Archive for February, 2011

A dear friend of mine–that happens to be a fairly new convert to Theravada Buddhism–emailed me with a question.  Is Buddhism more than just a philosophy?  A colleague of hers, upon hearing of her new-found religion, quickly dismissed her ambition to be a good Buddhist by informing her that it was nothing more than a philosophy.  In his opinion, there was nothing to convert to; it was no different than someone declaring that he or she had the intent to convert to Kantism or Socialism.
While my friend was sure that this was not true, she really had lacked the confidence to debate the fellow and asked me for guidance.  The question I was to answer was simple: Why is Buddhism more than just a philosophy?
The following was my reply…

Buddhism is not just a philosophy, though many people see it that way.  This false view stems from the fact that theists have a difficult time comprehending a religion that does not worship a creator god.  Abrahmaic religions all gather what they believe to be the truth from [what they believe to be] a divine source—Dogma, it is called.  Buddhism is a religion that is actually backed by consistent philosophy that makes a lot of sense—Dhamma, this is called.  Sadly, this is another reason people don’t see it as “religion”.  In this day and age, many have come to see the term “religious ideals” as synonymous with “irrational ideals”.

Some people only accept the philosophy of Buddhism.  They utilize the aspects of philosophical reasoning and ethics to better their lives without accepting the “total package”, per se.  Others only utilize the psychology of Buddhism to improve their attitudes toward their lives.  Buddhism has so many practical teachings that many pick and choose teachings and use it as a self-help program.  Whoever said this to you most likely knew someone or read something by someone that only accepted/practiced/discussed one or more of the pragmatic facets of Buddhism.  However, this does not mean that there is nothing more to it.

This, too, is something people don’t associate with religion; Christianity, Judaism, and Islam all expect complete commitment or no commitment.  Buddhism, on the other hand, welcomes those that refuse to accept the entire doctrine.  We know that a lot of people are simply too attached to the ideas that were socialized into their mind—brainwashed is another word—and there is no point in trying to convince them.  We’d rather spend more time teaching those that actually want to learn.  No overbearing, door-to-door Buddhists here.

To advance the ideas posited in the first paragraph, Buddhism is a religion because, although we do not believe in god, we do assert the functionality of god.  Most people see god as functioning in two ways: the creator of all things and the enforcer of morality.  We say that creation is irrelevant because there is no beginning and end in the ultimate sense; there is only constant change.  Beginnings and endings, births and deaths, are all problems created by the limitations of our conceptual minds.  In the ultimate sense, the universe is more like a circle.  We may believe in the Big Bang, but we believe there were incalculable Big Bangs in the past and every time the world system renews itself, there will be another.  In essence, the story of a Creator is nothing more than “a story to explain away the problem that the previous story created”.  As you can see, our minds are great story tellers!

Creation doesn’t exist, therefore the need for a creator does not exist.

Regarding the “enforcement of morality”, we do not believe there is a courtroom in the sky where a judging god looks through our record and passes a judgement—a judgement based on what we believe, not what we have done, mind you.  We believe ethics are enforced by a natural law that—like every other tendency in the universe—seeks a point of equilibrium.  When you dole out goodness, goodness returns to you.  Not because a bearded man in the sky says you deserve it, but because it is a natural law; a natural law no different than gravity or the second law of thermodynamics.

We also hold a view on the self, or lack thereof, just like any other religion.  We don’t believe in a “soul” because a “soul” is defined as an unchanging self that includes the ego/personality.  The ego is created during abstraction/conceptualization (detailed in the psychology of the Abhidhamma) and is not permanent.  There is a belief that our personality “matures” from birth into its natural state, then falls away at old age.  This belief that “who we are” is our personality during mid-life is ridiculous.  Here’s another point: If our personality is an unchanging essence of “who I am”, how is it that I can take a pill that will completely change my attitudes, behavior, and social values?  Drugs and time to not mask our true nature; there is only who we are in this very moment.  We are not inherently sinful or nor are we innately good; we are who we are right now, in this very moment, and that is all.

However, this does not mean that I do not exist.  (Most Westerners think there are only two options: soul or non-existence.)  After all, there is a stream of continuity.  We may not physically be the same person we were 10 years ago—I believe the oldest cell in our bodies is no more than 7 years of age—and we may not be the same person psychologically, but we still consider ourselves to be the same person as the kid in the old family photo.  There is continuity; no one denies that.  What we assert, as Buddhists, is that self is a verb.  Let me explain.

We are not a being, but we are a becoming.  We are constantly “becoming” something other than we are right now.  We are a collection of actions, of things done.  What “we” are is a self-ing rather than a self.  Most religions ponder our awareness of the universe and stop there, thinking it all ends with consciousness; that consciousness exists in and of itself.  They believe this consciousness is the end-game; the final root-of-all-things.  In fact, this how the eternalist view came to be.  However, they [the eternalists] overlooked one important detail: we are always conscious of something.

Consciousness does not exist without an object.  This is the important link between hither and thither, you and the world, and the basis of the dualism our mind creates.  Their fault lies in the over-evaluation of the mind and the confusion of consciousness and mind as being one in the same.  The mind is another sense base; just as the eyes have visual phenomena as objects, the mind has thoughts, concepts, and mental constructs as objects.  Consciousness is the awareness of these mental thoughts and conceptualizations, along with the perception of the physical world through the sense bases.

This is all that really exists in an ultimate sense; the rest is nothing more than an illusionary world of concepts—which are great for interaction with the world, so long as we do not mistake them for reality itself.  The “self” is something added onto the perception/cognition of these events.  Anyone that has lost his or herself in a great song, while performing sports at his or her best, or while admiring nature knows this; it is possible to be cognizant of the world without the creation of a subject.  It is not possible, however, to be conscious without an object.

The Buddhist worldview, which is heavily supported by Quantum Mechanics, asserts that the [materialist] notion of the universe being filled with “things” that “do things” is completely wrong.  A more accurate notion is that the universe is a collection of “events” rather than collection of “things”.  One educated in western society would default to declaring that if there is no “thing” in existence then, it only naturally follows that, the “things done” do not really exist either.  These are all notions built upon the scientific worldview as expounded by Isaac Newton .  This has been proven, absolutely, beyond the shadow of a doubt, to be false.  Why everyone still clings to this perspective is beyond my comprehension.

What is your life?  Most people would say something along the lines of “the collection of experiences up to now”.  Well, the Buddhist worldview is very similar: There are mental and physical events, not things, and there is a knowing of those events.  So, that “collections of experiences/events” is not only your life, but your world, too.  There is no point in trying to objectively figure out the “world out there”.  The only way one knows the world is through the sense bases; to get to the root of your experience is to get to the root of the universe itself.  The important point here is this: although there is no “thing” behind the experience, the experience is real.  Schrödinger’s wave-function exemplifies this: the wave-function of an object is the object; although there is behind it as one would reckon, the wave-function does, in fact, exist.

The universe is this massive, ever-changing, flux of events and “we” are the awareness (or consciousness) of those events—though we later realize that this awareness is dependently originated like all other conditioned phenomena.  In order to deal with the massive amount of information cognized by the mind, our mind wraps everything into separate bundles in order to deal with the information more efficiently.  This perceptual overlay of concepts divides things up into neat little separate objects that seem permanent.  This is a great way dealing with a massive amount of information.  However, it creates a false notion of separate-ness that does not exist in the ultimate sense.

The real problem occurs when we get so deep into this process that we forget what is concept and what is reality.  We have lost ourselves into a daydream of sorts, mistaking the perceptual overlay to be the ultimate reality.  Because of this, we see life and death, beginnings and endings, and everything seems permanent.  The concepts themselves are the only things permanent.  The underlying reality that we have wrapped in this concepts is in constantly flux.

When a certain combination of physical and/or mental phenomena manifest together, we wrap in a concept and give it a name.  For instance, a whirlpool occurs.  What is the whirlpool? It is nothing more than a collection of events—in this case, the circular/funnel-like movement of water.  The whirling slowly speeds to a climax and inevitably slows until it is visible no more.  When it is slowed to the point that it is difficult to cognize, we think it has “ended”, but what has ended?  There was water before and water after.  There was movement in the water before and after.  There was movement in the water during the “life” of this concept.  The only thing that was born, lived, and died was a mental construct in our minds.  In essence, all there was, all there is, all there will be is constant change; a constant flux of events.

In essence, all you were, all you are, all you will be is a constant flux of events.

Buddhists are not merely social activists exercising a philosophy.  It is simply that, based upon our worldview, “belief” is a mental construct while “action” is the only thing that truly defines “you”—as “you” are nothing more than a stream of action/reaction and the awareness of those events.  Bodily action, based upon mental volition, and the cognizing of this process is the mind-body we call self.  Anything else—any other “wrapping up” of this ultimate reality with a perceptual overlay—is an illusion, albeit a very useful one.

Wholesome actions lead to positive reactions as per the law of kamma, the Moral Law, from moment to moment and life to life.  Unwholesome actions lead to negative reactions, from moment to moment, life to life.  We believe in heaven and hell (though not as eternal states), gods (referred to as Brahmas), angels (we call them devas) and ghosts (we call them petas)–though most all of these terms refer to something more rational, and less cartoonish, than some other religions.  In short, we have the same components as every other religion in the world, with a few additions that the others religions are lacking—such as a psychology and a consistent, rational philosophy.

So you see, as Buddhists, we have a world-view, a self-view, a book of scripture, a philosophy, a psychology, a code of ethics, an ordination line traceble to our founder, and ritual observances just like any other religion.  They just need to understand that a creator god is not a requirement of a religion—it is simply a common component of the Abrahmaic religions.

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The other day I came across this very true statement: ‎”It is a sad fact that whereas we rarely find Muslims without the Quran or Christians without the Bible, yet we find many Buddhists without the Nikayas.”

This quote is from an essay by a Ven. Dhammavuddho Bhikkhu which you can read in full here. You should really take your time reading it.

There is not just a “knowlege crisis” in the Buddhist world. This is not because of “too few books printed on Buddhism” – no, quite the contrary is true, maybe because there are “too many books printed on Buddhism”. Let me put it this way: If you are sitting in a raft, and you try to reach the other shore, you probably won’t start reading about the string theory or the special theory of relativity but rather be interested in how the application of Newton’s law of repulsion gets you to the other shore. This is were our training in physics starts and that might also be a smart way to start one’s training in the Dhamma. It resembles the relationship between the most ancient layer of Buddhist teachings which one would expect to be most acquainted with in relationship to whatever came afterwards. Lot of what was developed later is not necessarily wrong and might very well be helpful – but it does not hurt either, if you make yourself well acquainted with the foundation. In the worst case scenario, you may have learnt a few things from the very source of Buddhism, the Buddha, and that won’t be bad or would it?

How many actually know that the Buddha dismissed the idea of instituting a “leader” after his death other than the Dhamma-Vinaya which in no uncertain terms he “appointed” as the teacher of his students after his final Nirvana.[1] Even though Dhamma and Vinaya are very practical in nature, and personally to be realized (paccattaṃ veditabbo) why would it hurt to read what the founder had to say? At least that is what Buddhists did in the first 500 years (you are right, they did not just read, they learned the word of the Buddha by heart)…which lead to the creations of the first mega-universities in the ancient world.

For those looking for an intro into the word of the Buddha have a look at this older post “Where is the Buddhist Bible?” If the above wasn’t enough of a “sales pitch” how about this 😉 :

Besides the strange fact, that hardly any Buddhist knows the word of the Buddha[2] it gets even more worrisome if you look at the status quo in Buddhist countries like Sri Lanka, Thailand or Burma which sometimes seem to mistake carefully selected quotes from the suttas as excuses to backup their medieval structures. No one to blame here except ourselves:

Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-imposed immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to use one’s understanding without guidance from another. This immaturity is self-imposed when its cause lies not in lack of understanding, but in lack of resolve and courage to use it without guidance from another. Sapere Aude (dare to know) “Have courage to use your own understanding!”–that is the motto of enlightenment. [link]

Immanual Kant

We could say that for the plain and simple teachings of the Gotama, the samana, the wandering ascetic, the begging monk, the bhikkhu, a very similar understanding lay at the foundation of the deeper enlightenment he had in mind. It included listening carefully to the source of that message – then remembering it – then putting it into practice which lead to the source of this very six-sense-world.[3]

But coming back to the present, the situation in the Western Buddhist post-enlightened ( 🙂 ) hemisphere is strange as well. There are copyrights, by monks, on translations of the Suttas which are sold online. Hmmm… There are countless youtube videos which show alleged quotes of the Buddha which, unfortunately, are from every possible source but not the Tipitaka. And while the ancient word of the Buddha survived 2550 years through famines, wars and other natural and historic disasters and is more accessible than ever in human history to a vast body of interested people – it seems there is less interest in actually listening to the master himself, the source – a practice which was such a fundamental principle for the Western world’s emergence from the “darkness of ignorance”. [4]

Centuries ago, people risked their lives to get a copy of a palm leaf manuscript – journeying from China, through Afghanistan, through India, via Sri Lanka, over Java, back to China – even if it was just a translation of a translation of a translation, they were happy – and we seem to struggle with a proper quote – or at least show some form of respect to the incredible gift former generations have blessed us with. Really astonishing all of this ;-).

When in medieval times a meditation master fainted in joy when he was able to read a translation from a Korean Sutra, which was translated from the Chinese Tipitaka, which was translated from the Sanskrit Tipitaka, which was translated from the Prakrit – and coined a famous ZEN saying – it is our generation, which can pickup a Pali course via the internet in minutes and read the Buddha’s own words within a couple of days – or purchase and compare the same sutta via a multitude of translations and languages to see if our path actually is that ancient path leading to the golden city.

Enough rallying 🙂 Here is the real purpose of this post: To make the Tipitaka even more accessible to our modern times, have a look at the website below which allows you to download a good portion of the Tipitaka in modern epub file format for your sony reader, kindle, iPad, iPhone or other electronic readers.

Reading, memorizing, studying and taking notes can now be done on the journey – if you are willing to exchange weight against battery life 😉



[1] DN 16, Mahaparinibbana Sutta:  “Yo vo Ānanda mayā dhammo ca vinayo ca desito paññatto, so vo mam‘ accayena satthā.” (PTS D. II, 154) “That Dhamma and Vinaya, Ananda, which was taught and pointed out by me to you, that should be the master after my passing.”

[2] A golden standard would be if they at least had the chance to read a fairly managable book like Majjhima Nikaya which gives a very good general idea of what and how the Buddha taught. Even better would be the Samyutta Nikaya, as it has a broader scope, nicely organized and seems to incorporate more of the oldest text strata. A good translation of the Dhammapada would help too 😉

[3] Another look at the stepping stones from listening, over keeping in mind up to enlightenment here in this post: https://theravadin.wordpress.com/2008/08/30/where-is-the-buddhist-bible/

[4] An idea important enough that it cannot be overemphasized: “Sed in primis ad fontes ipsos properandum, id est graecos et antiquos. (Above all, one must hasten to the sources themselves, that is, to the Greeks and ancients.) [link]

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