Back to the Beginning

An interview with Andrew Olendzki

Many Westerners think that the rise of Mahayana—some four or five hundred years after the Buddha—with its investigations of emptiness, reflects a more sophisticated understanding than that of the canon. You seem to be reversing that belief. Many people have been introduced to Buddhism through the Mahayana or Vajrayana, and in those traditions there is commonly a strong polemic against earlier forms of Buddhism, in part to authenticate and valorize the later interpretations. We often hear that the early teachings—the Hinayana—are the lesser teachings and the later teachings the greater. To some extent this comes from various schemas developed in China, where Buddhists had to make sense of teachings from many levels that had been imported over a thousand years. Of course, every schema ends up with its own views at the pinnacle. It’s kind of like the nineteenth-century historians who arranged all human religions on an evolutionary scale from their “primitive” origins in the East to the monotheism of the white male armchair theologian. Although the anti-Hinayana polemic still has some conceptual appeal, nobody I know who actually practices in each tradition has much use for it. The more sophisticated understanding you mention has far more to do with the practitioner’s level of realization than with the technology of the traditions themselves. Each vehicle is infinitely deep.

How do you see your work at the study center in Barre in light of a pervasive Western interest in Mahayana views? We have programs addressing all the Buddhist traditions, and these, too, involve the integration of meditation practice and intellectual inquiry. My own particular interest is in trying to rediscover and investigate the insights of the early teachings that grew out of the experiential explorations of the Shramana movement. This ancient “science of the mind” used empirical and repeatable technologies to carefully investigate the phenomena of mind and body. Similar investigations are going on today in the neuro- and cognitive sciences, although science tends to look at consciousness from a third-person perspective, while Buddhism is rooted in a first-person approach.

But modern science seeks information, not transformation. I’m wondering, if an empirical path of self-transformation was the pursuit of the Shramanas, are there parallels between science and Zen or Vipassana?
To the extent they are based upon meditation, yes; and perhaps modern science, too, will eventually get around to an agenda of self-transformation. Meditation practice is a crucial tool for Buddhist studies because the wisdom spoken of in Buddhism is really only accessible to a settled and focused mind. As I understand the basic teaching, mindfulness and concentration are means toward an end rather than ends in themselves. The mind that is tranquil but alert is capable of glimpsing something about reality that is otherwise obscured—it is capable of penetrating illusion with understanding—and it is this understanding that constitutes wisdom and ultimately leads to awakening. The Pali canon offers rich instruction for how to walk this path, from mindfulness all the way to wisdom. As the tradition developed, other transformative practices were added, and many of these were adapted from other religious traditions.

If we accept the transformative power of these other, newer forms, then what is lost by not going back to the canon? My own opinion is that an empirically based psychology was gradually turned into an uncritical religion. Comparative religion shows that humans are religious creatures in fairly predictable and consistent ways. Almost everything seen in any of the other religions exists equally in Buddhism: pilgrimage, prayer, afterlife belief systems, and so on. As Buddhism became more religious, much of the unique science of experience was lost or sidelined. So Buddhism ends up losing some of its most distinct features.

Do the Buddha’s own teachers represent a fusion of the Shramana movement and Brahmanism? Yes. What we see happening in India at and before the time of the Buddha is a synthesis of Indo-European culture systems with indigenous cultures. In the West, the Indo-Europeans came into contact with the Egyptians, Semites, et cetera, leading to the Greek and Roman civilizations. In India, they came into contact with the highly developed Indus Valley civilization, and classical Indian civilization is the outcome of this synthesis. The Indo-European spirituality brought by the Aryans to India was patriarchal: It viewed the gods as “out there,” in the heavens, and humans needed to invoke the deities through ritual, sacrifice, and ceremony as well as through the hiring of a professional class of priests who knew the special language for mediating between transcendent gods and earthbound humans. The indigenous views, which I would call a more organic spirituality, seemed to emphasize immanence rather than transcendence. The primary symbol of the deity was feminine, and focus was placed on an inward journey—on what was unfolding each moment in the body and mind. Using asceticism, yoga, and meditation, the Shramanas explored the inner landscapes of psychophysical experience. They were looking at what was actually happening here and now. These represent two very different approaches to the human condition: Hinduism and Christianity see a spark of divinity within us trying to escape its material prison to return to its transcendent home; the Shramanas and the Buddhists were more concerned with understanding, purifying, and optimizing the human mind and body.

And how does nirvana play out in this? Nirvana, as it is described in the earliest texts, has to do with the cessation of greed, hatred, and delusion in this psychophysical organism and in this lifetime. One way to describe what the Buddha awoke to is to say that he purged his mind and body of those poisons and got “toxin-free.” And for the next forty-five years, we can see what it’s like to live as a human being, “sobered up,” unencumbered by hate and want.

And today are we still projecting the Indo-European model onto Buddhism? I see an ongoing attempt to fit a round peg into a square hole. The square hole is Indo-European spirituality: The sacred is out there, and we have to transcend the merely human to escape back to our original “true nature.” Walking the spiritual path is a matter of orienting our lives toward something greater than ourselves, and of aspiring to reconnect to something primordial and perfect—i.e., nirvana—from which we had become alienated. I don’t see much support for this in the early Buddhist texts. The round peg is the Buddha’s injunction to investigate the textures and nuances of our experience very carefully, understand which impulses are noble and which are nasty, and undertake a process of purification, or, as the Buddha said, “Pluck out the thorn of desire that lies embedded in your heart.” And you can do that by understanding how desire pollutes the mind from moment to moment, and thereby radically transform yourself into an organism that is free of the three poisons of greed, hatred, and delusion. A lot of Indian thought has to do with purifying oneself of the defilements—like washing your sins off with water. In early Buddhism, the washing technique was basically meditation—meditation as a way of seeing yourself more clearly, understanding what’s wholesome and what’s unwholesome.

And Buddha-nature? From the Pali view, is that a reassertion of the Indo-European “soul”? Pali Buddhists don’t believe there is something within us that is changeless, original, or intrinsically pure. I’m sure there are disclaimers in the footnotes of Buddha-nature literature that say: But of course, this Buddha-nature is empty like everything else, and so on. But Buddha-nature, as it’s used in the later schools, is not found in the Pali canon. Many scholars have called into question whether the notion is originally Buddhist at all.

And in the Pali view, is anything at the center? There is no center. The whole concept of center is a construction useful in certain circumstances, but entirely counterproductive when it comes to understanding the nature of reality. There’s nothing that makes anything sacred. To separate out something that is sacred from a nonsacred milieu introduces a new concept into the Buddha’s teaching.

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