Several themes in Buddhism are echoed by modern psychological therapy practices, for example, the value of being mindful of one’s emotions, developing the skill of concentration, for example on the breath, as a means of relaxation and dealing with anxiety.

But since the heyday of Buddhist Sutra writing, a lot has happened. There is now a literature of para-Buddhist literature and techniques that are remarkably similar to the Buddhist project.

Anyhow, I’m thinking I should focus some of my reading on that and see about creating a Buddhism that is

1/4 early Buddhism, but not it’s right wing socially conservative agenda
1/4 Mahayana Precepts, Vows, ethics & view of the self and other, ideals and goals. But the karma & hells, I could care less about.
1/4 European Enlightenment and Progressive politics
1/4 Science, para-Buddhist psychology and para-Buddhist modern philosophy.

Anyhow, if I manage to follow through, I’ll post a suitable reading list for the last 1/4. It will be a tricky reading list to compile because these books rarely call out their Buddhist inspiration or include the B-word in their title or description.

A Recitable Creed

I’m continuing to work on what would be a valuable daily or 2x a month practice, roughly based on monastic uposotha days.

I believe…

… Shakyamuni and the people who followed him were ordinary people that collectively said something remarkable and useful. The work of the Buddhist is to find out that realization through thought and meditation and apply it to the problems of this world.
… we are not who we naively think we are.
… we are the intersection of the effects of everything.
… we are a collective consciousness
… we should not let our desire for immortality and fame color who we think we are.
… the soul does not exist, nor heaven, nor hell, nor reincarnation. These are stories. Freedom is freedom from the fear of hell and reincarnation. Peace is being at peace with our mortality.
… experience is governed by dependent-arising, things happen, we experience them, they pass away.
… the celestial Buddhas and Bodhisattva are archetypes, we seek to become like them.
… there is a fundamental problem for us to solve, we should be cautious in deciding what the problem is.
… we have a fundamental problem, suffering, due to aversion, greed, ignorance and an unwillingness to get along with others.

I will follow these precepts
… I will preserve life
… I will obey civil law and work for its change when it conflicts with the other precepts
… I will work to live harmoniously with everyone
… TODO: minor precepts.

I vow…
… to work towards the enlightenment of all living things.
… bring health and wealth to all living things

I promise…
… to meditate and develop concentration
… to meditate and study the nature of my mind
… to meditate by reading
… I will work to maintain enthusiasm for the task
… to repent when I realize I’ve made a mistake

Not worth reciting, but for completeness, what I don’t believe:
Tathagatagarbha is nonsense. Once you are enlightened, you’ll realize that tathagatagarbha was nonsense all along, you just needed to realize it.
Nondualism, especially applied as a theory of everything is nonsense. We should guard against see the same things as different. We should also guard against imagining different things are are actually the same.
Depending-arising and sunyata as a theory of everything is nonsense.
The cosmology with karma, heaven and hell is nonsense and in general, not salvageable. The universe is ignorant of our sense of fairness.
The celestial Buddhas don’t exist, can not help us, and as fictional devices, they care not for our flattery or devotion.

Precepts and Commitment Devices

A commitment device is economist jargon for things we do to restrict our future actions so that we don’t do something that we will later regret. This is a really large set of strategies, such as throwing out excess Halloween candy so you can’t binge on it, putting your money into a retirement plan with early withdrawal penalties so you don’t waste it all before you need it, and so on.

Joining a monastic society is also a commitment device. In ancient China, it was rather difficult to get out of being a monk on account of government rules and lack of other career change opportunities. Also, having giving up your possessions, it would be hard to turn back and resume a lay life, at least not without a period of having to get along with no assets at all.

Personally, I have no interest or ability to join a monastic society. It is something of an anachronism. Modern life allows for a certain amount of leisure, so full time specialization isn’t as great a benefit as it used to be.

The precepts were also a sort of house rules, law and dispute resolution mechanism. In Christianity, that is all the rules are– some people trying to control the behavior of others for their own benefit while attributing their enforcement to supernatural powers. Buddhism, when ever it invokes karma, reincarnation and hell is also doing this. Meditating on the sutras is an active process of dividing the wisdom from the bull. If we jettison the rules created for social control, what do we have left?

I think we have left natural morality, the sort that modern biologists suspect has evolved to allow cooperative behavior. Without morality, individuals in a cooperative group could paracitize the rest via theft, murder of personal enemies, selling alcohol to the alcoholics, and so on. So morality is something that we innately would like to do and do a good job of it.

But we lapse. So precept taking can be seen a sort of commitment device. This particular one has these traditional components:

1) Regular recitation, two times a month to ensure we don’t forget the rules we want to follow.

2) Public taking of precepts. This can have two effects, one is you gain respect in your peers eyes because you have the goal– sort of like say, “I’m going to write a novel”. People think you are the smart sort who would write a novel regardless to if you follow through. On the other hand, if you say, I’m going to give up eating meat, and then you are seen eating hamburgers, you lose respect in your peers eyes because you are acting out a lack of self control.

2.5) Taking partial precepts. This signals that you actually put some consideration into which precepts you signed up for. It removes the objection, “I violated a precept because I had no choice in taking them all, including ones that I had no intention or ability to follow through with”

3) Public repentance. The fear of breaking a rule and losing face should be a serious motivator to not break the rules. However, I imagine this would have two problems. People can decide not to enumerate their infractions, since it is plausible in a given two week period, no infractions were made. The same person who worries about people thinking he holds back on confessions would instead confess to numerous trivial infractions.

4) “Criticism Pact.” Several of the precepts make it obligatory to encourage other people to confess and repent should someone know that a precept has been broken. This is somewhat muddied by other precepts that discourage criticism, which I suppose includes criticism about how poorly someone is following their precepts. If we imagine that everyone has mutually agreed to police each other’s behavior, then it becomes a commitment device. In an institution though, this could easily turn into a way for the authorities (the guru) to get the students to rat out each on infractions, especially if the guru is officially beyond reproach.

There are also modern commitment devices, many involving money. For example, one might make a “bet” with their friends, whoever eats meat first forfeits the pooled money to the others.

Anyhow, this is the most exciting line of reasoning for the naturalizing of the precepts

Categorizing the BNS Precepts

I was rereading the precepts and struck by their lack of thematic order. A theme can be addressed several times in the Major or Minor section and they aren’t adjacent to each other. Some precepts span two or more themes.

Preserving Life- 1, M3, M9, M10, M11, M14, M20, M32
Respect for Property and ethical economic behavior – 2, 3, M12, M17, M29, M31, M32
Sex- 3 and M4 (If the onions were seen as some sort of herbal viagra)
Honesty- 4 (Maybe should be part of “getting along with others”)
Substance Abuse- 5 and M2
Getting along with others- 6, 7, M5, M13, M19, M25
Anger- 9, M21 (Maybe should be part of “getting along with others”, except anger towards the inanimate is mentioned)
Teaching and Learning the Dharma- 10, M1, M6, M8, M15, M18, M23, M24, M30, M41, M42, M45
Who can be a Bodhisattva- M23, M40
Monastic Decorum- M26, M27, M28, M40, M38, M46
Entertainment, Media Consumption- M33
Thinking- M43
Enthusiasm- M34, M35, M36, M44
Camping like a Monk- M37
Participating in building infrastructure, reading sutras for national/communal benefit- M39
Government Relations- M47, M48 (This is 200AD Buddhists trying to come up with a working Sangha-Imperial Court relationship)

So anyhow, I can use this to create a 15 page picture book to read to my toddler. No way can he patiently sit through 58, semi-legal sounding rules!

Another comment worth making is that the long list is Teaching and Learning. And the BNS has some specific advice on what to teach and learn– it’s mostly talking about the Avatamsaka Sutra, which contains a 50+ stage path of liberation which is described nowhere in the BNS– only referenced.

So to follow the BNS, you need next get a copy of the Avatamsaka Sutra.

Also, next I hope to come up with a similar categorization for the UPS.

Dana- Animal Rights in China

I support a bunch of charities in the US. I recently read a bit about the situation with dogs in mainland China, so I did some more research. In Taiwan, humane slaughter laws are only just recently being passed.

I tried to find some charities to send my money to. Please take my money! But alas, I didn’t find much.

CAPM. Mainland organization, no obvious way to donate money.

Environment and Animal Society of Taiwan They have a page to donate money, but it is in Chinese and I have no idea if I can give money from the US.

Duo Duo Project This appears to be a small US charity that does projects and events related to animal rights in mainland China. It takes US donations via PayPal.

Human Society International This is related to HSUS. I don’t know if my donations to HSUS indirectly benefit HSI or if I need to donate to them separately. Anyhow, they take donations is USD and operate in many countries including China.

Animals Asia Works on bear bile issues, and other Asian animal rights projects.

The safe winner is HSI, since they funnel money to smaller groups that I can’t reach anyhow. I plan to give to HSI and the Duo Duo Project.

NB. If you are donating to an international charity, you probably won’t be able to deduct it on your income taxes unless they are registered with the IRS.

Bimonthly Practice Review

I’m thinking this should be a regular category of blog post.

The 8 fold path calls for a variety of mental conditions, working in the world and two kinds of meditation– mindfulness (sati) and concentration (samadhi). Of those, the work and meditation are specifically actionable.

I meditated. As usual, I used Samantabhadra as my focal point. Beats staring at the intersection of two wooden spars on the floor.

I read. Working my way through Basic Teachings of the Buddha by Wallis. I discussed it at my book club.

I participated on the Buddhist.SE website. The bodhisattva vows have probably half a dozen precepts related to teaching, as if being a Buddhist obliges you to teach. And then, in the BNS and UPS, there is much handwringing about who is qualified to teach and if people in the position of teaching are arrogant.

Flashcards. The pali jargon is overwhelming me– not so much in the sense of causing distress, but I’m forgetting the words as fast as I read them.

Review again a curriculum for kids. I still haven’t settled on a plan of attack.

What speaks to me today, what doesn’t

What speaks to me
Mahayana Ethics- Woman’s rights, animal rights, peaceful conduct, universal salvation, the de-emphasizing of renunciation as the sole path of liberation. This really is the litmus test for any -ism or -ology I subscribe to. The best way to convince an -ism or -ology that unregulated gun ownership is bad on all sorts of levels is to not participate in the ones that are pro-guns, pro-slaughter.
The psychology of mindfulness- pay attention to what is going on in your head, belly and breath. These are the skills that made the most difference in my ordinary life. It gets a bad rap for being ethics-free and maybe quietism– I think it’s a foundational skill, without it you can be effective in ethics or accomplish anything, either activist or quietist.
Universal interconnectedness of Huayen. Its a formulation of no-self that supports activism. Act because we’re all in this together and what one does matters to everyone.
Recognizable Buddhism. Everytime I go into depth into a particular sort of Buddhism, I run into these walls, things I can’t buy into or believe or use. But overall, things that are recognizable Buddhism are better than the alternatives.
The value system of Zen- simplicity, aesthetics, calm
Theravada and Mahayana paths of liberation– The 8 fold path, the 6 paramitas, the 10 Bhumis.
Mahayana formal ethics. By this I mean precepts. The BNS and UPS precepts are the best raw materials for precepts so far.
Bits and pieces of Nichiren, Shingon, Tantra, Pure Land– but each system as a whole doesn’t add up. Mantras, mandalas, mudras, prostrations– all seem like they are worth trying out. (and in each system, there is so much I’d rather just skip over or transform– mantras should be in English, mudras should be ASL, mandalas should be any soteriologically valuable picture worth meditating on)
Bodhisattvas– but only as instructive fictions.

What doesn’t speak to me
Renunciation. And by that, I mean, the don’t have a family, drop out of society, drop out of society for a very long time, … that stuff. I should write a whole blog post on it.
Indian Theravada Ethics. I don’t want to disparage modern Theravans. I’m sure they are nice people. I want to disparage the sexist, specist, classist ancient Indians, who figured only elite guys could reach enlightenment and they could reach enlightenment with a hamburger in one hand and a cigarette in the other, since hey, technically, those aren’t violations of any precepts because, well, logic.
Nagarjuna and Heart Sutra. These appear to be some sort of Indian style syllogisms, but provided without a background in how that logic system works. If you deny everything, including the opposites and the conjunctions and disjunctions, what’s left is obscurantism.
Yogacara’s “only mind”. I’m not sure what they’re going on about. Either everything is filter through the mind, which seems plausible but of uncertain consequences, or my mind is thinking up you. Which sounds like solipsism and fails to explain how we end up with consensus reality, i.e. on broad, simple things, people agree about reality. It’s just politics, religion and the like where no one agrees.
Yogacara and radical idealism. If we are thoughts without a thinkers, what’s the consequence? This multiperson hallucination seems to follow a lot of strict rules and no one seems to be able to take advantages of of the world being a dream, like lucid flying.
Tathagatagarbha. Reframing the goal so that it’s already accomplished isn’t very satisfying. And if the point is that enlightenment is a realization about who we really are– which had to have been true all along, then the doctrine is vacuous. Of course if we are trying to figure out who we really are, what we realize will have been true all along. The goal isn’t to verify the vacuous point that we are who we are and we have been all along. The point is we want the benefits of such a realization. We seek enlightenment for the consequences of such a realization. What will we do different after such a realization? That difference is something that wasn’t the case before enlightenment.
Radical nondualism. The universe isn’t undifferentiated goo.
Faith. It didn’t do anything for me when it was God and Jesus. It doesn’t do anything for me when it’s Buddha and Amitabha. The reasoning about faith seems like so much “truncated logic.” Why is faith good? Because practice is hard, so faith in Amitabha is better. Sounds plausible, but what if Amitabha just doesn’t exist?
Tantra. If I’m going to do mixed practice, why mix Hindu witchcraft and not, say Asatru magic?
Jataka Tales. These are non-Buddhist (as in not Buddhist) fairy tales. They are as Buddhist as the 3 little pigs, the 3 bears and Pinocchio. A pleasant, moralistic tale doesn’t automatically make it even recognizable Buddhism. It annoys me to no end that if you try to find books for teaching kids about Buddhism, this is 90% of what you find.
Institutions. I like the institutions of book publishers, authors and readers. I don’t care for abbots and group think (i.e. doctrines everyone adheres to because it’s part of membership requirements). I don’t care for the self serving rules that crept into Buddhism, especially in the vinaya, BNS and UPS. And guru veneration. I think I like Bodhisattvas better. For one, they are fictional, so they aren’t going to be writing up rules to get people to toe the line and preserve the institution.

Upasaka Precepts

The upaseka precepts are another set of precepts intended to be followed by both monastic and lay followers. Unlike peasant Buddhism, these precepts don’t appear to assume one is illiterate or otherwise unable to practice, except through refraining from a few things that most people don’t do anyone, such as murder, rape, robbery, alcoholism, and socially unacceptable lies, such as perjury. When you continue to do what you weren’t doing anyhow, what remains is devotional Buddhism, i.e. taking refuge in the Buddha, Dharma and the Sangha.

The Upaseka precepts, for me, is a much more interesting starting point. Here are some observations so far:

Combined with the BNS precepts, this is a good skeleton for ordinary Buddhist morality, which is 1/6 of the paramitas and 1/10 of the Bhumis.

It’s a fund raising document. The document gives undue attention to dana and the merits of funding the Sangha.
It’s very East Asian, as shown by the minor precept against raising silk worms.
It specifically encourages meditation. (I’m not sure even the BNS does this)
It suggest merit results in this-worldly benefits, such as wealth and long life. I can’t tell if this is Mahayana skillful means, or if this is suggesting that that is how the world works. Elsewhere it’s common to suggest that a Bodhisattva works with people where they are– if they need food and money, help them with that. Once the ordinary needs are taken care of, work on philosophy, and other more lofty goals.

The Six Major Upasaka Precepts

(1) Even for the sake of one’s body and life, one should not kill any sentient being, even an ant.
(2) …, one should not steal anything, even a coin.
(3) …, one should not tell lies, such as claiming to have visualized the impurity of a decomposing corpse or to have become an Anāgāmin.
(4) …, one should not engage in sexual misconduct.
(5) …, one should not speak of the faults of bhikṣus, bhikṣuṇīs, upāsakas, or upāsikās.
(6) …, one should not sell alcohol.

Like the BNS, selling alcohol is worse that consuming it. Similarly, no mention of other mind altering substances. The sexual misconduct is interpreted, as far as I can tell, according to rather strict Chinese rules. The fifth precept is about making sure the lay follower understands the pecking order. This theme repeats in the minor precepts.

The Twenty-eight Minor Upāsaka Precepts

(1) If an upāsaka who has accepted this precept fails to make offerings to his parents and teachers, he has committed the sin of negligence.
(2) … indulges in drinking alcohol, he has committed the sin of negligence.
(3) …, out of disgust, fails to visit the ill, he has committed the sin of negligence.
(4) … refuses to give anything to a solicitor for alms, sending him away empty-handed, he has committed the sin of negligence.
(5) Suppose an upāsaka who has accepted this precept sees [the appearance of] anyone among elders, bhikṣus, bhikṣuṇīs, upāsakas, and upāsikās. If he fails to rise to receive, salute, and greet him, he has committed the sin of negligence.
(6) Suppose an upāsaka who has accepted this precept sees someone among bhikṣus, bhikṣuṇīs, upāsakas, and upāsikās violate any precepts. If he says arrogantly, “I am better than he; he is less than I,” he has committed the sin of negligence.
(7) … fails each month on the six purification days to observe the eight precepts and to make offerings to the Three Jewels, he has committed the sin of negligence.
(8) … fails to go to hear teachings of the Dharma given within forty lis of his place, he has committed the sin of negligence.
(9) … takes bedding or furniture from a temple, he has committed the sin of negligence. Without rising above this impure act, which is conducive to continuing his cyclic existence, [after death] he cannot avoid going down an evil life-path.
(10) … suspects that there are insects in the water but drinks it anyway, he has committed the sin of negligence.
(11) … travels alone through perilous areas, he has committed the sin of negligence.
(12) … stays overnight alone at a nunnery, he has committed the sin of negligence.
(13) … for the sake of his wealth or life, beats and scolds his slaves, servants, or outsiders, he has committed the sin of negligence.
(14) … serves leftovers to bhikṣus, bhikṣuṇīs, upāsakas, or upāsikās, he has committed the sin of negligence.
(15) … raises cats or foxes, he has committed the sin of negligence.
(16) … raises animals, such as elephants, horses, cows, goats, camels, or donkeys, and refuses to give them away to someone who has not received the [upāsaka] precepts, he has committed the sin of negligence.
(17) … fails to stock ceremonial robes, begging bowls, and staves [to give to monks or nuns], he has committed the sin of negligence.
(18) … needs to make a living as a farmer but fails to seek farmland and pure water, he has committed the sin of negligence.
(19) … makes a living by selling goods by weight. He should not raise price from an agreed price, and should weigh goods honestly. If he fails do so, he has committed the sin of negligence.
(20) … has sex in inappropriate places or at inappropriate times, he has committed the sin of negligence.
(21) … fails to pay taxes for his business and runs away, he has committed the sin of negligence.
(22) … breaks the law of his country, he has committed the sin of negligence.
(23) … enjoys the fresh grains, fruits, melons, and vegetables he has acquired, and fails to offer them first to the Three Jewels, he has committed the sin of negligence.
(24) … expounds and praises the Dharma despite denial of permission by the Saṅgha, he has committed the sin of negligence.
(25) … walks ahead of a bhikṣu or śrāmaṇera, he has committed the sin of negligence.
(26) If, when serving food in a temple, an upāsaka who has accepted this precept serves better food and more food to his teacher than to other monks, he has committed the sin of negligence.
(27) … raises silkworms, he has committed the sin of negligence.
(28) Suppose an upāsaka who has accepted this precept encounters an ill person on the road. If he walks away without stopping to see to his problem and make arrangements for him, he has committed the sin of negligence.

#1 is Chinese filial piety.

Some expand on the major precepts, #2 is about alcoholism. #20 expands the restrictions on sex to certain times and place– I checked, I can’t find a description of the times and places that were out of bounds. The rule about overnight stays at a nunnery appears to be aimed at horny men who want to lure the women away.

Four rules about animal rights– 10, 15, 16, 27 and the first major precept covers all life including insects. The purification days include fasting, which essentially meant being vegetarian for the day.

A couple of rules about following the law and personal and professional prudence. 22, 21, 19, 18.

One third of the rules about the lay-ordained pecking order, 26, 25, 24, 17, 14, 12, 9, 6, 5.

From a modern or American standpoint, a lot of these rule don’t bite. No one raises silk worms anyhow. I’ve never seen water with insects in my life, at least not that I was planning to drink. The ordained Sangha barely exists. So in order to act arrogantly towards the Sangha, you’d have to first go out of your way to find it. Someone who has gone out of their way to find the ordained Sangha, probably already feels positively and respectfully towards it. The modern issue is, who cares about the ordained Sangha, in particular, do we care that an ordained, celebate, full time Sangha doesn’t exist here in the west? (except in a numerically trivial sort of way) There isn’t a business model for the ordained Sangha, people are becoming interested in Buddhism after they have already settled into their family and careers. With such big basic issues like this, worrying about if I feel like filching sugar packets from the temple at tea time seems absurd.

The prohibition on cats and dogs does bite. This is one area where the Chinese are more pro-animal rights than I am. I still own a cat. I mitigate by keeping it in doors. In part by accident, cat food is part plant based, part animal based. For me, owning pets is a mixed good. If people didn’t own cats and dogs, they likely wouldn’t have any relationship to animals at all to form the basis for sympathy towards less charismatic animals like pigs. Pets and zoo animals, are the unwitting and involuntary diplomats from the animal kingdom.

My Practices- A Review for May 2014

Every morning my son and I do altar maintenance. We place a bowl and something food in front of the statues, admit what we did wrong yesterday, promise to stop it, vow to do all the good things Bodhisattvas do, then we do a mantra, the anjali mudra for mind-speech-body.

I do prostrations occasionally. I happens to be good exercise.

I’ve fallen behind in meditation.

I’ve been reading books for my book club and sutras. At the moment I’m trying to work my way through some of the Mahayana Sutras. This old wine–not only does it need a new bottle, it needs to be distilled down to a palatable brandy. Even if I rambled on for a kalpa, I could not over emphasize how the wordy, hyperbolic bombast distracts from the message.

The sutras are iterating a few themes:

– The Buddhist Cosmology and our place in it. Oddly, the sutras expect you to already know the cosmology.
– The numbered items as mini-models of the world
– The vows, which are thematically grouped, So the Medicine Buddha’s vows are about the need to do good here and now, Samantabadhra’s vows about the need to tend to the practices of Buddhism, Ksintigarbha about the need to rescue those who’ve gotten themselves into a mess. Their vows should be our vows, too. The Amitabha’s vows, I’m not sure what to do with them. They’re literally about afterlife concerns. I suppose they are salvagable as the will to create a utopia.
– The ancient logical arguments, which occasionally include a groaner like, “If you asked a blind man what he saw, he’d say ‘darkness'”. I’d say that’s not demonstrated until you get several blind people and ask them what comes to mind when they hear the words that would require vision to understand them. I think a better example would be asking ourselves how we experience echo-location like bats do or how we sense electrical currents in water like the platypus does.

Anyhow, my next sub-project for the BNS is to divide the list into things that are fundamentally Sramana/Biksu precepts and what are precepts anyone could do.

23rd Precept. Receiving Precepts Independently

After my passing, if a disciple should, with a wholesome mind, wish to receive the Bodhisattva precepts, he may make a vow to do so before the images of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas and practice repentance before these images for seven days. If he then experiences a vision, he has received the precepts. If he does not, he should continue doing so for fourteen days, twenty-one days, or even a whole year, seeking to witness an auspicious sign. After witnessing such a sign, he could, in front of images of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, formally receive the precepts. If he has not witnessed such a sign, although he may have accepted the precepts before the Buddha images, he has not actually received the precepts.

However, the witnessing of auspicious signs is not necessary if the disciple receives the precepts directly from a Dharma Master who has himself received the precepts. …

If, within a radius of some three hundred fifty miles, a disciple cannot find a Master capable of conferring the Bodhisattva precepts, he may seek to receive them in front of Buddha or Bodhisattva images. However, he must witness an auspicious sign.

Steps to independently take the precepts
1- Determine if there is a Master within 150 miles.
2- Be before an image of the Buddha.
3- Make vows.
4- Repent.
5- Observe a sign.

What if there is a Precepts Master, but you don’t qualify? What if there is, but some other problem gets in the way?

What sort of image?

What sort of vows? Is this just referring to the BNS vows?

What sort of repentance?

Has anyone ever seen a sign and what did it look like? Is this pure magic or is there a naturalistic or symbolic interpretation and if there is, is it interesting?