Devas in the Attic

Light of Liberation: A History of Buddhism in India
Dharma Publishing, 1992. BQ286.L54

Today I had to plug through many history books of the sort described in my last post. Some were fascinating in their own right (The Search for the Buddha was a roller-coaster ride, guiding me through the excitement of discovering a lost civilization in the midst of colonial India) but few told me anything new about Buddhism, even the ones which were purportedly about Buddhist history. For some reason there is a book of “history” attributed to Daisaku Ikeda in this library, full of inaccuracies and quite obviously cribbed from other texts by a ghostwriter. But just because a book is written from an insider perspective doesn’t mean it is necessarily ignorant of real Buddhist history. My favorite book today actually presents Early Buddhism from an unapologetically Tibetan perspective.

It is refreshing, after reading so many books which shrug or speculate about the origin of Mahayana scriptures, to read one which proclaims, apparently without any embarrassment, that Buddha left some of his higher-level sutras with nagas, devas, and gandharvas for safekeeping, and that the most difficult sutras, for the sake of expedience in the limited time given to Buddha on earth, were proclaimed in higher realms that “humans and devas alike could not normally access … on their own”, but which it was possible to visit “through the perfection of a profound samadhi”. Like a passworded chatroom! (125)

Well, I don’t mean to laugh at these cosmic fantasies. Rather, it is disappointing that historians who search for the “real” early Buddhism often fail to report them, because learning the way that Tibetan Buddhists themselves think about the most powerful sutras is the best way to understand them. Think about it this way: for those monks who had only material understanding, Buddha explained the simple teachings of dependent arising and nonself. Then, when he appeared to be meditating in this world, he held a special conference for his best disciples and gave them the sort of insights only perceivable by a Buddha. These teachings were, of course, held back from the general public until the sudden Mahayana revolution of the first and second centuries CE, when they were revealed. (300)

A lot of useful territory is covered in this account, so let’s just talk about what interests me. First is the Trial of Ananda, an incident where Mahakashyapa blocks Ananda from attending the First Buddhist Council on the following grounds:

  1. Ananda had requested that women be admitted into the order.
  2. Ananda had not asked the Buddha to remain in the world.
  3. Ananda had [stepped] on the Buddha’s robe [while sewing it].
  4. Ananda had once given impure water to the Buddha.
  5. Ananda had not clarified with the Buddha which Vinaya rules were to be always kept and which could be sometimes set aside.
  6. Ananda had shown the Buddha’s unclothed corpse to the Sangha.
  7. Ananda had shown the corpse of the Buddha to women, who profaned it with their tears. (159-160)

I don’t know about you guys, but to me this list damns Mahakashyapa as a prude and an old fuddy-duddy, while making Ananda out to be the more compassionate and eager of the two. I guess he does seem a little absent-minded, though.

It is also interesting to see the constant citation of Bu-ston, whom I imagine to be a sort of Eusebius of Mahayana Buddhism. Well, this book is a lot more readable than those confusing histories based on Eusebius… when we get to the Mahayana section, especially, our teachers like Nagarjuna and Asanga travel to the land of the nagas, extremely high mountains, and even Tushita Heaven to study with Maitreya. They hear truths so powerful that they cannot understand them. Yes, even if the Mahayana canon is just “fanfiction”, this does sound like an interesting subject to read more about.

Posted: March 18th, 2010 | Book Reviews

The British Discovery of Buddhism

The British Discovery of Buddhism by Philip C. Almond
Cambridge University Press, 1988. BQ162.G7

This book could better be titled “The British Invention of Buddhism”, since Almond demonstrates how the British were tying together a multitude of traditions dispersed throughout Asia. As he writes: “The religion having been ‘created’, there came the ensuing realization that its adherents outnumbered those of Christianity.” (12) Rather than putting scare quotes around the world “created”, I think they would be better placed around the words “religion” and “adherents”, since the Chinese being labeled by the British did not think of themselves as “adherents” of anything endorsed in Thailand, and vice versa.

In terms of religious-secular discussions, it is also extremely interesting to see the British nation as a religious icon in this period, pitted against the falsehoods of the pagans. One jeremiad bewails that as the British flag “is displayed over the mountain capital of Ceylon, it tells us of principle sacrificed, of religion dishonoured, of atheism perpetuated, of idolatry countenanced, and of a false and wide-spread superstition protected and maintained.” (134) Parallels might be drawn with the modern British anxiety about protecting the Muslims in their midst, or the use of “secular” American symbols in the evangelical community–do we not hear similar complaints emanating from that group, even today?

There are all sorts of treats to be found in this text, such as Francis Wilford’s quest to identify Mount Caucasus with Britain, the theory that Buddha was really African or Mongolian, the identification of Buddha with Odin (!), or the fact that these inquiries proliferated for decades before a single examination was done of any Buddhist teaching, probably out of disinterest–Christianity, after all, had superior knowledge!

When the dhamma begins to leak into the narrative, I feel an intense annoyance with how the conservative Christians responded to this new and unusual culture. Although they were a minority, they approached the topic with an insistence on superiority and domination, an demeaning attitude towards those interested in foreign things, constant comparison of “Orientals” to children, and so forth. Consider how John F. Davis described Buddhist monks: “They have, nearly all of them, an expression approaching to idiotcy [sic], which is probably acquired by that dreamy state in which one of their most famous professors is said to have passed nine years with his eyes fixed upon a wall!” Almond simply says that these writers were overwhelmed by a monastic simplicity that “contrasted so much with their more active, ‘muscular’ vision of the Christian life.” (122)

We can be indebted to Almond for his cool, neutral exposition of these poor excuses for debate; today’s evangelical movement can only hope for such an undeservedly fair treatment a century from now. But at the same time, even the positive Victorian image of the Buddha, exemplified by The Light of Asia, is clouded in Oriental fantasy and British inventions. This is where Edward Said comes into play, as the creation of the Orient, even in a positive light, constructs a West that is necessarily in opposition to “Oriental” ideals. I am very glad that I was not alive at that time!

Posted: March 17th, 2010 | Book Reviews, Secular-Religious

Engaged Buddhist Reader

Engaged Buddhist Reader
Parallax Press, 1996. BQ122.E54

People today are seeking happiness, much more than we did in the past. I know how to seek food, and I know how to seek shelter, but what does it mean to seek happiness? Where is there to look, beyond the world itself? Shouldn’t people be happy simply by being here? Really what this “seeking” means is that people are confused by the world around them, and don’t know how to interpret what they see and hear. We may have a lot of book-knowledge, but we lack this know-how to respond to suffering when we feel it, or to deal with our anger or other feelings that rise up in us.

In Buddhism, there are three schools, Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana. We often think that you have to pick a school and learn only what that school teaches. But all these teachings are only the teachings of the sanghas. Buddha did not have a sangha to show him the way. He gained his insight from the Dhammayana, the vehicle of reality. The reality that you are sitting in right now as you read this is your vehicle to become a Buddha. Only by knowing how to read and interpret this vehicle can you really call yourself an awakened person. The sangha vehicles can only give you some hints.

I knew this book would be good when I saw it on the shelf, but I was not expecting every page to be filled with insights such as these. (The above meandering was inspired by the contribution of the Cambodian monk Ghosananda.) Its messages will stop your hurried mind and draw you into deep contemplation, beginning with the teaching of the Dalai Lama on compassion and love on the very first page. Some essays have appeared before in various works, but combined here with their neighbors, their power is amplified. Because I felt a strong desire to stop reading halfway through and call my parents to reaffirm my gratitude and love to them, it took me over four hours to finish in total. Not only the big names in Engaged Buddhism but also underappreciated authors like Maha Ghosananda and A.T. Ariyaratne appear here, giving tales from real life of how they engage with difficult situations and change people’s lives for the better.

Even the millennia of Buddhist stories from the past, often forgotten by Western authors exubriant at the discovery of this rich world of knowledge, are starting to come to light in these pages. I especially like the story of Prince Vessantara, a parable of the welfare state. Vessantara gave freely to the people, and they became wealthy and happy, but they began to fear that the prince would take away their new wealth, so they banished him. Robert A.F. Thurman recognizes that the situation in the United States is very much the same today. “Hoarding creates poverty. Giving away creates wealth. Imagination of scarcity is thus the cause of loss.” (88)

Today, our collective understanding remains very limited, but the power we have created for ourselves is very great. Even if you only take your gun out of its holster to shoot wolves, do you really know what impact those deaths will have on the environment? (181) We entrust ourselves with life and death situations all the time, but we do not have this knowing. The way we drive our cars, the way we eat our food, all of this will determine the direction our civilization will take. As the Dalai Lama concludes, the blueprint for our society is in our mind. (250) But how much time do we take to think about these things every day?

This book summarizes roughly the first decade of Engaged Buddhist writing, 1986-1996. In terms of political change, I do not know how we might quantify the work of this movement: the number of Vietnam veterans who came to peace with their past? The number of Sri Lankans who abandoned violence? But in terms of a change of heart, this is a testimony to worlds that have been changed, and deserves an engaged read by all who work for peace.

Posted: March 16th, 2010 | Book Reviews

Buddhism and the Emerging World Civilization

Today I decided to read every book in my university library with the call number BQ (Buddhism). I don’t have a way to calculate exactly how many titles this is, but I believe there are roughly 2,000 books here. I don’t expect to make 2,000 blog posts, and I expect to do a lot of skimming. However, when I run across a hidden gem, it is my intention to give it the respectful mindfulness it deserves.

Buddhism and the Emerging World Civilization
Southern Illinois University Press, 1996. BQ120.B8123

Opening the first page of my first book, I discover it is written in honor of a man after my own heart, a certain Nolan Pliny Jacobson, who hoped to constructed a life-affirming “world civilization” free of any ideology or belief system. “His writings celebrate all that brings together and brings out the joyful and vibrant qualities of the whole earth and the living creatures that inhabit it.” (xii) How does this optimism translate into practice?

The first writer, an analytic philosopher named Bart Gruzalski, provides an analysis of Buddhist terms in English. Since my readers may be unfamiliar with Buddhism, this discussion may be useful. He demonstrates how acting “without desire” in Buddhism is not a move towards apathy, as those attached to the idea of devotional love might characterize it. Instead, it represents a move away from emotional blindness and towards compassionate understanding. He similarly differentiates between a mere habit, i.e. something we do with neither (conscious) desire nor mindfulness, and a skill, something we have obtained through attentive practice. It is important when translating from the Buddha’s original language that we understand how terms like “skillful” and “attentive” are closely related in the dhamma, and separated from terms like “habit” or “rote”. Concluding, this writer describes a Buddha as a person who is “a skillfully compassionate being, fully awake and nonattached.” (12)

In the next essay, by Cedric Heppler, we learn that Professor Jacobson’s worldview began with the prospect of a “natural religion”, an old 18th century term that I want to rescue from the changes in meaning both words have undergone by renaming it “human inclinations”. He considered in 1948 that human beings are naturally inclined towards “a warm mutuality and fellow-feeling”, which he felt at the time to be one expression of the word “God” (this later changed), but that a confusion over how this could be achieved had created “mental disorder, alcoholism, suicide,” and so forth. (18) After reading about how he revitalized Hume with modern language, we look at Professor Jacobson’s view after his Buddhist “conversion”: he still insists on a reliance on natural, human inclinations, but has given up on trying to redefine “God” and now, quoting a guy named Whitehead, places his own thought in opposition to God/Brahma/Allah, that “great refusal of rationality to assert its rights.” (27) If you can figure out the Hegelian self-alienation being employed, I suppose this turn of phrase seems rather clever, as it undoubtedly did to the three authors through which it came to me: Whitehead, Jacobson, and Heppler. I am not a big fan of the concealed psychoanalysis, though. It seems to Orientalize previous philosophers somewhat. Some of the other writers in this book also have this tendency to put down other ways of thought (83), but I agree with Durkheim that nobody likes to think of themselves as irrational or insufficiently rational. Assuming superiority is not the proper way for Buddhists to approach other cultures.

In the essay “Creativity and the Emerging World Civilization”, by David Lee Miller, I learn a new fascinating tidbit: Professor Jacobson went to study in Burma in 1961, during the brief period when it was a somewhat functioning democracy. Now I’m very interested in this guy! I have several Burmese friends, and I believe that within their country, sealed off by the military regime, is an untapped wealth of knowledge and compassion as well as other powerful expressions of the heart. (I say “untapped” because very little is written about Burma for us moderns to digest, although certainly the Burmese tap into their own cultural reservoir all the time.) However, the essay digresses into a discussion of creativity. Jacobson interestingly defines creativity as the opposite of suffering, and therefore the power that can save us from suffering. He wrote: “Buddhism is humankind’s most persevering effort to participate in the creativity incarnate in the passing now.” (44) This is an intriguing statement, but it is kind of mystical and difficult for me to understand. Is this Burmese Buddhism? It seems to me to be at the very least a new and lively expression of natural religion. But we take our leave here. Hmm, this essay leaves a lot of questions unanswered… another author quotes Jacobson attributing much of his life’s insights to this year in Burma (97), but with no further context. Alas, his book is not in this library.

While this book goes into great detail regarding the overlaps between Buddhism and process philosophy, not many of its essays actually deal with community, society, or civilization, because Buddhism does not have much to say about these pressing issues (although I think the construction of the sangha has been vastly understudied in Western literature). One interesting exception is “One Out of Many: The Way of Creation Toward a Planetary Community”, written by Howard L. Parsons in the style of the Epcot World Showcase. We learn in this vacuous essay that “worldwide technology, science, and a scientific community are growing and becoming integrated,” “a revolution in information and communication–by radio, television, telephone, computer, and other equipment–is taking place,” “trucks, trains, ships and airplanes carry cargo”, and so forth. (155-6) I didn’t see Buddhism mentioned in this essay, though.

This book leaves me with an interest in Professor Jacobson’s work, although it does not seem to add to his existing corpus in any appreciable way. I am intrigued by his work in Burma, as well as his authorship of a book called Nihon-do: The Japan Way that looks at Japan from a holistic rather than myopically “religious” perspective. (192) These writings overlap with my personal interests and probably have a lot to say that the book did not. I will leave you with a quote from the excellent final essay, “Buddhism and the Emerging World Civilization” by Seizo Ohe:

Most people say, “Science is cool, religion is warm.” But many astronauts, looking at the earth from above, seem to feel the genuine bond of all men and women who live on the green planet. And contemporary ecologists feel their sincere fellowship not only with human beings, animals, and plants but with other nonliving things, just as the Buddha taught more than two thousand years ago. (208)

Try to protect young men and women from expanding sensual desires with recent technological progress, and keep them within the sound order of the great harmony of nature. Try to help their love of their native land continuously grow into their love of humankind, by preventing them from corruption of all sorts of sociopolitical power and monetary pollution. … Then our grown-up children, young men and women, will be happier with themselves than they are today. (211)

This is a sort of test post, since it’s the first book I read. I learned from writing this review that I should read the entire book before I write the post. Also, I will read multiple books every day and choose only one to write about. In this way I hope to bring you some interesting insights every day. So, please subscribe 🙂

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Posted: March 15th, 2010 | Book Reviews, Kokoro 1 Comment »