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Barbara O'Brien

Don't Forget Bodhi

By December 8, 2011

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A little more about bodhi -- awakening or enlightenment -- for Rohatsu, or Bodhi Day. It seems to me there's long been a tendency in Buddhism to sweep enlightenment under the rug.

That's certainly true in the "it's just a philosophy, not a religion" school of the West, in which dharma too often is presented as something you should do because it's good for you, like taking vitamins. But it's true in traditional Asian Buddhism as well.

I'm still reading The Making of Buddhist Modernism by David McMahan, which I've mentioned in earlier posts. (It's not a particularly long book; I just haven't had a lot of time for reading of late.) McMahan writes that the emphasis on meditation for everyone, and not just a cloistered monastic elite, is a significant part of the "modernizing" of Buddhism.

Through most of Buddhist history, the enormous majority of laypeople did not meditate at all. And in some periods this applied to monastics as well. Instead, practice mostly focused on keeping the Precepts and making merit by supporting the monastic sangha. It was (and still is, in some places) understood that bodhi was out of reach for most people.

Of course, "meditation" is not always seated, silent meditation. Pure Land and Nichiren Buddhists practice what might be thought of as chanting meditation. Even then, in Pure Land the faith is that devoted chanting will enable rebirth in the Pure Land, a place in which realization of bodhi becomes possible.

To a large extent the "meditation for everyone" movement has been fueled by Asian teachers. But westerners being introduced to Buddhism in recent years often understand it to be primarily about meditation, and at times I think this has led to some misunderstanding between non-ethic-Asian westerners and traditional Asian Buddhists.

A large part of non-ethnic Asian western Buddhism seems determined to chuck everything about Buddhism but meditation out the window. Some, like Owen Flanagan, tell us that Buddhism is a great philosophy for the 21at century, but of course that silliness about karma, rebirth and Nirvana has to go. He doesn't even mention bodhi, but in Flanagan's "naturalized" Buddhism I don't see a place for bodhi, either.

This takes us back to the story of the Real Dragon I told earlier this week. As Mumon points out in comments, the dragon represents enlightenment. Adopting Buddhism as a philosophy is like decorating your house with dragon figurines. A real dragon -- bodhi -- is something else entirely.

Comments
December 8, 2011 at 3:31 pm
(1) Hein says:

For some or other strange reason i like Bodhi Day. Perhaps os might be some left over from Christian upbringing yearning for festival this time of year. Perhaps iy might simply be that i like the Japanese culture too much. But i never much cared about xmas.
In any event if may share; tonite i was fortunate to celebrate Bodhi Day with all seven members of our small Sangha, by chsnting the Three Refuges, the Heart Sutra, reaffirming the Precepts, recited the Purificayion verses and reaffirmed
the Four Vows again. Thay was followed by zazen, kinhin and zazen. We concluded with a reading from Thich Nhat Hahn’s “old path white cloud” about Gautama’s Enlightenment.
Unfortunately it rained too much to lite the Chinese lantern.

December 9, 2011 at 11:43 am
(2) Mila says:

I really appreciate the “don’t forget Bodhi” message.

& it’s kind of ironic that in western cultures where meditation practice is associated more prominently with Buddhism, than it is in some of the Asian cultures — that we so frequently miss its liberatory potential, i.e. are settling for dragon figurines instead of the real dragon; or (to use Daido Loori’s metaphor) deciding to be content with decorating the box, instead of realizing there is no box.

Seems very much connected to how mindfulness practice has been taken up — as an end in and of itself — for its various physical, mental and emotional health-promoting benefits. Such practice has the potential, of course, to smooth out our egoic existence in all kinds of excellent ways: for instance, emotional reactivity tends to decrease, which goes far in making our days flow more easily. And — in cultures where it’s not all that uncommon for someone to pull out an automatic weapon in response to being cut off in traffic — this is no small thing, to have a more friendly, calm and tamed ego.

But mindfulness is only the first of the seven factors of Awakening/Enlightenment! And I find it quite sad to see folks who’ve been meditating for many years, perhaps several decades, somehow lose (or perhaps never find) their true passion for the practice, that sense of virya — persistent energy, right effort, exertion — which is the third “factor of Awakening” and which seems necessary in order to begin to access the states of meditative absorption (samadhi) which offer an actual taste of nondual reality, of Bodhi.

December 9, 2011 at 2:05 pm
(3) DavidR says:

There is a reason why meditation for laypeople is a relatively modern phenomenon. Before our age, most people worked from sunrise to sunup, seven days a week. They had no concept of leisure time, no weekends, vacations etc. if bodhi was out of reach, it was primarily because laypeople were unable to take the time and necessary steps to get there, meaning meditation.

I don’t know about McMahan but some folks who pick up on this construe it to imply that somehow a focus on meditation is wrong or not really part of the Buddhist tradition or whatever. Yet, I think it is safe to say that the Buddha would have encouraged anyone who could to engage in a meditation practice. Focusing exclusively and excessively is probably wrongheaded, but otherwise, meditation is the practice and the practice is the prime point of this philosophy.

December 9, 2011 at 7:47 pm
(4) mayya says:

meditation is only a part of Buddism. it develop the concentration power of a mind which is essential in attaining Nibbana Or Nirvaana. Similar to concentration, there are 7 other qualities that one should develop to attain the greatest satisfaction that man can achieve.

December 10, 2011 at 10:26 am
(5) Machig says:

“Similar to concentration, there are 7 other qualities that one should develop to attain the greatest satisfaction that man can achieve.”

mayya, what are the “7 other qualities” that you are referring to here?

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