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.

I believe that there is such a thing as spiritual attainment, for want of a better word. Some people have, through a great deal of study and practice, had profound insights, and have managed to weave those insights into the fabric of their life. They are capable of guiding other people along the path to similar insights. Someone who hasn't walked that bit of the path is not capable of performing that function. The Dharma isn't a democracy, because some people just are more capable than others. That means that it is necessary to somehow recognize the teachers with genuine insight among the big pool of potential and actual teachers who just think they're "it."

Because such insight is internal, I don't think it's even possible to devise an objective, empirical "enlightenment test." Of course, people who have themselves had such insights are better equipped to recognize such insight in others; Zen literature is rife with examples of this. What's more, there appear to be plenty of teachers who have had such deep insights, but have somehow failed to work them into their lives, and fallen back into destructive patterns of behavior, for themselves and others. Vasubandhu says that one kind of pride is pride in an attainment you once had, but no longer possess. I think that's especially a danger for teachers, and by extension, their students. That's why I'm so wary of what seem to me to be dangerous practices related to giving individual, human teachers inerrant or near-godlike status.

That leaves all spiritual traditions, Buddhist and non-Buddhist, with a big grab-bag of expedient means. Some of these means are mythological in nature. In Zen, for example, there is the idea of an unbroken chain of face-to-face transmission of the untransmittable Dharma outside scriptures, right down to the Lotus Sermon where Mahakasyapa smiled at the Tathagata.

When looking at the historical record, it's pretty clear that this can't be the case. In the lineage chanted in my sangha, for example, it's likely that Bodhidharma and Huineng were entirely mythological, Dōgen's Dharma transmission document is likely a forgery, and Kapleau Roshi certainly never got inka—formal authorization to teach—from his teacher, Yasutani Roshi. Even notwithstanding my metaphysical difficulties with the whole concept, I'm quite certain that you'll find similar shenanigans in, say, the chain of reincarnated tulkus in Tibetan Buddhism, and in every other tradition that uses similar mechanisms to recognize spiritual attainment.

So, in a sense, these traditions are a sham. Taken literally, they don't stand up to critical scrutiny.

This does not make the practice of Buddhism itself a sham. It does not even make the transmission of Dharma a sham. I believe there is something to be transmitted, some insight, some universal truth (for want of a better expression), at the core of the Buddhadharma. I don't think that truth is a static thing; it has to be rediscovered and reinvented by every generation that carries it forward. Nor do I believe that it ever depends, or has depended on, just one enlightened individual passing the torch to the next one. It's bigger than that.

The Dharma lives in the practice of everyone practicing it. The Sangha carries and transmits the Dharma, with a whole variety of means, myths, rituals, traditions, practices, words, stories, conceptual constructs, and what have you. Sometimes the formal transmission fails, the teacher falls on his face, and the thread breaks. That's when the Sangha steps in. Sooner or later someone continuing and exploring the practice will rediscover it, and the tradition will carry on. It will only disappear once there are no sincere seekers left, and no signposts along the path for them to follow. It takes more than a few breaks in the Dharma transmission for that to happen.

The practice of Buddhism—the Noble Eightfold Path—isn't a single thread. It's a rope consisting of many threads. That rope does reach back some thousands of years all the way to the fertile earth of Northern India, even if any single strand in it only goes back a few decades or a paltry century or two, and even if the threads that first wove themselves together into that rope are now lost to us in myth and the mists of time. Even if some of the expedient means around it are mythological, the practice of Buddhism itself is not a sham.


  1. Hi Petteri,

    I quite agree. Lineage is no guarantee of anything. In a few years the Chinese will once again appoint a Dalai Lama (most likely there will be at least two) and the real weaknesses in that system of government will be quite clear.

    We seem overly concerned with authenticity and authority in an unhealthy way, and at the expense of personal experience. It seems to generate a climate of fear and suspicion, especially online. We're not willing to take the time to get to know someone before judging them based on lineage. People like to bask in the reflected glory of having a high profile teacher. So the focus is not on one's practice, but on one's credentials. That is a shame and yes, a sham at times.

    The Pāli texts show the Buddha explaining that it takes a long and intimate contact with someone to assess their spiritual attainment: see my rave 'How to spot an Arahant' (


    PS I had my own run-in with O'Brien a while back. I note she's one of the judges of the Blogisattva awards this year, so I guess neither of us will win one :-)

  2. Well, that's sham-sara for ya, I suppose…