Tag Archives: buddhism

Two types of “sweaters”

Which type of “sweater” are you?

No, I am not talking about round necks and V-necks. I am talking about when it comes to souls there are the religious-type and philosophical-type.

Religious-types sweat when they hear someone say there is no soul. In fact, there is no single word for this except soulless, but that do not mean without soul, but without passion. Actually, the only religion that explicit says there is no soul is Buddhism. But neither do they panic when they hear people talk about souls.

Philosophical-types also sweat when they hear this. They often equate soul or spirit with mind. But like the religious-type not all of them sweat. Only a certain type – the idealists and rationalists – who have trouble explaining the mind. Gilbert Rule called this a belief in the ghost in the machine. Particularly, if one claims to be a materialist, physicalist, or empiricist one gets looks of incredulity.

The struggle then has always been how one can explain a being works without a soul and/or mind. But why sweat when either way the being has continued to work, live and survive. In other words, don’t panic, take off that sweater, wear a T-shirt, and carry on. Life continues no matter what.

Does the Hinayana have Buddha Nature?

“Does a dog have Buddha Nature?” a monk asked.
“Mu (No),” replied Master Joshu.

This is usually given as a first koan to Zen practitoners. It is the first koan in the Wu Men Kuan (Japanese: Mumonkan), one of the most important collections of its kind. A koan is a short example of sayings by Zen masters which reveal something of the truth. They are used as an aid to bring about Enlightenment. Zen students, particularly of the Rinzai School of Zen, are given koans to help them attain Enlightenment.

In a teisho (Dharma Talk) by Yamada Roshi he states that the answer should be obvious: all things have Buddha Nature (Buddhata). But here Joshu denies this when asked by a monk. Why? Because the monk is fixated on the answer and not the truth, to use a Zen analogy, mistaking the reflection of the moon in the water for the moon itself. Joshu was trying to “wake” the monk up from his delusion. And in this way Zen is a truly profound.

But the history of Buddha Nature has bothered me for some time now.

The school closest to the historical Buddha, Theravada (also called Hinayana) does not teach Buddha Nature nor is it a concept not within its discourse. The Pali Canon, the oldest writings based on the Buddha’s teaching, does not include this concept. It is only in the later works, the Mahayana writings, that we begin to find this concept. In other words, there is a probability that the concept was a later formulation. I say probability because there is also the probability that the Pali Canon may have ignored this teaching for reasons unknown. We can never be sure of this as we have lost important sources of information about the formation of the sutras.

All Mahayana schools believe that Buddha Nature (Buddhata) is inherent in all beings. However, some schools extend this to cover all things unconditionally. So to summarize there are three three possible views on this:

  1. Buddha Nature does not exist.
  2. Buddha Nature is inherent in all beings but not things.
  3. Buddha Nature is inherent in all being and things.

Given that there is no agreement among Buddhists some doubt then must be entertained as to its authenticity. This questioning must not be done out of one-upmanship but out of the true spirit of enquiry as to what the true nature of the self is. This idea is something akin to Dogen’s simultaneous acceptance and denial of Buddha Nature. It is a paradox but a paradox worth pursuing in order to come closer to Enlightenment, the highest ideal of the Buddha’s teaching which all schools do agree upon.

So does a dog have Buddha Nature? Well, the answer depends entirely on whether you are a Hinayana Buddhist, Mahayana Buddhist or non-Buddhist. If you are a Hinayana Buddhist the answer is, “What is Buddha Nature?” If you are a Mahayana Buddhist the answers is “Yes and no, but only if you are unenlightened, and you have to think about it, or if you have to ask”. If you are non-Buddhist the answer is “Who is this Buddha guy?”

Do we need an Ecological Buddhism?

Coming back to blogging here I had to rethink what exactly am I trying to achieve here. Why do I want to write about ecology and Buddhism? Are they compatible or is this just one person’s argument?

Let me start by asking then ‘was Buddha an environmentalist’? An easy question with an easy answer. No, not in the conventional sense. In Buddha’s time and place conservation or environmentalism as a concept simply did not exist. It has been pointed out that he was one against the some of the dominant contemporary ideas of the time, especially within Hinduism. But there is much more to Buddha and his thought than that.

Would he have been an environmentalist if it had existed in his time? I think asking such questions really is irrelevant. He may have been but this is only idyll thought, a game that even Buddha would have rejected as a waste of time.

So then is ecology and Buddhism compatible, and should these two words be said in the same breath? Buddhism, as a lifestyle, has many similarities to ecological conservation or ecology, and is perhaps one of the gentlest lifestyles without going to extremes. It most certainly was influenced by the other popular then contemporary philosophy, Jainism, which tries to not affect the environment by wearing masks and carrying brooms so as not to harm other life.

Clearly Buddhism respects all life in a way similar to ecology, but that does not mean all Buddhists are ecologists. The question of whether there is such a thing as Ecological Buddhism (or Buddhist Ecology) is only a matter of names. It just so happens that I like both ecology and Buddhism, but I don’t think it is possible or even necessary to consciously combine the two, just as there is not a need to combine Buddhism and ethics to create a philosophy of Buddhist Ethics.

Buddha would probably not deal with these questions. More than likely he would have thought them unnecessary. So let’s stop here and get on with the important issues.

Mind your language – Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness

You are what you speak.

We have come to understand in our postmodern age very well that words can betray your ideology. For example, Hegelian view on history on as a series of thesis, antithesis and synthesis reveals a preference to the idea of progress as something unidirectional and upward, when it is that goes both ways and possibly more. The very word ‘progress’ shows this. Or the Structuralists’s liking for concrete descriptions and fixity. Roland Barthes try as he may to go beyond the the restrictions of talking about things in terms of codes only gets stuck in the terminology which lack freedom.

This understanding is nothing new, of course. We have stuggled with this problem, seen through it, and returned to blindness by forgetfulness by being swept up in the heat of the moment. Our attention had been distracted for one moment and we have lost sight of the task at hand.

The rigor with which Derrida took to task was a guiding example of how language refuses to stop to deceive us. And his passing is also an example how we revert back to the norm all because of the nature of language – that things do not last forever. It hides its very nature like an entity which cannot perceive itself from where it stands. We must simply speak outside of language.

And in the same way the Buddha showed us that we must be mindful of what we do and what we say at all times simply because we are prone to inattentativeness.

So why am I not happy about Bhutan’s King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuk’s philosophy of Gross National Happiness? If language was a guide to our internal beliefs then this term says a lot about where its ideas come from. Having studied in Oxford the King has an “understanding” of the Western culture and ideas. But the choice of the term necessarily betrays that he may not understand the power of language.

Right speech is one of the basic beliefs of the Buddha and Buddhism. And in choosing to continue to use the psuedo-economic terms, to dress it in the langauge of money, is to fall into the linguistic trap. The idea has the potential to become a wolf in sleep’s clothing.

And this months signing of a new and “updated” treaty between India and Bhutan has, in my opinion, taken the country “three steps back”. In it Bhutan now has more freedom to control its own foreign policies and, in particular, the freedom to purchase non-lethal military arms means the country is ever moving closer to the Western ideals of nationhood, and moving away from the Buddhist ideals of self-control and vigilance. That the Pandora’s box had been open by the introduction of television and the internet in the last decade has caused unprecedented changes within the nation, its people and its thinking.

Some have called this a bold experiment but really I think this is just the beginning of a mistake. When people start to talk differently, talk like they are businessmen, then you know there is a problem. Again, it is not easy to see where careless wording can lead. Democracy is not about freedom of choice, it is really about the ability to sell you something you do not need. Democracy has been tied to capitalism more than liberalism. Freedom is only an excuse for opening up potential markets. And if the King cannot see this how can the nation.

Perhaps some have seen this and are hoping to profit. But that is only because they – the West – are “poorer spiritually” or “morally bankrupt” to use economic metaphors. It should be clear by now that finance, money and economics dominates our (Western) culture and it is “on the march” (military metaphor) globally.

Enough said. I think I’ll end all this metaphoric mumbo jumbo here.

Spinsters and Hinayana Buddhism

Right now I am readng Paul Baker’s excellent book Using Corpora in Discourse Analysis. A corpus or corpora are linguists’ tool to uncover hidden agendas within language use. I was particularly interested in the chapter about collocation where Baker focused on the use in English of the words bachelor and spinster. But it wasn’t so much how these words are used but rather who uses these terms that caught my attention.

Spinster is almost always used by someone else who is usually not a “spinster” to refer to someone who is. An unmarried person would almost never use this term to refer to herself. The same could be said of bachelor but it has a more positive meaning. Depending on factors like age and social status being referred to as a bachelor does not necessarily have a negative connotation. But the term spinster invariably is negative.

So you may be wondering what does Hinayana Buddhism has to do with the term spinster? Bare with me for a moment. My introduction into Buddhism was through Zen. I actually became a lay monk. Zen has some very good aspects about it. But like most religions or sects it constructs itself to be the norm. It was years later before I would take a step back and look at Zen from the “outside”.

When one looks at Buddhist history one will definitely come across the terms Hinayana and Mahayana. Hinayana literally is the “lesser vehicle” and Mahayana is the “greater vehicle”. The type of Buddhism practiced in Japan comes under the umbrella term of Mahayana. Historically it is a kind of Buddhism developed later. As the term suggests it is “superior” to the Hinayana.

But this is really strange. Why would anyone – the Hinayana – want to make derogatory their own practice. This is fact is not the case. The Hinayana Buddhists never use the term to refer to themselves. They usually use the term Theravada. Theravada Buddhism is the only surviving Buddhism of the early form. They pride themselves in being the closest to the original teaching of the Buddha (and whether this is a necessarily a good thing or not is another debate). So like spinster it is a term used to refer to The Other. This of course has a lot to do with power play and legitimation of one’s own discourse. The term Mahayana really has no meaning other than in contrast to its binary – Hinayana.

I have had dialogues with Zen Buddhists who think these terms are not an issue. But I believe they are and they need to be looked at in order to understand what their own beliefs are because to not question one’s position is to be blinded by it. I would hate to think what would a spinster Hinayana Buddhist would think of all this?