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.

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.