Relying on the Dharma, Not the Person

Easter is a day I like watch an old movie about a pleasant eccentric named Elwood P. Dowd, who believes he is friends with a six-foot tall white rabbit named Harvey. For many people, however, Easter is a celebration of their belief that a sort of half-god, half-man named Jesus arose from the dead and miraculously ascended to a place called Heaven.

Elwood P. Dowd admiring a portrait of himself with friend Harvey
Elwood P. Dowd admiring a portrait of himself with friend Harvey

Regrettably for Mr. Dowd, Harvey is a Pooka, which according to the film, is based on “old Celtic mythology, a fairy spirit in animal form,” and therefore, a delusion. And  unfortunately for believers in Jesus, even if he left earth at the speed of light, he would still be in our galaxy some 2000 years later, as Joseph Campbell pointed out many years ago.

Interestingly, both stories are about spiritual awakening, or re-awakening, rebirth. After a cynical psychiatrist has some interaction with Dowd, he comes to believe in Harvey too, and experiences a “rebirth of wonder”, to borrow a phrase from Lawrence Ferlinghetti. The resurrection of Jesus is a metaphor for a similar, but more profound, spiritual rebirth, and yet, it is necessary for Christians to believe it literally because Jesus as God is the very crux of their faith.

Accounts of Jesus’ resurrection are found in the New Testament, which like the rest of the Bible, was composed by many authors over the course of centuries. Some years ago, a number of New Testament scholars formed the Jesus Seminar to analyze the historicity of the deeds and sayings of Jesus. They concluded that only about 16% of the events attributed to Jesus were credible. I believe they reached a similar consensus about the words of Jesus.

For Christians, such conclusions can be devastating, especially if the resurrection is judged as not a credible historical event, for there really is no Christianity without this miraculous rebirth.

Were a comparable seminar formed to examine the Buddhist ‘scriptures’ and  much of it was found historically implausible, which I think would be likely, it would not be devastating at all for Buddhists. Buddhist understanding need not be based on a literal interpretation of the sutras. Even if it were proved that the Buddha had never lived, as the Buddhist scholar, Edward Conze (1904-1979) said, it “is, in any case, a matter of little importance to Buddhist faith.” Now, Conze was a Westerner, and some might argue that this perspective then is a case of injecting a foreign and modernist mind-set into the matter.

I don’t believe that is necessarily the case. While it is in this modern age that we begun to earnestly throw off the cloak of superstition covering our conceptions, a point of view like Conze’s is supported by the ancient Buddhist principle of ‘relying on the dharma, not the person.’

In the Catuhpratisarana Sutra, the Buddha is said to have given instructions on the “Four Reliances”:

Rely on the Dhamma, not the person; rely on the meaning, not the words; rely on the essential meaning, not the provisional meaning; rely on wisdom, not intellectual knowledge.”

Whether or not the Buddha actually taught “rely on the dharma, not the person,” is unimportant. The point is that it’s not some modernist idea but a time-honored Buddhist tradition, albeit one that has often been ignored or forgotten.

But, if it means having a realistic point of view, then I think the modernist approach is preferable to literalism. Modernism takes nothing away from the dharma; rather, it casts it in an even more profound light. And it seems foolish to reject the very real probability that the sayings of the Buddha and the events of his life were largely the product of embellishment through incremental repetitions, assimilation of stories and traditions outside of Buddhism, and that even the formation of the sacred Vinaya was based on legends and mythological incidents.

There is a danger in literalism. It gives rise to confusion, intolerance, sectarianism, and fundamentalism. The other extreme of using science and empiricism exclusively to determine what is reasonable and true is equally treacherous.

Rita Gross, in a Tricycle article from 2012, “The Truth About Truth,” wrote,

There are times and places in which stories about miracles and magic make sense to people and appeal to their deepest sensibilities. But we do not live in such a time and place, so trying to force us to take these stories as factual accounts simply makes it harder for us to take seriously the profound teachings of Buddhism or any other religious tradition.”

Buddha performing the miracle of levitation.
Buddha performing the miracle of levitation.

If we rely on the dharma and not the person, then it is perfectly all right for stories about miracles performed by the Buddha to be just that, stories, or legends, myths. If we do not take the sutras literally, then all the supernatural elements can take their rightful place as religious metaphors to support the truth found within what is most important, the dharma.

This Dhamma that I have attained is profound, hard to see and hard to understand, peaceful and sublime, unattainable by mere reasoning, subtle, to be experienced by the wise.”

Ariyapariyesana Sutta


5 thoughts on “Relying on the Dharma, Not the Person

  1. “There is a danger in literalism. It gives rise to confusion, intolerance, sectarianism, and fundamentalism. The other extreme of using science and empiricism exclusively to determine what is reasonable and true is equally treacherous.”


    I like to think that the Buddhist Sutras and the Christian Bible are equally truthful — that is, that the people reciting the stories and eventually writing them down believed in what they were saying and had good intentions. That’s enough truth for me.

  2. My favorite Elwood P. Dowd quote:

    “Years ago my mother used to say to me, she’d say, “In this world, Elwood, you must be” – she always called me Elwood – “In this world, Elwood, you must be oh so smart or oh so pleasant.” Well, for years I was smart. I recommend pleasant. You may quote me.”


  3. Love this, David. I watched this very film not 2 weeks ago when feeling at a low ebb – it always helps me feel better. The retention of wonder is most important – I think the jaded know-it-all stance of secular sciencism is a couldron of arrogance.

    1. That’s great, Steve. I am so glad to hear that this movie, some 60 years old now, still has the power to inspire in its subtle and entertaining way. I had the chance to watch it for the umpteenth time a month or so ago, and passed, thinking it would be on today, but alas it is not.

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