Buddhism Without the Bull 3: Dharma Deification

I will start with a personal experience:

I sat on the meditation cushion and looked at the sheet of paper I was just handed.  It was “The Heart Sutra”, which was about the relationship between form and emptiness.  I skimmed through it; it looked fascinating and confusing and I looked forward to discussing and practicing it.  Then the group started CHANTING it!  “When in Rome” I thought as I mouthed along, feeling silly.  Why were we treating this like some sacred piece of text instead of treating it like instructions?  Wasn’t the dharma meant to be practiced?  It didn’t help that the chanting sounded silly and that distracted from the text.  I wondered what would have happened had I walked into the hall and saw this chanting and I realized I would have walked straight out again. Still, it could have been worse.  We could have been chanting in Pali, like some places did…

The dharma is Buddhist philosophy and it’s meant to be lived, but it often becomes an object of veneration.  Every time  a sutra is chanted rather than practiced, there is some perfectly good dharma going to waste. Every time a sutra’s purpose is to show how great The Buddha was (ie: Kalama Sutra), we’re back to Buddha Worship.

One doesn’t venerate an auto service manual, so why venerate the dharma — a life manual?

What’s worse is the confusion between what’s dharma and what is not.  If we take the parable of the arrow seriously, dharma is only that which is conducive to improving our lives.  This means Buddhist teachings that involve pointless speculation, categorizing and number fetishes is not dharma. On the other hand, Buddhist teachings that involve practical concerns like  meditation, forgiveness and reflection on the 4 Noble Truths are dharma… if they are lived.

Dharma generally involves these issues (this is not an exhaustive list):

  • Unhappiness comes from thwarted desire
  • Desire is a mental state
  • Desire is often attached to external things
  • What’s external is not fully in our control
  • Mental states are more in our control
  • We can mentally do something about desire

If Buddhist teachings that don’t deal with our condition are not dharma, then is the opposite true — are non-Buddhist teachings that deal with our condition dharma?  Put another way, are non-Buddhist teachings dharma if they address the issues above?  I believe so, if we use them to improve our lot.

Dharma is dharma, whether it comes from modern England or ancient India.  To argue otherwise treats dharma’s key characteristic as its origin which brings us back to Buddha worship.

Defining dharma by origin means nothing is dharma because nothing can reliably be traced back to The Buddha.  The earliest sources were written a few hundred years after The Buddha died, and they were the results of oral transmission so their fidelity is in doubt.  Additionally, a great deal of dharma came from China and Japan, and at least one major school of Buddhism (Zen) started in China and was the result of mixing Buddhism with Taoism.

Fortunately, dharma stands on its own merit.  Commentators, confusion, etc… can all be dharma.  The proof is in the pudding — if it addresses our condition, it is dharma.

Many of Buddhism’s concerns are universal and can be arrived at by logic, so it’s reasonable to assume different places and times have found similar things. Yes, they may treat things differently and go in different directions, but they still can provide dharma.  For instance, note the similarities between the following philosophies and aspects of Buddhism:

They can all be dharma and can shed light on Buddhist concepts. For instance, non-Buddhist sources (Pyrrhonism and Bundle Theory) helped me understand a Buddhist teaching (The Heart Sutra) better than any Buddhist source.  Ataraxia sheds light on Nirvana, and their similarities shed light on what our attitude to life should be.

So if the dharma is universal, syncreticism is ok.

Often, the differences among the Buddhist and non-Buddhist counterparts are insignificant. For example, that Ataraxia and Nirvana are both goals of practice matters more than any differences between them.  That Skandhas and Bundle Theory provide ways to deconstruct experience matters more than the fact that their lines of division may differ.

Dharma is not Buddhist: it is human.  Dharma belongs to the world and the world has contributed to it. So maybe we can let go of origins, stop treating it as some thing to be venerated and focus on the rich diversity of tools the thinkers of the world — including non-Buddhist ones — have to offer.

This is why we must kill The Buddha. As long as he casts a shadow over the dharma, we may never see it clearly.

11 thoughts on “Buddhism Without the Bull 3: Dharma Deification

  1. It is really bothering me that I don’t have the time to stop and comment on these properly. You really chose the worst week for this series!
    Anyway, I have to say I’m really enjoying this. For once, it feels like I’m seeing another side of you: in your other writings you seem more serious and balanced, in the sense that it seems like you’ve pondered every sentence before you’ve written it, making sure it is balanced and fair to everyone involved. These pieces sound a lot more “fun”, to put it some way. Or maybe I just have an irreverent nature and instinctively love it when people criticize “sacred” stuff. Who knows.
    I also feel that I’m getting a much better understanding of your beliefs and I have to say mine are much closer to “your” brand of Buddhism than the usual brand. In fact, I think I understand Buddhism much better since I started reading your blog, so much so that a lot of the stuff from before doesn’t even make sense to me any more.
    By the way, a week ago I spoke to a friend who was going to some stuff. He had been going to a meditation course and didn’t see the point: his teacher had told him to “void his mind” and played him relaxing music. He said that he was interested in something he could use in his everyday life, to solve his problems, not in voiding his mind. I then pretty much quoted your article on mindfulness, word by word. When I was done he said my version (which was really your version) made a lot more sense. Then I told him to read “mindfulness in plain English.”
    Anyway, just thought you’d like to know you’re also helping others indirectly, not just directly through your blog!

    1. Murphy’s law my friend. When you’re around, it seems I take a long time to blog. Then when these things come out rapid fire, you’re not around.

      I can delay my next article until you’re back if you wish. I’ve put enough content up there that it won’t hurt to let it sit for a bit.

      It’s funny you mention the other side and how these are different from my other articles — they are. They’re more personal and I still have some strong feelings about them. They’re harsher and less balanced. In fact, I may not have posted them without livelysceptic encouraging me to do so.

      I think we both are very close in beliefs — and interests. In fact, I think most of our differences are really just terminology ones. I’m also really happy that I helped you understand Buddhism — or at least my take on it 😉

      The main reason I wrote this was to present Buddhism to skeptics who don’t have stars in their eyes by basically saying “yes, there’s tons of problems and they can hide the good stuff, so let’s just get all the problems out in the open right now and point at the good stuff…”.

      I’m delighted to hear your friend benefited from this. I really like knowing these blogs help people — directly or indirectly, so thanks for telling me about that. As for the whole music with meditation thing… when music is involved, I assume it becomes about relaxation and not introspection, so I’m not so sure it’s about daily life at that point — but that’s just me.


  2. Hi BR! What can I say? Shall I just go ahead with my another-great-article mantra or is it something you are getting bored with because I say it every time? I really mean it, though! 😉

    I am very happy to read what you write about the chanting…let me say that before anything else. Singing in public, in a group, has always been one of the things I really dislike doing and I feel great when you compare it to making the auto manual into some sacred text! I am sure I will never hear the Heart Sutra (we did it in a weird kind of Sino-Japanese monosyllabic hybrid that nobody alive could understand) again without thinking of chanting the manual! In fact, for some people chanting from the manual might be a great way to develop the irreverent parts of their selves.
    On reading this, and reading David’s reaction, it seems so normal to feel the way we feel (I know we don’t agree on everything, but irreverence is certainly a recurring theme here!), but I have met many people who probably could not even understand what we are on about.

    On mindfulness, I remember someone saying that this, too, might develop into a new religion if we give it time. It would probably involve chewing sacred raisins, very slowly!

    And on the comparisons with Western philosophy; I will readily admit I am an absolute beginner but already I am enchanted by what I have read. I wish that more people would look into their own (in a sense) history before they went to some exotic place and embraced uncritically everything that looked remotely weird and mystical. – Oops, it looks like I’m getting into a rant, here. Sorry!

    I don’t know if you’ve read it, but one of my favourite ways to try to convey this message is giving people William Sutcliffe’s “Are you experienced.” Its the story about the travels of a boy in his gap year. He goes to India, a notorious place when it comes to guru’s and he turns out to be completely impervious to anything weird or mysterious, as if he’s been inoculated. Of course, he meets lots of gullible people and has some hilarious adventures. I don’t know if it is a great way to get a message across, because I know people who read it and never got the message…But one can always try!

    Thank you for writing this, BR. I hope there will come a point when I will be able to look at your list of comparisons and appreciate each and every one (from knowing what everything is, I mean). 🙂

    1. Lol, of course I’m not tired of hearing it, but if you wish, you can stop saying it. Heheheeh, I can always assume it’s there 😛

      You know what’s funny? I used to joke with a friend way back about a pretend religion and one of the tenets involved reading from an auto service manual, so I’ve sort of been there with the irreverent part. I am glad you liked the manual analogy; I really needed something relevant that would bring out the absurdity of it all.

      Mindfulness may already be a religion, although I’d love to see the sacred raisins! Some mindfulness books spend some time talking up the breath, about how it grounds us, how it connects us, how our life depends on it. They elevated it beyond an object of meditation into something almost sanctified in its own right, and some people try to focus on their breath in the midst of life rather than on what’s happening.

      Western philosophy is all too easy to dismiss because a lot of it seems academic, detached and irrelevant to our concerns, but there’s good stuff there if you’re willing to look. They also often take things that would seem to have practical implications and not take them further, so that’s a bit disappointing sometimes.

      I really like what you say about looking into one’s own tradition, and I agree. In fact, I’ve been mulling over writing an article about that…

      I will look up “Are You Experienced”, it sounds like a good read.

      As for the list of comparisons, I’ll be more than happy to elaborate if you wish, but also keep in mind that a lot if it is what you take out of it. Some people might just look at some of those items and disagree that there’s any relevant comparisons. I do approach most philosophy through a “Buddhist Lens”, so I may very well distort 😀

  3. Hi BR!
    I really don’t think you’ll need “Are you experienced?” to work on being irreverent. You seem to be doing great without it! 😉 Actually, it might all seem childish to you! The thing is, I don’t know of many books that ‘advocate’ a sceptical attitude. Unless it’s books that actually are about scepticism. And that is weird. Especially when you think of all the New Age stuff selling like hot cakes.
    On approaching philosophy through a buddhist lens, I might be suffering from the same problem. I see ‘buddhist concepts’ in the Western philosophy I am currently reading, and I’m sure it’s often just my personal frame of reference that puts the buddhism in there! However, like you said on many occasions, that does not really matter. In the end it’s just about what works for you, isn’t it?
    PS: Looking forward to the next one in the series, but after reading David’s comments, I’m sure I can find the patience to wait. 🙂

    1. I won’t mind checking out the book anyway — a good read is a good read.

      I know what you mean about the skeptical attitude. It’s like they either swallow the whole thing or reject it all. There isn’t that much of an in-between. I’ve read some pretty good books on Buddhism as a philosophy, and while some got a bit dry, they also had a solid, non-incredulous treatment that also shed light on some concepts.

      Yes, it’s all about what works. I know my biases and know I may be distorting some things to the breaking point, but I’m comfortable with that because all I set out to do at the end of the day was find something that worked to give me a particular experience.

      Thank you. The next one is actually close to being done. I’ll see if David’s would like me to wait or not 😀

  4. Your blog has been bringing me back to important things I forgot I ever thought about. Thank you for that.

    Have you read Plotinus on the “clear light”? That sounds like nirvana to me. Also, Maurice Bucke wrote a book called “Cosmic Consciousness” that describes people who had the experience. I read that about 40 years ago, and the only person I remember mentioned was Walt Whitman. Two of the commonalities he pointed out were that it usually happened to someone 25 years old or younger and in the springtime. The short case studies were quite interesting to a 20 year old. There were also flaws but I don’t remember specifics. I have a copy somewhere, but I just googled it and a free pdf is available here: http://archive.org/details/cosmconscious

    1. My pleasure!

      I don’t specifically remember “the clear light”, but I’ve read a bit on Plotinus. I’ve been trying to find a good source for a while, especially since I’ve been trying to get a better perspective on contemplation in the ancient Western philosophical sense. I read Hadot’s book on Plotinus, and it was ok, but not as informative as I would have liked. Plotinus’ Enneads seemed to go all over the place. If you know a good source, I’d love to hear about it.

      I know of “Cosmic Consciousness” and have actually seen it referred to in a few sources, but haven’t read it myself. Thanks for the PDF, I’m going to check it out.

      1. All I ever read was a selections from the Enneads book. This is from the MIT site:

        Sixth Tractate


        9 – When you know that you have become this perfect work, when you are
        self-gathered in the purity of your being, nothing now remaining that
        can shatter that inner unity, nothing from without clinging to the
        authentic man, when you find yourself wholly true to your essential
        nature, wholly that only veritable Light which is not measured by
        space, not narrowed to any circumscribed form nor again diffused as
        a thing void of term, but ever unmeasurable as something greater than
        all measure and more than all quantity- when you perceive that you
        have grown to this, you are now become very vision: now call up all
        your confidence, strike forward yet a step- you need a guide no longer-
        strain, and see.

        This is the only eye that sees the mighty Beauty. If the eye that
        adventures the vision be dimmed by vice, impure, or weak, and unable
        in its cowardly blenching to see the uttermost brightness, then it
        sees nothing even though another point to what lies plain to sight
        before it. To any vision must be brought an eye adapted to what is
        to be seen, and having some likeness to it. Never did eye see the
        sun unless it had first become sunlike, and never can the soul have
        vision of the First Beauty unless itself be beautiful.


        Eighth Tractate


        Thus the traces of the Good discerned upon it must be taken as indication
        of the nature of that Archetype: we form a conception of its Authentic
        Being from its image playing upon the Intellectual-Principle. This
        image of itself, it has communicated to the Intellect that contemplates
        it: thus all the striving is on the side of the Intellect, which is
        the eternal striver and eternally the attainer. The Being beyond neither
        strives, since it feels no lack, nor attains, since it has no striving.
        And this marks it off from the Intellectual-Principle, to which characteristically
        belongs the striving, the concentrated strain towards its Form.

        Yet: The Intellectual-Principle; beautiful; the most beautiful of
        all; lying lapped in pure light and in clear radiance; circumscribing
        the Nature of the Authentic Existents; the original of which this
        beautiful world is a shadow and an image; tranquil in the fullness
        of glory since in it there is nothing devoid of intellect, nothing
        dark or out of rule; a living thing in a life of blessedness: this,
        too, must overwhelm with awe any that has seen it, and penetrated
        it, to become a unit of its Being.

        The terminology is certainly from Plato, but Plotinus seems to be trying to describe a cosmic consciousness experience. The ability to search key words sure is handy.

      2. Thank you for posting!

        Yes, IIRC, Plotinus followed in Plato’s footsteps, the father of Neoplatonism, and strongly influenced Christian Mysticism. In short, he blended Cosmic Consciousness with Platonism.

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