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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

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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. 

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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). 

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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).

Looking For the Buddha In the Bible, or How NOT To Make Spinach Soufflé (Part 2 of A 13-Part Series)

As discussed in my previous post, the Dhamma has at its heart certain themes (aniccata being only one of them) that make it problematic for anyone with a theistic worldview, whether Jewish or Christian or Muslim.  Even if he is attracted to the Buddha’s Teaching, the theist will inevitably misconstrue it; more likely, he will simply reject it.  Much to his credit, Mr. MacPherson has not done the latter.  He has, however, done the former.  

Mr. MacPherson’s primary thesis is that the Buddha’s teaching, its Four Noble Truths in their entirety, can be discovered within the Biblical tradition.  To prove this he first describes the Buddha’s teaching (the First Noble Truth, the Second, the Third etc.) and then attempts to show how what he just described is also described by passages in the Bible.  For this approach to be successful, he must accurately describe the Dhamma, then find Biblical correlates that not only fit their Buddhist counterparts, but do so with the same purpose.  This last point is vital, for a mere collection of resemblances, if they are not organized and motivated by a purpose similar to that which you find in the Dhamma, are then nothing but a collection of resemblances, whose intention or outcome may be anything at all.  In other words, purpose in thought and practice is just as important—perhaps more important—than the actual thoughts and practices themselves.   

Mr. MacPherson, however, is unsuccessful on both points.  First, he does not accurately represent the Buddha’s Teaching.  Second, he never demonstrates any common, overarching purpose to the catalogue of resemblances he describes.  It is this second point that I wish now to take up, and which brings me to the subject of…spinach soufflé.  

Imagine you have a thousand page cookbook entitled The World of Soufflé.  You’re trying to figure out what to eat one night and happen upon the following recipe for spinach soufflé: 

Ingredients:

1 egg

1/3 cup 1% milk

1/3 cup grated Parmesan cheese

1 teaspoon crushed garlic

salt and pepper to taste

2 (10 ounce) packages frozen chopped spinach, thawed and drained

Directions: 

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C).

In a medium bowl whisk together egg, milk, cheese, garlic, salt and pepper. Fold in spinach. Place in a small casserole dish.

Bake in preheated oven for 20 minutes, or until lightly set.

NOTE: If you are in a hurry, use a microwave safe casserole dish, cover with plastic wrap, and cook on high for 3 minutes. Release the steam, recover, and cook on high for another 3 minutes. Enjoy! 

It looks easy enough—only six or seven ingredients and six steps.  You are promised that by using just these ingredients, in just this order and in just this way, you will get spinach soufflé, and not (hopefully) lemon meringue or baklava.  

Now consider this: how many other recipes use these same ingredients—maybe more, but not less—and also follow these steps—not necessarily in this exact order, and perhaps adding a few, but not subtracting any either?  In other words, think of the above ingredients and directions as the least common denominator; how many recipes are there in your book, in the world, with those ingredients and directions at minimum?  I would wager hundreds, maybe thousands.  And if you combed through enough books you might cook all sorts of things, delicious things, using these ingredients and these steps—but unless you did it in exactly these proportions and in the correct order, you would not make spinach soufflé.  In other words, an overlap of parts and processes does not imply identity of purpose.  It does not imply identical, even compatible outcomes.  Herein lies Mr. MacPherson’s chief error.     

As will be demonstrated in the following posts, he has noted many similarities between Biblical teachings and Buddhist.  I will not argue against their similarities, but where he misconstrues Dhamma the similarities are of no import, and even when the meanings are correctly understood, the mere fact that Dhamma point A is similar to Biblical point B does not mean anything if the intentions, motivations and expected outcomes are at odds with one another.  The truth is, that in the case of these two traditions, their goals could not be more dissimilar.

If God Is Eternal: Why the Bible Is A Bad Place to Start Your Dharma Practice (Part 1 of a 13-Part Series)

Diligent readers of my blog (are any of you there?) may have noticed that with one exception the only commenter on my efforts to date is self-proclaimed “integral Christian” Scott MacPherson.  For this contribution I am much indebted to Mr. MacPherson, though oddly enough I only recently got around to actually visiting his blog, whereupon I read the following:

I read something by a long-time Buddhist wherein he said that the Fourth Noble Truth of Buddhism is not found within Christianity. I assert that it can be found within Christianity… (from “The First and Second Noble Truths of Buddhism inside Christianity“).

 Those are the opening lines of what eventually became eight separate posts asserting that and then some. 

Now Mr. MacPherson’s first Buddhist related post appeared on April 22nd of 2011, and his first comment on my page arrived two days later.  Subsequent comments by him lambasted me for my “tribal” mentality but, more to the point, argued that Christianity and Buddhism were really very similar, if not the same.  He said: 

I have read and marked up a great deal of the Long, Middle, and Connected Discourses, as well as the Dhammapada and the Platform, Heart, and Diamond Sutras. In every single one of those books I found the Bible. It’s there if you’re not tribal. The Zen monk Thict Nhat Hahn [sic] openly proclaims Christianity is true.

And it just so happens that I was in fact the author of the apparently controversial remark that Christianity lacked anything corresponding to the Eightfold Path.  Specifically, I cited the Mahaparinibbana Sutta (D.15:5:27), 

where [I am now quoting myself] the Buddha declares that the presence of the Eightfold Path is the necessary condition for any teaching to lead someone to liberation.  Christianity, especially the Biblically based sort, lacks anything corresponding to the Eightfold Path and as such is incapable of guiding anyone to liberation (i.e. nibbana).  It would thus be considered kanha dhamma, a “dark teaching.” 

It appears then that I am the inspiration for Mr. MacPhersons’s outpouring on the subjects of Gospel and Dhamma.  Inasmuch as my initial purpose in writing this blog was to stimulate and inform people concerning the Buddha’s Teaching, it would seem I have achieved my goal.

 I am not a big reader of blogs (except my own), and even less a commenter.  There are just too many opinions floating around and too few minutes in the day to worry about them.  Mr. MacPherson’s opinions, though, since they were apparently voiced in direct opposition to my own, deserve some attention.  My hope is that in expressing my thoughts on them I’ll offer constructive critiques, advice and information as opposed to knock-downs and retorts.  Assuming Mr. MacPherson one day reads my response, hopefully he’ll come away feeling encouraged and informed as opposed to insulted and annoyed. 

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Anyone who wishes to continue with this discussion would be well advised to read first the comments Mr. MacPherson made on my own site, and then to read the Buddhist related posts on his site.  Here they are in order:

The First and Second Noble Truths of Buddhism inside Christianity

The Third Noble Truth of Buddhism inside Christianity

God proved by the test of Long Discourses 9, 13, and 23

The Eightfold Path Inside Christianity: Points 1 and 2

The Eightfold Path Inside Christianity: Points 3 and 4

The Eightfold Path Inside Christianity: Points 5 and 6

The Eightfold Path Inside Christianity: Point 7

The Eightfold Path Inside Christianity: Point 8

He has written another post entitled “Understanding that what is true sometimes depends on one’s present level of growth,” but this does not come within the purview of my discussion. 

Now, I am not sure how long Mr. MacPherson has been studying Buddhism, or what books he has read or teachers practiced with.  But whether his experience is long or short, narrow or wide, he is, in his effort to grasp the Dhamma, up against a veritable intellectual cliff.  I don’t think most people realize just how hard the Buddha’s teaching is to get intellectually, let alone experientially.  So difficult is it that even years of language study, a Ph.D. and many publications, can still result in skewed interpretations laden with facts and terms but lacking any meaningful form that might guide one to the specific insights the Buddha pointed at.  It is not a matter of intelligence, either.  Geniuses come and go, with Nobel Prizes and Pulitzers dispensed, but how many of these doctors and pundits attain the Path?  Instead, the masses live and die as “uninformed commoners”—assutava puthujjanas—and never know what they’ve missed.    

Consider the following quotes: 

Although a hundred years have elapsed since the scientific study of Buddhism has been initiated in Europe, we are nevertheless still in the dark about the fundamental teachings of this religion and its philosophy.  Certainly no other religion has proved so refractory to clear formulation (T. Stcherbatsky, The Conception of Buddhist Nirvana [1927], p. 1). 

Anyone who is a puthujjana ought to find himself confronted with a difficulty when he considers the Buddha’s Teaching. The reason for this is quite simply that when a puthujjana does come to understand the Buddha’s Teaching he thereby ceases to be a puthujjana (Ñánavíra Thera, Clearing the Path [1987], p. 247). 

And this from the Master himself: 

This Dhamma is profound, hard to see and hard to understand, peaceful and sublime, unattainable by mere reasoning, to be experienced by the wise (Aggivacchagota Sutta, M.72:18). 

Consider my own case.  I began studying Buddhism (and religion in general) at the age of 18.  It took me ten years before I got, intellectually, what the Dhamma was about.  I can say this with a degree of certainty because I had the good fortune to meet teachers (my ordination brother, for one) who were specifically stream enterers (sotapanna) or better upon whom I could vet my understanding.  But it was another six years or so before the import of this understanding really took hold of my mind.  Now another eleven years have gone by—in all 27 years of mulling over and on-again-off-again practice, interspersed by moments of great clarity and great confusion.  No wonder the Buddha, in the weeks following his enlightenment, wondered if teaching was worth the effort. 

All this is to say that anyone, regardless of background, is apt to find the Dhamma challenging because it is, to paraphrase the Buddha, “against the grain.”  Some worldviews, however, are more problematic than others, and unfortunately for Mr. MacPherson, his philosophical background lies with those.  

Judging by his self description, he is (much like myself early on) a dabbler in different paths, an eclectic.  He seems of late to have settled on Eastern Orthodox Christianity, though also professes interest in Sufism and Buddhism, and so apparently has something of a mystical bent.  From comments in his posts he most certainly believes Jesus was God, and believes in the God of the Bible.  He appears also to be a Genesis fundamentalist to the extent he believes in Adam and Eve and the Fall.  Ordinarily this last bit would be sufficient to send me into paroxysms, but in this case I will only say that a Biblically-based Weltanschauung renders the Dhamma well nigh incomprehensible.  

Consider, for instance, the effort to grasp aniccata (“impermanence”) so long as you believe in an imperishable God or soul, or eternal states such as heaven and hell.  Either the effort must be given up as futile, or God must be given up.  You cannot have impermanence and God at the same time.  “But I see impermanence all around me,” the putthujjana (theist or otherwise) will say.  But the aniccata the Buddha speaks of is not simply the decay of one’s car or clothes or spouse’s face, for none of these require the Noble Ones’ ñanadassana, the “knowledge and vision” of the Path, to see.  Aniccata is something more profound than that.  Consider this from Ñanavira: 

That the puthujjana does not see aniccata is evident from the fact that the formula, “Whatever has the nature of arising, all that has the nature of ceasing,” which is clearly enough the definition of aniccata, is used only in connection with the sotapanna’s attainment: “…the clear and stainless Eye of the Dhamma arose in him: ‘Whatever has the nature of arising, all that has the nature of ceasing’” (at, e.g., Sacca Samyutta 56.11). Aniccata is seen with the sotapanna’s dhammacakkhu, or eye of the dhamma…  (Op cit, pp. 249-50).

This is direct insight to Dependent Arising (paticcasamuppada), perhaps the single most important concept in the Buddha’s Teaching and one of the most widely misunderstood.  Its importance can be measured by the fact that the second and third Noble Truths stem directly from it, and the Buddha himself was quoted by Sariputta (at M.28:28) as saying: “He who sees dependent arising sees the Dhamma; he who sees the Dhamma sees dependent arising.”  Impermanence and insight to the Dhamma cannot be separated, but such insight can’t even be considered so long as one holds anything as permanent.

In other words, attainment on the Buddhist path of awakening cannot occur without dispensing with notions that are fundamental to the Biblical worldview; these ways of seeing, in effect, cancel one another out.  That views (ditthi) at odds with the Dhamma constitute a stumbling block for anyone approaching it is made clear on a number of occasions in the suttas.  Consider this from the Nidanasamyutta (S.12:35): 

If there is the view, “The soul and the body are the same,” there is no living of the holy life; if there is the view, “The soul is one thing, the body is another,” there is no living of the holy life.  Without veering towards either of these extremes, the Tathagata teaches the Dhamma by the middle: “With birth as condition, aging-and-death…” etc. 

The first view is that of materialism (ucchedavada), the second that of eternalism (sassatavada).  Monotheism is predicated upon the latter.  

The Buddha seems to be saying two things at once here: first, that if either of these views were true, the Dhamma as he teaches it would be impossible to realize; second, that adherence to either of these views makes practice and attainment of his Path problematic.  The “right view” (sammaditthi) of the sotapanna, however, abrogates both extremes. 

In one of his many conversations with the wanderer Vacchagotta (M.72:18), the Buddha comments directly on his interlocutor’s dilemma: “It is hard for you to understand [the Dhamma] when you hold another view, accept another teaching, approve of another teaching, pursue a different training, and follow a different teacher.”  Fortunately, the Buddha did not treat Vacchagotta as a lost cause and Vacchagotta did not give up—he kept asking and asking, until finally he let go of what had been holding him back.  Once he had done that, 

before long, dwelling alone, withdrawn, diligent, ardent, and resolute, the venerable Vacchagotta, by realising for himself with direct knowledge, here and now entered upon and abided in that supreme goal of the holy life for the sake of which clansmen rightly go forth from the home life into homelessness.  He directly knew: “Birth is destroyed, the holy life has been lived, what had to be done has been done, there is no more coming to any state of being.”  And venerable Vacchagotta became one of the arahants” (M.73:26).  

Passages like this fire me with enthusiasm!  There is always hope.

A Letter To Christian-Buddhists (table of contents for a 13-part series)

  Table of Contents

  1. If God Is Eternal: Why the Bible Is A Bad Place to Start Your Dharma Practice
  2. Looking For the Buddha In the Bible: How Not To Make Spinach Soufflé
  3. Dukkha: Why the First Noble Truth Is No Laughing Matter
  4. Beyond Mammon and Mistresses: Why the Second Noble Truth Is So Much More Than Desire
  5. Dependent Arising: Why This Whole Ball of Shit Keeps Rolling
  6. Reprise: Is the Second Noble Truth of Buddhism Inside Christianity?
  7. Nirodha: It’s the End of Your World As You Know It
  8. Parallel Lines: Mundane and Noble Eightfold Paths
  9. Right View: That First Step Is A Doozey!
  10. Be Not Like the Blind Men: The Ending of Faith Is the Beginning of Wisdom
  11. So Why Are We Having This Conversation Anyway? Christian-Buddhists As Religious Chimeras
  12. Doublethink As the Door to Christian-Buddhism
  13. Common Ground: The Contemplative Conversation

The Morals of God and the Buddha

Adherents of Christianity, Judaism and Islam habitually declare that their God is essential for the practice of ethics, but this belief is entirely without justification.  To the contrary, I would argue the Abrahamic God does not, indeed cannot, function as a coherent source for the understanding of ethical thought and behavior.  God’s words and actions in the Bible (not to mention the Koran) make it abundantly clear why this should be the case.  While in one instance (Ex. 20:13, 15) he tells us not to kill or steal, in others (e.g. Josh 5-13, Deut. 7 et al) he urges a genocidal war in which murder and theft (and presumably rape) are all well and fine.  Once he gets down to lawmaking his “ethical” character is further muddled in sections of Deuteronomy and Leviticus where stoning (Lev. 24:16, Deut. 17:2-7, Deut. 22:23-24 et al), slaughtering and burning animals (Lev. 1:1 ff et al) to “make a pleasing odor” (Lev. 4:31), and slavery (Ex.21:1-4, Deut. 15:12-18, Lev. 25:44-46 et al) are all deemed acceptable—even virtuous—practices.  He himself is the author of global devastation (the Flood), the destruction of cities (Sodom, Gomorrah, Jericho etc), the whimsical killing of people for the most trivial offenses (Onan’s death because he refused to impregnate his sister-in-law, Gen. 38:9-10), and the cruel manipulation of innocent bystanders (the Abraham-Isaac incident and the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart).

And it does not get better in the New Testament.  If Jesus claimed to be Yahweh, then he claimed responsibility for His atrocities.  Moreover, Jesus’ behavior is at times a little less than saintly.  He indulges in fits of rage (the scene with the money changers), needlessly blasts harmless vegetation (the fig tree in Matt. 21:18-19 and Mk. 11:13-14, 20), and speaks anathema against anyone who doesn’t believe in him (Matt. 10:33, 13:40-42, John 15:6 et al).  Also, though Jesus himself does not speak directly to this issue, the position of the epistles on slavery is clear: it is a perfectly fine institution, so long as it is not accompanied by indiscriminate abuse (Eph. 6:5-9, Col. 4:1, I Tim. 6:1-3 et al).  Yet by the seventeenth century many in Europe at least were beginning to recognize slavery for the abomination it is, and by the eighteenth century nations began outlawing it—Russia in 1723, Scotland in 1778, Massachusetts in 1783, Spain in 1811, etc etc.  The United States—the so-called “land of the free”—was a real laggard in this regard.  (The supreme irony is that in any argument between abolitionists and supporters of slavery, the supporters always cited the Bible in their defense.)  Thus in clear defiance of the Biblical deity’s mandates, men and women made the rational, moral choice to abolish this odious institution.  Finally, if we take Christianity at its face value, we are forced to conclude that the majority of human beings who have lived in the past 2000 years will suffer eternity in hell—all because they didn’t believe a first century Galilean carpenter was actually the creator of the universe in disguise.  This monstrous act, perpetrated on account of such triviality, is the grossest evil of the Biblical god, easily surpassing the accumulated horrors of the Old Testament.  I could go on ad nauseam, but it would be a waste of my time and yours.

(Of course, Christians are fond of saying that God does not condemn anyone; they condemn themselves by choosing to reject Jesus—a disingenuous and coldhearted retort if ever there was one.  The fact is, there cannot be any such thing as “choice” as ordinarily understood when you are dealing with an omniscient and omnipotent being.  If God knows the future—and if he does not he is not omniscient and ipso facto not omnipotent—then nothing I do is a matter of choice for it has already “happened” in his foreknowledge.  An action perfectly foreseen does not admit of choice, however it might seem to me.  Thus God knew, the moment he conceived the idea of Creation, that he would be condemning countless beings to endless, not to mention pointless, suffering.  He chose to create a world he knew would be filled with misery, and he chose to compound this misfortune with an arbitrary system of justice where everyone comes out losing and the only option for any of us is a “choice” (the outcome of which he knew in advance, à la predestination) that is really no choice at all.  In other words, the assumption of God’s omniscience and omnipotence is entirely incompatible not only with any notion of human freedom, but also with the supposition that He is good.  If we take for granted the Christian characterization of his powers, God must be held responsible for everything that happens to everyone.)

 What I hope to have indicated above is that if you take the Biblical/Koranic God as your ethical model, then sometimes you will behave virtuously and sometimes not.  Sometimes you will refrain from raping, pillaging, and murdering and sometimes you won’t.  Sometimes suffering and injustice will horrify you, and sometimes you will rejoice over the most appalling circumstances—as our Pilgrim Fathers did when they gave thanks to God for having sent plagues to wipe out the Indians, thereby allowing them to colonize the land unhindered by troublesome aborigines.  (The plague was smallpox, brought to the New World by European settlers.)  This extraordinarily arbitrary and self-interested approach to ethics is inevitable if someone appeals to the whimsies of a personal god for their notions of right and wrong.

 (A contemporary example of this self-righteous, amoral groupthink is the widespread support by evangelicals for Israeli West Bank settlers and Israel in general. Among the many moral crises this world faces, the Israeli-Palestinian crisis is one of the clearest cut.  A census in 1890 indicated there were fewer than 10,000 Jews living in what was then called Palestine.  Now there are five million plus.  How is this possible?  Simple: colonization—by European Zionists in the early 20th century—and ethnic cleansing—as a systematic state policy by Israel.  Palestinians, who had been living there for thousands of years, were forcibly evicted from their homes and deprived of their livelihoods.  Thousands still live in refugee camps.  And why has this happened?  Because a magical holy book says that 3,200 years ago the Supreme Creator of the Universe, in his capacity as galactic real estate broker, decided a semi-arid sliver of land should be the divine right of a bunch of pastoralist nomads and their descendants until the end of time.  Millions have died and suffered and continue to do so—all on account of this folly.  On a moral level, this is not far removed from what the Europeans and the United States did to Native Americans, minus the genocide.)

 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.  As a final point in this regard, I would strongly urge readers to view a talk by Sam Harris at the 2010 TED conference.  Twenty-three minutes of your time could hardly be better spent.

 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 nibbana is out of the question.

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