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.

Precepts of Conduct and Precepts of Doctrine

In Paul William’s book “Mahayana Buddhism: The Doctrinal Foundations” he posits that the early sangha was united by a vinaya that had little to do with doctrine. So two members of the sangha could both consider each other Buddhists in good standing because they both kept the vinaya, but disagree on doctrine.

In a sense, doctrine underlies all the precepts. That isn’t the point. The point here is that some precepts are very specific about doctrine. The BNS specifically mentions doctrine in many places:

8th minor – Do not be anti-Mahayanaist
34, 35-Vows and pledges
And all the precepts that mention hinayana, pratekyabuddha and sravaka references (roughly Theravadism, solitary Buddhism and beggar’s Buddhism)

1) This ancient doctrinal argument is valid and worth pressing forward today.
2) This ancient dispute is no longer relevant
3) The specific doctrines should be reinterpreted.

I’m going to interpret this as an exhortation to figure out what is the “state of the art” in doctrine and keep to that. At the time of the BNS, Mahayana Buddhism was the state of the art and I think, if these precepts aren’t just simple minded boosterism, these precepts were exhorting people to see the Dharma as something that we are getting better at understanding and isn’t a fixed think that is so well understood that no innovation or adaptation is possible.

Some precepts are more interesting to write about

If there was a precept that said, “Don’t pick your nose,” I think most people would just follow it. It sounds like a minor rule about decorum and few people were going to violate it anyhow.

The precepts regarding weapons and vegetarianism are so contentious that discussion between opposing camps is almost pointless. Within a camp, though, there is room for discussion. How should a Buddhist act for the liberation and enlightenment of all sentient beings?

The precepts regarding how the monastery will handle dinner invitations to monks. It looks that since monks couldn’t beg door to door, than lay followers would invite monks to eat.  For a lay follower, these rules almost sounds like rules regarding a situation I’ll never face.  The rule on setting fires, likewise, isn’t one I expect to ever face.

The rule on garlic. Without a motivation that hasn’t already been disproved in science, I can’t see anyone taking this serious, except out of a sentimentalism for tradition.

There are several rules that are rules about enthusiasm.  (The rule on vows, which enumerates horrible things you’d vow you’d rather do than break your precepts)  These seem to be sine qua non to the project. If you don’t have some level of enthusiasm for following precepts, you’d just abandon the whole project.

So in sum:
Some rules are minor. They ask little, they don’t ask for anything we weren’t already going to do.

Some rules are on the face, specific to monastic life or some uncommon scenario– such as being in a position to make a decision about agricultural burning or controlled forest fire burning, or the like.

Some rules seem unlikely to be taken serious in the modern context. There really is a animal rights movement and the BNS has several essentially animal rights precepts. But I’m hard pressed to imagine a modern person actually preaching the dharma to the animals, in the hope that it would prime their memories in the next life.

Some rules are given, if you assume someone who is interested in the BNS.

Why start this blog?

I plan to write here all my Buddhism related posts, particularly related to my “Brahma Net Sutra” project, an attempt to create a “one person orthodoxy” and the methodology for others to do the same, that updates the precepts to be usable in the West in our current day, especially in an independent, lay context.

The Brahman Net Sutra (BNS)
The Brahman Net Sutra is a sutra written in China that reforms the vinaya, which was the list of rules that Buddhist renunciates followed. In is not strictly a monastic system, it is available to anyone who wants to be on the Bodhisattvas path.

The BNS is remarkable for a precept that outlines “self ordination.” For the original author, they probably had in mind the situation of an enthusiastic Chinese Buddhist who has returned to his village and now he is only Buddhist for miles and miles around.  But the BNS is two things– it is a moral code anyone can try to follow and it is a rule list that you must follow to stay in good standing in an existing institution. Historically this “self ordination” rule has been inert– why would any abbot allow people to self ordain? In many ancient jurisdictions  there were tight government controls on how many people could become monks.

In the US, there is nothing similar to the nationwide institution of Imperial Chinese Buddhism, or the huge network of renunciates in ancient India. There isn’t an orthodoxy and picking a flavor of Buddhism is as arduous and inventing your own flavor of Buddhism. Like mantras? You can find a temple for that. Don’t like mantras? Same.  Now if you are the sort of person who would just like to be told what to believe… you can’t! You still have to choose which temple to go to and they are all different.

Or if you don’t live in a big city, there are no temples. You’re going to be practicing independently in your bedroom.

The ideal time to decide not to have a family, ever, and dedicate your entire life to the Bodhisattva path is about age 20.  I don’t know about you, but I’m not 20 anymore. The best place to do that, is abroad. There are not a lot of well funded monasteries in the US. Itinerant begging is illegal in most jurisdictions.

But in the US, it is already obvious that us recent converts are not like  Buddhists in countries where Buddhism has been around for 100s of years. The new converts, as a rule of thumb in any religion, are the most enthusiastic.  Few recent coverts in the US fulfill the minimum that say, Chinese society expects. Instead, we are meditating, reading Sutras in the original, taking on practices that normally only monks would do. But we have families, jobs and so on.

The BNS is again a remarkable document in that it seems to be encouraging everyone to take the precepts, both lay followers and officially ordained. In Buddhism there is the concept of lay followers following what precepts they can. If we read the BNS in this way, and skip over the handful of precepts that don’t apply, then the BNS has a way of life that can be followed as a lay person.