Debating the Dharma: “You should shut your mouth.”

You probably watched the presidential debate the other night, and perhaps as I was, you found the mudslinging disgusting.  The less said about it the better.  But since we are on the subject of debates, here is an interesting Buddhist side bar.

tibetan-dharma-debatingIn the anthology Buddhism in Practice, George J. Tanabe, Jr. presents a transcript of a debate that took place in Japan in 1536 between a Tendai priest and a Nichiren layman.  Dharma debates (or dharma ‘combat’) are a tradition in some forms of Buddhism.  You might be familiar with the Tibetan style of dharma debating (left), which seems rather spirited as each debater punctuates his or her points with a slap of the hand.  In Japanese Buddhism, debates are called issatsu (“challenge”).

Now the Kamakura period of Japanese Buddhism (1185-1333 CE) was a particularly contentious time.  Many of the sects were set against each other, calling one another heretics, and so on.  Then there was Nichiren who said that all of Buddhism was in serious decline, a real mess that only he could fix.  Nichiren insulted everyone, including the government, and blamed others for his own misfortunes.  Tanabe says, “Persecution was an important part of Nichiren’s own mentality and religion . . .”

A former Tendai priest, Nichiren accused the Tendai sect of corruption and “losing sight of the principles laid down by their own [school] concerning which teachings are to be adopted and which discarded . . . It is a shameful, shameful thing they are doing!”  (The Tripitaka Master Shan-wu-wei )

In a nutshell, according to Nichiren, everyone who was not listening to him and practicing Buddhism his way, the way of the Lotus Sutra, would “invariably fall into the great citadel of the Avichi hell”.  (Essence of the Medicine King Chapter)

I can just imagine Nichiren with a Twitter account . . .

One day a Nichiren lay believer named Matsumoto was in Kyoto and saw a Tendai priest giving a dharma talk.  He interrupted the Priest Keo and proceeded to engage him in a debate.  From our modern view their arguments seem ridiculous, as both men were seeped in a mythological understanding of Buddhism.  Much of the debate revolved around who is the best Buddha, Shakyamuni or Great Sun Buddha (Dainichi), and it got acrimonious a couple of times:

KeoThe Great Sun Buddha is the buddha of transcendent truth and is therefore not something for the ordinary person to know.  You should shut your mouth.
Matsumoto: No, I will not shut my mouth just for that . . .
Matsumoto:  Well, now, [the Shingon school] speaks of becoming a buddha, but there is no such thing.  You should shut your mouth.  Or perhaps Your Eminence knows of people in this degenerate age who have becomes buddhas?
Keo:  What a man of capricious words . . .
Keo:  Nichiren’s belief was such that he slandered Amida Buddha and said that the Pure Land sect was the teaching of the hell of unending suffering.  He is really a criminal guilty of making light of the buddhas.

Alas, no one watching the debate could chant “Lock him up!” because Nichiren had been dead for 254 years by then.

The Matsumoto debate was actually rather mild, but it set in motion a round of strong, violent action.

“Angered by Matsumoto’s rudeness and chagrined by his apparent victory, the Tendai monks sought revenge.” * Rival factions within Tendai joined forces to attack the Nichirenites.  “Somewhere between 30,000 to 150,000 warrior monks were amassed on the Tendai side, while the Nichiren temples had a estimated 20,000 troops.”** They fought a battle that went on for five days.  In the end, the Tendai troops destroyed 21 Nichiren temples and burned the southern district of Kyoto to the ground.

Although it was the Tendai side that initiated the violence, it was the Nichiren folks who were condemned for it, and I suppose that I will get some comments complaining how I seem to pick on poor Nichiren, that I don’t understand his teachings, and I should shut my mouth.  But I think I understand his teachings well enough, and I take an objective view of them, from the perspective of modern scholarship not ancient mythology or cult propaganda.  I’m sorry but I can’t help but see Nichiren as a kind of medieval Trump.  However, demagoguery is a subject for another day.

In the meantime, don’t harbor doubts about anything you read on this blog.  I know more about dharma than the monks.  Nichiren was the founder of Isis.  The Dalai Lama was not born in the U.S.  I want to make Buddhism great again . . .

– – – – – – – – – –

* Donald S. Lopez Jr., The “Lotus Sutra”: A Biography, Princeton University Press, 2016

** “The Matsumoto Debate” George J. Tanabe, Jr., Buddhism in Practice, Donald S. Lopez, Jr., ed., Princeton University Press, 1995

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The Dharma of Transformation

Last week, on Wednesday August 10, in Thiksey Ladakh India, Tenzin Gyatsu, the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet, gave teachings on “A Commentary on the Awakening Mind” (Bodhichittavivarana) by Nagarjuna and Atisha ‘s “A Lamp for the Path to Enlightenment” (Bodhipathapradipa).

At this session, the Dalai Lama made a some comments I thought were shareworthy.  They concern the term ‘dharma.’

dharma-chinese2b[Image: Chinese character for dharma, fa]

Dharma is a key Buddhist term layered with multiple meanings.  The original Indian definition referred to ‘duty’, and ‘law.’  In Buddhism, we often see dharma translated as ‘law,’ meaning a natural order or ultimate principle of the universe.  The Dictionary of Chinese Buddhist Terms by Soothill and Hodous provides more definitions: “(1) thing, object, appearance; (2) characteristic, attribute, predicate; (3) the substantial bearer of the substratum of the simple element of conscious life; (4) element of conscious life; (5) nirvana, i.e. dharma par excellence; (6) the absolute, the truly real; (7) the teaching [of the] Buddha.”

Here is what the Dalai Lama said about dharma:

Since you’ve gathered here to listen to a Buddhist discourse, you should understand that the word ‘Dharma’ refers to making a spiritual transformation within ourselves by putting the teaching into practice . . .  You can’t expect to make such transformation just on the basis of wishes or prayers.  It will only come about by integrating the teaching within ourselves.  The source of our problems is our disturbing emotions.  Since we all want to be happy and avoid suffering we need to know what needs to be abandoned and what needs to be cultivated in order to fulfill these aspirations.  To bring about a transformation we need to apply the teaching within ourselves and in order to do that we need to listen and learn what’s involved . . .”

In this way, we can add another layer of meaning to the term and say that dharma is transformation.  Not merely arbitrary change, but rather change according to Buddha’s dharma, which is directed at the task of inner transformation.   The dharma that supports a revolution of body, mind and spirit, is not difficult to find.  Dharma is all around us, or as Hui-neng (638-713), the Sixth Patriarch of the Ch’an school, said,

The dharma is to be found in this world and not in another. To leave this world to search for the dharma is as futile as searching for a rabbit with horns.”

Read the article about the Dalai Lama’s teaching session, with more excerpts, on the Dalai Lama’s website here.

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Killer Country

“Some people call me an idiot, but I know who I am. I am The Killer.”
– Jerry Lee Lewis

Last weekend I watched all six episodes of The Jinx, HBO’s documentary on millionaire real estate heir Robert Durst. No doubt, you’ve heard about this guy in recent days. He is a suspect in the 1982 disappearance of his wife, Kathleen; in 2003, he was acquitted of murder charges in Texas, despite that he admitted dismembering the victim; and Saturday in New Orleans he was arrested in connection with the 2000 execution-style murder of his friend Susan Berman here in Los Angeles. It’s an engrossing story, and in a warped sort of way, Durst is a highly interesting person.

What is it about killers that fascinates us so? Macbeth, Jack the Ripper, Lizzie Borden, Charles Manson, Hannibal Lecter, and my all-time favorite, Dexter Morgan – fictional or real, we love ‘em. Can’t get enough of their stories. Perhaps it is because they commit the foulest of all deeds, the taking of life. Whatever it may be, I am not going to try to analyze it here. Instead, I would like to recount for you briefly the story of the Buddha and a murderer named Angulimala.

The story of Angulimala (“finger garland,” or “necklace of fingers”) comes from the early sutras. Angulimala’s father was the Brahmin minister to the king of Kosala. The story goes that when Angulimala was born, a “constellation of thieves” appeared in the sky, prophesying he would become a robber.  And as it often happens in tales like this, the prophesy was fulfilled, in a manner of speaking.

Angulimala was sent to study in Taxila, in present day Pakistan, where one of the earliest universities in the world existed. He became the student of a Brahmin teacher and he excelled at his studies. Other students resented Angulimala’s brilliance and they made up stories that caused the teacher to believe Angulimala was evil. The teacher demanded that Angulimala provide him with a gift before he would be allowed to “graduate.” The gift the teacher requested was 1,000 fingers, each taken from a different victim. The teacher figured that that Angulimala would get himself killed during the course of collecting the fingers and thus he would be rid of this evil student.

Evidently, Angulimala had no problem accepting this grisly assignment. He became a highwayman, hiding in the forest and robbing travelers of their fingers. Unfortunately, the travelers died as a result of these holdups.

The people in the area asked the king of Kosala to capture Angulimala. Angulimala’s mother went out to find him and warn him that the king had vowed to hunt him down. The Buddha set out to find Angulimala, too. Buddha had divined that Angulimala had collected 999 fingers and needed only one more.

angulimala-buddhaWhen Angulimala saw the Buddha enter the forest, he rushed out to murder him and take his 1000th finger. He took out his sword, raised it and chased after the Buddha but could not catch him even though the Buddha was walking at a slow pace. Eventually, Angulimala became wore out and shouted for the Buddha to stop. Buddha turned and calmly said, “Angulimala, I have stopped for all time, forsaking violence; but you have not stopped, you have no restraint towards living beings; that is why I have stopped and you have not.” So moved was Angulimala by the words the Buddha spoke to him that he immediately renounced his murderous ways and became a bhikkhu.

The story is about the transformative power of compassion as well as the redemptive power of the Buddha’s teachings. Transformation is always possible. Any person, regardless of how many negative acts they have committed, can change and live a more positive life. Compassion is more powerful than punishment. Angulimala could have been captured, imprisoned or executed. Instead, he changed and thus was able to benefit far more beings than those he previously harmed. If you accept the doctrine of karma, there is also the notion that he was able to change his karma and improve his circumstance in future lives, so he would not come back to kill again.

Most importantly, we should always remember that every life matters. There is an old Buddhist saying that even a murderer loves his mother, meaning that every person, no matter how wretched and depraved, has some good in him or her somewhere. Even Charles Manson is entitled to the basic dignity of life.

It’s a safe bet that most people who know Robert Durst or know about him believe he is guilty of at least three murders. Whether he is or not, it doesn’t alter the fact that even Robert Durst has a Buddha-nature.

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Protection

Discussing Buddhist conversion from a historical perspective in his book Unmasking Buddhism, renowned Buddhist scholar Bernard Faure writes,

It was not the expectation of Awakening that convinced Chinese, Tibetan, and Japanese leaders to convert to Buddhism but rather the protection that Buddhism appeared to offer them against evils of all kinds, both individual and collective (epidemics, invasions, etc.).”

This was also true of the common folk who took refuge in the Buddha’s dharma. Protection of both the state and the individual was a major appeal for Buddhism in earlier times, perhaps still today. Dhammo have rakkhati dhammacarim – “the dharma protects those who follow the dharma” is supposed to be a saying of the Buddha. The idea is that those who follow dharma cultivate goodness and this goodness will provide inner and outer protection, or from their practice of dharma they may receive protection from mystic forces.

The fears we must grapple with today are not different from the fears people have faced throughout history. A quick review of the news reveals what? Jihad, the Ebola epidemic, and something new but which has been long in the making: deadly climate change. It would be nice to think that if everyone just became good, it would all turn around and we’d be safe. Or that merely by practicing meditation or chanting a mantra we could invoke the protection from those mystic forces. You don’t need me to tell you that it doesn’t work like that.

Goodness manifests through thoughts, words, and deeds, but stems from feeling. I don’t mean emotion so much as I mean a sort of pervading awareness, a deep-seated state of consciousness that permeates our entire being. A good person feels goodness. Meditation and mantra are tools for developing a total feeling of goodness.

Meditation, ethics, and wisdom are three components of the Eightfold Path, which in turn is one of the four Noble Truths taught by the Buddha. Wisdom is known through meditation, calming and observing the mind, and is then displayed through ethical living rooted in compassion. My feeling is that the Buddha believed that whenever a crisis arose or a threat appeared, a person who had cultivated tranquility and ethics was equipped with a presence of mind that would deliver him or her to emotional, mental, and perhaps even physical safety.

Ultimately, the practical view of dharmic protection is that those who follow and most importantly practice the dharma are able to protect themselves from unwholesome thoughts, harmful speech, unwise actions, key factors in the spread of epidemics and war. Put another way, we protect ourselves from ourselves, and then because we have wisdom and compassion we know that we have to protect the human beings around us and our planet.

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The Cure

The Rajavavadaka Sutra speaks of “those four great terrors, which it is not easy to escape by speed or strength, or to turn aside by drugs or charms or spells.” This is a reference to the Four Sufferings: birth, old age, illness and death. These sufferings are unavoidable in the course of our lives.

Modern medical science can help us to cure the third suffering of illness, and drugs are often a part of the treatment. However, there is no medical treatment as important as our own natural power to recover from illness. Our immune system, for instance is made up of different types of cells and proteins that protect us from invasion by any bacteria or virus.

Buddhism teaches that both physical and mental illness arise from the poison of ignorance, of our own ignorance. The cure for ignorance is wisdom, which begins with being responsible for our own health.

We can say that there are two causes for illness, an external cause, such as exposure to bacteria or a virus, and an internal cause. We have to be responsible for the internal. To be responsible is tremendously empowering. It requires a certain amount of self-honesty, though. It means admitting to ourselves that ultimately we are the cause of most of our sufferings, but it also means we are the solution.

Many of us excel at avoiding responsibility. I’m pretty good at it myself. The question we continually need to ask is how do we know when we are avoiding responsibility? Ego and arrogance co-conspire to protect us from the harsh truth about our tendencies. However, since they arise, like ignorance, from within our mind, they can be defeated.

We may not always win out over a illness or a particular suffering, but we can always win out over ourselves. Dharma can be our medicine. It can protect us from invasion by the poison of ignorance, the bacteria of arrogance, the virus of ego. Just as medical science helps us increase our natural healing power, Buddha-dharma helps us to tap into our inherent power and develop our natural wisdom.

Enlightenment means taking full responsibility for your life.

– William Blake

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