14 July 2010

Is this a Buddhist Teaching?

If we understand Buddhism as a particular kind of method for accomplishing the aim of enlightenment for the relentless and uncompromising benefit of all sentient beings without exception, as I have proposed already, then we are left with the question of how one can recognize an authentic Buddhist teaching among the sea of practices in different spiritual traditions (all of which having something useful to offer the world) and various species of snake-oil.

To address this question, I will adopt some terms used in mainstream Tibetan Buddhism, which is more familiar to English speakers and therefore expedient to use here and now; in parentheses I'll give the Sanskrit or Pali equivalents too. The gist: a Buddhist teaching is characterized by four features or "seals"; if a teaching or a method is absent any one of these seals, then it should be questioned and examined further.

The four seals are: 1. All things (dharmas) are impermanent (anicca); 2. samsara is unsatisfactory or characterized by suffering (dukkha); 3. what we take to be a unitary self is really a composite, a mirage, a burst bubble (anatta); 4. Buddhahood or nirvana is beyond the extremes of eternalism (or substantialism) and nihilism (or nothingness); this is sometimes expressed as "beyond existence and nonexistence." The first three seals concern explanations of the stub-your-toe world of sentient beings (provisional truth); the last concerns explanations for enlightenment (absolute truth) for sentient beings. [This distinction between provisional and absolute truth, the "two truths" of Mahayana, is a subject I'll explain later.]

Now, what does all that mean? Let's take the seals one by one.

Impermanence. On my desk is a coffee mug. It came into being due to causes and conditions. It is not an accident but a product of certain kinds of historical processes that one can analyze, out of other materials (iron ore, petroleum) that are also not accidental but produced by causes and conditions. A thing like this mug persists in the world for a while and decays into some other state or condition, also due to causes and conditions. (I trust my coffee mug will not spontaneously combust or transform into a hill of magic beans when I look away from it.) Consequently, we say that this mug, like everything else compounded out of other things, is impermanent. It cannot be trusted not to change in particular ways. Buddhist teachings do not present impermanent things as though they are permanent and eternal.

Dukkha. Listen: be a sentient being means to be born, get sick, and eventually die. All these can be difficult to deal with. A teaching that denies the obvious fact of the saltiness of the world is not a Buddhist one.

Anatta. The infamous "selflessness" of the Buddhists: what you ordinarily or conventionally take to be yourself is not a done deal and should not be taken at face value. When investigated with care, the human subject proves to be an impermanent thing for one (not eternal but fictional, contingent, in flux and disoriented), and also a composite of different processes that seem to coincide for a while but lack an authentic center. You are your body in a sense, but you are not only your body, and besides, is your body at age 40 the same as your body at age 12? You are your emotions in a sense, but you are not only your emotions, and besides, is your emotional state the same this morning as it was two weeks ago when your sister was diagnosed with...? The same logic applies to thoughts and sensations and the like.

The most important thing about anatta is that Buddhist methods are rigorously critical, taking nothing for granted, "radical" in the etymological sense of getting down to the root premises of things and uprooting them. Now, this teaching is not the same as "denying the self" or "negating the self" as though it already existed and Buddhist analysis simply makes it disappear. On the contrary, this is an unmasking of a fraud: what passes as a coherent "self" is a counterfeit, not at all what it imagines itself to be, according to Buddhist reasoning.

Nirvana is beyond extremes. First, let me clear aside a common misperception: this seal has nothing to do with "extreme views" as understood in contemporary American culture. Put aside whatever political views you may identify with for the moment and focus instead on two different kinds of mistakes at issue: on one side assuming an eternal or substantial identity in any conventional sense (eternalism), or assuming a total negation or nothingness on the other (nihilism), as the Final Answer.

Both these positions have distasteful and counterproductive consequences. If one takes an eternalist view and insists that enlightenment is a product of something, is something personal, then a form of narcissism ensues: my self is unique and durable, our God is on our side, our path has all the answers and will prevail in the end. So many such views proliferate in contradiction with each other, and one has to ask: can they all be right? And if not, does it seem plausible to think that only one of them is among the crowd, like the winner of the Lottery of Metaphysics?

Similarly, if one assumes a nihilistic view, one is led to conclude that since all is nothing and nothing is real in the last analysis, then in reality one's actions are inconsequential and that contemplative practice and ethical living are totally pointless because nothing can change. By contrast, Buddhists observe the law of karma in action. We see that actions do have consequences (telling a lie will hurt someone, stealing from the helpless causes suffering, &c), and further, that learning is possible.

Consequently, we just admit that Buddhahood obeys a different set of laws from the samsaric world and propose it is neither real nor not real, neither eternal nor not eternal, and not at all bound by the predicates and presumptions of reason or emotion. It is not as though Buddhism somehow compromises between or "integrates" the two extreme views; instead, Buddhists cut a path right between them, pulling the premises right out from under them. Imagine a road between two enormous mountains. Should one attempt to synthesize these mountains together and then tunnel through or climb over the mess of rock? No, silly! One should just take the ready road between them, avoiding the thicket of metaphysics and clinging to fantasies about the Spirit.

The four seals offer a straightforward tool for methods as Buddhism or as something else. If you want to know how Buddhism differs from other traditions, including the all-traditions-are-the-same tradition indigenous to American popular culture, then start here. A reminder is in order, though: there are plenty of useful methods in the world, and not all of them are Buddhist. Shakyamuni never taught the importance of flossing your teeth, but you should still do it. Similarly, there are authentic Buddhist practices and teachings that, as near as any historian can tell, the historical Buddha Shakyamuni never taught, including popular ones like ngondro and spectacular ones like kaihogyo. Please try to have an open, curious, and generous mind about all this. Who wants to be a sectarian, a zealot, or a bigot while aspiring to a path of compassion and wisdom?

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