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Selective Wisdom

Bhikkhu Nyanasobhano

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For most of us born in the Western world, remote from Buddhism of any institutional kind, knowledge of the dhamma has come entirely from books and, occasionally, spoken words, some quite excellent and informative, certainly. But this kind of learning still retains a somewhat ethereal air in the absence of actions, traditions, and spiritual observances in which we can participate. That the Buddhist religion has survived so long in the world is a result not so much of the durability of manuscripts as of the power of ideas embodied in custom; and custom, for all our abundant sources of information, is what we lack and cannot in the long run do without. Books crumble easily enough; thought crumbles faster, if not made firm by some sort of concrete practice that holds together believers and sees to the transmission of the teaching to the young.

The modern world, with its quickly accessible pleasures, its entertainments, hobbies, and intellectual pastimes, inclines us to suppose that religion, too, can be selected piecemeal, can be appreciated, assembled, and indulged in precisely to the degree and in the manner that we prefer. We like to read about enlightenment; we like to meditate a little, when it suits us. We may even like to exercise our minds by studying some of the profound philosophical discourses of the Buddha. Nowadays it is not hard to satisfy ourselves at least with respect to these limited, nameable interests. Having read books, attended lectures, practiced meditation, admired Buddhist art, and chatted amiably with other seekers, we have done pretty much all we had in mind to do. And yet, disconcertingly, we are not enlightened; we are not even confident of moving in the direction of enlightenment. Even if we are inspired by our studies, we remain in some sense perplexingly alone, outside the grand, historical flow of the Dhamma, waiting disconsolately for spiritual fulfillment as an entirely private blessing.

Why should this be so? If we have investigated everything we like, should we not be satisfied in a deeper sense than we are? But perhaps we have passed a little too blithely over important matters. One thing that contemporary society especially fosters is the assumption that each individual intuitively knows or can confidently decide what is useful in tradition and what is not. So we read and we reject; or we read and approve with qualifications, briskly skipping through the lines of ancient teaching; or perhaps we read and enthusiastically accept everything, taking it all as understood even if it is not. For most of our lives society around us has been offering us things, urging activities upon us, suggesting countless measures for recreation, education, and employment, so even with regard to handed-down Buddhist teaching, we feel quite disposed to edit, abbreviate, and rearrange according to our pleasure. If, then, the fragments we finally approve of do not over time sustain us spiritually, we grow skeptical and gloomy, thinking we have done what should be necessary, selected and revised as is our unquestionable right, and yet found the effects wanting. Should we now fault the teaching? Or should we revisit some unexamined assumptions? When we study a doctrine that is new to us (although it might be very old) and find in it points that coincide with our private opinions and theories, we are naturally cheered - and certainly we could never adopt any doctrine if it did not at least partly correspond to our own deeply pondered intuitions. This, without doubt, is natural and reasonable. But to go on to decide that a certain teaching is worthwhile simply because it echoes our established opinion is very unwise. Along that easy course there is no new discovery of truth, only more stale habit.

Similarly, when we read of teachings contrary to our preferences and outside the realm of our usual consideration, we tend to reject them automatically. They are strange and intellectually disturbing - hence they must be wrong. This tendency, too, is quite natural; and certainly our native intelligence and worldly experience should alert us to what is outlandish and incoherent. But it is good to remember that a new or an old way of considering and dealing with life is not false just because it surprises us or contradicts our theories. A sincere seeker should compare ideas for the purpose of gaining a closer fix on truth.

When investigating Buddhism, then, we ought to give some thought to the cultural and intellectual background out of which we peer. Are we indeed entirely qualified to decide what is meaningful in the tradition and what is not? And why should we suppose that this present age - which is not without its cruelties and contradictions - naturally stands above all others in moral insight and affords us a superior view? We have perhaps assumed a little too quickly that we can (as we do in so many other fields) select exactly what we like and then declare it comprehensive and true.

From Available Truth: Excursions into Buddhist Wisdom and the Natural World © 2007 by Bhikkhu Nyanasobhano. Reprinted by arrangement with Wisdom Publications, Inc., www.wisdompubs.org

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michaelrepucci's picture

I think the author is making a really important point here. As usual in my practice, the way for me to truly get meaning from this is to take it as personal advice. That is, I don't worry whether others act like this or not, and I don't use it to judge or validate whether a particular tradition is or is not capable of leading me to enlightenment. As the author suggests, how could I - a deluded being stuck in Samsara - know what will lead to enlightenment?

Instead, as a non-enlightened practitioner, I ask myself only whether there are aspects of the teachings that I haven't incorporated into my practice, and then seek to do so. This may contradict my current view or take me out of my comfort zone, but I see that as the point. My comfort zone is largely, and often subconsciously, based on attachment to Samsaric enjoyments and aversion for suffering. Only after thoroughly understanding and sincerely putting into practice the entirety of a tradition's teachings do I follow the Buddha's advice about seeing what works and what doesn't. For me, anything short of that would be cherry picking based on deluded habit.

njefferis's picture

I guess I am one of the fortunate westerners who has found a teacher & a sangha. Before that happened I could totally relate to what the author was saying. It felt as though what I was doing was just an intellectual exercise. Now that I have a teacher & the sangha to support me, I understand so much more. Of course, when one finds a teacher that choice is there to have faith or not. And everyone's karma is different. But teachers are out there. One has to look & be ready.

lowlyvale's picture

I see this excerpt as an encouragement to investigate beyond the boundaries of personal preference. Doing this may risk temporary comfort zones, but, if the aim is to see things more clearly, it's a risk I'm always interested in - if not always willing to take.

Beccafahey's picture

Quote from article;

"A sincere seeker should compare ideas for the purpose of gaining a closer fix on truth.

When investigating Buddhism, then, we ought to give some thought to the cultural and intellectual background out of which we peer. "

-End quote-

A practice I've grown to live by more then what in Buddhism I should pay attention to (as in not just what is comfortable) but also what in everyday moment I pay attention to. Paying attention to my thoughts and opinions again and again with the curiosity of the background, causes and conditions that have created and built upon these thoughts and opinions. How different would those thoughts and opinions be if I had lived under different circumstances. What causes and conditions have contributed to those I am communicating with drive their thoughts and opinions and because of this a pointing to explanation of their actions.

My first read of the article left me sad and a subtle stirring of defensiveness. Then I re-read it with eyes from a broader background view and I found myself seeing value in the words.

maryft's picture

Didn't the Buddha say not to believe anything, not even what he reputedly said, unless it jibes with one's own experience? I for one am not looking for a religion as such, but for a way of life that works for me. Along these lines, Stephen Batchelor's "Confession of a Buddhist Atheist" is an interesting read.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Shakyamuni culminated 45 years of teaching the Law in the Lotus Sutra: one's personal experiences in life are what are to be "believed".

celticpassage's picture

It's certainly not a good argument to suggest the reason why people aren't enlightened in the West is because they are not practicing a tradition. Most Buddhists in the East who do practice the ancient traditions aren't enlightened either.

Not being qualified to judge what's important in a tradition is what many of the people who want to maintain that tradition resort to when the tradition seems to be in trouble. But this approach may be primarily motivated by fear of loosing the tradition, not because it's beneficial or useful for others.

But at any rate the author is conflating two different questions. If we are being asked what must be preserved within a tradition for the sake of ensuring the traditions effective transmission, then of course people who are well versed in that tradition are the only ones who can decide. However, the author conflates this question with the one he is really asking which is: "Are individuals qualified to decide only for themselves what should be kept from a tradition and what should not." In this case I say that people are qualified. Certainly, the author only presents his opinion that they are not, and does not provide any real reasons why this is the case.

Besides these two broken legs of the stool upon which the author stands, the third broken leg is that the author is qualified to judge that Western people are not qualified to judge what is best for their own spiritual development. To me, the author is not qualified to judge this at all. Indeed, this assertion seems on the surface at least, to go against the Buddha's own teaching that people are to be a light unto themselves.

So, I would suggest, that the author's stool is broken and he should sit down.

Can't believe I typed all this on an iPad!

pennsocialworker's picture

Maybe the author is suggesting that the cause of all the discomfort and dis-ease in my life is due to the path I’ve chosen. All of my troubles are of my own making. In an effort to relieve suffering I search for solutions that fit in with the world view I cultivated to this point, a worldview that has caused my suffering in the first place, and I disregard the rest because it may be difficult or unfamiliar to me. The new choice is satisfactory to a point, or for a short-time, but not enlightened.

candor's picture

Well argued, celticpassage. I particularly agree that the author goes against what I consider one of the Buddha's most excellent teachings (among many): that we should see for ourselves what works for us and what doesn't.

gtwhipple's picture

I very much appreciate your measured and openly thoughtful answer. One of the things your answer gives me is heart. Which I didn't even realize the author was taking from me until I read your reply. If the purpose of spiritual practice is to become enlightened, is it not also to become spirited or quickened? I deeply appreciate the implications in the authors work about being a cafeteria style spiritualist, perhaps never choosing a truly balanced and life sustaining diet of spiritual food... But there is something to the choosing of the food, the responsibility of nurturing oneself individually as well as collectively, to balance. Thank you for that balance. (Also typed on an iPad).

marginal person's picture

The writer asks are we qualified to decide what is meaningful in the tradition and what is not. This is an important question. If we`re not qualified then others more qualified then we are must advise us on us what is essential to the practice and what is not.. If we are qualified then ultimately the responsibility is ours.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Teacers well-versed in both Buddhism and contemporary thought are needed to assure transmission of the Law.

marginal person's picture

Obviously you're convinced of the correctness of your opinion. But imagine you"re trying to explain your view to a person with no opinion on the question. Why do you hold this opinion?

Dominic Gomez's picture

A) Then we'd be talking about our kids' schools, sequestration or the weather. B) Because I practice Buddhism.

marginal person's picture

Approaching the question with an open mind, I would use my reasoning ability to attempt to understand the other's viewpoint.

Dominic Gomez's picture

The other's viewpoint being that he or she hasn't one, i.e. "no opinion on the question"? Which is why the reasonable Buddhist first talks with others about more immediate concerns, i.e. personal or family problems, health, income in the current economy, etc. Then the conversation can gradually turn to the value of practicing Buddhism.

marginal person's picture

Your discussion style is admirable and I'm sure you are quite persuasive, but the question was simply why you hold a certain view about the necessity of teachers. I must really strive to bring more clarity to my statements. Every situation provides an opportunity for learning, if we are open to it. Thank you.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Shakyamuni Buddha was the first historically documented teacher of the Law. Just following suit.