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

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

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

Dependent Arising: Why This Whole Ball of Shit Keeps Rolling (Part 5 of A 13-Part Series)

But let be the past, Udayin, let be the future.  I shall teach you the Dhamma: When this exists, that comes to be; with the arising of this, that arises.  When this does not exist, that does not come to be; with the cessation of this, that ceases (Culaskuludayi Sutta, M.79:7).

The story of how the wanderer Sariputta encountered the Buddha’s disciple Assaji and gained his enlightenment is well-known.  Sariputta and his friend Mogallana were seekers after “the Deathless” and had split up so as to increase their chances of encountering a bona fide teacher of the Way.  When Sariputta met Assaji, one of the Buddha’s original five disciples, he was impressed by the peacefulness of his bearing and countenance and asked about his teacher and the dhamma he proclaimed.  At first Assaji demurred, claiming to be but a beginner, but when pressed he at last responded with this now-famous summation of the Buddha’s teaching:

Of those things that arise from a cause,
The Tathāgata has told the cause,
And also what their cessation is:
This is the doctrine of the Great Recluse.

As it is written in the Vinaya: “Then, as he heard this Dhamma exposition, in Sariputta the wanderer there arose the dustless, stainless eye of Dhamma: ‘Whatever is subject to origination is also subject to cessation’” (Vinaya Mahavagga I:23.1-10).  In that moment Sariputta became a stream-enterer. 

Clearly, Dependent Arising (paticcasamuppāda)—of which the quatrain above is a brief formulation—is the fundamental insight upon which the framework of the Buddha’s teaching is built.  As noted in an earlier post, the Second and Third Noble Truths are direct statements of it.  

Now, much has been written about this teaching, a great deal of it wrong.  However, as this is a blog and not a book, I am constrained by time and space and so will try to keep my comments to the point.  The most common (mis)understanding of Dependent Arising is that it somehow explains rebirth via the “Three Lives Interpretation.”  Readers unfamiliar with this interpretation from the Pali Commentaries should familiarize themselves with it before continuing.  See here for the Wikipedia article, which is pretty good as summaries go.  Bhikkhu Bodhi, an ardent proponent of this view, writes in its defense in volume one of his Samyutta Nikaya translation: The Connected Discourses of the Buddha, pp. 517ff. 

Some points opposing this traditional interpretation are as follows:

  1. Dependent Arising has nothing to do with rebirth.  One might even be an arhant and not be able to recollect past lives. 
  2. “Precedence [of terms] in paticcasamuppada is structural, not temporal,” to quote Ven. Ñanavira.
  3. It therefore has nothing to do with causality, which is by definition a process in time.
  4. It is not the description of a process (necessarily temporal), but of a structure.

A recent, popular interpretation is that Dependent Arising teaches the “unity” and “interconnectedness of all things,” which seems to be what Mr. MacPherson thinks.  Cf. “Right understanding…means to understand both cognitively and experientially that one is connected to all other people (dependent origination)”—from “The Eightfold Path Inside Christianity: Points 1 and 2”.  I have no idea where this belief came from or who started it (though I suspect Thich Nhat Hanh may have something to do with it), but it has no basis in either the suttas or in the experience of vipassana meditation.  Any interpretation of the Buddha’s teaching built upon this manner of thinking is built upon quicksand.

A few further points:

  1. In not a single sutta or Vinaya passage does the Buddha refer to past lives in connection with Dependent Arising.
  2. In no story of anyone’s awakening experience is their insight described as depending upon the remembrance of past lives, which is what the traditional interpretation implies.  Cf. Bhikkhu Ñanananda in The Magic of the Mind: “The law of Dependent Arising is a Noble Norm (ariyo ñayo) which in all its twelve-linked completeness is well-seen and well-penetrated through wisdom (paññaya sudittho hoti suppatividdho ) even by a Stream-winner (sotapanna) who may not possess the knowledge of past lives” (p. 26, n. 1).
  3. No passage in the suttas asserts the “unity” of everything, the “interconnectedness” of creation, the “ground of being,” “cosmic oneness” or any other such substantialist doctrine.  (In fact, in books on non-duality and mysticism in general, passages from the Pali Canon are most noticeable for their absence.  This was one of the insights that caused me to start asking what it was about the Theravada that made it “feel” so different from the mystical philosophies—Mahayana Buddhism, Hinduism, Christian mysticism, etc—with which I was at the time more familiar.) 
  4. Dependent Arising is solely concerned with the structure of conditioned consciousness, how it is (samudaya) and how it isn’t (nirodha).
  5. There are several formulations of Dependent Arising, differing in terms of the items listed, but all share the same structure of conditionality and dependence.  This  clearly indicates that the structural principle per se is what is important, and not the individual terms themselves.  Assaji’s phrase is but a bare statement of this structure, as is the Buddha’s declaration to Udayin.
  6. The individual items (sankhara) in the series depend upon, condition, determine and support one another.  Not one, not even avijja (=delusion, usually first in the chain), is unsupported.  The structure of consciousness therefore stands and falls depending upon its supporting elements.  This point is critical to understanding the nature of dukkha and nibbana

Having said the above, the question ought naturally arise: Why did the Buddha emphasize tanha—“desire”—as the source of suffering?  Why, even though the second noble truth is clearly the arising phase of paticcasamuppada, did he focus on that term, which is but one in the standard series of Dependent Arising? 

The following quote from Ñanananda’s masterful little treatise, The Magic of the Mind, indicates an answer: 

Selfhood which tries to sit pretty on that which is liable to disintegrate is itself subject to the inexorable law of impermanence.  In the face of this predicament one craves, grasps and “becomes” yet another “thing”—which too yields to the same law of nature… 

The process of becoming is thus shown to be perpetually going on within the mind of the samsaric individual who identifies himself with sense-data under the influence of the proliferating tendencies toward craving, conceits and views…  Since…becoming in the psychological realm is necessarily followed by birth, decay-and-death, sorrow, lamentation, grief and despair in every specific instance of short-lived identification, an insight into the law of Dependent Arising provides one with the key to the entire gamut of samsaric experience.  One comes to understand the cycle of samsaric life by discovering its epicycle in the very structure of living experience.  He is now convinced of the fact that it is craving that plays the villain in the drama of samsaric existence, bringing about re-becoming by delighting “now-here-now-there” (pp.48-50). 

What Ñanananda is saying is that craving (tanha) is the energizing force behind the constant identification with the phenomena (dhamma) of experience, and that this identification is in part a survival mechanism, a flight from inevitable destruction under the pressure of omnipresent impermanence.  The flip side of desire, then, is fear—fear of loss, decay, death.  Life is bound between the carrot and the stick, an endless flight and pursuit.  We chase the pleasurable and flee the painful.  (Cf. Ñanavira’s discussion of Joyce’s Ulysses.) 

There is yet another reason why the Buddha focused on desire and defined it as the “cause” of suffering.  The Buddha’s teaching, unlike most pre-modern philosophies, is phenomenological as opposed to substance-based or idealistic in character.  Here, from the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, is a definition of phenomenology: 

Phenomenology is the study of structures of consciousness as experienced from the first-person point of view. The central structure of an experience is its intentionality, its being directed toward something, as it is an experience of or about some object. An experience is directed toward an object by virtue of its content or meaning (which represents the object) together with appropriate enabling conditions (http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/phenomenology/.  Accessed 7/4/2011). 

A more succinct and accurate description of the Buddha’s general orientation could hardly be desired.    

The Buddha, then, concerned himself not with abstract principles or explanations but with what human beings experience.  He realized that in describing the human situation he had to start with the grosser facts, the inescapable bases of all lived experience, and if anything is fundamental to life it is desire.  From the moment a baby is born (not to mention the manner of its conceiving!), it wants food, water, warmth, shelter, protection, nurturance, and then, later, status, recognition, acknowledgement, assurance, friendship, belonging, hope, and whatever else the person deems necessary to support his or her psychophysical being.  (Cf. Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs.”)  Our experience of life, therefore, and what we make of it, is defined by our definition of phenomena as desirable or not.    

The implication of Dependent Arising, however, is that everything we hope for and hold to is radically vulnerable, i.e. impermanent.  If we understand this fact, we realize that no matter what we take our lives to be, they inevitably fall apart—I am unstable, as are the things I identify myself with, both inwardly and outwardly.  In demonstrating this truth, the teaching of Dependent Arising urges us to question and ultimately let go the desires and identifications that make up our selves. 

Writes Ñanavira: 

[T]he Dhamma does not set out to explain, but to lead—it is opanayika [“onward leading”].  This means that the Dhamma is not seeking disinterested intellectual approval, but to provoke an effort of comprehension or insight leading to the abandonment of attavada [“self-view”] and eventually of asmimana [the “conceit” I am].  Its method is therefore necessarily indirect: we can only stop regarding this as “self” if we see that what this depends on is impermanent.  Consider, for example, the Mahasudassana Sutta (D.17:2:16), where the Buddha describes in detail the rich endowments and possessions of King Mahasudassana, and then finishes: 

See, Ananda, how all those formations (sankhara) have passed, have ceased, have altered.  So impermanent, Ananda, are formations, that this, Ananda, is enough for weariness of all formations, enough for dispassion, enough for release.

This is not a simple statement that all those things, being impermanent by nature, are now no more; it is a lever to prize the notion of “selfhood” out of its firm socket.  Those things were sankhara, they were things on which King Mahasudassana depended for his very identity.  They determined his person as “King Mahasudassana,” and with their cessation the thought “I am King Mahasudassana” came to an end (Clearing the Path, pp. 108-9). 

Lest the reader think this all just some grand philosophy, some heady, speculative pronouncement, I would like to remind you that these insights are born of direct, reflexive observation of the mind and its contents.  Consider the following from Mahasi Sayadaw, where he describes the last moments before the attainment of nibbana, wherein the entire structure of dependently arisen consciousness suddenly ceases for the first time: 

The meditator who wishes to realize Nibbana should repeatedly bring to mind, through the practice of noticing, every bodily and mental process that appears at any of the six sense doors. When he brings them to mind thus, his consciousness engaged in noticing—here called “bringing to mind”—will, until adaptation knowledge is reached, fall at every moment upon the (conditioned) bodily and mental formations called here “continuous occurrence,” because they go on occurring over and over again in an unbroken flow, like a river’s current. But in the last phase, instead of falling upon that continuous occurrence, consciousness passes beyond it and alights upon “non-occurrence,” which is the very opposite of the bodily and mental formations called here “occurrence.” In other words, it arrives at non-occurrence, that is to say, it reaches, as if it “alights upon,” cessation, which is the stilling of the formations (or conditioned phenomena). When the meditator, having already before practiced correctly and without deviation by way of the knowledge of arising and passing away and the other knowledges (or by way of the purification of conduct, of mind, of view, etc.), has in this manner arrived at non-occurrence (by the consciousness alighting upon it), he is said to have “realized Nibbana.” He is called one who has made Nibbana a direct experience and has actually seen it (The Progress of Insight, VI.12). 

It cannot be stated too emphatically that the above does not describe a “mystical experience,” an experience of “oneness,” “nonduality” or “cosmic consciousness,” all of which are mentally constructed states, most being confined to the stage known as “arising-and-passing-away” (udayabbaya-ñana)—fourth of the sixteen “insight knowledges.”  The Buddha’s teaching is not mystical in character and any attempt to construe it as such will lead inevitably to distortion and confusion.

Beyond Mammon and Mistresses: Why the Second Noble Truth Is So Much More Than Desire (Part 4 of A 13-Part Series)

Mr. MacPherson has a whole lot more to say about the Second Noble Truth than he did about the First.  He makes a number of points which, taken together, add up to a kind of definition:

  1. “Suffering certainly comes from temporal desires” (though he doesn’t seem entirely certain this is sufficient, positing Original Sin as, perhaps, a more complete “explanation”);
  2. “We suffer because we focus too much on impermanent material things” (after which statement he quotes part of the Sermon on the Mount);
  3. “The Second Noble Truth [of] Buddhism posits that the root cause of all suffering is pride, greed, lust, and the like” (and then asserts “This is Christianity”);
  4. “Pride, or boastful vanity, which always leads to suffering because it is an attachment to temporal material things” (which truth he relates while discussing how Lucifer became the Devil—“he could not get past the third step of Buddha’s Eightfold Path”). 

To sum up: Mr. MacPherson is saying that the Buddha is saying that desire (greed) for impermanent material things, connected with pride, lust, and vanity, is the source of suffering and that this constitutes the Second Noble Truth.  He then says “The Buddha was in fact right.”  Mr. MacPherson offers nothing from the suttas as textual support for his assertions, and this is unfortunate (for him) because he could easily have found a rich trove of evidence for his case.  He might also, in the act of consulting them, have learned there is much more to the Second Noble Truth than mere desire. 

Let us start again with a definition: “The Second Noble Truth is that of the arising or origin of dukkha (Dukkhasamudaya-ariyasacca)” (Walpola Rahula, What the Buddha Taught [1974], p. 29), or Samudaya for short.  In his first sermon (S.56:11), the Buddha spoke of it as follows: 

Now this, monks, is the noble truth of the origin of suffering: it is this craving that leads to renewed existence, accompanied by delight and lust, seeking delight here and there; that is, craving for sensual pleasures (kamatanha), craving for existence (bhavatanha), craving for non-existence (vibhavatanha). 

This would certainly seem to support what Mr. MacPherson is saying, that greed (craving) is the source of suffering.  Indeed, it is clear that he is “right”—as far as he goes.  The trouble is he does not go far enough; he is like a man who has visited Four Corners, splayed his legs and arms, and then claims on this basis that he has seen the states of Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and Utah.  (I did it and I haven’t seen squat in New Mexico!) 

Without going further than this, it is clear his definition is at best one-third complete.  The Buddha, after all, lists three specific types of craving, but Mr. MacPherson considers only one, i.e. kamatanha.  What about the other two?  A full discussion of these terms could lead us far afield, so for now I will only say that these represent two orientations toward experience, the first of wanting more of it, of wanting to preserve, continue, prolong and fortify it, the second the urge to escape it, end it, change it (from what it is to something else).  The first is typically born of experiences of pleasure and satisfaction, while the latter often results from world-weariness and dissatisfaction.  Notice how these emotional orientations naturally incline one toward specific views (ditthi) toward the world, namely eternalism (sassatavada) and nihilism (ucchedavada), respectively.  The Buddha, however, claimed to teach something quite different from either of these, specifically the Middle Way (majjhima patipada): 

This world, Kaccana, for the most part depends upon a duality—upon the notion of existence and the notion of nonexistence.  But for one who sees the origin [samudaya] of the world as it really is with correct wisdom, there is no notion of nonexistence in regard to the world.  And for one who sees the cessation [nirodha] of the world as it really is with correct wisdom, there is no notion of existence in regard to the world (S.12:15).  

The “world,” therefore, is none other than that which arises and ceases, namely dukkha.  (And so we have the equation: dukkha = life = the world [of experience].  Those who have read my post “The Buddha On the Nature of Personality and Suffering,” will know also that these terms are identical with sakkaya, i.e. “personality,” or “identity,” as well.)   The Buddha is saying too that tanha (“craving,” “thirst,” “desire”) in at least these two senses is related to certain false modes of viewing the world, and that desire can end when the world is seen “with correct wisdom.”  What is that “correct wisdom”? 

This world, Kaccana, is for the most part shackled by engagement, clinging, and adherence.  But this one [with right view] does not become engaged and cling through that engagement and clinging, that mental standpoint, adherence, and underlying tendency; he does not take a stand about “my self.”  He has no perplexity or doubt that what arises is only suffering arising [i.e. he sees the second noble truth], what ceases is only suffering ceasing [he sees the third noble truth].  His knowledge about this is independent of others.  It is in this way, Kaccana, that there is right view. 

“All exists” [sassatavada]: Kaccana, this is one extreme.  “All does not exist” [ucchedavada]: this is the second extreme.  Without veering towards either of these extremes, the Tathagata teaches the Dhamma by the middle: “With ignorance as condition, volitional formations; with volitional formations as condition, consciousness; with consciousness as condition, name-and-form; with name-and-form as condition, the six sense bases; with the six sense bases as condition, contact; with contact as condition, feeling; with feeling as condition, craving (tanha); with craving as condition; clinging; with clinging as condition, existence; with existence as condition, birth; with birth as condition, aging-and-death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, displeasure, and despair come to be.  Such is the origin of this whole mass of suffering” (S.12.15). 

This list of conditioned, dependent psychological phenomena is none other than the positive (anuloma) phase of Dependent Arising (paticcasamuppāda), and clearly indicates that “correct wisdom” is seeing Dependent Arising.  (Cf. M.28:28: “He who sees dependent arising sees the Dhamma; he who sees the Dhamma sees dependent arising.”)  Thus by not adhering to ideologies of existence and non-existence, by seeing phenomena without bias, as conditioned and impermanent, the noble disciple sees the arising of dukkha and its cessation and so attains to Right View (sammaditthi).  His “Eye of Dhamma” (dhammacakkhu) opened, he attains the Path and becomes “independent of others” in the Teaching. 

Plainly then a proper understanding of the Second Noble Truth (and by extension the Third) entails a proper understanding of Dependent Arising.  The two are inseparable, for “the origin of this whole mass of suffering”—the illustration of which is the purpose of paticcasamuppāda’s positive phaseis exactly the point of the Second Noble Truth.  Greed, craving, lust—all are part of this, but tanha has its antecedents and they theirs, tracing back to beginningless avijja—“delusion”—which is non-knowledge of the Four Noble Truths: the truth of dukkha, its arising, its cessation, and the Path leading beyond it.

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

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