Nov 9, 2007

Is Buddhism Too Conservative?

Two people separately sent me a link to this Mark Morford column; Does your religion dance?

In it, Mr. Morford deplores the tendency of religions to become ossified, and he sees signs of this even in Buddhism (he is a Buddhist, by the way)

The idea is everywhere, and not just in the obvious, sour religious outhouses of evangelical Christianity and fundamentalist Islam and rigid Catholicism. It even popped up while I was in conversation with tattooed Buddhist and author of "Dharma Punx" Noah Levine at the Roxie theater during LitQuake '07, he and I chatting about the dangers of dogma and the problem of trying to adhere too closely, too severely, to classical Buddhist rules of behavior, concluding that even Buddhism has its dangers, its limits and its issues and general theological potholes.

Levine, a fairly conservative Theravadan Buddhist, admitted that even he had to seriously adjust some of those old rules to make them tolerable and digestible, particularly in regards to how poorly classical Buddhism valued women and the feminine principle (not to mention other rather impossible dietary and lifestyle restrictions), outmoded ideas that sort of make you wince and cringe and say no no no, Buddha couldn't really have meant that, could he?

I'm not sure what he means by "rather impossible dietary and lifestyle restrictions." True, some Mahayana sects require vegetarianism, but that is hardly "impossible" and Theravada Buddhism imposes no dietary restrictions on lay Buddhists at all. Even for the bhikkhus, the only practical restriction is to eat only between dawn and noon, which believe me, is quite possible. As for "lifestyle restrictions" could he be referring to the fifth precept? Certainly for lay Buddhists at least, there is very little of the regulation of the minutiae of daily life that can be found in, for example, orthodox Judaism.

The issue of gender bias in Buddhism is a more serious one, and the reader can follow Morford's link to an excellent summary by Mettanando Bhikkhu. I would add that in this regard, not unlike some other contentious points, we should separate at least four layers (possibly more) of teaching;

1. The actual Buddha-Vacana, "words of the Buddha." To a traditional Buddhist, Buddha-Vacana is equivalent to truth, because the Buddha was perfectly enlightened. There is no question of the Buddha being wrong, or misled by so-called cultural norms. Some modern Buddhists may differ on this point, but then they are changing the definition of Buddhahood and making the whole exercise rather trivial.

2. The canonical texts. This cannot always with certainty be equated with the first category. Scholarship by and large upholds the integrity of the scriptures pretty well for such ancient texts, but it is almost a given that some corruptions have crept in over the centuries. The passage most often cited as evidence of inherent sexism in Buddhism is the passage in the Vinaya texts concerning the founding of the nun's order. (This is discussed at some length in the article by Mettanando linked to above.) And this passage is also one which many textual scholars cite as a likely late addition, in other words, not Buddha-Vacana at all. (See also the study by Bhikkhu Gnanarama, "A Mission Accomplished.")

It should be noted that in the canonical texts we have ample evidence of the existence of female arahats, some of whom had male students. The spiritual potential of women is never stated to anything other than equal to that of men. Even in the troublesome Vinaya text cited above there is a categorical expression to this effect when Ananda asks the Buddha if women may become arahats and the Buddha answers in the affirmative.

A peripheral issue here; I don't think it is good enough to reject a text because of a feeling that the Buddha could not have said that. Who are we to judge the mind of a Tathagata? But we should be open to valid historical, linguistic and compartive studies.

3. The commentaries. In Theravada Buddhism, the orthodox position is defined by the commentaries. These texts have a complex provenance, which I won't go into here, but they are certainly several centuries later than the Buddha's time. They are best understood as the scholastic expression of mature institutional Buddhism. The commentaries tend to be rather more gender-biased than anything in the canon. (I would include the text portions of the Jatakas in the commentarial layer, and some of those are notoriously misogynist.)

4. The practice of actual living Buddhists at any given time and place. This has varied widely, and has not always been fully in accord with any of the above layers. It is important to remember always that Buddhism is not just a collection of old texts, but a living tradition. And as such it is not immune to the law of anicca (constant change.) In our own day, we are witnessing a great improvement in the role of women in the sangha, both in the West and in some parts of Asia.

Too often criticisms of some aspect of Buddhism fail to take these nuances into account, and take some point from one of the subsidiary layers to make a blanket statement.

This also bears on Mr. Morford's more general concern. Buddhism, or any other mature religion for that matter, is a constant interplay between various layers of teaching. There is the core expression, in our case the Buddha-Vacana, which may not be one hundred percent recoverable, there are all the various attempts to comment and explain the teachings, and there is the actual living expression. And Buddhism has always been in a state of change. A study of Buddhist history demonstrates this. For example, consider the twentieth century rise of the Forest Monk movement in Thailand. This is a good thing, but it can be taken too far, and westerners in particular are usually far too impatient. Useful, creative change must be cautious and guided by the core principles.

So, yes, Mr. Morford, my religion does dance, but it does so adagio.


POSTSCRIPT - (This is another comment from Morford's piece, but not related particularly to any of the above.)

Morford also says this;

A similar idea came up again as I was sharing the stage with the luminous Sera Beak, author of "The Red Book," a funky spirituality tome for fiery youngish women, she and I talking to the small crowd over at the Alameda Literati Festival about the hot ideological tongue baths that simply must take place between the divine feminine (her oeuvre) and the profane masculine (mine? Sort of?), the idea that you cannot have one without the other and they are both, in fact, required.....It's a decidedly Tantric principle
I'm not familiar with Sera Beak's work, and this paragraph may be an over-simplification, but I do object to the idea of a "divine feminine" set against a "profane masculine." In the attempt to give due place to the female, it is not necessary to slip over into a denigration of the male. Both the male and female principles have divine and profane aspects. Nor is the view stated above particularly tantric, which is all about a harmonious balance of the two sides. The tantric expression of transcendence is the lightning flash in the void. The flash alone is meaningless, and the void alone is barren.


Eric said...

"In it, Mr. Morford deplores the tendency of religions to become ossified, and he sees signs of this even in Buddhism (he is a Buddhist, by the way)"

This isn't a controversial point. Thanissaro Bhikkhu goes much further than that in these two essays:

As for the scriptures, I guess you have to take Ajaan Mun's approach:

As for the first question, Ajaan Mun agreed with the Fifth Reign vision that not everything in the Pali Canon was genuine Dhamma. But his approach for sifting through what was and what wasn’t genuine was much more traditional. In fact, it was even more traditional than Prince Mongkut’s approach, in that it was drawn from the Kalama Sutta (Anguttara III.66) in the Canon itself:
the test for any Dhamma teaching was the result it gave when adopted and put into practice. If it led to the end of defilement, it was genuine; if not, it wasn’t. Thus, only a noble disciple could know which teachings were genuine Dhamma and which were not. Even with the teachings that noble ones had guaranteed, a person who had not yet reached the noble level could not fully understand their
meaning. Thus the adulterations of the Dhamma were not a matter of textual transmission. They were the result of the defilements in each person’s mind."

Eric said...

"The significant difference lies in the treatment of the nuns: in Jainism, the nuns were not discriminated against as in Buddhism. Even now, nuns in Jainism enjoy their liberty in teaching equal to their male fellows. There are no such rules as the Eight Heavy Duties in the teaching of Mahavira."

This isn't true. It wasn't until the beginnings of the Svetambara sect in 937 AD that women were given equal status:

"Svetambaras, unlike Digambaras, do not believe that ascetics must practice nudity, or that women are unable to obtain moksha."

"The Svetambara monastic orders are branches of Vrahada-gachchha founded in 937 AD."

Also, as Bhante Gunaratana points out, there may have been good reasons for imposing these rules in 6th century B.C. India:

"Tricycle: If full ordination of nuns were reestablished, would you also support full equality between men and women?

Bhante Gunaratana: I support it. I support it. Fully ordained nuns should be able to do the same things as fully ordained monks. That's the kind of equality I support. The Buddha introduced extra rules for women, because without giving some concessions, without introducing some rules, there would have been an enormous upheaval and opposition coming from other monks as well as lay people. To silence them, he introduced these regulations. But in modern society these things can be modified. "

glenn fitzgerald said...



Q: Why don't Buddhists vacuum in the corners?
A: Because they have no attachments.

Q: What did a Buddhist say to the hot dog vendor?
A: Make me one with everything.

Q: What is the name of the best Zen teacher?
A: M.T. Ness

Q: How many Zen buddhists does it take to change a light bulb?
A: None, they are the light bulb.

Q: How many Zen buddhists does it take to change a light bulb?
A: Three -- one to change it, one to not-change it and one to both change- and not-change it.

Q: How many Zen buddhists does it take to change a light bulb?
A: Tree falling in the forest.

Q: What did one Zen practitioner give to another for his/her birthday?
A: Nothing.
Q: What did the birthday boy/girl respond in return?
A: You are thoughtless for giving me this meaningless gift.
To which the giver replied, "Thank you."

Disciple: "Master, why did Bodhidharma come from the West?"
Master: "Ask that post over there."
Disciple: "I don't understand"
Master: "Neither do I."

Q: How do I become a Lama?

A: Go to a monastic university and study for twenty-five years. Begin by memorizing Vasubandhu's Abhidharmakosha with its commentary (500 pages or so). Then study what you have memorised by hearing lectures on it and debating the contents with other candidates until you can argue every side of every controversy equally well. Then memorise several works of Nagarjuna, along with their commentaries. Then memorise the seven treatises of Dharmakirti. In additional to that study, you must master several forms of meditation and study tantric rituals for about two or three years.

Alternatively, you can come to America and just call yourself a lama. Billions of nubile virgins will follow you everywhere and give you money.

Q: How many wives does Buddhism allow?

A: You may have as many as your tolerance for misery can bear.

Q: What does a Buddhist wish someone on their birthday?
A: May you have many happy returns.

Submitted in all earnestness by Glenn Fitzgerald

JD said...

The debates about this sort of thing are endless. As Buddhists who are intent on putting an end to suffering, it would seem pointless to engage in debate with intelectuals and scholars who would rather pick through the texts with fine tooth combs and tear them down then actually practice. Eric is right, Thanissaro Bhikkhu adresses this quite well as did Ajahn Mun. We should be "practicing the Dhamma according to the Dhamma" as Ajahn Mun has said. It is true that there are probably things in the Canon or the commentaries that don't settle well with people or that are not genuine Dhamma, but these texts and the Theravada tradition can still be used as a skillful means to find and get on the path regardless of how people might want to interpret them or hold them. Anymore in my practice I tend to keep to myself and just try to walk the path. The debates will never end, but the Buddha promised that if we get om the path and uncover the genuine Dhamma then we will find the end of suffering and put an end to the debate in our own hearts. Best of luck to all of you in your practice.

JD said...

on, not om, sorry. I should have been more careful of my spelling.

glenn fitzgerald said...

"Anymore in my practice I tend to keep to myself and just try to walk the path."

And I wish I could give myself more openly to a boundless horizon that has no path.


Why try to walk any path? Wouldn't it be neat to fundamentally free oneself from a path?

But I'm sure that Ajahn Mun is smarter than I.

Glenn Fitzgerald

Eric said...

Actually, I'm not really impressed by Mettanando Bhikkhu's essay. I'm no apologist, but the people who are appalled by these rules simply don't consider the societal context where they were introduced. We have to remember that women had a low status in ancient India and it's incredibly naive to believe that the society would have tolerated an independent organization for nuns. Also, in a society that was dominated by Brahmanism and that was already antagonistic towards the Samana movement, a religion that was composed mostly of nuns probably wouldn't have lasted long. The rules are unpleasant to us today, but, as Hellmuth Hecker and Thanissaro Bhikkhu point out, the Buddha had to be pragmatic:

"For those people who are striving after the highest aim of the spiritual life in this very lifetime, the Buddha founded the Order (Sangha) - an order for monks and an order for nuns. The founding of an order of nuns was a revolutionary act in ancient India, since there previously existed no such communities for women. In establishing an order of nuns the Buddha had to consider the social situation of women in Brahmanism. In the Indian society of the sixth century B.C.E., women were in no way prepared or educated to establish a religious institution such as an ascetic community. The Buddha, therefore, set forth for nuns eight special rules, binding them to the order of monks. These rules are to be regarded as a shelter and help for the nuns, not as evidence of discrimination (Anguttara-Nikaya VIII, 51)."

"As the story makes clear, gender is not an issue in determining a person's ability to practice the Dhamma and attain release. But from the Buddha's point of view it was an issue in his design of the Saṅgha as an institution. His concerns were pragmatic and strategic, aimed at the long-term survival of two things: the true Dhamma and the holy life. As SN.XVI.13 explains, the survival of the true Dhamma meant not simply the brute survival of the teachings but the survival of the teaching unadulterated with "synthetic Dhamma" (saddhamma-paṭirūpa), later improvements that would call the authenticity of the true Dhamma into question. Why the existence of a women's Community would speed up the appearance of synthetic Dhamma, the Buddha didn't say, but he was willing to make the sacrifice so that women would have a chance to gain the noble attainments. The survival of the holy life, however, is a matter of the simple survival of the practice, even after the true Dhamma no longer has total monopoly in the Community. The analogy of the clan predominantly female shows that, in the Buddha's eyes, the survival of the holy life required a Community predominantly male. That was why he delayed granting Acceptance to his aunt, so that she would be willing to accept the eight rules of respect; that was why the requirements for Acceptance in the Bhikkhunī Saṅgha were more difficult and complicated than the requirements for Acceptance in the Bhikkhu Saṅgha; and that was why many of the rules governing relationships between the two Communities favored the bhikkhus over the bhikkhunīs."

JD said...

"Why try to walk any path? Wouldn't it be neat to fundamentally free oneself from a path?"


It sure would be. Perhaps that's why we practice.

Unknown said...

Conservative Buddhism is just the bark of the tree called Buddhism, it is not the heartwood. However, it serves a purpose, although I would say that it is not everyone’s Buddhism, including mine. Years ago, Ajarn Buddhadasa wrote a book called ‘Buddhism for people who hate Wats’, because while many ordinary people are not that smart, they are not that dumb either.

As for Buddhist scholars, they also serve a purpose too, although I think that anyone who refers to the texts, verse and line, when talking about Buddhism is basically clueless about the real practice of Buddhism; and this includes a few famous bikkhu scholars here and there. Still, people get the Ajarn they deserve, elements go together.

Both of these aspects of Buddhism are merely interfaces to the practice. However, they also succeed in making Buddhism both mediocre and boring, unfortunately. Real Buddhism lets go of everything, yet still remains the pinnacle of politeness and the most fascinating study in existence.

As for women, in general the vipassana Ajarns I am acquainted with treat them no differently as students, outwardly at least, and impose no limitations upon them. However, they do recognize a difference. First of all, their basic nature is not static like males, it is dynamic. Thus, it has different properties, like heat (necessary for nurturing children) and being able to change in an instant (they make the best actors and probably the best sorcerers), plus they are more pragmatic and usually show more basic intelligence than males. Therefore, while male and female should be equal from a social viewpoint, they are very different. In some things like samadhi, females suffer a distinct disadvantage due to the monthly phases of the moon. Some males also go crazy due to this, while others are able to take advantage of this change and improve their samadhi.

It is thought by some that females were not always bound to this nature, but they do appear to be bound to it now. However, I share the view of my Ajarn friends and impose no limitations upon them. If some have the correct qualities of vipassana samadhi and yahn (nana) then they will rise to the surface naturally. However, while I can recognize that many females can become useful teachers and examples on a worldly level, I seriously doubt that any female has the knowledge of lokuttara yahn (just as I could never become a mother). This may seem like a big issue, but as most males don’t have lokuttara knowledge anyway, including probably more than 95% of monks, then perhaps it is not really such an issue. The issue for everyone is to practice and find the path and make as much progress as we can, and while I can sympathize with women who do not receive the support they deserve, gender equality has nothing to do with Buddhist practice.

As for Buddhism in the information age, then you do tend to notice that many appear to be addicted to the internet (including many young bikkhus unfortunately; noting that Bhante is not so young any more). Also, many in cultures outside of Asia new to Buddhism tend to attach to the idea of goodness; no doubt due to their previous cultural indoctrination. In an empty mind there is no metta, no forgiveness and no goodness.

There is also no Vinaya, no rules. Vinaya is the aid that monks use when they are not practicing. However, it has become somewhat of an obsession for some. As for staying in the forest or the city, my Ajarns point out that you can even practice in jail, and when you are accomplished it makes no difference at all where you practice; it’s all wallpaper anyway.

One could probably say that conservative Buddhism, with all of its idiosyncrasies, has maintained the existence of Buddhism all these years, and enabled the heartwood to survive. It’s an unfortunate conclusion, but what else do you expect in samsara.

Unknown said...

Before my comments on lunar cycles provoke an opportunity for some people to transform into demons, I will elaborate further on this phenomenon.

The basic problem, as always, is attachment, and in this matter it concerns attachment to the body. While it may seem strange to mention the moon in relation to the mind, it does affect the mind indirectly. The moon exerts a subtle gravitational force on matter, and this also affects the body, although most of the time it is so subtle that we are unaware of it. The phases of the moon also determine our concept of time, thus we live our lives in days, months, and years, which are simply expressions of lunar cycles.

The fact that The Sangha follows the phases of the moon by shaving their heads at these times is not some covert appreciation of astrology, but more a marking of time, maintaining tradition, and the convenience of having no hair to be concerned about (note: although shaving the head is generally considered a matter of convenience, I also think that in the opposite situation of having long hair we carry around traces of our past experiences, subtle though they may be, and thus long hair not only helps to cement our cosmetic sense of self but also our subtle awareness of self).

As we have attachment to the body, this gravitational effect upon the body also affects our mind. I note that in the times when I did stay in Thai Wats, particularly on the full moon days when many lay people came to the Wat in the evening to circumnambulate the viharn, I experienced the sensation of dizziness that they were experiencing.

This sensation was so strong that on later occasions I avoided it like the plague. I never experienced such a sensation staying with the monks themselves, only from the laypeople who came to the Wat. Following such occasions, they no doubt left the Wat thinking that they had undergone some esoteric religious experience, when in fact they were simply experiencing the result of their own attachment to the five khandas due to some extra awareness provided by the Ajarns.

In meditative development, this environmental condition of the moon (and sun) is sensed in day to day practice, namely the fact that around sunrise and sunset the mind is generally calmer and therefore these are ideal practice times. In more profound breakthroughs, like the first time a monk enters completely into nirvana (Jahn Sammapat), this is usually accomplished in the moments before sunrise (Ajarn Buddhadasa also subtly confirms this in one of his translated talks, I don’t remember which, but you can check for yourselves). In addition, the mundane breakthrough into the Yama realm is also initially experienced at this time. Thus, these periods in the day, particularly at full moon phases, are considered to be gaps that can be used advantageously by yogis.

The fairer sex have no control over their biology, and for the greater part of their lives face an impossible barrier to letting go of their body (which, in varying degrees, is what the path fruition yahn are all about, and although they are generally described in terms of defilements, these defilements relate to attachment to the five khandas. It should also be noted that when the mind is in nirvana the body also is in nirvana).

While it may say in books that there were women Arahants, I am not a great believer in old stories. Instead, I say, "Show me the yahn!" I also note that there have been no prominent female Ajarns in more recent history, although I do acknowledge that there have been some women teachers worthy of respect and I have met some of them who were probably more spiritually advanced than most of the males I know.

In general, talking about yahn (nana) is really dealing with the abstract, many people know the word, but few outside of Asia have much idea of what it is other than some kind of knowledge. While it is a knowledge, it is not a knowledge in the ordinary sense, instead it is the knowledge of a point of perception in meditative development that is used as an object of samadhi by those who have completed one or more of the paths. This yahn is situated in the abdominal region, and the Ajarns who do have such yahn also have an unusual extended girth in this region, even though the rest of them may be quite thin. The advantage of such yahn (apart from the benefits described in literature) is that they are the sources of pannyah under any conditions, i.e. walking, talking. eating, sitting or lying down. They are not necessarily the sources of ‘zapping’, as this may be carried out through the development of mundane jhana followed by eye to eye contact. Yahn, on the other hand, generally zaps a large area for a prolonged period, could be several hours, and with some Ajarns covering the whole Wat for the whole day is no problem at all. These Ajarns (Arahants) have a mighty presence.

Unknown said...

Getting back to conservative Buddhism and the scholars with their Buddha-vacana, they serve a purpose in maintaining a generally respectable and logical interface with society at large, and as such, aid in introducing people to Buddhism.

However, real Buddhism comes from the true agents of The Buddha, those who have succeeded in the practice, and these Ajarns pass on the true teachings mind to mind.

While having such an Ajarn is the key to real progress in Buddhism, one cannot go off in search of such because they cannot be of use to everyone (even the Buddha could not teach some people) and in the end it is only one’s karma that leads to such an Ajarn.

In Thailand, it is generally considered a matter of someone ‘being ready’, and this ‘readiness’ is a measure of a person being able to let go. Obviously, there is a certain amount of letting go in someone becoming a member of The Sangha and leading a homeless life, however, it needs to be much more than this as this is merely an external beginning.

Although believing all of the so-called Buddha-vacana is in contradiction to its own contents, namely the Kalama Sutta, considering the basic teachings concerned with the three marks of existence in all aspects of life certainly helps in this letting go, particularly in the development of nibbidah, becoming bored with the world and worldly existence.

Someone aware of nibbidah would have no interest whatsoever in becoming a famous scholar or a famous member of The Sangha because both of these are equally boring, just as anything at all concerned with appreciation and recognition from a world society mired in greed, anger and delusion is quite meaningless.

Obviously, this would naturally tend to exclude some people from the core teachings, particularly those with family responsibilities and those intent on winning and being successful in a world where you cannot win and where success is meaningless.

We all create our own karma, and while a majority of the people in this world appear to think that money is the best weapon in the fight against karma, the smart people give in and admit defeat, at least as far as worldly existence is concerned. As many women followers are aware, or should be, karma sucks, and for all of us, in reality all karma sucks.

Generally, people only like good news, so slogans like ‘love will save the world’, the idea of an Earthly utopia, and that karma is only Eastern philosophy, or holding stone-age beliefs founded by a family sect where everyone gets a brand new house in heaven complete with departed loved ones are extremely popular (acknowledging that beliefs in a saviour were perhaps bronze age).

This, type of pandering to the wishes and expectations of society is also sometimes reflected in Buddhism unfortunately by certain recognized scholars, even though they deny the reality of karma in doing so.

The bad news of course is that none of it is true.

Buddhism, on the other hand tells you the bad news first, that this is not the place to try to get comfortable, nor is any other realm. Thus, once we give up on the idea we can begin to learn the good news, namely the cessation of all suffering and all samsaric existence.

This giving in is the foundation of letting go, the karma that in turn will eventually transform into great fortune, leading you to a true agent of The Buddha.

Some may argue that this is not the only way, perhaps not, there are other less direct and slower ways and there are always rare exceptions, but nibbidah is always a necessary component.

Thus, conservative Buddhism and Buddha-vacana have their roles, even if they are only remotely connected to what The Buddha actually taught.