Tuesday, September 28, 2010

"Western Buddhists Don't Know Anything"

So basically says our old friend The Zennist, doing his best to ruffle the feathers of "Western" Buddhists again.

There are times when you have to face the facts. Something isn't right in Buddhism. Many Buddhist writers I am familiar with, not to mention the bulk of the Buddhist public, don’t read much of the Pali canon or the Mahayana canon, enough to know what it actually contains (this includes Asians). This is guessing, but I think their Buddhist reading list may only contain two discourses they’ve actually read such as the the Kalama Sutta and the Heart Sutra. Of course there are others. But these two seem to be the main ones.

First off, I wish I or someone could come up with a better term than "Western Buddhists." The whole west-east thing is tired.

Anyway, The Zennist's post is an interesting set of observations. I think he's onto something as well. The Kalama Sutta seems wildly over represented in the blog posts I have read online over the past two years. And at that, it's mostly reduced to a paraphrasing of section 10, which reads:

The criterion for acceptance

10. "Come, Kalamas. Do not go upon what has been acquired by repeated hearing; nor upon tradition; nor upon rumor; nor upon what is in a scripture; nor upon surmise; nor upon an axiom; nor upon specious reasoning; nor upon a bias towards a notion that has been pondered over; nor upon another's seeming ability; nor upon the consideration, 'The monk is our teacher.' Kalamas, when you yourselves know: 'These things are good; these things are not blamable; these things are praised by the wise; undertaken and observed, these things lead to benefit and happiness,' enter on and abide in them.

I think it's probably fair to say that not a lot of Buddhists in general are very well versed in the original teachings. We are currently studying the Anapanasati Sutta at our zen center, and before this did a class on the Diamond Sutra and also one on the Third Chinese Zen Patriarch's poem Hsin Hsin Ming. I know other sanghas in the U.S. also have rigorous study of some of the ancient texts, but it's probably also true that other sanghas don't. The "Just Sitting" mindset amongst some Dogen-centric communities seems to lead to not much studying of anything besides Dogen. The same might be said of communities that only study Nichiren's writings. I'm just throwing out some examples here of groups that study a single teacher, sometimes to the exclusion of all others.

The Zennist continues:

The popularity of these two Buddhist discourses [the Kalama and Heart Sutras] tells us more about the modern ethos than Buddhism. In fact, if this is all of the Buddhism someone has read, they don’t know much about Buddhism, especially about its mystical side, for lack of a better term. In fact, the mystical side is really what Buddhism is all about or in the words of Bodhidharma, “The most essential method, which include all other methods, is beholding the mind” which is not our ordinary mind but is the very spiritual stuff of the universe.

I'm interested in this. There are times when I do think modern Buddhist writers and teachers focus too much on things like mindfulness while washing the dishes, or how to work with difficult emotions. These are very important, but they aren't the whole works.

There's been some interesting posts recently on the blog On the Precipice about the value of monastic practice, and the need to give it more support in "Western" nations. I left the following comment on today's post:

One thing I think is important to consider is the lack of records on lay practitioners historically. Most of what we have been handed down has been recorded by monastics about monastics. Occasionally a figure like Layman P’ang shows up, but it’s a rarity. And I think this is especially important to women in our practice today because we really don’t know a lot about the Buddhist women of our past, monastic or lay. I have three or four books on my shelf written about historical Buddhist women, and the authors’ research was often years in the making, and yet they only have stories about maybe 20 or 30 wise Buddhist women. So, I’m kind of convinced that we don’t have a really well rounded view of the different ways people have practiced and potentially awakened throughout Buddhist history.

Why is this relevant to the rest of this post? Well, I think there are a few overlapping issues going on that tie together. First off, The Zennist's general point about practitioners having little knowledge of what the ancient teachings actually say. And second, the fact that many of those ancient teachings are coming from monastics writing about monastic experience. One of the benefits of going through the Pali Canon is that there are lay practitioners found in it, and the Buddha directly addresses them, tailoring teachings towards lay life. However, once you move past the Pali Canon, at least amongst Zen records, it's mostly monastics and wandering loner types whose stories and teachings are available. All this to say that I'm not terribly convinced we have a good sense of what's it's been like for lay Buddhists throughout history. And along with that, since we don't have, for example, lots of enlightenment stories about lay practitioners, it's been generally assumed that lay people almost never experience enlightenment.

One thing I have to say about The Zennist's criticism of modern, "Western" Buddhists, which gets nastier at the end of his post, is that it's probably more the case that the majority of people in every religious/spiritual tradition are, and have always been, lacking in depth of knowledge about the actual recorded teachings of said tradition. How many Christians do you know that can rattle off entire sections of the Bible, and easily cite a wide diversity of quotations from early Christian scholars and theologians? How many Muslims do you know who can do the same with the Qu'ran and early Muslim scholars?

Part of the problem those of us who do read in depth have is that we are reading material written by other people that were privileged enough (i.e. had the time and resources) to be able to present a more complete picture based on a variety of historical teachings. If we had a better sense of what lay practice was like historically, and how people grew wise or not through it, perhaps the monastic/scholarly approach might be seen as one path amongst many to awakening.

*Image is of a flag from the American "Know Nothing" movement - mid-19th century.


Algernon said...

The Zennist has a penchant for burying valid criticisms in a swath of snobbishness that he himself, likely, does not think of as negative but merely "truthful." As a result, I think his valid criticisms are lost on a lot of us.

Maybe you should start the "Reblogging Zennist" blog, as you once again demonstrate a skill for taking what is valid and reframing it in a more constructive way.

Brikoleur said...

Yeah, he does sometimes make valid criticisms. Occasionally those criticisms are even relatively original. And sometimes he does have interesting or insightful things to say about the Dharma too.

On the other hand, he generalizes like fuck, and he's massively good at self-deception—for example, he'll latch onto any pseudoscientist that appears to validate his views. Recent example here.

That means that I take whatever he says with a mountain of salt. Not sure there's enough gold there for decent re-blogging.

David said...

You are right we don’t have a good sense of what's it's been like for lay Buddhists throughout history. That should tell you something. Were lay Buddhists not around during the last 2500 years? Or maybe they were invisible? Perhaps their stories were not considered important enough to collect, or perhaps they’ve been lost. Or maybe, they’ve been suppressed.

I did a lot of reading on this subject some twelve or so years ago. There was some information out there but it was not easy to find. Kenneth Chen has a really good book about Buddhism in China which describes a number of important lay movements that arose during different periods of Chinese history. When the rulers were liberal, Buddhism tended to be rather liberal as well. I don’t remember which book of his it is, it was a library book. I wish I could, I’d like to buy it.

Anyway, I can tell you though that what has been handed down to us, that is the picture of an almost purely monastic Buddhism with the lineages all lined up perfectly and unbroken, is pretty much a fable.

Brikoleur said...

I just read a series of biographical essays by Zen teachers across the centuries. A lot of them had lay students, and some were not even ordained as monks. P'ang Yun and Bankei spring to mind.

Lay Zen has been around for a very long time. Like everything, it ebbs and flows.

Brikoleur said...

(Should have been OF Zen teachers, not BY Zen teachers. Sorry.)

peter daishin said...

i don't know much about the Pali or other canon. the way i live and work (with the dying and terminally ill) is, however grounded in the precepts as conveyed (along with a dharma name) by a western buddhist roshi. i participate in 2-3 sesshin/year, sit (almost) daily, and host 3 weekly sitting groups at my house and a psycho-geriatric care centre.

believing that I "don't know anything" other than what arises day by day, i'm may not be a good buddhist. and, quite frankly, ...

Sabio Lantz said...

I agree with many of your points on this post and love your writing style. And after reading the comments, I pray to Amida that I don't fall into the sins of snobbishness, generalizing or self-deception. So here goes:

I enjoy comparative approaches to knowledge. And this post made me think of "miracles" in the Christian tradition (a tradition I am familiar with). The New Testament is replete with miracles by Jesus, his disciples and followers. Yet, once accurate media and investigations enter human culture, those dry up. We don't have modern records of miracles using videos, for example. Debunking abounds. Thought there are Christian sects (Pentecostals and such) who emphasize the needs for present day miracles while some sects declare a dispensationalism that precludes them now. [reminding me of Nichiren dispensationalism]

Anyway (I was digressing): Searching the Pali canon (or any canon) for examples of enlightenment may tell us more about the mythologizing process. Maybe the humble accomplishments of the monastic and the lay of modern times is as good as it gets. The mythologizing helps inspire but it should not disappoint.

Just thinking out loud. I am aware that only a small percent of Buddhists would even begin to agree with this. This is not meant to be primarily sacrilegious but simply food for healthy doubt.

Am I way off target? Did I capture anything of value?

Kaspa Thompson said...

Lot's of good points Nathan, thank you.

I saw some of the hoo-ha around the Kalama Sutta, and would have written something myself is not for current busyness in off-line life. This comment will suffice.

The Kalama Sutta is over emphasised, but that and the Heart Sutra is what got me into Buddhism. They are so ubiquitous because they do fit with some of the ideas around in our culture already.

Believe nothing, test everything, nothing is real... you can find many parallels in western philosophy.

Buddhism was imported into the UK and the US on the back of Modernism and still those echoes are around, lots of Buddhists I know shy away from anything that looks like religion, for example.

But I also want to say that, whilst there are real differences between Buddhist texts, an awakening can occur when one encounters any of them. What's most important here, that people have an in-depth understanding of complex theology, or that they are led to live more loving lives?

As you say this is also intertwined with the dynamic between lay and monastic in new Buddhists. My experience is that many western lay Buddhists want something to practice in between what a lay Buddhist in Japan (say) would do, and what someone living in a monastic community might do.

It hits upon issues about the nature of enlightenment as well, I think - just what is it that we are aiming for?

kevin said...

Until reading the above comments about the questionable reputation of the source, the idea I had in my head was that he may be mislead, but he does make an interesting devil's advocate.

The Pali cannon may hold valid teachings, but it's more or less a cultural base for Buddhists to touch on. We can't just ignore it because another teaching tells us it's not dogma.

After reading the comments, though...

This brings two Zen stories to mind.

The first story of Xuan-Jian who after treasuring the Diamond Sutra and its commentaries burned it after realizing its emptiness.

The second of Juzhi severing a finger.

The Pali cannon is many hands worth of fingers, but they all point to the same thing.

So he needs to burn his attachment to the Pali cannon before someone exercises the compassion to cut his finger off and hope he gets the point.

Alright, that was harsh... I'd given up on koans as teaching tools since I'm not supposed to contemplate anything during zazen, but a recent Dharma talk restored my faith in them as teaching tools.

He has a right to his opinion, I don't regularly read his blog, so it causes me no harm. It sounds like he invested time becoming an expert on something no one cares about and now he's bitter.

As far as the lay aspect of Buddhist history and practice, I'm on board for that. The majority of us bloggers are lay and I'd like to think that we matter in the grand scope of things.

Daniel @ Campinas said...

In Brazil they have a "giria", a saying/ slang. "Bater na mesma tecla" which means +/- hitting the same keystroke. It's when you repeat, repeat, repeat the same thing over and over. Int he States, at least in my time, we said "you sound like a broken record". I guess they don't use that term much 'cause many people nowadays have never seen or heard of LPs. Anyways, I'm gonna start hitting the same keystroke over and over here:
I really can't understand the back and forth bickering I see on Buddhist blogs. The same exact thing goes on with Christian Churches when they hold their council meetings and they argue over such frivolous things. "Our Church is more fundamental than your Church nyah nyah nyah". It smacks of hypocrisy. Just like the Bible: people get caught up in Ps and Qs and a comma here, a preposition there, and the message gets lost. Same with the Buddha's teachings. Many times I have heard criticism of the "Religious Right" and the naysayers say "What would jesus say if he saw this that or the other going on in His name." Well, what would Buddha say if he read the blogs and forums (like one that caused A LOT of controversy and seems to have disappeared for good) and saw what was being said and argued about "in his name"?

Daniel @ Campinas said...

Just curious, any reason why you removed the comment approval? Your blog, your rules, but I was surprised to see my comment appear without approval, that's all....

Nathan said...

Hi Everyone,

Great comments. Thank you. I used to get wound up about some of the Zennist's posts, but now I find myself either letting them pass through my hands like sand, or occasionally taking them up like in this post.

Algernon: Reblogging Zennist would be fun. I'll have to consider that one :)

Petteri - I'd agree that broad generalizations usually aimed at "Western Buddhism" are commonplace on The Zennist's blog.

David - I'll have to look into that book. I'm really interested in finding more out about historical lay movements. We need a more balanced picture of practice in my view.

Peter - I think how one conducts their life must be considered most important. Part of the reason I find The Zennist compelling is that his approach is opposite what many of us are doing. Textual studies are de-emphasized for many "Western" practitioners, whereas The Zennist seems to feel that textual studies are the key to awakening.

Sabio - yeah, I'd say there is a big tension around enlightenment in Buddhism. The Soto Zen folks, which is my tradition, mostly won't talk much about enlightenment. On the other hand, you have the koan stories that are all about enlightenment. And of course, we are supposed to let go of wanting to "gain" enlightenment, but at the same time, if you don't have some desire for awakening, you don't move at all. Lots of paradox.


It seems to me that partly, The Zennist is reacting to what I would can a reductionist exuberance expressed about the Kalama and Heart Sutras. Basically the Heart Sutra being reduced to "it's all empty" and the Kalama Sutra being reduced to "question everything." And then basing one's practice on those two pillars. I'm not sure if this is as common as The Zennist thinks it is - perhaps he's focusing too much on what bloggers are writing.

Kevin - "The first story of Xuan-Jian who after treasuring the Diamond Sutra and its commentaries burned it after realizing its emptiness." Great example! I smiled when I saw that, remembering different times that story had appeared in talks I have heard.

Nathan said...

Hi Daniel,

Re: the comment rules - I decided to experiment with allowing comments on new posts without monitoring. I felt it might offer more fluid discussion, and so far that seems to be the case. Comments on older posts still are monitored, mostly so that I don't miss seeing them :)

As for this current discussion, I actually think these issues are vitally important to how we practice. You're right that there is a lot of arguing, nastiness, and nonsense online, and one of my goals as a blogger is to try and not add to that. But I also have strong desire, if you will, to help develop modern lay sangha life and practice, and feel that such a thing can't be done without discussion and debate. Many of the problems that have occurred in Zen communities in the U.S. over the past 30 years - just to give an example I'm familiar with - have come precisely because people felt that if they all just meditated together, and read Dogen or whomever, the answers as to how to run a healthy community together would just appear. That hasn't worked. As Katagiri Roshi pointed out sometimes, you have to say something.

Brikoleur said...

@Daniel: do you think it'd be better to just pretend there weren't any disagreements?

To sit down and shut up in order to practice is one thing. "Sit down and shut up" to kill discussion and disagreement is another altogether, and I would run screaming from any tradition that asked me to do the latter.

Zazen is zazen. Discussion, debate, and disagreement are discussion, debate, and disagreement. We need both.

Sabio Lantz said...

Strongly agree with Petteri and ready to debate it!

Daniel @ Campinas said...

When I said "Sit down and shut up", I did not mean to just pretend the problem does not exist, but that "the practice", ie: zazen is more important than arguing details. Of course problems need to be discussed, but not at the expense of "the larger picture". You are absolutely right when you say we need both, but we can't "favor" one at the expense of the other. I think that sometimes the argument grows larger than the issue itself.

Chana said...

All very interesting and relevant replies and very nice OP. I would just like to add that the landscape of Buddhist practice in America is rapidly changing. Maybe
because of the Internet and the instant communication available and/or the vast amount of information on thousands of web sites. This dialogue is going to continue,
like it or not for many years to come. The interesting thing to me is what the young people in our American society will come up with as their practice. We all have
been around this subject for years, but the children and teenagers are all new to this. Buddhism is spreading like a wildfire in America and the young folks are getting
an ear full. I see a very different approach to Buddhist practice by these young people. Having grown up with a vast amount of knowledge and hopefully
understanding about the prime principles involved in Buddhist practice they will simplify its' practice. It will become prat of their nature rather than an intellectual
debate of what is right or wrong. Maybe we could adopt the same approach to our practice. Maybe bypass the the religious righteousness and actually put into
practice the prime principles of Buddhism. What about inner contentment? Keeping the mind empty of endless chatter. You know there is a way to communicate
without a dialectical approach. There is so much needed to be done in our society, and wasting out time debating how many angels can sit on the end of a needle
seems to be a bit ridicules. Its fine to talk about how Buddhism is changing in America but can it be done without falling into the trap of mentating ?

Anonymous said...

When someone has already said it so well, why not just quote them?

"A lay Buddhist is one who fully embodies his or her entire life of work, family, and relationships without spiritually prioritizing any activity. From this perspective all moments are equally precious, and whether we are practicing formal meditation on retreat or showing up for ordinary moments of our lay life, freedom is never diminished. The unequivocal resolve not to move away from where we are is essential. Once we abandon the belief that there is a more spiritually useful moment than the one we are in, we have embraced our life and infused it with the energy for awakening."

Rodney Smith, from the intro to Stepping Out of Self-Deception

Which, incidentally, is more or less exactly the response I got from Ajahn Amaro (in more pithy and less flowery terms), who's been a monk for 30 years or so, when I said I was having trouble balancing the inner and outer aspects of practice shortly after returning from long retreat.

Anonymous said...

I often cringe when I read things the "Zennist" (a.k.a "Dark Zen") writes on his blog. He has a very skewed interpretation of the Dharma and tends to retrospectively impute Tathagatagarbha doctrine on anything he can get his hands on, including the suttas of the Pali canon, which of course is doctrinally unsound...to put it mildly.

I was surprised to see that he now posts on Zen Forum International
(www.zenforuminternational.org) as user "songhill", as he previously didn't seem to have much interest in dialogue. I seem to be the only one who has recognized him so far, although it's quite obvious if you've ever read anything he's wrote. ;-)

BTW, nice post Nathan, as usual.

Nathan said...

I'm surprised, too, that the Zennist is on the Zen Forum. Maybe he's tired of sitting in the cave :)

Brikoleur said...

Is it me, or has he gone completely off the deep end lately? He's going on about black holes being a lie and Homo Sapiens being a species that's hundreds of millions of years old, and stuff. Weird.