Back to the Beginning

An interview with Andrew Olendzki

What about concepts like self and nonself?
How do they get played out historically? The main thing I think the Buddha was saying about the self is that it is neither personal nor sacred. There is a unique and relatively stable set of habits and patterns that each of us as humans develops to organize our experience and to get by in the world. The Buddha does not say that they do not exist. Rather, he’s saying those patterns are constructed by actions and are held together by various conditions, there’s nothing essential or enduring about them, and the tendency of the theists of his age to identify the sacred essence within us is a mistake of observation. He was not arguing against the self, but against the tendency we have to substantialize the self. In some of the ways it is discussed—both historically and in contemporary discourse—the notion of Buddha-nature sounds very much like the sort of “inner essence” the Buddha was critiquing.

And the concept of shunyata, emptiness? In the early texts, the word was used primarily as an adjective: The house is “empty” of furniture; the psychophysical organism is “empty” of self. What appears to be a self is merely an aggregate of dharmas (phenomena), which are impersonal physical and mental events. The Mahayana tradition extends the concept significantly by saying these dharmas themselves are also empty of intrinsic nature, which was a useful corrective to a tendency to substantialize the dharmas. But in the process, the adjective “shunya” becomes an abstract noun, “shunyata,” and this has consequences. One has a tendency to substantialize abstract nouns: Buddhahood, emptiness, suchness.

In your description of moving from an “organic spirituality” that has no use for a center, to a religion that tends toward substantialization and reification, you seem to be almost positing a kind of de-evolution.
Perhaps it can be called that. But let me be clear about something. I am referring to the later Buddhist traditions as a historian of religions, and am not trying to devalue them. The practices, for example, of Zen or Tantra or Pure Land are authentic parts of the Buddhist tradition, and may well have the very transformative effect the Buddha himself was pointing to. But in terms of the history of Buddhist thought, I don’t consider many of the philosophical and metaphysical positions of these traditions to be what the historical Buddha was teaching. I don’t find them in the Pali canon. This is simply a matter of intellectual clarity, not a critique of later developments.

What are the major obstacles to holding some space for the Pali canon in the West today? There is a strand in contemporary Buddhism that says: True knowledge and wisdom cannot be conceptual; therefore, all conceptual knowledge is suspect. So anti-intellectualism is one obstacle.

And your response to that is? Well, conceptual knowledge can get in the way and replace authentic intuition, but it need not. The Buddha was teaching us wisdom, and mindfulness is a tool for accessing that wisdom; but mindfulness, in and of itself, is not wise—at least according to the Abhidharma. The whole intellectual content of Buddhist thought is there to help guide that mindfulness in directions that are most transformative. What a waste not to take advantage of that.

Are you suggesting that a conceptual context is needed, for example, for the experience of emptiness to manifest as compassion? Conceptual guidance can help us gain an intuitive understanding of the emptiness of mind and body. Compassion will naturally emerge when the obstacles are cleared out of the way, and projecting the self onto experience is one of the primary obstacles. As human beings—and especially as mammals—I think we are naturally very compassionate, friendly, kind, and altruistic.

Now you sound like a Mahayanist. Not necessarily. It is just as natural for us to be greedy, hateful, and deluded. Both sides of human nature are constructed and conditioned; one is not more essential than the other. The Buddha was unrelenting in his message that we are personally responsible for the quality of our minds at every moment, and the trend in Buddhist history—to deflect this onto karma, other lifetimes, the vows of compassionate bodhisattvas, or the natural unfolding of innate perfection—works to undermine this view.

There’s one phrase of the Pali canon that is quoted often, even by those who have never read the canon: “Be a light—or lamp—unto yourselves.” The subtext often sounds like: “Don’t tell me what to do; I alone know what’s best for me.” And whatever the Buddha really meant, the way it’s being used is telling about our culture. Could you comment on this? We like to think that the Buddha said pick and choose what you want to do and want to believe, largely because that is what we value in contemporary American culture. The text uses the word dipa, which could mean either “lamp” or “island.” But I think a careful examination of the context will clearly show that he was saying “Be an island” rather than “Be a lamp.” Not in an alienated way, but in the sense of not getting pulled into someone else’s world; in the sense of self-composure. Be centered, be grounded, and be independent in the sense of being free, not being overreactive and getting thrown off balance by the phenomena of sense experience. In other words, don’t let the world jerk you around. But because “island” is a common metaphor in English for isolation and alienation, while “lamp” is an image of rugged self-sufficiency, it is easy to discard one interpretation for the other. In a famous discourse to a group of confused laypeople called Kalamas, the Buddha does encourage people to check what they hear from various teachers against their own experience, but nowhere in that context does he mention being “a lamp unto yourself.” It’s a Greek idea.

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