Tuesday, September 3, 2013

HfM:Ch1 Looking at Buddhism

This is part of the Handbook for Mankind series, a review of Buddhadasa's book by the same name.  Read the full text of Chapter 1: Looking at Buddhism here.
See an index of my posts in this series here.

The first part of this post will be a summary of Buddhadasa's words in this chapter.  The second part of the post, the "My Take" section, will be my opinion and commentary on the chapter.

NOTE on Chapter 1: This chapter is mainly about looking at Buddhism in its present status from Buddhadasa's perspective.  If you are only interested in studying his core Buddhist principles, that teaching begins in the next chapter.  All principles referenced here will be repeated and explored more thoroughly in later chapters.

Summary - Chapter 1: Looking at Buddhism

Scholars have identified that religions originated out of fear; paying reverence to perceived forces that could harm you.  Eventually understanding grew such that fear of nature or deities seemed unreasonable.  Through the growth of knowledge, our great fear turned to that of dukkha.

Dukkha, translated usually as "suffering", and less often as "unsatisfactoriness", is pain, sickness, greed, hate, anxiety, frustration, anger, loss, discontent, sorrow, loneliness, dissatisfaction, delusion, etc.  It is anything you do not want to experience, but it also extends to positive feelings as well, given that they fail to yield lasting satisfaction.  So it is far more broad than just "suffering".  Instead, it is a status which results from the imperfection in everything.

Furthermore, we learned that dukkha results from our own mental imperfections, so we feared them.

Long ago in India, some wise people dispensed with the customary idolatry and rituals in search of what would eliminate dukkha.  Buddhism was born from that search, and was the fruit of seeing life the way it really is.  A Buddha is someone who knows the truth of life, and Buddhism is based on that knowledge.

Ironically, the first Buddha rejected the types of religious traditions, rites, and rituals which are now commonplace in Buddhism.  Real Buddhism has nothing to do with rites, rituals, or celestial powers.

Instead, real Buddhism involves identifying the true nature of reality for yourself through a growth of knowledge and understanding.

Buddhism, like all religions, is multifaceted thing, and can be looked at the wrong way.

We are each confident in our own opinions, and so naturally our "truths" are subjective.  Each person's ability to penetrate to the real truth is limited by intelligence, knowledge, and understanding.  Buddhism provides a process for continually expanding your intelligence, knowledge, and understanding until arriving at the ultimate truth, and thereby being liberated.

Any religious text is bound to be tainted by the additions of later authors, and the Tipitaka (the oldest extant Buddhist text) is no exception.  Similarly, customs, rites, and rituals have been incorporated into the teachings.  While these additions are widely accepted in Buddhism today as true Buddhism, in fact, they are often, if not usually, inconsistent with the Buddha's original teachings, and thereby obscure Buddhism's purpose and while inviting hypocrisy.

We must distinguish between the original Buddhism, which focused on purification of the mind and the building of right understanding, versus the divergent teachings and practices which have emerged and spread since after the time of the Buddha.

Even looking at the real Buddhism, there are several incomplete or otherwise partial ways of looking at it, such as a guide of morality, an intellectual realization of the ultimate truth, a psychological tool, a philosophy, or a culture.

However, a better way of looking at Buddhism is as a religion which provides a direct and practical methodology for understanding the true nature of things and for gaining complete independence from them.  This is the essence of Buddhism.

Perhaps the best way of looking at Buddhism is as the art of living in such an exemplary manner that it not only produces admiration, but also automatically encourages emulation.  It is the art of developing moral purity, concentration, and wisdom to such a degree that dukkha is completely replaced by an imperturbable bliss.

The truths and teachings of Buddhism enchant and encourage those who have a taste for them, even before full understanding is obtained.  That search for the relief from dukkha and the attainment of bliss will drive such people until they are completely liberated from the controlling influence of worldly desires.  For such people, stress, anxiousness, worry, sleepless nights, endless pursuits for money and things, and self-serving ambitions all diminish in proportion to their understanding of true reality.

In summary, Buddhism can be viewed from many different perspectives, but real Buddhism is not in books, repetition of sacred texts, rites, rituals, etc.  Instead, real Buddhism is the practice of developing the understanding of body, speech, and thought to such a degree that the true nature of everything is clearly revealed and fully comprehended.  When this level of wisdom is achieved, appropriate actions are readily perceived and effortlessly selected such that dukkha is never again experienced.

My Take

Buddhadasa sounded like a Buddhist equivalent of so many fundamentalist Christians I've heard.  Yet while Christian fundamentalists often have repugnant views, those views are usually founded in the text.  So I still give Christian fundamentalists a little credit for not sugar-coating an offensive message.  Likewise, I was then expecting that Buddhadasa would have a good handle on the texts and would recount them with unflinching honesty.

Although Buddhadasa preferred the term religion, it appeared that his approach would be stripped of myths, rites, and other superfluous bells and whistles so common in religions.  In fact, the way he described Buddhism, it sounded fairly reasonable.

I'll get into thoughts on the principles of Buddhism in the subsequent corresponding chapters, but I will say that I was happy to get this interpretation of the word dukkha because, in our discussions, Wasam had used "suffering", which is an incomplete rendering.  Something was definitely lost in the translation.  Accordingly, I will use dukkha throughout the rest of the posts so that the meaning is better understood.


  1. Got to fly this morning -- but first question:

    You said, "Although Buddhadasa preferred the term religion, it appeared that his approach would be stripped of myths, rites, and other superfluous bells and whistles so common in religions.  In fact, the way he described Buddhism, it sounded fairly reasonable."

    (1) "would be" ?? --> is? will be?

    (2) "he way he described Buddhism, it sounded fairly reasonable."
    ?"fairly reasonable" meaning:
    (a) Buddhism-on-the-ground IS stripped of those things. or SHOULD BE?
    (b) Buddhadasa's Buddhism is stripped of those?

    I can anticipate trouble in this series if the various kinds of Buddhism are not differentiated - for example:

    Buddhism(B): Buddhadasa's Buddhism
    Buddhism(F): Folk Buddhism around Asia
    Buddhism(W): Westernized Buddhism
    Buddhism(P): Buddhism in Buddhist Pali Scriptures.

    Not to mention differentiation all the various sects with contrary beliefs.
    All to say, subscripts may be useful.

    Good Morning !

  2. Morning to you, in the middle of the night, Sabio.

    "(1) "would be" ?? --> is? will be?"

    Yeah, "would be", as in, that was my impression after reading that chapter, but did know know for certain how accurate that was. I now know that there are some religion-flavored eccentricities. In fact, I knew it before writing this post, but my intent was to write a read-it-along-with-me style opinion. Trying to entice the reader... ;-)

    "(2) "he way he described Buddhism, it sounded fairly reasonable."
    ?"fairly reasonable" meaning:
    (a) Buddhism-on-the-ground IS stripped of those things. or SHOULD BE?
    (b) Buddhadasa's Buddhism is stripped of those?

    (2) Actually, it's "fairly reasonable" as in "for an atheist reading about a religion, this seems like it is going to be fairly logical, as opposed to trying to believe in talking snakes and donkeys, purposefully created arch enemies who try to screw up god's plans, etc."
    (a) The Buddhism-on-the-ground is multifaceted, and is not stripped of those things, though different sects certainly have different degrees of them. Whether it should be stripped of those things is up for debate, but Buddhadasa clearly believed so based on his studies of the scriptures.
    (b) Yes, Buddhadasa's version is stripped of those things... mostly. We'll get to that part soon enough.

    You are a big fan of religious taxonomy, huh? ;-) It's not going to be as big of an issue as you think it will be. The bulk of the rest of the book, other versions of Buddhism are just mentioned in passing, if at all, and usually just to illustrate how far that version strays from the original message, and is primarily the Folk stuff. There's no mention of Western Buddhism at all in the book, nor even much that would give you the impression that Buddhadasa was somehow involved in Western Buddhism, with the exception of the fact that he doesn't maintain that you need to be a monk in order to achieve enlightenment. That's the biggest break from traditional Buddhism that I am aware of, and yet it need not be a break from true Buddhism, as the Buddha himself was certainly not a Buddhist monk prior to becoming enlightened.

  3. (1) ah, you mean "seems to be"

    (2) Tell me when you are really for some hilarious Buddhist myths. The Buddha, for instance was born from his mother's armpit.

    Buddhadasa, like many Christians, just cherry pics scriptures and feeds your white protestants exactly what you want to hear. Exaggerated a bit for dramatic effect, but essentially the point to watch out here. You are cutting him slack in analysis that you'd never cut Christians.

    Your last paragraph confused me a bit -- not sure I understood your point.

    Again, I recommend:

    Remember, Buddhadasa was a big reformer -- he wanted Buddhism to be something different than what it was. This is crucial for you to understand.

    Here is Chapman:

    Later in the 1900s, several other meditation methods were invented within Asian Theravada.

    One of these, due to Buddhadasa Bhikkhu (1906-1993), has had some influence in the West. He developed his meditation method based on the Anapanasati Sutta (rejecting the Satipatthana Suttas as vague and muddled) and extensive personal experimentation.

    Buddhadasa was a classic Protestant Buddhist modernizer, emphasizing rationality, universalism, scriptural authority, and meditation, eliminating ritual and supernatural beliefs. He actually dissociated himself from Buddhism altogether, preaching “No Religion”: the idea that the mystical core of all religions is the same, and found in meditation. This idea is common in Consensus Buddhism now.

    See: http://meaningness.wordpress.com/2011/07/07/theravada-reinvents-meditation/

  4. Sabio

    (1) "ah, you mean "seems to be""

    Indeed. That's why I used the word "appeared". ;-)

    (2) You likely know that the Buddhist scriptures are not quite like the Gospels. They were developed over a longer timeline, and likely had many additional authors beyond mere tweaks here and there. Buddhadasa's "cherry picking" is roughly the equivalent of the search for the Gospel tidbits that actually represent the historic Jesus. That's a completely different kind of cherry picking in my book. ;-)

    "Your last paragraph confused me a bit -- not sure I understood your point."

    My point was that the subscripts won't be valuable going forward.

  5. Yes, cherry-picking will differ from person to person. John's differed from Matthew's differed from Luke. And the different Buddhist sect manipulators will differ from each other. You should see the difference in the techniques of Tibetan vs Theravadan vs Zen techniques -- wide variance with hugely different outcomes -- all claiming the Buddha as the source. And some modernists, seeing the changes in scriptures and manipulations (as in Christianity) even go extreme (like some Westerners) wondering if there ever really was a Buddha. Though in neither tradition I go that far -- the reason for their doubts are important.

    I look forward to your next post.

  6. I would hardly throw any of the Gospel writers into the same category. That is quite the stretch, there. This is closer to Martin Luther sparking off Protestantism by rejecting the Catholic church's non-Biblical rites, ritual, dogma, etc. That's not to imply that Buddhadasa is that revolutionary, but his teachings are more in line with that kind of reformist thinking; getting back to the Pali scriptural foundation.

    Cheers! See you then.

  7. Hmmm, arguing about the sameness of "cherry picking" is the least of my concerns. I was just noting that the story is changed depending on the picker and radically different Buddhisms result from it. That is all. I think you misunderstand "Pali Scriptural Foundation" but that is a conversation for the distant future, perhaps -- maybe just a misunderstanding.

  8. Sabio, just relax a little bit. ;-) I using conversational language here. This is much more of a conversational blog than my other one. We don't normally qualify everything in conversations, and I am not going to bother trying to qualify every single statement so that you know that I know the truth about Pali scripture. (In that regard, the Pali scriptures are like the Torah in construction.) I am aware of it, though I don't know it on a scholarly level.

    I'm not under any misconception that Buddhist scholars are going to be coming to this site to check out the great truth I have revealed. ;-) This is geared for lay people, like myself. Yet I feel confident enough in saying what I have said about this book because, essentially, Wikipedia, and even what I've seen on Chapman's blog, does not contradict it. These will be "core teachings" as much as there can be anything recognized as a core.

    On the other hand, if you'd like to counter these posts with an assortment of the many splendid myths, legends, and techniques of Buddhism on your blog, I think that would be great! I'd love to see it! :-)

  9. Hi TWF,

    I think you can sum up the core of Buddhism like this: The cure kills the patient = Nirvana

    Who ever or what ever the "I am" is, "Dukkha" is part of it, you wonna cure the Dukkha, you got to rid of the "I am".

    The real problem, the one who want's to get rid of the "I am" is the "I am".

    In the end there is noone there to complain = Nirvana, problem solved, or so the story goes.
    The original etymology of Nirvana meant "extinction, disappearance" of the individual soul into the universal, what ever the universal is.

    There is no way to attain "Nirvana", or it's equivalent "nirvikalpa samadhi" without psychologically dying, while bodily still alive.


  10. Hello to you, agema-makedonin. You're jumping ahead in the story!!! :-)

    I doubt I have a perfect understanding of Buddhism, but I am not quite sure I agree with you. Yet I think I can completely understand where you are coming from here. As Buddhadasa described it, psychologically dead wouldn't quite apply, but there definitely is a death of "self". This is a fairly nuanced difference, which I think will be a little better explained as the book progresses.

    On the other hand, I think I agree with your sentiment. After reading the book, I talked with Wasam and said something to the effect of, "Yes, I can see how Buddhism can eliminate dukkha, without a doubt. However, it seems to me to be an extreme path, like amputating your foot so that you no longer have to worry about stubbing your toe."

    Yet we also discussed how certain Buddhist principles/outlooks could make life, particularly the rough spots, a bit easier to handle; a keep-the-highs-high-but-lessen-the-lows kind of approach. :-)

  11. Hi TWF,

    I thought it is clear that I didn't meant an comatose state when I said "psychologically dying, while bodily alive". To die psychologically to a habit would mean dying psychologically to everything involved in causing and maintaining this habit, i.e. dying = ending.

    But we can discuss this when the time comes, did not wanted to interfere in your story telling.

    By the way, I disagree with Buddhadasa that religion basically arose as response to fear. It certainly has it's aspect in there, yet this was not the primary concern early religion.

    But I don't know if this is to be discussed here either!

    Kind regards

  12. Scholars have debated where religion came from and there are many conflicting theories.
    One of the huge causes of the confusion is that there is not agreed upon definition of the word "religion" and in fact, it is a rather recent and highly artificial concept.
    The other challenge is that most lay folks feel they know perfectly well what religion is.
    Lastly, to describe religion accurately, you need a large data set and can't ignore outliers or you'd better come up with new terms.
    Just my two cents.

  13. agema-makedonin, I'm sorry, but I had previously misunderstood you. However, I didn't think that you meant a comatose state. Yet, it seems to me now that we may actually be fairly close to the same understanding here. I guess time will tell as we progress. :-)

    The fear theory is a common one, though certainly not the only one, explaining the birth of religion. What do you think was the primary concern of early religion?

    Sabio, for such abstract concepts, I wonder if it is even worthy attempting to come up with an all-inclusive definition. The larger the variation you include, the less valuable the term becomes as far as communicating meaning.

    You said: "Lastly, to describe religion accurately, you need a large data set and can't ignore outliers or you'd better come up with new terms."

    I wonder if this is really true. If there are outliers that don't match your definition, perhaps they just don't match your definition. If I define a religion as having A, B, and C qualities, but this other cultural phenomenon only has C, then perhaps that phenomenon isn't a religion.

  14. @ TWF
    I should perhaps write about this on my own blog (as you advised before), so I will be brief.

    If we are trying to discover what religion is or how it started, then we are sort of pretending that we did not make up the definition. You are right, if we make up a definition for some purpose, as long as we acknowledge that, there will be no problems.

    However, that is not the case with religion -- people think it exists. That is another blog.

    Concerning outliers: My discovering the limits of taxonomy of life by structure, we can now better understand the possible beginnings of life. If we had ignored the outliers and stuck only with our original terms, cladistic taxonomy would have been ignored and it is that taxonomy that gets us to where we want to go on origin questions.

    So, calling something a "mammal" is meaningful if you are using created term for some focus purpose, just as long as you let the platypuses know it ain't personal.

    In engineering, "noise" (and other outlying info) is often ignored until someone improves the old inaccurate theories and better machines were made. Complexity theory helped turbulence control, for example. (your arena, so go at it).

    But I must say, what I have just written is not meant to be controversial in the least, except to common-sense dialogue. Aggy was talking about "the primary concern [of] early religion." And you said, "the birth of religion". So now we should consider anthropology and evolutionary psychology and such. These demand non-common-sense careful scientific thinking. Well, that is my tendency, anyway.

  15. Hi TWF,

    I think that the primary concern of early religion was coping with the emotional and actual problems caused by deceased relatives, and human fellow beings in general.

    This has given rise of funeral rites and ancestral cults. The rest of religion builds up on the decoupled cognitive system of the human brain that allows people to produce various mental representation consisting of properties that are not even necessarily coherent or non-contradicting.
    Entertainment, as well as religion build upon this cognitive structure of human brain.

    To consider this is to go into cognitive science, anthropology and evolutionary psychology, in which I don't consider my self competent at all, but I think I am getting a good over all view ;)

    Kind regards

  16. @ Sabio
    I think we've meandered away from the real issue a bit. ;-) Let me try to refocus the conversation. The opening premise was:

    "Scholars have identified that religions originated out of fear; paying reverence to perceived forces that could harm you."

    There is an implicit relationship here with the word "originated", pointing to the advent of beliefs and behaviors which we would classify as religious, not religion. This is what I believe agema-makedonin and myself have been discussing, because I would argue that religions (formalized) came well after the appearance of religious beliefs and behaviors, and yet the beliefs and behaviors were necessary for the religions to develop. He said "early" religion, and I used "birth" to clarify that we are speaking of the genesis level of religion.

    Naturally, we have to define what religious beliefs and behaviors are if we're having a strict argument here. Furthermore, we then have to assume that these are the religious beliefs and behaviors which, singly or in some portion collectively at each particular nucleation point, spurred on the invention of a formalized religion (which, of course, would need its own definition).

    Given that the earliest beliefs and behaviors were not recorded, we will forever have an incomplete dataset. In turn, we have no clue what all of the outliers are, nor even do we understand if the "mainstream" religious beliefs and behaviors we know today were only outliers from some other mainstream set of religious beliefs and behaviors of eons past.

    What we do have is the knowledge that our brains very likely function much like our ancestors brains did, even if our cultures were different. This allows us to make reasonable inferences about religious origins from both the "hard" and the "soft" evidence that does remain, such as the paleolithic burials and our agent recognition perception respectively.

    Outliers have far less significance in this type of evaluation than they would in evolutionary biology, because the same meta-types of religious beliefs and behaviors have developed independently and globally, such as burial rites. This suggests something at the core of human experience, not some kind of exception.

    I was (and will eventually continue) doing a review series on a book called "The History of the Devil" in which Paul Carus advanced the fear origin theory, and I took some issue with it as well. (See that post here, if you'd like.) Honestly though, I am still trying to come to a conclusion on this issue. Thanks for providing your thoughts on it. I suppose it requires some deeper study. ;-)