Author Archives: Barbara

Protestant Buddhism

You may stumble into the term “Protestant Buddhism,” especially on the Web. If you don’t know what that means, don’t feel left out. There are lots of people using the term today who don’t know what it means, either.

In the context of a lot of current Buddhist criticism, “Protestant Buddhism” appears to refer to a tepid western approximation of Buddhism, practiced mostly by upper-income whites, and characterized by an emphasis on self-improvement and rigidly enforced niceness. But that’s not what the term originally meant.

Origin of the Term

The original Protestant Buddhism grew out of a protest, and not in the West, but in Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka, then called Ceylon, became a British territory in 1796. At first Britain declared it would respect the people’s dominant religion, Buddhism. But this declaration raised a furor among evangelical Christians in Britain, and the government quickly backtracked.

Instead, Britain’s official policy became one of conversion, and Christian missionaries were encouraged to open schools all over Ceylon to give the children a Christian education. For Sinhalese Buddhists, conversion to Christianity became a prerequisite for business success.

Late in the 19th century Anagarika Dharmapala (1864-1933) became the leader of a Buddhist protest/revival movement. Dharmapala also was a modernist who promoted a vision of Buddhism as a religion compatible with science and western values, such as democracy. It is charged that Dharmapala’s understanding of Buddhism bore traces of his Protestant Christian education in the missionary schools.

The scholar Gananath Obeyesekere, currently an emeritus professor of anthropology at Princeton University, is credited with coining the phrase “Protestant Buddhism.” It describes this 19th century movement, both as a protest and ask an approach to Buddhism that was influenced by Protestant Christianity.

The Protestant Influences

As we look at these so-called Protestant influences, it’s important to remember that this applies mostly to the conservative Theravada tradition of Sri Lanka and not to Buddhism as a whole.

For example, one of these influences was a kind of spiritual egalitarianism. In Sri Lanka and many other Theravada countries, traditionally only monastics practiced the full Eightfold Path, including meditation; studied the sutras; and might possibly realize enlightenment. Laypeople were mostly just told to keep the Precepts and to make merit by giving alms to monks, and perhaps in a future life they might be monastics themselves.

Mahayana Buddhism already had rejected the idea that only a select few could walk the path and realize enlightenment. For example, the Vimalakirti Sutra (ca. 1st century CE) centers on a layman whose enlightenment surpassed even the Buddha’s disciples. A central theme of the Lotus Sutra (ca. 2nd century CE) is that all beings will realize enlightenment.

That said — As explained by Obeyesekere and also by Richard Gombrich, currently president of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies, the elements of Protestantism adopted by Dharmapala and his followers included the rejection of a clerical “link” between the individual and enlightenment and an emphasis on individual spiritual effort. If you are familiar with early Protestantism vis à vis Catholicism, you will see the resemblance.

However, this “reformation,” so to speak, was not with Asian Buddhism as a whole but with Buddhist institutions in some parts of Asia as they existed a century ago. And it was led primarily by Asians.

One Protestant “influence” explained by Obeyesekere and Gombrich is that “religion is privatized and internalized: the truly significant is not what takes place at a public celebration or in ritual, but what happens inside one’s own mind or soul.” Notice that this is the same criticism leveled by the historical Buddha against the Brahmins of his day — that direct insight was the key, not rituals.

Modern or Traditional; East Versus West

Today you can find the phrase “Buddhist Protestantism” being used to describe Buddhism in the West generally, particularly Buddhism practiced by converts. Often the term is juxtaposed with the “traditional” Buddhism of Asia. But the reality is not that simple.

First, Asian Buddhism is hardly monolithic. In many ways, including the roles and relationship of clergy and laypeople, there is considerable difference from one school and nation to another.

Second, Buddhism in the West is hardly monolithic. Don’t assume that the self-described Buddhists you met in a yoga class are representative of the whole.

Third, many cultural influences have impacted Buddhism as it has developed in the West. The first popular books about Buddhism written by westerners generally were more infused with European Romanticism or American Transcendentalism than with traditional Protestantism, for example. It’s also a mistake to make “Buddhist modernism” a synonym for western Buddhism. Many leading modernists have been Asians; some western practitioners are keen on being as “traditional” as possible.

A rich and complex cross-pollination has been going on for more than a century that has shaped Buddhism both East and West. Trying to shove all that into a concept of “Buddhist Protestantism” doesn’t do it justice. The term needs to be retired.

For a well-written and well-informed explanation of this cross-pollination, see The Making of Buddhist Modernism by David McMahan.

Anagarika Dharmapala: Buddhist Revivalist and Modernist

Anagarika Dharmapala (1864-1933) was a Buddhist modernist who deeply influenced the early development of Buddhism in the West. He also played a leading role in the revival of Buddhism in his native Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and other parts of Asia.

Ceylon had been partly or entirely controlled by European nations since the early 16th century, and wherever European ships landed, Christian missionaries were not far behind. In 1796 control passed from the Dutch to the British, and Ceylon became a British colony. The British government encouraged the Christian missionaries to,open schools throughout the island to convert the people of Ceylon from Buddhism. By the mid-19th century, Buddhist institutions in Ceylon were fading, and the people were largely ignorant of the spiritual tradition of their ancestors.

It was into this anglicized, Christianized Ceylon that Dharmapala was born.

Dharmapala began life in 1864 as David Hewavitharane, a son of one of the wealthiest families in Colombo, and he was educated in the best British Christian academies in Ceylon. As a child he also came to enjoy spending time among Buddhist monks, even when he didn’t understand what they were talking about.

Among the Theosophists

David Hewavitharane was only 16 when the spiritualist Madame Blavatsky and her companion, Henry Steel Olcott, arrived in Ceylon. The pair publicly took the refuges at a large temple in Galle. After centuries of being told by whites that Christianity was the superior religion, the “white Buddhists” were embraced by the people of Ceylon.

Blavatsky and Olcott lit a fire in young Hewavitharane, and he soon fell into their orbit. The westerners had created a new religion by blending together elements of Asian traditions with big doses of western Transcendentalism and 19th century Orientalism, calling their beliefs”Theosophy.” Hewavitharane traveled with the pair, sometimes acting as translator. He worked with Olcott to establish Buddhist schools in Ceylon.

During this time he renounced his English name and began to call himself Anagarika (“homeless one”) Dharmapala (“protector of the dharma”). He didn’t take monks’ vows until very near the end of his life, but as a lay “home leaver” he vowed to keep the Eight Uposatha Precepts daily, and not just on special observance days. He ditched western clothing in favor of simple white or yellow robes that would not be mistaken for monks’ robes.

In time, however, Dharmapala broke off his association with the Theosophists. Olcott and Blavatsky held on to the Transcendentalist ideal of a universal religion, of which all established religious traditions are only fragments. Dharmapala came to see the dharma as the supreme truth, and he thought the westerners’ belief in a Universal Soul was more Hindu than Buddhist.

Spreading the Dharma

After his split with the Theosophists, Dharmapala became a leader in his own right. He worked to restore Buddhism to its central place in the culture of Ceylon. He also called for independence from Britain.

His influence spread beyond Ceylon when he co-founded the Mahabodhi Society in 1891. This organization restored Bodh Gaya, the place where the Buddha realized enlightenment, as a Buddhist pilgrimage site.

In 1993 Dharmapala traveled to Chicago to take part in the World Parliament of Religions. He and Rinzai Zen master Soyen Shaku both addressed the assembly. Although there had been Buddhist priests and teachers in the West for a few decades, this was arguably the first time non-ethnic Asian Americans heard about Buddhism from Buddhists on western soil.

The 29-year-old Dharmapala was a sensation. Press reports glowingly described his all-white robes, his black curly hair, and his gentle, refined face. Of course, it didn’t hurt that he spoke excellent English and had a good understanding of western culture, thanks to those British Christian academies.

Philosopher and author Paul Carus invited Dharmapala back to America a few more times to present talks on Buddhism, and so his influence in the West lasted long after the Parliament.

On one of his trips to America, Dhammapala stopped in London to visit author Edwin Arnold, whose Light of Asia was one of the first popular books about Buddhism published in English. The London trip inspired him to establish a small Theravada monastery in London; The London Buddhist Vihara opened in 1926.

Buddhist Modernism

In the West, Dharmapala “pitched” Buddhism to appeal to modernists who were seeking a spiritual tradition that was pro-science and anti-supernatural, a view of Buddhism that is still widely held in the West today.

His timing could not have been better. In the late 19th century Christianity was reeling from the challenge of Darwin’s Origin of Species, and psychology was just emerging as a new branch of science. Dharmapala wove science together with Buddhist teaching, arguing that the Buddha had taught things science was just beginning to discover.

In many ways Dharmapala’s presentation was a re-tooling of Buddhism, emphasizing some aspects of the teachings while de-emphasizing others. But it was brilliantly done, and it worked. Dharmapala’s influence on modern Buddhism can still be felt, in Asia as well as the West.

Dharmapala continued to lecture and write about Buddhism and to call for Ceylon’s independence from Britain. He was ordained a monk shortly before his death at the age of 68.

Buddhism in Korea

The carved image of the standing Buddha (마애불입상) on Gayasan, South Korea.
© Straitgate / Wikipedia Commons / Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License

Buddhism in Korea has a long and distinguished history, but not always a smooth one.

Today Korea is divided, North and South. Secretive North Korea is officially an atheistic state, although there is a Korean Buddhist Federation that is part of the government. Buddhist clergy are, in effect, public employees  Estimates of the number of Buddhists in North Korea range from 100,000 to just over one million.

South Korea is roughly 23 percent Mahayana Buddhist, 28 percent Christian, and about 46 percent of Koreans claim no religious affiliation. In recent years that has been considerable tension between South Korea’s Buddhists and fundamentalist Christians.

Early Buddhism in Korea (372-917)

Buddhism officially was introduced to Korea in 372 CE, while the Korean peninsula was divided into three kingdoms. A monk, an emissary from one of the several kingdoms in China, arrived with copies of sutras and Buddha images. It is suspected the Koreans already had some knowledge of Buddhism, however, through informal contact with other travelers.

Shamanism had been the primary religion of the Korean people before Buddhism and has remained part of Korea’s religious culture. Shamanism appears to have been blended into Buddhism soon after its introduction.

In the 6th century one of Korea’s three kingdoms, Silla, grew to become the dominant power of the Korean peninsula. Buddhism became the official religion of Silla during the reign of King Pophung (514-539). From then until late in the 8th century, many monks from Korea traveled to China to study and bring teachings back home.

One of these monks was Wonhyo (617-686), one of the most influential monks and scholars of all of Korean history. His extensive writing was influential in China and Japan as well as Korea.

Wonhyo was particularly interested in doctrinal coherence, and he surveyed the schools that had been transmitted to Korea by then, including HyayanTiantaiPure Land, and Ch’an (Zen). 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.”

Late in the 8th century Ch’an Buddhism, called Seon in Korea, became particularly prominent. Nine Seon monastic centers, called the Nine Mountains, were established.

A Golden Age (918-1392)

The Goryo Period was a time of political unity and stability in Korea, and Buddhism flourished, supported by the monarchy. Some consider this to be the golden age of Korean Buddhism.

The Korean Buddhist canon was published during this time. 81,000 of the woodblocks of this printing are stored at the Haein-sa on Mount Kaya, South Korea.

Prominent masters during this period included Jinul (1158-1210; also spelled Chinul) who is considered the founder of the Jogye order of Seon Buddhism, a dominant school in Korea today. Jinul was a reformer who integrated Hyayan teachings into Seon. He also encouraged meditation on koans.

As will happen with powerful institutions, toward the end of this period Buddhist institutions fell into corruption.

Persecution of Buddhism (1392-1910)

For the next five centuries, the Joseon Dynasty reigned in Korea and suppressed the practice of Buddhism. During this time Buddhist funerals and begging for alms were forbidden, and monks and nuns were restricted in their travels. Several thousand temples and monasteries were closed, and all schools but Seon Buddhism faded away in Korea.

Seosan Daesa (1520-1604) was a notable Seon master from this period. Seosan organized an army of warrior monks to repel a Japanese invasion of Korea that occurred between 1592 and 1598.He also made important contributions to the development of Seon. Most lineages of Seon in Korea today can be traced back to Seosan.

The Japanese Occupation (1910-1945)

Japan annexed Korea in 1910, which had the effect of ending the persecution of Buddhism. However, pressure was put on Korean monks to adapt to Japanese monastic practices. This included the ending of celibacy, since the Meiji Emperor had ended celibacy in Japanese Buddhismin the 19th century. The Japanese also insisted on loosening restrictions on wine and meat

.Some monks adapted; some did not. No Korean nuns accepted the Japanese adaptations, however.

In 1924 a new lay movement called Won Buddhism was established by Pak Chungbin ((1891-1943). Pak believed that the Buddhist teaching of Trikaya was represented, in one way or another, in all religions. Although Won’s doctrines are Buddhist, in organization and ceremonial observance it resembles Protestantism.

1945 to Today

Korea was liberated from Japan at the end of World War II, but almost immediately it was divided between North and South.  Most religion is suppressed in North Korea, although the government-run Buddhist institution, the Korean Buddhist Federation, does survive.

South Korean monks almost immediately were thrown into a turmoil over celibacy. The dominant Jogye order of Seon Buddhism insisted in a return to full monastic rules, including celibacy. After much rancor and court battles, the married monks were turned out of the monasteries and properties restored to the celibate Jogye.

In recent years there also has been considerable friction between Korea’s Christian fundamentalists and Buddhists. The fundamentalists have even attacked several monasteries and destroyed Buddhist art. For more on this development, see “Christian-Buddhist Tension in South Korea.”

Liu Tiemo, the “Iron Grindstone”

According to legend, Liu Tiemo (ca. 780-859) was born into a Chinese peasant family that lived near Mount Hua, in north central China. She was a short, plain girl who grew up helping her father farm a rich man’s plot of land. The family was poor and often hungry. When she was old enough to leave, she left.
Liu wandered through mountains and towns, often seeking shelter in convents. Eventually she asked to be ordained. She worked hard at study and meditation. After a few years she left the convent and began wandering again.
Zihu Heshang:

Liu Tiemo encountered nuns, monks, and teachers, and won a reputation as a fierce debater. When she met Master Zihu, he told Liu Tiemo that he’d heard she was hard to handle.”Who says this?” asked Liu.

“It’s conveyed from left and right,” Master Zihu replied.

“Don’t fall down, master,” she said, and turned to leave. He struck her.

Liu Tiemo sought out Master Guishan, and studied with him. Master Guishan was a famous teacher with 1,500 students, most of them men. Of these 1,500 he named only 43 his dharma heirs. One of these was Liu Tiemo. By now people were calling Liu “the Iron Grindstone,” because she ground to bits anyone who dared challenge her in debate. It was said she was as sharp as a stone-struck spark.

Blue Cliff Record, Case 24:

The Iron Grindstone is remembered in a koan.Iron Grindstone Liu arrived at Guishan. Guishan said, “Old cow, you came hah!”

Grindstone said, “In the coming day at Lookout Mountain (Taishan) there is a great assembly to provide monks with a vegetarian meal. Venerable, will you be leaving to go back there?”

Guishan relaxed his body and lay down to sleep.

Grindstone then left.

You can find a dharma talk explaining this mystical exchange here.

Shantideva’s Lecture

Shantideva (ca. 685-763; sometimes spelled Santideva) is best known as the author of the Bodhisattvacharyavatara, or The Way of the Bodhisattva. This accomplishment marks him as one of the patriarchs of Mahayana Buddhism. He was also the author of a lesser-known work, the Siksasamuccaya (“Training Anthology”).

For all of his importance to Mahayana Buddhism, however, we don’t know that much about him. The biographies written over the centuries probably are made up of folktales. But here is his standard biography.

Shantideva’s Story

Shantideva was said to have been a crown prince of a kingdom in what is now the western Indian state of Gujarat. The night before his coronation, Manjusri Bodhisattva came to him in a dream and told him to renounce his throne and instead dedicate himself to seeking enlightenment.

In another version of this story, on the night before his coronation Shantideva’s mother gave him a ceremonial bath in scalding water. When he complained, she said, “My son, this is nothing compared to the pain of being king.” After the bath, the prince departed.

After renouncing his throne the former prince lived for a time as a wandering mendicant. In time he came to the great learning center at Nalanda. He was ordained as a monk at Nalanda and given the name Shantideva, which means “god of peace.”

At Nalanda, Shantideva came across as a slacker. No one ever saw him study. He didn’t show up for practice debates. He was called “Three Realizations” because, it was assumed, his only activities were eating, sleeping and defecating.

It would not do to harbor such a do-nothing at Nalanda. The great monastery depended on the support of wealthy patrons to survive. In return, the patrons expected the monks to study and teach the dharma. If the patrons learned their donations were supporting the likes of Shantideva, they might withhold support.

So he had to go. Or else he had to be shamed into getting down to work. But how could that be accomplished?

It was decided to invite Shantideva to present a teaching to the entire university. This was a great honor usually given to the most accomplished students. He was to give his talk while sitting on a throne, which in some versions of the story was placed on a high platform without any stairs, to make him struggle to get to his seat.

On the day of the talk, Shantideva entered the great hall and made three prostrations to the throne. Then he effortlessly seated himself, to the astonishment of the audience.

Then he asked, “Should I teach you something that other monks have already presented? Or would you like to hear something new?” The audience called for the new teaching.

“Very well,” Shantideva said. And he proceeded to recite the verses of the Bodhisattvacharyavatara. These verses described the power of bodhicitta and how to cultivate it. They reviewed the Six Perfections and explained how the perfections also opened the heart to bodhicitta.

When his talk reached the sixth perfection, the Perfection of Wisdom, Shantideva began to rise into the air. He floated higher and higher, until the assembly only heard his voice but no longer saw him. Then his voice faded as well, and he entirely disappeared from Nalanda, never to return. In some versions of the story he is said to have returned to the life of a wandering mendicant.

Ruins of Nalanda

The Way of the Bodhisattva: An Introduction to the Bodhisattvacharyavatara

The  Bodhisattvacharyavatara, or “Way of the Bodhisattva,” by Shantideva is a seminal text of Mahayana Buddhism and a treasure of the world’s religious literature. Today it is primarily associated with Tibetan Buddhism, but its significance to all of Mahayana cannot be overstated.

The Bodhisattvacharyavatara, written about 700 CE, is said to present the entire spectrum of Mahayana teachings. His Holiness the Dalai Lama said, ‘If I have any understanding of compassion and the bodhisattva path, it all comes from studying this text.

The title is also sometimes translated “Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life” or “Undertaking the Way of the Bodhisattva.” There is also a shorter Sanskrit name, Bodhicaryavatara, which means “Entering the Path of Enlightenment.”

Shantideva (ca. 685-763; sometimes spelled Santideva) was a monk and scholar of the Madhyamika school who taught at the great learning center at Nalanda. Little else is known about him, although he is the subject of many fables and myths.

Contents of the Bodhisattvacharyavatara

The Bodhisattvacharyavatara is written in verse and describes the path to enlightenment, beginning with the arising of the desire to realize enlightenment for the sake of others (bodhicitta). Early Chinese and Tibetan manuscripts of the Bodhisattvacharyavatara are not arranged in exactly the same way, but the version of the text commonly translated into English has ten chapters.

The first three chapters focus on bodhicitta. Shantideva describes the power of bodhicitta to enlighten all beings and explains how to nurture bodhicitta in ourselves. This section also introduces us to the bodhisattva vow to save all beings. For example, this well-loved passage is in Chapter 3*:

May I be a guard for those who are protectorless,
A guide for those who journey on the road.
For those who wish to cross the water,
May I be a boat, a raft, a bridge.

Read More: Bodhisattva Vows

Chapters 4, 5 and 6 focus on working with emotions and defilements. This middle section also elaborates on the Six Perfections or paramitas. The perfections of generosity and morality are explained in Chapter 5. Chapter 6 is centered on the perfection of patience, explaining how defilements in our minds keep us mired in selfishness and impatience.

In chapters 7, 8 and 9 Shantideva continues to elaborate on the paramitas. Chapter 7 is focused on the perfection of energy or diligence, and Chapter 8 is on the perfection of meditation. Chapter 9, on the perfection of wisdom, is considered the most challenging part of the Bodhisattvacharyavatara.  Here Shantideva goes most deeply into Nagarjuna‘s Madhyamika philosophy and the emptiness of phenomena.

Chapter 10 is a beautiful and lyric dedication of the merit of his work to all suffering beings, including beings in the hell realm.

Studying the Bodhisattvacharyavatara

There are several translations of the Bodhisattvacharyavatara in English; some are available in PDF form on the Web. If you are working with a teacher, he or she may prefer one translation over another. I am most familiar with the translation by the Padmakara Translation Group and published by Shambhala. There is a “companion” book to this volume, which is a commentary by His Holiness the Dalai Lama titled For the Benefit of All Beings: A Commentary on the Way of the Bodhisattva (Shambhala, 2009).

Another very readable guide to the Bodhisattvacharyavatara is Pema Chodron’s No Time to Lose: A Timely Guide to the Way of the Bodhisattva (Shambhala, 2003). Chodron notes that Chapter 9 needs a book to itself and for that points the reader to Transcendent Wisdom by the Dalai Lama and B. Alan Wallace (Snow Lion, Rev. Ed. 2009).

______________

*Translations by Padmakara Translation Group (Shambhala Publications, 1997, 2006).

Do We Really Make Our Own Reality?

 The claim that “we make our own reality” pops up frequently in Buddhism, and the claim often is repeated in mind-body-spirit circles. But what does “make our own reality” really mean?

From a Buddhist perspective, it doesn’t mean that once you’re enlightened you can fly or step in front of speeding trains without harm. Whatever your spiritual status, expect to continue to be subject to the laws of physics.

So what does it mean? To a Buddhist, “we make our own reality” could be understood in different ways, and some Buddhists disagree with the statement entirely. It’s probably the case that Mahayana Buddhists are more likely to agree with it than Theravada Buddhists. And if you do find some truth in it, you may understand the phrase in different ways as your practice matures.

© Moyan Brenn / Wikipedia Commons / Creative Commons License

The Fruits of Karma

Some of those who object to the idea of making our own reality say that it’s a misunderstanding of the first verses of the Dhammapada, a collection of sayings of the Buddha found in the Pali Sutta-pitaka.One of the early translations of the Dhammapada, by F. Max Muller, begins All that we are is the result of what we have thought: it is founded on our thoughts, it is made up of our thoughts.” A more recent translation by Thanissaro Bhikkhu begins “Phenomena are preceded by the heart, ruled by the heart, made of the heart.”

This verse is about karma. It is said karma is created by body, speech and mind. But in fact mind comes first; whatever we do with body and speech begins with mind — a thought or an intention. . Note that the original Pali uses variations of the word manas for “mind.”

Read More: “Manas: The Mind of Will and Delusion

However, I think it can also be argued that karma creates our reality, or at least a lot of it. Karma is the action created by intention, and in Buddhism it’s understood that the life you have right now was built by all the choices, and the intentions, you made so far.

But when we say that karma created your reality, be clear that karma refers only to volition action. There are other natural laws in the world — such as physics — that are not affected by karma. Karma doesn’t create natural disasters, for example, but the karma of your life will affect how you handle being in one.

Projected Reality

At this point, you might be thinking this “make your own reality” thing isn’t so cool after all. But there are other ways to look at it.

One of these ways is psychological. People who are frequently angry create a lot of problems for themselves, while someone with a generous heart may inspire generosity in others. What you project out into the world is reflected back to you by the world.

The poet Walt Whitman expressed this when he wrote.,

I swear the earth shall surely be complete to him or her who shall be complete,
The earth remains jagged and broken only to him or her who remains jagged and broken.

It is sometimes said your “outer” reality is a reflection of your “inner” reality, although the “outer” and “inner” really aren’t two separate things.

The Six Realms are sometimes interpreted to refer to personality types or mental states rather than physical places. People driven by addictions might be said to be in the Hungry Ghost realm, for example. So in this case the “realm” you are in is an allegory for your mental state.

Yogacara

The Mahayana philosophy of Yogacara is primarily concerned with the nature of experience. In particular, it analyzes how a mental function called vijnana, awareness or consciousness, connects sense objects with sense organs to create experience. For example, vijnana intersects a visible object with the eye to create the experience of sight. Vijnana also connects perception (samjna) to ideas to create thinking.

Read More: The Five Skandhas

Yogacara is a sophisticated philosophy that takes most of us a long time to comprehend. It proposes that the sense objects we see, feel, taste or hear are not “real” but are creations of vijnana.

This isn’t as off the wall as it might seem. Today’s neuroscentists say that the way we experience all the phenomena “out there” really is mostly a fabrication of our brains and nervous systems. Color, for example, is something our brains create from sensory impulses. The red in a rose is in our heads, not in the rose. This is also true of the way the rose smells and feels.

So, according to Yogacara, we really do “make our own reality”; we’re just not conscious of it.

The Ten Suchnesses: A Teaching From the Lotus Sutra

The Lotus Sutra is one of the most revered scriptures of Mahayana Buddhism. The sutra is known for its sumptuous allegorical imagery and its promise that all beings will realize Buddhahood.

Believed to have been written in the 2nd century CE, in 6th century China the Lotus Sutra was recognized as the supreme sutra by the Chinese monk Zhiyi (Chih-i), founder of the Tiantai school, which would be called Tendai in Japan. In part through Tendai influence, the Lotus became one of the most influential sutras in Japanese Buddhism. It deeply influenced Japanese Zen and also is an object of devotion of the Nichiren school.

The Ten Suchnesses are a teaching originally developed by Zhiyi based on passages from the Lotus Sutra. Suchness, in Sanskrit tathata, means “reality.” It is sometimes understood that suchness underlies reality, and the appearance of things in the phenomenal world are manifestations of suchness. The Ten Suchnesses are an exploration of the deepest nature of reality.

Many teachers and scholars over the years have written commentaries drawing deep lessons from the Ten Suchnesses, and this article is only a very brief introduction.

1.  Such a Form

In this case, “form” also means “appearance.” This is the form of individual phenomena that we can observe. Sometimes this is called “the suchness of the mark,” or what marks the particular thing being observed.

2.  Such a Nature

Nature means characteristic, particularly the kinds of characteristics that you might not “see” right away. It’s the nature of bees to make honeycombs, for example. It is the nature of daffodil bulbs to flower in the spring.

3.  Such an Embodiment

Sometimes “such a substance,” this one is a bit difficult to explain, especially in Buddhist terms. It is sometimes explained as an individual’s principal quality. In humans, this may refer to the quality of their skandhas.

4.  Such a Potency

This is a power or energy appropriate to the embodied being, particularly in potential form. The potency of a sunflower seed is to grow into a really big flower.

5.  Such a Function

This is sometimes “such an influence.” This is the potency manifested; the sunflower seed actually sprouting, rooting, and growing.

6.  Such a Primary Cause

Cause is hugely important in Buddhism (see karma). Primary cause refers to a direct or internal cause. Most of the time, this is explained as mind. As it says in the Dhammapada, “Phenomena are preceded by the heart, ruled by the heart, made of the heart.” (Thanissaro Bhikkhu translation; some translators say “mind” instead of “heart.”) The sutta tells us that a defiled heart and a pure heart cause very different effects.

7.  Such a Secondary Cause

This suchness is sometimes called “such a condition.” This refers to the conditions affecting an individual that either help or hinder it. For example, our sunflower seed needs to be planted, especially where it can grow roots.

8.  Such an Effect

Now the primary cause and the secondary cause come together to create an effect, which could be a big, flowering sunflower.

9.  Such a Recompense

This is sometimes “manifest effect” or “reward.” A manifest effect of our sunflower is not just its striking appearance, but also that its seeds provide food for birds and other creatures. Some of those seeds might grow into new sunflowers.

10.  Such an Ultimate Integration

Here all ten factors coalesce into a seamless whole. The sunflower is the sprout is the soil is the rain is the finch feasting on its seeds. Some commenters link this suchness to Dependent Origination, or the way all phenomena are linked to all other phenomena. Our sunflower is not just a component within a garden but is a manifestation of all phenomena everywhere — of suchness.

The Emperor Ashoka, Patron of Buddhism

One of the most important figures in Buddhist history was not a monk or sage, but an emperor. The Emperor Ashoka Maurya (304–232 BCE) is credited with making Buddhism a major religion throughout Asia.

Ashoka ruled a vast empire that spread from modern-day Afghanistan to the Bay of Bengal, including most of modern-day India. Through his patronage, Buddhism not only spread throughout this empire but into Sri Lanka as well. It is believed Ashoka’s Buddhist missionaries may have traveled as far as Egypt and Greece.

For more general biographies of Ashoka, see Ashoka the Great: India’s Mauryan Empire and Ashoka the Great: King of the Mauryan Empire of India. This article is going to look more specifically at Ashoka’s relationship with Buddhism.

The Edicts of Ashoka

The history of ancient times often is pieced together from questionable evidence. There are some things we know for certain about Ashoka, however, because of the edicts he left on pillars and rocks throughout his empire.

Historians believe these edicts are Ashoka’s own words.

In one “rock edict,” for example, Ashoka expressed regret for the deaths caused by his military conquests, in particular the slaughter of the people of Kalinga, which was in the same area as the state of Odisha, India. After the Kalinga War (ca. 265 BCE) Ashoka repented of violence and became a lay Buddhist.

From the edicts, it is clear that Ashoka’s rule was guided by the dharma. Buddhism became Ashoka’s state religion. People were not required to convert to Buddhism, however. Indeed, one of Ashoka’s most famous edicts called for tolerance of all religions in his realm. He desired “that all religions should reside everywhere, for all of them desire self-control and purity of heart.”

In his edicts Ashoka did not attempt to teach Buddhist doctrines. Instead, he promoted harmony, peace, justice and compassion, based on Buddhist principles. He instructed officials to help the poor and sick, and he called for restraint in the killing and harming of living beings, both human and non-human. He promoted the virtues of kindnessgenerosityequanimity and truthfulness.

The pillars and rocks bearing the edicts have been found scattered throughout India, Nepal, Pakistan and Afghanistan. One particularly significant pillar was erected at Lumbini, the site of the historical Buddha’s birth. This site was lost for a thousand years until a German archaeologist found the Ashoka pillar in 1895.

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

Ashoka and the Monastic Sangha

Another source of information on the life of Ashoka are Buddhist chronicles kept in Sri Lanka, called the Mahavamsa and Dipavamsa. With these texts it is less certain than with the edicts where history ends and legend begins, however. The chronicles tell us that Ashoka sent his son Mahinda and his daughter Sanghamitta — a monk and a nun — to the court of King Tissa of Ceylon. Soon the King and his court were converted, and Buddhism has been practiced in Ceylon — today’s Sri Lanka — for 23 centuries.

Read More: Buddhism in Sri Lanka

More stories about Ashoka were recorded a text called the Asokavadana, which is believed to have been written by monks living in what is now the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. These accounts probably are more legend than fact, however. In later centuries, Chinese pilgrims to India recorded stories they were told about Ashoka, but by then Ashoka’s life was remembered in myth.

However, it is apparent that Ashoka’s influence had a major impact on Buddhism. Before Ashoka, the Buddha’s teachings could be found only in a portion of present-day India, primarily in the Upper Ganges Valley. After Ashoka, Buddhism was known far beyond India.

Buddhist chronicles say that Ashoka personally convened the Third Buddhist Council in about 250 BCE at Pataliputra, an ancient city in what is now north central India. His purpose was twofold. One, he was responding to reports of heretical views and dissensions among the monks at Pataliputra. Ashoka is said to have interviewed each monk personally and dismissed monks who held beliefs contrary to the Buddha’s teaching — in particular, belief in an eternal, unchanging self.

Second, Ashoka appointed knowledgeable monks to go forth as emissaries to teach the dharma. This part of the story is confirmed by the edicts. These monks were assigned nine destinations, including Gandhara, Kashmir, Greece, Sri Lanka, Burma (Myanmar), Egypt, and Thailand.

Not all missions were successful. Buddhism did not take root in Thailand or Burma for a few more centuries after the Third Council. However, the missions to Greece and Egypt may have had some interesting effects. Scholars have long noted some blending of Hellenic and Buddhist thought that began about that time. There is also some archaeological evidence of Buddhists living in Alexandria.

The Mauryan Empire did not survive long after Ashoka’s death. The pillars and rocks bearing Ashoka’s edicts remained, but the Indo-Aryan language in which they were written faded from public memory. Outside of Buddhist chronicles Ashoka was forgotten, until British scholars translated the edicts in the 19th century. Thanks to this work, Ashoka is remembered today as a great and humane monarch.

Self, No Self, What’s a Self?

Philosophers eastern and western have wrestled with the concept of self for many centuries. What is the self?

The Buddha taught a doctrine called anatta, which is often defined as no-self, or the teaching that the sense of being a permanent, autonomous self is an illusion. This does not fit our ordinary experience. Am I not me? If not, who is reading this article right now?

To add to the confusion, the Buddha discouraged his disciples from speculating about the self. For example, in the Sabbasava Sutta (Pali Sutta-pitaka, Majjhima Nikaya 2) he advised us not to ponder certain questions, such as Am I? Am I not?, because this would lead to six kinds of wrong views:

  1. I have a self.
  2. I have no self.
  3. By means of a self I perceive self.
  4. By means of a self I perceive not-self.
  5. By means of not-self I perceive self.
  6. The self of mine that knows is everlasting and will stay as it is forever.

If you are now thoroughly baffled — here the Buddha is not explaining whether you do or don’t have a self; he is saying that such intellectual speculation is not the way to gain understanding. And notice that when one says I have no self, the sentence assumes a self that doesn’t have a self.

So, the nature of the no-self is not something that can be grasped intellectually or explained with words. However, without some appreciation of anatta you will misunderstand everything else about Buddhism. Yes, its that important. So lets look at the no-self more closely.

Anatta or Anatman

Very basically, anatta (or anatman in Sanskrit) is the teaching that there is no permanent, eternal, unchanging, or autonomous self inhabiting our bodies or living our lives. Anatman is contrasted with the Vedic teachings of the Buddhas day, which taught that there is within each of us an atman, or an unchanging, eternal soul or identity.

Anatta or anatman is one of the Three Marks of Existence. The other two are dukkha (roughly, unsatisfying) and anicca (impermanent). In this context, anatta often is translated as egolessness.

Of critical importance is the teaching of the Second Noble Truth, which tells us that because we believe we are a permanent and unchanging self, we fall into clinging and craving, jealousy and hate, and all the other poisons that cause unhappiness.

Theravada Buddhism

In his book What the Buddha Taught, the Theravadin scholar Walpola Rahula said,

According to the teaching of the Buddha, the idea of a self is an imaginary, false belief which has no corresponding reality, and it produces harmful thoughts of me and mine, selfish desire, craving, attachment, hatred, ill-will, conceit, pride, egoism,and other defilements, impurities and problems.

Other Theravadin teachers, such as Thanissaro Bhikkhu, prefer to say that the question of a self is unanswerable. He said,

In fact, the one place where the Buddha was asked point-blank whether or not there was a self, he refused to answer. When later asked why, he said that to hold either that there is a self or that there is no self is to fall into extreme forms of wrong view that make the path of Buddhist practice impossible.

In this view, even to reflect on the question of whether one has or does not have a self leads to identification with a self, or perhaps an identification with nihilism. It is better to put the question aside and focus on other teachings, in particular the Four Noble Truths. The Bhikkhu continued,

In this sense, the anatta teaching is not a doctrine of no-self, but a not-self strategy for shedding suffering by letting go of its cause, leading to the highest, undying happiness. At that point, questions of self, no-self, and not-self fall aside.

Mahayana Buddhism

Mahayana Buddhism teaches a variation of anatta called sunyata, or emptiness. All beings and phenomena are empty of self-essence.

This doctrine is associated with a 2nd century philosophy called Madhyamika, school of the middle way, founded by the sage Nagarjuna. Because nothing has self-existence, phenomena take existence only as they relate to other phenomena. For this reason, according to Madhyamika, it is incorrect to say that phenomena either exist or dont exist. The middle way is the way between affirmation and negation.

Read More: The Two Truths: What Is Reality?

Mahayana Buddhism also is associated with the doctrine of Buddha Nature. According to this doctrine, Buddha Nature is the fundamental nature of all beings. Is Buddha Nature a self?

Theravadins sometimes accuse Mahayana Buddhists of using Buddha Nature as a way to sneak atman, a soul or self, back into Buddhism. And sometimes they have a point. It is common to conceive of Buddha Nature as a kind of big soul that everyone shares. To add to the confusion, sometimes Buddha Nature is called original self or true self. Ive heard Buddha Nature explained as a big self, and our individual personages as a the small self, but Ive come to think that is a very unhelpful way to understand it.

Mahayana teachers (mostly) say that it is incorrect to think of Buddha Nature as something we possess. Zen master Eihei Dogen (1200-1253) made a point of saying that Buddha Nature is what we are, not something we have.

In a famous dialogue, a monk asked Chan master Chao-chou Tsung-shen (778-897) if a dog has Buddha nature. Chao-chous answer — Mu! (no, or does not have) has been contemplated as a koan by generations of Zen students. Very broadly, the koan works to crush the concept of Buddha Nature as a kind of self we carry around with us.

Dogen wrote in Genjokoan —

To study the Buddha Way is to study the self. / To study the self is to forget the self. /To forget the self is to be enlightened by the 10,000 things.

Once we thoroughly investigate self, self is forgotten. However, I am told, this doesnt mean that the person you are disappears when enlightenment is realized. The difference, as I understand it, is that we no longer perceive the world through a self-referential filter.