The Gospel of Buddha: “You May Wear Rags or Lay-Robes”

As I wrote last Tuesday, I’ve been reading The Gospel of Buddha by Paul Carus. If you missed that post, it has some background material about Carus, one of the pioneers of Buddhism in the west.

The book is subtitled “Compiled from Ancient Records” which means the Tipitaka. One story I thought unfamiliar concerns the bhikkhus and their robes. I must have seen it at least once since Carus’ source is The sacred books of the East by Friedrich Max Muller (1880). However, I haven’t read much from that since I was in college.

Carus calls the story “Jivaka, The Physician.” Jivaka, almost certainly a mythological figure, is said to be the most famous doctor in India during the Buddha’s time.

“Jivaka, The Physician” begins with this passage:

Long before the Blessed One had attained enlightenment, self-mortification had been the custom among those who earnestly sought for salvation. Deliverance of the soul from all the necessities of life and finally from the body itself, they regarded as the aim of religion. Thus, they avoided everything that might be a luxury in food, shelter, and clothing, and lived like the beasts in the woods. Some went naked, while others wore the rags cast away upon cemeteries or dungheaps.

When the Blessed One retired from the world, he recognized at once the error of the naked ascetics, and, considering the indecency of their habit, clad himself in cast-off rags.

Having attained enlightenment and rejected all unnecessary self-mortifications, the Blessed One and his bhikkhus continued for a long time to wear the cast-off rags of cemeteries and dung-heaps.

When he writes that the Buddha “retired from the world”, Carus is obviously referring to the Buddha’s “Great Renunciation”, which actually was not so great. After all, as the passage above indicates, didn’t the Buddha reject the severe renunciation and austerities of the “naked ascetics” and advocate a Middle Way? The Buddha did not retire from the world, quite the contrary. He was deeply involved in the world. He and his followers did not live in seclusion. They always stayed on the edges of towns and villages and interacted with ordinary people on a regular basis.

Perhaps, this was merely Carus’ choice of words, or maybe he borrowed it from one of his sources, but surely he must have been cognizant of the fact that the Buddha and the bhikkhus were not monastics.

In any case, as the story continues, the bhikkhus were visited with all kinds of disease from wearing the filthy rags. Then, the Buddha became sick. Ananda went to Jivaka, who was physician to King Bimbisara. Jivaka treated and healed the Buddha, Still, the Buddha and the bhikkhus continued to wear only rags. Sometime later Jivaka received a fine robe as a gift and he wanted to donate it to the Buddha.  After going back and forth about it with Jivaka, the Buddha finally consented to wear the robe and then he addressed the Bhikkhus,

Henceforth ye shall be at liberty to wear either cast-off rags or lay robes. Whether ye are pleased with the one or with the other, I will approve of it.”

When the people at Rajagaha heard, “The Blessed One has allowed the bhikkhus to wear lay robes,” those who were willing to bestow gifts became glad. And in one day many thousands of robes were presented at Rajagaha to the bhikkhus.

I was intrigued by the use of the term “lay-robes.” I looked at some of the other accounts, and while it seems that Carus condensed the story somewhat, “lay-robes” is consistent with other translations. Muller describes the robe Jivaka offers to the Buddha as both a lay-robe and “a suit of Siveyyaka cloth.” Hermann Oldenberg and Thomas William Rhys Davids in Vinaya Texts (1881) mention that Buddhaghosa gave two explations of Siveyyaka cloth, one being a cloth used in Uttarakuru for covering dead bodies, and secondly as a excellent cloth made in Sivi. Since all the translations indicate that the cloth was of the best material and other sources say that Siveyyaka cloth was valuable, I think it is safe to assume it was the latter. Vinaya Texts has “lay-robes” and S. Beal in his translation uses “householder robes.”

We should not take literally the stories we find in Buddhist texts, but rather understand them as allegory, and this is true for all ancient spiritual literature.  In creating these stories there was a message the original compilers were trying to convey, hidden in the symbolism or between the lines. What is the message here?

It seems to me that one point is about judging by appearance. Wearing a robe, or certain kind of robe, does not make a person a bhikkhu. It is something else, such as one’s dedication to the path, one’s commitment to the ethical way of life that Buddhism promotes. I think the implication of the story is if the bhikkhus were to wear lay-robes then how would people tell the difference between them and householders? In the relative sense, sure, they are differences, but ultimately, there are none. So, I think a second point is that by wearing “lay-robes” the bhikkhus were symbolically honoring the laity, saying we are essentially a one-fold sangha, not two or four-fold.

Today there is still a prejudice against lay practitioners and lay Buddhism and I feel it is really a divisive attitude. From time to time, I run across individuals who only want to practice with monks or at temples and monasteries. Somehow to them lay Buddhism doesn’t have the right stuff. And in at least one Buddhist tradition I have some experience in, the opposite is the prevailing frame of mind.

But the real truth is that it doesn’t matter whether your teachers or the people you practice with wear robes or blue jeans. I’ve encountered liars, fakes, ego-trippers and authoritarians wearing both. All that is important is the quality of the dharma you get. Capturing the spirit of Buddhism and practicing with some effort is all that matters in the long run.

Sessen Doji offered his body to a demon to receive a teaching composed of eight characters. Bodhisattva Yakuo, having no oil, burned his elbow as an offering to the Lotus Sutra. In our own country, Prince Shotoku peeled off the skin of his hand on which to copy the Lotus Sutra, and Emperor Tenji burned his third finger as an offering to Shakyamuni Buddha. Such austere practices are for saints and sages, but not for ordinary people. Yet even common mortals can attain Buddhahood if they cherish one thing: earnest faith. In the deepest sense, earnest faith is the will to understand and live up to the spirit, not the words, of the sutras.

– Nichiren, “The Gift of Rice”

A person who lives “up to the spirit, not the words” of the teachings can be a good mentor whether they wear a robe or a business suit, rags or t-shirts. And if we have that same attitude, we can practice anywhere, in a temple, in a tent – it’s not important. All we need is to see past appearance and capture the spirit.


Riots and Roses

April is coming to end, and as well, National Poetry Month. I hope you enjoyed the poetry posts. Since this will probably be the last one for a while and because it’s no fun having your own blog if you don’t showcase your own stuff, a couple of poems from yours truly today.

On this date 19 years ago “not guilty” verdicts in the trial of the policemen involved in Rodney King’s videotaped beating set off six days of riots here in Los Angeles. The largest in U.S. history. I remember the following morning going up on the roof of my apartment building, which has a spectacular view, and seeing the fires burning all across the Los Angeles basin. The sky to the east was a solid wall of black smoke, as if hell’s darkest storm was moving in.

Here is the poem I wrote some time later, after things had cooled down and the National Guard was no longer patrolling the neighborhood and life had gotten back to something approaching normal:

in the city of angels

el pueblo grande
boils and bubbles
like a brea pit
fear and anger
rise from the pitch
like hungry spirits

incendiary questions:
why’d the cops beat him?
how come they got off?

sacrificial fires are lit
on asphalt altars
the hungry spirits are fed

the night cries
no justice no peace

and when the smoke clears
in the char of morning days later
what is revealed?

only mammoth humanity
stuck in the tar

© 1992-2011 dmriley

By the time you read this, the Royal Wedding should be over, and I say thank goodness for that. Now we can get back to obsessing about Charlie Sheen, or someone equally psychedelic. Needless to say, I did not watch the wedding, nor did I watch the last one with Charles and Diana. Unimpressed as I am with the Royal Family, at first I was equally blasé about Princess Di. Over the years, though, she did come to grow on me, for purely lecherous reasons (after all, she was an attractive woman), and partly because I felt sorry for her. Yet, in spite of any empathy I had, I couldn’t help but also feel that she was essentially a victim of her own desire. It’s an old story. Musicians and actors and other would-be celebrities longing for fame and fortune and when they get it, they can’t handle the pressure. There had to be some part of her that wanted to be a princess, that fantasized about one day becoming the Queen. As the famous Chinese saying goes, be careful what you wish for . . .

I did get up early and watch her funeral. By that time, I had something invested in her story and the part she played in her own tragedy aside, it seemed clear to me that the Royal Family had abused her horribly. And I’m not embarrassed to say that I shed a few tears.

I wrote this poem that same day, and rereading it now, I think I must have been influenced by the song Elton John sang, a reworking of “Candle in the Wind”:


a rose
is cut

no more petals
in a grail
of eyes

shall we kiss
the hand of immortality
that plucked her up
& set her upon devotion’s throne

shall we bow
to all the mornings
she tried to save herself
from the life
that devoured her

princess dreams put her
back against the wall
which is perhaps preferable
to the silence of empty bedrooms

shall we cut some roses
to see
how exquisitely
they fall
our fascinations

how achingly
they wither
in the mad dog sun

© 1997-2011 dmriley


Buddha, The Atheist Who Loved God, and The Other James Baldwin

Last week I found a copy of The Gospel of Buddha by Paul Carus at my friendly neighborhood thrift shop. It was first published in 1894 (this copy is from 1973) and I could tell from the title and from skimming through it that it was like a lot of other books on Buddhism from that period, but at only a $1.50, I couldn’t resist buying it. Besides, I had always thought Carus to be an interesting figure and thought it was time I should finally look at his work.

Painting used on the cover of the 1973 edition.

The writings of early scholars and interpreters of Buddha-dharma are saturated with Biblical language and to me they often seem hopelessly antiquated. This book is no exception. “Gospel” is a word that has almost exclusively Christian connotations. Its meaning in Old English is “godspell” or god (good) + message/news. Calling the teachings of Buddha “gospel” seems to be an unfortunate choice of words. Yet, when I got the book home and began to pursue it, I enjoyed the sections I read. Perhaps the rather spare, straightforward prose style had something to do with it.

Paul Carus (1852 –1919) was an author, a professor of philosophy, and a student of comparative religion. He was born in Germany and moved to the United States in 1884. During his life, he wrote 75 books and 1500 articles. Spinoza (1632-1677) who was critical of Western philosophy and maintained that God exists only as a concept, was a major influence on Carus as a philosopher.

Paul Carus

Carus described himself as “an atheist who loved God” and called his own philosophy a “Religion of Science.” In his 1896 book by the same name he wrote,

In order to establish the Religion of Science it is by no means necessary to abolish the old religions, but only to purify them and develop their higher possibilities, so that their mythologies shall be changed into strictly scientific conceptions. It is intended to preserve of the old religions all that is true and good, but to purify their faith by rejecting superstations and irrational elements, and to discard, unrelentingly, their errors.

You could say that Carus was the Stephen Batchelor of his day, although I feel he was closer in spirit to Joseph Campbell, who some seven decades later explained that religious teachings are misunderstood because we take the myths literally instead of understanding them as metaphors for spiritual truths.

In 1893 Carus met a young D.T. Suzuki in Chicago at a meeting of the World Parliament of Religion, where the latter had translated Shaku Soen’s public address. Carus persuaded Suzuki to stay in the US and gave him a job working for his publishing house. In 1898, Carus and Suzuki published the first US translation of the Tao Te Ching. Years later, Suzuki’s individual work would be instrumental in generating interest about Buddhism in the West.

The Gospel of Buddha was one of the earliest translations of Buddhist teachings into English. In telling the story of the Buddha and his dharma, compiled from a variety of Buddhist texts, Carus modeled his approach on the New Testament, which actually is effective as overall Carus toned down both the Biblical language and the mythological elements.

Here’s a short section that I liked, largely taken from S. Beal’s 1876 translation of the Chinese Dhammapada, called “The Light of the World”:

There was a certain Brahman in Kosamba, a wrangler and well versed in the Vedas. As he found no one whom he regarded his equal in debate he used to carry a lighted torch in his hand, and when asked for the reason of his strange conduct, he replied: “The world is so dark that I carry this torch to light it up, as far as I can.”

A samana sitting in the market-place heard these words and said: “My friend, if thine eyes are blind to the sight of the omnipresent light of the day, do not call the world dark. Thy torch adds nothing to the glory of the sun and thy intention to illumine the minds of others is as futile as it is arrogant.”

Whereupon the Brahman asked: “Where is the sun of which thou speakest?” And the samana replied: “The wisdom of the Tath?gata is the sun of the mind. His radiancy is glorious by day and night, and he whose faith is strong will not lack light on the path to Nirvana where he will inherit bliss everlasting.”

As I mentioned, Carus was interested in comparative religion. In the back of the book he put a Table of Reference where he cited the chapter and verse from the book, named the source(s), and then drew his “Parallelisms.” Most of the parallels correspond to verses in the New Testament Gospels, but in the case of this story, it’s with the story of Diogenes and his lantern.

The other James Baldwin

Here is that tale about the famous Greek philosopher as interpreted by James Baldwin – not the author you are probably thinking of, but another – a James Baldwin (1841–1925) who was white, from a backwoods Quaker family, a largely self-educated man who became a teacher at 24 and later embarked on a career in publishing as an author and editor of school books for the American Book Company.  This account of the Diogenes story is from Fifty Famous Stories Retold, a children’s book Baldwin published in 1896:

At Corinth, in Greece, there lived a very wise man whose name was Diogenes. Men came from all parts of the land to see him and hear him talk.

But wise as he was, he had some very queer ways. He did not believe that any man ought to have more things than he really needed; and he said that no man needed much. And so he did not live in a house, but slept in a tub or barrel, which he rolled about from place to place. He spent his days sitting in the sun, and saying wise things to those who were around him.

At noon one day, Diogenes was seen walking through the streets with a lighted lantern, and looking all around as if in search of something.

“Why do you carry a lantern when the sun is shining?” someone said.

“I am looking for an honest man,” answered Diogenes.

When Alexander the Great went to Corinth, all the foremost men in the city came out to see him and to praise him. But Diogenes did not come; and he was the only man for whose opinions Alexander cared.

And so, since the wise man would not come to see the king, the king went to see the wise man. He found Diogenes in an out-of-the-way place, lying on the ground by his tub. He was enjoying the heat and the light of the sun.

When he saw the king and a great many people coming, he sat up and looked at Alexander. Alexander greeted him and said,–

“Diogenes, I have heard a great deal about your wisdom. Is there anything that I can do for you?”

“Yes,” said Diogenes. “You can stand a little on one side, so as not to keep the sunshine from me.”

This answer was so different from what he expected, that the king was much surprised. But it did not make him angry; it only made him admire the strange man all the more. When he turned to ride back, he said to his officers,–

“Say what you will; if I were not Alexander, I would like to be Diogenes.”

Have a good day and remember to let your light shine.


Deaths at Kirti Monastery

Following up on my recent post about the situation at Kirti Monastery in Tibet: Reports Saturday that Chinese police killed two Tibetan villagers during a raid on the monastery. The US-based International Campaign for Tibet say two monks were beaten to death Thursday after they tried to prevent police from detaining hundreds of other monks. The deceased were identified as two elderly Tibetans, 60 year old Dhonkho of Thawa Ghongma township and 65 year old Sherkyi of the Rako Tsang house Chashang township. The raid by Chinese police resulted in the arrest of around 300 monks who were taken to an undisclosed location.

Tibetans in exile around the world have gone on hunger strikes protesting the repression in Tibet and demanding the withdrawal of Chinese troops from the monastery.

The Tibetan government-in-exile Saturday once again appealed to the international community to persuade China not to use force against locals in northeastern Tibet.

Still, not a word mentioned on the cable news networks. Nothing on their websites. We know how many were killed in Libya and Syria, but not Tibet. We know what happened to Lindsey Lohan on Friday and how many hours are left until the Royal Wedding, but viewers are not informed about Kirti Monastery. No protests from the US Senate or the House of Representatives. Nothing from the White House.

Friday,  President Obama released a statement on Syria, in which he said “The United States condemns in the strongest possible terms the use of force by the Syrian government against demonstrators. This outrageous use of violence to quell protests must come to an end now. We regret the loss of life and our thoughts are with the families and loved ones of the victims, and with the Syrian people in this challenging time.”

And what about Tibet, Mr. President? As a well-known singer-songwriter once asked, “How many deaths will it take . . .”

China is an equal opportunity repressor. This past weekend, Chinese authorities detained several hundred congregants of an “underground” evangelical Protestant church in their homes while arresting 36 others when they gathered in a public square to hold Easter services.  The church is called Shouwang, or Lighthouse, maintains that it is not political and only interested in either returning to its rented space, from which they were evicted earlier in the month (unlawfully they maintain), or be allowed to hold gathering outdoors or in private homes.

This week the Dalai Lama will visit the United States.  On Wednesday, an announcement is expected on the new prime minister for the Tibetan parliament-in-exile . . .

Hopefully the visit will help focus some attention on the situation.


The Ch’an Poetry of Po Chu-i

It’s still National Poetry Month, which is sponsored by the Academy of American Poets, so that means more poetry. Today, the quintessential Chinese poet,  Po Chu-i

Po Chu-i (772-846) was a government official who was a popular poet during the Chinese Tang dynasty. And a rather prolific one – he supposedly wrote over 2800 poems. He was also a member of the Hanlin Academy (“brush wood court”), an elite scholarly institution founded in the 8th century that lasted until 1911.

However, Po Chu-i himself was not elitist. He wrote deceptively simple poetry that was often sympathetic to the troubles and concerns of common people. He wanted to make his work accessible and it is said that if any of his servants could not understand one of his poems, he would immediately rewrite it.

A serious student of Ch’an, Po, like most Chinese Buddhists, also studied Taoism. The Taoist influence is evident in his poetry’s realistic quality and how it reflects the theme of harmony with nature and between people. However, the Ch’an influence was the greater of the two.

In his introduction to The Selected Poems of Po Chu-I, David Hinton writes, “Po’s poems often include the explicit use of Ch’an ideas, indeed he is the poet who really opened mainstream poetry to Buddhist experience, his work becoming a major source of information on Buddhist practice in his time.” (Which should tell you how little we know about Buddhism then.)

Burton Watson, translator of Chinese and Japanese literature, in his book Po Chu-i: Selected Poems, says that Po was most famous for his “simplicity of language” and for “an abiding desire to portray himself, whatever he may have been in real life, as a connoisseur of everyday delights, a man confronting the world, particular in the years of old age, with an air of humor and philosophical acceptance.”

Here is a poem that Hinton chose to translate almost verbatim, without any additional words, capturing Po’s simple poetic style:

Flower No Flower

Flower no flower
mist no mist

arrives at midnight
and leaves at dawn

arrives like a spring dream – how many times
leaves like a morning cloud – nowhere to find

Po also wrote poems of social protest. Early in his career, his politically flavored poetry caused him to be exiled to Hsun-yang where he served as Chief Magistrate. This poem from the Hsun-yang years was translated by Arthur Waley:

Visiting the Hsi-Lin Temple

I dismount from my horse at the Hsi-Lin Temple;
I hurry forward, speeding with light cane.
In the morning I work at a Govermnment office-desk;
In the evening I become a dweller in the Sacred Hills.
In the second month to the north of K’uang-lu
The ice breaks and the snow begins to melt.
On the southern plantation the tea-plant trusts its sprouts;
Through the northern crevice the view of the spring ooze.

This year there is war in An-hui,
In every place soldiers are rushing to arms.
Men of learning have been summoned to the Council Board;
Men of action are marching to the battle-line.
Only I, who have no talents at all,
Am left in the mountains to play with the pebbles of the stream.

Here are two poems that I translated myself:

Rain on Autumn Night

Cold, cold this third night of autumn
Rain makes me sleepy
Alone, this old man is contented and idle
It’s late when I extinguish the lamp and lie down
To sleep, listening to the beautiful sound of rain
Incense ashes still glowing in the burner
My only heat in this lodging
At daybreak, I will stay under the quilt to stay warm
And the steps will be covered by frosty red leaves

Lao Tzu

“Those who speak don’t know,
Those who know don’t speak.”
It is said that these words
Were written by Lao Tzu.
Now, if we are to accept
That Lao Tzu was one who knew,
Then why did he compose a book
Of five thousand words?

This poem, inspired by Po, was written by the great American poet William Carlos Williams, circa 1920:

To the shade of Po Chu-I

The work is heavy. I see
bare branches laden with snow.
I try to comfort myself
with thought of your old age.
A girl passes, in a red tam,
the coat above her quick ankles
snow smeared from running and falling –
Of what shall I think now
save of death the bright dancer?

W. S. Merwin, also a serious student of Buddhism, whom I wrote about in this post, composed this poem just last March:

A Message to Po Chu-I

In that tenth winter of your exile
the cold never letting go of you
and your hunger aching inside you
day and night while you heard the voices
out of the starving mouths around you
old ones and infants and animals
those curtains of bones swaying on stilts
and you heard the faint cries of the birds
searching in the frozen mud for something
to swallow and you watched the migrants
trapped in the cold the great geese growing
weaker by the day until their wings
could barely lift them above the ground
so that a gang of boys could catch one
in a net and drag him to market
to be cooked and it was then that you
saw him in his own exile and you
paid for him and kept him until he
could fly again and you let him go
but then where could he go in the world
of your time with its wars everywhere
and the soldiers hungry the fires lit
the knives out twelve hundred years ago

I have been wanting to let you know
the goose is well he is here with me
you would recognize the old migrant
he has been with me for a long time
and is in no hurry to leave here
the wars are bigger now than ever
greed has reached numbers that you would not
believe and I will not tell you what
is done to geese before they kill them
now we are melting the very poles
of the earth but I have never known
where he would go after he leaves me