Tag Archives: Buddhism

New Jersey Just Poked China

And now for something completely different … New Jersey just released a list of approved religious holidays, meaning holidays that give a child a legitimate excuse for being out of school. A number of Buddhist holidays showed up, which of course is nice. But one jumped out at me —

April 25 The 11th Panchen Lama’s Birthday (Buddhist)

The Panchen Lama, a high lama of the Geluk school, is the second highest-ranking lama in Tibetan Buddhism. At the moment there are two, one recognized by Tibetan Buddhism and the authority of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and one recognized by the government of China.

April 25 is the birthday of the Panchen Lama recognized by Tibetan Buddhism. The other one was born in February.

Historical background: The 10th Panchen Lama, who spent a large part of his life in Chinese prisons, died in 1989 shortly after giving a speech mildly critical of Beijing. Officially, he died of a heart attack.

In May 1995, a six-year-old boy named Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, of Chinese-occupied Tibet, was recognized as the tulku, or rebirth, of the Panchen Lama. Two days later the child and his family were taken into Chinese custody. They have not been seen or heard from since.

Later that year, Beijing named another boy, Gyaltsen Norbu — the son of two Tibetan Communist Party officials — as the 11th Panchen Lama. Gyaltsen Norbu spent most of his childhood in seclusion in Beijing. But in recent years he has been given a number of functions, such as representing Tibetan Buddhism at official conferences and releasing statements praising Beijing for its wise governance of Tibet. (See also “The Panchen Lama of Tibetan Buddhism: A Lineage Hijacked by Politics.”)

You may ask, why is this a BFD? Because it relates to the 14th Dalai Lama and possibly to the 15th as well.

Beijing harbors an irrational and all-consuming hatred for the 14th Dalai Lama. Just as an example of how far Beijing will go to smack down His Holiness — back in 2009 the revered Vietnamese Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh expressed a wish on Italian television that the Dalai Lama might be allowed to return to Tibet. Later that year 400 nuns and monks who were followers of Thich Nhat Hanh were forcibly evicted from Bat Nha Monastery in Vietnam.

Although Hanoi gave no sensible reason for the eviction, it was understood by everyone that Beijing had ordered it. A number of U.S. presidents have carefully not met with His Holiness in the oval office for similar reasons.

Among the traditional functions of a Panchen Lama is to recognize the rebirth of a Dalai Lama. And here we come to the crux of it. Gyaltsen Norbu has been prepared his entire life to carry out one function, which is to recognize some young boy as the 15th Dalai Lama some day. Beijing has claimed sole authority to recognize all important rebirths, in fact, through a lot of historical revisionism. (See “China’s Outrageous Reincarnation Policy.”)

Beijing has made no secret that it intends to recognize and enthrone a 15th Dalai Lama once the 14th is gone. They appear to believe this will help pacify the Tibetans. The fact that Gyaltsen Norbu is not recognized by Tibetans even in China — indeed, the young man requires a substantial guard when he makes ceremonial visits to Tibetan monasteries — ought to tell the Chinese officials this might not work. But they bought into this plan years ago, and aren’t about to let go of it. (See also “Buddhism in China and Tibet today.”)

Whether New Jersey officials realized what they were getting themselves into by recognizing Gedhun Choekyi Nyima as the Panchen Lama I do not know, but bravo! Well done, somebody!

And maybe Beijing won’t notice. If they do, we could offer to let them keep Chris Christie as hostage.

A couple of other odd things about the New Jersey holiday list — It does not include the birthday of the 14th Dalai Lama himself (July 6), but it does let kids take September 7 off for His Holiness Sakya Trizin’s birthday. This lama is head of the Sakya school of Tibetan Buddhism, one of four to six schools depending on who’s counting. I’ve only recently become aware that there was anything of the Sakya school in the U.S. at all; most of western Tibetan Buddhism is Geluk, Kagyu or Nyingma, from what I’ve seen. Kagyu and Nyingma are not represented on the list. However, I don’t doubt Sakya Trizin is a fine fellow whose birthday deserves a day off of school.

Buddhas and Buddhas

In the last few posts I’ve been looking at Master Dogen’s Vow. Please note that a dharma master could probably write about this text for weeks. I’m just beginning to look at it myself. But I’m happy that several of you have found this text inspiring. So here’s a little more of it:

The Chan Master Lung-ya said:

“Those unenlightened in past lives will now be enlightened.
In this life, take care of the body, the fruit of many lives.
Before Buddhas were enlightened, they were the same as we.
Enlightened people of today are exactly the same as the ancients.”

(Note: “Chan Master Lung-ya” is Lung-ya Chii-tun, an important patriarch of Soto Zen who lived from about 835  to about 920 CE. Among Zennies he is associated with the famous question “What is the meaning of Bodhidharma’s coming from the West?”)

The Chan Master is trying to encourage us. “Take care of the body, the fruit of many lives” reminds us that while past actions have caused a lot of obstacles, past actions also have given us this body with which to practice.

And here’s the end:

This is the exact transmission of a verified Buddha, so quietly explore the far-reaching effects of these causes and conditions.
Repenting in this way, one never fails to receive help, deep and unending, from all Buddhas and Ancestors.
Revealing before Buddha one’s lack of faith and failure to practice  dissolves the root of these unwholesome actions.
This is the pure and simple manifestation of true practice,  of the true mind and body of faith.

This part may be a little jarring to those who are quite certain Buddhism — especially Zen — is not a religion. Because this part of the text sounds awfully religious.

When I first began to practice Zen, a lot of people were making a big deal about “self power” versus “other power” in Buddhism. Zen, they declared (with some chest-thumping) is about self-power. Other schools of Buddhism, such as Pure Land, are more devotional and rely on other power. But here we have the great Dogen himself talking about receiving help from Buddhas and Ancestors.

First, after all these years, I no longer think the self-power/other-power dichotomy really means anything. Although practice takes personal commitment and effort, you’re never really practicing by yourself. (How is that even possible? Where is the autonomous self that practices?)

We may begin through devotion to Amitabha, or faith in the Lotus Sutra, or trust in our own practice. But after awhile the self-and-other power thing all blurs together.

Those of you who are familiar with the Lotus Sutra may recognize some of that sutra’s influence here. Somewhere in the Lotus it says that only a Buddha together with a Buddha can fathom the great reality of all existence. Dogen — and 0ther Mahayana teachers — said that ordinary people do not turn into Buddhas. Rather, enlightenment is possible because Buddha-nature is already present. This is the exact transmission of a verified Buddha.

One of Dogen’s fascicles from Shobogenzo is called Jinshin Inga, or deep faith in cause and effect. This one’s as yet out of my depth, I fear, but the line “far-reaching effects of these causes and conditions” make me think of it. If you are feeling adventurous, there are translations of Jinshin Inga online.

Read more about the spiritual quest in Rethinking Religion: Finding a Place for Religion in a Modern, Tolerant, Progressive, Peaceful and Science-affirming World.

[A version of this post was published on About.com Buddhism September 19, 2013.]


Still looking at Master Dogen’s Vow — the last post was on the third paragraph, and now I want to go back to the second —

Past negative actions accumulate and cause the arising of many obstacles to the practice of the Way.
May all Buddhas and Ancestors who have realized the Way extend their compassion and free us from these karmic effects, allowing us to practice without hindrance. May they share with us their boundless compassion, and fill the universe with the virtue of their enlightened teaching.

The last post reflected on Dogen‘s understanding of past, present and future, and of Buddhas and Ancestors. The important point is that these things are not really separate from us and from our present moment. So when we call upon the Buddhas and Ancestors for help, we are not trying to dredge some Holy Other Beings out of a deep abyss of time. They are already here.

I want to say something about “past negative actions.” This is a big sticking spot for a lot of us, I’m sure. We may bounce from blaming others, or blaming “bad luck,” to beating ourselves up over boneheaded things we’ve done.  Neither extreme is helpful.

While fully acknowledging past negative actions, we can do so with compassion and forgiveness toward ourselves. We are imperfect; we have limitations. In this way, the old, negative stuff can drop away.

Just a quick note about atonement — which seems fitting, since we’ve just passed Yom Kippur — the word atonement in general usage means “reparation,” but at etymology dictionary tells me it originally meant “the condition of being at one with others.”  Literally, at-one-ment. So, as we reflect, take time to consider how both denial and guilt separate us from others. Seek at-one-ment.

Read more about the spiritual quest in Rethinking Religion: Finding a Place for Religion in a Modern, Tolerant, Progressive, Peaceful and Science-affirming World.

[A version of this post was published on About.com Buddhism September 18, 2013.]

Buddhas and Ancestors

I want to say a little more about Master Dogen’s Vow. And I’m going to skip over the second paragraph for right now and go to the third one, because the third paragraph helps me understand the second one. The third paragraph goes —

Buddhas and Ancestors of old were as we.
In the future, we shall be Buddhas and Ancestors.
Revering Buddhas and Ancestors, we are one Buddha and one Ancestor.
Awakening Bodhi-mind, we are one Bodhi-mind.
As they extend their compassion freely to us,
we are able to realize Buddhahood and let go of the realization.

If you are at all familiar with Dogen, you may be familiar with what he wrote about time. In “Uji,” he wrote that time isn’t something that just passes from past to future:

“Know that in this way there are myriads of forms and hundreds of grasses throughout the entire earth, and yet each grass and each form itself is the entire earth. The study of this is the beginning of practice. When you are at this place, there is just one grass, there is just one form; there is understanding of form and no-understanding of form; there is understanding of grass and no-understanding of grass. Since there is nothing but just this moment, the time-being is all the time there is. Grass-being, form-being are both time.

“Each moment is all being, is the entire world. Reflect now whether any being or any world is left out of the present moment.”

In other words, all of time is present in every moment. All beings and all worlds are present in every moment. The Buddhas and Ancestors of old are in this moment. We as Buddhas and Ancestors of the future are in this moment. Future Buddhas and Ancestors are in this moment. We are one Buddha and one Ancestor.

In Zen, often we’re told to focus on the present moment. “Present moment” can get to be a real fetish. But even as we focus on the present moment we may still be clinging to an idea of “present moment” that leaves things out. Can you focus but not cling?

Understanding “present moment” in this way illustrates, among other things, why it’s a mistake for westerners to be in a big rush to sever ties with the Asian traditions. If you’re shoving the Asian ancestors out of your western “present moment,” you’re  missing the present moment.

Reflecting on the Buddhas and Ancestors can be useful if you are feeling discouraged. You might meditate with the words of Master Dogen’s Vow. Feel the strength and compassion of Buddhas and Ancestors within you, within the present moment, and let it radiate out to all beings who are struggling and discouraged.

Read more about the spiritual quest in Rethinking Religion: Finding a Place for Religion in a Modern, Tolerant, Progressive, Peaceful and Science-affirming World.

[A version of this post was published on About.com Buddhism September 16, 2013.]

Master Dogen’s Vow

Master Dogen’s Vow is part of the common chanting liturgy of Japanese Soto Zen.  Dogen is the 13th century master who brought Soto Zen to Japan, and in Soto Zen he’s a  big deal.  But you might enjoy the vow also, even if you aren’t into Soto Zen. This is just the first verse:

From this life throughout countless lives,
we vow with all beings to hear the true Dharma.
Hearing it, no doubt arises, nor is faith lacking.
Meeting and maintaining it, we renounce worldly affairs,
and together with all beings and the great earth
realize the Buddha Way.

I’d like to unpack this just a little. Reading this, you might think this vow is way beyond where your practice is right now. Maybe you have lots of doubts. Maybe you’re nowhere close to renouncing worldly affairs. But here is another way to look at it.

As a young monk Dogen was driven by a particular question. His teachers told him that all beings possess Buddha Nature. If so, he wondered, why is it necessary to practice? His resolution to this question is central to his teachings.

We usually think of practice and enlightenment as a  linear process — we practice for awhile, and then maybe we “get enlightened.” However, Kazuaki Tanahashi writes that Dogen also saw this process as circular —

For him, each moment of practice encompasses enlightenment, and each moment of enlightenment encompasses practice. In other words, practice and enlightenment–process and goal-are inseparable. The circle of practice is complete even at the beginning. This circle of practice-enlightenment is renewed moment after moment. . . . In this view you don’t journey toward enlightenment, but you let enlightenment unfold.

So faith — in the sense of trust or confidence — is already present. Enlightenment is already present. You don’t have to “get” it;  just let it unfold. The vow is an expression of what already is, even if we aren’t aware of it.

Read more about the spiritual quest in Rethinking Religion: Finding a Place for Religion in a Modern, Tolerant, Progressive, Peaceful and Science-affirming World.

[A version of this post was published on About.com Buddhism September 12, 2013.]

Are We Not Who We Are?

I read recently that success in today’s world requires that we all be brands. As in products that are packaged, marketed and sold. The right “personal brand” will help you present yourself and create a good impression, the article said.

If you’ve practiced for awhile, you may already have dug through several layers of conditioning, rationalization and fantasy without striking bottom. More packaging is about the last thing any of us really needs. But here in the U.S. we’re all so saturated in a consumerist culture that it can seem life is one big marketing campaign, and the whole universe is a vast, glitzy shopping mall.

As Madge the Manicurist used to say in those dish soap commercials — you’re soaking in it.

So let us un-package ourselves. What do we find? Who is the “real you”? What is the self?

I may have told this anecdote before, but here it is again — my college sociology professor once challenged the class to define or describe ourselves without reference to a relationship. And none of us could do it. We couldn’t get past “I am … ,” without losing the challenge. We were sons and daughters; we were students of the college; we were employees, parents, members of a church. All of our self-definitions were conditioned and dependent on other things.

Is the body the self? The Buddha said it wasn’t, but let’s look. Scientists say that 90 percent of the cells in “our” bodies are not us. We’re all a walking collection of microbes — some of which we need to survive — and random self-replicating DNA from old viruses. I also remember reading that the cells that do have “our” DNA are constantly dying and being replaced by new cells. The right arm you “have” now is literally not the same one from six months ago.

Let’s look at behavior. What’s nature, and what’s nurture? The last post was about how babies start out being sweet and helpful — aside from teething and colic, I suppose — and then learn to be discriminatory and bound by social norms. Really, the conditioning starts as soon as we’re born, and perhaps the best we can do later is learn to recognize it as such.

So as the layers are excavated, is there a bottom? Or like the famous turtles holding up the world, are we illusion all the way down?

Mahayana Buddhists may point to Buddha Nature as being the “true self,” but I have been taught not to think of Buddha Nature as a “self.” That would make Buddha Nature just like the atman that the Buddha denied. So be careful of that.

My understanding is that not only is there no self beneath the layers, there is no self to peal them away. Through practice they fall away, or at least become more transparent. Needless to say, a “personal brand” won’t help.

Read more about the spiritual quest in Rethinking Religion: Finding a Place for Religion in a Modern, Tolerant, Progressive, Peaceful and Science-affirming World.

[This post originally was published on About.com Buddhism on November 7, 2013.]

Religion and Science: Four Perspectives

The 14th Dalai Lama is said to have said, “If science proves some belief of Buddhism wrong, then Buddhism will have to change.” I agree with the quote, but I also think it’s not that revolutionary. Buddhism has made a lot of adjustments to science in the past couple of centuries without being traumatized about it.

I very often run into news stories and articles that frame “religion” as a monolithic thing that is intractably opposed to “science,” another monolithic thing. But the truth is that most of religion is not at war with science (which is not so monolithic, but that’s another rant). Consider evolution, which “religion” is said to disbelieve. Catholicism never issued a formal opposition to evolution and declared decades ago that the faithful were free to make up their own minds. Judaism is largely supportive of evolution science. The “old line” Protestant denominations of Christianity mostly either accept evolution or leave it alone.

In America, the fight against evolution is coming mostly from the extreme religious Right. Yes, conservative evangelicals mostly oppose evolution, although there are exceptions to everything. Yes, there are a lot of them, and they make a lot of noise. But they don’t represent all of Christianity, never mind all of “religion.” And outside of Abrahamism I’m not aware that evolution is an issue at all. It certainly isn’t in Buddhism.

Most of Christianity processes science in one of two ways. One is to oppose it, for a variety of reasons. Some of those reasons are unrelated to religious doctrine — think climate change denialism — but are more about loyalty to the Right as a political-religious tribe. I’ve written elsewhere that this group harbors a kind of faithless faith. This faithless faith rests on the proposition that the reality of God depends on a literal interpretation of scripture. If evolution is true, for example, then God is not real. That’s why it’s a faithless faith; it’s a faith with conditions.

The other, and more common, means for the religious to process science is through a kind of compartmentalizing. Because science simply cannot measure God, or heaven, or angels, for example,  it’s not thought to be unscientific to believe in such things. This perspective assumes it is all right to read Bible stories allegorically, which is actually how they were read for most of history. Atheist folklore to the contrary, an insistence on biblical literalism is a relatively recent development.

That works for some people, although it never seems to stop the incessant arguments about whether God exists. No matter how elegantly or logically they are argued, arguments claiming to be “proof” of God always carry a whiff  of unsupported assumption and end up chasing their own tails. They are unpersuasive to anyone not already inclined to believe them, and are therefore a waste of time. Not that anyone listens to me. But if you are a God-believer, please just accept that you believe something that can’t be proved by any known means and try to come to terms with that. Thanks much.

Among Abrahamists there is also a less common way to deal with science, which is to assume that scriptures and doctrines are all imperfect attempts to explain something ineffable, and in truth God is not only beyond the measure of science but also beyond the limited ability of humans to conceptualize and describe him/her/it. This group doesn’t believe in literal angels or unseen spirits and may deny that God is a being at all, anthropomorphic or otherwise, although God still is. This is a perspective championed by Paul Tillich (1886-1965), considered to be one of the great Christian theologians of the 20th century. It’s still a kind of compartmentalization, but a looser one that creates little or no conflict with science.  This group is arguably closer to older concepts of “faith,” in which faith was less about believing things and more about trusting a God that is beyond human understanding. This perspective also is utterly incomprehensible to most activist atheists, who simply can’t get around that word “God” and not think “sky fairy.”

I’ve been speaking about the people engaged in these three ways of understanding religion and science as if they were three distinct groups, but it’s probably more of a continuum of understanding, with the extremely and rigidly literal on one end and the extremely and loosely not-literal on the other. Most American Christians and Jews fall somewhere between those two poles, and the poles will probably continue to shift.

There’s a weird belief among many American atheists that Abrahamic religion has always been rigidly literal, and those who are not are “cherry pickers” or “hypocrites,” but again, the bulk of theological and historical scholarship says literalism crept in with modernity, not the other way around. And, anyway, religion has always been a kind of ongoing, collaborative creative effort, albeit usually a conservative one, that really does change over time. For example, God as described in the older parts of the Old Testament really is a very different guy from the one described in the newer parts. Just over the past couple of centuries there have been a number of new developments in American Christianity, from Unitarianism to fundamentalism. So, in fact, understanding of doctrine is not so rigidly fixed as in a slow state of flux.

Buddhists are in a slightly different, and slightly more interesting, place. Buddhism did go through a period of doctrinal upheaval about three centuries ago, as science made hash of a lot of old assumptions about the cosmos. But for the most part Buddhism was able to reconcile itself to a more allegorical interpretation of many scriptures and doctrines without going to war about it. This is not to say there aren’t teachers out there explaining the Six Realms, for example, as real physical places, but they are a minority.

Buddhists don’t have to spin their wheels over the existence of a creator God. For the most part we don’t need to believe in a bunch of supernatural things to be assured the Buddha’s teachings are true. The Buddha’s teachings are mostly about ourselves and our lives, and we can verify them through our own practice and experience. Believing things is not that important in Buddhism.

On the other hand, some of the metaphysical theories in support of doctrine and practice might someday be revised by science. For example, the Buddha proposed the skandhas as a way to explain the biological organism that experiences itself as “I.” I’d love to see a neuroscientist who practices Buddhism review the skandhas and propose revisions to make them more accessible to modern thinkers. Seems to me it’s not so important to memorize that recognition is samjna and biases are samskara as it is to appreciate how the body, brain and nervous system work together to create the illusory experience of a self.  Reading about neuroscience actually helped me understand Yogacara philosophy, which utterly mystified me for a long time.

This is where I suspect His Holiness the Dalai Lama was going when he said “If science proves some belief of Buddhism wrong, then Buddhism will have to change.” He engages in dialog with scientists often, mostly in relation to “mind science” and the nature of consciousness and theoretical physics. He seems keenly interested in reconciling the “support” theories with scientific thought, and he appears to have great faith that science will support the Buddha’s teaching. As  long as science doesn’t discover a soul, it may very well do that.

Read more about religion and science in Rethinking Religion: Finding a Place for Religion in a Modern, Tolerant, Progressive, Peaceful and Science-affirming World


Saying Too Much

In Zen — and I’m sure this is true of other Buddhist traditions as well — students are sternly warned not to talk about a kensho or “enlightenment experience” to everyone and his uncle. It’s fine to discuss these things with a teacher, but not to others. I know of at least three reasons for this.

One reason to keep silent about some things is to avoid jealousy or competitiveness among students. Another is that it creates expectations in less “advanced” students about what such an experience might be like, and expecting an imagined experience can get in the way of the real thing.

And the third reason is that most people will misunderstand everything you say.

In his book There Is No God and He Is Always With You, Brad Warner says that he “stupidly” wrote about a kensho experience in his first book, and he describes how people who have read the first book utterly misinterpret what he wrote. And these are people who found the first book inspirational.

He has a blog post up now recounting a Twitter conversation with another such person. The questioner can’t get past thinking about enlightenment as something separate from the “enlightened being,” something to possess or be touched by or otherwise experienced, and Warner keeps saying no, that’s not it.

And the questioner accuses Warner of being evasive, but I don’t see that he is. He’s said all he can say. He’s said too much,  perhaps.

Let me be clear that Zen is not an esoteric tradition. There are no secret teachings that are given only to high-level initiates. By now just about everything Zen has to say about anything has not only been made public but has been published in multiple languages.

But on an individual level, even genuine insights and experiences can contain dangers. If we blab too much, if we turn a mystical experience into a public narrative, the way we understand the experience can change also. Keeping it bottled up is not good, either, however, because then it becomes something to cling to. So do talk about it, but talk about it to a teacher.

Rethinking Religion: Finding a Place for Religion in a Modern, Tolerant, Progressive, Peaceful and Science-affirming World

[This post originally was published on About.com Buddhism on August 12, 2013.]

Names and Labels

Many years ago, I “got into” Zen through Taoism, particularly the collection of verses called the Tao Teh Ching (or Daode Jing). Early Zen appears to have been influenced by Taoism, so it wasn’t much of a leap.

Now I’m reading a new book called Walking the Way: 81 Zen Encounters With the Tao Teh Ching by Robert Rosenbaum, and I’m enjoying it very much. The 81 “encounters” are reflections on the Tao Teh Ching’s verses, and some are quite lovely. Here’s a bit —

“Your name is a summons, not a self. Whatever names have been bestowed on you, whatever names you have created for yourself, are only pointers, motes of dust that enable our thoughts to condense and identify an object; you are a way seeking itself. Names can give the illusion of some unchanging essence “underneath” the name, so don’t be deceived; the real you does not stop or start, but swirls and streams.”

Of course, all names of things are motes of dust that enable our thoughts to condense and identify. This reminds me of another quote I’ve posted before — Zen teacher Zoketsu Norman Fischer wrote,

“In Buddhist thought the concept “emptiness” refers to deconstructed reality. The more closely you look at something the more you see that it is not there in any substantial way, it couldn’t be. In the end everything is just a designation: things have a kind of reality in their being named and conceptualized, but otherwise they actually aren’t present. Not to understand that our designations are designations, that they do not refer to anything in particular, is to mistake emptiness.” [“A Few Words About Emptiness,” PDF]

If designations for tangible things (in a relative sense) such as [your name], computer, chair, cat, friend, whatever, designate things that actually are not present, how much more so is something intangible not present? Ideologies, political theories, belief systems, have no substance whatsoever, for example, yet we argue about them all the time.

Rethinking Religion: Finding a Place for Religion in a Modern, Tolerant, Progressive, Peaceful and Science-affirming World

I’m thinking of the endless argument that Buddhism is a philosophy, not a religion. Someone with the least understanding of dharma ought to know that as soon as you say “I am” or “it is” or “they are,” you’re in trouble. Sometimes you have to make those designations to communicate, but ultimately there’s nothing there to argue about.

[This post was originally published on About.com Buddhism on June 4, 2013]

The Christian Conceptual Box

One of the challenges in explaining Buddhism to people amounts to breaking through the Abrahamist — and mostly Christian, in the U.S. —  conceptual box into which people compulsively shove all things “religious.”

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I discussed conceptual boxes in the last post. In brief, our conceptual boxes are the mental filing system our culture and upbringing build for us, and by which we sort and classify all phenomena so that we can recognize it and know it.* This is a mostly workable system for navigating the world and probably has a lot to do with how human brains evolved to secure the survival of our species. However, the filing breaks down when confronted with something that actually doesn’t fit. What usually happens, then, is that instead of adjusting the filing system we distort the new thing so that it fits the existing system. This is one way to understand what psychologists call “confirmation bias,” but what I’m thinking of is actually a bit broader than that.

Western culture in the 21st century has arrived at fairly narrow and rigid conceptual boxes for “religion” and “philosophy,” and for the most part the “religion” box only accommodates Abrahamism.  Anything else you shove into it, whether Buddhism or Vedanta or something else, has to be rather grossly distorted to make it fit. Those who do recognize that Buddhism doesn’t fit into the “religion” box often then decide it must belong in the “philosophy” box, but it actually doesn’t fit that box either, unless you slice big chunks of it off first. Many Buddhist teachers have attempted to get around the conceptual box problem by explaining Buddhism in terms of psychology, but that’s turning into another kind of problem — see the older post “Dark Nights and Dukkha Nanas.” **

This post was touched off by some propositions written by a philosopher named Edward Feser, who has a very nice blog for those of you who are philosophy nerds. The propositions, which I found on Facebook and may be paraphrased, are how he conceptualizes objections to  religion  —

Consider first the different attitudes an atheist might take to the theoretical side of a religion. There are at least three such attitudes, which, going from the most hostile to the least hostile, could be summarized as follows:

1. Religious belief has no serious intellectual content at all. It is and always has been little more than superstition, the arguments offered in its defense have always been feeble rationalizations, and its claims are easily refuted.

2. Religious belief does have serious intellectual content, has been developed in interesting and sophisticated ways by philosophers and theologians, and was defensible given the scientific and philosophical knowledge available to previous generations. But advances in science and philosophy have now more or less decisively refuted it. Though we can respect the intelligence of an Aquinas or a Maimonides, we can no longer take their views seriously as live options.

3. Religious belief is still intellectually defensible today, but not as defensible as atheism. An intelligent and well-informed person could be persuaded by the arguments presented by the most sophisticated contemporary proponents of a religion, but the arguments of atheists are at the end of the day more plausible.

My primary issue here is that “religion” is defined primarily as “belief,” which is the chief issue with the Abrahamist box. In many other religions, not just Buddhism, doctrines are propositions to be confirmed through mystical or other practices. Merely believing them serves only a provisional purpose. In Zen, it’s best to not believe them at all, but rather let doctrines inhabit one’s body for awhile to see how they work. For that reason, intellectual arguments for or against the propositions are also beside the point, since it is understood that what is to be realized cannot be reached by intellect. So these three propositions are hopelessly stuck in an Abrahamist conceptual box.

This is not to say that Buddhists don’t argue, but the arguments can take very odd forms, from a western perspective. See, for example, and old post on a koan from the Mumonkan, “Ryutan Blows Out the Candle.” See also the story of Miaoxin and the koan about flag, wind, and mind.

A Facebook participant paraphrased  Edward Feser’s propositions this way:

  1. Theism is still intellectually defensible — but not as defensible as non-theism.
  2. Theism has no respectable intellectual content at all and obviously never had any.
  3. Theism’s prior intellectual content has been refuted by science and philosophy.

From my perspective the propositions all have an Abrahamist bias, and it could be argued it’s a modernist Abrahamist bias. I don’t call myself an atheist (although many western Buddhists do), but neither am I a theist or an agnostic. I am a nontheist, by which I mean the existence of a God or gods is irrelevant to my religion.

I wrote a long ‘chapter about the existence of God in Rethinking Religion, which boils down to “The question “Does God exist?” cannot be answered until you (a) define “God”; and (b) define “exist.”‘

Buddhism simply does not deal with a person-God or creator-God or a judge-God. Even if such a being existed, in Buddhism, he/she wouldn’t have anything to do. All of the functions of such a God have been assigned to forces or energies that are something like natural law and are not being operated by a supernatural being or intelligence. However, I can appreciate the standard Abrahamist God-concept as something like an archetype of those natural laws.

On the other hand, if you wander into Paul Tilich’s “God as ground of being” territory we might have some agreement. If we define God as something like the force or essence or ineffable something that pervades everywhere in time and space and makes existence possible, we’re looking at what Mahayana Buddhists would call the dharmakaya or Buddha-nature. That’s also one definition of the word dharma as used in Theravada Buddhism as well as Vedanta.

However, worshiping the dharmakaya is kind of pointless. We’d only be worshiping ourselves. There are also huge issues in Mahayana about making the dharmakaya a bigger deal than conventional reality, or the phenomenal manifestations that we recognize as trees, toasters, and us. One is no less, or more, important or “true” than the other. As the Heart Sutra says, form is exactly emptiness; emptiness is exactly form. There is no separation.

And that takes us into the sticky question, “What is existence?” We speak of existence and “reality” as if we all agree what these things are, and we don’t. Trust me.


*(Buddhists will recognize that this is a function of the third skandha, although our opinions or feelings about what we “know” are a function of the fourth skandha.)

**(A big reason I wrote Rethinking Religion is to redefine religion in a way that actually takes in all of the world’s major religions, not just monotheism, without distortion. This is going to be an uphill slog, but I think all religions will benefit.)