Things to think about in the Buddhist World

Or: what I happen to be reading now. Transgender Buddhists, Buddhist Monastics and allegations of abuse, and Was there a Buddha?

This week we celebrated Rohatsu, the Japanese Buddhist celebration of the Buddha’s enlightenment. For Theravadins, he was born, enlightened, and died on Vesak, which falls in May or June in many places, or April in China, Japan, Korea according to wikipedia – which seems to mean that Japanese Buddhists celebrate the Buddha’s enlightenment twice. In any case, along with very nice messages from Shako Yuinen at the Buddhist Military Blog, James at the Buddhist Blog, and Uku at Zen – the Possible Way, came a very poignant story of redemption and acceptance through practice. That story is told by Jack W. Cooper, a transgender Buddhist living in Philadelphia, PA.

And in much more controversial news, WH of The Masculine Heart broke the story (to me at least) about Kalu Rinpoche, a young Tibetan monk -and believed reincarnation of the previous Kalu Rinpoche, a highly revered Buddhist teacher -who posted a video with allegations of abuse and attempted murder at the hands of his elders. What caught my eye was the statement by WH: “It seems monastic systems are fundamentally flawed – we have seen it in Catholic history, and here we see it in a Tibetan tradition.”

I was also directed to an article addressing the same issue at Elephant Journal, by Shyam Dodge, a former Hindu monk, author, and satirist and current student of religion at Harvard University. Dodge speaks from the perspective of another ‘discovered’ holy man who feels damaged by the experience, concluding in part that, “It is inhuman to deny yourself the pleasures of the body and it is inhuman to deny the overwhelming precedence and value of our embodied lives.”

I posted the link and quote on facebook, where many of my friends are monastics. The responses were thoughtful and reassuring. The most regular comment was that we cannot generalize this event or assume that it’s happening everywhere in monastic communities. Next, it was noted that all human systems/institutions are flawed. Also, monastics, sometimes from Western backgrounds, sometimes not, are becoming visible advocates for reform in their traditions. Lastly, and this is key for allegations of any kind of abuse, the victim needs to go through the right channels – legal authorities – to ensure that something more than speculation or mob justice is done.

And while many modern, secular Buddhists are striving for non-monastic models of practice, I am of the opinion that monasticism is here to stay. As I stated on facebook:

My own experience with Buddhist monastics has been overwhelmingly positive. And I do think that people willing and able to take up the monastic vocation are of extreme benefit to humanity, across all religions. But what about the ‘bad apples’ and the institutions that protect them?

My hunch is that the bad apples have always been there, but in the past they could be hidden: people could be convinced not to talk and there wasn’t a spirit of investigative journalism like we have now. I think that is still true in many countries outside the West. But in the West the bad apples are regularly exposed, leading to enormous harm to the religion(s) in general.

I think that if Buddhists want to avoid the same mistakes that the Catholic church made, they will need (and in many places surely already have in place) more transparency and accountability to the laity.

Monasteries still serve a purpose. And for that, we need them. And like any institution, we need to continuously improve and update the system.

And lastly is a piece and discussion over at Speculative Non-Buddhism that echoes a question that has been bouncing around a lot lately: did the Buddha even exist!?

Did the Buddha even exist?

As Glenn Wallis states: “My several years’ effort of searching for a reliable historical basis for a biography of Siddhattha Gotama can be summed up as this: Gotama is a ghost. He is a non-entity.”

It’s a bold statement, no doubt meant to elicit thought more than blind acceptance. As such, my first response would be to ask what counts as ‘reliable’ here? Is there any reliable historical basis for a biography of anyone living in India before the Common Era? Are we to imagine the continent inhabited by ghosts who magically gave birth to humans around the time the first Chinese pilgrims came around to ‘reliably’ record history there?

A more sophisticated reading might see Wallis’ words as a warning against clinging too closely to later, mythologized accounts of the Buddha’s life. We need to read these accounts as records of what people thought/believed about the Buddha when they were composed rather than as historical accounts of the Buddha’s life. That’s fair enough, and I got that in my Buddhism 101 course in college and find it in most at least semi-scholarly books on Buddhism. And Toni Bernhard, in her essay, “Who Was the Buddha“, which appears to have occasioned Wallis’ observations, gives what I took to be proper caution: “As with all ancient tales, we can’t know what is to be taken literally and what is to be taken metaphorically. It doesn’t matter to me. I’m inspired by his story either way.”

So Wallis’ question, “Why, given their ostensible sophistication, do contemporary x-buddhists cling so stubbornly (ignorantly? something else?) to a naïve understanding of the very nature of the texts and teachings…” seems perhaps directed toward a straw man of his own making. Or perhaps he has just encountered far more unsophisticated individuals than I have – I’ve met my share, but, you know, moved on. I’m reminded of the re-emerged John Horgan, another contemporary writer who seems to have had a bad experience or two and now likes to tell Buddhists what they believe and how ridiculous they are. Theworsthorse has one handy excerpt, Barbara O’Brien conjures up a whole thought experiment for him.

And lastly, while evidence of pretty much anything around the time of the Buddha (yes, this ghost has dates, approximate ones at least) is scant, it is there, and scholars are doing very interesting work to tell us about that time and the person at the heart of it known as the Buddha.  Johannes Bronkhorst, Richard Gombrich, Gregory Schopen and others are digging in to history, each in their own way. And each time they present us with new evidence: linguistic, epigraphical, and so on, they broaden and deepen our understanding of this very beautiful time in history. I think all would agree that if the Buddha, the man, had not existed, someone just like him would have been needed to fill his place. If evidence (yes, the E word) does arise that he didn’t exist and the whole thing is a mass  conspiracy cooked up by creative individuals much later, I’ll be very interested to see it.

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  • Margaret Gouin

    I’d sort of like to know how Wallis defines ‘reliable historical basis’. He doesn’t say in the linked article. It’s like anything else: how you define the problem determines what you find. Is several millenia of acting on the basis of the reality of the Buddha (as if the Buddha existed) not enough? Well, no, for Wallis anyway. But why does it matter so much whether or not we can pin down a specific person in a specific time and say OK, there, that’s Gotama, now it’s okay to believe in what he taught. If we can’t point to that specific person, does that mean we shouldn’t believe in the teachings that have been handed down in his name? Perhaps, if the Buddha never ‘existed’ (in whatever way Wallis defines that), we would have had to invent him… and what’s wrong with that? Is Bunyan’s ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’ any less vital as a text because it’s an allegory? Gotama the Buddha was always just the finger pointing at the moon–enlightenment. ‘The Buddha’ stands for all those who have and will achieved enlightenment. ‘The Dharma’ stands for all he/she/they have taught/will teach to help us on the path. ‘The Sangha’ is all those throughout time and space who are seeking (regardless of whatever creed they may profess). Get on with it.

    • Justin Whitaker

      Well, as a person with a philosophical interest in the early texts, I enjoy looking at how they cohere, and wondering how and why they don’t at times. At one point he tells people to go on their own experience, at another point he’s performing miracles and discussing his disciples’ past lives. To rephrase your statement above: what you’re looking for defines what you find. I was first drawn in by much of the kalama sutta-like material of early Buddhism, and what fascinates me today is that this material seems fairly limited in contrast to the many other ways the Buddha (according to the Pali suttas) taught. Do we chuck out the ‘side’of Buddhism (or sides) that don’t fit our preconceived world-view? Or do we wonder about how it might fit together as a greater whole? On the practice side of things, yes, we can let the historical Buddha fade away as long as our immediate teachers embody the wisdom and compassion that we are looking for. From the scholarly side, I agree with Gombrich who once stated that we’re about 100 years behind biblical scholarship when it comes to understanding early Buddhism. As with any other searching into humanity’s past, it can help tell us a lot about who we are today.

  • Lee Kane

    The later vehicles of Buddhism are populated with many Buddhas and Bodhisattvas who are in no way “historical” and in most ways archetypes. Yet, I’ve never felt this diminished their message, the Dharma or diluted the credibility. Gotama was the historical Buddha, of course, and I’d argue that he did exist, but does it ultimately matter? What is precious are the three jewels, the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, and if the Buddha is a symbol or archetype it makes it no less a living presence. Or not, because ultimately, I think one of the most precious teachings is the Heart Sutra, so ultimately even the Buddha is nothing: “There is no cultivation, verification, or attainment.
    What has characteristics and is conditioned has a time of demise,
    And Bodhisattvas, in becoming enlightened to this truth,
    Trust to prajna, and became even with the other shore.
    The mind without impediments leaves the retribution-obstacle behind;
    A nature totally, truly empty puts an end to words and thoughts.
    I send these words to those of future worth: seek it in yourself;
    A head piled on top of a head is the height of stupidity.”
    I also love this Chinese story:
    “One day, during a big gathering he stood up to tell the people there Buddha could not possible exist.
    When people are starting to become convinced by his argument, he raised a chanllenge to the Buddha in a loud voice:”Ole Buddha! If you really exist, please come down here and kill me infront of these people! Then we will believe your existance!”
    He purposely waited for a few minutes. Of course the Buddha did not come and kill him.
    He turned to the left and right to the audience and said: “There you see, the Buddha doesn’t exist!”
    A woman with a towel covering her head stood up (Many women in the farming land in China wears towel like this) and spoke to the Scholar: “Sir, your argument is very compelling, and you are a very learnt person. I am just a farming woman, hence I can’t debate with you. But could you please answer a question I’ve been pondering? After practicing Buddhism for many years, my heart is filled with compassion and gratefulness just like the Buddha, hence I am always joyful. I am heart is fulled with the peacefulness and equality of the Dharma. Because of believing in Buddhism, life have obtained great joy. Now please tell me, If I discover during my death that Buddha does not exist. Have I lost anything because I believed in Buddhism all these years?”
    The scholar pondered for a long time, the whole gathering became completely silent, many people agreed with the woman’s argument.
    Even the scholar is suprised by the woman’s simple logic, he quietly said to the woman:”ma’am, I believe you haven’t lost anything.”
    The woman said to the scholar:”Thank you for your answer. However, I still have another question on my mind. If, during your death, you discover that the Buddha is absolutely real, heaven and hell also exists, may I please ask, what have you lost?”
    The scholar thought for a long time, but could not answer.”
    Perhaps I have a mystical bent to my feelings on this, but ultimately, I believe we’re all connected (and I know it’s over stated, but Quantum Physics to some extent somewhat supports this hypothesis), so if the Buddhas are mythical, rather than historical, they are no less real in the collective consciousness (again, over stated link to Jung).
    Ultimately, it’s an interesting intellectual argument (the historical reality of Buddha), but to a practicing Buddhist, it probably is not that important.
    Whether the Dharma came from an “invention” of a group or groups or people, or were inspired by one historical man, or were literally accurate all amounts to much the same thing. At least for me, Buddhism teaches us to find our own path to enlightenment, and the teachings are just a place to start. Namaste.

  • Glenn Wallis

    Greetings Justin,

    Thank you for discussing my work. But I am not asking the question, as you put it here, “did the Buddha even exist?” I have said in numerous places that “the Buddha” is a literary protagonist based on a historical figure; and that the historical figure has been completely overwritten by the literary one. So, I am asking a different question.

    Since you refer to Barbara O’Brien’s comment to someone else, allow me to repeat below a comment I made to Barbara. It applies to you (and your commentors here) as well. Before I do, I’d like to offer that the work of the scholars refer to in your final paragraph is not very interesting. In each case, what is being “dug up” and presented as “evidence” is extraordinarily flimsy, even, as far as I can determine, wholly inconsequential. But to responsibly discuss that scholarship, we’d have to, obviously, get more specific. My comment to Barabra at the Speculative Non-Buddhism blog:

    Thank you for offering your views. I hope you’ll have some time soon to read at least the heuristic section of my article “Nascent Speculative Non-Buddhism.” The reason I recommend that piece to you is that your comments here exemplify many of the postulates I formulate there. I think you might come to see your comments in a different light if you read what I say about, for instance: buddhemes; The Dharma; ideological suspicion; ventriloquism; voltaic network of postulation; decision; thaumaturgical refuge; vibrato. If nothing else, I hope you can read about “decision.” Perhaps reading my recent article will not change your perspective at all; but it will at least give you a sense of the direction of this blog in general and of “Ghost Buddha” in particular. In short, I am interested in identifying what I call “syntactical” features of x-buddhistic discourse. Specific terms of argument–as you present here–don’t interest me. Why not? Because the heuristic already predicts the form that the x-buddhistic argument will take. Given the decisional syntax that I identify, the specifics are endless (hence, the term x-buddhistic).

    • Justin Whitaker

      Thanks for clarifying, Glenn. I’ll make an effort to read your other article(s), but perhaps our interests diverge too much for interesting dialogue. I’m interested in what Buddhists say and have said over the centuries and, of course, the scholarly understanding of that discourse. As such I would question how much the literary figure has overwritten the historical Buddha – certainly not completely, to my mind. And as I am interested primarily in ideas, I am very interested in discussions of what ideas might have most likely come from him (in the texts) vs ideas that resulted in changes to the doctrine, misunderstandings, influences from new/later rivals, etc. So perhaps what most interests me, least interests you :) In any case, good luck with your project and thanks again for dropping by.

  • arunlikhati

    My comment relates specifically to that Asian holiday stuff in the second paragraph (naturally). Rohatsu is not a uniquely Japanese event; the holiday has its roots in a Chinese festival, which predates Buddhism in China. Though this holiday has pre-Buddhist origins, it has taken on a strong Buddhist dimension, even more so in Japan than in China. The celebration on April 8 is of Lord Buddha’s birthday—not to be confused with Vesak. (I’ve written about the April 8 holiday before.) I’m sure this will make a great trivia item at one of those post-meditation retreat cocktail parties. At least now you know.

    • Justin Whitaker

      Thanks, Arun! Now I just need a post-meditation retreat cocktail party :)

  • Sabio Lantz

    I found it very ironic when Ms. (Barbara O-Brian) graceously demonstrated the exact tone to whichGlenn Wallis’ site holds up a poetic mirror up. And with good timing, she also incarnated the exact techiniques of argument that David Chapman calls into question in his post: “How not to argue about Buddhism“.

    • Justin Whitaker

      Hia Sabio – interesting indeed. And perhaps worth further unpacking in terms of specific points or aspects of tone…