Monday, April 25, 2011

Buddhist Warfare, chapters 2, 3, and 4

I know that I said that I would write a post about each chapter in “Buddhist Warfare”, but as I am reading the collection, I’m realizing that I’ll never get through it if I stick to that. So there will be times, such as this one, when I combine various chapters into one post and others when a post will be devoted to a single chapter.

One of the book’s editors, Michael Jerryson, mentions in the Introduction two key questions critical to how a reader interprets the contents of the book: “How can Buddhist scripture be interpreted for warfare? And how is it interpreted for warfare?”

Chapters 2, 3 and 4 readily follow this line of thought by focusing in rather specific ways. Of course, the danger with such specificity is that the argument gets lost in the larger context: do the examples cited in these chapters represent fairly the core teachings of the Buddha? In my opinion, they most certainly do not.

Chapter 2, by Stephen Jenkins, is titled “Making Merit through Warfare and Torture According to the Ārya-Bodhisattva-gocara-upāyyavisaya-vikurvana-nirdeśa Sūtra,” which means the conclusions of this chapter are based entirely on this single sutra. It is essentially a sutra filled with rationalizations, but it is worth pointing out the connection this sutra has with earlier writings in the Pali canon.

This sutra presents the dialogue between an ascetic named Satyavaca Nirgranthaputra and a king. Satyavaca also appears in the Majjhima Nikaya as the ascetic Saccaka. Jenkins says the two suttas in the Majjhima Nikaya in which Saccaka appears describe him as “a clever and aggressive anti-Buddhist debater.” When he engages the Buddha in debate, Saccaka asserts that his material form is self, perception is self, formations are self, and consciousness is self. The Buddha’s reply to Saccaka shows the connection to the later Mahayana sutra, which is to ask Saccaka if a king has the authority to execute those who ought to be executed; Saccaka replies that a king has this type of authority.

However, the Buddha asking this question doesn’t necessarily mean that the Buddha agrees that a King should exercise that authority. He is merely developing an argument using terms familiar to Saccaka to refute the ascetic’s assertion that body is self, that perception is self, that formations are self, and that consciousness is self. The trick gets Saccaka to agree that a king has such power, but then the Buddha asks Saccaka whether he has such power to control or determine his own form. Saccaka is silent and remains silent despite the Buddha repeating his question three times. The Buddha even warns Saccaka that to refuse to answer results in one’s head being split into seven pieces, whereupon a thunderbolt-wielding spirit shows up with the obvious intent of doing just that if Saccaka fails to reply.

Is this then an example of the Buddha forcing Saccaka “under threat of death,” as Jenkins suggests, to admit that a king has the power of execution? Or was the Buddha seeking to have Saccaka realize that his body is not self because he doesn’t have the authority of a king to demand what form he shall take? That he has no control, like a king, to direct his feelings, etc.? And is not the language used by the author of the sutta, written well after the Buddha’s death, reflective of the imagery associated with rural south Asia at the time? Was there really a thunderbolt-wielding spirit threatening to split Saccaka’s head open? Or was this colorful language added to add drama to the sutta?

Granted, run-of-the-mill people at the time, and to a large degree today still, believed these spirits to be real entities capable of interfering with their lives. To suggest that the presence of such language is evidence of a violent nature within Buddhism is more than a bit of a stretch in my view, however.

Jenkins then goes on to extrapolate from the later Mahayana sutra evidence of how a king is guided in the proper method of war and use of violence. There are some fairly twisted rationalizations here in my view, particularly the concept of “compassionate killing,” which Jenkins notes that the Buddhist scholar Michael Zimmerman writes is “incompatible with basic Buddhist ethics.”

The conclusion of this essay is particularly problematic. It starts with, “General conceptions of a basic Buddhist ethics broadly conceived as unqualified pacifism are problematic. Compassionate violence is at the very heart of the sensibility of this sutra.” (italics mine)

With this paragraph, Jenkins makes a broad statement and backs it up with one sutra, a sutra that in fact is not considered authentic in the Theravada tradition despite the effort Jenkins took at the start of his essay to describe the sutra’s history, influence and importance within Mahayana.

Chapter 3 is filled with some very interesting history about Tibet and Mongolia. In “Sacralized Warfare: The Fifth Dalai Lama and the Discourse of Religious Violence,” Derek F. Maher examines the historical writings of the Fifth Dalai Lama and shows how they were constructed to support the violent war mongering of Gushri Khan. I don’t doubt for a minute the historical accuracy of the essay. What I doubt is its suitability as evidence of an innate violent nature to Buddhism.

This chapter details quite excellently what happens when politics is mixed up with religion - you get a holy mess. Because that’s what you have with Tibetan Buddhism for the most part: religious leaders who are also political leaders. And the fact that certain Tibetan schools fought wars against other Tibetan schools only demonstrates how rampant religious chauvinism was in Tibet; it by no means offers credible support that the Buddha’s teachings allows for such militaristic behavior.

In fact, the Buddha was quite clear just before his death when Ananda asks him who will lead the sangha after his passing. The Buddha said he would name no leader because there was nothing to lead. Buddhism is all about examining and knowing oneself, controlling oneself, of being harmless so that one can attain release. It's about being a better person so other living beings can be at ease. It was never about becoming the top dog school or sect and waging war against contrary opinions. But people are people and humans have a penchant for violence.

Buddhism, however, does not.

Chapter 4, “Legalized Violence: Punitive Measures of Buddhist Khans in Mongolia,” provides more evidence of the politicization of the dhamma. As Vesna A. Wallace clearly states in this essay: “By legislating social and ritual practices that were in accordance with Buddhist teachings and monastic rules and by introducing penal measures for the infractions of both monks and laypeople, Mongolian legislators converted Buddhist teachings and practices into state law.”

This isn’t evidence of a violent nature to Buddhism; rather, its evidence of how a theocracy was established in Mongolia around Buddhism. Wallace also provides examples of class division within Mongolian culture.

“The Russian ethnographer Pozdneyev, who visited Mongolia in the late nineteenth century, mentions a case in which a Mongol noble punished one of his serf’s sons for not making adequate progress in his studies as a Buddhist novice by tying him naked outside the tent during a winter night. When the boy died as a consequence, the nobleman was merely fined eighteen animals.”

Mahayana writings such as the Golden Light Sutra were seized upon by rulers because they provided an excuse for ruthless rule. “The Golden Light Sutra is perhaps the most adamant about the king’s duty to destroy evil deeds and inflict penalties on the evildoers in conformity with their crimes. If a king were to ignore any evil deed and neglect his royal duty, lawlessness and wickedness would increase, unfavorable asterisms and planets would rule, meteor showers would fall, evil demons would arise, and natural disasters, diseases, and foreign armies would ruin his kingdom.”

Now, if I were and king and that was my spiritual guidance, of course I would do what I thought would prevent evil demons from arising and foreign armies ruining my domain! And I, as such a king, would also like the ambiguity of the Golden Light Sutra, as it would allow me wide interpretation.

“(I)t leaves room for multiple interpretations concerning the degrees of punishments the ruler may implement in his task of upholding the law. It indirectly suggests that punishment enforces not only the law of a given society but also the laws of nature. For these reasons, the Inner Mongolian author Rashipuntsag referred to the Golden Light Sutra in his work ‘Crystal Rosary,’ declaring that Dharma laws do not prevent one from punishing criminals. He argued against Confucians who claimed that the state could be ruled only by means of secular laws because the law of Dharma was too weak to punish criminals, because it advocates compassion.” (Italics mine)

I’m looking forward to writing about the next chapter, because in that one, the author flatly states that any sect of Buddhism that justifies violence in any way is a false teaching and a corruption of the Buddha’s words.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Practice makes perfect

I recently asked folks on Twitter how they sustained their daily practice, what were the core elements that kept them active in their practice. I got some good responses and tips, because sharing what works for us can be helpful for others. Developing a routine within your practice is helpful, even if it does seem repetitious, even ritualistic. The Buddha generally didn’t have a lot of positive things to say about rites and rituals other than they can be important and useful tools for developing mindfulness.

Danny Wilson is a young man who lives in Sheffield, England, which is south of Leeds (on Twitter he’s @Danny_789). Danny says he recently starting waking up earlier to meditate and read. He’s been doing this for about a month. This may not sound like much to others, but what Danny has begun is very important. Establishing the simplest of routines provides us with structure and discipline. This is important for any practice, whether you are a musician, a doctor, a carpenter, a poet, a singer, or even someone’s lover. Heck, even being a good parent, son or daughter, brother or sister, or friend takes practice. And establishing a routine to develop that practice is critical.

It relates in many ways to what the Buddha identified as the Four Right Efforts: developing and nurturing good qualities that we currently do not posses but wish to; developing and nurturing good qualities we already posses to ensure they are sustained; removing negative qualities from our actions; preventing negative qualities we do not have from ever arising.

Adam, who goes by the moniker @flylikeacrow (he has a blog by the same name as well), said he sets aside time at work for short moments of meditating on the breath. That was an eye-opener for me, as this is something I really ought to add to my own practice. As the First Noble Truth tells us, life is often unsatisfactory because of all the stress that confronts us, and our work, our professional life, is often a prime source of this stress. And what a wonderful and simple thing to do to take just five minutes out of our work day to sit quietly, close our eyes and focus on our breath.

Adam also likes listening to chants, such as the Heart Sutra and the Faith in Mind poem. Listening to monks chant in Pali was something I really enjoyed. And there are some Pali chants that I regularly do as well. Again, some might view this as a ritual that makes Buddhism look like some archaic faith that requires people to pray to some mystical deity. But chanting can function just like silent meditation as it brings focus to our mind, targets our thinking into single-pointedness. In fact, if my mind is particularly rattled so that silent meditation is difficult for me, I will switch to chanting.

Jim Johnson, aka @pixelsrzen, gets his meditation in – “even a few minutes worth is important” – but he also recites the Bodhisattva vow daily, something he was gracious enough to share with me.

“With a wish to free all beings, I will always go for refuge to the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha until I reach full enlightenment. Enthused by compassion and wisdom, today in the presence of the Buddha, I will generate the mind for full awakening for the benefit of all beings throughout limitless space. As long as space remains, as long as sentient beings remain, may I too remain to dispel the misery of this world.”

Reciting things is not quite the same as chanting, but it can yield similar results. It takes concentration when reciting something, focus to be sure that you are saying the words correctly as well as a sort of open awareness so that over time, the meaning of the words penetrate your mind to give you new understanding. For example, my understanding of the opening verses of the Dhammapada is very different today from when I first read them.

Having said that, droning on with chanting, or repetitiously reciting gathas or other verses, is a complete waste of time. These aren’t secret codes to a special cosmic cash machine of merit and good karma. Rather, these are techniques to build mindfulness.

Someone who has a very diverse practice is Marnie Louise Froberg, aka @NellaLou. Daily study and sitting meditation makes up the core of her practice, but she also adds variety with actions like walking meditation and making prostrations on an almost-daily basis. I love walking meditation, and I really should make the effort to do it more often.

Prostrations are one of those activities that some may view with disdain because it looks like obeisance. But just like chanting, making prostrations is another effective means for developing mindfulness. When bowing or making a prostration, you’re not just “doing it.” Again, it takes concentration on and awareness of your body while doing this, ensuring it is being done correctly and that your mind is fixed on the activity. It’s just another technique for honing single-pointedness of mind.

So here’s the core of my “routine.”

Daily morning seated meditation for 15 minutes. I precede the silent sitting by first chanting three times “Namo tassa bhagavato arahato samma-sambuddhassa,” which translated from Pali is, “I wish to revere with body, speech and mind that Lord apportioning Dhamma, that one far from defilements, that One Perfectly Enlightened by himself.” I chant this primarily because the sound of my voice reciting the words is soothing, the tone eases my mind and makes it tranquil before I begin focusing on the breath. I also strike a chime bowl as I repeat each line. Again, the sound of the bell fading helps calm my mind.

When I’m finished with the silent meditation, I then recite both in Pali and English, a variation of the Loving Kindness chant: Aham avero homi (May I be free from hatred); Aham abyapajjho homi (May I be free from oppression); Aham anigho homi (May I be free from troubles); Sukkhi attanam Pariharami (May my happiness be protected); Aham sukhito homi (May I be happy) – Sabbe satta avera hontu (May all beings be free from hatred); Sabbe satta abyapajja hontu (May all beings be free from oppression); Sabbe satta anigha hontu (May all beings be free from troubles); Sabbe satta sabba dukkha pamuccantu (May all beings be free from suffering); Sabbe satta sukhita hontu (May all beings be happy).

Reciting the Loving Kindness chant is not praying. I’m not praying for these things to occur on their own. Rather, by reciting them I fill my mind with compassion, first by planting the seed into my consciousness, and through the daily recitation, nurture this compassion and empathy for others so that it begins to be reflected in how I interact with others. I will not behave with compassion and kindness toward myself and others unless I first develop a compassionate mind. And yes, we need to show compassion and kindness toward ourselves first if we ever hope to share this with others.

After this, I finish my session by reciting a variation of the Five Remembrances: I am of the nature to grow old, I have not gone beyond aging; I am of the nature to be sick, I have not gone beyond disease; I am of the nature to die, I have not gone beyond death; All that is mine, beloved and pleasing will change and vanish; I am the owner of my kamma, heir to my kamma, born of my kamma, related to my kamma, abide supported in my kamma – whatever kamma I create, skillful or unskillful, light or dark, to that I fall heir.

Once a week I spend time reading from the Tipitika. Lately this has involved reading a chapter from the Majjhima Nikaya, which I read prior to my sitting meditation. On weekends, I strive to sit for longer sessions. Also, I shake things up a bit on weekends by chanting the Daimoku (Nam myho renge kyo) for about 15 minutes, which I follow sometimes by reciting the Nichiren liturgy. Again, I do this to fix my mind and relax it. When I struggle with silent sitting, I will switch to chanting the Daimoku instead.

That’s the core of my practice. Please share with us some of the core parts to your practice as well.