Wednesday, July 28, 2010

What about the Vinaya Pitaka?

Wine Tasting Sister
Wine Tasting Sister, Kefraya, Lebanon, 2003

Nathan at Dangerous Harvests has an excellent post about the problems in Buddhist sanghas that have recently come to light. He points out that there appears to be a kind of naiveté about group dynamics in them—it's all about individual practice and responsibility, or some kind of vague institutional oversight, with Brad Warner who sees Zen teachers as artists who should be completely free agents in one corner, and James Ford who wants official certification and oversight in the other.

Weird shit goes down in groups, and extremely weird shit can go down in "spiritual communities" (for want of a better expression). At worst, such groups can degenerate into death cults. Buddhism isn't immune—a Buddhist cult is responsible for the only terrorist attacks using weapons of mass destruction that have yet happened, after all. Of course, that very rarely happens, but it's still a possibility: religious practice is dangerous stuff, even more so than punk rock or football.

The thing is, there's a massive body of knowledge about precisely group dynamics in spiritual communities right in the middle of the Buddhist tradition. It's so important that it's one of the three "baskets" in the original Pāli Canon. The Vinaya Pitaka.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Communities, Identities and Buddhist Bloggers

Self Portrait In Curved Window With Passers-By
Self Portrait in Curved Window with Passers-by, Helsinki, 2007

For some reason, I've been thinking a lot about identity lately. Or, perhaps, identities—those self-portraits we like to paint for all kinds of situations. I have a work identity, a husband identity, a blogger identity, a national identity, a cultural identity, a sexual identity, a Zen identity, a political identity, a Facebook identity, and so on and so forth, I can't even remember all of them.

These identities are the building-blocks we use to create communities. Some of the communities are "real" in the sense that we have some kind of personal contact with everybody who is part of the community. Others are imagined—we only form a community because all of us in it believe we share in whatever the community has selected as its distinguishing characteristic. These run the gamut from small, loose groups of maybe a few score people (like the sangha where I practice—we are a community, although I haven't met everyone who's part of it) to supra-national super-identities, such as the slowly emerging "European" identity vaguely oriented around the cultural-political-ideological concept of the European Union, or the loose collection of values and ideas underlying that political edifice.

Whenever two people meet, identities will get constructed. Context determines which identity comes to the fore. At the office, we'll exchange business cards, and I'll have my software expert identity on show. On a blog somewhere, I'll be wearing my Buddhist blogger identity. Even people who post anonymously on Internet forums are creating identities, by the very fact of being anonymous, and by their choice of words and style. Doing without an identity is incredibly difficult; so difficult that someone had to invent a whole damn religion about it—that, among other things, is what "transcending subject-apprehender and object-apprehended" is all about.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Study and Practice

Ave Maria
Ave Maria, Rome, 2008

"You can't get it from books." That's true, I'm sure. You can't get Buddhism by reading books any more than you can travel to Rome by poring over a roadmap.

It's been a long time since I last made as big an effort at study as in my attempts to get to grips with Vasubandhu. It's been tough going, and I'm getting a lot of stuff wrong. The first bits I wrote about him a month or so ago already seem seriously off in many ways, and I'm quite sure that the last bits I wrote will seem even more seriously off to anyone who's been working on this stuff for, say, a few years. I'm perfectly OK with that. I'm used to being wrong, especially about things I'm just starting to get into. Being wrong is usually no big deal, because I can always revise my beliefs as I learn new things. It's only a problem if I make bad decisions based on incorrect beliefs, and at this point in my practice, since all I'm really doing is sitting, that doesn't seem like an acute danger.

I'm getting a lot out of poring over these roadmaps.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Reading Vasubandhu: Triṃśikā-kārikā

Star, Streetlight, and Smoke
Star, Streetlight, and Smoke, Helsinki, 2007

This post is part of a series chronicling my encounter with Vasubandhu, a fourth-century Indian philosopher, who co-founded Yogācāra Buddhism with his half-brother. I mean those warnings about my cluelessness. I honestly don't know squat about this topic, other than what I'm reading now. This isn't easy, and I am misunderstanding a lot—I've already figured out some of my screw-ups from my previous posts, but there's plenty more left. Proceed at your own risk, and if you're really interested, ask someone who does know what they're talking about, or, even better, give it a shot yourself. 

Vasubandhu's Triṃśikā-kārikā, or Thirty Verses (on Representation-Only) continues and summarizes the ideas outlined in the Twenty Verses and their autocommentary. It is a short work in almost poetic style; all in all, it makes up about four printed pages. Like the Twenty Verses, I found it a good deal easier to parse and digest than the Discussions. There are plenty of translations available on the Web; you might want to go and read it yourself before going on. Here's one that's a lot more pleasant but, perhaps, less accurate than the one I've been reading.

In the Thirty Verses, Vasubandhu briefly summarizes his metaphysical suppositions, his model of the personality and cognition, and its soteriological implications. That's not bad for four not-too-densely printed pages of text.

Monday, July 19, 2010

I Hate Metaphysics

Stir Fry
Stir Fry, Helsinki, 2008

About twenty-five years ago, when I was a teenager, I read a lot of philosophy. It seemed as if most of it was about metaphysics—pondering great questions like "why is there something instead of nothing?" or "what is Justice?" or "what really exists?" Most of it always ended up dissolving into clouds of words that were rigorously defined in terms of each other, but soon lost contact with anything you'd be likely to bump into in, for want of a better expression, real life. All of them started out by asking some pretty good questions, and all of them ended up exactly nowhere. Plato with his ideas, Aristotle with his essences, Democritus and his atoms, Plotinus and his Divine Principle and Demiurge, St. Thomas Aquinas and his towering cathedrals of scholasticism, on to Immanuel Kant heroically grappling with his Ding an sich, Categorical Imperative, and Necessary Being, who supposedly declared on his deathbed that only one person ever understood what he wrote, and even he got it wrong.

Eventually, I gave up. I also found out about girls and beer. That got my mind off that stuff for a bit, too.

Some years later, I took a course in the philosophy of history, and out of the reading list, I picked some Aristotle, Hegel, and Marx, largely because I figured I already knew more or less what they were saying, so it'd be an easy credit. And, for some reason, this two-volume book called The Open Society and its Enemies, by some guy called Professor Karl Raimund Popper.

That book changed my life.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

The Practice of Buddhism Itself Is A Sham

Long way from the Volga
Long Way from the Volga, Sète, France, 2006

I got into a bit a scrap with Barbara O'Brien on her blog the other day. I think it was mostly a misunderstanding, although I did deserve some of the dressing-down I got. In the process, she accused me of effectively saying that the practice of Buddhism itself is a sham.

I don't think that, naturally. If I did, I wouldn't be practicing zazen, participating in zazenkais, attending retreats, chanting sutras, and all the rest of it. While I don't really think of myself as a Buddhist, I nevertheless study and practice something that a lot of people do call Buddhism.

However, I do think there is some truth to the accusation as well. It was prompted by an ill-considered remark I made about the Tibetan tradition, and their processes of recognizing awakened teachers. As it happens, I believe that those processes are, in a sense, a sham.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Reading Vasubandhu: Viṃśatikā-kārikā-vṛtti

The eyes have it
The Eyes Have It, Helsinki, 2005

This is the fourth installment in a series of posts chronicling my encounter with Vasubandhu, the philosopher who, with his half-brother Asaṅga, founded the Yogācāra school of Buddhism. I remain just about completely clueless about the subject, so, as usual, don't believe a word of what I'm saying. For the other episodes, see here

Vasubandhu's Viṃśatikā-kārikā, or "Twenty Verses (on Representation-Only)" is one of his two best-known works. It is, I hear, also one of his most commonly misunderstood ones. Perhaps this was already the case in his own lifetime, because he also wrote a commentary on it. Be as it may, I found the Twenty Verses much more approachable than the Discussions on the five aggregates and action.

The Twenty Verses and their autocommentary are among the last things Vasubandhu wrote. He has dropped the meticulous, dialectical Abhidharmika approach in favor of an almost poetic, impressionistic, free-form style. He no longer seems all that interested in providing impeccable logical proofs of every statement; instead, he takes a metaphysical claim as a starting point, and then explores its ethical and metaphysical implications through the lens of his own experience. It would be pretty easy to pick apart his argumentation in some points, but having fought my way through his earlier work, I have no doubt at all that he could have produced much tighter (and more difficult to read) demonstrations, had he found it necessary. I'm kinda glad he didn't, because it makes the text much easier to read—although, no doubt, even easier to misunderstand.

It's also worth noting that the Twenty Verses have been preserved in the original Sanskrit, unlike the Discussions and Vāda-vidhi. Perhaps the process of translation, deconstruction, reconstruction, and retranslation has made them even harder to read than they would have been otherwise.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010


Main Road to Tibet, Nepal, 1987. Photo by Reijo Sulonen.

What with everybody's favorite contemplative's 75:th birthday and all, Tibet is in the news. It's also provoking a quite a bit of heated discussion, especially among Buddhist bloggers, which must make the apparatchiks in Beijing quake in their boots. I've gotten somewhat caught up in it myself.

Trouble is, the discussion is awfully one-dimensional. The overwhelmingly dominant discourse is a pretty simplistic one, where the Dalai Lama and his group are seen as pure capital-G Good, and the People's Republic of China is seen as pure capital-E Evil. Any dissenting voices tend to be branded as lackeys of the Communist imperialist atheist anti-Buddhist Chinese… and some of said voices do appear to cleave awfully close to the Xinhua News Agency version of the story. Whether that's out of conviction or just due to the dynamics of the debate I honestly don't know; after all, in a polarized debate like this, it's very, very difficult to stake out a position that isn't pigeonholed as 'pro-Tibetan' or 'pro-Chinese,' and once that's happened, it's even more difficult not to find yourself defending one discourse or the other. That's quite likely to happen to this attempt, too, in fact.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Reading Vasubandhu: Karma-siddhi-prakaraṇa

Rollin', Nice, 2010

Vasubandhu's Karma-siddhi-prakaraṇa,  "Discussion for the Demonstration of Action," is a bastard. As in, I had a great deal of trouble reading it, much more so than Vāda-vidhi or Pañcaskandhaka-prakaraṇa. Nevertheless, I think I've finally got some kind of hold on it, although it's bound to be even more superficial than for the previous two works. This is because it's a part of a grand philosophical debate about which I'm pretty much completely clueless. 

I remain a complete newbie to this whole show, so absolutely do not take anything I say as authoritative in any way. If you're only stumbling on my blog now and want to read this bit, I would suggest that you check out my pontification on Pañcaskandhaka-prakaraṇa first, though, because a good many concepts discussed here were introduced there.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Achilles and the Tortoise

Santa Maria del Mar
Santa Maria del Mar, Barcelona, 2004

I'm still grappling with Vasubandhu's Discussion for the Demonstration of Action. I'm starting to suspect that I'm missing too much context to be able to really figure out what he's saying there. It's clearly a part of a grand philosophical discussion between several schools of thought, none of which I understand. The upshot is that I'm picking up occasional flashes of meaning buried in noise, sort of like trying to listen to a radio channel that's fading in and out due to static.

But I'll give it another couple of shots anyway, and then write down whatever little I have managed to glean from it. In the meantime, as I've been searching for something to relate it to, I've returned to one of the first philosophical exercises I remember grappling with: the paradoxes of Zeno of Elea.

Why bring up Zeno when wrestling with Vasubandhu? Because I have a growing feeling that Vasubandhu is somewhat stuck in the very trap Zeno described, although an elegant solution to the paradox is staring him right in the face.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Buddhist Identity and the Four Dharma Seals

Rusty Christ
Rusty Christ, Bonnieux, France, 2010

NellaLou had an interesting post up, regarding Buddhist identity and what different people say makes someone a "good" Buddhist, or a plain ol' Buddhist with no qualifications. She contrasts a long list of behavioral criteria collected from a variety of sources with the Four Dharma Seals. While she doesn't actually say so in so many words, it's pretty obvious where her sympathies lie.

She quotes the Four Dharma Seals from the book What Makes You Not A Buddhist by Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse:
One is a Buddhist if he or she accepts the following four truths:
  • All compounded things are impermanent
  • All emotions are pain
  • All things have no inherent existence
  • Nirvana is beyond concepts
By these criteria, I would qualify as a Buddhist (even if I'd quibble a bit about 'pain'—I've seen other translations that I think might be more accurate). But then (probably) so would my wife and both of my parents and at least one of my sisters, even though my wife identifies as Catholic, my sister as Lutheran, and my parents as nonreligious.