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Archive for the tag “Mahayana Buddhism”

T he Six Perfections by Dale S. Wright

The Six Perfections (Wright)The Six Perfections: Buddhism & the Cultivation of Character by Dale S. Wright. Oxford University Press 2009, 292 pages.

After reading a couple examples of “popular” books on the Buddhist paramitas, this one came as a very welcome relief.  The difference was immediately noticed and profound: as opposed to the fluff, irrelevant stories and pop psychology of Das and Boorstein, this is a mature philosophical reflection on the Buddhist “perfections” by a man who is less an entertainer than a real thinker.  Wright’s language is sophisticated, nuanced and densely meaningful, and he offers a critical, contemporary assessment of Buddhist attitudes and practices.

The book is entirely Mahayana in orientation, taking its cue from the “Perfection of Wisdom” literature, specifically the Diamond Sutra, the Large Sutra on Perfect Wisdom, the Perfection of Wisdom in Eight Thousand Lines, the Vimalakirti and, of course, the Bodhicaryavatara of Shantideva.  (I knew I was in the hands of a good scholar when Wright actually stated up front what his sources would be.)  The book covers (per the title) the traditional six paramitas as opposed to the Theravada and later Mahayana ten.  For each of the six Wright first discusses how the paramita has been understood in traditional Buddhist culture.  He then offers a contemporary critical assessment of that “perfection.”  I found this added reflection absolutely critical to the quality of the book and one of the reasons why I would recommend it so unhesitatingly.  Wright recognizes–as is rarely done, it seems–that many images of Buddhist sainthood are so rarefied and elevated as to be impossible to emulate.  Somehow, though, they must be rendered concrete, and so the question Wright pursues is how can these examples be made valid models for contemporary people.  He spends a lot of time exploring this and similar questions, making the old texts relevant and comprehensible to us.  In this he renders great service to the tradition as a whole.

It should be clear to anyone who reads this book that Wright is a man of great integrity and insight.  The book simply could not have been produced by someone who had not reflected seriously and at length upon these issues.  But my simply saying this will not adequately convey what I mean.  Put it this way: I know a book is “great” when I cannot help but read it with a pen or pencil in hand and feel excited to mark out passages that particularly strike me, when I am compelled to write notes to myself for later reference.  When I know I have to read a book again, I get a feeling of great gratitude to the author, for in such instances he or she has created something that affects and alters me, for the better.  This is such a book.

I offer a few examples from the text:

What is it that we are perfecting in the six perfections?  The best word in English for that would be our character.  It is through resources of character that we undertake enlightening practices, and it is our character that is enlightened (7).

Unless we as donors can see clearly and unflinchingly that who we are as donors–secure in wealth and health–is completely dependent on numerous turns of good fortune, on the care and help of others, and on opportunities not available to everyone, our acts of giving will be less than fully generous.  These acts will therefore not have the liberating effects that they might otherwise have had.  When we are able to see that the homeless person’s parents did not do for him what ours did for us, that his teachers did not do for him what ours did for us, then we begin to understand the contingency of our fortune, and, looking more deeply, the thorough interdependency of all reality (25).

The culmination of Buddhist practices of generosity can be seen in their ideal form, the bodhisattva who gives unselfishly out of a deep compassion for all living beings.  Compassion is the ultimate aim of these practices.  But that culmination is the result of a long process of self-cultivation.  For the most part, compassion is something we learn to feel.  It is not innate, not a “natural” feeling.  For these reasons, we cannot feel compassion simply by deciding to feel it, or by telling ourselves that it is our responsibility to feel it.  We do, however, have the capacity to develop compassion by cultivating our thoughts and emotions in ways that enable it.  This is the function of the “practice” of giving.  Making generosity of character an explicit aim of self-cultivation, we sculpt our thoughts, emotions, and dispositions in the direction of a particular form of human excellence (30).

In the same way that etiquette resembles morality while not yet embodying it, morality imitates compassion while still falling short of it (81).

The perfection of tolerance is the art of understanding what, when, and how to tolerate (110).

Anger as a response to injustice presupposes a kind of selfhood that will at some point stand in the way of justice (117).

The role of energy in ethics can be highlighted by reflecting on ways in which we might fall short in life. There are two basic ways in which it is possible for a person to fail ethically. The most obvious of these is to act unjustly, to commit crimes against one’s society and oneself, to be a negative, destructive force. But another way is to fail in the positive, failing to live constructively on behalf of oneself and others. This second failure signals a deficiency of energy, a lack of constructive striving toward something worthwhile. Failing in this sense, people may never commit a crime against others or do anything explicitly wrong; their failure consists of not generating the energy of constructive life, thus failing to live a life in keeping with their capacity (146).

I could of course supply many more quotes–the author is eloquent and thoughtful at every turn.  But the book is not without its faults.  Two points stood out for me. First, Wright has a tendency to go on longer than necessary, which can make the chapters seem over extended.  He clearly gets caught up in his own ruminations at times, to the detriment of the text.  If anyone thinks any part of the book is “boring,” this will be the reason.  The second problem is much more profound.  Through the first four paramitas Wright was spot on in his understanding and elucidation of Buddhist concepts, but in the section on meditation (chapter 5) the wheels came off his cart.

I think once again we have here the age-old conundrum of the scholar who has not practiced beyond thinking, learning and reflection; it’s clear Wright does not really know what meditation is.  For example, on page 194 he says “…in contrast to samatha or calming kinds of meditation, vipassana cultivates thinking in the service of enhanced awareness and wisdom.”  He continues, saying “…vipassana meditation takes several forms. But in each case the practice entails focusing thought on an idea or a series of ideas” (194).  He clearly believes vipassana is primarily reflective, cognitive or conceptual, so the essence of the fifth chapter is an elucidation of meditation as a kind of disciplined, guided thinking.  While it is true that some types of meditation (think of the Brahmaviharas) begin as discursive reflections or visualizations, that is never their end.  As regards vipassana, however, it doesn’t even begin there; Wright would have done well to read Kornfield’s Living Dharma to get an idea what vipassana really is about.

I have to confess I am at a loss to explain how Wright so totally misses the point here.  Clearly he is an intelligent, thoughtful and well read man.  Clearly he has put a lot of time into understanding Buddhist culture.  But the fifth chapter, while not without insight (here and there), is largely a toss on account of how badly he misunderstands what dhyana is actually about.

I’ve come to the conclusion that this kind of fault is cultural in nature, the culture in question being the “culture of scholarship,” aka “academia.”  (Remember when someone says It’s academic they really mean it’s beside the point, not useful or applicable.)  I was once myself an aspiring scholar/academic and I can say how tempting it is to think that if you’ve read the books and published the articles, then you must really understand something in a serious way.  If you’re talking about Renaissance French literature, that might be the case, but human consciousness ultimately transcends culture and time–structures and capacities are innate–and contemplative technologies which seek to alter those structures and capacities cannot be adequately understood from the vantage point most of us start from.  These are not things one should simply think about–you have to do them.

On account of the problems I’ve described, I’m giving the book four stars.  However, the first four chapters are five (even six!) star material, and the last chapter is also quite excellent, though it lacks the practical groundedness of the first four.

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The Way of Korean Zen by Kusan Sunim

The Way of Korean Zen by Kusan Sunim.  (Translation by Martine Batchelor; edited, with an introduction by Stephen Batchelor.)  Weatherhill 2009. 182 pages.

I think you would be hard pressed to find a better, more authentic introduction to Zen Buddhism–or, as it is called in Korea, Seon Bulgyo (where “seon” is pronounced like English “son”).  But perhaps the word “introduction” is not really appropriate.  If you know nothing about Zen Buddhism this is probably not the best place to start.  If you’ve waded into the ocean of Zen and are looking for a fine “fish” to eat, something tasty and nutritious, something truly representative of these particular “waters” (to carry my analogy near the breaking point), this book is marvelous.

It is not about Japanese Zen, though, but Korean.  The Koreans have been practicing Buddhism longer than the Japanese, plus there is more active, “authentic” Buddhism happening in Korea than in Japan.  (At least that’s been my impression; let me know if you think otherwise.)  This situation, however, is changing; as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, the tradition is dying and is probably ready for life support at this point.  (In Japan it is as good as clinically dead; there is probably more authentic Zen in America than in Japan.)  That said, the Koreans understand the whys and wherefores of koan (or “hwadu”) practice in a way I never got the sense contemporary Japanese do.  This book delves in depth regarding koans and contains prime instruction for anyone utilizing this particular meditation subject.

Kusan Sunim (1909-1983)

Some words about the source of these teachings.  Kusan Sunim was, along with Seong-cheol Sunim (“sunim” means monk in Korean), arguably the greatest living exponent of Zen Buddhism in twentieth century Korea.  He started life as a farmer and barber, was even a married man.  At the age of 26 a life-threatening disease struck him.  He survived by going to a temple and reciting the mantra Om mani padme hum for a hundred days, which practice cured him.  Three years later he renounced family life and ordained as a monk and soon after took up meditation, which he did with fanatic resolve.  Sometimes circumstances intervened to interrupt his practice, but he repeatedly went back to it with increased determination.  During one stint, to fight off drowsiness he practiced continuous standing meditation for days on end, during which time “he lost any sense of the outside world.  He was no longer concerned whether he lived or died.  He was so absorbed in his meditation that birds would come and sit on his head and shoulders and take pieces of stuffing that protruded from his padded coat for their nests” (45).  Eventually he attained Great Awakening, which caused his teacher Hyobong Sunim to say “Until now you have been following me; now it is I who should follow you” (47).  This book gives you a chance to follow this great man.

The contents offer a good variety.  The introduction (by Stephen Batchelor) chronicle the history of Buddhism in Korea, a much neglected area of study by Western Buddhists.  Readers who wish to delve more deeply into this would be advised to check out Mu-Seong Sunim’s Thousand Peaks: Korean Zen Tradition and Teachers.  Those with a philosophical bent will appreciate Tracing Back the Radiance: Chinul’s Korean Way of Zen.  (Chinul, a contemporary of Dogen’s, is the intellectual godfather of Korean Zen, though in the last several decades he has been somewhat overshadowed by Seong-cheol’s “sudden awakening, sudden cultivation” teachings which hearken back to the Sixth Patriarch.)  There follows an overview of life in a Korean Zen monastery and a brief bio of Kusan.  Those wishing to know more about the former should read The Zen Monastic Experience by Robert E. Buswell.

The second half of the book constitute the teachings proper.  They consist of meditation instructions, specifically how to practice the koan (hwadu), as well as discourses from winter retreats delivered by Kusan to monks assembled at Songgwang-Sa, where Kusan was the abbot.  (This is also the temple where I lived most of the time that I spent in Korean temples.)  There are also less formal talks–“advice and encouragement”–and a series of poems and commentaries on the traditional “Ten Oxherding Pictures.”

Entrance to Songgwang-Sa

The feeling one gets from reading the words of Kusan is This is the real deal.  Imagine if one of the ancient Chinese masters–Huang-po or Linchi or even Huineng–were suddenly resurrected in the here and now and started spouting off–this is what you’d expect to hear.  Kusan has the same punch, energy, sense of paradox, and intrinsic authority.  You can’t help but want to take this man’s advice, to run off to the mountains, live in a cave and risk all for the breakthrough.

But don’t believe me.  Listen to him:

To live long would be to live for a hundred years. A short life is over in the time it takes to inhale and exhale a single breath. A hundred years of life depends upon a single breath, for life stops when respiration ceases. Can you afford to wait for a hundred years when you do not know how soon death will come? You may die after having eaten a good breakfast in the morning; you may die in the afternoon after a good lunch. Some die during sleep. You may die in the midst of going here and there. No one can determine the time of death. Therefore, you must awaken before you die (78-9).

What will it take to awaken?  Kusan tells us:

The Buddhas and the patriarchs did not realize Buddhahood easily. They realized it through great effort and much hardship. They exerted themselves with such great effort because the sufferings of birth and death are so terrifying. Therefore, even though you want to sleep more, you should sleep less. Even though you want to eat more, you should eat less. Even though you want to talk a lot, you should try to talk less. Even though you want to see many things, you should see less. Your body will definitely feel restrained by acting in such a way. This is indeed a practice of austerity. However, none of the Buddhas and the patriarchs would have awakened had they not trained themselves in this manner (81-2).

Finally, if you want to help sentient beings, how can you do it?  Kusan says

In order to be able to actually help others, you should seek to emulate the spirit of a great hero.  This is necessary because only one who is the greatest hero among heroes is able to accomplish this difficult task [of awakening]. You need supreme courage in order to bring this practice to its completion. To transform this world into a Pure Land and to change ordinary sentient beings into accomplished sages is no easy matter. It is truly the work of a great hero (118).

I advise all you wanna-be great heroes to get a copy of this illuminating and inspiring book and enter soon the practice of the Way!

My Amazon rating: 5 stars 

Shobogenzo-Zuimonki by Dogen Zenji

Shobogenzo-Zuimonki: Sayings of Eihei Dogen Zenji recorded by Koun Ejo.  Translated by Shohaku Okumura.  Kyoto Soto Zen Center 1987.  232 pages.

To what indeed shall I liken the world and human life?

Ah!  The shadow of the moon as it touches in a dewdrop

The beak of the water fowl.

–Dogen Zenji

Dogen was the ultimate Zen philosopher.  He was also one hardcore, butt-kicking meditation master.  If you feel like slacking off in your practice, if you just want to sit back, watch a game and drink a Bud Lite, Dogen is the man you should turn to:

The practice of being released from samsara and attaining the Way seems to be sought by everyone, but those who accomplish it are few.  Life-and-death is the Great Matter; impermanence is swift.  Do not let your mind slacken.  If you abandon the world, you should abandon it completely (113).

Across so many centuries this man speaks very clearly to us.  His philosophy is one of direct Realization, not of study.  Though he himself was brilliant and wrote extensively, he did not see the point of such things unless one had already attained the Way:

I have heard that Ku-Amidabutsu of Koya was an eminent scholar of both Exoteric and Esoteric Buddhism.  After he abandoned his temple and entered the Nenbutsu School, a Shingon priest visited him and asked about the doctrine of the Esoteric teachings of the school.  He replied, “I have forgotten everything.  I don’t remember a single word.”  Thus, he did not answer the priest’s question.  This should be the ideal bodhi-mind.  He must have remembered something, but did not talk about things he thought were useless…  Students today should also cultivate this attitude.  Even if you used to know about the philosophy of the teaching-schools, it would be better to forget it completely.  Needless to say, you should not begin studying now (88).

Perhaps this seems contradictory to some things you think you know.  Sometimes Dogen seems to contradict himself, but then he was talking to different people at different times and in different circumstances.  So it is all works out.  What is important is to read this book as something you can and should put into practice.  It is easily one of the hardest hitting, most visceral and memorable books on spiritual practice I have ever come across.

Let me step back, as I am now meandering a little. I went to Japan in 1989 to practice Zen. At the time I prepared by writing various temples for advice and suggestions. One temple sent me this book. I have treasured it ever since, and though I have bought and given away multiple copies, I have always tried to have one on hand. There are just not enough good things I can say about it.

Here you will read stories direct from the life of Japan’s greatest ever Zen monk.  You will hear about the challenges and tribulations of those who practiced under him, of laity he knew, and of his evaluations of his Ch’an ancestors (“the Patriarchs”).  Forget the sound of one hand clapping and the romance of pretty Zen gardens–Dogen talks about life-and-death and clarifying the mind in the immediate present, of how our actions, thoughts and attitudes facilitate or frustrate our accomplishment of the Way.

He has advice on just about everything.  Are you concerned about what you should pursue for a career, which company you should work for or job you should take? Dogen has advice for you:

Students of the Way, it goes without saying that you must consider the inevitability of death.  Even if you don’t consider this right now, you should be resolved not to waste time and refrain from doing meaningless things.  You should spend your time carrying out what is worth doing.  Among the things you should do, what is the most important?  You must understand that all deeds other than those of the buddhas and patriarchs are useless (97).

Or consider the inevitability of arguments and disputes–the Universe knows I have (wrongly) engaged in too many of those.  Here is Dogen on such things:

There is an old saying which goes, “Although the power of a wise man exceeds that of an ox, he does not fight with the ox.” Now, students, even if you think that your wisdom and knowledge is superior to others, you should not be fond of arguing with them. Moreover, you should not abuse others with violent words, or glare at others angrily…

Once, Zen Master Shinjo Kokubun told his students, “In former times, I practiced together with Seppo . Once Seppo was discussing the dharma loudly with another student in the monk’s dormitory. Eventually, they began to argue using harsh words, and in the end, wound up quarreling with each other. After the argument was over, Seppo said to me, ‘You and I are close friends practicing together with one mind. Our friendship is not shallow. Why didn’t you help me when I was arguing with that man?’ At the time, I could do nothing but feel small folding my hands and bowing my head.

Later, Seppo became an eminent master, and I too, am now an abbot. What I thought at the time was that Seppo’s discussion of the dharma was ultimately meaningless. Needless to say, quarreling was wrong. Since I thought it was useless to fight, I kept silent.”

Students of the Way, you also should consider this thoroughly. As long as you aspire to make diligent effort in learning the Way, you must be begrudging with your time. When do you have time to argue with others? Ultimately, it brings about no benefit to you or to others. This is so even in the case of arguing about the dharma, much more about worldly affairs. Even though the power of a wise man is stronger than that of an ox, he does not fight with the ox.  Even if you think that you understand the dharma more deeply than others, do not argue, criticize, or try to defeat them (176-8).

In short, this little book is a primer of life.  It will tear you down and build you back up. It will pluck out your eyes and stick them back in your head and set your feet off down a different path.  At times in my life I have obsessed over it, reading it repeatedly and earmarking and outlining it.  It is a lovely and poetic book and hard as diamond.  Buy it.  Read it.  Practice it.

My Amazon rating: 5 stars

Echoes From Mt. Kaya by Ven. Seong-cheol

Echoes From Mt. Kaya: Selections on Korean Buddhism by Ven. Song-chol, Patriarch of the Korean Chogye Buddhist Order.  Translation by Brian Barry.  Lotus Lantern International Buddhist Center 1988.  217 pages.

Regrettably, this is not a book you’ll easily find, nor will you easily get other writings by the same author, though Ven. Seong-cheol (1912-1993) wrote a lot in his day and was well known and widely respected in his homeland of Korea.  This unfortunate fact is on account of Korean Seon (Zen) being much less well known than its Chinese and Japanese counterparts.  Exactly why this is the case I can’t say, especially when one considers the close ties historically between the United States and South Korea.  One thing though I can say with a fair degree of certainty is this: if you want to get a first hand taste of traditional Zen practice the place to go is not Japan, and most certainly is not China (I’m not sure what, if anything is left there)–it is Korea.

Consider the practice of the koan.  In Japanese temples koan practice has degraded into a sort of mantra-like parody.  The Japanese–I’m speaking from my experience, others may have had different experiences–seem to have lost a sense of what it means to go beyond samadhi (zanmai), and in fact I knew many monks who had spent years, even decades, working on koan after koan but never getting beyond samadhi states.  (If only they took a month or two off for a vipassana course, what a difference it would make.  But I digress….)  And the reason for this is on account of how they approach koan study which, as I noted, has too much in common with a mantra.

The Koreans have a different understanding of the koan, which they call hwadu, or “head of speech.”  If you investigate the dialogues of early Chan and Zen masters you’ll see that enlightenment experiences, though often proceeded by many years of practice, typically erupt out of a paradoxical situation, question or experience.  In other words, a cognitive disruption of some kind gives birth to kensho/satori/awakening.  This is what is lacking in modern Japanese Zen but is the vein through which Korean Seon approaches the koan.  The point in Korean koan practice is not to answer the koan, but to be changed by it.  The most common koan these days in Korean monasteries is the question “What is this?”  The point of this question is to evoke first a puzzled sense, then doubt, then further inquiry, until the sense of doubt/questioning consumes the thinking mind.  Out of that state, which consists of both samadhi and insight, comes true awakening, and by this process the Koreans, I suspect, avoid the samadhi-stagnation that I saw over and over again in Japanese monasteries.

But enough of my tiring sidetrack.  On to the book review.

Seong-cheol Sunim

The author, Seong-cheol Sunim (sunim is Korean for monk; you can read his extraordinary bio here on Wikipedia) was in his own day known as a “living Buddha”.  I suspect the number of people who have been accorded such a designation is rather small and there is good reason for that.  How many people sequester themselves in solitude for 18 years, even to the point of surrounding their hermitage with barbed wire and living mostly on food they grow?  How many sleep sitting up in the full lotus posture for eight years?  How many, though never leaving the mountains, become beacons of inspiration and instruction to millions and get appointed heads of major monastic orders?  Not many.  This tells you a little about this amazing man.

As for the book’s contents: snippets from dharma talks–all dating from the 1980s, when Seong-cheol was abbot of Haein Temple and Supreme Patriarch of the Korean Chogye Buddhist Order–make up the first part.  The second part consists of selections from interviews, and part three specifically concerns monastic life.  Some selections are but a page in length, poetic and inspirational, others are ten to fifteen page essays.  In other words, the book is a miscellany, though generally of high quality, especially if one is practice oriented.  There is also a very brief introduction, a translator’s preface, and a capsule history of Korean Buddhism.

I think a few brief quotes might give a feel for the contents of this book.

Fundamental oneness includes and transcends being and non-being.  Absorbing mind and matter, it syncretizes self and others.  Should the world as we know it come to an end, fundamental reality would still remain unmoved, stable and free.  How heartbreaking that endless personal greed blocks people’s  sight from this brilliant scene; how tragic that people continue to writhe in a world filled with darkness (73).

The Emperor of Chin conquered all of China.  He built a huge palace, and tried to forget the tragedy of life by surrounding himself with all kinds of elegant pursuits.  But he ended up as no more than a handful of dirt on Mt. Lu.  Life is like the dance of a criminal being sent to the gallows (185).

And this is Seong-cheol’s prescription for meditative success:

You must strictly observe the following: do not sleep more than four hours a night, act as if you were a deaf mute, avoid all script as if you were illiterate, do not snack at any time, and do a proper amount of physical work (205).

This, finally, from the section on monastic living:

The goal of monastic life is total altruism.  You should constantly serve others both psychologically and materially.  And when doing so, you must never take a thing for it.  Lend a helping hand whenever you can, especially to the old, the young, the ill and the poor.

The Buddha’s very own son, Rahula, became one of the Buddha’s ten great disciples, and he later became known for his anonymous works of compassion.  All your deeds, no matter how outstanding, must be carried out without even a ghost knowing about them.  This too, is essential for your enlightenment.  A dollar worth of good can be ruined by a penny worth of evil, and you are the loser (207).

Note: Korean Buddhism is a dying tradition.  As the decades slip by, the numbers of Koreans calling themselves Buddhist dwindles, their percentage of the population goes down.  It is high time people outside of Korea take an interest in this rich cultural tradition, every bit as worthy as its Chinese and Japanese counterparts.  I list a few other books here I have happened upon that can ease you on this journey if you decide to partake:

The Zen Monastic Experience by Robert E. Buswell

Tracing Back the Radiance: Chinul’s Korean Way of Zen translated by Robert E. Buswell

The Way of Korean Zen by Kusan Sunim.  Kusan was a monk of prodigious attainment, a rival to Seong-cheol in his ascetic feats.

Thousand Peaks: Korean Zen Tradition and Teachers by Mu-Seong Sunim

Buddhist Philosophy: A Historical Analysis by David J. Kalupahana

Buddhist Philosophy: A Historical Analysis by David J. Kalupahana.  The University Press of Hawaii 1976.  188 pages.

I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve read this book—probably at least four times, maybe five.  There’s a reason for this: it’s relatively short, dense with information and insight, well written, and the single best book I know of for demonstrating the clear differences—nay, the rift—that lies between the teachings of the early texts (Pali suttas) espoused by the Theravada and those of the later Mahayana and Vajrayana sutras.

If the above sounds partisan, allow me to explain.  I have long been dismayed by the cavalier way in which so many Buddhists—and even scholars—muddle up terms and ideas from the different Buddhist traditions.  They take a little from here, a little from there, and assume that all of this represents the Buddha’s thinking.  They sometimes even buy into the idea that the early teachings were somehow “less developed” or “sophisticated”—hinayana, as they say.  Very beginner books are especially prone to do this, and since that’s where so many people start their dharma journey (for understandable reasons), the intellectual foundation they lay for themselves is often vague and non-discriminating as regards the historical realities of Buddhist thought.  Needless to say, a foundation of sand cannot serve anyone well when they venture into more difficult and challenging terrain.  Anyone reading this book, however, should avoid such troubles.

While the subtitle is “a historical analysis” the emphasis is much more on analysis than history.  In line with a historical approach, however, the book starts at the beginning in “Early Buddhism.”  Seven chapters take up critical points of the historical Buddha’s thoughts—epistemology, causality (more on this later), the three marks of existence, karma and rebirth, ethics and, lastly, nirvana.  In each case Kalupahana shoots right for the heart, trying to dig at the critical points underlying each concept.  Particularly noteworthy here, I think, is his discussion of the Buddha’s epistemology—that is, what the Buddha viewed as valid sources of knowledge.  Already here we can see how the Buddha stands out from so many other philosophers—not to mention religious teachers—in that he clearly equates the means of knowledge with knowledge (“gnosis”) itself.  The two are not distinct; his approach is relentlessly empirical.  Revelation and reason from unexamined a priori assumptions are rejected.  Only direct seeing without the intrusion of egoic distortions can be taken as valid (“in the seeing, only the seen” etc.).  I always get a thrill reading these kinds of passages and contemplating this man, a product of fifth century BCIndia, so far ahead of even the most modern of thinkers.  Kalupahana does an excellent job illustrating this, as well as other points.

This is not to say I agree with everything Kalupahana writes about the early teachings.  In particular I would fault his discussion of paticcasamuppada (“Dependent Arising”) or, as he terms it, “causality.”  My problem lies in particular with that word—causality.  As defined by Merriam-Webster, causality is “the relation between a cause and its effect or between regularly correlated events or phenomena.”  Consulting Hume, we get his first three points on causality, which define the commonsense notion:

  1. The cause and effect must be contiguous in space and time.
  2. The cause must be prior to the effect.
  3. There must be a constant union betwixt the cause and effect.

Clearly what is implied in these definitions is a process in time: A (at time 1) causes (or determines) B (at time 2) etc.  But this is not how the Buddha describes Dependent Arising.  In fact, look at that translation—dependent arising.  B can be dependent upon A, but this does not mean A is its cause or precedes it in time.  Referring to the classical definition of dependent arising: “When there is this, that is; with the arising of this, that arises; when this is not; that is not; with the cessation of this, that ceases”—we can see clearly that the order of A and B is not chronological but structural.

Consider a twelve storey building.  It would be ridiculous to say that the first floor causes the second floor.  It would be perfectly correct though to say that it supports it, that the second floor is dependent upon it, and that if the first floor ceases, the second will cease (collapse) as well.  In considering this analogy, its obvious limitation has to be acknowledged: when building a twelve storey tower the first floor is necessarily constructed in time before the second floor.  But when speaking of human consciousness—which is what paticcasamuppada concerns—one part of consciousness does not appear before another part—consciousness simply appears, it is—and as it is, its structure is internally dependent/conditioned after the fashion of the Buddha’s description.

Failure to consider Dependent Arising as a structural principle leads to the sort of nonsense Theravadan commentators wallowed in, like the three lives interpretation.  Obviously, if the Buddha had actually wanted to teach such a thing, he would have done so, but nowhere in the suttas does the Buddha ever imply that dependent arising is a process stretching over time, not to speak over multiple lives.  Instead, he describes it as akalika—literally “not (in) time.”  Moreover, were it a process in time, it would of necessity be a thing remembered and therefore open to the distortion of memory.  But the Buddha described it also as sanditthika, meaning visible here-and-now.  Too, no arhant’s awakening experience (as described in the suttas) ever involved memory of past lives, which, again, the notion of causality and the resulting three-lives interpretation of necessity imply.  (None of this is to say though that the Buddha never discussed causality in the sense of trains of response and counter-response in emotions, actions, and social behaviors.)This is the most significant caveat I would issue in regards to Kalupahana’s work, though even this does not obviate the invaluable service he offers in distinguishing early and later Buddhisms.

The latter portions of the book clarify Mahayana, beginning first with the development of scholasticism, then the newer sutras and explicitly philosophical schools, such as Nagarjuna’s Madhyamaka and the Yogacara.  In these later thinkers we see the development of philosophical absolutism and the steady departure from the Buddha’s psychological and empirical approach in favor of more metaphysical and speculative ideas.  The results often bear more resemblance to the Advaita of Shankara than to the Dhamma of the Buddha.  As Kalupahana puts it:

We have attempted to explain the gradual development of the absolutist tendency within Buddhism after the death of the Buddha.  If what has been said here regarding the early doctrines is true, then the Prajnaparamitas certainly represent a “revolution”…in Buddhism.  The revolution consists of the adoption of the transcendentalist standpoint, which is opposed to the empirical approach of early Buddhism (p.134).

That, in a nutshell, is the vital lesson of the book and the best reason for reading it.

My Amazon rating: 5 stars

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