Outlines of Buddhist Meditation Part 3

It’s said that Chih-i (538–597 CE), the de facto founder of the T’ien-t’ai school, was the first Chinese Buddhist to produce a meditation manual. This was probably the T’ung Meng Chih Kuan or “Samatha-Vipassana (Stopping and Seeing) for Beginners,” also known as “Dharma Essentials for Cultivating Stopping and Contemplation,” supposedly written for Chih-i’s brother (or brother-in-law) who was a General in the Chinese army.

Chih-kuan for Beginners is a short text that explains the fundamentals of samatha-vipassana as a dual practice, beginning, of course, with mindfulness or counting the breath, and this manual has been the model for meditation instruction for almost 1500 years.

Chih-kuan (S. samatha-vipassana) is the practice of “tranquility and insight,” “stopping and seeing,” or “calming and cessation.” Prior to Chih-i, the common Chinese term for meditation was ch’an (S. dhyana), which Kenneth Chan (“Buddhism in China”) explains is “aimed at tranquilizing the mind and getting the practitioner to devote himself to a quiet introspection of his own inner consciousness.” Chih-i moved away from using the term ch’an, which he felt was too immersed in the “calming” aspect, favoring instead chih-kuan.

Charles Luk in his translation of this manual, found in “Secrets of Chinese Meditation”, describes chih-kuan this way: “Chih is silencing the active mind and getting rid of discrimination, and kuan is observing, examining, introspecting. When the physical organism is at rest, it is called chih, and when the mind is seeing clearly it is kuan. The chief object is the concentration of mind by special methods for the purpose of clear insight into the truth and to be rid of illusion.”

Chih-I viewed chih-kuan as a holistic practice. His manual goes through a series of ten steps, in which he explains the importance of such things as regulating food, sleep, body and mind, how to count the breath, and when it is best to employ chih or revert to kuan.

The impact the T’ien-t’ai sect had on succeeding schools, both philosophically and in terms of practice was enormous. Taitetsu Unno, in Philosophical Schools: San-lun, T’ien-t’ai, and Hua-yen (“Buddhist Spirituality”, 1994) writes: “Historically, T’ien-t’ai came to have a major influence on Hua-yen [Flower Garland] practice, it became the basis for the evolution of Ch’an [Zen], and in Japan it was to spawn the practice-oriented Kamakura schools.”

Bodhidharma, considered the founder of Ch’an, would have been a contemporary of Chih-i’s. Frankly, I think the jury is still out on Bodhidharma’s historicity. The lineages and dharma transmissions that purport to trace an unbroken line back to him are unreliable due to huge gaps in the timeline and the inclusion of names of individuals whose historicity also cannot be verified. There were no “Ch’an” schools during Chih-i’s time. Some scholars point to the teachings of Hui-neng (638–713), the so-called Sixth (and Last) Patriarch, as marking the point when Ch’an began to emerge as an independent school.

Ch’an, as the name implies (Chinese for dhyana or meditation) was essentially a meditation school. The notion that Ch’an dismissed the written word, and therefore the sutras, is a misnomer for the sutras have always been important for that tradition, and many important texts have come out of Ch’an/Zen.

Early Ch’an focused on chih (samatha or calming). As Ch’an developed, the Lin-chi branch began to emphasize kung-an (Jp. koan) practice where students were presented with riddles, such as “What is the sound of one hand clapping,” for which there is no logical answer. These were used as subjects of contemplation. In the Southern branch of Hui-neng, the emphasis was on “complete, instantaneous enlightenment.” And the debate over sudden enlightenment vs. gradual enlightenment continues today.

When T’ien-t’ai was exported to Japan and became Tendai, it incorporated esoteric practices called mikkyo (“secret teachings’) and became somewhat of a Vajrayana (“Diamond Vehicle”) school. Devotion to Amita Buddha was also a major element of Tendai practice. Like its Chinese predecessor, Tendai’s influence was great, and it could be reasonably said that Enryaku-ji, the Tendai head temple, was the birthplace of Japanese Pure Land, Nichiren, and Zen.

Ch’an in Japanese is called Zen. The first Zen school in Japan was established by Eisai (1141-1215), a Tendai priest who traveled to China several times, was certified as a Zen teacher there, and brought Ch’an teachings back with him. He was in the Lin-chi (Jp. Rinzai) tradition.

Today the two predominate schools of Japanese Zen in the west are Rinzai and Soto. Rinzai practice consists of seated meditation, koan training, and samu (work practice) or the art of doing activities mindfully. Soto is the school introduced to Japan by Dogen (a former Tendai priest) in the 13th century, and emphasizes shikantaza (see below).

Some common Zen terms:

Kensho: “seeing one’s true nature,” the chief concept in Rinzai.

Satori: along with kensho, this word is often translated as “enlightenment,” although it actually refers to the experience of kensho.

Zazen: seated meditation. Zazen can be a general term that can refer to any form of Zen meditation. Overall, Zen meditation is not particularly unique, at least in the beginning stages. Focusing on the breath at a hara point, a center of ki (Ch. qi) energy (a Taoist influence), counting the breath (susokukan), and from there into more intense concentration. Dharma Rain, a Soto Zen group, says “Dhyana [meditation] is the form and method of zazen; the practice of letting go and returning to the present . . .  Zazen happens in and with the world, not apart from it. The result of meditation is ever deeper experience of samadhi. Samadhi is deeply entering into the openness that letting go cultivates, always broadening the scope of releasing self-attachment.”

Shikan: Simply the Japanese translation of chih-kuan (samatha-vipassana).

Shikantaza: This is a term first used by Dogen (Soto Zen) which literally means “nothing but sitting in samatha-vipassana,” or “just sitting.” Dogen was one the Kamakura teachers who advocated a single practice. This is the main practice in Soto Zen, and there are many different takes on it, some feel shikantaza is nothing in particular, whiles others hold it is very specific. I think Dogen used it in the sense of “single-minded practice,” which Kazuaki Tanahashi, in “moon in a dewdrop”, says is “a single-minded sitting meditation wherein one does not try to solves questions or attain realization.” In shikantaza, there is no object of meditation. In my experience, some Zen teachers will start students off with mindfulness, counting the breath, and ease them into this objectless meditation. Other teachers don’t give any instruction at all, they just expect you to jump in, and you either get it or you don’t.

Tibetan Buddhism has a myriad number of meditative practices, too many to go into here. In general they revolve around mindfulness, samantha (“calm abiding”) and vipassana (“special insight”), and there is strong tantric or Vajrayana element. I’ve found the Tibetan approach to samatha-vipassana to be very close in spirit to Chih-i’s chih-kuan, in that both are practiced together. The Dalai Lama explains in “The Buddhism of Tibet”: “The nature of calm abiding is the one-pointed abiding of any object without distraction of a mind conjoined with a bliss of physical and mental pliancy . . . the main purpose and advantage of calm abiding are that through it one can achieve special insight (vipassana), which realizes emptiness, and can thereby be liberated [from suffering].”

Now this concludes my overview of Buddhist Meditation. I had hoped to talk a bit about the Korean practice of “tracing back the radiance of the mind” taught by Chinul, but since few people in the West will run into this, it’s probably just as well to save it for a later post. Many things have been left out, such as the Taoist influence, Shingon mediation practice, and a few other subjects. But, I must leave here for now.

My aim was to present an outline to help those trying to sort out the various forms of Buddhist meditation, in order that they might be able to put them in perspective – hopefully no one is left more confused. I feel that despite the claims made by individual schools and groups, on the whole, Buddhist meditation across the board has more similarities than distinctions. Most of them begin with mindfulness of breath, and the reason I’ve mentioned it frequently is so that anyone thinking about starting a meditation practice will know that regardless of where they go, or what style they try, it starts from basically the same point. That being the case, it doesn’t matter so much what style you try out. If at some future time you decide it is not for you and you want to try something else, you have not wasted any time, because you have learned the foundation of them all.

I don’t believe that meditation alone leads to enlightenment. Meditation is just a tool. What brings us close to the gates of awakening is a combination of meditation and study, and right action. Someone once said that the importance of the Buddha’s advent lay in his behavior as a human being. The most importance practice is the one of daily living, how we behave after we close the book or get off the cushion, everything else is preparation for that.


Outlines of Buddhist Meditation Part 2

I had planned to make this just a two part series, but it’s gotten away from me a bit. Which is why I’ve changed the title to “Outlines of Buddhist Meditation.” Naturally, with a subject as vast as this, in the blog format the best I can do is present outlines, just tracing around the edges.

Again, my goal here is to explain some meditation practices and terms, so that when readers encounter them they will seem less confusing. Long-time practitioners probably know all this already, but I’m sure there are many others who do not.

Before moving into Mahayana meditation practices, I’d like to discuss Vipassana or “Insight” Meditation as it is practiced today. First,  a reminder about mindfulness, since the word will crop up frequently. Mindfulness (sati) meditation is sustained awareness of the breath, usually by counting in and out breaths. In mindfulness, practitioners lay down all thoughts, clear the mind, and rest in the present moment without reflections on the past or anticipations of the future, or judgments of any kind.

The difference between mindfulness and “insight meditation,” I feel, is that in mindfulness when thoughts or sensations occur, you do not pay attention to them, rather you “label” them and let them go. Vipassana, on the other hand, is all about paying attention to those things.

Now, since the mid-1970’s Insight Meditation has become a fast-growing “movement.” I’ve never been drawn to it, and one reason is that I find it confusing myself. There are several distinct groups in this movement. One of them is the Insight Meditation Society, a secular group founded by Jack Kornfield, Sharon Salzberg, and Joseph Goldstein, followers of Mahasi Sayadaw, a late Burmese monk who was instrumental in reviving the meditation tradition within Theravada.

I’ve never been able to quite get a handle on what they mean by “Insight Meditation.” Insight obviously refers to vipassana, but here is a description of the practice from the New York Insight Meditation Center, which is affliated with IMS as the three founders sit on their Advisory Board for Teachers: “Insight meditation is a way to develop wisdom and compassion. The core of the practice is the cultivation of mindfulness. Mindfulness is like a mirror that reflects the mind and body from moment to moment, without judgments, projections or distortions.” Well, mindfulness (sati) is not exactly vipassana, unless they are using a different set of definitions, which doesn’t seem to be the case since they start with counting the breath.

Another IMS focus of practice is “loving-kindness” (metta) meditation, which is not vipassana either. And I often see “insight meditation” described as samatha-vipassana, as if it was a combined practice, yet often samatha is disregarded entirely, or used only as a preparatory practice. I don’t mean to disparage this approach. I just don’t get what it is.

Vipassana, as I understand it, involves using meditation on various subjects to realize a direct awareness of all phenomena, paying close attention to all sensory and mental processes. The goal is to move beyond mindfulness of the present moment and “see” the impermanence (anicca) and non-self (anatta) of things. I guess I have never been attracted enough to IMS style of meditation to discover if they actually ever get to that point.

Another major branch of the modern insight meditation movement is vipassana as taught by S. N. Goenka, a Burmese lay-person whose teachings resonate a little better with me. This is also a secular tradition, and Goenka maintains that the Buddha did not intend to teach religion, which is correct. Goenka’s vipassana starts with mindfulness of breath and then graduates into what he calls “self-observation,” focusing on the mind-body connection, paying attention to physical sensations. This does seem closer to actual vipassana, but in my limited exposure to this practice, it has never gone beyond basic mindfulness and loving-kindness meditation. So there you are.

Another major player in the insight meditation movement was Ajahn Chah, who taught the Thai Forest Tradition. Shinzen Young is a popular teacher who says that vipassana is mindfulness because we are paying attention to “what’s happening.” I guess what he means by mindfulness and what I mean are two different things. Again, mindfulness, to me, is being mindful of the breath but sort of un-mindful of everything else. In any case, there are many other teachers around who also have their own takes and definitions for these terms.

Samatha or tranquility meditation involves calming the mind and then attempting to achieve a high degree of mental concentration. It begins with focusing on specific subjects and progressing through a series of mental states called jhanas or absorptions.

Samatha-vipassana was intended as a twin practice. It seems, though, this has rarely been the case. Chih-i, who in the 6th Century CE was the first to truly systematize a Chinese style of Buddhist meditation, maintained that samatha-vipassana “is like the two wheels of a cart and the two wings of a bird. Partial practice of them is wrong.”

I will pick up with Chih-i in the next post, where I will describe some of the core meditation practices of the Mahayana traditions in China and Japan, perhaps along with with those in Tibet and Korea.


Outlines of Buddhist Meditation Part 1

It is almost impossible to overstate the importance of meditation to the practice of Buddhism. It is the practice of Buddhism. In this presentation, the subject is only silent meditation. However, I think chanting can be considered a way of meditation, even though the Buddha did not encourage his followers in the practice of mantras, parittas (chanting verses and sutras for protection), or sutra recitation for devotion. It is meditation in the traditional sense that has always been the most common, and perhaps crucial, element in Buddha-dharma. Most of the definitions here are from Traditions of Meditation in Chinese Buddhism, edited by Peter Gregory.

The Victory of Buddha by Abanindranath Tagore*

Each school or tradition of Buddhism makes exclusive claims about their own philosophy or practice. These claims must be taken with a large grain of salt. For instance, you might hear someone say, “The Buddha taught Zen.” That’s true to the extent that zen means meditation. But if one is implying that the Buddha taught Zen philosophy or “Zen meditation,” that’s stretching it a bit too much. You might  hear someone else claim that Buddha taught samatha-vipassana, or “insight meditation.” That’s not quite the case either.

Samatha-vipassana is meditation based on the jhanas (deep mental states or meditative absorptions). There are samatha jhanas and vipassana jhanas, with some difference in how each is approached. There are only occasional references to samatha and vipassana in the early sutras, and almost always they are mentioned together, indicating that these were not intended to be separate practices.

While there is some similarity between the four jhanas and the Four Foundations of Mindfulness, jhanas are not mentioned in the oldest “scriptures” nor in the two most important meditation texts of early Buddhism, Anapanasati Sutta (“Discourse on the Mindfulness of Breath”) and Satipatthana Sutta (“The Discourse on the Establishing of Mindfulness”). This has led some to believe they are later additions to Buddhist practice. Thich Nhat Hanh says that “from my own research, it seems the Four Jhanas . . . were not introduced into Buddhism until one hundred years after the Buddha’s passing.” I suspect this is the case for samatha-vipassana, too.

Since the Buddhist sutras are not historical documents, it is impossible to prove anything about what the Buddha may have taught. Nonetheless, my feeling is that the practice taught in the earliest days of Buddhism was sati, or mindfulness, and certainly mindfulness is the starting point for most all of the various forms of Buddhist meditation that followed.

Sati (Sanskrit: smrti) originally meant “memory”, specifically memorizing Vedic scriptures. The Buddha used it in the context of “awareness.” Mindfulness meditation consists of watching the breath, cultivating mindfulness or attention to the present moment.

It seems that the Buddha never used any of the terms usually translated as “meditation.” In addition to sati, the other term used most frequently in the early sutras is bhavana, meaning, “to be, become; cultivate, develop, increase; to produce; to practice.” Bhavana is a broad term that according to Alan Sponberg, in TOCM, “can refer to any form of spiritual cultivation or practice.” However, as Walpola Rahula, in What the Buddha Taught, points out, “The word meditation is a very poor substitute for the original term bhavana, which . . .  properly speaking, is mental culture in the full sense of the term.”

Here are several other terms frequently used in discussions on Buddhist meditation:

Samatha-vipassana – “concentration and insight”, these are actually two separate forms of meditation, which were rarely practiced in tandem until the Chinese T’ien-t’ai school. The Theravada school largely contends that samatha is dispensable. Samatha means “calming” or “tranquility,” while vipassana is “insight” or “clear-seeing.” In Chinese, samatha-vipassana is rendered as chih-kuan, which T’ien-t’ai founder Chih-i described as “stopping and seeing.” In Japanese, it is shikan.

Samadhi – a term commonly translated as “meditation.” Sponberg, says, “With the etymological sense of ‘bringing or putting together,’ this term most often refers to a state of mental concentration, usually the result of some particular technique or practice.”

Dhyana – a Sanskrit term that corresponds to the Pali jhana, “to think closely [upon an object].” Dhyana is also frequently used to mean “meditation,” and in Chinese it is translated as ch’an, and in Japanese, zen.

Basic Zen meditation (Jp. zazen) commonly begins with the practice mindfulness of breath (more about Zen in the next post). Modern vipassana or “insight meditation” is “based on the traditional practice of mindfulness (P. sati) as taught in the Mahasatipatthana Sutta” (Gregory). The Satipatthana Sutta and the Mahasatipatthana Sutta explain how to practice mindfulness using points other than the breath as objects of meditation (the body, sensations, the mind, etc.)

Of the original 13 schools of Buddhism, Theravada is the only one alive today. I could be wrong but I believe that the first non-sutra meditation instructions in this tradition were those produced in the 4th or 5th Century by Buddhaghosa, who wrote Visuddhimagga or “The Path of Purification” which is not only a comprehensive meditation manual but also an in-depth treatise on the whole of Theravada doctrine.

Anagarika Dharmapala

Over the centuries, meditation became a lost art in the Theravada countries of Southeast Asia. As I recall the story told by Rick Fields in his book, How The Swans Came To The Lake, in the late 1800’s, the Sri Lankan born bhikkhu Anagarika Dharmapala (David Hewavitarne) traveled throughout India, Sri Lanka, and Burma and he could not find one Buddhist who could teach him how to practice meditation. Eventually, he had to rely on the Visuddhimagga and a 17th or 18th century meditation manual translated into English as Manual of a Mystic in 1906 by F.L. Woodward.

The revival of meditation in the Theravada tradition didn’t get started until the latter half of the last century, through the efforts of Mahasi Sayadaw and S. N. Goenka in Burma, along with their Western followers, and this is more or less the Insight Meditation (Vipassana) movement of today.

The tradition of meditation has remained strong in the Mahayana countries of China, Tibet, Korea, and Japan, and that will be the focus of the next post. I should probably remind readers that in the history of Buddhist meditation, until recent years, it was primarily the ordained members of the Sangha who practiced and not the lay members, due to social, economic, and educational reasons.

As the title states this is just a brief overview. I am more than willing to stand corrected on anything I’ve written, however I think what I’ve shared here is largely accurate. And I hope there are some people who will find it helpful.

I’m going to add a page with some simple instructions on Mindfulness meditation. So, those of you who would interested in that, please check back.

*Abanindranath Tagore (1871-1951), nephew of Rabindranath Tagore. This painting was used as the frontispiece to ‘Myths of the Hindus and Buddhists’ by Sister Nivedita and Ananda Coomaraswamy, 1st edition, 1913


Silence is Golden, But My Eyes’ Still See

Silence is Golden

Vacchagotta was a wandering ascetic who one day put a series of questions to the Buddha inquiring if the world is eternal or not, if the universe is infinite or not, is the self identical with the body or not, if the Buddha exists after death, and so on. The Buddha’s answer to these questions was silence.

On another occasion, a large group of followers sat by a lake on Vulture’s Peak waiting for the Buddha to give a dharma talk. When the Buddha arrived he pulled a white lotus flower from the water and held it up and was silent for a very long time. It is said that only the disciple Kashyapa understood the message the Buddha was conveying.

The account of the Buddha’s Flower Talk is a pivotal story in the Ch’an/Zen traditions. Kashyapa is considered the first to receive the lamp of Dharma Transmission, the way in which dharma is passed from Zen masters to disciples. The Buddha’s silence here is regarded as pointing directly to the Dharma of the Mind – the mind that all dharmas depend upon, the mind that we cannot physically see, the mind that is Buddha, the mind that manifests all phenomena and permeates the universe.

Yet, pure silence transcends all that. Silence, like emptiness, is the ground of everything. Silence can be another word for emptiness. Before there is a sound, there is silence. Where there is no sound, there is only silence. Silence is the true nature of our mind. What thoughts does a baby have while in the womb? I suspect that even after the mind is formed, there is just silence. We come from silence and we eventually return to it.

The story of Vacchagotta’s questions and the Buddha’s refusal to be drawn into a thicket of views, speculation and dogma, was crucial for Nagarjuna. Understanding the Buddha’s silence in this context is perhaps the key to understanding Nagarjuna’s own doctrine. As I quoted him recently, he maintained, “Silence is the ultimate truth for the wise.”

But my eyes still see

There is another truth we must contend with: the relative truth of the everyday world. And in that world, the persecution of the Rohingya Muslim minority community in Burma continues. This has engendered criticism directed at Aung Suu San Kyi for her silence on this issue, and the Dalai Lama as well. Not to mention criticism of the Burmese Buddhists for their part in attacks on the Rohingya. And I’ve seen this on many secular blogs like the Huffington Post, the Nation, and Voice of America and many news services. However, the Buddhist community seems strangely silent.

As of this writing, the only bloggers I know of who have even mentioned the current situation in Burma are myself and Arun at Angry Asian Buddhist. I don’t subscribe to every Buddhist blog or even know of every one, but I am aware of quite a few. I don’t mean to pass judgment on anyone. I know that some bloggers prefer to write about the more personal aspects of Buddhism, and I respect and admire their more intimate approach. At the same time, there are others who often blog about social issues and ethics, and some who consider themselves social activists as well as Buddhist.

It’s not up to me to decide what others should blog about, but one would expect that a few Buddhists would find the situation in Burma disturbing enough to say something about it. I would also think that some of higher profile Buddhists would want to use the platform they have to say something also.

Some might contend that it’s not our business to tell Buddhists in another country what to do. But when I hear of attacks and killings and the torching of homes perpetrated by Buddhists, or what Hanna Hindstrom reports at The Independent, “In recent days, [Buddhist] monks have emerged in a leading role to enforce denial of humanitarian assistance to Muslims,” then I say, it’s everyone’s business. Amnesty International is making it their business, and a U.N. human rights envoy is, too. Do we believe in interconnectedness or not? In this case, silence to that question is not an ultimate truth, or wise. No one had a problem cheering the Burmese Buddhists on when they faced down the military junta, so why the silence now?

I apologize for going off on what may seem like a rant on the subject of speaking out, yet again. But if nothing else I feel it is a discussion worth having, and you never know, if enough voices were raised it might influence the monks in Burma to disengage themselves from the attacks on this Muslim minority, who apparently have no place in this world. It is article of my faith as a Buddhist to believe that the Buddha would say we cannot turn our eyes away and abide in silence like this.

Oh, don’t it hurt deep inside . . .
Oh, don’t it pain to see someone cry . . .
Talkin’ is cheap, people follow like sheep
Even tho’ there is nowhere to go

Silence is golden
But my eyes’ still see
Silence is golden, golden
But my eyes still see

But my eyes still see
But my eyes still see

– The Tremeloes


Buddhism and Violence

I don’t have any problem admitting that we in the West have a rather romantic view of Buddha-dharma, especially when it comes to the image of Buddhism epitomizing pacifism. I also don’t think that having a romantic view is necessarily a bad thing, as long as it is grounded in hard, cold reality, nor do I think the conception of Buddhism as a pacifist philosophy is incorrect.

Japanese warrior helmet from Edo period with “sacred title” of the Lotus Sutra headpiece.

Many times, I have heard it said that there has never been a Buddhist war, or a Buddhist crusade. This is true as far as large-scale conflicts are concerned, however, it is also true that Buddhism has had its violent periods. Buddhism in Japan has a particularly violent history. Almost all of the Japanese Buddhist sects (and their sub-sects) during the Medieval Era maintained standing armies. Warrior-priests were called sohei. In my last post I talked about the Tendai “marathon monks.” At one point, Enryaku-ji, the Tendai headquarters, was split into two factions: the Mountain Branch (Sanmonha) and the Temple Branch (Jimonha). One day the Temple Branch decided to visit their brothers up the mountain, and when the two groups were finished with their exchange of greetings, some 4000 Tendai priests lay dead. Think about it: that’s more than were killed on 9/11, and the slaughter was accomplished using primate weapons such as swords and spears, in a single afternoon.

While it seems to be less well-documented (historically speaking), Buddhism in China has its violent past, as well. The warrior-monks of Shaolin Temple are well known, and they wouldn’t have been fighters if there hadn’t been some fighting to do. And there is an entire genre of Chinese fiction called wuxia that dates back 1700 years and is still popular today, concerning the martial exploits of warriors who were often Buddhist or Taoist, involved in adventures which had Buddhist/Taoist philosophy woven into the narrative.

Suppression of racial minorities is not unknown in the Buddhist world either. The often “un-Buddhist” like treatment of the Sri Lankan Tamil people by the Theravadin majority resulted in a long civil war that officially ended in 2009, however tensions between the two groups still persist.

Now we have reports of the Buddhist oppression of the Rohingya Muslim community in Burma. This is not a new situation. The Rohingyas have been persecuted in Burma since the end of World War II. I wrote a post about it on June 11 called Sectarian Violence in Burma. Unfortunately, something happened to this post and half of it is missing, including some historical information I provided. The copy I normally keep on my hard drive is missing, too.

In any event, the causes for the current turmoil in Burma are not clear. I have yet to see anything in print that provides an explanation of just what the Rohingya have done to warrant this repression, other than that they are considered illegal immigrants. Naturally, I can’t conceive of anything that would justify the violence committed against them. And while the headlines you see on the Internet play up the Buddhist angle, it is the Burmese military government that is the main oppressor here, and perhaps have been inciting the Buddhist involvement.

Already, some people have taken this as an opportunity to poke holes in Buddhism’s pacifist image. But the holes were already there if you took time to see them. What is always “true” Buddhism to me is that which is true to the spirit of the historical Buddha. Over the centuries, we have drifted far afield from that spirit. For instance, the Buddha discouraged his followers from revering his image. That didn’t last very long. Sometimes this drift has resulted in an positive evolution of Buddha-dharma, and other times it has just been the layering-on of nonsense.

As far as I am concerned, Buddhism is a philosophy of ahimsa, “to do no harm,” which is reflected in the many texts in the Pali Canon that deal specifically with the subject of non-violence, although term ahimsa may not be actually used.

There is an undeniable set of facts, as Buddhist historian Robert Thurman told the New York Times,

There is a Buddhist theory of war, of self-defense, and there is also a kind of theory of surgical violence. The optimal ideal thing is non-violence. But sometimes you have to do a little violence to prevent a larger violence. The Buddhist have thought about this as they are not simplistic.”

While at the same time, another historian, Huston Smith, reminds us that,

[Actually] Buddhism has, I think, probably the best social record of any of the great religions . . . [looking] at the whole history, we see relatively few instances where Buddhist teachings were used to justify violent action. There are exceptions, but overall not many.”

And we have these words, reportedly spoken by the Buddha:

“Violence breeds misery; look at people quarreling. I will relate the emotion agitating me. Having seen people struggling and contending with each other like fish in a small amount of water, fear entered me. The world is everywhere insecure, every direction is in turmoil; desiring an abode for myself I did not find one uninhabited. When I saw contention as the sole outcome, aversion increased in me; but then I saw an arrow here, difficult to see, set in the heart. Pierced by it, one runs in every direction, but having pulled it out one does not run nor does one sink.”

Sutta Nipata IV.15*

Because human beings have a mind and not ruled completely by instinct, I don’t accept the proposition that the world must forever be sunk in violence. We choose violence, in myriad ways. We can choose a world without it. And I believe that Buddhism is an excellent vehicle to help accomplish that goal. Maybe I’m just a romantic dreamer. That’s all right. I choose it.

*From The Discourse Collection: Selected Texts from the Sutta Nipata (WH 82), translated by John D. Ireland (Kandy: Buddhist Publication Society, 1983).

Helmet photo adapted from tokyo-samurai-armor.com