Avoiding Fairy Dust Buddhism

It has been suggested in Fairy Dust Buddhism, that there exists a ‘Holy Trinity’ of Gotama, Nāgārjuna, & Jesus and this is an interesting idea. Many Westerners came to Buddhism as a rejection of Christianity. Others suggest all religions teach the same thing, but no matter how much we would like to make it so, not all religions are alike, have the same goals, or the same starting points. There are reasons why so many have rejected both the Christian religion and the Christian spirituality.

The starting point for Jesus, whether a historical figure or not, is very different than the Buddha’s. They seem to reject each other’s teachings.The notion of a soul, a creator god or the possibility of escaping the results of one’s actions were convincingly rebuked by the Buddha. The Jesus teachings reject the idea of emptiness, kamma, and anattā. The Buddha rejected ‘reincarnation’ and Jesus supported the idea. The same problem with Jesus also falls on to Confucius and Lao Tzu. They too believed in an eternal soul, creator gods escaping consequences in one way or another. They taught many admirable things but were not enlightened in the Buddhist sense of the word. They were enlightened in the Western sense of the word, maybe.

Nāgārjuna is not the only ‘Second Buddha. Sariputra also held this title, as did Zhiyi, the founder of T’ian T’ai (Tendai) and Vasubandhu, Shinran and Nichiren, Padmasambhava, and Tsongkhapa. The Nichiren sect sometimes goes so far as to call Gotama a ‘provisional’ Buddha and the man Nichiren is the real Buddha. A problem arises when we realize that there were at least 3 people living at various times writing under that name. There were at least 3 and maybe 4 persons writing under the name Vasubandhu over a 400 year period. There was only one Shakyamuni Buddha. It is hardly fair to compare the historical Buddha of the Pali Canon with the mythical Buddha of the Mahāyāna Sūtras. Myth has truth to it and I do not use the word ‘myth’ to mean ‘untrue.’  Myth simply has a different endgame in mind than does history.

One thing that needs to be made clear is that there is only one ‘the Buddha’ even if there are many Buddhas. The many Buddhas fall into the category of myth, metaphor and simile. If Amitabha were a real being there would be no reason to worship him. He would be a conditioned thing. If he is only a concept then again, there is no reason to worship him because he would again be a conditioned thing. Both of these statements are extremes. But as an idealized aspect of the possibility of human mind personified there is every reason to worship him, he is us. Even to ask if there is or is not a being called Amitabha Buddha is irrelevant and meaningless.

The founder of T’ien T’ai, Zhiyi wrote the Bodhisattva Vow. The terms he either coined or promoted are hīnayāna, ekayāna and hongaku. The term hīnayāna was an unfortunate choice and historically inaccurate. The term does not apply to any known sect of Buddhism. Ekayāna was the foundation Zhiyi built T’ien T’ai on. It means ‘one vehicle’ and alludes to the fact that there is only Buddhayāna, no hīnayāna, no bodhisattvayāna,and  no Mahāyāna. Hongaku is often translated as ‘original enlightenment’ or ‘primal light.’ It is a term not often used today but the idea is still very much in vogue. He also coined the expression ‘to know one is to know all’ and the teaching of ‘one mind.’ The single vehicle teaching, ekayāna, was his crowning achievement. He was trying to end sectarianism, but then his disciples merely turned it into another sect. Non-sectarian Buddhism is a marvelous idea but somewhat doomed to failure since ego manifests everywhere.

It is often said, ‘I know that historically the Arhat and the Bodhisattva are antonyms, but the Bodhisattva as Enlightened Being is clearly related to the Buddha…’ They became antonyms in Mahāyāna, I suppose. Oddly, in the Theravada literature and Pali Canon, the bodhisatta and the arahant are complimentary and harmonious, representing two distinct approaches to the Path. They are not at odds at all in the Pali. Any conflict that is found is exclusively the province of the mind and not a historical fact.

There are those who opt for a ‘Analytical-Existential-Libertarian’ view of Buddhism. Libertarian must mean something else in the rest of the world than it does in the US. Here it is a political party and/or philosophy that embraces self-interest, selfishness, greed and socio-economic chaos based on the ideas of Ayn Rand. It praises de-regulation, lawlessness (criminality) and ‘might makes right’ in a world where everyone is in it for himself. I don’t think they meant that, but I don’t know what they mean. The word just sounds so bitchingly cool.

There are those who advocate the notion, ‘To completely understand Buddhist spirituality one must study all Spiritualities of the World, and how Buddhism has influenced these…’ I’m not sure I subscribe to that view. While I find the views of other religions interesting they hold little for me. I’m also not convinced that Buddhism has impacted or even influenced all that many religions. I don’t think it means to do so. It was formulated to liberate the individual from the mind that enslaves him. Many make the assumption that because we don’t subscribe to their views we also don’t understand their rhetoric, that we are somehow uneducated, or just dense. Sometimes and idea is simply unsupportable.

There is a standard list of ten that were apparently the hot issues for philosophers in the Buddha’s day: Is the cosmos eternal? Is it not eternal? Is it finite? Is it infinite? Is the body the same as the soul? Is the body one thing and the soul another? Does the Tathagata exist after death? Does he not exist after death? Both? Neither?

Majjhima Nikaya 72 lists the reasons why the Buddha does not take a position on any of these questions. In each case he says that such a position ‘is a thicket of views, a wilderness of views, a contortion of views, a writhing of views, a fetter of views. It is accompanied by suffering, distress, despair, & fever, and it does not lead to disenchantment, dispassion, cessation; to calm, direct knowledge, full awakening, Unbinding.’

‘A ‘position,’ Vaccha, is something that a Tathagata has done away with. What a Tathagata sees is this: ‘Such is form, such its origination, such its disappearance; such is feeling, such its origination, such its disappearance; such is perception…such are fabrications…such is consciousness, such its origination, such its disappearance.’ Because of this, I say, a Tathagata — with the ending, fading away, cessation, renunciation, & relinquishment of all construings, all excogitations, all I-making & mine-making & obsessions with conceit — is, through lack of clinging/sustenance, released.’

These reasons fall into two categories. The first concerns the present drawbacks of taking such a position: It is accompanied by suffering, distress, despair, and fever. The second category concerns the effects of such a position over time: It does not lead to awakening or Unbinding. Anguttara 10.93 explores the first category of reasons and Majjhima Nikaya 63 further explores the second.

…whatever has been brought into being, is fabricated, willed, dependently originated, that is inconstant. Whatever is inconstant is stress. Whatever is stress is not me, is not what I am, is not my self. Having seen this well with right discernment as it actually is present, I also discern the higher escape from it as it actually is present.

— Anguttara 10.93

And what is declared by me? ‘This is dukkha,’ is declared by me. ‘This is the origination of dukkha,’ is declared by me. ‘This is the cessation of dukkha,’ is declared by me. ‘This is the path of practice leading to the cessation of dukkha,’ is declared by me. And why are they declared by me? Because they are connected with the goal, are fundamental to the holy life. They lead to disenchantment, dispassion, cessation, calming, direct knowledge, self-awakening, Unbinding (Nibbana). That’s why they are declared by me.

Majjhima Nikaya 63

We can help others live happier, more peaceful and liberating lives if we stick to the elegant simplicity of this doctrine. The rest is interesting but speculative, irrelevant to living the Buddhadhamma, and may create more dukkha.

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About Sensei Mui

Sensei Mui is a Buddhist monk who took formal refuge and bhikkhu ordination as a Theravada monk in Thailand during the early 1970s. Since those days he has both studied and was ordained in multiple Mahayana lineages. Today the main focus of his practice and teaching is from the Pure Land perspective. He currently acts as the Director and Administrator for Hongaku Jodo, an educational and practice oriented organization of Buddhist teachers of Dharma, pure and simple.
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