A Revolution in the Ground - Plain speaking about Buddhism

A Revolution in the Ground - Plain speaking about Buddhism



The financial and ethical implosion of the Buddhist Sangha I had been part of for 25 years set me free like one of the periodic forest fires that sweeps through the Pacific Northwest that is actually part of Nature's cycle of clearing away the old and allowing new seeds to take hold and express themselves as a new generation of green.


Being put off in a lifeboat I drifted away from the sinking hulk disappearing over the horizon to be washed ashore on the great central continent of Buddhist intellectual freedom and liveliness that flourished between 100 CE and 500 CE, in other words the sweet centuries between the quickening of meditation within the Śrāvaka-yāna groups in the Gandara and Kashmir on the one side, and on the other - the fruition of the new vision born Māhayāna sūtras appearing here and there in widely scattered traditional Buddhist monasteries like wildflowers in a field of rain scented grass waving full of light on a spring day.


In this great daring season in which freethinkers experimented with augmenting traditional Buddhist paths as awakened by a new understanding of yogic meditation with the beliefs and practices of these new Māhayāna sūtras. It was an era in which the tradition of the hearers and the traditions of the new sūtras hadn't divided into mutually antagonistic camps and hardened into contrary dogmas.


I will go into this in some happy detail as it makes for a wonderful mind opening Journal of adventure but I have to begin by going back to the intellectual closet that I have been living in for 25 years.


In retrospect it is clear that living in a song go like that is like living in a dysfunctional family, one has a learned blindness to the level of insular dysfunction that passes for “being us” and “normal”.


I think all groups embracing traditional religions have this same struggle to some degree. Religions forged in the intellectual horizons of the classical era of Buddhism in India, the silk route, and China are a great deal like the religions forged in the medieval era of European Christianity in that it was an intellectual horizon in which 99% of the religions followers were illiterate and never ventured more than 20 miles from their village or farm, and the few people who were educated as part of the monastic system in both religions lived in a world where even they only had a rumor and almost mythological view of the outside world, the outside world beyond their own nation. I can only think of the way in which in the books of Enoch and the Hebrew Torah the people of Israel living in that little strip of land between Egypt and Babylonia referred to “the 10 nations”, in other words the tribes of non-Jews and close worldly powers like Rome and Parthia and Egypt as being the “outside world”.


A real confrontation with equality of other peoples all over the earth and therefore the comparable veracity of their diverse worldviews and religions did not challenge them to have a way of not sinking into their own local mythology as a given fact of reality. It is this equal human reality of the various forms of Buddhism all over the world that is the real challenge to individual lineages of Buddhist presentation, not the more worldly challenges of modernity. The worldly challenge of material life was of the same reality for the Buddha as it is for us, a way of life that seems natural and inevitable, but is actually imposed by our flawed human understanding on a history that is doomed to the pyramid scheme of human vanity.


The 1st Noble truth has not changed because of the discoveries of the laws of physical nature in the history of the universe.


It is the authority of the divinized guru and the sanctity of a mythological lineage that is challenged by the reports of academic research and the very reality of the diversity of forms of Buddhism equal in assertion and mutually exclusive in authority.


My original sympathy to Buddhist teachers and students who said “academics have no understanding of spiritual practice and therefore are not qualified to talk about religious matters or judge religious history” has all but evaporated. A combination of arrogance by teachers and their students about the presence of other forms of Buddhism and teachers in the world and a dismissive attitude towards any questioning of their own assertions and authority has acted as their own judge and jury in my eyes. Again I think that all traditional religions suffer this particular stress. They much prefer to deal with modern Western scholarship and modern science as being straw dogs to knock down, because it is easy to form a “us versus them” cartoon and mythological enemy of people with whom you can pretend you need no dialogue.


It is profoundly and existentially uncomfortable for one Buddhist teacher and lineage to have to dismiss the reality of another. Because they cannot long stand behind the phrase “we are all paths to the same goal” when the paths and goals and claims to lineage purity on the part of diverse Buddhist groups are competitive and mutually exclusive.


In a way it's almost like modernity and Western academic tradition help modern exponents of traditional religion diverts your attention towards easy targets and comfortable targets in the outside world and away from uncomfortable and entrenchment targets at home.


But Western academic tradition founded in Christian colleges hundreds of years ago have become secular and truly peer review oriented. The cloying “Orientalism” of the arrogant and Caucasian European paternalism in the late 1800s and early 1900s has all but vanished from authority.


Now I tell you a little story.


There are 2 farmers one in the north part of the valley and one in the south part of the Valley. Many generations ago there was a great battle between 2 great kingdoms. Both of these farmers are present generation representatives of their own family on that land going back to those days when the great battle was fought. Both families have for generations been at war with each other because both acclaimed that the battle was fought on their own homeland.


For many generations scientists have examined history books and dissected dialects of language and the records of surrounding kingdoms and have argued one way another for one of those 2 farms. And the farmers have always told asked their children, "who do you believe, the speculation of outsiders which can't be proved, or the personal reports of people who've lived on this land continually back to that time in history?” And what's more, the patriarch of each family or the matriarch, they would add “besides the scientists don't agree, and some other facts of improvement really wrong, and you can tell by the way they talked they have nothing but contempt for farmers like us.”


But over the generations things change. The scientists become more familiar and less bigoted with the material they are studying. New more impartial techniques are developed. And then…


One day scientists come in and do ariel X-ray and microwave and infrared surveys of the Valley. One farmer is proven correct because below the layer of surface soil the compact earth of old roads and the metal remnants of weapons and bones of dead soldiers or identified as being under one of the 2 farms.


It is demonstrated that the previous group of scientists got many of the details wrong, and were wrong about some of the major issues, but they actually had identified the correct farm.


Now both sets of matriarchs or patriarchs have to either start listening to the scientists and respecting each other or they have to say “the outside world is obviously poorly run and our farms have kept you alive for generations, don't listen to what they say, just stay on the farm and do what we have proven works for generations.”


Now the application of this story to every lineage of Buddhism is obvious.


I was a practitioner of a Vajra yāna form of Buddhism from Tibet and while mama while being very broad-minded as far as science or letting people have their own views, not insisting that people accept him without question, (a wise trait not shared by all of his students or his inheritors after he died), himself however would say that there are 2 ways of practice, learning all the details which takes years of Buddhist college, or learning the essence from a person like him and going like that. He would also discourage us from reading "Hinayāna" or "Lesser Vehicle" sūtras as that was a "lesser" form of religion and we were vulnerable to confusing it with the Māhayāna.


This division of personal instruction based on acceptance of a few assumptions with which you don't challenge but put directly into practice from a profound preparation in the progressive gradual practice of the path in stages is one that I think took root about the year 600 CE when the Māhayāna itself was divided or polarized by the dogmatic frame of rhetoric begun by the 2 teachers Bhava and Dharmapala. I will explain this presently. I really believe this was a wrong way to go because it put a stop to an openness that was inclusive of all of the forms of Buddhism of the era. And also in the same time you saw a general framing of the traditional Theravāda Buddhism and a creation of a “Māhayāna package” which mutually define themselves against each other and dogmatically defined themselves within their own self-image.


So I honestly think we have to go back 1600 years to a kind of golden age between the so-called "Śrāvaka" Yogacara  beginning about 150 CE and the Alokāmāla of Kambāla of about 500 CE. Inside that era was a kind of mindset possible we need today.


The simple truth is that whether you are a follower of one of the Tibetan forms of the Vajrayāna Māhayāna or the Māhayāna sects of the Chinese Ch'en or Japanese Zen, or the Japanese Lotus Sūtra school, or even one of the Theravāda schools that inherited the Śrāvaka traditional approach, much of the defense of the sanctity of lineage and the deification of guru is untenable and much like the Wizard of Oz screaming “pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!”


It is disingenuous and uncharitable to dismiss the spiritual sincerity or chance for enlightenment of someone who challenges received religion with facts.


And the fact is that no matter what proponents of mystical Buddhism assert, up through the 7th century all forms of Buddhism were expected to be defended in cognitively rational debate, debate in which students were won or lost by virtue of which teacher presented the best case in the form of public argument.


For 1000 years no Buddhist, no matter how mystical or yoga practice oriented, did not expect to be able to explain and defend their views and their practices in open debate and in commentaries on sūtras as well as intellectual written works in which the borders and boundaries in which dualistic cognitive language were understood and dealt with as best as they could, expecting no less than to go up to the boundaries of language and make their best stand.


At no time was anti-intellectualism seen as somehow the complement of transcendent wisdom. 


In fact people who went down that wrong road were the stimulus to the Scriptures and the proponents of the 3rd turning of the wheel of Dharma, the Yogacara.


But the flip side of this transcendence and anti-intellectualism that was one way of following the Emptiness School of the Second Turning of the Wheel of Dharma was another way of dealing with this transcendence - ENDLESS RATIONALIZATION - an ironic over-valuation of reasoning and theory building seemed to be a chief alternative way of dealing with things beyond discussion!


I think some Human Nature lay behind this other track.


It is unfortunate that when people try to talk about things that are transcendent they use language that can never be demonstrated or a scientific experiment or brought into the light of day. One's assertions about the transcendent are safely beyond the pale. 


Therefore one can elaborate arguments about the un-expressible to the limits of mathematical or algebraic logic which are exquisite in their fractal filigree, and utterly unprovable, having only their degree of development and specificity and detail to recommend them. In other words discussions of the transcendent are like astrology, increasing one's precision and detail doesn't necessarily increase one's accuracy of prediction.


It is this human tendency to be more comfortable in engaging in arguments that only have the laws of rhetorical compelling internal design to recommend them that made the dialectic transcendence of the 2nd turning of the wheel of Dharma involving the emptiness doctrine and the demonstration of the limits of assertion ultimately a victor in Buddhist history. 


On the one hand you have the Yogacara approach of the Third Turning of the Wheel of Dharma which is "to make what assertions you can" and then go into Buddhist meditation practice - and thus giving up the debate to the proponents of the emptiness school of the Second Turning of the Wheel of Dharma who are comfortable honing absolutist pronouncements,… 



…and on the other hand you have the temptations to abandon a practice path of effort and incremental growth - to a meditation path of radical dualistic confrontation, one that like a black hole, is without the whiskers of footsteps on a path. Such meditation opens up to vistas greeted by the poetry of numinosity and the comfortable life of a meditator who is never expected to show any progress in a transformation in character.


Between winning debates and having a meditation that never needs confirmation on the open hand, and the already dangerous Buddhist belief in reincarnation, which allows you to postpone getting any results that you can show for your practice to future lives on the other,…


...for 1600 years Buddhism has flowed into its own reservoirs of unchallengeable self-satisfaction.


Other than developing vast rhetorical literatures both practices that never needed to show any results beyond a pacification of character available to people who simply remove themselves from the stimulations of society, the main contribution of Buddhism to history has been the political games of Buddhist masters who align themselves to political leaders in the classic religious game of dogma and religious sect currying the favor of tyrants in exchange for the despotic privilege of being the official religion of a captive population.


Tibet and China and Japan as well as Central Asian nations have shown 1600 years of whoring in which Buddhist teachers accept gilded statues for their temples while they bless leaders whose secular soldiers can immediately do the killing for them.


The absence of Buddhist teachers from the protest of war or the exploitation of women as a class or working poor as a class is a tradition as old as blessing kings and praying for their victory in battle.


All of the fondness you feel for a religious teacher or the sanctity of your own lineage is not a virtue if it's purchased within intentional ignorance of the challenge of educating yourself about the history and the dynamics of your own religion.


The implosion of my Sangha was the best thing that ever happened to me spiritually.


As a result I delved deeply into Buddhist history to find a place I could begin my own path as a person living in my own world.


The World threw me overboard and I washed up on the far shore.



2,654 words by Leo Rivers, the Garage House, Cottage Grove, OR, Saturday, August 4, 2012 12:09:18 PM

 © Leo Rivers 2013