Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Buddhist Bible Thumpers

I would love to be a peaceful bodhisattva who has completely seen through delusion and overcome all conflicting emotions, but I have to admit I am not that guy. Among other things, I am irked by Buddhist fundamentalism. For example, yesterday evening, I read this in an article by a well-known Buddhist teacher: “Read up on what the Buddha had to say on the topic and don’t settle for books that put you at the end of a game of telephone. Go straight to the source, the words of the Buddha himself.”

This is silly and misleading. First of all, what are purported to be “the words of the Buddha himself” cannot possibly be his actual words. The Buddha’s words were not recorded or transcribed (See my post Books: Basic Teachings of the Buddha for details.) The sutras are not first-hand reports, like watching CNN, broadcasting live from Bodhgaya.

Second, where I come from, the source is the tathagatagarbha, or buddha nature. It is accessible to all of us. It is not words in ancient books. Buddhism is a living tradition that depends on a lineage of transmission for its vitality. Each generation of teachers must make a direct connection to the source, by realizing, in the words of the great Tibetan master Milarepa, “There is no other buddha apart from your own mind.”

The point of the path is to taste the truth of the Buddha’s words for ourselves, not just repeat them.


Anonymous said...

Hi Andy,
Thanks for your blog.
I'm sorry to hear you were irked.
I guess the point of the teaching is to enable people to go to a source that they can trust fully, and then that source can point them to their own tatagatagarba. For many people the historical Buddha is the most trustworthy source, especially since Padmasambhava did so many things that irked disciplinaraians (too much focus on hinayana) or moralists (too much focus on mahayana).
The lineage of transmission is an interesting topic you raise. Must we rely on a lineage of transmission for our vitality?

Anonymous said...

Hi, Andy.

I'm glad to see that someone else had a similar response to mine from reading statement in the article. I am a relatively new practitioner, but it didn't sit well with me either.
At the same time, we can easily be seduced by the latest trendy author or teacher. We do need to be careful about who's translation or commentary of the buddha's teachings we choose to read. I have read some books or articles that seem to water down the teachings and it leaves a bad taste in my mouth about the state of Buddhism in America. I know I myself at times spend way too much time reading the Dharma and not enough time practicing the Dharma.

Dorje Samten said...

Hi Andy,

I think we can straighten all this out: I have the only extant recordings of the actual voice of the Buddha expounding his complete teachings. They were made by Avalokiteshvara - so much for his supposedly amazing powers of memory - and are a little scratchy becuse they were originally made through a conch wired to a vibrating reed which left impressions on a wax tablet, and have of course been through numerous media conversions over the millenia. Anyway, I've now got them and was thinking that we could offer them for sale on your blog [5% commission] as well as eBay. Tag line: "Your source for THE SOURCE" These recordings won't be cheap but hey, isn't anything we pay to totally clarify confusion a bargain?

Anamika said...

Hi Andy,
You must be delighted with Dorje Samten for being The Techie of our time.
His recovery of the Buddha's voice will hopefully lay to rest your concerns.
I must ask you one question though-How is it that you don't think that the Sutras are the words of the Buddha-somewhat divorcing yourself from them while alighning yourself instead with tathagathagarba which if I understand correctly is also a Sutra?

Andy Karr said...

Hi anamika,

There are two main reasons to feel that the sutras are not the actual words of the Buddha. The first is practical: people did not write down the words, or even notes about the teachings for hundreds of years. Talk about the telephone game!

More importantly, people remember teachings that make sense to them. Many of the most profound teachings do not seem to make sense until our realization deepens. The heart of the dharma is expressing the inexpressible (think Mahakasyapa and the flower). It is hard to imagine that the Buddha was not doing this all the time, yet it is hard to find this in the sutras.

Ngeshe said...

Hi Andy:

This is a great topic. I've found personally that I've learned more when I've received teaching in person (particularly when combined with meditation/contemplation) than when I've read books (no matter how good the source). In any case, considering the equal importance of view, meditation, and action, there's a danger of reading too much (gluttonously). I think books such as "Contemplating Reality" are valuable since they encourage us to slow down and contemplate what we've read.

jerry said...

This is a great post. I just had one of the ‘Doh!’ moments and ran back to correct my own site before publishing my comment. You see my own comment form did not match what I’m about to advice. I get less comment than you, so never noticed any problem. I’ve changed it now anyway so here goes.

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