Saturday, February 6, 2010

Accepting the disease to bring the cure?

After a lapse, I have resumed my reading of the Lotus Sutra. Actually, I think I am “reading” too many Buddhist texts and commentaries all at once, and that tends to interfere with the flow. But while reading Chapter 8 in the Lotus Sutra, the “Receipt of Prophecy by Five Hundred Disciples,” I found a passage that immediately got me thinking of the recent discussion about alcohol use in general by lay practitioners and by some monastics.

For example, Nathan at Dangerous Harvests has this post about a monk who has a bar where he pours drinks while dispensing Dhamma. The intention appears to be reaching a younger demographic and attract it to Buddhism, even if it means the temporary encouragement of breaking the precepts. And at Sweep the Dust, Push the Dirt, John has a post about alcohol consumption in general by the laity that also included a video of a rapping monk.

These methods could be reasonably explained as “expedient devices,” a phrase frequently mentioned in the Lotus Sutra. The idea, as I understand it, is that methods may be employed that on the surface may appear to be Wrong View, but which are justified by the end goal of presenting the Dhamma to as many people as possible and convert them to the “pure Dhamma;” a sort of Buddhist style of the ends justifying the means.

The relevant passage in the Lotus Sutra that got me thinking about this follows:

“Inwardly concealing their bodhisattva conduct and outwardly showing themselves to be voice hearers, though of slight desires and disgusted with birth-and-death, they are in fact, and of their own accord, purifying Buddha lands. Showing the multitude that they (themselves) have the three poisons (greed, hatred, delusion), and also displaying the signs of wrong views, my disciples, too, in the same way, by resort to expedient devices rescue the beings.”

This is a very interesting passage to me for a couple reasons. One is the simplicity of the idea that if you want to save beings from suffering, you must go to where they are suffering. This concept is not uniquely Buddhist. Jesus, for example, intentionally hung out with the poor, money lenders, prostitutes and lepers – all classes of people that were viewed with disdain and fear by the larger “pious” population. Jesus, as we recalled, allegedly changed water into wine so that a wedding party could carry on.

The other reason, however, is the danger inherent in such an “expedient device.” The Buddha mentions that these “future Buddhas” that he is talking about are “disgusted” with the cycle of birth and death despite the fact that they still possess “slight desires.” That, in my view, is a dangerous concept for a deluded mind to grasp onto. The key, it seems, to being a successful bodhisattva attempting anything like this is to have clearly cultivated a personal disgust with the cycle of birth and death, because without that sentiment but still possessing “slight desires,” venturing such a path of liberating others and bringing them to the true Dhamma would surely fail with one’s own demise.

Even those listening to the Buddha talk of this admit their own delusions at thinking they had already found liberation.

Now, of course, if this passage is the origin of such “expediencies” such as the monk with the bar, that would mean one needs to accept the validity of the Lotus Sutra, that what it states is indeed what the Buddha said.

I am interested in your thoughts about this. Is there a test for us to employ to see if such teachers are sincere and not just fellow schmucks spreading delusion? Or is the Lotus Sutra itself a form of expediency, solely written by authors who wanted some loopholes in the Dhamma to accommodate their own personal delusions, and not at all related to anything the Buddha taught?


  1. Richard, I think this passage is a most important one in the Lotus Sutra. I have no comment other than 'sentient beings are innumerable and I vow to save them all'.....If that makes any sense.


  2. 'Or is the Lotus Sutra itself a form of expediency, solely written by authors who wanted some loopholes in the Dhamma to accommodate their own personal delusions, and not at all related to anything the Buddha taught?"

    yes and no. I find plenty of value in the Lotus Sutra, but there is this underlying theme of "this form of Buddhism is vastly superior to any other forms of Buddhism", or "this is the only true teaching". I feel like part of what was attributed to the Buddha was simply a means to stake legitimacy to the Mahayana movement.

    Also, the older Pali texts just speak to me more for some reason. But I'm in a process, so who knows? Maybe I'll come to enjoy the Lotus Sutra more as time goes on.

    As for expedient means, I say that if it opens the door for someone to experience the dharma that normally wouldn't, go for it (within reason).

  3. @Adam..."I find plenty of value in the Lotus Sutra, but there is this underlying theme of 'this form of Buddhism is vastly superior to any other forms of Buddhism', or 'this is the only true teaching'."

    I hear you on that! I have similar feelings. Particularly in the descriptions of the Buddha realms; they are all described with terms I associate with clinging and greed - beautiful places filled with jewels, etc.

    Still, there's plenty in the Sutra that is valuable, if read with a discerning eye. My grounding is in the Pali texts, and it was that grounding that led me to have a negative view of the Diamond Sutra, as I found conflicting passages that contradicted the Pali canon.

  4. @Kyle, you know, that is my hangup with the bodhisattva vow. If one has purified him or herself to the point that Buddhahood is immanent, why would anyone forgo that, even if it is to save all sentient beings? Is that choice even truly possible? And then, if the number of beings are innumerable, it's an impossible task, which makes it a delusion, does it not?

    The idea of the bodhisattva certainly has merit because of the effort involved to help others. But to willingly stay within the cycle of rebirth to save others? It seems antithetical to the Buddha's teachings.

  5. @Richard-

    Perhaps they don't see sentient beings as being 'other people.' We are all deluded in one way or another, I'll take being deluded sharing the way than take deluision in seeking pleasure in the senses any day.

    Could one live with themselves knowing they found an oasis in the desert and not help others find it too?

    Antithetical? Well, tell me how you would understand this passage?

    "But whoever follows the dharma
    Is joyful here and joyful there.
    In both worlds he rejoices
    And how greatly
    When he sees the good he has done.
    For great is the harvest in this world,
    And greater still in the next.
    However many holy words you read,
    However many you speak,
    What good will they do you
    If you do not act upon them?
    Are you a shepherd
    Who counts another man's sheep,
    Never sharing the way?
    Read as few words as you like,
    And speak fewer.
    But act upon the dharma.
    Give up the old ways -
    Passion, enmity, folly.
    Know the truth and find peace.
    Share the way."

  6. @Kyle, Oh, I totally agree that one must share the Dhamma and help others. That's not my question. Surely in this life I will do what I can to help others and do so in a manner that shares the Dhamma. And if I am fortunate enough in a next life to experience the Dhamma then as well, I hope it is my kamma to continue to help others.

    What confuses me, however, is once, or if, I attain total liberation, I don't believe one has the ability to "choose" to return and continue to benefit sentient beings. I believe once you attain total liberation, when you die, you're gone: there's no coming back because the cycle is broken.

    So when people say that despite their enlightenment, they will continue to return until all sentient beings are liberated. That, to me, is delusion.

  7. @Richard - Good points and you may be right, I wish I knew, but I'm not enlightened. For the vows I took, I took them for this life, as for rebirth I do not believe nor dis-believe in it. If at some point I realize enlightenement and there is no coming back, than so be it. But all I can do is look at how I can help people in this life.

    In Zen, taking the vows of the Bodhisattva does not mean one is close to enlightenment nor has postponed it, it is more of a moral guide for living. I feel to say the vows are deluision or not is to speculate on the enlightened mind or in reincarnation. Unless you know something I don't, then it really is just a matter of opinion?

  8. @Kyle - Thank you for the clarification on this. You have contributed to my understanding! I am grateful. Deep bows. Your understanding is clear and precise. What I was operating on was hearsay, which isn't generally the most reliable information. Well, not quite hearsay; I've met too many people who say they are Zen practitioners but who really don't know much about Buddhism. I appreciate your guidance in this!