A Brazen Buddha Melts. . .

People today want meditation without magic, mysticism, or religion.  It’s like some folks are attracted to Buddhism that doesn’t seem like Buddhism and/or they are completely turned-off by anything Religulous.  Maybe they just want to meditate.  But if you are doing any form of mindfulness, you are kinda practicing the Buddha’s teachings.  Personally, I feel that what people are looking for can be found within the context of Buddhism.  You don’t have to go “secular” or divorce yourself from the teachings.  I mean, unless, you really, really want to…

Way back I wrote about a small Chinese Buddhist school that had existed for about two hundred and seventy years when they were discovered during the 19th century.  I don’t think they’re still around.  Joseph Edkins described them in Chinese Buddhism (1893):

They are a kind of reformed Buddhists…  The name of the sect is Wu-wei-kiau, which, translated literally, means the “Do-nothing sect.”  The idea intended by it is, that religion consists, not in ceremonies and outward show, but in stillness, in a quiet, meditative life, and in an inward reverence for the all-pervading Buddha.  Buddha is believed in, but he is not worshipped.  There are temples, if they may be so called, but they are plain structures, destitute of images, and having in them only the common Chinese tablet to heaven, earth, king, parents, and teacher, as an object of reverence.

The use of wu-wei in the name refers to the Taoist/Buddhist term for “non-action,” meaning to take action in a more natural way without struggle or excessive effort.

The approach of the Wu-wei-kiau seems like a secular, modern one to me, like they were thinking outside the box.  They felt empowered to interpret Buddha-dharma their own way and yet they remained wayfarers on the Buddha path.  The Wu-wei-kiau didn’t throw the baby out with the bath water.

No one has to bow, wear robes, take vows, have an Asian name, sit in the traditional Asian posture, or believe in karma or rebirth.  At the same time, you don’t want to dismiss all that with a closed mind or eschew other aspects of Buddhism, particularly the teachings that don’t rely on abstract metaphysics.

I can’t help but feel that those who take a purely secular or clinical approach, such as mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) and mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), deprive themselves of considerable mind-nourishment.

In the Mo Ho Chih Kuan (“Great Stopping and Seeing”), meditation master Chih-i wrote,

If people rely exclusively on [meditation, or on only one teaching or practice] to attain understanding, then what was the reason for the Buddha to offer such a variety of teachings?  The heavens are not always clear; a doctor does not rely exclusively on powdered medicine; one does not always eat rice.

Anyway.  Here is a story Edkins relates in his book, about a time when some “foreign priests” came to visit Lo-tsu, the founder of the “Do-Nothing Sect.”  It might give us some more insight into the matter:

The foreign priest then asked him why he did not chant books of prayers.  He answered, “That the great doctrine is spontaneous, man’s nature is the same with heaven.  The true unwritten book is always rotating.  All heaven and earth are repeating words of truth.  The true book is not outside of man’s self. But the deceived are ignorant of this, and they therefore chant books of prayers.  The law that is invisible manifests itself spontaneously, and needs no book.  The flowing of water, the rushing of the winds, constitute a great chant.  Why, then, recite prayers from books?”

The founder of the Wu-wei religion was again asked why he did not worship images of Buddha.  He answered,

“A brazen Buddha melts, and a wooden Buddha burns, when exposed to the fire.  An earthen Buddha cannot save itself from water. It cannot save itself; then how can it save me?  In every particle of dust there is a kingdom ruled by Buddha.  In every temple the king of the law resides.  The mountains, the rivers, and the great earth form Buddha’s image. Why, then, carve or mould an image?”

. . . again he is asked why he does not burn incense?  He replies, “That ignorant men do not know that everyone has incense in himself. What is true incense?  It is self-government, wisdom, patience, mercy, freedom from doubts, and knowledge.  The pure doctrine of the Wu-wei is true incense, pervading all heaven and earth.  Incense is everywhere ascending.  That incense which is made by man, the smoke of fragrant woods, does not reach heaven.  The winds, clouds, and dew are true incense, always shedding itself forth through the successive seasons of the year.”

He was asked once more, “Why do you not light candles?”  He answered, “That the world is a candlestick.  Water is the oil.  The sky is an encircling shade.  The sun and moon are the flame lighting up the universe.  If there is light within me, it illumines all heaven and earth.  If my own nature be always bright, heaven will never become dark.  It will then be perceived that the king of the law is limitless.

That’s what I’m talking about…

I hate wearing robes and bowing but I like to chant.  I don’t worship Buddha images but I like having them around.  I don’t mind lighting candles and I enjoy the smell of incense, but I don’t think they are absolutely necessary.  I don’t consider myself reformed or particularly secular, just a Buddhist.

Share

Against the Stream, in a Leaky Raft

“My dharma is against the stream.”

– A real Buddha quote (I think)

I’m not a regular reader of the National Catholic Review, but I happened to notice they recently reviewed The Scientific Buddha by Daniel S. Lopez, Jr. The book has been out for almost a year now, so I don’t know why NCR is just now getting around to it, except that Buddhism is probably not a high priority for them, and then the title of the review is “Are Buddhism and science incompatible?” which is currently a hot topic.

The reviewer, Paul Knitter, the Paul Tillich Professor of Theology, World Religions and Culture at Union Theological Seminary, New York City, writes,

Who is this scientific Buddha who, in Lopez’s view, is threatening, “bleaching,” “domesticating” the message of the original Buddha? It’s the Buddha “discovered” by critical, Enlightenment Europeans who thought they found a religion without God, based only on experience and reason. Nowadays, it’s the Buddha who is presented as not only compatible with, but a harbinger of, the discoveries of quantum physics and even biological evolution. Most recently, it’s the Buddha whose teachings on the benefits of meditation are being confirmed by neurological research and by movements such as “mindfulness-based stress reduction.” Lopez will have none of this . . .

Now, I like Lopez. His The Heart Sutra Explained contributed greatly to my understanding of that text. But I wonder why he is spending his time on this rather fruitless debate, which is not really about Buddhism vs. science, but religion vs. secularism.

First, the Enlightenment Europeans did find a religion without God, at least without a concept of God, as we in the West understand it. I’m not too sure they thought Buddhism was based only on experience and reason, after all, they were not blind to the mythological and supernatural elements woven into the dharma. Nor am I convinced they wanted a completely secular spiritual philosophy, because many of them, just like many Western Buddhists today, were reluctant to let go of their belief in some sort of all-powerful super-enlightened being controlling the universe.

I think it’s great that scientific research is confirming the benefits of meditation, but on the other hand, I don’t think too many people become Buddhists so that they can prove it is compatible with quantum physics. No, I think the debate is really about whether or not Buddhism is a religion.

My feeling is that Buddhism is more than a mere religion. It was many years ago and I don’t remember who said it, but someone in a documentary (about Jack Kerouac, perhaps) gave about the best description of Buddhism I’ve heard yet. It went something like this, “Buddhism is a religion, a philosophy, a discipline, a yoga, a way of life – it embraces all these things and then goes beyond them.”

Buddhism is a path, a Way. It’s not easily defined, and I think it is unique.

There are folks who will argue that if you say Buddhism is not a religion, it’s akin to asserting some sort of Buddhist exceptionalism. That seems rather silly to me. Just because you say that something is unique or different doesn’t mean you are claiming it is superior. Thank goodness all religions are not the same. That would be boring.

Most of the religion vs. secularism debate centers around the two concepts of karma and rebirth. I’d be the first to say that they do require a leap of faith, and are both unprovable. However, I don’t think its necessary to throw them out. If you cannot understand these concepts literally, it’s possible to understand them differently, as Jung did, as archetypes, or as metaphors.

I’m in favor of minimizing the religious aspects, and the mythological elements, but I am less interested in secularism than I am in non-sectarianism. And that’s what bothers me about the Secular Buddhist movement. It’s essentially just creating another sect of Buddhism, and don’t we have enough already? We should spend more time building bridges instead of creating more dividing lines.

I’ve always liked the idea of “home-grown” Buddhism, the cultivation of neighborhood sanghas, small groups practicing together in their communities made up of Buddhists from different stripes, crossing over the sectarian divide to practice with one another where they live. I think this would go a long way toward dispelling ignorance about different forms of Buddhism and their histories, and would bring people together.

People often ask which sect or school of Buddhism I belong to, and I have different answers depending on my mood at the time. Sometimes I say, “All of them.” At other times, I will say, “None,” which is the more accurate response.

I have been interested in Buddhism since I was a teenager, but didn’t begin to seriously practice until thirty years ago. Since then, I have practiced with different groups, studied with various teachers, taken refuge in a number of traditions, received empowerments and precepts in several, have been ordained as a Buddhist minister by two organizations, and yet, for some years now, I have been on my own, a complete unknown, like a rolling stone. Hmm, that sounds familiar . . .

I don’t believe that you have to belong to a particular tradition or group in order to be a Buddhist. At the same time, I think that it’s a good idea to find ways to practice with others since it is very difficult to maintain a daily practice all on your own. I used to think that I was an anomaly. However, I think these days there are quite a few, who like myself, are unaffiliated and yet consider themselves Buddhist.

Now, of course, another reason why I am unaffiliated with any Buddhist sect or organization is because I also follow the teachings of Marx, and as the great guru Groucho once said, “I refuse to join any club that would have me as a member.”

GrouchoMarx

Share