The last time you sat down and lit some incense or performed some other Buddhist ritual did you ask yourself why you are doing this? Have you ever asked yourself why? Most likely if you are from the west after you had your initial interest in Buddhism you visited a local temple (if your one of the lucky ones), went to some meditation class, read a book, or even watched something on youtube. You got the idea (of lighting incense) from which ever place or method you happened, by luck, to come across. Most people do not know much of anything about all the different Buddhist sects or denominations when they first have an interest in Buddhism. In fact generally the particular flavor that you do practice was decided on totally by chance. What determined which one you are practicing now or at least what you started with is simply whatever style was available to you (in which ever format) and nothing more. This is not a criticism of anyone, it is just a fact that has a simple cause.
Buddhism is an Eastern Religion. It has only made its way to be popular in the west in the fairly recent past. So if you live in average town USA or Europe there probably is not a selection of various Buddhist temples and monasteries from many different sects available to you to choose from. In fact there probably aren’t any at all, at least near by. So this just means that if you have an interest in Buddhism you probably do not have a whole lot of choice as to what will be the source of your Buddhist education. Since Buddhism is not native to the west we most likely had very little real knowledge of its teachings or practices when we began on our journey. Due to this combination of things we accepted whatever or whom was ever the source of our teaching as being correct and whatever they did as the “Buddhist” thing to do. If they lit incense then so did we. If they performed ritual “A” then so did we. If they were from a Tibetan sect or a Japanese sect then that is what we followed. So since it is a foreign religion and is wrapped in all the cultural trappings of where ever that particular sect comes from we feel that we should just accept what we are told as correct, perhaps we could be said to be even accepting it blindly.
It is fine that this sort of thing happens in the beginning of your Buddhist journey because of course you have to start somewhere. But to continue this way would truly be a Un-Buddhist thing to do. You see the Buddha instructed us to do completely the opposite. Buddhism is not a religion of commandments or things that we have to believe. It is a religion based on practice and personal experience. We are not to believe or accept anything as true, even the things that the Buddha did teach, unless we can prove it to ourselves through our practice to be so. We are not to blindly accept any teaching. There are many reasons why this is vitally important. I will talk about a few.
The main goal in Buddhism (in my opinion) is understanding the true nature of the “self” which then enables you to have a true understanding of reality. Having this understanding changes how you will interact with the world around you. How can you possibly understand the true nature of the “self” if you cannot not question what you are doing or are being taught? How can you have faith in something that you yourself may not believe? You don’t gain any real faith just because you were told something was true. We gain faith by proving to ourselves that something is in fact true. This is accomplished through contemplation and personal experience.
I hear people making arguments for certain Buddhist practices, such as following the precepts for example, in a very dogmatic almost fundamentalist way. I am sure that this way of interpreting the Buddha Dharma has been influenced by our mostly Judaeo Christian past. I am not sure if these folks have ever truly thought about the purpose behind the Precepts or how misplaced their religious fervor is. If they did they would see that there are problems with their way of thinking about this. As I have mentioned we are not commanded by any divinity in Buddhism to do anything. Everything that we do by way of our Buddhist practice is a choice, it is voluntary. Everything that we say do or think in our practice is reflecting the teachings of the Buddha Dharma. For example the simple flower we may put on our home altar is a symbol of Impermanence. It isn’t there to just look or smell nice. There is a very profound teaching behind it. So this points out a very important fact. If we go through our Buddhist practice following what we have been told or shown in some rote fashion we are totally missing the purpose of the practice and any teaching that it conveys.
In the case of the precepts it is clear that all the things you are refraining from are things that support our notion of an individual self. Why do we lie? To protect the self. Why do we steal? To enrich the self….etc. Following the precepts is a practice that both has a purpose and a teaching behind it. They are not something we follow to avoid some eternal punishment in a fiery place. We choose on our own to follow them to further our practice. So if we are going to follow these precepts doesn’t make sense to question why? The fundamentalist will argue that we must follow the precepts to avoid doing evil things. All I will say about that at this time (saving this for a future post) is they need to ask if the Buddha taught duality or non-duality? The idea here is that we should question all teachings just like the Buddha asked us to do, to have a questioning mindset. One reason for this is because of the fact that many not-so-Buddhist teachings have crept into what is being taught as the Buddha Dharma. Also by questioning what we are learning there is a chance that we will truly come to understand what is being taught.
Have you ever come across a couple of teachings in Buddhism that just seemed opposed to each other? Or one of the Buddhist teachings that you just cannot believe? I have had this happen to me numerous times. I have learned over time that if this happens there are usually only two possibilities. One is that you do not truly understand the teaching. In this case they are not truly opposed or incorrect but it is just your lack of understanding that makes them seem so. The other is that the teaching really just isn’t true. Yes this is possible and if you are not willing to question you can be easily led astray.
As Buddhism spread across the world it was assimilated by many very different cultures. During this migration many aspects of these cultures, their language, and indigenous religions became part of the Buddhism that was practiced there. Their language, cultural beliefs, and traditions influenced how they interpreted the Buddhist concepts they were being taught. This lead to some non-Buddhist elements being part of the Buddhism from that place. It was no different when Buddhism came to the west. Since we in the west have a mostly Judaeo-Christian past we interpreted the Buddhist concepts through that lens. Then if we add the errors that are introduced through translations into our language it is not a surprise that western Buddhism is plagued with some of the same problems and corruptions as previous migrations.
So what all this means is that some of what we are taught and just accept outright may not be truly be Buddhist, or more importantly true, at all. When I say that non-Buddhist teachings have crept into Buddhism what I am really saying is that these teachings if held up against the core Buddhist teachings will be proven to be untrue. I was the kid that used to get into trouble for asking to many questions at Sunday school. I also was fortunate to come across some of the Buddhist sutras where the Buddha instructed us to question things, such as the Kalama sutta, when I first started studying Buddhism. So I was lucky to have that mindset from the beginning. In my posts I often question things that many people think are standard parts of Buddhist thought. This upsets many people but I do try to give my reasons as concisely as I can for questioning these things so that you can see that there is a reason to question them. My last post on “Suffering” was just that kind of post. It may have been a bit less controversial then some but I am sure there were some that disagree. My question to them is why do you disagree? Is it because of tradition? Is it because your Roshi or Guru told you so? Or is it because you have some insight that I am not aware of? We should have a questioning frame of mind even when discussing something that we may think there is no question about. I will give a couple more examples of what I am referring to. I offer these as questions. I do not mean to offend anyone or their beliefs and if I am missing something please let me know.
- Buddhist heaven (Sukhavati, Western paradise) or hell, the six realms of existence – I have to believe that these are meant metaphorically in reference of states of mind. Here are my reasons for this. If I accept Not-Self, Impermanence, and Emptiness as core Buddhist teachings that interpenetrate each other, then the six realms of existence cannot be as they are taught. Not-self says that there is no abiding, permanent, separate self. If this is the case then who or what is born into these other realms? There is no you to be born there. Impermanence says that nothing lasts more than a period in any one state. Therefore who or what can exist in a heaven or a hell? Emptiness says that we are empty of an individual independent self and that we are interconnected to everything else. Once again there is no self to be reborn into heaven or hell (or any other realm) and if we are connected to everything else if we were born into one of these realms we would have to bring everything else with us! 😉 We are an aggregate of many different things both mental and physical. If you take away any one thing this being is no longer us. When we die all the things that make us up separate. So at this point we are no longer us. There is not an individual self to be born into another realm.
- Karma, What goes around comes around, You reap what you sow – Again because of the teachings I mentioned above the standard understanding of Karma cannot be so. Who is it tomorrow that reaps what I sow today? If I do not exist it won’t be me. Due to impermanence when I die, the form that I am in right now won’t exist anymore. Everything that I am made up of will exist but the being that I am right now will not. So I will not get back everything I do because there is no me to get it back (Not-Self). I am not saying that our actions do not have an effect. The word Karma literally means action (every action has a reaction). If I look at it in that light everything I do (every action) today will have an effect on the whole universe. If some of the things that make me up currently come into being again in another form then “it” (whatever that may be) will certainly feel the effect of my actions but “I” as “I” am today will not unless its effect is felt before “I” die. The other reason why the standard understanding of Karma does not make sense is that it would have to have an arbitrator. Who or what is keeping track of what I do? There would have to be someone or something that keeps track of my every action and then decides when and how much to give back to me. Buddhism teaches that there isn’t a creator god that is permanent, so who or what is the arbitrator.
So Suffering, The realms of existence, and Karma if all taken as they are traditionally taught are on shaky ground if you ask me. Is this Blasphemous? No not at all. If anyone has any information that changes what I have said about these things please let me know and then we can have a discussion. It is important to ask the questions and it is important to have an open mind if any new information comes to light.
Another even better reason to have this questioning mind has come to light very recently. Have you heard of any of the scandals that are rocking some of the Tibetan Buddhist sects. Fist of all these abuses have nothing to do with the Tibetan traditions themselves. Just like all other religions it is the people that screw the religion up not usually the other way around. Don’t you think that if the students that were abused by these Lama’s had this questioning mind that we have been talking about they could of simply asked themselves “What does what he is asking me to do have to do with the Dharma?” “How does this fit into what the Buddha taught?”. If they had asked these questions they would have seen for themselves that what these Lama’s were asking them to do or how these Lama’s were treating them was directly opposed to the Buddha Dharma. In my opinion there is almost nothing worse than a religious leader abusing their position of trust for personal gain.
I am only expressing what I have found to be questionable or what I have found to be true for myself. The point of this post is that you need to question and find out what is true for you. Do not believe something just because you assume that it is obviously a Buddhist teaching or that it is being taught correctly. If something is true it is true even if the Buddha never spoke of it.
I am not saying that any particular sect is completely wrong. I think every Buddhist sect has incorporated some local traditions and some of their own local beliefs into the Buddhism that they practice. Western Buddhism has gone through this same process and is no worse or better than any of the others. The best practice is to question everything from the newest teaching that has been given to you to lighting that candle and incense on the altar. By doing this your understanding will grow immensely and since you will be able to verify the truth of what you have learned through your practice your faith will increase with every truth you unveil to yourself. Always approach this with an open mind because as I have mentioned before something can appear untrue if you do not understand it fully yourself.