Bad Buddhism Summary

This Simpsons episode is a great example of a bad summary of Buddhism:

A few things to point out:

  • The “buddha” statue there is not the Buddha, nor do Buddhists worship the fat Buddha.
  • The Dalai Lama is the 14th incarnation of the Bodhisattva (not Buddha) Avalokiteshvara, or so Tibetan tradition teaches.
  • The term “suffering is caused by desire” is a misnomer.  More details here.
  • Carl is such a nice guy.  He would never go psycho on anybody.  Lenny on the other hand…

On the other hand, the writers did nail the “all things are empty of an inherent existence” part.

Family Guy made similar blunders:

  • The fat Buddha.  (sigh)
  • Buddhism teaches “rebirth” not “reincarnation” and yes, while it is possible to be reborn as an animal, there’s a lot more background to that.
  • The “don’t believe in demonstrating emotions” comment is weird and makes no sense.  Buddhism doesn’t teach people to be Vulcans.  Well, maybe a little.

Sigh…

Think For Yourself

Another great podcast by Karma Yeshe Rabgye:

Certain Buddhist schools seem particularly vulnerable to a kind of abuse by gurus or teachers who exert unnecessary control over their disciples, but this kind of unhealthy relationship can happen in any Buddhist temple or community.

There are examples of teachers who have abused their students, and it’s interesting to see how some students will still defend their teacher, even make excuses for the abuse, simply because the teachings they offer are so great.  I believe though this is what Karma Yeshe Rabgye means by leaning on a teacher, rather than learning from them.  You want the teaching so badly you’re willing to put up with all kinds of abuse, but as Karma Yeshe Rabgye says, this is just another form of attachment.

Anyhow, something to really think about.

Buddhist teachers in the West are so few and far between, and there’s not always enough oversight on them, leaving room for people to get taken in by charismastic teachers.  However, with the right mindset one can avoid some pitfalls, and thereby avoid a lot unnecessary grief.

Buddhism and Science: Reconciling The Two

From time to time I like reading about things from a long, long time ago.  Older the better. In high-school, I loved to read about ancient and mysterious civilizations such as the Sumerians or the Cretans and would imagine what life was like back then.  These days, I like to read about things much older: early geologic periods such as the Silurian and Cambrian periods of Earth’s history. These vast scales of time comprised of millions of years of Earth’s history, and have little resemblance to the world we know today, nor anything to do with human civilization.

Trilobite Heinrich Harder

Reading about these sorts of things is really fun because the earth was such an alien world compared to what we know now, and I like to imagine what it would be like to wade in the oceans of the time, see the simple, primitive life back then when life was so young and fresh.

It also puts me in a bit of a weird place with respect to Buddhism and religion in general.

After all, much of what we call religion is very human-centric.  All our deities are reflections of our own humanity (for better or worse), and religions generally address human concerns first: “what happens when I die?”, “what’s the purpose of life?”, etc.  What would a trilobite or cephalaspis care about such things?  Would an alien tree like Groot on a far-off planet care¹ about such things?

What about people themselves?  Are we truly good or evil, or is the sum-total of our culture and religion just a more sophisticated expression of our primate-driven instincts?  Is mindfulness meditation simply a way of taming ancient, imprinted patterns of behavior?

It’s not that I am atheist (I am not), and it’s not that I think religion has no value in the face of science, but I feel science is important in keeping religion grounded in reality.  The Dharma is nice because it has immediate, practical benefits in the world around us through mental training, the precepts, etc., plus it relies on observation and insight.  So, even in a modern science-driven world, I feel is still provides a solid foundation for one’s life, culture, etc.  It gives meaning and direction in a purely physical world, in my humble opinion.

However, at the same time, there is a lot within Buddhism that does feel kind of silly in the face of 4.5 billion years of geologic time.  How much of Buddhist culture, with its pure lands, bodhisattvas, holy sutras, cyclical appearance of buddhas, miracle stories and so on belong to the realm of symbolism or metaphor?  How much of it is simply a reflection of the mind-as-mirror?

These are questions I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, and to be honest, I don’t have an answer.  I do still find stories and characters in traditional Buddhism inspiring and fascinating, and I don’t subscribe to the “buddhism without beliefs” mentality.  Further, I strongly disagree with the materialist approach to meditation you see in places like Silicon valley.  However, at the same time, in light of science and the scale of natural history, the sorts of things that medieval Japanese Buddhist monks used to argue about, for example, seem kind of silly.²  Should we really even care anymore? Can we still learn anything from them?

Anyhow, just something I’ve been thinking about lately.

P.S. If Star Trek IV taught us anything, it taught us to avoid human-centric assumptions. 😉

¹ I am sure Groot’s answer would simply be “I am Groot”.

² Or maybe I just haven’t been paying attention.

For The Sake of Even One

One of my favorite Buddhist sutras to read is the Mahayana sutra called the Golden Light Sutra. It was very popular in early-medieval Asian culture, but is less well known now outside of maybe Tibetan Buddhism. In particular my favorite chapter is chapter four, where the Bodhisattva Ruchiraketu speaks a long, long litany expressing his desire to help all beings, expressing regret for his past misdeeds, and finally expressing praise of all the Buddhas. In particular, I was reading again recently when this passage jumped out at me:

“Until I am capable of freeing them all
From countless oceans of suffering,
For ten million eons I shall strive
For the sake of even one sentient being.”

A very simple, but beautiful exposition of the Bodhisattva path to assist all beings, to not abandon them. If you get a chance, definitely read the first four chapters of the Golden Light Sutra, or at least chapters 3 (very short) and 4. They are very inspirational.

Namu Amida Butsu

P.S. Not sure what a Bodhisattva is? Start here. 🙂

What Makes a Monk in Buddhism?

Since today is Bodhi Day, celebrating the Enlightenment of the Buddha, I wanted to share something I found from the Dhammapada:

264. Not by shaven head does a man who is indisciplined and untruthful become a monk. How can he who is full of desire and greed be a monk?

265. He who wholly subdues evil both small and great is called a monk, because he has overcome all evil.

This is important advice, even today, because there are Buddhist ‘teachers” who are popular but corrupt, drink in excess, sleep with students, and abuse money and authority. It’s ok to recognize that people are human, but the Buddha had a very high-standard for his students, and when you have authority, you should make sure you live by that standard.

For The True Buddhist Nerd: A Review of The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism

For The True Buddhist Nerd

Recently, thanks to a helpful conversation with a certain Buddhist Professor (thank you Professor “B”), I got in touch with the Princeton University Press department, who sent me a free copy of The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism. I was eager to get this book because I saw other reviews of it on blogs and on Twitter, and I was interested in the book because it provides a lot of missing information about Buddhism in languages and cultures you can’t find in other books.

For example, I have been struggling for a long time to find detailed information about Chinese Buddhist schools (Wikipedia entries are sometimes dubious) and for Vietnamese Buddhism in general. I was really happy to flip through this book and find a solid explanation of the Thiền (禪, Zen) tradition in Vietnamese Buddhism. For example, it turns out that there is no separate school of Chan/Zen Buddhism in Vietnam, unlike China, Korea and Japan, but the dictionary explains:

Much of the history is, however, a retrospective creation. The Thiền school is in reality a much more amorphous construct that it is in the rest of East Asia: in Vietnam, there is no obvious Chan monasticism, practices or rituals as there were in China, Korean, and Japan. Thiền is instead more of an aesthetic approach or a way of life than an identifiable school of thought or practice. (pg. 906)

Also, the book has valuable information on the San-lun (三論宗) school of Chinese Buddhism, and on Tian-tai (天台宗) which I was unable to find elsewhere. For the casual Buddhist, this sort of information isn’t really important, but for someone who writes a blog on Buddhist subjects, and spends a lot of time fixing Wikipedia articles, this information is critically important to clarifying vague and poorly understood aspects of Asian Buddhism.

The dictionary even has entries Burmese Buddhism. How many books can you find that even talk about Burmese Buddhism in particular?

The other thing I like about this book is that for the same entry, multiple languages are presented, such as below:

Jingxi Zhanran (J. Keikei Tannen; K. Hyŏnggye Tamyŏn 荊溪湛然) (711-782) Chinese monk who is the putative ninth patriarch of the Tiantai Zong….

While writing this blog, I’ve often struggled to provide the Korean term for something I know in Japanese Buddhism, so it’s great to be able to easily find it now. I’ve used this dictionary probably about 6 times since I received it last week, so I can definitely say it’s useful.

But the book is a big, heavy tome. It’s not something for people who are just curious about Buddhism. Instead, it’s an invaluable reference for Buddhist researchers and people who want to know more about Asian Buddhism in particular. Professors Buswell and Lopez put a lot of work this book and it definitely shows. Plus, the book is nicely printed with good binding, good quality paper and easy to read-formatting which is helpful for me and my worsening eyesight.

Thanks again to Professor “B” and to the folks at Princeton University Press!

The Problem of Power

Bokassa colored

(Jean-Bédel Bokassa, “President for Life” of the Central African Republic)

Recently on the UK’s newspaper, the Guardian, I found a fascinating article about a woman’s traumatic experience with the far-left Socialist Workers Party in the UK, and how the power-structure there contributed to the sexual abuse of women. It’s a pretty interesting article to read, but it made me think about power in general.

This paragraph really struck me as true:

The hierarchical party always has the potential to become a rapist’s playground. Consider the predator’s opportunities. The rank and file has to obey the party line without question. The leaders of political cults, like their religious counterparts, increase their power by fostering paranoia. Members can trust no one outside the party, especially the police and judiciary….The parallels with the Catholic church are too obvious for me to labour.

But it’s not just limited to Marxists and Catholics. It happens anywhere where too much power is concentrated in one person, or a small group of people, and there’s no independent oversight.

One of the reasons why I shy away from Tibetan Buddhism, or any Buddhist group that has a “charismatic” leader is this very reason. I am not comfortable with any Buddhist “masters” whom people venerate.1 Sure, the teacher or leader might be really good, but power draws lots of bad people, who want more power. I remember reading Rev. Brad Warner’s article about meeting the famous “Hugging Saint”, but the experience was a disappointment because her staff treated people very cold and rudely.

But also if the teacher or leader is not perfect, power will corrupt them sooner or later. This seems to happen a lot with Buddhist teachers who come to the West, and get involved in sex-scandals with their students over time. In other cases, teachers were severe alcoholics, or just had too much ego and wanted more and more attention.

The problem isn’t that such people are “evil”. Instead, such people have personality flaws or “blind spots” which they can’t see, but affect how they interact with others. Normally, such people are regulated by society, culture, etc, but if you give them power, those hidden personality flaws can cause much greater harm and will keep feeding on themselves.

So, with political and religious organization, you need some kind of oversight, some kind of balance of power to keep people’s personality flaws in check. If given enough power, any one of us is capable of becoming a dictator or a cult-leader under the right conditions.

P.S. Credit goes to Twitter user FenlandGreen for finding that article.

1 Kind of ironic, but I try to have a balanced view about it. 😛