Presented at the Buddha Center, Second Life on June 29 and July 2, 2013.
Toward the Dharma
Om Ah Hung Benza Guru Pema Siddhi Hung.
Much is made of the fact the Buddha taught with an open hand, not the closed fist of the professional guru or Brahmanic priest. The implication commonly taken from this statement is the Buddha effectively refutes the concept of secret wisdom as such. What is really being referred to is a subtle wisdom kept secret by an organization. The Buddha’s rejection of secrecy is held to refute Vajrayana, but the Buddha’s statement in the Pali Canon is far less obvious.
First, he reviles the Brahmans as exemplars of wrong view. Their mantras are secret, like illicit love affairs. The night of the Brahmans is illuminated by the same moon, and their day the sun, which shine openly and not in secret, like the dhamma and discipline (vinaya) proclaimed by the Buddha. The dhamma and discipline of the Buddha both illuminate and expose the secret tradition of the Brahmans. The Buddha says dhamma and discipline restore the secret wisdom that was lost, and only preserved in distorted form by the Brahmans. Thus, the Buddha is not attacking the primordial philosophy. Rather, he is criticizing the practice of secrecy in the service of the expediency of privileged castes. The Buddha discusses it openly, in the service of universal emancipation.
Dhamma cannot be ultimately understood rationally. He refers to “direct knowledge” or gnosis that results in realization in the suitably inclined individual within a relatively short period. The dhamma is therefore a “secret wisdom” or an “esoteric [direct] knowledge” by definition. That this wisdom is compared with the moon and sun indicates its luminous and transcendent qualities. Wisdom is not ordinary knowledge. It is not accessible by scholarship or even training. The salvific wisdom is intrinsically efficacious through the power of truth. It leads to immediate awakening.
The Development of Wisdom
Kesaputta is a town in Bihar, India. In the Buddha’s time, it was located at the edge of a forest where ascetics stopped at night before continuing on their way through the forest the next day. The citizens of this town were exposed to many different spiritual practices and views. Today, it boasts the largest Buddha stupa in the world. When the Buddha travelled here, he had occasion to discuss the wide variety of teachings to which people had been exposed. There was much doubt and confusion. Therefore, people asked the Buddha how to choose between rival religious ideologies in a multi-cultural world. This situation was not very different from the situation in the world today.
In answer, the Buddha rejects the idea that one should base one’s judgment on oral traditions, teaching lineages, hearsay, texts, logic, inferential reasoning, cogitation, pondering, rhetoric, or just because it is taught by one’s teacher. Instead, he recommends that whatever teachings one hears should be submitted to the test of questioning; whatever practices one learns should be submitted to the test of personal experience.
This does not mean the Buddha rejects the oral traditions, teaching lineages, and the rest. Rather, he directs us to re-evaluate them in a certain way. Nor is his deference to individual judgment a naive counsel people should “do what they like” based on “what they feel.” Usually this is just an “ego trip.” At worst, it can lead to a completely deluded state. Rather, questioning sacred truth is an endeavour of the utmost gravity. If one should not accept, neither should one reject anything prematurely. Otherwise, one may lose the opportunity to experience insight and truth through further consideration. The recognition of the ultimate impotence of reason is not a counsel to abandon reason. Reason can be transcended only by the cultivation of wisdom, through the constant questioning by which one maintains its purity.
The Buddha’s method discovers spiritual truth through the direct questioning of consciousness. He begins with what is obvious. Through the accumulation of observations and inferences, he builds up broad cosmological and ontological insights. This method suggests Socrates’s method of dialogue. This tradition flowered in the 20th century in the West through Husserl, Heidegger, Whitehead, existentialism, and post-modernism. Socrates himself died in 399 BCE, at the age of 70. Thus, he was just about ten years’ the Buddha’s junior. Dr. Herbert Guenther, author of The Teachings of Padmasambhava (1996) and many other books, makes similar statements about Padmasambhava. He calls him the first process philosopher. Others have called the Buddha a 21st century philosopher. Richard Gombrich has called the Buddha the greatest philosopher of all time. If this is how they are perceived today, the Buddha’s teachings must have been perceived by the Buddha’s contemporaries as nothing less than divinely inspired revelation. Even now, the pronouncements of Heidegger are received with a certain reverence. True transcendental philosophy always induces an experience like this.
The Buddha declared that this kind of questioning or reasoning into spiritual truth, beginning with the immediacies of human experience, was also to be applied to himself and his teaching and organization (the sangha). He invited his followers to watch him, evaluate him, criticize him, judge him, and see if he was crazy or deluded or not. He did this over a period of 45 years of continuous teaching. He invited everyone to think about what he said, perhaps to refine one’s understanding or infer implications. In this way, through the power of truth, he built up the dhamma in the only way such building up can occur, through being spoken and thus influencing the thoughts, words, and deeds of those to whom it is spoken. Another great bodhisatta by the name of Yeshua put it this way: A Tree is known by its fruit.
The Purity of the Guru
Similarly, the purity of a guru can be established by means of an evaluation of what is seen and heard. Its unwholesome fruits will betray an unwholesome (akusala) teaching; a wholesome (kusala) teaching can be discerned through its wholesome fruits. Thus, its observed effects can judge a teaching. There is a very interesting book, entitled Stripping the Gurus (2009), by Geoffrey Falk, that applies the Buddha’s counsel in practice, nor are Buddhist teachers exempt. Every disciple of a guru should read this book as a corrective to the naive enthusiasm to which we are all liable. Attachment to the guru as just another attachment.
This approach to the dhamma would mean it would be subject to continuous review, interpretation, reinterpretation, and expansion and change as its theoretical and practical implications are developed and explored. Thus, the Buddha refers to a hierarchy of dhamma “with its dark and bright counterparts.” That dhamma becomes more sublime the better it is understood is clear, but what are the dark and bright counterparts? The Buddha uses the same metaphor with respect to kamma. He distinguishes between the kamma that leads to happiness and the kamma that leads to unhappiness. Similarly, the Pali Canon includes a “wrong” eightfold path consisting of wrong view, wrong intention, etc. Thus, I take dark dhamma to refer to wrong views.
In this way, one gains faith in the Buddha based on certainty based on inquiry, including inquiry into the limits of inquiry, rather than some fatuous “faith.” The Buddha says in one famous phrase, ye sotawanto pamunchantu saddang. This is widely translated as, “Let them who hear renounce their faith.” Some scholars contest this. Some think it means the opposite. Perhaps it is a paradox, and means the way to develop faith is through faithlessness; therefore, true faith is faithless. Truly, this is the “cutting edge” of the diamond of wisdom! This view implies that reason can take the measure of spiritual philosophy, subject to the recognition that experience is qualitatively “other” than cogitation. The trans-dual real cannot be cognized by the dualistic rational faculty based on the dark and bright counterparts – the law of contradiction, or dualism.
The Primordial Tradition
The Buddha does not repudiate the religion of the Brahmans merely because the Brahmans held different views. The Buddha’s repudiation of Brahmanism is not sectarian. The Buddha rebukes the Brahmans as degenerate remnants of an archaic spirituality they have forgotten. This degeneration afflicts all religions, Buddhism included. This spirituality is even more primeval than the Vedas. The Buddha says, “Now something may be accepted out of faith, yet it may be empty, hollow, and false; but something else may not be fully accepted out of faith, yet it may be factual, true, and unmistaken.” This is called “penetrating by wisdom” (dhammābhisamaya). The Buddha appears to be alluding to a primordial spiritual tradition. It predates even the Vedas, of which the Vedas themselves are but a reflection. In particular, he derides the Brahmans for their lack of spirituality.
In accordance with the theory of progressive dhamma, the Buddha presents a theory of education. Memorization is followed by meaning, pondering, desire, will, scrutiny, and striving, culminating in realization “with the body.” This process culminates in the “penetration by wisdom.” Another sequence goes from faith to striving, through visiting, respecting, and listening to the guru, hearing the dhamma, memorization, examining (meaning), pondering, desire, will, and scrutiny.
The Body Witness
Three points are especially noteworthy. “With the body” is an interesting phrase. Realization is not merely mental; it involves the whole being, including what one refers to as the physical. The realization in or with the body can only refer to kundalini awakening. Second, the Buddha refers positively to desire. This is the desire for realization, provided it is non-attached. There is desirous attachment and desire freed from attachment. The third point is the centrality of the guru. The guru is central to the traditional Indian practice of guru-yoga. This practice is strongly emphasized in Tibet.
The Buddha’s concept of guru-yoga is different from the naive worship one has come to associate with the term bhakti. Bhakti has led to many abuses, in both Asia and the West. The proper relationship with the guru is based on questioning. It can only be intimate. Vertical ecclesiasticism is entirely excluded. In the Buddhasangha, the power of ordination is devolved to the bhikkhus. True ordination is horizontal, not vertical. It is freely available to all in principle.
The Buddha’s method of dealing with different views is to identify which views are held in common. Then he extrapolates from these. The term I propose to use to describe this process is “logical syncretism.” No matter where one starts, questioning leads inevitably to the whole view in detail. The dhamma is a hologram. A hologram is present in every point, but imprecise. The more points are selected, the sharper the image becomes. Similarly, the dhamma is present in every word and sentence of every sutta. The more suttas are read, the clearer one’s understanding becomes. The Buddha says he who practises even one sentence of the dhamma has the whole thing. Potentially, therefore, it becomes possible to collate the sum total of all Buddhist experience. The realization of the holographic nature of dhamma leads to the ekayana (the single vehicle). I would identify this development with the Dharma Transmission to the West.
With respect to ethics, the Buddha took a pragmatic view. Thoughts, words, and actions that lead to unwholesome results, based on the law of kamma, should be abandoned. Thoughts, words, and actions that lead to wholesome results should be cultivated. He specifically rejects the Jain doctrine of non-action or inaction. According to this view, both positive and negative kammas are renounced. Wholesome states are the foundation of enlightenment, itself the ultimate wholesome state. Since inaction leads to an unwholesome state, it cannot be the path. This view must be distinguished from the view that pleasure is the criterion of good. The Buddha does not base his ethical precepts on temporary or relative gain or happiness. Rather, he bases them on the ultimate intrinsic gain or happiness that results from them. The ethics of the Buddha are pragmatic, absolute, and essential.
The Buddha rejects the idea that merely following rules, or even an ethical regime of behaviour alone, is sufficient to attain enlightenment. He refers in the first sutta of the Pali Canon to “inferior matters of mere morality.” Rules, even the rules of the monastic system of the Vinaya, are mere “skilful means” (upaya). They prepare the ground, but in themselves, they are insufficient; they can even become objects of attachment and sources of delusion. The Buddha warns his disciples against becoming attached to rules. In the same way, he dismisses the efficacy of rites, rituals, and mere beliefs. The Buddha says, “Cleansed states cognizable through the eye or through the ear are found in the Tathagata. They are my pathway and my domain, yet I do not identify with them.” Finally, the Buddha provides what Western philosophy has never been able to do – an objective naturalistic ethical basis, the law of kamma. In the West, the predominant philosophical bias today is ethics are ultimately arbitrary and irrational. The injunctive “ought” can never be derived from the ontological “is.” Thus, ethics in Western philosophy appear to have no basis.
The Buddha’s defence of ethics that arises from these considerations is intensely skeptical. Perhaps, the Buddha argues, there is no rebirth and kamma itself is ineffective. The deterministic Ajiwika, the hedonistic Lokayata, and the agnostic Ajnana schools that, like Buddhism, arose out of the samana movement, held these views. Even so, the benefits of ethics are established in this life, in terms of both oneself and others. However, if there is rebirth, one gains the merit of a fortunate rebirth. If kamma is effective, one experiences positive results too. The practices of ethics and ethical meditation are neither proved nor disproved by anything more than what one experiences in the life that is known. This line of reasoning is called the four assurances.
The Buddha also teaches the truth of suffering, with reference to the three times – past, present, and future. The past and the present are uncertain, the Buddha says. All one knows about is the present moment, the now. The Buddha shows his innate practicality by grounding the dhamma in what is immediately known and observed, and then reasoning from that in a progressive way.
From the fact of suffering, the Buddha inquires into its cause. He comes to desirous attachment (tanha) as the cause of suffering. The other side of desire is “selective compassion,” or what Westerners so casually call “love,” by which is meant little more than a serial contract for mutual pleasuring and support. Compassion rooted in attachment is contrasted with the universal compassion of one without attachment. The Buddha extends this realization to the past and future. He shows that past states of desirous attachment lead to similar future states. This in turn demonstrates the operation of the law of kamma. In this way, one builds up one’s understanding of dhamma by grounding it in what one knows. Then one extends it to what one does not, through a dynamic interactive process of exegesis and experience.
From ethics, the Buddha proceeds to the meditation on compassion (mettā). This meditation is found all through the Pali Canon. The meditator projects the idea of compassion toward the four quarters, as well as above, below, across, and everywhere, including oneself, “pervading the entire world with a mind imbued with equanimity, vast, exalted, measureless, without hostility and without ill will.” The Buddha echoes the great Galilean bodhisatta, Yeshua, declaring love and compassion does not exclude kindness toward oneself.
The meditation of the four quarters is a universal practice found in traditions as distinct as shamanism, Native American spirituality, Vodun, and the Western esoteric traditions, including Cabala and Wicca. For example, the Navajo have a traditional prayer very similar structurally and in terms of content and intent to metta meditation.
As I walk, as I walk,
The universe is walking with me.
In beauty it walks before me.
In beauty it walks behind me.
In beauty it walks below me.
In beauty it walks above me.
Beauty is on every side.
As I walk, I walk with Beauty.
The Navajo have a tradition of sand painting that has been compared with the Tibetan sand painting tradition.
This discussion shows the Buddha began with what, for lack of a better term, one might call “common sense” – the universally shared experience of all sentient beings. He combines critical examination with inference to expand this understanding into the dhamma. The dhamma is not a “revelation” handed down by a “deity.” Nevertheless, the Buddha credited the dewas, who (tradition says) visited him in the night, with some of his insights. Others came from the Buddha’s own life as a Bodhisatta. The dhamma is subject to examination and questioning by reason. Reason itself leads to a “leap” into the trans-rational and supermundane (this too is indicated by reason itself).
Dhamma is always growing and changing. It cannot be pinned down by rigid formulations, traditions, or organizations. Ethics, while fundamental, are not the whole path. Nevertheless, the path and those who follow it are subject to ethical evaluation. Thus, true dhamma always has wholesome qualities. Where such qualities are absent, dhamma does not dwell.
“Wholesomeness” must be understood in an essential way, not with reference to mere social norms and customs that are spatially and temporally contingent. Many, perhaps most, things esteemed by society are unwholesome, especially in this degenerate age (mappo). Many things shunned may also be wholesome. Many things may be wholesome or unwholesome, depending on attachment. For example, many medicines are toxic and therefore unwholesome, but the administration of a medicine in the proper dose at the proper time and in response to the proper situation may be wholesome, depending on due regard to the intention and the conditions (such exceptions are allowed for in the Vinaya). All attachment is unwholesome; therefore, attachment to the wholesome is also unwholesome.
The ultimate proof of wholesomeness or unwholesomeness lies in ultimate happiness. Happiness must be interpreted from the absolute perspectives of kamma and realization, not merely in a temporal or relative way. Therefore, that which leads to the good is ethical, wholesome, and true. Ethics are not detached from ontology. They are grounded in it by the operation of the law of kamma. Still, ethics are only the rind of dhamma.
The purpose of these talks is not merely to cultivate the wisdom of dhamma. However, that is my main intention. Wisdom cannot be separated from practice. We will conclude this talk with a few minutes of meditation. Last time we did a metta meditation practice. This time I would like to use a progressive meditation practice I created based on the five elements. This will be a guided meditation.
To benefit from this exercise nothing more is required than that you give yourself permission to benefit from it, and to attend to it with intention. The degree of benefit you will experience will depend on the quality of your attention. No special posture, clothing, breathing or visualization technique, or formal qualification, or even any special belief, is required in order to benefit from this practice. The intrinsic power of mind is the essential realization.
Sit just as you are sitting now. Attend to the body. Do not focus on any particular part of the body. Simply be aware of the sensation of the body, especially the tactile sense. Simply be aware of the body as body.
When you are firmly established in that, “flip” your attention from the body as body to your awareness of the being of the body – not the body itself, but the general quality of awareness of the body is the precondition of bodily sensation. Note the awareness of the body is not the same as the body itself. For example, when you attend to the body itself you are aware of skin, breathing, perhaps the bones and internal organs, the eyes, tongue, etc., but the awareness itself is not skin, breathing, bones, organs, eyes, tongue, etc. Reflect on the non-reducibility of the awareness of the body to the body itself.
Now, turn your attention to the breathing and the breath itself. Do not attempt to control or count the breaths. Simply be aware of the physical sensations associated with breathing. Simply be aware of the breath as breathing. As you do this, the breathing will deepen and slow naturally.
When you are firmly established in that, “flip” your attention from the breath as breathing to your awareness of the breath – not the breath as such, but the awareness of the breath. Note the awareness of the breath is not the same as the breathing itself. Reflect on the non-reducibility of the awareness of breathing to breathing itself.
Now, turn your attention to the mind, including passing thoughts, feelings, perceptions, impulsive tendencies, etc. Do not try to control the mind. Simply be aware of the mind without judgment or involvement. Simply be aware of the mind as mind.
When you are firmly established in that, “flip” your attention from the mind to your awareness of the mind – not the mind as such, but the awareness of the mind. Note the awareness of the mind is not the same as the mind itself. Reflect on the non-reducibility of the awareness of mind to mind itself. In particular, reflect on the essential quality of emptiness of this intrinsic awareness.
Now, resting in this essential quality of emptiness, reflect that this quality is not passive but active. As the essential precondition of awareness of the body, it is also its cause, or there would be no mental or physical activity, not even the illusion thereof. Therefore, this emptiness is the essential precondition and source of life, will, and volition itself. Be aware of the intrinsically dynamic or kinetic quality of this essential quality of empty mind and abide in this.