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Barbara O'Brien

Not Getting Lost in the Weeds

By November 15, 2012

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I want to respond to some points in Justin Whitaker's post at Patheos, "Toward a (G00d) Buddhist Fundamentalism."  I felt a need to spend the last post defining what "fundamentalism" means, because the word often is misused to define anyone who thinks doctrines are important, or that we ought to put some effort into understanding scriptures. Unfortunately, the understandable counter-backlash to fundamentalism causes many people to shovel all traditional religion into the same dumpster. I'd like to avoid that.

To me, the issue isn't "fundamentalism" but how to learn and practice without getting bogged down in details that get in the way of dharma, or what I call lost in the weeds.

In Buddhism, there's a vast middle ground between the New-Agey attitude that "Buddhism is whatever I want it to be" and a belief that, say, breaking a Precept will doom one to ten thousand years in a hell realm. The enormous majority of us are wandering around somewhere in that vast middle ground, and if we are practicing sincerely we won't remain stuck in any one place.

So our attitudes toward doctrine and scripture will evolve as we go along, and we won't all be in the same place at the same time, and that's all right.  For example, you might find some teaching or practice a useless bore at one point and wonderfully useful later on. Or vice versa. Or, maybe that a teaching or practice will always seem a useless bore to you, even though it is illuminating others. That's not necessarily a problem, as long as you remain open to the possibility that you're missing something.

All right; now, with all that said -- Justin Whitaker writes,

"I have, on some occasions, been accused of being a "Buddhist Fundamentalist" over the past few years; usually for suggesting such things as the need to get back to the texts and exact meanings of key terms in order to understand the Buddha's teaching in a certain place, or in suggesting that certain schools of Buddhism seem to depart radically from what the Buddha taught."

I've run into both attitudes also. There's a common airy-fairy notion in the West that the Buddha didn't teach specific doctrines at all, for example, a view unsupported by even a casual reading of the Tripitaka.

Also, I am sometimes corrected by people because the way I explain a doctrine doesn't sound like the way their teachers explained it, even though their teachers and I are not really in disagreement. This is an example of being "lost in the weeds." If you don't recognize the dharma when it's shown to you from a different perspective than the one you are used to, then you aren't seeing it ever.

One more time -- the hand pointing to the moon is not the moon.

I have no problem admitting that the Pali Canon has been edited and revised over the centuries and does not perfectly record the words of the historical Buddha. Nor is it a problem for me that the Mahayana scriptures are not the words of the historical Buddha at all, but instead are the work of later, unknown teachers. What's important is what they teach.

For example, recently someone left a comment here on the blog that corrected me for not saying the Heart Sutra was delivered by the Buddha on Vulture Peak Mountain. Except, it wasn't. It's almost certain the Heart Sutra wasn't written until  the early first millennium CE, at least five or six centuries after the life of the Buddha. And the part about Vulture Peak Mountain didn't appear in the many translations until the 8th century CE and today is only found in the Tibetan version of the text.

If, upon learning this, the Heart Sutra loses all significance for you, then you may be lost in the weeds.

Justin Whitaker continues,

"Buddhist fundamentalism ... is the privileging of ancient texts, almost always the Pali Canon, over everything since, including the beliefs and practices of contemporary Buddhists everywhere."

Such "privileging" usually is symptomatic of being lost in the weeks, I say. It's placing the words over the meaning, and the meaning arises in wisdom mind and not discriminating mind (see "The Four Reliances").

At first, of course, you have to take someone else's word for it that a particular text conveys wisdom. It may not convey anything to you but confusion, actually. But with time and practice you do learn to recognize dharma when it appears, like a bright full moon glimpsed through a canopy of leaves. And dharma certainly is not limited to the words in the Pali Canon or any other scripture, never mind past or future, East or West.

Comments
November 15, 2012 at 12:59 pm
(1) Mila says:

“…the meaning arises in wisdom mind and not discriminating mind … dharma certainly is not limited to the words in the Pali Canon or any other scripture, never mind past or future, East or West”

Totally agree with you here, Barbara. I appreciated the Justin Whitaker piece, which I felt raised some interesting issues, though also have some quibbles with him — similar to those that you’ve pointed out — for instance when he writes:

“I am implicitly assuming that ‘what the Buddha taught’ is limited – the Buddha is/was not a divine being capable of giving teachings throughout history. He was a man who lived about 80 years and taught for 45 of those years.

I also assume that the best access to what he taught is in texts.”

It seems to me that if the word “Buddha” is to have any meaning at all, it needs to be understood in relation to the three kayas. In other words, what makes a Buddha a Buddha is not so much some special conceptual knowledge that s/he has accumulated, but rather a more-or-less continuous communion with a transpersonal dimension: a non-conceptual realm which, in transcending space/time, also transcends words and scriptures. (Do I sound like a Zennie here?)

(cont’d below)

November 15, 2012 at 12:59 pm
(2) Mila says:

In dissolving the separate-self — like a salt-figure — into the ocean of Dharmakaya, Siddhartha Gautama became a portal through which this timeless wisdom could flow, into a particular space/time location (the India of 5th-century BCE). So while Siddhartha Gautama did indeed have a specific historical existence, there is — ultimately — only one Buddha, one Sage, one Teacher — which is this ocean of primordial wisdom itself.

At best, the scriptures based upon Shakyamuni Buddha’s spoken words describe a path, i.e. specific techniques. But the ground and fruition — the ocean of Dharmakaya, the Truth-Body, Pure Awareness, Awakeness itself — is timelessly available. So while it’s true that Siddhartha Gautama was not a “divine being” — he became, in manifesting as a Buddha, a portal for timeless Divinity itself — so in this sense was much more (less?) than just an ordinary “man who lived about 80 years ….”

The best access to the conceptual path that the historical Siddhartha Gautama taught might well be via the Pali Canon texts. But the essence of what Siddhartha Gautama taught — what Buddha timelessly is — is available, perpetually, to whoever taps into it by realizing their essential non-separation from it, and is necessarily independent of any and all texts …

(Is this only a Mahayana perspective?)

November 15, 2012 at 4:49 pm
(3) Frank says:

Hi Barbara , Talking about weeds,I’m having a lot of trouble reconciling the concepts of ultimate truth and conventional truths and applying them to day to day living .Is there a good article on this topic somewhere?

Thanks Frank

November 16, 2012 at 9:25 am
(4) Barbara O'Brien says:

Frank — Here’s an article on the Two Truths. Your question of reconciling them as concepts in day to day living is an interesting one. I suggest (and this would be a Zennish approach) not trying to conceptualize them at all, and instead try to be mindful that the identity of things is not the whole of the reality of things. Daily recitation of the Heart Sutra might also be helpful.

November 15, 2012 at 7:50 pm
(5) Luis Gomez says:

After reading your article I think Buddhism has the same problem the christinasn have with what Jesus said. We don´t have the gosspels in the original words as pronounced by Jesus but translation probably inaccurated, also we have interpretation of Jesus words by people that lived several hundred year after Jesus death.

November 16, 2012 at 8:22 am
(6) Barbara O'Brien says:

After reading your article I think Buddhism has the same problem the christinasn have with what Jesus said.

There are parallels, yes. It’s slightly different with Buddhism because the historical person we call the Buddha is not the sole authority of “truth” in the same way that Jesus/God is in Christianity. So while it may be impossible to know with complete certainty what Siddhartha Buddha said, the dharma still teaches us through countless other sources with as much “authority.” Many Mahayana schools consider the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama as recorded in the Tripitaka to be incomplete and provisional, in fact.

November 16, 2012 at 4:08 am
(7) Sean Robsville says:

@ Frank
Some thoughts on ultimate and conventional truths: http://seanrobsville.blogspot.com/2009/12/reification-in-buddhism-ultimate-and.html

November 16, 2012 at 8:27 pm
(8) Frank says:

Thanks Barbara and Sean.Very informative and much appreciated..Frank

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