Category Archives: Buddhism

Zen History; Our History

This is the prepared text of a talk I gave on Zoom at Treeleaf Zendo, June 21, 2020. There is a video recording here

I want to speak today about why I think it’s important for Zen students to know something about Zen history.

My first Zen teacher, the late John Daido Loori, used to say that we all live in a box, and the dimensions of the box are made up of who we think we are and what we think our life should be.

The function of psychotherapy and most popular self-improvement programs is to remodel the box ― bring in nicer furniture, maybe expand the space, put in some windows to let light in. But the function of Zen is to help us realize that there is no box.

And it’s only by looking closely at what the box is made of that the ephemeral nature of the box is revealed.

Stories are a common element of boxes. As we live our lives we tend to craft a personal narrative that is all about “me” ― who I think I am, what I think my life should be. The dramatic tension of our story is created by all the ways circumstances frustrate us by not conforming to our expectations and giving us what we want.  And deep down, perhaps we cling to a hope that eventually the plotlines will bend in our favor and we can live happily ever after.

Maintaining this personal, ongoing story in which we are the star is one of the ways we maintain our belief in a continuing, permanent self. It’s how we craft our personal identity. The Buddha understood this, and he taught people how to break the connection to their narratives through mindfulness. By paying moment-to-moment attention just to what is, without judgments or intellectual filters or placing experience in any other context, we can begin to realize the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves aren’t reality, and that person starring in our story isn’t really who we are.

A few years ago the Zen teacher Norman Fischer published a book called Sailing Home that is about exploring our personal stories. He wrote that when we stop getting lost in our own plotlines, with their tensions and expectations, we begin to see the feedback loops and old tapes that keep us stuck in suffering.

In the book, Norman Fischer suggested an exercise in which we begin with our earliest memory and then tell our life story as a story and not as a resume. Take two or three memories from childhood, from adolescence, from early adulthood, and so on, and then create a story that connects the memories. Then, go back, dredge up a different set of memories, and do it again. You might find you’ve told two very different stories about two apparently very different people. This exercise might put the question of “who do you think you are?” in a new light.

However, I think it also has to be said that none of us can ever stop crafting a personal story. It’s something we humans are wired to do. We just need to make sure our story is honest and that if provides a healthy psychological foundation for practice and for being a functional human being. And perhaps we shouldn’t take the story too seriously.

Now, history might be defined as the creation of an ongoing narrative on a collective scale. I suspect historians would hate that definition, but let’s go with it for now. In ancient times, what was called history was mostly folktales and myths, some of which might have been based on events that really happened, although not necessarily. These narratives were critical to creating the identities of tribes, or clans, or ethnic groups, or kingdoms. They told people who they were in a collective sense, as members of a particular group.  Sometimes histories had to be revised when there was a change in the group, such as a new dynasty conquering an old one. Often when that happened stories about the old kings were forgotten and their images were smashed and replaced.

In the modern era, scholars took hold of history and insisted it be only about events that really happened. That’s a wonderful ideal that hasn’t yet been fulfilled. It is a fact that even now history is revised all the time as new generations of scholars bring new sensibilities and points of view to it.

If we go back to the exercise about creating different stories about ourselves based on different sets of memories, you can apply that to how historians have, consciously or unconsciously, shaped our views about things that have happened in the past. You can take this set of facts and interpret them this way to tell this story; you can take that set of facts and interpret them that way to tell that story. And the two stories may both be factual but still contradict each other.

 Right now in the United States we’re having a struggle over relatively recent history. The American Civil War ended 155 years ago, not in 437 BC, and there are vast archives of records documenting exactly what happened. Yet we can’t agree on how that history is told.

In spite of all the memes on social media that complain about people living in the past, the truth is that even though the war is long over, the history of it is very much part of the collective meta-box Americans live in. Much of the standard history of slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction, and the Jim Crow era that followed, and the way that history was taught in American schools for more than a century, was crafted by southern scholars who were Confederate apologists.  And these apologists did a bang-up job of  indoctrinating generations of American students into a whitewashed and highly romanticized perspective of that part of our history. In other words, thanks to the way this part of our story is told, we have avoided confronting and atoning for slavery all these years.

The facts of this history cannot be disputed. The people who pushed the South into secession were very open in their letters, speeches, and official documents that their primary objective was to maintain a white supremacist culture and the institution of slavery. That’s what they were all about. There is copious documentation for this. Yet that plain fact was not being taught in schools when I was a student, and I don’t know how much it’s being taught now.

So in much of American popular culture, which is the place where we tell our stories about who we think we are and what we think America should be, the Confederacy was about dashing and noble gentlemen warriors fighting for some fuzzy idea of states’ rights or even liberty, not about wealthy slave owners desperate to maintain their wealth and status as lords of a system that was worse than feudalism.

Newer generations of academic historians to this day are working to counter the pro-Confederate romanticism  still embedded in American history textbooks and popular literature to tell a more honest story of the Civil War that doesn’t try to pretend it wasn’t about slavery. But I think that must be done before the nation can finally move on and live up to its own ideals of justice and equality. Until we can tell our story of our past correctly, we’re not going to get the present and future right, either.

Buddhist history also has been subject to considerable myth-making and revision. There is very little of the first five or so centuries of Buddhist history that we know with any certainty. What records that we have are fragmentary and conflicting, because they were compiled after the fact by people with obvious points to prove and axes to grind. These records may contain some clues but can’t be accepted at face value as historical fact.

In recent years early Buddhist history has become something of a blank slate on which people, in the West especially, have painted their own versions of what they want it to be.  And apparently what they want it to be is more European. 

Currently some western philosophy professors and some authors of popular Buddhist books have worked very hard to pull the historical Buddha out of India and move him closer to Europe, especially Greece.

Now, there really is reason to believe there was cross-pollination between Greek and Buddhist civilizations for a time. As I wrote in the first chapter of The Circle of the Way, beginning about the 2nd century BCE and through the early centuries of the first millennium CE, a large part of Afghanistan and Pakistan, and beyond, was a center of Buddhist civilization, primarily Mahayana Buddhism. And this same area was a crossroads of civilizations in which Greek, Roman, Persian, Indian, and possibly Chinese cultures intermingled. This is important to Zen because we know that most of the Buddhist monks who introduced Buddhism to China in the early first millennium CE came from this same area, following merchants east on the Silk Road into China. So if people see some influence of Greek thought in Mahayana Buddhism, it’s a good guess that’s where it happened.

But “some influence” isn’t good enough for some people. In recent years I’ve seen people who speak with authoritative voices declare that the historical Buddha probably wasn’t influenced by the religions and philosophies of India very much, if at all. Let me just say without going into a lot of detail that that position is utterly unsupportable.

And I ran into a scholar recently who was very sure that the Mahayana doctrine of emptiness appeared suddenly in Buddhism from Greek texts smuggled into monasteries and did not evolve naturally and organically from the historical Buddha’s teachings, as it certainly seems to have evolved.  Apparently Asians needed Greeks to explain it to them.

I’m only going to say that one should be enormously skeptical of attempts to make the Buddha and Buddhism more European and less Asian, even when the person making these claims teaches in a university and has a ton of Ph.D.s  I am not saying that these people are consciously racist, but I honestly do believe their, shall we say, ethnocentric biases are causing them to project things they want to see on Buddhist history that aren’t actually there. Historians are human beings, and unfortunately the discipline of history has no equivalent to the scientific method to filter out biases.

Now we have Buddhism introduced to China, beginning in the 1st century CE. And now I’m going to be challenged to pronounce Chinese names; let me warn you that I spell better than I pronounce. But I’ll do my best.

China was the great petri dish for Mahayana Buddhism that cultured much extraordinary scholarship and a rich diversity of schools, including Huayan, Pure Land, and Tiantai as well as Zen, which of course in China was called Chan.

In the first few centuries of Buddhism in China there seem not to have been rigid differences among schools. All Buddhist monastics received the same ordination; one was not a Tiantai nun or a Huayan nun, but a Buddhist nun. Monastics often traveled from one teacher to another seeking the dharma, and often they didn’t limit themselves to teachers of just one tradition. That said, in time sectarian rivalries formed, and self-preservation demanded that a tradition not only have highly regarded teachers but a respectable backstory.

Most of the stories we’ve all heard about the Six Patriarchs and early Chinese masters come from records compiled during the Song Dynasty, which lasted from 960 to 1279. These are the stories in the classic lamplight records and koan collections that are Zen’s shared history. As I explained in Circle of the Way, however, many of these stories aren’t so much history as myth. You might call some of them “fan fiction.”

One of the things I tried to do in the book was chart a course between the traditional stories and current academic scholarship into Zen history. Most of the time, the two things don’t line up very well. Frankly, most of the story of early Zen that we’ve all heard from teachers is post hoc invention to create a respectable backstory. This includes everything we’ve ever heard about Bodhidharma. It also includes the first thousand years or so of the transmission lineage, which appears to have been invented about the year 690 to enhance the status of a just-deceased teacher named Faru, or to enhance the status of the Shaolin Temple, where the lineage was first inscribed, or both.

Knowing this, what do we do with the tradition of lineage? Keep it. The charts are probably accurate for the past several centuries, which is worthy of respect. The tradition of transmission is well established and is the principle container that has enabled Zen to be passed from generation to generation for a very long time. I see no reason to change that.

There is no story more central to Zen’s identity than that of the 6th Patriarch, Huineng. For that we can thank the Platform Sutra, which is a wonderful text written in Huineng’s voice that expresses much wisdom. However, the academic scholars insist that the original Platform Sutra ― it got longer through the centuries ― was written about 70 years after Huineng died, and probably not by someone who knew him.

Some of the stories in the Platform Sutra about Huineng’s life couldn’t have happened, the scholars say. For example, the famous poetry contest that secured Huineng as the Sixth Patriarch couldn’t have happened, because Huineng and senior student Shenxiu did not study in the Fifth Patriarch’s temple at the same time.

But the Platform in many ways became the glue that held the Zen tradition together through the upheavals of the late Tang Dynasty and after, which some other Chinese Buddhist schools did not survive. The Platform’s teachings, whoever composed them, were embraced. The literary figure of Huineng, which may or may not bear much resemblance to the real Huineng, became the ideal prototype of a Zen teacher for a very long time. It elevated the Diamond Sutra, and the prajnaparamita sutras generally, as the scriptures most central to Zen, which they are to this day.

So, while the Platform Sutra should not be read as history, the Platform itself played a critical role in Zen history. What should we do with it now? Read it, study it, absorb it, as many generations of Zen students have done.

The koan literature is rich and useful, but it isn’t history. Some of these bits of dialogue and anecdote may be based on events that really happened, and some may be outright inventions. If you want to put them into the category of myth, that’s okay with me.

But to call something myth is not to say it isn’t true, just that it isn’t factual. Truth and factuality are not always the same thing. We’ve already seen that it’s possible to string selective facts together to express something false. By the same token, myths can express something that is deeply true but not easy to talk about.

I like something the religion scholar Karen Armstrong said about myth in an NPR interview some years ago. “Myth is about the unknown,” she said.  “It is about that for which initially we have no words. Myth therefore looks into the heart of a great silence.” She also said that a myth is something that in some sense may have happened once but which also happens all the time.

So, for example, when we hear the story of the Second Patriarch who stood outside Bodhidharma’s cave in the snow and finally cut off his own arm to get Bodhidharma’s attention ― and then proceeded to have a sensible conversation ― we might suspect that didn’t really happen. But if you think that story is about two guys who lived in the 6th century, you’re missing the point. In truth, the story is about you. It’s about everyone who first walks into a Zen center or temple, full of questions and confusion, seeking the dharma. You may not have even known it was the dharma you were seeking, just that you thought were missing something. Or maybe your “standing outside in the snow” moment came, or will come, later in your practice. We may not literally have to stand in the snow outside a cave and cut off our own arm. But metaphorically, maybe. In some way. It’s up to you to work out how the myth relates to you. It’s up to you to clarify what you’re doing in Zen, and whether the thing you think you are seeking is really what you’re seeking, or if you were ever really missing anything. And then Bodhidharma will say, “I have put your mind at rest.”

So, we can appreciate myths as myths and history as history, as long as we don’t mix them up.  When we do mix them up, it can have unfortunate consequences. For example, one of the points I make in the book is that the fabled connection between Zen and samurai warrior martial arts is way overblown. There’s a little bit of connection, but on the whole that connection is more myth than history. But it’s a myth that has been robustly romanticized and widely believed, and this possibly was a factor in the support of Zen institutions of Japan’s military aggressions in the 20th century. I believe that for a time this myth also impacted how western Zen identified itself. My first few sesshins back in the nineteen eighties struck me as being more like Marine boot camp than anything else. The atmosphere was very macho, very martial. I understand that a macho atmosphere permeated many western Zen centers and temples of the time. From what I’ve seen this appears be less true now, possibly because samurai macho Zen has smacked into western feminism. Which is just as well.

So let’s talk about the history as history. Something that I realized while I was writing Circle of the Way is that Zen doesn’t really have a starting point. In the traditional stories Zen is said to have been founded in China by Bodhidharma at about the beginning of the 6th century, give or take. But in truth all of the elements of teaching and practice associated with early Zen got to China before Bodhidharma did. And Zen didn’t become a distinctive school of Chinese Buddhism until some time after Bodhidharma was long gone. It appears the school wasn’t known collectively as Chan Buddhism until about the 10th century or so.

The Zen that China gave the world was, for the most part, Song Dynasty Zen. The Song Dynasty began more than four centuries after we believe Bodhidharma got to China. One of the academic historians I used as a source argues that Zen didn’t really become Zen until the Song Dynasty. This scholar, Morten Schlutter, even wrote a book focusing on Song Dynasty Zen history called How Zen Became Zen. It’s actually not too bad; I learned a lot from it.

But some might ask, if Zen wasn’t Zen until then, what was it before that? When did Zen begin? This reminds me a bit of the story of King Melinda’s chariot ― if you take it apart, at what point does the collection of parts stop being a chariot? And, of course, from the perspective of Buddhism, that’s the wrong question, since chariot is just an expedient designation for something that exists only in a relative sense.

Like all other phenomena, Zen is something composed of many parts, without self-essence, that came about because of ever-changing causes and conditions, and we identify it with a particular name because we have to call it something to talk about it. I argue that to fully appreciate what Zen is, one should know something about how it came together to be what it is now, which is what Circle of the Way is about.

I came to realize that the way the story of early Zen traditionally is told, with its focus on the Six Patriarchs, is not terribly functional. The whole emphasis on a patriarchal lineage obscures the presence and contributions of women, of course. But beyond that, I’m not sure the Patriarchs are all that important. You really see Zen taking shape in the early Tang Dynasty, which began in 618, through the work of teachers who were not Patriarchs. I’m thinking in particular of Mazu Daoyi, who gave us “ordinary mind is the way,” and Shitou Xiqian, who gave us the Sandokai ― the identity of relative and absolute.  We could also thank the true author of the original Platform Sutra, another Tang Dynasty work, even if we don’t know who that was. I don’t have a problem calling these early masters “Zen” masters, even if they didn’t call themselves that.

Even before that, many of the contributions of the very early Oxhead school, which was founded roughly a century before Mazu started teaching, are still deeply embedded in Zen today.  This deserves to be remembered. On the other hand, the Third Patriarch was probably a name picked out of a hat to serve as a patch between Number Two and Number Four.

After the Tang Dynasty and a messy interim period came the Song Dynasty. During the Song Dynasty the many loosely aligned lineages that claimed Huineng as a common ancestor became recognized as a distinctive tradition called Chan. Frankly, what pulled it together was not just teaching and practice developed by the Tang masters but also a boatload of shared myth that had been adopted as history and gave the widely dispersed teachers and students a shared identity.

During the Song Dynasty the bits of stories called koans were preserved in the classic collections, beginning with the Blue Cliff Record in 1125. Koan contemplation was invented in the 12th century and widely embraced, although the Caodong lineages maintained a meditation practice based on earlier forms. Dogen studied with a Caodong teacher in Song China and brought that tradition to Japan in the 13th century, calling it Soto Zen. Soon other monastics brought the koan-contemplating practice to Japan also and founded the Rinzai school.

Although Zen got to Korea earlier, there was enough cross-pollination between Korean and Chinese Zen during the Song Dynasty that it can be said the Zen of Korea evolved from Song Dynasty Zen. Zen got to Vietnam earlier, too, but Vietnamese Zen today mostly evolved from the teachings of Chinese Linji masters fleeing the fall of the Ming Dynasty in the 17th century.

This history is the basic foundation of Zen as it exists today, including Zen in the West. But Zen in the West is, I think, in a precarious place. It seems to be evolving in twenty directions at once. Sokei-an Sasaki said that bringing Zen to the West was like “holding a lotus to a rock, waiting for it to take root.” He believed establishing Zen in the west would take a few centuries, and he has yet to be proved wrong.

Since the Beat Zen era of the 1950s Zen has been in danger of being completely swamped by western popular culture, which may have embraced Zen as being cool but also wants it to be something other than what it is or has ever been.

In some ways it’s gotten worse since the Web was invented. All manner of people who clearly have little personal experience with a teacher and don’t know what end of the incense stick to light set themselves up as experts and spew their own opinions about Zen to the world, and it’s hard for traditional Zen to compete with play-pretend Zen.  The Zen teacher James Ford wrote recently that such people “tend to contribute to a ‘dumbing down’ of our Western understanding of what Zen is. Bottom line there’s a lot of noise and a lot less signal, as some might say, out on the inter webs.”  

At the same time, people who are sincerely practicing in the Zen tradition face many challenges about how to make it work. In Asia, although there have been lay Zen students since at least the early Tang Dynasty, it has always been primarily a monastic tradition. Yet most of us in the West are lay students, with jobs and families and overstuffed schedules. The old Asian model, in which monastics do most of the practicing while laypeople support them with alms, just doesn’t work here. As I wrote in Circle of the Way, there’s a lot of experimenting going on right now to figure out how to make teaching and practice more accessible to laypeople. And I wish us all a lot of luck.

But at this very fluid and precarious moment in Zen history I strongly suggest that Zen take ownership of its history, by which I mean history and not just the traditional stories. I spent the large part of three years immersed in contemporary scholarship on Zen history, and let me say that the academics, with very few exceptions, are making a mess of it. They get the facts and dates right, I assume, but their conclusions and interpretations, especially of the teachings, are often ridiculous. I have compared them to tone deaf people who write histories of opera. And some of them obviously hate opera and don’t know why anyone listens to it. 

My editor at Shambhala told me that he had once hoped to pursue an advanced degree in Buddhist studies. He gave up on the idea because one of the professors for his undergrad honors thesis, which concerned the modern history of Zen, was openly antagonistic to Zen. Perhaps that was just one teacher, but I have seen the same antagonism in much of the current scholarship.

There’s a wonderfully snarky critique of academic scholarship on Zen that was written by Victor Sogen Hori, whom you might recognize as a Zen scholar who has published some wonderful work on koans. Sogen, a Canadian, spent 13 years studying as a monk in Japan and also has a Ph.D. in philosophy from Stanford University, so he’s someone with a foot in both worlds. Anyway, he wrote an introduction to Volume 2 of Heinrich Dumoulin’s Zen Buddhism: A History, in an edition published in 2006 by World Wisdom. It’s worth looking up and reading. He calls out prominent, still influential scholars who portray Zen as a bad joke and nothing but a vast game of deception. And I cite some of these same scholars in my book, because they are the mainstream of academic study. But I concur with Sogen’s opinion. 

It would be great if we could open a respectful dialogue between Zen practitioners and the academic scholars, but frankly at the moment I don’t think that’s possible. I’ve seen some attempts already that did not go well. The current crop of academics too often assume that they must discount our opinions of our own tradition because, obviously, we cannot be objective, but they are blind to their own biases. But for that reason, the academic scholars must not be entrusted as the sole guardians of Zen history.

And this is important to us, because we need a respectful but honest accounting of the history to keep us grounded as we go forward. The history is embedded in Zen teachings, whether we know it or not. It is reflected in the liturgy, robes, and rituals, and in zazen itself. Some of the old myths may or may not transfer well from Asian to western culture and might be tweaked or eliminated. But the history is what it is. And it’s a wonderful history. For the most part. And the parts that are less than wonderful need to be acknowledged and understood, too. We can learn from them. 

My teacher Jion Susan Postal used to talk about what she called the “three infinities.” I believe this formula was original with Susan. These are infinite kindness to the past, infinite service to the present, infinite responsibility to the future. These three infinities cannot be separated. By taking good care of the present, we take care of the past and future as well.

By understanding and appreciating Zen history ― our history ― we can better understand ourselves as Zen students and teachers. And by better understanding our history we can do a better job of taking care of this incredible legacy we’ve been given by our dharma ancestors.

Hakuin, Snail on Plantain Leaf

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.”

Awakening of Faith in the Mahayana

The Mahayana Sraddhotpada Sastra, or “Awakening of Faith in the Mahayana,” is a synthesis of Mahayana Buddhist doctrines that was enormously influential in the development of Buddhism in east Asia. The text is credited with resolving hotly debated issues of its time involving Buddhist metaphysics and enlightenment.

Origin of the Mahayana Sraddhotpada Sastra

The sanskrit word sastra, sometimes spelled shastra, means “rules,” and in Buddhism it describes a text that may be a commentary to a sutra or scripture but is not scripture itself. This “Awakening of Faith” sastra has traditionally been attributed to Asvaghosa, a 2nd century CE Indian philosopher and poet.

However, scholars today believe the text is of Chinese origin. History records that an Indian monk named Paramartha completed the first translation from Sanskrit into Chinese ca. 550 CE, but it’s very possible this “translation” is the original text and Paramartha was its author. No earlier Sanskrit text is known to exist, although that is not at all unusual for Mahayana literature.

A second “translation” was produced by a monk named Siksananda in about 700 CE. It’s interesting to note that the sastra’s first English translator, D.T. Suzuki, still assumed Asvaghosa was the author and believed Paramartha and Siksananda had translated different Sanskrit versions. Suzuki’s translation, published in 1900, is of the Siksananda version but with divergences from Paramartha explained in footnotes

The Korean monk Wonhyo (617-686) was among the first to recognize the sastra’s significance. Wonhyo’s commentary on the sastra impressed Fazang (or Fa-tsang, 643-712), the prominent Third Patriarch of the Huayan school in China. Through Fazang’s influence the sastra became seminal in the Buddhism of China and Japan, and through Wonhyo it became a foundation of Korean Buddhism. It is considered part of the Chinese Canon.

Wisdom of The Awakening of Faith

The Awakening of Faith resolves a doctrinal dispute that had arisen within Mahayana regarding tathata, which means “suchness” or “thusness.” In Mahayana Buddhism, tathata is the true nature of reality, pure and boundless, beyond description or conceptualization. The word is sometimes used interchangeably with sunyata, or emptiness, and it is sometimes called “the absolute.” But what is the relationship between tathata and phenomena?

Drawing on Tathagatagarbha and Yogacara teachings, Awakening of Faith proposes that tathata is not some pure realm separate from the phenomenal world, but rather that tathata expresses itself as phenomena. Put another way, the phenomenal world — marked with imperfection, impermanence and ego — is not separate from the perfect and unchanging Buddha Nature, or enlightenment. This is so even if we don’t see it ourselves, and in this sense we are all already enlightened. This is the faith to which we awaken.

This understanding changed how Mahayana Buddhists understood enlightenment. Enlightenment was no longer a goal, or the end stage of a process. We are all already enlightened! However, our suffering is real; our ignorance is real. Because this is so, we practice the Eightfold Path in order to realize for ourselves what we already are.

Awakening of Faith proposes that original enlightenment or Buddha Nature was our natural state even before we were born. As ordinary human beings we do not see this. But in this life we may cultivate an initial enlightenment that is the basis of a final enlightenment, which is the original enlightenment.

In Mahayana Buddhism, enlightenment is not thought of as a quality that some people possess and others do not. It is what we all are. We practice not to gain something, but to clarify what is already present and manifest it in the world.

The Mustard Seed Parable

The story of Kisagotami and the mustard seed is one of the most famous in Buddhist literature. The story was found in the paracanonical Pali texts, which is a story in itself. But first, let’s learn about Kisagotami.

The Story of Kisagotami

Kisagotami was born into a poor family of Savatthi, also called Shravasti, which in ancient times was a prominent city in northern India.  She married into a much wealthier family. But her in-laws called her “skinny” and “girl of a poor family.”

Then she gave birth to a son, and the baby brightened her life. As the mother of a son  she also gained respect in her husband’s family. But the child somehow was accidentally killed while playing; the Pali text doesn’t say how, exactly. And Kisagotami’s reason for living died with him

She was crazed with sorrow; she snatched up her child’s precious body before her husband’s family could take it away and leave it to decompose in a charnel ground. She wandered with the little corpse on her hip, asking for medicine to cure him.

People ridiculed her and asked what good medicine would do, but she did not understand what they were saying.

Then a wise man saw her and recognized that she was out of her mind with grief. The Buddha would know what to do for her, he thought.  The man told Kisagotami where to find the Tathagata and ask about medicine for her son.

Kisagotami went to the place where the Buddha was teaching and asked about medicine for her son. The Buddha said he could help her, but first she must bring him a mustard seed — a very common spice that was sometimes used as medicine in the ancient world. But there was a catch — the mustard seed must come from a house that had never experienced death.

Frantically, Kisagotami went from one house to another, asking for a mustard seed. All were willing to give her what she wanted. But when she asked if anyone had ever died in the house, she was told “of course people have died here.” Finally it sank into Kisagotami that death came to everyone; all beings are impermanent.  Her mind cleared, and she took her son’s body to the charnel ground herself.

She returned to the Buddha, and he inquired about the mustard seed. I have resolved the matter of the mustard seed, she sighed. I understand now.  Then Kisagotami asked to be ordained into the order of nuns, and the Buddha ordained her.  She practiced diligently, and in time she realized enlightenment and became an arhat.

Comments

That is the story, as told in a text called the Therigatha Atthakatha, or “commentaries to the Therigatha.” The Therigatha, “Verses of the Elder Nuns,” is in the Pali Sutta-pitaka, in the Khuddaka Nikaya.

The Therigatha Atthakatha is not part of the formal Pali Canon, however, but is in what’s called the “paracanonical Pali texts.” This is a collection of commentaries, notes, sermons and stories that were preserved in oral tradition but were not attributed to the historical Buddha or his disciples, and so were not included in the Pali Canon. For centuries these commentaries and stories were only remembered in a few monasteries. Eventually the scattered texts were translated into Pali and collected, notably by the 5th century scholar Buddhaghosa.

A poem attributed to Kisagotami does appear in the Therigatha, but the story it tells is identical to the story of Patacara. One wonders if some long-ago, sleepy scribe got the two mothers confused.

Finally, I would like to add my own comment to Kisagotami’s story.

The first time I  heard this story — and I can’t recall from whom — it was said that as Kissagotami went from house to house looking for her mustard seed, people told her about their loved ones who had died, and shared their own grief. When her heart opened in compassion for them, her own pain became bearable.

The detail about compassion isn’t in the original story, but I think it ought to be.

[This is an article I wrote for the Buddhism section of About.com. However, since About.com has removed it from their servers, all rights revert to me.]

The Story of Bhadda Kundalakesa

Bhadda Kundalakesa was one of the historical Buddha‘s female disciples. Although she lived 25 centuries ago, many modern women can relate to her story, beginning with her terrible judgment in men.

Bhadda was the protected and pampered daughter of a wealthy family of Magadha, in what is now northern India. She was a lovely girl, but because of her headstrong nature her parents were having a hard time finding her a suitable husband.

One day, the teenage Bhadda looked out her window and saw a deliciously handsome man in the custody of soldiers. He was named Satthuka, and he was a thief being taken away to be executed. Somehow — one suspects an epic tantrum — she persuaded her father to redeem the fellow and have him freed and pardoned, if he agreed to marry Bhadda that very day.

Satthuka may have been handsome, but he was still a thief. Shortly after the wedding, Satthuka apparently decided a wife cramped his style, and he desired Bhadda’s jewelry more than Bhadda.

He told his bride he intended to make an offering to a certain mountain deity, and he asked her to accompany him. But when they reached the top of a high cliff, he told her the truth — he was done with her; he was going to push her off the cliff to her death and make off with her possessions.

But now the thief was out of luck. Bhadda pushed Satthuka off the cliff instead.

The Jain Ascetic

The stunned Bhadda, suddenly older and wiser, chose not to go back to her family. Instead, she wandered until she found a group of Jain nuns, and she joined them. The nuns practiced a form of extreme asceticism in the belief that causing themselves to suffer would burn off the effects of bad karma.

(Note that the Buddha directly refuted this Jain belief in the Devadaha Sutta of the Pali Sutta-pitaka, Majjhima Nikaya 101.)

The nuns strove to possess nothing, to desire nothing, and to burn away all passions through self-denial. Baddha gave herself to hardship. When she was ordained, her hair was pulled out by the roots. Her hair grew back thick and curly, however, which earned her the name Kundalakesa — “curly hair.”

The Debate

As time went on, Bhadda Kundalakesa found Jain teachings unsatisfying, and she sought out teachers from other traditions. She also studied Vedic scriptures. No longer the pampered daughter of wealthy parents, she discovered she had a keen intellect, and she learned how to use it.

After many years — and not unlike her distant dharma sister, Liu Tiemo — Bhadda Kundalakesa gained a reputation as a formidable debater. As she traveled from town to town, she invited debate challenges by sticking a rose-apple branch into a pile of sand. Anyone who dared could challenge her by trampling on the sand, but none could get the better of her.

One day she was near Anathapindika‘s monastery in Jeta Grove, where the disciple Sariputra was staying. Sariputra sent children to pick apart Bhadda Kundalakesa’s sand pile, and soon she found her way to Sariputra. The debate was on!

She asked question after question, and Sariputra answered her easily. Then it was his turn. What is the one? he asked. And she couldn’t answer. She lost.

Humbly, Bhadda Kundalakesa asked Sariputra to become her teacher. But he told her to find the Buddha instead. So it was that some time later, she approached the Buddha to be ordained. “Better than many volumes of knowledge is a single verse that brings peace,” he said.

Then Bhadda Kundalakesa was ordained a Buddhist nun, and she soon realized enlightenment. Her poetry is recorded in the in a section of the Pali Sutta-pitaka called the Therigatha, or Verses of the Elder Nuns, in the Khuddaka Nikaya.

[This is an article I wrote for the Buddhism section of About.com. However, since About.com has removed it from their servers, all rights revert to me.]

The Story of Khema

Khema was a beautiful woman and one of the principal wives of King Bimbisara of Magadha, a large kingdom in what is now northern India. It is said that Queen Khema loved beauty above all things, especially her own.

King Bimbisara admired the Buddha, and he cared enough about Khema to want her to appreciate him, also. He enticed her to visit Anathapindika‘s monastery in Jeta Grove, where the Buddha was staying, by praising the beauty of its gardens. She didn’t know she was going to hear the Buddha speak.

When Khema realized she’d been maneuvered into hearing a sermon, she was annoyed. But as the Buddha spoke, Khema noticed a woman standing next to him who was even more beautiful than she was. Khema was astonished and envious.

But as Khema watched, the woman aged before her eyes. Her skin wrinkled, her hair grayed, her body sagged. Khema realized this vision was a message to her, that her beauty and privilege were just temporary conditions that would soon crumble away.

Khema became absorbed in the Buddha’s words, and she passed through all the stages of enlightenment and became an arhat that very day.  The Buddha told King Bimbisara that Khema must either die and pass to final Nirvana (parinirvana), or she could live and be ordained a nun. The King gave permission for Khema to be ordained.

If you’ve noticed that people in these old stories from early Buddhist scripture realize enlightenment awfully easily, this is usually explained by the merit this individual accumulated in past lives. Khema’s prior lives appear in some of the Jataka Tales, usually as a virtuous woman and benefactor of the sangha.

Khema the Nun

The ordained Khema appears in the Pali Sutta-pitaka, in the Khema Sutta (Samyutta Nikaya 44). In this sutta, a king named Pasenadi Kosala heard that an enlightened nun and disciple of the Buddha was nearby, and went to see her. The King questioned Khema about whether the Buddha did or did not exist after death, and Khema told him the Buddha had not declared whether he would exist or not exist.

The King clearly was frustrated by this answer. So Khema said, Let me ask you a question, great King. Can your accountants count grains of sand in the Ganges?

No, lady, they cannot, the King said.

Khema continued, Can your accountants determine the number of buckets of water in the ocean?

No, lady, the King said. The ocean is deep and boundless. It is hard to fathom.

Even so, Khema said, when the Buddha is freed from physical form, he is deep and boundless and hard to fathom, like the ocean. “The Tathagata exists after death” doesn’t apply. “The Tathagata doesn’t exist after death” doesn’t apply. “The Tathagata both exists and doesn’t exist after death” doesn’t apply. “The Tathagata neither exists nor doesn’t exist after death” doesn’t apply.

The King bowed to Khema and departed. Some time later, he met the Budddha himself and asked the same questions, and he received exactly the same answers.

Khema’s Poem

A poem attributed to Khema appear in the Therigatha, or Verses of the Elder Nuns, in the Khuddaka Nikaya of the Pali Sutta-pitaka. The poem is in the form of a conversation with Mara, the demon trickster.

Khema wrote that Mara came to her in the form of a handsome man, and said, “You are young and beautiful, Khema, and so am I. Let us enjoy each other.” Khema responded,

Through this vile body, a host for disease and corruption,
I feel loathing. Lust is uprooted.
Lusts of the body and mind are cut away.
Don’t talk to me about sensuous pleasure!
Such things cannot delight me any more.

Khema became an important assistant to Maha Pajapati, the eldest nun, and along with another nun named Uppalavanna was named by the Buddha as the foremost in wisdom of all nuns.

[This is an article I wrote for the Buddhism section of About.com. However, since About.com has removed it from their servers, all rights revert to me.]

His Holiness Ogyen Trinley Dorje, the 17th Karmapa

On a December night in 1999, 14-year-old Ogyen Trinley Dorje quietly slipped out of a window of Tolung Tsurphu Monastery in central Tibet. For the next two days he rode in a car driven by monks, nonstop, until they reached a rugged and isolated area bordering Nepal. From there, going by foot, horseback, helicopter, train and finally taxi, the boy and his attendants traveled unnoticed through Nepal to India. They reached Dharamsala, the seat of the Tibetan government in exile, on January 5.

His Holiness Ogyen Trinley Dorje, the 17th Karmapa

Every year, as many as 3,000 Tibetans evade guards and checkpoints and escape Tibet. But Ogyen Trinley Dorje’s escape made international headlines, because he is His Holiness the 17th Gyalwang Karmapa, the reborn head of the Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism. The Karmapa is the third highest lama in Tibetan Buddhism.

The teenage Karmapa arrived at Dharamsala exhausted, with blistered feet, and caught His Holiness the Dalai Lama by surprise. The defection also caused great consternation for the governments of China and India.

China had barred the Karmapa from leaving Tibet, and the defection was an embarrassment for Beijing. The government of China had hoped that a loyal and compliant Karmapa would help legitimize China’s rule over Tibet. Instead, once in Dharamsala the teenager spoke out about Tibet’s lack of religious freedom.

The government of India faced a dilemma. China warned India that granting asylum to the “living Buddha” would jeopardize relations between the two nations. But much of the rest of the world supported asylum for the Karmapa. New Dehli wavered for over a year before granting refugee status to the Karmapa in February 2001.

The Karmapas

Kagyu is one of the four main traditions of Tibetan Buddhism. It is based on teachings brought to Tibet from India by Marpa Chokyi Lodoe (1012-1099). The first Karmapa, Dusum Khyenpa (1110-1193), founded a school of Kagyu called Karma Kagyu. The Karma Kagyu school claims an unbroken lineage of reincarnations of the Karmapa, the oldest such lineage in Tibetan Buddhism, to the present day.

After the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1950, the 16th Karmapa, Rangjung Rigpe Dorje, tried to continue his work in Tibet. But the situation in Tibet became increasingly unstable and dangerous. The 16th Karmapa, with a number of Karma Kagyu monks and teachers, left Tibet in 1959, as did His Holiness the Dalai Lama. The Karmapa took the most sacred objects and artifacts of the Karma Kagyu lineage out of Tibet, also. The Karmapa established his new seat outside Tibet in Rumtek, a monastery in Sikkim that the 9th Karmapa had founded at the end of the 16th century.

Also, as the various traditions and schools of Tibetan Buddhism relocated outside Tibet, the Tibetan government in exile decided some administrative consolidation was in order. The government in exile appointed the Karmapa to be head of all schools of Kagyu, not just Karma Kagyu. Until his death in 1981, the 16th Karmapa provided leadership and teaching to the Kagyu tradition in exile.

The 17th Karmapa

The Karmapa lineage is said to be self-announced, because each Karmapa leaves a letter predicting his next rebirth. Eleven years passed before the letter left by the 16th Karmapa was located. The letter provided a location, also seen by His Holiness the Dalai Lama in a dream, and the names of the next Karmapa’s parents. By means of these predictions, in 1992 a seven-year-old named Apo Gaga was identified as the 17th Karmapa.

The 17th Karmapa was born in eastern Tibet on July 26th, 1985. After his identification he was taken to Tolung Tsurphu Monastery and enthroned there in September 1992. He studied Buddhism at Tsurphu until his escape in 1999. By all accounts His Holiness is an intelligent, serious and sincere young man with particular interest in protecting the earth’s environment.

The Other 17th Karmapa

Although Ogyen Trinley Dorje has been accepted by a majority of Kagyu lamas and monasteries and by the Dalai Lama as the legitimate Karmapa, a substantial minority recognize another young man, Trinley Thaye Dorje, born in 1983 in Lhasa. Trinley Thaye was identified as the Karmapa by another reincarnated Karma Kagyu lama, the 14th Sharmapa, Mipham Chokyi Lodro. Trinlay Thaye Dorje escaped from Tibet in 1994 and currently lives in Kalimpong, India.

A great many devout and sincere people make elaborate arguments about the legitimacy of one Karmapa over the other. There are myriad accusations, claims and counterclaims. Ogyen Trinley, however, has the recognition of both the Dalai Lama and the government of China. Indeed, he is the only living tulku (reincarnated lama) to be so recognized; the Dalai Lama and China don’t agree on anyone else. Although previous incarnations of the Karmapa did not depend on China’s or the Dalai Lama’s recognition, the combined weight of their authority does give Ogyen Trinley an advantage.

Robert A. F. Thurman, professor of Buddhist studies at Columbia University, was asked about the controversy during Ogyen Trinley’s first visit to the United States. “The other Karmapa is a nice person, and he has followers in Europe and Asia, but almost all of the Tibetans accept the Karmapa who is here now,” he said.

Although one hates to accuse the high officials of a major Buddhist school of being greedy, it appears the real bone of contention is over control of Rumtek Monastery and the many priceless art treasures, artifacts and relics therein.

Looking to the Future

His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama was born in 1935. Although he is healthy as of this writing, his age gives concern to what will happen to Tibetan Buddhism once he is gone.

The lineage of Tibet’s second highest lama, the Panchen Lama, appears to be broken. The 10th Panchen Lama died in 1989. On May 14, 1995, the Dalai Lama identified a six-year-old boy named Gedhun Choekyi Nyima as the 11th reincarnation of the Panchen Lama. By May 17 the boy and his parents had been taken into Chinese custody. They have not been seen or heard from since. The Chinese government enthroned another boy, the son of a Communist official, in his place.

Understandably, the government’s Panchen Lama is not considered legitimate by most Tibetans. His Holiness the Dalai Lama is deeply concerned that the Communist government of China will enthrone a false Dalai Lama when he is gone. (See also “China’s Outrageous Reincarnation Policy.”) He has spoken of either choosing a successor before he dies or of being the last Dalai Lama.

The Dalai Lamas, heads of the Gelug tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, have been spiritual and temporal leaders of Tibet since the 17th century. Before that, at different times the heads of either the Kagyu or Sakya traditions held that authority. Back in the day the monasteries’ power was based on strategic alliances with various Mongol warlords.

Today there is speculation that before he dies, the Dalai Lama might name the third highest lama, the Karmapa, as the new spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism. This would be extraordinary, as this authority has never changed hands peacefully. But these are extraordinary times.

[This is an article I wrote for the Buddhism section of About.com. However, since About.com has removed it from their servers, all rights revert to me.]

Who Were the Buddhas Before Buddha?

Shakyamuni Buddha sometimes called Gautama Buddha, is said to be the Buddha of the current age. According to early Buddhist scripture, there were Buddhas in earlier ages as well, and there will be other Buddhas in future ages. For example, ancient sources say that Maitreya Buddha will be the Buddha of the next age.

But what about the earlier Buddhas? Is there anything we need to know about them?

Six Previous Buddhas

Probably the earliest source of information on previous Buddhas is the Mahavadana Sutta, or “Discourse on the Great Legend,” which is found in the Pali Sutta-pitaka (Digha Nikaya 14).

In this sutta, we find “our” Buddha, Gautama, in Anathapindika’s park in the Jeta Grove. After the Buddha and his disciples had enjoyed their daily meal, the subject of previous births arose. The Buddha offered to speak of his predecessors, and his disciples eagerly accepted the offer. The Buddha then told of six previous Buddhas. They all lived many eons, or kalpas, ago. A kalpa is a length of time that defies calculation; just know that one kalpa usually is a really, really long time.

Read More: About Time

The most striking thing about the stories of the six previous Buddhas is that their spiritual paths all followed the same course, all very much like the life of the historical Buddha. They were all born to high-caste families and raised in luxurious homes. Each married and had a son. Each encountered the Four Passing Sights — an elderly person, a sick person, a corpse, and a holy man seeking enlightenment. Disturbed by what he saw, each left home and became a wandering mendicant, looking for peace of mind.

Each realized enlightenment while meditating under some sort of tree. After enlightenment, each went forth to teach.

Do the six previous Buddhas have spiritual significance? That’s hard to say. Certainly you can practice for many years without bothering to learn about them. They do come up in many texts and in art and chanting liturgies, however, so it doesn’t hurt to be aware of who these Buddhas were.

Did they really live? Several of them lived so many kalpas ago they would have been genuinely prehistoric if they had. The point they seem to be making is that the dharma is likely to have been found and lost and found again many times in the great cycle of time. It’s also the case that great teachers of other spiritual traditions of India were said to have had similar predecessors.

The six previous Buddhas described in the Mahavadana Sutta are listed below.

Vipasyi or Vipassi. Vipasyi was born 91 kalpas ago to a family of the Khattiya (warrior) caste. His clan name was Kondanna. He was enlightened under a patali, or trumpet flower, tree.

Sikhi. Sikhi was born 31 kalpas ago, also to a family of the Khattiya caste. He also was of the Kondanna clan, and he was enlightened under a pundarika, or artemisia, tree.

Visvabhuj or Vessabhu. Visvabhuj also was born 31 kalpas ago to a family of the Khattiya caste. Also of the Kondanna clan, he was enlightened under a sal tree.

Krakucchanda or Kakusandha. Krakucchanda and the remaining three Buddhas were born during the current kalpa, but still an unimaginably long time ago. Krakucchanda was of the Brahmin, or priest, caste. He and the remaining three Buddhas also were of a clan called Kassapa. He was enlightened under an acacia tree.

Kanakamuni or Konmagamana. Another member of the Brahmin caste, Kanakamuni was enlightened under an udumbara, or cluster fig, tree.

Kasyapa or Kassapa. Another Brahmin, Kasyapa was enlightened under a banyan tree. He should not be confused with a disciple of the Buddha by the same name; the Buddha’s disciple Kasyapa usually is called Mahakasyapa, or Great Kasyapa, to distinguish him.

[This is an article I wrote for the Buddhism section of About.com. However, since About.com has removed it from their servers, all rights revert to me.]

China’s Outrageous Reincarnation Policy

Since beginning his long exile from Tibet in 1959, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama  has served as the voice for Tibetans, both the 7.5 million governed by China and the roughly estimated 275,000 who have fled Tibet. He also has called for the preservation of Tibetan culture and the restoration of at least some Tibetan political autonomy.

For years, however, the government of China has refused even to speak to His Holiness. Beijing appears to realize that it needs Tibetan Buddhism on its side to make its rule of Tibet legitimate to the Tibetans. But for inexplicable reasons, Beijing cannot bring itself to work with the current Dalai Lama, who has publicly offered many concessions to Beijing.

Beijing has a plan, however, already in place. It has assumed authority to manage the rebirths of all Tibetan lama lineages, and it has declared it will name the 15th Dalai Lama after the 14th has gone.

Photo by Yancho Sabev, via Wikipedia Commons

Government-Managed Reincarnation?

In 2007 China’s State Administration of Religious Affairs released Order No. 5, which covers “the management measures for the reincarnation of living Buddhas in Tibetan Buddhism.” In short, rebirths require a government permit. As ridiculous as this may sound to us, Beijing is deadly serious about this. Its aim is to be sure all religious authority within Tibetan Buddhism is under its control.

The current Dalai Lama appears to be in robust health. But what will happen when he’s gone, both to Tibetan Buddhism and Tibet?

This much is certain, barring a radical change of leadership in Beijing: Within days, if not hours, of the passing of the 14th Dalai Lama, the government of China will announce that it has begun the process of identifying the 15th Dalai Lama. And I doubt much time will pass before Beijing reveals the identity of the tulku and begins to prepare for his enthronement as Dalai Lama.

You might ask, since when does the government of China choose Dalai Lamas? Well, since never, in fact. But Beijing claims it has that power now, based on three arguments.

Patrons and Priests

First, China’s claim of sovereignty over Tibet rests largely on the historical relationship between the Manchu emperors of China and the Dalai Lamas.

The Manchu emperors of the Qing Dynasty ruled China from 1644 to 1912. Beginning with the 5th Dalai Lama (1617-1682), a patron-priest relationship developed between the succession of Dalai Lamas and the succession of Qing emperors. This meant that the emperor personally was a lay patron of the Dalai Lama and the Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism. The Dalai Lamas, in turn, provided religious instruction, beneficial rituals and other spiritual services to the emperor. The Dalai Lama was considered the emperor’s guru, not his subject.

After that, the relationship between Tibet and China was complex. China sometimes sent military aid to Tibet; this was in China’s own interest, since Tibet was at its western border. China did not attempt to govern Tibet; nor did China ask for taxes or tribute from Tibet. However, the emperor did appoint “observers,” called ambans, who acted as the emperor’s eyes and ears in the Tibetan capital. And the ambans often did insert themselves into Tibetan affairs, both political and religious. Historians say they did not identify reborn lamas, however.

After the Qing Dynasty ended in 1912, and China was (more or less) a republic, the 13th Dalai Lama issued a “Tibetan declaration of independence” saying that the patron-priest relationship had been with the individual Manchu emperors, not the government of China, and with the abdication of the last Qing emperor that relationship had faded “like a rainbow in the sky.”

However, from the time of Mao Zedong China has declared that not only were the Dalai Lamas the subjects of the emperors, the old patron-priest relationship carried over from the empire to the republic — whether the Dalai Lama agreed or not, apparently.

For more about the history behind China’s claims to Tibet, see “The 7th Dalai Lama, Kelzang Gyatso: A Life in Turbulent Times” and “Tibet and China: History of a Complex Relationship.”

The Golden Urn

Late in the 18th century a messy spat involving high lamas of the Kagyu school and an invading army of Gurkhas caused the Qianlong Emperor to demand reforms in the process of choosing high lamas. A disproportionate number of high lamas were from the same aristocratic family; favoritism in the selection process was an open secret.

One of the reforms agreed upon was that the future rebirths of lamas would be chosen by means of drawing lots from a golden urn, to be kept at Jokhang Temple in Lhasa. The historical record reveals the Tibetans really didn’t use the urn that much, however. When they did use it they were able to rig the result, probably by making sure the lots all bore the name of the candidate already chosen. This token ceremony appears to have been carried out for the 11th and 12th Dalai Lamas. By the time the 13th Dalai Lama was chosen, however, even a token ceremonial use of the urn had been abandoned.

Read More: The 8th Dalai Lama and the Golden Urn

Today the government of China possesses the golden urn — a couple of them, in fact — and insists that the rebirths of lamas may be recognized only by the golden urn lot-drawing method, because that is “traditional,” in spite of its not being traditional at all.

The Panchen Lama

The Panchen Lama is the second-highest lama of Tibetan Buddhism, and one of the traditional duties of the Panchen Lama is to identify the rebirths of Dalai Lama. Likewise, one of the traditional duties of a Dalai Lama is to identify the rebirths of Panchen Lamas.

Read More: The Panchen Lama — A Lineage Hijacked by Politics

The current acting 11th Panchen Lama, Gyaltsen Norbu, was chosen by the government of China, however.  Raised and trained by private tutors in Beijing, Norbu’s primary function is to issue statements praising the government of China for its wise leadership of Tibet.

The Dalai Lama’s choice  — a six-year-old boy named Gedhun Choekyi Nyima — and his family were taken into Chinese custody in 1995, just two days after his identification as the 11th Panchen Lama became public. They have not been seen since.

As far as Beijing is concerned, the ducks are in a row — they have the golden urn and the Panchen Lama, and they have concocted a revisionist version of history that makes the Dalai Lamas vassals of China. In their minds, that gives them all the authority they need to choose the 15th Dalai Lama.

What the 14th Dalai Lama, and Tibet, Might Do

On July 6, 2015, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama observed his 80th birthday. He has lived longer than any other Dalai Lama except, possibly, the first, who is believed to have lived to age 83 or so. But he’s not going to last forever.

His Holiness has said, at various times, that he might choose a successor before he dies; he might come back as a woman; he might not come back at all.

Even if high Gelugpa lamas outside of Tibet identify a new Dalai Lama through traditional esoteric and mystic methods, in these fragile times Tibetan Buddhism can’t place itself on hold for 20 years until he grows up. It is expected that many of the Dalai Lama’s duties as the public face of Tibetan Buddhism will pass to His Holiness the 17th Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje. The 17th Karmapa, the highest lama of the Kagyu school, is a young man already popular with Tibetans.

As for Tibetans, they have clearly never accepted the faux Panchen Lama, and it seems unlikely they would accept a faux Dalai Lama. China seems to be going to a lot of trouble for nothing. And with no living Dalai Lama to discourage violence, things may get worse for China and Tibet once His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama is gone.

[This is an article I wrote for the Buddhism section of About.com. However, since About.com has removed it from their servers, all rights revert to me.]

How to Address a Buddha

It’s unlikely you’ll ever write a letter to a Buddha. But if you did, how would you address her or him? “Dear Buddha” might do. But maybe it should be “Dear Your Holiness” or “Dear Venerated One” or something formal.

What follows is a traditional list of ten epithets, or titles, for a Buddha. These titles can be applied to all Buddhas, although sometimes in the context of a particular scriptural passage they might refer to a specific Buddha. Some of these titles are rarely used and may be unfamiliar to you. Others you are likely to bump into frequently.

For an example of how some of these terms might be used in scriptures, see the Saleyyaka Sutta of the Pali Sutta-pitaka (Majjhima Nikaya 41), which packs most of them into the second paragraph —

“And of that Master Gotama this fine reputation has spread: ‘He is indeed a Blessed One, worthy, & rightly self-awakened, consummate in knowledge & conduct, well-gone, a knower of the cosmos, an unexcelled trainer of those persons ready to be tamed, teacher of human & divine beings, awakened, blessed.”

The terms are alphabetized for easier reference. If you are looking for the name of a particular Buddha, see “A List of Buddhas: The Most Prominent Buddhas in Art and Scripture.”

1.  Anuttara

One who is supreme or unsurpassed; without equal. You might also have heard the phrase anuttara-samyak-sambhodi, which means “supreme perfect enlightenment“; and anuttara-yoga-tantra, the highest level of tantra.

2.  Arhat

Arhat (Sanskrit) or arahant  (Pali) is a word that pre-dates Buddhism. In early Vedic texts it means “one who cannot be killed.” When used in Buddhist texts it is thought to mean “one who is worthy.”

The classic definition of an arhat is one who has attained enlightenment. Some teachers may quibble over the word “attained,” In Theravada Buddhism an arhat is distinguished from a Buddha because there can be only one Buddha per world age. Thus, a being who realizes enlightenment while there already is a Buddha is called arhat. However, a Buddha also is an arhat and may be addressed as such.

3.  Bhagavan

Bhagavan means “lord” or “master.” The Buddha is addressed as “Bhagavan” in many sutras. When paired with the word lokanatha it means “World Honored One,” a common title for the historical Buddha.

 4.  Lokavit

Lokavit (Sanskrit) or Lokavidu (Pali) refers to “one who understands the world” or “knower of the cosmos.”

5.  Purusa-damya-sarathi

This means “tamer of men,”and it refers to the ability of a Buddha to quiet fears and agitation.

6.  Samyak Sambuddha

Some sources translate this title as “perfectly omniscient,” while others say it refers to a correctly (samyak) enlightened Buddha. In usage, it refers to one who has discovered the dharma teachings after they have disappeared from the world, and who has proclaimed those teachings to the world.

7.  Sasta deva-manusyanam

This means “teacher of gods and men.” This term is found mostly in the Sutta-pitaka.

8.  Sugata

Sugata (Sanskrit) or sugato (Pali) means “well departed” or “gone to a good destination.”

9.  Tathagata

Tathagata usually is explained as “the one who has thus come” or “the one who has thus gone.” This is one of the most common titles for a Buddha, and it can be found in both the Tipitaka and the Mahayana sutras. The historical Buddha referred to himself as Tathagata, and in some contexts the word might be referring to him. However, in other contexts it is referring to all Buddhas.

The precise meaning of the word is unclear. Many scholars relate it to tathata, which means “suchness” or “thusness” and refers to reality as it is, without illusions. In this interpretation, a tathagata would be one who has realized the truth about reality.

The word is also sometimes explained as meaning “one who is beyond coming or going.

10.  Vidya-carana-sampanna

Vidya-carana-sampanna (Sanskrit) or vijjā-caraṇa-sampanno (Pali) refers to one who has perfect knowledge and conduct.

[This is an article I wrote for the Buddhism section of About.com. However, since About.com has removed it from their servers, all rights revert to me.]