Relying on the Dharma, Not the Person

Easter is a day I like watch an old movie about a pleasant eccentric named Elwood P. Dowd, who believes he is friends with a six-foot tall white rabbit named Harvey. For many people, however, Easter is a celebration of their belief that a sort of half-god, half-man named Jesus arose from the dead and miraculously ascended to a place called Heaven.

Elwood P. Dowd admiring a portrait of himself with friend Harvey
Elwood P. Dowd admiring a portrait of himself with friend Harvey

Regrettably for Mr. Dowd, Harvey is a Pooka, which according to the film, is based on “old Celtic mythology, a fairy spirit in animal form,” and therefore, a delusion. And  unfortunately for believers in Jesus, even if he left earth at the speed of light, he would still be in our galaxy some 2000 years later, as Joseph Campbell pointed out many years ago.

Interestingly, both stories are about spiritual awakening, or re-awakening, rebirth. After a cynical psychiatrist has some interaction with Dowd, he comes to believe in Harvey too, and experiences a “rebirth of wonder”, to borrow a phrase from Lawrence Ferlinghetti. The resurrection of Jesus is a metaphor for a similar, but more profound, spiritual rebirth, and yet, it is necessary for Christians to believe it literally because Jesus as God is the very crux of their faith.

Accounts of Jesus’ resurrection are found in the New Testament, which like the rest of the Bible, was composed by many authors over the course of centuries. Some years ago, a number of New Testament scholars formed the Jesus Seminar to analyze the historicity of the deeds and sayings of Jesus. They concluded that only about 16% of the events attributed to Jesus were credible. I believe they reached a similar consensus about the words of Jesus.

For Christians, such conclusions can be devastating, especially if the resurrection is judged as not a credible historical event, for there really is no Christianity without this miraculous rebirth.

Were a comparable seminar formed to examine the Buddhist ‘scriptures’ and  much of it was found historically implausible, which I think would be likely, it would not be devastating at all for Buddhists. Buddhist understanding need not be based on a literal interpretation of the sutras. Even if it were proved that the Buddha had never lived, as the Buddhist scholar, Edward Conze (1904-1979) said, it “is, in any case, a matter of little importance to Buddhist faith.” Now, Conze was a Westerner, and some might argue that this perspective then is a case of injecting a foreign and modernist mind-set into the matter.

I don’t believe that is necessarily the case. While it is in this modern age that we begun to earnestly throw off the cloak of superstition covering our conceptions, a point of view like Conze’s is supported by the ancient Buddhist principle of ‘relying on the dharma, not the person.’

In the Catuhpratisarana Sutra, the Buddha is said to have given instructions on the “Four Reliances”:

Rely on the Dhamma, not the person; rely on the meaning, not the words; rely on the essential meaning, not the provisional meaning; rely on wisdom, not intellectual knowledge.”

Whether or not the Buddha actually taught “rely on the dharma, not the person,” is unimportant. The point is that it’s not some modernist idea but a time-honored Buddhist tradition, albeit one that has often been ignored or forgotten.

But, if it means having a realistic point of view, then I think the modernist approach is preferable to literalism. Modernism takes nothing away from the dharma; rather, it casts it in an even more profound light. And it seems foolish to reject the very real probability that the sayings of the Buddha and the events of his life were largely the product of embellishment through incremental repetitions, assimilation of stories and traditions outside of Buddhism, and that even the formation of the sacred Vinaya was based on legends and mythological incidents.

There is a danger in literalism. It gives rise to confusion, intolerance, sectarianism, and fundamentalism. The other extreme of using science and empiricism exclusively to determine what is reasonable and true is equally treacherous.

Rita Gross, in a Tricycle article from 2012, “The Truth About Truth,” wrote,

There are times and places in which stories about miracles and magic make sense to people and appeal to their deepest sensibilities. But we do not live in such a time and place, so trying to force us to take these stories as factual accounts simply makes it harder for us to take seriously the profound teachings of Buddhism or any other religious tradition.”

Buddha performing the miracle of levitation.
Buddha performing the miracle of levitation.

If we rely on the dharma and not the person, then it is perfectly all right for stories about miracles performed by the Buddha to be just that, stories, or legends, myths. If we do not take the sutras literally, then all the supernatural elements can take their rightful place as religious metaphors to support the truth found within what is most important, the dharma.

This Dhamma that I have attained is profound, hard to see and hard to understand, peaceful and sublime, unattainable by mere reasoning, subtle, to be experienced by the wise.”

Ariyapariyesana Sutta


The bin Laden of Buddhism

It’s hard to believe, but he actually calls himself the “Burmese bin Laden.” His name is Saydaw Wirathu and he’s a Burmese Buddhist monk who was arrested in 2003 for distributing anti-Muslim literature, and since then has been stirring up, well, let’s call it what it is, racial hatred. He’s currently urging Burmese people “to join the 969 Buddhist nationalist campaign” and “do business or interact with only our kind: same race and same faith”.

969 comes from a Buddhist tradition in which the Three Jewels or Tiratana is composed of 24 attributes (9 for the Buddha, 6 for Dhamma or the teachings, and 9 for the Sangha). The movement is a counterpoint to the Muslim 786 movement (evidently based on a Quranic phrase “In the name of Allah, the Most Gracious, the Ever Merciful”), which many Burmese believe is a Islamic conspiracy to take over the world. I am not terribly informed on this, but from what I have read it seems that the Burmese characterization of 786 is a misrepresentation.

From a video of Wirathu released this week.
From a video of Wirathu released this week.

In a rant delivered Monday at the Ma-soe-yein monastery in  Mandalay, Wirathu encouraged Burmese Buddhists to think “nationalism” in everything they do and support the boycott because “Your purchases spent in ‘their’ (Muslim) shops will benefit the Enemy. So, do business with only shops with 969 signs on their facets”. Some have called Wirathu a “neo-Nazi” for his Islamophobic activities. He frequently uses a term, “kalar”, the equivalent of the N-word, to describe Muslims of South Asian descent.

According to the Democratic Voice of Burma, in February, Wirathu inflamed tensions in a Rangoon suburb by spreading false rumors that a local school was being turned into a mosque: “An angry mob of about 300 Buddhists assaulted the school and Muslim-owned businesses and shops in Rangoon.”

Sectarian violence is escalating the country officially known as Myanmar. The DVB reports that “Religious clashes continued to spread through Burma late on Monday night, as Muslim homes and businesses in two townships of Pegu division were ransacked by Buddhist mobs numbering in their hundreds.”

The Democratic Voice of Burma, by the way, is a non-profit media organization based in Oslo, Norway and operated by Burmese expatriates. On their website, the organization states that “Our mission is to provide accurate and unbiased news to the people of Burma,  to promote understanding and cooperation amongst the various ethnic and religious groups of Burma, to encourage and sustain independent public opinion and enable social and political debate, to impart the ideals of democracy and human rights to the people of Burma.”

Clashes between Buddhists and Muslims have occurred frequently since last June when riots took place in the Rakhine State, a territory in western Burma, following the killing of ten Burmese Muslims after the rape and murder of a Rakhine woman. The Muslims call themselves Rohingya and are not recognized as citizens of the country.

Many Rohingya are being held under shocking conditions in Burmese “refuge” camps. Scores are fleeing Burma, illegally entering neighboring countries such as Thailand and precipitating a humanitarian crisis there. Over the weekend Thailand Marines and residents rescued 106 Rohingya people, starving and without water, adrift in a boat far offshore Thailand. The recent clashes I’ve mentioned are just the tip of the iceberg as far as the unrest is concerned, and there are even reports of genocide.

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, the international Buddhist community has been largely silent in the face of  racial and religious persecution committed in Buddha’s name. However, last week one leading monk in Burma, Ashin Nyanissara, did call for restraint in an interview with the DVB. He said that “all religions should live peacefully with loving kindness and tolerance.” Nice, but pretty mild.

BuddharakkithaTherotheprimeconspiratorWhether or not Wirathu deserves his self-proclaimed designation as the Burmese bin Ladin, I don’t know. He seems mainly to be a rabble-rouser. Bin Laden was not much on words. He was a terrorist. There have been Buddhist terrorists. One such person was a monk named  Buddharakkhita, who organized the assassination of the Sri Lankan Prime Minister in 1959. He was condemned to death in 1961 but the sentence was later changed to life imprisonment. He died in jail in 1967.

Tolerance implies no lack of commitment to one’s own beliefs. Rather it condemns the oppression or persecution of others.
– John F. Kennedy

Fundamentalism isn’t about religion, it’s about power.
– Salman Rushdie


Through a pair of glasses, darkly

Last week, Yoko Ono weighed in on the U.S. gun control debate when she tweeted a picture of the blood-stained glasses her husband, John Lennon, was wearing the night he was assassinated by a crazed stalker. The tweet was in commemoration, for lack of a better word, of their 44th wedding anniversary.

The photo stands on its own, a picture worth more than a thousand words. No doubt sensing that, Ono simply added, “Over 1,057,000 people have been killed by guns in the USA since John Lennon was shot and killed on 8 Dec 1980.”

I don’t know the exact number but there have been close to 1,280 gun deaths in the United States since Sandy Hook. And that incident was a little over 90 days ago. It’s insane.

Last week we also witnessed the incredible cowardice of the U.S. Senate when they stripped the assault weapons ban, a core element of President Obama’s agenda to curb gun violence, from proposed gun control legislation. No wonder that according to this month’s Gallup poll Congress has only a 13 percent approval rating. But since Congress cannot even do anything to help the economy, it is not surprising that they continue to act in a gutless manner on this issue, too.

This country needs sensible gun control. Congress needs to act responsibly. There are times, and this is one of them, when we have to force them to be responsible to us, the citizens they represent. If you feel strongly about gun control, you need to tell your Representative and Senator how you feel. Call them. Let your voice be heard. The number is 202-224-3121.

If you don`t know who your senator or member of Congress is, then go to and enter your zip code to find your congressional representative and to find your senator.

If we, the people, don’t take action, then the words below are true.

(Image credit: @yokoono/Twitter)
(Image credit: @yokoono/Twitter)

Words are flowing out like endless rain into a paper cup,
They slither while they pass, they slip away across the universe.
Pools of sorrow waves of joy are drifting through my opened mind,
Possessing and caressing me.

Jai guru deva om
Nothing’s gonna change my world
Nothing’s gonna change my world.
Nothing’s gonna change my world
Nothing’s gonna change my world.

– John Lennon


SBNR: Spiritual But Not Religious

MP2391“Spiritual but not religious” (SBNR) has become a popular expression. According to Wikipedia, it’s “used to self-identify a life stance of spirituality that rejects traditional organized religion as the sole or most valuable means of furthering spiritual growth.”

Not everyone is taken with the idea. Some time back, I was encouraged to read Dispirited: How contemporary spirituality makes us stupid, selfish, and unhappy by David Webster. Here are his opening words: “When someone tells me that they are not really religious, but that they are a very spiritual person, I want to punch their face. Hard.”

When someone starts a book off with something like that; I want to throw the book down. Hard. Which is not easy to do when you’re reading an excerpt online. Suffice to say, I didn’t purchase it.

The book description on Amazon says, “Dave Webster’s book is a counter-blast against the culturally accepted norm that spirituality is a vital and important factor in human life. Rejecting the idea of human wellbeing as predicated on the spiritual, the book seeks to identify the toxic impact of spiritual discourses on our lives. Spirituality makes us confused, apolitical and miserable . . . “ Regardless of what kind of spirituality it may be, I gather. Evidently, the author suggests we replace “spirituality” with “atheistic existentialism, Theravada Buddhism and political engagement.” That sounds fine, but I have reservations about his overall premise.

Now, according to a recent study done in the United Kingdom, SBNR people are not necessarily stupid, selfish, and unhappy but they are likely to develop a “mental disorder,” “be dependent on drugs” or “have abnormal eating attitudes,” like bulimia and anorexia. So says a paper published in the January edition of the British Journal of Psychiatry. Michael King, a professor at University College London and the head researcher on the project says, “People who have spiritual beliefs outside of the context of any organized religion are more likely to suffer from these maladies.”

I’m not buying this guy’s line either. All SBNR really amounts to is a rejection of organized religion as the “sole or most valuable means of furthering spiritual growth,” as we read above. What’s the problem with that? Additionally, the study separates the “spiritual” from the agnostic or atheist, but as we all know, not every person who is agnostic or atheist belongs to an organized group. Few do, as a matter of fact.

I think what is happening here is a subtle change in the meaning of a word. Words are often the name for several different referents, and consequently, have different meanings. In some cases, over a period of time, there is a change in the words used to represent a referent, and conversely, a change in the meaning of a word and its referents. I think “spiritual, but not religious” simply represents a change in the meaning of the word “spirituality”. The problem is we don’t have new words for the referents to go with it.

That, however, is a secondary problem, the real crux of the matter is that we are hung up on self and group identity and designations. I’m spiritual. I’m religious. I’m Zen. I’m not. Who cares?

Haggling over the meaning of words and clinging to designations are two activities that are considered impediments to the Buddhist path, because words and designations are ultimately sunya, empty. The preferred method of action would be to open our minds and enlarge our understanding of these things.

With that in mind, here is an interesting take on the word “spititual” by the great teacher, Hsuan-Hua, a Chinese Ch’an monk and founder of the Dharma Realm Buddhist Association. It’s from his explanation of the Prajna Paramita Heart Sutra. The Chinese character shen means “God, unusual, mysterious, soul, spirit, divine essence, lively, spiritual being.” Interesting, a word like this does not appear in the Sanskrit version of the sutra. The phrase in question simply reads “maha-mantra” or great mantra. The Chinese character miao or a Sanskrit equivalent is not found in either version.

Heart Sutra in Siddham script with the seed syllable “dhih” in the center.

What is the meaning of spiritual? “Spiritual” is inconceivable. The meaning is just about the same as “wonderful;” nonetheless, “wonderful” (miao) has the meaning of “unmoving,” while “spiritual” (shen) has the meaning of “moving;” there is a kind of movement. The wonderful is unmoving, yet moves everything totally and comprehends everything totally. It doesn’t function through movement. However, if the spiritual doesn’t move, then it is not the spiritual. The spiritual must move. The same word appears in the compound shen tong, which means psychic power; the Chinese literally is “spiritual penetration.” The “penetration” means a going through; there is movement. But in the wonderful there is knowledge without movement.

The Buddha teaches and transforms living beings in other Buddha-countries to realize the Way and to enter nirvana. He knows everything. The wonderful is right here; without using movement, he knows. But with the spiritual you must go to the place to know about it. The spiritual gets to wherever it is going like a rocket going to the moon. When you arrive on the moon, you know what the moon is made of and you know what the creation of the moon was about.”


Untangling the Tangle

A while back I highlighted some of the keywords and search terms that cause people to stumble upon The Endless Further, and I provided some answers. I know that most of those folks probably found what they were looking for, either here or elsewhere, but it’s interesting to deal with them anyway. Here’s another one:

“what does it mean to untangle the tangle buddhaghosa”

“Untangle the tangle” is a well-known phrase found in the the Jata Sutta (“Samyutta Nikaya”, Chapter 7, Sutta 6). Buddhaghosa was the Indian Buddhist scholar who stands out as the pre-eminent commentator on Theravada understanding. His Visuddhimagga, or Path of Purification, believed written in Ceylon in the beginning of the fifth century CE, is a comprehensive study of Buddhist doctrine and meditation technique. In his introduction to this work, Buddhaghosa quotes, and then comments on the Jata Sutta passage:

The sutta tells how a Brahman named Jata (“Tangle”) Bharadvaja visiting the Buddha at Savatthi posed  this question :

‘Tangle within, tangle without,
Sentient things are entangled in a tangle.
And I would ask of you, Gotama, this:
Who can untangle this tangle?’

Buddhaghosa comments:

By ‘tangle” is meant the net of craving. For craving is like the tangle of the network of branches of bamboo-bushes and the like, in the sense of an intertwining, because it arises again and again, repeatedly in connection with such objects as visible things. And it is said to be a ‘tangle within and a tangle without,’ because it arises as craving for one’s own needs and others’, for one’s own person and others’, and for consciousness subjective and objective. Sentient beings are entangled in such a tangle. Just as bamboos and the like are entangled by such tangles as bamboo-bushes, so all living beings, are entangled, enmeshed, embroiled, in that tangle of craving, this is the meaning.

And because of such entanglement, the meaning of, ‘I would ask of you, Gotama, this,’ is to be understood in this way: So I ask you, addressing the Awakened One by his family name, Gotama, ‘Who can untangle this tangle?’ means: Who is able to untangle this tangle which has entangled existence?

Tangled up, in blue.
Tangled up, in blue.

We are the only ones who can untangle the tangle, for the entanglement is our own doing. It is no good looking outside of ourselves for the solutions to problems created within. From the Buddhist perspective, relying on external beings (whether immortal or mortal) and forces can only bring temporary solutions. Lasting change must come from our own inner being.

When questioned in this way, the Awakened One, walking in unobstructed knowledge of all things, confident with the Four Confidences, bearer of the Tenfold Strength, possessor of unimpeded knowledge and the all-seeing eye, spoke this stanza in answer:

‘When a wise person, established well in virtue,
Develops consciousness and understanding,
Then as a seeker with concentration  and insight,
That person may untangle this tangle.’

Buddhaghosa defines virtue as a state present in a person who refrains from killing living things, etc. Another word for virtue is ethics. It has long been held in the West that ethics or moral behavior is only possible through belief in a supreme being. Without belief and without fear of the creator, humans would be free to make up their own moral standards and it would be a case of “anything goes”. Therefore, consequence is what determines virtue and leads to a system of ethics.

Buddhist ethics are entirely different, and based on two sets of principles: hri & apatrapa, and prajna & karuna.

Hri is “self-respect” or “conscientiousness,” although it is can translated as a “sense of shame.” Apatrappa can also mean “shame”, as well as “decorum” or “consideration”. Put together they mean that a person should avoid committing unwholesome acts out of respect for one’s own being (striving to keep the mind pure) and out of consideration for others.

Prajna is wisdom, having a clear understanding of what harm oneself, and karuna, compassion, is recognition of what harms others.

The goal of Buddhist ethics is simply to provide knowledge of what should or should not be done to insure the highest good and avoidance of evil. This, in essence, is also what is meant by “pure.” Buddhaghosa gives “purification” a threefold meaning. One is the purity of virtue. Secondly, refining the mind, having thoughts free of discrimination, a non-dual mind that sees all things equally without prejudice. And thirdly, Buddhaghosa equates purity with nibbana (nirvana), “which is free from all stains and is exceedingly pure.” In this sense, ethics and nirvana are identical.

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