Oh, What A Tangled Web….

A dear Dhamma sister of mine just got back from a retreat at the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies. It was a retreat nominally devoted to learning how to do jhana (tranquility) practice, although it is not limited to jhana.

This retreat is taught by Leigh Brasington. Leigh is an interesting case. My own opinion of him is that he is first and foremost an outstanding teacher of the steps required to enter and move around the jhanas. To be sure, he teaches what I rather unceremoniously call “jhana light”, what is sometimes called “sutta jhana” (jhana as taught in the discourses) as opposed to “Visuddhimagga jhana” (jhana as described in the Visuddhimagga, which is a later commentary). The latter is a much more difficult practice to cultivate, and requires many months – perhaps years – to master. But generally I agree with people like Leigh and Thanissaro Bhikku who teach a milder form of these practices, that in the Buddha’s time jhana practice was probably not the intense version that was later developed and documented in the Visuddhimagga.

Anyone who has been following this blog knows that my understanding of the way the Buddha taught meditation is that jhana was a centerpiece of the practice. This is not the way meditation is generally taught. But even doing preliminary practices to jhana – developing what tranquility one can muster – is a much more pleasant way to learn meditation. You learn to develop joy, happiness, contentment, and equanimity. It is a more pleasant way to meditate, and it is a more pleasant way to live.

As to other matters, well…

A teaching of the Buddha with which Westerners have particular difficulty is rebirth, and I understand that. It is long way from the norm of what we are taught. People who are from a religious background in the West tend to believe that after this life there is an afterlife in heaven or hell or some equivalent. People who are from a scientific – sometimes called “materialistic” – background tend to believe that when this life is over, that is all that happens. You simply cease to exist.

Now to be sure, in order to meditate and to benefit from the Buddha’s teachings, you do not have to suddenly discard everything you used to believe is true. That would be silly. The Buddhist path is one to be cultivated. It opens up bit by bit. It is a path based on direct experience, but also on contemplation and growth. So if rebirth is difficult for you to accept, do not – please – think that this should preclude you from getting what you can from the Buddha’s teachings. The Buddhist path is intended to help you to become a happier person, not to provide more ways for you to suffer.

Having said that, rebirth is a fundamental part of what the Buddha taught. There can be no denying this. And rebirth is not some metaphor. The canonical literature uses the phrase “with the breakup of the body, after death”, which makes it pretty clear what rebirth means.

Further, there are numerous instances of discussions of the other realms, and these are quite detailed. So whether or not you believe in these teachings, make no mistake that this is what the Buddha taught.

Now for a meditation teacher to say that they do not believe in rebirth, or that they are agnostic on the subject of rebirth, is one thing. But there are teachers who say that rebirth is not a teaching of the Buddha. This is not true and cannot be supported by anything in the Buddhist literature or tradition. Sadly, I was actually in a retreat when Leigh Brasington said, “The Buddha never talked about rebirth.”  I almost fell off my cushion.

Further, Leigh is quite adamant that ”when you die, that is it. Life is simply over.”

Leigh not only has no way of knowing this is true, it is a dangerous thing to teach. He might say that this is what he believes, but he has a strong and forceful personality, and for a student who is trying to come to grips with life, this can do serious emotional damage.

What Leigh is teaching is called in the Buddhist canon “annihilationism.” It is the materialistic belief that I mentioned earlier. There is a sutta (The Ananda Sutta) in which the Buddha specifically refutes both the doctrines of eternalism and annihilationism. This sutta also touches on that difficult issue of non-self.

Note that in the Ananda Sutta, the Buddha does not say that the self does not exist. It is a subtle distinction. He does say – elsewhere – that the five khandas are not self. (In brief, the five khandas are 1) the physical body, 2) sense feeling, 3) perception, 4) mental formations and 5) consciousness.)

The khandas are the things with which we normally identify, the things we say are I, me and mine. The Buddha described these as not permanently existing, as being processes. Thus – and this is important – the Buddha did not say that you do not exist. This is nihilism, and he did not teach that. What he did teach is that you are a process, something that changes from moment to moment. There is no permanent essence there, just a process. But a process still exists. Where is the permanence in the weather, yet it certainly exists.

However, you can probably see how easy it is to slip into nihilism and annihilationism. This is the danger, and this is why I think it is so important that Dhamma teachers, well, that they know what the hell they are talking about. Mis-teaching in this way can lead to depression and even suicide in students in the extreme case. (This happened even during the time of the Buddha.) That is certainly not leading away from suffering.

There is, while I am on the subject, good evidence for rebirth. There are stories of people having memories of past lives. The classic one in Buddhism is Dhammaruwam, who at the age of 2 starting chanting Buddhist discourses in Pali. Not only was it in Pali, it was in a form of Pali and in a style of chanting that had not been in use since the first millennium. (http://www.dhammawheel.com/viewtopic.php?f=13&t=8532&start=0) There are also the studies of Near Death Experiences. So not only is rebirth a teaching of the Buddha, there is at least some empirical evidence for rebirth, and likewise there is no proof of annihilationism. Admittedly, you can’t prove a negative, but you at least have to address the evidence for alternatives.

As to the issue of teaching responsibly, in the canon there are many stories of monks who, when asked about the Buddha’s teachings, declined to do so because they were afraid that they would get it wrong, that their understanding was not yet mature enough to explain it in its subtlety. I have always been very moved by this devout respect for “getting it right.”

I see this same respect among the best teachers that I know. I am currently taking an online course with Ajahn Analayo, who wrote the definitive book on the Satipatthana Sutta  (Satipatthana: The Direct Path to Realization). Ajahn Analayo is one of the really bright stars in the world of Buddhism. He is German, but teaches in English and translates Pali, Sanskrit and Chinese. I believe that he also does some Tibetan translation. Further, he is a monk and a meditator, so he has both impeccable scholarship and a devout practice.

One thing that impresses me about Ajahn Analayo is how gently he teaches. He rarely says that something is just so. Rather he gives all the aspects to an issue, and often invites you to disagree with him. It is a type of teaching full of both wisdom and humility.

Now shockingly, given his pedigree, I do occasionally disagree with Ajahn Analayo. But I think the way in which he/I/we disagree is as fellow searchers on the path. I may be wrong (most likely), he may be wrong (least likely), and we both may be wrong. The Dhamma is to be held lightly. We are both, I think, looking for the right answer, not just to win a debate point.

The Dhamma is ultimately about discovering the truth. To the extent that you hold dearly onto opinions, that is a serious impediment to the truth. And to the extent that you teach opinion as fact, and worse yet to misrepresent what the Buddha taught, that is at the very least troubling.

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3 Responses to Oh, What A Tangled Web….

  1. Leigh Brasington here. I have to apologize – I was not clear in my teaching. I do not believe that the Buddha did not teach rebirth. But I do believe he only taught it as a skillful means to get people to practice. I thought I made that clear, but I guess not. I don’t believe that when you die that you cease to exist – I believe that you don’t exist in the first place. In fact I spent a whole dhamma talk (the one on SN 12.15 and Nagarjuna) discussing this. There are only interrelated processes and it is a mistake to identify with any of them (and of course equally a mistake to identify with all of them – you are not the universe, duh). The Buddha was very clear – don’t get caught up in notions of existence or non-existence; do not take a stand about “my self” (soul, atta) – SN 12.15. I will admit I was trying to lay out what I think is the deepest layer of the Buddha’s teachings, the perspective from which true liberation can be found. I guess I didn’t do a very good job – sorry.

    • erickvanhorn says:

      Thank you for your response, Leigh.

      I know that there are a number of western teachers who take the position that the Buddha taught rebirth as a sort of metaphor, but as Bhikkhu Bodhi makes clear (http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/bodhi/bps-essay_46.html, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/bodhi/bps-essay_06.html), I do not see how there can be any canonical evidence for this position. Ajahn Analayo, in the course I just completed with him, also addressed this issue. The – vast – quantity and specific nature of the discourses in this regard is, I believe, indisputable. It seems quite clear from the discourses that the rebirth that the Buddha taught is genuine, and it is difficult to see how it can be interpreted in any other way.
      Further in the Brahmajala Sutta (DN 1, http://tipitaka.wikia.com/wiki/Brahmajala_Sutta), in which the Buddha discusses the 62 kinds of wrong views, the Buddha says this:

      “Here a certain ascetic or Brahmin declares and holds the view: ‘Since this self is material, composed of the four great elements, the product of mother and father, at the breaking up of the body is annihilated and perishes, and does not exist after death. This is the way in which this self is annihilated.’ That is how some proclaim the annihilation, destruction and non-existence of beings.”

      As to the matter of the self “not existing in the first place”, as the Ananda Sutta (http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn44/sn44.010.than.html) points out, when the Buddha is specifically asked if the self does not exist, he famously remains silent. Thanissaro Bhikkhu, in his essay “No-self or Not-self”, has this to say:

      “…the one place where the Buddha was asked point-blank whether or not there was a self, he refused to answer. When later asked why, he said that to hold either that there is a self or that there is no self is to fall into extreme forms of wrong view that make the path of Buddhist practice impossible. Thus the question should be put aside.” (http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/thanissaro/notself2.html)

      I understand that many western teachers have trouble with certain aspects of the Buddha’s teachings. However, I think it is best to be clear about what is supported in the canon and what is a personal view.

  2. thearahant says:

    In my experience, many Western dhamma teachers go off the middle path and take extreme positions on topics like rebirth, simply because their audience expects it, it’s easier than trying to explain the real teaching, and Western language is inadequate.

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