We've been studying the Diamond Sutra for the past few weeks, and will continue to do so as a sangha for the next several weeks. It's a sometimes confounding teaching, filled with efforts to undercut just about every idea you have about your life and the world. Personally, I'm enjoying wrestling with it again, and plan on writing a few posts about it in the coming weeks.
One thing I'll say now, though, is that this is one of those Buddhist texts that is easily irritating to anyone who works with it too rigidly or literally. I can imagine it's probably been tossed out of consideration by more than a few people who have come across it, saying that it has nothing to do with their everyday experience. And maybe that's true, but like the easy rejections of rebirth and other aspects of Buddhism I sometimes see and hear, I question any quick tossing out of the Diamond Sutra.
It's not terribly often that I agree with The Zennist, but his post this morning resonates in a way that surprised me. Seeing the title, "Rejecting Buddhism based on Personal Knowledge," got my juices going for some reason, and I was, (laughing now), ready to reject his post before I even read it. Instead, I opened it up and found this:
It has become accepted in modern circles of Buddhism, particularly in the West, that the doctrines and teachings of the Buddha shouldn't be accepted just on the basis of belief; rather one should follow one’s own personal knowledge when deciding which doctrines are to be accepted and which ones are to be rejected.
All this sounds great. But is it? Not to mince words, and cutting to the chase, it is a flawed methodology that decides which doctrines and teachings of the Buddha should be observed and which should be rejected based on one’s personal knowledge.
Now, I'm a bit tired of his heavily negative commentary on "modern, Western Buddhists," but that's not the point of this post, so let's move on. What's important to note is that it's not about accepting teachings with blind faith - I don't think even The Zennist would say that. It's more about the way in which we place our personal experience and perceptions ahead of teachings that have functioned in the lives of millions of people for centuries. The kind of thinking that says, Based on what I know scientifically, rebirth can't possibly be true. Or all these teachings about renunciation don't apply to me because I live in the "real" world, not in a monastery.
Here's The Zennist doing what he seems to do best, writing a line that is similtaneously insulting and worthy of considering.
"In fact, the huge majority of people that populate this planet live most of their lives without accepting or rejecting things or ideas based on any degree of personal knowledge."
One the one hand, the stench of elitism is like a rotting corpse in the midday August sun here.
On the otherhand, if you shift it a little bit - say instead of the "huge majority of people," you say "nearly all of us spend a lot of our lives" it's probably fairly accurate. Think about it. How often are you running on auto pilot, accepting common views of things without examination, and letting others (government officials, spiritual leaders, parents, cultural norms) guide your life? How often are you "too busy" to examine anything that's going on? How much of your Buddhist practice is confined to your sitting, chanting, and/or sutra studies?
I think most of us think we know enough to pick and choose what to "believe in," when the reality is that we barely even know ourselves, let alone the world around us.
"Who" is it that knows, for example, that rebirth is a false teaching from a superstitous past? Who is it? And where did such an understanding come from?
My experience (snicker, snicker) is that a lot of what I think I know ends up being full of holes, like the telephone pole above. Lately, I'm putting much more faith in the questions that appear in my life than any definitive answers. And maybe The Zennist, in his own, overly confidently way is pointing us back to the questions as well. What do you think?