1. Religion & Spirituality
Send to a Friend via Email
Barbara O'Brien

Is There Such a Thing as a Buddhist Heretic?

By May 28, 2012

Follow me on:

I saw a title on a blog at Elephant Journal -- there's no such thing as a Buddhist heretic. And I'm thinking, is that really true?

It's true that beliefs have a different role in Buddhism than they do in the religions more familiar to westerners. In the West, "religion" largely is defined by belief, and to adopt a religion means to adopt a belief system. But this isn't true in Buddhism.

Some schools use some beliefs as training wheels, or expedient means, to help focus one's practice. But beliefs can also be viewed as barriers that are blocking our realization of enlightenment.

"Heresy" is defined as "any theological doctrine that does not conform to that of ecclesiastical authority." I can think of a lot of tradition-specific heresies, actually. For example, if someone within Soto Zen were to argue that zazen really isn't necessary -- and I believe that's been argued in times past -- a lot of us would see that as something like heresy. I can imagine that if someone within a Nichiren group were to declare that the Lotus Sutra is just a stupid old book, that might be regarded as heresy.

Of course, if those things were to happen, I hope the response would be to suggest the individual holding the "heretical" beliefs might be happier practicing in another school of Buddhism. No stretching anyone on the rack.

The "dharma seals" adopted by many schools of Buddhism are supposed to mark the parameters between Buddhism and not-Buddhism. It's understood that any teaching that contradicts the seals is not a Buddhist teaching. The four dharma seals are:

  1. All compounded things are impermanent.
  2. All stained emotions are painful.
  3. All phenomena are empty.
  4. Nirvana is peace.

So, one might argue that when a self-identified Buddhist believes some things are permanent or that phenomena contain an eternal soul or essence of self-nature, that is heresy. However, the fact is most of us "believe" these things because they've been programmed into us, and the whole point of practice is to break out of the program, so to speak. So we call it delusion instead of heresy.

There's a common view in the West that Buddhism can be anything you want it to be. Of course, relating to Buddhism as something that can be made to conform to what you want it to be is way not Buddhism. Buddhist practice teaches us to perceive things as they are, not through lenses colored by our likes and dislikes and predilections. Buddhism as "whatever you want it to be" is heresy.

The historical Buddha warned people to not form beliefs and opinions through speculation. He went on and on about it -- speculating about things, grasping at explanations that come from our imaginations rather than from genuine insight, would cause one to get lost in a "wilderness of views." Instead of forming or adopting a belief system, he challenged us to gain understanding through direct insight. In Buddhism, clinging to beliefs is a kind of heresy, I would say.

Comments
May 29, 2012 at 7:34 am
(1) Michael says:

Another possible set of candidates for “Buddhist heretics” might also include those group who go for refuge to unenlightened sources. You can probably think of several.

May 30, 2012 at 1:00 am
(2) Hein says:

Was thinking about Stephen Batchelor. His approach if I understand it correctly from Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist is that only the teachings in the Wheel Sutra (Four Noble Truths) are authentic and original Buddhism. But, it seems that “belief” (if you wish to call it that) is not really constitute Buddhist atheism or even a heresy, as it still includes the four dharama seals?

May 30, 2012 at 6:47 am
(3) Barbara O'Brien says:

Hein — in truth, Batchelor’s reading of the Pali texts is that anything he understands and agrees with is “original,” and the other stuff was added later. He justifies this by arguing that anything that can be found in Vedic texts (e.g., karma, reincarnation) that pre-date Buddhism couldn’t be things the Buddha taught, but that makes no logical sense. Why wouldn’t the Buddha have addressed the prevailing religious beliefs of his time? And in fact, the Buddha’s teachings on karma and rebirth, etc., diverge considerably from the earlier Vedic teachings.

May 30, 2012 at 8:41 am
(4) Hein says:

Barbara – I am not defending Batchelor, but was just thinking that Batchelor is after all not such a big “atheist” as he calls himself.
I agree; the Buddha was a man of his time and place. He did not simply drop from the sky, so to speak to give teachings totally disconnected with the prevailing religious beliefs.
I appreciate the fact that the dharma seals are the guidelines to consider whether a person is a Buddhist. From a reading of Confessions it seems Batchelor does not refute or deny the dharma seals? Unless he fails to realise the interrelatedness of phenomena, which would include the fact the Buddha’s educaction (language, religion etc) was Vedic. And I agree that the Buddha’s teaching do diverge considerably from the Vedic training he received, but his starting point still remained Vedic.
I stop here before I land in a quagmire I cannot extricate myself :)

May 30, 2012 at 9:19 am
(5) Barbara O'Brien says:

From a reading of Confessions it seems Batchelor does not refute or deny the dharma seals?

I don’t think he refutes the dharma seals, but based on many, many comments he has made in books and articles I don’t think he really grasps “not self,” either. Time and time again he writes from the perspective of someone who still believes in an individual self-essence. He may grasp “not self” intellectually, but I don’t think he has realized it.

I agree; the Buddha was a man of his time and place. He did not simply drop from the sky, so to speak to give teachings totally disconnected with the prevailing religious beliefs.

Exactly. To think otherwise would make the Buddha someone superhuman or otherwordly, and that’s heresy. :-)

May 30, 2012 at 9:12 pm
(6) Ben says:

The omphalic denotation of “heresy” seems to me to be dissent. Dissent from whom or what is ancillary to that point. Heterodox views have historically been lauded by Buddhists, if not in word, then certainly in praxis. Moreover, for all that contemporary Buddhism vaunts its pro-philosophical, proto-scientific pedigree, heresy seems quite… well, religious.

May 31, 2012 at 6:37 am
(7) Barbara O'Brien says:

Moreover, for all that contemporary Buddhism vaunts its pro-philosophical, proto-scientific pedigree, heresy seems quite… well, religious.

The “pro-philosophical, proto-scientific pedigree” is less pedigree than marketing, designed to make Buddhism more palatable in the West. Traditional Asian Buddhism is not anti-philosophy or anti-science, but it is very religious.

May 31, 2012 at 1:18 am
(8) Hein says:

Ben – English not being my home language I had first to research what ”omphalic” means, which seems to refer to the navel. Fail to see the connection though…sorry for my ignorance.
Use of the phrase heresy is unfortunate. It is mostly used in the Christian context (or theistic viewpoint) and from a Buddhist perspective IMO not very helpful. It leads to confusion. In time – I suppose – we in the West would come to use terminology more in accordance with the Buddhadharma rather than borrowing it from other religions.
And yeah, Buddhism is religious. Is there anything wrong with considering Buddhism a religion even though in parts it might accord with modern philosophical views and scientific theory?

May 31, 2012 at 6:39 am
(9) Barbara O'Brien says:

Hein – I didn’t know what “omphalic” meant, either.

June 1, 2012 at 12:33 am
(10) Randy says:

I concur with what the Dalai Lama says about the flexible boundaries or lack of dogma found in Buddhism. At the same time, he definitely states there is no God or higher being that inherently exists and creates and guides us. That would be Christian heresy. The only time I have read the use of the word “heresy” in Buddhism is in relation to the Jonangpa which was declared heretical and forcibly converted into the Gelugpaf by the 5th Dalai Lama. The basis of the heresy was the practice of zhentong, which holds that only the clear-light, non-dual nature of the mind is “real”, and everything else is empty of inherent existence. The Gelug school held the distinct but related rangtong view that all phenomena are empty (of inherent existence) and no thing or process (including Mind and its qualities) may be asserted as independent or inherently real (neither may phenomena be asserted as “unreal” – in short, all assertions are seen to be groundless)

June 1, 2012 at 10:14 am
(11) Mila says:

Interesting point, Randy. As I understand it, the “founder” of the Jonangpa teachings was a student of a Kashmiri master …. yet another instance of historical/geographical interplay between Tibetan Buddhism, Kashmir Shaivism & Advaita Vedanta. Can’t help but wonder how much of the condemnation of this lineage as “heretical” had to do with turf wars between Buddhism & these other traditions?

Anyway, here’s a nice overview of the conflict, in relation to Theosophical teachings.

Progressive Stages of Meditation on Emptiness and Shengtong and Rangtong: Two Views of Emptiness provide excellent explanations of the Shengtong / Rangtong differences — for anyone interested in going deeper.

June 1, 2012 at 10:46 am
(12) Mila says:

From Karma Lodro Choephel’s introduction to Thrangu Rinpoche’s Shengtong and Rangtong: Two Views of Emptiness:

“”Whenever Rinpoche discusses the Rangtong and Shengtong, he stresses how important they both are: they both teach the ultimate nature of reality.The Rantong view stresses the emptiness of all phenomena so that we do not cling to things as being solid and real. The Shentong view stresses the clear wisdom, inherently full of qualities and potential, so that we do not think that the true nature is mere nothingness. Although in words these two may sound like different things, in reality they are inseparable. The clear nature of the mind is not a solid thing that we can find or establish, but it is not a mere inanimate emptiness, devoid of anything at all. This is what we call the union of clarity and emptiness, the union of wisdom and emptiness.”

June 2, 2012 at 3:24 am
(13) Joe Isuzu says:

Barbara,

Heretic: a person holding an opinion at odds with what is generally accepted.

“I don’t think he refutes the dharma seals, but based on many, many comments he has made in books and articles I don’t think he really grasps “not self,” either. Time and time again he writes from the perspective of someone who still believes in an individual self-essence. He may grasp “not self” intellectually, but I don’t think he has realized it.”

That’s a pretty good example of how Batchelor describes Buddhism’s benign shunning of a heretic by turning them into an apostate.

June 2, 2012 at 7:38 am
(14) Barbara O'Brien says:

That’s a pretty good example of how Batchelor describes Buddhism’s benign shunning of a heretic by turning them into an apostate.

Hmm. Batchelor’s perspective is one that normally would be viewed benignly when held by laypeople or newbies. The practice is to gently guide us away from the delusion of “self” rather than shunning those who don’t proclaim the proper doctrine. Hell, we all go into Buddhism perceiving things the way Batchelor does. For most of us it takes a long time to stop experiencing ourselves from within that “me and everybody else” paradigm.

But when he sets himself up as some kind of expert on Buddhism, teaches that a central doctrine is just superstitious Asian dogma, and then persuades a lot of westerners to follow his view and establish Western Buddhism according to his ideas, the problem has gone way beyond apostasy.

Reading between a lot of lines, my impression is that Batchelor butted heads with one teacher after another because he stubbornly refused to let go of his views of a permanent self, and he interpreted exasperation with him as “shunning” him for “apostasy.”

June 3, 2012 at 2:44 pm
(15) Joe Isuzu says:

“Reading between a lot of lines, my impression is that Batchelor butted heads with one teacher after another because he stubbornly refused to let go of his views of a permanent self, and he interpreted exasperation with him as “shunning” him for “apostasy.” ”

Barbara,
Hmm, back atcha. I do see your point about Batchelor and you did in fact set up a criteria in your article about what you believe to be “practicing” Buddhism and what isn’t, he being a self professed expert and you being what? Not a self professed expert but an individual with specific Buddhist doctrines which Batchelor does not abide and should perhaps not represent himself as a Buddhist?

Sorry. I just like being contrary. I’m certainly no scholar nor am I an “expert” in anything as subjective as Buddhism (or any world view). I have practiced Buddhism in only 2 different specific avenues and you may either call that “organized” or “sect”, which ever is easiest, so I can not say that all “organized sects” are what I have experienced. After 40 years of “practicing” I’ve ended up as a heretic in both by asking questions about ancillary dogma. The bottom line when the “I” of “me” usually disconnects whatever part of the practice from the Buddha’s intention and the organized austerity is what can be phrased as “We just ask you to respect our beliefs”. I have responded with something akin to ” I’ll respect are common humanity but if you want my respect for your beliefs, you’ll have to earn that”. So basically, I’m a solo practitioner of mindfulness and considered both a heretic to some and an apostate to others. But I do have a great appreciation for what being mindful can afford an individual. I also appreciate your input.

June 4, 2012 at 2:01 pm
(16) Barbara O'Brien says:

Joe — The first question is, Did the Buddha teach a rigorous discipline for realizing enlightenment/buddhahood for ourselves, or did he present some vague suggestions that can be personally adapted to whatever our spiritual/philosophical/psychological goals happen to be?

I say the former is true, although that doesn’t mean the “rigorous discipline” has to be identical across sectarian divisions. Over the centuries great teachers have come up with all kinds of skillful means that have been beneficial for practitioners, and what “works” for one person might not do as well for someone else. So I am not saying that Buddhism has to be monolithic, which you seem to be suggesting.

You talk about belief, and I say over and over again that beliefs are beside the point. If you are approaching Buddhism as a belief system, then you don’t get it. And that’s true whether you accept it or reject it. This is sorta kinda the point that the fella who wrote “there’s no such thing as a Buddhist heretic” was making, and I appreciate that. But my point was that Buddhism is not whatever you want it to be. And while nothing is “heresy” in the strict sense of the word, there are things that are akushala, or not skillful, which is sorta kinda analogous.

And this takes us to the second question, which is that if Buddhist practice can have countless variations, where are the parameters? How do we know what is skillful or not skillful? Where do we draw the line between Buddhism and not Buddhism?

For 25 centuries it has been understood by all the great teachers and scholars of all schools that the foundation of the Buddha’s teaching is the Four Noble Truths, which amounts to a set of propositions. However, the formulaic way that the Four Truths normally are explained leaves out the supporting arguments, and the supporting arguments are critical. If you delve into the Four Truths, you see that the Buddha was saying that we are bound to the wheel of samsara by our ignorance of the true nature of ourselves and reality, and the primary thing we are ignorant about is that we believe that “I” is a permanent, autonomous thing that inhabits our bodies. As long as that’s how we understand reality, we are bound. Unbinding comes from practice of the Eightfold Path, which has the power to clear up our ignorance.

Believe me, the Buddha went on and on and on about this. It’s very clear this is the essential core of his teaching.

However, believing this stuff is pointless. The practice is about realization. We practice so that we intimately experience that what the Buddha said about illusion is true. When we recognize for ourselves that our illusions are illusions, there is the threshold of wisdom. Until then, as long as the illusions seem like “reality,” a lot of the teachings will be misunderstood.

Yes, there are sectarian differences in exactly how anatta/sunyatta are understood, and even how much they are emphasized, especially to laypeople. In some schools they are hardly mentioned, it appears, and instead the practitioner engages in faith practices to evoke the power of, say, Amitabha Buddha or the Lotus Sutra to bring one to realization rather than directly engaging in not self, as one does in Zen and some other schools. And that’s fine. But the fact remains that anatta/sunyatta is the component that more than anything else sets Buddhism apart from other spiritual paths and defines it as a distinctive tradition.

Without anatta/sunyatta, the rest of the Buddha’s teachings fall apart. This may be why you question “ancillary dogma.” A lot of the teachings that seem contradictory or irrelevant take on an entirely different significance once you begin to perceive not self/emptiness. With perception (notice I say “perception,” not “belief”) of not self the teachings interconnect and support each other; without it, most of them become formless mush.

Again, “believing in” not self is pointless. You can “believe” in it until the cows come home, and it won’t help you understand anything. It has to be personally and intimately realized in order to help you gain in wisdom and perception. And that ain’t easy for most of us. But that practice/realization is what Buddhism is, and what it has always been.

And this brings us back to Stephen Batchelor. Most of Batchelor’s criticisms of “traditional” Buddhism come from his failure to realize anatta/sunyatta. Notice my use of the word “realize” and not “believe.” It is apparent from many things he has said and written that he is still relating to the teachings and the world from the belief in a permanent (until death, anyway) autonomous self. This is akushala, big time. Batchelor does have an intellectual grasp of the doctrine of anatta, but until he realizes it, and it becomes the way he experiences himself and everything else, that’s not going to do him any good.

My larger point is that you simply cannot remove anatta/sunyatta from the Buddha’s teachings and still call it “Buddhism,” or Buddha dharma, or whatever you call it. That would be like trying to do math without using numbers.

One footnote: Mindfulness by itself is not Buddhism. I’m not saying that you “should” take on the rest of the Eightfold Path. If a mindfulness practice alone satisfies you, I’m happy with that, and I’m not trying to “convert” you. But mindfulness practice by itself it is not Buddhism, any more than one mushroom is a pizza.

June 4, 2012 at 9:14 am
(17) George Deane says:

I feel uncomfortable with the word “heretic” as applied to Buddhism. Heresy represents a departure from a list of untouchable dogmas, “sanctified” by a long indisputable history of acceptance,. Since Buddhism is a religion of experience first and foremost and only secondarily belief , not even remotely resembling dogma, I think that the word “heresy” is inappropriate. It would be appropriate, in my view, to state that such and such thought conflicts with the Buddhist path or is not conducive to attaining Enlightenment without the heavy handed use of such a condemning word such as heresy. Tread lightly here!

June 4, 2012 at 2:11 pm
(18) Barbara O'Brien says:

George — I agree with what you say, but I think currently in American Buddhism there’s too much of a tendency to swing to the other extreme and make Buddhism whatever one wants it to be, and all the teachings and practices can be ignored.

As I wrote in another comment just now, IMO in Buddhism, what’s analogous to “heresy” is akusala, or unskillfulness. There’s lots of spiritual teachings and practices out there that are way akusala.

June 5, 2012 at 3:34 am
(19) Joe Isuzu says:

Barbara (and George)
Thank you for your kind and generous responses.
I agree about heresy not being part of whatever the ideal practice of Buddhism should be. I have never, howsoever, experienced any form of practice from any sect, culture, or sanga that hasn’t imbued whatever tenants they profess with some sort of austerity dogma, regardless of the “perception” issue and that’s not just here in the Western culture. And I have slowly become an apostate because some of the core issues, even without the dogma, I just don’t “realize” after 40 years, dogma or no, and my personal journey has lead me to critical thinking and skepticism (not to be confused with cynicism).

By the way, when I mentioned “beliefs” it wasn’t mine I was referring to. It is, however, very hard to get away from that word especially when trying not to contradict oneself when invoking it one way or another.

I like pepperoni on my pizza, but that’s subjective too because my Italian grandparent’s homemade pizzas aways had anchovies.

“Until then, as long as the illusions seem like “reality,” a lot of the teachings will be misunderstood.”

June 5, 2012 at 7:13 am
(20) Barbara O'Brien says:

Joe — what do you mean by “austerity dogma”?

June 5, 2012 at 5:25 pm
(21) Joe Isuzu says:

Austerity dogma…
Wow that takes so many forms because I think we as a species take comfort in formalities. And the formalities over time become tenets and doctrine. But these can be anything that become more important than the individuals who incorporate them into their practice. These can range from language (taking note that there are some concepts in Buddhism that there just isn’t any single word or even groups of words that does it justice; example non-self or co-arising) to the actual physicality’s of practice. But they all generally cause the practitioners to alter behavior and not towards anything as substantial as “perception” or “realization” but just extra stuff and that’s why I call them austerities. Many of them are cultural.
But my favorite example comes from the Soka Gakkai (albeit they have so many but this example transcends even the culture of origin) and is about their mandala which you must not take a picture of and if you do even by accident, you need to destroy the picture. This is about control and completes distorts and abuses the what, where, how and why of source or intention. But people will jump up off their knees and close an alter if there is a chance of it being photographed.This has been almost rendered useless by the internet. The irony here being that each individuals mandala, if they were encouraged to reflect about it which they are not, is already a picture, just one sanctioned by the controlling organization. Regardless of how many refutes this kind of formality, which in turn causes more austerity in an individual’s practice, are presented, the bottom line response is “Well, we just ask you to respect our beliefs” which re-enforces, I believe (see what I mean about that word) what you’ve already so precisely stated previously about the difference between “realization” and anything else one might consider.

June 5, 2012 at 5:25 pm
(22) Joe Isuzu says:

Austerity dogma…
Wow that takes so many forms because I think we as a species take comfort in formalities. And the formalities over time become tenets and doctrine. But these can be anything that become more important than the individuals who incorporate them into their practice. These can range from language (taking note that there are some concepts in Buddhism that there just isn’t any single word or even groups of words that does it justice; example non-self or co-arising) to the actual physicality’s of practice. But they all generally cause the practitioners to alter behavior and not towards anything as substantial as “perception” or “realization” but just extra stuff and that’s why I call them austerities. Many of them are cultural.
But my favorite example comes from the Soka Gakkai (albeit they have so many but this example transcends even the culture of origin) and is about their mandala which you must not take a picture of and if you do even by accident, you need to destroy the picture. This is about control and completes distorts and abuses the what, where, how and why of source or intention. But people will jump up off their knees and close an alter if there is a chance of it being photographed.This has been almost rendered useless by the internet. The irony here being that each individuals mandala, if they were encouraged to reflect about it which they are not, is already a picture, just one sanctioned by the controlling organization. Regardless of how many refutes this kind of formality, which in turn causes more austerity in an individual’s practice, are presented, the bottom line response is “Well, we just ask you to respect our beliefs” which re-enforces, I believe (see what I mean about that word) what you’ve already so precisely stated previously about the difference between “realization” and anything else one might consider.

June 5, 2012 at 9:49 pm
(23) Barbara O'Brien says:

Joe Isuzu — I can’t speak to SGI practices specifically, because I have never done them. The Nichiren school rests on a kind of faith that really doesn’t work for me, either, but I respect that it works very well for some people. As I said in the post, some schools use specific beliefs as training wheels, or expedient means, to help focus one’s practice, and Nichiren practice is a good example of that, I think.

Enlightenment is not conceptual; it involves body and mind. So one of the challenges is to not relate to the teaching on a purely intellectual or conceptual way. So most schools have developed some kind of upaya, or skillful means, to shut down our inner chatter, our labeling, our thought-chasing, and all the stuff that gets in the way of realization. In the older traditions the chief upaya usually is some kind of meditation. Along with that usually are some kind of ritual practices to be done with meditative focus. And a lot of this stuff looks pretty stupid. Bowing? Chanting?

But I cannot tell you how many times I’ve heard an advanced practitioner or teacher say that the thing that first opened the door to realization was a practice they used to think was stupid. You never know what’s going to do it. In the Zen tradition, the enlightenment stories of the great teachers usually include some kind of physical trigger, and sometimes it’s something very mundane, like stubbing a toe or being hit with a rock.

What you’re saying is sorta kinda what I’m saying about tradition-specific heresies. In order to train in a particular school you have to do something that makes absolutely no sense, And if you’re not willing to trust it and really give yourself to it, even though it makes no sense, then there’s really no point in trying to train in that school. You’d be wasting your time and everyone else’s time.

The only way to understand why people want you to do this ridiculous thing is to do it, wholeheartedly, and observe the effects. Until you’ve done that, the explanations of why people do this thing probably will sound absurd. If you do it and experience kensho, however, you’ll want to run out into the streets and tell everyone you meet “you’ve got to do this! It’s amazing!” And if you try to explain why this practice is so amazing, you’ll notice that the words that come out of your mouth will make no sense except to others who have had the same experience. Everyone else will think you are crazy.

But if the practice just feels too weird for you, then do try something else.

June 6, 2012 at 3:52 am
(24) Joe Isuzu says:

Barbara,
Thanks for your input. I’ve had those experiences myself.

“And if you’re not willing to trust it and really give yourself to it, even though it makes no sense, then there’s really no point in trying to train in that school. You’d be wasting your time and everyone else’s time.”

Like I said before, 40 years.

“But if the practice just feels too weird for you, then do try something else.”

Weird isn’t the word. But good fortune to you and thanks.

June 21, 2012 at 1:48 am
(25) Dev says:

Buddhism consists of pratitya samutpada or in English the chain of dependent origination. If pratitya samutpada is taught then it is Buddhism, if not then it is not Buddhism.

August 27, 2012 at 6:24 pm
(26) Poep Sa Frank Jude says:

Barbara,

Believe me, I am no apologist for Stephen Batchelor, but could you point me to where he has written anything that makes it sound like he “writes from the perspective of someone who still believes in an individual self-essence”?

It’s been awhile since I’ve read his books, but I seem to remember that it was his understanding of anatta, shunyata and pratitya samutpada (which he refers to as “contingency”) that leads him to reject “literal” rebirth because as a materialist, he rejects the notion that consciousness can exist independently of a living, functioning brain. So how could he believe in any ‘self-essence?”

August 27, 2012 at 6:45 pm
(27) Barbara O'Brien says:

It reeks through all of his writing in subtle ways. For example, on page 53 of Confessions he writes that belief in rebirth is a denial of death. This assumes that “death” is something that happens to a self-essence, a self that continually exists through time, was born, and dies. The perspective of sunyata tells us that life and death are events in time with no self attached to them.

Leave a Comment

Line and paragraph breaks are automatic. Some HTML allowed: <a href="" title="">, <b>, <i>, <strike>

©2014 About.com. All rights reserved.