August 19, 2011

This Week in Retreat: Questions on Buddha Nature and Ritual

This week in Rita Gross's ongoing Tricycle Retreat, Buddhist History for Buddhist Practioners, Rita discusses what parts of the Buddhist teachings were unique ideas of the Buddha, as opposed to ideas that already existed in spiritual traditions of his day. She explains that these unique innovations can be broken down into five categories: The Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path, the lack of a permanent separate self/soul, egolessness, dependent origination, and the purpose of meditation.

In response, one participant writes,

Rita, thank you for drawing forth the Buddha's main original teachings into a set of five. Would you explain how the teaching of anatta [Pali: The lack of a permanent, separate self] is consistent with the notion of what is sometimes translated as "Buddha nature" or knowing our "original Self"?

Rita responds,

This is a good question and one that is difficult to answer. These two sets of teachings can seem contradictory and many Buddhists have thought so. Not all schools of Buddhists accept teachings on Buddha nature because is seems to them to be a way of bringing the Atman, the real Self, in the back door.
For schools that do accept teachings on Buddha nature, two things are important. First is that Buddha nature has nothing to do with our personal identity, our "ego." Buddha nature is not individual in any way. it is not a personal possession and it is not different in different people. so that is the basis for talk about "one mind" which we find in some Buddhist schools. In that sense, anatta and Buddha nature are the same thing—the lack of personal self, the total lack of self-grasping. Our true nature is to be Buddha—that is without ego or self-grasping. that is why it is called Buddha-nature.

Second, in schools that accept teachings on Buddha nature, they are usually not taught as the first set of teachings people hear. All Buddhists agree that first there must be a lot of deconstruction of what we believe in and take for granted. Given that we all believe in ego, believe that we do exist, it is important to deconstruct that belief before talking about Buddha nature. otherwise, we would very likely hear those teachings incorrectly.

Another participant asks,

Rita, you mentioned that sacrifice, precise ritual (mantra) and deity worship were some of the proto Hindu practices of the Buddhas time. To this I would add sun prostration (gayatri mantra practice). My question —to what extent do you think that ngondro (preliminary vajrayana practice) is an individual re-playing of these proto-Hindu practices, consisting as it does of prostration, mantra repetition, mandala (sacrifice) and guru yoga (deity worship). In other words, do you think that vajrayana practice has, as its preliminary ngondro requirement, an individual re-enactment of these proto Hindu practices that you describe, and is, therefore, a kind of "ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny" in a spiritual context?

To which Rita replies,

This is also a very good question. I will answer it in two parts.

First, Vajryana Buddhism clearly incorporates many elements that appear to be Vedic or Hindu in their origin. It is important to remember that Vajrayana is a late development in Buddhism, which has nothing to do with its value. But tantric elements swept into all Indian religions at the same time, and Buddhism was part of this shift.

Second, I do not accpt the way you correlate ngondro with Vedic sacrifice. Buddhists were influenced by Hindu elements, but they did not accept them whole cloth, without subtle and basic changes.
First of all, the first ngondro is refuge and bodhicitta, not prostrations. Because the prostrations that accompany refuge and bodhicitta are so strenuous, many Western practitioners focus on the prostrations, rather than refuge and bodhicitta. But this is a bit incorrect, though it took me a long time to realize that myself.

Second, mandlala offering is not a replication of sacrifice at all. In sacrifice, the empahasis is on giving up somethung to get something else. In mandala offering the emphsasis is on offering or generosity.
Third, guru yoga is not deity worship at all. it is about the relationship between the student and the guru.
In a nutshell, the ngondros are about surrender, purification, generosity, and devotion. These four prepare one for abhishkha or entering the guru's world.

So there's a lot or resemblance to Vedic and Hindu forrms but also a lot of Buddhist interpretation of the forms that were accepted.

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Image via Himalayanart.org

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