easily meshed with strains of Christian mysticism.  (Think Thomas Merton’s affiliation with Zen, or D.T. Suzuki’s book Mysticism: Christian and Buddhist.)  There is also a tendency to uncritically mix up Buddhist scriptures, to quote now the Lotus Sutra and then the Sattipatthana, as though each was an equally valid rendering of the Buddha’s teaching.  (They aren’t.)
  2. Lack of understanding of these texts even when they have read them.  This is universal.  I’ve never met or read anyone with theistic stripes who had better than a muddled grasp of the suttas.  Even for a Pali scholar, a deep seated faith in the God of Abraham acts as a kind of short circuit in their efforts to grasp the Buddha’s word.  Reference my discussion of Vacchagotta in post #1 of this series.
  3. Lack of significant practice of meditation or results from meditation.  Specifically, insight (vipassana) meditation.  Essentially, once you’ve got first path (sotapanna) you should be permanently freed from any belief in a God such as you find in the Bible, for you’ve directly seen impermanence, not-self and dukkha; the monotheistic faiths will simply no longer hold any interest for you.  However, you could have the jhanas up the yin-yang and still suffer all sorts of deluded beliefs.  The Buddha battled those kinds of contemplatives his whole life (as you’ll know if you’ve read the suttas).
  4. Lack of acquaintance with friends and teachers who have attained some stage of the path.  This basically follows on the one above.  Almost everyone with attainment on the path will have association with those who have done likewise, though occasionally you get those solitary geniuses who figure it out on their own or read a book or two and then follow the instructions and get it.  I am not one of those, however, and I’ve not yet met anyone who is either.
  5. Excessive attachment to their “home” tradition (i.e. Christianity).  Such attachment is a veritable death knell to progress in Dhamma.  It’s a case of trying to have your cake and eat it too.  The result is that a person ends up asserting mutually contradictory ideas at the same time without noticing they are in conflict, an acute form of intellectual dishonesty or “doublethink.”  This phenomenon is rife among the more intelligent members of homo sapiens.  In fact, a certain degree of intelligence is necessary to fall into this trap.  What I am talking about, of course, is the human addiction to views (ditthi) that is a constant topic in the suttas.    
  6. (Mis)interpretation of that home tradition as fundamentally “mystical” or “contemplative.”  All Christian Buddhists are would-be mystics at heart.  They believe Christianity is a mystical religion, that Jesus taught a contemplative path.  The truth of this is neither yes nor no, but somewhere in between.  As regards what Jesus “really” taught, all we have is what’s been preserved in the Gospels, and unfortunately claims by and about him—that he was the God of the Old Testament, was “crucified, dead and buried; descended into hell, and rose again on the third day” (the Apostle’s Creed)—are either unverifiable or unrepeatable or both.  Inasmuch as these beliefs constitute what has to be called the barest core of Christianity—mere Christianity as C.S. Lewis famously called it—we can safely say that Christianity is first and foremost a supernatural ideology, a belief system one either affirms or denies.  These beliefs, however, qua beliefs, are not mystical; they are simply fantastical assertions about reality.  Mysticism, however—or “contemplative spirituality” as we might more accurately call it—is concerned with the training of specific aspects of consciousness, such as moral choice, attention, the close observation of mental states and concentration, all in pursuit of non-ordinary states of awareness.  This definition applies to all contemplative traditions (including Buddhist), regardless of their associated beliefs or stated aims.  Christianity certainly has a rich and vibrant contemplative tradition, but the ideology at its core is not inherently contemplative, which is why it is possible to be a Biblical literalist and not a contemplative.  In fact, most fundamentalists are hostile to contemplative traditions, including Christian!  (As Protestants are fond of saying, mysticism “begins in mist, ends in schism, and has I in its middle.”)  On the other hand, try imagining someone affirming the truth of the Pali suttas and not being a contemplative at least in orientation—difficult, isn’t it? 

To claim, then, as Mr. MacPherson did in his original comments on my blog, that “the Bible is a mystical document, and… describes a contemplative path,” is to claim, quite arbitrarily, that only the mystical tradition in Christianity is the “mature thing…the real thing” and that non-mystical Christianity (that is 90% of what Christians have believed and practiced) is “a tribal-Christian position”.  While I agree that unverifiable ideologies are prone to fostering dogmatic (i.e. “tribal”) attitudes and behaviors, to select one rarified strand of Christianity (i.e. the contemplative) and affirm that as the one and only true Christianity, has to appear to the billions of non-mystical Christians as a rather high-handed, naïve, and arrogant thing to do. 

(I would never, for instance, claim that mantra-chanting, drum-pounding Pure Land Buddhists are not Buddhist or that they are necessarily “tribal” or inauthentic in their Buddhist-ness.  I would claim, however, that their version of Buddhism has no textual connection to what the historical Shakyamuni actually taught and that by their practices and beliefs they are unlikely to ever attain what he encouraged his disciples to attain.  [In fact, Pure Land Buddhism is predicated upon the notion that enlightenment is no longer possible or at least highly impracticable in this world.]  In saying this I would, moreover, have a wealth of scriptural data to back me up.  Anyone who maintains that Christianity is contemplative or mystical, however, is going to be hard pressed to produce passages from the Bible discussing the development of concentration or altered states of consciousness because there aren’t any.  

P.S: Paul’s reference to his experience of the “third heaven” in Second Corinthians 12:2 ff is a “by the way” sort of comment, obviously autobiographical.  Note, however, he did not discuss how to reach the third heaven, much less encourage anyone to try to replicate his feat—both of which, were he a practicing mystic or a member of a contemplative tradition, he most certainly would have done.  I mention this specifically so nobody will consider hammering me over the head with this passage, which would not prove Christianity’s “mystical” nature anyway.)

Be Not Like the Blind Men: The Ending of Faith Is the Beginning of Wisdom (Part 10 of A 13-Part Series)

I will not be discussing Mr. MacPherson’s posts concerning the other seven points of the eightfold path.  If after reading my previous nine posts anyone remains as yet unconvinced that there is nothing of the Buddha’s teaching in the Bible, then several volumes more—not to mention several posts—are unlikely to accomplish anything.  What I do plan to discuss is his post “God proved by the test of Long Discourses 9, 13, and 23,” wherein he uses several suttas from the Digha Nikaya as a wedge to argue for Christian theism.  

The first sutta discussed (the Payasi Sutta, D.23) concerns a certain Prince Payasi who held “the following evil opinion: ‘There is no other world, there are no spontaneously born beings, there is no fruit or result of good or evil deeds.’”  Essentially, Prince Payasi was a materialist.  He believed that the body and the self are one and the same and hence there is nothing to survive the death of the body.  This being the case, whether one does evil or good is of no particular account, since one’s death is the end of responsibility.  (Note, of course, that modern-day humanists have a very different take on this issue.  The prince was no humanist.)  “No spontaneously born beings” means he denied the existence of immaterial intelligences (i.e. devas, gods, angels—pick your term) inhabiting a world (or worlds) other than what eyes of the flesh can see.  The sutta consists of an argument between the prince and Kumara-Kassapa, a disciple of the Buddha’s, in which K-K argued for the existence of other beings (devas) and some kind of continuity beyond death.  

Clearly this sutta opposes what most people would consider essential tenets of atheism and materialism, and Mr. MacPherson correctly interprets it this way.  It does not, however, support theism such as it is found in the Bible, since (1) the devas/gods/angels whose existence Kumara-Kassapa argues for are not eternal, (2) did not create the world, and (3) are typically subject to many deluded ideas concerning themselves and the world.  They bear more resemblance to the Olympian or Norse gods than to the Biblical/Koranic God.  Mr. MacPherson does not take note of these very important facts.  

The next sutta discussed is the Potthapada Sutta (D.9).  This is actually quite an involved discourse with a lot of good material, but the point Mr. MacPherson is interested in drawing from it is that a teaching, whatever it is, should rely upon experiential knowledge.  He looks specifically to verses 34ff to illustrate this.  And indeed, this is a correct interpretation of these passages and is totally in accordance with the empirical tone of the Buddha’s teaching.  The stock description of the Dhamma as “visible here and now, immediately effective, inviting inspection, onward leading, to be experienced by the wise, each for oneself” (M.38:25 et al), asserts just this.    

This point—i.e. the emphasis on empirical, direct knowing—is again highlighted in the Tevijja Sutta (D.13), where the Buddha chastises the Brahmin Vasettha for having faith in teachers and traditions who rely only upon what they’ve heard, what they’ve been told, what they’ve read, etc, and have not directly known anything for themselves and don’t even act in accordance with what they teach.  Vasettha understands and asks the Buddha to teach him the proper way to Brahma, so he may experience “heaven” for himself.  The Buddha teaches him how to cultivate the jhanas as well as the Brahmaviharas—meditations on sympathetic joy, loving kindness, equanimity and compassion.  So again, the necessity of direct knowing and seeing is made clear; as arguments for the necessity of personal experience as the source of any philosophy, these suttas are excellent choices.  

So far, so good. 

But then Mr. MacPherson’s argument drives off a cliff.  Having established the empirical orientation of the Dhamma, he then tries—vainly—to establish similar credentials for Christianity: 

Consider…what is written in the Gospel of Saint John, chapter 1, verse 14. God Himself, in the flesh, walked on Earth with people, and with Saint John even. He was called Jesus. People saw him. They spoke with him. They touched him. They ate with him.Saint Johnsaw him, spoke with him, touched him, ate with him, traveled with him, lived with him. “And the Word [God] became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory.” All four gospels actually testify of actual people who actually saw, heard, touched, ate with, and shared lodgings with God. In 1 John 1:1 the Apostle repeats his personal experience: “We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands.” 

When Christians speak of God, they speak from a lineage that knows. They speak from a lineage that did actually hear the voice from heaven. They speak from a lineage that satisfied the test that Buddha put to those ascetics and priests in Long Discourses 9 and 13 (“God proved by the test of Long Discourses 9, 13, and 23”).

Now reread that first paragraph and look at the tense—every verb is in past tense.  In other words, Jesus, whether God or man or something in between (and as already pointed out in the previous post, whichever he was really doesn’t matter), was a one-time historical person—just like you, just like me, just like Mr. MacPherson.  And he’s gone.  He doesn’t have an address or social security number—he doesn’t even pay taxes.  As such, the “event” of Jesus is non-repeatable, and, outside the texts, non-verifiable.  However wonderful his sermons may have been, his alleged “godman” status is purely a matter of conjecture and ultimately faith.  Blind faith, I would like add. 

What Mr. MacPherson is doing is appealing to a body of texts created almost two millennia ago and assuming they are unquestionable in their historical veracity.  He’s making a faith-based claim that the generations of Christians since Jesus’ time form a “lineage that knows.”  But there is no way to be sure what Jesus’ disciples actually knew about him or whether their observations were accurately recorded.  (Few if any modern Biblical scholars actually think the Gospels as redacted come direct from the hands of the disciples whose names they bear.)   We are simply expected to accept this “lineage” and the texts it supports on faith—exactly as the Brahimns in the Tevijja Sutta did.  “Just as a file of blind men go on, clinging to each other, and the first one sees nothing, the middle one sees nothing, and the last one sees nothing—so it is with the talk of these Brahmins learned in the Three Vedas” (D13:15).  And so it is with the talk of these Christians learned in the Old and New Testaments. 

(I would like to point out a delicious irony here.  No educated Buddhist would ever take the suttas as verbatim transcripts of dialogues and happenings.  Quite obviously they are heavily edited, condensed versions of events, sometimes generic in nature, sometimes historically specific [though we can only speculate as to which is which]—and often political.  That’s right, many are propagandistic, and the Tevijja Sutta is a case in point.  It is unlikely any devout or learned Brahmins of the Buddha’s day would have acceded to all of his arguments as readily as is portrayed in this sutta.  For example, it was [and still is] widely believed that the Vedas are revealed texts [i.e. apauruseya, “not of human agency”], and so are in fact of divine origin.  Just as Christians assume as a matter of course that their texts descend in some sense from Deity, so too did the Brahmins.  I therefore find myself in the rather awkward position of urging a Christian to take the Buddhist suttas a little less literally.  The trouble, of course, for Mr. MacPherson is that a less literal reading of the text undermines his argument and leaves him in the same uncomfortable position as the Buddha’s interlocutors.)    

Notice, too, an essential difference between the Buddha’s teaching and Christian teachings about Jesus.  The Dhamma’s singular goal is to turn an uninstructed worldling (assutava putthujjana) into an arahant; that is, to make him into what the Buddha was.  The Dhamma says that if you do A, B, and C you can and will attain X, Y, and Z: 

Those ascetics and Brahmins who fully understand aging-and-death, its origin, its cessation, and the way leading to its cessation…[i.e. the four noble truths]: these I consider to be ascetics among ascetics and Brahmins among Brahmins, and these venerable ones, by realizing it for themselves with direct knowledge, in this very life, enter and dwell in the goal of asceticism and the goal of brahminhood (S.12.29). 

You are not expected to believe, but to do.  

This is not the case for Christian teachings concerning Jesus.  No disciple of his, either during his lifetime or now, could claim to share Jesus’ nature.  Jesus is considered a singular, unrepeatable phenomenon.  Nor is there any conceivable method by which we might determine whether or not Jesus actually rose from the dead, multiplied bread loaves, resurrected Lazarus or was an incarnation of Yahweh.  I might convince myself that such is the case, but my conviction as such holds no more weight than the conviction of those who believe that praying to Ganesha the elephant god helped them pass their final exams.  (Ganesha is the Hindu patron of arts and sciences, and god of the intellect and wisdom, so is well placed to accomplish such miracles.)  

There is yet a still deeper and more subtle problem with Christianity vis-à-vis the Buddha’s teaching.  I have heard some people lament “if only we had a videotape of what happened after Jesus’ crucifixion—then we would know.”  I one time made a similar remark to friend of mine, wondering whether or not that would actually resolve the issue.  His response was illuminating: 

Let’s say someone had a camcorder and followed Jesus around for his entire ministry, filming everything he said and did, and then filmed him dying, getting buried, and on the third day rising from the dead and ascending into heaven.  Now what? 

In other words, the resolution of this particular historical conundrum does not solve the problem of your suffering.  Even if Jesus somehow resolved the existential dilemma that every human being lives with, you must still resolve that dilemma within yourself.  Believing he was God or rose from the dead is not helpful.  It is irrelevant—a distraction, a delusion, an escape.  The false certainty of faith is no defense against the inevitable and real problem of dukkha—of birth, sorrow, pain, loss, aging, sickness and death.  The sooner you admit that you suffer and your life will end and that you have no idea what, if anything, happens after, the sooner you can get on with the business of finding out the truth.    

Right View: That First Step Is A Doozey! (Part 9 of A 13-Part Series)

Returning again to Mr. MacPherson’s posts: in his “The Eightfold Path inside Christianity: Points 1 and 2” he states correctly that “Right understanding means knowing the Four Noble Truths.”  (I might quibble with this by saying instead that it means directly seeing the four truths, but this is a small point.)  He also correctly equates right view /understanding with seeing dependent origination, but then proceeds to misunderstand that term in a mystical sense.

As soon as one interprets Dependent Arising as asserting mystical “unity,” one can get away with just about anything.  The Dhamma is reduced to a Mystical Blob, a black box where anything comes and anything goes, a wish fulfilling doctrine we can equate with everything and nothing.  And so we are told that Dependent Arising “does not contradict essential Christianity” (which for Mr. MacPherson is contemplative Christianity), which equates a misconstrued Buddhist term with an idiosyncratically defined Christianity.  I am sorry to be blunt, but this equation is a torturous case of factual distortion and wishful thinking and does nothing to shed light on the Buddha’s teaching or Christianity. 

——————————— 

In the previous post I said a lot about right view (sammaditthi), but there are a few things I believe I can yet add.  We have already discussed how right view equals seeing the four noble truths, and also how the four noble truths spring from the primordial insight of dependent arising; i.e. the two middle truths (arising and cessation) are directly built off it, the first truth describes the state of the putthujjana who has not seen it, and the fourth truth (that of the Path) describes how one obtains that insight.  The point was also made that the difference between the mundane and supramundane, between not seeing and seeing (Dependent Arising), is absolute: the putthujjana sees avijja (“delusion”); the sekha sees nibbana.  

Now the observant reader may have noticed something interesting: in enumerating the four noble truths, the Buddha goes on to define the fourth truth (the way to getting knowledge of the four truths) as headed by right view, and defines that as knowledge of the four noble truths.  In other words, getting knowledge of the four noble truths requires knowledge of the four noble truths, which in turn requires knowledge of how to get to the four noble truths!  

Remember my analogy of parallel lines?  

Here we have a structure—embedded within the suttas themselves—that illustrates the recursive nature of avijja, and also indicates why the extinction of asmimana, of “I am-ness,” is so difficult.  Seeing and non-seeing are absolutes—either you have insight or you don’t.  And this is why avijja appears at the head of the list in dependent arising: it is the lock that seals the putthujjana within his cell of subjectivity, just as the arising of right view in the fruition moment is the key to getting out.    

The first writer I encountered who pointed out this structure was Ñanavira Thera, and I cannot imagine anyone describing it better than he.  I will therefore take the liberty to quote him at length: 

The faculty of self-observation or reflexion is inherent in the structure of our experience. Some degree of reflexion is almost never entirely absent in our waking life, and in the practice of mindfulness it is deliberately cultivated.  To describe it simply, we may say that one part of our experience is immediately concerned with the world as its object, while at the same time another part of our experience is concerned with the immediate experience as its object.  This second part we may call reflexive experience.  It will be clear that when there is avijja there is avijja in both parts of our experience, the immediate and the reflexive; for though, in reflexion, experience is divided within itself, it is still one single, even if complex, structure.  The effect of this may be seen from the Sabbasava Sutta (M.2:8) wherein certain wrong views are spoken of. Three of them are: “With self I perceive self… With self I perceive not-self…  With not-self I perceive self.”  A man with avijja, practising reflexion, may identify “self” with both reflexive and immediate experience, or with reflexive experience alone, or with immediate experience alone.  He does not conclude that neither is “self,” and the reason is clear: it is not possible to get outside avijja by means of reflexion alone; for however much a man may “step back” from himself to observe himself he cannot help taking avijja with him.  There is just as much avijja in the self-observer as there is in the self-observed.  And this is the very reason why avijja is so stable in spite of its being sankhata.  Simply by reflexion the puthujjana can never observe avijja and at the same time recognize it as avijja; for in reflexion avijja is the Judge as well as the Accused, and the verdict is always “Not Guilty.”  In order to put an end to avijja, which is a matter of recognizing avijja as avijja, it is necessary to accept on trust from the Buddha a Teaching that contradicts the direct evidence of the puthujjana’s reflexion.  This is why the Dhamma is patisotagami (M.26:19), or “going against the stream.” The Dhamma gives the puthujjana the outside view of avijja, which is inherently unobtainable for him by unaided reflexion (in the ariyasavaka this view has, as it were, “taken” like a graft, and is perpetually available).  Thus it will be seen that avijja in reflexive experience (actual or potential) is the condition for avijja in immediate experience.  It is possible, also, to take a second step back and reflect upon reflexion; but there is still avijja in this self-observation of self-observation, and we have a third layer of avijja protecting the first two.  And there is no reason in theory why we should stop here; but however far we go we shall not get beyond avijja. The hierarchy of avijja can also be seen from the Suttas in the following way: 

But which, friends, is nescience?…
That which is non-knowledge of suffering,
non-knowledge of arising of suffering,
non-knowledge of ceasing of suffering,
non-knowledge of the way that leads to ceasing of suffering,
this, friends, is called nescience (M.9:66). 

And which, monks, is the noble truth of suffering…
And which, monks, is the noble truth of arising of suffering…
And which, monks, is the noble truth of ceasing of suffering…
And which, monks, is the noble truth of the way that leads to ceasing of suffering? 

Just this noble eight-factored path,
that is to say: right view…
And which, monks, is right view?…
That which is knowledge of suffering,
knowledge of arising of suffering,
knowledge of ceasing of suffering,
knowledge of the way that leads to ceasing of suffering,
this, monks, is called right view (D.22:18ff). 

Avijja is non-knowledge of the four noble truths.  Sammaditthi is knowledge of the four noble truths.  But sammaditthi is part of the four noble truths.  Thus avijja is non-knowledge of sammaditthi; that is to say, non-knowledge of knowledge of the four noble truths.  But since sammaditthi, which is knowledge of the four noble truths, is part of the four noble truths, so avijja is non-knowledge of knowledge of knowledge of the four noble truths.  And so we can go on indefinitely.  But the point to be noted is that each of these successive stages represents an additional layer of (potentially) reflexive avijja.  Non-knowledge of knowledge of the four noble truths is non-knowledge of vijja, and non-knowledge of vijja is failure to recognize avijja as avijja.  Conversely, it is evident that when avijja is once recognized anywhere in this structure it must vanish everywhere; for knowledge of the four noble truths entails knowledge of knowledge of the four noble truths, and vijja replaces avijja throughout (op. cit pp. 36ff). 

——————————— 

There is one final point I wish to make in regards to right view.  Mr. MacPherson was correct when he said “right understanding is cognitive”—meaning that for the one who obtains it a distinctly new understanding of the world arises.  The passage from Ñanavira above clearly illustrates this, but we can go further as regards specific existential questions that plague human beings.  In the following passage the Buddha contrasts the (right) understanding of the sekha against the (wrong) understanding of the putthujjana

When, monks, a noble disciple [sekha] has clearly seen with correct wisdom as it really is this dependent origination and these dependently arisen phenomena, it is impossible that he will run back into the past, thinking: “Did I exist in the past?  Did I not exist in the past?  What was I in the past?  How was I in the past?  Having been what, what did I become in the past?”  Or that he will run forward into the future, thinking: “Will I exist in the future?  Will I not exist in the future?  What will I be in the future?  How will I be in the future?  Having been what, what will I become in the future?”  Or that he will now be inwardly confused about the present thus: “Do I exist?  Do I not exist?  What am I?  How am?  This being—where has it come from, and where will it go?” 

For what reason?  Because the noble disciple has clearly seen with correct wisdom as it really is this dependent origination and these dependently arisen phenomena (S.12:20). 

In other words, the sekha sees the lie in viewing the world with the sense of “I” or “me” or “mine.”  Though he still experiences subjectivity (asmimana), the self is known for the illusion it is, like a man in the desert who sees a cool garden and pools of water but comprehends it all as a mirage.  He is not fooled, unlike the commoner who naively chases after the illusion.  The arhant, of course, will not even see the illusion, much less be entrapped by it. 

But this is not the case for the men and women of the Bible, even with its most august figures: Yahweh and Jesus.  Consider the following, one of the most famous passages in the Bible:   

Then Moses said to God, “If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?”  God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.”  And he said, “Say this to the people of Israel, ‘I AM has sent me to you’” (Exodus 3:13-14). 

Yahweh’s choice of names is unfortunate, for at S.35:248 the Buddha has something very specific to say about the notion behind it:

In conceiving, one is bound by Mara; by not conceiving, one is freed from the Evil One.

Bhikkhus, “I am” is a conceiving…  Conceiving is a disease… a tumor… a dart.  Therefore, bhikkhus, you should train yourselves thus: “We will dwell with a mind devoid of conceiving”…

Bhikkhus, “I am” is an involvement with conceit…  Involvement with conceit is a disease… a tumor… a dart.  Therefore, bhikkhus, you should train yourselves thus: “We will dwell with a mind in which conceit has been struck down.”  Thus should you train yourselves.

The Biblical god plainly never heard the Buddha’s advice or, if he did, he chose not to follow it:

 I am the LORD your God…  (Exodus 20:2)

You shall have no other gods before Me (Exodus 20:3).

You shall not worship them or serve them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing loving kindness to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments (Exodus 20:5).

You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain, for the LORD will not leave him unpunished who takes His name in vain (Exodus 20:7).

The God of Abraham, whatever else he may be, is clearly a victim of attavada (“self view”) and suffers from a terminal case of asmimana (subjectivity, the “conceit” I am). 

And what conceit!  In addition to lording it over the hapless Israelites, he is the self-proclaimed creator of the world:  “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” he asks Job (in Job 38:4).  The rest of his speech (chapters 38 and 39) consists of a catalogue of boasts about his power and supremacy.  As a religion professor of mine once put it, God’s “answer” to Job is, “I’m bigger than you are!”

Now compare this to the wonderful story in the Kevaddha Sutta (D.11) where a monk asks the Great Brahma the following question: “Where do the four great elements—earth, water, fire, air—cease without remainder?” and Brahma replies: “I am Brahma, the Great Brahma, the Conqueror, the Unconquered, the All-Seeing, All-Powerful, the Lord, the Maker and Creator, the Ruler, Appointer and Orderer, Father of All That Have Been and Shall Be…”  Needless to say, he didn’t know the answer to the monk’s question—but the Buddha did.  (Wanna-be creator gods are the Rodney Dangerfields of the suttas: they get no respect.  See also my post on “The Morals of God and the Buddha” for a further examination of the [lack of] character of the Biblical deity.) 

Now consider Jesus, often counted by well-intentioned Buddhists as an “enlightened man.”  Yet he, too, like the God he claimed to be, was afflicted by sakkayaditthi (“identity view”) and thought and made pronouncements about his self in the past, the present and the future.  Whether he claimed to have been divine or not is irrelevant—he was still very much a self, a someone—and suffered as such. 

Now Jesus had not yet come into the village, but was still in the place where Martha met Him.  Then the Jews who were with her in the house, and consoling her, when they saw that Mary got up quickly and went out, they followed her, supposing that she was going to the tomb to weep there. Therefore, when Mary came where Jesus was, she saw Him, and fell at His feet, saying to Him, “Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died.” When Jesus therefore saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, He was deeply moved in spirit and was troubled, and said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to Him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus wept. So the Jews were saying, “See how He loved him!” But some of them said, “Could not this man, who opened the eyes of the blind man, have kept this man also from dying?”  (John 11:35-37). 

And He withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, and He knelt down and began to pray, saying, “Father, if You are willing, remove this cup from Me; yet not My will, but Yours be done.”  Now an angel from heaven appeared to Him, strengthening Him.  And being in agony He was praying very fervently; and His sweat became like drops of blood, falling down upon the ground (Luke 22:41 ff). 

Compare these famous Biblical passages to what the Buddha says in the Sabbasava Sutta (M.2:7ff): 

This is how he attends unwisely: “…Shall I be in the future?  How shall I be in the future?  Having been what, what shall I become in the future?”… 

When he attends unwisely in this way, one of six views arises in him.  The view…”It is this self of mine that speaks and feels and experiences here and there the result of good and bad actions; but this self of mine is permanent, everlasting, eternal, not subject to change, and it will endure as long as eternity.”  This speculative view, bhikkhus, is called the thicket of views, the wilderness of views, the contortion of views, the vacillation of views, the fetter of views.  Fettered by the fetter of views, the untaught ordinary person [assutava putthujjana] is not freed from birth, ageing, and death, from sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, and despair; he is not freed from suffering, I say. 

Plainly, Jesus, whether man or god (or perhaps, rather, because he was a man or a god), did not possess right view; he had neither put an end to suffering nor seen a way to its end.  And so Ven. Ñanavira, in his commonplace book, could pen these lines: 

Q: Why the Buddha rather than Jesus? 

A: Jesus wept. 

Finally, compare the above to what transpired after the Buddha’s passing (mahaparinibbana): 

And at the Blessed Lord’s final passing there was a great earthquake, terrible and hair-raising, accompanied by thunder… 

And those monks who had not yet overcome their passions wept and tore their hair, raising their arms, throwing themselves down and twisting and turning, crying…  But those monks who were free from craving endured mindfully and clearly aware, saying: “All compounded things are impermanent—what is the use of this?” (D.16:6.10).

Parallel Lines: The Mundane and Noble Eightfold Paths (Part 8 of A 13-Part Series)

In the Mahasalyatanika Sutta (M.149:9-10) the Buddha defines what constitutes the Noble Eightfold Path: 

When one abides uninflamed by lust, unfettered, uninfatuated, contemplating danger, then the five aggregates affected by clinging (panc’upadanakkhandha) are diminished for oneself in the future [this describes the sekha]; and one’s craving—which brings renewal of being, is accompanied by delight and lust, and delights in this and that—is abandoned [=nirodha].  One’s bodily and mental troubles are abandoned, one’s bodily and mental torments are abandoned, one’s bodily and mental fevers are abandoned, and one experiences bodily and mental pleasure. 

The view of a person such as this is right view.  His intention is right intention, his effort is right effort, his mindfulness is right mindfulness, his concentration is right concentration.  But his bodily action, his verbal action, and his livelihood have already been well purified earlier. 

Clearly, the ariyamagga is Aryan only for those who have attained the path.  Until then, the aspirant walks a mundane way, purifying first his actions, words and livelihood (his sila) in preparation for the higher stages.  At the same time (hopefully), he undertakes those practices that are liberating, as are found in, for example, the Satipatthana Sutta: mindfulness of breathing, of bodily posture, feelings, mental states (i.e. vipassana), cultivating detachment from pleasant things (via asubha bhavana) and overcoming hostility by metta bhavana.  None of these practices, however, constitute the Noble path until the path and fruit (maggaphala) are obtained and one “enters the stream”—or better.  That the path-moment constitutes entry into Right View (sammaditthi) is affirmed by the Buddha in the Mahacattarisaka Sutta (M.117:34): 

In one of right view, right intention comes into being; in one of right intention, right speech comes into being; in one of right speech, right action comes into being; in one of right action, right livelihood comes into being; in one of right livelihood, right effort comes into being; in one of right effort, right mindfulness comes into being; in one of right mindfulness, right concentration comes into being; in one of right concentration, right knowledge (vijja) comes into being; in one of right knowledge, right deliverance (vimutti) comes into being.  Thus, bhikkhus, the path of the disciple in higher training (sekha) possesses eight factors, the arahant possesses ten factors. 

Clearly, right view is the “gate” to everything else; it is equivalent to seeing the Four Noble Truths.  (Cf. M.141:24: “And what, friends, is right view?  Knowledge of suffering, knowledge of the origin of suffering, knowledge of the cessation of suffering, and knowledge of the way leading to the cessation of suffering—this is called right view.”)  It needs to be pointed out, too, that for the sekha each of the eight supramundane factors “come into being” simultaneously; it is not a matter of first obtaining right view, and then a few days or months later getting right intention, and so on down the line.  Just as we saw with Dependent Arising, the seeing (=accomplishment) of one element is the seeing/accomplishment of everything else.  While one practices the mundane eightfold path over the course of time, the fruition-moment of the supramundane path is accomplished instantaneously—it is akalika (“without time”).  (Note: We have here as well a further distinction between the sekha and the arhant: final knowledge and deliverance are the arhant’s special provinces and represent the consummation or completionas opposed simply to the acquisition—of the noble path factors.)   

I have written the above because it is a widespread misperception—and one that Mr. MacPherson perpetuates—that the putthujjana, by practicing meditation and restraint in accordance with the Teaching, is by this means practicing the noble eightfold path.  He is not.  The noble eightfold path is not perfectly practiced until it is attained; it is not attained until it is perfectly practiced.  As two parallel lines do not, by definition, ever intersect, so these paths—the noble and mundane eightfold paths—are separated by a gulf, and that gulf (from the putthujjana’s standpoint) is avijja (“delusion”)—the non-seeing of the Four Noble Truths. 

Clearly though, the Noble Path cannot be accomplished without the aspirant’s work on the mundane path.  The former depends upon the latter not for its existence, but for its availability or visibility.  And when the mundane path is practiced to perfection, then at the moment of attainment comes the “knowledge of change of lineage” (gotrabhu ñana)—the supramundane is accomplished and the worldling becomes a Noble One.  To extend our metaphor from above, the disciple finds himself not on the mundane line he started on, but on the other, noble line—only now when he looks at the gap between them, he sees not avijja but nibbana

This critical distinction between the two paths must be borne in mind when considering Mr. MacPherson’s argument that the Eightfold Path can be found in the Bible, which is predicated upon discovering resemblances between dhamma practice and Biblical passages.  Resemblances I freely admit to, but they are the resemblances of one mundane path to another.  In not a single chapter or verse from the Old and New Testaments is the complete picture obtained; there is no comprehension of a path (to nibbana), much less the realization or accomplishment of the Path.  Putthujjanas abound in the pages of the Bible, but nowhere is discovered an indication that anyone—including Jesus—ever attained cessation or any of the stages of holiness described in the Buddha’s teaching.

Nirodha: It’s the End of Your World As You Know It (Part 7 of A 13-Part Series)

If someone asked me directions from New York City to Washington,D.C., I’d tell them to hop on 95 and drive south, and keep going till the signs told them to stop.  If that person then called me from Philadelphia and said they couldn’t find D.C., I’d tell them they were on the right track, they just needed to keep going; they weren’t lost, they just hadn’t gone far enough.  However, if they called me from Paris and said my directions hadn’t been helpful, I’d furrow my brow and tell them they obviously hadn’t been listening.  

This is sort of the way I feel after reading Mr. MacPherson’s second post, “The Third Noble Truth of Buddhism inside Christianity.”  His explanations of the first two truths (in his first post) weren’t so much wrong as incomplete; in neither case did he go far enough.  This could be on account of a lack of reading or insufficient reflection, and since in his second comment on my site he said he was “still learning Buddhism,” this is perfectly understandable.  In those cases he was like the person who drove to Philly and just needed some extra encouragement.  But in this post, concerning the third noble truth, I feel like I’m getting a call from Paris.  Or perhaps it’sAnchorage. 

He claims that every Christian can affirm the Third Noble Truth.  But what exactly does he think the third noble Truth is?  How does he define it?  As I did for his definition of the second noble truth, I’ll extract some relevant quotes and see if we can’t draw a picture from them. 

  1. “Third Noble Truth: There is a way to stop suffering.”
  2. “In Buddhism the way is the virtuous life of the Eightfold Path, which is the Fourth Noble Truth coming up.”  He equates this with the Christian imitation dei—specifically the imitation of God in the form of Jesus Christ, the goal of which is to “stop sinning” (though he admits this is not in keeping with standard Christian thinking in America).
  3. The Christian goal of obedience to God by not sinning parallels the Buddha’s injunctions: “never stop trying to conform your behavior to ‘good,’ to the Eightfold Path.” 

It seems then that, in Christian terms, the third noble truth—for Mr. MacPherson, at least—means to stop sinning.  Or, to quote the Buddha: 

To abstain from evil,

To cultivate the good,

To purify one’s mind –

This is the teaching of the Buddhas

(Dhammapada 183).

But is this in fact what the Third Noble Truth says?  A definition, once again, is in order: 

The Third Noble Truth is that there is emancipation, liberation, freedom from suffering, from the continuity of dukkha.  This is called the Noble Truth of the Cessation of dukkha (Dukkhanirodha-ariyasacca), which is Nibbana more popularly known in its Sanskrit form of Nirvana (Walpola Rahula, What the Buddha Taught [1974], p. 35). 

Or, as the Buddha put it in his first sermon: 

The Noble Truth of the Cessation of suffering is this: It is the complete cessation (nirodha) of that very thirst, giving it up, renouncing it, emancipating oneself from it, detaching oneself from it (quoted in Rahula, p. 93).  

So, judging by these two quotes, Mr. MacPherson was correct as regards point #1: “There is a way to stop suffering.”  Or maybe not.  The way to stop suffering, as he notes in point #2, is the Eightfold Path.  But that’s the Fourth Noble Truth.  He seems, then, to be confusing the third and fourth Truths.  He affirms a method, but offers no expected outcome; he does not indicate what the cure for the illness of dukkha, of suffering, actually is.  He simply says that God, in the Old and New Testaments, “exhorts people to willfully stop sinning,” and then assumes this is what the Buddha was saying.  

But sin is an entirely Christian concept.  One cannot sin in Buddhism because there is no God setting forth commandments that everyone then breaks in due course.  If you jump off a cliff and go splat on the rocks, you haven’t sinned against gravity, you’ve simply acted like a suicidal idiot.  You’ve behaved unskillfully.  And, indeed, stupid behavior (i.e. “immoral actions”) in the Buddha’s teaching are called exactly that: akusala kamma, “unskillful action.”  

But I digress. 

The problem I have with Mr. MacPherson’s post on the Third Noble Truth is he never actually tells us what the Third Noble Truth is.  He never even mentions the words nibbana or nirvana.  This is like Jaws without the shark.  And this, needless to say, is where I furrowed my brow and wondered who could possibly be calling me Paris.  Or Anchorage.  Wherever he’s coming from, one thing is certain: Mr. MacPherson has no argument concerning the Third Noble Truth existing anywhere in the Bible.  

That said, an answer to the question of “What is nibbana?” needs to be attempted.  I’ll now attempt it, though first I would strongly urge readers to review my post, “The Buddha on Suffering and the Nature of Personality.”  While my intent in that post was to answer a different question than the present one, a lot of the discussion there illuminates what I’m going to say here.  

It seems there are really two questions pertaining to the Buddhist nibbana:  (1) What is it?  (the obvious one), and (2) What is the state of the saint who has attained it? 

(1) Earlier I remarked that Dependent Arising lies at the heart of the Buddha’s teaching, and that, specifically, the second and third noble truths are built directly off it.  For the second noble truth we saw that samudaya, “arising,” referred to the existent structure of conditioned consciousness.  The Buddha described the putthujana’s experience as something “built up,” “constructed,” “contrived,” (sankhata) and noted that its integrity remained intact so long as its individual constituents—ignorance (avijja), mental formations (sankharas); contact (phassa), etc—were left unexamined.  But if “proper attention” (yoniso manasikara), minduflness-and-clear-comprehension (sati-sampajanna) and concentration (samadhi), along with other wholesome mental attributes, were cultivated and brought to bear on the constituents of experience, then one or more links in the chain could be severed and the entire structure would collapse.  And so he described Dependent Arising in its reverse, or negative (patiloma), order: 

With the cessation of delusion, mental formations cease; with the ceasing of mental formations, consciousness ceases; with the cessation of consciousness, name-and-form ceases; with the cessation of name-and-form, the six sense bases cease; with the cessation of the six sense bases, contact ceases; with the cessation of contact, feeling ceases; with the cessation of feeling, craving ceases; with the cessation of craving, grasping ceases; with the cessation of grasping, existence/being ceases; with the cessation of existence/being, birth ceases; with the cessation of birth, aging and death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief and despair cease; thus is the cessation of this whole mass of suffering (M.38:20). 

Just as the positive order of Dependent Arising described samudaya, the arising of suffering, so the negative order describes nirodha, the cessation of suffering.  This, then, is nibbana; this is the third noble truth. 

The nature of this event is pointed to in the method of meditation the Buddha teaches, i.e. satipatthana (“setting up of mindfulness”), the point of which is knock out the foremost link in the chain: avijja (delusion).  As described by Ñanananda: 

By revealing the antecedents of craving, the law of Dependent Arising points to a technique whereby this tendency [to identify with sense-data] deeply ingrained in the ruts of our samsaric habits could be ferreted out of its sockets.  Ignorance has to be replaced by knowledge.  In other words, the tendency to attend to the dependently arisen phenomena by imagining “things” in them, has to be overcome by training the mind to attend to the law of Dependent Arising, instead.  It might be recalled that each of the twelve links of the formula has been described as “impermanent, compounded, dependently arisen, of a nature to wither away, pass away, fade away and cease.”  The via media of training the mind to attend to the nature of things rather than to the things themselves, may be called a rare type of psychotherapy introduced by the Buddha.  It is a way of making the conditioned phenomena “fade away and cease” by penetrating into their cause.  Thus, insight into the Noble Norm (ariyo ñayo) of Dependent Arising implies a knowledge of the cause (hetu) as well as of the things causally arisen…  As the insight into the principle—“This being, that comes to be; with the arising of this, that arises.  This not being, that does not come to be; with the cessation of this, that ceases”—goes deeper and deeper into the fabric of the twelve-linked formula, a de-colouration or a fading-away ensues, with which one realizes the destruction of the very conditions (paccaya) forming the warp and woof of the formula in its direct and reverse order (Magic of the Mind, pp. 50-51). 

The “psychotherapy” Ñanananda refers to here is none other than vipassana, the continuous, dispassionate observance of experience, until the observer no longer relates to phenomena as “I” or “mine” or “other,” at which point consciousness as something caused or determined by its objects (namarupa) ceases; consciousness, as it were, drops out

…when insight knowledge is mature, having become keen, strong, and lucid, it will understand one of the formations [sankhara] at one of the six sense doors as being impermanent [anicca] or painful [dukkha] or without self [anatta; these are the three marks—tilakkhana—of all phenomena].  That act of noticing any one characteristic out of the three, which has a higher degree of lucidity and strength in its perfect understanding, becomes faster, and manifests itself three or four times in rapid succession.  Immediately after the last consciousness in this series of accelerated noticing has ceased, path and fruition (magga-phala) arises realizing Nibbana, the cessation of all formations (Mahasi Sayadaw, Practical Insight Meditation, pp. 35-6). 

And so the Buddha proclaimed on the seventh day after his enlightenment: 

When phenomena manifest themselves

To the ardently meditating Brahman,

All his doubts vanish for he has understood

The destruction of all conditions (Udana 1.2). 

During my brief career as a novice monk (cut short, alas, by poor health), I had the good fortune to meet a remarkable man whose lay-name I either never learned or have simply forgotten.  To me he was Venerable Sunetta; he was my one and only ordination brother and—lucky me—a stream enterer (sotapanna).  (How I came by this fact is a story for a different occasion.)  Once I knew what he was I relentlessly plied him with questions and…he answered.  

I described to him some of the “mystical experiences” I had had—experiences of great bliss, wherein—to paraphrase J. Krishnamurti—the “observer was the observed.”  These are the sorts of experiences (non-dual) you read about in mystical literature from all over the planet.  Ven. Sunetta said—quite emphatically, I might add—that such experiences naturally arise during the course of insight practice but he also said they were “very dangerous” because one might easily mistake them for the goal, which they are not.  (In fact, such experiences are most likely cases of the fourth insight ñana, “the arising and passing away” event.  See, e.g., case study #2 of Kenneth Folk’s “The Idiot’s Guide To Dharma Diagnosis” at The Idiot’s Guide To Dharma Diagnosis.  Clearly, it is not uncommon for people to spontaneously attain one or more of the insight knowledges or, for that matter, the jhanas.  [As a child of nine or ten I on several occasions experienced the first of the arupa jhanas, the “base of infinite space,” and then re-experienced it again at age twenty.]  I have yet to hear of anyone though spontaneously attaining nibbana.)  I then asked Ven. Sunetta to describe what the nibbana moment was like. 

He said it most definitely was not “ultimate bliss” or any such thing as one would ordinarily conceive it.  In fact, it was really not like anything at all.  “Imagine,” he said, “that you’re walking down a path.  You’re stepping along and then suddenly you’re at a different point along the path, as if you went from there to here, but without an interval.  That gap is nibbana.”  Refer again to Kenneth Folk’s “Guide,” case #5.  That’s exactly it.  

The nibbana moment then, is a disruption in the cause-effect stream of consciousness.  It is neither cause nor effect, but rather the absence of either, which is why it is referred to as asankhata—the “unconditioned”; it is, if you will, a non-event, a non-experience.  For the first time in the person’s samsaric career, the round of birth-and-death has, for him or her, stopped.  Hence the formal designation of the third noble truth as nirodha, “cessation.” 

As the Buddha described this stateless state: 

There is that base where there is neither earth, nor water, nor fire, nor air… neither this world nor another; neither sun nor moon.  Here, I say there is no coming, no going, no staying, no passing away or arising.  Unestablished, unmoving, unconditioned: just this is the end of suffering (Udana 8.1). 

Clearly, this is no mystical pronouncement—it is not an affirmation of the “unity of all things” or a declaration about an immortal “Ground” out of which everything arises.  This is, rather, the stopping of the world as we know it.  If anything, nibbana is anti-mystical for, far from revealing any kind of ultimate Substance or Selfhood, it indicates that true freedom is in fact the absence of such things. 

Given the structure of Dependent Arising, it is clear that ordinary, conditioned consciousness—conditioned, that is, by notions of “I,” “me,” and “mine,” which result from mis-apprehending phenomena as “things” or “objects” that a knowing self interacts with and appropriates—has no choice but to cease in the moment its “self-ness” is seen for the lie it is.  The self appears as the shadow cast in consciousness by “things” when they are not known “as they are”—as ephemeral, unsatisfying, and empty (of self).  If “I” cannot be found among “my” possessions—i.e. my experiences (namarupa)—and this fact is seen and known, then the “I” of necessity vanishes.  

Of course, Ven. Sunetta and the Buddha are/were “conscious.”  The arya walks and talks like anyone else, and uses language “per the conventions of the world.”  What, then, distinguished him/her from the world?  Which question brings us to issue #2:  What is the state of the saint who has attained nibbana?  

(2) Perhaps the best answer to this question is found in the Mulapariyaya Sutta (M.1).  In that sutta the Buddha describes the responses of four different types of people to the phenomena of experience.  The four types enumerated are: (1) the uninstructed commoner (assutava-putthujanna), (2) the noble disciple, or sekha, meaning a stream-enterer (sotapanna), once-returner (sakadagami) or non-returner (anagami), (3) the arhant, and (4) the Buddha.  For all intents and purposes the natures of the third and fourth types are the same, so in fact we have three types of people.  Their responses are described as follows: 

  1. The putthujjana cognizes X as X; having cognized X as X, he imagines X, he imagines in X, he imagines from X, he imagines “X is mine,” he delights in X.
  2. The sekha understands X as X; understanding X as X, he should not imagine X, he should not imagine in X, he should not imagine from X, he should not imagine “X is mine,” he should not delight in X.
  3. The arhant understands X as X; understanding X as X, he does not imagine X, he does not imagine in X, he does not imagine from X, he does not imagine “X is mine,” he does not delight in X. 

The distinctions between these three types of people lie in their manner of relating to sensory experience, including thoughts.  For the uninstructed worldling, “things” are taken as they present themselves, as objects of potential appropriation by his (imagined) subject, and can be responded to either indifferently, or with desire or aversion.  In either case, he is burdened by his inevitable speculation and conceptualizing (papanca) in regards to these objects on account of his lack of clear comprehension of their true nature.  (Hence the proliferation of ideologies, mythologies, beliefs, customs and mores that every civilization produces.)  The putthujjana becomes the hapless victim of his own blindness, and his culture, ethics, norms, etc are arbitrarily manufactured in accordance with whatever environment he happens to find himself in. 

The noble disciple still in training, however, having already seen nibbana, is aware of the unsatisfactoriness of phenomena, as well as their arising and ceasing (i.e. he sees the first three noble truths, for he has practiced and, to a degree, accomplished the fourth), and is therefore aware of the ethical imperative “should not” as regards the objects of sense.  It is only at this point that ethics are in any way seen as fundamental; the putthujjana, regardless of whatever ideology he adopts, is not in a position to understand that ethical norms are inherent in a universe populated by conscious beings, and hence must seek the sanction of imagined deities and arbitrary social systems to provide such standards.  (Hence the incessant Christian refrain that without God there is no standard or basis for a moral life or the understanding of good and evil; they cannot grasp the fact of ethics in the absence of an ethical Lawgiver.)  The sekha, however, though his training is as yet incomplete, knows directly the necessity of ethical norms, for he has the right view (sammaditthi) that comprehends the nature and consequence of intentional actions (kamma) and their results. 

Finally, the arhant (and Buddha), like the noble disciple, knows phenomena for what they are: as impermanent (anicca), unsatisfactory (dukkha), and as not designating a self (anatta).  But unlike the sekha, he has completed the training and entirely done away with asmimana, the subjective sense of a controller or doer that still bedevils the sekha.  As notions of self do not arise, objects are no longer seen as potentials for appropriation, hence are neither grasped at nor fantasized over.  

This represents a brief, decidedly theoretical overview of the subject.  I would strongly suggest materials by Kenneth Folk as supplementary resources for further understanding.  See, in particular, his “Seven Stages of Enlightenment” video series (1-6), starting here.  One interesting point he makes is that there are actually sub-grades of attainment in the classic four stages model you find in the suttas, and that only recently had he awakened to the degree where the elimination of negative affects had become a reality for him (the classic description of an anagami).  

Considering the above discussion, it is obvious the Biblical tradition contains nothing remotely comparable to the third noble truth.  To represent otherwise is delusional.  In fact, the Bible is entirely predicated upon assumptions (of permanence, immortality, a divine Lawgiver and the like) that make the idea of cessation either incomprehensible or downright repellent.  See, for example, the Alagaddupama Sutta (M.22:18-21) where the eternalist (sassatavadin), confronted by the Buddha’s teaching, misinterprets it as implying the inevitable destruction of his self—and cries out in despair.  This may explain the total disconnect in Mr. MacPherson’s discussion of the third noble truth.  What, after all, could he possibly say?  Either the Dhamma is taken for what it isn’t—as some kind of positive formulation of a mystical, substantialist metaphysics—or it is viewed (as was frequently the case with early European interpreters) as a negative, world denying nihilism.  And what do we have here but the very dualism the Buddha discussed in the Nidanasamyutta?  This world, Kaccana, depends upon a duality—upon notions of existence and nonexistence

Reprise: Is the Second Noble Truth of Buddhism Inside Christianity? (Part 6 of A 13-Part Series)

Having written more than three thousand words discussing the Second Noble Truth, I thought I should directly address Mr. MacPherson’s remarks on it—now that we have something to compare them to.  I think it is clear, first of all, that any analysis of the Second Truth that doesn’t take Dependent Arising into account is a non-starter.  Simply saying that “desire causes suffering” does not go far enough.  Unfortunately, that is as far as Mr. MacPherson goes.  Moreover, the textual evidence he brings to bear on his point—specifically, the Sermon on the Mount and some examples of greed leading to sin in the Old and New Testaments—add nothing to his case.  In fact, the Sermon on the Mount does not even really say “we suffer because we focus too much on impermanent material things.”  Rather, in his sermon Jesus is calling for a reorientation of priorities—away from the everyday trivia of life towards God.  A discussion of suffering (in the sense of dukkha) and its causes is not his focus.  So, while Buddhists, Hindus and even good, old fashioned materialists (of a certain stripe) can laud Jesus’ teachings, as a Christian demonstration of the Buddha’s Second Noble Truth, the Sermon on the Mount falls flat.  This is not to disparage the Sermon in any way; simply, the Second Noble Truth is not its principle subject matter and it should not be judged as such.  

Mr. MacPherson also discusses the Biblical story of the Fall (Adam and Eve and the forbidden fruit) in the context of the Second Noble Truth.  While Biblical creationism is a total non-starter for me, and its advocacy by anyone the fastest way to lose my intellectual respect (other than, perhaps, arguing for a flat earth), as a meaningful myth the Genesis account has great merits.  That is to say, the writers of these early creation stories clearly had insight into the nature of suffering and its causes.  I don’t intend to discuss here all my thoughts on this subject—this is a blog on Buddhism, not Biblical mythology—but I will grant that great wisdom is contained in those stories provided they are not taken as literal history.  That said, in not a single passage do the Biblical writers demonstrate knowledge of the rise and fall of conditioned phenomena à la Dependent Arising, or see the escape from them; there are no sotapannas walking around in the Bible.  In the end, this is the critical point, the only thing that matters as far as Mr. MacPherson’s argument goes.   

Post Navigation