What do we miss when we don't read the whole sutta?
So in addition to establishing principles for determining what he did and didn’t teach, he also set up protocols for how the sangha should settle disagreements on this issue when they arose.
To ensure that the meaning of the dharma would be passed on, he established the principle that teachers should be open to questioning. He didn’t want them to engage in what he called bombast: empty words, “the work of poets, the work of outsiders, artful in sound, artful in expression.” He encouraged his students to focus on teaching the end of suffering, and to encourage their students to dissect those teachings to make their meaning clear. Understanding occurs best when there’s an opportunity for an open dialogue in good faith.
To transmit the habits of the dharma, the Buddha designed the ideal teacher-student relationship on the model of an apprenticeship. You live with the teacher for a minimum of five years, attending to the teacher’s needs, as a way of observing— and being observed by—the teacher in all sorts of situations.
To allow for the fact that your sense of judgment develops over time, the Buddha didn’t force you to commit to a teacher for life. You look for someone who, as far as you can see, has integrity, but if you sense with time that integrity is lacking, you’re free to look for a new teacher.
At the same time, the Buddha realized that not everyone would have the time or inclination to undergo this apprenticeship, so he arranged a division of labor. The monks and nuns who had passed through apprenticeship were to live not in cloisters, but in places where laypeople would be free to come and learn from the fruits of their training.
So it’s obvious that the Buddha didn’t have a casual or cavalier attitude toward the preservation of his words and habits. Knowing the difficulties he’d encountered in discovering the dharma, he didn’t trust us—with our greed, aversion, and delusion— to discover it on our own. He knew we’d need help. Although he foresaw that his teachings would someday disappear, he didn’t simply resign himself to change or trust that it would always work out for the best. He established a wide range of safeguards to ensure that reliable words and models of behavior would survive as long as possible.
But in the cut-and-paste Buddhism developing around us in the West, many of these safeguards have been dropped. In particular, the idea of apprenticeship—so central in mastering the habits of the dharma as a skill—is almost totally lacking. Dharma principles are reduced to vague generalities, and the techniques for testing them are stripped to a bare, assembly-line minimum.
We reassure ourselves that the changes we’ve made in Buddhism are all for the best—that Buddhism has always adapted itself to every culture it enters, and we can trust it to adapt wisely to the West. But this treats Buddhism as if it were a conscious agent—a wise amoebic force that knows how to adapt to its environment in order to survive. Actually, Buddhism isn’t an agent, and it doesn’t adapt. It gets adapted—sometimes by people who know what they’re doing, sometimes by people who don’t. Just because a particular adaptation survives and prevails doesn’t mean that it’s genuine dharma. It may simply appeal to the desires and fears of its target audience.
Certainly we in the West are easy targets for the idea that the Buddha wants us to cut and paste his dharma as we like. Many of us have been burned by religious authorities, and we don’t want to risk getting burned again. There’s also our cultural pride: We like to think that we can see more clearly than Asian Buddhists what’s of genuine value in their traditions and what’s simply cultural baggage—as if we didn’t have cultural baggage of our own. And how do we know what’s “just baggage”? A beat-up old suitcase might contain your jewelry and keys.
So is a designer dharma what we really want? As the Buddha noted, one of the natural reactions to suffering is to search for someone who can give good advice on how to put an end to it. When offered the choice, wouldn’t you prefer reliable guidance on how to end your suffering rather than a do-it-yourself kit with vague instructions and no guarantees?
Or are there those who would benefit if you bought the kit? People sometimes argue that in our diverse, postmodern world we need a postmodern Buddhism in which no one’s interpretation can be criticized as wrong. But that’s trading the possibility of total freedom from suffering for something much less: freedom from criticism. And it ignores the other side of the postmodernist equation: that our perceived wants can be overwhelmingly shaped by the interests of institutions who want something out of us. One of the common ruses of privatization is to offer us less, dress it up as more, so that we’ll pay more for it. Is that what’s happening here?
The Buddha wasn’t so naive as to think that we can always know what’s in our own best interest. He saw long before the postmoderns that there’s plenty to mistrust both in old texts and in our own preconceptions about what seems reasonable. Yet he did the postmoderns one better by offering a solution to this dilemma. It would be a shame if, sold on the idea of designing our own dharma, we let his solution die.
Thanissaro Bhikkhu is abbot of Metta Forest Monastery, outside of San Diego. His latest book is Skill in Questions: How the Buddha Taught, available for free at www.dhammatalks.org.
Artwork by Tricycle editors.