Years ago, I recall writing an article comparing the Buddha’s teachings on becoming (bhava) and Darwin’s teachings on evolution.
I wrote a paragraph or two comparing Darwin’s ‘random selection of species’ and the Buddha’s teachings on dependent arising.
A few weeks later, a science professor wrote an indignant e-mail informing me that I had no understanding of the context for ‘random selection of species.’ In other words, egg on my face – as we say in the UK. I had read Darwin’s Origin of Species (as best I could) and several commentaries on evolution. I had not done enough homework.
I read a recent online article in the US based Tricycle magazine titled. ‘A MORE ENLIGHTENED WAY OF BEING. The entrance of Buddhist ethics into the modern world. ‘
I have not written here the author’s name. The self is non-self. After reading the article, I thought I would make this appeal for proper research when there is reference to the Buddha’s teachings.
Written more than 2200 years ago, the 10,000 suttas (discourses) of the Buddha’s teachings cover a phenomenal number of important aspects of human existence. Known as the Dharma, the teachings/practices support those who lead a nomadic way of life and householders.
The Buddha encouraged people to live a nomadic way of life in part due to the tightness of control of the caste system. I will add here that I am constantly giving encouragement to people to live a few years at least of a nomadic, free spirited and minimalist way of life. Many people today hate the life of a wage slave and would love to set themselves free to wander alone, with partner or as a family. It needs a strong motivation.
The Buddha’s ex-wife, Yashodhara, and their son, Rahula, joined the wandering Sangha a and lived such a way of life. .
The suttas serve as a tremendous resource. We can draw upon them for inspiration and insight. We can apply what we see as beneficial, let go of what does not seem relevant and keep an open mind with some of the depths of experience and insights not easy to understand. Yes, some aspects of this 2600-year-old teachings at the time belong to that era
The teachings of the Buddha make a valid contribution to depths of realisations. He does not offer the only way.
Commentators on the Buddha’s teachings
Commentators, critics and scholars need to take the time to go through the suttas so they can appreciate the diversity of exploration found in the teachings.
I read a lot of articles about the Buddha and his teachings. Regularly, I end up shaking my head. Some commentators simply repeat what they have read or heard about the Buddha’s teachings without exploring the suttas. Their articles then read like a crude stereotype of a teaching – simplistic and then make poorly informed comments.
Dear Scholars and Commentators, Please, please do your homework. It might mean spending many weeks reading a few thousand discourses of the Buddha if you are engaged in such research. Communicate with Pali scholars. Ensure you have the big picture. Your articles will then have much more credibility.
The article: A MORE ENLIGHTENED WAY OF BEING
I have put a few extracts in italics from the article. I have then added a response.
- “Buddhist wisdom (prajna) is insight into impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, and the absence of self-nature. Aristotelian happiness is partly contingent on good fortune, whereas Buddhist well-being is largely construed as nonattachment to life’s vicissitudes.”
Again, the Buddha’s wisdom and Buddhist wisdom explores a diversity of areas of human interest. The three characteristics of existence, named as impermanence, unsatisfactoriness and non-self, appear very, very rarely in the suttas. To take very, very few examples: the Buddha and Buddhist wisdom give teachings on the Eightfold Path, body/speech/mind, ethics, a moderate lifestyle, mindfulness, inwardly and outwardly, benefits of practitioners spending time together and acts of compassion.
The Buddha explored hundreds of other themes around daily life for both householders and wanderers. Non-attachment is a poor translation of non-inflaming/non-clinging in a process of the links of dependent arising to dissolve life’s vicissitudes. Meditation practices of calmness (samatha) insight (vipassana), inner depths(jhana), right action (samma kamma), liberation through wisdom (panna vimutti) and wise counsel from others, contribute to our well-being.
- “Buddhism has remarkably little to say about fairness and justice.”
The Buddha questioned or criticised Kings, rulers, generals, Brahmins, priests, caste system and animal sacrifice. He pointed the way out of selfishness, corruption and projections for the welfare of everyone. He encouraged people to experience the teachings, share them and teach them.
- “The Buddha preached a gospel of personal virtue rather than one of collective political participation and social action.”
The Buddha worked to generate a revolution that supported householders and those who preferred a nomadic way of life. He did not offer a self-help programme. The understanding of his non-self teaching makes that clear. The Buddha detailed the responsibilities of people in society including parents, friends, employers, employees, the rich, the powerful, the religious and more. Gifts/generosity (dana), love (metta), right livelihood, compassion and respect for the environment supports all in society. Inquiry for the dissolution of violence, greed and fear benefits all. The Buddha addressed countless issues of the human condition, inner and outer, culminating in an enlightened life, liberation and wisdom.
- “The world was inevitably a realm of suffering, and our contemporary notion of civic progress, which takes as given that the world is something to be improved upon, is one the Buddha never would have recognized”.
The Buddha never described the world as suffering. He explained the causes and conditions for the arising of suffering. His teachings point directly to development of all people without exception – secular, religious and spiritual. Countless numbers of talks were given to householders. He spent months every year for 25 years living in the park in the capital city of Savatthi in north India giving teachings to people and responding to their questions.
- “The modern project of constructing a more socially oriented Buddhism requires our importing Western ideas of fairness, liberty, and justice. The idea of justice is now so deeply a part of our consciousness, East and West, that we’re hardly aware we’re importing something new into Buddhism.”
There are countless millions of thoughtful people in Asia (and the rest of the world) who will treat such condescending views as expressions of typical Western cultural conceit.
Millions might wonder about the reality of Western fairness, liberty and justice through centuries of Western wars, genocide, colonisation, invasions of Muslim nations and exploitation of people worldwide and their natural resources.
There is plenty to appreciate in the West. The wisdom of the West is important. This includes wise application of our technological/organisational skills. We also have plenty to offer for the welfare of humanity and environment. We also have a great deal to learn from people of other faiths, traditions, indigenous communities, practices and wisdom.
While making interesting points, the author’s response to karma and rebirth seems limited in scope and understanding of non-self. A 2016 UK poll, incidentally, showed that 34% of people in Britain believe in karma and 26% believe in reincarnation. There is a sense among increasing numbers of the population that our life is not so clear cut as a single life emergence in the waves of this vast, unfolding ocean.
Dear Buddhist commentators, scholars and critics: You have an important contribution to make. Please distinguish the Buddha’s teachings from some unhelpful views in the Buddhist tradition and some of the conclusions of other Buddhist commentators.
I wrote this blog out of concern for reductionism. The frequency of reductionism has an impact. Such kinds of reductionism can put thoughtful people off exploring the Dharma. A diversity of views is welcome.
If we don’t wake up, we will never clear out the swamp.
They are many kinds of flowers in the extraordinary garden of the Buddha. And a handful of weeds.
Enough written from the Buddha wallah.
May all beings go deep into inquiry/research
May all beings draw wisely from a diversity of resources
May all beings live with wisdom and compassion