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

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The Tao of St. Augustine

I don’t remember how, but some years ago a musty 1962 paperback edition of The Confessions of St. Augustine came into my possession. While I am not particularly interested in Christian thought, from time to time, I do like to see what these folks have been up to, and I began to read the first chapter. It was quite an experience. Seldom have I encountered writing that displayed such power over language, and despite that much of the phrasing is archaic, and notwithstanding my minimal interest, I found the masterful manner in which Augustine expressed his faith and described his God nearly mesmerizing:

Confessions, Pedro de Ribadeneyra, 1654

What art Thou then, my God? what, but the Lord God? For who is Lord but the Lord? or who is God save our God? Most highest, most good, most potent, most omnipotent; most merciful, yet most just; most hidden, yet most present; most beautiful, yet most strong, stable, yet incomprehensible; unchangeable, yet all-changing; never new, never old; all-renewing, and bringing age upon the proud, and they know it not; ever working, ever at rest; still gathering, yet nothing lacking; supporting, filling, and overspreading; creating, nourishing, and maturing; seeking, yet having all things. Thou lovest, without passion; art jealous, without anxiety; repentest, yet grieves not; art angry, yet serene; changest Thy works, Thy purpose unchanged; receivest again what Thou findest, yet didst never lose; never in need, yet rejoicing in gains; never covetous, yet exacting usury. Thou receivest over and above, that Thou mayest owe; and who hath aught that is not Thine? Thou payest debts, owing nothing; remittest debts, losing nothing. And what had I now said, my God, my life, my holy joy? or what saith any man when he speaks of Thee? Yet woe to him that speaketh not, since mute are even the most eloquent.” [1. Edward B. Pusey, trans., The Confessions of St. Augustine, Washington Square Press, Inc., 1962, Book I]

St. Augustine’s poetic prose is compelling, and after the first chapter, I had to read further. In this autobiographical work, St. Augustine tells the story of his humble beginnings on an Algerian farm, his time spent indulging in hedonism, astrology, and thievery, and his eventual embrace of Christianity. Confessions is a searing meditation on spiritual struggle, as Augustine passionately probes his own soul, recounting in unflinching detail his inner turmoil, the battle between doubt and belief:

Thus soul-sick was I, and tormented, accusing myself much more severely than my wont, rolling and turning me in my chain, till that were wholly broken, whereby I now was but just, but still was, held. And Thou, O Lord, pressedst upon me in my inward parts by a severe mercy, redoubling the lashes of fear and shame, lest I should again give way, and not bursting that same slight remaining tie, it should recover strength, and bind me the faster. For I said with myself, “Be it done now, be it done now.” [2. Pusey, Book VIII]

The earliest portrait of Saint Augustine in a 6th century fresco, Lateran, Rome.

I bring St. Augustine up today because he was born on November 13th in 354 CE.

There are lines in Confessions that remind me of Lao Tzu. When I read “still gathering, yet nothing lacking; supporting, filling, and overspreading; creating, nourishing, and maturing” from above, I thought of “The ten thousand things rise and fall without cease, creating, yet not working, yet not taking credit.” from Chapter Two of the Tao te ching. [3. Lao Tsu, Gia-Fu Feng, Tao te ching, Vintage Books, 1997]

I find more substantive parallels with Nagarjuna, perhaps Buddhism’s greatest philosopher. In his own way, Augustine argues in favor of a reality of interdependent existence, and, as Christopher Etter, in A Study of Qualitative Non-Pluralism, notes, “Like Nagarjuna, Augustine declares that when placing distinctive definitions on concepts we limit the understanding of the concept . . . However, unlike Nagarjuna, Augustine does not feel it is useless to use terminology, and makes qualitative distinctions on every aspect of his theological model.” [4. Christopher Etter, A Study of Qualitative Non-Pluralism, iUniverse, 2006]

There are also similarities with Shantideva, the Buddhist poet and philosopher from the 8th century:

I completely offer my entire self to the Jinas and their Children. O Supreme Beings, accept me! I reverently devote myself to your service. Being free from fear of mundane existence due to your protection, I shall serve sentient beings; I shall completely transcend my earlier vices, and henceforth I shall sin no more.”

Shantideva, A Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life [5. Vesna A. Wallace and B. Alan Wallace, A guide to the bodhisattva way of life (Bodhicaryavatara) by Santideva, Snow Lion Publications, 1997]

Hear, Lord, my prayer; let not my soul faint under Thy discipline, nor let me faint in confessing unto Thee all Thy mercies, whereby Thou hast drawn me out of all my most evil ways, that Thou mightest become a delight to me above all the allurements which I once pursued; that I may most entirely love Thee, and clasp Thy hand with all my affections, and Thou mayest yet rescue me from every temptation, even unto the end.”

St. Augustine, Confessions [6. Pusey, Book I]

Augustine would probably have been pessimistic about Buddhism or Taoism, if he knew about them. In City of God, he rejects the “blasphemous notion of cyclical returns” merely on the basis that once having endured “this life with all its great calamities,” he finds it impossible to believe that “this is to happen again and again, as it has happened before, endlessly,” [7. Henry Bettenson, trans., St Augustine, City of God, Penguin Classics, 1984] which seems a rather weak argument to me. That is not to say that there is any great compelling argument for the notion of a cycle of birth and death.

At the beginning of Confessions, Augustine says, “Thou madest us for Thyself,” and here is the crux of my disagreement with the Christian notion of faith in God (aside from the fact that there is no evidence to support his or her existence), for even if I did believe in a Supreme Being, I could never accept that he would create us purely for his own satisfaction, or that our only purpose in being is to love him. It is quite ridiculous for anyone to think for a moment that we can even begin to fathom a mind so vast that it could create the universe. But if we must try to conceive this mind, it is logical to assume that it would be utterly devoid of any ego, as well as the other attributes, such as anger and jealousy, that we assign. I imagine (and that’s all I or anyone else can do) that such a being would be completely adverse to the idea of worshiping him. I think God would say, “Don’t love me, love each other. Love this earth, take care of this beautiful place I have given you.” And frankly, the Christian world has spent so much time adulating God and taking care about their faith, that they’ve done a pretty poor job of taking care of each other or this planet. But then, the rest of us haven’t done much better.

In any case, St. Augustine is a writer and thinker that people should know, and appreciate, whether they share his faith or not.

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