Sunday, December 20, 2009

Sutra Study Alone Does Not Make a Buddha

Another commentary from The Zennist that provoked me, this time in a less positive way. The following sounds more like a fundamentalism Christian expounding on the Bible's importance than on Buddhism, even in it's strictest, most rigid approaches:

Buddhism has been accessorized to such an extent that it is almost lost its real significance. I really don’t see what purpose all the chanting and ceremonies accomplish except to dull the mind and make it unfit for direct contemplation of the Buddha Mind. It is more likely that someone will awaken to the Buddha Mind if they leave the accessories of Buddhism behind and engage with the Sutras, commentaries and treatises. At least they might come to the understanding that all of Buddhism revolves around Mind—nothing else is of importance.

Among other things, there is an undercurrent of elitism in these words I find very distasteful. This is a special brand of elitism that privileges the written word, or even words themselves, above all else. It's pretty damn funny that I, a lover of words, reading, and writing would say such a thing, but it's true. Words aren't everything.

In fact, Zen Buddhism is well known as a tradition that holds words in suspect, seeing them as missing the mark, even at their best. So, it's very odd for someone calling themselves The Zennist to place such primacy on textual studies. I say that as someone who studies Buddhist texts often, and views them as a central part of my practice. But that need not be the case, and it's foolish in my opinion to suggest that chanting, or ritual, or even Buddhist robes can't be sources of wisdom, of awakening.

Last year, I sewed a rakasu, a small robe that looks like a bib. And with each stitch, I chanted "I take refuge in Buddha." It was a powerful experience. Hundreds of stitches, and all sorts of opportunities to intimately experience the mind in action. Frustration with messing up. Irritation with noise around me. Joy at times when things were running smooth. Stories about what all this meant. Stories about what people would think of me when I was finished. Wanting to be done. Wanting to keep sewing after it was done. Wanting to cut a corner. Cutting a corner and then watching what unfolded when that screwed up the process. And on and on.

I could read and memorize a hundred sutras, and not have had this kind of intimacy. A kind of intimacy that came from embodying a form - in this case, a specific kind of sewing - and then being right there with all that came up. This isn't about disparaging the sutras - it's about pointing people away from the notion that Buddhism is about studying texts and then becoming enlightened somehow.

In my life, I've met some pretty unkind, non-compassionate people who knew a hell of a lot of spiritual texts, and could expound amazing sounding teachings. And at the same time, I've met other people who couldn't quote a single line from any spiritual text, who maybe didn't even have a high school education, and yet embodied the best teachings in their words and deeds in the world.

As far as I'm concerned, the process of "dulling the mind" The Zennist writes about can happen with anything. And I think the obsession with texts, with words as THE source of truth, is a great way to dull the mind. All the scriptural study in the world won't be worth a hill of beans if it doesn't correspond to a radical transformation in how you are in the world. If your perceptions don't shift away from self-centeredness, and if your actions don't shift towards benefiting the world around you, then who cares how many sutras you can recite, or how many commentaries you can expound upon, or even how much you have penetrated into the inherent emptiness of things?

I recall a story from Dogen's personal history that, I'm pretty sure was recounted in the Tenzo Kyokun, that speaks to this issue in a certain way. Ah, the joy of using a story from a text to speak of how the study of texts isn't everything! Anyway, Dogen stops at a certain monastery in China and is taking to some monk about the tenzo (temple cook) there, who happened to be an elderly guy. The young Dogen, who was on pilgrimage and trying to find a more vibrant form of practice, is kind of surprised to see this old guy in a role Dogen considered to be subservient. So, he asks the monk he was talking to why the old guy was the tenzo? Why the old guy wasn't sitting somewhere studying sutras and teaching? The monk told him the job of the tenzo was one of the most important jobs in any temple, and only those with a very high level of practice could be the tenzo. In fact, he basically said that anyone could sit and study sutras, but only those who had manifested the teachings in their everyday life could function well as a temple cook.

This story seems to be a pivot in Dogen's understanding of Zen, and I'd argue that even though Dogen himself was a prolific writer and definitely valued the written word, the way he saw Zen was shifted by this monk and temple cook away from textual study as the highest, or best way to practice.

In the end, even though Buddha places a lot of emphasis on studying your mind, if you extend that to everything is "in your head," it's way too heady. We have to learn to live at the dynamic pivot between the absolute and the relative worlds. When we lean too hard in either direction, you're bound to miss a lot of your life.


Anonymous said...

Great post Nathan. As a fellow reader of the Zennist, I agree that he places a huge amount of emphasis on the study of the sutras. This is fine but he is defining Zen by proper and extensive sutra study which, to me, is limiting.

While the sutras are an important element in Zen (I also disagree with the common statement from Zen-practitioners that they search for teaching outside of the scriptures by ignoring them). Either way seems to be too extreme. A good understanding of sutras is fine (I think an understanding from Stephen Batchelor or any other contemporary commentary is fine) to be tempered with actual practice.



Richard Harrold said...

Actually, Nathan, perhaps you are misreading his post. I just went to read it, and I completely get what he is talking about. In fact, I can think of a sutta that describes exactly what he is speaking to, actually two suttas, and those would be MN 29 and 30, the Greater and Shorter Discourses on the Simile of the Heartwood. I think his criticism is more directed toward monastics, who like those described by the Buddha in the discourses on the simile of the heartwood, stop short of fully developing their understanding of the Dhamma, and rest on their personal laurels as methods to attract followers. They don a uniform of authority instead of cultivating a voice of authority.

Clearly, I agree with you that there are rituals that can be helpful to an individual's practice, but even the Buddha taught that rites and rituals were empty, their only purpose being to develop mindfulness.

Anyway, that's my take on his blog post.


Nathan said...

Hi Richard,

Maybe I'm missing his point. The thing is, though, where does understanding of the Dhamma come from? Those in Buddha's original sangha did not have texts to examine; they had their lives and what they heard from the Buddha and themselves. Even if rituals and forms are empty, how can you or I know what is going to spark awakening? How often do you hear of awakening stories that are focused around someone studying spiritual texts?

The sutras are, in the end, just as the rituals and chanting and the rest - expedient means.

I never get a clear sense that The Zennist is speaking to just monastics from anything he writes - he's always an authority on everything, almost always certain that what he's saying is true. I find that suspect, very suspect. Maybe I'm just reacting out of a perception; I'm willing to admit I'm not sure.


Nathan said...


I just went back again and read the post. The first half is very clearly about monastics, but then he goes into very general language towards the end with phases like "Buddhism today is ...", so that it's difficult not to see it as a general commentary on all of our practice.

There's something about his writing that just strikes me as very problematic. Too authoritative? Too damned certain of itself? Too broad sweeping? I don't trust it - he sounds like other charismatic troublemakers who have all the answers, and condemn every else as deluded.


La Dimensione said...

The only thing that can make us Buddhas is becaming Buddhas.


Kyle said...

Buddhism does not make Buddha's; and I agree with Nathans assessment of The Zennist, given his rather fundamentalist viewpoint.

Marguerite Manteau-Rao said...

Thank you Nathan. I take a very humble approach with all this. The texts are just a map. Then it is up to us to work with our whole being, mind, body, heart, spirit and all, get to the path and travel along it. Some people got enlightened that were not very well read. Some brilliant folks who know the texts inside out, are arrogant ass that as far from their Buddha nature as can be. Bottom line is, it does not really matter what others say. Only you know.

Deep bow,