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?

Demythologizing Buddhism- Options

So is there a better way to remove the myth? What are the options?

1) Stick to history. Demythologizing is about keeping it real. History is pretty real. The history, though, has been tampered with. And limiting yourself to just the pali cannon is a type of fundamentalism that you wouldn’t expect to see among the sort of people who would reject myth.

2) Re-map existing models. For example, we could take something missing in Buddhism, like a progressive view on economics. As far as a I could tell, the Buddha didn’t think much about economics, not in Adam Smith style nor Marx style. So if the myth is missing economics, we could map concepts from Marx or Adam Smith onto ancient myths. But this is all rather cumbersome. The historical Buddha didn’t think much about economics other than he realized that there was a way for the sangha to exist if part of the economic became a gift economy (dana for merit). He didn’t *really* have anything to say about free markets or alienation or exploitation or capital. Maybe it would make more sense to just have a copy of your favorite economists works next to your sutras.

3) Make new myths. I think this is the best option of all, but who wants to be the first to consciously put new words into the mouth of the Buddha? I saw a lecture where a scholar said some of the Mahayana writers said they got their material from meditative visions. A demythologizing author, would probably have to just fess up to writing fiction.

4) Salvage. Keep the myths more or less the same, but remove the junk. Like removing the sexist vow from the Medicine Buddha’s 10 vows or replacing it with one that isn’t so misogynistic.

Sine qua non and Fundamental Questions

Why Buddhism at all?
As far as things without an essence go, what is the essence and sine qua non of Buddhism?

These are related– if not Buddhism, what else? Maybe Hegel or romance novels or pints of ice cream? And what are the parts of Buddhism that Hegel, romance novels and pints of ice cream can’t deliver?

0) It’s a club. A party of just me isn’t much fun for me.
1) Critical mass. A religion of 1 isn’t especially impactful on the world.
2) It isn’t an Abrahamic Religion or the progeny of medieval scholastics. While maybe has more god, gods, and soul than I’d like, it is relatively devoid of Abrahamic religious doctrine and polar reactions against it. Instead, it has it’s own peculiar admixtures: Zoroastrianism and Hinduism, which both are far less likely to be a problem for a convert like myself, since Zoroastrianism and Hinduism never were a substantial influence on me in the first place.
3) Of the religions with critical mass, it’s the only one that can be followed non-devotionally in a practice oriented way and has within it the mechanisms for independence–from institutions. Pratekyabuddha’s for the win!

0,1 can’t be delivered by ice cream or Hegel.

Buddhism’s sine qua nons- are a bit of non yet supported conclusions and premises with unworked-out consequences. The Mahayana Buddhists have a mean ahimsa & vegetarian & animal rights streak– the right conclusions. The pali texts have the right premise– the naive self isn’t what we think it is, it’s this eddy in a stream, a collective conscious, a thing that is hard to summarize… and harder to figure out what the consequences are.

And that is the starting point we have to practice with. We practice until we are dead. And then the project is carried on by the living. Until we are all at peace with being alive.

Anyhow, heterodox relative to institutional Buddhism, but still recognizable Buddhism.

Bodhisattva or Arahant? Pick a program

Just watched this video about the Bhumis (the 10 grounds mentioned in the BNS, originally explained in the Buddhavatamsaka Sutra)

Okay, from the religious, historical, non-secular standpoint, the guys who wrote the Buddhavatamsaka Sutra believed:

1) There are literally 6 realms and literally an infinite number of universes with six realms each.
2) There could only be 1 Buddha per universe.
3) Buddhism periodically declines and dies out (Mappo)
4) Arahants really do disappear upon nirvanna– not some transcendent state that is true yet violates the law of the excluded middle (both exists and doesn’t exist)
5) As an alternative to becoming an arahant, one can seek to become a Buddha, become the teacher of a universe and lead people there to arahantship.
6) The Bodhisattva path solves the problem of Mappo (not having a Buddha in this world and others)
7) You become a Bodhisattva in steps. At the last step, you are a Buddha. As a Buddha, you can (and maybe will) also enter nirvana and that universe will be without a Buddha. Specifically, 10 steps or 10 Bhumis. At the 6th you already are nirvana-ready.
8) The difference between arahant and Buddha appears to be mainly in the teaching. This explains why the Mahayana sutras keep mentioning pratekyabuddhas — people who independently become Buddhas but don’t bother to teach.
9) The steps are in part copied from the pali versions (unenlightend, nearly enlightend, very nearly enlightend, arahant) and possibly inspired by the Jakata tales, since those were the steps the historical Buddha presumably took.

What are in these 10 steps?
It appears to be the regular program of ethics, medidation and gaining metaphysical insights. I’ll have to write more specifics in a different blog post.

What motivated these ideas and can they be naturalistically salvaged
The idea that there is only 1 Buddha per universe at a time– this is just arbitrary constraints. I think someone thought that up to defend their institution. If there are 2 Buddhas and they disagree with each other, there could be schism in the Sangha. One can salvage the idea that having no Buddhas in the world is worse than having some Buddhas. So if the world is short on Buddhas maybe we should work on becoming one ourself.

Nothing Lasts as Applied to Buddhism itself
That Buddhism occasionally dies out, seem naturalistically plausible, but I’m not sure what anyone can do to fix that. Except maybe teach and spread Buddhism.

The shift of focus from becoming an arahant to Buddha is about teaching. The Bodhisattva path is about missionary work. More than any other category of minor precept are the precepts related to learning and teaching the Dharma. There is nothing transcendent about this goal and value– its a purely normative statement that one should spread, and teach the Dharma.

Reframing and Multi-Level Marketing
So wasn’t pre-Mahayana Buddhism missionary? It was, but it wasn’t an explicit part of the eight fold path. The Mahayana reframed the problem as that someone in the world is suffering, not just one person is suffering. So until everyone is enlightened, we can feel good about achieving arahantship, even though that is what is being taught. The most efficient way to enlighten everyone is to teach people to be teacher of the path to nirvana

Secular Reframing of Nirvana
For secular belief, what is being taught is how to get people to the state of nirvana in this life– the goal is that time between nirvana and parinirvana. Everyone reaches parinirvanna and is blown out like a candle, but not everyone reaches nirvana. And that is a tragedy that we can fix.

Bodhisattvas in a Secular System

Found this Fudo Myo Sutra:

The Sutra Spoken by the Buddha on Arya-Acalanatha

At that time, in the Great Assembly, there was one Vidyaraja. This Great Vidyaraja possesses great majestic strength. He has the virtue of great compassion, thus he appears in a bluish-black body. He has the virtue of great meditative stillness, thus he sits on a vajra-rock. He has great wisdom, thus he manifests great flames. He grips the sword of great wisdom to destroy greed, anger, and ignorance. He holds the rope of samadhi to bind those who are difficult to tame. He is the markless Dharmakaya, identical with [all-encompassing] space itself, thus he has no dwelling. His only dwelling is in the minds and thoughts of living beings. The minds and inclinations of all beings are different. In accordance with the minds of living beings, benefit is given and what is sought for is attained. At that time, all in that great assembly heard this teaching and were filled with joy. Faithfully receiving it, they reverently put it into practice.

Emphasis mine. The bolded part of the sutra pretty much sums up my understanding of Bodhisattvas (and the non-historical Buddhas) as of today. Even if this is apocryphal (who hands out the seal of authority in these matters?) the author has a point that I happen to agree with.

One could easily admit that their parents exist. Other people exist, too, you met them. People in France exist, there is so much circumstantial evidence– at least some Frenchmen exist. You can feel that Frenchmen exist because of macaroon cookies and French music. We suspect Napoleon exists– he was well documented. We are pretty sure the Buddha exists, but even if he was a fiction character in a sutra, he’s exerting an influence on the collective consciousness of the modern living world. We are pretty sure the Bodhisattvas are ahistorical. And for that matter, Zeus, the Christian God, Brahma and Thor. And Harry Potter. But to the extent that these characters exist as role models and forces in the collective consciousness, they exist.

We can make them stop existing. Just stop thinking about them. We can will new ones into existence. Groups of people who don’t talk to each other, don’t share the same set of personages in the collective consciousness.

Anyhow, Buddhism is big. Any new comer must decide what texts they will accept. If they accept the Mahayana texts, they need to come to terms with the Bodhisattvas. The BNS only mentions Vairocana and the Buddhas of the 10 directions. So even if the foundational sutras are fictions and don’t exist as the sutras portray, not in a transcendent nor mundane way, we should pay attention to the Bodhisattvas. As long as we think about them, they live in our collective consciousness.