May 01, 2014

The Biggest Misconception about Buddhism

Contrary to popular belief, most Buddhists throughout history have not meditated.Robert E. Buswell Jr. and Donald S. Lopez Jr.

This article is the first in the new Tricycle blog series 10 Misconceptions about Buddhism with scholars Robert E. Buswell Jr. and Donald S. Lopez Jr. 

For over two millennia, Buddhists have made singular contributions to meditative theory and practice. Buddhist literature abounds in discussions about the stages of meditation, the prerequisites to achieving those stages, and the ways in which meditation serves to develop liberating insight. However, the majority of Buddhists throughout history have not meditated. Traditionally a monastic practice, meditation was even then considered a specialty of only certain monks. Furthermore, it is only since the 20th century that meditation has been considered a practice appropriate to teach to laypeople.

Indian Vinaya literature—the collected regulations for monastics—says next to nothing about how meditation practice might have been institutionalized within the major monasteries. This pervasive silence suggests that meditation was not part of the daily routine of monks in large Indian monasteries; instead, these communities are portrayed as engaged primarily in recitation of texts. For the most part, meditation seems to have been left to solitary ascetics (prahanika) who, living in the forest for months on end, seated at the roots of trees that served as their only shelter from torrential rains, must have appeared rather frightening to the sophisticated monks of India’s large urban monasteries. The Vinaya describes these ascetic meditators in consistently pejorative terms—as unkempt, slovenly, and uncouth—and prescribes rules related to their personal hygiene, such as requiring them to wash their feet at least once every three days.

When meditation is discussed in the sutra literature, the audience is invariably monks (and sometimes nuns), and very rarely laypeople. The implication is that meditation practice required such intensity, energy, and application that it was not something that the Buddha considered appropriate to teach to the laity.

This presumption is poignantly illustrated in the deathbed tale of the Buddha’s chief financial supporter, the businessman Anathapindada. As Anathapindada lies dying, the Buddha’s chief disciple Shariputra and his attendant Ananda go to minister to the major donor one last time. To help Anathapindada endure the dying process, Shariputra instructs him in “sensory restraint” (indriyasamvara) so that he remains unattached to his severe pain and develops a state of mind that clings to nothing. At the end of Shariputra’s discourse, Anathapindada begins to weep. Ananda, concerned that this might be the end, asks him, “Are you sinking?” Anathapindada replies, “I am indeed sinking. But I’m more upset because, even though I’ve served the Buddha for many years, never once have I heard these teachings.” Shariputra remarks that such teachings are intended for the monks, not the laity, to which Anathapindada laments that there are laypeople “with little dust in their eyes” who would be able to make use of such instructions. This exchange demonstrates quite movingly that meditation practice was not something that laypeople were typically taught; instead, charity (dana) was the religious practice incumbent on the laity, whose normative religious goal was rebirth in one of the heavens, not liberation from samsara.

Even in Korean Buddhism, where Son (Zen) meditation has pride of place, monastic vocations are rigidly divided between practice monks (ip’ansung) and administrative monks (sap’ansung). The ip’ansung include monks engaged in full-time meditation practice in the meditation halls, as well as monks engaged in intensive textual study in Buddhist monastic seminaries. The sap’ansung include most everyone else, from the abbot (an administrative post in larger Korean monasteries distinct from the Son master, who is the spiritual head of the monastery), the prior, treasurer, and scribes (e.g., bookkeepers), to proctors, vergers of the various shrines around the monasteries, and bosses in the fields. The sap’ansung are presumed to be too busy with their monastic duties to engage in formal meditation practice and are not even permitted to enter the meditation-hall compound, let alone sit with the full-time meditators. Thus, even in Korean Zen monasteries that are devoted to intensive meditation practice, only a minority of monks are actually engaged in meditation practice. And many of the most popular contemporary traditions of Buddhism, such as Nichiren Shoshu and Jodo Shinshu, do not place meditation at the center of their practice. Indeed, according to some Buddhist schools, during the current “degenerate age” it is impossible to achieve enlightenment through meditation.

According to both historical evidence and modern-day testimony, Buddhist monks have followed many vocations, of which meditation is but one (and probably a less common one at that). And it was only in the 20th century that laypeople in Buddhist traditions from Burma to Japan became regular practitioners of meditation.

Visit the blog for a new installment of 10 Misconceptions every Thursday.

Robert E. Buswell Jr. holds the Irving and Jean Stone Endowed Chair in Humanities at the University of California, Los Angeles, where he is also Distinguished Professor of Buddhist Studies and founding director of the Center for Buddhist Studies. Donald S. Lopez Jr., a Tricycle contributing editor, is the Arthur E. Link Distinguished University Professor of Buddhist and Tibetan Studies at the University of Michigan. They are coauthors of the recently released Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism.

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mattbard's picture

....... yes, meditation was not of the the primary activities in early days of the sangha, at least in the warmer countries. Tibet , Land of the Snows, seems to have embraced meditation in a big way. Taking the mind as the path is a brilliant strategy. ...... and besides, for greater part of the year the place is gosh awlful cold and snowy, meditation is a sensible activity. Robert and Donald L. - fine scholars. thank you, matt

John Haspel's picture

This series would more accurately be titled “10 misunderstandings of later developed Buddhism.” I have great respect for the scholarly credentials of Mr. Buswell and Mr. Lopez and I have read much of their work. They both possess a vast knowledge of the many forms of modern Buddhism. Their developed view seems to be, though, that the later developed culturally and individually influenced practices of “Buddhism” should define “Buddhism.”

To conclude that meditation is not integral to developing awakening simply because those that claim to be following the teachings of the Buddha, and have dismissed meditation, or elevated meditation to an elite practice for only certain monks, is a complete misunderstanding of what the Buddha taught.

Anathapindika certainly practiced the Eightfold Path, including meditation. When he first encountered the Buddha, Anathapindika was taught by the Buddha the difficulties of the world (Dukkha) and then instructed on the Eightfold Path of awakening, including Shamatha-Vipassana meditation. Upon hearing the Buddha’s teaching, Anathapindika declared that all conditioned things that arise will cease. (He became a “stream-enterer.”)

The stories of Anathapindika’s life are consistent in describing a life of dhamma practice, including meditation. Anathapindika, whose great wealth allowed him to also practice great generosity, or Dana. What is lost often, and Buswell and Lopez seem to denigrate dana as the only vehicle that lay people can practice, is that the highest understanding of dana originates in understanding impermanence.

Anathapindika, because of the understanding he gained from the Eightfold Path, that everything, including his wealth is impermanent, was able to practice true dana, though not to gain “merit” but because he no longer was clinging to his wealth. He understood that there is no reason to cling to anything.

As far as Sariputra’s exchange with Anathapindika, this encounter has been entirely distorted to imply that Anathapindika was never taught meditation. When Sariputra saw that Anathapindika was near death he reviewed the Buddha’s Dhamma (not “sensory restraint”) with Anathapindika in succinct detail in a way that developed aspects of the Dhamma that even devoted lay practitioners may not develop, but not because of status, (lay v monk) but due to practicality. Anathapindika, with all his responsibilities, simply could not invest the time to learn and integrate the entire Dhamma in the course of his life.

Upon hearing Sariputra, Anathapindika did not react from a self-centered view as Buswell and Lopez claim. He was overcome due to his concern for others who would not be able to develop this level of understanding. He knew from his own experience that there were many with “just a speck of dust in their eye" and that if they could only engage with the Dhamma whole-heartedly, they too could awaken and unbind from misery.

As a Dhamma teacher what I encounter with my students is exactly Anathapindika’s difficulty with organizing a busy life for practice. Most of my students understand that meditation is an integral part of the Eightfold Path, but it is often extremely difficult to integrate as a daily practice. They understand that the sixth factor of the Eightfold Path, Right Effort, specifically teaches the importance of engaging whole-heartedly with the entire Eightfold Path, including meditation. This is what the Buddha taught.

As the original teachings were influenced by culture, and charismatic (or dramatically insane) individuals, these later influences distorted the original teachings, and many “misconceptions” regarding what constitutes “Buddhist” practice were fabricated.

Certainly monks living with the Buddha would have the opportunity to develop and refine their Dhamma practice more effectively than a lay person. The teachings on awakening were the same teachings though. The Buddha declared shortly before he died that: “I am not like teacher with a closed fist. I have held nothing back. I have taught the same Dhamma to monks and lay people.” (Mahaparanibbana Sutta)

Mr. Buswell and Mr. Lopez must be aware of all of these well-documented facts. Why would they ignore this if not to develop a certain view that meditation is an optional practice and not an integral factor of the Eightfold Path. It may be that their views are deluded simply by the many different “Buddhist” traditions and sheer numbers of “Buddhists” they have studied that insist meditation is an unnecessary relic of an outdated teaching. Where you place your attention will define your views.

Finally, their assertion that historical evidence supports their view that meditation is not integral to the teachings of the Buddha because many monks don’t meditate, is simply using a negative action to prove an negating view.

Individuals are all free to develop any teaching they choose. Freedom of choice is essential to the Buddha’s teachings, whether that choice is founded in ignorance or wisdom. Individuals can decide that they are practicing buddhism simply because of a label applied to a set of later developed concepts and/or rituals.

Meditation is one integral factor of the Eightfold Path. The Eightfold Path is the path that an awakened human being taught as the way for all human beings to awaken and develop lasting peace an happiness.

What this article points to is the most prevalent misconception of modern Buddhism is that much of what is called Buddhism today has little or no relationship to what the Buddha taught as a path to awakening.

John Haspel

Sanki's picture

Read this article and thought, 'so what?' So Buddhism is different in different places, cultures, etc. Buddhism itself is 'conditioned.' Anyone familiar with the history of Buddhism knows that it has taken myriad forms as it adapts and is influenced by the cultures it is part of. I'm still trying to figure out what the point is--the article seems to me to be an 'obviousity.' My practice is zazen and in sitting meditation is shikantaza, your practice is whatever you want it to be and that's fine by me. I certainly am not going to challenge your claim to be a buddhist because your practice is different than mine. If you say you are a buddhist and your practice is to regularly stand on your head in the middle of a crowded sidewalk, I won't argue with you. If that is what works for you, do it! But if you are are interested, I will be happy to share what I know of Zen with you--and who knows? Maybe you'll teach me to stand on my head!

Tinian's picture

Perhaps of little significance but one Pali version has: nāhaṃ bhante ānanda, oliyyāmi, napi saṃsīdāmi. "I am not sinking." Does the translation in the article rely on a different version?

drleroi's picture

It might be a matter of the proper medicine, or perhaps the proper antidote to our degenerate age. My own view is that a person living in a rural or natural environment will have a much less judgmental mind. Every minute of our day is filled with consumer judgements, do I like this car, this song on the radio, this billboard, this shirt? We have reached a new apotheosis of this will the ever present cell phone, with e mail etc. that most of us now have a marriage like relationship with. Perhaps a basic Shamata practice is the only crack in the wall of this. Many of us seem to realize that this can be a hell realm, a peculiar, intense and pervasive suffering, but have no clue how to turn it down.

JoseBuendia's picture

The authors of this article and much of the commentary adopts a narrow (and Westernized) view of meditation practice.

There are two ways to attain liberation. The first is to engage in meditation on absolute truth through formless meditation practices beginning with shamatha and progressing through vipashyana and then, through a process of "giving up" the project of ego-centric meditation, experience a glimpse of non-dual mind. The insight derived from this becomes inspiration for further practice focused on working with others (because a sense of appreciation of the the spacious and clear qualities of the world and the need of others for help inspires an external focus). The path of working with the world in the mahayana lineages includes cultivation of virtue through paramitta practices. So, this first approach begins with meditation on absolute truth and moves to a focus on relative truth. It is a very powerful approach -- but has a lot of risks associated with it. If approached with the wrong view -- for example, treating meditation as if it were taking an aspirin. Or if the focus is a dry, intellectual approach or a macho, ego oriented approach, there will never be the development of a soft, broken heart that is the vanguard of the development of true insight.

The second way to attain liberation is to focus on relative truth -- on the moving mind of thoughts and concepts. This is done through various practices that cultivate generosity, attack pride, develop relative compassion, and arose devotion. These are the practices that some commentators here view dismissively as "religious" practices. But always with these practices -- because we are Buddhists, there is a view based on absolute truth. So, for example, in utpattikrama practice, there is visualization of the central diety as empty and hollow. And at the end of the session, there is a moment of resting in the absolute nature of mind. This approach, slowly over time, makes the mind more receptive to seeing the nature of mind. This second approach is, perhaps slower, but generally more reliable than practices focused initially on ultimate truth. It is more reliable because virtue is cultivated and there is less danger of going off track in a narrowly intellectual or ego oriented way.

Both of these approaches can be used in either a monastic seeting or by lay practitioners. The authors' failure to appreciate that monastic and lay devotional mediation practices and other relative practices as a form of meditation is a serious shortcoming. It is a mistake that is too common in the West -- where we tend to approach Buddhism from a "secular" intellectual point of view.

mvcoogan's picture

I hear a parallel with a book I'm reading by Thomas Merton called Contemplative Prayer, in which he discusses this difference between Christian monks who practice "the prayer of the heart" vs. monks and the laity who tend to practice more active or liturgical forms of prayer, prayers of petition and words. He describes a difference between the open, receptive, silent prayer in which one listens for the word of God, (contemplative prayer in his Christian terms) and the more active or discursive prayer.
The parallel, to me, is the notion that there may be a way of life and of prayer for monastics, and another way for those outside the monastic tradition. Merton frequently mentions that contemplative prayer may be practiced by the laity, but it is so much more difficult and less practical for us.
He wrote this in 1968 or earlier, and since then the Christian contemplative prayer movement has grown dramatically both inside and out of the Christian monasteries, just as meditation has become so much more prevalent among lay practitioners in the west.
I believe that we are onto something!
I also cannot believe that the deathbed tale of Anathapindada would have ever been retold, much less persisted through the centuries, if not to illustrate for us the value of that meditative teaching and practice for the laity (as opposed to teaching us that it is in fact NOT for us.)
Peace -^-

buddhajazz's picture

For me, meditation was introduced without a reference to Buddhism. Twenty some odd years back, I took Americanized yoga, relaxation techniques and meditation as a form of exercise and discipline. When we were very young, my mother taught us a practice of breathing in order to lull us to sleep. Not once within these teachings was Buddhism mentioned. It was only through my own studies that I discovered my personal philosophy had a link with Eastern philosophies. Interesting to me now as I reflect with responses here.

candor's picture

Although I greatly appreciate and attempt to practice many of the philosophical and psychological teachings attributed to the historical Buddha, I've never considered myself a Buddhist. One reason is that I categorically reject the religious aspects of Buddhism. I have, however, thoroughly enjoyed and benefitted from a practice combining calm abiding and mindfulness meditation almost daily for over 10 years now. The contrast of my practice with "traditional Buddhism" appears to be stark; and that, from my perspective, is a good thing.

janmuller2's picture

I'm not a Buddhist either, not having taken refuge. I practice, not just meditation. The precepts mean a lot to me. I have a teacher. So am I not a Buddhist?
Your statement is interesting because it raises a number of questions. What is your definition of a Buddhist? What are Buddhism's religious aspects and why do you reject them? Why is it important to reject them publicly?


candor's picture

PS: I reject the religious aspects because they don't meet my epistemological standards for belief. To go into what those standards are is beyond what I'd like to explain in a comments section. Basically though, if it doesn't appeal to common sense, common experience, or scientific consensus, I'm at least skeptical, if not asserting positive falsehood.

candor's picture

Hi Jan,

For me, a Buddhist is someone who, at a minimum, accepts the most common (among the various sects) philosophical and religious teachings of Buddhism. If one categorically rejects the religious teachings, then it seems to disqualify one from claiming to be a Buddhist. But perhaps one could call oneself a "philosophical Buddhist," especially if the philosophical and psychological aspects are one's primary or sole "philosophy-of-life."

Buddhism's religious aspects include, but are not necessarily limited to, belief in reincarnation, "merit" and/or karma going beyond causality as it's accepted by consensus in the modern scientific community, Buddhist cosmology (including the Buddha(s) in nirvana and the realms of rebirth in, say, Tibetan Buddhism), and certain ritual and/or devotional practices.

It's useful (if not important) to reject the religious aspects publicly in the context of this article because of the contrast between how Buddhism has traditionally been practiced much more as a religion (as is explained in the article) versus how many of us practice it, or certain philosophical and psychological aspects of it, in modern developed nations (where meditation is essential). More generally (i.e. outside the context of this article), it's useful to reject the religious aspects so 1) that those of us who do have a secular viewpoint realize we have likeminded colleagues in a community like Tricycle; and 2) the type of practice we engage in is welcoming to new people who may benefit from meditation in connection with certain teachings of the Buddha, but who might be reserved about getting into a "practice" associated with anything religious.


isafakir's picture

may I ask if there is no ego what is reincarnated, what gets the merit? The Dalai Lama in certain remarks I have read speaks of earl'er Dalai Lamas as separate individuals. the modern consensus in causality among scientists includes both indeterminacy and relativity. the unknowable, unpredictable is the core of the consensus of modern scientific causality. Statistical causality which necessitates subjective incorporation. There is no linear cause and effect. what gets labelled cause what gets labelled effect depends upon the experimental contingencies. I always understood karma to be a kind of cause and effect. the koan of the fox who was an abbot seems to indicate that karma is part of the reality of things, but as an intellectual question, who is the subject of karma. in what sense is the Dalai Lama reincarnated?

regardless of the answer, personally, without the "religion" of buddhism in some sense of the term, i don't quite see the point. if feeling better yourself is your only goal, if it is purely selfish, it would seem an impossibility, but if at least a part of it is others and their needs, than that is religion, or practice. no?

Dominic Gomez's picture

'what is reincarnated' Think Spring: individual leaves emerging from a tree that's been bare (dead?) all winter. In our case it's individual people.

janmuller2's picture

Thank you, Dan. It is always enlightening when we carefully define the concepts we use in a discussion. But maybe it's worthwhile to let go of strict dichotomies like secular or religious Buddhism.

I started off as a secular Buddhist (or sympathiser), one without "beliefs". But it was a spiritual intuition that brought me to Buddhist practice. My practice was meditation and informal mindfulness during the rest of the day, or that was what I tried to do, but the Zen I practice now includes ritual like bowing and reciting ancient texts. We regularly dedicate the merit of our practice to all sentient beings. Nobody talks about reincarnation. Is it a religion?

To me, the Buddhist teachings are about what we can do, not about what we have to believe. The question whether or not it is a religion may just be a distraction. Maybe the attraction of even the most secularised forms of meditation practice is, that they help us to get close to our lives as they are right now, right here, without rejecting or changing our reality. In this unconditional acceptance (accepting life as it is and being accepted as we are) we may find something one might call grace, or liberation, and a joy that was eluding us in our secular culture. To me, this celebration of our life and that of others, with all it's beauty and sorrow, is a function of religion. But when you do not like the word you can just as well call the dharma something else. This doesn't change it's value, I think.

Kind regards,

isafakir's picture

to me, theology, ideology, dogma are the frame, since thought needs a cultural frame. like a kind of cookbook. i don't know of any theology or dogma that cannot be reasonably translated into another frame except those which posit absolute selfishness and as a scientist it would seem that sheer brute selfishness has not had much success biologically. to put it another way, as a species we have evolved a biological need to care about and care for others as primal characteristic. Buddhism, sufism, orthodox christianity, hassidism, the sun dance of the Great Plains, !Kung healing, and so on all seem to have the same goal in common. "secular" Buddhism if its aims are the same is essentially religious. you cannot jump from one practice to another but essentially they seem to have the same aim.

Dzogchen's picture

There is often much confusion about what is or isn't Buddhism, what is religion, what is mediation etc.. 'Buddha,' simply means one who has awaken to their real nature. I call myself a Buddhist because I accept the Four Noble Truths of the existence, cause and cessation of suffering. It isn't about belief, as such but about awakening to this realisation.

Buddhism is not of course a religion in the commonly understood conception of the term, i.e a belief in a higher god or supreme being. But it is a religion in the original meaning, Religion being from the latin 'religio,' to bind to ones higher nature.
Enlightenment isn't a big deal, or a small deal, or any sort of deal. It is available to everyone right here and now.

candor's picture

Agreed, Jan, that there are gray areas such as dedicating the merit or tonglen. In those cases, it seems to depend on what the practitioner intends or believes her- or himself to be doing. For example, if I were to dedicate the merit or practice tonglen, I would see myself as engaging in a psychological exercise that can have no bearing on reality beyond my own psychological and/or moral benefit. My wishing that all beings be free from suffering will not make them so, no matter how much time I spend wishing it or how well or heartily I wish it; however, it might be greatly beneficial psychologically or morally to cultivate empathy in such a way (indeed, I believe it is beneficial psychologically and morally to do so!). This is in contrast to what a religious person might see him- or herself doing in dedicating the merit or practicing tonglen, which might be to change (future) reality beyond psychological and moral benefits accruing to the practitioner (such as helping to cause better rebirth in a future life).

So, I do see gray areas, as you point out, where my answer to "is it religion?" would be "it depends." But other practices, intentions, or beliefs seem to be clearly and dichotomously religious to me.


Dzogchen's picture

Because you do not understand its effects on a logical level Dan, does not mean that Tonglan has no effect. Yes, it is of great benefit to the one who is practicing it, for it is the most effective way of destroying our self-cherishing, the heart of all of our problems. Yet it is also of immense benefit to those we practice for, those who are suffering in any such way. There are many levels of consciousness and of energy manifestations, ad, the more we let go of our ideas of a solid 'I,' the more these areas that are usually seen, by the western mind as being of the paranormal, are developed. Read of the lives of some of the old masters, if you wish to understand this more. The more we put in, the more we get out. By transforming our psycho/physical being, we tap into some energies.

candor's picture

Hi Dzogchen,

I don’t deny that meditative adepts can achieve extraordinarily excellent mental health, and that tonglen is a practice well worth doing. I do deny any claims of paranormal or supernatural activity beyond the brain’s impressive ability to create hallucinations, dreams, and similar “realities.” Reading of the lives of the old masters hasn’t, and won’t, help me understand.

One of the typical characteristics of religion is stories and/or claims of experiences of activity, energy, or phenomena -- without the aid of mathematics, microscopes, particle accelerators, Hubble space telescopes, or other non-mysterious, down-to-earth tools – magically beyond, or transcending, what us ordinary folks experience in our own lives.

These stories and/or claims are generally (the main exception being ancient myths and Biblical stories) the exclusive product of the brains of the paranormal or supernatural elite, interpreted as something objective and outside or beyond the brain. They are exclusive in the sense that they involve nothing outside of their own mental experiences. It’s not like me claiming I have paranormal abilities and saying “watch me throw that chair across the room with my mental powers” and the chair goes flying across the room without my physically touching it for all ordinary mortals to see (with their mouths wide open after it occurs). It’s more like I have hallucinations or dreams and another “verifies” my hallucination by saying that he, too, had that hallucination or dream. Then, our friend tries to see if she can have such an experience, and voila! – after enough effort and guidance, she does! We may even start to develop a language to describe our experiences.

Even if skeptics like me agree to be trained to develop such first-person experiences, we’re probably going to interpret it differently. I might say, “Wow, what a trip!” But I won’t see it as any more than my brain doing what it might do under the influence of hallucinogens. I won’t see it as paranormal or supernatural. I’ll see it as the unique and subjective experience of the unique and objective whirl and buzz of a 100 billion neurons, simplistically analogous to still frames running through a projector creating a movie on a screen.

melcher's picture

Our scientific understanding of the mind and the brain are at this point do rudimentary that one can only look at assumptions as encompassed I the "100 billion neurons" example as being based on another form of myth. We can't even make an absolutely certain scientific claim that the mind is totally confined within the physical brain (such a claim would be purely theoretical). To insist that one's preferred set of assumptions is unvarnished "fact" is merely another form of religion, based on a currently accepted narrative or mythos. Scientific revolutions have consistently overthrown every such set of mythical narratives over the centuries, and indeed this is how science has progressed, even though in any given period a common fallacy confuses theory with incontrovertible fact. I see no particular reason to assume that this pattern will change. The true value of the scientific view, in my opinion, is not contained within the assumptions held at a given time, but in the method/practice that keeps us open to new data, however much it diverges from the currently accepted myth.

candor's picture

This appears to be a reply to my comment above, but I'm not sure how it connects with much of what I wrote (100 billion neurons being an exception). As can probably be inferred from what I wrote, I believe facts, or at least the interpretation of their meaning, are theory-laden. But theories are often on much stronger ground for belief than facts.

Epistemologically, I am in agreement with WVO Quine and his "web of belief." A given ancient worldview might be logically consistent with the facts, observations, and theories of those living in that time and place, but inconsistent with facts, observations, and theories of the here and now. Therefore, it would have been rational (i.e., logically consistent) to believe the ancient worldview in ancient times, even though it would be irrational or absurd to believe the ancient worldview today.

The vast majority, if not all, religious claims, when subject to the scientific method of inquiry, fail to pass beyond speculation (often beyond wild and far fetched speculation). At best, the most down-to-earth of them are at the epistemological level of pure theoretical physics, which is not yet science (not yet supported by observation or empirical data).

As for the activity of the brain (what you're calling the "mind"), I'm open to the remote possibility of spookiness (or anything other than neurons and neurotransmitters) playing a role in the phenomena of "mind," but until I see some evidence, I'll take the hypothesis as seriously as I take the hypothesis of invisible underground fairies pushing up flowers in the garden.

janmuller2's picture

I guess my point is, that those grey areas are the interesting areas. By exploring (practising) these we can learn something new. What we do is more important than what we think about it. In devotional practices for instance we cultivate the act of surrendering. Maybe it doesn't matter so much if we devote ourselves to shikantaza or to chanting the nembutsu. When we find ourselves doing the practice wholeheartedly without expecting a certain outcome, rational or magical, we may discover something important beyond our rationality. And how about chanting the first of the Bodhisattva vows: "Beings are numberless, I vow to save them". What happens when I chant a vow I cannot fulfil day after day?
Many people would call these practices spiritual or religious. But what we call them isn't important. There is a body of practice outside meditation practice we can (but do not have to) explore. Let's not constrain ourselves too much by ideas like "I want to practice, but I don't want it to be religious, irrational". For me it is helpful to practice meditation embedded in a tradition like Zen, in which meditation is only one of many practices, albeit an important one. This way, making my whole life my practice becomes a realistic goal, having the support I need to do this.

Thanks again for an interesting discussion. - Jan

candor's picture

PS: One simple, down-to-earth way I've been saving sentient beings is by being vegan for over 10 years now, with the full intention of enjoying the rest of my life as a vegan. If what we do is more important than what we say (as you mentioned earlier), then being vegan is probably more important than meditation on the four immeasurables, tonglen practice, or reciting vows to save sentient beings. In fact, being vegan and practicing the four immeasurables are highly complementary practices.

janmuller2's picture

Vegan: off-topic but a good idea! I'm thinking about it, but not doing it ... yet :)

candor's picture

Glad to hear you're thinking about it!

candor's picture

Practicing wholeheartedly and making our whole life our practice are worth striving for.

As for constraints, I don't see constraint in seeing practice as secular, philosophical, and psychological versus spiritual and religious. Regarding the gray areas, it's a matter of which orientation makes more sense, especially given one's general view of the world or web of belief. A spiritual or religious orientation wouldn't make sense to me given that I'm a metaphysical naturalist, even by childhood disposition (math and science were my favorite subjects in school, even though I was raised in a strict Catholic household).

As for "Beings are numberless, I vow to save them all," while it's a nice intention, I can't take it seriously given that I see myself as insignificant in a universe that is 14 billion years old, with billions of years to go until it's cold, dark and void; and larger than any of us can conceptually wrap our heads around; and on a planet that spawns hundreds of billions, if not trillions, of sentient beings annually and will continue to do so for probably at least millions of years after my permanent death any time now, but a few decades from now at most, after which I'll cease to exist forever, just like a gnat 10,000 years ago.

The above may provoke a bit of existential angst until one gets used to contemplating it, but once accepted, I've found it liberating. It's a good practice for losing the ego.

Finally, I'm a philosophical eclectic. I don't constrain myself to Buddhism, but incorporate valuable teachings from modern science, Daoism, Greek and Roman Stoicism, and Epicureanism in meditation and life. That said, I don't think eclecticism is for everyone. Many people, if not most, are probably better off sticking with one tradition instead of designing a unique personal philosophy and practice that draws on a variety of traditions.

Anyway, thank you too for this interesting discussion. It's been a pleasure. :-)


Richard Fidler's picture

Only a word to say how much I enjoyed reading the dialogue between you two. I keep wanting to say "Me, too!" when you express doubts about certain practices in Buddhism that imply wishing something were so makes it so.

I practice shikantaza because not doing it makes me feel that something is missing in my day. To some extent, it seems to stop me from taking myself so seriously. Jeez, I am only one person with a very narrow perspective on things: Do I really need to rile people up because my viewpoint doesn't agree with theirs? That is the sort of insight I get as I go through my day.

I do have a teacher because of something he said that was meaningful to me: "The chanting, the bowing, the sounds of the bell, the dharma talks, the clothing, the meditation cushions and all the rest--they are forms meant to preserve the tradition. If there were no such forms, then the practice of Buddhism would be no more than lifeless text stored in a dusty library. Forms keep the insights alive." That made sense to me--and I am willing to learn a chant or bow or do what simple things are necessary in order to keep a tradition alive. I wonder what the both of you feel about this?

janmuller2's picture

I enjoyed the dialogue too! It began with the question whether or not Buddhism, or a part of it, is a religion. For many people religion has something to do with (irrational) beliefs. That is, I think, Dan's view. For me, not having been raised as a Christian, religion (or spiritual tradition) has something to do with practice and community. And with faith, which isn't the same thing as belief. The point of the article was, that there are many ways to practice and that, historically, meditation hasn't been as important as it now is in Western (or "modern") Buddhism.
It is certainly true that we have to practice to preserve the tradition. Or is it the other way around? Preserving the tradition means practising the forms. Forms change and so do traditions. But why practice?
Meeting Zen was a coincidence for me, staying there wasn't. It began with a moment of insight, surrounded by and exposed to the impressive forces of nature. When suddenly my usual sense of isolation disappeared, as I felt myself dissolve in the world around me without ceasing to exist, I learned a few things about the nature of my existence in this world. It was a moment of integration, of grace. It didn't last very long, but the memory remained. Why hadn't I seen this before? I knew it had been there all along. And why had it appeared now?
I instantly recognized this perspective, this way of being as a religious one. "Now I understand what religion is about", I thought. It had nothing to do with an image of God or belief in supernatural forces.
Some years later, after reading a lot about Buddhism, I had the idea that meditation might be a good way to explore this dimension of my life. But I quickly discovered that starting a meditation practice is really difficult to do on your own. So I did a retreat, which happened to be a Zen retreat. The first sitting period made a deep impression on me, the powerful support of eighty silent people around me. This was what I needed: a community. During each sutra service we chanted a translation of the Sandokai, that mysterious Chinese poem. I didn't understand much of it, but I knew it spoke about the intuition that had brought me here. Since then, my practice has waxed and waned, but Zen has remained my spiritual home.
So why practice? Why do we bow to the Buddha on the altar as we enter the zendo? To preserve the tradition is a good reason. Because everyone else is doing it and it would feel awkward not to do it. We bow for a symbol of an aspect of our own being: Buddha-nature. We bow out of respect for our practice and the practice of others. Al these stories we tell can make it acceptable for rational people like us to bow. But in the end there doesn't have to be a reason or goal. When we bow, we bow. Sometimes there is no difference between us and our bow. We cannot do that, but it happens. Or we notice a distance between ourselves and our bowing and bow anyway. When we sit, we sit (shikantaza). When we walk, we walk. Or we notice a gap between us and our sitting, walking. What is it, that distracts us? And we go on sitting or walking. Or chanting the nembutsu, if Pure Land Buddhism is what you do. This is, in my understanding, practising wholeheartedly. By devoting ourselves to our practice we somehow give form to our notion of not being separate.
How can we take this attitude with us in our daily lives? For me, one way is living by vow. For instance the first of the ten grave precepts: nonkilling. Trying to practice it may mean for me adopting a vegan lifestyle in the future or at least a vegan diet. But what do I do with my five cats? I already eat less meat than them. Maybe I should kill my cats :-) Can I go to a doctor when I get ill? Modern medicine is founded on animal experiments. Can I be a medical doctor, helping people with knowledge and techniques founded on so much suffering? Living by vow is not taking on the identity of a good Buddhist, but practising our interconnection with all living beings, my own and their suffering included.

This post is getting way too long. It reads as if I have found all the answers, but most of the time I'm just groping in the dark. I hope I have answered your question. Keep on practising, no goal!

candor's picture

Hey Jan,

I’m conflicted about how much to write about the vegan portion of your comment because the gray areas in vegan ethics are something I’m more than familiar with (I doubt there is any topic in that area I have not studied and discussed with others in depth during the past ten years), and yet it’s off-topic here. So, I’m going to provide you and anyone who would like to discuss this off-topic issue my email address so you have the option of discussing this or any questions about being vegan at any length you want: candordan at gmail dot com.

Very briefly, like all areas of ethics (and precepts), there are gray areas, dilemmas, and compromises that need to be thought out and lived with, despite decisions that will be uncomfortable regardless of which side of a dilemma we choose. Ultimately, I think intention matters a lot, including the intention to progress toward less and less harm, even if gradually, and even if leveling off in progression at some reasonable point.

janmuller2's picture

Yes, the precepts are all about intention, that's what I think too. And about being clear about our motivations, the dilemmas and trade-offs of real-life situations, and then doing what seems to be the most helpful and the least harmful. I guess I will not kill my cats after all.
I've bought a nice book about becoming vegan. After reading it I may contact you by mail. Thanks for the opportunity.

candor's picture

My first step in becoming vegan was reading a book about becoming vegan called _Becoming Vegan_. It provided good information about vegan nutrition, and gave me a good, basic education about nutrition generally, which wasn't one of my strong areas of knowledge at the time. Reading it was indispensable.

I'd be happy to hear from you after you read the book!

candor's picture

Hi Richard,

Glad to hear from the likeminded! My experience is similar to yours. As for the forms meant to preserve the tradition, I understand how they evoke, or can evoke, an appropriate state of mind and serve as an aid to practice.

I also don’t see rituals and formalities as necessarily religious (even though I was unclear on this point above). We have a lot of rituals and formalities in secular governmental proceedings; for example, in board meetings, Congressional meetings, court hearings, and oaths of office. In many secular occupations, people wear certain clothes at certain times and follow certain protocols or rituals.

Richard Fidler's picture

There are secular rituals--like saying the Pledge. I always mumbled the "Under God" part, not wanting to fight a battle over a small issue. Probably some Buddhist chants also imply things I don't understand or agree with, but I don't mind doing them for the same reason. It's just not worth the hassle of standing apart from the others. I will discuss the chant with my teacher--and with others if discussion is asked for--and express my feelings. It would be dishonest not to do so.

candor's picture

The perceived benefit needs to exceed the perceived cost of resisting these issues for me as well.

Dominic Gomez's picture

during the current “degenerate age” it is impossible to achieve enlightenment through meditation: This is either overlooked or denied today.

conroy.r's picture

And how do you arrive at such a remarkable degree of certainty? Is this a sign of non-enlightenment, or just a symptom of our degenerate age?

Dominic Gomez's picture

It's analogous to medicine or technology. People and times have changed in 3,000 years. Practices then are ineffective today.

DarrellGKing's picture

I have not heard this before. How can it be impossible to see what is there? Am I too degenerate? :)

Dominic Gomez's picture

It's not impossible to see what's there: Buddhism is life itself. Degenerate are teachings that avoid this.

buddhasoup's picture

My thought after reading this article was to recall the Buddha's admonition to his monks, as stated in the Early Buddhist Texts of the Pali Canon (and Agamas) of "jhayati!" or, go, do jhana. The instruction to the Sangha was to find the root of a tree or an empty building and do jhana, which was one of the Buddha's primary teachings on meditation. So, the suggestion that meditation took a back seat to scholarship in the first Sangha seems quite incorrect, to me.

Meditation was not invented by the Buddha. Lay people in North India certainly saw many varieties of meditators from various sects, and the Buddha himself recalled as a young boy entering jhana while his father worked in a field. While the Suttas may not directly depict lay people doing meditation, it seems clear that the laity did have meditation available to them. While the teachings of the early Suttas and the Patimokkha of the Vinaya of the Canon were mostly directed at the monks and bhikkhunis of the Sangha (though the Buddha did instruct the laity, such as the Kalamas, various kings and chiefs, Brahmins, etc) , I see no reason to believe that meditation was exclusive to the monastic sangha.

Jimbosimbo's picture

Maybe this lack of meditation instruction is down to the fact that only the form can be taught, posture and breath counting etc. a page of instruction could cover this. On the other hand what you do with your mind is harder to teach. One could fill volumes or as in Zen say nothing.

jthiels's picture

This is certainly true, but then the question could be posed to Lopez and Buswell, so what? Is it simply recognizing that for living a human life that involves Buddhism, millions of people have been Buddhist without formal meditation practice--and living in societies with monastic sanghas? Is it that Buddhist societies are often misunderstood by "Westerners" as having been meditative paradises instead of rich, complex societies in which institutional Buddhism was highly regimented? Are the scholars disturbed by the forms of Buddhist transculturation found in historically non-Buddhist societies (here, us) as being some form of distortion or inauthentic (perhaps a hyper-Protestantism disguised?). While Lopez's fantastic discussion of Modern Buddhism comes to mind ("modern Buddhism" is a phenomenon in Asia as well with the birth of "Buddhism" as part of world religions discourse), it's a distortion to believe that what is happening here or there is -only- modern Buddhism (or Lopez's favorite bugabear "mindfulness" as a form of technoscience or panacea). What's the issue? Is it the zeal? Or is it a textualist's response to vipassana, zen and dzogchen success here, continuing the conversation going on across the sea? Are they sad that something (innocence?) was lost with the modern creation of "Buddhism" and the rise of modern Buddhisms here and abroad?

I'd like to ask Lopez and Buswell whether Anathapindada's lament (and inclusion in the sutta/sutra, to be passed down in teaching) could be read against the grain as a subaltern voice in the sutra, with recognition of laypeople's possibilities in tension with the established authority of the sangha--after all, our Lord Buddha was not a monk, starting out under the tree. No one is born into the sangha. I'd also like to ask them about their view of the creation of the Vimalakirti sutra, and of the teaching among laypeople of Huineng, the P'ang family, Ma-tsu, Wonhyo (617-686 CE), Bankei (1622-1693) and Ta-Hui (1089-1163), none of whom are 20th century teachers. I'm only familiar with some branches of soen/zen, but there must be others in other traditions (what about laypeople and Shingon before the 20th century?) Even if a minority grouping and not "widespread" until the 20th century, it's there earlier in the Asian traditions as well, even if "overrepresented" here in the Western world because of the success of the meditative schools. I would also like to ask Lopez and Buswell to look closely at the practices here and not just the textual success of the meditative schools. Of course, few religious studies scholars in their traditions care about religious practices on the ground among the heathens.... There is ritual (with candles! and incense! and burning arms!)--taking refuge, learning the eightfold path, precepts, mantra, dharani, vows (including great ones), chanting for relatives and friends in particular as well as for all beings, prostrations, there is tantra, support for monastics, sutra/sutta reading and study, etc. When my car slid on ice by a bridge on an interstate a couple of years ago, I found myself screaming out a name of Avalokiteshvara and was saved, able to drive down the off-ramp with no damage to me or other drivers. In other words, the religious imagination flourishes alongside "Buddhist" technoscience and well beyond the cushion alone. Maybe we could understand that more closely. And most importantly, practitioners are finding some direction in practicing that's not just for "me" and "my" own private enlightenment--finding out why we keep this bag of bones going. What's the problem?

It's clearly important for (some/many?) of us who practice to see the rich tapestry of Buddhist lives (and not just the 'success' stories) and Buddhism as a set of frameworks through which people have lived all kinds of human lives, just as we are now. We can also appreciate the varied textual traditions and paths within the traditions in Buddhism and the efforts of Buddhist scholars are important in helping us do so. Buddhist scholars, however, don't get to be the only authoritative guardians of the texts though--they can't replace the sanghas and teachers in particular traditions. Both Lopez and Buswell have done so much to enlarge our understanding of the fullness of the tradition (Buswell's book on Korean monasticism, of course and the work on Wonhyo's commentary on the Sutra of Complete Enlightenment) and the partiality of the history of our creating "Buddhism" and understanding Buddhist texts (Read Lopez's book on the Tibetan Book of the Dead). Maybe it's annoying to scholars who work to appreciate and understand Buddhism in majoritarian Buddhist societies and the rich texts, histories and textures and lives of Asian Buddhists that many practitioners come with what they see as limited or one-sided views, but they should also see that the movement of Buddhisms through the so-called West is a product of the same sociohistorical forces that have enabled their very discipline and perspectives to come into being.

Henry Shukman's picture

Thank you, jthiels.
Tricycle: could Buswell and Lopez be invited to respond to jthiels' post?

mattbard's picture

....very interesting, as meditation practice is so prevalent as a buddhist skill in the west. Wonder why the monastic and meditative ideal is so well liked in the west.? Robert and Donald rock!! good scholars and writers. - mb

DarrellGKing's picture

Our Western culture is complex and swirling with sensory stimuli, a maelstrom of complex structures of knowledge and thought When I begin to lose fascination and suspect a fundamental shortcoming, perhaps I look for something blatantly opposite to try out?