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:
- Stoicism and Buddhism’s attachments.
- Pyrrhonism’s epoche and Buddhism’s Greed for views.
- Greek Philosophy’s Ataraxia and Apathea and Buddhism’s Nirvana.
- Schopenhauer’s Will and Buddhism’s desire.
- Existentialism’s absurd and The 3 Sights The Buddha saw.
- Western philosophy’s substance and Buddhism’s form.
- Hume’s Bundle Theory and Buddhism’s Skandhas
- Hume’s Self and Buddhism’s Skandhas
- Parfitt’s Self and Buddhism’s Self.
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.