To be or not to be?
Non-self and nirvāṇa


It is probably safe to say that every religious tradition in the world has had to make decisions about how far one can deviate from a canonical statement of the tradition and still be considered an adherent of that tradition. Within Buddhism one of the many specific manifestations of this general problem is the question of whether one can still be considered to be going for refuge to the Dharma if one does not accept that the goal of nirvāṇa, as it is classically defined, is attainable.

The Pali scholar Lance S. Cousins (1998) writes that nirvāṇa “consists in the final removal of the disturbing mental elements which obstruct a peaceful and clear state of mind, together with a state of awakening from the mental sleep which they induce.” This awakened state, observes Cousins, is often commonly referred to as enlightenment. That, then, is a statement of what might be called the canonical or classical view of nirvāṇa. In contrast to that classical view one can find various people expressing what might be called a modern view of enlightenment or nirvāṇa, not as a “final removal of the disturbing mental elements” but rather as a temporary respite from them, perhaps even as a respite that one can more or less successfully return to from time to time. One representative sample of this non-classical view is offered by an articulate and engaging writer on yoga and Zen named Paul Bancroft, who writes:

There is really no such thing as an ‘enlightened’ individual. There are degrees of enlightenment: individuals who are more or less aware. There are individuals who perceive and act effectively in the moment and individuals who are caught up in preconceptions and fantasies. That isn't to say that there are not definite moments of revelation in the process of enlightenment, moments when the veil lifts and things become suddenly clearer. These moments will also seem overwhelmingly important at the time because they can have a major emotional impact. No matter—any moment of enlightenment that happened a week or a year ago is dead and buried. Enlightenment takes place in this moment, and it refuses to be described or frozen solid for later use. (Bancroft 2001, pp. 29–30)

As mentioned above, one of the many issues of modern Buddhism is whether someone who agrees with Paul Bancroft can still be considered a Buddhist who goes for refuge to the Dharma, when the Dharma to which a Buddhist goes for refuge is nirvāṇa as classically defined. I can recall, for example, giving a citation to Roger Jackson's fine book Is Enlightenment Possible? and receiving an outraged response from a gentleman in Thailand who wondered how on earth a list called buddha-l could endorse a book that was, as its title made abundantly clear, so hostile to Buddhism. The issue of whether one is meeting the minimum requirements of being considered a Buddhist by other Buddhists is probably of relatively minor importance to most people. What is perhaps more important to most is the practical question of whether one can still derive maximum benefit from all the various Buddhist practices even if one's views concerning the goals of practice are not canonical.

Closely connected to the doctrine of nirvāṇa, of course, is the question of what exactly the doctrine of anātman (non-self) is all about. What did the doctrine mean to people at the Buddha's time? What does it mean now? How is it to be understood on a practical level?

As the following squibs and screeds will show, these issues are not without considerable emotional investment by various modern people who follow Buddhism. It is ironic that there can be so much passion around the topic of what exactly dispassion is like and how long it lasts. Equally ironic is that so many people stake their identities on particular understandings of the doctrine of non-self. Clearly these issues are still very much alive and worthwhile for all of us to think about. It is hoped that the chapter that follows will provide food for thought without also causing indigestion.

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Ātman and Nirvāṇa

September 9, 1992

Dear sir,

I have been watching you struggling heroically and publicly with the Buddhist notion of anātman. Maybe I can help make things a little worse as you mull this one over. Among the things you have said are:

Buddha rejected Ātman completely, to the shock of the Brahman class of ancient India. He pulled the carpet out from under their whole teaching. Many people were not very happy about this and this continued clear up until the time Śaṅkara debated with a famous Buddhist scholar 800 years later, arguing in favor of the existence of Ātman and rejecting the Buddhist notion of Anātma, or No Self. This was a turning point in Indian history and pretty much marked the end of Buddhism in India. Śaṅkara must have been an awesome dude!

Giving credit to Śaṅkara for cleansing India of Buddhism may be bestowing upon him more awesome dudeness than he really deserves. First of all, it is hardly credible that any religion anywhere in the world is going to stand or fall on the correctness of one of its doctrines. Philosophical debates (even very good ones) are hardly ever major turning points in history. On the whole, ideas don't make much difference in the way the world goes. The real reasons for the demise of Buddhism in India are extremely complex. The major factors were a rich combination of political, economic, social, military and institutional forces. Buddhism continued to survive in the southern parts of India (Śaṅkara's homeland) for many centuries after it had disappeared in the northern parts of India. If Śaṅkara dealt the death blow to Buddhism, it still took the victim nearly 800 years to die after the blow had been delivered.

Even in the context of the history of Indian philosophy (minor as the history of philosophy is within the context of history as a whole), Śaṅkara's attempts to refute the Buddhists were not of any great consequence. He had no original arguments. Most of the weaknesses in the Buddhist position had already been pointed out centuries earlier by the likes of such Naiyāyika thinkers as Gautama, Vātsyāyana, and Uddyotakara and the Mīmāṃsika philosopher Kumārila. Don't forget that Śaṅkara died at the tender age of 32; he had just barely begun to cut his wisdom teeth.

Moreover, Buddhists continued to produce arguments against the ātman theory long after Śaṅkara's brief and insignificant hour upon the stage. Except in the minds of a handful of devoted advaitins, it was almost as if Śaṅkara had never existed at all.

Over the centuries, Buddhist philosophers produced quite a few arguments against the notion of the self as a permanent, stable, unchanging reality that underlies and experiences all change. Most of the arguments have one point in common: they point out that there is no satisfactory account for how a permanent and unchanging reality could be related to the world of changing phenomena. Such a being could neither act upon the world nor experience the world, since both acting and experiencing require undergoing some kind of change. If the self is no different before experiencing something than it is after experiencing something, then one wonders in what sense it has really experienced anything at all. But if the self does undergo changes as a result of its experiences, it is not permanent and unchanging after all. This argument was used by the Buddhists against the concepts of ātman, brahman, puruṣa, prakṛti and several other theoretically permanent and unchanging entities.

A couple of weeks ago, I was sitting on my terrace and watching a neighbor child playing with bubbles. He had a large loop which he placed in a soap solution; when the loop was passed through the air, huge bubbles were formed. They rose slowly into the air, glistening in the sun, producing all the colors of the rainbow. The child kept running after the bubbles, squealing with joyous laughter. Every time he tried to grab one, of course, the bubble burst. The child would then look all around as if trying to figure out where the bubble had gone.

The analogy of bubbles and foam was one of the metaphors most commonly used in Buddhist writings to describe the self. Try to hang on to it and it pops. When it pops, where does it go? Well, according to the Buddhists, it goes to the same place a flame goes when you blow it out. If you are the sort of person who needs to have names for things, even for absences, you could give a name to the popping of the bubble and the blowing out of the flame. You could call them nirvana. What remains when you blow out a flame? The world minus the flame. Who experiences the blowing out of the flame? Everyone but the flame itself.

Well, sir, you go think about that for a couple of decades. It will either begin to make sense after a while or it won't. Whether or not the Buddhist concept of nirvana does begin to make sense to you, all the real issues and problems of life will remain unsolved.

Richard Hayes

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(Praise of the three refuges)

December 17, 1994

In his commentary on something I probably never actually said, Bill said of Richard Hayes's view of Buddhism:

Buddhism for him seems to consist entirely of clear thinking and ethical action. And if this is an accurate summary of the Ricardoyana, then he's right up to a point. But if that's the whole story, then westerners don't need to study Buddhism at all. I think there's more to Buddhism than clear thinking and ethical action.

I would agree that Westerners don't need to study Buddhism at all; there is plenty of material around that will help them as much as Buddhism would. But the fact remains that there are Westerners who (like me) developed an affinity for Buddhism early enough in their life that they find it their principal point of reference.

As an aside, I only made the move of publicly going for refuge when I was certain that I was not, in so doing, denying the validity of other refuges to which one might go. This was especially important for me, because I had to purge my mentality of a whole range of bitter and negative emotions towards modernity and European culture as I then perceived them; I felt I could not really consider myself a practicing Buddhist if I was still going around making ignorant and uncharitable claims about science, technology, democracy, Christianity and Judaism. Of course I still make plenty of critical statements about many things, but I try to make them in a spirit of liberality, acceptance and tolerance.

Where my friend Bill is less accurate is in his characterization of Buddhism consisting for me entirely of clear thinking and ethical action. As is the case for everybody else, my Buddhism consists of my commitment to the Buddha, the Dharma and the Saṅgha. Like many Buddhists, I formally renew this commitment daily in ritual actions consisting of making prostrations before a Buddha image, making various kinds of symbolic offerings and chanting various traditional formulas in Pali. To me this daily ritual is of key importance (despite the fact that it is allegedly well-known that I have absolutely no use for rituals or icons of any kind).

Probably no two Buddhists have quite the same concept of the Three Refuges; and most people undergo quite a few changes of their understanding of these matters within a lifetime. At the present time, my understanding of what I am going to refuge to is approximately as follows:

The Buddha for me is a mythical figure, a literary character in a body of texts known as the Pali canon. I don't care at all whether this myth has any historical components. The Buddha Gotama is an ideal towards which I strive. The most important aspects of that mythical ideal for me (because of my own background, obviously) are

My sense of Dharma is quite Mahāyāna in spirit in that for me yat subhāṣitam tad buddha-vacanam (whatever is well spoken is [as good as] the word of the Buddha). Being well-spoken consists for me in being carefully thought out, well-intended, sincere and in keeping with one's actual behaviour. The Dharma, then, is also an ideal that comprises two key components: virtue (or good character) and a commitment to truth. Both of these are naturally manifested in good ethical conduct, and so I attach much importance to harmlessness, generosity, simplicity and contentment, truthfulness and mental clarity. I do not at all equate Dharma with the teachings of the Buddhism, for I have not found all Buddhist teachings equally helpful, and I have drawn much of value from non-Buddhist sources. Following the traditional Buddhist thinkers who have most influenced me (Dharmakīrti and his gang), I attach much importance to the untranslatable term yoniśo manaskāra (careful, systematic, radically critical thinking), which I see as quite similar in spirit to Greek skepticism and idealized science—but not science as it is actually practiced in most of modern society. This tendency to admire critical thinking is very deep-rooted in me, and it manifests what I take to be quite essential to the Dharma; still, it seems to get me in trouble sometimes with people for whom the Dharma is somewhat different.

The Saṅgha for me is also the idealized (mythical) community of Stream-entrants up to Arhants as described in Theravāda literature (and not as caricatured in Mahāyāna literature), and bodhisattvas as limned in Mahāyāna literature. This is the ārya-saṅgha to which Buddhists are supposed to go for refuge. I think there may be some Buddhists in that Saṅgha, but I take it that there are also plenty of people from other traditions. I suppose there may even be a few monks in the āryasaṅgha but I don't attach much importance to whether people are monks or lay people. If people choose to live eleemosynary lives, that is fine by me, but I don't think that that lifestyle in itself is necessarily virtuous. The whole notion of monks as fields of merit makes me a bit cranky.

That's all pretty traditional, but it may differ just enough from how some of you regard the Three Jewels that I sound a bit like a wild man to some of you. But in fact I'm not at all wild, heretical or even loud. Just wordy.

Now, Bill, you tell me what I left out.

Yours in verbosity,
Mubul alias Richard Hayes

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More Triratnakīrti

December 19, 1994

Bill was left with the impression that my version of Buddhism seems not to include Nibbāna. He goes on to say:

Right now I am under the impression that Nibbāna is unique to the Buddhist path, and this is partly why I worded my original questions the way I did. Is Nibbāna also a myth (like karma/rebirth)?

Yes and no. If you understand nirvana as the cessation of future rebirth, then obviously the cessation of rebirth is exactly as mythical as rebirth itself. But if you understand nirvana as the radical elimination of the causes of discontent (which is quite different from pain and suffering) in one's own mentality, then nirvana need not be taken as being mythical in quite the same way that rebirth is. (Of course one might very well hold the view that nirvana is something like an asymptote, an ideal limit that no one ever reaches; this is the view I in fact am inclined to take, which means of course that I also regard enlightenment and buddhahood as ideals toward which we Buddhists all strive but that no one ever actually attains. So this is perhaps a bit like saying that nirvana is a myth, in the sense that it is not a historical achievement but rather an impossible goal.)

Is nirvana as I see it unique to Buddhism? I don't think so. I suppose it must be pretty similar to the ataraxia sought by certain Stoics and Skeptics, and to the states of liberation sought by some Brahmanical systems (especially, I would suggest, the Nyāya system). It is, I think, inexcusably parochial to think that the Buddha was unique in providing a clear description of the highest good, and a set of practices leading to it. It seems to me that the traditional Buddhist doctrine of the pratyeka-buddha, the person who attains nirvana without ever hearing the teachings of a Buddha, is an antidote to the narrow exclusivism of those who would claim that only Buddhists can become enlightened or attain nirvana or be truly ethical. I know Bill Kish is not making such ridiculously triumphalist claims, but I suppose there might be some Buddhists whose enthusiasm would carry them away into making such claims.

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Asymptotic Dharma

December 20, 1994

Bill writes:

Your use of “discontent” here seems slightly different than how I usually think of dukkha, which most definitely includes pain and suffering.

But surely when it is said that an arhant has attained nirvana, defined as the end of duḥkha, the claim is never made that arhanthood entails the end of physical pain or even ordinary sadness. The Buddha himself illustrates that. In his old age he suffered all the aches and pains of old age; he died a painful death; in his final years he was deeply saddened by the deaths of his most senior disciples; he was frankly discouraged by the quality of the younger people who were becoming monks. He did not hesitate to scold people in no uncertain terms (and no one accused him of using harsh speech). He reportedly felt all the physical pains and mental sorrows and disappointments that everyone else feels, for these are unavoidable. What he allegedly did not experience any longer were the unnecessary kinds of discontent that comes of taking all the vicissitudes of life too personally; he managed to learn how not to intensify ordinary pain by trying to resist it.

Bill continues:

But even in this apparently modified form of dukkha, you assert below that we can only approach its eradication asymptotically.

I am speaking practically here, not doctrinally. Of course there is no Buddhist text (that I know of) that says in straightforward language: “Nirvana is an asymptote.” But I think we need to use a little bit of imagination in interpreting what the texts do say; if no attempt is made to apply texts to human experiences, then what is the point of studying them? Texts become static and dead if you don't use a bit of imagination rooted in practical experience. So get naked with me, as I try to explain where I see this asymptotic idea coming into Buddhism quite early on. (If you don't want to get naked, then just bare with me.)

One of the earliest controversies reported among Buddhists was over the matter of whether arhants can regress to a worldly mentality. Now if you know how an arhant is defined in the texts, the question makes no sense at all. An arhant is by definition incapable of reverting to a worldly mentality. So the question makes no sense at all from a purely doctrinal point of view. But there is another way of seeing what the question is asking, which is to look at it from the point of view of people's practical experience. Seen in this way, the question really amounts to asking whether anyone actually attains the state of an arhant. This question clearly arose when people were alleged to be arhants but were still acting as if they were quite worldly. Perhaps the question was asked at a time rather like today, when more than a few people who were supposed to be enlightened reverted to being drunks, lechers and cheats.

It is not an unreasonable question, it seems to me, and I think we do ourselves a real disservice if we shy away from asking it: has anyone in history ever lived up to the definition of an arhant? Has anyone in history actually ever been a Buddha? The implicit answer to this question, in at least some forms of Buddhism, seems to be negative. The elaborate tradition of the stages (bhūmi) of the bodhisattva's career says that a bodhisattva reaches a stage of irreversibility only at the eighth of the ten stages; on that same scale, it is said that the historical figure Nāgārjuna attained only the second stage. When an historical character who is widely believed in Mahāyāna circles to be one of the greatest living exemplars of the bodhisattva path is still only one-quarter of the way to the point at which he cannot slide back into worldliness, then I think we are saying that from a purely practical and human point of view (which is the only point of view about which we can speak with any confidence as practitioners), the bodhisattva career is a curve that tends towards but never reaches an ideal limit. It is, in other words, an asymptote.

Bill then says:

If nirvana is seen as an impossible goal, then from a practical standpoint it's just as mythological as Maitreya and Tushita Heaven. It would also follow that “nirvana” is not unique to Buddhism.

Right. That is exactly what I have been suggesting. Is this hypothesis astonishing?

Likewise, there would be nothing to realize, no Unborn (despite what the Theras say).

This does not follow from anything I have said. There is plenty to realize, namely everything good that lies between what you now are and what you have the potential to be. One way of looking at this is to reflect on your own practice. I may just be unlucky and quite unusual in this respect, but I often see my own practice as a bit like walking towards the horizon. No matter how far and how fast I walk, the horizon is still way over yonder. If I measure my practice only in terms of how far I still have to go, then I feel as if I have spent more than a quarter of a decade spinning my wheels. But if I look back at where I have been, I see that I have come a reasonable way. Seen in retrospect, I can see that there are many harmful ways of behaving that I used to engage in pretty routinely that are now unthinkable to me; and some kinds of conduct that I used to think no one could ever attain are now part of my daily habit. And yet, as objects on the horizon, the ten precepts still seem as impossibly unattainable as they did when I first heard them, perhaps because I am much more aware of all the ways in which my conduct is still avoidably harmful. I could make similar observations about every single aspect of Buddhist practice: the practice of dhyāna, the development of vipaśyanā, the cultivation of friendship and the other three brahma-vihāras, the practice of generosity, the cultivation of patience, the study of traditional theory, and so on for anything that you can call Buddhist practice. Everything is asymptotic.

If these things were not asymptotes, I might have stopped long ago. There is a real danger in thinking that ideals can actually be realized. The Dharma for me is nicely captured in the lyrics of the song “Sérénité” by Québec singer Daniel DeShaime.

Une femme inconnue, toujours plus belle
Qui s'éloigne quand tu approches d'elle
Une étoil perdue au fond du ciel
Dont parfois je me rapelle

An unknown woman, ever more lovely,
Who retreats when you get close to her,
A star lost in the depths of the sky
Whom I sometimes recall

Bill concludes

I must confess, I find the prospect of Buddhism without nirvana is something of a disappointment.

Where is the Buddhism without Nirvana? The Buddhism I am talking about still has Nirvana as the principal ideal and as the central myth. It is still the asymptote towards which I am striving in vain. I have rejected other asymptotes altogether, such as being perfectly affluent, perfectly famous, perfectly admired, and perfectly comfortable. I still think it is a good idea to choose one's unattainable goals with care, because even though you never reach them, you do get somewhere. When I look at people my age who have spent their lives pursuing other unreachable goals, I wouldn't trade places with any of them, but many of them have said they would love to trade places with me. This makes me confident (or, if you prefer other terminology, it gives me faith) that I have chosen a pretty good asymptote. Not uniquely good. But pretty good.

Richard Hayes

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A Buddhist Inquisition?

May 30, 1995

On 29 May 1995, a contributor who now wishes to remain anonymous sent in a message on the topic of going for refuge. Honoring this contributor's request not to be identified, I have given him the fictitious name Devasālā (which means House of God). I have further protected his identity by paraphrasing the important points he made rather than quoting his full message verbatim. I have chosen to do this because he articulated admirably a position held by numerous Western Buddhists whom I have known over the years.

  1. The working definition of a Buddhist is a person who has gone for refuge to the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Saṅgha.
  2. Taking refuge is an act of faith, since it can only be done by someone whose knowledge of the Buddhist path to awakening is still incomplete.
  3. The word “refuge” should be understood as being synonymous with “shelter” and “protection”. It is done by someone who is feeling distress or who feels under attack.
  4. An important distinction is to be made between true refuge and false refuge, the latter being something that is falsely believed to provide protection against our true enemies, which are greed, hatred and delusion. Examples of false refuge would be material possessions, sexuality, alcohol, drugs, gods and nature.
  5. People who go for refuge in false sources of refuge or who go for refuge falsely to the Buddha, Dharma and Saṅgha are not Buddhists.
  6. A person goes for refuge falsely if he or she does not believe that the Buddha actually attained Nirvana or Enlightenment but was merely a good philosopher or a morally upright person.
  7. A person also goes for refuge falsely if he or she believes that full liberation is an unattainable goal, for this would be tantamount to denying that the Dharma can actually lead people to liberation. One cannot go for refuge in what one denies.
  8. A person also goes for refuge falsely if he or she does not believe that there really have been people who have attained the ultimate goal of Nirvana or the stages along the path known as Stream-entry, Once-return and Never-return.
  9. If a person believes that the key teachings of Buddhism are mythic rather than historical or symbolic rather than literal, then that person is not capable of going for refuge to the Buddha, the Dharma and the Saṅgha, for it is impossible to go for refuge to a myth or to what one believes is a fantasy.
  10. There are many people who claim to be Buddhists who in fact are not, because they are either going for refuge to false refuges or are falsely going for refuge due to their mistaken views concerning the Buddha, the Dharma and the Saṅgha.
  11. Some non-Buddhists pretend to be Buddhists because they are merely ignorant, while others pretend to be Buddhists for malicious reasons, namely, for the purpose of undermining the Dharma.
  12. An example of a deluded non-Buddhist would be a person who follows a New Age religion or a charismatic guru.
  13. Another example of a non-Buddhist would be a logician or philosopher who is devoid of faith, since this sort of person is driven by ego and in fact takes refuge only in reason or in himself. Only a person who has faith can be a true Buddhist.
  14. People who are merely deluded should be corrected by being taught the truth.
  15. People who are malicious and fraudulent in their pretending to go for refuge should be openly rebuked, and the public should be made aware that such people are actually hostile to Buddhism but are hiding their hostility behind a mask of false piety.

Devasālā has made a number of interesting points on which I would like to offer some reflections.

It has often occurred to me that the United States of America, that land of recreational fundamentalism, could easily become the home of a kind of Buddhist Inquisition. I do not take this as a negative statement, for I do not find anything offensive in principle about inquisitions. It's only when an inquisition gets out of hand and turns dangerous that I worry about them.

As is well known, the Christian Inquisition was called to meet a very real crisis that had come about because of an overly rapid conversion rate. People became Christians so quickly and so automatically, owing mostly to political pressures from outside the Church, that they did not have proper time to reflect on what exactly being a Christian entails, both in faith and in practice. Even more potentially dangerous was the fact that people were becoming priests without adequate training and preparation, and too many of them were untutored and thus had no idea at all what Christian doctrine was. They therefore taught whatever they happened to believe, and quite often what they taught was quite at odds with accepted doctrine, which itself was the product of many generations of very careful reflection. The Inquisition was called as an attempt to examine—Inquisition simply means Examination—the beliefs and practices of priests and to ensure that they were consistent with established Christian doctrine. Given that the situation in Buddhism in North America is somewhat parallel to the situation of Christianity in northern Europe in the tenth century or so, insofar as there are rather more teachers than there are competent teachers, some kind of examination seems very much to be in order. Needless to say, one would not like for this examination to become a pretext for persecution and excommunication and bans of anathema as it did in Europe. One would hope for a more Middle Path approach to Inquisition.

As I have said many times before, there was a period of about five years in my life when I attended Quaker meetings every week. I liked Quakers, because they were excellent and inspirationally decent people, and because they didn't talk or sing and disturb my zazen when I was attending their religious services. The Quakers have a very nice set of questions for self-examination, a sort of auto-inquisition as it were, that the clerk of the meeting reads from time to time. They are really quite beautiful and helpful ways of focusing one's mind on a set of ideals and examining one's own mentality and conduct against those ideals. These questions are called the Advices and Queries.

I wonder if it would not be possible to translate parts of Devasālā's message into a more Quakerly auto-inquisitional mode and to remove passages that seem to be accusatory of others rather than items for self-criticism. Let me try just a couple of passages.

There are many people who take refuge in conditioned, unenlightened things. They take refuge in money, in sex, in drugs, in gods, in nature. These things are not conducive to liberation and provide no refuge from suffering and the defilements. People who take refuge in them are not Buddhists.

There are genuine refuges and there are false refuges. Taking refuge in property, pleasure and escapism or in the worship of figments of the imagination is false refuge. Am I myself taking false refuge? Or am I taking refuge in what can genuinely offer sanctuary and guidance?

There are many people who do not see the point of going for refuge at all. They feel it makes them look weak. They do not care to admit a dependency on anyone or anything. They take refuge in things of their own creation, in their machines and their philosophies and their sciences and their logics. They take refuge in themselves. But because they are deluded, they are no refuge from suffering and the defilements. People who take refuge in themselves and their works are not Buddhists.

Do I fear taking refuge for fear of appearing weak or dependent? If so, then this may be false pride. Do I imagine that I am taking refuge in others when in fact I am merely exalting myself and my own abilities so that others will take notice of me and sing my praises? If so, then I am not truly taking refuge.

There are followers of personality cult gurus who claim to be Buddhists. They also often have a very poor knowledge of the Dharma.

Am I genuinely taking refuge in the Dharma, which is essentially impersonal and yet applicable to all people? Or am I infatuated with a teacher because of his personal charms or his ability to manipulate my emotions to serve his own ends; or am I following a teacher because I fear the power she exerts over me, or because I fear being rejected and cast out? Am I attracted to the Dharma because I find it lovely in the beginning and the middle and the end? Am I going to the Dharma for refuge because I recognize in it principles that I can no longer doubt, truths from which I can no longer hide?

Well, that's a pretty awkward attempt at translation, but I hope it gives some idea of the kind of thing I am talking about. The point is that phrasing the observations as questions that one directs towards oneself, rather than saying about others “They cannot be Buddhists, because they do not manifest their going for refuge in ways I recognize as genuine,” may be somewhat more productive and less likely to be misconstrued as hatred or accusatory denunciation of others whom one perceives as heretics or apostates.

Richard P. Hayes

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A question of death

September 19, 1993

Charles Sanders Peirce wrote in 1877 that an ability to think logically was no doubt of value to human beings in a small range of practical tasks, and therefore the principles of natural selection might favor animals that can be rational. But aside from these few practical matters, Peirce (1877, p. 8) said “it is probably of more advantage to the animal to have his mind filled with pleasing and encouraging visions, independently of their truth; and thus, upon unpractical subjects, natural selection might occasion a fallacious tendency of thought.”

Last week my mother was admitted to a hospice, where I sat by her side for the last two days of her life. She probably never knew I was there, because by the time she was admitted, she was barely conscious. She had firmly refused all food and drink and medications for several days, and she had told her doctor and the family that she wanted to die. She had left us all written instructions on what to do and what not to do. As hard as it was at first to honor her last wishes, we all knew that it would be a gross violation of her person to force nourishments and medications into her dying body. It was a difficult death, not the sort of uplifting passage into serenity that one reads about in Reader's Digest. Nevertheless, we were grateful to find a hospice to which people can go to die with a minimum of interference and a maximum of loving kindness from well-trained support staff.

Although the hospice was part of a Christian hospital, it was filled with reminders of a Buddhist presence. Most of the nurses had attended workshops on death and dying conducted by Stephen Levine and various people connected with Sogyal Rinpoche, whose book on death and dying is now being sold all over the world. Quotations from Buddhist sources were written on inspirational posters that were tastefully placed in strategic locations. My father told one of the nurses that I have been a Buddhist most of my adult life, and she remarked that I must therefore be handling my mother's death quite well.

The nurse was right. I did handle my mother's death rather well. I cried. My father and I felt every emotion available to sentient beings, and we talked about what we were feeling. And we sat silently and did our best to say goodbye to a person who had profoundly influenced both of our lives for fifty years but was now determined to leave us behind.

The nurse was also wrong. I didn't handle the situation well because of my Buddhist training as an adult. What gave me strength and comfort and courage was my “mind filled with pleasing and encouraging visions, independently of their truth” of the sort that Peirce talked about. A little to my surprise, none of the visions of Buddhism were pleasing and encouraging. On the contrary, they all got in the way. When it was obvious to me several months ago that my mother would soon being dying, I read a bit of the book by Sogyal Rinpoche, and it frankly struck me as a collection of mindless platitudes. Like most other Buddhist books I had read, I found that this one was built on a foundation of myths, every single one of them struck me as silly and false.

No, what sustained me was the mythology that I had been taught as a child: the teachings of scientific materialism. One of the nurses asked my father what he believed about the afterlife. He told her what he had always taught me when I was a child: people live for a while, and then they die, and when they are dead they are totally gone forever; life is essentially meaningless and without purpose, and so is death. The nurse pulled me aside and confided to me that she had no idea what to say to a person with such a materialistic view of life; she could find no words of comfort for people who did not believe in the survival of something after death. She said she thought I was lucky to be a Buddhist instead of a materialist like my father. I smiled and confessed that my beliefs were just about exactly the same as my father's—not surprising, since it was he and my mother who taught them to me. The nurse seemed a bit stunned, as if she suddenly didn't know what to say to comfort me. Fortunately, neither my father nor I needed much comfort that we couldn't give one another by reciting our materialistic mythology to each other, neither of us particularly concerned with the truth of the myths.

As I said above, the Buddhist myths got in the way. Nothing could have been more repulsive to me than the idea that my mother's mentality continuum would pass into another body for another run at saṃsāra. I could never wish any fate so cruel upon anyone I loved as much as my mother. All I could possibly wish for her was parinibbāna, the total extinction of all mentality that supposedly comes with the death of an arhant. But I could not believe that she was an arhant. So that whole set of Buddhist myths was unavailable to me.

Nor could I wish for my mother that she be ushered into a Pure Land somewhere; unless Pure Lands are all equipped with areas especially set aside for people with sardonic wit and irreverent senses of humor, my mother would gag on the pietistic sweetness of all the dharma talks in a land of bliss. A Pure Land would be as god-awful as going to heaven and finding herself in the company of a bunch of Baptists and Catholics and Muslims and things. Just not my mother's cup of tea, thank you.

No, the only myth that made any sense to me was the promise of a quiet retreat from the prickly brier patch into utter nonexistence, a final burning out of a once bright (and a very funny) flame, a dissipation into oblivion in which all mistakes are forgiven and all accomplishments eventually forgotten. And this myth was available to me only after I quietly discarded all the Buddhist dogmas that I have been studying for the past twenty-five years and returned to the sweet materialistic myths that were whispered in my ear when I was in the cradle.

I am curious. I wonder how many Western people have spent an adult lifetime fancying themselves to be Buddhists, only to discover it was all a game, an exercise in self-deception. Is it really ever possible to set aside the beliefs that one is taught in childhood? Can those silly myths ever really be replaced by other equally silly myths? Should they be?

Richard P. Hayes

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Death and the modern Buddhist

August 14, 1997

Someone has written to me saying that she does not like my view on nirvana as oblivion, because she loves life. I do not wish to get involved in an “I love life more than you love life” contest, but I also really love life and have done for a very long time. There is not a day that goes by that I wish I had lived any differently, and I have yet to wish that I were even a day younger. It's beginning to feel as though there is nothing that I can do to make things go wrong. Even the heartaches have turned out well. It's almost ridiculous.

Now I am quite aware of the fallacy known as post hoc ergo propter hoc—the fallacy of saying that if X comes after Y, then Y was the cause of X. So all it would be safe for me to say is that life took its positive turn for me when it really dawned on me, I mean really hit me, that life is fatal and that fatality is irreversible. When it really hit me as an existential reality that I will never come this way again, and that that is true every time I take a breath, everything changed dramatically for the better. I don't know why. It just did.

Witnessing the death of someone you really love very deeply can be quite transformative. A critical turning point for me was seeing my mother's body lying stiff and still in her bed when she had been quite alive only moments before. Seeing her so very dead made it exceedingly clear to me that I would never hear her wonderful laugh again, would never see her bright blue eyes twinkle mischievously as she pulled someone's leg with another one of her amazing sleight-of-mind tricks, would never again see her bring joy to a troubled friend's heart. It was finished, and I knew it. And I just let go. It was nice to know her, very good to have been her son. I knew I couldn't have been a son without her help. But her work was done. She had earned her oblivion, and I was glad she no longer existed. It helped to know that she died not longing for more life and not regretting the life she had lived.

Now it is my belief that a great deal of what made that event such a powerful turning point in my life was that I saw it all as a Buddhist. I saw that my mother had “done what was to be done” and had gone out like a flame when the fuel has been all used up. The physical elements were there and would be returned to the physical earth. But the spirit, the essence of this vibrant person, would never again come back. Pieces of it would live a few more years in the memories of those who knew her. But before long, all those who know her will also be dead. Finding a trace of her will become as impossible as finding the track of a bird that flew in the sky a millennium ago.

If I had not been a Buddhist, I might not have known the importance of letting go, of not clinging, of not being attached. I might have started praying for her quick return to another human birth in the hopes of seeing her again. I might have been blinded by hope and incapable of facing the truth of the fact that people do not come back. But I am a Buddhist. So I have heard these things and thought about them and reflected on them. People do not even come home from shopping errands. Every moment is new. Nothing happens twice. There is no point in clinging to anything. Having internalized all that, I knew how to let go when it was important to do so. And when I knew I could let go of my mother's life, I also knew I could let go of mine.

Practice is a very mysterious business. You can do it for years and years, and it feels as though nothing is happening. Last night there was a new person at meditation, so I had to explain how to do the mettā-bhāvanā meditation to him. After meditation was over, another meditater said “Tonight, for the first time, I actually got somewhere with that exercise.” For nine years she has been doing it regularly. She has heard me explain it probably a few hundred times. But last night it just all sunk in finally. That's the way practice goes. One day it just clicks. And then one gets a glimpse of what it could be like to be really positive every moment of one's life. That begins to seem like an attainable goal and not simply somebody's pipe dream.

I think that seeing nirvāṇa as oblivion was fundamental to my learning to let go. And I think that letting go is fundamental to living a very positive life, a life that is especially full because you know it will end very soon.

Reverencing the Buddha, we offer flowers:
Flowers that today are fresh and sweetly blooming,
Flowers that tomorrow are faded and fallen.
Our bodies too, like flowers, will pass away.
(FWBO Puja Book)

Unafraid of wilting,

Postscript: It is because I wish that everyone could be as positive as I am that I try to say things that may help others who appear still to be struggling. If what I say is of help, I am delighted. If it is not, then I hope someone else will say something that is of more help than what I have said.

Re: Death and the Modern Buddhist

August 15, 1997

Bhikkhu Punnadhammo wrote:

Ven. Punnadhammo
It is quite impossible to “preserve the traditional teachings of Buddhism” and at the same time “accept the modern scientific view of death as oblivion.” The Buddha was well acquainted with the materialist view, which existed in his day, and he emphatically rejected it.

The Buddha was not, however, aware of the modern scientific view of life and death, so he could not have rejected it. The view that the Buddha rejected was the view that there is an enduring, unchanging self during life and that it ends at death. This is not the view of modern science.

Buddhism is the middle path between these two false views because it recognizes the transient and dependently arisen nature of all mundane phenomena (including consciousness.)

In this respect, Buddhism and modern science teach very similar things. Both Buddhism and modern science reject the presupposition of ancient materialists.

Bhante goes on to ask:

What is so “scientific” about the idea of death as oblivion anyway?

What is scientific about any view is the method by which the view was reached. One begins with a working hypothesis, does experiments, rejects hypotheses that are overthrown by experimental findings and so on. I think the “oblivion” hypothesis is the one that best explains the systematic observations that have been made on the matter for the past one hundred fifty years or so. But it is only an hypothesis. It is one that I will gladly reject as soon as anyone produces evidence that suggests that the death of the physical body does not have any bearing on the continuation of memories, physical sensations, volitions and so forth.

Punnadhammo quotes a passage from the Udāna:

There is, bhikkhus, a not-born, a not-brought-to-being, a not-made, a not-formed. If, bhikkhus, there were no not-born, not brought-to-being, not-made, not-formed, no escape would be discerned from what is born, brought-to-being, made, formed. But since there is a not-born, not brought-to-being, not-made, not-formed, therefore an escape is discerned from what is born, brought-to-being, made, formed.

I am sorry, Punnadhammo Bhikkhu, but this sounds like absence to me. I take this very passage as evidence for the view that the only thing that nirvāna can possibly be is utter and absolute absence. It is the only interpretation that makes good logical sense. I admit that I am only guessing here, but I assume that absence is not conscious. And so if nirvāna is absence, it cannot be conscious.


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Traditional Buddhism vs Materialism

August 16, 1997

Bhikkhu Punnadhammo wrote about my comments on the Udāna passage that he quoted:

I think the passage implies quite the contrary. The Pali has “atthi bhikkhave, ajātam abhūtam” etc. The key word here is atthi which is an affirmation of reality, not a negation. There is the Unborn, the Uncreate.

As you know very well, Bhante, atthi is nothing but a copula, which links subject with predicate. And sometimes it functions in about the same way as English “There is...” It does not necessarily have the suggestion of existence. When one says, for example, “There is an absence of cheese in my refrigerator,” one is not saying that something called the absence of cheese exists in the refrigerator. One is saying that no cheese is there. If someone said “There is no cheese here,” you would not think the “there is” signified some transcendental stuff called Uncheese, would you? Similarly, when the Buddha says “atthi ajātam abhūtam” he is simply saying that there is no birth and no further becoming once one has relinquished craving and hostility. “Done is what was to be done. There will never again be for me any arising in any form.” Is this not the phrase one constantly reads as the victory cry of the one who has attained arhanthood?

Punnadhammo goes on to say:

This is the “good news” of Buddhism (at the risk of introducing into this list another phrase from our eternalist friends). What is the possible sense of the Third Noble Truth if there were no transcendental element?

It depends on what you mean by transcendental element. I take it that you mean lokuttara, which means “superior to the world.” Being out of the world is better (uttara) than being in the world (loka). But one is going too far to say that this absence from the world is itself a being of some kind that has the character of being transcendental. This, as Vasubandhu states, would be like thinking that when one turns off the light the light leaves the room and darkness enters. In fact, darkness is merely a name for the absence of light. Similarly, nirvāna is merely a name for the absence of craving. It need not signify the presence of anything else.

Of course you are entitled to your views but I cannot see how in all good faith you can pretend they are reconcilable with traditional Buddhism which affirms the reality of a spiritual dimension beyond this rather unsatisfactory world.

Here I must say you are not on very solid ground, Bhante. There is nothing in Buddhism that affirms the reality of a spiritual dimension beyond this world. Nothing at all. What Buddhism does affirm is that dukkha (often translated as unsatisfactoriness) comes to an end (nirodha). As you know, this term nirodha (cessation) is considered synonymous with nirvāna.

The way that I can in good faith reconcile my views with those of traditional Buddhists is by reading traditional Buddhism with care and thinking about what it is they are saying and taking care not to read anything more into their words than what is there. I think this is the standard procedure.


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A few thoughts on birth and death

August 16, 1997

Bhikkhu Punnadhammo wrote:

I find the idea of a materialist Buddhism a curious one. The teachings on rebirth are not “silly superstitions”, they are the words of the Buddha. You might feel the Buddha was wrong but you shouldn't pretend that contrary views are the “real” Buddhism.

I think if you will read with greater care, Bhante, you will see that no one is claiming that the materialist view is the “real” Buddhism and that others are wrong. All that I have said is that one can be a materialist in the modern sense of the word and still be a Buddhist, because there is no real contradiction or tension involved. I can't recall anyone ever saying that materialism is the only correct interpretation of the Buddha's words. I do recall it being said that materialism is not necessarily contrary to what is of fundamental importance within Buddhism.

To put this matter in practical terms, I think if one insists that Buddhism is emphatically not materialistic and cannot be reconciled with materialism, one will turn a lot of people away from the Dhamma, who might otherwise benefit from it, and by benefiting from it make the world as a whole a better place. What good comes of being so restrictive?

But the Buddhist teaching is emphatically not a materialist one; he didn't teach oblivion.

This is a matter of interpretation. The Buddhist tradition itself has been divided on this issue for 2500 years. I am sure we cannot solve it this week. What we can do is to interpret the Buddha's words in the way that makes most sense to us and respect the opinions of others who interpret them in other ways.

To the materialist, Nibbāna must seem as utter destruction because the materialist is unable to conceive of the possibility of other realities.

Perhaps it is a matter of not feeling a need to believe in other realities. Perhaps the materialist has learned how not to crave for anything more than what meets the senses.

Nibbāna is something utterly transcendent to this mundane existence. It is ineffable, which means it cannot be described and everything that can be said about it is completely wrong; including this paragraph.

Oblivion is also ineffable and incomprehensible. It cannot be experienced or imagined at all. So it is also entirely beyond this world. And, if one finds the world-as-experienced terrible, then oblivion of that terror would be better (uttara) than being in the world (loka), so it would be lokuttara. Right? There is no contradiction involved in seeing nirvāṇa as oblivion. It is just not how you want to see it. That is fine. You see it your way, and I'll see it mine. The only thing that would be contrary to the teachings of the Buddha would be for either of us to deny the other's sincerity in going for refuge to the Buddha, the Dharma and the Saṅgha. For either of us to doubt the other's sincerity or bona fides (good faith) would be most heinous and reprehensible.

From a purely practical point-of-view I cannot imagine how anyone can get really serious about the practice, which involves discipline and dedication, if one doesn't accept the idea of many lifetimes.

Given that you are open-minded, Bhante, I'm sure you will be able to imagine it if I explain to you how I do it. Please bear with me.

From as early as I can recall anything at all, I can recall my parents drilling into me the importance of being thoughtful of others. The only reason they ever gave to me was “Other people want to be happy every bit as much as you do. So think of their happiness as you would think of your own.” That's the only thing I was ever told, but I was told that repeatedly. And what I was told was reinforced by how my parents behaved. In everything they did, they tried to exemplify this principle; and when they failed to exemplify it, they made a point of telling me that they had failed and that I should try to follow their good examples, not their failures. On the other hand, they said that people do sometimes fail, for that is part of being human. My parents never once said to me that I must be thoughtful of others so that others would be thoughtful of me; in fact, they told me that many people would probably take advantage of my kindness to them, but that is no reason to stop being kind to them. My parents never said that God would punish me if I failed to be thoughtful of others. They never said I would be rewarded for being good. They never said I would have to come back and live in this world again and again. They just said “Others wish to be happy as much as you do. Honor their wish.”

The Buddha said “I have examined all the quarters of the universe, and I have found nothing more dear to me than myself. No living thing finds anything dearer to it than itself.” And that, as Buddhaghosa rightly points out, is the basis of mettā. It is why it is best to begin the mettā-bhāvanā by wishing for one's own happiness. One then knows how it feels to wish for contentment. One then knows how every living creature feels. And that is all one needs to know. If one needs more than that as an incentive to be good, then one probably lacks the capacity to be good no matter what one is told.

Now what is my incentive to practice? I am imperfect. I make mistakes. I fail to make all of me as good as what is best in me. So I strive to become a little better at living up to my highest potential. I work on that every day of my life. And the set of methods by which I do that is by reading Buddhist texts, thinking about them and putting them into practice. I call myself a Buddhist, because it would be plagiarism not to give credit to Buddhism for all that I have gained by studying it and practicing it for the past thirty years. It does not bother me in the least if other Buddhists deny that I am “really” a Buddhist, any more than it bothers me when any other foolish people are wrong about other things.

If this is it and its lights out with no karmic reckoning then why not just indulge in every type of sense pleasure?

Doing so would destroy the planet. Look at the lifestyle in North America and Europe. It is very self-indulgent, and it is destroying the planet. It is leaving a world for the future that will not be very pleasant at all. It may even be limiting the possibility of the survival of quite a few species of sentient being. Is it not sufficient to know that the sentient beings of the future will want to be happy as much as you do? If not, then I doubt very much that karmic reckoning will deter you from being careless and self-indulgent. If you cannot care for the welfare of the ant crawling near your foot, how can you care for the well-being of some hypothetical future incarnation of yourself?

There is practical wisdom in the Tibetan tradition in the way in which they emphasize contemplation on the horrors of saṃsāra as a beginner's exercise. This of course is balanced with contemplation of the preciousness of human rebirth.

If contemplating the preciousness of human birth is effective, imagine how effective it must be to think “I have but one life. If I do not put it to good use, I will have wasted the food that I ate and the air that I breathed. I will have left a planet that is worse off for my having been here.”

Do you want to get old knowing that your life has been nothing but a process of turning rice and potatoes into shit that stinks in your nostrils? If you knew you would die this afternoon, would it be enough to you to think that all you did with your life was to leave a corpse fat enough to feed maggots for a week? If not, then start working on yourself when you are still young. Forget about past lives and future lives. They are mere speculation anyway. Think of this life. It is truly samdiṭṭhiko (readily apparent), akāliko (needing no lapse of time to verify), ehipassiko (inviting inspection), opanayiko (unfolding progressively) and paccatam veditabbo viññūhi (to be known by wise people individually). This life is where you'll find Dhamma, and if you can't find it here, you may never find it anywhere.


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When rabbits chase coyotes

August 16, 1997

A gentleman named Ribong (Tibetan for rabbit) wrote:

Given that this list is called Buddhist and not Carvakin, and given the recent concern for “purity”, it is incumbent upon the materialists to demonstrate “how consciousness can arise from purely physical causes.”

The issue of how consciousness arises is quite unimportant, and it has no relation to issues that are important within Buddhism. So let's leave that sideshow to people interested in the philosophy of mind.

The dispute between Buddhists and the ancient Indian materialists known as Cārvākans that is of real concern is on the question of how to live one's life. The Cārvākans recommended seeking pleasure, wealth and political power. Pleasure was the only goal of life that they saw as legitimate, and they ridiculed those who strove for developing good character, virtue and understanding. Actually, this is not quite true. They did recommend acquiring virtue insofar as it helped one acquire more money and power, which in turn were good for maximizing one's sensual pleasures. But the point is that virtue (dharma) was a means to a higher end, that higher end being sensual pleasures. They did not say that virtue is its own reward. In this respect they were very much like some of the early Taoist philosophers in China, who said such things as “When one dies, it matters not the slightest whether one has been wise and virtuous or foolish and vicious. One ends up a stinking rotting corpse all the same.”

India at all times of her history has been filled with a population that is primarily interested in pleasure and possessions. This sort of person has always been in the vast majority in India as in most other parts of the world. And there were plenty of philosophers around who justified those worldly concerns. The Buddha disagreed with them. So do I. I think it is quite essential to being Buddhist to reject the claim that the pursuit of sensual pleasure is the best possible use of one's life.

Ribong has a second point:

The only justification a Buddhist needs for having confidence in the doctrine of rebirth is that the Buddha taught it. Until convincing evidence for either side is available, it is not at all unreasonable for a Buddhist to assume the Buddha knew what he was talking about.

Quite so. There is nothing at all unreasonable in the doctrine of rebirth. I don't believe I ever said that it is unreasonable. I just said there is not sufficient evidence to warrant believing in it. So if one does not already believe in it, there is no reason why one should change one's beliefs simply for the sake of conformity to what other Buddhists believe. Buddhism is not at all about creed. It is more about the priorities of one's values and the kinds of decisions one makes about how to act and how to live.

While there is plenty of scope for disagreement about what is legitimately Buddhist and what various legitimate Buddhist teachings mean, it does help for there to be some limit to what is considered Buddhism and therefore what is under discussion. Otherwise, “Buddhism” ends up being a term that means everything, and a forum called Buddhist ends up being on every topic under the sun. As Dignāga observed, a term that excludes nothing from its meaning has no meaning at all. I suppose we could extend that somewhat by saying that a discussion about everything ends up being a discussion about nothing. So I think a good place to start drawing reasonable boundaries on a list called Buddhist Forum is by restricting ourselves in some way to a discussion of principles that are explicitly stated in texts that have come to be regarded as canonical by generations of Buddhists of the past and that are still considered canonical by Buddhists of the present. In other words, I am suggesting that instead of shooting from the hip, people shoot from the canon.

I reckon I was born to be canonical. I can see no other reason to have been born into the Hayes family. The name Hayes, as you know, is a translation of the French des haies. The word “haie” means a row of trees or a shrub and is used to refer to the vegetation that marks off the boundary of an estate or a town. People who cared for that vegetation got the name Deshaies. Now it so happens that the Indic word “pāli” also means a row of trees that marks off a boundary around an estate. So clearly Hayes is merely a Gallo-English translation of the word “pāli” in the sense of boundary or canon.

A second issue that some people seem to perceive as a concern for purity and orthodoxy is really more of a question for discussion. I have noticed that some doctrines that used to be considered quite important are now rejected by a lot of people who call themselves Buddhist. I am simply interested in this as a phenomenon and am interested in understanding better why it is so. Coming to such an understanding, I think, requires knowing both something about traditional Buddhism and something about what has conditioned modernity. Understanding that may enable us to see where the clashes between traditional Buddhism and modernity are and make an assessment of how serious those clashes are. I cannot see anything but good coming out of investigating such matters.

One of the ways to start discussions on important issues is to state one side rather categorically and bluntly and then to let subsequent discussions add nuance and subtlety to the issue stated. This is how I sometimes teach in the classroom. I say things that literally make people squirm and writhe in their seats. And then I look around to find the person with the most murderous resentment in her eyes and ask: “Now, please explain to the class what you find so offensive in what I just said.” And from there we begin a discussion. And through that discussion, just about everyone's thoughts become more refined. I have found that almost invariably people tell me that by the end of a course, their thinking on many issues is much more clear than it used to be and that both their thoughts and their emotions are much more apparent to them. Of course a lot of people get quite irritated along the way, but in the end I find that most people end up having a lot more respect for variety in opinion and interpretation than they used to have.

Richard (Anglo-Saxon for coyote)
Hayes (Gallo-Anglic for Pali)

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Reflections on nirvāna

August 16, 1997

Howard wrote:

In the Buddha's 12-link presentation of dependent arising, in the cessation-of-dukkha part, he speaks of the cessation of ignorance causing the cessation of mental formations, and that causing the cessation of consciousness etc. There is also frequently stated that in nibbāna (Skt. nirvāna) there is just about nothing that is normally in our world. There is neither sun nor moon, nor.... In fact, there are no “things”. Now the question is: How to understand this. With regard to the latter business about nibbāna, if one understands nibbāna to be the same as samsaric experience, but freed of defilements, freed of all dispositions, and beyond all imposed mental categories, then, quite literally, none of our concepts could apply to it.

As far as I can tell, nirvāna does not mean anything but the absence of the root causes of dissatisfaction (dukkha). This would mean that nibbāna in one who is still alive would consist of experiencing the world of the senses without greed, hatred, delusion, pride and unwarranted assumptions about durability and permanence. But this need not mean that nibbāna is free of all mental categories whatsoever. Indeed, it is said that one can attain nibbāna from first jhāna, which is savitakka savicāra (that is, accompanied by conceptual thinking).

It may help to recall one of the things that the Buddha is reported to have said upon seeing Moggallāna sitting in meditation. He said “With mindfulness focused upon his present body and with his senses restrained from objects of sense, one can, by keeping continually concentrated, know his own nibbāna.” (Udāna 3.5; for an alternative translation, see Thanissaro Bhikkhu's at Access to Insight.) What it seems to me this means is that by concentrating on a subject matter, such as bodily events, and not getting distracted by other sensations, one can experience at least a temporary cessation of greed, hatred and delusion. One can feel what it is like to see the world as an arahant sees it.

I think passages like this are very important. Remember that the Buddha laughed at teachers who promised goals that were imprecise and poorly defined. He repeatedly said that the goal of his particular brand of practice is very well defined and very clear. It is also something that anyone can experience in this very body in this very life. And he stated various ways in which one could get this experience. For the past couple of days we have talked about the cessation of all thoughts and sensations, which some people said gave one the clearest foretaste of final nirvāna, that which follows the dissolution of the physical body of an arahant. But there are other methods also, as this one in the Udāna passage quoted above.

I think that what is important here is that everyone, no matter how ordinary, has had moments of being free from self-centered striving, free from greed and hatred. Everyone has had some moments of seeing things just as they are. But these moments tend to be fleeting for people who have not learned how to cultivate them and set up the conditions for their being the normal way that one sees things most of the time. But they are beacons. By setting one's sights on those beacons, one can get to the other shore.

Howard goes on to say:

In fact, I think this distinction between awareness and consciousness has to be made if the teachings of the Buddha are to make any sense.

Yes, I quite agree. Nirvāna is simply the absence of greed, hatred and delusion (and a number of other afflictions). If one is fully aware while having no greed etc, then one is fully aware of nirvāna. If one achieves absence of greed by being in a trance so deep that one does not even know that one is in it, then one is not aware of nirvāna.

Howard says:

After all, the goal of Buddhism is awakening, not plunging into darkness!

No, I think the goal of Buddhism is getting rid of greed, hatred and delusion. Awakening may be a means to do that. But it is not the goal. At least this is what the formula of dependent origination suggests. The goal seems to be to get rid of all the things that are unsatisfactory (dukkha), such as old age, death, being separated from what one likes and being in contact with what one dislikes.


I tend to agree that a final cessation of awareness would be a true death (and not just the death of some spurious “self” that doesn't exist from the get-go anyway).

Yes, given that the goal is to end the recurrence of old age, death, depression and all those other things, and that these can be avoided only by avoiding being born, it seems pretty clear that the final goal is the avoidance of coming into being again in any form in any realm, whether the material realm, the realm of pure form or the formless realm (in all of which there is still awareness). If the ultimate goal is to avoid arising again in any realm in which there is any awareness, then I think this sounds to me like the cessation of all awareness. Or oblivion. But before the oblivion of parinibbāna, there can be plenty of full awareness of uninterrupted positive mental states. The Buddha is supposed to have lived like that for the last forty-five years of his life.

Thanks, Howard. It is good to get a bit of company. It was starting to feel a little lonely up on this lofty mountain of truth all by myself. I hope you brought a can of beans. And a can opener.

Speaking of can openers, did you know that the can opener was invented nearly fifty years after the first canned food? The first canned food was prepared for Napoleon's army. His soldiers used to open their cans of food by shooting them open or ripping them open with bayonets. It's no damn wonder Napoleon's forces were defeated at Waterloo. They were probably out of bullets from shooting open their cans of Spam.


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Time for a little story

August 17, 1997

Francisco writes:

Can someone provide the source and the complete story about the Zen monk who asks his master about rebirth? The master tells the monk that there is no rebirth. The monk then overhears the master telling a lay person, who asked the same question, that there is rebirth.

This is a story that I often repeat. I read it in an anthology of Zen stories, but I cannot remember which one. I used to read a lot of Zen literature, and I have a good memory for stories but a terrible memory for where I read them.

I think the story is quite a good one for a couple of reasons. The main reason I like the story is that it illustrates an important principle about the relation between practice and doctrines. The purpose of doctrine is to encourage a certain kind of practice along, and particular practices are designed to work on particular aspects of one's mentality. Discussions of rebirth normally occur in the context of encouraging people to be ethical. Specifically, when one has to teach people who are basically self-centered, people who cannot imagine being ethical unless they get something out of the deal, then one has to make a case for how they stand to gain by being thoughtful of others. The Buddha was very good at this. He told such people that they would be better liked by others if they were ethical, which means that other people would be more willing to do them favors, do business with them, go with them to parties and so forth. Sometimes in this long list of reasons for being ethical, he mentioned that they would have a good birth in the future, but it was by no means the only reason he gave, nor did he usually place much emphasis on it. Where he usually placed his emphasis was on the advantages one would get in this very life, starting right now.

A second point about the Zen story is that it illustrates something important about what is called consensual or conventional truth (sammuti-sacca). This is something that Bhikkhu Punnadhammo has made reference to. A consensual truth is something that is deemed true by a particular community. So, if you wish to be understood by a community, you have to speak within the framework of what they regard as true, just as when you drive a car in England you need to drive on the left side of the road. Otherwise you have a lot of head-on collisions (as I have had with Bhikkhu Punnadhammo). What is conventionally true in one society is not conventionally true in another. Moreover, one can try to change a society by getting it to change its collective mind about what is true. I think this is what Buddhadasa tried to do. He said that rebirth is a conventional truth, which means that most people in Thailand accept it. But he also tried to get Thai people to change the way they thought about a lot of things. He was actually quite a bold reformer.

Most of the Buddhist teachers I have heard in North America have given extensive talks on practice without ever once mentioning the concept of rebirth. It is not a commonly accepted idea in the West, even among Buddhists. It is not one of our conventional truths, and one can waste a lot of time by first trying to convince other people of something that they don't already believe. On the other hand, rebirth and karma are very definitely part of the traditional vocabulary of Buddhism, so much so that one can hardly just yank them out and pretend they don't occur in Buddhist teaching. If one is going to replace them altogether with other concepts, then one should probably just go teach Relaxation Response or Stress Management routines at the YMCA and forget all about Buddhism.

Perhaps the most important practical thing that the Zen story teaches is the importance of being flexible. When I teach Buddhism in Buddhist settings, I have no hesitation whatsoever to use all the traditional vocabulary of Buddhism among people who are used to it. If people have read a lot or heard a lot of talks and are fluent in Buddha-speak, then I speak to them in traditional terms, because that is what is most efficient. I am really quite at home in several different systems of mythology and can use the terminology correctly.

If I encounter people who get really hung up on whether some feature of Buddhist mythology is really “true”, I have a long discussion with them about all the various ways there are of being true. Is it true that Sherlock Holmes lived in London? Is it true that Santa Claus has a white beard? Is it true that Bodhidharma sat in a cave for nine years until his eyelids rotted off? Is it true that monks at the time of the Buddha rose into the air to the height of seven palm trees and flew around above the amazed crowd? Is it true that the Buddha could be sitting in Benares, read the mind of a monk in Savatthi and immediately appear in Savatthi as easily as if he had just stretched out his arm? Is it true that the bodhisattva fed his body to a hungry tigress? In one sense, the answer to all those questions is Yes. They are true, because that is how the story goes. It would be false to say that Sherlock Holmes lived in Bangkok or that Santa Claus wears a leather mask and carries a chainsaw. That is not how the story goes. Is it true that there is karma and rebirth? Yes, of course it is (if you are talking to Buddhists), because that is how the story goes. It is a conventional truth in Buddhist traditions.

But is the story true? Here is where one can learn a lot from Krishnamurti. When someone asked him such a question, he replied “Find out.” So if someone really pushes me about whether the story of karma and rebirth is true, I tell them to find out for themselves. If they ask me how to find out, I tell them that they have to find out how to find out.

Would it be possible to tell a different story? I find this an interesting question. The answer is obviously Yes. The history of Buddhism shows that people were coming up with new stories all the time. Mahāyāna Buddhism has lots of new stories to tell, many of them quite good. Tantric Buddhism has all kinds of new stories to tell. Even the seemingly inflexible Theravāda has come up with new stories. So it is possible to change the story one tells. One is not stuck with a story simply because it is traditional. But if one is going to change the story, one has to be ready to put with with quite a bit of flak from people who say “Hey wait! That's not how the story goes.” And they are right. When my kids were young, I used to tell them stories every night. I loved to improvise. It drove my kids crazy. They kept saying “No, that's not what the giant said! Tell us the story the way you told it the first time!” Everything I know about teaching Dharma I learned from my kids. If you don't tell people the story they are used to hearing, they won't leave you alone.


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Bancroft 2001
Bancroft, Paul. Yoga without tree hugging. Version 1.0. This book was originally available free from charge from the now-defunct It can now be obtained here
Cousins 1998
Cousins, Lance S. “Nirvāṇa.” Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. New York and London: Routledge, 1998
Peirce 1877
Peirce, Charles Sanders. “The fixation of belief.” Philosophical Writings of Peirce. Edited by Justin Buchler. New York: Dover Publications, 1955. This article is also available on line.