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Barbara O'Brien

Determining the Dharma

By September 29, 2012

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In the epilogue of the Vimalakirti Sutra, a Mahayana text, there is a conversation between a prince named Candracchattra -- the historical Buddha in a previous life -- and a buddha named Bhaisajyaraja, which means "king of medicine." However, the identities of these personages are not so important as what is said.

Candracchattra was told that the supreme worship is dharma-worship, and he sought out Bhaisajyaraja to find out what dharma-worship might be. Bhaisajyaraja's answer drags on a bit, but he sums up by saying "Dharma-worship consists of determining the Dharma according to the Dharma; applying the Dharma, according to the Dharma" (Robert Thurman translation, page 99).

Without getting hung up on the word worship, which I realize raises some red flags for some of us, let us consider what this is saying.

Awhile back I wrote a post asking for more information on the Four Reliances, or Reliables. Dosho Port dropped by to recommend this web page, which is a talk on the Reliances as given in the Vimalakirti Sutra. I'm not sure who the speaker is, but there's a lot of good stuff in the talk, and it brings up the dharma-worship question. What does determining the dharma according to the dharma mean?

"So what does this mean? It means, not determining, or not understanding, the Dharma according to that which is not the Dharma. For us in the West it means, not determining, not understanding the Dharma, according to Christian beliefs, whether conscious, unconscious, or semiconscious. It means not determining or understanding the Dharma in accordance with modern secularist, humanist, rationalist, scientific, modes of thought. It means not determining or understanding the Dharma in accordance with the fanciful ideas of the worthy, but woolly-minded people who organize such things the Festival of body, mind and spirit.

"The Dharma is to be determined in accordance with the Dharma. The Dharma is to be understood in accordance with the Dharma. To determine it or understand it in accordance with anything else, anything other than itself, is to falsify it, is to distort it, is to betray it. In the same way, Dharma worship consists of applying the Dharma according to the Dharma. If one tries for example to break off a bit of the Dharma, so to speak, and apply it according to Christian ideas, it will not work - that is to say it will not work as the Dharma. There's no such thing as 'Christian Zen' for example. The Dharma is to be applied according to the Dharma."

I agree with this, although I suspect some of you will not.

There is a way to view Buddhism through a Christian lens that is quite lovely; there is a way to view Christianity through a Buddhist lens that is also quite lovely. However, the Christianity viewed through a Buddhist lens would be a bit alien to most Christians. And the Christian lens focused on Buddhism tends to filter out the perfection of wisdom that is unique to Buddhism.

There aren't any "shoulds" or "shouldn'ts" here, and I'm not demanding that everyone drop blended traditions. A blended tradition may be just right for some parts of the path. I'm saying that Buddhism can't be blended with another religion or philosophy without distorting the dharma. And notice I'm using "Buddhism" and "dharma" to mean slightly different things (see "dharma").

As the unknown author said, the same thing goes for secularist, humanist, rationalist, and scientific modes of thought. If you engage with Buddhism by demanding that it conform to some per-determined standard, whether cultural, intellectual, or ideological, then you've closed the door to the dharma. What remains may be a perfectly satisfactory philosophy, but it's not the dharma.

This is a difficult thing to explain, and it may make no sense if you haven't engaged in a Buddhist practice tradition for a while. Very simply, Buddhism proposes that there's something you're not seeing, something you don't understand and that can't be grasped intellectually. The practice allows dharma to enter you and reveal itself. If you put conditions on it at the beginning, or keep your mind closed to anything you don't already understand, dharma cannot reveal itself.

Comments
September 29, 2012 at 5:37 pm
(1) Sean Robsville says:

As the old Irish joke says, ‘If you want to get to there you shouldn’t start from here.’

Unfortunately, most of us in the West have to start from here, where ‘here’ is somewhere along the road from Judeo-Christian religion to scientific rationalism. There’s no way in the beginning that we can engage with the Dharma on its own terms.

Also, for those of us familiar with Richard Dawkins’ critique of religious memes, the idea of an enclosed self-referential, self-justifying system may raise a few eyebrows… http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Begging_the_question

September 29, 2012 at 6:37 pm
(2) Barbara O'Brien says:

Unfortunately, most of us in the West have to start from here, where here is somewhere along the road from Judeo-Christian religion to scientific rationalism. There’s no way in the beginning that we can engage with the Dharma on its own terms.

Not at the very beginning, but that’s kind of the point. We all begin from a point of ignorance and delusion. But you have to be willing to admit that. You have to be prepared to put aside all your assumptions and references, and at first that’s impossible because you don’t recognize your assumptions as assumptions, and you don’t know how to understand without references. With practice, it happens, but you have to be open to letting it happen. If you are clinging to your assumptions and references, it can’t happen.

an enclosed self-referential, self-justifying system may raise a few eyebrows

OMG (so to speak) are you ever missing the point. Self-referential? Enclosed? Just the opposite. You aren’t seeing it. We begin self-referential and enclosed, and when that drops away, that is enlightenment.

September 30, 2012 at 12:53 am
(3) Rob says:

Barbara, I get why Sean might see it that way. Coming from a scientific background, it’s very tough to give up that very effective set of tools when evaluating anything. When someone suggests we not analyze it, it’s like asking us to take it on blind faith.

(That’s not what you’re doing, but I’m letting you know that I noted that interpretation while reading the post.)

Your last paragraph clarifies your point, but it deserves reiterating. To me, the written dharma is the result of the practiced dharma of others. But the practiced dharma is the gateway.

Scientifically, practice is the experiment that can only be run by oneself, on oneself (one’s self). And, as you suggest, the only way to allow dharma to reveal itself fully.

September 30, 2012 at 10:02 am
(4) Barbara O'Brien says:

Coming from a scientific background, it’s very tough to give up that very effective set of tools when evaluating anything. When someone suggests we not analyze it, it’s like asking us to take it on blind faith.

Yes, I see that. My response might be that you can analyze it all you like, but then you have to put the analysis aside and practice.

In the beginning we all have to start where we are, and we use the tools we have, whatever those are. With proper instruction and practice, we learn different ways to understand. My issue isn’t with the beginner who is stumbling around looking for a dharma door, but with people who have been “into” Buddhism for awhile and who assume it would be so much better if we apply western scientific rationalism to it, so it’s not so “superstitious.”

September 30, 2012 at 5:45 am
(5) Sean Robsville says:

Hi, Barbara.
The point I was making is not that the Dharma is actually self-referential and enclosed, but rather that the quote by Sangharakshita could be interpreted by those of a Dawkinsian persuasion as being memetic, and almost cult-like in it’s defensiveness.

In contrast, Jan Westerhoff has presented arguments founded in evolutionary psychology explaining why the mind suffers from delusions of svabhava, and the resultant three poisons of attachment, hatred and confusion: http://rational-buddhism.blogspot.com/2012/09/evolution-emptiness-and-delusions-of.html

Such arguments are likely to be far more convincing to secularists with an initial interest in Buddhism than perceived (if misunderstood) appeals to circularity and blind faith.

September 30, 2012 at 7:54 am
(6) Barbara O'Brien says:

The point I was making is not that the Dharma is actually self-referential and enclosed, but rather that the quote by Sangharakshita could be interpreted by those of a Dawkinsian persuasion as being memetic, and almost cult-like in it’s defensiveness.

I once met a guy who was convinced the Diamond Sutra was a foretelling of the coming of Jesus. He was nuts, yes, but the point is that people interpret stuff all kinds of ways, and there’s nothing I can do about that.

Sangharakshita was the speaker in the linked FWBO text? I wasn’t sure who was speaking. Anyway, I don’t see any defensiveness there. It’s a statement of fact. That’s how the practice works. You have to be willing to let go of all of your reference points — ALL of your reference points — all of your conditioning, all of your assumptions, and if you aren’t willing to do that, you will fail. Buddhist teachers have been saying pretty much the same thing in so many words for 25 centuries now.

I have a long gripe with people who persist in understanding Buddhism only within a western philosophical context, or a scientific materialist context, but if they are determined to do that I can’t imagine anything I could say that will shake them loose. People have to be ready for this; you can’t force them. I have to hope that some people reading this will say, OK, I’ll adjust. Then it’s helpful.

We’re talking about something that is genuinely ineffable. Words can’t touch it. But sometimes we have to say something, even though everything we could possibly say will be wrong and will be misunderstood. That’s just how it is.

Westerhoff’s comments may be persuasive to people who have a hard time letting go of linear logic or scientific materialism, and they may be entirely true, but ultimately, much of what Westerhoff is saying may not be all that different from what the buddha Bhaisajyaraja is saying in the Vimalakirti epilogue. It’s about letting go of subjective self-reference and cutting off the inside me – outside me dichotomy. However, over-intellectualizing this stuff turns into just another barrier. You’re seeing “appeals to circularity and blind faith” in the FWBO text only because you are putting it through a rational-intellectual filter that distorts what is being said.

Possibly because the dharma-door I first came through was Taoist, and then Zen, the poetic-presentational use of language “works” for me. But it’s something you have to spend time with. Have you any experience with Zen? I’m thinking koan study would be just the thing for you. My first Zen teacher used to say that koans are meant to frustrate linear logic to the point you finally let go of it. When you do that, a lot opens up.

Also, I object to this statement –

In Buddhist philosophy, the mind of a sentient being is not a product of biological processes, but something primordial which has existed since beginningless time, and which will be drawn into another body once the present one has died.

I can’t speak for all schools of Buddhism, but Zen doesn’t teach that at all. Buddha nature, primordial mind, doesn’t come and go and isn’t drawn into this body or that. It is not something the physical body possesses. It’s closer to say that it is what we are.

October 2, 2012 at 11:54 am
(7) Mila says:

Interesting exchange ….. which brings to mind how mysterious it is, that anyone with a fully functioning egoic conceptual-mind ever finds themselves at a Dharma teaching, in the first place. What is it that draws us to these sorts of contexts, whose ultimate purpose is the complete dismantling of who-we-think-we-are?

It would seem to be pretty convincing evidence for the reality of Buddha-Nature, Pure Awareness, Rang Rigpa — a deeper Truth yearning for expression — that through some combination of grace and faith and wholly irrational trust, leads us through the entryway, allows us to leave our shoes at the door and actually enter the Dharma hall.

In the Tibetan tradition, conceptual mind is recognized as a potential ally, in this process — but it becomes an ally only to the extent that were willing to go deep with it, with a daring kind of honesty (of the order, say, of Godels Incompleteness Theorem) — toggling back and forth between the conceptual work and a simmering and release of those ideas into the spacious cauldron of meditative practice — out of which arises true insight.

October 5, 2012 at 1:16 pm
(8) John Bonnice says:

This is the same kind of argument that Christians give for interpreting the Bible. Interpret the ‘scriptures according to the scriptures’, which meant not according to Plato and Aristotle. The subject of interpretation or ‘hermenuetics’ is alive today especially in Continental Philosophy. Also, there is something about this in the Theravada tradition. Great topic.

October 9, 2012 at 1:11 am
(9) Hein says:

Without getting hung up on the word worship, which I realize raises some red flags for some of us,

Sangharakshita hits the nail on the head when he says “Dharma worship consists of applying the Dharma according to the Dharma”. Studying the Diamond Sutra (which I and a group of Dharma brothers are currently doing) and reading these present series of blogs just brings it home to me again what my teachers (and one of them was trained by Sangharakshita) taught me. Coming from a Christian and rational background I had resistance to “worship” and devotional practices, but as time progress I realise that one need to ingrain the Dharma into your being/life otherwise it merely becomes an intellectual exercise or “something nice to do when you feel like it”. Part of “applying the Dharma according to the Dharma” is for me the meal prayers (or gathas I think it is properly called). I have neglected that practice (seems to devotiuonal or “Christian-like”), but feels much more strenghened in my resolve to re-integrate it into my daily life (if not practice). Thus, Barbara, although I understand the context in which you said it I still think we should be moree “hung up” about worship of the Dharma.

October 9, 2012 at 9:59 am
(10) Barbara O'Brien says:

Hein — There’s a difference between being hung up on a word and hung up on a practice. Worship carries a strong connotation of directing oneself toward a Holy Other, so in a Buddhist context it needs to be used with great caution. I prefer “devotion” or “devotional.” Even though the other-context might be there, it’s not so strong.

January 29, 2013 at 11:01 am
(11) mickey says:

Barbara,
Beautifully rich writing . . . wonderful article.
As to reading Dharma, for me, I read it as I would a poem . . . enter into its world without question. The mind, as you said, has to be loose, and free of pre-judging and free of approaching it conceptually. Easily one will be shot down with such means. You have to float over Dharma instructionwhether verbal or written let it filter through you like mist. The experience is ineffable, and here I am making it stick to words. Bliss is a good word, if we have to go to the gross level of the sense of speech . . . a hands-on way of communicating amongst how many million more?
gratitude and peace,
mickeypamo

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