From the review: "In the afterword, Bernard Faure states that the aim of the collection was to press Buddhists and scholars of Buddhism to face up toFrom the review: "In the afterword, Bernard Faure states that the aim of the collection was to press Buddhists and scholars of Buddhism to face up to the worst aberrations and silences within the tradition. Faure accuses many contemporary Buddhist apologists of taking the `high metaphysical or moral ground' rather than recognizing that in Buddhism, as in all the faiths, there is a constant struggle between light and darkness, between the promise of release and `the violence that lies at the heart of reality (and of each individual)'." ...more
The best vacation I've ever had was the three weeks I spent in Nepal in 1995 or '96. I was lucky. The military junta had been overthrown but the CommuThe best vacation I've ever had was the three weeks I spent in Nepal in 1995 or '96. I was lucky. The military junta had been overthrown but the Communist insurgency hadn't begun; the Nepalese were enjoying what turned out to be an all-too-brief peace. Of those 21 days, the best of the best were the eleven I spent at a Tibetan Buddhist monastery north of Kathmandu. I've always had an intellectual interest in Buddhism, and my week and a half of direct exposure to people who were living a version of it made a lasting impression. Fifteen years later, I find that my cast of mind becomes increasingly Buddhist-like. Not to the point of converting - the faith-based assumptions of the various Buddhisms prevent that - but to the point that the four noble truths, the eight-fold path and its universal compassion and my own actions and opinions look much alike.
Becoming Enlightened is not for the already practicing Buddhist or for someone seriously committed to becoming one (except to the extent that it might be useful as a quick reference to doctrine as they become more familiar with actual scripture). Though some Buddhist authorities - Nagarjuna, Shantideva, Aryadeva, among others - are quoted, there is not in-depth discussion of any of them or their doctrines. Instead, I think, His Holiness attempts to speak to the curious nonbeliever, explaining the whats and whys of Buddhism (of course, I doubt he'd be unhappy to pick up a convert along the way). Unfortunately, it makes the bulk of the book (200 pages of 250+) potentially irrelevant as it lays out the program a Buddhist should follow. Yet even if you don't accept reincarnation, the illusory nature of perception, the wisdom of extinguishing the self, or the reality of nirvana, the moral and social consequences that flow from these beliefs are worth considering - indeed, implementing, IMO.
The first six chapters, then, were the most interesting to me - "A Book About Enlightenmnet", "Comparing Religions", "The Buddhist Framework", "Practicing Buddhism", "Knowing the Qualifications of a Teacher", and "Buddhism in India and Tibet". Three of the most attractive features of the religion are its rationality, its inclusiveness and its morality.
An example of that rationality is His Holiness' insistence that every teaching of the Buddha as well as subsequent gurus be able to withstand analysis and reflection. In short, doubt should be the initial reaction of the student to anything they hear. If it can't endure examination, the teaching must be a "wrong view" (more on this below). Another example (and one fundamentalists of any stripe should pay attention to) is the correct interpretation of scriptures. The sacred writings of any faith are guidelines that - if truly inspired - cannot be wrong. If reason, science or experience show that a valid teaching cannot be literally true, don't deny reality or abandon scripture but understand it in another way. There's a variety of scriptures because there's a variety of human experiences and understandings. Validity depends upon implementing a scripture to good effect. If it results in continuing the cycle of suffering, then it cannot be "true" in any sense.
Buddhism's inclusiveness is reflected in the Dalai Lama's belief that any teaching that promotes compassion and altruism has some worth. Different minds understand the Four Noble Truths differently; no one should be pushed into understanding more than they can handle. He explicitly says that Christians, Muslims and others should try to understand via their own faiths; this book is not meant as a call to conversion. (If the teaching's valid, it will eventually bring you to the place the Buddha arrived at, afterall.)
In the final matter of morality, as I reflected on "what I learned from this book" - and what has made it loom larger in my thoughts than it might otherwise have done - I came to the realization of how inhumane we as a society are. As individuals and concerned groups/congregations, most people are pretty good. Not saints but neither sociopathic libertarians when they take the time to reflect on others' situations. It's as a so-called civilization that we're failing. Consider the ten nonvirtues that should be avoided. It seems modern society perversely elevates many, if not all, as virtues:
1. Killing: Wrong under any circumstances, though the details and intent of a death are important. The sheer scale of celebrated murder in the name of state, faith, corporation or for the convenience of low-priced hamburgers beggars the imagination on this one. 2. Stealing: As a society we idolize the accumulation of "things," which fosters covetousness (nonvirtue #8, see below). 3. Sexual misconduct: A tricky concept that the Dalai Lama avoids discussing in much detail but it includes possessive desire. 4. Lying: I don't know that we've enshrined lying as such as a virtue yet but insofar as it's necessary to justify what we have made virtuous, our society tends to practice it to perfection. 5-7. Divisive talk, harsh speech & senseless chatter: Following these injunctions would eliminate 99.9% of what we hear in the media and what passes for entertainment today. 8. Covetousness 9. Harmful intent 10. Wrong views: Another nebulous concept but one that includes beliefs that promote selfishness or any of the other nonvirtues (Objectivism just went out the window).
I don't want to preach, however. As the Dalai Lama argues, a rational, unbiased person who contemplates existence will come to recognize the effects of nonvirtuous conduct and belief and will cultivate their opposites....more
Twenty-five years ago or so I read Gore Vidal's Creation and my perception of the Buddha has been fatefully tainted ever since. Cyrus Spitama, the novTwenty-five years ago or so I read Gore Vidal's Creation and my perception of the Buddha has been fatefully tainted ever since. Cyrus Spitama, the novel's protagonist and the grandson of Zoroaster, finds himself in India at one point and has an opportunity to meet Gautama:
We followed Sariputra up the steps and into the hut, where all of those who had been seated rose to greet us except for the Buddha, who remained seated on his mat. I could see why he was called the golden one. He was as yellow as any native of Cathay. Not only was he not Aryan, he was not Dravidian either. Obviously, some tribe from Cathay had crossed the Himalayas to sire the Gotama clan.
The Buddha was small, slender, supple. He sat very straight, legs crossed beneath him. The slanted eyes were so narrow that one could not tell if they were open or shut. Someone described the Buddha's eyes as being as luminous as the night sky in summer. I would not know. I never actually saw them. Pale arched eyebrows grew together in such a way that there was a tuft of hair at the juncture. In India this is considered a mark of divinity.
The old man's flesh was wrinkled but glowing with good health, and the bare skull shone like yellow alabaster. There was a scent of sandalwood about him that struck me as less than ascetic. During the time I was with him, he seldom moved either his head or his body. Occasionally he would gesture with the right hand. The Buddha's voice was low and agreeable, and seemed to cost him no breath. In fact, in some mysterious way, he seemed not to breathe at all. (pp. 294-5 in my edition)
In the novel, Cyrus is a stand-in for the Westerner who is constantly questioning the things of the material world and trying to find reasons for our existence. For anyone familiar with Buddhism, it should come as no surprise that he was sorely disappointed in its founder's philosophy, for the material world is an illusion, and the goal of those striving for enlightenment is the utter extinguishment of the self.
I'm reminded of Creation because Karen Armstrong reminds me of Cyrus Spitama. She isn't asking the same questions but she is writing about the life and times of a man who would have argued that her endeavor is pointless. The man Siddhartha Gautama is irrelevant; the dharma he taught should be the focus.
Happily, though, Armstrong manages to follow a "middle way" - She puts together all the facts and speculation about when and where the Buddha lived and taught and a clear explication of early Buddhist practice and belief (the "important" stuff).
Unfortunately for specifics, I listened to the book (well read by Kate Reading - now there's an appropriate name) driving to and from work so my ability to take my accustomed notes for books like this was...ahem...limited (I am not of that generation who believes they can text and drive simultaneously). But Armstrong does a good job of showing how Gautama - who came from outside the Brahmanic system - first renounced his noble lifestyle and then spent several years trying to find a dharma that made sense of the world. The solution he arrived at rejected Brahmanic ritual (and its attendant Hindu caste system) and extreme ascetism (which only the hopelessly committed could ever hope to attain) for a way of life that didn't demand more than a person was capable of at any particular point in life, and that was (potentially) open to all - from the haughtiest Brahmin to the lowest Dalit. Importantly, the Buddha claimed that the pudding's proof was that anyone who followed his dharma enjoyed a more peaceful, settled, less anxious life.
Buddha can be read as an adjunct to Armstrong's work on the Axial Age, The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions. This was the era when the foundations of the world's great religious traditions were laid down by a series of brilliant innovators who arose in response to the increasing violence and atomistic urbanization of the Ancient world: The Greek philosophers, the Hebrew prophets, Zoroaster, the Hindu authors of the Upanishads, Mahavira (Jains), and Laozi & Confucius in China. She puts the Buddha into this context and argues that the religion's popularity was enhanced by its ability to address people's anxieties and the place it made for the rising classes who existed outside of the traditional Vedic system (brahmins, kshatriyas, vaishyas, shudras).
It's also helpful that I'm reading (actually "reading") Wendy Doniger's new history of Hinduism as she goes into great depth about the Hindu response to the new age of urban civilization and puts the rise of Buddhism into a fuller context.
Whether read or heard, I would recommend Buddha as a lucid introduction to both man and philosophy....more