27 May 2006

Studying the Dharma

The Scholar by Domenico Feti (b. ca. 1589, Roma, d. 1623, Venezia)Today I want to look at some aspects of the study of the Dharma. This is one of my main practices, and one of my favourite acitivities. Study as a practice has both great benefits and great pitfalls. Studying texts tends to be seen as a poor substitute for 'real practice', but I want to try to show that this is poorly informed.

Buddhism is very much a heterodox tradition, full of contradictions and different approaches. Without an historical perspective on the development of Buddhism it is difficult to make sense of these contradictions. So for instance I can't take seriously the statements of successive Buddhist sects which suggest that all other sects teachings are merely provisional and that this new teaching is the "True Teaching of the Buddha". I think of this as not taking the tradition on its own terms. In terms of outlook I am in the Mahayana camp, informed by the Vajrayana, but in terms of how I actually practice I am what has been called, rather rudely, a Hinayanist. If I bought into the various Mahayana or Vajrayana critiques of early Buddhist practices then I would probably feel a bit insecure. But I do not accept those critiques because having looked at the Mahayana critique, for instance, I can see that it is aimed at a caricature, and that later Buddhist writers had no idea about how the early Buddhists actually practiced. Similarly with the Vajrayana's claim that their teachings were delivered by the Buddha himself, but only to disciples of superior ability, it seems clear that this cannot have been the case. Later Buddhism was the product of interaction with other religious traditions both within and without India. In India this was the norm - traditions heavily influenced each other, cults were assimilated (as they were by the Greek and Romans), and especially after about 800 BCE exploration was encouraged.

So here we are in the present with all these stories, practices, and cultural presentations of the Buddha's Dharma. One approach in the West has been to adopt a sectarian appraoch - to take on Zen, or Tibetan, or Theravadin, Buddhism holisbolis. On the other hand some people try to look critically at the traditions and to take what seems useful, and to adapt it to the present time and place. This seems to me to be the best approach. Otherwise we loose sight of the way the presentation of the Dharma has, sometimes radically, changed over the centuries and mistake one particular form of it as being superior to the others when it may simply be different. My inclination is not to accept any practice as being superior to any other practice. So when a Tibetan Lama tells me that the instructions for painting thangkas were given by Shakyamuni Buddha and cannot be deviated from, I have to weigh that against archeological evidence that images of the Buddha were not made for several centuries post-parinibbana, and evidence from the books that I have that Tibetan images of the Buddha vary dramatically across time, place and tradition.

When it comes to texts in translation we are in even more difficult territory. I got interested in this area when comparing Stephen Bachelors's translation of the Bodhicaryavatara from the Tibetan version, with Marion Matics' translation from the Sanskrit. Although the general drift of the two was similar, the details vary considerably. We tend to see a text as a static document - both Judeo-christian culture and the various Buddhist traditions encourage this view of texts. But Buddhist texts were usually living, growing documents. The Pali texts were not written down for several centuries and show signs of having been edited even before that time. Pali was not the language of the Buddha, and so they have gone through at least one translation, and manuscripts with significant differences, not to mention copyists errors exist. The Mahayana texts frequently exist in several different versions and there seems to have been a tendency to incorporate more and more material into them, and to restruct the verses and chapters according to schemes unknown.

This situation led me to learn a little Pali and to start to delve into the Pali texts. I realised for instance that there exists no completely satisfactory of the Karaniya Metta Sutta - there is no one translation which manages to convey all the subtleties which lurk in the Pali words, and even the two dozen or so that I have collectively fail to convey certain aspects. Umberto Eco has referred to translation as "a negotiation". It is a compromise between many competing goals. Lately I have been working with translations of Kukai texts. Kukai wrote in an elaborate form of ancient Chinese, but is frequently translated into English from Japanese translations of the original Chinese. In a small number of cases I have two or more translations which I can compare. One translator has gone out of his way to convey the meaning of the texts, and another seems to have stuck to the literal meaning of the words, but is idiosyncratic in his choice of English equivalents. Another seems to find an easy middle way between these two approaches; and yet I am sure that in at least one case his choice of English words is motivated by trying to prove a particular aspect of the thesis which underlies his book, and this skews the meaning towards one that I feel sure was not intended by Kukai. I recommend Yoshito Hakeda's translations if anyone is interested.

So in studying Buddhism we are faced with some major challenges. Buddhists traditions are sectarian and literalist. We face great uncertainty: for instance the margin of error for dates are frequently given in centuries - the birth of the Buddha being a case in point. Texts were once living documents that changed over time and place, were edited by sectarians, and are often only known to us via multiple translations, all of which leaves the 'meaning' very fuzzy. But this is just like life isn't it? What we assume to be essential and permanent turns out not to be so. Through studying with this kind of critical eye we are confronted with the nature of reality, and by immersing ourselves in study we can begin to see things as they really are.

13 May 2006


The full-moon this month marks the 2550th anniversary of the most crucial moment in the biography of the Buddha - his Awakening to the true nature of things. For some Buddhists the Wesak festival marks not only this, but also his birth and death. All over the world under the full-moon there will be solemn ceremonies, lively pujas, silent meditation, a huge variety of celebrations.

While every aspect of the Buddha's biography has some significance, his Awakening is the reason that we remember him at all. Buddha is often translated as "Enlightened" but this English word, with all it's baggage from the intellectual movement of 18th century Europe, is not at all related to the original word. Buddha, and the related word bodhi, come from a root which means awake. So a Buddha is one who has awakened, and bodhi is to be awake.

'Awakened' is a metaphor which hints at the nature of the Buddha's experience on the full-moon day in may 2550 years ago. It suggests that before this experience he was asleep. The experience of going from sleep to awakening, in the ordinary sense, is significant. In sleep we are not conscious of the world around us, the world of the senses. We alternate between deep sleep in which we are barely conscious at all, and dream sleep in which we experience a different level of reality. In dreams the usual rules of our world, rules of physics or chemistry etc do not apply. In dreams we can meet the past or the future. When we awaken there is a definite sense of crossing a threshold. The transition from sleep to waking can leave us disoriented for a time. Then when we are awake we are aware of the data of our senses, and we experience the world as being more or less sequential and ordered. We, generally speaking, do not meet the past or the future, and the laws of physics hold true. The details are moot, of course, but the experience of going from sleep to waking is one that is common to everyone, and one that is marked and distinct.

So waking is a metaphor for what happened to the Buddha. One of the ways the Buddhist tradition speaks of this difference is the three marks or lakkhanas. When we are asleep we see the world as substantial, permanent, and a source of pleasure. However when we wake up we see that things are impermanent, insubstantial, and are a source of suffering.

We do tend to see things as permanent. We can catch the view that things are permanent in, for instance, our shock at the death of a friend or relative. We have always known that they would die, and yet we are shocked and surprised when they die. This sense of surprise is a result of having an unconscious expectation that they would not die. We resist change, and this again exposes the view that things ought not to change. Change is the fundamental condition of the universe. And because everything whatsoever changes, there can be no unchanging thing - no essence which transcends form and function. This is particularly important in the case of people. We are often said to have an eternal soul or essence which transcends our physical life and death, even our repeated life and death. But if there was one thing in the universe which did not change then the whole universe would freeze solid. This is because everything in the universe is dependent on the other things to create the conditions for existence. This means that if one thing is changing, then everything is forced to change. And if one thing did not change the whole universe would freeze solid because it would inhibit the changing of other things.

It is not that phenomena are inherently or fundamentally a source of suffering. They are a source of suffering because of the false expectations that we have of them. If we expect phenomena to be permanent, transcending form and a source of pleasure, then we are constantly disappointed. If however if we align our expectations with the true nature of things - impermanent and insubstantial - then phenomena may still cause us pain (if we stub our tow on them for instance), but it's not inevitable.

So this is one way of talking about the way in which the Buddha woke up under the full-moon in May 2550 years ago. Happy Wesak.

Sabbe satta sukhi hontu

06 May 2006

Suicide as a response to suffering

Ophelia drowns herself
When you dig into the the subject, you find that suicide is regarded with some ambivalence, and even confusion, by the Buddhist tradition. On one hand the principle of ahimsa, or non-violence, would seem to rule out suicide for Buddhists. On the other hand there are at least three cases of suicide in the Pali Canon where men commit suicide with no evil consequnences (they attain final nibbana and are not reborn). In Buddhaghosha's commentary to the vinaya it is said that a bhikkhu may stop taking food and die under certain circumstances. And at the extreme end of the scale we have the 1960's image of a Vietnamese monk immolating himself in order to gain religious freedom for his fellows.

A couple of years back I wrote a long essay on suicide and Buddhism. A version of this, which focuses on suicide in the Pali Canon, was published in the Western Buddhist Review. It's couched in the pseudo-objective language expected in an academic journal which is a shame in a way because I've realised that most of the people to whom I might wish to communicate on this subject won't read that kind of thing.

The apparent ambivalance with regard to suicide seems to stem from a belief that any act done with awareness, with kindness, and especially with non-attachment, is a skilful act that will not cause suffering. It seems pretty clear however that few of us are phlegmatic enough to contemplate taking our own lives with detachment.

I've seen death. My father died in 1990, all of my grandparents are dead, two uncles are dead, and a few friends and aquaintences too. I saw some of their corpses. I've watched bodies being burned on the ghats in Varanasi, and one friend cremated the same way in New Zealand. I've watched a sheep have it's throat cut and bleed to death. But death is still a mystery to me, and despite all the Buddhist rhetoric about it, I find I still fear it. I don't want to die. What sort of state would I need to be in to overturn this fear, to over-ride this powerful urge for continuation? The sacred texts recall several men cutting their throats in supremely positive states. I've contemplated suicide only when in a very negative states.

Looking at the whole thing pragmatically, that is to say not referring to doctrine but to experience, I'd have to say that suicide is, contrary to that old song, not painless. When I think about this I bring to mind Kent, a friend of my brother's, who killed himself out of despair in his twenties. It was very painful for me, and I only knew him a little. For my brother is was a devastating blow. We are all still mourning Kent's death which seemed such a waste. So whatever happened to Kent after he died, I can be sure that his actions resulted in pain for those who loved him.

My thoughts have been turning in this direction because recently several people I know have either been suicidal or have deliberately harmed themselves in some way. And in response I find myself echoing the words of that great hero of the Dharma, Sariputta, to Channa:

"Let the venerable channa not use the knife. Let the venerable Channa live. We want the venerable Channa to live! If venerable Channa lacks suitable food, I will go in search of suitable food for him; if he lacks suitable medicine, I will go in search of suitable medicine for him; if he lacks a proper attendant, I will attend him. Let the venerable channa not use the knife. Let the venerable Channa live. We want the venerable Channa to live!"
- Samyutta Nikaya III.2.4.8.
In my WBR article I noted that scholar Damien Keown, editor of the Journal of Buddhist Ethics, seemed to fudge the conclusion of his article on the subject: The Case of Channa. It's quite clear, from the text that he focuses on, that suicide by someone with no attachment to their body is not a cause of more suffering because Channa is not reborn, ie attains Nibbana. And yet Keown draws the general conclusion that suicide is unskilful. Having surveyed a much wider range of texts, many of which were if anything more open to suicide, I also found myself baulking at concluding that suicide is justified in some cases, even though the textual evidence supports such a conclusion.

The basic problem is that the vast majority of suicides and cases of self-harm are not carried out in state of love, generosity, calm, dettachment. They are carried out in despair, fear, and hatred. It seems likely that if you are in the fourth formless jhana, then it might just be possible to die with equanimity, but that in constricted states of suffering from which we want to escape, then suicide is unlikely to be a positive response.

All of this can be hard to get across to someone in despair. Despair is associated with a vastly reduced perspective. Often when we are down we cannot imagine that there is a way out, we don't see that things change. At the moment I'm exploring the way that awareness can change this. We naturally flinch from pain, and in the case where physical harm will result this is definitely a good thing. Emotional pain is something else though. We flinch from it, we don't want to experience strong and/or painful emotions, and there is some short term benefit from this. There are times when putting our emotions on hold can be useful or even necessary. But long term we cannot function that way. Bringing awareness to pain, especially emotional pain, does seem to help, especially in terms of creating a broader horizon and an awareness of how things change. I hope to be able to say more about this in time, but for now if you are in despair and contemplating suicide, then please seek help.


See also

Rottman J, Kelemen D, Young L. (2014). 'Purity matters more than harm in moral judgments of suicide: Response to Gray (2014).' Cognition. 2014, Jul 10. pii: S0010-0277(14)00118-8. doi: 10.1016/j.cognition.2014.06.008. [Epub ahead of print]
"Many people judge suicide to be immoral. We have found evidence that these moral judgments are primarily predicted by people's belief that suicide taints the soul and by independent concerns about purity. This finding is inconsistent with accounts that define morality as fundamentally based upon harm considerations."

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