Out of a living silence

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Pointless narrative (prapañca)

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My father had a sign on the door of his office that read, “Those who freely share their opinions are operating on the assumption that the demand for them is brisk.” Little did I know it at the time, but my father was preparing me for the interest in Buddhism that has haunted my entire adult life. The sign on the office door was, in my opinion, a bit too wordy, but I never shared that opinion with my father, because he never asked for it. (He did ask for my opinion on a number of things, but not on that sign.)

In one of my favorite dialogues in the Majjhima Nikāya (The Middle-length discourses), the Buddha is reported to have told one Prince Abhaya how he decides what is worth saying;

  1. In the case of words that the Tathāgata knows to be unfactual, untrue, unbeneficial (or: not connected with the goal), unendearing & disagreeable to others, he does not say them.
  2. In the case of words that the Tathāgata knows to be factual, true, unbeneficial, unendearing & disagreeable to others, he does not say them.
  3. In the case of words that the Tathāgata knows to be factual, true, beneficial, but unendearing & disagreeable to others, he has a sense of the proper time for saying them.
  4. In the case of words that the Tathāgata knows to be unfactual, untrue, unbeneficial, but endearing & agreeable to others, he does not say them.
  5. In the case of words that the Tathāgata knows to be factual, true, unbeneficial, but endearing & agreeable to others, he does not say them.
  6. In the case of words that the Tathāgata knows to be factual, true, beneficial, and endearing & agreeable to others, he has a sense of the proper time for saying them. Why is that? Because the Tathāgata has sympathy for living beings. Abhaya Sutta

Some people of our times have boiled the essence of those criteria down to a mnemonic: “Before speaking, THINK.” That is, ask whether what you are about to say is

  • True
  • Helpful
  • Inspiring
  • Necessary
  • Kind

Speaking, according to traditional Buddhist authors, is a manifestation of what one is thinking. All speech acts and physical actions are preceded by mental actions. When Buddhists speak of karma, they are speaking primarily about one’s thoughts, for it is from thoughts that verbal and physical actions arise. Buddhists have a good deal to say about thinking, and they have numerous categories by which they analyze different kinds of thinking. This is not the place to go into those details. There is, however, one kind of thinking that Buddhists never recommend. It is called prapañca, a term that will be left untranslated for now.

The fact that prapañca is never recommended is a sign that this kind of thinking is regarded as unhealthy or unwholesome (akuśala). But what exactly is this kind of unhealthy thinking, and how can one know that one is indulging in it? How can one take precautions against it? In looking for answers to these questions, we encounter a variety of interpretations.

Early translators of the Pali canon sometimes rendered the term papañca (the Pali equivalent of the Sanskrit prapañca) as “obsession”. While it is true that there is an obsessive dimension involved in the kind of thinking called prapañca, that translation does not tell the whole story. What the term often means outside of Buddhist contexts is something more like elaboration. If, for example, one states an idea briefly and the idea is misunderstood, then one can offer a more elaborate account of the idea. Alternatively, if one makes a claim, and someone else disputes the claim, one might then counter the dispute by offering a more carefully qualified version of the claim. That more carefully qualified claim is called a prapañca. In this context, prapañca is a verbal action, whereas in Buddhist contexts prapañca tends to be the thinking underlying the speech. If a person making a claim is too attached to the claim being made and defends it against all criticism, no matter how reasonable, then the verbal prapañca may be characterized as intellectually obsessive in nature. An idea of which someone simply will not let go, no matter how good the reasons may be for dropping it, may generate a good deal of verbal prapañca. The verbal prapañca is not the obsession per se but rather the verbal manifestation of the obsessive clinging to the idea; clinging to ideas tends to make one rather talkative.

In Buddhist contexts, the mental prapañca that is so often warned against is, I am inclined to think, the making of unnecessary narrative. It is generating explanations above and beyond the mere observation of what is happening. Not being content merely to observe what is taking place, one may well try to tell a story about why something is taking place. For example, if I see someone behaving in a particular way, I may be tempted to try to explain the behavior by telling some story about the hidden (to everyone but me) motives of the person whose behavior I have observed. But attributing motivation to a mind I cannot directly observe is gratuitous in the sense that it oversteps the limits of observation. It is this overstepping the limits of observation that is the root cause of what Buddhists in India called prapañca. It is telling stories of the kind that no one can be sure whether they are true or false.

People who imagine that they have figured something (or someone) out often have a difficult time keeping their hypotheses to themselves. And so gratuitous thinking often gives rise to gratuitous speaking, for example, sharing one’s opinions with those who have not asked for them. (In really extreme cases, gratuitous thinking may even result in writing posts on a blog. When the disease has developed to that degree, the prapañca may well be incurable).

Prapañca is one of the principal ingredients in modern culture. Indeed, it is probably one of the principal ingredients in any human culture, for much of what we call culture is simply common agreement on which stories deserve to be told and called true, despite their overstepping the limits of observation. Nearly all of religious doctrine is prapañca that has come to be accepted by a community of people, despite being neither verifiable nor falsifiable through experience. Nearly all political conviction is prapañca, for very few political disputes can be settled by an impartial appeal to evidence collected through careful observation. Most philosophy is prapañca, and I would hazard the guess that one can also find traces of prapañca in other academic disciplines as well.

The Buddha reportedly said that there were a good many topics of conversation that he avoided. He did not like to talk about current events, sports or what people were doing and saying. He did not like to offer speculations about how the world came about or how it might come to an end. He did not like to speculate about how big or how old the universe is. All such topics of conversation were regarded as what in Pali was called samphappalapa, usually translated as “idle chatter” or “pointless speech.” Pointless speech is based in prapañca, which might therefore be called pointless thinking or generating pointless narrative or telling unnecessary stories.

No one asked me what my opinion is about the meaning of the Buddhist term prapañca. I shared it anyway. I obviously failed to absorb the lesson on the sign on my father’s door. So my advice to you is not to read this post.

Written by Richard P. Hayes (Dayāmati Dharmacārin)

Friday, February 7, 2014 at 15:09

Posted in Buddhism

What does one not have when one does not have a self?

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One of the most difficult of all Buddhist doctrines is anātman, which literally means non-self. A typical way of framing this doctrine is in contemplative exercises in which one is instructed to pay attention to the incoming and outgoing breaths. Paying attention to breathing requires deciding to focus attention on that one thing, and remembering to return to the breathing when attention drifts to some other topic (as it almost always does). Typically, when this exercise is done in a Buddhist context, one is told to make a mental note that paying attention is just a mental process; it is not the self, nor is there a self to which paying attention belongs. Similarly, deciding is just a mental process, remembering is just a mental process, distracted drifting off topic is just a mental process. None of these is the self, nor is there a self to which these processes belong.

It is easy to say all those words, and not especially difficult to follow the instructions for that particular contemplative exercise. Less easy is to know what is gained by disowning all those mental processes and not letting oneself see a self in any of them. The standard answer is that seeing all those processes in impersonal terms is conducive to wisdom, the antidote to delusion, and that delusion is one of the three mental processes that result in dissatisfaction (the other two principal causes of dissatisfaction being desire and aversion). But that is simply a claim. To say that looking at mental processes in personal terms is delusional and that looking at them impersonally is wise is to beg the question. Why should anyone believe such a claim? Why should one deem any thought to be either wise or delusional?

I do not have an answer, at least not one that I find satisfactory or am willing to try to defend. At this stage in my life, all I have is the question: What warrants the claim that thinking in personal terms causes dissatisfaction?

In the past I have experimented with several different ways of talking about the dogma of anātman. My approach has been to answer the question what exactly is being denied when one denies that something is the self or part of the self or a property of the self. Three possible answers have suggested themselves to me. One possible reply is that what is really being denied is individuality. Another possible reply is that what is being denied is identity. And a third possible reply is that what is being denied is autonomy.

The word “individual” literally means that which is not divided, that which remains a single thing, no matter how many aspects it may have. Denying individuality could be seen as affirming our internal dividedness, acknowledging and perhaps even accepting the fact that some of our motivations are in conflict with some of our other motivations and that our psyches are not always in the same mood.  Jungian psychologists sometimes say that the healthy psyche is not so much an authoritarian government in which the Supreme Leader (the ego) directs all decision-making and banishes all dissidents to dark dungeons; rather the healthy psyche is a round-table discussion in which the ego is but one voice among many, and not always the voice that prevails. Delusion might then be the feeling that we somehow should be consistent, always on course, never wavering from a single point of view. Since it is impossible to be that way, striving to be that way and then failing is a recipe for dissatisfaction.

A second possible interpretation of the dogma of anātman is that what is being denied is identity, again in the etymological sense of the word. “Identity” literally means sameness. To say that one has an identity is to say that there is something essential that remains the same when accidental properties change. If one had this sort of identity, then the temporary angry or grumpy moments are aspects of an enduring self that is at other times calm and cheerful. An abiding identity of this kind would have no abiding qualities; it would make no sense to say, for example, of a person in a fit or rage that he is not himself today. On the contrary, he is very much himself at all times, whether drunk or sober, pleasant or unpleasant, careful or reckless. It is not obvious what is gained by believing in a self of that kind, nor is it clear what is gained in denying it. It is not obvious whether belief in an abiding sameness that is essentially unaffected by temporary association with different properties is delusional or wise, whether it engenders contentment or disappointment. Something that can be said about identity in the sense of something that remains stable as its aspects change is that denying it flies in the face of how nearly everyone experiences the world. It is a very unusual person who wakes up in the morning without feeling that she is the same person as the one who went to bed to night before. What could the point be of denying the validity of experiences that seem so very intuitive?

There is another sense of identity, that which attends the phrase “to identify with” as when we say that a person identifies with being of a particular ethnic group or nationality or political party or profession or religion or gender or lifestyle or that someone identifies with being a hapless victim or a successful entrepreneur or a no-nonsense pragmatist or a far-sighted visionary or a compassionate vegetarian. Perhaps the traditional Buddhist proponents of anātman were making the observation that identifying too strongly with particular candidates for selfhood entrains the dissatisfaction that naturally comes from feeling alienated from all those things perceived to be contrary to what one strongly identifies with. To insist that I am this and not that may make me uncomfortable with those who insist they are that and not this; it may also serve as an obstacle to recognizing that no matter how much I may insist on being only this, I can’t help also being a little bit of that. Perhaps the traditional Buddhist was saying, “the more you can desist from identifying with this to the exclusion of that, the less frustrated you will be with life.”

There is one further thing that the doctrine of anātman may be denying, or at least questioning: autonomy. Different cultures seem to have different attitudes toward the notion of autonomy, to being one’s own law and master. Generally speaking, in post-Enlightenment European culture, autonomy is more highly prized than it is in more traditional cultures. Perhaps the traditional Buddhists deserve credit for observing that the perception of autonomy is largely an illusion. We are all conditioned by the actions and attitudes of people around us, by the environment in which we live, by the indoctrination we have received from family and friends and social institutions, by the health of our physical bodies, and by countless other determinants over which we have very little or no control. We are all like corks being tossed this way and that in a maelstrom, and it may be no more than a fantasy to think we are steering our own course. In most Buddhist contemplative exercises, the instruction is given to observe things as they are, to accept them to whatever extent that is possible without passing judgment. In short, the instruction is to relinquish the conceit of autonomy.

Whatever it may be driving at, the doctrine of anātman is worth thinking about. One way to avoid thinking about it (or anything else) is to have too-ready an answer, too glib a reason for taking on the habit of saying that thinking is just a mental process, not the self and not a property that belongs to the self.

Written by Richard P. Hayes (Dayāmati Dharmacārin)

Sunday, December 29, 2013 at 22:51

Posted in Buddhism

The scientific project and the Buddhist project

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Having grown up in a family of scientists, at a very early age I acquired the notion that science is interested almost exclusively in the investigation of nature for the sole purpose of discovering what there is and formulating hypotheses about how what there is works and why it is as it is. This investigation, I was taught, is ideally carried out with no contamination from commercial interests, political or social agendas, moral considerations or aesthetic tastes. I was also taught that in practice quite a bit of scientific investigation falls short of that ideal. Now I am well aware that this essentially Peircean notion of what science is all about has been critiqued by many worthy philosophers of science and is considered by some to be hopelessly naive. Nevertheless, I cling to that vision of science and admire all scientific investigation that comes anywhere close to that ideal.

Having come to Buddhism as an adult (insofar as any young pup at the age of twenty-three can be considered an adult), I no doubt misinterpreted a great deal of what I encountered, because I interpreted what I encountered on the basis of the prejudices I had acquired through the system of indoctrination that in the United States of America is mistakenly called education. To be more specific, I saw Buddhism as being an entirely different sort of project from the scientific project. Buddhism, as I saw it, is not at all interested in acquiring an understanding of what there is and how it works but is rather interested in reducing eliminable forms of human unhappiness. Unlike science, Buddhism is ideally dealing in morality and in political and social agendas and in aesthetic taste—the very factors that are absent in ideal science. 

My conclusion from all this was that, because people are multifaceted, it is possible for one person (and yes, I do believe in the reality of persons and selves and all those other realities that Buddhists try to dismiss as being merely conceptual) to be a scientist and a Buddhist, but that it is impossible to be doing good science at the same time that one is practicing good Buddhism. In much the same way that one person can be both a tightrope walker and a Grand Prix racing driver, but that it is impossible to be walking a tightrope at exactly the same time one is driving a racing car, it is impossible for a person to practice science at exactly the same time as one is practicing Buddhism. The practices are incompatible. At any given moment, one must choose which of the two to be doing.

Now insofar as a person takes on the completely foolish project of trying to be consistent in all his beliefs and practices, a person may decide that he has to choose between accepting prevailing scientific hypotheses and the very well-thought-out and purposeful dogmas of Buddhism. In my own early life, I foolishly strove for consistency and therefore jettisoned about 95% of the dogmas of Buddhism on the grounds that I deemed them scientifically false, or at least untestable and therefore lacking scientific meaning. And so I jettisoned karma, rebirth, hell realms, celestial realms, and nirvāṇa for starters and moved on from there to empty the entire medicine cabinet. As more than one person pointed outl, I pretty much discarded all of Buddhism, except for the haircut.

In my latter years, as I have grown less concerned with intellectual integrity and logical consistency, I have come to see that there is a great deal of value in the aspects of Buddhism I formerly discarded. This is not to say I believe the dogmas I once rejected. I just see a real value in acting as if I didn’t not believe in them. Buddhist dogmas are very good at doing precisely what they were designed to do. They make life uninteresting and boring, and that makes one less resentful and afraid of one’s inevitable mortality. We are all going to die. But given that life is so insipid and devoid of meaning and utterly lacking in fun anyway, who will miss it? Nothing could be much better as death approaches (as it does with every breath we take) than the studied indifference to life that Buddhist dogmas instill in those who allow themselves to entertain them.

We live these days in a world in which the incompatibility of the scientific project and the religious project has led to increasing jettisoning of scientific method rather than of religious dogma. Fundamentalism (which began in the Christian world as a conscious rejection of scientific method and has found its way into every other religious tradition) is growing in cultures all over the world with the result that people build their lives, and dare to try to compel others to build their lives, on ideas that have proven themselves throughout history to be intellectually and morally bankrupt—such as the idea that the creator of the entire universe gave a particular parcel of land to one small group of people to own and rule until the end of time, or the idea that women ought always and forever to be subservient to men, or the idea that homosexuality and abortion are offensive in the eyes of the creator, or the idea that the world can be saved only by a savior with a particular name rather than through the collective efforts of human beings who have learned from their experiences and shared their insights with one another through respectful dialogue. The human race could very well perish because of its attachment to the kind of rigid adherence to religious dogmas and practices that we now call fundamentalism. (Of course, none of this matters. If people wipe themselves out, something else will come along to take our place, and then something else after that until eventually the sun explodes without any consciousness that any of us who are made of star dust ever existed.)

When I heard the Dalai Lama say in an address to a small group of scholars and political activists in Montreal in 1993 that he thought the time had come to replace (yes, he used that word) much of Buddhist abhidharma with scientific hypotheses that have not yet been defeated, I was the first to jump to my feet in thunderous applause. A few moments later, a much more reflective voice spoke up quietly and said directly to the Dalai Lama: “Don’t be so quick to discard the tradition that has produced a man of your caliber.” My reaction in 1993 was to think to myself, “Oh God, another cloying uncritical devotee of His Holiness.” Now, twenty years later, I have come to see that the gentle, reflective voice, which belonged to the philosopher Charles Taylor, was saying something rather important to heed.

I fear that the mixing of two incompatible projects—science and Buddhism—is likely to weaken and ultimately undermine both. The only way I can see to keep them both vibrant is to keep them separate, to let each of them be the right tool for the task it was designed to accomplish, and to recognize that it has never been the case and never can be the case that life can ever be reduced to just one legitimate task. Gathering knowledge impartially without any political, commercial, social, moral or aesthetic motivations is important. That is the task for which the tool of scientific method was developed. Learning to switch narratives from those that inflict pain and suffering to those that heal and enable peoples to live peacefully with one another is also important. That is a task for which the tool of Buddhism was developed. Using each tool to do the task for which it was designed strikes me as wise. Choosing only one of the two tools and discarding the other strikes me as foolish. Allowing oneself to think that the two tools are both designed to do the same task also strikes me as foolish, even dangerously so. I do not have confidence that the Dalai Lama fully comprehends what the consequences of replacing fourth-century scholasticism with cognitive science and quantum mechanics are likely to be. I would therefore recommend learning to use scientific method when it is appropriate, and to study classical abdhidharma when it is appropriate.

Written by Richard P. Hayes (Dayāmati Dharmacārin)

Friday, November 22, 2013 at 15:00

Posted in Buddhism

Fox, Marx or Gautama

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While browsing the stacks of a university library In the autumn of 1968, I stumbled upon an English translation of Ernst Benz’s 1963 book Buddhas Wiederkehr und die Zukunft Asiens (Buddha’s return and Asia’s future). The title given to the English translation, published in 1965, was the somewhat more dramatic and unmistakably Cold War oriented Buddhism or communism: which holds the future of Asia? I checked out the book and eagerly read it, not because I was especially interested in whether Buddhism or Marxism held the future of Asia, but because I was interested in gaining some insight into which held my own future.

At the age of twenty-three, I was being pulled in three directions all at once. I had come into contact with Canadian Quakers and admired their ways of arriving at decisions and organizing themselves into an egalitarian and leaderless community. At almost exactly the same time I had come into contact with Canadian Marxist-Leninists and had been impressed by the clarity of vision in The Communist Manifesto. As if that weren’t enough confusion, I was also reading everything I could find on Buddhism and was especially attracted to the Theravāda and Zen traditions of contemplative practice. While each of those three traditions attracted me, each of them also had features that repelled me. I simultaneously regarded myself as a Quaker Buddhist Marxist and as none of the above.

Marx seemed to me to have offered an excellent account of the ways that those who sell their labor (proletarians) tend to be disadvantaged by those who pay for labor (capitalists or the bourgeoisie) to produce goods and services that are then sold at a profit as commodities. He saw clearly that people themselves become commodities, often of lesser commercial value than the products they manufacture. He also made a good case for the claim that the economic injustices inherent in capitalism are unlikely to be rectified by those in power voluntarily relinquishing their power and sharing it with the disadvantaged. He made a good case, in other words, for the inevitability of violent confrontation as the far-more-numerous proletarians angrily tore the tools of oppression out of the hands of the far-less-numerous capitalist bourgeoisie.

It was, however, precisely the idea of violent revolution that ran up against the pacifist ideals I was drawn to in both the Quakers and the Buddhists. Marx himself scoffed at those who, like the Christians, held out hope of achieving a classless society through peaceful means. After all, two millennia of Christianity in Europe has not transformed European society into a classless culture of economic justice; instead, Christianity has been transformed beyond anything that the earliest Christians would recognize as institutions that embody their values. Similar observations could be made of Buddhism in Asia; rather than reforming any culture it has gone to, it has been corrupted by every culture to which it has spread. Rather than liberating the oppressed in India, China, Japan, Tibet and Southeast Asia, the Buddhists themselves became the oppressors. Christianity and Buddhism were both conquered by their converts. On the one hand, it seemed obvious Marx was right about the necessity of violent revolution. On the other hand, I was unwilling to partake in violent revolution. This put me in the uncomfortable position of having to admit that I was unwilling to do the very thing I was convinced had to be done to achieve economic justice and an egalitarian society.

Eventually I became disillusioned with Marxism, because it seemed obvious that it had failed as miserably as Buddhism and Christianity had failed. The Marxist institutions that had been motivated to bring out social and economic justice were undermined by the very forms of corruption they sought to eradicate. There was as little inspiration to be found in the Soviet Union or in the People’s Republic of China or in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea or in Pol Pot’s Democratic Kampuchea or the Republic of the Union of Myanmar as there was in the United States of America. Every political reality seemed a caricature of the ideals on which it was founded. Everything was a disappointment. But wasn’t that exactly what the Buddha taught? And was it not the teaching of the pre-millennialist Christians that Christ will initiate the rule of saints and that human effort is therefore of limited efficacy? The other-worldly teachings of those who saw no hope for humanity in this world proved to be an almost irresistible temptation. For better or for worse, the temptation for me never got beyond the almost irresistible stage.

Forty-four years have gone by since I discovered Benz’s Buddhism or Communism, and it is still not obvious which holds the future of Asia, and no more clear which one holds my own future. I cannot seem to swallow either one, nor can I spit either one of them out. I am still almost but not quite a Marxist, nearly but not quite a Buddhist, and nearly but still short of being a Quaker.

It doesn’t worry me that I can’t quite seem to find the right tail to pin on the donkey or the right label to paste on my forehead. That just means that I never quite know which box to tick on questionnaires that ask what my religious and political preferences are. What troubles me more is that the human race as a whole can’t decide to work together to find ways to provide food, shelter, uncontaminated drinking water and basic health care to the world’s human population and viable habitat to the world’s non-human population. It troubles me that the human race can’t seem to find a way to keep its population at sustainable numbers. It bothers me that a significant number of human beings expend so much of their time, energy and money to deceive others and that they are so often more successful at what they do than are those who dedicate their lives to disseminating accurate information and practical solutions to difficult problems. It saddens me that whether one looks at the world as a Marxist, a Quaker or a Buddhist, the goal lies beyond reach, seemingly obstructed forever by hard-hearted men (and a few such women) of narrow vision, limited imagination, selfish motivation, and vicious temperament.

The evils of the world are just as the Buddhists, the Quakers and the Marxists have described them. What Fox, Marx and Gautama had in common was a clear vision of the human condition. What they also had in common was the absence of any workable solution to that evil.

Written by Richard P. Hayes (Dayāmati Dharmacārin)

Saturday, March 17, 2012 at 15:55

Posted in Buddhism

Enlightenment? Suit yourself.

with 8 comments

In a comment left on a previous post, Marshall Massey made the following observation:

Successful graduates of all three traditions (Buddhism, guruistic Hinduism, and Sufism) will testify that there is a great “spiritual” opening-up that can happen when our own self-esteem and will are successfully defeated, even if the defeat is only momentary, and a rightly prepared student can grow tremendously at that time. All the crushing burdens of Buddhist monastic discipline and guruistic and Sufi disciplines seem aimed at bringing the student to that point.

It is true that there is no lack of testimonies to spiritual openings in various traditions that identify themselves as spiritual (in some sense of that bafflingly polysemous word). What is not entirely clear is whether there is any truth to the testimonies. Is there any truth to the matter of whether someone has had a spiritual opening, or is enlightened, or has been liberated from the world of suffering, or  is saved? And if there is some truth to the matter, then what is the criterion by which one can distinguish a true from a false claim about the matter? Who is it who is in a position to determine whether anyone (including himself or herself) has had a genuine opening, enlightenment, liberation or salvation? It seems to me that all these questions are so intractable that the best policy may be to set them aside altogether, and in setting them aside, to suspend judgment on all claims to spiritual attainment, whether one’s own or that of another.

At this year’s Summer Seminar on Buddhism, John Maraldo has been lecturing on members of the Kyōto school of philosophy. In the first lecture in his series of talks, Professor Maraldo read excerpts from letters written by Nishida Kitarō, regarded as the founder of what eventually came to be called the Kyōto school. Writing about his own Zen training, Nishida observed to a close friend (probably D.T. Suzuki) that he had seen many people who had passed through the rigors of Rinzai Zen training, which meant that they had passed through the curriculum of kōan, without showing evidence of being improved in any way at all. They still seemed as selfish as ever, as prone to moral peccadilloes as ever, and as subject to falling prey to painful mental attitudes as ever. He could not understand why their Zen master had passed them and certified them as having gained liberative understanding (kenshō). Nishida’s doubt about the efficacy of Zen training increased when he himself was deemed by his Zen master to have passed the hurdles and gained insight into the true nature of things. He admitted that he did not feel any wiser or any closer to liberation after successfully passing his kōan that he felt before passing them. If being authenticated by a Zen master as having had an opening or an insight produced no noticeable differences in mentality or behavior, mused Nishida, then how could one attach any meaning to what was putatively being authenticated?

Before dismissing Nishida as a hopelessly deluded fool for questioning the notion of enlightenment that is identified as the greatest good and the goal of all Buddhist practice—such a dismissal would be facile unless it could be shown to be warranted by some criterion—it should be asked in a more general way who decided that the Buddha was, well, a buddha. That is, who decided that Gautama was indeed awake (buddha) from his dogmatic slumbers? The Buddhist literature suggests that Gautama himself declared himself to be awake. The Buddhist literature also narrates that not everyone agreed with him. There were those who doubted his wisdom, questioned whether he was correct in claiming that he had been liberated from greed, hatred and delusion. And the Buddhist texts also narrate that Gautama’s own teachers declared him to have reached the goal of awakening, but that he himself knew that they were mistaken, for he knew that he had not reached that goal.

Having an opinion about someone else’s attainments is rarely a good idea. It is really not any of one’s business whether someone else has been enlightened, liberated or saved. I would be inclined to say that even when it is one’s business (which happens only when one’s own spiritual state is in question), it is probably not a good idea to have an opinion about this particular issue. Not much can come from thinking of oneself as enlightened except hubris and disappointment.

One of the most provocative stories in the Buddhist literature is the narrative about a monk named Channa, who was in terrible suffering from a disease that all the physicians he had consulted regarded as incurable. Seeing no point in being terminally ill with a painful disease, Channa told his fellow monks that he was going to take his own life. His friends examined him by asking all manner of questions, and on the basis of his answers they determined that he was an arhant. That is, he had eliminated all traces of greed, hatred and delusion and was therefore in no danger of being reborn in heaven or any other realm at the end of his current life. In short, he had achieved the goal of Buddhist practice. Following the custom of the day, his friends remained silent when he asked their permission to end his own life; in other words, they voiced no objections to his decision. Channa then cut his own jugular vein. As he was bleeding to death, says the story, he became afraid of dying. Fear of death is a sure sign that he was not an arhant. In short, Channa and his friends had all been wrong in their judgment that he was an arhant. Fortunately, the story continues, Channa drew all his resources together and overcame his fear of death at just the moment that he drew his last breath. When Channa had died, news of his death was relayed to the Buddha, who used his superhuman powers to determine where Channa had gone after his death. Seeing that Channa was nowhere to be found in any of the celestial realms or the hell realms and that he had not been reborn as a human being or an animal, the Buddha declared that in the very last moment of his life, Channa had become an arhant.

The story of Channa is as disturbing as it is dramatic. It raises the question: how on earth did the Buddha know that Channa died an arhant? Why did the Buddha believe that his inability to see Channa in any of the usual afterlife settings was sufficient grounds for concluding that Channa no longer existed and so had attained final cessation (nirodha), the summum bonum that is the goal of all Buddhist practice? Might the Buddha have been wrong? Is there any reliable way of answering the question of whether the Buddha was right or wrong in this matter? Is there recourse to anything but dogma and blind faith in such matters? Of course, I don’t know the answers to these questions. How could I? How could anyone?

Marshall Massey raises another interesting point in his comment to my previous posting. He says:

But if we reject the idea that it is merely a happy-puppey syndrome, then we have to accept that there is an important potential spiritual benefit to be gained from tough monastic discipline, alongside the undeniable abuses of the system and the undeniable psychological and social costs. And the question then becomes: is there a better alternative? Is there some other path to the same benefit, that doesn’t come at so high a price?

A lot of people — at least here in the West — say, yes, there is: we can defeat our own pride and will without entering a cult. And we point to some examples of success on that alternate path, including Gautama himself, Francis of Assisi, and to a lesser degree, a few of the Quaker giants. But the rarity of such successes is not encouraging.

It seems to me that this observation is based on a questionable premiss. The presupposition is that the legitimacy of monastic disciple, or the lack thereof, is determined by its consequence, and specifically the consequence of spiritual benefit. First of all, I doubt that there is any way of defining spiritual benefit that does not involve some form of circularity. If there is no non-question-begging way to determine whether there has been spiritual benefit, then that cannot be used as a criterion for deciding whether monastic discipline is worthwhile.

Here an important Buddhist text comes to our rescue, a text called Milindapañha (Milinda’s Questions). In this text a Bactrian king named Milinda asks Nāgasena, the most highly-respected Buddhist monk within his kingdom, whether it is necessary to be a monk to gain nirvana, that is, liberation from the root causes of suffering. Nāgasena replies that for every monk who attains nirvana there are one hundred ordinary householders who attain that goal. Then he corrects himself and says that in fact thousands—no, tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands—of  laymen attain nirvana for every monk who attains it. Naturally Milinda then wants to know what on earth the purpose of monastic discipline is, if it is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for freedom from suffering. Nāgasena’s answer, which might surprise some, is that the monastic life is pleasing to some people. It exists just for those people who find it a satisfying way to live, here in this world, independently of any other considerations. This seems to me just exactly the best answer one can give to the question “Should I be a monk?” The answer is “Suit yourself.”

I would suggest that exactly the same answer is the right response to a whole range of other questions. Should you meditate? Well, if you find meditation enjoyable, and if you can do it without harming anyone, then please yourself by meditating. Should you seek out a spiritual master who will dominate you and break your will, as if you were a wild horse that needs to be domesticated to be of use to someone else? If you find being dominated fulfilling, then please yourself by joining an organization that will break your will. One possibility is to join a Buddhist gang, whose members praise the Buddha for being anuttara purisadammasāratī (an unsurpassed trainer of the human beast). Or should you seek out the company of people who perceive social hierarchies as damaging and therefore try to avoid them? If that would please you, then by all means seek out such company. (Good luck finding it in any species in the order of primates!)

On this whole series of questions, I find that Van Morrison speaks my mind when he sings:

I’m in the here and now, and I’m meditating
And still I’m suffering but that’s my problem
Enlightenment, don’t know what it is

Written by Richard P. Hayes (Dayāmati Dharmacārin)

Friday, June 10, 2011 at 13:55

Posted in Buddhism