While joining the community at Tusita Hermitage I was feasting on the Buddha’s teachings as they were passed on to us in the suttas, e.g. the Khuddaka Nikāya. Having listened deeply, I find it hard to believe that this has really happened the way it is told. And the suttas are actually intended to serve as inspiration to practice diligently. Instead, they make me more sceptical because of the myriad instances in which the Buddha is depicted as infallible; every single one of his premonitions comes true; anyone who disrespects him is bound to be reborn in hell (e.g. Devadatta), or immediately robbed and beaten up because he erroneously thought he can outsmart the unsurpassable, holy, fully self-awakened one (e.g. Udāna 8.7).
Idealisation and idolatry doesn’t strengthen my confidence. On the contrary: hymns, myths & folklore around the life of the historic Buddha remind me of the repetitiveness of the Bhagavad-Gita or the Qur’an where every second line includes some hype about superhuman qualities, potencies and powers.
‘What has this got to do with life?’, I ask myself. When indignation has calmed down a notch I am able to see more clearly.
Firstly, it hints to the power of faith. Whatever I believe colours my perception. How strong is my faith (skr. saddhā) in the Buddha, Dhamma, Sangha? How firmly do i hold on to my views and opinions about what is the Path and what is not the Path? Do i take everything in dhamma books at face value or not? Am i skilled in the language of my own heart so i can let go of my foible of reading yet another dhamma book?
Secondly, it serves the purpose of acknowledgement. Knowing that in the course of many centuries layers of lore and legend have been put on top of the original message – isn’t that in itself a valuable insight? Go figure. People do that. Exegesis, interpretation, censorship. It is part and parcel of human history.
Thirdly, it certainly shows me what league i wanna play in.
Fourthly, it points to my (in)capability to take hardcore teachings with a grain of salt. Can i act upon the spirit of the letter of the Buddha’s teachings? In other words, do i take the necessary steps to cultivate a mind that reads between the lines and is firmly rooted in practical application? Or do i keep my mind busy instead by grappling with and grasping at the phrasing and finding fault in it, and as a consequence not taking any decisive step towards clarity finding out what truly works for me and what does not?
Didn’t the Buddha himself as a historic figure invite everyone to come and see: “Ehi passiko”? At least that’s what was propagated in the industrialized world when the Kalama Sutta was rediscovered and, to a certain degree, hyped because it corresponded to the prevalent egalitarian, liberal, protestant mind-set. What follows is an excerpt of the famous Kalama Sutta (u find the translation incl. interpretation of the entire sutta here).
“It is proper for you, Kalamas, to doubt, to be uncertain; uncertainty has arisen in you about what is doubtful. Come, Kalamas. Do not go upon what has been acquired by repeated hearing; nor upon tradition; nor upon rumor; nor upon what is in a scripture; nor upon surmise; nor upon an axiom; nor upon specious reasoning; nor upon a bias towards a notion that has been pondered over; nor upon another’s seeming ability; nor upon the consideration, ‘The monk is our teacher.’ Kalamas, when you yourselves know: ‘These things are bad; these things are blamable; these things are censured by the wise; undertaken and observed, these things lead to harm and ill,’ abandon them.
Buddhists in the West, particularly those with a Protestant background, have received the discovery of the Kalama Sutta with wide open arms. While Consensus Buddhism fosters mindfulness and meditation, Traditional Buddhism, on the other hand, advocates obedience and faith. In this context, it might be useful to read David Chapman’s blog about Consensus Buddhism – as with everything that’s said and written about Buddhism these days, remember the author’s intention, always double-check, use common sense and question apodictic statements. Stay alert.
Coming back to the question: “What has this got to do with my life?” Given the fact that ambition (greed) and individualisation (isolation) runs rampant in the consumerist culture (distraction) I consciously choose to adopt a way of life that encourages me to be kind and nice and selfless. This must have consequences for my career path. It’s impossible to get to the top like that. To live up to one’s true self, and thus, neither pretending to be a hardcore version of myself (difficult in times of social media) nor presenting a softer version of myself (difficult in relationships) means to walk a tightrope, indeed.
A middle way be found between helping yourself and helping others. Friends should be supported, yes, and still equanimity should prevail, knowing that they have brought their current lot on themselves by their own actions of body, speech and mind. Nobody said it would be easy to be a Buddhist, especially not with an agenda lurking in the background urging you to be a ‘good’ Buddhist – or at least one of the good ones in general. (… link here to a controversial issue…)
As you might have guessed, this is just the tip of the iceberg. I think it is conducive to dhamma practice to have an idea of what I’m practicing compared to what others are practicing, all of us calling ourselves Buddhists, to some extent. Feel free to share here how you deal with the discrepancy of ‘Conservative Buddhism’ and ‘Consensus Buddhism’ in your life. Do you think in these terms at all? Is it relevant for you? If so, how? If not, why not? Do you read the original scriptures (Sutta, Vinaya, Abhidhamma)? If so, what is your reaction? If not, why don’t you give it a try?