The Chinese Mahayana Buddhist Canon

Most religions have a basic set of scriptures — a “Bible,” if you will —  considered authoritative by the entire religious tradition. But this is not true of Buddhism. There are three separate canons of Buddhist scripture that are considerably different from each other.

The Pali Canon or Pali Tipitika is the scriptural canon of Theravada Buddhism. Mahayana Buddhism has two canons, called the Tibetan Canon and the Chinese Canon. The Chinese Canon is the collection of texts considered authoritative by most schools of Mahayana Buddhism other than Tibetan. It’s called the “Chinese Canon” because most of the texts were preserved in Chinese. It is the chief scriptural canon of KoreanJapanese and Vietnamese Buddhism as well as Chinese Buddhism.

There is some overlap among these three major canons, but most Buddhist scriptures are only included in one or two of them, not all three. Even within the Chinese Canon a sutra venerated by one school of Mahayana may be ignored by others.

The schools of Mahayana that do more or less acknowledge the Chinese canon usually work with only part of it, not the whole thing. Unlike the Pali and Tibetan Canons, which have been formally adopted by their traditions, the Chinese Canon is only loosely canonical.

Very basically, the Chinese Mahayana Canon primarily consists of (but is not necessarily limited to)  several collections of Mahayana sutras, the Dharmaguptaka Vinaya, the Sarvastivada Abhidharma, the Agamas, and commentaries written by prominent teachers sometimes referred to as the “sastras” or “shastras.”.

Mahayana Sutras

The Mahayana sutras are a large number of scriptures mostly written between the 1st century BCE and the 5th century CE, although a few may have been written as late as the 7th century CE. Most are said to have originally been written in Sanskrit, but very often the original Sanskrit has been lost, and the oldest version we have today is a Chinese translation.

The Mahayana sutras are arguably the largest and most important part of the Chinese Canon. For more about the many sutras found in the Chinese Canon, please see “Chinese Mahayana Sutras: An Overview of Buddhist Sutras of the Chinese Canon.”

The Agamas

The Agamas might be thought of as an alternative Sutta-pitaka. The Pali Sutta-pitaka of the Pali Canon (Sutra-pitaka in Sanskrit) is the collection of the historical Buddha’s sermons that was memorized and chanted in the Pali language and finally written down in the 1st century BCE.

But while that was going on, elsewhere in Asia the sermons were being memorized and chanted in other languages, including Sanskrit. There probably were several Sanskrit chanting lineages, in fact. The Agamas are what we have of those, mostly pieced together from early Chinese translations.

Corresponding sermons from the Agamas and Pali Canon are often similar but never identical. Exactly which version is older or more accurate is a matter of opinion, although the Pali versions are far better known.

The Dharmaguptaka Vinaya

The Sutra-pitaka, Vinaya-pitaka and Abhidharma-pitaka together make up a collection called the Tripitaka, or Tipitaka in Pali. The Vinaya-pitaka contains the rules for the monastic orders established by the historical Buddha, and like the Sutra-pitaka it was was memorized and chanted. Today there are several existing versions of the Vinaya. One is the Pali Vinaya, followed in Theravada Buddhism. Two others are called the Mulasarvastivada Vinaya and the Dharmaguptaka Vinaya, after the early schools of Buddhism in which they were preserved.

Tibetan Buddhism generally follows the Mulasarvastivada and the rest of Mahayana generally follows the Dharmaguptaka. There may be exceptions, however, and sometimes the Mulasarvastivada Vinaya is considered part of the Chinese Canon also. Although the Dharmaguptaka has slightly fewer rules, overall the differences between the two Mahayana Vinayas are not radically significant.

The Sarvastivada Abhidharma

The Abhidharma is a large collection of texts that analyze the Buddha’s teachings. Although attributed to the Buddha, actual composition probably began a couple of centuries after his Parinirvana. Like the Sutra-pitaka and the Vinaya-pitaka, the Abhidharma texts were preserved in separate traditions, and at one time there probably were many different versions.

There are two surviving complete Abhidharmas, which are the Pali Abhidhamma, associated with Theravada Buddhism, and the Sarvastivada Abhidharma, which is associated with Mahayana Buddhism. Fragments of other Abhidharmas also are preserved in the Chinese Canon.

Strictly speaking, the Sarvastivada Abhidharma is not precisely a Mahayana text. The Sarvastivadins, who preserved this version, were an early school of Buddhism more closely aligned with Theravada than with Mahayana Buddhism. However, in some ways it represents a transitory point in Buddhist history in which Mahayana was taking shape.

The two versions are considerably different. Both Abhidharmas discuss the natural processes that connect mental and physical phenomena. Both works analyze phenomena by breaking them down into momentary events that cease to exist as soon as they occur. Beyond that, however, the two texts presents different understandings of the nature of time and matter.

Commentaries and Other Texts

There are vast numbers of commentaries and treatises written by Mahayana scholars and sages over the centuries that also are included in the Chinese Canon. Some of these are called “sastras” or “shastras,” which in this context designates a commentary on a sutra.

Other examples of commentaries would be texts such as Nagarjuna‘s Mulamadhyamakakarika, or “Fundamental Verses of the Middle Way,” which expounds Madhyamika philosophy. Another is Shantideva’s Bodhicaryavatara, “Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life.” There are many large collections of commentaries.

The list of what texts may be included is, shall we say, fluid. The few published editions of the canon are not identical; some have included non-Buddhist religious texts and folk tales.

This overview is barely an introduction. The Chinese Canon is a vast treasure of religious / philosophical literature.

Christian-Buddhist Tension in South Korea, Part 2

As explained in Part 1 of “Christian-Buddhist Tension in South Korea,” South Korea is the only nation in east Asia in which the largest religion is not Asian. The population of South Korea is about 29 percent Christian and 23 percent Buddhist. About 46 percent of South Koreans claim no specific religious affiliation.

As also explained in Part 1, the number of Christians in South Korea grew rapidly after World War II ended and Korea was divided.between North and South. In 1945, approximately 2 percent of Korea’s population was Christian. But by 1991, 25 percent of South Korea’s population was Christian.

Beginning in1980 many of the newly converted Christians began to burn and vandalize Buddhist temples and art. More than 20 temple buildings were destroyed by arson; crosses were smeared on temple wall paintings; Buddha statues were smashed or decapitated.

In the 1980s the government also began to oppress Buddhism. Under Chun Doo-hwan (b. 1931) who served as President of South Korea from 1980 to 1988, monasteries were sometimes raided and monks arrested on various charges, although none were ever convicted.

1990 to 2000

Burning and vandalism of Buddhist temples continued through the 1990s. Buddhists and other non-Christians serving in the military were sometimes ordered to attend Christian services by their commanders. Some public school teachers were found teaching Bible lessons. One told the class that Buddhist children were “followers of Satan” and restricted their class activities.

In 1995 young fundamentalist Christians began a campaign of aggressive proselytizing on the campus of Dongguk University in Seoul, a Buddhist school, handing out anti-Buddhist literature in front of the school’s main Buddha statue..

An investigative report in the Korea Herald published in July 1998 quoted a Buddhist dharma teacher named Lee Chi-ran: “For them [the Christians], this is a war, Much of the mainstream media is dominated by Christians, and coverage of anti-Buddhist incidents is rare. Many people don’t understand what’s going on.”

Lee Myung-bak

After 2000, for a time, the incidents of aggression against Buddhists and Buddhist institutions became less frequent, although the over-representation of Christians in government positions sometimes posed problems for Buddhists.

The election of Lee Myung-bak as President of South Korea in 2008 began a new round of tension, however. Lee, a Presbyterian, had raised alarms as Mayor of Seoul when he said he would “consecrate” his city to God. Then, as President, he chose an almost all-Christian cabinet — out of 16 cabinet seats, there were 12 Christians and one Buddhist.

Shortly after that, the Ministry of Land, Transport and Maritime Affairs published a map of Seoul on its website that omitted all Buddhist temples and shrines but gave the location of every Christian church. Then police stopped and searched the car of the head of the Jogye of Soen (Zen) Buddhism, looking for members of a faction protesting the importing of beef.

About this same time, videos began to circulate showing a Protestant minister leading his congregation in shouts calling for the collapse of Buddhist temples, and another in which a prominent Protestant minister said “Buddhist monks are wasting their time. They should convert to Jesus. Is there any Buddhist country in the world that is rich?”

In August 2008 an estimated 60,000 people, including about 7000 monks, rallied in front of the Seoul city hall to protest religious discrimination. Tensions subsided, to a point, when several high-level officials who had been accused of religious favoritism to Christians visited Buddhist temples to apologize.
More recently, people of South Korea generally — not just Buddhists — appear to be growing weary of the antics of the aggressive Christian proselytizers.

See “Buddhism in Korea” for a history of Buddhism before the end of World War II.

Christian-Buddhist Tension in South Korea, Part I

Buddhism has been practiced on the Korean peninsula for more than 16 centuries (see “Buddhism in Korea“). It survived long centuries of repression under a Confucian dynasty and also challenges to monastic rules during the Japanese occupation in the 20th century. But in recent decades it has faced its biggest challenge yet — militant Christianity.

South Korea is the only east Asian nation in which a “western” religion, Christianity, outnumbers the largest Asian religion, which is Buddhism. According to the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs at Georgetown University, the population of South Korea is abut 29 percent Christian and 23 percent Buddhist. Most of the remaining South Koreans claim no particular religious affiliation.

Christianity in Korea: Background

Catholicism was introduced in Korea in the early 17th century but was subjected to waves of persecution — as was Buddhism — by the Confucian Joseon Dynasty. But in the late 19th century Korea began to open itself to the outside world, and religious pluralism in Korea was better tolerated. The first Protestant missionary, a Presbyterian, arrived in 1884.

By the end of the Japanese occupation in 1945, approximately 2 percent of Korea’s population was Christian. But by 1991, 25 percent of South Korea’s population was Christian. The reasons for this are complex, but ties forged between South Korea and the United States during the Korean War appear to have been a major factor.  Among other things, Christian chaplains somehow monopolized the South Korean military chaplaincy and converted many soldiers, especially young draftees.

Christian Oppression of Buddhism, 1980-1900

Chun Doo-hwan (b. 1931) was a military general and Christian who served as President of South Korea from 1980 to 1988. As President, he adopted anti-Buddhist policies. Historic temples were taken over by the government and turned into tourist attractions, for example.

When monks of the Jogye order of Soen (Zen) Buddhism, the largest Buddhist sect in Korea, criticized Chun, the government began to raid Buddhist temples, including the Jogye main temple in Seoul, and arrest monks. Fifty-five monks were sent to retention camps although none were ever convicted of anything. Other monks were subjected to torture; the abbot of one Jogye temple died as a result. Throughout Chun’s administration, Buddhist monks and nuns were kept under surveillance and frequently accused of being Communist sympathizers.

During Chun’s administration conservative Protestants began to publicly denounce Buddhism and vandalize Buddhist temples and art. For example, in February 1984 red crosses and dirt were smeared on Buddhist wall paintings in a temple near Seoul. In 1985 a Protestant minister named Kim Jingyu and a layman named Kim Songhwa separately organized meetings to denounce Buddhism. That same year some men identified as Christians drove nails into tires of cars parked outside a Zen center and poured corrosive chemicals into the engines. They played gospel songs through a loudspeaker to disrupt the Buddhist service.

Then the temple burnings began. In 1986 an ancient Jogye ceremonial hall, listed as a national treasure, was burned to the ground. A local Christian man confessed to the crime, but police did not prosecute, citing “lack of evidence.” In 1987 a fundamentalist Christian was apprehended after setting fires that destroyed two temple buildings. In 1988 a fire at a Jogye training center destroyed altar paintings considered to be national treasures.

In the next few years, through the remaining 1980s and 1990s, several other arsonists destroyed or substantially damaged approximately 20 more Buddhist temple buildings.

During this time even more Buddhist temples and art were vandalized.. Vandals often painted red crosses on art and smashed or decapitated Buddha statues.In a few cases Christians, including clergy, were caught in the act but not charged.

In 1990 two men broke into the studios of a new Buddhist radio station two days before it was to begin broadcasting. They smashed all of the station’s recording and transmission equipment, using the head of a Buddha to break into recording booths and destroy the computers and equipment. No arrests were made.

For a timeline of incidents culled from South Korean news sources, see South Korea:- A chronology of Christian attacks against Buddhism.

NextGovernment interference with religious freedom.

Wonhyo: Beloved Patriarch of Korean Buddhism

Wonhyo (617-686) was a major patriarch of Korean Buddhism. Wonhyo is credited with bringing Pure Land Buddhism to Korea, but his written commentaries made an impact on many schools of Buddhism throughout eastern Asia.


Buddhism reached Korea in 372 CE, when a Chinese monk arrived bearing sutras and images of the Buddha. At that time, Korea was divided into three kingdoms, called SillaBaekje and Goguryeo. Buddhism became the official religion of Silla during the reign of King Pophung (514-539). In time Silla came to dominate the other kingdoms, and in 668 — when Wonhyo was about 51 years old — Silla had conquered the other kingdoms and controlled most of the Korean Peninsula.

So it was that Wonhyo lived during a time of dynamic change. He was born into a simple family during the Three Kingdoms Period, in what is now the city of Gyeongsan, which was in the Kingdom of Silla. He lived to see the beginning of what was called the Unified Silla Period.

This was also a time of change within Korean Buddhism. In particular, Korean monks and scholars were questioning and assessing doctrinal coherence. For some time Korean monks had been traveling to China to study, bringing teachings of the many emerging schools of China back home. But these emerging schools didn’t always agree with each other.

Wonhyo’s Realization

When Wonhyo was a young monk, he and his friend Uisang decided to go to China to study Buddhism. On the way they were caught in a terrible rainstorm. Stumbling around in the dark, the two monks were relieved to find an abandoned shelter. Inside, the thirsty Wonhyo found a gourd filled with rainwater and drank his fill.

In the morning light, however, Wonhyo saw that the shelter was a tomb, the gourd was part of a skull, and the rainwater was rancid.  Wonhyo then had a powerful realization of how his mind created his perception of reality.

Wonhyo and Uisang

After this experience, Wonhyo chose not to continue to China. Instead, he devoted himself to living among laypeople to spread the buddha dharma. His methods — his upaya — included leading people in song and dance as an expression of harmony in everyday life.

He also chose to live as a layman and was no longer a monk. The circumstances of this decision involve a princess of Silla named Yosok. According to legend, Yosok became enamored of Wonhyo when she heard him speak, and the King of Silla compelled Wonhyo to marry her. She conceived a son who became a renowned scholar of Confucianism. However, Wonhyo did not live with his princess for very long. Instead he chose to continue his teaching mission.

Wonhyo taught Pure Land practices to laypeople. Pure Land primarily is a devotional practice of chanting homage to Amitabha Buddha in order to be reborn in the Pure Land, a place where the realization of enlightenment is more easily accomplished. Note thatt he Pure Land can be understood as a state of mind, not just a physical place. Pure Land remains the most popular form of Buddhism in eastern Asia because it can be more easily incorporated into busy family life than many other forms of Buddhism.

Wonhyo as Author and Scholar

Wonhyo was particularly interested in doctrinal coherence, and he surveyed the schools that had been transmitted to Korea, including HyayanTiantai and Ch’an (Zen) as well as Pure Land. He systematically presented these diverse schools in a larger framework of Buddhist teaching to resolve their differences. The result is called Tongbulgyo or T’ong pulgyo, which means “interpenetrated Buddhism.”

Wonhyo was the author of more than 80 works, Some these became influential in China and Japan as well as Korea. Of particular note are his commentaries on the Avatamsaka Sutra, the Nirvana Sutra and the Mahayana-sraddhotpada-sastra (“Awakening of Faith”).

This was originally published at, now Dotdash. Since it is no longer hosted at Dotdash, copyright reverts to me. 

Henry Steele Olcott’s Unlikely Life

Henry Steel Olcott (1832-1907) lived the first half of his life the way a respectable gentleman was expected to live in 19th century America. He served as a Union officer in the U.S. Civil War and then built a successful law practice. And in the second half of his life he traveled to Asia to promote and revive Buddhism.

Henry Steel Olcott’s unlikely life is better remembered in Sri Lanka than in his native America. Sinhalese Buddhists light candles in his memory every year on the anniversary of his death. Monks offer flowers to his golden statue in Colombo. His image has appeared on Sri Lanka postage stamps. Students of Sri Lanka’s Buddhist colleges compete in the annual Henry Steel Olcott Memorial Cricket Tournament.

Exactly how an insurance lawyer from New Jersey became the celebrated White Buddhist of Ceylon is, as you might imagine, quite a tale.

Olcott’s Early (Conventional) Life

Henry Olcott was born in Orange, New Jersey, in 1832, to a family descended from the Puritans. Henry’s father was a businessman, and the Olcotts were devout Presbyterians.

After attending the College of the City of New York Henry Olcott entered Columbia University. The failure of his father’s business caused him to withdraw from Columbia without graduating. He went to live with relatives in Ohio and developed an interest in farming.

He returned to New York and studied agriculture, founded an agricultural school, and wrote a well-received book on growing types of Chinese and African sugar cane. In 1858 he became the agriculture correspondent for the New York Tribune. In 1860 he married the daughter of the rector of Trinity Episcopal Church in New Rochelle, New York.

At the beginning of the Civil War he enlisted in the Signal Corps. After some battlefield experience he was appointed a Special Commissioner for the War Department, investigating corruption in recruitment (mustering) offices. He was promoted to the rank of Colonel and assigned to the Department of the Navy, where his reputation for honesty and industriousness earned him an appointment to the special commission that investigated President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination.

He left the military in 1865 and returned to New York to study law. He was admitted to the bar in 1868 and enjoyed a successful practice specializing in insurance, revenue, and customs law.

To that point in his life, Henry Steel Olcott was the very model of what a proper Victorian-era American gentleman was supposed to be. But that was about to change.

Spiritualism and Madame Blavatsy

Since his Ohio days Henry Olcott had harbored one unconventional interest — the paranormal. He was especially fascinated by spiritualism, or the belief that the living can communicate with the dead.

In the years after the Civil War, spiritualism, mediums and seances became a widespread passion, possibly because so many people had lost so many loved ones in the war. Around the country, but especially in New England, people formed spiritualist societies to explore the world beyond together.

Olcott was drawn into the spiritualist movement, possibly to the consternation of his wife, who sought a divorce. The divorce was granted in 1874. That same year he traveled to Vermont to visit some well-known mediums, and there he met a charismatic free spirit named Helena Petrovna Blavatsky.

There was little that was conventional about Olcott’s life after that.

Madame Blavatsy (1831-1891) had already lived a life of adventure. A Russian national, she married as a teenager and then ran away from her husband. For the next 24 or so years she moved from one place to another, living for a time in Egypt, India, China, and elsewhere. She claimed also to have lived in Tibet for three years, and she may have received teachings in a tantric tradition. Some historians doubt a European woman visited Tibet before the 20th century, however.

Olcott and Blavatsky blended together a mix of OrientalismTranscendentalism, spiritualism, and Vedanta — plus a bit of flim-flam on Blavatsky’s part — and called it Theosophy. The pair founded the Theosophical Society in 1875 and began publishing a journal, Isis Unveiled, while Olcott continued his law practice to pay the bills. In 1879 they moved the Society’s headquarters to Adyar, India.

Olcott had learned something about Buddhism from Blavatsky, and he was eager to learn more. In particular he wanted to know the Buddha’s pure and original teachings. Scholars today point out that Olcott’s ideas about “pure” and “original” Buddhism largely reflected his 19th century western liberal-transcendentalist romanticism about universal brotherhood and “manly self-reliance,” but his idealism burned brightly.

The White Buddhist

The following year Olcott and Blavatsky traveled to Sri Lanka, then called Ceylon. The Sinhalese embraced the pair with enthusiasm. They especially were thrilled when the two white foreigners knelt to a large statue of the Buddha and publicly received the Precepts.

Since the 16th century Sri Lanka had been occupied by Portuguese, then by Dutch, then by British. By 1880 the Sinhalese had been under British colonial rule for many years, and the British had been aggressively pushing a “Christian” education system for Sinhalese children while undermining Buddhist institutions.

The appearance of white westerners calling themselves Buddhists helped to begin a Buddhist resurgence that in decades to come would turn into a full-blown rebellion against colonial rule and the forced imposition of Christianity. Plus it grew into a Buddhist-Sinhalese nationalism movement that impacts the nation today. But that is getting ahead of Henry Olcott’s story, so let’s go back to the 1880s.

As he traveled Sri Lanka, Henry Olcott was dismayed at the state of Sinhalese Buddhism, which seemed superstitious and backward compared to his liberal-transcendentalist romantic vision of Buddhism. So, ever the organizer, he threw himself into re-organizing Buddhism in Sri Lanka.

The Theosophical Society built several Buddhist schools, some of which are prestigious colleges today. Olcott wrote a Buddhist Catechism for that is still in use. He traveled the country distributing pro-Buddhist, anti-Christian tracts. He agitated for Buddhist civil rights. The Sinhalese loved him and called him the White Buddhist.

By the mid-1880s Olcott and Blavatsky were drifting apart. Blavatsky could charm a drawing-room of spiritualist believers with her claims of mysterious messages from invisible mahatmas. She was not so interested in building Buddhist schools in Sri Lanka. In 1885 she left India for Europe, where she spent the rest of her days writing spiritualist books.

Although he made some return visits to the U.S., Olcott considered India and Sri Lanka his homes for the rest of his life. He died in India in 1907.

Henry Steel Olcott

(This article originally was published on in 2014.)

The Cula-Saccaka Sutta: The Buddha Wins a Debate

The Pali Tipitika, the scriptural canon of Theravada Buddhism, isn’t famous for its humor. But at least one story in the Sutta-pitaka still inspires chuckles.

The Cula-Saccaka Sutta (Majjhima Nikaya 35) describes a debate between the Buddha and a character named Saccaka, who is addressed as Aggivessana, a reference to his family. Saccaka was famous for his debating skills; he was also, as we might say today, full of himself.

He bragged to his followers that anyone foolish enough to debate him was soon reduced to a quivering mess, dripping sweat from his armpits.

When Saccaka heard the Buddha was nearby, he vowed to thoroughly trounce him in debate. He would drag him, shake him, and thump him, Saccaka promised.

In particular, Saccaka wanted to debate the Buddha about the skandhas and the self. The Buddha taught that the skandhas — form, sensation, perception, discrimination/fabrication, awareness/consciousness — were not the self, and Saccaka disagreed. He believed these things were exactly the self, and he was certain he could show the world he was right and the Buddha was wrong.

So Saccaka and his followers found the Buddha, and after exchanging greetings and preliminaries Saccaka said, “Yes, Master Gotama, I’m saying that ‘Form is my self, feeling is my self, perception is my self, fabrications are my self, consciousness is my self.’ As does this great multitude.”

“What does the great multitude have to do with anything?” the Buddha replied. “Please make your own assertion.” Saccaka repeated, “Form is my self, feeling is my self, perception is my self, fabrications are my self, consciousness is my self.”

“Tell me what you think, Aggivessana. Does a king have the power in his own domain to execute those who deserve execution, to fine those who deserve to be fined, and to banish those who deserve to be banished?” the Buddha asked. And Saccaka declared stoutly that a king does have such power.

The Buddha’s next question was, “What do you think, Aggivessana? When you say, ‘Form is my self,’ do you wield power over that form: ‘May my form be thus, may my form not be thus’?”

The Buddha’s point is that the skandhas are not the self because they are not subject to the mastery of the self. You cannot will your hair to change color or your vision to improve.

What cannot be brought under one’s complete mastery or control cannot be identified as “my self.”

And at this point Saccaka realized he had just lost the debate, so he refused to answer. When he refused to answer a second time, a spirit named Vajrapani appeared in the air over Saccaka’s head. Some of you might recognize Vajrapani as the name of a transcendent or iconic bodhisattva of Mahayana Buddhism. He is also a dharmapala, or dharma protector, in Tibetan Buddhism. But this sutta dates to a time before Mahayana, and he is identified in Pali as a yakkha, which is a type of being that is more fortunate than a hungry ghost but not as exalted as a deva (“god”).

The name Vajrapani means “vajra in hand,” and indeed, Vajrapani carried an “iron thunderbolt,” or vajra, in this usage a weapon also associated with the Hindu deity Indra. Later, in Mahayana Buddhism, vajra would become the name of a ritual object representing the wisdom of sunyata, or emptiness.

Vajrapani threatened to split Saccaka’s head into seven pieces if he didn’t answer the question. Some western scholars have interpreted this as a literal death threat, but splitting heads into various numbers of pieces comes up occasionally in old Buddhist texts, and in context it usually refers to some kind of mental breakdown, not death. For example, in the Candima Sutta of the Pali Tipitika, a character named Rahu had seized another character named Candima but was compelled to let her go, saying, “If I had not released Candima my head would have split into seven pieces. While yet I live, I should have had no happiness.”

There is a kind of existential threat implied here, but it is not to Saccaka’s body. The “threat” is to his understanding of self — his self-identity and his ego.

The terrified Saccaka looked to the Buddha for refuge and thereby accepted his teaching on the nature of the self. Thus it was that the Buddha won the debate. He then gave Saccaka teachings so that he would better understand what had just happened. And later, the Buddha indulged in a bit of fun with Saccaka. The Buddha was not shaking, he said, and not dripping sweat from his armpits, and he opened his robe in front of the assembly so that they could see he spoke the truth.

There is a translation of the Cula-Saccaka Sutta by Thanissaro Bhikkhu online at Access to Insight. Another good translation, by Bhikkhu Nanamoli and Bhikkhu Bodhi, is in The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Majjhima Nikaya, published by Wisdom Publications (2005).

A Look Back at “Beat Zen, Square Zen, and Zen” by Alan Watts

Alan Watts (1915-1973) possibly did more to popularize Zen Buddhism in the West than anyone else. His many books on Zen are still in print, and people still look to him for inspiration and insight. A large part of the West got its first impressions of Zen from Watts.

Western Zen regards Watts with some ambivalence today, however. Yes, he was a strong writer and a man of keen intelligence and learning, and his books and recorded lectures still bring people into Zen centers. Many of today’s western Zen teachers began their Zen journey by reading Alan Watts.

However, there were aspects of Zen that Watts misunderstood. He sometimes pulled ancient teachers’ words out of context and imposed his own ideas and interpretations on them. Most egregiously, his misreading of one old koan caused him to dismiss the importance of zazen, Zen meditation, in Zen practice.

Much of Watts’s understanding of Zen is reflected in his essay “Beat Zen, Square Zen, and Zen,” which was published in the spring 1958 issue of the Chicago Review.

This issue was a landmark in American Zen history. It contained nine articles on Zen Buddhism plus an excerpt from the forthcoming Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac, whose On the Road had been a literary sensation of 1957. After the Chicago Review issue even Time magazine gushed (July 21, 1958) “Zen Buddhism is growing more chic by the minute.”

The Zen being gushed about was largely Beat Zen. But is chic Zen still Zen? And how does this essay stand up after more than 55 years? Here are my impressions.

What Watts Got Wrong

Watts’s first sentence threw me — “It is as difficult for Anglo-Saxons as for the Japanese to absorb anything quite so Chinese as Zen.” Brushing aside the cringe-worthy use of “Anglo-Saxon” to stand in for “westerners,” it seems to me Japan absorbed Zen pretty darn well. But this leads us into the heart of what Watts got wrong.

Reading on, one learns that the “square Zen” of the title is Japanese Zen, “with its clearly defined hierarchy, its rigid discipline, and its specific tests of satori.” He compared this to the older version, Chinese Zen, called Chan, which he imagined as being natural and effortless and more like Taoism.

However, Watts’s idealized view of Chinese Chan rather ignores the fact that Chan also had and has hierarchies, discipline and tests, and history suggests these may have been as defined, rigid and specific in Tang Dynasty China than they became in Japan. The history of Chinese Chan is full of stories about monks spending years in meditation and other disciplines to realize enlightenment. The free-wheeling Zen of Watts’s imagination never existed.

For example, Watts quotes Lin-Chi (Linji Yixuan, d. 866), a prominent Tang Dynasty Chan master, saying, “In Buddhism there is no place for using effort.” This line has been translated by others as “There isn’t so much to do,” and “The Law of Buddha has no place for elaborate activity,” and I don’t know which is more accurate.

What I do know is that, by our standards, Linji must have been a terror. He was famous for his rigorous teaching methods, which included shouts, insults and punches. So where is the “little place for using effort”? In fact, it takes most of us considerable effort before it gets effortless. For that matter, Watt’s chief inspiration was the Japanese scholar D.T.Suzuki, who learned Zen in a Rinzai monastery — about as “square” as it gets.

I’m thinking now of a line from a poem by a venerable Theravadin teacher named Phra Ajaan Mun Bhuridatta Mahathera, who described a mind purified of defilements — “The mind, unenthralled with anything, stops its struggling.” Yes; when the mind stops struggling, there is no effort. Zen literature, Japanese as well as Chinese, is full of descriptions of the effortless state of a realized being. The great paradox of practice is that most people must make great effort to stop struggling and be effortless. Buddhism is easy, yes, but we are difficult.

The essay is laced with many references to Taoism. The degree to which Chinese Buddhism, Chan included, was influenced by Taoism is being challenged by many current scholars. Some have decided there was no influence at all. I wouldn’t go that far; I came to Zen through philosophical Taoism, and it seems to me there was some influence, if only in how Chan explained things. But it does go too far to assume that Tang Dynasty Chan was as much Taoist as Buddhist, as Watts seemed to do.

What Watts Got Right

Watts also was critical of Beat Zen, which sometimes saw Zen as “undisciplined whimsy” and  “justifying sheer caprice in art, literature, and life.” Watts thought the Zen of Allen Ginsberg‘s poetry was too indirect and didactic, while Jack Kerouac‘s definition of Zen — “I don’t know. I don’t care. And it doesn’t make any difference” — bristled with self-defense and missed Zen entirely.

Yes, it’s fair to say, in hindsight, that Kerouac idealized Zen without actually understanding it, and Ginsberg’s spiritual journey would soon leave Zen behind. Other Beats — notably Gary Snyder and Philip Whalen — would come to know Zen more intimately, however, in time.

The chief thing Watts got right in this essay, I think, was his analysis of why much of postwar America became fascinated with Zen.  In Zen, said Watts, people saw an antidote to the “anti-naturalness” of both Christianity and modern life. And perhaps you had to live in the 1950s to appreciate how true that was.

The 1950s were a time in which an America still healing from World War II and the Korean War demanded loyalty and conformity. People were racked with fear of enemies abroad and nuclear annihilation. At the same time, much of the old domestic prewar social order was being challenged by desegregation and the nascent civil rights movement..

As a result, much of America retreated into hyper-conformity and a desperate clinging to traditionalism. As Betty Friedan documented in her landmark The Feminine Mystique (1964), for example, the role of women in society became narrower and more constricting after World War II than it had been before.

The Beat Generation was an organically human response to what mainstream society had become. And there was something about Zen that offered the tantalizing possibility of the reintegration of human and nature and a release from the compulsive armoring against everything that marked the 1950s.

The widespread unease breaking through the facade of 1950s conformity “arises from the suspicion that our attempt to master the world from the outside is a vicious circle in which we shall be condemned to the perpetual insomnia of controlling controls and supervising supervision ad infinitum,” Watts said. Zen offered a “refreshing sense of wholeness to a culture in which the spiritual and the material, the conscious and the unconscious, have been cataclysmically split.”

Thus it was that Zen Buddhism became chic, for a time. Fortunately, it is less so now. Yet it still offers the same path of reintegration and liberation it offered then.

What of Alan Watts? If Watts’s books “speak” to you, by all means, enjoy them. He had a lot of valuable things to say. If your chief interest is to find a book that will tell you about Zen, please see “Beginner Zen Books.”

(Originally written by me and published on buddhism/ Since the parent company is no longer hosting this article, all rights revert to me.)

After the Axial Age: From Alexander to Ashoka

(This post follows the last post, on the Axial Age. Some of this post was condensed and adapted from my book, The Circle of the Way: A Concise History of Zen from the Buddha to the Modern World [Shambhala, 2019].)

Although it wasn’t his intention, Alexander the Great (356–323 BCE) touched off a series of events that put Buddhism on the map, so to speak.

Alexander set out to conquer the world. Although he fell short, at its peak his empire stretched from Europe to the Indus Valley, and dipped into Egypt. The campaign stalled when he reached the Punjab in 326 BCE, however. Alexander had planned to push farther east into the Kingdom of Magadha. But his weary soldiers had heard stories of the vast army of Magadha, and they imagined the mighty Ganges lined with thousands of fresh troops and trumpeting war elephants. They refused to go on, and so Alexander’s legendary conquests ended in the Punjab, and he died three years later in Babylon.

While Alexander was stalled in the Punjab, he was accompanied by a local mercenary named Chandragupta Maurya. In 321 BCE Chandragupta succeeded where Alexander failed by seizing the throne of Magadha. The enterprising Chandragupta expanded his new Mauryan Empire to fill most of modern-day India and a portion of what is now Bangladesh.

After Alexander’s death, the conqueror’s vast territories were claimed by his Macedonian generals. One general, Seleucus I Nicator (ca. 358–281 BCE), came to rule a large part of what is now Turkey and much of today’s Iraq, Iran, Kuwait, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. Seleucus encouraged Greek settlements in his vast territory. These settlements, combined with those left behind by Alexander, introduced considerable Greek influence into west and central Asia.

In 305 BCE, Seleucus marched on Chandragupta’s empire. This adventure did not go well for Seleucus, and the Mauryan Empire grew to include much of modern-day Pakistan and Afghanistan as a result. Chandragupta abdicated to his son Bindusara in 297 BCE. and retired to be a Jain ascetic. After Bindusara came Ashoka, whose reign began about 268 BCE.

Ashoka the Great (ca. 304–232 BCE) is remembered as a brutally ruthless military conqueror—until about 260 BCE, that is, when he beheld the bloody results of his conquest of Kalinga (near today’s Orissa). In one of the great conversion stories of all time, Ashoka renounced war and conquest and declared that his rule would be guided by the Buddha’s dharma. We know this because Ashoka’s story is told in his own words on the thirteenth of fourteen major “rock edicts” inscribed on boulders and sometimes in caves throughout his empire, along with other sorts of inscriptions. Edicts also were carved on magnificent stone pillars, forty to fifty feet high, which were topped with elaborately carved animals, most often Asian lions. These also often were carved with a dharma wheel, the symbol of Buddhism, with 24 spokes.

Ashoka pillar at Vaishali, Bihar, India. Bpilgrim, Wikipedia Commons.

Ashoka’s edicts have been discovered in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nepal, and Bangladesh, as well as India, written in the local languages of the time. Edicts in the western Mauryan empire were in Greek, and one inscription discovered near Kandahar in 1958 was written in Greek and Aramaic.

In his edicts Ashoka proclaimed his faith in the Buddha and his dharma, but he did not attempt to teach Buddhist doctrines. In fact, all religions were welcome in his empire, he said, as long as they respected each other. The emperor was more interested in the way people manifested the dharma in their behavior. In the second pillar edict, for example, he said, “Dhamma is good, but what constitutes Dhamma? (It includes) little evil, much good, kindness, generosity, truthfulness and purity.”

Ashoka also used dharma as a diplomatic tool, sending emissaries carrying his edicts to the rulers of other states, near and far, including the Seleucid Empire, Egypt, Greece, and the island that is today’s Sri Lanka (“Tamraparni”). The mission to Sri Lanka, at least, was a rousing success.

In the fifth major rock edict, Ashoka declared he had appointed dharma mahamatras—dharma officials—to work among the Greeks and other people in his western territory. The mahamatras were charged with the promotion of dharma and the welfare and happiness of all those devoted to dharma. This is significant because, after Ashoka, Buddhism would blossom on the western territories of the Mauryan Empire—today’s Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Ashoka’s words on generosity and religious tolerance and his concern for the welfare of his people are inspiring to read even today. Yet it appears there was some pushback from the Brahmins, who may have felt put out by Ashoka’s call to end animal sacrifices. After Ashoka’s death in 232 BCE, his several heirs who hadn’t been ordained showed no interest in the dharma and instead spent the next forty-seven years squabbling over the throne, while such outer provinces as Gandhara, Kashmir, and the Punjab broke away. The last Mauryan ruler was assassinated by an ambitious general during a military review in 185 BCE.

The many rock and pillar edicts remained scattered through much of Asia. However, those written in the various Indo-Aryan languages of his time used a written script that fell out of use, and people forgot how to read it. And the memory of Ashoka himself was lost in India, although he was honored in Sri Lanka. During the Mughal reign of India, 1526-1720, some of the pillars were put to use supporting minarets. When traders of the British East India Company arrived in the 18th century, they were told the pillars were the abandoned walking sticks of a giant. But an East India Company official named James Prinsep deciphered the script in the 1830s, and the story of Ashoka the Great was heard again in the world, at long last.

And when India became an independent nation in 1947, Ashoka’s 24-spoke dharma wheel was placed in the center of the new nation’s flag.

National flag of India

The Axial Age and the Origins of Religion

The Axial Age was a period of history between about 800 and 200 BCE, roughly. It’s called “Axial Age” because it was a pivotal time in world religion and philosophy. I acknowledge that the Axial Age was a trendy thing a few years ago but is widely dismissed in academia today as being too “woo.” Also, Axial Age developments don’t always neatly stay inside those exact centuries. But it’s still interesting.

What is the Axial Age? This is from Britannica:

The phrase originated with the German psychiatrist and philosopher Karl Jaspers, who noted that during this period there was a shift—or a turn, as if on an axis—away from more predominantly localized concerns and toward transcendence.

What does “transcendence” mean? The term literally means “to go beyond.” In the case of the Axial Age “revolution” in human thought about the world, “going beyond” has several meanings, according to the Canadian philosopher and sociologist Charles Taylor. Among them are a shift to thinking about the cosmos and the way it works rather than taking for granted that it works, the rise of second-order thinking about the ways that human beings even think about the universe in the first place and come to know it, and a turn away from merely propitiating tribal or civic deities (which Taylor characterized as “feeding the gods”) and toward speculation about the fate of humanity, about human beings’ relationship with the cosmos, and about “The Good” and how human beings can be “good.”

Of the three living, major world religions, there are three that can legitimately claim to be more than 3,000 years old, predating the Axial Age. These are Hinduism, Zoroastrianism, and Judaism. However, Hinduism and Judaism as they exist today mostly took shape during the Axial Age.

In the 1st millennium the tradition we now call Hinduism entered a phase called “Vedanta,” which means “end of the Vedas.” The Vedas are the earliest scriptures of Hinduism; the oldest, the Rig Veda, dates to at least 1200 BCE and is possibly much older. But in the 1st millennium BCE new scriptures emerged called the Upanishads. The principle Upanishads are believed to have been composed between 800 and 300 BCE. While the Vedas are primarily concerned with correct ritual and the propitiation of the gods, the Upanishads are more like sophisticated philosophical treatises that touch on many things, including the nature of reality and the self. Hinduism as we know it today was very much shaped by the Upanishads as well as by the epic poems the Ramayana (ca. 300 BCE) and the Mahabharata, which includes the exquisite Bhagavad Gita, one of the jewels of the world’s religious literature. The Mahabharata is a vast thing composed by many authors over a period of centuries, probably between 400 BCE and 300 CE.

Judaism is honored as the first monotheistic religion. However, genuine monotheism ― the insistence that there is only one God ― didn’t develop within Judaism until well into the 1st millennium BCE. It’s my understanding that most biblical scholars date the current version of the Torah to about the 6th to 5th centuries BCE, during the Babylonian captivity, although some parts of the Tanakh are thought to be considerably older. I confess that I know less about the development of Jewish scriptures than Hindu scriptures, so if someone wants to correct me on that I would be grateful.

Now, what else happened in the 1st millennium BCE?

*The Buddha probably lived sometime in the 6th to 5th centuries BCE. He is said to have been born in what is now Nepal, but he spent most of his life in the area of northeast India now contained within the states of Bihar and Utter Pradesh.

*Mahavira, a patriarch of Jainism, also probably lived in the 6th to 5th centuries BCE in what is now Bihar. Jainism is a religion of India that is less well known in the West but still alive in Asia. Its origins can be dated to about 800 BCE, although it claims to be older.

(Note: Hindus, Jains, and Buddhists lived in the same territories and butted heads frequently in 1st millennia BCE India. Both Jains and Buddhists rejected the Vedas, which set them against the Hindus. The Buddha also disagreed with much that was written in the early Upanishads available in his time, while (as I understand it) the Jains were more agreeable with at least some of the Upanishads. This meant Jains and Buddhists disagreed with each other on several core doctrines, although their moral teachings were similar. There are entire sutras in the Pali Canon devoted to the Buddha refuting the doctrines of Jains, who were called “Niganthas” in Pali. What the Jains thought of the Buddha I do not know.)

* The great Kong Fuzi of China, better known in the West as Confucius, probably lived at about the same time as the Buddha, in the 6th to 5th centuries BCE.

* The Daode Jing (Tao Te Ching) also was probably compiled sometime in the 6th to 5th centuries BCE. However, the author of attribution, Laozi (“old man”), is probably a myth.

*Greek philosophy! The first Greek philosopher of record was a guy named Thales, who lived about 624-545 BCE, sorta kinda maybe. The hugely influential Pythagoras and Heraclitus lived about the same time as the Buddha and Confucius. And I know you’ve heard of Socrates, 469-399 BCE. Plato and Aristotle followed shortly after.

What I don’t know: Was anything similar happening in the Western Hemisphere? I do not know.  What about Africa? I do not know. Here is an article about African spirituality that describes traditions being crushed under the weight of Christian and Islamic missions.

Some Axial Age developments were connected to each other, and some were not. The Hindus (who weren’t called that yet, I don’t think), Jains, and Buddhists were busily disagreeing with each other in India and certainly had connections. Confucians and Taoists intermingled in China. I haven’t said much about the Zoroastrians, but one can find traces of Zoroastrianism in Judaism. This may date to the Babylonian captivity, as Zoroastrianism was the dominant religion of Persia at the time. Otherwise, many of these developments happened independently of each other.  Axial Age ideas about the nature of reality, of time and the cosmos, of what it means to be alive and to be human, whether there are gods or no gods, etc., are quite diverse.

You can find very similar basic moral rules in each tradition, but I would argue that’s because those moral rules are necessary for civilization to exist at all. Without agreed-upon rules discouraging homicide and theft and whatnot, for example, there can be no communities. Humans would have remained stuck in caves guarding their lives and flint arrowheads against the people in the next cave. Axial Age people would have internalized such moral codes long before the Axial Age. I do not believe commonality in moral rules points to a common origin of tradition.

However, what happens at the end of the Axial Age, and after, may be more significant. From the 4th century BCE and through the next several centuries, world events happened that brought these diverse civilizations and their religions and philosophies together in ways that scholars are still trying to sort out. I’ll touch on that in another post.

Next — After the Axial Age: From Alexander to Ashoka






Stephen Batchelor’s Confession

[This review of Confession of a Buddhist Atheist was originally published at in 2011.]

The Buddha said, Though a fool may associate with a wise man, he no more understands dhamma than a spoon tastes the soup. I don’t think Stephen Batchelor is a fool, but I admit I’ve been tempted to title this review of Confession of a Buddhist Athiest “A Tale Told by a Spoon.”

The book is an autobiographical account of Batchelor’s experiences in Buddhism, which are considerable. Along the way, there grew in him a desire to liberate Buddhism from its Asian strictures and “rearticulate the core Buddhist ideas in a contemporary language that spoke directly to the concerns of men and women living in twentieth-century Europe and America.” He enlarges on these ideas in the latter part of Confessions.

Batchelor’s ideas are not without value, and many people will find Batchelor’s version of Buddhism more palatable than “traditional” Buddhism, and that’s fine. But it wouldn’t satisfy me, and in any event a great many remarkable teachers already have established the foundations of Buddhism in the West, Buddhism that already is “rearticulated,” accessible and meaningful for westerners without being watered down or artificially “westernized.”

For the record, I agree with Batchelor that over the centuries Buddhism became cluttered with considerable cultural claptrap that doesn’t relate to the West; we have our own claptrap, thank you very much. However, Batchelor’s version of Buddhism is too severely truncated. He’s thrown the baby out with the bathwater.

Batchelor as a Monk

The book begins with the 19-year-old Batchelor tramping about Asia in the early 1970s and eventually arriving at Dharamsala, India, center of Tibetan Buddhism in exile. He took up the study of vajrayana in Dharamsala and received monk’s ordination in 1974, when he was 21.

The credulity of youth still lingers in Batchelor’s account of that time. At first, he plunged into vajrayana with some enthusiasm. However, the Buddhism he found in Dharamsala was encrusted with centuries of arcana, all deeply bound to Tibetan culture and alien to a westerner. The lamas did not relate to what he was experiencing and didn’t seem to give him the guidance he needed at that point in his practice.

I don’t blame Batchelor for eventually rebelling against, in his words, visualizing himself “as the bull-headed Yamantaka or the blood-drinking Vajrayogini in their celestial mansions of light.” Frankly, I think I would have bailed a lot sooner than Batchelor. Old-school vajrayana isn’t for everyone.

The more troubling part of this account is that Batchelor’s understanding of dharma remained anchored to cognitive knowledge and intellectual concepts, as it seems to do to this day. Whatever doesn’t make intellectual sense to him, he rejects. And all too often, there goes the baby.

For example, on page 34 of Confessions Batchelor writes about the 7th-century philosopher Dharmakirti — “His philosophy gave me an excellent conceptual framework for interpreting my practice of mindfulness as well as the other experiences I had had in Dharamsala.” However, “Emptiness of inherent existence, by contrast, is just a conceptual and linguistic abstraction.”

“Emptiness of inherent existence” — shunyata — is the key to understanding Mahayana Buddhism. Without some appreciation for shunyata, you will misunderstand everything else. Realization of shunyata is the perfection of great wisdom evoked by the Heart Sutra. And it’s a “conceptual and intellectual abstraction” only until one learns how to reach beyond the limits of conceptual thought to understand it.

But notice that Batchelor sets up a contrast between “conceptual frameworks” that he can grasp intellectually (Dharmakirti, who proposed an atomistic explanation of reality) and those he can’t — emptiness, shunyata (and, for the record, Dharmakirti’s proposals do not countermand shunyata). And there is the brick wall he built around his understanding of Buddhism.

When I say “reaching beyond conceptual thought” I am not talking about merely “believing in” doctrine. And yes, here is the Zen student talking, but I think ultimately most schools of Buddhism provide a path beyond concept and belief, one way or another.

Buddhism and Belief

I realize that Stephen Batchelor’s most well-known book is titled Buddhism Without Beliefs. But he seems to think that to have a Buddhism Without Beliefs requires some bold reconfiguration of Buddhism. I agree belief is not the point of Buddhism; I disagree that Buddhism has to be reconfigured.

You could define many Buddhist doctrines as descriptions of how an enlightened being perceives reality. But developing an intellectual understanding of or “believing in” a doctrine is not enlightenment. Intimate perception, direct realization, waking up to a transformed perception of reality — is enlightenment.

Whether the thing believed in is factual or not, beliefs are not reality. But neither are concepts or ideas.

In some schools — and I understand this is how Tibetan Buddhism works, on the whole — accepting doctrine becomes a foundation of practice. But as the student matures spiritually, beliefs and concepts should fall away and be replaced by direct, personal realization.

Zen takes a somewhat different approach. At the very beginning Zen students are encouraged to release beliefs — including disbeliefs — assumptions, and expectations, and develop “beginner’s mind” or “don’t know mind,” which Batchelor calls “deep agnosticism.” Some Zen teachers don’t introduce much in the way of doctrine to a student until the student is well into this process. Then the student can study doctrines without turning them into a mere belief system.

Here’s a small example: Once I saw a group of Zen newbies ask the late John Daido Loori, Roshi, a question about reincarnation, which they were imagining as souls reborn in new bodies. “There is no such thing as reincarnation,” he said, flatly. But at another retreat — a formal sesshin attended only by Zen students — he said, “There is reincarnation, but it isn’t what you think it is.” Whatever we think rebirth is, is not what it is. Conceptual understanding won’t cut it.

But I’m getting ahead of the story. Let’s go back and pick up Batchelor’s years with Zen.

In 1980, after his break with Tibetan Buddhism, Batchelor chose to work with the Korean Zen Master Kusan Sunim. However, it’s clear from his own account that he refused to look at much of what Master Kusan was trying to show him.

“I maintained an ironic but respectful distance from Korean Zen orthodoxy,” he said. “I put Kusan Sunim’s instructions into practice, but in a way that corresponded to my own interests and needs” (p. 66). This is stunning. It’s like taking cooking lessons from Wolfgang Puck but refusing to touch food. And this is not “deep agnosticism.”

He was advised to abandon any notion of a goal or resolution. Yet he writes (p. 68), “Despite the constant emphasis on questioning and doubt, I was again being primed to arrive at an insight that would confirm the foregone conclusions of an orthodoxy.” I’d say this is “deep distrust,” not “deep agnosticism.” Big difference.

Master Kusan (page 68) tried to explain kensho, through use of koan-like questioning — “Finally, when this mass of questioning enlarges to a critical point, it will suddenly burst. The entire universe will be shattered and only your original nature will appear before you. In this way you will awaken.”

Unfortunately, Batchelor interpreted “your original nature will appear before you” in the most drearily literal way: “Once again, I found myself confronted by the specter of a disembodied spirit,” Batchelor writes. “The logic of Kusan Sunim’s argument failed to convince me.”

Had Batchelor no experience with Zen I could forgive him for that, but he “studied” with Master Kusan for three years. What a wasted opportunity!

“Original self” is a common metaphor for Buddha-nature, which might be thought of as the fundamental unity beneath all existence. Buddha-nature is vital to Zen, but merely believing in a doctrine of Buddha-nature has no function. This original self must be intimately experience to be transformative.

As explained in the “Introduction to Zen Buddhism,” Zen uses language in a way that is not intended to make literal sense, but is rather a presentation of understanding beyond words and concepts. The practice can enable a direct experience that is not sensory — no visions, no voices, no disembodied spirits — but instead is pure realization without the duality of “observer” and “the thing observed.”

In the Rinzai school, kensho (usually triggered by koan study) is considered the “gateless gate,” the point at which the student is ready to begin serious training. In this light, Master Kusan was not making a “logical” argument at all. He was asking Batchelor to stop clinging to concepts and ideas, to crush the dualities, to directly experience not-self. He was urging Batchelor to step through the gateless gate.

Much later in the book, Batchelor expresses some understanding that there’s something to “know” beyond cognition:

“Gotama’s awakening involved a radical shift in perspective rather than the gaining of some special knowledge into some higher truth. He did not use the words know and truth to describe it. He spoke only of waking up to a contingent ground — “this conditionality, conditioned arising” — that until then had been obscured by his attachment to a fixed position. While such an awakening itself is not primarily a cognitive act. It is an existential readjustment, a seismic shift in the core of oneself and one’s relation to the world. Rather than providing Gotama with a set of ready-made answers to life’s big questions, it allowed him to respond to those questions from an entirely new perspective.” [p. 129]

Exactly. Yet in spite of Master Kusan’s patient coaxing, Batchelor refused to wake up to his own radical shift in perspective. And then he decided the enlightenment thing was silly, anyway. He wrote (page 73):

“As a Western convert, I saw Buddhism as a set of philosophical doctrines, ethical precepts, and meditation practices. For me, to be a Buddhist simply meant to accord one’s life with the core values of the tradition: wisdom, compassion, nonviolence, tolerance, calm, and so on.”

That’s very nice, but for that Bodhidharma needn’t have come from the West. He could have just sent a Hallmark card.

Buddhism in the West

The shame of it is that at the very time Batchelor was frustrating himself with unvarnished vajrayana in Dharamsala, Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche, had already established the Samye Ling monastery in Scotland and had begun teaching in the U.S. The Rinpoche had a genius for making vajrayana “work” for westerners, including lay westerners. Although he died in 1987, he remains a major influence in western Buddhism.

As for Zen — Batchelor chose not to train in Japan, calling Japanese Zen monasteries “essentially training seminaries for married priests.” In other words, he rejected Japanese Buddhism because it wasn’t traditional enough; it no longer follows many of the rules of the Vinaya. Batchelor has a pattern of seeking out the most tradition-crusted forms of Buddhism he can find and then rejecting them, which is something he ought to ask a therapist about.

In any event, in the year 1980, when Batchelor went to Korea, a great many strong Zen masters already were teaching in the West. Taizan Maezumi Roshi was teaching in Los Angeles; Philip Kapleau Roshi had long been teaching in Rochester, New York; Robert Aitken Roshi had established the Diamond Sangha in Honolulu (where he teaches still); Chan master Cheng-yen was in Queens, New York; the Korean Zen Master Seung Sahn had founded the Kwan Um school, headquartered in Rhode Island. I could go on.

Of course, Master Kusan also was a highly respected teacher, and if he couldn’t get through to Batchelor it’s possible no one else could have done it, either. But my larger point is that these lineages are flourishing in the West today, along with Theravada, Pure Land, Nichiren, and other schools of Buddhism. And, as Buddhism has always done when it moves into a new culture, it is adapting to the new culture.

Yes, it’s still an uphill slog. Yes, there’s still much flailing around trying to make monastic practices fit into contemporary lay life. But westerners don’t have to settle for Buddhism Lite.

In the second half of the book, Batchelor describes how he withdrew from Buddhist “orthodoxy” and studied the Pali Canon to come to his own conclusions about what the Buddha taught. As he worked through this process, he was influenced by western philosophers and western commentary on Buddhism. By his own account he did not bother with Asian scholarship and commentary on Buddhism.

In a nutshell — Batchelor strongly implies that Buddhism was just fine until the historical Buddha died, at which time ignorant and superstitious Asians got hold of it and mucked it up. But never fear; now rational and enlightened westerners are riding to the rescue, and they will lift it out of the muck and make it all sparkly and fat-free.

To purify Buddhism from the corruption of being metaphysical — a word Batchelor uses as a synonym for “supernatural” — he combed through the Pali Canon looking for what he judged was authentic —

“I also came to recognize that what spoke to me most directly in the Buddha’s teaching were precisely those ideas that could not be derived from the matrix of classical Indian thought. What I needed to do, therefore, was to go carefully through the Pali Canon and extract all those passages that had the stamp of Siddhattha Gotama’s own distinctive voice. Anything attributed to him that could just as well have been said in the classical Indian texts of the Upanishads or Vedas, I would bracket off and put to one side. Having done this, I would then have to see whether what I had sifted out as the Buddha’s word provided an adequate foundation for formulating a coherent vision for leading a contemporary lay Buddhist life.” [pp. 100-101]

Now, this is certainly an interesting thing to do, although I’m not sure what it proves. There is no logical reason to assume that Siddhartha Gotama didn’t incorporate some classical Indian thought into his teachings. The culture in which he lived his life was saturated with classical Indian thought, after all.

This exercise is the basis for Batchelor’s rejection of doctrines such as rebirth and karma. But Buddhist teachings about rebirth (about which I am agnostic, for the record) and karma differ in several ways from what’s presented in the Upanishads. It is logical to infer from this that Siddhartha Gotama did not reject classical Indian thought wholesale, but instead built upon it.

(Note: For a brief explanation of how the historical Buddha’s teachings on karma, as derived from the Pali Canon, differed from that of other Indian schools of his day, see “Karma” by Thanissaro Bhikkhu.)

It also strikes me as odd that Batchelor feels a need to defend his own interpretation of Buddhism with scripture, albeit juryrigged scripture. If you disagree with Buddhism, just disagree with Buddhism. Maybe the scriptures are wrong. Maybe the Buddha was wrong. He wasn’t a god, after all.

For someone who celebrates “Buddhism without beliefs,” Batchelor seems awfully eager to create and defend beliefs about the Buddha and Buddhism.

What’s Left Out

In his sifting through the Pali texts, Batchelor came up with “four core elements of the Dhamma that cannot be derived from the Indian culture of his time” (p. 237). These are:

  • The principle of “this conditionality, conditioned arising” [also called dependent origination].
  • The process of the Four Noble Truths.
  • The practice of mindful awareness.
  • The power of self-reliance.

I can’t quarrel with any of that, although I’m sure I have read scholarly commentary on the Four Noble Truths that say some part of it really isn’t a huge departure from other Indian thought of the time. But let’s go on.

Batchelor has some appreciation of the Buddhist doctrine of anatta, not-self, which is the most basic and critical distinction between Buddhism and HInduism. But he doesn’t seem to appreciate that anatta (or its Mahayana variation, shunyata) is inseparable from all other doctrine. By all accounts the Buddha’s realization of anatta is at the center of the “radical shift in perspective” that was his enlightenment.

Perhaps Batchelor just isn’t expressing himself well, but through all of his explanations of the Buddha’s teaching there seems to be no hint of anatta. And time and time again, he makes offhand remarks that leave out the perspective of anatta.

For example, he writes why he rejects the doctrine of rebirth — “It made me realize that belief in rebirth was a denial of death. And by removing death’s finality, you deprive it of its greatest power to affect your life here and now.” That’s all right as far as it goes, but it speaks from the perspective of assuming there is one permanent “self” that begins at birth and ends at death. But all schools of Buddhism teach that this permanent “self” is an illusion.

The Buddha said, “Oh, Bhikshu, every moment you are born, decay, and die.” He meant that, every moment, the illusion of “me” renews itself. Not only is nothing carried over from one life to the next; nothing is carried over from one moment to the next. “I” am just a series of thought moments. And birth and death are events in time with no “self” attached to them.

Work with that. Realize it. That’s the path. Without anatta, Buddhism is just a sweet little philosophy. And if that’s all it is, you can have it.

Batchelor complains that Buddhism has been smothered by a rigid orthodoxy. “As I had discovered with my Tibetan and Zen teachers, the body of opinion that constitutes their respective orthodoxies is neither flexible nor negotiable,” he writes (p. 145).

I have no doubt that, over the years, a great many people have argued with Batchelor about his “understanding.” Given his obstinate closed-mindedness, it would take great restraint to do otherwise. In fact, several times while reading this book I manifested as the blood-drinking Vajrayogini, waving a great mystical flaming vajra engraved with the mantra oh, puh-leeze.

But the truth is that across the many schools is a vast diversity of understanding. Take rebirth, for example. I know of a few Zen masters who are publicly agnostic about it. Some teachers say only the effects of a life go forward into a future life, not consciousness. Others do speak of a subtle consciousness or even a “spirit” (but not a “soul,” and don’t ask me what the difference is) that moves into a new life. Sometimes it is explained not as a “passing” of anything, but as nirmanakaya emanations of the dharmakaya.

All I can say is that rebirth isn’t what I think it is. But disbelief closes one off from the possibility of realizing, beyond thought, what it is.

There is also great diversity of opinion on the nature of karma. Batchelor objects to karma as a supernatural justice system that rewards the good and punishes the bad. However, within Soto Zen, I was taught always that karma must not be thought of as a justice system. Karma itself has no more moral sense than gravity, and the harmful or beneficial effects it might create depend on the degree to which the action is conditioned by greed, anger, and ignorance.

I’ve got the book What the Buddha Taught by the late Walpola Rahula, a Theravadin scholar, in front of me — “The theory of karma is the theory of cause and effect, of action and reaction; it is a natural law, which has nothing to do with the idea of justice or reward and punishment” (p. 32). So there.

And since karma is an observable phenomenon — on its most mundane level, karma is willful action that creates an effect — I don’t see what’s “supernatural” about it. There are a great many beliefs about karma that seem superstitious even to me, but not karma itself. (And once you start paying attention to it, you notice that at least 80 percent of your waking life amounts to being jerked around by karma. Once you learn to recognize what it is, it’s very useful to work with that.)

However, I am aware that in some schools karma is thought of as a kind of cosmic justice system. I also recently read an essay by a teacher that said one’s individual karma (hello? anatta?) sticks together and moves as one lump into a next life, which seems silly to me. But there is no one orthodoxy.

Getting to Know the Buddha

At some point in his Dharamsala years Batchelor began to study the Pali Canon, the sutras and the Vinaya in particular. He was eager to learn as much as he could about the historical Buddha. What biographical information he found in the Pali texts did not always agree with the Buddha’s standard biography, which I believe is taken mostly from the Buddhacarita, an epic poem written early in the 1st millennium CE by Asvaghosa.

Much of the last half of the book is taken up with Batchelor’s reconstruction of the Buddha’s biography. This, to me, was the most interesting part of the book. Of course, anything we say about the historical Buddha’s life is speculative. His story was not written down by anyone who knew him personally, and his life has been so mythologized it’s hard to know how much factuality, if any, remains.

However, the Pali texts pre-date the Buddhacarita and are supposed to be the recording of an oral tradition begun by the historical Buddha’s disciples after his death. Batchelor’s reconstruction, I would think, is as likely to be accurate as anything else. Batchelor’s argument that the poisoning that caused the Buddha’s death was deliberate is plausible, even though it’s patched together with speculation. I’d like to hear commentary from other historians about this.

Take What You Need, Make It Your Own

I said at the beginning of this review, “Batchelor’s ideas are not without value, and many people will find his version of Buddhism more palatable than ‘traditional’ Buddhism, and that’s fine.” Now that I’ve spent more than three thousand words criticizing Confession of a Buddhist Atheist, you may wonder what I think is “fine” about it.

I don’t think Buddhism is for everyone. But these days many people with no particular interest in Buddhism itself are borrowing bits and pieces of it — such as meditation and mindfulness — and using them, without adopting the whole program.

So there are Catholic nuns sitting zazen and atheist psychologists using mindfulness training as therapy. And if this borrowing helps people somehow, I’m happy. And if people who, for whatever reason, cannot abide traditional Buddhism but find something in Batchelor’s Buddhism Lite that sweetens their lives, I have no problem with that.

However, Batchelor’s perspectives are being touted as a template for some generic Western Buddhism that should supplant all the traditional forms. I object to that, strongly.

This is not to say that he is utterly without insight or that he hasn’t had some profound experiences in practice. But the sad fact is Batchelor is not practicing a Buddhism without beliefs. He has simply jettisoned doctrines that don’t make intellectual sense to him and replaced them with his own ideas about what Buddhism ought to be — in a sense, just another set of beliefs.