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Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha by Daniel M. Ingram

Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha: An Unusually Hardcore Dharma Book by Daniel M. Ingram.  Aeon Books 2008.  406 pages.

This is not your daddy’s Dharma book!  (Your mommy’s neither.)

The differences start with the cover, and no, I’m not talking about the flaming dude with a chakra wheel for his heart.  I’m talking about the author’s title: Arahat.  Now, Ingram does have a regular title–he’s a medical doctor (M.D.) specializing in emergency medicine–“Everything from hangnails to heart attacks” he told me in a phone conversation.  As you ought to know by now (if you read this blog regularly), an arhat (there are variant spellings) is one who has completed the Buddhist path as laid out in the Pali Suttas.  “Done is what had to be done and there is no more of this to come!” goes the standard refrain by those who have attained such.  Clearly Ingram is, as the suttas say, ready to “roar his lion’s roar” in the spiritual marketplace.  He spells the differences out further in the “Forward and Warning,” wherein he puts you on notice he does not intend to write a “nice and friendly dharma book”; you know you’re in for it when an author tells you he hails from a lineage of “dharma cowboys, mavericks, rogues and outsiders” (16).

That said, the books proceeds normally enough through part one.  Ingram begins his discussion of dharma in terms of the traditional “three trainings”: morality (sila), concentration (samadhi) and wisdom (paññā).  I especially found his discussion of morality illuminating.  Going considerably beyond the standard list of things we shouldn’t do (the five precepts etc), he says

Training in morality has as its domain all of the ordinary ways that we live in the world.  When we are trying to live the good life in a conventional sense, we are working on training in morality.  When we are trying to work on our emotional, psychological and physical health, we are working at the level of training morality…  Whatever we do in the ordinary world that we think will be of some benefit to others or ourselves is an aspect of working on this first training (24-5).

He goes on to point out that while absolute mastery of concentration and wisdom (insight) is possible, total mastery in the worldly sphere of ethics is not.  And so he calls it, rightly, the “first and last training.”

Chapter 4 (oddly, the chapters are not numbered, only the parts) lays significant emphasis on seeing the three characteristics (tilakkhana) of phenomena–impermanence (anicca), suffering (dukkha) and not-self (anatta); indeed, this is a fundamental tenet of Ingram’s approach to meditation, derivable in part from his experiences in the Mahasi tradition which has a similar emphasis.  His discussion of anatta is clarifying: it means, simply, that when phenomena are investigated closely (as in vipassana), no agent, controller, or subject can be discovered; the things of the world are, in effect, ownerless.  This, too, is a significant part of Ingram’s dharma discussion, and comes up repeatedly later in the book.   Ingram also discusses the spiritual faculties, the factors of enlightenment, and the four truths.

Most of the above can be found in other dharma books.  Where things really start to get interesting is in the section entitled “Practical Meditation Considerations.”  Here Ingram’s wealth of experience in formal retreat centers comes to the fore and makes for extremely informative, even entertaining, reading.  For example, he lists the things retreatants tend to get neurotic about, such as wake-up bells (“too quiet, too loud, someone forgets to ring it at all”), roommates (“those that snore, smell, are noisy or messy, etc.”), as well as “issues of corruption, romances, cults of personality, affairs, crushes, miscommunications, vendettas, scandals, drug use, money issues, and all the other things that can sometimes show up anywhere there are people” (94)–meaning everything and anything!

Daniel Ingram

This is a section that demands multiple readings.  Not because it’s in any way difficult, just because the nuts and bolts of doing a retreat, of daily practice, are often the very things that defeat us.  I repeatedly found Ingram’s advice to be forthright, informed, and practical.  Many people, for example, get obsessed over posture, but Ingram says simply “we can meditate in just about any position we find ourselves” (96).   He notes, for example, how “Many traditions make a big deal about exactly how you should sit, with some getting paricularly macho or picky about such things” (97)–making me recall my experience in a Zen monastery in Japan.  He writes how the four postures of sitting, standing, walking, reclining each have plusses and minuses, the principle differences being in the energy level and effects on concentration.  He further discusses issues such as meditation objects, the critical role of resolve, and offers some very illuminating remarks on teachers.  One clearly gets the sense Ingram knows what he says from firsthand experience.

The fireworks start in Part II, “Light and Shadows.”  Little lightning bolts–the sign of something controversial ahead–adorn several chapters.  This is where Ingram gets up on his soapbox.  Usually, I would say that in a bad way, meaning someone was just spouting.  But here, I think, what Ingram does, even if you want to call it spouting, is all to a very good point, and that is to draw attention to some of the unconstructive shadow sides of Buddhist spirituality in America.  For example, in the section entitled “Buddhism vs. the Buddha,” he criticizes the religious trappings the Buddha’s teaching–in its original form an applied psychology–has been buried under, and how Americans have contributed to rendering the master’s technology of awakening into dogma or comfort food.

However, Ingram’s purpose here is not controversy.  He speaks also about having a clear goal, and encourages asking oneself questions like “Why would I want to sit cross-legged for hours with my eyes closed, anyway?”  It’s important you know what you’re seeking, after all, and Ingram hammers this point throughout the book.  (It was also one of the first questions he asked me in our phone conversation!)  This section also describes the critical difference between dealing with one’s “stuff”–i.e. the content of your life–and seeing the true nature of the phenomena that constitute that stuff.  For example, if you’re depressed because your significant other dumped you, trying to figure out why he/she did that to you is reflection on your “stuff,” but patiently observing the emotions of anger or depression as they arise and pass away–i.e. trying to see the fundamental characteristics of those experiences–is insight.  The difference here, as Ingram makes clear, is night and day.

Part III, “Mastery,” forms the heart of the book, and this is where Ingram’s starkly non-dogmatic, critical, and pragmatic intellect shows its best.  This is also the part most likely to offend and where it becomes clear that if you’re after spiritual pabulum, you’ve come to the wrong man.  Ingram is all about “states and stages,” about achieving exactly what the old dead masters achieved.  We each have our purposes in our spiritual lives–and he acknowledges this–but he is not looking to comfort or console anyone, or make things seem easier than they are.  Ingram’s vision of the Dhamma is, rather, very goal oriented and effort driven.  It is a path of achievement, of distinct and discernible attainments.  If your mentality does not incline toward this way of thinking and acting, now is the time to bail out!

This section reviews in great, perhaps unprecedented detail, three distinct subjects: the concentration jhanas (1-8), the progress of insight, and the multiplicity of models and definitions of enlightenment.  There is plenty here to make for argument, but also to educate, warn, coax and cajole.  In short, this is some of the most stimulating, revealing and educational dharma reading I’ve ever done.  You could read a hundred dharma books and still not come up with this stuff.  And while Ingram is not a particularly great (or even good) writer (more on this below), he is at times eminently quotable.  I can’t resist offering a few snippets here.  These give you a good idea of what you’re getting into with this book.

You may have heard, for example, about those teachers who say “there is nothing to attain, nowhere to go, no one to get enlightened, your seeking is the problem.”  Or, even more intriguingly, that “you are already enlightened.”  You find these teachings in some Buddhist schools, J. Krishnamurti, Adi Da, and others.  Here’s Ingram’s take on this take on enlightenment:

[It’s] like saying: you are already a concert pianist, you just have to realize it, or you already are a nuclear physicist, you just have to realize it…  [It’s] like saying to a severe paranoid schizophrenic: you already are as sane as anyone and do not need to take your medicines and should just follow the voices that tell you to kill people, or to a person with heart disease: just keep smoking and eating fried pork skins and you will be healthy…or saying to a greedy, corrupt, corporate-raiding, white-collar criminal, Fascist, alcoholic wife-beater: hey, Dude, you are a like, beautiful perfect flower of the Now Moment, already enlightened (insert toke here), you are doing and not-doing just fine, like wow, so keep up the good work, Man (360).

I read this while on the train to work and enjoyed an unrestrained guffaw–several times!

However…to double back to my criticism of Ingram’s writing: he’s badly in need of an editor, and the people at Aeon Books let him down.  Ingram grossly overuses the word “that”–it’s one of the most overused words in the language, so he is not alone in the bad habit of thatting this and thatting that–and after a while it started grating on my sensitive literary nerves.  He also does not seem to know the difference between “phenomena” and “phenomenon,” and, on a different note,  sometimes comes off sounding rather immature.  There were occasions, too, where he went on unnecessarily about whatever, and a little more self-control would have helped the text out a lot.  Again…where were his editors?

But this is minor stuff, mere bitching on my part.  Ingram is actually a pretty fun read, and the book is outstanding and unique in so many ways, I/we can and should forgive him.  He has much wisdom to offer and we should be grateful for all the hard work he’s done on and off the cushion.  I leave you with one nugget of insight that stood out for me:

      When I think about what it would take to achieve freedom from all psychological stuff, the response that comes is this: life is about stuff.  Stuff is part of being alive.  There is no way out of this while you are still living.  There will be confusion, pain, miscommunication, misinterpretation, maladaptive patterns of behavior, unhelpful emotional reactions, weird personality traits, neurosis and possibly much worse.  There will be power plays, twisted psychological games, people with major personality disorders (which may include you), and craziness.  The injuries continue right along with the healing and eventually the injuries win and we die.  This is a fundamental teaching of the Buddha.  I wish the whole Western Buddhist World would just get over this notion that these practices are all about getting to our Happy Place where nothing can ever hurt us or make us neurotic and move on to actually mastering real Buddhist practice rather than chasing some ideal that will never appear (330).

You have your marching orders.

My Amazon rating: 5 stars

P.S. I highly recommend the following three videos of Daniel Ingram speaking at Brown University’s “Cheetah House”

What the Buddha Taught by Walpola Rahula

What the Buddha Taught by Walpola Rahula.  Grove Press 1959/1974.  151 pages.

I suspect more people have been introduced to Buddhism through this book than any other—and that is a very good thing.  If any single volume can be called “core,” “fundamental,” “indispensable,” it’s this one.  Why?  I think it is Rahula’s uncommon combination of simplicity, clarity, directness, and accuracy that makes him such a good writer and this book so reliable and accessible.  Basically, if you’ve not read this book—regardless of whatever else you may have read—you are assuredly missing something.

Over the past twenty years the number of introductory works on Buddhism has exploded.  While not as mainstream as yoga, Buddhism is now “out there”—i.e. out and about, in plain view—and “in here”—meaning affecting peoples’ lives and thoughts, even if they don’t know it.  The need for a work that is at once timeless and contemporary, personally affecting and objectively critical, is more pressing than ever, and What the Buddha Taught (1959) has fulfilled and continues to fulfill these needs.

The author Walpola Rahula (1907-1997) was a Sri Lankan monk in the Theravadan tradition.  Among his other books are History of Buddhism In Ceylon and Zen and the Taming of the Bull; in his capacity as Professor of History and Religions at Northwestern University in Chicago, he became the first Buddhist monk to hold a professorial chair in the Western world.  On a more personal note: in 1990 I had an opportunity to meet Venerable Rahula but at the time, having only recently arrived in Sri Lanka, I was suffering from a bad case of diarrhea and general disorientation and so passed on the chance—something I’ve always regretted.

The book is built around the Four Noble Truths, which are the subject of chapters two through five.  The first chapter, entitled “The Buddhist Attitude of Mind,” starts off rather provocatively with the assertion “man is supreme.”  Right off the bat, the Buddha’s non-theistic (note: not atheistic) thought is emphasized, its difference from Western forms of religion made plain.  Remember: Rahula grew up under British colonial rule, and as a Sinhalese Buddhist would no doubt have confronted the imperial assertion of Christian supremacy many times.  (Clearly, he was unimpressed.)  As Rahula puts it:

Among the founders of religions the Buddha…was the only teacher who did not claim to be other than a human being, pure and simple.  Other teachers were either God, or his incarnations in different forms, or inspired by him.  The Buddha was not only a human being; he claimed no inspiration from any god or external power either.  He attributed all his realization, attainments and achievements to human endeavor and human intelligence (1).

Granted the previous four hundred years of Western (read Christian) cultural ascendancy, this is a heady and defiant statement.  And I know from observation and experience that humanity can fairly well be divided into two groups: either they are offended, appalled and repulsed by such a thought, or they are intrigued, inspired and encouraged.  Upon my very first reading of this book, I knew to which camp I belonged.

In this first chapter Rahula deftly lays out basic attitudes of Buddhist culture: the requirement of responsibility for one’s actions (karma), freedom and openness of thought, the necessity of critical inquiry (cf. the Kalama Sutta), tolerance, non-violence, the distinction of faith not as belief but as intelligent devotion and trust.  Here too we encounter the vital principle of empirical verification and the Buddha’s disdain for metaphysical speculation unconnected to the problem of suffering and its cessation.  Rahula is somehow able to touch upon and clarify all these themes in a mere fourteen pages, and to do so while quoting liberally from the suttas (in easy to read, modern English translations, no less!).  Talk about economy!  That is why this book easily bears multiple re-readings so well—there is so much compacted into so little space, and yet never does one feel like drowning.  (Quite the contrast from the Paul Williams book I just read!)

I’ll briefly outline topics dealt with in the four core chapters:

  • Chapter two—first noble truth: definition of dukkha, the five aggregates, question of origins, charges of pessimism;
  • Chapter three—second noble truth: definition of tanha, four nutriments, karma, question of Self/soul;
  • Chapter four—third noble truth: definition of nibbana (nirvana), what happens to a Buddha after death?, who realizes nirvana?;
  • Chapter five—fourth noble truth: definitions of the eight limbs of the path.  If I have any significant criticism of the book, it falls on this section, which, considering its importance is given rather short shrift.

Chapter six discusses anatta.  Rahula notes the idea’s uniqueness and relates it to the teachings of the five aggregates and conditioned genesis.  Regarding the latter, he achieves the remarkable feat of actually getting what he says right (easier said than done when it comes to paticcasamuppada, which not only is the core of the Buddha’s Teaching but also notoriously difficult to grasp) and by not diluting his discussion with the later commentarial muck of the “three lives” interpretation.  He notes also the perennial effort of various people, even noted scholars (e.g. Caroline Rhys-Davids, Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, and George Grimm), to insert a higher metaphysical Self into the Buddha’s teaching.  Rahula offers some excellent advice to such folks:

It is better to say frankly that one believes in an Atman or Self.  Or one may even say that the Buddha was totally wrong in denying the existence of an Atman.  But certainly it will not do for any one to try to introduce into Buddhism an idea which the Buddha never accepted, as far as we can see from the extant original texts (56).

He proceeds to supply an abundance of textual support for anatta and to point out that its naysayers typically defend their position by mistranslating common instances of atta (as in “myself” or “yourself”) as Self (with a capital S, of course).

Chapter seven concerns bhavana, or “mental culture.” Rahula describes the differences between concentration and insight meditations, and offers simple guidance for the practice of anapanasati—mindfulness of breathing.  This chapter (specifically the instructions on pp. 69-70) had an especial effect on me in my first year in college, when by simply following the text I was able to cure myself of a prolonged bout of insomnia. Rahula concludes his text proper with a chapter on the relevance of the Buddha’s teaching for people today.

The remaining one third of the book consists of very readable and reliable translations of selections from the Pali canon.  Included here are the Buddha’s first sermon (the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta), the so-called Fire Sermon, the Metta Sutta (“Discourse on Loving Kindness”), the Discourse on the Foundations of Mindfulness, the Sigalovada Sutta, and selections from the Dhammapada.  All of these are foundational texts and excellent examples of Buddhist thought, offering just enough so the reader will have a sense of what he or she is getting into.  Venerable Rahula has, in effect, opened a door for would-be seekers of truth.  After reading this marvelous book, it is then their choice whether they walk through it or not.

My Amazon rating: 5 stars


Buddhist Thought by Paul Williams et al

Buddhist Thought: A Complete Introduction to the Indian Tradition by Paul Williams et al.  Routledge 2000, 323 pages.

This is one of the better (I hesitate to say “best”) surveys of Buddhist intellectual history I’ve read.  As such I’d say it’s good for relative—i.e. not total—beginners.  The author, Paul Williams, is a British academic with many publications under his belt, but is perhaps best known for his Mahayana Buddhism: The Doctrinal Foundations, often used as a textbook in Buddhist studies.  (A second edition of the 1989 original is imminent.)  The writing, while intelligent and at times demanding, is not so academic as to be stultifying.  Williams even displays a bit of English wit now and then.

I always appreciate illuminating passages, no matter what the sort of book I’m reading happens to be.  I mean the sort that make you snatch out a pen and scribble something next to it, or underline a sentence or paragraph.  There are quite a few in this book, particularly, I’d say, in the first two chapters, which make up 40% of the book’s text proper.

Chapter one, entitled “The doctrinal position of the Buddha in context,” offers an excellent starting point.  Indeed, some things said here need to be remembered by everyone venturing into the world of Buddhism.  Consider the following from pages 2-3:

Buddhism is thus…concerned first and foremost with the mind, or, to be more precise, with mental transformation, for there are no experiences that are not in some sense reliant on the mind.  This mental transformation is almost invariably held to depend upon, and to brought about finally by, oneself for there can also be no transformation of one’s own mind without on some level one’s own active involvement or participation.

How different the history of the world would be if every religion and philosophy understood and acted upon this seemingly simple and self-evident truth!

This section discusses the historical background of Brahmanism and shramanism, smartly noting that any characterization of the Buddha as a “Hindu reformer” is anachronistic at best (8).  Williams points out that the story of the Buddha’s life demonstrates what is most important in his teachings.  For starters, unlike in Christianity, the message (Dharma/Dhamma) is preeminent over the messenger (the Buddha).  The Buddha was just a man who found Dharma; it is Dharma that really counts.  You can have Dharma without the Buddha, but you cannot have the Buddha without Dharma.  Williams’ discussion of elements in the Buddha’s hagiography and how it exemplifies and illuminates the Teaching is one of the most insightful and satisfying I’ve read on this subject.

The second chapter also considers “mainstream Buddhism” (i.e. non-Mahayana) and is entitled “A Buddha’s basic thought.”  Williams does a good job here, except a few stumbles (more on this below); in fact, his approach is unique in ways.  On 60ff he does a wonderful job debunking the notion the Buddha posited a Self outside the five aggregates:

On the basis of [the Buddha’s discussion of the aggregates] there are those who consider that all the Buddha has done here is to show what is not the Self.  I confess I cannot quite understand this.  If the Buddha considered that he had shown only what is not the Self, and the Buddha actually accepted a Self beyond his negations, a Self other than and behind the five aggregates, fitting the paradigmatic description for a Self, then he would surely have said so.  And we can be quite sure he would have said so very clearly indeed.  He does not (60).

This passage illustrates another aspect of Williams’ writing I find admirable—a sort of humble, commonsensical honesty that is rarely displayed in writing by scholars.  I think many would be sympathetic, for example, when he says (on page 68) “…it is not at all obvious in detail what the twelvefold formula for dependent origination actually means.”  And I liked it even better when he wrote “This twelvefold formula for dependent origination as it stands is strange” (71).  Rather than pretending scholarly omniscience and superiority in regards to the texts (I’m thinking of E.J. Thomas at his worst), Williams expresses understandable puzzlement as, no doubt, most people do when encountering the Buddha’s thought for the first (or even hundredth) time.

Chapter two is really a core piece of Buddhist writing in that it hits every significant point (the four truths, anatta, cosmology, nirvana, etc) and does so in an intelligible and intelligent fashion.  This is not an easy feat to pull off, as anyone who has read a good many dharma books can tell you.  In fact, I might even say that Williams goes about as far in his understanding as a scholar qua scholar can.  But while surveying so much and dealing with so many difficult concepts, he (perhaps inevitably) takes a few pratfalls.

I won’t go into detail about what I think he does wrong; a brief list and comments should be enough:

  • When referring to atta (“self”) he consistently capitalizes the S, inferring that the Buddha was discussing only the transpersonal Atman or True Self.  This is not the case; the Buddha was referring especially to the experience of a subjective controller, doer, or identity (sakkaya), the self of everyday experience.  The Self as an ontological construct follows upon this.
  • He fails to thresh out the distinction between “intention,” “desire” and “wanting” as these pertain to the liberated person (an arhat or Buddha) (44).  This may seem like nit-picking, but it is in fact an essential issue that spells the difference between insight and its lack.
  • He states (67) that Ananda was unenlightened at the time of the Buddha’s death—in fact Ananda was a sotapanna.
  • On 69 he perpetuates the thesis that the being reborn is “neither the same nor another” than the one who died.  This teaching comes from the Milindhapanha and has infected Buddhism everywhere ever since.  It is a view entirely at odds with the Suttas, falling into attavada.  This is perhaps Williams’ biggest stumble from a doctrinal point of view.  (The correct answer, when asked “who is reborn?” is to reject the question as meaningless on account of its presupposition of self in some form or another.)
  • He continues the old saw that dependent origination is “causality.”  Causality (as a descriptive concept) certainly applies to karma (“intentional action”) but it has nothing to do with paticcasamuppada.  I have discussed this at length in other reviews.  Part of the problem may arise from the 12-factor formulation, wherein the first ten elements are certainly structural as opposed to temporal, and then the last two are cause-effects.  Williams gets it right (I think) when he suggests the list may well be “a compilation from originally different sources” (71).  In other words, I suspect the 12-factored formula is a later intellectual (though still pre-scholastic) description of the original assertion: “When there is this, that is…” etc.
  • Description of satipatthana as the “sole way” (83).  This is a frequent mistranslation.  The word here is ekayana, meaning a course that goes one way or one direction.
  • His discussion of meditation (83ff) is palpably second-hand.  Once again I must lament the unnecessary divorce of scholarship from practice.

The rest of the book discusses Mahayana—its early formulation, development, key concepts and texts.  This area is Williams’ forte, and for the most part I think his discussions are quite good, though he does sometimes confusingly mix the names of schools, terms, and people together into a less than lucid jumble.  Neophytes are likely to get lost or frustrated at times; I did myself (though I was once again, quite viscerally, reminded why I so dislike Nagarjuna’s thought!).

A special note on the last chapter, written not by Paul Williams but Anthony Tribe.  This is an excellent introduction to and overview of tantric Buddhism, an area often inadequately covered in texts like this.  (E.J. Thomas’ survey not only neglected but maligned it.)  Tribe’s writing is clear and organized and he offers an invitation to everyone to better get to know this unique phase of Buddhist thought.  I confess that while I am not convinced that tantra has added substantively to Shakyamuni’s philosophical thinking, I am now totally in the camp that affirms it possesses a host of valuable and powerful practices/techniques that can facilitate one’s spiritual journey.  Lastly, the book has a lengthy bibliography tacked on at the end to enable further exploration of texts the authors drew upon during the course of their survey.

My Amazon rating: 4 stars


Selfless Persons by Steven Collins

Selfless Persons: Imagery and thought in Theravada Buddhism by Steven Collins.  Cambridge University Press, 1982.  323 pages.

This book is a uniquely sincere and in-depth scholarly effort (note emphasis) to understand an extremely difficult subject, that of the Buddhist anatta, or “not-self.”  Both the book and the topic are deserving of special consideration, so this review will be longer and more detailed than my usual offering.

The fight Collins is wading into is one that’s been going on for thousands of years, that is, the argument over what the Buddha meant by anatta.  Did he, per the mainstream interpretation, say that if you look at the contents of your experience you will not find any subject, controller or locus of identity, or did he instead (in the words of the Japanese scholar Hajime Nakamura) teach “avoidance of a wrong comprehension of non-atman as a step to the real atman” (Ways of Thinking of Eastern Peoples, p. 90).  While anatta is generally considered by everyone concerned one of the most misunderstood of the Buddha’s teachings, I would in fact argue the whole of the Buddha’s teaching is generally misunderstood—and that it is for this reason that people are confused about anattaSelfless Persons offers an excellent window onto this dilemma and the debate it has engendered.

The controversy becomes immediately apparent when one reads reviews of Collins’ book on Amazon.  Consider the following:

  • “Steven Collins, like so many others of his ilk, finds the fundamental Buddhist doctrine of Self difficult to understand, and makes it his stock and trade to reinterpret Buddhist texts, to provide a doctrine acceptable to his prejudices which betray a secular attitude. It never dawns on him that there are many positive statements in the Buddhist canon with regard to Self.”   —A.E. Hollingsworth
  • “This book would presume by its cover to prove that Buddhism is nihilism, but since there is no evidence as such in Sutta, this book has nothing within it but opinions and has nothing from the Suttas (Nikayas) to back up the authors missguided [sic] sectarian false views in contradiction to the corpus of Buddhism.”  —Kenneth L. Wheeler, self proclaimed Philosopher and “Buddhologist”
  • “The reader is warned that this book is written based upon the views of Theravada Abhidhamma secular anti-foundationalism/nihilism. Amazingly enough, Steven Collins makes the fallacy of composition from sutra that since ABCDEF is not X (Soul), therefore Buddhism denies the Soul. This entire book is 99.999% opinions, and the very very few citations Collins provides does not support his claim in any fashion that Buddhism denies/negates the Soul.”  —Denise Anderson

What’s obvious from the vehemence of these strikingly inaccurate assertions (for example, despite two readings I am still at a loss as to what the “secular attitude” is that Hollingsworth decries, or how Collins is proving “nihilism” or proclaiming “secular anti-foundationalism”—whatever that is—or how, despite many dozens of primary source quotes, Wheeler is able to say—with a straight face, no doubt—that Collins has “nothing from the Suttas… to back” himself up), is that their authors are quite ideologically invested in a belief that the Buddha could not possibly have taught anatta as it is commonly understood, and they assert this belief even against the formidable array of evidence Collins has assembled.  (For the record: Despite my eight years in Asia, most of which I spent living in temples and hermitages alongside monks of both Mahayana and Theravada persuasions, never once did I meet a monk who claimed to be searching for his atman or True Self.   I don’t know what books these critics read or what sorts of meditations they’ve practiced, but they certainly didn’t go to the school I went to.)

Collins addresses this controversy head on.  Pages 4-10 quote from a number of Theravadan authors—Walpola Rahula, Malasekera, Nyanatiloka—whose remarks represent the mainstream position.  He then contrasts their views against those of the opposition (Mrs. Rhys-Davids, Christmas Humphreys, Radhakrishnan et al) who argue for a substantialist, True Self version of anatta.  What struck me most in this discussion was that even among the traditional anatta folks I found serious misunderstandings of the Buddha’s teaching.  Rahula was reliably accurate, but Malasekera (like Nyanatiloka) seems to think that anatta is the bedrock of the Teaching and its only unique feature.  This is patently false.  The Four Noble Truths are the bedrock (remember the first sermon, anyone?), and every one of those truths is unique to the Dhamma.  (See my “Letter To Christian Buddhists” for more on this point.)  Moreover, if I had to single out one aspect of the teaching as fundamental, it would not be anatta but dependent arising, for the Buddha himself said, “He who sees dependent arising sees Dhamma; he who sees Dhamma sees dependent arising.”  It is interesting that Collins chose the passages he did, for one criticism I will hit him with later is that, just the like the authors he quotes, he actually overemphasizes the importance of anatta within the scheme of the Dhamma.

The following from Collins is a nice summation of the reason for the controversy with regards to anatta, and stands as a fitting comment on the Amazon reviews as well:

It seems to me that a great deal of the confusion on this issue arises from a need felt by many with strong religious convictions, and by some neutral scholars, to come to some final conclusion of their own—in terms, necessarily, of their own indigenous categories of thought—on the reality depicted by the conceptual products of other cultures” (p. 12).

While I agree in the main with this statement, there are two critical comments I would make on it.  (1) I have yet to encounter a “neutral scholar.”  Fact is, if scholars—and I include Collins here—were decidedly less neutral and more subjective and committed, they might actually allow themselves the opportunity to understand some things that can’t simply be read about in books but must be experienced and known directly.  (2) The Dhamma is something other than a mere “conceptual product” of long dead Indians.  It is, rather, a road map to the development of human consciousness, and as such applies with equal force to twentieth century scholars as to medieval peasants.

The following should do as a summary of Collins’ central thesis:

I have argued that the doctrine of anatta is, in the last analysis, a linguistic taboo in technical discourse; and that this taboo functions as a soteriological strategy, in two ways: in detail it forms part of a particular style of meditative self-analysis within the practice of Buddhist specialists; in general, acceptance of the linguistic taboo preserves the identity and integrity of Buddhism as an Indian system separate form Brahmanism” (p. 183).

By way of support, Collins musters a prodigious array of primary source evidence (hence my bafflement at Denise Anderson’s assertion that the book is “99.999% opinions… [with] very very few citations”).  His first step is to describe Brahmanical society with its emphases on the sacrifice, the continuance of life and the support of the social order, as well as the opposing undercurrent of ascetic, renunciate culture that existed alongside it.  He also examines the critical soteriological concepts of Indian religion—namely karma, samsara, and moksha—and traces how they developed from the interplay between Brahmanical and shramanic society.  The Buddha, of course, began life firmly ensconced in the former but made his name in the latter.  Part I concludes by discussing the varieties of Buddhist discourse regarding the self, person, personality and not-self, and this sets the stage for Part II, which specifically discusses the doctrine of not-self.

Much of the strength and worth of the book lies in this section.  Collins’ basic assertion, per his thesis, is that anatta is more than a statement about the reality of the individual understood by Buddhists; it is also a “strategy” of mental culture.  He discusses this notion within the framework of other important Buddhist concepts, such as views, attachment, “emptiness,” the “unanswered questions,” and the practice of “careful attention” (yoniso manasikara).

One of the biggest problems (from the standpoint of critics) with anatta has been how to describe what a person is and how he/she “continues” and is reborn.  Parts three and four, entitled “Personality and Rebirth” and “Continuity,” respectively, tackle these problems from the standpoint of both the suttas and the later exegetical tradition, making particular use of the Visuddhimagga and Milinda Panha.  Various common patterns of imagery—the house, vegetation, water, rivers—are discussed along the way, and the book concludes with an in depth look at the doctrines of momentariness and bhavanga-mind.

Overall, the tone of the book is serious, scholarly, and sophisticated.  It is well written, erudite, insightful, and as far as I know, unique as a work of scholarship focusing entirely on the anatta teaching.  His linguistic discussions of the critical terms atta (pp. 71ff) and sankhara (pp. 202ff) are noteworthy.  Regarding atta, he effectively debunks those who would make every fortuitous occurrence of the word into a declaration regarding a metaphysical Self (with a capital “S,” of course—which distinction does not exist in the language of origin, by the way, as Collins points out).  Usually the word is nothing more than a reflexive pronoun, though translation can sometimes seem to turn passages into an assertion regarding a/the self.

A particularly acute example of this is provided by a passage in which the Buddha comments on the remark of a king and queen that “no-one is dearer than oneself.”  He remarks (in verse) “surveying the whole world in one’s mind, one finds no-one dearer than oneself [or “than a man’s self”]; as everywhere others hold themselves dear [literally “self is dear to others”] the man who loves himself should not harm others’.  It would be possible to translate atta here as “the Self,” as if the idea were that a single cosmic self was shared by all (as in some Upanishads); but then the whole Buddhist ethical point would be distorted.  The idea here is simply that since each person is naturally concerned with his own welfare, a truly moral agent should realize that to cause suffering to others is to cause them the same distress which the agent knows well enough in his own experience (p. 74).

One would of course expect a scholar of Buddhism to have a firm grasp of the linguistic connotations of key Pali terms.  Where Collins begins to set himself apart, however, is in his clear understanding of the phenomenological thrust of the Buddha’s teaching.  He hits the nail on the head, for example, when he writes “It is pointless to speak of a self apart from experience” (p.98).  This passage occurs within the context of a discussion of the Buddha’s three denials of identity: “This is not mine, this I am not, this is not my self.”  The Buddha, for his part, is clearly trying to drive home that since nothing you can experience can properly be identified as atta, it is pointless to cling to the notion there is such a thing.  Collins in effect repeats the Buddha’s lesson when he says “it is crucially important not to draw the inference that if the constituents of the personality are ‘not-self’ and ‘not yours’ then something else is” (p. 98).  Yet this is precisely what Collins’ critics have done.  (Bhikkhu Bodhi, in a note in his translation of the Samyutta Nikaya, is uncharacteristically blunt towards those who would cling to the belief that the Buddha left open the door for a self, or was just denying the “small self” to clear way for the “True Self.”  He writes (on p. 1457, n.385) “The Buddha declares that ‘all phenomena are nonself’ (sabbe dhamma anatta), which means that if one seeks a self anywhere one will not find one. Since ‘all phenomena’ includes both the conditioned and the unconditioned, this precludes an utterly transcendent, ineffable self.”)

There are a number of excellent and illuminating passages in the book.  On p. 192 Collins correctly understands the first noble truth of dukkha as not pessimism but as “part of a specific soteriological project”—meaning the verdict of normal life as suffering is meant to inspire, motivate and direct the efforts of a practitioner towards a goal.  Pages 136ff are a thorough review of the “unanswered questions” and why they are unanswered, and page 207 presents a rare discussion of the distinction between nibbana-with and without-remainder.

There are even cases of accidental illumination provided by the text.  While reading chapter eight, for example, I was suddenly struck by how scholastic and abstract the subject of discussion had become (“how long is a moment?”) as compared to the problems pondered over earlier in the book.  The Buddha was nothing if not practical, and the suttas reflect this; they are prescriptive and transformative.  But the exegetical tradition, judging by this presentation, lost sight of that and squandered its energies on matters that had no bearing on the problem of suffering and its end.  The whole doctrine of momentariness, for example, bore a distressing resemblance to the medieval debate over how many angels could dance on the head of a pin.

Selfless Persons, though, is not without its weaknesses, and some of them are significant.  For one, the book is a “scholar’s view.”  This is hardly surprising—it originated as a doctoral dissertation, after all—but for people who want not only to study but to practice the Buddha’s teaching, this shortcoming may weigh heavily.  When I read the following passage—“The task of scholarship is endlessly to investigate, by any and every academic discipline which proves necessary, the words in which beliefs and doctrines are presented…” (p. 12), my immediate question was: “What about actual practice?”  Pure textual studies are appropriate in many cases (medieval literature, for example), but not when the “beliefs and doctrines” are things you are actually expected to do.  And so I was not surprised when Collins repeated a typical layman’s superstition that “It is generally considered impossible in our time to attain nibbana…” (p. 16).  I have to wonder if beliefs like this have not infected “neutral scholars” who do not feel inclined to practice what they study.  The scholarly attitude of objective indifference is especially puzzling when it concerns the scholar’s own existential dilemma as a conscious being who knows he will one day die.  Do scholars never consider that the Buddha was addressing them to?

There is also a tacit assumption of the untruth of certain beliefs.  For example: “We have seen the hypothesis that the doctrine of samsara in Brahmanical thought was influenced by little tradition ideas” (p. 33; see also p. 51).  And on page 60, we are told the history of how the atman/Brahman idea developed.  Thus everything is reduced to objectively knowable ideas and their history.  There is no consideration that someone might actually have experienced something that directly gave rise to these beliefs, for example, remembering past lives, or states of unitive consciousness, etc.  Even when Collins does acknowledge that someone might experience something (on p. 62) he minimizes its import to “a few individuals.”  (Go to Dharma Overground and you’ll see these “few individuals” are really not so few after all.)  Such experiences are not taken seriously because they are outside the ken of mainstream scholarship, which is not surprising since most scholars of religion do not practice what they study.  I suggest that if a scholar does have practical experience of his subject matter, then his ideas as ideas will gain weight; both the tone of his writing will change as well as his ability to express with insight.  As insightful as Collins is, a three month vipassana retreat would certainly have taken his game to the next level.

Directly related to this is Collins’ treatment of anatta in the abstract, as an idea rather than experience.  But in Dhamma not-self is one of the “Three Marks” (ti-lakkhana), coincident with insight into dukkha (“suffering”) and anicca (“impermanence”).  The third of the insight knowledges is “knowledge of comprehension” [of the three marks] (sammasana-ñana) wherein the vipassana meditator begins seeing directly that objects of experience are fleeting, unsatisfactory and painful, and that they come and go without any agency behind them.  This first glimpse of anatta can be a visceral experience that, when developed, leads directly to the phase of “arising and passing away” (A&P)—a critical event in any practioner’s spiritual life.  But he mentions none of this; hence the practical effect of anatta is concealed, and its place in the Buddha’s training distorted and exaggerated.

Another problem that colors his work is Collins’ failure to clearly distinguish between the sutta and exegetical traditions as regards anatta and related concepts.  In effect, he blends them together, trying to create a whole cloth out of their disparate understandings.  For example, on p. 77 he foreshadows confusion in the later Theravada between the terms puggala (“person”) and atta (“self”).  The two meanings are utterly different, but in such texts as the Milindipanha and Visuddhimagga they are conflated to the detriment of the teaching.  Collins does nothing to redress this misunderstanding; he in fact perpetuates it.  (See especially pages 115, 154, and 156ff.)  What becomes clear from his discussion is that by the time of the Milindipanha, anatta as a known experience had been lost sight of and replaced by a dogma—an erroneous dogma, I might add.  (Thus when Nagasena is asked “Who is reborn?” he responds “name and form”—p. 185.  But the correct answer, the Buddha’s answer, is to reject the question as meaningless.  Cf. discourses involving Vacchagotta and the monk Sati—M.38.)  Again, Collins never lays bare this discrepancy between the suttas and exegetical texts.

Connected no doubt to the above confusions is Collins’ lack of discrimination between such terms as nibbana, “enlightened person,” arhant, and sekha; for the most part they are used interchangeably (see e.g. pp. 83 and 92).  Consider the following: “What this ‘conceit’ [asmimana] refers to is the fact that for the unenlightened man, all experience and action must necessarily appear phenomenologically as happening to or originating from an ‘I”” (p. 94).  This is, in a way, correct, but he should have noted that four types or grades of people have experienced nirvana—the streamwinner (sotapanna), once returner (sakadagmi), non-returner (anagami) and arhant—and while each of these is, to a greater or lesser degree, “enlightened,” only the last has totally done away with asmimana (the “conceit” I am); the other three are still sekhas (“learners,” “aspirants”).  In another passage he does obliquely recognize the sekha—“We saw that when the overt fetter of belief in a self (sakkayaditthi) is given up, the focus of attention then becomes the selfishness inherent in the affective structure of experience, which is the fetter of asmimana.  We might call this latter the ‘unconscious’ utterance ‘I am’” (p. 101)—but again he fails to identify the different grades of enlightenment and what constitutes them.  The result is a mishmash of ideas and concepts whose direct connection to anatta as one of the Three Marks or Characteristics is obscured, and which culminates in a doozey of factual error: “The final eradication of these tendencies [“greed, conceit, and so on”] is ‘liberation without remainder’” (p. 102).  No!–the arhant, who is nibbana with remainder (i.e. living body-and-mind), is the final eradication of these tendencies.

There are a number of other misunderstandings that leap out at me that I will briefly list:

  • I have a serious problem with the reduction of anatta to a mere “strategy in mental culture.”  It is much more—it is a fundamental characteristic of phenomena revealed through meditation, something Collins would understand if actually tried said meditation.
  • Quoting Dumont, Collins writes “without transmigration the liberation or extinction which [the Buddha] recommends would lose all meaning” (p. 64).  This is sheer baloney, a vapid assertion that again indicates the radical disconnect of the scholar from actual experience.
  • Collins misunderstands when he says “It is static, unalterable dogma which posits a permanent and reincarnating self or person which is the object of Buddhist censure” (p. 76).  Actually, it is the experience of self itself that is the object of the Buddha’s censure—and the source of human suffering.  The “unalterable dogmas” are simply the results of this.
  • “[T]he idea of being a person on the Path, and therefore at least a stream-winner, must originally have meant no more than being a monk” (p. 92).  I have no idea where anyone would get such an idea.  Even he barest acquaintance with the suttas should be able to dispense with this notion.

My final assessment of this work is that it is both indispensable, a must read, as well as deeply flawed.  I would add too that it is most certainly not a beginner’s text—the subtleties of arguments, both good and bad, right and wrong, are likely to be lost on someone who does not yet know their way around the suttas and their terminology.  It should therefore be kept later as part of a capstone reading in Theravadan ideas.

My Amazon rating: 4 stars


The Noble Eightfold Path by Bhikkhu Bodhi

The Noble Eightfold Path: Way to the End of Suffering by Bhikkhu Bodhi.  BPS Pariyatti 2000, 133 pages.

Bhikkhu Bodhi’s little treatise on the constituents of the fourth noble truth is a quick, by the numbers (and letters) summary of orthodox Theravadan opinion on the subject.  As such it is a useful resource especially for beginners to the field, or for someone who is interested in “brushing up” on the fundamentals.  Factually, it is guaranteed accurate, though this is not to say it is particularly thought provoking or insightful.  I’ll give a few examples of what I’m talking about.

BB actually starts off with an intriguing conundrum: we ordinary people inevitably encounter suffering, and if we consider the nature of that suffering, we

seek a way to bring our disquietude to an end…  But it is just then that we find ourselves facing a new difficulty.  Once we come to recognize the need for a spiritual path we discover that spiritual teachings are by no means homogeneous and mutually compatible (pp. 1-2).

The problem then becomes trying to “decide which [teaching] is truly liberative, a real solution to our needs, and which is a sidetrack beset with hidden flaws.”

He then takes up the question of how to decide on a path (though we of course know what his ultimate answer will be), eventually concluding:

To sum up, we find three requirements for a teaching proposing to offer a true path to the end of suffering: first, it has to set forth a full and accurate picture of the range of suffering; second, it must present a correct analysis of the causes of suffering; and third, it must give us the means to eradicate the causes of suffering (p. 5).

But then Bhikkhu Bodhi cops out of the project he set up: “This is not the place to evaluate the various spiritual disciplines in terms of these criteria,” he tells us.  “Our concern is only with the Dhamma, the teaching of the Buddha…”

To which I thought, “Well if that was the case, why did you lead me on this wild goose chase?  Why didn’t you just get to the point and not pretend you were going to philosophize about the serious challenge of how one goes about choosing a worldview for oneself?”  In other words, BB acknowledges the challenge, but doesn’t quite have the gumption (or perhaps the intellectual equipment) to really justify to us why we should bother picking up a book on the Buddha’s teaching in the first place.  Anyway, I find it irritating when a writer sets up an interesting problem but then refuses to try to solve it.  (An unsuccessful attempt is vastly more satisfying than no attempt at all.)

Another example of this kind of irritating superficiality in BB’s discussion concerns kamma (=karma in Sanskrit).  He writes:

The most important feature of kamma is its capacity to produce results corresponding to the ethical quality of the action.  An immanent universal law holds sway over volitional actions, bringing it about that these actions issue in retributive consequences, called vipaka, “ripenings,” or phala, “fruits” (p.20).

He then assures us that

the right view of kammic efficacy of action need not remain exclusively an article of belief…  It can become a matter of direct seeing.  Through the attainment of certain states of deep concentration it is possible to develop a special faculty called the “divine eye”…  When this faculty is developed… one can then see for oneself, with immediate perception, how beings pass away and re-arise according to their kamma, how they meet happiness and suffering through the maturation of their good and evil deeds (pp. 22-23).

My immediate response to reading this was to think, Okay Bhikkhu Bodhi, have you developed the divine eye?  For anyone for whom the answer to this question is “no”—and unless you are a psychic such will always be the answer—there is no recourse except to faith, which may be true or not.  Clearly, this is not a practicable test of this central tenet, but the mere fact BB discusses kamma in this fashion indicates how bound he is by a traditional, non-scientific understanding of his own tradition.

If you take the Buddha’s teaching for what it is—as an applied psychology—kamma can be understood as simply conditioning, the shaping or molding of the mind by thoughts, words and actions.  Whatever you think, say or do affects your state of consciousness and circumstances, and this is not a matter of faith but of direct observation here and now.  This can be seen on gross levels or fine (e.g. working out makes you buff and depressed thoughts land you in the shrink’s office); clearly our actions have consequences—they determine not only our characters but the course of our lives.  Kamma is not magical and should not be considered as such; the word, after all, means “intentional action,” and anyone can see the importance of both intentions and actions.

Bhikkhu Bodhi is best known for his translations, and the above examples make it clear why.  He is not a first rate thinker or communicator; whenever he engages in drawn out exposition (as in the case of a book in his own words), what he writes tends to read like a technical manual written by someone who reads technical manuals for a living.  I suspect this is a personality thing, but it also comes from him being first and foremost a “man of the texts”—a translator and scholar as opposed to practitioner.

This emerges too in the overall the feel of the book, and goes way beyond the quotes above.  Though this short manual is fine for beginners interested in the basic “stuff” of Buddhism, there is little sense of living practice here.  You don’t get the stories a meditation teacher is likely to garner from sitting on the front cushion, nor do you get glib, funny anecdotes from the author’s everyday life experience.  Everything is distant, formal, abstract, leavened with stilted phrases and multi-syllabic words…such as “concomitant.”

My Amazon rating: 2 stars


The Life and Times of Ñanavira Thera (the pdf)

This pdf is the complete text of my biography of Ñanavira Thera, available for free distribution.

The Life and Times of Ñanavira Thera


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Christian Article of Faith

Buddhist Response

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

These examples could easily be multiplied many times over. 

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

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

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

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.   

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