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To Do and Not To Do: Bodhisattva Virtue In Action

Continuing comments on Acariya Dhammapala’s “A Treatise on the Paramis” (5)

“Virtue,” Acariya Dhammapala tells us, “is twofold as avoidance (varitta) and performance (caritta)” (p. 41).  If you keep the five precepts, you are avoiding certain actions.  You are not killing, notstealing, not committing adultery, not lying and not using intoxicants.  This is a type of virtue, certainly–we might even say a negative virtue.  In this way, your goodness is measured by absence.

In the Pali Nikayas this is considered sufficient for the attainment of arhantship.  A person not engaging in certain behaviors will remove him or herself from those situations and consequences that ruffle the mind and lead to unfortunate outcomes.  For the establishment of a peaceful mind, a mind that is ready to meditate, this is enough.

But here, perhaps, we really do see a difference between the bodhisattva ideal and the ideal of someone who simply wants to meditate for his own well-being. The bodhisattva cannot stand on negative virtue alone, he must go further and act, positively, outwardly, to express compassion to the best of his ability.  Virtue must not only be absence, but performance.  The bodhisattva mustdo something.

dog carrying dog

The Dalai Lama’s quote above perfectly captures these two facets of virtue or goodness.  At leastdon’t hurt others (or yourself); that is the lowest standard one should hold oneself to.  Going beyond that, practice the opposites of those behaviors the precepts guard against.  So, we might say:

  1. At least, do not kill.  Better yet, protect and render assistance to others.
  2. At least, do not steal.  Better yet, give to others (dana).
  3. At least, don’t misuse your sexual energy.  Better yet, be chaste and educate people on the right uses of sexuality (when and as appropriate).
  4. At least, don’t lie.  Better yet, disclose your faults and when you speak, be gentle and informative.
  5. At least, don’t take intoxicants.  Better yet, nourish yourself with healthy, edifying food, what the Hindus call sattvic.

Dhammapala goes into considerable detail about the do’s and dont’s of bodhisattva virtue.  Here is my boiled-down version of his virtue as avoidance:

  • hold no resentment against anyone
  • do not take what is not given
  • never arouse a thought of lust for the wives/husbands of others (if a householder)
  • abstain from all forms of sexuality (if a renunciate)
  • do not say anything untrue, hurtful, unwise, or untimely
  • abstain from harsh speech
  • abstain from slander
  • abstain from idle chatter
  • abstain from covetousness, ill will and perverted views
  • never injure another
  • do no evil deed even if threatened with death
  • do not indulge in omens and superstitious practices
  • do not indulge in the “diversity of outside creeds”
  • abstain from all wrong means of livelihood
  • never arouse unwholesome states in others
  • never place oneself in a higher position or rank than those who are of inferior conduct
  • be neither too accessible nor inaccessible (i.e. associate with others at the proper time)
  • do not criticize those who are dear to others in front of them nor praise those who are resented by them
  • do not engage in persuasion
  • do not accept excessive favors
  • do not refuse a proper invitation

Now for virtue as performance:

  • speak only truthful, beneficial, endearing, measured and timely talk, especially talk concerned with Dhamma
  • possess knowledge of and faith in cause-and-effect
  • have faith and respect for recluses who have gone forth and are practicing in the right way
  • perfect the practice of loving-kindness
  • eradicate hatred, ill-will and aversion
  • be devoted to renunciation
  • have faith in the enlightenment of the Tathagatas
  • treat others with respect and courtesy
  • wait upon the sick
  • render service to those who ask
  • give thanks to those who commend you
  • praise the noble qualities of the virtuous
  • patiently endure the abuse of antagonists
  • always repay help and advice rendered to you
  • diligently practice wholesome states of mind
  • acknowledge all transgressions and reveal your faults
  • do good deeds anonymously [per Dogen]
  • dedicate your every goodness to supreme enlightenment
  • be a companion to those who need companionship
  • comfort and aid the sick and needy
  • console the bereaved
  • restrain with Dhamma those who need to be restrained
  • inspire with Dhamma those who need inspiration
  • determine to perform the “loftiest, most difficult, inconceivably powerful deeds of the great bodhisattvas of the past”
  • conceal your virtues
  • do not become complacent over minor achievements, but strive for successively higher achievements
  • assist those who suffer from blindness, deafness and physical disability
  • help the faithless gain faith, the lazy generate zeal, the confused develop mindfulness, the unconcentrated gain concentration
  • dispel the five hindrances from those who suffer them
  • establish beings in wholesome states

All of the above, every last bit of it, is dedicated to the “purpose of becoming an omniscient Buddha in order to enable all beings to acquire the incomparable adornment of virtue” (47).  Furthermore:

Thus, esteeming virtue as the foundation for all achievements — as the soil for the origination of all the Buddha-qualities, the beginning, footing, head, and chief of all the qualities issuing in Buddhahood — and recognizing gain, honor, and fame as a foe in the guise of a friend, a bodhisattva should diligently and thoroughly perfect his virtue as a hen guards its eggs: through the power of mindfulness and clear comprehension in the control of bodily and vocal action, in the taming of the sense-faculties, in purification of livelihood, and in the use of the requisites (44).


Thoughts on Comments on “Thoughts on Christian Buddhism”

Try to say that three times real fast!

Much to my chagrin, my most popular post (in terms of number of views) has been “Thoughts on Christian Buddhism.”  This bothers me because in point of fact I really don’t care much about Christianity per se–so long as the fundamentalists keep their nonsense out of the schools.  In fact, the post could have been called “Thoughts on Monotheistic Buddhism” since everything I say there applies just as well to Islam or Judaism or any other belief system, alive or dead, that posits a supreme Deity, eternal souls, permanent states of existence (heaven, hell, purgatory, etc) and the like. 

If you want to get down to brass tacks for the Buddhist opinion here, read the Brahmajala Sutta in the Digha Nikaya, which just happens to be the first sutta of the first collection of suttas.  (How much more in your face could the canon’s compilers have been?)  The whole purpose of that sutta is to describe what the Dhamma is not.  For example, consider this quote, which describes the first of 62 micchaditthi or “wrong views”: “There are some ascetics and Brahmins who are Eternalists, who proclaim the eternity of the self and the world in four ways…” (1.30).  Read “soul” for “self” and “heaven/hell” for “world” and you’ve got the basics of the Western monotheistic traditions.  Now throw in the following self-aggrandizing pronouncements of a deluded deity from 2.5 and you’ve got Yahweh and Allah to a T: “I am Brahma, the Great Brahma, the Conqueror, the Unconquered, the All-Seeing, the All-Powerful, the Lord, the Maker and Creator, Ruler, Appointer and Orderer, Father of All That Have Been and Shall Be.” 

Sound familiar?  It ought to.  “For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome…” (Deut. 10:17 NIV).  Maybe the writers of Deuteronomy should have added “wicked cool, mind-blowing, wonderous, and supercalifragilistic” for good measure.

The Koran does even better.  Here’s one of Muhammad’s innumerable spiritual ejaculations describing Allah’s greatness, this from the famous surah 2.255, the “Verse of the Throne”:

God! There is no God but He, the (Ever) Living, the self-subsistent. Slumber seizeth Him not nor sleep; His is whatever is in the heavens and whatsoever is in the earth; Who is he that can intercede with Him but by His permission; He knoweth what is before them and what is behind them, while they cannot comprehend anything out of His Knowledge save that which He willeth, His Throne extendeth over the heavens and the earth, and the preservation of them both tireth Him not, And He is the Most High, the Most Great.

I suppose I could go on about this point, but I doubt it would be time well spent.  It seems that no amount of textual evidence (or any evidence) will dissuade true believers from the assertion that monotheism (pick your variety) and Buddhism are somehow “the same.”  Like any faith, those who hold to it are not particularly interested in evidence, they are more interested in their feelings (i.e. attachments) and any manner of thinking that will serve their pre-existing beliefs; reason is entirely at the beck and call of their emotional needs.  However, there is more to be said concerning Mr. MacPherson’s comments than this.

It started, of course, with the accusation that I am espousing a kind of “tribal Buddhism” (see comments at the bottom of the above post).  As my critic defined it, “tribal” here means any tightly clung to or strongly asserted ideological notion (in Pali, a ditthi or “view”) amounting to a kind of fundamentalism, literalism, what have you, that demands defacto preeminence in any discussion of “truth” or “rightness.”  His definition is fine as far as it goes, but as I pointed out in my response, my entire post was merely trying to show how Christianity would be considered from the Buddha’s point of view. 

To get specific, from the standpoint of the Suttas all forms of monotheism can be classified as examples of

  1. personality view (sakkayaditthi), which is the five aggregates (khanda) seen with clinging (=pancaupdanakhanda);
  2. eternalism (sassataditthi), which is the belief in a soul or personality existing apart from the five khandas and continuing after death.  This is a subtype of personality view.  The human soul, God, the angels, devils, and Satan are all examples of this; and
  3. wrong view (micchaditthi), which encompasses both of the above.  Essentially, all views are wrong view which hinder insight into phenomena and seeing their inherent characteristics (anicca, dukkha, anatta) and their conditioned arising (i.e. paticcasamuppada).  Christianity etc all assert the opposite as regards reality, for while they maintain this world and our bodies are transient and unsatisfactory, they yet posit permanent souls that can experience eternal bliss in heaven (in defiance of the three marks).  Finally, the unconditioned, unmoved source of everything (in defiance of dependent arising) is an eternal God–essentially a cosmic ego–which is made the butt of jokes in a number of suttas, the most prominent being the Brahmajala. 

Thus what I was asserting was simply what can easily be deduced from the texts.  I also noted that the Dhamma is antithetical even to grasping the Buddha’s teaching as an ideology, viz. the parable of the raft.  (This, I think, clearly highlights the difference between Dhamma–i.e. the Buddha’s Teaching–and “Buddhism,” or that Teaching perpetuated and held to as a religion.  The Dhamma is not a religion; Buddhism most certainly is.)


Shifting gears, I thought it might be worthwhile for me to clarify my specific views on the “truthiness” (to quote Stephen Colbert) of the Pali Suttas.  Unlike the Judaeo-Christian-Islamic opinions of their texts, I consider the suttas as man made, preserved and passed down by fallible human beings.  It is therefore quite possible that many details have been lost or distorted.  The only way we can tell is by testing their claims.  Well, after 2400 years, the results are in, and it seems pretty clear that if you practice what the texts tell you to practice, you will find pretty much what they’re describing. 

This is not to say there are no controversies.  For example, is rebirth a fact?  Or, what is the moral status of the arhat?  Well, even the suttas say it is possible to be fully enlightenened (i.e. an arhat) and still not have the ability to recall past lives.  And if you read such sites as “Dharma Overground” or “Interactive Buddha,” the thought would seem to be that an arhat is not necessarily morally perfect–for example, he/she may be capable of feeling lust, or having his/her feelings hurt, etc.  If experience finds fault with the texts, I am ready to revise them.  Consider also the following quote, with which I am in complete agreement: 

If science proves some belief of Buddhism wrong, then Buddhism will have to change. In my view, science and Buddhism share a search for the truth and for understanding reality. By learning from science about aspects of reality where its understanding may be more advanced, I believe that Buddhism enriches its own worldview.

The author of this quote was none other than Tenzin Gyatso, the current Dalai Lama, writing in an op-ed in The New York Times on November 12, 2005.  Neither this nor my own pronouncements concerning the validity of the texts amount to “tribal” ravings, so I have to categorically reject the notion that I am pressing any kind of intolerant, fundamentalistic species of Buddhism.  To say so is to completely ignore what I’ve actually written and what my emotional stance toward my own “beliefs” is (note: I am not particularly interested in them).  But here’s the real challenge: find me a Jew, Christian, or Muslim who is willing to concede the same for their holy books and I’ll become a Monotheistic Buddhist too!

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