Thursday, April 6, 2017

Book Write-Up (Loosely-Speaking): The Teaching of the Buddha

Teaching of the Buddha.  Tokyo: Bukkyo Dendo Kyokai, 1966, 1991.  Printed by Toppan Printing Co.

I got this book at the Goodwill.  It contains Buddhist sayings from various Buddhist writings.

I have long known about Buddhism.  I may have first learned about it when I visited a museum as a child and saw a giant statue of the Buddha, or when I saw a picture of the Buddha in an encyclopedia.

There were three milestones that actually informed me about the religion.

The first milestone was when I watched the 1993 movie Little Buddha, starring Keanu Reeves.  I was in high school at the time.  Maybe it was my decision to watch the movie because it would teach me about another religion, or maybe it was my sister’s decision because she thought that Keanu Reeves was cute.  (The movie Speed was popular at this time.)  In any case, we checked out the movie from the video store and watched it.

The movie covered some of the basics of Buddhism.  Reeves plays Siddhartha Gautama, the rich prince who leaves behind his life of comfort to become an itinerant.  He is exposed to the ills and terrors of life outside the palace, and he advocates a path of moderation, in between asceticism and over-indulgence.  Eventually, he is tempted by demons while sitting under a tree, and he learns that salvation comes through compassion.  “Well, that’s different from Christianity!”, I thought at the time.  “It teaches salvation by works, whereas Christianity teaches salvation by grace through faith!”  And, of course, I believed that Christianity had a better analysis of the human condition and offered a better solution: that we were inherently sinful and needed God’s grace and transformation of us in order to become righteous people.

The second milestone was when I was as an undergraduate in college.  I took an Introduction to Religions course, which covered Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam.  Theravada Buddhism, I learned, was atheistic or at least agnostic about the existence of a deity.  Mahayana Buddhism, by contrast, had divine-like beings who were believed to assist people.  The common ground between these Buddhisms was a belief in non-attachment: that things in this world are continually changing, so we set ourselves up for disappointment when we desire or become attached to anyone or anything.  The best posture is non-attachment.  There were other aspects of Buddhism that the class covered: reincarnation (as in Hinduism), the noble path, and the need to concentrate in meditation, otherwise the teacher may whack you on the head with a stick (or so we saw in a video)!  But non-attachment was the main theme that stood out in my mind.  My assessment at the time was that Buddhism identified a real problem—-disappointment that flowed from desire and fluctuation in the world—-but that Christianity had a more fulfilling solution to this problem.  Rather than putting a lid on our enjoyment of the world, why not keep enjoying it?  Even if things change, God does not change, and God promises an eternal bliss for those who love God!

The third milestone was when I was a student at divinity school, and a Zen monk was my roommate.  We discussed religion, and he mentioned certain themes in our conversations.  One theme was that all is one, and all is God.  Meditation is a way by which one can arrive at a sense of that oneness.  The monk also mentioned times that Buddhists demonstrated a social conscience, as when a monk stood in front of an army to stop a war.  I especially identified with a story that my roommate told me, about a monk who spent a lot of time on the mountain meditating, then he came down to the market and got upset at someone.  This monk then realized that he had to go back up the mountain and meditate some more!  Walking the walk of what we believe can be difficult!

In reading The Teaching of the Buddha, a lot of these themes appeared: compassion for others, non-attachment, moderation, and the oneness of all people and things.  Giving to the poor was a recurrent theme, and so was equality.  Men and women can both become enlightened, the text affirmed, and yet homeless monks were warned to stay away from women, lest they violate their own chastity (sort of like the Billy Graham rule, but not entirely).  The book also had political theory: What is a just ruler?  What does a just ruler do?  It discussed how a ruler can approach war, in light of Buddhist principles: he should try to be peaceful but may realize that war is the only option, in certain cases.  The book also contained household codes, like Ephesians 5, Colossians 3, etc.  There was also a sense of mission: that spreading the message of Buddhism will encourage more people to become compassionate and less greedy and hateful, thereby improving society.  There are Christians who approach the Gospel this way, but the Buddhism in this book seemed to lack the pessimistic eschatology that characterizes much of Christianity.  The book did value this world, and yet it also seemed to maintain that this world is not entirely real.  I was unclear if it was disputing the world’s ontological reality in these cases, or was merely reaffirming its belief that things are continually changing and so we should not become attached.

On God, the book was rather variegated.  It occasionally expressed agnosticism about the existence of a god, and yet gods appeared in some of the Buddhist tales.  The Buddha was also depicted as an eternal, heavenly, cosmic figure, almost like God, who manifested himself as the human Siddhartha.  People need the assistance of the Buddha to become enlightened, and the Buddha is compassionate towards all.  On the one hand, the book asserted that Enlightenment is deep inside of everyone, even those who are greedy and selfish.  On the other hand, the book asserted that Buddha must plant the seeds of Enlightenment inside of a person.  The latter view is similar to Christianity, which stresses the role of God’s grace in enabling people to come to God and become virtuous.

Regarding the afterlife, there were occasional references to reincarnation, as far as I can remember.  But there were many references to hell or long-lasting or eternal punishment, as well as to the Pure Land.  Is the path away from hell and towards the Pure Land easy or difficult?  Some passages suggest that faith in the Buddha is sufficient for salvation, even on one’s deathbed.  Orientation towards the Buddha is powerful and life-changing, according to this view.  On the other hand, there is an acknowledgement that some may talk the talk without walking the walk, resulting in fruitlessness.  Certain sins, such as dishonoring parents, can also land one in hell.  The New Testament explores similar themes of faith, works, and the afterlife.

There are passages in this book that appear relativistic—-that assert or promote a state that is beyond right and wrong.  This is odd, since so much of the book clearly maintains that there are right actions and wrong actions, sometimes articulating “Thou shalt nots” that sound similar to the second table of the Ten Commandments.  What are the relativistic passages about, then?  I can only guess, based on themes that appear in the book.  The book encourages people to get beyond evaluating people and situations according to their likes and dislikes, for this is part of becoming un-attached, suppressing desire, recognizing the oneness of all, and becoming compassionate.  On the other hand, the book also encourages monks and devout Buddhists to avoid the greedy.  Christianity, too, attempts to navigate between love and protecting oneself from negative influences.

The book also seemed to suggest that evil has a role: for example, Enlightenment can grow from the soil of ignorance, and ignorance is a foil for Enlightenment.  This reminds me of the saying that “Without darkness, there is no light.”  That is somewhat consistent with Christianity, but not entirely.  Many Christians have asserted that God permits evil for a righteous purpose, as if evil has some role or value in God’s plans.  At the same time, Christianity teaches that good came first, that evil was a fall from the good, and that God one day will eliminate evil, leaving only good to remain.  Ultimately, for Christianity, light can exist without darkness.  Maybe Buddhism, too, has a similar notion: Is not the Pure Land free from corrupting desires?

An appendix to the book dates a lot of these Scriptures after Christ, while believing that they contain teachings of Siddhartha, who predated Christ.  That makes me wonder: Could these Scriptures have been influenced by Christianity?  The similarities seem so salient: incarnation (sort of), grace, faith, and relying on a higher power.  In one case, though, I wondered if the text was arguing against the New Testament.  On page 120, we read: “But it would be foolish for a man to put out his eyes for fear of being tempted by beautiful forms.”  Is this a response to Matthew 5:29: “If your right eye offend thee, pluck it out” (KJV)?  Is this a coincidence?

On whether I identified with the spirituality in this book, I identified with the theme of relying on a compassionate higher power to become virtuous.  I also liked the theme of being instructed by everyday life (nature, experience, and everyday tasks) about Enlightenment.  I had difficulty with the Buddhist teaching that we should avoid desires.  If things are changing, why not enjoy what we can when we can?  At the same time, I realize that becoming overly attached can result in greed, covetousness, jealousy, and hate.

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