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:
- All compounded things are impermanent.
- All stained emotions are painful.
- All phenomena are empty.
- 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.